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Living Life As an Entrepreneur: Without a Startup

By Shlomo Maital

   A funny thing happened to me on my way to speak to a group of Canada’s York University engineering students on Monday. I did a “pivot”.

   In startup entrepreneurship,   startups “pivot” when they start by doing one thing, or one idea, and discover (by interacting with real people) that what is really needed is something different.

     I spoke to my students about “why startups fail – and how a few succeed”. But I also spoke to them about – when to become an entrepreneur?

   In five years? 10 years? After gaining experience and saving some money?

   No.

   Now. Today. Tonight!

   Because entrepreneurship is not a profession, it is a mindset. And we all can live fuller, more interesting, more meaningful, more creative lives, if we live them as entrepreneurs, with an entrepreneurial mindset.

   But what is it? What is an entrepreneurial mindset?

   I believe there are two parts.

   Part One: sharp eyes and ears. Be alert for things that you believe are simply wrong, and for people who have a pressing need that is unmet.   Entrepreneurs don’t seek to make money, they seek to make meaning, by filling unmet needs of people, to make people happier, smarter, wiser, more content, healthier, and more vigorous. Living a life by doing this, even in small ways, is full of interest and meaning. I myself discovered this rather late, but not too late.

   Part Two: solutions. Assume that for every challenge, every problem, every unmet need, there IS a solution. And if not a solution, an amelioration, a way to make things a bit better or a lot better. If you assume from the outset that really hard problems do NOT have a solution, then your brain will be unlikely to come up with one. If you assume from the outset that there IS a solution, or at least a partial one, your brain, including your subconscious brain, will work on the problem – and ideas will pop into your head at the most unexpected times.   I’ve known many people who recount such experiences – and I’ve had them myself.

     Want to become an entrepreneur?   Start now. Look for ways to make people happy. Then implement them.    

     Worth a try?  

    

 

 

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Snow Capped Idea Volcanoes:

Creativity of the Elderly

Shlomo Maital

 

     A mind is a terrible thing to waste.   Are we wasting the creative minds of our seniors?   Is the wrong-headed assumption that creativity is entirely the domain of young minds depriving the world of revolutionary ideas? As countries in the West and East alike age, will we marginalize all those senior minds — and waste a precious resource?  

     Consider my own example.   I requested, and received, early retirement from my university employer, in 2001. I was then able to help lead a management institute that worked with many global high-tech companies and startups. I learned how to help them diagnose their core problems and make their organizations consistently innovative. I then wrote down what I learned in a dozen books, that I wrote, co-authored and edited, almost one a year.   I became a snow-capped idea volcano – and completed the Boston Marathon when I was 63.   And today, at 75.5 (the decimal was supplied by an Asian nation, when I applied for a visa) I am working on a collection of short stories titled “What If? The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”.

       And best of all, I got to meet and study a very large number of creative individuals, snow-capped like me, whose ideas were validated and activated and created enormous value. I could have opted for a rocking chair, which is what society often prescribes for seniors. Luckily I chose the ‘volcano’ alternative.

       We know a lot about the aging brain. It works a bit slower. It doesn’t remember things that well. But it does have an ephemeral quality called wisdom – the quality of having the magical mixture of knowledge, experience and judgment. I cannot count the number of startup ideas I’ve seen, that embody magical technology, to satisfy a non-existent need. Senior brains avoid that trap.

         Here is just one example, that I wrote about in my innovation blog a year ago:

     John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, writes Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times.   “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.    

     This is not Goodenough’s first invention. At age 57 he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package; such batteries now exist in nearly all devices at home and at work.  OK – another genius. Nice. But what is unusual about Goodenough?   His age.   He is 94 years old.

   The thing is, we have known for many centuries that senior brains are highly productive and creative. Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps history’s single most creative individual, was making breakthrough discoveries in hydraulics and anatomy when he was 57, in 1509 (in those days, old age!) and when he was 62, a year before his death, he was making plans to drain the Pontine Marshes in Italy.

     Often, the first step toward breakthrough ideas is smashing an iconic sacred-cow assumption. Let’s discard forever the assumption that only fresh young brains are creative. Let’s tell our seniors, we need your ideas, built on your wisdom and your experience. And then, let’s harvest the crop of world-changing ideas erupting from all those snow-capped idea volcanoes.

