This is everything I've written here or elsewhere over the last few years. You can search, filter by publication, or choose from some highlights below.

Trust Your Employees

How to Delegate and When to Let It Go


If you don't trust the people who work for you, you're going to fail. This is a pretty simple equation, but one that's commonly misunderstood by most people, especially entrepreneurs, and especially entrepreneurs whose job it is to lead people.

That's because most people confuse delegation with trust. Or rather, they don't put trust into the people they delegate out to until it's too late, setting those folks up for failure. That, ultimately, sets the entrepreneur-slash-leader up for failure, and usually leaves them questioning where the hell they went wrong. Or, worst-case, blaming their underlings for their demise.

Those are two great words -- "underlings" and "demise" -- aren't they? I mean, you rarely get to use them in the right context so I feel pretty good about shoehorning them into one sentence.

Anyway, here's how that happens and how to keep it from killing you.

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Why It's Time for Distributed Workforces in the Triangle

There's a Way Out of This Traffic Nightmare, But It's Not What You Think


Last week, I spoke on a tech in sports panel for the NCTA over at the EMC2 facility in Apex. For those not local, Apex is kind of southwest of Raleigh. Also for those not local, stay with me, because you've been there.

The kickoff for the event was at 8:30 am, and since I needed a little bit of prep time, I wanted to get there around 8:00. Knowing that trying to navigate Raleigh metro during morning rush hour has now become akin to trying to navigate Class 5 whitewater rapids on a pool float, I decided getting there by 7:30 would probably be the way to go.

Now, I live in Chapel Hill and work in Durham. Ever since Automated Insights moved to the Durham Bulls Ballpark (come work here), my commute has been a joy. No I-40, no 540, no Durham Freeway, no 15-501. It's basically all back roads, and my biggest concern is garbage day.

I don't get to Apex much. So the morning of my talk, I let Google decide from the three or four toll-free options (more on tolls later) to get from A to B. Yeah, I should know better, and as it turned out, not even Google could have predicted that my 32-minute drive would become a 68-minute drive.

And of course, being the super-spoiled backroads Magellan I've been for the last three years, I dropped a lot of F-bombs every time traffic stopped. For. No. Good. Reason.

Oh, and then there was also the 4-to-5-mile backup on 64 West into Raleigh that, thankfully, I only had to spectate.

Am I right, Apexers?

Anyhow, my point is that this is a bigger mess than I thought, and it's a bigger mess than it should be.

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How Numbers Can Wreck Your Startup

Sometimes the data is lying


I'm about to commit heresy in certain startup circles. So let me state first that I'm a devoted numbers guy, I believe wholeheartedly in the measurement of progress. I get chills when the numbers I've decided will determine the success of failure of my pursuits happen to point towards fortune. And I get all cranky when they dip, or even worse, when they don't move at all.

This is true not just of startup or business or money, but anything. Let's talk health. I track my runs, their length, my speed, the miles I run in a month, and maybe you do this too. But I also track everything else, my weight, my calorie intake, my caffeine intake, my shoe tread -- at one point I had a stat for how I felt at the end of a run, and I was seconds away from deciding that the data point for that metric should be an emoji, like, "After my run, I feel = (poop)"

I inched back from that precipice.

But if there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime of setting goals, establishing metrics, tracking progress, and recording the results of myriad experiments, it's that sometimes the numbers don't mean anything, and in rare cases the numbers will straight up lie to you.

Now, I'm not talking about tracking the wrong data, what's more commonly known as vanity metrics. Anyone with six months in marketing or old enough to remember eyeballs as a metric will tell you to watch out for stats that make you feel good but really just mask imminent doom.

I'm talking about those moments when all the numbers are off. I'm talking about gut over brain, heart over head, and the fact that most people don't tell you often enough that an entrepreneur has to be right when everyone else is telling them that they're wrong, and those naysayers have the data to back them up.

Yeah, I know. Me, the data guy, telling you not to trust the data.

Your results may vary, and this is a stunt that should only be performed by professionals on a closed course under heavy adult supervision. Don't try it at home.

But sometimes you have to ignore the numbers.

