Going back more than 20 years, Adam Wood has founded 7 different companies, as well as worked within several organizations, and is consistently active as an advisor and board member to others. He’s currently Co-Founder of Neon, a Vancouver based product design company.
Since recently joining the Operators Guild in 2019, he’s taken the lead on launching the OG Vancouver Circle. Below, Adam shares insights on launching products and scaling businesses and the lessons that will lead the Vancouver Operator community in 2020.
You can learn more about and connect with Adam on LinkedIn.
I’ve looked for a long time to find a group that is focused on operations and the things that I deal with daily in my businesses.
I love that there’s an incredibly experienced group of professionals available to provide answers and perspectives on a wide range of topics.
I learn something new daily from reading in OG Live.
- Vancouver has a booming tech scene (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Hootsuite and 1,000’s of startups to scale companies) and a ton of great operators.
As soon as I joined OG, I was convinced that operators in Vancouver would benefit from a local circle. I believe strongly in investing in my local community and starting the Vancouver Circle was a natural choice.
A key strategy that I learned from building companies is that your founding team has to be builders and advocates for what you’re doing.
I’ve taken the same approach with establishing the Vancouver Circle and invited excellent operators who believe in OG, want to invest their time to establish the circle and will advocate for it by introducing other A+ operators to join.
The starting phase of a new business or creating a new product is hard and full of risk. If you’re a starter, you have to build a strong muscle for derisking and get very good at operating proactively (always looking 3-5 years ahead).
I view risk as falling into four buckets when you’re starting:
- Product Risk: can you make a product that will work?
- Market Risk: can you find a market for your product?
- Financial Risk: can you make money from your product and business?
- People Risk: can you hire, form and scale an A+ team?
In my experience, the times when products I’ve made have done very well has been driven by successfully managing the four buckets of risk. Conversely, when things haven’t gone well it’s because I’ve picked team members that haven’t fit or I’ve been too early to launch the product vs where the market is.
A large part of my career has been focused on creating first of their kind products and I’ve seen a lot of markets form at a very early stage. I’m writing a book on developing products and how to derisk creating generational products from early stages to scale. It’s been a 3-year labor of love to write and it provides a ton of great examples of how to make products that work. The book will be published in July.
I spend a lot of time meeting new people and broadening my network. I’m endlessly curious and I love learning from others.
I believe that it’s important to be generous with my time to offer introductions, advice, and help. I try to meet 5-7 new people every week and be helpful in some way to them.
Our plan for the Vancouver Circle is to get a few meetings under our belt, try a few different meeting formats (roundtables, guest speakers, focus sessions, etc) and figure out a rolling annual calendar that works best for the group.
Once we have that published, we’ll start to look at inviting other operators to join the group.
I’ve learned over and over that most companies fall into a predictable set of traps when they try to grow their product and company.
My book is focused on a proprietary generational framework for creating products and I follow it closely when I’m building and growing new products and companies.
The usual playbook is to push a v1.0 product to market, get some customers and then constantly add features and functionality to the product. Within a few years, you end up with a product like Salesforce: 2,300 features and customers use ~ 1% of them regularly. This approach is incredibly wasteful in terms of the capex invested in growing and supporting the product.
I’ve developed a framework that looks at the most efficient path for a product to grow generationally without wasting precious investment dollars.
My biggest takeaways from scaling are the importance of doing strong organizational design work.
OD planning is really important as it identifies what skills, experience and profiles of talent you need at each stage of the business.
Early-stage founders often don’t scale and need to complement or replace themselves with team members who are the marathon runners who will carry the company from growth to maturity. I like to map the first 10 years of the business and specifically design what the organization looks like each year in terms of roles, size of team, reporting, skillsets, and experience needed, board composition and advisory needs.
I find this to be helpful to give a long view and my management teams work with the OD plans to inform their annual planning.
In terms of what hasn’t worked for scaling, I’ve found a few things that usually tend to break.
- First, scaling is largely informed by the pace of the organization. If you have a hyper-growth startup that is operating at a pace of 10 out of 10, you’re going to need to invest heavily in the size of your team so you’ve got the right labor complement. I’ve seen companies break often because their pace is too high and they’re triaging their growth daily. Finding the right pace of growth usually can allow higher quality of work, lower burnout and less opex.
- Second, scaling requires a company to build processes that allow the growth to occur while still maintaining quality and good operating practices. Many high growth companies skip building processes and solely focus the operation on closing more deals and driving more revenue.
- Third, I’ve seen many team members break when they try to transition from early-stage to growth stage. Many companies aren’t proactive to identify what stage of the business the team member fits or doesn’t fit in and they miss an opportunity to train, upskill and coach that person to grow as the company grows. Instead, many companies turn the team member and replace them with people who have scale experience. Right or wrong, trading team members can harm culture and culture is always the glue that helps a company stick together when you’re growing.
I strongly suggest that you invest a lot of time upfront to craft your idea, validate it and develop a strong plan to make the business work.
- I spend a lot of time with my core product development team at Neon doing very scientific validation of ideas for new products and businesses.
- There are some great methodologies you can use to quantitatively and qualitatively validate the business long before you invest any money in starting up.
- We invest in making our own products and have built this internal competency largely to ensure that we have a high success rate on the new products that we create.
- Also, it’s valuable to talk to people who have started their own businesses before and learn from them what made it work or fail. The four buckets of risk I mentioned earlier are important to think about and I encourage a lot of work to go into derisking.
- I also suggest finding a coach or mentor who’s built a similar business and have them available as a resource to answer your questions. The wisdom that comes from having been there before is invaluable and will help you learn what you don’t know.
I am a big fan of operators getting experience as board members.
There is a ton of value in learning the differences and nuances of being an operator, director and shareholder. If you’re interested in getting board experience, a great starting place is to find a company you really like and ask to participate in a few of their board meetings as an observer.
You can learn a lot by watching and taking in how the board functions, what brand of governance they’re practicing and what they’re focused on. I mentored with a few experienced board members prior to my first board seat and it was another great way of learning from someone who’s already been there.
I’m currently building new products and ventures with my company Neon.
We’re a 25 person strong product company with a value chain that can take an idea, validate it, create it and ship a product that will succeed in the market.
Neon is triple-bottom-line focused and many of our new products become Certified B Corps. Given our expertise, we get asked by a lot of companies to help improve their products and make the next generation of their products.
We work with startups like Sphere and large corporates like 3M as their product partner to create the products that will be the next 1-100 years of their business. Neon also creates our own products and brings them to market as new ventures or we’ll sell/license/partner with an established corporate in that market. We’ve shipped 7 products in the last year and will ship another 5 new products plus 1 new venture this year.
If you need any help with your products, I’m happy to provide some advice and help.
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