Startups on the 4th of July

I recently took a short vacation to southern Utah to watch the solar eclipse with my 11 year old son. Part of that trip included buying a stack of solar glasses that he could sell.

Solar glasses are $1.00 disposable glasses that can be used to safely look directly at the sun and watch the eclipse. We spent some time talking about how to sell them. We discussed the potential market demand, pricing strategies and marketing tactics. He realized that many people would not have thought about buying glasses before the eclipse. He decided that a $10.00 to $15.00 price point would be possible. He also decided that most people would be casual observers and wouldn’t know very much about a solar eclipse.

With his basic “market analysis” in hand (He liked using the phrase “market analysis”) he created a sign to advertise his solar glasses on poster board. He wrote up an information pamphlet with interesting eclipse trivia such as “Did you know the size of the moon in the sky is exactly the same size as the sun in the sky?”. His pamphlet also included simple instructions on how to use the solar glasses safely, because as he liked to say, “It is really important to offer a good user experience.”

With his sign ready to go, the information pamphlets printed, my iPhone, a new square reader and the stack of solar glasses, he was ready for business.

He sold out his entire inventory in less than 20 minutes.

After the eclipse he offered to take me, his “business partner” to dinner at IHOP. While I choked down a stack of IHOP pancakes, we talked about what to do with the profits from his venture. It was the perfect chance to talk with him about my views on money and how he should spend his money and success wisely. He agreed that if he gave 10% to charity and saved 20% “just in case”, then he would feel good about spending the remaining 70% on anything that he wanted.

Like any overly involved father, I suggested that he open a custodial etrade account. But, for some reason he didn’t like that idea.

He thought about buying a a star war lego set he wanted, but spending his own money on it was “stupid” because his money was too hard to earn. He finally decided that he wanted to use his money and start another kid-business.

Summers are hot and there is no shortage of kids in Utah. What could be better for kids on a hot summer day then a lemonade stand? Well, it turns out that a kid selling lemonade is more work than reward. His lemonade business closed after just one afternoon because of adversely hot weather conditions and poor sales.

I had assumed that after his lemonade stand cratered he would be done with his summer business ventures. That was, until he came up with a new idea. A good idea.

With the help of his Mom, he logged on to eBay and found a used vending machine for under $200. They then made a shopping trip to Costco to buy 12 ounce cans of Sprite, Barts Root Beer, Coke and a lot of Diet Coke. (Those Utah kids come with Utah moms. To an Utah mom, Diet Code is Mormon coffee.)

He set up the vending machine in the grange and every morning he opens for business just before the morning-mom-walkers rush and he stays open until after night games are over for the day.

He is now running his own perfect kid business.

It turned out that he wasn’t the only one to get an education in kid business. My 7 year old daughter was watching and listening to everything. She listened to all the kid-bus 101 talks. She watched her brother work at selling glasses and managing his vending machine. Most importantly, She realized that her brother was successful and that she could be a success too.

Last weekend, she pitched me her idea. Her pitch was simple, clear and surprisingly very good. The conversation went like this;

“Dad, I want to make money too” She announced.

“Are you asking for vending machine?” I asked, ready to say no and deal with the cry that would come from me being so unjust.

“NO! That’s what my brother is doing”, she said, swinging her head of hair back and forth.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked, feeling a bit relieved to be off the hook and at the same time confused to where this conversation was heading.

”I don’t think you will like it”, she said.

”How do you know if you don’t tell me about it”

”Ok, but don’t say its dumb.”

”I promise NOT to say that it is dumb”, I said, with strong emphasis on the NOT.

“I thought about what I am good at and I am really good at taking care of my dog.”

“Yes, you are very good at taking care of your dog”, I said rather proud of her to be thinking of what she is good at.

“Yep, I’m very responsible.” She said with a big smile.

“Yes, you are Princess”, I said, trying to encourage her confidence.

“There are a lot of people in the neighborhood who go on vacation. So I thought that I should open a pet hotel for their pets.”

“Ah what?!” I asked, rather taken back by the idea.

“You know, A pet hotel. But not like the one in the movie. I wouldn’t let the pets go crazy in the house. And I wouldn’t let people leave their big pets like a horse or a big Hugo dog.” she said, using my boxer, Hugo, as a reference to a big pet.

“Like a cat, or like grandmas bird” she said, referring to my mother-in-laws parrot who we watch while she spends the winter on the island of lanai.

“They can leave their pet here with food and pay me to watch them while they are gone on vacation. It would be like a ‘Pet Hotel’” She said with a huge smile.

After thinking about it for a second, I responded, “That is… That is, actually a really good idea. Let me talk to your mom about it.”

“OK!” She squealed, running off to tell her mom about her successful meeting with The Dad.

