What is a Startup?

The term “startup” is sometimes used too loosely and liberally.  Let’s consider the definitions of two respected authorities in the startup world.

startup-owners-manualAccording to Steve Blank, serial-entrepreneur, Stanford University professor, and father of the Customer Development methodology, “a startup is a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable model.

According to Eric Ries, entrepreneur, blogger, and author of The Lean Startup, “a startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

lean-startupWith respect to the journey any organization takes from founding to going concern, the term startup refers to the beginning of a process or journey.  Steve Blank’s use of the word “temporary” supports the concept of startup as the first step along a journey.  Once an organization concludes the search for a repeatable and scalable model, it can enter subsequent stages of maturity.

In this stage of the company life cycle, an organization is nothing more than an indefinite series of experiments to find and deliver an effective, repeatable, and scalable solution.  Founders are no different than scientists who:

  • start with hypotheses about problem and solution,
  • design experiments to test the various hypotheses,
  • measure results,
  • gather insights and learn from the results,
  • amend the hypotheses to reflect the insights learned,
  • and repeat this process

The more experiments a startup can conclude in a given period of time; the sooner it will arrive at effective solutions that can be scaled to ever growing audiences.  Given that scientists need multiple attempts at getting an experiment right, all of the experiments leading up to the ones that prove to be successful are considered failures.  Thus, we get the phrase, “fail fast, fail often” because if startups do this, they will arrive at success sooner rather than later.  In a world with limited financial runways, it is imperative startups experience a great deal of failure as soon as possible.

According to this definition, is your organization in the startup phase?

Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community. Continue reading

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Teacher?

Picture the following scenario…

Students walk in for 8th grade math class on Monday morning at 10am.  They are scheduled to have a test on linear functions that day.  There’s a camera in the front of the classroom that scans the room and notices Linda and Emma are not in class at the start time.  It scans again 5 and 10 minutes later and still no sign of Linda and Emma.

This camera isn’t just any camera, it is powered by IBM’s Watson or another artificial intelligence system and it is connected to the teacher’s calendar, the grade-level calendar, and the school calendar.  It immediately knows by cross-referencing all calendars that there was a test scheduled for that day and that Linda and Emma will need to schedule a make-up test.  Since the AI is also connected to Linda and Emma’s class and extra-curricular activity calendars and cross references their availability with the teacher’s availability, it knows that Tuesday between 2-3pm and Wednesday between 3-4pm are the optimal times for a make up test.  Taking it another step further, it also looks into the room schedules and knows which rooms are available during those two time slots.  Next, the AI sends out emails to the teacher, Emma, and Linda to offer the two optimal make-up test time slots in a format where all the students have to do is click on a link or button to select one of the two time slots.  This action automatically creates calendar entries in all parties involved, books the room, and sends out a reminder 1 day, 12 hours, 1 hour, and 15 minutes before the scheduled make-up test. Continue reading

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Founder?

What if artificial intelligence partnered with entrepreneurs, to validate ideas, hypotheses, and assumptions by conducting a study of all of the information in the world on those topics? That is, crawl the Internet and all relevant databases for every related attempt, study, write-up, article, interview, company, etc. and draw insights and conclusions to a high level of statistical significance.

Artificial IntelligenceConsider that IBM’s Watson Discovery Advisor “builds on Watson’s turbocharged text-mining and identification technology…In its current version, Discovery Advisor is tuned for science, specifically the life sciences and medicine. Beyond mining text, the discovery tool not only finds connections among words but also links related concepts together to generate hypotheses. What might be the right place to look? What path of scientific inquiry is most likely to yield new knowledge?”

What if the Watson Discovery Advisor, or a similar solution, could help entrepreneurs significantly narrow down, to a high level of confidence, the hypotheses, ideas, and assumptions that should be validated further. Essentially, AI would conduct the type of research a human could not by finding every known piece of information on it and indicating which ones deserve further human-led pursuit. This is one example of how humans and AI can work together, as partners, to produce value that could not have existed before. According to a New York Times blog article, John Gordon, VP for strategy and commercialization of Watson, “is confident that Watson can scale up in “co-creation projects with clients that can transform an industry.”

