The key to startup success has always been innovation – the unrelenting endeavor to disrupt the market with ingenious solutions that haven’t existed before. Having been the cofounder of eight companies, including the email marketing platform, Close Contact, startups are Alex Stern’s world, and he has learned over the years what makes or breaks an aspiring disruptor. Joining Rodney Flowers on the episode, Alex discusses how entrepreneurs can come up with ideas and take action to turn them into innovative business solutions. Alex sees this era of remote work and virtual pivoting as a good time to take a step back and look at where you can tweak your strategies to unlock better opportunities. Join in for his brilliant insights!
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Game-Changing Keys To Innovative Startup Success With Alec Stern
As always, I am excited about our show. I have Alec Stern with me. I’m excited to be able to talk with this brother. It’s going to be full of information and full of insight on how we can overcome our companies and businesses. I’m sure there’s going to be some insights that we can use on a personal basis as well. Alec has many years of experience as a Founder, investor and hyper-growth agent for companies across various industries. He is a true innovator with expertise in growing and scaling companies, startup and operational growth, go-to market strategy, strategic partnerships, and more.
As a member of Constant Contact’s founding team, Alec was 1 of the original 3 who started the company in an attic. He worked to build the company for several years from startup to IPO to a $1.1 billion acquisition. Alec has also been a Cofounder or on the founding team of several other successful startups. Alec has become known as America’s Startup Success Expert for performing hundreds of keynote speeches worldwide and for his popular sessions at top conferences like Secret Knock, CEO Space International, City Summit, Powerteam International, and Habitude Warrior. Alec, welcome to the Game Changer Mentality podcast.
Rodney, it’s good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Thanks for coming. Tell us a little bit about your journey as a repeat entrepreneur.
I’ve been a cofounder of the founding team of eight companies. I’ve had five exits. The one that everyone talks of is Constant Contact because that’s the one everyone knows best. I had been as early as employee 28, all the way down to one of the original 2 or 3. The journey began. I was in a large company in sales and there were 800 to 2,000 salespeople. There was someone all the way at the top, heading up worldwide sales, and he was leaving and going to start up. He asked if I’d come with them. I didn’t initially because I wasn’t sure what that meant. I got this great book of business over here and I’m going somewhere where I might not get paid in a year.
I had to weigh and measure. I went and I was an employee, maybe the twentieth. Five years after I joined, we went public. I had this piece of paper and I’m like, “This piece of paper is worth what?” The concept didn’t ring home until we had an exit to where those options became shares or worth something. I got a taste of that and I said, “How do I do this again?” I took a year off, and six months into the year off, I got the bug to go again. We started a group and there were eight of us and we started another business. It was mostly technical folks and we got acquired in six months. Somebody wanted the technology and the engineer, so I’m like, “That was easy,” and then it rolled into a few others. Shortly thereafter, I met the original founder of Constant Contact to add technology and I joined down with him.
We had another woman who’s our software architect and we set out to be on the front end of things. I’d worked on stuff on the back end like payment systems, eCommerce systems, and catalogs on the net. The web as we know it now for websites and stuff. We wanted to be on the front end and help small businesses because Randy and I had both done a lot of work with small businesses. We thought, “How can we level the playing field for small businesses against the big competitors on the marketing side?” The big guys like Amazon had all kinds of tools, resources, agencies and a lot of help, but the small business on main street had nothing. We wanted to level that playing field and the journey began.
What inspired you to keep going? You’ve made all this money with the first startup. I’m assuming that you didn’t have to catch the bug and get back out there. There wasn’t a drive to make something of yourself. You had already done that. What caused you to go back out there and start up companies again?
That first one, I was employee twenty, roughly, so I wanted to go earlier. The next one, I was in the first 8 or 10. I wanted to go even earlier. I want to get to one where we have a PowerPoint or an idea, but not much more. That was Constant Contact and a few others since. I’m driven by a lot of things and I have a lot of ideas. I see a lot of places where there are products and services that can be done better. It’s an execution play or halls where there’s a potential fit for something new like Constant Contact or Airbnb, Uber, Facebook and so on. For me, it’s the personal drive to find those pockets of opportunity and see if we can make a go of something to do it better.
