Behind LeanKitKanban – Jon Terry

I’ve been working connected to Jon Terry [Twitter: @leankitjon] for a good while now, and have really enjoyed what he brings to the Agile/Kanban community. I recently met up with him at AgileDC in which I was thoroughly impressed with not only who he is, but how he promotes and supports others. Truly a standup guy.

I caught up with him and asked him a few questions around himself, more on startups, and just a small bit on the really cool kanban tool that his team has built. The interview is very enlightening, and I would highly suggest grabbing some of the golden nuggets of wisdom that Jon has to share.

Tell us about yourself, background, etc.

My dad was in the Army so we moved around a lot, mostly in the US but also Germany. I went into the Army myself for a little while after high school. When I was done and went to college, my degrees were decidedly non-technical or business – the history of US foreign policy and print journalism. I think I had aspirations to be the next Tom Friedman.

I worked in journalism for several years, both in college and after. I started working when newspapers were first experimenting with this new-fangled Internet thingy. None of the more experienced editors wanted to be involved, especially because working on the Web edition meant you were on the late, late shift until 4 in the morning. But I thought it was pretty interesting and I could already see that electronic distribution was eventually going to hurt print publications.

I remember telling a group at a student journalism conference that they ought to look for other work because the Internet was going to ruin their careers. Sadly I was right.

In the meantime, though, I had moved on to a sales/marketing job at an Internet start-up called We built websites for hospitals. We weren’t “really” a start-up because we were funded by the giant hospital company HCA, but there was still a lot of that start-up energy and enthusiasm. It was a lot of fun for about a year and then the bubble burst – at which point having a corporate backer turned out to be very useful.  I ended up spending about eleven years with HCA as a business analyst and project manager in their supply chain line of business – where I met my LeanKit partners Chris Hefley, Stephen Franklin, Daniel Norton, Kelly Baker, and JR Allen.

In my final role at HCA as director of project management, I helped start the Lean/Agile transformation of HCA’s IT organization. It’s a huge group, 4,000+ people across the US and India, so the change is still in process. But it’s been very successful – truly getting into Agile at scale. I first met Sanjiv Augustine from Lithespeed and Mary Poppendieck during this time. I was more of a “pure” Scrum guy back then, but both of them got me thinking more broadly about Agile and Lean.

What got you into the startup scene?

Honestly, I was pulled into it by my partners. Most of them left HCA before I did, but we met regularly for lunch and kept saying we ought to start a company.  I wasn’t quite ready to leave HCA. I was also getting my MBA at the time so I was pretty busy. But Chris, Stephen and Dan went ahead and founded LeanKit in 2009 and almost immediately made me a board member. They helped me see that, even though I had a great job at HCA, making the move to a start-up was going to help me grow as a person. My work with the company gradually increased until I started full-time earlier this year.

Making the jump into startups, what would you suggest for new startup folk before they take the plunge?

First, understand the job.

We all read a great book called E-Myth Revisited. It talks about how a lot of people start companies because they really like practicing their craft and want to do it their way – without a boss to interfere. The problem is that the job of a software company’s CEO isn’t to write code. It’s to hire people, make sales forecasts, find investors, lease office space, etc. You may have a vision of a great software product but you have to realize that your job as a leader in your company will be to build the business, not (at least not just) to practice your craft.

Second, find mentors.

You can learn a lot by reading and you certainly should. But there’s no substitute for experience and there’s no better way to learn from experience that by getting personally connected. We’ve learned a ton about sales and marketing from Robert Holler at VersionOne. We’ve gotten great advice on fundraising and made great connections through Michael Burcham and David Furse at the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center. Our relationship with David Anderson, Jim Benson, Alan Shalloway, and other Lean/Agile community leaders has been crucial to our delivery of a quality product. I could go and on.

Bottom line: don’t try to do it alone. You’ll be amazed how generous some very successful people can be with their time.

Third, don’t fall in love with your vision of your product.

What matters is how your customers use it, or don’t. We’ve been constantly amazed by the way our customers have re-purposed LeanKit. We thought we were building an IT project management tool. Lots of people using it for that so I guess we did a good job. But we also have kindergarten teachers using it to track kids’ progress on learning objectives. We have auto dealerships using it to manage the flow of cars through their repair shops. We have logistics companies using it to manage fleet maintenance on forklifts! It stops being your product once it’s in their hands. You’ve got to be open to that. Honestly, we really enjoy it.

How big is your startup team?

There are five of us full time in Nashville with a sixth starting very soon. Then we have a team of five in Buenos Aires and three guys in Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic. Plus board members, advisors, accountants, lawyers, etc.

What do you look for in a startup team member? Some traits or characteristics?

So far, for us, the creation of LeanKit has mostly been about re-assembling a team that had worked extremely well in the past. Getting the band back together. But, now that we are starting to expand past that core team, this is definitely something we are thinking about a lot.