The human must play a critical role in this endeavor by providing the initial hypotheses, that is, knowing what he or she wants, and stating it in a clear manner so that AI can perform the research on already existing content. AI would then return, ranked by measures of confidence, the ideas worth pursuing further thus saving the entrepreneur significant time and money. Furthermore, perhaps AI can even propose follow-up hypotheses and assumptions for additional testing based on what it learned in its initial research.

According to the “Our Cognitive Future” report by IBM, Baylor University leveraged IBM’s Watson to build a system that is “trained to ‘think’ like a human research expert by unlocking insights, visualizing possibilities, and validating theories at much greater speeds…The solution analyzed 70,000 scientific articles on p53 [cancer-related protein] to predict proteins that turn on or off p53’s activity – a feat that would have taken researches years to accomplish without cognitive capabilities.”

What if we designed a similar cognitive “co-founder” for entrepreneurs?

The Problem with the Silver Bullet

silver bulletWhat is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem is complicated, as the definition states, it is likely to have a multitude of variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. If you think of all of these moving parts as a moving target, the bullet isn’t really the solution, but rather a tool, and it is the shooter who becomes most important. What this suggests is that we need to stop looking for magical solutions and instead focus on developing and motivating skilled, talented, and creative professionals to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Nevertheless, we look for silver bullets. We are intrigued by and hopeful that we will be able to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can address an entire organization or industry’s woes. We hope that somewhere out there, there is a recipe and/or a state-of-the-art tool that solves a complicated problem for us so easily that even a caveman can do it. We want to believe that we could just write a big check and purchase the proverbial silver bullet. This isn’t a bad dream…for the maker of the silver bullet, this stands to be a profitable product, and for the buyer, it’s a guaranteed way to become a hero. It seems that everyone wins.

The problem, as I stated before, is that it just isn’t that simple. Complicated problems are like moving targets. At best, there are several regular bullets (i.e. tools, recipes, etc.) and the shooter or the professional is the most important part of the solution. If the silver bullet were real, we would not need professionals in our organizations. The mere talk of a silver bullet undermines our skilled, talented, and creative professionals as it reduces them to robots blindly following an algorithm. This attitude and resulting culture will have a significant negative impact on motivation, at all levels of your organizations. Furthermore, it destroys innovation and ingenuity because the responsibility of solving problems is left to those who can purchase the silver bullets, so what is the use of hypothesizing, testing, and building new solutions.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), believed everyone all the way down to the assembly line was responsible for solving problems at GE. In fact, he believed the people on the assembly line were better positioned to solve problems than the people who managed them. He would often walk the assembly lines asking people directly what they thought could be done better. As simple as it may seem, asking the question, “what do you think?” cultivated a strong culture of innovation by drawing solutions from all people in the organization. This question also motivated his people by empowering them to contribute to the greater mission of GE. People who understand how and feel that their work contributes to the overall company are more engaged, satisfied, and loyal. The result for Jack Welch was one of the largest, most successful, and innovative companies of all time, whose stock value rose 4,000% during his 20 year tenure. Jack Welch did not believe in silver bullets, he believed in people.

Empower your people to solve problems for your organization instead of shopping around for a silver bullet. Your people will be the ones to best positioned to decide what the best tools are for solving complicated problems and how and when to apply them. Create a culture of innovation where everyone is a part of the solution.

The Problem with Technology and How to Fix It

At some point, many of us have purchased a cool new gadget or downloaded an awesome new app that is supposed to enhance our productivity, help us achieve some awesome goal, or help us do something we’ve never done before.

Perhaps we and/or our organization purchased an expensive set of golf clubs, the priciest software (i.e. SaaS) solution, or the best audio/video editing software in the market.

State of the Art TecThe problem is that state-of-the-art tools don’t do much to help people unless they already possess the underlying skills and understanding to make the greatest use of it. Unfortunately, due to some pretty incredible marketing, we end up convincing ourselves we need the absolute best tools in order to be successful. What often ends up happening is we get overwhelmed by the technology, distracted, and end up using less than 20% of its capability. This leads to a waste of money and/or failing to achieve a goal.

