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Archive for October, 2013

Entrepreneurs: a Conversation Fit for Halloween

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/cartercomics/46724466/In the spirit of Halloween and associated scary stuff, I thought I’d share a conversation I had earlier this week with KG Charles-Harris, entrepreneur, EMANIO CEO, and good friend.

It started when I sent him this article showcasing how little has changed over the last 40 years.

Miki:  “The crappy human race never learns…”

KG:  “That’s why I believe the machines will take over soon. The developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, bio- & nanotechnology, among other, are ensuring that machines are becoming self-healing and self-replicating. And consciousness is the next frontier.
‘The Internet of Things’ is just a fancy way of saying that all machines and devices will be interconnected and share data and resources. When consciousness comes, it will spread instantaneously across this network. What happens to humans as a result has been depicted in several movies and books, including Terminator and The Matrix.
Unfortunately I believe these are optimistic versions of what will become reality. Those of us who have studied biology and ecology know that when a new species is added to an ecosystem it invariable leads to mass kill off and mass extinctions of previously prominent species.  We are in the process of creating our children.

Miki: “I just think our poor planet would be better off sans people and electronics. Maybe give Earth 10,000 or so years to heal and let a better species evolve.”

KG:  “Well, if my theories are correct, we’ll soon have a planet without humans.  However, since it will be guided by “things” created by humans, it will likely not be better for nature than now, but worse…”

Miki:  “I won’t be around to see it, but I can hope that both species go the way of the dodo bird…”

KG:  “Unfortunately, I believe that we both may be alive for this occurrence.  In fact, it may have happened but we have no knowledge of it.  It may have happened in a lab environment without contact with the internet or the outside world.”

As often happens, once a subject pops up you suddenly see it everywhere.

The first was an article about Vicarious, a startup creating software that thinks and acts like a human brain. But when I sent the link to KG, he replied that Google, Yale, MIT and Syntience are further along.Then I found that DARPA is on the same path and other companies are creating robots that look more like us.

Miki:  “If they have true consciousness they will think for themselves, which means they won’t necessarily follow in human footsteps.”

KG:  “True, but unfortunately children often absorb some of the worst traits of their parents…”

How true.

And sad, because Isaac Asimov provided the solution more than 70 years ago when he created the Three Laws of Robotics.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Not that they will be programmed into the next dominant species we are racing to create.

Flickr image credit: Jeff Carter

What Does It Take to Grow?

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013


Bosses are pretty vocal in describing what they want from their teams, but what do bosses owe their teams in return?

Entire books have been written to answer that question, but the words of E.E. Cummings offer a more succinct response.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are…”

Bosses owe their people an environment that fosters the courage and provides the room to grow.

And they owe them that even when what they become doesn’t fit the boss’ future needs.

Flickr image credit: Oregon Department of Forestry

Ducks in a Row: a Different World

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013


In 2006 I wrote a post detailing a VP’s discomfort after finding out that the wife of one of his senior reports had cited verbal and physical abuse as grounds for a divorce.

The VP said the information was coloring his opinion of the manager.

At the end of the post I asked, “If Ron should continue to manage and evaluate Terry based on Terry’s performance and leave Terry to manage his own personal life.”

The responses, including one from Liz Ryan, all agreed that what goes on in someone’s personal life has nothing to do with evaluating their worthiness or value on the job and the VP should ignore the information. (Both the VP and I agreed with this.)

Fast forward a short six years and consider how that has changed.

Evaluating personal actions via social media when hiring and regarding postings and social commentary as reasons to fire are common.

Just as work has leaked and flowed into personal time, so personal choices, from healthy/unhealthy habits to how you spend your time off to the internal workings of your relationships, now color bosses’ attitudes and evaluations.

The question, ‘should they’ hasn’t changed, but the world has, so the results of personal choices are similar to the ripples that radiate when you toss a stone into a quiet pool.

No matter how passionately you believe and push for a world where personal choices are just that you would be wise to recognize the reality in which you live.

There is a great middle ground between sharing nothing and sharing everything.

Social wisdom is a matter of thinking ahead and choosing your battles; doing worst case analysis and making sure the ones you choose are worth fighting for and that you are willing to pay the price of the battle.

Flickr image credit: Don DeBold

Do Words Matter?

Monday, October 28th, 2013


Have you ever take a step backwards from the point you are adamantly arguing and looked objectively at the end results of the two positions?

Ask the true believers of any question and they will assure you that the end result of their approach is vastly different from that of their verbal/ideological/actual opponent.

But is it really different?

Consider, for example, Malcolm Berko’s acerbic explanation of capitalism and socialism.

In a capitalist society, man exploits man, whereas in a socialist society, it’s the other way around.

