Saul Kaplan: On the Internet, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Saul KaplanThis is the fourth of a series of conversations published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

Ethan Zuckerman’s job is to see the Internet for what it is.

As the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, Zuckerman studies civic engagement within digital infrastructures. He has made the case that we are not as connected as we appear to be.

Zuckerman’s research explodes what he calls the “myth of connectivity.” As he claims, “The world is more global. Our problems and economics are global. And though we are inundated with content, the media is getting less global.”

He believes it is important to expose and rectify this fallacy; after all, “this leads not only to shocking ignorance about the world, but also to missed opportunities for marketing and collaboration.”

As it turns out, Zuckerman says, “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

“Atoms are more accessible than bits in many occasions,” Zuckerman says. “Fijian water is easy to access, but Fijian culture is not.”

He attributes the myth of connectivity to a lack of demand rather than too much supply. With the explosion of personal publishing and the “read-write web,” the issue isn’t so much the lack of stories told from other parts of the world, but rather, that these stories have been filtered out by the American attention span.

One of the problems of “free market journalism,” Zuckerman says, is that it relies on user behavior to recommend content. This filtering mechanism is deeply susceptible to what he calls “homophily.” Meaning “love of the same,” the concept is also known by the truism “birds of a feather flock together.”

Homophily explains the tendency of news coverage to cater to the lowest common denominator, or, speaking within the realms of Zuckerman’s research, of the disappearance of international or investigative reporting.

“What we need are new systems to help us stumble over things, to jog us out of ordinary reality,” Zuckerman says.

Zuckerman claims the key to integrating international or hard-hitting perspectives into domestic discourse is to provide relevant context. Fundamentally, he says, “What’s most important to you, is ‘you’ and ‘yours.’ If we’re not giving people some way in which they can interact with content, we’ll be missing giant opportunities.”

He forecasts that content recommendations of the future will be able to determine an audience’s interest and the “information rut” that they’re stuck in, before bridging that gap by suggesting novel, yet unexpectedly useful content. For instance, “following your interest in US mobile phones, you might find yourself reading about Chinese phone technologies, or about how much disposable income the mobile market captures in East Africa,” he explains.

“I was never in love with the narrative of the Internet startup,” Zuckerman says.

“Dot com” entrepreneurism did not excite him as much as the question of the Internet’s potential to transform the world.

Yet, for all his reluctance to view enterprises as one-stop fix-its for society’s ills, Zuckerman looks forward to returning to speak at the Collaborative Innovation Summit hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI.

At the Summit, Zuckerman intends to engage the BIF community — which he knows to be composed of unconventional tinkerers and seasoned social entrepreneurs — with a critical question he has been wrestling with: how to innovate journalism.

The BIF Summit has been a site of meaningful connections for Zuckerman in the past. He recalls meeting his MIT colleague Neri Oxman there, and marveling, from her talk about her first encounter with snow, Oxman’s intuitive thought process as a materials scientist.

“What I value so much about BIF is this notion that you’re not there to give a presentation, but to tell a story,” Zuckerman says, “With stories, the interesting motivations are never completely rational. That irrationality, that underlying passion, is to me what’s fascinating about anybody who’s trying to change the world.”

He believes that in BIF’s passionate community, he will find a receptive audience. “Storytelling is hugely underrated as a form of human communication,” he says, “It’s really hard to make money while doing good, investigative journalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

“Ultimately, I think we need to be having a deeper conversation about what public goods we should be willing to pay for, that the market isn’t good at provisioning,” Zuckerman says. He recognizes, “Those tend to be fighting words in the United States, but I think this notion of having really high-quality information is something that we’re not talking seriously enough about.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan: Something Is Wrong With the Way We Aspire to Success

Saul KaplanThis is the third of a 10-article series of conversations published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

“If you’re in business today, you’re running for office every day.” So says Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine and a progressive Democrat who recently conceded his bid for governor of New Mexico.

Webber promoted an education-focused, pro-jobs campaign platform that leveraged his background in social business. The only candidate in the race not formerly involved in the state’s government, his supporters valued his outsider perspective and resistance to local political cynicism.

Running for office may seem to be a tricky venture for a media entrepreneur with a blunt, provocative journalistic record. But to Webber, running for governor was a natural culmination of his career-long mission to understand and transform broken systems.

Webber’s talk at BIF9, last year’s Collaborative Innovation Summit, articulated the broken place he sees now in both business and politics. In both systems, he claimed, “something is wrong about the way we’re aspiring to success.”

