A cure for entrepreneurship?

CuredThere has been a silent epidemic in our country for many years, and it’s time to confront it head-on. As our economy slowly but surely improves, it seems that the contagion is continuing to spread. What can be done to stop the spread and find a cure… for entrepreneurship?

The symptoms are typically not that difficult to spot – uncontrollable creative energy, increased heart rate from incremental progress, clarity of vision and hyper-focus on business mission and goals, mild paranoia regarding customer feedback, dilated pupils from wild-eyed excitement and occasional sleepless nights. And worse, the incubation period for the contagion seems to have no defined time limit. It slowly but surely festers and grows until it can no longer be contained.

Most treatments have not proven effective, as creative entrepreneurs seem to have developed a resistance to traditional methods. Over the counter remedies such as 5 Hour Energy shots have only made the problem worse, stimulating even more creativity. A necklace of garlic will not stop this persistent and rapidly growing phenomenon. Herbal remedies? Not a chance. Even a wide variety of medications, potions and adult beverages designed to dull the senses have proven to be no match for the voracious entrepreneurial spirit. Hangovers simply beget new miracle hangover cures, or worse yet – blockbuster movies about hangovers.

Attempts to isolate the infectious startup bug have seen similar ineffective results, as entrepreneurs pivot and adapt, evading failure and quickly finding new and expanding markets. Taking extraordinary measures to separate and isolate groups of creative people, researchers initially suspected that the method of transmission could be airborne. But in fact more recent research has shown that extreme isolation often exacerbates the situation, as entrepreneurs exploit the temporary solitude to stop and think, often finding even more creative breakout ideas in the process. In fact, the most recent evidence supports the theory that ideas can be developed simply by talking them through, using verbal and written communication as seemingly benign as a text or tweet. Oh, the horror!

As a result of these unforeseen complications, a recent focus on cognitive behavioral therapy showed some early positive signs of progress. But reports soon emerged of isolated instances of countertransference, in which the therapists eventually were somehow cross-contaminated and succumbed, quitting their jobs in larger company clinics and opening their own individual practices.

A recent groundbreaking finding from the prestigious Center for Researching and Explaining the Obvious concluded that, even during a severe economic downturn, entrepreneurial proclivity may surface at any time, even in the most unlikely, unsuspecting, and unintentional entrepreneurs. Some extreme cases were so severe and so driven to succeed even in tough times, those infected soon realize that, rather than fighting the crowds to find a job, they could actually find the courage to create jobs, both for themselves and others. What in the world were they thinking? Why go to that trouble? Just get a job, dude!

Without some way to slow it down, this unrestrained growth of entrepreneurship will continue to spread across the nation, and fears are mounting, as cases have been reported in other markets around the world, even including those countries who have forcefully and effectively prevented it in the past. We haven’t seen such rampant innovation since Al Gore invented the internet! In fact, it seems that entrepreneurs globally have often found synergistic mutations through collaboration, finding exciting new scientific discoveries and even cures for diseases far worse than the insidious spread of entrepreneurship. If we are unable to control this outbreak, we are doomed to face the serious implications of breakthrough innovations, rampant technological advances, an economic rebound, and its resulting consistent job growth. Are we prepared for this fate?

But there is hope, and you can help. We have some important tools in our arsenal that may serve to slow down the spread of entrepreneurship. One possible remedy is to allow our education system to continue its decline, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. That should really help put the brakes on the epidemic of disruptive innovation. I mean, who really needs a smartphone, right?

Another effective tactic could be to continue to create regulations that stifle new business startups – adding legislation, regulations and ordinances that limit small business financing and operations. Oh, and don’t forget oppressive taxation! That’s sure to help! And of course, if we can convince our elected officials they should, in fact, support it, they will no doubt find new and creative ways to slow entrepreneurship even more.

These and other options may help slow and contain the spread, but I am frankly not optimistic. Entrepreneurship is a strong and resilient force – one not easily stopped by conventional methods. It may very likely continue to morph and mutate, creating new discoveries, products and services we cannot possibly imagine.

Are you ready for that?