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Why Startups Need to Choose Their Target Market Carefully

Make sure you're solving problems for people who will pay to solve them


Yesterday, I had a cup of coffee with an entrepreneur whom I knew but hadn't previously spent a bunch of time with—our paths just never crossed until a couple weeks ago.

He's a technical entrepreneur, sharp as hell, but has spent his career hitting self-funded singles. Of course there's nothing wrong with that—he's doing well for himself. I'm just saying you probably don't know him.


His latest idea is legit. It's serious tech that he has architected and built himself. It plays off of technology that's already been adopted, but he's taking it in a unique direction. He's early with the idea, but current enough that what would've sounded crazy a year ago makes perfect sense today.

And, you know, good for him. I love that moment.

He just recently brought aboard somebody to handle business development and marketing. The time is right, because while his website does a fantastic job of explaining the how of his tech, it has precious little on the why. Classic tech entrepreneur go-to move.

As we talked and dove deeper into his grand plans, I realized that he's pulling all the right levers. Except one.

He told me he's starting his approach by creating a first use case—for entrepreneurs.


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Triangle Startup: Five Years Into a 20-Year Plan


Just over five years ago, I held the first official (as in not a test run) ExitEvent Startup Social. A year after that, I started writing content three times a week under the ExitEvent byline. A year after that, I was negotiating my own exit from ExitEvent, assured that ExitEvent's future would be bright.

Today, nearly three years after that exit, I'm pretty thrilled with how far the Triangle startup scene has come. Four years ago I was asking how Raleigh was going to play with Durham. Three years ago I was asking if Chapel Hill was ever going to wander off campus and if Charlotte could get out from the shadow of big banking. Two years ago, Wilmington and Asheville were still far off outposts, may as well have been Tattooine.

Not all of those questions have answers, and not all of the answers are answers that I'm 100% in love with. But there's no question that where we are today, five years from that first official meetup, is a far, far better place than where we were in 2011, when I was still going to entrepreneur events and asking the only other entrepreneur there where the hell everyone else was.

So in 2016, it's safe to say that the Triangle is on Year Five of a startup renaissance that began at roughly the same time ExitEvent kicked off (coincidentally, I have a knack for being in the right place at the right time).

Over those five years, you can look at all sorts of numbers and statistics on the Triangle and draw any number of conclusions about the health and strength of the startup ecosystem. Almost all of the numbers are trending up, so almost all of the conclusions are positive.

But if you know me, you know I'm an 80/20 guy -- Let the numbers do 80% of the work and then flesh out the remaining 20% with good old human intuition and common sense. So I went and did what I do a lot, I talked to a bunch of people.

Here's what I can tell you:

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How To Support An Entrepreneur

We Stand On the Shoulders Of Giants


Chances are if you're reading this article in ExitEvent right now, you're an entrepreneur. I should hope so, anyway. When I started this company some five years ago, I built it on the concept of “for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs,” because after doing startup for close to 20 years, I've come to the realization that the best source of advice in matters entrepreneurial comes from other entrepreneurs.

Note that I said “advice,” not “support.”

Entrepreneurs are terrible at support, and this is by design. We're so busy propping up our own thing that we just don't have the mental and emotional bandwidth to drag you through the mud of your struggle. It's how we're built. See you at the finish line and Godspeed.

So if you're an entrepreneur and you're reading this article, I want you to understand that this article is not for you. It's for everyone around you who isn't an entrepreneur. Send them the link.

If there's one single person who has made my adventure in startup possible, it's my wife. It's not that one awesome mentor I met 20 years ago, it's not that first investor who took a chance on a young kid with moxie and a bad haircut, it's not that powerful influence broker who opened up all those introductions after seeing my deck.

In fact, to be true to my own history, I don't even have any of those people in my past.

It's the woman who didn't blink when, while we were navigating toddler twins and she was six months pregnant, I said: “You know what, I've got a really good idea.” The same woman who, when that startup had finally broken $1 million in annual revenue, told me to go for it when I told her I wanted to change gears and get another company off the ground and that we wanted to teach robots how to write.

How insane is that?