In his talk, Webber recounted an article by entrepreneur Mark Fuller, published in Fast Company’s first issue. “It asked, ‘How did the United States manage to win every battle in Vietnam, and lose the War?’— because they lost track of the point of the exercise.”

To Webber, the same is true for American business and politics. “Every 10 years, we drive the economic car into the ditch,” Webber said, “It keeps happening because our systems are designed to create this outcome.”

At the BIF9 Summit, Webber’s ideas were welcomed. “Some conferences give you a feeling that all the talks were written by the same person, memorized, and then delivered as a Forrest Gump-ian box of chocolates,” he reflects. “The BIF Summit is different. The design specs are human-centric. With BIF storytellers, you get the feeling that there’s actual alignment between who they are and what they’re doing.”

Webber and fellow Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor used their magazine to rally for a major cultural shift in business, a phenomenon that Webber referred to in his BIF talk as “the disappearance of the man in the grey flannel suit.” The concept of the company man who put himself aside so that he could put food on the table was no longer sustainable.

“Work is too important to be alienated from your sense of self,” Webber maintained.

Fast Company used the conceit of the worker drone to criticize America’s toxic work culture. The magazine aligned itself against an economy built upon principles of pure financial return at the expense of sound business practices.

Fast Company wasn’t a business magazine,” Webber notes. “We had a business model, but we also had a philosophical agenda and a political sensibility about what makes for a good life. It wasn’t articles; it was a curriculum.”

Alan Webber is tough to interview.

He refuses set questions. “Let’s have a conversation,” he insists. He openly shares what he’s struggling with and compels the same. He compliments generously, but does not endorse. He has deep laughter lines.

Yet, when prompted to talk about his new home state, his eyes light up. He tells many stories: of what he learned from meeting an education specialist at the local coffee shop, of listening to the stories of struggle of 16th generation Acequia stewards, of the privilege of having an audience with Pueblo heads of state.

He talks about his state’s resilience and cultural richness. “Santa Fe’s the oldest state capital in the United States, but you rarely hear about the history of Spanish exploration living at Plymouth Rock,” says the former Boston resident.

Webber claims he has no plans to disengage from public service. In his letter of concession he maintained, “It was not only a campaign to elect a candidate — it was a campaign to make an argument about New Mexico.”

The state, under the administration of Republican governor Susana Martínez, ranks 50th in the country in overall child well-being and job growth.

“When you’re number 50, you have no time to waste,” Webber says. To him, it doesn’t matter whether the case for New Mexico is made from the business, political or ethical angle “because today, they are increasingly the same.”

“Politics is not something you’d wish on your worst enemy,” Webber jokes. Yet, he also says, “I think running for governor was the right thing to do. I have met an amazing group of people through the campaign, people who’ve asked me to help them with their projects.”

He adds, “It’s a real a blessing when people think you can help them.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: The Evolution of Customer Service

jyb_musingsThe evolution of customer service in American business.

1960’s “Take a ticket, take a seat”

1970-1999 “The customer is always right.”

2000 – “Take a virtual ticket, take a virtual seat

Saul Kaplan: This Is Why Religion Is Just a Technology

Saul KaplanThis is the second of a 10-article series of conversations published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

Irwin Kula is an eighth-generation rabbi known for his fearless attitude about change — a rare quality among religious leaders who tend to adhere closely to tradition.

Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) in New York and the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, has dedicated himself to opening up the wisdom of his 3,500-year-old faith to be in conversation with the world.

Kula preaches the “highest possible institutional barriers between church and state,” with the “lowest possible communication barriers.” He welcomes intermarriage and interfaith dialogue. He recognizes God not as a “Seeing Eye,” but in “experiences of love, caring, and connection.”

Many consider Kula progressive; others, disruptive. But Kula maintains that institutionalized disruption is essential to adaptation and growth.

Rabbi Kula looks like the wise man of children’s books. He has a handsome widow’s peak, and speaks with homiletic pauses and animated hands. When asked about how his beliefs developed, he answers in stories.

At 14, Kula was thrown out of the private parochial school he attended for challenging the Torah. “I would ask a class of 25 students questions which were probably a touch ‘teenagerish’,” he recalls. “I’d ask, ‘You don’t really believe this — God splitting seas? Come on, this is not what this is actually saying’.”

This rebellious streak would come to define his practice.

