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Archive for August, 2013

If the Shoe Fits: The Myth of Meritocracy

Friday, August 30th, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mThose who like to believe that tech is a utopian-like meritocracy need to wake up to reality.

Silicon Valley is indeed a meritocracy for those to whom these criteria are not hurdles. But others—the blacks, women, and Hispanics whom it overlooks—find it an elite private club from which they are excluded. — Vivek Wadhwa (see the entire article series here)

According to Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus and (for those of you who are too young to remember) sold it to IBM in 1995 for $3.5 billion, the idea that all it takes is hard work and a god product to be a success in the Valley is pure fantasy.

“There’s an admirable belief about the virtues of meritocracy – that the best ideas prove the best results. It’s a wrong and misguided belief by well-intentioned people.”

The idea that merit matters goes further down the drain when you see comments, such as the most recent one from Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame.

One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it’s a strong pattern we’ve seen.

Or this comment.

I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon…Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.

Kapor now runs Kapor Capital, a for-profit venture firm focused on funding minorities whose ideas are focused on improving opportunities for the poor through education, sees the world very differently.

“We have a responsibility to give people opportunities to do what they can do. It’s a fundamental tenet of democratic society. Libertarians who believe in a completely minimalist state, and don’t feel we have that responsibility, are harming humanity.”

Choosing a role model is a private decision. 

Who will you channel? Mitch Kapor or Paul Graham?

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Collection I

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/28674126@N02/4315420315/I read about a lot of startups, but the ones that really resonate with me are the ones that are doing more than creating a business.

I can’t write them all up, so I though I’d give you the links to a few favorites along with my reasons.

For Israel and Palestine, entrepreneurial passion may do what so-called diplomacy has failed to do.

Even by Middle East standards, the scene in a Dead Sea restaurant, situated within a “green zone”–a no-man’s-land claimed by neither Israelis nor Palestinians–was surreal.

What do you get when you combine an Israeli Special Forces commando, an Arab investor and a religious Zionist? An ultra hot startup called Webydo.

Webydo has removed software code developers and programmers from the picture – enabling professional graphic designers to create sites on the fly for ten times cheaper, and far faster.

I am a dedicated recycler, so you can imagine my feelings when my grocer stopped taking plastic bags for recycling. When I asked why he said that China wasn’t accepting them for recycling, so there was no place to send them. Terrific! We use all that energy to send them to China, so they can ship back whatever they made from them.

I much prefer a solution being developed by Sierra Energy called the FastOx Pathfinder.

The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and carbon monoxide, … can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel.

As you can see, the apps that entrepreneurs and investors seem to love aren’t on my interest list; they mostly solve the imagined problems of “affluent and hyper-connected 20-somethings in cities with great cell service and ample Wi-Fi” who prefer impersonal sex-without-strings, bargains and inane pastimes.

But there’s finally an app a parent can truly love—especially when separated from their children in a war-torn country—from an entrepreneur who had the sense to avoid the bleeding edge.

According to UNICEF,  RapidFTR’s ability to photograph, record and share information about lost children has reduced the time it takes to reunite families from over six weeks to just hours. The app was not particularly complicated, from a technical standpoint, but Mr. Just wanted to make sure it was something aid organizations would actually adopt.

Personal annoyance, in this case with charging wires, has always been an innovation driver, but stubbornness and a silo-breaking mentality also help. And even after all that, Meredith Perry still had a difficult time getting uBeam funded—well, of course SHE did.

Her idea, she discovered, meant marrying the fields of sound, electricity, battery technology and other subspecialties. (…)  Each expert seemed to dwell in his own private silo, so that whenever she crossed from one discipline to another, she would run into the same wall of constricted thinking.

Finally, on a lighter note, another woman is out to abolish the need for the underwire that provides all that lift that women tolerate and men crave.