A tool is only useful if you have the understanding and underlying know-how to use it adequately.  Furthermore, you have to have a purpose first, then a strategy/model/plan to achieve your goal, and finally can you then begin to consider the appropriate tools to employ. Then and only then do tools take on a clear meaning, become easier to learn, and stand the chance of delivering results.

This problem is evident in education where districts prematurely commit to major investments in technology and in corporations that purchase or acquire new processes or tools without a clear problem to solve. Organizations end up training people on the tools or integrating the processes first and then try to find places to use it, thus putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your organization that you intend to address.
  • Ensure you have or design a model/strategy/plan for solving the problem or addressing the opportunity.
  • If you don’t have a model/strategy/plan, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth.
  • Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you reach your goal.
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and be open to switching tools when necessary.

In the case of opportunities, there may be a great deal of learning to do before tools are even considered. For instance, education has yet to understand how technology truly enhances learning outcomes. According to a report published by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.” Before education can even make effective use of education technology, it will need to identify the opportunities and goals it wants to pursue.

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

How Goals Can Distract You From Success

Growing up I was always told to keep my eye on the prize (my goals).  It made sense, so I didn’t really question it.  As I got older I could still see the value in the statement.  Goals are important; they give us a direction and destination to pursue.

However, earlier this year I began to realize that maybe my eye shouldn’t be focused too intensely on the prize.  Perhaps I should focus it more on my efforts and actions.  Now, I am not saying to forget the prize (goals), what I mean is that once you know what the goal is, you don’t need to focus on it so much.  For instance, if you want to be a lawyer, you don’t need to remind yourself everyday that you want to be a lawyer.  If you are enrolled in and attending law school, you have probably already internalized that goal.  Your proverbial “eye” should instead be on the actions and efforts that will get you there because ultimately, that is the only thing within your control.  In fact, your goal could become somewhat distracting in a negative way.  By focusing on it a lot, it feels as if you have more to lose with each setback and there will be setbacks.  This causes an unnecessary distraction that can be avoided.

The efforts and actions represent the journey and becoming a lawyer represents the destination.  Given that we spend most of our time on the journey versus the destination, it makes sense that we shift most of our focus to where we spend the most time.  If we do that, we can dedicate most of our energy to the efforts and actions that culminate into the goal.

This doesn’t just apply to careers; this applies to relationships, athletics, personal goals, etc.  Focusing on what is outside of our control creates unnecessary frustration whereas focusing on what is within our control can liberate us from frustrating levels of disappointment. Continue reading

3 Steps for Building a High Performance Team

Successful businesses do well because of their amazing teams, not their products and services.  Many of us will probably agree that people and teams are the most valuable asset any business possesses and also your most critical competitive advantage.  Rowing Team - HPTUltimately, ideas can be copied, modified, and upgraded.  However, it is difficult to copy teams and/or steal them (well, most of the time).  Furthermore, a well-functioning team is more productive and efficient and thus delivers more value and output for the same money.  However, this is all a moot point if you are not unleashing the power of your team.  If your team is not producing and performing at its best, you are not enjoying these benefits and are susceptible to competition.  This puts you in a position to have to fight competition in more dangerous (i.e. costly, detrimental, etc.) battlefronts like pricing and advertising.

Barcelona Team

A great example of a high performing team.

Building and developing a high performing team requires many important ingredients.  However, there is one fundamental element that forms the foundation for high performing teams and that is clear and concise objectives and roles.  To use a sports metaphor, consider one of the most high performing soccer teams in the world, FC Barcelona.  They are very clear about their objectives (i.e. hold the ball, control the flow of the game, take high percentage shots).  For the record, not all soccer teams have the same objectives.  They also have clearly defined roles and operational strategies for how they execute their objectives.  For a better understanding of what this looks like in action, click on the image of the team for a short video.  You can see from the video how their team looks like a thinking and breathing organism of its own.  It’s not about one person.  It’s about an entire team coming together.