What were some of the challenges you faced after starting up? Not only Constant Contact but any of these companies. What were some of the major challenges you faced?Deep down, we're all innovators if we do something with the ideas that we have. Click To Tweet
The first one everyone faces, and this is no different for me or the ones I’ve been involved in, when we’re starting something and we identify who our target market is. In my case, oftentimes, it’s the small business on main street around the world. There are a lot of things that they have needs for and how you deliver products and services to them have to be done a certain way. It’s easy, self-service and inexpensive. I speak to tens of thousands a year and I ask every room that I speak in, “If you had a dartboard and the bullseye in the middle was the one core thing you’re going to do to your target market. You know your target market and you have one thing you’re going to offer them. How many of you know that one core thing they’re going to focus on?” Five percent to ten percent of people raise their hands.
The rest of the room, the 90%, have what I call bicycle wheel syndrome. Imagine if you had a bicycle wheel and every spoke on the wheel is another idea for what you’re going to offer your target market, and you fill up that wheel. I’ve done that many times, including Constant Contact where, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that.” We have all these things we’re going to do. I would ask people, “What’s the one spoke you’ll start with?” Executing is getting in the hands of your target market early. Don’t be in stealth mode. Get it to them. Get feedback, so potentially you’ll get customers and success stories, then you’re going to get revenue, then they may refer others so you get referrals.
Next thing you know, the flywheel gets going. You have the money now to hire people and have the money to market. That one core thing will get you there. Every company that we know now had one thing that they started with and they expanded from there. Don’t put the rest of the spokes off that wheel. Don’t throw them away. You need them, but put them on the shelf and come back to them when the time is right. After you know your one core thing, which is the first obstacle and challenge we all face, then the question is, “From there, what would you do next?” The next is something that’s adjacent to it, close and doesn’t require a lot of change in any of your systems or manufacturing or the services you’re providing. You can go to things that are unrelated.
One of the best examples is Nike. Maybe basketball shoes were first and then they went to tennis, then went to running. Sneakers became a breath of adjacent offerings. They went completely out of the box over to things like golf, which was golf shoes, which were different, but then bags, balls, clubs, hats, and clothing. We’ve seen others that have succeeded and nailing the one core thing. I say that’s the first obstacle and we were no different at Constant Contact. We settled in. It was email marketing, which is still the anchor product for the company with over one million paying customers and having success, and then adjacent things have come into the mix. Some others that are even beyond a little bit adjacent to offer a suite of digital marketing services.
How did you determine that email marketing was the core product? It is a challenge for a lot of companies. How do you overcome that? I’m envisioning the wheel and the spokes that you gave us can be challenging to pick just one. I can see that that can be paralyzing to a lot of companies and organizations. What strategy did you use to decide that, “This is the one.” You got it right. How did you get to that point?
You get out of stealth mode and you get out of developing it internally. You often meet founders who are like, “I was a small business, so I know what they need.” They’ll work in a vacuum and want to create it and provide it. What we did was even before it was complete, we had PowerPoint slides that told a story of what we could offer, but before we showed him anything, we asked them, “What are your goals and objectives? What are your pain points? What are the things you’re looking for?” The answers we got were, “I want to stay top of mind to my customers. I want to send them things that will drive them back in. I want them to tell others. I want to get more revenue.”
As they told us all these things they were looking for, then we were able to then show them and say, “If we were to provide you this self-service tool that could satisfy some of those things, would that be something you’d be interested in?” They said, “Yeah.” Once we started to build it out, and it would break and it wasn’t finished, but we would show them what we were doing and they were wide-eyed and excited because they saw that promise. We thought that might have been the answer, but we let our target market help us decide. Knowing that in the end, what we’re creating is something that they wanted, could use and could have success with.
Oftentimes, we’re working in a vacuum and we’re not getting out there. When I tell you to bring it out to your target customer, it’s not going to people you know, families that are small businesses in this case, and people you’ve done business with before. It’s going to total strangers because you’re going to get brutal, honest feedback. If something doesn’t work, they’re going to tell you. If they didn’t like it, they’re going to tell you and they’re going to be honest with you, so we did that. In the earlier days, we’d bring something out to them and it would break and we’d have to bring something else. They were telling us their feedback.
