Tag Archives: entrepreneurs

entrepreneurship takes grit

You’ve Been Building Your Company. What About Your Grit?

In my post, It’s Not Failing. It’s Discovery I said, “Many entrepreneurs are high achievers and really hate failure – that is why they keep going. They’ll keep working and trying …” I think this statement deserves some discussion. Why are entrepreneurs more given to keep working through problems? What makes them better suited them some to launch new ideas?

This got me thinking about grit.

 Perhaps you have seen Angela Lee Duckworth’s TEDx Talk. It has over 8M views and suggest you have a look.

You can call it:

  1. Stick-to- it-ness
  2. Tenacity
  3. Determination
  4. Not giving up …

Regardless of the name – Grit it is an attribute you must have to be an entrepreneur. Actually, it’s useful in about any aspect of life. I believe in it.

Wondering what your level of grit is? Take this U Penn test.

My interest isn’t how much grit you currently possess. A better question is, Can you become more gritty? (Clearly some people have more of it naturally.)  I do believe that you can develop your grit and I’m profoundly interested in learning techniques to develop more of it.

From my experience here are three steps you can take to build your grit:

  1. Surround yourself with tenacious people. I don’t care if you are six or 60, peer pressure can be wonderful if you have the right peers. Gritty people can encourage you. They provide moral support when hard times come.  I remember as a high schooler my father, brothers and I build a house in the Adirondacks. My father and brothers are accountants, not builders.  I at 16 had the most skill just having made a book shelf in shop class.  Later at a family dinner in this beautiful house we all build, I told the story of when my brothers and I seeing the pile of wood and cement blocks stacked up as far as the eye could see, said, “The old man really &^%$* up this time.”  My father’s response, “I never thought we would fail. Thought it might take longer, cost more, but the house would get built”.  That mental model – It may be a lot more difficult but you will ultimately prevail –  is vital to increasing your grit. Not bad for a bunch of gritty accountants.
  1. Be flexible and creative on how you get to the goal. Of course, I assume you have clear goals, but the path there is not linear. Flexibility allows you to change your mind and continue to learn. This helps you find innovative solutions to what seem like hard or impossible problems. I thought this blog had some great ideas on how to do this.
  1. Keep very active to maintain high energy. I am not saying you need to run marathons.  But gritty people are not couch potatoes. Grittiness takes energy. You need to have the physical stamina to work at a task for extended periods of time.  That takes energy, both physical and mental, and lots of it. Keeping the right attitude helps you maintain that kind of energy level. Make a point to do things you are passionate about to keep your head right. More on that here.

Let’s review:

Surround yourself with moral and emotional support to:

  • Externalize your commitments to other
  • Focus your will
  • Apply healthy peer pressure

Be flexible and assume there are:

  • Multiple routes to the goal
  • Problems that will require creativity
  • Opportunities to experiment and discover

Fitness – Think mental, spiritual AND physical because grit takes:

  • Lots of energy
  • Endurance
  • Stress reductions

Lastly, a word on perspective. A point Alfie Kohn, makes in his critique of grit is worth keeping in mind.  He says gritty people sometimes exhibit “nonproductive persistence” and there are occasions when it doesn’t make “sense to persist with a problem that resists solution”.  Make sure you are making real progress.

Assessing your tendency for “nonproductivity” can be difficult. I talk more about how to surround yourself with people who can give you perspective on the problem you’re trying to solve in my previous post, Four Tests to Vet Potential Business Advisors. A good advisor can help you determine when to quit and when to push ahead. The best business advisors and mentors are the ones who’ve succeeded (and failed) at solving their own business problems, making them just the right amount of gritty to be your guide.

What about you? Do you have a story of grit in the making? Tell me what about the person you know who exhibits grit.


It’s Not Failing. It’s Discovery.

15592632483_49d32bd11a_k (1)“Entrepreneurs think of learning the way most people think of failure.” Peter Sims

You’ve heard a lot about failure.

There must be at least one blog or article a day extolling the virtues of failure in an entrepreneurial business. Entrepreneurs saying they love failure.

