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Entrepreneurs: are Elegant Solutions Best?

Thursday, November 21st, 2013


Globally, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a toilet.

1 in 6 people don’t have running water.

Problems like these cry out for innovative solutions, but innovative doesn’t necessarily mean technically sophisticated.

A few years ago Cynthia Koenig saw the water problem first hand in South Africa.

Koenig launched a nonprofit organization to help distribute a locally available water transportation tool. In order to address the issues of poor quality control, corruption, and limited geographic distribution, she soon found herself at the helm of Wello. The social venture manufactures and distributes the WaterWheel, a 20-gallon drum that moves four to five times the amount of water possible using traditional methods of collection and carrying.

Simple, inexpensive and can even become a micro-business for an owner.

In contrast, five years ago the Gates Foundation issued a toilet challenge, with daunting parameters.

Make sure it takes in the bodily waste of an entire family and outputs drinkable water and condiments, like salt. And while you’re at it, make sure that the toilet is microprocessor-supervised and converts feces into energy. And all this has to cost just pennies per person per day.

That description is akin to a silver bullet, not a toilet.

The results, to date, are sophisticated, costly and unsustainable ideas, with prices north of $1000 per toilet.

How different from an available solution that, while it doesn’t do everything, does solves the basic problem and is amazingly cheap.

The Peepoo bag, which inexpensively (less than 2 cents per bag) sanitizes waste before turning it into fertilizer, are huge improvements. They can also be critical in saving lives after natural disasters.

Just think what a few thousand cases of these would mean right now in the Philippines—or in Illinois, for that matter.

Too often, sexy and elegant ends up being complex and expensive, whereas plebian and boring equates to simple and affordable.

Flickr image credit: bjornmeansbear

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If the Shoe Fits: Making DIY Management Work

Friday, November 8th, 2013

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mKG Charles-Harris, EMANIO founder/CEO, sent me a link about GitHub’s lean, “DIY management strategy pulled from the open-source world” and asked me what I thought.

So I read the article.

Open source lends itself to a great culture with a few caveats.

  • All of the approaches and actions described are based on 100% superlative, open, honest, direct, no-game communications, with no exceptions, which aren’t typical of the human race.
  • Millennials are impatient and will vote more quickly with their feet; HOWEVER, that may change as they marry and take on mortgages, kids, etc. High risk is more acceptable when you have little to lose.
  • The larger/faster a company grows the more difficult to keep hiring for cultural fit; and
  • the more difficult it is to keep the micro cultures that form under each leader (whether manager or not) aligned.

There is an underlying problem with stories about cultures like GitHub’s even with in-depth explanations of how and why they work.

Too often, founders who crave the results will try to implement the strategy without taking time to lay the groundwork.

Without the right cultural MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™) in place, a deep understanding of their own MAP and a good hiring process that ensures cultural fit, the results will probably be disappointing.
Image credit: Hiking Artist

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Entrepreneurs: Mary Hunter

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/theaccent/3367457947/Earlier this year I cited a study that demonstrates the value of experience for entrepreneurs, something in short supply if you are a twentysomething starting a company in your dorm room.

Best of all, there’s no upper end to creativity or sources of inspiration.

Mary Hunter says her ideas com from God, as do her recipes, but it was diabetes that drove her to find a better way to add flavor to the large roasts she cooks for her church.

And it was moxie that kept her moving forward for twenty years, because, whether your idea is the result of heavenly inspiration or drowning frustration in a few beers, execution is never smooth.

Now it’s finally happening.

Later this month, Mary’s Marinating Sticks are scheduled to go on sale in Target stores.

It took enormous risk, Hunter mortgaged her home at age 63; great support from family and friends; a sales force recruited from her church (a la Sarah Breedlove, AKA Madame C. J. Walker), the kind of hard work that generates good luck and a belief strong enough to overcome everything that went wrong—and plenty did.

There are dozens of entrepreneurs who are held up as examples of perseverance in the face of adversity, but few fought it through for 20 years.

Those that fight and win all have one thing in common; an edge of some kind.

Hunter would tell you her edge was God, others would say it was a spouse or friend or just plain stubbornness.