The following is a list of steps necessary to ensure you too have a strong foundation from which to develop your high performance team.

1.  Design and consistently communicate clear and concise business objectives.  This typically begins with the vision of the organization – a clear picture of what, where, and how the business will look, feel, and operate at some point in the future.  The vision also includes what the environmental context will look, feel, and operate like in the future.  In other words, this is the future that the organization is running after.  Next comes the mission.  This will clearly communicate “how” your business will run toward the vision.  From the mission, come your specific objectives.  The more clear the vision and mission are, the more easily you can create, communicate, and evaluate objectives for the business.  These clear and concise objectives are critical to the foundation of high performing teams because it gives way to the next important step.

2.  Design the operational strategy, plan, and processes that will define how the business operates in order to achieve its objectives and execute its mission on a consistent basis.  Imagine your business as a thinking and breathing organism.  When you design your business operations strategically, your business takes on a life of its own.  This has many benefits from a competitive and operational perspective.  Competitively, it is difficult to copy or steal an entire operations strategy and process.  Operationally, it means that the business does not rely solely on people like the owners or top executives to operate successfully.  Instead, the leaders can focus on doing what they are supposed to do – lead – while the business is positioned to operate efficiently and effectively on its own.  With this strategy and plan in mind, you are now ready to begin the next critical step.

3.  Design clearly defined and concise roles that support your operational strategy.  With your operational strategy, plan, and processes, you now have what you need to design the most effective roles for your organization.  These roles will be the ones necessary to maintaining the operation and if clearly defined and communicated, your team will have a deep understanding of the essential role they play within your operational context.  Furthermore, when roles are designed clearly and fit effectively into an operational context, it significantly reduces friction (i.e. employee stress, operational inefficiencies, miscommunication, etc.) in the business.

Equipped with this strong foundation, you can begin to build and develop your high performance team.  This insight is just as important for a three-person company as it is for a 20,000-person organization.  Two weeks ago, I was coaching a startup company that was suffering from some friction and we realized it was due to a lack of clearly defined objectives and roles.

Leaders from successful startup businesses, with anywhere between 2-10 employees, all the way to Fortune 100 companies like General Electric (specifically during the Jack Welch era) have leveraged this framework for building and developing powerful teams.

Start by evaluating your vision, mission, and objectives.  Then look at your business-wide operational strategy to ensure it lives and breaths to accomplish the objectives and execute on your mission.  Finally, take a look at the roles in your organization to ensure you have all of the right people on the bus and sitting in the right seats.

5 Steps to Planning for Success

I’ve learned something over and over again. It seems no matter how much I plan for success, it never quite happens how I planned. In fact, my success turns out better than I planned.

To be honest, some things went according to plan, however, with reflection I realized that I never planned things quite as well as the situations that simply just happened spontaneously. When I strictly followed the plan, I was focused more on the individual tasks or objectives. And sometimes I would wonder what the purpose of all of this was. I was so focused on “the plan” that I would lose sight of “the goal.”

So, here’s what I learned about how to plan for success.

1. Decide on a goal and make sure it is as clear as can be at that moment. Truth is our goal today will never be as clear as it will be tomorrow. Tomorrow we will know more, we will have experienced more, and we will see things differently. It’s ok if your goal is not incredibly detailed. Just make sure you can share the essence of the idea with someone else. With each day that passes, it will become clearer.

2. Make a plan. This probably sounds contrary to my introduction, however having a plan is essential. A plan maps out the steps that you believe it will take to achieve your goal at that moment in time. You need a plan for things to NOT go according to plan. So make a plan 🙂

3. Be mindful. Be mindful and aware of your growth and development. Each day you learn something new based on the steps you detailed in your plan. With that development comes new ideas and new interpretations. What you know today is not what you knew yesterday, nor what you will know tomorrow. So stop for a minute to be mindful of your development.

4. Pay attention to the distractions. What may seem like a distraction from your plan may be a great opportunity to bring you closer to your evolving goal. When we allow our minds to step away from our goals for a little while we gain more perspective on them and begin to learn new frameworks from which to reflect on them. This is why TED is so successful, it provides people with an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take a delightful journey into someone else’s comfort zone and broaden their perspective. That distraction also gives your brain a break from your goals and allows you to process your thoughts and ideas in the background.

