7 Steps to Smarter Problem Solving

Startup founders seek help.
Startup founders seek help.

How do I…? As entrepreneurs we ask this question daily, but we often don’t think through the question systematically. The monthly MentorNight Roundtable group does, and you can use the format as an effective guide to your business development challenges. MentorNight, run by Tony Karrer and John Diep, and regular group leader John M. Morris (who also runs Startup Founders Group), takes on startups core business challenges in the most useful way I’ve seen.  Here’s an example of the process in action:

Two guys were starting an online marketplace that allowed buyers and sellers to negotiate ticket prices for live events. The company is simply the platform and the medium for the transaction. The founders’ concern was scaling: particularly, dealing with dissatisfied ticket holders who were at events and being denied entry. But, the first question was something to the effect of: “How do we decide if we hire internal customer service or if we outsource customer service?”

You can’t do it all alone.

Based on the founders’ answers to the groups clarifying questions it became clear that the fundamental question was along the lines of, “How do I offer customer service to angry ticket holders as the number of tickets sold grows?” You may think it’s the same question, but the suggestions for a solution indicate otherwise.

The suggestion that won: gamify your customer service. Put the responsibility for resolving customer issues on the sellers. Adding a rating element—like Yelp, Ebay or Amazon—will incentivize sellers to make sure customers are satisfied with their experience, less they face poor ratings and a loss in sales. This approach returns the company to the role of facilitating transactions, and doesn’t require them to take on responsibility for anything other than the technical functioning of the platform.

The founders left the meeting committed to investigating gamified customer service and how they could develop it into their existing platform, and a commitment to report back to the group. The MentorNight process ultimately saved these founders hours of headaches and, potentially, tens of thousands of dollars.

Here’s the step-by-step process for the MentorNight format:

First you pose your question: “How do I…?” The most common questions entrepreneurs face, center on scaling, funding, staffing, go-to-market strategy and branding. Yet, when forced to simplify the question as, “how do I…?” many entrepreneurs aren’t hitting the heart of the problem. MentorNight’s Startup Roundtable format helps drill down to make sure that the question asked is the fundamental issue.

Next, the entrepreneur makes two more statements about their concern. The first articulates why the question is important to their business; the second is what the entrepreneur has already done to deal with the issue. Then, the person states the help needed from the group.

Clarifying questions come next. These questions are not veiled suggestions or solutions. The questions help the group better understand the entrepreneur’s business and what they’re trying to do by answering the “how do I” question. Based on the clarifying questions the group offers suggestions for restating the entrepreneur’s original question. The entrepreneur must remain silent here and resist the urge to defend herself. Based on the restatements the entrepreneur is allowed to restate the “how do I question.” More often than not the second “how do I,” is different from the question the person set forth at the start.

Now comes the call for suggested solutions based on the last “how do I…?” From the solutions the entrepreneur then commits to take specific action—not think about—and commits to returning to the group by a certain date to report the results.

At The Pool Dives Deep Into SoMoLo

The web is dead. Mobile is the future. At least it is for At The Pool; the two-year old Santa Monica startup achieved what amounts to the Holy Grail for mobile applications, the status of #1 in its category (Social Networking), in Apple’s App Store. Being featured on the App Store’s homepage is what developers dream about: a fast track to fame, fortune and recognition of your app’s inherent value and your startup’s ultimate success.


I sat down with Alex Capecelatro, the company’s founder and CEO, a week and a day after At The Pool launched the mobile app that: gives you mobile access to a network of people with shared interests who are local; thus: social, mobile and local (aka SoMoLo). I wanted to know not only how At the Pool achieved this status just a week after launching (before the app had been widely adopted), but whether #1 App Store status lived up to the hype.

Continue reading At The Pool Dives Deep Into SoMoLo

Mentally Exhausted? TruBrain Wants to Help

TruBrainAt truBrain, we carefully chose each ingredient in our blend not only based on their individual properties and benefits, but for the synergy they all have with one another, resulting in an energy and focus solution capable of meeting and exceeding the needs of those with mentally demanding professions and lifestyles. As with rowing a boat, as with producing a baby, as with transporting a prolate spheroid made of leather across a hundred yard field, getting your brain waves to fall into a more productive pattern is a team effort, and a maimed truBrain missing one or more of its constituent ingredients would be lonely and ineffective. That being said, certain ingredients are more specifically meant to affect your brain waves (in our earlier post we explained the main determinants of attentiveness) than others, and we’re going to show them off now: Theanine and Tyrosine.

