Find a job, or create one.

As a former university professor and administrator and current entrepreneur and business startup mentor, I frequently counsel with college students approaching graduation regarding their career plans and help them in their search for jobs. Even in an improving job market, the job search process can be frustrating and exhausting, and just sending out a stream of resumes is not going to get the job done. So what advice do I offer these graduates and others looking to enter that work force or change jobs? Here are some tips from someone who is well known as the master of stating the obvious.

1. Networking. I am fairly confident that students hear about the importance of networking from every teacher in virtually every college class. Of course, that’s because it is still the way that business works: somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Think of it this way – if you were hiring new employees, especially for positions of authority and responsibility, would you rather search through a stack of resumes or hear about a candidate from someone you know and trust? I mean, seriously.
2. Informational interviews. Playing the “student card” while still in school allows students the opportunity to arrange for interviews with company executives, operational managers or human resource representatives with a goal of simply learning more about the company and what types of employees the company will be looking for in the future. The value of this approach is that the student is not asking for a job or even presenting a resume (but they’d better have one with them, just in case!). The interview is just that – a fact finding meeting that allows the student to become familiar with the company and its need for talent. Later on, when the student is closer to graduation, now he or she has made a valuable contact that allows for proper and professional follow up, moving past the stack of resumes to a more direct approach. Of course, the concept of asking for an interview instead of a job is not limited to graduating job hunters.
3. Internships. Paid or unpaid, internships are a great way to become a part of a company’s culture, network within the organization, and demonstrate your capabilities in a real work environment. Often I see students ask senior company executives why they should work for free. The easy response from the executives? “Because that’s how we got started here.”
4. Create your own job. Student entrepreneurs have seen great success over the past several years, even in a down economy. Why? Some things never change. If you can provide a product or service that the market needs and where that need is not currently being met – bingo! The key is doing just that – meeting an unmet need. An idea is not great if it lacks an enthusiastic audience. When the product or service is a new take on an old theme, differentiation is essential. What makes your offering different, better, faster, cheaper, higher quality or more specialized than your many competitors? If you can answer that question, you have a good chance of gaining a share of the market and creating your own job so that you are no longer depending on others.

When I speak to other company executives these days, their expectations are quite clear. They are not looking for candidates to train. They are looking for candidates who have been trained and who have the business literacy that is no longer an option. They do not want candidates who they can train further, only to see them move on to another employer. They want employees who can move up into senior management positions and contribute long-term. Finally, they want candidates who have initiative. When I pressed for a definition of what that means in terms of behavior, the answer was not surprising. “I don’t want someone who says: ‘Boss, I did what you asked – see you tomorrow.’ I want someone who says: ‘Boss, I did what you asked – what else can I do?’ That’s initiative.”

Use these simple tips to help find a job or, if you really feel the entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to take a risk, create your own. It happens every day. It could happen to you.

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Too Small to Fail

big-vs-small-smallSize matters. No, we’re not going there. We have all seen many companies start from humble beginnings and grow over time to become some of the world’s largest and most successful organizations. Regardless of sector, companies that are able to grow and scale quickly, especially those who gain traction in areas as diverse as new technologies and unique service niches, may not only benefit from a first mover advantage but also now represent intimidating barriers to entry.

But even the largest companies may fall victim to the complexities that somehow seem to accompany growth and expansion. And a company with laser focus on its mission yet unable to pivot when new market opportunities knock may suddenly see it’s market share erode, only to observe the growth of new competitors who have been more nimble in identifying and exploiting emerging market trends. Lingering memories of the recent great recession include the haunting refrain of financial institutions thought “too big to fail.” And then when the first one does fail, it shakes the very underpinnings of markets around the globe. Suddenly an entire economy becomes a house of cards.

As entrepreneurs, we clearly understand that a startup is definitely not just a small version of the larger company we hope to one day become – not by a long shot. We kid amongst ourselves as we share our company org charts with friends and other entrepreneurs and chuckle as every box for every department has the same name – ours! And we look for that market opportunity no one else has yet attacked, a breakthrough product or service that is the perfect solution for our customers needs. When we can profitably produce products and services that customers want and respond to both current market needs and new opportunities, we may find ourselves on a successful and sustainable path. There is just no way to adequately describe that feeling.

