Highlights from Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored Event in San Francisco

Great conferences don’t need to span two or three days. In fact, they can be done in one day as Fast Company fabulously demonstrated earlier this week.

The Innovation Uncensored Conference was an impressive feat. It featured great speakers like Scott Case of Startup America, Padmaress Warrior of Cisco and Seth Priebatsch of SCNGR, who discussed pressing topics like customer-centric development, social in the enterprise and game mechanics in business. The mix of speakers and topics was intense without being overwhelming. I was able to walk away with many great learnings.

Oh and the catering … amazing!

Here are some of the learnings I gleaned from the conference:

#1 Successful Businesses are Flexible and Persistent

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn gave general good advice to startups. He singled out perseverance and focus as the two main objectives of any business. He emphasized the importance of listening to the “smartest people that will talk to you” and heed their advice. He also recommended getting an introduction to VCs you don’t know instead of sending them unsolicited emails (they hate it.)

Scott Case of Startup America echoed Hoffman’s sentiments with his “10 Steps Toward Success:”

  1. Ecosystem: Be part of the environment in which you partake. Give your time to fledgling startups that seek your help.
  2. Pick Your Team Carefully: Founding team members can make or break your business.
  3. Embrace the Pivot: Know how to pivot. Read Eric Reis’s book (my review.)
  4. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  5. Build Your Network: The smartest people in the world can’t get anything done without help. Build your support system and mingle with people that are smarter than you.
  6. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  7. Customer Development: Know your customers. Read Steven Blank’s book.
  8. Capital: Are you going to raise money? Self-fund? Where is your capital coming from?
  9. Get The Boring Stuff Right: Business, legal, accounting, …etc. Most founders waste their time figuring this out instead of focusing on their product.
  10. FOCUS: Do I really need to say it?
Pretty much everyone that spoke mentioned “focus.” They made a compelling case for the power of saying “NO” and how crucial that is for success. It’s only when you’re “focused” you can be flexible and have the energy to persist.

#2 Your Customers are Your No. 1 Asset

This was another common takeaway and one we take to heart at Edmunds.com.

David Cush of Virgin America stressed the paramount importance of managing customer expectations when rolling out a new system. Virgin America just recently implemented a new reservation system (still buggy as of this writing) and they have worked closely with the marketing department to manage customer expectations and reactions.

Padmaress Warrior of Cisco said the same thing. She implemented BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy at work after her customers (i.e. Cisco engineers) continued using their “unsupported devices” (i.e. Macs.) The new policy has been great not only for her consumers but for business as well.

Customer is the No.1 asset. Also, if your employees are happy and satisfied, that normally translates to customer satisfaction as well.

#3 Focus

I know I mentioned it above, but it was such a focal (no pun intended) point at the event. Focus is success.

Gary White of Water.org and Doug Ulman of Livestrong talked about passion, social responsibility and the role of focus in their success. If you come up with ten projects, prioritize them and then cut the last two and focus all your resources on the first eight. Personally, I’d go further and say cut eight and focus on the top two, but I guess it all depends on the amount of resources you have. Full Article

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

117478738 Crucial Lessons for Fledgeling and Mature Companies

I started reading Eric Ries's blog, "Startup Lessons Learned," back in October 2008. I was quickly impressed by his technical acumen and the simplicity of his writing. I also enjoyed the breadth of topics covered and how engaging they were.

Needless to say, I was glad to hear that he was going to distill all his knowledge into a book, and now that I read the book, I'm glad to say that he didn't disappoint.

The book defines a startup as a 1) a human institution designed to 2) create a new product/service under conditions of 3) extreme uncertainty.

Notice how the definition doesn't address the size of the venture or its backers or its origins. As long as it is a team building a product with high uncertainty, it is a startup.

The book also covers the entire life cycle of a lean startup, Figure 1.

Lean-startup

Figure 1.
Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop that's at the core of the lean startup (image source)

Eric puts a huge emphasis on "validated learning" as opposed to "failure as a way of learning." He says, "a failure to deliver results is due to either a failure to plan adequately or a failure to execute properly." He's all about accountability, which is sorely lacking in so many institutions these day, with the most egregious being Wall Street.

Eric goes on to explain the principles of the lean startup with andecodotes of successes and failures in business. One of the most fascinating and very telling for me was the SnapTax story. The fact that a giant company like Intuit could spawn an innovative startup (i.e. a team + a product + high uncertainty) was a nice validation for my unsuccessful push for an R&D department within the companies at which I worked in the past. SnapTax was a team of five individuals that was given freedom to experiement while held accountable throughout the process. The results were impresssive.