 

Strategizing the Value Chain

By Shlomo Maital

   Amazon just announced it will create its own package delivery service, to compete with Fedex and UPS.  

   Amazon stock fell on the announcement – but this has happened before, each time Jeff Bezos has a new and costly idea, which usually prove correct.

    This strategic move suggests a key principle for startups: How to strategic the value chain.

     For on-line retailing, a significant chunk of the total profits in the whole ecosystem accrues to those who deliver the packages, not just those who make the products or sell them. Amazon is greedy for these profits, accruing to Fedex UPS and DHL and wants to swallow them.

       Every product or service is part of a complex value chain ecosystem. Each startup, pushing an innovation or creative idea, must ask:

         Where is my product or service aiming,   in the existing value chain?

The key is: Do NOT necessarily aim at where the money (big profit margins) are at the moment. Aim where they will be in 2-3 or 5 years.   And second: Maybe, just maybe, aim at an entry point that the other players do NOT find that attractive (e.g. Teva Pharmaceuticals long ago aimed at generic drugs, when Big Pharma was scorning this industry).   Use this to get your foot into the door. Once you are there, have cash flow, revenue, profit – and name recognition —   consider migrating, to another spot in the value chain, as Amazon is doing and has done constantly —   books to other products to all products, to cloud to original TV content….

     So to sum up: Startup entrepreneurs – analyze CAREFULLY the existing value chain. Draw it, picture it, analyze it.   Where are you aiming at with your product? Is this an ideal entry point?   Why? Where will you migrate AFTER you make a successful entry?  

          This is a bit like an uninvited guest knocking on the door and sticking their foot into the door to prevent it from being closed. Once you get in – look around, carefully, and figure out which room you will visit next.

             This value chain analysis is crucial and is based on a long-range plan and vision.   Many startups don’t bother, or are not even aware they have to do this right from the start.  

      IBM thought the true value in computers was in hardware.  Microsoft’s WINDOWS saw the value was in software and operating systems.  The rest is history. 

Words Do Matter!  Start Your Startup With A Story

By Shlomo Maital

Words

   Three on-line courses are currently ‘live’ on Coursera, that I and my Technion colleagues created, on startup entrepreneurship. I’m greatly enjoying the discussion forums. My student Antoni Baszczeski has drawn my attention to a framework by Chris Plachy, offered on Coursera:

  https://www.coursera.org/learn/managing-as-a-coach/lecture/78PWF/thought-model-part-1-circumstances-thoughts-and-feelings

   The discussion hinges on the importance of words. Antoni quoted G B Shaw, a great writer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, for his “idealism and humanity, his stimulating satire…”   I noted to Antoni that Shaw was a great creator, but in the end created just words. Antoni responded that words come between feelings and action, and perhaps spur action. And I certainly agreed.

     I’m currently developing a startup entrepreneurship module based on ‘narrative entrepreneurship’. The idea is simple. Entrepreneur:   Build your story!   Shape your story (events, timeline, conflict, people, characters, things, challenges, ups and downs), built around your startup, and how you create it…tell your story in past tense, even though it unfolds in the future.   Use your story to inspire others, and yourself, to aspire to greatness, and as a roadmap. Use all the powerful techniques of great fiction to shape it…and then make it come true.

     This, by the way, has strong foundations in cognitive psychology, developed by the late Jerome Bruner (see my blog on his narrative approach). We understand reality through stories.   Perhaps, then, we can SHAPE reality by creating stories…and then living them. The better the story, the closer you get to effective successful action!

   Perhaps, as Antoni notes, words are indeed a powerful bridge between feelings (the passion that drives startups) and the deeds and actions that make them happen.

     Thanks, Antoni!