In this case, 3-D has nothing to do with 3-D fabric printing, but rather with the way the Curvessence technology used in the brand’s lingerie works. Cohen says the nylon polymers sculpt to conform to a woman’s torso, and “remembers” its shape over time, slowly returning to its original form if it is temporarily stretched, for instance.

Flickr image credit: Seth Waite

life on the Small Screen

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

The world is an amazing place.

It’s full of comedy and tragedy; sound and fury; happy and sad; friends and enemies; family and lovers; beauty and ugliness; pain and pleasure; joy and sorrow.

There was a time that LIFE was LIVED and wisdom gained through direct interaction with all of these and more—much, much more.

These days direct interaction has been replaced by a screen.

That’s not LIVING; I don’t know what it is, but it’s not LIFE.

YouTube credit: charstarleneTV

Ducks in a Row: TCBY vs. Microsoft

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013


Common wisdom says that the larger a company the harder it is to get management to listen, especially when it goes against fundamental corporate practice.

Franchises are even worse and the longer they’ve been around the less they are likely to listen to a franchisee, let alone a new one.

But when they do the result can go way beyond the most optimistic prediction.

The frozen-yogurt giant credits the 32-year-old’s success with pushing them to embrace the self-serve model – a move that has reinvigorated the company and led to exponential growth.

TCBY had been around 30 successful years when Samuel Batt was approved for a new franchise in 2010.

He grew up eating TCBY, but wanted to incorporate self-service—enabling customers to choose flavors, toppings and quantity of each—in his new franchise.

Sounds old hat today, but DIY was just gaining traction in new venues back then.

Long story short; the powers-that-be said yes, as long as he kept the branding.

And within three weeks, his location was one of the top-five most profitable franchises in the country. (…) About half of TCBY’s nearly 500 franchises across the country have embraced the new model to great success, each doing from 25 percent to 200 percent better in sales than with the traditional model, Brian Mooney, director of operations for the Eastern U.S., said.

Management could have just as easily said no.

Compare TCBY’s attitude to Steve Ballmer’s at Microsoft; they are close to the same age—TCBY is just six years younger than Microsoft.

In 2007 Ballmer said, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

He didn’t listen to either his own people or the industry when they said that mobile and the cloud were the future—or maybe he was in denial.

But as I recall, Bill Gates didn’t listen when staff tried to tell him that the Internet was going to be really, really BIG.

Bosses at every level, not just CEOs, have a choice.

They can choose to listen and be flexible—or not.

Flickr image credit: jessica mullen

No Sexual Harassment Recourse

Monday, August 26th, 2013


I have exciting news for all the creep bosses out there who miss the days when they could grope and talk dirty to their subordinates, without fear of lawsuits, reprisal or losing their jobs.

All they have to do is hire an unpaid intern, because they have no legal recourse.

“…unpaid interns are not “employees” under the Civil Rights Act — and thus, they’re not protected.”

Unpaid internships may be under siege, the courts siding with the interns and social media blasting Sheryl Sanberg’s Lean In Foundation for offering one, but they’re still around and perfect for all the bosses bent in that direction.

And while I doubt any of them are reading my blog, you probably know at least one person who, if only in fantasy, fits the bill and to whom you might forward this post—not that it will change them.

More importantly, forward it to anyone you know who is considering an unpaid internship in the hope they will take a second and third look at the manager, team and company that’s offering it.

Hat tip to KG Charles-Harris for sending the harassment article.

Flickr image credit: quinn.anya

If the Shoe Fits: the Startup Social Contract Redux

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mBased on current media reading and discussions with founders and startup employees I decided it was time to revisit a 2011 post from Matt Weeks. I might add that the ethics underlying the Startup Social Contract are applicable to any company and every manager. –Miki

“Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.” –George Washington

For early stage companies (and for all well-run private, Pre-IPO or Pre-Acquisition firms), the stock awarded to employees and the executive team is a form of “social contract” that promises them unusually high “return” for their risk, hard work, “sweat investment” and belief in the company.