5. Be flexible. This is perhaps the most important step. As your goal evolves, as your framework expands, as your perspective widens, you will see more and think differently about your own goal and plan. You will have ideas for altering your plan or what will seem like “deviating” from your plan. Be flexible. Allow that to happen. This is your brain and heart’s way of saying “I have a better idea now.” Listen and be flexible enough to “deviate” from the plan because you aren’t deviating from your goal, which may or may not be the same as it was on day 1. And that’s ok. Most of the startup founders I have spoken to say that what they eventually created was quite different from what they originally set out to do. Their advice was to be flexible and let the idea evolve along its journey.

Consider your goals and previous plans you have set.  Often these 5 steps occur naturally, but resisting them may be limiting your potential for success.  Decide on a goal, set a plan, allow some distractions, develop your idea, and readjust your plan.  As long as you are moving toward your evolving goal you will be on the path towards success.

Oh, and please take the time to enjoy your journey.  The journey is where you will spend most of your time, so make it fun.

How to Gain Clarity and See New Opportunities

A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with a friend about finding the clarity to see new opportunities.  Thinking back to when I made my decision to leave my corporate career, I really could not have ever imagined the journey that I have been on for the last four years.  Although I had my reasons for leaving and some sort of plan of what I might do, I was not even close to what actually happened.

During that conversation two weeks ago I realized that it is quite hard to see what’s possible when your mind is preoccupied with distractions (i.e. your current circumstance or situation, related stress, etc.).  It’s almost as if when it comes to our mental capacity, we only have so much “screen space.”  It’s like we have a 13″ – there’s only so much you can fit in it.

So let’s look at few aspects of this analogy and how it compares to finding clarity.

When you are in a situation or circumstance that does not inspire you or just doesn’t make you happy, your screen fills up with stress, dissatisfaction, thoughts of getting out, and eventually fear of making a change for the better.  Fear because we are hard-wired to fear change and the unknown.  While some may seem more spontaneous and risky in their behavior, they too experience fear – the difference is they have learned to control, embrace, and convert it to enthusiasm and positive curiosity.

When your 13″ screen is all filled up, you simply cannot see opportunities and possibilities – even the ones right in front of you. It feels as if there may not be anything waiting on the other side if you take the plunge.  By the way, this can go for career, relationship, and/or personal circumstances.  However, what I found after I left my career circumstance was that all of a sudden I had new ideas, I was having different conversations, and I considered new possibilities (some out of necessity so that I could earn a living).  It’s as if leaving my career at the time closed all the open windows on my 13″ screen, rebooted my computer, and left me with a blank slate.  I was open to anything and everything.

Here’s where the second aspect of the analogy comes in.  Once my screen was free to have new windows open in it, it was as if my screen got upgraded to 15, then 16, then 17″.  When the negative stress and feelings of fear went away, I felt like more was possible than I had ever thought before.  All of a sudden I was meeting new like-minded people with their own awesome stories and ideas.  And this is when things got really good.  As I explored my own strengths and interests, now I felt like I was taking on additional screens.  One screen was for my passion in education, another screen for student leadership development, and yet another for neuropsychology.  It’s as if I was now running multiple apps that all interface with each other on multiple screens.  Everything was coming together and connecting in ways I never thought possible.

Clarity on multiple screens!

Operating with more apps and on more screens, my other capacities began to upgrade as well.  I felt happier, stronger, healthier, more intelligent, more passionate, more outgoing, etc.  Today, four years later, I see much clearer than ever before.  Here’s the best part though, I haven’t even reached full clarity and I don’t know if I ever will.  However, every year, every month, every day I feel like I have just a little more clarity than I did before.

More apps!

If you are in a circumstance that isn’t working for you, consider finding some clarity.  It won’t come from staying in the bad situation – even if you know all of this now.  The clarity can only come when close all the negative windows on your screen and start fresh again.

Maybe it’s time for a reboot in your life.