Really?  No one loves failure. What entrepreneurs love is experimenting, tinkering, tweaking – discovering. If you are an entrepreneur, discovery is at the core of who you are.

From the outside world, it probably seems that people like you and I love failure, or even high- risk ventures, that we don’t get discouraged at products that flop or companies that fold. You and I know that’s not true.

Many entrepreneurs are high achievers and really hate failure – that is why they keep going. They’ll keep working and trying and iterating until they know the product is right, and they keep working. Don’t forget it took Thomas Edison 9000 experiments to discover a working light bulb.

Entrepreneurial researchers have long debated whether entrepreneurs are different than others in the way they perceive and respond to risks.1 I think entrepreneurs are just as risk adverse as the next person.  Great entrepreneurs do reframe problems and challenge the status quo. It is this mental process that enables you to discover new solutions to problems, that is new opportunities.  This is actually a risk reduction strategy.  This is hard work, so entrepreneurs don’t confuse failure with quitting – that is the key difference.

In an August 6, 2011 op-ed piece in the NY Times Peter Sims author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, points out the difference between failure and discovery with Howard Schultz the founder of Starbucks. He talks about how Schultz’ early shops turned off customers with non-stop opera and menus in Italian. If Schultz had run out of money then and folded up his operation, that would have been a failure. But what he did was continue to experiment – with employee uniforms, menus, music, chairs – until the formula became successful. (How would I find a cup of coffee and connect my laptop in Manhattan if he gave up!)

There is a curiosity in an entrepreneur that makes him want to try a new way. Let’s do a little more this. Let’s try from a new perspective.  The problem, as Sims points out, is that this kind of experimentation isn’t encouraged in most workplaces. In fact, “mistakes” are usually punished. Who wants to try something new when the risk is punishment?

The workplace is as linear as the schools we grew up in, and yet the world, and the problems entrepreneurs want to solve are non-linear. From that linear point of view it looks like the startups of the world are foolish failure lovers instead of innovators.

Early in my career, I worked for AT&T and the company was critical to my professional success. The company had many product innovations. Nevertheless, the company often did not capitalize on those ideas.  I recall suggesting a new business model for a new product without my boss’s approval. In my annual review, I got “smacked” for not being a team player. Got the message, don’t experiment with new business ideas. I left AT&T and went to work for Silicon Valley start-up, Ascend Communications.

Experimentation leads to discovery and need to be used on all aspects of an entrepreneurial business.

How do you use this perspective to be a better entrepreneur?  Acknowledge no one actually likes failure.

Because failure is ego crushing we naturally want to avoid it, and this can keep us from pushing through a new idea. If you use the experiment and discovery model it helps you fake out your ego and keeps it out of the way freeing you up to discover the unmet need. That’s the first job of an entrepreneur.

You never have perfect information as an entrepreneur. I like how Simon et al  put it in the scholarly article on risk perception.  “Decision-making in entrepreneurial settings often leads to various degrees of error or misjudgments due to the simple fact that the information available is either incomplete or ambiguous.”

It’s then not a question of if a failure will occur, but when.

In fact, the act of failing can is a signal to take notice and adjust your approach. I learned this from Rita McGrath in her book The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty.  “Seen in this light, failure is just a temporary phase in an ongoing entrepreneurial process, which can be used as a valuable source of learning and improved self-awareness.”[1]

The experiment and discovery model can help you not take failure personally.

Experiment and discovery reduces uncertainty and expands the search for new business opportunities. You can practice the model like this:

Continually test your goals and assumptions.

Look for inefficiencies and weaknesses in your product.

Continually incorporate negative discoveries into next steps

And tell yourself, this is one long experiment, the outcome of which will always lead to a discovery. And that is never a failure.


[2] McGrath, R.G., & I. MacMillan. (2000) The Entrepreneurial Mindset. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Photo by The Open University

Your Customer Called. She Said You Forget Her Point of View.

sw_Listening_sa209430You’ve been working on your idea for months, years even. You know every in and out of your product’s features. You know every nook and cranny of your problem. You two are in love, and there is no separating you. If your love for your idea is anything like the love you’ve felt for a new girlfriend or boyfriend, you know it’s myopic and exclusive. When you fall hard for your idea you can easily forget the person for whom you are actually solving a problem.