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Meanwhile, in the real world…

GraduationAn important part of my job as an educator is listening to our customers. No, I am not talking about our students – clearly we are here to make sure they receive a quality education – that is a given. But instead I am referring to our other customers – the employers who will one day hire our graduates. It just makes sense. If our curriculum fails to properly prepare students to function effectively in a variety of business sectors, regardless of how much we may think we have done in educating our students in all aspects of business literacy, we have failed to meet the requirements of our valued customers.

Especially in our business school programs, we are always looking for input from prospective employers. Naturally, we invite them to our campus to speak to and recruit our students – all universities do that. But sometimes we meet with employers, successful graduates and others solely to hear from them how we are doing, what is changing in their particular business sector, and how we can better prepare graduates for the jobs of both today and tomorrow. And guess what? They tell us!

My favorite question to ask employers is to identify the number one thing they find is lacking in college graduates today – not just our graduates – ALL graduates. I have heard two consistent responses over the past few years. The first is that many graduates lack writing skills. It’s no surprise that if students enter college with poor writing ability, the curriculum at many colleges and universities does not include the ability to correct the poor training in basic writing skills from middle and high school. Even worse, in graduate programs such as the ones for which I am responsible, we know in the very first week’s assignments whether a student can write effectively. We wonder how they succeeded in their undergraduate degree, and we know that we are unlikely to be able to offer much more than a referral to the school’s writing center.

The second most frequent response from employers regarding graduate shortcomings is the lack of good social skills and the ability to engage others in face-to-face, one-on-one or group discussions and presentations. At a recent gathering of industry employers, I asked the question: “What one thing do you most NOT like in the college graduates you have hired?” One gentleman immediately stood up and said: “I’ll tell you what I don’t like!” And he launched into an awkward and humorous impression of someone texting, solely focused only on his mobile device, oblivious to the world around him. I have to admit that I promptly judged the business executive to be “old school”, but he quickly put that to rest, as he went on: “So I want you to teach ‘em how to use these things, but that’s not how we do deals today. We do deals this way.” And he extended his hand to shake mine, and looked me in the eye. Point taken.

We track our graduates’ job placement rate very carefully. And that doesn’t mean jobs that include “would you like fries with that?” If we are not meeting the demanding needs of employers and making sure students have the skills our customers are telling us they need, we have not properly prepared our graduates. The “real world” we so often refer to is not some artificial virtual reality scenario. It is simply the business world into which our students will soon graduate. Let’s show our customers that we listened and that our graduates are well prepared for the jobs that await them.

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Can entrepreneurship be taught?

EntrepreneurI am often asked about the role of university education in preparing young entrepreneurs. It’s the age-old question of “nature vs. nurture”, which traits are innate and which can be taught and developed, and so on.

My take on this is that research seems to come down on the side of a blend of traits which might predispose some people toward the types of behaviors one might find in entrepreneurs, coupled with training and development of specific skills required to launch new business ventures. To be more specific, the types of traits that may be seen as supportive of entrepreneurship include the ability to tolerate risk, the ability to deal with ambiguity and lack of structure, passion for an idea, tenacity and perseverance, and the vision of what can be possible, given the right set of conditions.

But the interesting thing about entrepreneurship is that some of the same traits that might best describe successful entrepreneurs might also work against launching a new venture. For example, passion and tenacity may make dealing with the reality that a business model simply won’t work difficult to swallow. Risk taking in the pursuit of a properly developed customer-centric business venture is what sets entrepreneurs apart from those who are simply risk averse and reluctant to act. But the tricky part of entrepreneurship is about knowing when to take a well-measured and well-calculated risk, not simply risky behavior.