Initially, I got four customers to be in that original pool of the ones we would test this through and that gave us a lot of insight as to where we needed to go. We had amazing ideas. We probably had two years’ worth of development ideas, “We can make this and change this and add this.” It’s like, “Let’s focus on the core set of features that could get them some of the things that they were looking to achieve.” Once they started sending some campaigns and driving people back in and having people say, “I got your email. I’d love to see the stuff that’s on sale,” or “I’d love to see the new menu items that you have or the new art that you’re curating for your upcoming show.” We started the flywheel of engagement with our customers and then we were off.
This sounds like the epitome of falling forward. You talked about it breaking and not doing exactly what you designed it to do but those were crucial moments of progress for you. Those were learning opportunities for you to go back, tweak the product, and understand more what the customer wants. Without this, I don’t think you could have had the success that you experienced. This was a critical moment and time for your success.
Living into the promise that self-service, easy to use, inexpensive, and that we could level the playing field with a good-looking email campaign against the big competitors who had resources, agencies and so on. We had to live into that. All the customer had to worry about was, “What do I want to say or send? Who do I want to send it to and when?” There was no coding. It was easy to drop in, your branding, colors, images, and content. It’s easy to send, and then we did all the tracking and reporting. They got actionable insights on the back end in the early days for anything that we sent out.
You talked a lot about keeping it simple and with easy features. It sounds like you were in tune with your customers and potential customers. Did you do any homework on your competitors? Were these critical elements that you want to focus on because no one else in the market was doing this?
The first thing that we were doing that no one else was doing is serving small businesses. We were one of the first ones to serve small businesses. Initially, this didn’t exist but a couple of years into it, we’re one of the first SaaS applications. It was ASP then, it was SaaS, and now it’s the Cloud. It’s offering something that you create once and rent it and share it with many. We’re one of the first two apps on the IBM platform. We were trailblazing and creating things that didn’t exist before. The key thing here is we were the only one that was offering something to small business.
That being said, there were enterprise tools helping the big guys and some of them decided over time that they were going to go down market. Every single one to a company threw in the towel and we worked with them to transition those small business customers to us because it’s not easy to serve the big and the small. It’s too complex or probably too expensive to move something down market. Sometimes, it’s too simple and maybe not feature-rich enough to go up market. You’re creating something completely different.
Some tried to maybe dummy down and remove some things that they could bring down the market. It’s hard to do and we got a lot of noses in the early days. When people go for loans or investment or all kinds of different things where they’re like, “No one sells to small businesses. How are you going to do that? You need an army of salespeople.” ADP and Intuit are the only companies that could do it and some like it, where they have a huge army of salespeople. When we started, the secret to the answer here was that we’re 100% channels. We went and got those four customers but after that, we worked through other intermediaries and other companies that we could partner with to get access to our target market.
AmEx OPEN, for example, has merchant services for small businesses in the millions. If we could go to something like an AmEx OPEN and provide them another tool in the tool bag to help small businesses, then we get access to those billions. We went around and when we sold the company, we had over 8,000 partners. That was key to us initially because it was 100%. Eventually, when the flywheel got going, started making sales, and had a great marketing team that was driving the engagement, then we were able to take money that we had and do our own marketing. We had our own marketing, channels, and the referral effect.
Half the business came from referrals. That’s someone telling someone else or someone seeing a good- looking email in their inbox and saying, “I want this too. When half your business comes from referral, there’s no cost of acquisition. It’s small compared to you spending the money to drive traffic to close. It’s expensive supporting a channel and giving them whatever is needed in the business mix. There was an evolution, but we were the first. Over time, there are 80 or 100 companies that came into the fold to compete and offer products and services to the small business for digital marketing. A couple of them did well with it.
There are 30 million small business associations, nonprofits in North America so there’s enough room for everyone. When the competitors came along, we did several things to delight the customer that others didn’t do. It was hard to maybe bring into the fold. We evolved into doing some things that were unique and we set ourselves apart. For the small business who wanted to be handheld and get all the best practices and all the things you needed, they came to us. Others that maybe were a little technical or didn’t need all that extra support would go to some of the others.