Besides teaching entrepreneurs and counseling tech startups, I also run the Business Development Center in Asbury Park, NJ where I counsel product makers and small business entrepreneurs looking to launch their beloved ideas. I find that as much as these makers need encouragement to get started, they also need a reality check on who their market is – much like tech entrepreneurs.

A while back a woman came in with a homemade yogurt she had developed. It was delicious and expensive. I asked her who she was making it for. Everybody, she said.

I said is it for people who are lactose intolerant? No.

Is it for people who eat Dannon at half the cost? No.

Is it for people who only eat organic? Yes.

Then it’s not for everybody, I said.

My point with the yogurt maker was that she needed to define her customer and her customer’s point of view so she could modify her solution to align with her buyers’ needs and desires.

The same is true for your product. Do you know exactly whose problem you are solving?

In today’s post, I’ll outline specifically how you can figure out who your customers REALLY are, and why they make the buying decisions they do.

To help us along I’ll use the familiar analogy of a chef.

As good chef, you want to create a meal that will be enjoyable for your guests. An enjoyable meal increases the likelihood that your guests will either return for more or spread the word about your cooking.

To ensure they’ll like your creation, you’ll need to find out a few things beforehand:

  1. WHO are they?
  2. WHAT do they like?
  3. WHY do they like it? 
  4. HOW do they get it?

Likewise as entrepreneurs, we need to do some research. Don’t be intimated by what you’ve heard about expensive market research projects; for now, you simply need to get out there and talk to people. Study their habits. Understand their preferences. Use the below suggestions to help you find the answers those three critical questions

1) WHO are they?

Your first task is to identify your customer base. This depends on what you’re selling, but also depends on a number of additional characteristics.

How big is your potential customer base?

Study to the market to understand how many people you can reasonably expect to be interested in buying something from you.

What does your ideal customer look like?

Detail the type of person that will buy your product. Include age range, income level, where they live, where they work, where they shop, how they get around, and any other potentially applicable demographics that you can think of. The more specific you are, the greater the likelihood that you will be able to communicate your offering to them and that they will respond.

Are they one-time or potential repeat customers?

There are two different kinds of customers with respect to number of purchases, and they each need to be treated differently. Understand if your customers are coming in every week or if they are only using service once. For example, if you sell muffins, you’re going to rely on repeat customers. If, on the other hand, you sell wedding cakes, you’re going to see a customer once and only once. Or twice.

Who are the actual buyers?

Maybe your ideal user is not the purchaser. If you’re running a soccer camp, your users are the kids, while your purchaser will be the parents. You will undoubtedly want to create an outstanding experience for the kids, but ultimately, your marketing focus, will be on the folks who sign the check. You will need to “sell” to both of them, but it’s important to recognize the difference.

Why will they come to you in particular?

What makes your ideal customer unique to you? What conditions or limitations will make them interested in doing business with you? Try to determine the one or two most important reasons you should be selling to them. This will focus your marketing strategy and get you the most bang for your marketing buck!

2) WHAT do they like?

In order to create something enjoyable for your guests (customers), you need to know what appeals to them. As you will see when you review your competition, there are plenty of options for consumers to spend their money on. A true understanding of your customers will differentiate you from the competition.

Why will these people be interested in what you are offering?

Focus on specific guests. Walk in their shoes and think about why they’d be interested in your product.

What do your customers like in terms of style?

Dig into their personalities. Describe what they enjoy doing, eating, reading. Think about how your business could provide some value to their daily habits and general lifestyle.

What level of service do they enjoy? i.e. Do they seek high-quality services and basic products, or vice versa?

This is an important question. You won’t be able to reach every person, all the time. Narrow it down. Review your business model and think about what level service/quality you’re trying to achieve. Match that with the type of person who’d be willing to pay for it.

3) WHY do they like it?

You need to understand why people like what you are selling. It could be your convenient location, your superior quality, or your excellent service. It could be a variety of other reasons. But there has to be a reason they’re buying from you and not someone else. Figure out what that reason is and get good at explaining it.

4) HOW do they get it?