As for role of educators and what we can do to better prepare entrepreneurs to launch new businesses, I can think of five categories where we can contribute:

1. Teaching the topics. Here we are talking about providing definition and context in explaining concepts, such as the difference between creativity and innovation. Often in explaining a rudimentary “Business 101” framework, students begin to place their idea within that context and start to develop and organize it further. With the proper context established and through the use of plenty of real world examples, student entrepreneurs begin to see the application of key concepts to their business ideas.
2. A safe laboratory environment. A university is a place for exploration and experimentation. Here it is OK to make mistakes – in fact, it’s an integral part of the learning process. Better to find out in school through research, analysis and customer feedback that an idea won’t work than to confront that reality six months after launch.
3. Business literacy. Here is where the role of colleges, universities and other types of training is most obvious. Teaching students finance, the law, marketing and so on is essential in preparing entrepreneurs to launch successful new ventures. With that in mind, teaching specifically to the student’s business idea, rather than a more general approach, helps students see the application of concepts more clearly.
4. Guest speakers. An important part of our school’s curriculum is the frequent use of outside experts as guest speakers in class or larger group sessions in auditoriums and other venues. In fact, I came to the school originally as a guest speaker, myself. Every week and across the university, we have a variety of guest speakers in one degree program or another. Whether in a classroom, auditorium or streaming online, these bona fide outside experts draw from their direct experience in their field, with rich stories and examples of important business concepts.
5. Mentorship and networking. Here at our university, and especially in our graduate degree programs, we see the role of our faculty as mentors and coaches, rather than strictly didactic. As student entrepreneurs develop their business ideas, our role as educators is to provide mentorship, guidance and direction, including referrals to other program faculty and contacts outside of the university. Our faculty members don’t provide the answers – they guide students to find the answers.

As educators, it’s always gratifying to see the success that so many of our graduates have achieved. Most graduates will leave school in a quest to find jobs, but a small percentage will take the entrepreneurial plunge and create a job for themselves and others. Our job is to do everything we can to make sure they are successful.

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What if… ?

Opportunity-knocks“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”
― Emily Dickinson

Seize the day. Opportunity only knocks once. I could go on and on…

Recently I ran into a situation with a graduate student that really made me stop and think about how little decisions can have a major impact on our lives. Without recounting the entire story, the new student was about to miss an important orientation meeting with me, because he arrived late after dropping someone at the airport. He was hesitant to enter the conference room and was embarrassed to interrupt, since it would create a bad first impression. Fortunately my boss saw the student lurking the hallway and convinced him to come inside.

Now inside the orientation session and since the other students had already shared their stories, the late-arriving student shared his background and also a specific company he dreamed of eventually joining. As luck would have it, I knew that later in the week that same company would be on campus for a major event, and I was able to arrange for the student not only to receive a ticket to attend the event, but also to make some important networking contacts. So what’s the point?

What if the student remained in the hall and never came inside? What if I never learned of his interest in that specific company? What if he didn’t attend the event and meet the key players? Could he still achieve his dream? Of course. But seizing the opportunity allowed him to move ahead much more quickly. Technically, when he attended the company event, he had not even attended his first class, but he was able to jump ahead toward his ultimate goal.

“Let me tell ya. You gotta pay attention to signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this it’s a sin if you don’t reach back… I’m telling you.”
― Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

In the case of the late arriving student, his failure to act was due at least in part to the fear of potential embarrassment that would result from entering the session so late. Fear is a powerful motivator.

“When you do what you fear most, then you can do anything.”
― Stephen Richards

Take a moment to reflect on the implications of the millions of incidents every day where opportunities are missed. A good way to think about this is to take the time to marvel at an opportunity you did not miss. You seized an opportunity, taking full advantage of it, and it worked out great. In fact, it was awesome! Did it lead to career success? Love? Further opportunities you are still exploring?

Now pause and reflect again. What if you had not acted? Would you be where you are today? What would have been the implications of failing to act? Wow! Had I not acted… I would hate to think about all I would have missed.

Of course, there is only one way you will never have to face the implications of failing to act. To quote that great philosopher, Nike: Just do it!

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Lead Up!

UpHaving had the good fortune to work for some world-class corporations throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders. It’s interesting to watch how a great leader can make such a huge difference in the direction of any organization, large or small. But they don’t do it by themselves.

In fact, good leaders lead, at least in part, by fostering and insisting upon leadership at all levels in the organization. The notion that leadership emanates from the top down is just plain wrong, at least in well-run companies. In great companies, leadership is happening in every direction, up and down, sideways, across divisions and departments – you name it.