But sometimes along the way our young startup may be faced with all sorts of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, costly errors that jeopardize our financial survival, new and powerful competitors that threaten our existence, the realization of the coming zombie apocalypse. OK, maybe not that last one… And we may start to feel that our small size, inadequate bank account and lack of substantial resource infrastructure leaves us vulnerable on too many fronts. In some cases that may all be quite true. But we have the one thing our mammoth competitors don’t have. We have an incredible asset – a secret weapon we can unleash in the blink of an eye. We are too small to fail. We can change course and pounce of a new opportunity quicker that you can say “pivot”. And while our limited monetary assets may only seem like a liability, we also have less at risk than the big guys, and are therefore able to make quick decisions and capitalize on those opportunities larger companies may have overlooked, or simply have chosen to ignore.

Size matters. But with a startup, sometimes good things come in small packages.

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The Pace of Innovation

pace-of-change-smallSeveral years ago I was speaking to a large group and dropped what I thought was an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference during a discussion about the rapid pace of technological change. During my presentation and in a subsequent blog post, I commented that I was thankful to Al Gore for inventing the internet, and then went on to describe comparisons of the not-too-distant past to the foreseeable future and imagining the years beyond. My audience was mixed, but the vast majority were college students, who clearly have seen the rapid changes that technology continues to bring year after year.

The following day I received a thoughtful and respectful response from a student, thanking me for my presentation, but then politely taking issue with my assertion regarding then Vice President Gore. The email then went on in great detail to provide the facts about the birth of the internet. I chuckled – even laughed out loud, but then I stopped to consider whom the joke was really on. It was me. I had made a reference that had absolutely no context for much of my audience. In fact, when I looked up that student’s online profile, I was able to factually determine that, at the time Al Gore made that famous gaffe and claim on national television, that student was just 4 years old! Oops! My bad!

The pace of innovation has never been faster. The equivalent of Moore’s law is seen in fields from nano-technology to sequencing the human genome to any number of emerging technologies that could not even be envisioned when any of us were born. It is at the same time amazing, fabulous, inspiring, frightening, and so many other applicable adjectives. Incredible opportunities lie ahead. As entrepreneurs, our responsibility is to maintain an awareness of those technologies that directly impact our worlds – our specific fields. We don’t need to be experts, but rather be simply well informed and always vigilante for emerging trends. Doing so will allow us to quickly capitalize on those opportunities that make sense for our ventures, and watch for disruptive innovation that may fundamentally change our future business model.

That doesn’t mean staying on the bleeding edge of technology by chasing every shiny object that crosses our path. It means constant investigation and awareness, being careful to do the follow up research and investigation required to determine the true value of any innovation that could be of potential benefit to our business. Failing to do so could see that same opportunity seized by our competition. We simply can’t take that risk.

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What the heck is a beta test?

beta-testingMy latest business venture recently completed a large-scale beta test for a new mobile marketing platform, app and website we are now rolling out nationally. The test ran for about 6 months and included hundreds of prospective customers and app users.

Both during and now after the beta test I have been asked why we took the time and spent the money necessary to conduct such a large test. We had a significant outlay in the form of software development costs, hardware deployment and months of customer meetings, resulting in revisions and, in many cases, additional expense. So the question I am often asked is: “Was it worth it?” In a word: Absolutely!

I have done frequent soapbox rants on the need for startups to look for customer validation early on in the development process. In fact, in mentoring other starters in their new ventures, I often have to push and prod new entrepreneurs to “get out of the building” and actually interact with prospective customers, actively seeking their input and suggestions. In fact, the response I often get is a look of fear and trepidation. “You mean I actually have to talk to customers? OMG!”

