by Martha Heller

A CIO’s experience as a start-up founder

Dec 12, 2018
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Michael Gabriel, former CIO of HBO, offers lessons learned from his entrepreneurial adventure.

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Credit: ipopba / Getty Images

When Michael Gabriel was CIO of HBO, he went through a divorce. In reflecting on the end of his marriage, he thought, “How could I meet someone, marry her, have a child, and then discover that we were actually very disconnected from one another?”

As he pondered the quandary of why people often ignore warning signs and stay together too long, he took notes to understand the dilemma and to offer some guidance to his young daughter for when she got older. From these notes, he saw a book emerging.

In 2014, shortly after retiring from his CIO position at HBO, Gabriel published The Balanced Relationship Barometer: A Practical Approach to Achieve a Healthy and Fulfilling Love Relationship. The book provides a decisioning framework, using a business gap analysis approach, to ensure you are getting what you need out of a relationship.

From writing a book to creating an app

While Gabriel was happy with the book’s initial success, he was concerned that, as with so many self-help books, buyers would read it and then put it back on the shelf without really applying the book’s framework to their lives.

So, he formed a new company called Relationship Barometer and developed an app that would allow for a more pragmatic user experience of the Balanced Relationship framework.

mike gabriel Quantum Barometer

Mike Gabriel, founder and CEO, Quantum Barometer

“The app let people record their relationship experiences and gain better awareness,” says Gabriel. “Just like a weather forecast, where predictive analytics tell you whether a storm is coming or you’re headed for sunny skies, the app would predict the future of your relationship.”

When the app hit the market, Gabriel was featured on talk shows and in newspaper articles. While he was pleased with all of the publicity, he started to see that even though people were downloading the app, they really weren’t using it day to day.

“People would record some diary entries and then stop. The app was not hitting the adoption numbers I had anticipated,” he says.

The low adoption rates perplexed Gabriel, who had run several very successful focus groups before launching the product. That’s where he learned his first lesson in entrepreneurship.

“A focus group is not representative of a market,” he says. “Focus groups can give you some insight, but you should not let them govern any of your business decisions.”

Pivot to the business market

Around this time, someone recommended that Gabriel read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal. After reading the book, Gabriel learned Eyal was going to be in Manhattan, and he asked Eyal if he would meet him for coffee. During that meeting, Eyal suggested Gabriel focus less on driving adoption of the current app and rethink his target market. Gabriel experimented with Facebook direct marketing, and he explored distributing the product through the psychologist and marriage counseling community. But when some business contacts told him they were in need of continuous feedback on big change and team-oriented programs, Gabriel decided to pivot.

“I’m a business person; the business focus is what I know best; I can pretty easily apply the app to a business market,” he says.

In doing more research, Gabriel learned, just as when he was a CIO, project teams were still having a tough time getting feedback on the success of change initiatives, which still have the failure rates of decades ago. He also read The Lean Startup by Eric Reis, Running Lean by Ash Maurya, and Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday, “which explain how you can validate and iterate your business model very quickly and with the least amount of effort,” he says.

This time, rather than building the app and selling it into corporate environments, Gabriel applied some of the minimum viable product lessons he had learned and made minor changes to drive for a proof of concept (PoC). He got that PoC this year with a professional services firm, whose leaders validated that the approach gave them early insights into potential problems with a project. They were able to identify smoke and prevent fires before they got out of hand.

Advice for CIOs considering a start-up business

Gabriel is currently focused on trying to secure and turn early adopters into business use cases as he launches the app in this new market. In the meantime, he has some lessons learned for CIOs considering an entrepreneurial adventure.

  1. Read: Before launching his app, Gabriel was not aware of books such as Hooked, Running Lean, The Lean Canvas, or The Lean Start-up. “I wish I knew about these before I started,” he says. “Applying these concepts would have saved me months of effort and a ton of money.”
  1. Expand your founding team: Rather than hiring consultants to build the app, Gabriel now knows he should have brought an engineer, as well as a salesperson, onto the founding team. “Nir Eyal told me he did not know of one successful high-tech startup whose founding team did not include an engineer,” he says.
  1. Establish an advisory board: When you are a CIO, you have input from sales, product development, and marketing for most of what you do. When are on your own, you still need that input, but you have to create it. “As soon as you have validated your market and business direction, bring on an informal advisory board with people who have expertise that you do not,” says Gabriel.
  1. Work with incubators: Incubators, often affiliated with major universities, exist in most cities. “Incubators can provide an office, a talent pool, and connections to venture capitalists,” says Gabriel. “Were I to do this again, I would have investigated the possibility of incubators much earlier than I did.”
  1. Learn to pivot: Gabriel’s first product was consumer focused, but when his former corporate colleagues wanted his product for business use, he resisted at first: A business market was not what he initially wanted. “I should have embraced the new direction sooner, taken some key quick steps to validate the market, and pivoted to the more viable market,” says Gabriel. “I call it ‘the entrepreneurial mirage,’ where your original vision and passion keeps you from recognizing when you’re just viewing sand in the horizon rather than an oasis.

As a CIO, you launch new products into the market all the time. Surely, if you have the entrepreneurial spirit, you can parlay these experiences into a startup venture. But as CIO, you also have enormous resources at your disposal from all over the company. You can use the best contract resources when you need to, and you have access to a large budget to achieve the company goals. This all vanishes when you go it alone.

At the moment, Gabriel is happy with the current iteration of his business model, but there are certainly things he would have done differently. His hindsight is a gift to you as you consider your entrepreneurial future.

About Michael Gabriel

Gabriel is founder and CEO of Quantum Barometer and is a current board member for Meteor Now. Previously, Gabriel was executive vice president and CIO with HBO, where he was employed for many years. He holds a BBA from Pace University.