So how does that work? Sometimes it’s hard to describe, but in the best organizations it is almost palpable – you can feel it. And as you feel it, you also become part of it. You know that you are also expected to lead. The CEO has clearly communicated the mission, we understand and believe in that mission and, as a result, we are responsible for leading others toward the achievement of that mission. We are expected and required to lead. Sometimes that involves leading others in our own department, or on other teams, those below us in the organizational structure, our bosses, coworkers, supervisors, vendors and independent contractors – managers and employees at all levels.

I titled this article “Lead Up!” as an example of how I can generally tell if an organization is really experiencing leadership at all levels. Clues are everywhere. Do the employees use the word “they” when referring to management? Do they have to get approval before responding to the requests and needs of customers, even when they may be outside of our normal procedures? A front line employee who clearly understands the company’s mission does not hesitate a second to accommodate a customer. And it’s always “we” and never “they”, period.

The university where I am currently is a great example of how the process should work. We have one mission: providing our students a world-class, real-world education. If a teacher, in an effort to provide a more engaging educational experience, tries something new and it bombs disastrously (it happens), there are no reprimands or repercussions. Let’s try something else. As long as we are always trying to accomplish the ultimate mission, we make leadership decisions at all levels in an effort to get there.

The sector really doesn’t matter. We need to lead up in manufacturing, stopping production when anyone in the organization sees something that is impacting quality. We lead up in retail sales or service organizations when we see customers with similar complaints, or product shortages, or requests for products or services we don’t current offer. We need to lead up in education at all levels, finding new ways to use technology, techniques and approaches to engage and educate students and prepare them for successful careers. An organization that fosters a spirit of leadership up, down and across all parts of the company is one that realizes that, regardless of position and job title, we are all here for one purpose – to provide our customers the best service we possibly can. Doing anything less is just not good leadership.

The solution? Lead up!

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It’s Time for Your Annual (Financial) Checkup

BrokeI had my annual physical yesterday morning, and the doctor says I’ll be around for a while, so that’s a good thing. But on the way back from his office, I listened to a segment on NPR, and I know that my blood pressure rose as a result.

The Morning Edition segment featured a Bankrate.com survey and analysis of the under-30 crowd relative to savings and investment. The essence of the survey was that the data revealed that, as young people in their twenties begin to have some money to allocate toward savings and investment, they are extremely risk-averse. Specifically, the analysis revealed that 39% of those surveyed say that cash is their preferred way to invest money they don’t need for at least 10 years. That is three times the number of young adults in the same survey who picked the stock market. The radio segment regarding the survey also noted that this could be due in part to the fact that many of those surveyed had developed these discretionary funds in the midst of the recent recession and, as a result, were unwilling to see a similar future downturn destroy their savings.

“The preference for cash and aversion to the stock market among young adults is very troubling considering this age group has the biggest retirement savings burden. They won’t get there without being willing to assume a little short-term price risk in their long-term money,” said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com chief financial analyst.

I counsel college students every month regarding the importance of getting started early with investing. I generally first have them face the man in the mirror by completing a personal financial statement. That is always a good solid slap of reality. And my first caveat, of course, is that for any type of investment decision I direct them to consult only with licensed financial professionals, and we discuss the process for selecting an advisor. We then discuss the basic concept of the time value of money and why it is so important to get started early and take a long-term approach. That is followed by a discussion of risk tolerance, and we look at the current economic climate and historical data, reviewing examples of rates of return for various categories of investment, from bank savings to the equity markets. And we talk about inflation, the negative impact it has, and the need for our investments to outpace it.

As a financial social worker, I have similar conversations with others, but my main focus is almost exclusively college students in undergraduate and graduate degree programs. So I was especially disturbed to hear this morning’s radio segment and the implications it has for young people, in general. If in fact twenty-somethings are placing their funds allocated for savings in commercial banks, they will soon find that the math just doesn’t add up. The interesting thing, of course, is that so many of these newbie investors have failed to consider the real implications of what may sound like a safe and prudent decision, only to later realize it is anything but.

