The Commoditization of Ideas

Had a great time last week working with 50+ students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Flagler Business School. The students are part of the GLOBE program – an 18 month program bringing together undergraduates from three business schools: UNC’s Kenan-Flagler, Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).


I took the students through our Entrepreneur Core Characteristics Profile (ECCP) and helped them identify implications of their results — how their personality matches up with what is typically required to launch a successful venture.

One of our more interesting conversations was about the relationship between ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurship.  I find that a lot of aspiring founders believe that startup success is mostly about the idea, when, in fact, ideas have become commoditized in today’s world. Because the world’s knowledge and data are instantly, globally google-able and sharable — chances are any brilliant idea you’ve developed is hatching in multiple sites and minds across the planet.


The metaphor we discussed is illustrated in the three posted pictures …

  • Ideas are like seeds:  plentiful, inexpensive, easy to access.
  • Innovation is getting a healthy plant out of the ground, generating fruit.
  • Entrepreneurship is farming — it’s about pulling together an entire process for creating value, putting food on tables (metaphorically) for a market that will pay for that value.  As such, entrepreneurship requires a wide range of capabilities and resources, not the least of which is time and (almost always) lots of patience.


Here’s the full slide deck from my talk.

Thank you Ted Zoller and Chris Mumford for inviting to work with the students.  Look forward to next time!


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Why Startups Fail at Communication (“Let me close the door”)

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.

Edward R. Murrow, 1964

On the face of it, you’d think startups and small businesses would be bastions of open, healthy communication, full of people who have sworn off the secret obsessions and toxic climates of the big corporations they left behind.

It should be easy to have direct, no-nonsense conversations in an early-stage venture. Right? No bureaucratic red tape to stifle candid dialogue or common-sense problem solving.

The reality is not so simple.

Case in point: An early-stage startup I advised a few years ago — a venture with only fifteen employees — where the firm’s COO listened to my private conference room interviews through the wall of his adjacent office by putting his ear to a cup against the wall (you can’t make this stuff up).
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Don’t Let Complexity Kill Your Value Proposition

I was working with a senior leader of a Fortune 100 company last week.  He was nervous about an upcoming product launch, one that had gotten countless hours of development and a treasure full of capital. Product developers were beaming and corporate expectations were through the roof.

His concern: the product would be dead on arrival because it was too complex for core customers to understand, and, at a more basic level, it was too complicated for even the company’s own salespeople to grasp and explain.

While the basic premise underlying the product was brilliant, the concept had been overtaken by feature creep — a proliferation of bells, whistles, bed knobs and broomsticks. Value had been eclipsed by complexity. Perfect had become the enemy of good.

The chart above, by Marc Effron, illustrates a simple, powerful business principle: the value/complexity curve. Effron uses it to explain why so many HR programs and systems are never implemented by an organization’s managers. Simply put, most corporate programs are too complicated for the average manager to put into use (Effron’s primary focus is on talent management systems, but the point travels well across all HR programs, and across nearly any internally driven corporate improvement program). The reality is that no program or product has any value unless it is implemented, and the tragedy is that few managers have the time and bandwidth to implement most programs, however well-intentioned, because the programs are over-thought and over-designed.

As Effron notes:

Our belief is that implementation is everything — if we simply get talent management practices implemented, they are going to deliver the results that you’re looking for.  And, if we can prove to managers that the practices will add more value to their life than more complexity, they are much more likely to use them.

His point reminds me of a strategy truism:  A B-level strategy, effectively implemented, is infinitely more valuable than an A-level strategy that is poorly or sporadically implemented.

The value-compexity curve applies in spades to the startup process, and emphasizes the value of getting a minimum viable product in your customer’s hands.

Simple works, mainly because it’s more likely to actually happen. Everything beyond that is called improvement.


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Here’s to Sharper Attention and Greater Depth (Update)


I first came across Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, nearly two-and-a-half years ago, in June of 2010, as I was piecing together the last chapter of my own book.  When I say “came across,” I mean that I learned about Carr’s book via online publicity, scanned some of its content, and skimmed a few early reviews.  Within a few computer clicks, I had grasped the book’s message (I thought) so confidently that I referenced it in Chapter 8 of my book, right there on page 186:

“And in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr offers the well-formulated thesis that our 24/7 information age is robbing us of nothing less than our ability to think deeply.”

I knew at the time that Carr was on to something tremendously important. At an intuitive level, his core premise resonated with my experience almost perfectly.  Of course, I didn’t actually read his book. I was too busy finishing my own. And I certainly didn’t understand, at the time, the comic irony of my quickly and shallowly dipping a spoonful of content from the deep well of his synthesized work.

On Saturday afternoon, I finally picked up the new paperback edition of The Shallows and immersed myself in it over two days.  It’s been at least 20 years since a non-fiction book gripped me with such force, and I can’t think of one I would recommend more highly. Carr isn’t formulating academic theory, but instead, through his synthesis of a wide array of historical observations and neurological research, he’s telling a tale about how the human mind interacts with the forces of technology, for better and worse.  For all the incredible advances and conveniences offered by networked computing, we humans are riding a technological wave that might be returning us back to the viscerally-directed attention patterns of our pre-literate ancestors.

The book’s insights not only hit home for me at a personal level. Most of my professional work involves supporting and improving the performance of executives and entrepreneurs.  Many of them are harried, distracted, and drowning in torrential streams of unfiltered data. They reflexively snap their heads back and forth in hopes of capturing a few key bits and bytes of information. When they move with speed it’s usually toward unclear destinations, but more often they feel as if they’re running in quicksand.  Our ongoing joke about adult ADD has become so common that it just tires us even more.