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When Great Big Ideas Become Great Big Lies

Keeping The Truth In Check


There was this old cliche back in the dot-com era about selling dollar bills for 99 cents. It was funny until companies like Enron and Worldcom started doing almost exactly that.

And I'm guessing that cliche wasn't invented in the 1990s, but it seems like everyone is starting to forget the past again.

To be sure, some great companies emerged from the dot-bomb, Google and Amazon come to mind. Monster successes like those mean that you can always count on the gold rush to charge forward unabated, fueled by the notion that the average Joe (not me, the average one), can make a million percent return by getting in on the ground floor of the right startup.

Diligence be damned. I mean, a million percent of $100 is a million bucks. Small risk, huge reward, right?

Well, what if you're not risking $100, but $23 million? Or more?

So last week, I read an article about questions and allegations swirling around UBeam, a company started by a 25-year-old first-time founder, and one with a technology that purports to charge your phone wirelessly using ultrasound.

Now, I'm not going to debate the viability of their product, I'll be the first to admit that I got by in my Electrical Engineering courses on a wing and a prayer and a tutor and a smile. Besides, there are plenty of folks already debating said viability these days, including a former VP of Engineering calling the product “vaporware.”

But what I can debate is the culture and, of great significance here, the media.

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You Must Be a Capitalist, You Can't Be a Douchebag

The Fine Line Between Not-For-Profit and Not-For-Revenue


This is as close to a political piece as I'm going to get, and you'll be heartened to know that I'm not going to get very political.

In fact, I'm only going to reference politics to strip them out of my thesis. “Politics” is a negative term in my lexicon. It's right up there with “parking ticket,” “root canal,” and “Nickelback,” in that anytime those words hit my radar I don't have to think twice about their connotation. Those things don't do anything but suck.

To make my point in this article, I'll be talking in the purist sense of both capitalism and douchebaggery.

I'm not talking about crony capitalism, or corporate capitalism, or capitalism run amok, but the basic concept of selling things people need for a profit. Your stance on the modern state of capitalism is noted, especially you millennials, of whom it's reported that 50% no longer believe in the merits of capitalism. I respect your perspective, even though I don't agree with it and would do everything in my power to sway you.

But I respect you, mostly because of all the douchebaggery, which for our purposes we'll also define in its pure state -- as the act of slighting others in the name of self-preservation.

To me, startup is the art of pure capitalism, maximizing the heat and the efficiency of the fuel that feeds the fire of progress. It's why I love startup so much, because it starts and ends with that definition.

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Don't Be Above the Job

Sometimes, an entrepreneur just has to go to work


I'm going to put an angel on one of your shoulders and a devil on the other. You'll have to figure out which is which.

I've been hearing this a lot lately: I want to be an entrepreneur but I have to put food on the table. Or pay off insane college debt. Or I'm starting a family.

First off, let me say I totally empathize. From where you are, this looks like cliff diving.

Then let me say, stop it. Do both.

Look, not a lot of people are going to tell you this and if it gets back to me I'm going to deny it and paint you as a filthy liar. Your word against mine. But yeah, go ahead and take a job or keep your job, and keep working on your idea.

Balancing a job and entrepreneurship is one of the hardest assignments you can take on in life. The stakes are high and it's not going to be the fun kind of made-for-TV startup experience. It's going to suck. It's going to be lonely and scary. It's going to be later nights and earlier mornings and slimmer chances and shorter runways than even your average entrepreneur complains about.

But if you're going to do it, you've got to do it. Now.

If you don't do it now, then when will you? When you retire? Let me tell you something, slick, you're not gonna be that limber.

A lot of startups have been spun out of career jobs that became day jobs that ultimately wound up the rear-view. In some ways, it's like getting a free head start, because most of the time, these entrepreneurs end up disrupting an industry they've been toiling away in for years.

But even when that's not the case, they have years of “this is not how I want to spend my career” lessons driving them on the business front, the operations front and the cultural front. But none of this is to say that the corporate world is inherently evil or bumbling or unworthy of your time. In fact, the corporate world and the startup world are symbiotic, and there are very good reasons for this.

