This 1 Piece of Advice Could Make Or Break Your Career

There’s no handbook on how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice” from a boss or a mentor. But how you choose to act on these recommendations can speed up your learning and make or break your career. Here’s what to keep in mind:


I had a team of students working on an arcane customer problem. While they were quickly coming up to speed, I suggested that they talk to someone who I knew was an expert in the area and could help them learn much faster. In fact, starting in the second week of the class, I suggested the same person several times – one-on-one, in class and in writing. Each time the various team members smiled, nodded and said, “Yes, we’ll get right on it.”  Finally, eight weeks later when they were about to fly across the country to meet the customer, I reminded them again.

When they returned from the trip, I asked if the advisor I suggested was helpful.

I was a bit surprised when they replied, “Oh, we’ve been trying to connect with him for a while and he never responded.”  So, I asked:


Team,
As per our conversation about the lack of response from your advisor John Doe -please forward me copies of the emails you have sent to him.

Thanks

Steve


The reply I received was disappointing — but not totally surprising.


Dear Steve, 

Unfortunately, I believe our team has painted the wrong picture due to miscommunication on our part. It was our responsibility to reach out to John Doe, but we failed to do so.

We did not attempt to reach out to him up until Week 8 before our flight, but the email bounced. We got caught up in work on the trip and did not follow-up. What we should have done was to clarify the email address with our Teaching Assistant and attempt to contact him again.

Best regards,

Taylor


Extra credit for finally owning that they screwed up – but there was more to it.

Combine Outside Advice with Your Own Insights
Upon reflection I realized that this student team was missing a learning opportunity. They were soon heading for the real world, and they had no idea how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice.”  Ironically, given they were really smart and in a world-class university, they were confusing “smart” with “I can figure it all out by myself.”

Throughout my entrepreneurial career I was constantly bombarded by advice – from bosses, mentors, friends, investors, et al. I was lucky enough to have mentors who took an interest in my career, and as a young entrepreneur, I tried to pay attention to what they were trying to tell me. (Coming into my first startup from four years in the military I didn’t have the advantage of thinking I knew it all.) It made me better – I learned faster than having to acquire every bit of knowledge from scratch and I could combine the data coming from others with the insights I had.

Have a Process to Evaluate Suggestions and Advice
Here was my response to my student team:

Dear Team:

Throughout your work career you’ll be getting tons of suggestions and advice; from mentors – people you don’t work for but who care about your career and from your direct boss and others up your reporting chain.

  1. Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction
    • Assume someone has just given you a package wrapped in a bow with your name on it.
    • Then think of how they’ll feel when you ignore it and toss it aside.
  2. When you’re working at full speed just trying to get your job done, it’s pretty easy to assume that advice/suggestions from others are just diversions. That’s a mistake. At times following up on them may make or break a career and/or a relationship.
    • The first time your boss or mentor will assume you were too busy to follow up.
    • The second time your boss will begin to question your judgment. Your mentor is going to question your willingness to be coached.
    • The third time you ignore suggestions/advice from your boss is a career-limiting move. And if from a mentor, you’ve likely damaged or ended the relationship.
  3. Everyone likes to offer “suggestions” and “advice.” Think of these as falling into four categories:
    • Some bosses/mentors offer “suggestions” and “advice” because it makes them feel important.
    • Others have a set of contacts or insights they are willing to share with you because they believe these might be useful to you.
    • A few bosses/mentors have pattern-recognition skills. They’ve recognized the project you’re working on or problem you’re trying to solve could be helped by connecting with a specific person/group or by listening to how it was solved previously.
    • A very small subset of bosses/mentors has extracted some best practices and/or wisdom from those patterns. These can give you shortcuts to the insights they’ve taken years to learn.
  4. Early in your career it’s hard to know whether a suggestion/advice is valuable enough to spend time following up. Here’s what I suggest:
    • Start with “Thanks for the suggestion.”
    • Next, it’s OK to ask, “Help me understand why is this important? Why should I talk to them? What should I learn?” This will help you figure out which category of advice you’re getting.If it’s a direct boss and others up your reporting chain, ask, “How should I prioritize this? Does it require immediate action?” (And it most cases it doesn’t matter what category it’s in, just do it.)
    • Always report back to whoever offered you the advice/suggestion to share what you learned. Thank them.

If you open yourself to outside advice, you’ll find people interested in the long-term development of your career – these are your career mentors. Unlike coaching, there’s no specific agenda or goal but mentor relationships can result in a decades-long dialog of continual learning. What makes these relationships a mentorship is this: you have to give as good as you are getting. While you’ll be learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what you need to give back is equally important – offering fresh insights to their data.