You talked about creating ideas or that solving a problem drives you. I found that for a lot of entrepreneurs and business owners that creativity sometimes can be a challenge. How did you maintain your level of creativity and innovation throughout your career?
The other thing I’ll ask at conferences, “Show hands, how many people think you’re an innovator?” About 5% to 10% of the room raises their hand and I’m like, “How many in the room in the last month have experienced using a product or experienced service where you’re like, ‘That could have been done better?’” Imagine if this product did this versus that, “How many of you have had that experience in the last month?” Every hand goes up. We’re all full of ideas. The only difference is if you have an idea and you do nothing with it, it’s just an idea. If you have an idea and you noodle on it, tell someone else, and work on it with someone else, you start to evolve that idea and you’re an innovator.Now is take time to take a step back and evaluate your strategy. There might be a bigger opportunity that you haven’t thought through. Click To Tweet
Deep down, we’re all innovators if we do something with the ideas that we have. For me, the drive was to live into that. I would see products and services that were out there that in some markets, they haven’t been disrupted in years. I’m looking at some consumer products and different things. I’ve seen where there’s room for something that’s new, innovative, different, and maybe with some extra features because everyone was accepting what was in the market today. There’s plenty of room for products and services that execute on something that exists today and do it better. There’s plenty of room for new ideas, which we see ones that are popping up all the time. The executing on one that already exists, you have the luxury of learning from all the ones that were there before. You don’t want something brand new but there’s always room for both.
You look at the market and you look at what’s out there now, what do you think are some of the challenges out there that may be preventing the growth that we could experience in society?
There are a lot of things. In general, there are a lot of challenges. If someone has a compelling idea and they’ve gone to their target market, so they see a big problem or a big opportunity, they see what’s out there and it’s not done well enough. They can tell the story of what makes them unique and they can validate that it’s wanted by testing it with their target market. If they’re starting it on their own, they know what they need in terms of how to fund building it or a prototype of it or a beta test of an application or whatever it may be, and you can get off to the races.
All that exists now. There are many tools in place to make it easy, whether it’s an app or a product or 3D printing on plastics and metals. You can make a prototype of something and work with someone to design it with you and make a prototype. Hand it to someone and get their feedback. There are many things that make it easier for us to do that early testing and validation, which in the old days, it was a lot harder. You used to see people carving balsa wood trying to make a product. It’s a lot more complex and detailed. There are a lot of the tools or resources to do it now.
If you’re going to want to build a mobile app, there are prototyping tools that you can simulate on a phone the flow of an app through the screens. You could show people to get a feel for what you’re doing so you can do aided and unaided feedback and learn from that. Those challenges don’t exist today. Once that’s in place, the same challenges exist. Depending on where we are in the economy, sometimes it’s harder or easier for going and getting funding or getting loans or strategic advisors or customers and partners. All of those challenges always exist. Sometimes it’s a little harder and sometimes a little easier.
If you have a compelling offering and you can show them that it’s wanted by a target market and there’s a large market opportunity. You can show them how you’re going to scale and how you’re going to get there, and you’ve tested it and said, “We got these four customers and they love it. Now we just need some extra money to build out what we need to scale. We take the money and here’s the use of proceeds, and this is how we’re going to scale.” Those opportunities exist. With what we’re facing, it’s giving people an opportunity to step back and look at the business that they’re in.
We get on this hamster wheel of doing tactics. Every day, go in and just grind on doing the tactics of what we’re doing. I always ask people, “How much time are you stepping back to look at innovation and to look at your strategy?” This is our step-back moment. Everyone can be sitting back because we have a lot of time. We’re all sheltering at home. Other people have time, so you could be working on your strategy and looking to see if maybe the lane that you’re on the highway, on your core offering, you might be the next lane over. On either side might be a bigger opportunity that you haven’t thought through.