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Why I Suck At Investing


After the acquisitions of both ExitEvent and Automated Insights over the last couple years, my life has taken a few strange turns. Nothing earth-shattering and nothing I wasn't prepared for; Inbox fills up pretty quickly, lots more unsolicited contact, more people know how to pronounce my name.

That last one is nice, but it's always been pretty simple. Pro Tip: All the Os are long.

One recent turn that sort of threw me for a loop was when I sat down last week for an hour-long interview about my investment strategy.

Because I've never really thought about it.

Well, let me walk that back a bit. I'm not new to investing. I've been investing in my own endeavors since college, and in other companies for the last 10 or 12 years. There's just a lot more inbound now. And with inbound comes questions. My answers to these questions usually raise eyebrows, not because they're necessarily contrarian or zany, but because they're honest. And maybe because I always feel like I get asked the wrong questions when it comes to investment strategy.

Q: “How did you get started investing?”

A: “A rock band.”

So yeah, that just sounds stupid. But I've touched on this before. Forming a rock band is a very good startup learning experience. You put together a diversely-talented founding team, you spend a ton of time perfecting a product, and then when you're ready, you throw dollars on top of time and make a run at it. I did that sophomore year. Twice.

Towards the end of my college career, I started to apply the same concepts to other pursuits that were a little more based in reality. After college, I founded and funded two companies that went nowhere. Then I joined my first actual startup and got an idea of what the process actually looked like.

Total A-ha moment.

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The Triangle In 10 Years: A SXSW Recap

Why Austin is Raleigh and Durham 10 years from now


Last week I was in Austin at South by Southwest, speaking about automation and the future of sports analysis on behalf of Automated Insights. Kind of a whirlwind trip—I got in Friday night and left Monday morning, not even taking advantage of my favorite South By, the music part.

I call SXSW Music my favorite part (and sometimes the “real” part) because it was my first experience with the festival way back in 2000, when digital was dial-up and interactive was creepy chat rooms.

It was back then when I first made a connection between Austin and the Triangle, and it held true on my most recent trip: Austin is Raleigh and Durham 10 years from now.

Back in 2000, it was a more generic “the Triangle,” before the individual identities of Raleigh and Durham as centers of commerce really took hold. And by that, I mean Raleigh was still trying to be Atlanta and Durham was just trying to figure out Durham, before American Anything or even the new ballpark.

But even back in 2000, and then again during a second trip to SXSW in 2009, and then this one in 2016, the connection wasn't hard to make. Austin is a great example of a city grown around tech and startup in a place that isn't Silicon Valley. It blends quality of life with a progressive, experimental attitude. It attracts young people without alienating families. And it's a really, really good place to start a company.

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So You Want To Sell Your Startup

How To Start Assessing Company Value


Every company I've started or been a part of has had acquisition interest at some point. Some of those acquisitions went through, some did not. Of those that did not, the potential acquirer killed it about half the time. In each situation, I learned something new about valuation and the transaction, and I can now tell you, empirically, that there is no standard for either.

But I've been able to distill a few ground rules.

Acquisition comes down to one basic but extremely difficult question: What the hell is this thing worth?

Sure, you're always engaging in speculation or back-of-the-napkin math. If you've made a run at seeking outside investment, you've probably done the research and come up with a number, one that you can write on a piece of paper, then fold that paper over once, then slide it across a rich mahogany desk.

But chances are that number, no matter how much discovery was put into it, is about as relevant at throwing a dart at a dartboard and multiplying by a million.

Or a billion, as long as we're dreaming.

Pricing and value, whether it be for a product, a service, or an entire company, is one of the most difficult determinations an entrepreneur has to make. Too many times, it's usually glossed over into a figure that “sounds fair.”

But to me, the Rules of Poker apply. You have to make sure that you don't scare away the other player while at the same time maximizing the value of your hand. Oh, and keep in mind you don't have enough chips to bluff. No matter what figure you throw out there, you're all in. This is not an easy trifecta to pull off, but if you don't check all three boxes you'll eventually lose.

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How To Start a Company With No Outside Investment

Here are the three ways I did it


I wear the customer-first badge. Proudly. I strongly believe raising money through customer sales is the best option, and in a lot of cases the only option.