It turns out that it the idea was all hers. My wife was as surprised at the idea as I was. We have the room. We can limit it to one pet a week. No question that it would be a great learning experience for her.  She is already talking with her brother about flyers.

I don’t know how many parents enjoy talking about things like market segmentation, pricing strategies and sales tactics with their kids as if it was the NBA playoff, but I do. I see it shaping the way they think and who my kids are becoming. I don’t know what they will do in life, but knowing how the business world works is fundamental to any vocation that they choose. 

Enjoying the business of business isn’t new for me. When I was 8, I sold baggies of cherries at the 4th of july parade in Star Valley Wyoming. When I was in the 5th grade I went nuts over running the class business selling school supply to other students. When I was 16 I sold office supplies to local business for a very nice markup. At 22 I tried my hand at importing silk ties from Hong Kong, and learned to be very careful when choosing a business partner. I sold my first tech company when I was 28. I had my first catastrophic company collapse in 2008. Today, I’m preparing to launch my newest tech company.

We have all heard the mantra that when it comes to business you should do what you love. I love building a business.

What got me started may have been selling those baggies of cherries on the 4th of July in Wyoming. For my son, it may be selling solar glasses and managing his vending machine. For my daughter it could be her Pet Hotel.

The 4th of July is my favorite holiday of the year for many reasons.  One of those reasons will always be the memory of selling cherries.


Have a happy and very safe 4th of July.

Fight Club

Two weeks ago I saw my first cage fight. I attended to support a friend, Bryan, who was fighting that night.

Bryan is a dedicated fighter who lives an athletes’ lifestyle. He trains most everyday. He observes a strict diet. He has 3 different trainers who push him to his limit. Bryan lives a life few of us experience or understand.

I have seen videos of Bryan fight and he is impressive. Bryan has a black-belt in Kempo Karate and is a two-time undefeated middleweight champion in bare-knuckle karate. He talks about “striking skills for ground-and-pound” as if everyone does this kind of thing.

The cage fight was nothing like I expected. No one possessed animal-keen senses with retracting claws and there wasn’t a villain named “Bone Saw!” What I did find was a crowd loud and full of emotion. The energy in the room was addictive. It was great.

The bouts before Bryan’s fight where intense. By the time he entered the cage I was yelling right along with the crowd.

Bryan lost in 1 minute 32 seconds.

The entrepreneur lifestyle is similar to an athletes. It is an “all in” game with real consequences and serious threats. It means spending nights and weekends away from family and friends. A smart entrepreneur will have advisers, who like trainers will be truly honest as you search for a viable business model. A startup requires an athlete-level commitment to survive and become a success.

The reality for a startup founder is different then what some may think. There are no mega-parties with fashion models. No business reward dinners for the-best-idea-ever. No interviews with fortune magazine. No super-heroes here. Just hardworking people with a passion and a dream.

Few experience or understand the emotion and energy that a startup offers. It is great fun and it can be very addictive.

Like a training athlete the startup-idea must get out. Share the idea with anyone you can. Pitch it early. Pitch it often. Keep pitching until the value pitch rolls so naturally it is like everyone does this kind of thing. Let the idea get punched around a bit. If the idea gets knocked out in 1:32, go get a new one. An idea is the easy part.

The first rule of Startup Fight Club — Talk About Fight Club!

Bryan will be fighting again in few weeks. This time I’ll watch him win.

* This post has been Bryan-approved because I really don’t want him to hit me.


I have been thinking about simple things, simple ideas, and why my last startup failed.

I am a software engineer by trade. I have been trained to scrutinize the details. It is within the shadows of details that bugs hide. Engineers like myself are very good at finding and fixing bugs. We get great satisfaction when we fix something and that is why many engineers make the entrepreneurial jump. It is also why many of us fail. We tend to fixate on the problem and overlook something very important - value.

I founded a company. I assembled a great team of people. We built cool tools. Our code base was awesome. The math was wicked smart (and patentable).  The VC were performing a due diligence, the final step before investing. We had paying customers and more in the pipe. I had some whales in my sights that would catapulted us to sustainable profitability. We where in the middle of a growing market. Then the economic downturn of 2008 hit.

The crash forced our clients to ask what they could do without, investors pulled out of deals and I lost traction. Business no longer needed help fixing business bugs, they needed to survive. I found myself in the wrong business at the wrong time. I was selling cool tech when I should have been selling value.

I had the chance to talk with a Disney exec and asked him what his division sold. He said “Disney sells a dream”. That value pitch clearly describes the Disney brand.

Marketing experts argue that a company brand has nothing to do with the product. I agree. People remember the brand and not necessary products. We as customers want something out of the deal. We want value even if that value is a dream.

Maybe that is why I have come to love a restricted business space. A short sales cycle. A clean and basic website. A simple business model. Value can’t hide when things are simple.