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Scott Brown: “Building a company is hard”

In the beginning, a ‘no’ is more valuable than a ‘yes’. When we start something or have a brilliant idea, it feels risky to share it with the world. So we start by talking to people who are likely to agree with our perspective. This is safe and reassuring. But too often, it provides a […]

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In the beginning, a ‘no’ is more valuable than a ‘yes’. When we start something or have a brilliant idea, it feels risky to share it with the world. So we start by talking to people who are likely to agree with our perspective. This is safe and reassuring. But too often, it provides a poor signal on the true merit of the idea. We search for the “yes” to confirm our thinking, rather than seeking the “no” that will challenge us to be better.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change the World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Brown.

Scott Brown is an entrepreneur, active startup advisor and angel investor based in Colorado. Over the past 25 years in the industry, Scott has founded eight startups and loves sharing his unique blend of technology and storytelling expertise with other startups around the world.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Believe it or not, I began my career as an actor. During this time in my young, professional life, I gained a lot of experience and learned many important lessons that carried over into my role as an entrepreneur. For one, I learned how to persevere through challenging times and endure repeated rejection. I would do as many as 40 auditions for each role I’d get. This means 39 people would reject me before one person said, “Let’s give this kid a chance.”

If you think about it, presenting to VCs isn’t so different from auditioning for an acting role, so the transition wasn’t all that different. Since changing careers, I’ve founded eight startups, become an angel investor and startup advisor, and now share my advice, guidance, and expert insight around what it takes to launch a startup and how to combat challenges that many tech companies face.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

After 25 years of entrepreneurship, I have a collection of “most” interesting stories. In startups, as in life, we learn more from failures than from successes.

In my first venture-backed company, during the dot-com era, we convinced ourselves that we would be successful just by acquiring users. We’d figure out the monetization at a later date.

Of course, that was a mistake.

What we forgot (or willfully neglected) was that building a startup is like running a lemonade stand. You need to sell a product for more than it costs to make, and you need to do that over and over again. That simple formula is layered with challenges, but forgetting that real dollars are a critical piece of this equation is a mistake I won’t soon forget.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

After spending decades working in the startup scene, both founding my own companies and investing in and advising other entrepreneurs, I discovered one of the largest yet unaddressed challenges entrepreneurs face is talking about their business in a clear and understandable way. I created a solution to change the world for startups and wrote a book on my theory called ©lean Messaging: A framework to help startup founders talk to humans.

©lean Messaging helps startup founders perfect their sales, marketing and investment messaging with proven results. Startup founders often struggle with how to talk about their ideas in a way that will generate media, venture investment, sales, and social buzz. Sometimes the idea can make perfect sense in their head, but they struggle with getting it out in a digestible and engaging way. I’m no stranger to this struggle myself, as I’ve been in this position before and now as an advisor, hear dozens of startup pitches every week. Essentially, ©lean Messaging gives founders the tools they need to talk about their startups and helps founders get over the last hurdle in building a scalable business.

How do you think this will change the world?

Many startups with really great ideas, products and solutions fail every year because they can’t clearly convey the value their startup will bring to the world. ©lean Messaging’s goal is to help all companies make their messaging as clean as their code. This will change the world for startups, leading to more successful companies and the disruption of many slow-moving and monopolized industries. It will also change the world for other businesses and consumers who will ultimately benefit from working with more startups and using their products and services.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

If entrepreneurs use this framework, it’s possible to craft a message that will resonate with potential customers and investors quickly. While this is a goal for most of us, a person could use this framework when the core fundamentals of the business are flawed, and still achieve results. Entrepreneurs need to think deeply about their business structure and purpose before using the ©lean Messaging tools. Do not lie.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Building a company is hard. We put our blood, sweat, and tears into creating a product or solution and when it is ready for the world we want to share all the “stuff” we did. But the reality is that no one cares. People do not care what your product does, they care about what your product will do for them. This simple change in perspective can result in massive growth for a startup.

A few years ago I saw this in action. I had the privilege of observing several startup founders during their customer discovery process, right through to their first few sales calls. What I saw was that the founders would get this amazing data and insights during discovery that gave them a road map for their product development. But then, during the sales process, their fatal flaw was revolving their pitch around the features, thinking that a new customer would care. The founders that were most successful used customer discovery to fuel product development, but then used the story of how a person’s life changed for the better after using the product to fuel sales.

