by Leslie L. Kossoff
Seven years ago, sitting in my apartment in Paris, looking out on a dark street, wondering about what could be…
Starting up a business venture - no matter the size or scope - isn’t for weenies. I’ve done it twice. First when I started my consulting business. Decades later when I founded LeadershipQuantified.
The reason start-up is not for the weak-hearted is because, whatever you expect and no matter how much experience you have, you’re going to be surprised. A lot. And usually on the downside. Right up until things change.
So, since I’m in Origin Stories mode and I get asked - a lot - about how LeadershipQuantified came to be, I thought I’d take on the developmental twists and turns I experienced as I built this fulfillment of my dream for employees and organizations worldwide.
Thirty Years in the Making
It was during the experience I wrote about in Business Origin Story 1 (the one with the consultants and the team), that LeadershipQuantified was born.
I didn’t know it - and I certainly couldn’t do it. But LeadershipQuantified was born in that consultant meeting.
There were two overarching thoughts that I had as I sat and listened to the consultants:
Employees need the tools to make the cases that management needs to hear. They don’t have them. They’re not being trained in them. And, one day, I’m going to figure out how to provide them.
In the meantime, one day I’m going to be a consultant. This business of being a full-time employee really isn’t for me.
(As for the second item, for those of you who know me, you’ll also know that I’ve said - for years - that I’m the worst employee…ever. But that, too, is a different story for a different time.)
At that time, start-ups weren’t a thing. It wasn’t even a word. I’m not even sure that “entrepreneur” had come into regular use back then.
So it wasn’t the romance of the start-up world or some dream that I’d one day become a big-time CEO that began my quest. It was an idea. A mission. A promise that I was going to keep - somehow, someday - to all the employees in the world who needed the tools so that, somehow, they wouldn’t get screwed by their management (intentionally or otherwise).
Well before the time that technology leaders would talk about “changing the world” I had already decided I was going to change it. For the better.
Two-plus decades, a world (literally) of fascinating clients and incredible executives, university teaching gigs, three books, innumerable articles and even more speaking engagements later…
…years of others developing personal computers, mobile phones, laptops, the internet, SAAS platforms and apps later…
…and it was finally time. I had the knowledge and experience - and I had the technology.
It was time for the dream to manifest.
That was what I knew could be sitting in my apartment in Paris. It was time for LeadershipQuantified to come to life.
Sharing the Dream
What I also knew was that I wasn’t going to do this alone - and that meant reaching out to those I knew and trusted to share the dream with me.
I contacted friends, colleagues and former clients on a highly selective basis. I told them what I was doing and asked them two questions:
and, on an even more selective basis…
I explained what the idea was and where it came from. I got input from them about what they thought was needed and what it would take to make the dream come true.
In the meantime, though, I still had to figure out what “it” was - specifically, how we were going to do what needed to be done: Develop Leaders at Every Level of Every Organization. Everywhere.
Not skills training. Not “leadership development.” We were going to develop leaders.
We would give employees at every level the tools they need to bring a level of personal satisfaction to their work that would spur them on to do and be even more.
We were going to put a particular focus on small- and mid-sized organizations - specifically because they couldn’t afford the likes of me and my high-end consulting brethren and, as a result, were getting screwed by consultants who were charging them too much and giving mediocre (at best) guidance.
Finances, Business Building…and a Move Back to the United States
The discussions continued and I listened and learned…and I read voraciously.
After all, this was my dream - and now, not only did I have those in-the-future employees to help, I had also surrounded myself with people trusting me to do something with this dream that I’d brought them in on.
I got a lot of push to get investors. Venture capital. Seed money. Everyone knew someone who might be interested in putting some money into the business.
I said no. I’d read and heard and learned too much about just how expensive investor money could be…and I wanted to do this my way. I also wasn’t willing to risk anyone else’s money on my dream. This baby was financially on me - all the way.
In the midst of all of this, I moved back to the States. It was emotionally devastating - even as it was the most correct decision for the business.
I’d grown to love Paris and my life there like no where else I’d ever lived. But, at that time (and, happily, no longer the case), the laws, regulations and taxes for small businesses and start-ups were beyond onerous. They were impossible.
If I was going to build this dream, I was going to have to do it in a country that was designed for small businesses to build and grow - and at that time, that was the States.
So I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, which is lovely. But, even as I was figuring out and dealing with all the ups and downs, ins and outs of this new business I was building, my external environment wasn’t what I wanted or needed.
Tough. The business had to win and I had to take it - but to say it put a pall on the way I looked at my life is the understatement of the decade…and that led to a fifty-plus pound weight gain that I’m still trying to get rid of.
Like I said: Start-up isn’t for weenies.
Creating our Value Proposition: Targeting, Customization, Measurement
Oh, those words. Frankly, they can kill you…especially in the early stages.
There I was with an idea. And a market. And a product…sort of…because it’s the development, re-development, re-re-development and re-re-re-development - which doesn’t stop there…and that’s not even getting to the joy of pricing models.
The thing I knew was that whatever we produced, the content needed to be stepwise. With each step, people needed to see progress. And learn. And see their world differently. Measurably differently. Which means that, whatever we did, it had to be measurable. Hard measures. Soft measures.
