Alex Glassey is the CEO of Glassey Technologies Inc. and the founder of StratPad, award-winning software that makes business planning simple for entrepreneurs. He is passionate about helping small businesses succeed and offers workshops and video-based training on strategy, business planning and basic finance. Glassey has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and teaches in the entrepreneurial program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC.
We talked to him about his entrepreneurial journey to find out what he wished he knew before he started.
Why did you decide to be an entrepreneur?
I became an entrepreneur so I could be there for my kids. When I was in my 20s, I became a single parent to my two children, who were 4 and 5 at the time. I was working at a corporate job with long hours and a lot of travel. It just didn’t work for my family. So I started writing a software program at night, after I put the kids to bed. It enabled me to start my first company and quit my day job.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your company. (Coles’ notes version of your journey to now.)
My first company created a software product for physiotherapists called CareWare. I sold this company after 6 years and, over the next 20 years, founded and sold two more tech companies: MedCenter, an Internet pharmacy and Projjex, a browser-based project management software. Along the way, I also consulted to SMBs on innovation and growth strategies.
In 2006, I went back to school to get my MBA. I didn’t have a formal business education; everything I knew was based on my own experience and what I had seen with clients. During my MBA, I experienced a real disconnect between what I was learning and what was relevant to me as an entrepreneur. Concepts and practices that could be really useful, like strategy and business planning, were exclusively geared toward the needs of big business. They were far too complex and impractical for startups and small firms.
That’s when I came up with the idea for StratPad. I wanted to make these powerful big-business tools relevant and useful for people like me and my clients. We’re all entrepreneurs and small business owners who are deeply knowledgeable and passionate about what we do, but not necessarily trained in business or finance. StratPad makes business planning simple; it helps entrepreneurs create a strategy, write a business plan, and track their progress. We launched StratPad as an iPad app and it was embraced by entrepreneurs and consultants worldwide. Very soon, we’ll be releasing a browser version of StratPad. We’re inviting everyone to sign up to try it free.
What are the 3 things you wish someone had told you when you started?
1. It’s ok to pivot. You’re not a failure if your business doesn’t go according to plan or your world changes. Just press pause and figure out what you can do differently. I really appreciate the Lean Startup approach because it’s exactly what you should do.
2. Service the heck out of your customers. Your customers give you everything – they give you money, they tell you whether your product or service is good or bad, and quite frankly, they keep you motivated. Being an entrepreneur takes an enormous emotional toll, especially in the first year. Back in the early days, I had a handful of customers who I worked closely with. When I was really despairing, I’d phone them up and say, “Tell me how good we’re doing. I need a boost.” Your customers are the source of all good things so you need to be as close as you can to them.
3. Be super conservative in your projections and really squeeze your costs. Your marketing is going to take twice as long and cost at least twice as much as you think. These days, I too often hear new entrepreneurs say, “I’m just going to Tweet and do social media and that will create a buzz and vault my company into cash flow positive.” And it absolutely doesn’t happen.
The #1 reason most businesses fail in their first year is that they run out of money. And it usually does take at least a year to get to cash flow positive. So you really want to watch your expenses and squeeze every nickel and every dime twice, spending only where it will makes a bottom-line difference.
Tell us about your first big win moment.
When I had my first company, we started selling our software across Canada. I was invited to present to a group of potential customers at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and walked out with 14 orders for our software. It was huge for us, and a complete validation that we were on the right track.
Tell us about your biggest early failure and what you learned from it.
My first company’s software was DOS-based. When Windows came along, we developed a new version. When we were almost ready to release it, we proudly announced it to our customers and prospects.
Of course, development ended up taking longer than we thought. In the meantime, everyone waited – none of our prospects wanted the old version, they wanted to wait for the new one. And because it took so long, we ended up in an absolute cash flow bind. Sales just stopped. We really scrambled for about 90 days and it almost killed us. So the lesson there was, as excited as I can get about a new product, it’s not a great idea to talk about it until we can deliver it.
What was your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?
When I repaid my investors after selling my second company, MedCenter. I was able to take the investors and their spouses out to dinner, order champagne and give them cheques that were several multiples of what they had originally invested in the company. That was a great evening.
What is the #1 thing you think young entrepreneurs don’t know about running a business’s finances?
How to understand cash flow. Cash is the lifeblood of a company. Your passion for your product, your love for your customers, your love for your team – they’re all important but at the end of the day, they come second to the requirements of cash flow. If you don’t have cash, you can’t build product, you can’t sell product, you can’t take care of your customers and you can’t pay your staff. So your ability to accurately set down and understand what your cash flow will look like over the next month, 3 months and 6 months is absolutely critical and something that an entrepreneur should do every single week.
What is the worst advice you ever got?
“Don’t release your product until it’s perfect.” It’s terrible advice for a couple of reasons. If you try to make a perfect product, it takes a lot longer. The whole time, you’re bleeding cash on development and not bringing cash in from sales.
Plus, what you or your team think is perfect simply isn’t. The best thing you can do is to put together a minimum viable product – something with the least possible set of features – get it into the marketplace and subject it to the scrutiny of customers. This gets your product to market faster where it can start to generate cash. Customers will tell you how you can improve it. You want to make your product perfect in their eyes; they might not want what you and your partners think.
What are 3 tools that you can’t run your business without?
Well, I have to say financial software, like QuickBooks Online. Skype – great quality, loads of features and super inexpensive. I also depend on Dropbox. All my digital stuff is in the cloud so I can access it on all my devices. God help me (and the global economy) if the cloud crashes.
What advice would you give a young entrepreneur who is just starting out?
Get out from behind your desk and go talk to people. No matter what stage you’re at – if all you have is a concept in your head, lay it out in a couple of paragraphs or slides and go tell a bunch of potential customers and see what they think of your idea. If you’ve got a prototype, get it in front of as many people as you can and get their feedback. If you’re already selling something, keep in close touch with your customers and people in your industry. Don’t lose sight of who your product or service is actually for—when you do, you start to drift.