The problem with most religious leadership, Kula claims, is that its mission is to convert the non-affiliated. “Religion is not about creed, dogma, or tribe,” he counters. “We need to stop judging our success by membership dues — this isn’t about how many hits. First and foremost, religion is a toolbox designed to help human beings flourish.”

Kula claims that he finds himself often at odds with the concept of “God” as commonly invoked in the American public arena. To him, this is the God of touchdowns and wars, an intervening God who “casts out” unless one “buys in.” “No religious or political system has a hold on being moral,” Kula says. “Systems are only as good as their people.”

For most of his rabbinic appointment, Kula kept these views to himself. Only after the September 11 attacks did he begin to more openly preach what he himself practiced.

“I was very unnerved, knowing the religious impulse compelled that,” Kula says. After the tragedy, he shut down his teaching for three months to reevaluate his role as a spiritual leader. When he returned to the synagogue, he had made the decision “never to teach Judaism again simply to affirm the group’s identity.”

In 2013, Irwin Kula recounted the narrative of his spiritual conversion to a packed theatre of global business leaders at the Collaborative Innovation Summit, an event hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI. On stage, the rabbi made an ambitious appeal to his audience, whom he knew to be composed of astute tinkerers and serial entrepreneurs: He asked them to join him in his mission to innovate religion.

Kula is a fervent believer in accessing insight beyond the religious tradition. “It’s really important to speak to non-incumbents,” he maintains. “The less you speak exclusively to your own ‘users,’ the better shot you have of keeping your own practices from becoming incredibly distorted.” His CLAL runs a program called Rabbis Without Borders, dedicated to fostering open dialogue across cultural and religious barriers.

Stories of innovation often feature “two kids in a garage.” Kula’s goal has been to tell an innovation story from the cathedral. “Religion’s just a technology,” his BIF talk began. “How the hardware of humanity gets used will depend on the software.”

His talk covered how the rapid advancements of the digital infrastructure age demand that we broaden our ethical horizons: What are the new crimes? In this new order, who is included and what are their rights? As we redefine morality, the need to innovate faith becomes especially pressing.

“The most interesting businesses ask ‘impact on society’ questions, which are more complex than ‘killer app success’ questions,” Kula reflects in hindsight. “At BIF, I asked, ‘What would happen if we applied innovation theory to religion, to compress the resources it takes to create good people?’”

Kula looks forward to returning for BIF10 in September.

“If a homily is 15 minutes in church, it’s 18 minutes at BIF,” he says. “As conferences go, BIF embodies total equality between the storytellers and their audience. In many ways, it’s the best of what a spiritual community is — we’ve got to bottle that.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan: This Is the Antidote to the Dark Side of Technology

Saul KaplanThis is the first of a 10-article series originally published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, of conversations with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

John Hagel speaks with satisfying precision. He has kind eyes and stern glasses, which together dominate the screen during a Sunday-afternoon Skype conversation.

As co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, Hagel hunts for unexploited capability on the “edges” of business and makes the case to include them on the CEO’s agenda. “The edges are most fertile areas for innovation,” he says. They are an important place to watch, because what happens at the edges transforms the core.

Hagel’s research encompasses geographic edges (overseas economies), demographic edges (younger generations entering the workforce, their unmet needs), and the edges of technological discovery. If there’s anything his work has taught him, it’s that the manual is less of an asset than the “ability to respond to unexpected events.”

Hagel believes that we are approaching fundamental revaluation of the role corporations play in our lives.

Corporations in the first half of the 20th century were built around what Hagel calls the “push” business model. The greatest asset of these vertically integrated, gargantuan structures was their knowledge stock — aggressively protected trade facts and formulas that allowed them to forecast with reasonable accuracy which direction to “push” operations.

However, this push model is failing in the face of expanding digital technology infrastructures, Hagel claims. Reinforced by long-term policy shifts toward economic liberalization, barriers to market entry have been significantly reduced on a global scale. The pace of our transactions has increased, the lifespan of knowledge stocks has decreased and competitive intensity in the US economy has doubled in the last 40 years. Hagel calls this “the dark side of technology” — a counter-narrative to the Silicon Valley script of dazzling possibility.

But Hagel sees an antidote to this volatility: openness. “People are realizing that they need to collaborate to survive,” he says, “You have to give up your secrets, your competitive advantage. It’s the only sustainable edge.” Hagel calls this new order the world of “pull,” and he describes it in his book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion.

