Loralyn Mears, PhD
ASCENT CONFERENCE 2020: Day 1 Highlights
This article was originally published October 1, 2020 at https://gritdaily.com/ascent-conference-2020-day-1-highlights/
Ascent Conference 2020 is underway and let’s begin by highlighting what many of us have already begun to take for granted: they pulled off a flawless virtual event! Yes, it was scheduled for earlier this year but the event’s future was touch-and-go for a bit when COVID commenced its onslaught. Props to Troy Runsten and his team for rising to the challenge – and rising above the perils of event management in the era of a global pandemic. Cheers should also go out to their technology provider, Bizzabo, for a state-of-the-art, seamless, and intuitive experience.
Financial Planning Matters
Neal Sales, had a chat with Amos Schwartzfarb, both serve as managing directors of TechStars, centered around the importance of financial models. Their conversation highlighted the gap between the need for financial literacy in founders and the lack of ability and skills they require for financial planning. “By the time that founders realize the value of planning, their metrics usually show that they’re too late in the game,” said Sales. He continued, “Do it. Even if it feels uncomfortable, inaccurate, icky. You just need to start.”
Schwartzfarb emphasized that, if he could build a financial model as an English major, then anyone could. It just takes time: he estimates that his first model, for a fictitious company to get the hang of building a financial plan, took 50-60 hours to complete. “When you have a great financial model, it’s like having a crystal ball to look forwards which gets lets foggy over time.”
Their advice for founders could be distilled down to these key messages: “Make it real for yourself. Aim small. Miss small. Don’t build every scenario; just start with the basics of what you take in and send out, along with a few assumptions for next month’s billing. Become self-reliant so that you can walk away if the terms aren’t fair to you. With enough resiliency, grit and some mentorship, your business can be sustainable and successful.”
Build Your Biz on a Shoestring
Jennifer Mercer, CEO Metazoa, lauded the value of bootstrapping. As a serial entrepreneur with high exits, she stressed that fundraising is a long game. “Stay scrappy and creative,” she urged. “Grow organically at your own pace; there are many pitfalls raising a round too early. But take the money when you need it.”
Mercer highlighted the importance of a strong leadership team and the cautionary statistic that 74% of startups fail because they scale too fast – and those that do fail took up to three times more capital than they needed. Today, numerous funding alternatives exist, including the “founder-friendly capital” revenue-based financing approach which she said was “something between boot-strapping and raising your first round.”
Don’t be Shy
Lesa Mitchell, managing director, Techstars, discussed today’s reality of virtual outreach to investors with Karen Page, general partner, B Capital Group. Page was quick to note that their global operations had already pre-conditioned them for work in a virtual world. “The only challenge is,” she lamented, “is that zoom loses the emotional context and non-verbal cues.” In this era of COVID, when asked by Mitchell if founders should pull back, she responded emphatically, “No! If you’re benefiting from the tailwinds, don’t take your foot off the gas.”
Advice offered included thinking now about how the hybrid workplace will affect your revenues. Page also implored the value of an operations background to “help you see around corners because those patterns become ingrained in you and will be critical to your future success as you structure teams, let people go and so on.” With respect to building social connections virtually, Page mentioned that she hosts zoom mystery room, cheese tastings, happy hours and other events to unite her team. As for the exam question, “Should a founder reach out to VC cold?” Page had this to say, “Today, there is greater openness to connect than ever before. Yes, even cold intros, done well, can work.”
Think Big for Growth
Of course, the highlight of the day (insert shameless plug) were the incredible insights shared by Mary D’Onofrio, VP Bessemer Venture Partners and Amaryllis Liampoti, partner BCGDV, at a panel discussion moderated by Grit Daily News. Although their approaches differ, with the latter being more hands-on and involved in the leadership decisions and operations, and the former more focused on late-stage high growth SaaS cloud companies, both seasoned investors were agreed on a few things. One, the financial predictability of a SaaS subscription model; two, the importance of personality “fit” between the people on both sides of the table; and three, the imperative of an attractive revenue track record. If the recordings are made available, go check out this discussion for more information as it was impossible to moderate and accurately capture their comments at the same time!
Go Virtual and Stay Home
Alon Alroy, co-founder Bizzabo, walked the audience through the future of virtual events. “As much as everything has changed in 2020, some things stay the same, like our efforts to create impactful and rewarding experiences for professional events.” Statistics he recounted were based on a survey recently conducted with Fortune 5000 companies and event planners. More than 75% reported a need for hybrid event technology, 97% plan to run hybrid events and 82% feel that it will be 2021 or later before events resume in-person. Events are not going away, “they are still the most meaningful modality for generating leads,” Alroy said.
