From Idea to Commercialization in 4 Days

When not consulting with small businesses who have revenues, I often volunteer time with a start-up nonprofit named EntreDot. The entrepreneurs with whom I have the pleasure of interacting through this connection are amazing. Within the innovation centers that the organization operates, there are many second career entrepreneurs. However, a different demographic intrigues even more: high school students. This past week, I had the opportunity to advise students at Wake Forest Rolesville High School in how to launch a business. What a blast!

While adults often underestimate what a young entrepreneur can do, this group has been a very pleasant surprise. The students were allocated into teams to prepare a business pitch in five days. Coming into the week, they had not previously been working together. One of the student teams did not even begin their business until Tuesday and only then as a result of teachers requesting they form a separate team because their original team had grown to too many participants. Faced with a four day deadline, this group of young entrepreneurs launched Bands For Boston. Bands For Boston is a social cause enterprise that is selling wristbands to support the Boston community in the aftermath of this week’s tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon. 

Bands For Boston

The student team used the debit card of one of their own to order the first 250 bands on Tuesday. By Wednesday, they had enough pre-orders that they went ahead and ordered an additional 250 bands. Through networking, social media, and some joint promotions, the team looks to sell over 1,000 bands in their first 10 days in business at a price of $5 each. Initially, they plan to contribute 60% of the proceeds to the American Red Cross to support relief efforts. They are hoping that, as volume grows, they will be able to raise the percentage contributed to 80%.

A process was followed by these young entrepreneurs that is significant for new small business founders of any age.

  • Ideation – The team first thought about doing lanyards for key chains, but thought that they couldn’t get enough traction. Once they decided to do the wrist bands, their thoughts gelled and they were able to unite around an idea that evoked passion. Quick math showed the team that, if they would put forth the effort, there was enough demand for what the proposed to create sales substantive enough to reward their efforts.
  • Conceptualization – The next effort the team went through was to identify target buyers. The first concentric circle they considered were student peers, followed by neighbors and Twitter followers. At each level, they were able to verify demand. They they put together a business model to order from an online source and deliver the bands to those who purchased on a pre-sale basis.
  • Creation – The proof of concept for the idea came into focus as the first set of bands arrived, were distributed after school, and new customers were identified as those who saw others wearing the bands. They had established some name recognition and were on their way to a business.
  • Evaluation – At the three day mark, they began dealing with inventory, marketing, and finance issues relative to reorders, expanding their reach to other geographic markets, and planning how to scale the business.
  • Preparation – The team was now confronted with the challenge of how to launch on a broader basis and put into place the team responsibilities that would facilitate growth. They are pursuing relationships with sports teams in the Boston area to have promotions at games whereby the bands could be given away to early attendees and sold to subsequent ones.

Commercialization is now the challenge of the team. They are trying to figure out how long these bands will be popular and what they may do for an encore. In the meantime, they have tapped a latent demand while helping a community and earning some income. Kudos!

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Rethink What it Takes to Innovate

Innovation inside big businesses requires a culture in which people feel relaxed, fairly rewarded, and valued. The same applies to small businesses, right? Recently, Charles Day, the CEO of Lookinglass, wrote an article for Fastcocreate on this truism as it relates to creative talent. He observes that, “Many creative businesses limit their talent recruitment and retention strategies to money and flattery.”

Day recommends the following 8 means to attract and retain top creative talent. Consider how many of these practices may be good human resources concepts that would apply across the board!

upside down worker

1. BUILD AN EVANGELICAL BUSINESS

Creative people yearn to make one thing more than any other. A difference. They want to solve problems they believe are important. Ten years ago, Netflix and Blockbuster were in the same business. The difference lay in their respective visions of the future of movie rentals. Internet-supplied delivery at your convenience? Or rainy Thursday nights staring at an empty shelf in a store? Which set of problems would you rather solve? 