“Pull,” a splendidly iconoclastic antidote to traditional American corporate culture, means moving away from hub-and-spoke networks where knowledge was selfishly guarded to mesh networks that favor collaboration. Pull rejects claims to have all the right answers and instead favors asking smart questions.

“When people come at you with a façade as if everything’s under control, it does not generate trust,” Hagel says. “Admitting you don’t know something is a prerequisite to making progress.”

Rather than showing strength, influence in an uncertain economy paradoxically comes from expressing vulnerability. Yet Hagel says he had to learn the value of vulnerability. As a boy, he was often subject to his mother’s hostile temper.

“The key lesson that I took from my childhood was that my needs did not matter,” he explains. Upon his entry into management consulting, Hagel readily embraced the maxim that the client’s needs had to come first. “For the first part of my career, I was a servant of others,” he says. “The idea that others could help me was completely foreign to me.”

Hagel attributes the shift in his thinking to a talk he gave at the Collaborative Innovation Summit hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI.

“Saul Kaplan invited me to be a storyteller at BIF6, and I’ve talked a lot and in various conferences and settings, and that seemed perfectly fine,” Hagel says. “But then he said, ‘We want you to talk about a personal experience and what you’ve learned from it,’ — and that was very scary.”

“Stories are not my thing. I am a person of reason and analysis,” began Hagel’s BIF6 story. But sure enough, he shared two tales of formative childhood experiences in a passionate expression of his business philosophy that later became the story of that year’s Summit. “It was the first time I ever got on stage and talked about myself,” he reflected in hindsight.

The experience was an incredible catalyst. “It really unleashed a tremendous sense of potential and possibility, that by sharing my personal experiences, by talking about things I didn’t know, and I connected with people in a way that I would never have had I just given my standard speech. I can’t wait to be a storyteller at BIF10 in September.”

“The key lesson I got from the BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit,” Hagel says, “is that innovation is ultimately not about ideas, it is about personal connection.”

Dave Goldberg: What We Learned After School

“It was twenty (five) years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to make you smile.”

– Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles

Dave GoldbergEvery day, one survey or another informs us about the attitudes and intentions of a particular group of people. Once in a while, a survey also offers up life lessons.

That was the case with an interesting survey that I and 434 other members of the Harvard Class of 1989 completed this summer. Some of the results are merely statistical. For instance, most class members majored in history, economics, and English. Most ended up in education, healthcare, business, finance, and law. Us pre-Internet grads? We’re now big users of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Other findings are more telling. Just over 10% say they need either more love or sex. However, a whopping 34% say they need more sleep—perhaps a lesson in how our priorities change after college! Surprisingly more than 40% of our class declared they took too little risk. Only 4% say they took too much. It was unexpected to see so few of us feel we’d taken enough risks along the way.

The most compelling insights came from an open-ended question. Here it is and a sample of the responses:

“If you could travel back to 1989 and explain your last 25 years to your younger self, what would that graduating senior have found most surprising?”

  • You need to listen more.
  • How hard it is to juggle work and family.
  • Being gay does not hinder your life.
  • The role luck plays in both good and bad life outcomes.
  • That choosing a single career might not be enough—having two or three options ready would have been smarter.
  • I have done none of the things that I considered likely that I would do.
  • The fear of failure is far, far worse than the actual experience of it.
  • How hard it is to settle on a satisfying career. Take time to explore.
  • Home, family, and relationships trump career.
  • The dramatic change technology played.
  • How profound an experience it is to have and raise children.
  • That the Red Sox have won the World Series three times.

Great responses. Some were funny. Some were serious. All were revealing. The answers show that at our 25th reunion, we are students of life. What we’d tell our younger self shows that as much time as we spend hitting the books or burning the midnight oil — or worrying about our future — the real lessons about who we are and what’s important happen after school and work. So get out. Live a little. Take it all in. Survey says you’ll learn more than you expect.

Saul Kaplan: It’s the Innovator’s Day

Today is the Day of the Next-Generation Innovator

I am an innovation junkie. It’s a good place to be right now because there’s no more important time for New England to fulfill its promise as a regional innovation hot spot. Our region has the capacity to lead the way out of this economic mess and toward solutions for the big issues of our time, including health care, education, and energy independence. We must play offense.

Here’s some good news: Innovators thrive during turbulent times. In the 2001 recession, Apple Inc. unveiled the first iPod and The Procter & Gamble Co. launched Crest Whitestrips. The bad news is that innovation has become a buzzword. Everything is an innovation and everyone is an innovation expert. We must get below the buzzwords. I have a simple definition: Innovation is a better way to deliver value. I also differentiate invention from innovation. I assert it is not an innovation until it delivers real value to a consumer.