Understand the buying process so you can disrupt it or insert yourself in it.

How are they going to buy it? From a certain distributor, can you insert yourself in that process and disrupt it.

The yogurt maker didn’t like my line of questioning and she left before I could help her develop her ideal customer’s point of view. Had she stayed we would have talked about the ideal retailer for her, whether a gourmet grocery, a heath food store or an online shop. And that’s a shame because it was really good yogurt. It just needed the right market.

Photo by jppi

4 Tests To Vet Potential Business Advisors  

entrepreneurs Things at my company had taken a bad turn and I was alone at the helm with the bank on the phone. It wasn’t just my product or my reputation at stake anymore. There were people paying their mortgage with a company salary.

The terms the lender was trying force on the company were extremely onerous, even by venture debt standards, but I felt I had to accept those terms or the company would fold. The lender was advising me that this would be the best move for my company and my employees. Instead of agreeing immediately I called a guy I knew as knowledgeable about venture debt and what are called “workouts”. I didn’t know him well, but enough to know his advice would be solid, and enough to be intimidated by him.

This guy was hard to be around. The kind to say to you, “You’re being a stupid ass.”

I told them the terms and he said something like, “That’s totally outrageous. Why are you even considering a stupid offer like that?”

It was harsh but it worked. It gave me the confidence to go back to the lender, with some more of his advice, and negotiate a fair deal that would preserve the company and get the lender paid back, albeit under different terms.

I got very lucky that day that he picked up the phone because the worst time to look for a business advisor is during a crisis. You’ll be looking for any port in the storm and that could leave you open to receiving advice from someone who isn’t qualified and doesn’t have your best interest in mind. Don’t make yourself vulnerable to what could be business-ending advice in bad times.

Use these tests to vet potential business advisors before a crisis and find someone who can walk with you as your grow your company.

Look for an advisor who’s smart about your industry, not just smart 

Just because s/he is smart does not make the person qualified on a particular topic. You know your doctor is smart, but would you take his advice on your stock portfolio? If his advice on a medical stock is based on a related medicine he’s using, then fine, but not because he’s got a higher degree than you. You need an expert in your industry or the particular subject matter under discussion. What is the background or experience of this person that makes him or her suitable?  Always have a skeptic’s mind, that is, Is this person really qualified to opine on the topic in question?

Look for an advisor without a motive to manipulate

Have you ever received advice from someone and later found out that they benefited from you following through on it? That’s not advice in your best interest, that’s manipulation. Getting direction on your business is not supposed to be a consultative sales process. Fellow employees, co-founders, investors are not good candidates for advisors. Some disengagement gives perspective. A good test question, Does he or she profit by me taking this advice?

And what is this person’s motivation for helping me? Does this person need you to take their advice to satisfy their ego? That’s the worst kind of advisor.

Look for someone who isn’t a cheerleader (or a jerk)

You probably have enough people in your circle telling you how good your ideas are. The last thing you need is a validator. A true advisor can save you a bunch of money when you try to implement a poorly thought out plan. Someone who is always giving you good feedback is a warning sign. What you need is “reality adjustment therapy.” Not, Wow! Great idea! More useful feedback would be, That is the complete and total wrong market for this product. Did you research your customer? True advisors, like my guy on the phone, are not always pleasant to be around. They’re truth tellers. You want them to ask the questions you are trying to avoid, even though it’s uncomfortable.  That will keep you out of the reality distortion syndrome. If he or she can attack the idea, without attacking you, than this person has the right mix of honesty and humanity. Steer clear of “brilliant” business people and entrepreneurs who are condescending and cutting.

Look for someone who is self-reflecting

You know you need someone who can tell you if you have a bad idea. But what about someone who gives you straight up, solid direction? Good right? Not good enough. True advisors, like teachers, are good at equipping you for future situations by helping you learn how to think. Look for an experienced person who is self-reflecting on their own actions. This person can reveal their thinking behind their own pivotal business decisions so you have some context for approaching your own. Simply copying your advisor’s business moves won’t make you successful long term. It’s reflection (not specific repeatable steps) that gets you to the right answer for you.