If nothing else, the reader, especially those running mature companies, should pay close attention to Eric's conclusion. He stresses the points of validating assumptions, rapid testing of ideas, and most importantly, "stop wasting people's time."

I think that's the most valuable lesson in the entire book. Mature companies that continue to waste their talents' time with banal and insipid tasks are bound to lose those talents and will only be left with lazy, oftentime overpaid individuals that are too comfortable, too politically secure that they can't produce anything new or original even if they tried.

Startups are a "human institution" first and foremost. If the right team isn't in place, you do not have a startup. Nurture those talents and don't waste their time. Only then will the trappings of success adorn your business and you.

The Devil in The White City by Erik Larson

This book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, other in the manufacture of sorrow.

– Erik Larson.

The Devil in The White City The Spirit of Entrepreneurship in America

This is a fascinating book. Yes it is a great read full of suspenseful moments, and at times horrific details, of the murders by H. H. Holmes in Chicago circa 1890s. Yes it is a great book about the Columbus World's Fair that was built in Chicago in 1893 by America's greatest architects. Yes it is entertaining and yes it is historic.

But what makes this book fascinating to me is the fact that it's a case study of entrepreneurship in America in the late 1800s.

The project at hand was the World's Fair and the man behind it was Daniel Burnham. Burnham was a successful Chicago-based architect when his firm was selected to design and manage what most thought was an impossible undertaking: build a World's Fair that makes America (and Chicago in particular) proud. Expectations were very high given the astounding success of the World's Fair in Paris a few years earlier at which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled.

Burnham was not a man with small vision. He was known for this frequent admonition:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.

Burnham made no little plans indeed. He built the Montauk–the first skyscraper ever.

Once built, the Montauk was so novel, so tall, it defied description by conventional means.

He was one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs of his time and this book is about how he managed to take on something so ambitious, so impossible, and made it a reality.

Burnham had to deal with government bureaucracy, inflated egos, unexpected setbacks, budgetary issues, amongst other things. Sounds familiar?

The Burnham story is a testament to the American innovative spirit. It's also an inspiration to all entrepreneurs and those who "choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible."

Are you one of those lucky few? Find out if you got what it takes. Read this book.

The Inspire Conference: Themes, Takeaways and Why I Care

I was lucky enough to be at the inaugural Inspire Conference that took place in London earlier this week. Over two days, some of the most influential and inspiring experts in technology, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity (many of whom spoke at TED many times,) took to the stage and attempted to inspire the audience.

And inspire they did.

In this post, I'll cover my experience in three parts: Main Themes, Takeaways and Why Do I Care.

MAIN THEMES

There were four main themes that stood out for me at this conference: Social Entrepreneurship, Innovation in Emerging Markets, Simplicity, and Gamification.

Social Entrepreneurship

The vast majority of the speakers advocated the use of innovation and tech talent to promote a better world. "Social Entrepreneurship" was definitely a strong theme here.

There was a dedicated panel on "the next generation of change in society," in which Shakil Khan of Spotify relayed a story of a little boy in Africa that when asked what can Khan do for or give him answered:

I want your empty water bottle so I can pick up runoff water from the street on my long walk to school. All the boys have bottles, but I don't.

The story's profound impact was palpable in the room. It succeeded in putting things into perspective and in giving the audience a sense of what social entrepreneurship could do.

Iris Lapinski of Apps for Good. There was also the great work done by Iris Lapinski of Apps for Good. The work her company does is absolutely inspiring. She made a plea to all the innovators in the audience to think about what their efforts bring to society and how they could do better.

Then there was Ushahihi. The African startup co-founded by Erik Hersman is truly "changing the world, one map at a time." The idea came out of a need to give voice to Kenyans during their elections and ended up getting used during the Haiti Relief effort, BP Oil Spil, the Arab Spring and the Libyan crisis.

Ushahidi's simplicity is astounding. It's a mashup: text messages + geolocation + Google Maps = Ushahidi. It's a platform that could be and has been used for anything. Someone in the audience tweeted that Ushahidi is perfect for neighborhood watches. I tweeted back, "great idea!" The power of the simple platform was undeniable.

My favorite talk on "social entrepreneurship" was by Ann Cotton of CamFed International. She talked about "building a governance model around values." She's not only a great storyteller, but her passion and conviction about giving an opportunity to those that are excluded from it by way of gender, race, nationality, color or socioeconomic status shone bright on stage.