2. AVOID THE DEFLATIONARY VALUE OF MONEY

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, Drive, he explains that many creative people are in fact demotivated by money. In some cases it makes them perform worse, because when a task becomes “work,” creative people tend to feel restricted. As a manager, focus whenever you can on highlighting the intrinsic value of solving a client’s problem. And when your company decides it must “do it for the money”–an economic reality in virtually every business–be mindful of the impact this has on your most creative people.

3. PAY FAIRLY

There is a time to spend money. Paying “below the market” shatters trust. Many companies ignore this truth, underpaying early on when the company can, then overpaying later in order to keep talent locked in place. This builds suspicion and destroys loyalty. Instead be relentlessly pro-active in maintaining market-parity compensation, with bonuses for extraordinary results.

4. MEASURE PROGRESS

At Rosetta, one of the industry’s fastest growing interactive agencies, the rigor of the employee review program stands in stark contrast to most creative businesses. Employees are measured on a set of four published benchmarks that encourage both personal initiative and collaboration. The system is transparent and consistent. At the end of the year, everyone is evaluated and rated against their own peer group at their own level. This ensures that every employee has a clear understanding of how much progress they have made. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, nothing matters more to ambitious people.

5. ENGINEER ENGAGEMENT

Gallup Organization research has shown that most people become less engaged with an organization over time. Nothing dilutes loyalty more than a company’s willingness to support under-performers. Be relentless about improving or firing the weakest links and raising standards and expectations. It attracts and unlocks greatness. 

6. INVEST IN INDIVIDUALITY

Google famously attributes its growth to the investment it’s made in allowing 20 percent of engineers’ time to be used for anything they want, so long as it makes Google a better company. Creative companies that charge by the hour can’t match this level of investment. But when you decide to invest zero in the possibility that your talent can create value in unpredictable ways, it suggests you think they are not capable of doing so.

7. BE OPEN. BE HONEST

Transparency is essential to attracting and retaining great talent. We define transparency as this: telling what you can and explaining what you can’t. Sharing openly encourages your people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Critical to building loyalty.

8. SAY THANK YOU

The artist in all of us needs to be recognized. So does the human being. And yet most companies are slow to praise or even to thank. Which is strange since each of us makes a choice every day about where we work. It need not, after all, be here. Saying thank you at the end of every day has always seemed to me to be a small acknowledgement that you take neither their talent nor their choice for granted.

 

Is Coaching the Facial Tissue or the Kleenex?

 

Have you noticed how frequently the word ‘coaching’ is used these days? You don’t read an article, attend a leadership workshop, or even speak with managers without ‘coaching’ being generously referenced.  It’s used to describe the act of:

  • Helping someone do something
  • Chewing others out
  • Passing along information
  • Delegating a task
  • Recognizing what’s gone well
  • Giving feedback
  • Teaching a skill

It seems that for many, ‘coaching’ has grown to generically refer to any interaction a leader might initiate… much like Kleenex’s relationship to all other tissue. But, not all conversations are coaching; and coaching certainly is not Kleenex!

As leaders, many of us have gotten sloppy with our language. Maybe it’s because we know that coaching is a desirable behavior within most organizations. Or maybe we want to couch tougher conversations in constructive packaging. In any case, the lack of precision around our language translates to a lack of precision around our behavior… and that’s compromising the power of coaching.

Kleenex coachingThe above commentary on the demise of  “coaching” as a term and practice comes from a blog post last week from Julie Winkle Giulioni. I share in her lament that a perfectly good word has been misappropriated for a litany of weaker approaches. When I think of a coach, I envision someone who is making a difference in another’s life through one-ton-one impartation, challenging the other person to extract value out of one’s efforts for self-improvement and self-actualization. Giuloni continues with an excerpt below to tackle a more appropriate definition of coaching.

