Active Learning, Local Involvement, and Beer: Q&A with Entrepreneur, VC Bill Jones

In the 30 years that I’ve worked in the tech and life science sectors in Atlanta, I’ve met some really smart people. In my “B2B Visions” series of posts, I am taking the opportunity to introduce you to some of them. While those featured here in this series were super smart to begin with – they’ve all learned important lessons in their careers.

My first interview was with Digital Element’s Sue Daw, who spoke about digital transformations in B2B marketing. Today, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation I had with Bill Jones of local VC firm, TechOperators.

techoperatorsI’ve known Bill since the late 1980’s and have watched his career with great interest.  A look at Bill’s LinkedIn profile will get you fully up to speed, but some highlights include high-level stints at Samna/Lotus/IBM, Synchrologic/Intellisync/Nokia, Air2Web, and the founder’s role at CollectorDASH.  You’ll appreciate Bill’s insights as well as his willingness to be transparent – always a good sign of integrity.

Peter: Bill, I’m looking for things you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out. What are some of the main lessons you have learned over your 25-year career?

Bill Jones at workBill: What I wish I had done earlier is consciously commit to active learning. When I started out in technology, phones had cords, cameras had film, and this new thing called the Internet was popping up. Shoot, I can even remember getting confused between email addresses and Internet addresses. Over the past 5-10 years, mobile & wireless technology, social networks, and how information is accessible and dispersed are rapidly changing our world. It’s easy to get complacent about learning new things, but if you get out of touch with the here-and-now, you become less relevant.

It’s easy to be ensconced in your own environment, your own job, and stop challenging yourself to learn continuously. I was 15 years into my career when I really started to pay attention to continuous learning. It was easy for me to get deep down in only what I was doing.

Another lesson I’ve learned relates to focusing on the community where I work. I spent the first 20 – 25 years of my career in companies that had a global focus. Therefore, Atlanta was just another city, because we had customers all over the world. Our customers in Atlanta drove my involvement in the Atlanta community, but not a lot more than my work in other cities. I wish I had said ‘No, Atlanta is different. Your local community is different. Spend more time with the Atlanta community.’

People need to invest themselves in the local community. Learn who has the innovative ideas. Who can you help with your experience? You can think of it as networking, but I prefer to think of it as a local give-and-take. I am able to learn and understand some of the newer thinking by working with local innovators, and I’m able to help younger people who may benefit from some of my experiences. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been a lot more directly involved with the Atlanta community, and it’s been enriching.

Peter: During that period you talked about, I actually had a very similar experience. Most of our clients were selling software solutions that were purchased around the world. And if they happened to sell some in Atlanta, that was fine. But it made your perspective national and global. Local was just a place you lived, and all you cared about was the sports team and your family, not what was going on commercially.

Bill: Yes, it pays dividends to be involved. It makes you feel good that you are giving back to the local community. Because, throughout your career you’ve enjoyed being mentored by local people. Our experience helps the general talent pool in Atlanta. The excitement and innovation that is going on in this city is amazing!

I’m not doing this as the Bill Jones the philanthropist. While it is just good to give back, I also have personal motivations. It pays dividends to the community. There are reasons to do it. I learn, I get challenged, and I bump into people I can help, and it will teach me something too.

Peter: Are young entrepreneurs receptive to your experience?

Bill: One of the things young entrepreneurs need to learn is how to be coachable. As an entrepreneur, I can tell you that you talk to a lot of people, and a lot of people have advice. This advice is often conflicting, so it is frustrating for an entrepreneur to hear lots of advice that they don’t know what to make of. One of the skills is to learn – what is the quality of the advice I am getting? Who has the background and experience to give me advice about a certain subject? And to be honest with yourself and know when advice you’re getting may contradict core assumptions you have made. It might be painful, but you still need to listen to it, think about it, and test it.

Peter: Is that something you wish you knew, or were you pretty coachable starting out?

Bill: Oh, some people would say I’ve been hard-headed at times, but over time I’ve learned to become pretty coachable. One lesson I’ve learned being an entrepreneur: it’s one thing to have a product or idea that people will tell you they like. But to be successful, there’s an entirely different level of product/market fit that you have to establish. Lots of people will pat you on the head. That’s not good enough. As Merrick Furst puts it, you have to meet a need that the other person can’t not have. That’s a hard lesson, because you like to leave a meeting saying “they like this, therefore we will be successful.” No. That’s not good enough. The way you really want prospects to act is to not let you leave the table without paying you for your solution. And then there’s the penny gap. There’s a huge moment, it just starts with a penny. People say yea, I’ll use that for free. But as soon as you get them to reach into their wallet, you’ve accomplished something. You’ve changed the entire relationship. All of a sudden, they’re your customer. That’s an entirely different relationship. The penny gap basically says price elasticity starts even with a penny. Any price is an important milestone to get over, because it changes the relationship.

Peter: What has surprised you most about being an entrepreneur?

Bill: I was a 22-year software veteran who had been pretty successful when I decided to become a true entrepreneur and found a company. So I didn’t think I was a complete novice. The part of being an entrepreneur I was unprepared for was the emotional side of it. It’s not just hard work. It’s emotionally hard work.

We all go through periods when we are struggling. We also sometimes feel like we are on the top of the mountain with the breeze at our back. You learn magnitudes more about life, your business, yourself when things are hard. It is fortifying during those tough times you are struggling to know that this is when you are learning the most. When things are easy, you aren’t going to learn that much. You’re sort of idling and just going through the motions. But when you are climbing up that hill, that’s when you are really learning. I have learned hard things when I was struggling. All that being said, being an entrepreneur is an exhilarating experience when you are creating something, putting yourself 100% in to something, and pushing yourself all the time.

We in Atlanta have started to have programs, venues and a spirit of mentoring that is contagious. Being an entrepreneur can be a pretty lonely endeavor, so I’ve learned that it is vitally important for entrepreneurs to share experiences and lessons. (Doing this over a glass of beer is always more fun, by the way!) I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, but to know that others are going through some of the same challenges as you is sometimes enough to brighten your outlook and ignite that needed spark of creativity to push you ahead.

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