Ideas, inventions and new technologies are the lifeblood for innovation. We must continue to invest in basic and discovery research. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We also must improve our ability to get inventions out of the lab and into the real world, where they can solve problems and deliver value.

Business model innovation is the key to realizing the full potential of new technologies. A business model is a network of capabilities and a sustainable financial model to deliver value to target customers. Successful executives are really good at squeezing more value from existing business models. In this context innovation means either revenue growth from new products and services or reducing operating costs with process improvements. For most, innovation is about finding ways to ring the cash register by pedaling the bicycle of today’s business model faster.

Institutionalizing innovation While there’s nothing wrong with an incremental strategy, there is a problem. Business models aren’t lasting as long as they used to, and most CEOs have only had to lead a single business model throughout their career. Going forward, I suspect CEOs will have to change business models several times over a career and establish an ongoing process to explore new business models — even models that might threaten the current one. Organizations must establish R&D for new business models the way they do R&D for new products and services today. Business model innovation needs a discrete focus or it will get marginalized, producing again only incremental change.

In today’s networked world, business model innovation means connecting capabilities across traditional boundaries. Companies, schools and government agencies all must rethink existing business models and all struggle with the capacity to explore and test new ways to deliver value.

photo-saulDon’t you wonder, as I do, with so much new technology available why we haven’t made more progress? Technology isn’t the barrier to business model innovation. It is humans and the institutions we live in that are stubbornly resistant to change. Everyone loves the idea of innovation, until it has a personal impact. I used to think that we could enable large-scale change and create more innovators by proselytizing. But that doesn’t get you past the buzzwords. I now believe in sorting the world to identify the innovators and finding ways to connect them in purposeful ways.

The best opportunities to create value will be found in the gray areas between silos, sectors, and disciplines. And progress on the big-system issues of our time will require a road map and manageable platforms for systems-level experimentation and change. It doesn’t matter if the customer is a patient, student, citizen, or consumer. R&D for new business models is imperative to remain competitive, harness technology, and deliver more value with fewer resources.

In the months ahead I will share personal observations from around the region in the hopes of catalyzing conversation, connections and action. Join the conversation and pass along your business model innovation stories.

This post originally appeared as the debut “It’s Saul About Innovation” column in Mass High Tech.

Saul Kaplan: A Simply Better Way

My dream for the future is that we can come together as a connected community with a shared purpose for a simply better way.

It is both a blessing and a curse to always think that there is a simply better way.   It is part of our human heritage and culture.  It is our DNA. It is who we are.  There is always a better way.

Our whole lives we incessantly design a better way in our heads.  We redesign the process while we are standing in a long line at the supermarket.  We redesign the way we receive information when we are stuck in traffic that we could have avoided.  And we redesign entire companies when we are experiencing infuriatingly bad customer service.  If you are like me it bothers you that the screens on your phone, computer, and TV aren’t connected and that one company department or government agency has no clue about your experience with the one right next to it just three days ago.  Please tell me that there is a simply better way.

Now that I have entered my fifties, admittedly entered a profound mid-life crisis, and finished my stint as an accidental bureaucrat, I ruminate over some of the more important issues of our day, little things like healthcare, education, and energy independence.  Don’t you wonder, like I do, with so much new technology available to us why we haven’t made more progress in the areas that matter the most.

I can’t help but wonder why our doctor isn’t connected with the entire healthcare system and the best information available in the world to keep our children healthy.  It is hard to believe that in a world where we can get a real time sports score, stock quote, or IM from our children, emergency responders are unable to communicate with each other during tragedies like nine-eleven and hurricane Katrina.  And the one that actually makes me cry is to see first hand what has happened to our urban public school systems.  A simply better way is not a matter of consumer convenience our future depends on it.

photo-saulIt is not the technology that is getting in our way.  It is us, we humans, and the institutions we are part of that are both stubbornly resistant to change.   We are vested in the way things work today.  Change is not easy and it is only possible when we are open to trying new ways and when we are willing to collaborate across boundaries, disciplines and organizations.  We all intuitively know there is a simply better way and yet we have real difficulty doing more then admiring the problem.  From the comfort of our own silos we point at other silos both public and private as the reason more progress isn’t made.  The big “aha” for me from my time in a public leadership role is that community matters.  Progress on the issues that really count will only happen if the community collaborates to make them happen.  It is not someone else’s fault that we don’t have better healthcare, education and public safety systems.  It is our fault.  Community matters.