Defining Terms

“Facilitating an individual’s search within themselves for the answers and resources they require to be limitless.”
– Michael Duffy

“Coaching in its truest sense is giving the responsibility to the learner to come up with their own answers.”
– Vince Lombardi

“Coaching is a powerful relationship for people who are making important changes in their lives.”
– Laura Whitworth in Co-Active Coaching

“Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.”
– Myles Downey

When we think about coaching from the perspective of these sample definitions, it becomes clear that coaching is an intentional and deliberate process designed to systematically help others understand themselves and take responsibility for making choices to support their own growth.

Notice the key words: process, system, (self-)understanding, (personal) responsibility, and growth. If those who hold themselves out to be coaches were acutely focused on these words and their implications, the term would become valuable once again. Now that we have some clarity around terminology, the next challenge is to examine what coaching looks like in practice. Consider Giuloni’s additional comments below:

(coaches):

Ask great questions…. and lots of them. Coaching is about unlocking what the other person knows, feels, wants. Skillful coaches have a seemingly unending array of questions at their disposal. Easy ones. Challenging ones. Interesting ones. Impossible ones. But all designed to help others reflect on and deepen their understanding of themselves and their options.

Listen exquisitely. Since questions are the currency of coaching, the real payoff comes with listening. The best coaches are genuinely curious and interested. They listen beyond the words – to the emotions, hopes, possibilities, and concerns. They keep track of what they’ve heard, tuck it away, and use it to continually build a deeper understanding of the other person…and they reflect that understanding back to the other person.

Hold the space for possibilities. In the presence of good coaches, more is possible.  The best coaches inspire and challenge others to grow by fundamentally knowing that it’s possible. They promote optimism and a sense of capability as they make change and help others find new ways forward.

When this perspective is held, performance of those being coached is improved. The generic, bland approach to engaging others on issues that matter gives way to a very defined (branded) process that delivers predictable results–like Kleenex!

 

Entrepreneurs Who Don’t Pass the Grade

Can an entrepreneur be graded? What would the assessment look like? Jason Nazar, the founder of Docstoc, created a 55 question assessment to do just that. He posted it on Forbes yesterday and invited the reader to begin with the end in mind. The questions are listed below:

