Last night a friend whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 25 years came home for dinner. This was significant for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was the first time we’d had someone over since the pandemic began. Of course when you see someone after such a long time, there is some inevitable story swapping of “Remember when..” But thanks to our grown children a lot more of the talk was about where we are.
We also connected over FaceTime with a third friend who’d originally introduced the two of us and boy did we have a roaring time! So while we worry about our own parents coping alone with the pandemic, the fear of a third wave in India, all the young people we know who’ve graduated and still looking for that right job, its easy to lose sight of how fortunate we are at so many levels.
Then this morning I saw this blog post by Jason Lemkin at Saastr. He founded EchoSign that was acquired by Adobe back in July 2011 to become Adobe Sign. He reminds founders that it is easy (even without the pandemic) to get pulled down by all that running a startup entails. It is best said in his own words.
So for all your founders out there, keep the faith!
One of the challenges of teaching lies in helping students identify, confront and hopefully overcome their implicit assumptions and biases. When it comes to teaching innovation, this ranges from asking and answering questions such as
What is innovation? Is it different from invention or creativity?
Who is an innovator? Are they born or made?
In part to answer the second question, we do an exercise. Each student has to name two innovators of their choice and try to identify what attributes they’ve demonstrated as innovators. Much to my chagrin, year after year Steve Jobs and Elon Musk (more recently) are the first choices of most 19-year-olds that I teach. Thanks to my colleague Stephen Golden, later in the same class, we make them do an exercise around naming women or minority entrepreneurs. The exercise invariably results in both the students and I being surprised with the number of innovators that we should be aware of but aren’t.
The rolling suitcase is far from the only example. When electric cars first emerged in the 1800s they came to be seen as “feminine” simply because they were slower and less dangerous. This held back the size of the electric car market, especially in the US, and contributed to us building a world for petrol-driven cars. When electric starters for petrol-driven cars were developed they were also considered to be something for the ladies. The assumption was that only women were demanding the type of safety measures that meant being able to start your car without having to crank it at risk of injury. Ideas about gender similarly delayed our efforts to meet the technological challenges of producing closed cars because it was seen as “unmanly” to have a roof on your car.
As with any problem that afflicts our communities or organization, the solutions have to begin with us. The first step is to educate ourselves and to begin conversations with others to both acknowledge the problem and to seek solutions. This post is a baby step and in future posts I’ll share both innovators who need to be known and what we can possibly do to address these inequities.
As I interviewed a variety of founders, lawyers and venture capitalists for The Art of a Happy Exit, the term coachability kept popping up. Tim McCarthy, who’d founded a marketing agency that helped chain restaurants improve their worst outlets was the person who first brought this up to me.
Tim, who sold his business in an all-cash transaction for 9-times EBITA, went on to start a non-profit as well work with young entrepreneurs. As most of entrepreneurs do, he jumped into both these activities feet first.
Tim who’s directly coached hundreds of entrepreneurs, learned the hard way about coachability. In his own words, “I wasted hundreds and hundreds of hours.” By that he meant he took every person or call that he came to him before realizing that most were coming to him for money but few were really prepared to listen. So he came up with a two simple questions that he must have an answer to before he’s prepared to spend serious time with someone seeking his inputs or help.
Do they have listening skills?
Are they determined to change?
But answering even these questions require significant time. So he devised a simple process. They need to write, yep provide written answers to a template. Tim won’t commit to anyone who won’t write. This in many ways leads to self-selection with only 10% of those seeking help willing to do the writing work. Tim has also begun gathering them in peer groups, along with other folks seeking help. As Tim wryly puts it “They quickly tire of hearing me speak!”
One of my pet peeves is how common the perception of a “hero entrepreneur” is. Steve Jobs or Elon Musk are amongst the two most common responses my students give when asked to name an entrepreneur. While these two men have accomplished much and altered the lives of millions, this continued veneration by much of the media (whether newspapers, television or the ocean of writing that’s out there) swamps the truth that entrepreneurship (like innovation) is a TEAM sport.
As anyone who’s stayed on at the end of a movie (I’m one of those chaps) to watch the entire credits roll knows, movie making involves hundreds of people at the very least. Startups and entrepreneurship is no different, a cast of thousands usually are toiling to make an enterprise successful. Of particular note amongst these are the co-founders and early employees many of whom not only buy into the vision but take what’s fuzzy and shape it into reality. In most cases, including in my own, they keep the founders honest and focused, not getting distracted by the next shiny thing all too often unacknowledged and at times at significant emotional and professional cost.
Once an individual has been exalted to hero status by the general public, there is an implicit level of responsibility we place on them, whether they want it or not. We end up projecting our loftiest ideals of character onto these people and forget that whether its Mahatma Gandhi or MLK, they were always just human beings.