And we weren’t going to create anything cookie-cutter. I was done with the idea of generalized training. I’d seen how useless and wasteful most of it was. What we were doing was going to have to go beyond “mass customization” to a level of individualization that would personally customize our product for each recipient.
And I wanted them to be able to use the information again and again - which is why the LeadershipQuantified resources are called Resources. Because that’s what they are - to the recipients and their organizations.
And with all that, I was still the lucky one - because I had clients who trusted me who allowed me to use them to beta-test every iteration we generated and gave me real-time feedback on how we were doing.
Product-Market Fit? Oh, yeah. We nailed it.
The Handshake That Started a Business Model
Early on, I had the opportunity to meet with Regina Cash, the (then) Director of Academic and Professional Programs from the (then) College of Continuing and Professional Education at California State University, Long Beach while she was attending a conference in Monterey.
As I’ve previously written, I’ve had a years-long relationship with the University - but this was my first time meeting Regina.
We scheduled the meeting between conference sessions so that we’d have a good-sized block of time to talk about what our respective organizations might do together. I brought collateral materials. I explained what we were doing and why I thought a University partnership would be beneficial.
I told her I wanted to start with Long Beach and wondered if she’d be interested. She was. We shook on it. We’d figure out the details later. And we did.
As a result of that handshake and the intervening years working with the team at what is now the College of Professional and International Education at CSULB, LeadershipQuantified also got the benefit of new technology for academic institutions: Digital Badges and Micro-Credentials.
That handshake was a win - no matter which way you look at it.
And with all that on my side, there was the other bit to live through.
The Down Side / Part 1: The Delays
If ever you decide to do or be part of a start-up, make sure you have people you love and trust around you. You’re going to need them.
LeadershipQuantified began as an idea in 2011, became a reality as a sole proprietorship in 2012 and was incorporated in 2018 with a portfolio of Resources that numbers near to fifty.
I can honestly say that the first couple of years were the most fun - even with the move to the States and the weight gain. In those early years everything seemed possible. Moreover, there’s this fantasy that everything will happen…fast.
It doesn’t work that way. Some things don’t happen - ever. And, no matter how many early wins there may be, they don’t happen fast. Or at least never fast enough…not if you really want to get things right.
One of the executive credos of Facebook is “Move Fast and Break Things.” That’s all well and good if you’re choosing not to worry about the consequences of what your company might be doing.
However, if you’re me and your whole goal is to make things easier and better for people who are spending at least a third of their lives in their jobs and are, generally, unhappy with things where they work, getting things wrong just makes things worse. That wasn’t going to happen.
From getting contracts written and reviewed to the negotiations with the people who would become LQ Experts, to the writes, re-writes, edits and more edits on the materials sent, to, then, putting those materials into what was an ever-evolving proprietary, step-wise methodology and finding the right technologies, and, and, and.
That’s what start-up looks like. Or at least that’s what mine looked like.
Now add in the egos and betrayals - because, of all the surprises I had, those were the biggest and most disheartening of all.
The Down Side / Part 2: Outsized Egos and Outright Betrayals
You know that thing where people you know say, “I’m going to write a book” or “I’m going to be a YouTube Influencer” or “Wow. My phone has the capability for me to - finally - make that movie I’ve always wanted to make. I’m going to do it” or anything else along those lines…and then they never do it?
Yeah. That one.
With too many people who truly surprised me, I found two consistent trends:
They make promises they, ultimately, don’t keep - telling me all the while that they’re on it; they’re working it; it’ll be done soon. They promise.
They were convinced that they knew better than me exactly what the methodology was and that they knew how to write to it.
Wrong. On both counts.
In both cases, the reasons were, ultimately, ego-driven. The first one fell into that “I’m going to write a book” trap…right up until the person realizes just how hard writing really is. Especially when it’s the kind of writing the LeadershipQuantified Resources require.
Promises made. Promises broken.
The second one came because, not only did they not realize how hard it was to write to LQ specifications (and never think we don’t have extensive editing and quality control at every stage) but because they were lazy. If they were going to write, they would write what they wanted the way they wanted - and then tell me that we were getting it wrong.
We weren’t. We aren’t. But it takes a particular kind of expert to be one of the LeadershipQuantified Experts - and that’s a small pool, indeed.
Then there’s the honesty question - and this one really threw me for a loop.
I’m an honest person. Mostly I’m that way because I’m a really terrible liar. Sadly, especially with people I’ve known and learned to trust, I think they’re honest, too.
Too many of them are not - and I wasn’t prepared for just how dishonest and disloyal some people are.
I’m not going to go into detail here, simply because I don’t want to put the energy into reliving all the betrayals I’ve faced over these years.
Instead, suffice it to say that, in that world of not-for-weenies, if you’re doing a start-up be more than careful about who you do business with. More than anything, be prepared to be surprised on the downside by people you never thought would do that…especially to you. Because they will and they do.
And even with all of that, there’s yet one bit more to the Origin Story of LeadershipQuantified - the most personal part of all, because it’s all about my Dad.
We’ll talk about that in Part 3 of the LeadershipQuantified Origin Story - and that’s next.