Alroy suggested that the in-person era of event planning ended in mid-March, that we’re currently in the virtual transition period but “evolving quickly towards the hybrid era.” The data look encouraging: they’ve seen 20x greater return for their own virtual events and the world’s largest brands are citing 5-10x attendance growth. Speaker travel budgets and other restrictions no longer limit event planning. He ended his discussion with the following comments, “The experience layer is very important. And a virtual event is impossible without tech operating properly.” Amen to that – truer words were never spoken!
Break Free from the Duopoly of Google and Facebook Ads
Rand Fishkin, CEO SparkToro, outlined how the social platform algorithms were working these days. “Whatever keeps users on the platform,” he summarized. “Engagement streaks, no external links, posts that earn replies are better than likes and shares, consistency of focus in the topic area of what you post,” (no doubt I lose countless points here), “and high controversy earns amplification. Also, you need content that is easy to consume and process where it is highly visual, more emotional, and shorter. The formula is engage, draw traffic and repeat.” For tips on how to create great content that feeds the algorithms, he suggested that marketers use the news. And, most importantly, that companies capture every email that you possibly can as an email leads to 250x greater engagement than a Facebook like.
Educate Your Customers: They Want to Learn
Adam Jones, VP sales at Thinkific, discussed the merits of using education to find and create happy, successful customers, at scale. Advertorial messages that are overly promotional make customers skeptical and education does the opposite – it builds trust, reduces sales cycles, increases retention and converts customers into brand advocates. He highlighted HootSuite as a case study and how they established the gold standard by offering free social media marketing courses which now generated nearly half a million new leads each year. “You need to meet clients where they are and don’t make them search for education,” Jones said.
He offered five steps for a successful education-based campaign. One, define your goals for pre-sale education. Two, connect with your sales team to identify the gaps then split your content into “need to know” versus “nice to know.” Three, map your customer’s journey. Four, combine your assets into an online course. Five, repurpose existing content and create new content only as a last option.
Creativity is Critical
Michael Dermer, founder of The Lonely Entrepreneur, cited that it’s no longer enough for founders to have passion, grit and a good idea. “Today,” he said, “founders need a series of personal and professional skills, EQ, the stamina to deal with pressure, know-how to pitch like a rock star and more.” One of the criteria that defines entrepreneurism is creativity and the ability to generate new ideas; that comes in handy in times of crisis because founders will hit obstacles along the way. But, if they can ideate their way out of it, lead with influence and resilience, their companies will pull through.
Dermer cautioned that the pending “hypercompetition post-COVID will separate winners from losers.” To that end, he had this advice for entrepreneurs and recommended following three proven techniques. One, find playgrounds where no one else is playing (Note: this parallels Blue Ocean Strategy). Two, define success by criteria where YOU win. Three, acknowledge that customers will fail without a continuous stream of new ideas.
Think it’s a Good Idea? Prove it!
Philip Michael, CEO NYCE, mentioned the emotional attachment founders have on their ideas, even if they haven’t tested out their business hypothesis. “Just because it can work in theory doesn’t mean that it’s a viable business idea. You need to build something to test your idea out first,” he stated. Michael posted screenshots of a spreadsheet model that he had created and it garnered so much attention online that it grew into a business for him.
His videos went viral (not an easy thing to achieve) and it helped him grow his following. He said, “Anyone can do it. Have a mission-driven purpose, a compelling business case, do the daily grunt work to build followers, get on podcasts and get in front of other people. Write for free if you have to!” He emphasized how founders need to create scalable systems, not ideas and ended with the edict, “If you’re not willing to bet on yourself, why should I bet on you?”
Not Funny Enough? That’s No Laughing Matter
Get it? Aren’t I punny? Drew Tarvin, CEO of Humor That Works, has conducted seminars around the globe teaching people to be funnier. “Not funny,” he said, “funn-IER with an emphasis on that ER part.” Tarvin outlined the critical skills his clients need to take their humor game to the next level. These include, the ability to execute, think, problem-solve, prioritize, communicate, connect (virtually now), lead and influence.
People debate how funny he is but one statistic that he cited left no room for humor: “More people believe in ghosts than like their jobs,” he said. “Only 47% people are happy at work.” Since most people freak at the idea of doing improv in front of a live audience where it’s impossible to delete the comments posted by a troll, he focuses his efforts on making the workplace more fun. “Keep your content relevant by using humor,” he suggested. “Engineer surprise, leverage visual incongruity, build rapport, ask compelling questions, smile more and talk less,” was the advice he offered. For those who struggle with how to keep a conversation going, use the “Yes, and…?” trick.