Plenty of controversy has flown back and forth about Carr’s conclusions, with valid viewpoints on both sides, as he points out. But, when it comes to understanding the stuff of which we are made — how we think, choose, and act — and the direction in which we are moving as a species, this debate might be the most fruitful of our time.

Here’s wishing you, your families, and your firms a wonderful 2013, full of clear thinking, deep attention, appropriate velocity, and the joy of engaging in all the right challenges!


Two notes: (1) The absence of hyper-links in this post is intentional — read Carr’s book to find out why (not a permanent practice, just a nod on my part). (2) This is not a PR-driven post. I don’t know the author or his publicists.

UPDATE – click on ‘comments’ below to get a broader perspective and more detailed response from Elizabeth Helfant (@ehelfant). Elizabeth’s expertise is in instructional technology (check out her bio here) and she’s more deeply versed than most of us.  Please add your thoughts as well… Thanks – JB.


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Psychology for Startups


I’m finishing up a guest post for CoFounders Lab blog on psychological aspects of founding a startup.  I’ve worked with the topic quite a bit, but had not seen this excellent overview from Justin Singer via Slideshare – from a recent presentation at Columbia.  It’s worth some time and reflection if you’re interested in tools and concepts for managing the uncertainty of early-stage life.

The concepts apply to leadership and decision-making in general — not just within startups — because they are rooted in universal human cognitive and emotional tendencies.


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Lean Startup Conference – Narrated Slides

Great experience last week at the 2012 Lean Startup Conference.  I’ll be digging through my notes for a while and plan to write a series of posts based on insights I gained while there.  For now, I’ve recorded a narration of the slides from my Ignite talk on Sunday night. In the real talk, the slides advanced automatically every 15 seconds — Here, I fudged a bit, just to get complete points across!  Enjoy, and I look forward to your comments.

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Psychological Undercurrents and the Lean Startup


Heading to San Francisco in a few days for the Lean Startup Conference and am looking forward to being an Ignite speaker on Sunday night.  I’ll focus on psychological undercurrents that make or break a founder’s effectiveness in applying lean startup methodology.

I’m a big fan of lean startup concepts pioneered by Eric Ries (and the customer development framework developed by Steve Blank that helped give rise to the lean startup movement).  One of our goals at ReadyFounder Services is to help popularize these approaches within the broader world of the everyday entrepreneur — beyond the technology arena — to aspiring founders of restaurants, law firms, construction companies, etc., and with any leader who’s attempting to launch a high-impact innovation.

But the effective use of these rational, market-centric tools requires the sound use of human judgment, an area where unconscious biases always come into play.

A few of the questions I’ll attempt to address (or at least tee up) during the talk:

  • What neurological factors underlie a founder’s or investor’s tendency to become emotionally/intellectually attached to their creation? 
  • What cognitive biases should every entrepreneur know about? 
  • How can a 4-year-old kid help a startup team?
  • What are “Icarus Qualities” and how do they drive entrepreneurs too close to the sun? 
  • Why do we avoid “people pivots” when they are needed? 

That’s probably a lot to aspire to for a 5-minute talk — but we’ll give it our very best shot!

Hope to see you in SF.


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Give Your Idea Time to Take Flight — (Part 2 ): PERSONAL ENDURANCE

Get rich quick.  Swing for the fences.  Change the universe.  Do it now.

These are the hopes that fuel many an entrepreneurial dream. But turning even the greatest idea into a viable, sustainable, and healthy business usually takes time. Lots of it.

Startup Businesses are Adventures

That’s why the most effective founders figure out how to lengthen their startup runway. They give their idea time to develop. They create space for experimentation and discovery. They know that the vast majority of home runs are the result of many swings at the plate.

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SXSW 2012 Follow-up: How to be Extremely Passionate and Absolutely Realistic

Just returned home from the 2012 version of the annual stimulation-provocation-fest that is South by Southwest (SXSW).  Thank you to everyone who attended my solo talk on Saturday about the “war” between passion and realism. Great crowd – great engagement, input, and conversation.

As promised, here are:

  1. Selected slides from our session:  Click here, or on the above image. (For those of you who were not there, I’ll post a narrated version soon).
  2. A PDF version of the handouts:  2012 SXSW Handouts

The last page of the handout includes a discount code for you to take our entrepreneur profile (ECCP) and receive a full report on how your personality matches 11 qualities associated with entrepreneurship. Anyone reading this post can use the 30% discount for the next few weeks.  To take the assessment, click here and enter the code eccp.30 when prompted.

A Snapshot of Visual Notes from the session by Stacy Weitzner of

I’ll post more follow up thoughts in coming weeks, including an upcoming article on the topic for American Express OPEN Forum.

Until then, may you be strong in startup passion and realism.


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9 Reasons to Start a Business (and Why All Reasons are Not Created Equal)


“He who has a why can endure any how.”

                                                                                               Friedrich Nietzsche 


On a regular basis, people ask me whether I think it’s wise for them to take the plunge and pursue their business idea.

Or they’ve already decided to launch and want my advice on how to go about it.

In either case, the first questions out of my mouth are:  Why? Why now? What are your reasons? What do you want to achieve?

Your basic purpose will (should) dictate how you build your business, and what kind of business you build.  Your personal motives will not only drive your performance as a founder — they will determine your level of happiness. Some reasons pack more motivational punch than others, and some have greater lasting power. Your desire to get away from an awful job or a bad boss, for example, might kickstart your entrepreneurial process, but that escapist urge won’t serve you well over the long haul. What will be your source of energy and focus after the thrill of your initial leap is gone?

It pays to honestly reflect on why you are sprinting down the startup path. Every motivational force has its own set benefits and tradeoffs. Here are nine common reasons for plunging down the startup path, along with considerations to keep in mind:
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