Now you can go and noodle on it. You can run it by some others, go to find your target customer and talk to them, do Zoom calls or whatever tool you use, and be able to iterate, work on that and think about things strategically. I’ve had several where we’ve had a breakthrough conversation where they saw something that just was in front of them, but they didn’t see it while they were deep into the weeds of the tactics. They saw it now and they had a chance to step back and assess the business that allowed them to continue doing business slightly differently or ready to hit it hard and see it accelerate when the door is open again. The opportunities are there. It’s putting the effort in and we can make a lot of excuses as to why not now. I’m saying don’t. This is an opportunity to take advantage of.
As a startup guy like yourself, there’s going to be a lot of good that comes out of this, a lot of new startups because it’s exposing a lot of opportunities for businesses to take off and start up. Not only is it a time to step back, but as a result of this, what new problem exists that you could solve, or what idea may come to the front of your mind as a result of being in this type of situation? We’re not going to go back completely to the way it used to be. Some parts of this are going to remain. This is going to be the new normal and how much of it is going to be the new normal? Consider it part of this being the new normal, which will open opportunities for businesses.
Everything’s spinning up quickly on the virtual side of things. There are some that were putting this into play and in the brick and mortar and other things. For example, I happen to be an investor in one company that’s in the space, but imagine if you were a personal shopper in a large retail and you have your book of clients that you work with. You could take your phone and you could do a quick equivalent of a FaceTime with someone and show them the new items that have come in and saved them the trip in. They say, “I like it.” Right there from that phone, place the order for the client.
There are things that can be done. If I had a retail store, personally, I’d bring a bunch of my stuff home, set it up, and do calls with my preferred clients. I’ll show them some of the stuff that’s either available or now on sale and give people the opportunity to work with them. I love how, for example, all the restaurants have moved to the takeout and buy the gift certificates. I heard a great story on the news where somebody said, “If you give us $100, we’ll give you $150 in value when we open again.” They did $50,000 in business. Going back to their customers and saying, “Could we use your help?” What they need is funded to buy some time while we’re sheltering at home.
There are ways to be creative. Especially in the visual aspect around this virtual world, there are a lot of things that people can think about how does it apply to their business? The chef who cooked for them in the restaurant can now do in-home cooking and then potentially providing, “I’ve just shown you this meal. If you want to cook it, call this number and we’ll bring you all the items.” Think of ways to be creative. Show things visually that could then drive potential business in a different way than you did before.
I was watching a video on Instagram and it was a celebrity who had a chef in his home. The chef was removed from the commercial space. They used to work in restaurants and such. They got out of that highly five-star restaurant so they will pay, but they got out of that and started working for a celebrity. They talked about how they were grateful for making that decision now that the restaurants are closed down or to have lower operation hours. This person was grateful because, in this crisis, they still had a job. They still had to come in, perform their duties, create meals and such.
Thinking about what you’re saying, that could cross over into another idea where they can be recording making that meal and go live on social media. “If you want the recipe, go to this website or go to something and you can download it.” You’re showing them how they can make it themselves and it can still create income opportunities in a space where they’re creating meals for someone else. The other chefs that are out there, it’s not over. I was talking to someone that this is like a game and sometimes in a game, things happen on the field that you may not be prepared for. The opposition may do something. They may score on you, may run some play in, and caught you totally off guard.
It’s not the opportunity for you to like, “Coach, we’re going to throw in the towel and we’re done. They know our place and they know everything. It seems like we can’t get our offense going.” You’ve got to call that timeout, go back, take a look at the film, and where you’ve been falling short. What are some new things we can do that we hadn’t thought about? Where are some of the weaknesses that maybe you hadn’t noticed? You’re going to look for those things during this time to see where you can capitalize. That’s what this is. We’re in an opportunity where you can find those areas where you can improve and grow. I’m grateful for those types of opportunities because if you don’t have those, you never know. You’ll just stick to the status quo.
Think of anyone we know. I’ve talked to a lot of friends that are graphic designers, chefs, engineers or coding, and I’m like, “Anyone can now start to teach some best practices and talk through how to create a flyer.” Everyone’s rushing around trying to beef up all of their marketing and branding. I hear many people say, “I’m redoing my website.” There are many experts out there that could help with all of these things. They could be starting to put out some content and some visual content. Have a conversation and talk about the three tips on how to be at the top of the fold of your website and how to capture someone in 30 seconds. “Here are the three tips.” They could be teaching and sharing, and then the call to action is, “How can I help you?” There’s so much opportunity for that to get out there and let someone take what they’re skilled at. Empower it with someone else.