After hearing the story on the radio, I did some quick research via Bankrate.com to see what the three largest banks in our area are paying for savings accounts. The answer: .01%, .02% and .03%. No, you’re reading that right – one hundredth of one percent, and so on. But hold on, bank fans, we’re done yet. For the three banks surveyed, the opening balance requirements were very modest, but the minimum balance to avoid fees was not – specifically $2,500 to $5,000. Monthly account maintenance fees were $10 for one bank, and $12 and $15 for the other two.

We all know that investing in the stock market is risky and, once again, I always refer students to licensed professional advisors, not just educators like me. But I also encourage students to think through various investment scenarios by conducting research, and creating “what if?” scenarios.

Hmmm… let’s see. What if one year ago, a student invested $1,000 in an index fund that tracks the S&P 500? The S&P has seen a return of 24.61% over the past 12 months, through June 2014 – pretty respectable, and much higher than the historical long-term average of 11.64%. So that $1,000 a year ago would have shown a balance of (roughly) $1,246 as of the end of June 2014.

That same amount placed in a Wells Fargo savings account (the highest interest rate and lowest monthly fee of the three banks I checked locally, and assuming no additional deposits are made) would have gained 30 cents in interest over the same period, but would have incurred $120 in fees ($10 per month), leaving a balance of $880.30. These numbers are just rough approximations, since technically the interest earned would be slightly less, as fees are deducted from the account each month, but close enough for this example. This represents a loss of 12% over the same one-year period. Hmmm… what’s wrong with that picture?

To be fair, we could claim that the $1,000 invested in the S&P index fund was technically 100% at risk, provided we can imagine the possibility that all stocks in the index could have lost 100% of their value over the past 12 months. But more logically, one could certainly argue it is possible that the index fund could have dropped by some significant percentage, and that percentage could be more or less than a 12% loss due to fees or a 24.61% gain due to market improvement.

The difference, of course, is that if we knew we would not make any additional deposits that could remove the monthly bank fee, we know for a fact how much value our account will lose in 12 months by putting our money in the bank, while the stock market offers an opportunity for either reward or failure, based on the performance of the S&P’s 500 companies. And while there are absolutely no guarantees regarding any investment in equities, the returns over the long haul have been relatively consistent.

So, college graduates and first-time investors, should you bet on guaranteed failure, or the possibility that our slow economic rebound could result in a substantial gain? What would you do?

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The Problem with Empowerment

EmpowermentA huge buzzword from the 1980’s was the concept of “empowerment” of employees. A powerful and worthwhile concept, it is probably one of the least effectively executed business strategies, which is such a shame, since effective implementation can benefit an organization in so many ways.

The concept seems so simple: give front line employees the ability to make business decisions without having to seek permission from managers. A widely accepted formal definition of empowerment is: the process of enabling an employee to think, behave, act, react and control their work in more autonomous ways. In other words, an empowered non-managerial employee has the authority to solve problems and take action on their own, without further approval.

The idea, of course, is that if we empower employees to better serve our customers, we benefit in two important ways. First, not only does the organization become more efficient without the bureaucracy of unnecessary common sense approvals, customers benefit when we allow employees to make decisions to provide immediate response to customer needs. Makes sense, huh? But a secondary benefit is both improved morale, as employees realize they are being trusted to do the right thing, as well as communicating and reinforcing a clear company focus on serving the needs of the customer.

So what’s wrong with this picture? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Problems with Implementation

It has been my experience that often implementation fails for a variety of reasons, but these seem to be the most common:

It starts at the top.

Regardless of the complexity of the organization, empowerment can only be effective if top management, from the CEO and throughout all layers of management, sees the value and wisdom of relinquishing some level of authority to front line employees. Unless management collectively is 100% on board – game over. In fact, worse than that, if implementation is a half-ass, say-it-but-don’t-mean-it effort, the resulting situation is likely to make things worse, not better. Why is that? Because in moving decision-making authority down to the front line employees directly in contact with our customers, we must acknowledge that occasionally mistakes will be made. Unless those mistakes are handled carefully, and as learning opportunities rather than punished as “bad”, employees will quite rightly have a fear of making decisions in the future.

For a true customer-centric culture to thrive in an organization, it must be pushed constantly by management at all levels, but through actions, not words. That means celebrating those everyday examples of great customer service, posting comments and all forms of customer feedback and congratulating individual employees and teams at every possible opportunity.