If the truBrain blend is a motley and diverse, but tight-knit, crew of superheroes (and we like to think it is), then Theanine is like a psychic Master Splinter. Theanine, and its dispensation of profound wisdom in the form of pithy koans, promotes calm and relaxation, preventing your brain from getting too excited. This may sound counterintuitive; after all, truBrain is promising increased productivity right? We’re selling a healthier alternative to things like Modafinil and Red Bull, right? Recall from the last post, however, that Alpha Waves are about being calm and centered; ready to fight, but not yet flailing your limbs. Theanine puts you in this state by increasing gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) levels in the brain, protecting neurons from excitotoxicity. Of all the ingredients in our compound, Theanine is the one most directly correlated with alpha brain wave production.

One of the tricks used by a lot of people to wake themselves up in the morning is a cold shower. Once you get past the extreme discomfort and existential questions about why you do these types of things to yourself, a cold shower, actually leaves you feeling energized. Not happy, quite, but ready. Tyrosine is more like a rooster call for your brain; it helps wake it up smoothly, so that your brain asks how, not whether, the day is going to be wonderful. It is an amino acid capable of promoting alertness in even a sleep-deprived mind. Tyrosine just so happens to also be a precursor to dopamine, which is probably one of the most (and only) commonly known brain chemicals, famous for putting us in a good mood. So not only does it help your brain wake up, but it also helps your brain produce more dopamine, which is always a good thing.

Curious about the rest of our ingredients, and how they help you focus and dominate at work? Check out our site. That chat box lets you chat directly with our neuroscientists, please use it, we don’t bite. If you like what you see, use the code “WiredWiredBrain” to get 15% off a purchase of truBrain. And if you just love reading about this kind of stuff, sign up for our newsletter.

What’s Behind the Brain Drain?

By Garrett Ruhland
R&D Manager,

My LinkedIn Newsfeed looks like it’s a monastic newsletter instead of a compilation of the most popular articles in the realm of careers and business. All everyone seems to be able to talk about is how to concentrate, how to focus on work, the Zen of daily productivity. These articles aren’t geared towards 3rd graders to teach them about time management; these articles are directed towards consultants, software developers, marketing gurus, bankers—people at the top of their fields, who are having trouble with what was once thought so simple, so prerequisite a task, that nobody bothered to teach or talk about it: paying attention. truBrain's Brain Boosting Blend

Luckily, I happen to study attention. And I’d like to redirect yours away from all the articles about “Attention and your emotions”, or “Attention and your stomach”, so that we can talk about attention and your brain.

Our level of attention and focus is largely contingent upon the types of brain waves pulsating in our skulls. If we think of our brains as cars, and the different waves as different gears the car could be in, it makes choosing which brain waves we’d prefer to be in for work a no brainer…

Continue reading What’s Behind the Brain Drain?

What Makes a Presentation Persuasive?

Your palms sweat. You nervously flip your pen and mime your memorized intro for the third time in the past ten minutes. You’re waiting for your turn to present. You need a win here if you are going to land that investor, client, promotion or product. Whatever the reason for your presentation, you need audience buy-in. You need to make them care.

A presentation is a performance. We know that on an intellectual level. Unfortunately for audiences—of one or many—that knowledge never comes to fruition in our presentations.

“People never think that it applies to their presentation,” says John K. Bates, CEO of Executive Speaking Success. Business is about numbers, so you need to talk numbers to convince your audience, right?

Continue reading What Makes a Presentation Persuasive?

Instacanvas CEO on Startups and the Power of the Pivot

Acceptly sought to crowdsource the college consulting game, bring it to the middle-class masses. The startup was designed to help the thousands of students who wanted to go to a good college, but couldn’t afford the minimum $5,000 price tag college consultants were charging. At least it would have, if high school students were as interested as the Silicon Valley investors the Acceptly team had already lined up. They weren’t.

It turns out, according to the man at the helm of Acceptly, Matt Munson, high school students weren’t willing to share what they were doing to prepare for college with their peers. “We hadn’t anticipated how personal an experience applying to college was for these kids,” says Munson, “they wanted to keep it private.”

The other reason Acceptly couldn’t acquire users: high school students tend not to focus on the big picture. “They’re focused on what’s happening now. The SATs are coming up, so they’re cramming,” says Munson, “they aren’t thinking months into the future or laying out the steps they need to take to get into a school.”

By the time Munson and his team realized that they already had some venture capital backing and Acceptly was in Mucker Lab’s startup accelerator program. Munson and his team, guys he’d worked with at his earlier startup Better PPC, were in love with the idea of creating something that would engage high school students and level the playing field when it came to the college admissions process. Could they just give up?

The Pivot

Yes, and no. Continue reading Instacanvas CEO on Startups and the Power of the Pivot