This is the core of ©lean Messaging. It’s about the listener, not you.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with and that have read and implemented ©lean Messaging in their pitches have experienced success in communicating with investors, advisors and customers. These entrepreneur and advisor advocates are spreading the word in the startup world (which is a tighter community than you may think!) and widespread adoption will come from word of mouth and proven success.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. In the beginning, a ‘no’ is more valuable than a ‘yes’. When we start something or have a brilliant idea, it feels risky to share it with the world. So we start by talking to people who are likely to agree with our perspective. This is safe and reassuring. But too often, it provides a poor signal on the true merit of the idea. We search for the “yes” to confirm our thinking, rather than seeking the “no” that will challenge us to be better.
  2. Fundraising is the start of the journey, not a destination. It is fun to celebrate raising a big round of venture financing. It’s sexy, it’s lauded in the press, and people praise you and the company. Sure, it was super hard work to get to this point, but it is a false signal. Raising a venture round means you were able to get one (or maybe a few) people to think your product has potential. This is very different from getting hundreds or thousands of customers to give you their hard-earned money.
  3. Don’t do a database upgrade on Friday evening. This is too painful to discuss. Just don’t do it. You will thank me later.
  4. Compassion is stronger than community. There is a growing industry of startup community engagement and support, including big companies, local governments, and generally well-meaning people. Don’t get me wrong, community is great. However, there is greater power in joining the struggle with other startup founders. Community is about coming together; compassion is about getting through the struggle with those other founders in your region. If you know a startup founder, find out what they need to get to the next level and help them get there. Make an introduction, schedule a customer discovery session, find a customer. Get into the mud with those founders, and you will build a stronger community through compassion.
  5. Do the work. The rest will follow. Being an entrepreneur has become fashionable, to the point that we often celebrate the being rather than the doing. It is hard work, and the payoff is often delayed for those founders, so we naturally seek encouragement and recognition. I often tell founders to stop going to startup events, and call your customers instead. As a founder, you need to do the work, and trust that the other stuff will follow.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

I don’t think that there’s one field that is future proof — it’s more about mentality. If you can shift your mindset to solving real, existing problems, your career will be “future proof,” regardless of the type of technology that you’re working with.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

There are so many exciting technology trends today, that it is impossible to pick one. From 5G to AI, from blockchain to better plumbing, there is no end to technology innovation. What I look for in a new company is a team that has discovered something about humans that no one else knows. It might be the way humans work, or the way we make decisions. If a team has found a human quirk that has gone unnoticed, there is a significant business to be built around that weirdness.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Connection. I’ve always been excited about the way that people connect. Whether it is through networks or ideas, or just personally with each other. Connections build strength and throughout my career, I’ve prioritized building strong connections, relationships and networks that have helped me, whether personally or in business, in ways that I would have never expected. This is why I am so passionate about helping startups through ©lean Messaging. Fostering those connections for myself as well as other businesses and entrepreneurs that I truly believe in has always guided my career and life path.

I would say my career has also been guided by the principle of trying new things and building a product that you can be proud to stand behind. Along with the eight startups that I built and numerous companies I invest in, in 2016 I was credited with inventing the world’s first bacon-wrapped tater tot. A true passion project!

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

In order to be successful in life and business, particularly as a startup founder, you must prioritize listening and thinking about others. While founders do get out of the office and listen to what customers want, most of their measuring and iterating is focused inward. This is productive in building a company but neglects a founder’s need to actually talk about what they built and why.

It’s important to get into the mindset of actually listening to what others are saying and tune into their thoughts and feelings. Focusing your energy outward to understand others better will in turn be much more helpful to you than if you are constantly thinking about yourself and your own success from an internal perspective.

Listen to others and you will be a better business leader, founder and all-around person.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

You sit in meetings everyday and wish that the founder across from you was better at talking to humans. The systems we use to figure out what to build — like Lean Startup and Business Model Canvases — have increased your founder’s ability to create a great product but limited their ability to talk about it to the world. In the past we trusted the artists of the world to help technologists convey their deeper purpose. I want to help you change that. Great founders need great messaging to build great companies. The ©lean Messaging framework allows your portfolio to grow faster by making better human connections.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @sbrown

LinkedIn: Scott Brown

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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