The very attributes that can make a founder successful—perseverance in the face of great odds, repeated missteps or even failures (that don’t quite kill the startup) can make them pig-headed (boy, do I know!) So the hero myth only makes it worse as they drink their Kool-Aid and believe in their own infallibility. Surprisingly many founders who ultimately exit their business find out it’s hard to be ‘happy’ despite their ‘success’ financially or otherwise, if their co-founders or employees don’t get what they want. And it is easy to imagine that this is unlikely to be the case when those employees or co-founders get a good or even great payoff.
As I learned in my own startups, while making money (or the thought of it) makes people happy (for a few minutes to months), everything from the trivial (“What do you mean I’ve got to pay taxes?”) to important (“What is my role going to be?”) all the way to the sublime (“What’s going to happen to our company culture?”) can muddy things at best or make them unhappy at worst. And of course as humans we are all to likely to succumb being happy with the $250K we made till we find out the next chappie made $255K! So what should founders do?
Here are three simple steps to begin with
Recognize that entrepreneurship is a team sport and acknowledge your team mates publicly and repeatedly
Ask and listen what their expectations beyond money are and be prepared that they might not be the same as yours
Factor their needs and expectations by discussing and if needed educating them in how you run and exit your business
One of the topics that we don’t talk a whole lot about in entrepreneurship is the role of luck. Luck of course can mean very different things to each of us. While commonly people tend to think of luck as good fortune, something over which we have no control, others view it as a matter of being open and responsive when new opportunities present themselves.
“Always say Yes!” I heard Andy Billman, the former president of Worthington Cylinder say this to my class at the Ohio State University back in 2017. Since then I’ve heard him repeat, even exhort folks to say yes, when an opportunity presents itself, such as a promotion or a move to a new location.
Two weeks ago I had a guest speaker Ellen Desmarais come in to speak to my Advanced Concepts in Entrepreneurial Studies class. Ellen in recounting her professional journey recalled that in her first job at a large credit card company an opportunity arose for her to move to a new business being set up in London. She jumped at the opportunity (as though she’d heard Andy Billman’s voice encouraging voice) and found herself at a ‘startup’ with all the freedom to experiment and but with the safety of a large organization backing it. As the years passed and new opportunities, jobs and roles arose, the lessons from that era of a rapidly growing new business continue to serve her.
“It’s a great example of how luck at some point will factor in your life.”
In my own career, luck has figured in a multiplicity of ways. The common one was often of poor timing—such as when we conceived and built an Apple Watch equivalent in 2004 (battery life, interoperability were not ready for wearables), pitched a GPS-powered game scenarios in 2007 (which eventually we saw Pokemon Go make happen).
Other times we’ve had the good fortune of customers sharing with us creative ways in which they’d put our technology to use. A customer from Korea, played Desert Rose by Sting on wireless headphones they’d built around our Bluetooth technology. This was an idea my engineers had pitched repeatedly to an non-receptive me. That chance encounter in a San Jose hotel persuaded me to finally agreeing to focus our entire company on wireless stereo music the led to the eventual acquisition of our company. Of course a great deal of smart people had to put in an enormous amount of effort, yet if that chance encounter hadn’t happened or I hadn’t said Yes, as Andy would have surely told me, I wonder how many other dead ends we’d have run down.
Thank you, Ellen for sharing your journey and insights.
Here are some other interesting takes on the role luck plays in entrepreneurship.
Each semester as the entrepreneurship class that I teach reaches about midpoint, I find myself talking about storytelling and it’s centrality to business in general and startups in particular. You’d think storytelling would be easy, given how long humanity has been at it. And all those folks on Moth Radio and stand up comedians make it look easy. Yet telling compelling and concise story is a skill that seems in much shortage. This is a topic that I’ve written about before here, here and here and still talk about constantly.
Recently, I came across TED curator Chris Anderson’s video on what they’ve learned at TED about storytelling. The eight minute video (half the length of the typical TED talk, concisely lays out four points.
Pick one idea We often start with one, but it gets lost as we layer more on there. Don’t just stick with one but share context, give examples and link back to it throughout your talk
A reason to care Give your listeners a reason to care and the best way to do this is by stirring your audience’s curiosity. Provocation is one way to do it he suggests but I’d say try challenging them.
Build your idea piece by piece Most of us fall into jargon while trying to explain our ideas. Chris reminds us it is critical to use metaphors or analogs to explain in the audience’s language
Make your idea worth sharing No surprise since this is indeed TED’s byline. By articulating who benefits, you can help the idea spread
So not only can you tell good stories but inspire others.
Yesterday my father would have turned 92. Though my father had worked for 37 years at the same firm—rising from accounting intern to the CEO of multiple group companies—he was my biggest supporter when I decided to quit my job and become an entrepreneur.