If your goal is to be a founder, having a network of mentors/advisors means that not only will you be up to date on current technology, markets or trends, you’ll be able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives that might be basis for your next startup.

Lessons Learned

  • Suggestions/advice at work are not distractions that can be ignored
    • Understand the type of suggestions/advice you’re getting (noise, contacts, patterns, insights)
    • Understand why the advice is being given
    • Agree on the priority in following it up
  • Not understanding how to respond to advice/suggestions can limit your career
  • Advice is a kickstarter for your own insights and a gateway for mentorship
  • Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction

The Difference Between Innovators and Entrepreneurs

I just received a thank-you note from a student who attended a fireside chat I held at the ranch. Something I said seemed to inspire her:

“I always thought you needed to be innovative, original to be an entrepreneur. Now I have a different perception. Entrepreneurs are the ones that make things happen. (That) takes focus, diligence, discipline, flexibility and perseverance. They can take an innovative idea and make it impactful. … successful entrepreneurs are also ones who take challenges in stride, adapt and adjust plans to accommodate whatever problems do come up.”


Over the last decade I’ve watched hundreds of my engineering students as well as ~1,500 of the country’s best scientists in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, cycle through the latest trends in startups: social media, new materials, big data, medical devices, diagnostics, digital health, therapeutics, drones, robotics, bitcoin, machine learning, etc.  Some of these world-class innovators get recruited by large companies like professional athletes, with paychecks to match. Others join startups to strike out on their own. But what I’ve noticed is that it’s rare that the smartest technical innovator is the most successful entrepreneur.

Being a domain expert in a technology field rarely makes you competent in commerce. Building a company takes very different skills than building a neural net in Python or decentralized blockchain apps in Ethereum.

Nothing makes me happier than to see my students getting great grades (and as they can tell you, I make them very work hard for them). But I remind them that customers don’t ask for your transcript. Until we start giving grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, tenacity and having a passion for products and customers, great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation (and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative.)

Most great technology startups – Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Tesla – were built by a team led by an entrepreneur.

It doesn’t mean that if you have technical skills you can’t build a successful company. It does mean that success in building a company that scales depends on finding product/market fit, enough customers, enough financing, enough great employees, distribution channels, etc. These are entrepreneurial skills you need to rapidly acquire or find a co-founder who already has them.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurship is a calling, not a job.
  • A calling is something you feel you need to follow, it gives you direction and purpose but no guarantee of a paycheck.
  • It’s what allows you to create a missionary zeal to recruit others, get customers to buy into a vision and gets VC’s to finance a set of slides.
  • It’s what makes you get up and do it again when customers say no, when investors laugh at your idea or when your rocket fails to make it to space.

The State of Entrepreneurship

Co-founder magazine just interviewed me about the current state of entrepreneurship – in startups and large companies – and how we got here. I thought they did a good job of capturing my thoughts.

Take a read here.

click here to read the rest of the article

CoinOut Gets Coin In

It’s always fun to see what happens to my students after they leave class. Jeff Witten started CoinOut four years ago in my Columbia University 5-day Lean LaunchPad class. CoinOut eliminates the hassle of getting a pocket full of loose change from merchants by allowing you to put it in a digital wallet.

Jeff just appeared on Shark Tank and the Sharks funded him. We just caught up and I got to do a bit of customer discovery on Jeff’s entrepreneurial journey to date.

What was the Shark Tank experience like?
It was surreal. We were not prepped or told what to expect, and really just thrown into the “tank” like a baby in the deep end. Given the stage and possibility of embarrassment, it was very intimidating. With that came a ton of adrenaline – it felt like a gallon of it was pumped into my veins – and it allowed me to focus and defend the business/myself as if there were no tomorrow. Looking back I can barely remember what went on in there, but just that I went in with a fighter’s mentality of not letting them speak over me, bully me or misrepresent what we are doing.

SHARK TANK – Coverage. (ABC/Michael Desmond)
JEFF WITTEN (COINOUT)

Anything about the Lean LaunchPad class or just being an entrepreneur in general prepare you for pitching on Shark Tank?
The class was almost a mini shark tank – I still remember the very first pitch we did in front of the class. Each time you speak publicly, or even privately for that matter, about your business I believe that you learn something and help improve / sharpen your pitch. Also, as an entrepreneur, you have to fight every single day. Nothing is easy and you need to convince people that your new way of doing something brings value that someone should pay for. That mentality certainly is one I needed to survive the “Tank.”

Coming into the Lean LaunchPad class, what did you know about starting a company?
I knew very little! I had lots of thoughts that turned out to be wildly incorrect and off target. I had a faint idea of how to interact with potential customers, but no real-life experience doing so. I also knew how to write up a great, theoretical proposal and presentation but that was about it!