I am no savant or clairvoyant, but I would humbly suggest that I can quickly get a feel for an organization’s culture after only briefly interacting with front line employees. How do they refer to the company’s management? For me at least, if I hear the word “they” in a reference to management, and opposed to “we”, there is a problem. Of course, the entire concept of empowerment is that we don’t need to ask them for permission to take care of our customers. At every level of the organization, our job is to serve the needs of our customers, and all of us are empowered to do that. It’s a pretty simple concept: the only people who can really fire all of us are our customers. Without them, none of us have jobs. If we are not all on the same team and focused on the same thing, the we/they mentality will kill any possibility of effective empowerment.

Explain the boundaries.

From my personal experience, I have found that the biggest failures in creating an empowered workforce are not issues with unwilling or incapable employees. It’s exactly the opposite. Employees want to provide excellent service to customers. In fact, they take great pride in seeing the results of their efforts through the reaction and appreciation of a satisfied customer. Frequently the problem stems from lack of proper explanation by managers, and by that I mean the lack of plenty of examples, using situations employees would typically face in the normal course of simply doing their job. Having been told by the managers above them to make sure employees are empowered to make decisions, front line managers say things like “Do whatever it takes.” “The customer is always right.” “Go that extra mile.” Wait! What the hell does that mean, exactly?

Unless we provide lots of very specific everyday types of empowered front line decisions, employees will never understand the limits and boundaries for their decision-making authority. An easy example: I’m training a restaurant food server, and I want to explain the concept of empowerment. I might choose a simple example like a birthday observance for a customer. I would tell the server that, as soon as they realize a customer is dining with us on their birthday, the server should immediately offer a birthday greeting, and at the end of the meal should offer a complimentary dessert of the guest’s choosing. The boundaries? We would ask for other dessert orders from others in the party, but not for free! Extra spoons and forks so others can share? No problem! And we will still ring the free dessert through our point-of-sale system to ensure proper controls. But the decision to provide the dessert does not require anyone’s approval. Why should it?

Staying with the restaurant server example, what if a customer asks for a different preparation for a chicken dish not on the menu? Our immediate objective is to accommodate the request if at all possible. We simply need to check with the kitchen to ensure we have the proper ingredients. It doesn’t mean we tell the customer we need to see if “they” can do that. Rather “I’m sure we can do that for you. Let me just verify with our team.” Of course, in the majority of cases, and provided the server has been properly trained in menu knowledge and preparation methods, he or she will already know the answer and can simply honor the request without checking with anyone. So empowerment is simply assuring employees we should never deny a customer request we have the ability to properly accommodate.

But I’m not done. What do we charge the customer for Chicken Picatta, or Parisienne, or Marsala if it’s not on the menu? The answer? The server uses logic, reasoning and experience to establish the price, and the server decides. Not the restaurant manager, not the chef – the server. My explanation? “So Mary, it’s your decision. We have two other chicken items on the menu. So just decide which price you feel is more appropriate.” Seriously, how wrong can she be? Is Mary a smart, logical person? Of course! Would Mary know that if the customer asked to have his chicken topped with a lobster tail, it should cost more? Of course she would!

Training our employees by offering as many typical customer requests as possible is essential in establishing the boundaries within which we expect our employees to exercise their decision-making authority. Having trained many people in this way, I can tell you that the more examples you can provide, the better. And you will soon see that the employees “get it”. They understand the mission, and they now feel empowered to act. I emphasize that occasionally mistakes will be made and boundaries may be breached, but those are simply opportunities for learning and improvement. As long as the customer is properly taken care of, we’re going in the right direction!

Failing to set boundaries that employees understand is the quickest way to kill the entire empowerment effort. Unless they understand the rules, they simply will not feel comfortable in actually making decisions. And when they do make those decisions and customers voice their appreciation, it is a powerful reinforcement that serves to elicit similar decisions in the future.

With authority comes responsibility.

As essential element of an empowered workforce is letting every team member know that don’t just have the authority to act, they also have the responsibility. We will never admonish an employee who acted in good faith, but every employee is expected to act! Instilling that responsibility at all levels of an organization is the responsibility of management throughout the operation. Managers who walk the walk and lead by example will soon see employees who are comfortable in doing the same.