In truth, I suppose you can always fall back to the “old days” of simply trying to cram your supposedly hot new product or service down customers’ throats via aggressive and expensive sales and marketing campaigns. But a smarter approach, in my opinion, is to “go lean” and involve customers early in the process. It is often not actually arrogance in asserting that I’m sure my customers will love what I have created. It’s simply that, in the absence of having their input during the development phase, invariably I may spend time unnecessarily on features customers do not want or need, make errors that could have been easily avoided, fail to consider things obvious to true customer experts – well, you get the idea.

If a customer can give me just one great idea I would have missed or help me avoid an expensive mistake, not only have I saved money and shortened my time-to-market, but I have also gained a valuable advocate and customer relationship. There is really no way to put a price tag on that. Do I enjoy spending the money required to conduct a large test to gain customer feedback? Not really. Am I glad I did? Absolutely!

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Customer Validation is Essential

Listening to Customers SmallIn speaking to several university classes recently, I have been pleasantly surprised that students really do understand and appreciate the importance of the “lean startup” approach and especially seeking customer validation early in the process. It’s such an obvious principle, yet from time to time I see resistance, which typically seems to fall in two key categories.

FEAR

You mean you want me to actually get out there and talk to customers? Are you crazy? What if they don’t like my product? What is they don’t like ME? Can’t I just email them? Text? What about a survey? I have to actually look them in the face? How horrifying!

My very sensitive response? GET OVER IT!

The other reason I hear from young entrepreneurs is also a type of fear – the fear that, if I share my idea with others, someone will see how amazing it is and steal it. In fact sometimes we are so obsessed with protecting our supposedly valuable intellectual property that we fail to concentrate on the most important aspect of launching a business – customer acquisition.

Taking a lean approach to creating your startup requires that you seek as much input as you can from the customers you expect will eventually pay you for your product or service. And guess what? If you actually listen to their suggestions and make your product or service something people really want and need, then you will have a chance of beating the odds that seem so stacked against the success of new business creation.

Co-creating with customers is a great way to launch your startup.

I also want to share what’s happening with the business accelerator, Starter Studio, that is here in our Orlando office. The fifth group of starters has recently arrived, and I am privileged to mentor two groups in this class. Starter Studio is recording the progress of this class in a series of podcasts, the first of which can be found here. Listen as I and my fellow mentors discuss the process. Enjoy!

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IoT: the Internet of Trade-offs

PrivacyimageBlogThe wonder and promise of the Internet of Things see billions of devices communicating with each other, transmitting, collecting, and sharing data that allows decision-making without the need for human intervention. If the vending machine knows that it needs inventory, it simply calls for service, and a quick machine-to-machine (M2M) communication feeds an algorithm,, which then determines when other nearby machines reach a pre-programmed replenishment threshold, and a truck is dispatched, loaded with precisely the proper inventory. In these M2M transactions, data drives decision making, and there is little or no need for human intervention.

But when humans get involved, whoa! That’s a whole new ballgame! Retail purchase transactions, online or in-store, can involve a huge number of data points, and that’s when things get tricky. It’s one thing online to use cookies and other tracking methodologies to create user profiles, but it’s something else entirely to combine data from point-of-sale systems, security cameras, in-store beacons and digital signage to track consumer behavior, using it to predict future consumption patterns. If we combine camera data with beacon activity for specific brands or even individual products with point-of-sale purchase information, we now have an extremely detailed profile of customer purchase behavior.

Of course, some of that data is anonymous, and simply tracks the customer “purchase path”, time-in-store, product preferences and so on. But when POS information is included, we now have data tied to individual customers, including sensitive credit card information and associated buyer demographics. While this may truly be the Holy Grail for retailers, it also represents serious privacy challenges, and this is the tipping point at which consumers confront the trade-off between providing merchants tools to be able to target customized, highly desirable offers based on buyer behavior and the privacy issues that can result for data breaches, such as so many retailers have experienced over the past several years. The severity of these recent data breaches cannot be overstated, with serious implications for fraud, abuse and identity theft, but also terrible negative impact for those retail brands affected. When a customer has second thoughts online or at the checkout counter because of prior issues with a retailer, not only has the brand suffered serious damage, future sales may be severely impacted.