I came to this realization late.  Throughout my career in the private sector I watched the importance of community decline in the board room.   It happened quickly as companies repositioned themselves to compete globally.  I just never thought about it from the perspective of the community.  I think about it a lot now.

Globalization has affected board rooms everywhere and communities continue to feel the impact of declining resources and engagement.  The question for community leaders is how to make the community strategically relevant in a global economy.   It has become easier to connect via the internet with someone on the other side of the world then it is to connect with the rich diversity of citizens and institutions in our own backyard. Despite all of the networking technology we have become surprisingly disconnected from our own neighbors.  We must become a more connected community.  Reconnecting the dots into purposeful networks focused on healthcare, education, and energy independence is the path towards prosperity and a simply better way.  Community really does matter.

I believe in the value of stewardship.  The simple but powerful idea that any community we are fortunate enough to be a part of is stronger when we leave it then when we found it.    My dream for the future is that we can come together as a connected community with a shared purpose for a simply better way.  If we fulfill our stewardship responsibility we will leave behind a better community for our children and grandchildren.

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Rewards

jyb_musingsI got excited to see a late night email from American Express that I was receiving an “update” on my recent increase in Rewards points including a link to use them to shop for something right now.

My excitment grew when pictured under the notice was a picture of a brand new iPad and next to that JetBlue airlines and mention of round trip ticket to any of a long list of resorts.

So I click the link.

And find out my new “updated” Rewards point total is worth just under $28 and that the only purchases suggested for me from the Amex “store” is an eye liner or alternatively a rouge compact. But only with 170 more Rewards points.

Anybody out there want to trade me a new iPad for some Amex eye liner? And who also can spare 170 Reward points?

Dave Goldberg: Taking a Shot: Lessons Learned in Entrepreneurship

“If you had one shot, or one opportunity. To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

Lose Yourself – Eminem

Dave GoldbergTaking that shot at starting a business feels like jumping off a ski jump- you know should be able to land but it will require luck and skill. I started my first business with my friend Bob Roback twenty years ago with an idea. We fundamentally believed that the computer was going to be the way people consumed and discovered music. We created a prototype using the cutting edge technology available to us in 1994 to create a monthly CD-ROM that people played on their computer. It was called LAUNCH and was described as an “MTV that you could control.”

We landed well, though it was never easy. LAUNCH Media became a successful internet company that we eventually sold to Yahoo! in 2001. But, I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, there is no way to go to school to be a great entrepreneur. Experience is the only teacher and you don’t know what you don’t know when you start a company for the first time.

Here are some lessons that I learned along the way. Just because they worked for me doesn’t mean they will always work but I wish had understood these better before I started:

1. Play to your personal strengths. Aggressively and honestly identify your own weaknesses and supplement accordingly. Staff your team with people smarter and more knowledgeable than you are in those areas. This will let you focus your skills and expertise where they can have the most impact. I have learned what I am good at, and what I like to do; they are highly correlated. Correspondingly, hiring people to do the things you aren’t good at and don’t like will make you better at your role. (I recommend the book StrengthsFinder if you need help figuring out your strengths, but you could also do a quick survey of your peers, colleagues and family.)

2. Talk to people. Don’t fall into the trap of operating in stealth mode – your connections to others will be critical to success. Build a support structure including people who have been there and done it. There’s a pay-it-forward mentality among most entrepreneurs. Take advantage of it. Secrecy has some advantages but most ideas aren’t what make businesses successful – it is execution. To be a great executor, you need to get a lot of help and advice. That is worth the trade off on secrecy.

3. Listen to doubters. If for no other reason than to be able to prove them wrong! Your detractors can be blessings in disguise: they are an unlikely source of inspiration and motivation, and they just might speak some truth. Listen carefully, take what you can use and leave what you can’t. I still remember all the people who told me that no one would ever listen to music or watch ads on a computer.

4. Start now! There are many reasons for not starting a business. The media constantly reminds us of the high taxes, increased regulations and other impediments to starting businesses today. Ignore them. With the support systems in place for entrepreneurs, and the availability of talent and capital, there’s never been a better time to start a business. When I started, I didn’t know anyone else who had started a business and the support systems were immature or non-existent.

So get moving and take that one shot. It’ll be the best decision you make.

 

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