If it was a chef cooking a meal and it happens to be a killer Italian dish, I’d be sending the link to all my friends I know that love Italian. “You’ve got to watch this guy. By the way, in the end, they’re going to send you all the ingredients.” “Friends in Boston, check this out. This could be your next meal.” There was a struggle of like, “What do I want to eat now? There are some things I’ll never eat again because I’ve had so much of it in the last three weeks. I’m done.” You’re looking for something and take out supplements in and going to the grocery store and getting more things. I’m making it easy for you. Not just reading a cookbook, but learning from an expert. There’s a great opportunity.
This is more like the era of innovation. There’s a lot of innovative ideas that are going around.
Being virtual with it.
That in itself is a form of innovation. Like schools, they weren’t thinking about going virtual. Maybe they were thinking about it, but I don’t think they were going to implement it this quickly. A lot of schools, that’s what they’re doing. They had to find innovative ways to implement it quickly and I don’t think they’re going to go back. A lot of that is going to remain.Innovation comes naturally. Just let your ideas flow. Something will spark it. Click To Tweet
You raised a great example. Another whole category is in-home schooling. You’ve got parents who have never stepped into that role and schools are throwing a bunch of stuff at them. The kids are watching. Their teachers may be doing something virtually with them or setting up their coursework and what have you. There are many amazing teachers and every discipline around the country. Imagine that physics professor who’s engaging, fun, and could teach through some visual things and do some science projects and do some videos.
If I was home with the kids, I’d say, “Here’s another great thing to watch to learn a little bit more about physics. Here’s another great thing to learn and some good tips to learn how to solve math problems.” There are ways that people can be going out beyond what’s required, and then bring in some other things that are innovative that they could share virtually. I’m sure parents come on the internet looking for other things that the kids can be doing besides playing video games. It’s an opportunity.
It’s like doctor visits. A lot of people don’t want to go to hospitals. There were scheduled appointments that had to be canceled as a result of this.
They could have them on a virtual. They call it tele-appointment. I had a doctor’s visit that was through Zoom.
They’re going to start doing virtual doctor’s appointments if it’s not too complicated. They can evaluate you virtually and assess you. It’s an opportunity.
Just the check-ins. Oftentimes, we’re going there because we have a problem, and after we have a problem, then we’re going back there for the checkup. There can be stuff that’s wedged in between. “Let’s just do a quarterly check-in and let’s also do some of those follow-ups to see how you’re doing.” It’s good to be able to do that follow-up, have the conversation, and not have to jump in the car, drive there, wait and do all the stuff you normally have to do. It worked out and it was convenient. I have a feeling to your point, some of those things will stay in the mix and see less. It’s still a formal scheduled appointment, but it’s done virtually.
For you, someone who loves startups, ideas, and creativity, this is a wonderful time. How is this affecting you?
I’ve worked with a lot of people. I’ve co-founded several things now and they’re all in their earlier stages. It’s not like we had a location that we had to go to. People could work virtually so we’re still working through ideas. We’re doing group check-ins, calls and stuff with video sharing. It’s been productive for some of those things that weren’t set up and require the people to come in to see us. They’re moving along. It’s a good extra time to be able to think strategically and look at stuff a little bit more objectively than when we’re in the day-to-day grind so it’s best been helpful.
You talked about the need to take a step back and think about new innovative ways that you could conduct your business. You also talked about thinking about ideas or problems that you can solve. I want to ask you a personal question. How much time do you spend thinking?
It’s way more than I should. I’m an idea guy so I’m always thinking. I’m always looking around and seeing things that could be worked on. I’ve learned to be disciplined. I have my innovation time, my think time. I box that in so that I’m not always leaning too far on that and not executing on the stuff that we’re trying to bring forward. It’s a balance. I’m an idea guy so I’m always thinking and looking for new innovative ways to do stuff, whether I would do it or someone else would do it.