But I think they are more like the Energizer bunny and just keep going and going and going.

Flickr image credit: The Accent

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Doing it Differently

Monday, November 4th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/21560098@N06/3523627575/It’s the same whether in business or athletics.

Call it habit or tradition, when a new boss takes over she’s likely to bring in her own team.

This is especially true when the new boss is there to turn things around.

Common wisdom says the boss needs people who are loyal and know how she works.

But when Urban Meyer was brought in as head coach to turn Ohio State around he changed the standard game—and he’d started long before he got the offer.

Meyer figured he would eventually coach again, and he knew that his next head coaching job, his fourth, would be different. His staff would not be stocked with loyal assistants who understood the Meyer Way and its demands. (…) He wanted coaches with local ties, who understood the tradition at Ohio State. He also paid attention to the coaches’ wives. He had seen others “create conflict in our programs.”

Instead, he worked on a list and identified the people he wanted for his new team—relative unknowns as opposed to highly paid stars—and it worked.

To that end, he hurriedly assembled a group of relative strangers when he took over at Ohio State and then kept the group intact for a second season. Together, they have won 19 straight games, their next challenge coming Saturday against Penn State.

I hope you take time to read the story about this boss who brought in disparate people with disparate backgrounds, shared his vision and approach in detail, worked especially hard on strengthening the culture and avoiding previous mistakes.

Because, so far, all the stakeholders are winning.

Flickr image credit: Nina Matthews

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If the Shoe Fits: Does Vulnerability Spark Innovation?

Friday, November 1st, 2013

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mThe last founder who asked me how to build a stronger creative culture seemed to find it naïve and hilarious when I suggested he admit his errors, show some vulnerability and stop trying to convince his team and investors that he was infallible.

And it’s not the first time I’ve gotten that reaction.

So in the interests of helping founders who prefer to act invulnerable and stand on their dignity I thought I’d share the comments of Neil Blumenthal, co-chief executive of Warby Parker.

It’s through vulnerability that human beings create connections. The more vulnerable we can be with one another, the more that we’ll trust one another and the more we’ll be able to collaborate effectively.

How do you create a culture of innovation? The first way is actually asking for innovation. A lot of companies don’t expect or ask their team members to come up with ideas, but we demand it. It’s just everybody’s responsibility.

One other thing comment from Blumenthal that’s worth remembering…


I think that covers everything and from a source with unarguable credibility.

Flickr image credit: Hiking Artist and Alexander Johnmann

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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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Entrepreneurs: Can Anyone Escape Their Box?

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/3168458692/Everybody has a box.

And no matter how hard you try you’ll never really think outside it.

But you don’t have to.

As with most things, the good and bad of boxes rests with how you view them.

It’s not the box that matters, but its size and how you address that.

Steven Spielberg’s box is immense, far larger than most, yet he is constantly enlarging it, as did Steve Jobs.

And therein lays one of the secrets of a creative organization.

It’s not about encouraging your people to “think outside the box,” it’s about helping each to understand his/her own box and how to enlarge it.

Because that’s how it works.

As soon as you step outside your box, a new one forms. Once you totally use up its content and find its sides you go outside that box, a new one forms and the process begins again.

It takes work, but the process can continue throughout life—although some never start and some get comfortable in a certain box and retain it.

There will always be a box, but with effort it can be enlarged enough to encompass galaxies—and even entire universes.

Sharing this knowledge with your team and providing a culture in which they are encouraged and helped to expand their box is the hallmark of a great founder.

Flickr image credit: Mr. T in DC

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Can You Change Someone’s World?

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013


For many LIFE has become life, which they choose to live out on a small screen instead of on nature’s infinite stage.

But for some, that small, smooth screen is becoming an onramp to the infinite stage.

Smartphones and tablets, with their flat glass touch screens and nary a texture anywhere, may not seem like the best technological innovation for people who cannot see. But advocates for the blind say the devices could be the biggest assistive aid to come along since Braille was invented in the 1820s.

Not surprisingly, the iPhone is a leader in assistive apps.

One such is VoiceOver, which reads aloud the name of each app as you run your finger over it, just as a visual label shows when you rollover a menu item.