As a miniscule shareholder in my first startup but a major lender of working capital, he was our first angel. While I was in high school, my father used to regale me with a variety of tales, a surprising number of which came in handy during my own entrepreneurial journey.
As I’ve continued to learn from all that he’d shared, I’ve also had the good fortune to working with some incredible people who’ve mentored, coached, supported me and kept me honest.
Yesterday was also the day my first book, “The Art of a Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses” went on pre-sale on Amazon (USAIndia). While I wish my dad were here to see it, hopefully some of his stories will live on and help other entrepreneurs.
I have always been curious about leadership and what makes for good leader. Leadership as with most other things is easy to talk or read about but harder to demonstrate in action. The events of this last week, since the murder of George Floyd, have enabled me to see some good leaders in action. Most notably, President Aoun of Northeastern University, who not only addressed the issue directly but declared a day of reflection in response to the injustice toward black people.
“We will join together in unity with those all around the world who are grieving and angry over persistent injustice toward African American citizens,”
Of course, as a privileged brown man, the response of the local community to #blacklivesmatter brought to fore the question of my own responsibility to address both anti-blackness within the Indian-American community or caste oppression in India.
Meeting author, Dalit scholar and amazing human Suraj Yengde, who posed the question whether we will [ever] see upper caste / Brahmins come out in support of Dalit struggles the way we’ve seen white people show up for black lives. Talking about caste or discrimination even within families (mine or any other desi) is a challenge; I know I’ve failed miserably many times in WhatsApp groups of even my peers. Yet what we as privileged folks face is mere irritation, relative to the every day mayhem Dalits face (beatings, murder, rape).
Suraj’s own sustained campaign for Dalit liberation in the face of sustained abuse in the social media sphere and his outreach across caste lines which at times draws fire from fellow Dalits is yet another lived experience of leadership in action.
So where do I start and what can we do? As Jane Elliot says in the video below, we can start with education.
I’d urge you, dear reader, to start with these two resources:
For those who have read this far, take a look at this video of anti-racism activist and teacher Jane Elliot. If we were to replace white people with upper-caste, and race with caste wouldn’t it be just as true?
Most of us do a terrible job, when it comes to reporting data in a visual format. Nothing new about it. Many decades ago, Edward Tufte (amongst others) tried to address this with his book Visual Display of Quantitative Data. Hans Rosling set the world on fire with his TED talk(s). If presenting data that’s already nailed down is hard, presenting data that is breaking (or being projected) as we see with election results or a pandemic is that much harder.
Which is why these two examples, of data presentation around the novel coronavirus COVID-19—one a static dashboard (Government of Singapore)
In a class that I teach on innovation, the students and I typically run through an exercise of “Who’s the customer? -> What’s her pain point? or need?” -> “What is our innovation to solve this?” Sometimes we do it the other way, starting with our innovation, what pain point it solves and who is this a pain (or need) for?
So when it was time to talk about LED bulbs, as an innovation, the class easily had a plethora of answers for who and what (longer life, lower cost of ownership, environmentally conscious.) When I asked “What if we add Bluetooth to the LED bulb?” the answers came on just as fast and furious—”I don’t have to get out of bed to turn if off,” “I can control at home remotely”.) So the consensus was clear that this was an innovation (ie “creates new value” for one or more target segments)
Now came the question, “How do we reset such a Bluetooth-enabled LED bulb to its factory settings?” (never mind, nearly 20 years since we began using BT we still need to periodically reset things, cause their state gets messed up).
Here was GE Lighting’s solution to this problem—this is their actual video and not a spoof, of which there are several built based on this real video.
Watching this video even the first time was painful and for the nth time (with each section of the class I teach) it required some measure of teeth-gritting. Yet, as an optimist I sought the silver lining—they were clear what the pain point their (paying) customers faced, but the cure seemed just as bad as the disease. While some commenters on YouTube felt this was engineering (within GE) wreaking vengeance on marketing (or product management) not allowing them a reset button, it is the customer who has to pay the price. Some takeaways for me include:
The original solution (or specification) not accounting for end-user resets (should this be even required?) tells me that the use cases (certainly corner cases) hadn’t been thought through
The sheer complexity (not to mention mind-numbing) nature of the solution makes it clear that end-user inputs or consideration were not taken into account
While a good deal of engineering creativity (& cost) I suspect went into this solution, likely due to product design or legacy constraints, the sheer number of spoof videos shows that the brand (and likely product adoption) has taken a hit, that far outweighs any of the cost considerations that may have limited either the original design or the subsequent reset sequence.
Innovators too need their own version of the Hippocratic oath, “…I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.”
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.