She relayed a story about a Zimbabwean girl whose precocity, self-confidence and intellect were noted during a meeting with a CamFed board member, who asked the girl after being impressed by her wits, "what do you want to do when you grow up?" She answered back with humble confidence, "I want to be a lawyer." He assured her, "you will make an exceptional lawyer."

That girl would have been pregnant at 12 and fighting to survive had she not been in the care of CamFed.

Jolitics, a political networking site, is another example of smart people getting together to try to disrupt the world for the good of the world.

These are just some of the highlights that stressed the importance of use our talents to make the world a better place.

Innovation in Emerging Markets

Maybe the reason this stood out for me as a theme was the fact that we don't see much of it in the States. As I mentioned earlier, Ushahidi is an African innovation that has and continues to play a critical role in empowering people all over the world, including some in the Western world. Such innovation is another testament to the "increasing flatness of our world," a US Government spokeswoman said in a clip played on stage.

There was also talk about impressive Indian innovation in Cricket, Consumer Products and Space (yes, Space!) Putting the consumer first, Indian entrepreneurs are innovating ways to deliver products to people in ways that fit their lifestyles and needs. Selling cheap, just-in-time consumable goods was one of those ways to penetrate a market that traditionally wasn't consuming much.

Simplicity

Alex Ljung Simple is intuitive. Simple is easy, and Simple is the key to lasting innovation. This message was evident in Alex Ljung talk about SoundCloud and the power of the "REC" button. Also, Ushahidi was all about simplicity.

Jolitics' Michael Birch talked a bit about limiting users to 140 character to express their proposals on the site. That proven simplicity has worked well for Twitter and Birch is betting on it working for Jolitics.

Gamification

Using game theory in business is something that's been talked about often lately. Gabe Zichermann is a major advocate of Gamification and the man behind the Gamification Submit. He wasnt at the conference but you should check out one of his talks when you get a chance; he's a very effective speaker.

Back to the conference 🙂

Tom Chatfield, a TED veteran, spoke at the conference about "predicting the next innovation cycle via play and leisure." He made an excellent point that was later indirectly corroborated by Aza Raskin: people spend most of their time "playing" because an essential part of playing is having a feedback loop that in turn releases dopamine in their bodies and make them feel good about themselves.

The reason games are engaging is because of that feedback loop. People spend thousands of hours on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare because these experiences offer them a feedback loop that's satisfying. It's the unexpected "like" or "comment" you get on your status updates on Facebook. It's also the chance of someone mentioning you on Twitter or retweeting one of your tweets. It's the chance to unlock an unknown badge on foursquare and see your name on a leaderboard.

All these are examples of a reward system that effectively releases dopamine in the consumer's body. That effect makes people come back in search for that hit of dopamine again and again and again.

Raskin is attempting to find that feedback loop in the healthcare vertical in order to disrupt it.

TAKEAWAYS

There were countless takeaways at this conference, but a few stayed with me:

  • Transparency is key to all successful business ventures: this point has been talked about in Open Leadership by Charlene Li and Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. Transparency isn't only good for business and shows integrity. It's now expected by the consumer.
  • If you need to explain to the user how to use your product, you have done someone wrong: Simplicity is what made Twitter take off: 140 characters. That's it. A lasting innovation is a simple innovation.
  •  Value is subjective, relative and contextual: Rory Sutherland's talk about Behavioral Economics was a great eye opener for me. Every business should ask themselves this question: what's the value of my offering and why should anyone care.
  • We make up our attitudes to explain our actions: Another one of Rory's insights. You want to change someone's attitude toward your brand? Change the actions they make in the context of your brand.
  • Feedback Loop can make or break your business: keeping page load times low makes consumers happy. Increase page load times and no one visits your site in time. China has artificially slowed down certain sites like Facebook to make people hate to be on them and eventually abandon them. It's more effective than blocking the site all together in which case the consumer will want it even more and will find ways to get access to it.
  • Don't think outside the box. Find the right box and think within it: a great insight from Raskin about identifying the "right" problem before jumping into solving a problem that's in your head. When I asked him about his thoughts on Design Thinking, he said, "Design Thinking is stepping back and trying to identify the right problem." Once that problem is identified, figure out the constraints you need to operate within to resolve that problem. That's your box.
  • If you're not disrupting, you are iterating. If you're iterating, you will be disrupted: a profound takeaway that made me think hard about what we do everyday. Apple's first iPhone disrupted the mobile industry. All the iPhones that followed iterated on top of that first disruption. Will Apple be disrupted in the phone space? How many site redesigns, mobile apps, Facebook apps, and so on do we need to create to realize that we are only iterating and not disrupting. It's also important to remember that disruption doesn't have to be something so complicated. Ushahidi is a mashup service and it's very disruptive. Twitter is the same thing.
  • We need to fit technology into our lives, not the other way around: Oblong's g-speak disruptive innovation that was featured in Minority Report is a perfect example of that. We are tactile beings, therefore, pixels should be virtually tactile as well.
  • Empathy leads to Success: Rory Sutherland's observation that most of Al-Qaeda's masterminds hold an engineering degree was mind-blowing. Most engineers aren't empathetic, he reasons, which means that most engineers aren't capable of understanding how to release dopamine in the consumer. Behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists or just a smart empathetic people in your company can do that with ease and a smile.
  • Persistence is more important than passion: That's why most startups have at least two co-founders: the crazy idea guy/gal who's fired up about ideas all the time and the man/woman that keeps them focused, engaged and persistent. I know first hand how to be both. I get it.
  • The Future is in Disruption: Future business models are based on transparency, P2P, offline to online. The future isn't about iterating. It's about disrupting.
  • Data needs to be computable: Conrad Woldram's talk was by far one of the most impressive at the conference. He unveiled CDF (Computable Data Format) which I think will change information sharing and research.
  • Angry Bird and The Adjacent Possible: Peter Vesterbacka, founder of Angry Birds, developed games in Java for years but it wasn't until the iPhone came out that he got his break. Steven Johnson talks about that concept in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From." He calls it the Adjacent Possible. He uses YouTube as an example: if YouTube was created in 1999, it would have failed miserably. The reason it was a huge success in 2005 was because broadband connections were common, consumers expected to consume videos on the Internet and the fact that consumers had the ability to shoot and upload their own videos. All these factors are called, the "adjacent possible."

WHY DO I CARE

I have started to develop a passion for Open Government after hearing Tim O'Reilly's keynote at the Velocity Conference in 2009. Empowering the electorate is a field ripe for disruption. Jolitics and Ushahidi are admirable efforts, but more needs to be done. The taxpayer, the voter is in desperate need for some dopamine love! 

Social entrepreneurship doesn't have to be at odds with commercial entrepreneurship. I believe they can compliment each other, which in the end will only increase the dopamine levels for everyone involved.

Also the distinction between disruption and iteration, which Tim Wu talks about in his Master Switch book, made me think deeply about what I do everyday. Most companies don't articulate a grand goal or unwilling to take meaningful risks to achieve it. Therefore we end up iterating instead of really disrupting. How do you break out of that?

I was watching Jack Welch last night on CNN talking about the importance of a "grand vision." I think a grand vision that's well articulated and communicated passionately to everyone in the company can only be a disruptive vision.

Disruption isn't going to come from engineering or product people. Disruption will be brought on by thought leaders that are 1) empathetic and 2) are able to inspire others. Those thought leaders may happen to be engineers or product managers, but they could also be anyone in the company.

It's not about the technology. It's about the vision. And vision is what I care about. If you can't dream it, it won't happen.

Thank you all for inspiring me. I'll see you next year!

Foreigners Attending US Grad Schools Way Down: Wake Up, Xenophobes

Oh no. This is not good. Will America still lead if it continues to stem the flow of raw, ambitious and hungry foreign talent? The answer is NO.

What’s really sad is that instead of stopping the illegal, poor masses flooding this country every day, setting us back culturally and economically, we’re keeping out the educated, smart guys who can actually lift us out of the state of stagnation in which we’ve been bogged down for so long.

Foreigners Attending US Grad Schools Way Down: Wake Up, Xenophobes

It’s happening: Lou Dobbs’ dream come true and Silicon Valley’s worst nightmare. We’re already seeing the reverse brain drain as smart immigrants take their US educations and experience building companies and creating technology back to their home countries.  But now, xenophobia and the lack of any sensible H-1B visa policy is keeping the world’s brightest minds from coming to the U.S. in the first place.

U.S. grad school admissions for would-be international students plummeted this year, according to the Council of Graduate Schools—the first decline in five years.  The decline was 3% on average, thanks to increases from China and the Middle East, but some countries saw double-digit declines in interest in a U.S. education. Applicants from India and South Korea fell 12% and 9% respectively—with students turning their sights on schools in Asia and Europe instead.

via www.techcrunch.com