Our experience with our latest beta test using beacon technology to facilitate mobile marketing for small businesses is a case in point. Beacons can trigger a variety of promotional offers, coupons and other offerings, but interfacing with a variety of disparate POS systems for redemption means crossing that customer privacy barrier and asking consumers to allow personal data to be used for legitimate marketing purposes. When that data is used to generate relevant, meaningful promotions based on buyer behavior, many consumers will tolerate that as a fair trade-off. But if personal data is compromised or inappropriately shared in any way, valuable customers may be lost. Welcome to IoT: the Internet of Trade-offs.

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The Force is Strong in this One

yodaOne important life lesson we have learned from arguably the greatest of all philosophers is profoundly simple: “Do or do not. There is no try.” One has to imagine that Yoda would apply this important directive to any endeavor, but I find it to be the perfect challenge to those of us focused on the internet of things.

In speaking with prospective customers, friends and acquaintances, I often have to laugh as I explain the capabilities of machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT technologies as they are applied to solve real world problems. Inevitably I am soon asked “Could it do …?”, followed by some hypothetical example. Mostly as a dramatic gesture, typically I simply interrupt the question with a quick “Yes” and then explain that, in most cases, we can craft a solution to the problem, need or want, only needing to select or develop the proper technology. I especially enjoy watching that special twinkle in the eye of someone who soon starts to imagine the infinite possibilities, creating scenarios where everyday problems or inconveniences can now be eliminated.

The internet of things has allowed us to bring “intelligence” to devices of all kinds. In fact, we refer to smart phones or light bulbs, appliances and so on. We have made them “smart” by connecting them wirelessly to other devices, which allows for interaction without human intervention. So whether it is a smart vending machine calling in a need to replenish inventory, a self-driving car, a thermostat that learns our comfort preferences or a drone that automatically follows us as we speed down a ski slope, shooting 4K video all the way down before landing safely in the palm of our hand – the technology to facilitate these solutions seemed unimaginable not so many years ago.

Where are we headed? The next truly disruptive innovation will likely not be incremental, but rather a leap to a new level. Almost by definition, quantum innovation does not consider mere improvements to the current situation. Instead it ponders “What if?” and strains to imagine that which does not exist today. In fact, we can’t always ask customers what they want in terms of new technology. As summarized in a famous quip often attributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Creativity and innovation often go hand-in-hand, but creative thought will not become disruptive innovation without that next essential step: action. In our business, that means constant iteration, creating new solutions and testing them through customer input, creating a continuous feedback loop.

Our challenge for the future? Simple. Do or do not. There is no try.

Quantum innovators: may the force be with you.

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A Focus on ROI

ROI Hat copyAs I was writing an article for the upcoming IoT Evolution conference in January, it occurred to me that the whole concept of a focus on creating a return on investment for customers, regardless of the type of technology being implemented, is the only practical approach to long term, sustained growth. The internet of things and machine-to-machine technology has allowed businesses to automate processes, often without any human intervention. That’s cool, no doubt, but what is even cooler is the savings that can result from such a change and our ability to demonstrate a definitive payback period for the investment.

Implementing cutting edge technology to increase efficiency is a good thing, but sometimes that cutting edge becomes a bleeding edge, when companies grab the latest shiny new gadget without first carefully studying the impact on costs. Making an investment in new technology should follow the same process as we would for any investment, whether business or personal. This includes an assessment of risks and rewards, with a conservative estimate of projected savings. A simple calculation of the projected payback period allows us to ask ourselves if the investment is worth tying up our money for an extended period. Of course, if the benefits will continue for years beyond the payback period, the investment may prove well warranted.

As an IoT solutions provider, we are always excited when we see opportunities to use emerging technologies to solve real world problems for business owners. But what excites us even more is being able to sit with a business owner and demonstrate how what we are providing will produce an outstanding return on investment, making money for the business and allowing us a reasonable profit. Creating these win-win solutions is what it’s all about, putting the ROI in IoT.