Lastly, look at yourself and your motivation

Why are seeking help? Before you ask for a potential advisor’s time, vet yourself. You may not be ready for them. Ask yourself this series of questions to reveal your motives:

  1. Are you looking for approval?

Are you looking for someone to say, Good job, instead of, Do better? Then you want tea and sympathy, not advisement.

  1. Can you be honest?

Do you spin the facts or sugar coat things when you go for advice? Or are you going to keep the truth from your advisor to make yourself look better? Then you’re not ready to be taught.

  1. Do you have real commitment to use the advice?

Will you put into practice what you learn from your advisor? I once had an employee who regularly asked for feedback, because he thought that’s what he was supposed to say. But he had no intention in implementing it. It was a waste of time for both of us. If you seek advice it’s your obligation to accept it and not argue it. Later you can reflect and decide to implement the feedback or not.

  1. Are you looking for a counselor?

Is it business advice you need or help with your personal issues? Take your baggage to a therapist. Advisors help you maximize your performance, not fix your personal problems. If you need counseling (and we all may at some point) go to the right professional and come to this advisor/advisee relationship healthy.

Kickstarter – Not Just For Entrepreneurs

Some savvy folks at Sony know product planning can be guesswork. They used a Japanese crowdfunding site to test a new product concept.

“We hid Sony’s name because we wanted to test the real value of the product, whether there will be demand for our concept,” said a member of the Sony team. The quote shows the company’s team understands that traditional market research has drawbacks, especially when it comes to innovation.  Moreover by crowdfunding, the Sony team is avoiding a big pitfall of testing product ideas without also testing the true economic value or price a customer will pay.  Using non-traditional approaches can be less costly and faster to implement. The following are two additional non-traditional ways to test product ideas.

Test Ad: Use Adwords to advertise a new product. You do not need to build the product to test in this way. Make your landing page a way to collect interested users. If you get a zero click-thru rate, that really tells you something about your ad description and the product idea.

Test Purchase: Use a purchase button on your landing page. If you get users to click thru that again tells you something.  This will test your pricing as well. Inform these customers you will let them know when the product is ready.

Alternative approaches to discover what products may gain market traction are worth considering, regardless of your company size. Just be careful not to mislead your potential customers. You must be honest about where you are in your product development.

A New Lesson in Innovation for Entrepreneurs

This entry was posted in Innovation, Social Entrepreneurs and tagged Innovation on February 28, 2011.

Food.  What is the first thing that comes to mind?  I bet it’s not innovation.  I recently had the opportunity to tour Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center.  Rutgers has built an impressive facility with a food processing plant attached.  This facility is a past winner of NBIA’s  “Incubator of the Year”.  Local farmers can rent a food plant by the day to create new products from produce that would be normally discarded.  The design and flexibility of the facility has enabled a European firm to test launch a new food product. This visit got me thinking how uninventive we can be about innovation.

Early Thinking:

Avoid just a better product: Product innovation by itself is not sufficient for competitive advantage.  Thinking just about the product is a missed opportunity for more innovation.  The farmer that cannot sell bruised or imperfect fruit as fresh produce could focus instead on growing better peaches.

Or make a new drink product with unused product with greater profit margins. One peach grower did just that.

The simultaneous change in product delivery, value proposition, and profit model need to be farmed for innovation opportunities. That is, do not confuse product innovation with the broader concept of business model innovation.  This point is well made in a whitepaper entitled Business Model Innovation; When The Game Gets Tough, Change The Game. Take the example of Apple; its success is due to multiple simultaneous innovations in product, technology and service. The whitepaper outlines other company examples too1.

Simultaneous multiple innovations:  Think beyond your original innovation.  What other areas of your offering have not been looked at for change?  Look at innovative business models outside your industry for ideas.

Blink Analysis:

More than a better mousetrap: Thinking beyond product innovation is a seriously difficult task.  However, it appears organizations that do have been rewarded with market leadership.

  1. Z. Lindgardt, M. Reeves, G. Stalk, M. Deimler “Business Model Innovation, When The Game Get’s Tough, Change The Game”, Boston Consulting Group, (12/2009): 1-8. Bottom of Form