 

 

 

 

 

Five Life Lessons: Learning Life Forward

By Shlomo Maital

Kirkegaard Kirkegaard

The great Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard once defined the tragedy of life: “We live life [looking] forward,   we learn life [looking] backward”.   My wife and I are visiting York University, in Toronto, Canada. I spoke to a class of young engineers, just beginning their studies, at the invitation of my host, Prof. Andrew Maxwell, who heads the BEST Bergeron Entrepreneurship for Science & Technology program in the Lassonde School of Engineering. I shared with them these 5 life lessons, that I have learned personally:

  • Take on BIG challenges:   challenge yourself hugely. If you fail, failure is glorious, and you learn a lot, so much that there really is no such thing as failure, when you’re tackling something enormous. If you succeed – well, your life takes on huge meaning.      
  • Start with WHY!         Find something you are deeply passionate about. This will be your rocket fuel. Start with this, and move on from this point.       Many of my young students do not yet know what their life passion is, because no-one has asked them, nor have they asked yourself. Use your passion to fuel your rocket – but first, be sure to find such a passion.
  • Be like da Vinci: in SOME ways.   Leonard da Vinci was immensely creative, he invented the submarine, tank, airplane, parachute, and vastly more things. He drew with left-handed in his notebook, and wrote notes in mirror writing, to keep them secret.       So in this – be UNLIKE him.       Don’t keep secrets. If you never share your ideas, you’ll never improve or find people to help you implement them.
  • Be truly expert in at least one thing, go deeply into it; and learn a little about everything you can, you never know. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy (handwriting) at Reed College. Why? It interested him. Because he did, the Macintosh, when launched, had beautiful fonts. This led to desktop publishing. DT publishing saved the Mac, created a huge market, and it was utterly unintended… simply because Jobs loved beautiful fonts.      
  • Become very comfortable with being uncomfortable. All great things emerge from people who are uncomfortable about something – they just HATE it, can’t tolerate it, want to CHANGE it.       Much of modern life is about becoming, and remaining, comfortable, free of thirst, hunger, pain, boredom, anything uncomfortable. So get uncomfortable about something, and be comfortable with it, because THIS is what will drive you to action.

 

How Must Entrepreneurs Treat Failure?

A Practical Solution

By Shlomo  Maital   

    failure

  Last evening, I spoke to a group of Brazilian entrepreneurs, here in Sao Paulo, at an accelerator, Startup Farm, run very well by Alan Leite.  In the latest round, over 130 projects have been through Alan’s capable hands.  

   In my brief talk, I tried to practice what I preach, and listened carefully to precisely which messages I brought resonated.  The key one, by far?  About failure.  Entrepreneurship is less about success than about failure, how you perceive it, how you relate it, and how society relates to it.  There are cultures where failure is treated as a personal crime; those cultures will never ever have entrepreneurs.

    My wife Sharona, a psychologist, listened to my talk and gave me valuable feedback afterward. She reminded me of work by Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck, who has done pioneering work on ‘mindset’.   

  Here is a brief summary, in the context of startup failure.

   Mindset is a mental attitude that determines how you respond to situations. There are two types of mindsets. One is a fixed mindset, which assumes that intelligence is a fixed trait, and that all our qualities and capabilities are fixed, constant and constrained. The second is a growth mindset, which assumes that intelligence (and other capabilities) are qualities that change, grow and develop, especially when we work hard at it.  Why don’t we see unmotivated babies? Dweck asks. Because when babies learn to walk, stumbling is not failure, it is a vital step on the road to success…and because you have to learn to walk, you have to stumble and fall luntil you do.   Absolutely true of entrepreneurs, too.

   Entrepreneurs should have a growth mindset.  And they should use it to shape their perception of failure. 

     Failure can be regarded as personal:   I personally have failed. Or worse, I myself AM a failure.  My startup failed; I am a failure.

  1. Wrong. Wrong.

     Failure can be regarded as a learning experience; my startup failed, but I am a brave and courageous entrepreneur, because I attempted something very challenging, and did not succeed, but learned a great deal, and eventually I WILL succeed to change the world. 

      This is how entrepreneurs, and all of society around them, should, can and MUST interpret failure.  It is part of a growth mindset; failure is a step toward success.   Thomas Edison actually said that, when he tried 10,000 experiments to invent the filament of a light bulb, and each failure brought him closer to the final successful answer.

     Here is how Carol Dweck advises us to develop a growth mindset: 1.            Learn learn learn  2.   Realize hard work is key   3.  Face setbacks.     Focus on effort, struggle, persistence despite setbacks. Choose difficult tasks. Focus on strategies. Reflect on different strategies that work or don’t work. Focus on learning and improving. Seek challenges. Work hard.

    Thank you Professor Dweck!

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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