Someone will bring me an idea and I’ll iterate with them, “Let’s innovate on it.” I’ve helped several who said, “I’ve always had this idea of a backburner. I didn’t have time for it. Now I want to dust it off and love to get your feedback.” I’ve done a bunch of that and I’m coming up with some breakthrough ideas on how to bring that product or service to market. I’m doing that a lot, but I’m trying to box that in so that I have time to still work on things that I need to execute on.
Is this plan time? Do you put a think time on your schedule?
I don’t. Some of the companies I’ve worked for, we’ve allowed people to take innovation time. We give four hours a week where you stop your day job and think about new things or stuff we’re doing that we can maybe do better. We’ve always favored that. If I said I was going to write a book, it’s hard to be able to sit there and say, “I’m going to stop right now and start writing.” When it comes to you, you get into it. For me, when it happens, I make sure I’m flexible enough to stop and work on whatever that idea is and know that I’ll then get back to the other stuff. Don’t try to be too scheduled around that and let it flow because it’s got to come naturally. Something will spark it. I’ll see something on TV or I’ll look around the house and I’ll see something and I want to noodle on it. I don’t do it to distract me and take me away from what I need to do but I do allow the time for it when the idea sparks.
Do you have any triggers you could share that helps you get into that flow?
It’s different for everyone. I caution that you don’t want this to be an excuse. We could sit here, want to innovate, and create all day long and I’ll be like, “I didn’t do anything today.” When something comes into your head, I have a pen and paper next to my bed. Sometimes, I’ll wake up and think of something and I write it down quickly because I know I’ll forget it. If I go back to bed and wake up, it’s gone or if I jump out of bed and I do something, I’m like, “What exactly was that again?”
One of the things is whenever something hits, jot it down. You may not work on right away, but just jot it down. What’s that thought that you had? You’ll remember it as the thought. You can find time to carve out to maybe iterate on it a little bit. The trigger for me is to let my mind go off and think of things, and stop to capture it and maybe noodle on and work on it a little bit. You’ve got to let the creative mind come in. You don’t see an artist say, “Right now, I’m going to stop and write the book,” or “I’m going to write a song.” When the moment hits, take advantage of it. Don’t lie. “I am too busy to think about that right now.” Stop for a minute and let that trigger the idea and let it flow.
You’re doing a lot of speaking all across the country. You’re doing keynote speeches and training. Could you tell us a little bit about what it is that you do in that area?
I did a lot of thought leadership speaking for many years in Constant Contact and had done it for some of the other startups. I was going out and talking specifics around the best practices and the thought leadership bond or whatever the products and services we’re offering. I started telling more founding stories and some of the early day lessons learned. I focus the talk around, in the first couple of years before the flywheel got going and funding, what were the things we did to set ourselves apart? I’ve got a variety of different talks or sometimes, it’s a fireside chat, discussion, panel, or an actual keynote or two, depending on the conference.
When I used to go to conferences all the time, even the earlier days, I found that a lot of the speakers will zip in, speak and zip out. I’d hear a speaker and I’d say to myself, “I want to connect with them because we may be able to do business together. I want to thank them and I want to ask them a question. I wanted this or that.” They’re gone or they have handlers that block it. I said, “If I ever get asked to speak at these big conferences, I’m going to be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. I’m going to commit to being there and be present.”
This is to pay it forward because if I can empower people in the room or if I can meet somebody and we have a breakthrough moment in a conversation for a blocker that they had or how do I go from where I am to that next level. That happens often so I have to be present to do that. I also have the respect of the other speakers because I want to hear what they’re saying. I can sometimes weave into my talk, support, and pick up where they left off or whatever it may be. As of late, I’ve been rewarded for it, which has not been expected and I wasn’t looking for it.Accomplishments are something to build on, not rest on. Click To Tweet
I’ve gotten some visionary awards and some other things from conferences for being present and helping raise the water level of startups or help those that are already going to scale. It’s been enjoyable and I’m committed to paying it forward. I take the lessons from things that have worked and things that didn’t, success and failures that move you forward, as long as you fail forward or fail fast or whatever the term of the week is. Those are all learnings. It’s important for startups to be able to get exposed to people that have been there and done that because there’s always going to be learnings there.