In other words, I don't want to have to ignore a great startup idea because it isn't investable. I also believe that the vast majority of startup ideas aren't investable, at least not initially. They could be massive successes—they just shouldn't do it with VC money out of the gate.

That's not to say I don't believe in the VC model, far from it. I've been down that road half-a-dozen times now, and to be honest with you, it's been a totally different ride each time. And it's actually gotten better each time.

The most recent ride was (and is) with Automated Insights. We could not have done what we did and what we're doing without a capital infusion. But we were careful to do it the right way.

We were also very lucky, because while it's certainly clear that it's no longer impossible for an early-stage startup to raise VC in North Carolina, it is still highly improbable. And even when it happens, it usually happens when there are already customers, revenue and solid management in place—all of those things that make VC less necessary.

This is not the Valley, where you can go unicorn on a dream, if you're into that sort of thing.

So I'm customer-first, and you should be too. But as it is with a lot of entrepreneurial advice and punditry, everyone says customer first but no one actually tells you how to go customer first.

Thus, to right that wrong, here are the three ways I did it. These aren't the only ways, these are just the ones that worked for me, and I'm not going to advise you to do something I haven't already done.

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Why People Are Talking About Wilmington Startup

Eight hours In North Carolina's coastal city


Wilmington reminds me of Durham five years ago. It's an exciting time to be there.

Last Wednesday, I was invited to speak at an entrepreneur event in downtown Wilmington hosted by Jim Roberts, formerly Director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UNC Wilmington and now leading the charge on a couple of Angel networks. Jim is also a serial connector, and set me up with meetings throughout the day.

I learned a lot of things. One thing I learned is that there are eight brewpubs in Wilmington, a few of them have been around for a while like Front Street, but most are brand new, like Iron Clad, where the event would be taking place later that evening.

If you don't see the correlation between momentum in the local craft brew scene and momentum in the local startup community, you're not paying attention. This is something I recognized immediately in Durham in 2011, which is why there was originally a “Beer” section in ExitEvent.

In fact, I think the startup community could take a lesson or two from the craft brew community. There's a tightness and helpfulness there that we need to emulate. Of course, how you can you not be happy and helpful when you're around beer all day, am I right? I get half a pint in me and I'm all “All right, let's MAKE something!”

In all seriousness, the components are starting to come together in Wilmington beyond the rise of craft breweries. There's leadership starting to gel in the form of these nine companies highlighted in ExitEvent just two weeks ago (and I'm sure there are at least two or three more who feel slighted, that's a good thing). There's money coming in from within and outside the city limits to get ideas off the ground. There's a vibrant and growing downtown that has always served a mix of commerce and tourism, but is now settling into a more DIY-oriented commerce vibe.

And probably most importantly, the entrepreneurs in Wilmington are starting to come together and cement the foundation of their own startup community.

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Why You Need Competition and What To Do About It

Find It, Learn It, Love It


One of the first things I do when considering executing on an idea is conduct searches to seek out who the competition is. I don't stop until I find at least 10 companies that look like they have revenue and history, expanding the definition of my idea until I can get to at least 10.

Then I watch, and keep tabs, and learn.

They Come Out Of Nowhere

Once you get underway, you probably won't see any new competition coming until they're already well established. Your first reaction will always be concern. Get over that quick.

As the story goes, I first started ExitEvent because of my frustration at the fact that there was nothing out there like it. ExitEvent didn't start out as a business. It was more like “Here. I think I fixed this broken thing. Does this help?” And I got a resounding yes.

Almost immediately, there came a wave of revitalized startup events and new startup-related websites and organizations. Now, let me state emphatically that in no way do I think ExitEvent started this wave, I just happened to execute in the right place at the right time. But suddenly I found myself in a sea of competition.

That was fine with me. As far as I was concerned, the more energy that went into promoting startup, the better. It also turned out to be exactly what ExitEvent needed. It made me sharpen my focus on the original idea -- make it easier to do startup here -- and differentiate based on that.

Competition is great. You need it. You just have to stay ahead of it.

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