What I try to do, very regularly, is to get an image in my head of who my customer is and what they need and how I can serve that need better than anybody else.
Alex Glassey is the creator of StratPad, an iPad app that helps entrepreneurs and small business owners learn about strategy, create a business plan, and track results. Since its launch in December 2011, StratPad has become the highest rated strategy and business planning app in the App Store. It was recently named one of Forbes’ top 10 mobile apps for business in 2013.
Alex didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur. He unexpectedly became a single parent of two young children and found that potty training and bedtime routines weren’t a good fit with his 60+ hour a week job and hectic travel schedule. Alex needed a way to work from home and set his own hours. He wrote a software program for physiotherapists that became his first company and enabled him to quit his day job. Over the next 20 years, Alex founded and sold two more technology companies and began consulting to SMBs. He developed a passion for strategy and how to adapt this powerful tool to help startups and small businesses grow.
Mid-career, Alex went back to school to get his MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His studies provided more compelling evidence of the need for education and tools geared to the unique needs of small business. He developed his own methodology called EntrepreneurialStrategy, which became the basis for his consulting practice and StratPad. Alex speaks to business groups worldwide and teaches in the entrepreneurial program at Royal Roads University in Victoria BC, Canada.
What are you working on right now?
I’m designing the next major release of StratPad. Currently it’s available only as an iPad app; Version 2 will make it available on desktops, laptops and other tablets. I’m also working on a book, tentatively titled The Joyful Entrepreneur. It takes the concepts in StratPad deeper and looks at how using strategy is not only good for business, but helps to nurture the entrepreneur’s creative energy.
Where did the idea for StratPad come from?
It came from a desire to make strategy meaningful and practical for entrepreneurs and small business. What I learned, as an entrepreneur and consultant and in my MBA, is that strategy is an extraordinarily powerful business tool. However, in its pure theoretical form, strategy is far too complicated to be used by startups and SMBs. Yet the fundamental concepts of strategy are as applicable to them as they are to big companies. In fact, strategy is probably even more useful to the little guys because they’re so close to the edge. Strategy can help them avoid the little mistakes that send them over the edge and contribute to the enormous failure rate of small business. So that’s where the idea came from – I wanted to create a simplified, integrated, practical approach to business strategy that made sense for startups and SMBs. StratPad is not just a book or a workbook, but a working tool. It offers text that teaches, but also the ability to create on the iPad. The entrepreneur fuses that knowledge and energy with the power of technology to generate the plans to take his or her business forward.
How do you make money?
I make money primarily through the sale of StratPad. We’ve got a free, basic version and three paid versions (Plus, Premium and Platinum), each with increasingly more features and power. Users can add these features through in-app upgrades. We’re continuously surveying our customers and adding value with new releases of the app. In 2013, we plan to add even more collaborative features, which we’ll sell, and new products, including a book and video seminars.
What does your typical day look like?
I love my days because they’re pretty flexible. Being self-employed and working with technology, I can be mobile and I’m trying to make myself geographically independent. Right now, my partner and I are lucky enough to be wintering in Santa Cruz, California. I like to get up, grab myself a cup of coffee, and spend the first four or five hours of the day writing or planning and the balance of the day on e-mails and phone calls, online meetings and those types of things. I usually try to get in a swim or a run every day. I want to learn to surf while I’m in Santa Cruz and just had my first lesson.
How do you bring ideas to life?
My ideas tend to be inspired by what I hear and see around me, from other people and the environment. I’ll then try to synthesize that in my own head. I usually lay down ideas using pen and paper to begin with. Then I’ll want to get my ideas in front of people as quickly as possible. I use a variety of tools to do that–videos or presentation software mostly. Keynote is my favorite; I use it to put together a slide deck or mock-ups so I can present the concept to a group of people and get an initial response. Ultimately, I want to create a prototype to convey that idea in a meaningful way. If people are able to pick something up and play with it, it allows them to internalize the concept and really get a feel for it. That process gives me tons of feedback, which I use to go through another iteration of the design phase.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I’m excited by the whole wave of entrepreneurship that seems to have taken hold, not just in the business community, but generally. It seems the world is recognizing entrepreneurs and really embracing them. You have universities creating entrepreneurial programs and degrees, you have all manner of accelerators and incubators firing up around the world, you have cities, states, provinces and governments working together with universities, small business associations and industry to find ways to unlock this creative entrepreneurial energy. Feeding that wave is the technology that’s allowing everyone who’s an expert to deliver their knowledge to a vast audience and very inexpensively. Technology is democratizing education and that is lining up in powerful ways with entrepreneurialism. If we can give entrepreneurs the key bits of thinking that will strengthen them, empower them and reduce their failure rate, it will improve the success of startups and small business and strengthen societies everywhere.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
When I was 16, I applied for a job at Canadian Tire on St. James Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, which is where I grew up. I got hired, but wasn’t told what I’d be doing; just that I had a job at Canadian Tire. I went in for my first shift and they took me into the back of the warehouse and told me to clean shelves. No training, no overview of the company or what it was about, nothing like that. Not even how they wanted the shelves cleaned. So I stuck it out for three days, moving oily cardboard boxes of screws and washers and nuts and bolts, cleaning shelves, moving the boxes back. They’d get just as greasy and grimy; God knows why you’d even want to clean them. After three days, I thought this is crazy and I quit. Lots of management lessons there on how not to bring people into the fold of your company, how not to make them feel like they’re part of anything bigger or that their work connects to any larger purpose.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would worry less. I was raised by risk-averse people in a risk-averse culture so it’s been my nature to worry a lot about things: getting it perfect, cash flow, what other people think, etc. While some worry is inevitable, maybe even necessary, in retrospect I would prefer to have spent less time fretting and more time being utterly creative.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
What I try to do, very regularly, is to get an image in my head of who my customer is and what they need and how I can serve that need better than anybody else. When I’m designing a new product, I do that everyday. But even past the design phase, it’s critical. As an entrepreneur, you have so much coming at you–you’re hiring staff, you’re trying to sell, you have marketing campaigns, you’ve got production issues – your days are full of the hurly-burly existence that is being an entrepreneur. It’s easy in that rush of activity to lose sight of where we’re going and why we’re doing this. And as soon as we lose sight of our customer, things start to drift.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?