What was the 5-day LaunchPad class experience like?
The 5 days were still one of the most intense stretches I’ve gone through (even more intense than some law school finals)! I was working with 4 other folks for the first time and we had to slam together as much as possible to come to some legitimate findings by the end of the course. We actually forced our way into a retail conference that was going on in the Javits Center and ran around berating a million different very large companies, half of whom told us to get lost. At the end of the day, we were able to re-focus and come up with half decent findings with the help of the business model canvas and mentoring from our professors. It was a real whirlwind, but when I look back, many of the discoveries still animate the product and company today.

Jeff’s original CoinOut presentation after five days is here

What did you learn in the LaunchPad class?
I learned how to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), test it with real customers and ask the right questions to get unbiased feedback. I took those learnings and implemented that immediately in a pilot while still in school. I feel like I’ve done 30 different MVP’s and customer tests over the few years since the course and continue to use the lean methods in all things we look to do for our customers and merchants.

What were the biggest learnings in your first 3, 6, 12, 24 months as an entrepreneur?
The biggest learning was that it’s vital to get out of the building. After getting some data and feedback it’s easy to then say we have enough and know what we need to build. Still today, even after a couple years at this, I have to remind myself that we always have more we can learn from potential and existing customers.

I would say the first 3 months it was to keep asking questions and iterating based on what we were getting. After 6 months, it was learning how to tackle everything with grit and determination as if there were no other option. And in the 12 – 24 months it was to always keep an open mind and never assume a product is right until you truly have product-market-fit. We keep doing pivots to this day. We believe we will always be searching for a better version of product-market-fit!

What are the top three things you wished you knew when you started your company?

  1. I wish I knew how critical good distribution channels are, particularly in the early stages of a company. You can have the greatest product in the world but if it can’t get into customers’ hands efficiently and effectively it is meaningless.
  2. I wish I knew how difficult it is to change people’s perceptions in large companies. Sometimes when you are hot out of the gates with entrepreneurial fever you think you can do anything. I think that is always a valuable feeling to have, but when selling through to larger organizations I’ve learned you need to temper your expectations and do as much as you possibly can to mitigate the risks of partnership ahead of time. Show them why they need to do it rather than why it would be a nice thing to have.
  3. I wish I knew how much fun this was going to be because I would have gotten in sooner! Many people say how hard entrepreneurship is, and I 100% agree. It is incredibly hard. But it is also rewarding like nothing else and when things work out well it is really fun.

See the articles about CoinOut in Forbes and in Columbia entrepreneurship and on Shark Tank episode 23.

While we can’t guarantee an appearance on Shark Tank, the five-day Lean LaunchPad class at Columbia is offered every January and open to all Columbia students.

Hacking for Defense at Columbia University

Over the last year we’ve been rolling out the Hacking for X classes in universities across the U.S. – Hacking for Defense, Hacking for Diplomacy, Hacking for Energy, Hacking for Impact (non-profits), etc.

All are designed to allow students to work on some of the toughest problems the country has while connecting them to a parts of the government they aren’t familiar with. When they leave they have contributed to the country through national service and gained a deeper understanding of our country.

Here is the view from Columbia University.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Innovators podcast @ Stanford

A fun interview at Stanford about some old things and new ones.
Founders
7:18: Mentorship is a two-way street
14:03: Failure=experience
17:27: Rules for raising a family if you’re a founder
Startups
19:25: Startups are not smaller versions of large companies
22:03: How I-Corps and H4X were born
26:25: Your idea is not a company
31:19: Why the old way of building startups no longer works
32:53: Origin of the Lean Startup
34:24 Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything in the Harvard Business Review
35:28: How innovation happens
Company/Government Innovation
41:37: Innovation is different in companies and gov’t agencies
43:30  Deliverable products and services not activities
46:44: Startups disrupting things by breaking the law
Government Innovation
51:12: Fighting continuous disruption with continuous innovation
52:08: How governments innovate
57:54: Innovation from the battlefield to the boardroom

We Have A Moral Obligation

I was in Boston and was interviewed by The Growth Show about my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies.The interviewer was great and managed to get me to summarize several years of learning in one podcast.

It’s worth a listen.

At the end of the interview I got surprised by a great question – “What’s the Problem that Still Haunts You?”  I wasn’t really prepared for the question but gave the best answer I could on the fly.

Part of the answer is the title of this blog post.

Listen to the entire interview here:
Taking the Lean Startup From Silicon Valley to Corporations and the State and Defense Department

Or just parts of the interview:
1:20  Failure and Lessons Learned

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