Celebrate and recognize!

Finally, this point is so important it warrants being redundant. Every day in great companies throughout this country, empowered employees are constantly making customer-centric decisions, because they are in an environment and culture, which celebrates a team approach to addressing the needs of our valued customers. When shining examples emerge, we must then take every opportunity to share them, letting everyone in the organization know that we support and celebrate them. Doing so demonstrates our commitment to both our customers and our employees.

Are your employees empowered?

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Choose Yoda as your mentor.

yodaI’m no obsessed Star Wars maniac or super-fan, but I always thought it was clever how George Lucas was able to prominently place a gifted entrepreneur into the storyline. No, it’s not Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader.

It’s Yoda.

You don’t have to know every line from every episode to quickly realize that, in addition to being a Jedi Master, Yoda is clearly a master entrepreneur.

One thing I always urge entrepreneurs to do early on in their quest to create a startup is to find the right mentor. I have the privilege of mentoring young entrepreneurs in a local business accelerator, and I think I do a pretty good job, but if I were to recommend a truly great mentor for anyone wanting to start a new business, it would have to be Yoda.

I know… you’re waiting for me to get to the point. Here it is. Being a good mentor means dispensing valuable advice based on your years of experience and expertise. Early in the Star Wars saga, Yoda demonstrates the depth of his understanding of entrepreneurship with what is most likely his most famous entrepreneurial advice: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Gives you a chill, doesn’t it? But you’re probably thinking, “Hey Ron – even a great quote like that doesn’t mean Yoda is da’ man.” Oh no? He’s just getting warmed up.

One of the things I have written about obstacles to launching a startup is the devastating impact of that powerful emotion – fear. Fear can stop an entrepreneur dead in his tracks, immobilized by the fear of potential failure. Let’s face it – most new businesses fail. That fact hasn’t changed throughout history. Entrepreneurship is about taking a risk, and that means risk of failure, but also success. Often with greater risk come greater rewards. No, Yoda didn’t say that.

But when I asked him for his advice for young entrepreneurs, he pointed to a line he had used before. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” OMG! That’s amazing! How does he know this stuff?

And consider Yoda’s advice for an entrepreneur wrestling with self-doubt and lack of confidence, a sure startup killer. What would Yoda say? We need look no farther than an exchange with Luke Skywalker:

“[Luke:] I can’t believe it.”
“[Yoda:] That is why you fail.”

Freakin’ Jedi master entrepreneur, I’m tellin’ you! If you don’t believe in yourself, then why on earth would you expect others to believe in you? Partners, employees, investors – if an entrepreneur cannot summon the strength of her convictions, how can she ever succeed?

One of the tricky things about startups is finding the perfect balance between sufficient research and planning, and actually taking action and launching the business. It was Benjamin Franklin who famously said: “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” Now, Ben is no Yoda, but Winston Churchill and a long list of business experts have often agreed that proper planning is good advice.

But for a startup, too much planning can also be a recipe for disaster. In fact, as those of who espouse the lean startup approach, and especially in today’s rapidly changing technological environment, we’d better get a minimum viable product in front of our customers as soon as possible, or our competitors can blow by us in a heartbeat. Waiting for perfection can kill a startup, and we lose valuable time by not quickly creating an iterative process for customer feedback, which will lead us to our optimal business model.

Not to be contradictory, but we can also agree that jumping the gun and launching a venture without at least the knowledge to see it through is certainly one of many reasons why startups fail. What does Yoda say about that? He clearly thinks you’d be making a big mistake. He counseled young Luke this way:

“If you end your training now — if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did — you will become an agent of evil.” Ouch! Hey man – that hurts! You’re thinking: “I’m not evil, just maybe a little bit cocky and overenthusiastic.” Get over it. Listen to your customers, your mentors – they will lead you away from the dark side.

Of course, if we listen to the wisdom of the master, train for the challenge that lies ahead, plan for success and have confidence in our abilities – that is truly a powerful force.