I position you as a mentor. Someone told me before the difference between a coach and a mentor. A mentor is someone who’s done it before and they’re helping you travel the path that they’ve taken to get to the destination. Whereas a coach is someone who sees the potential in you. He’s going to push you to get to the destination. It makes you a mentor. How can people connect with you, Alec?
I’ve whipped up a site for my 1.0, but it’s got a lot of my connection to all my social channels and so forth. It’s AlecSpeaks.com. They’ll see a bunch of stuff there and a little bit more on me, and then also ways to connect.
Do you have any social media that you would like to share or anything like that?
The links are all on that site. I beta tested most of the tools so it’s just my name, Alec Stern at Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Instagram is @AlecSpeaks, but all the social channels, the links are on that site if people want.
I want to thank you for coming on the show. It’s been a wonderful and enlightening conversation about startups, ideas and innovation. It’s a game-changing conversation, especially at a time where there is so much fear and uncertainty. It’s based on perception and coming from someone who’s an innovator. This could be the most opportune time of your life if you’re looking at it with the right lens and then taking the time to think, jotting those creative ideas down, and working with them later. You never know what could come out of that. Thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Thank you. I’m inspired by what you do as well and I was happy to come on the show.
Thank you. Before we bring the show to an end, we always like to ask our guests, what is the game changer mentality message? How can they dominate their game, idea, or message that you could leave with us?
Maybe a mantra that I live by. There are a few but the first one that I always go back to is, “Accomplishments are something to build on, not rest on.” Oftentimes in life, we have a moment where we’ve had some success with something and we want to put our feet up or go celebrate. For example, I’ll ask a room full of folks at conferences, “How many of you have that strategic partner, customer, investor or mentor that you want to call but you’re hesitant to call them? Yet, you’re not picking up the phone and calling them. How many have at least one of those people?” Every hand goes up.
We’re all hesitant to do that and there’s no time like the present and we shouldn’t be hesitant. I often will say to people, “You have to get your energy and get your mindset in success mode when you’re going to do that.” If we’re hesitant and you go to a friend’s house, they just had a baby, and they’re like, “Hold the baby.” “I don’t want to hold the baby.” When you take the baby, it’s going to cry. What can you do that would have this energy come through the phone or in that meeting? Call a loved one, hug a baby, pet a dog and sing your favorite song.
Usually, this tease up, Don’t Stop Believin’, a couple of conferences made me sing it because that’s my go-to song for my journey. Get fired up, then you have that call. You have a successful call and I’ll say, “What do you do next?” People yell out, “Celebrate.” I’m like, “No. Make another call,” and then have success, make another call. Your energy is going to be felt through the phone or that meeting you went to, and then at the end of the day, you can celebrate. Build on these things and you’ll see additional success.
Let’s not be hesitant to go out and talk to those that we need to because if it’s a strategic partner, it might take 9 months to 1 year to close the partnership. You’re going to wait until you’re ready and then wait a year. What are you waiting for? Start now. Start to engage. If you’re a startup and positioning yourself to how you can help them and want to talk through that, eventually, when it comes time to where you’re going to sign an agreement to work together, you haven’t wasted the time to then start. There’s no time like the present. Just build on those accomplishments.
Thank you, Alec, for coming to the show.
There you have it another successful episode of the Game Changer Mentality podcast coming from Mr. Startup himself. There is no time like the present, so start now. That’s the game-changing message. It’s go time. Until next time, peace and love.
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About Alec Stern
Alec has more than 25 years of experience as a founder, investor and hyper-growth agent for companies across various industries. He is a true innovator with expertise in growing and scaling companies, startup and operational growth, go-to-market strategy, strategic partnerships and more.
As a member of Constant Contact’s founding team Alec was one of the original 3 who started the company in an attic. He worked to build the company for 18 years from start-up, to IPO, to a $1.1 Billion-dollar acquisition. Alec has also been a co-founder or on the founding team of several other successful startups including VMark (IPO & acquisition), Reaching Grasper Cane and MOST Cardio among others.
Alec has become known as America’s Startup Success Expert for performing hundreds of keynote speeches worldwide and for his popular sessions at top conferences like Secret Knock, CEO Space International, City Summit, Powerteam International and Habitude Warrior.
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