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The Technology Trade-off

Pandora's Box

Pandora’s Box

The internet of things continues to grow exponentially, with a predicted 50 billion connected devices in just the next few years. With this interconnectivity and machine-to-machine interaction, complex processes are executed without human interaction, data powers automatic adjustments and “machine learning”, and we reap huge dividends through increased operating efficiencies.

But that technological leap also requires a leap of faith. It’s the faith that such ubiquitous data sharing can be done securely. It’s the faith that the technology will work correctly 100% of the time. It’s the faith that we can share information with our friends, without fear of compromise by thieves and scoundrels. And it’s the faith that our government has taken all possible measures to protect us from those who seek to exploit system vulnerabilities and do us harm.

From this Pandora’s Box emerges an endless array of challenges, from securing our financial information to trusting that our self-driving car will never cause an accident. Granted, if our smart thermostat errs by a few degrees, it’s not the end of the world. But if the convenience of online payment becomes a hacker’s target, if our social media interaction reveals too much to too many, and if mission critical systems are not programmed with sufficient redundancies, the internet of things can bring unintended consequences.

Of course, we’re not quite to the Minority Report age of pre-crime intervention, and so-called “big data” has provided significant advances for virtually every industry. As long as we are vigilante and demand vigilance and security from all of our smart devices, service providers and financial institutions, the internet of things will continue to provide tremendous benefits, as well as unique challenges.

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Pivot or Persevere?

Change SmallLaunching a startup is often a roller coaster ride of successes and disappointments punctuated with critical decisions regarding the current business model and whether or not it can survive, maintain and ultimately thrive. It is at these critical junctures that entrepreneurs must decide whether the model should, in the words of startup guru Eric Ries, “pivot or persevere”. And of course a third option could be to simply pack up and go home.

Entrepreneurship, by its very nature, presents an interesting dichotomy relative to entrepreneurial perseverance. If asked to list the most important qualities of a successful entrepreneur, we might often include passion, tenacity, dedication, determination, and so on. Starting a business is a challenging undertaking – definitely not for the faint of heart. So persistence and tenacity can certainly be important attributes when staying power and indefatigability are required.

However one drawback to that same entrepreneurial spark, spirit and drive surfaces when it is time to pause and reflect on where we are at critical milestones in the startup process. If we adhere to the lean startup process (which I strongly recommend), we commit to an iterative process and continuous feedback loop, taking customer input and incorporating it along the way as we move from a minimal viable product to a more refined final product or service offering. In doing so, entrepreneurs can easily fall victim to being too attached to what we firmly believe to be the right solution to fill what we believe is a burning need in the marketplace.

But what if we’re wrong?

By definition, starting lean is all about getting feedback from prospective customers and, for that matter, others who might provide their opinions and suggestions. And as the great philosopher Dirty Harry said in the 1988 movie The Dead Pool: “Well, opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” But it’s not about simply getting the feedback – it’s about acting on it.

Now of course opinions are just that – opinions. If we survey 10 people, and hear 10 different suggestions, that’s one thing. But we ask those same 10 people and get the same feedback from 8 of them, that’s something entirely different. When we receive consistent feedback from the people who are our potential customers asking us to change something in our product or service offering, we need to act. And that’s where tenacity and perseverance might start to act not as a positive force, but rather a negative one.

Hanging on to our firmly held beliefs that we are right and our customers are wrong is not a recipe for success for any business. It doesn’t mean giving up our principles or making short-term decisions that may have negative long-term implications. But hanging on to our own personal opinions in the face of customer feedback to the contrary can quickly convert passion and tenacity to stubborn, obstinate and pigheaded.

That’s not to say that we should ever be forced to make decisions that will destroy our profitability. We can’t simply follow customer input to lower our prices if it means we will lose money on every sale. And sometimes our customers can’t provide the input we are looking for, because they can’t envision our plan for the future. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But when we are talking about meaningful feedback with suggestions for improvements in design, functionality or services offered, why in the world would we not listen to our customers and incorporate those suggestions?

Novel concept: listen to customers, act on valuable feedback, launch a successful company. Makes sense to me!

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