Basically, the difference between the two is just a matter of degree. Russian politicians, with the approval of the government, rip off state-owned businesses and become millionaires or billionaires. In the process, the Russian citizen gets screwed.

In the U.S., JPMorgan Chase, Enron, Countrywide Financial, the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, MCI WorldCom, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America rip off the consumer, and in the process, the politicians become wealthy and the American public gets screwed.

In actuality, the same actions yield the same results; only the terms used have changed.

But try telling that to someone who is passionately for or against.

Words equal spin and spin can suck you in; a good thing to remember considering everything going on, not to mention the upcoming elections.

Flickr image credit: moonrat42

If the Shoe Fits: You and Selective Hearing

Friday, October 25th, 2013

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mA Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

Founders are constantly considering choices and making decisions to move their company forward, but the anxiety, stress and fear that accompany the excitement and frequent highs of startup life can distort and disrupt the decision-making process.

Noreena Hertz, professor of economics at University College London, explains this in the light of her own medical drama.

When the volunteers were given information that was better than they hoped or expected…they adjusted closer to the new risk percentages presented. But if it was worse, they tended to ignore this new information.

It’s called selective hearing; hearing what you want to hear—hearing whatever agrees with you and rationalizing or ignoring that which doesn’t.

It’s a notorious managerial mindset when checking references and accounts for a large percentages of bad hires.

Founders can be subject to serious cases of selective hearing, especially when the market doesn’t fully validate their vision.

When we find data that supports our hopes we appear to get a dopamine rush similar to the one we get if we eat chocolate, have sex or fall in love. But it’s often information that challenges our existing opinions or wishful desires that yields the greatest insights.

For founders, hearing and responding intelligently to those challenges does more than provide insights.

In fact, the right response can be the difference between success and failure.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Tell Me a Story

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


A few years ago I wrote that stories are a useful management tool.

Stories are also the best way to present your company and its products to the world.

The problem is that most founders are focused on the vision can’t tell the story—at least not the whole story.

Listen to Brooke Hammerling, founder of Brew Media Relations.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve met with early-stage companies, and they start by telling us their big vision. They say, ‘This is what we’re about and what we want to change.’ But when we ask them what they actually do, they can’t tell us. If you can’t answer that question, don’t do anything else until you can. Nothing else matters.”

I certainly don’t have Hammerling’s experience or knowledge, but I hear the same thing.

To start with, a vision isn’t a story—it’s an overview.

Usually a macro level overview drawn in sweeping strokes that quickly degenerates into a micro description of the technology.

Worse, the vision is almost always a product of the founder(s), often conceived before the company actually started, and enshrined as stated unless there’s a pivot.

It’s a unilateral view that often misses peripheral or subtle background factors that may yield better positioning.

But if not the founders, what’s a better approach? What’s the source of the story?

When Hammerling takes on a new client, the first thing she does is separate the key members of the team, including the investors. Then she fires questions at them about the product: “What are you? Why are you? Who are you? What problem are you solving and how are you solving it? Why should people care right now?” The idea is to hear what all of them say — where are the differences? Where are the overlaps? What do the people who care most about the company’s success think it is?

While founders can’t/shouldn’t create the story alone, everyone agrees nobody can provide the passion that must permeate the story like a founder.

When a product, message and strategy align with a founder who can deliver it all clearly and persuasively, there’s no telling how powerful that can be. 

So if you’re looking for a great strategy to develop your brand’s voice use the link; the information Hammerling shares will give you an excellent, workable framework to build upon.

Flickr image credit: portland general

Coming or Going?

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shinazy/7310391140/Bosses across the spectrum are wringing their hands and worrying about creating an environment that will attract and retain young workers, while still motivating and retaining the rest.

It would be amusing to watch them try and jump through the required hoops if it wasn’t so sad.

Sad because so many of the required behaviors aren’t new.

The Millennials are demanding what people have wanted all along.

Yes, there are differences between what Millennials, Gen-X and Boomers want, but the important cultural basics are the same.

The biggest difference is patience, i.e., how long they will stay when not getting what they want?

Millennials want their work to matter; they want to be heard, recognized, challenged, mentored and grow.

Correcting for descriptive language, there is nothing new on that list from what good workers have wanted for decades.

So what changed; why is it so imperative now?

Partly the numbers.

In America its staff are young: 62% are from Generation Y, 29% are from Generation X and just 9% are baby-boomers.

But mostly the impatience. The young vote with their feet far more easily than older workers because they have less to lose—no mortgage, no kids and responsible only for themselves—and the economy improves Gen-X and the Boomers will also vote more quickly with their feet.