And before we leave our esteemed mentor, we must never forget that successful entrepreneurs in turn become mentors to other young entrepreneurs who follow. To which Yoda simply reminds us:

“Always pass on what you have learned.”

Will you follow Yoda’s advice? If so, the Force will be strong with you, young entrepreneur. Succeed you will.

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Afraid of failure?

failure or successOne of the great things about entrepreneurship is there are so many failures along the way. Yes, you read that right.

The very definition of an entrepreneur includes some degree of risk taking. With risk comes the opportunity for success, and also the chance of failure. For me, both as an entrepreneur and also an educator, the concept of facing up to the potential for failure in the face of terrible odds for business success, is endlessly fascinating. And one thing I particularly like about teaching entrepreneurship is that the university provides a safe laboratory-type environment in which aspiring entrepreneurs can test their business model and create “what if” scenarios to look at the impact of their decision making.

As I like to explain it – better to watch an idea crash and burn while still in graduate school that to launch the idea with substantial funding, only to watch the plan fall apart. Here, we simply call it learning.

Learning in the real world certainly includes its share of trials, tribulations, stumbles and outright failures. Of course, often we can avoid many of the typical land mines by adopting a very customer-centric “lean” approach and an iterative process that leads us to the right business model based on customer feedback. But even in the best-executed plans, there are bound to be occasional setbacks or complete failures, even if only temporary.

If you are a “glass is half-full” guy like me, you understand that a setback of any kind is also an opportunity to learn from our mistake and vow to never repeat it. Just as here at the university, we consider that learning – the hard way, for sure, but learning nonetheless. As entrepreneurs, we know that when we fall flat on our face, it’s time to get up and try again. And guess what? Those who do and never ever give up are much more likely to be part of that very small percentages of businesses who survive the first most difficult years.

Are you afraid of failure? My advice for entrepreneurs: get over it!

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The Entrepreneurship Imperative

EntrepreneurI’m frequently asked for advice on launching a new business. Not only do I enjoy helping entrepreneurs eager to bring the next big idea to market, I do so because launching startups is the key to job creation in our country and ultimately the key to our nation’s continued growth and prosperity.

That’s not just the opinion of a guy who happens to be an entrepreneur and teaches the subject. It’s simply a fact. Two thirds of the jobs created in the U.S. are created by small businesses. This claim has floated around for quite a while, and the problem is that the source, the Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as having fewer that 500 employees. If we use that definition, 99.7% of all companies qualify.

But regardless of how we might choose to define the term, the creation of a small business of any kind creates jobs, and jobs and employment fuels our economy. It’s not just the huge companies starting to hire again following an economic downturn. It’s the entrepreneurs launching startups and adding employees only when absolutely necessary for the survival of the business. Being an entrepreneur means moving from receiving a paycheck to making a payroll – a pretty scary leap. Moreover it means that now other people are depending on you for their jobs – a serious responsibility.

I know a young entrepreneur here in Central Florida who launched his company two years ago, pretty much as a one-man band initially. Today he employs 9 people. Another friend worked in a music store and today owns two stores, each employing a handful of employees. That is why I’m so excited about entrepreneurship and why we all need to do everything we possibly can to support it.

So what can we do? Startups require capital, so the most obvious way to help is by providing it. Some people call us angel investors, but if you are reading this and thinking that you don’t have the resources, think again. Just consider the number of successful companies that began as Kickstarter, RocketHub or IndieGoGo projects. Supporting crowdfunding, especially in support of startups in your area, is hugely important. As I have mentioned in previous posts, this is a pivotal year for crowdfunding. Rules currently in development by the Securities and Exchange Commission in response to the JOBS Act will eventually transform crowdfunding and allow the general public to take an equity stake in new businesses, so watch for further developments there.

But the easiest way for you to help is by lending your expertise and support to entrepreneurs and startups in your area. Sharing your business expertise and experience with local entrepreneurs young and old is invaluable. Volunteer for your local SBA office. Help out at a local business incubator or accelerator. Find out what organizations in your area best support new business development and ask what you can do to help. Trust me – grass roots activism can make a huge difference in a community. And a community focused on entrepreneurial development and job creation has a bright future ahead.

Look for a job? I’d rather create one.

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