Checklist man

1. See opportunity where others see issues 

2. Have a discipline for making decisions among various opportunity costs

3. Rapidly double down on something when it starts to work and blow it out to its full potential 

4. Balance “gut decisions” with of a love of data-driven decisions

5. Focus on 

6. Stay attached to the problem they are trying to solve, but be flexible in the solutions to solve it 

7. Know when to apply a 

8. Protect their downside and prevent the organization from being put at risk

9. Communicate expectations clearly, build buy-in and hold everyone accountable (most of all themselves)

10. Encourage open feedback on what they can improve

11. Put others in positions to make critical decisions and drive key initiatives forward 

12. Prefer to give credit than to take credit

13. Do, or have done, what they ask others to do

14. Remain organized and disciplined in any work habits that affect others

15. Seek out and follow the council of advisors in and outside of the business 

16. Balance “Coaching and Cheerleading” vs. “Doing and Directing” 

17. Know when to set unrealistic goals

18. Regularly thank and appreciate others for a job well done (thanks to my co-founder Alon Shwartz for reminding me)

19. Make themselves consistently accessible to their team

20. Are honest and ethical in all their dealings

21. At least 20% of their time goes towards recruiting top talent (tip: some say 50% via Vinod Khosla)

22. Build a team of A vs. B players

23. Define the most important qualities for hiring 

24. Counter-balance their weaknesses by hiring people better than them

25. Hire Fast & Fire Fast 

26. Define what the culture should be

27. Create an ingrained culture, not one of platitudes 

28. Make the culture about something bigger than business 

29. Build ownership and accountability across the entire organization

30. Put in their own capital before they ask others to put in theirs

31. They sell ether, sell the dream

32. Have mastered the investor pitch process

33. They first sell themself

34. Understand “People, Product, Progress, Passion, Persistence” 

35. Always ensure the business is properly capitalized 

36. Treat investor’s capital like a borrowed treasure to be protected and returned

37. Know their product better than anyone else

38. Regularly talk with customers to see what can be improved

39. Have a vision for the product that gets translated across the organization

40. Make their product different and better than the competition

41. Build lean products iteratively and ship expeditiously

42. Genuinely care about the interests of the customer more than their personal financial gain

43. Focus on execution over ideas

44. Participate in key sales functions and deals 

45. Spend enough time courting key relationships that move the business forward

46. Great at generating PR and buzz for the company 

47. Listen more than they talk 

48. Stay scrappy as they grow 

49. Have a strong sense of demand and how to extract it 

50. Self aware, willing to admit mistakes and take responsibility

51. Fierce competitiveness, hate to lose

52. Extreme sense of urgency and intense work ethic

53. Have a big WHY 

54. Can sell the dream

 

55.) Do they get results with integrity?  That is the only standard by which entrepreneurs are eventually judged.  Everything else is just a test; grades don’t matter, but results do.

 

What a great and wise summary of what’s most important! When Nazar sums it all up in the phrase “results with integrity,” he eliminates all doubt as to what is really the key driver in successful leaders–be they entrepreneurial, intrapreneurial, or otherwise! 

Build Human Capital With Interpersonal Savvy

Relationships in business are super important. When tasks and goals are pursued without regard to the interpersonal collateral, it is tragic. Leaders who see human capital as their greatest asset are revered by those who serve alongside them. Those who run roughshod over others are despised–though they may see results from a Machiavellian style in the short run, they never get the voluntary commitment of others and, therefore, cannot take an organization as far.

Three person relationshipJeff Haden recommends the following best (business) relationship practices in an Inc article today:

1. Take the hit.

A customer gets mad. A vendor complains about poor service. Sometimes, whatever the issue and regardless of who is actually at fault, some people step in and take the hit. They’re willing to accept the criticism or abuse because they know they can handle it–and they know that maybe, just maybe, the other person can’t.

2. Step in without being asked.

It’s easy to help when you’re asked. Very few people offer help before they have been asked, even though most of the time that is when a little help will make the greatest impact. People who build extraordinary relationships pay close attention so they can tell when others are struggling. . .they come up with specific ways they can help. 

3. Answer the question that is not asked.

Where relationships are concerned, face value is usually without value. Often people will ask a different question than the one they really want answered. Behind many simple questions is often a larger question that goes unasked. People who build great relationships think about what lies underneath so they can answer that question, too.

4. Know when to dial it back.

Outgoing and charismatic people are usually a lot of fun… until they aren’t. People who build great relationships know when to have fun and when to be serious, when to be over the top and when to be invisible, and when to take charge and when to follow.

5. Prove they think of others.

People who build great relationships don’t just think about other people. They act on those thoughts. One easy way is to give unexpected praise. Take a little time every day to do something nice for someone you know, not because you’re expected to but simply because you can. 

6. Realize when they have acted poorly.

Very few people apologize before they are asked to–or even before anyone notices they should. People who take the blame, who say they are sorry and explain why they are sorry, who don’t try to push any of the blame back on the other person–those are people everyone wants in their lives, because they instantly turn a mistake into a bump in the road rather than a permanent roadblock.

7. Give consistently, receive occasionally.

In business terms that means connecting with people who can be mentors, who can share information, who can help create other connections. . .(also) The person who builds great relationships doesn’t think about what she wants; she starts by thinking about what she can give. 

8. Value the message by always valuing the messenger.

When someone speaks from a position of position of power or authority or fame it’s tempting to place greater emphasis on their input, advice, and ideas. People who build great relationships never automatically discount the message simply because they discount the messenger. They know good advice is good advice, regardless of where it comes from.

In short, taking the time to make much of relationships should be a priority. Doing so builds credibility with others that is huge when it comes time to pursue goals together.