Google is often portrayed as the embodiment of millennial-friendly work practices. But Laszlo Bock, a human-resources chief at the internet firm, points out that it has workers as old as 83. And he argues that the only thing different about Generation Y is that it is actually asking for the things that everybody else wants.

The improving economy is a sword over every boss who considers talent replaceable and, therefore, expendable.

Bosses don’t need Google-style perks to hire and keep great talent, but they do need to create a culture that provides the intangible wants, whether in synergy with or in spite of what their company does.

Flickr image credit: Bitchin’ Ol’ Boomer Babe

Ducks in a Row: Killing Creativity

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013


According to brothers Tom and David Kelley, founders of the iconic design firm IDEO, everybody is creative no matter what their background or career path.

“…early failures, defeats and setbacks can lead otherwise creative people to shut down their own best ideas.”

If you accept their reasoning and your team isn’t as creative as you would like the fault most likely lies with you.

The “early” in the above quote can refer to early in life, but also early in tenure.

How often have you hired someone with a track record of creativity only to find them carefully coloring within the lines?

That’s usually the result of having creative ideas rejected, arbitrarily shot down or, worse, ridiculed—not once, but over and over.

Even when those negative responses are from a team member, it’s still your responsibility, since the culture that makes acts like that acceptable is either sourced from or condoned by you.

Flickr image credit: liz west

If the Shoe Fits: Why to Draw the Line

Friday, October 18th, 2013

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mFounders are much like football (and other sports) coaches when it comes to managing their people.

Coaches are notorious for accepting/ignoring bad behavior, especially from key players, in the name of winning.

And while that may work in the very short term, longer-term results usually plunge and indirect collateral damage escalates.

Founders often hire “stars” and cut them the same kind of slack when they act out, with far more serious effects.

In fact, tolerating the bad attitude and actions of a few stars can either spread to the whole team or tear it apart and destroy it.

Not all coaches turn a blind eye.

With reports of poor grades, cyberbullying and attitude problems, the coaches were unwilling to support the declining behavior of their team. So just before the homecoming game, they suspended all 80 players.

Doing that meant forfeiting the game, but what then?

They gave every player the opportunity of earning their way back on the team.

Head coach Matt Labrum reset the standard of acceptable behavior. He clearly articulated what was needed, provided support to develop the vital skills, and raised the bar on what was expected. Players knew exactly what choices were required to remain on the team.

Notice they weren’t just told to improve or stop X, they were given clear goals, the support to achieve them and were held accountable.

No company succeeds based only on its so-called stars.

Just as “it takes a village to raise a child” it takes a team to build a successful company.

It also takes a founder willing to draw the line and hold it in a constructive and meaningful way.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Crowdfunding, ZOOMPesa and Me

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Tony-JesseYesterday was launch day. Finally! Long time coming.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago Tony Maina got in touch regarding his startup ZOOMPesa.

Tony and his co-founder Jesse Gitonga Mukundi have a strong belief in “doing good by doing well” as do I.

One conversation led to another and the short version is that I became deeply involved in crafting ZOOMPesa’s social aspect and other parts of their branding, which included developing the content for our crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo.com. (indiegogo was chosen because, while Tony and Jesse are Kenyan, they live in Canada.)

Along with being an active participant, I was also invited to serve on the formal advisory board.

Rather than paraphrasing, here is a brief excerpt from the campaign to explain ZOOMPesa.

ZOOMPesa was born of our frustration when sending money home to our families Kenya.
Frustration because the wiring companies charged so much that there was less for our families and because it was so inconvenient for everybody.
So we put our heads together and figured out the kind of service we wanted.

  • An ultra-convenient service that allowed international money transfers using any kind of dumb or smart mobile phone or a computer online that was instantly credited to a mobile money account, AND
  • charge 20-50% less than other services depending on the amount of money sent AND
  • let that one low fee cover transfers to 2 or even 3 different people.

Then we started thinking about how Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker give a pair of shoes or glasses for every one that’s bought and we wanted to do something like that, too.
Giving our service free didn’t make sense, but giving a percentage of each fee to a group, like a clinic or school, that’s local to the sender did make sense. And with your help that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
ZOOMPesa will make sending money home convenient and inexpensive and let us all GIVE BACK at the same time.
That’s why we call ZOOMPesa the money transfer service with a heart.

Please visit our campaign to learn more.

And donate because an affordable money transfer service is badly needed as is the social good that comes with its use; plus we have some cool rewards.

On a personal level I want ZOOMPesa to succeed for many reasons, not the least of which is proving that a financial services company can be profitable and succeed without sky high fees and lousy customer service.

(Contact me for help with your crowdfunding content.)

Image credit: ZOOMPesa

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