I started up a software company. I had a great idea, wrote the business plan, raised some money, developed the product and was reasonably happy with it. But when we took it to the market, we didn’t have the success we had hoped for. That wasn’t the failure; the failure was that I didn’t pause. I kept the product development team going, I pushed on with marketing initiatives. I knew deep down that it wasn’t working, but the company had a life of its own and I found it very difficult to press the pause button. What I should have done was stopped everything and dug down into the product. I should have gotten in front of our customers, asked them what they liked and they didn’t like, and tried to understand why we weren’t getting traction.
I was schooled in the old way of thinking where you tell funders what you want money for, you raise the money, and then you spend it like you said you would. You get the momentum going and keep it going. But when it’s not going well, it’s important to press pause, conserve the capital and figure out what to do differently, even if it means spending the money differently than you said you would. To use Eric Ries’ nomenclature of The Lean Startup, you take a three-month or six-month “burst”, work hard, pause and see what you’ve got. If it’s working as it is, keep going; if it’s not, it’s time to “pivot.”
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Charge pennies a month to deliver value through mobile devices to millions of people around the world. Africa, for example, has 735 million cell phone users. What kind of expertise or service or tool could you repackage in a simple, practical and accessible way that, say, 1 million people would pay you 1 cent per month for?
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
I feel very fortunate to be contributing to the change that I think needs to happen. I believe that entrepreneurs are at the heart of our society. The stronger the entrepreneurial capacity, the more vibrant and rich is our society. Historically, the tools available have been geared to big business. They’ve been too complex and too expensive to serve entrepreneurs and small business. Without the right tools, many entrepreneurs fail or end up on that hamster wheel of overwork that grinds them down and drains their creative energies.
I’m trying to help change that by building tools that help entrepreneurs in all aspects of their business and, by extension, their lives and our societies as a whole. With the right tools, entrepreneurs are better able to grow their business while protecting and nurturing that creative spark, that energy and that passion that every entrepreneur and business leader starts off with. I want to help preserve that energy and strong entrepreneurial ethos because it’s the source of innovation, the source of new employment and the source of wealth in all societies.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I’m an absolute introvert. I can get up on a stage in front of 1000 people and I can teach classrooms of 100 people and I love it, but I’m far more comfortable when it’s just the dog and me.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
Google (and its siblings, like Google Maps). Google’s the first place I go for virtually anything I want to know. It’s kind of like air–I forget that I’m even using it. It’s also getting better and better at presenting the information in a useful way.
Skype. I recently dropped my landline forever and am now going without a cell phone for a six-month experiment. Skype has great quality and extensive features, many of which are free.
Dropbox. I have no local storage. All my digital stuff is in the cloud and available on all my devices. God help me (and the global economy) if the cloud crashes.
Which reminds me of a true related story: I had a terrible nightmare two nights ago in which an airline lost my briefcase (which contained my laptop and tablets). Worse than any monster-under-the-bed story.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Art and Science of Negotiation by Howard Raiffa. A comprehensive and very enjoyable read that equips you to negotiate more effectively and more enjoyably.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
Mark Suster – entrepreneur turned VC who’s insightful, provocative and has a wicked sense of humor
Whitney Johnson – a great thinker and writer on disruptive innovation and supporter of entrepreneurs, particularly women
@lonelybrand – Katherine Leonard and Janelle Vreeland — bloggers on digital marketing who do a fantastic job of providing practical tips for SMBs and B2Bs
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
A couple of days ago, we went down to a beach just north of Santa Cruz with our dog Rosie. The sun was out and the waves were rolling in. Rosie’s 12 years old, but when she gets down to the beach, she’s like a little pup and to me, there’s so much pleasure in being in the world like that. That made me laugh out loud.
Who is your hero, and why?
She’s a heroine–my mother, Barbara Glassey. As a very young girl, she walked from Germany to Poland and back as a refugee during World War II. She grew up without parents, in horrendous conditions, and essentially bootstrapped herself into a new life. She got a nursing degree and moved from Germany to England and then to Canada. Throughout her life, she worked hard to stick close to a strict set of moral guidelines and didn’t yield or bend those guidelines for anything. I think that takes tremendous courage.
What do you say to the ongoing debate about whether startups need a business plan?
There are many reasons why a startup might need a business plan but one fundamental reason that requires it: startups must think long and hard about their prospective business before they commit their time, energy and resources to it. A proper business planning process asks entrepreneurs the key questions that help to clarify their thinking and support their assumptions.
By the way, the startup doesn’t have to write a 100-page business plan. I sometimes think that the onerous nature of creating long business plans is at the heart of the “should we or shouldn’t we” question. One or two well thought out pages is perfect.
If you live to be 100, what do you hope your life will look like?
I find the world and the human experience to be endlessly fascinating. I so enjoy being part of the activity and conversations that swirl around me. I hope I’ll be able to continue participating in them, and reflecting on them, for a long time to come.