I think you need people who are over-qualified for the jobs they will do when they first start. Ideally, your lead developer is going to grow into a CTO, leading the development department. Your sales guy will eventually lead sales, marketing, advertising, maybe consulting, etc. The person who handles book keeping today will be responsible for accounting and tax filing across multiple states and countries later. Etc. So they have to be highly competent in their current jobs as do-ers and able to grow into future roles of managers and leaders.

You need to strike a balance between creators and sustainers.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of the people who aim to start companies are very creative, full of ideas and energy. But they can become bored of running something they’ve created after a little while. They want to move on to the next project, new features, sales idea, whatever. So you need to make sure you also have people who, while still flexible enough to handle the constant change of a start-up, are more inclined to enjoy perfecting and running the process that the creator got started.

You’ve got to find people whose vision of the company’s future aligns with yours. Are you building a small to mid-size company that you plan to “live-in” for a long time? Or is this a growth business that you are going to jump start with venture financing and sell in a few years? Are you staying where you are geographically or is a move to Silicon Valley going to happen when the time is right? You can’t, you shouldn’t try to, create 100% agreement. Some diversity of opinion is crucial. But, you need to find people who are going to be instinctively moving in the same general direction. Life in a start-up is very fluid. Things change fast. And each member of the team is constantly being called on to make seemingly tactical decisions that really have long running strategic implications. You need to know that when they do, they will be aligned with your group goals.

What are 1 or 2 things that you’ve learned through the pains of growing a startup?

Over communicate like crazy with each other.

We found that even team mates who have known each other for years can have misunderstandings when they get into the fast-paced, high-stakes, pressure-cooker environment of a start-up. Make sure you really agree on key decisions and aren’t just a) going along so as not to rock the boat or b) not pulling your head out of your own corner of the business enough to really understand what they are asking about theirs.

Everything will take longer than you think and cost more. You have to be aggressive and urgent in moving things forward to even get them done later than you first wanted. Revenue is not the same thing as cash flow. Just because you made the sale doesn’t mean you have money to pay your bills. So be frugal, cautious, and downright cheap about how you spend your money. It’ll keep you out of trouble. Investors like it, too.

Bootstrapping or VC/Angel funding? Which is better?

That depends on goals and timing. SaaS/cloud tools for building and hosting software products – and for running your back office – have made starting a business, especially a technology business, much less capital intensive. So it’s much easier than it used to be to start by bootstrapping. Thus the huge success of Eric Ries’ “Lean Startup.” We didn’t know about this movement when we started LeanKit but it definitely described how we operated. And for some companies this approach may be all they need if their goal is to build a small company with a niche or local focus.

But, others may still need to take professional funding at some point in order to scale their business to its full potential and/or grow it quickly enough to stay ahead of competition for market share. That’s both because the money allows you to focus more on growth than cash flow and because professional investors can/should bring experience, connections, and resources aside from just a check. We’ve benefited a lot from our investors and potential investors.

Why an Agile/Kanban product?

For LeanKit, it was first and foremost about solving a real, personal need in a space we knew. As I’ve said, I was into Lean/Agile in a big way at my job at HCA. At that same time, before they started LeanKit, our CEO Chris and CTO Stephen were leaders in Lean/Agile in their jobs, too. Chris was using Kanban to run a development team in the US, the Bahamas, Italy, and Ukraine. He got tired of having them tell him which sticky notes to move and sending them iPhone pictures of the physical board.

There had to be a better way and thus LeanKit Kanban was born. We knew that it’s all well and good to talk about how Agile teams ought to be co-located, but the reality of our modern era is of distributed teams, telecommuting, and global client bases. And that as Lean/Agile grew beyond its small team, small company roots, corporate executives would demand the kind of visibility into their operations that’s only possible through software. That’s why our current focus is all about Kanban tools for portfolio management and integration of Kanban with other company systems.

Any fun tidbits about yourself?

My wife Patty and I have had three weddings. The first was in a Memphis coffee house. The “pastor” wore lightning bolt robes. Elvis gave the bride away and sang “Love Me Tender”. Priscilla was the bridesmaid. We had Moon Pies and Coke for communion. The second, when we could afford it later, was our real, formal wedding at the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson. And Patty surprised me on our fifth anniversary with a renewal of vows at our church with our three sons along for the ride.

Any parting words?

Be sure you have a viable product concept, a strong team, and a solid business plan for launching your company. But, once you do, go for it. Don’t wait for the right time. It will never come. Don’t worry that you might fail and you might have to go back to a regular job. Sure, that could happen. Of course. But, if you pay attention, you will have learned a tremendous amount along the way that will make you a more valuable employee for any company. And, hopefully, you won’t fail. You’ll make it work and win big. The people who truly succeed in business are those who are willing to take a risk.

[Thanks again Jon! Awesome!] – Find Jon at LeanKitKanban.

[We also review Kanban tools]

2 Replies to “Behind LeanKitKanban – Jon Terry”

  1. Pingback: Behind LeanKitKanban – Jon Terry | Agile | Syngu
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