The unstated social contract goes something like this:

I will initially forego a higher salary and cash compensation, in lieu of stock options that will increase in value at a faster rate than possible elsewhere, and will “return” more than the forfeited cash compensation might have, over time.

This is both an investment risk approach (“Do I believe the company’s product or service can win in the marketplace?”) and a simple ROI calculation (“Is the salary/cash compensation I forfeit going to be made-up (and then some) in a reasonable amount of time?”)

Because I am now an “owner” (“investor”) in this company (seeking to boost stock value. i.e. company value), I presumably have strong incentive to help the company thrive.

This includes being diligent and helping avoid risk, helping to find and fix problems everywhere, as well as going above and beyond my “job description” to help the company thrive and grow. I am super-diligent and respect and protect the company’s assets, reputation and product/service quality.  I treat this as “my” company.

In short, as an owner-employee (at any level), I understand that I have to “have the company’s back” and that others in the company “have my back.” We all watch-out for one another.  Our stock positions fairly and accurately reflect our contributions and risk “investments” we’ve made in this venture.

If the workers and/or the exec team come to disrespect, disbelieve or ignore this social contract, the company is lost.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Wisdom from Jeff Bezos

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Jeff Bezos holds kick-ass entrepreneur credentials.

First, he really did create something humongous from nothing.

Secondly, he didn’t patent every innovation, like one-click purchasing, that would have crippled all of ecommerce.

The following video is from 2009.

Here’s the money quote, or perhaps mantra is a better label.

“Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. You do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, but for a long period of time well-meaning people may criticize that effort, and when you receive criticism from well-meaning people it pays to say — first of all, search yourself — are they right? And if they are you need to adapt what you’re doing. If they’re not right, if you really have conviction that they’re not right then you need to have that long term willingness to be misunderstood.” 

But it’s his recommendation that you need to honestly explore the possibility that the nay-sayers may be correct and you need to adapt that is most important.

Thanks to Business Insider for reincarnating this information.

YouTube credit: AspenInstitute

When Hilarious Equals Sales

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

What’s the holy grail of marketing in these days of multiple media channels?


No matter the medium, every marketer’s dream is to have everyone talking/sharing/tweeting/liking whatever they did.

Viral is four million views in four days.

That’s what happened to a startup that applied a proven subscription model to a very old product and made one of the most hilarious, irreverent videos ever.

How great was the effect?

“What [revenue] took me a month, I now do in an hour,” said Hello Flo founder Naama Bloom.

Here’s the video; what do you think?

(I recently wrote posts here, here and here, with links to more information on creating something viral.)

YouTube credit: Hello Flo

Ducks in a Row: People Power

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/glynlowe/8394384671/Last year, Brad Feld of Foundry Group joined a roster of gurus who recommend hiring for cultural fit above all.

I said it again last week.

Henry Ford was one of the first to explain why, If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.

This is true for every company from startups through the Fortune 10.

And the key word isn’t “forward” it’s “everyone.”

Research has shown that culture trumps strategy and the most important component of culture is people.

Without people there is no company.

With the wrong people there is no team.

It is the team that makes vision reality.

It is the team that draws investment and customers.

It is the team that lets you pivot, innovate and change when necessary—no matter your size

It is the team that saves your ass when you screw up.

Your team is made up of the people who focus on the success of the company, knowing that its success ensures their own, not the people who work primarily for their own success.

A strong team always trumps a group of individual players—no matter how good they are or what each has done in the past.

Team needs and candidate attitude should always trump individual credentials, experience, previous title and company.

Flickr image credit: Glyn Lowe Photoworks

An Internet Second

Monday, August 19th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/56380734@N05/6540313461/Entrepreneurs of all stripes are obsessed with the Internet.

They are not alone; most companies, from enterprise to micro biz feel the same way.

And it’s true whether their business is social media, ecommerce or a “real product” for the “real world.”

For those who are curious here is a realtime visual graphic that puts the impact of the Internet in perspective.

In one second on the Internet there are…

Flickr image credit: Jens Rost

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