Many developers either don’t think or can’t be bothered to take advantage of the technology by labeling the buttons on their app, which leaves sight-challenged users literally in the dark.

What those developers haven’t figured out is that this is a substantial market—ten million in the US alone and a globally aging population that guarantees it will grow.

Moreover, it’s a highly networked market where anything new and useful is speedily shared.

Even if you are strictly in it for the money enabling your app to take advantage of the assistive technologies built into iOS and Android is smart, since doing so can differentiate you from the pack and help you access valuable media attention.

Writing an app seems to be a right of passage these days even among non-techies for whom it is a hobby and not a job.

So why not write it for a built-in, accessible market and do a bit of good along with the added income?

Flickr image credit: Bonnie Brown

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A New Corporate Era?

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013


There is change afoot.

Workers today crave more from work than just a paycheck.

They want to work for, or start, companies that contribute to the greater social good, from encouragement and time to volunteer and sanctioned participation and support in various forms of fundraising to companies who (gasp) give up some profit in the name of “doing good by doing well.”

Candidates and customers flock to companies like Toms Shoes and Warby Parker that guarantee to donate an item for every item sold.

There was a time that companies seemed to give more of a damn about their communities and employees.

Yes it was more paternalistic and I’m not suggesting a return to that, but the enshrinement of greed in the name of profit goes deeper.

What happened?

Milton Friedman, his cronies and a media frenzy happened.

In 1970, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine in which he famously argued that the only “social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

And as that mantra took hold so did the attitude that the only stakeholders that mattered were shareholders.

The belief that shareholders come first is not codified by statute. Rather, it was introduced by a handful of free-market academics in the 1970s and then picked up by business leaders and the media until it became an oft-repeated mantra in the corporate world.

Which, in turn, entrenched Wall Street’s quarter-long, short-term thinking and gave rise to the Carl Icahns of the investing world.

Friedman’s statement gave tacit approval and wide latitude to corporate raiders, leveraged buy-out firms and others to do literally anything in the name of profit and investor returns.

Lynn Stout, a professor of corporate and business law at Cornell University Law School, said these legal theories appealed to the media — the idea that shareholders were king simplified the confusing debate over the purpose of a corporation.

And we, i.e., society, accepted that attitude for half a century.

The results can be seen every day and they aren’t pretty—unless you’re part of the so-called 1% (or even the top 25%).

While there is change afoot, it begs the question—is it too little too late?

Flickr image credit: 401(K) 2013

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Are You a Messy Desk or Clean Desk Person?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013


An article a few days ago made me a happy camper for three very different reasons. Here they are in the order of their importance to me.

Reason 1: It provided a scientifically acceptable reason for having a messy desk and gave me permission to quit trying to clean it up. This was especially nice, since ‘clear desk’ is a constant item on my to-do list.

Reason 2: The clinically tested reason for having a perennially messy desk is creativity. How cool is that?

Reason 3: I beat the pattern because I have creativity, yet I eat healthy and go to the gym daily (not on weekends).

Essentially, the study showed that “Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges,… people that are organized and predictable, typically eat better and live longer than people who are disorderly. They also tend to have immaculate offices.

Last year I found that I possessed three of the five parts of Innovator DNA, based on a Harvard definition, but, after a lifetime of trying, am totally incapable of the final two.

Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study, seems to think that the only way a messy desk person could develop healthy habits is to clean up their desk.

“My advice would be, if you need to think outside the box” for a future project, says, then let the clutter rise and unfetter your imagination. But if your primary goal is to eat well or to go to the gym, pick up around your office first. By doing this, the naturally messy can acquire some of the discipline of the conscientious.

I’m willing to bet that Dr. Vohs is a clean desk person or she would understand that it’s not that simple.

But, as a messy desk person, I will tell you that you can build a healthy eating-gym attending persona without ever cleaning up your desk.

One caveat, in part of the study people were given a choice between chocolate and a healthy snack (carrot sticks?). The messy desk crowd took the chocolate, which meant a messy desk equals unhealthy choices.

However, based on a lifetime of experience with neat desk friends, all with lots of self-discipline, I think it just means they didn’t like chocolate.

Flickr image credit: Jeffrey Beall

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