I recently attended a career event at my alma mater. It was quite impressive. 2000 first and second year (that’s how we refer to freshman and sophomores at the University of Chicago) students showed up to get training and acquire skills associated with successfully moving into the working world. There were several things that made me take note:
- Judging from the numbers, most of the class must have been represented. When I went to college there was nothing but token support to assist in preparing us to find our first job (and very few of my classmates thought that they needed the help, we were wrong), not to mention beginning that training for 2 or 3 years before graduation;
- The students are outstanding. These young adults are both more intelligent and more mature than me and my contemporaries– at that age. They comport themselves in a way that should make both their parents and the College proud. I remember, several years ago, having dinner with the Dean of the College. There were eight other alumni at the table. Dean Boyer opened by noting that he didn’t think that any of us would have a chance of getting admitted to today’s College. I was insulted, now I am not so sure I should have been.
- The program was first rate. The career center really outdid themselves. My participation was focused on speaking with students who indicated an interest in entrepreneurship as a career direction. But, there were also every manner of seminars designed to assist the students in achieving the same level of skill and expertise that they are acquiring as undergraduates.
I was assigned (along with one other alumna) a table during lunch. The subject was entrepreneurship. While I don’t profess to be an expert on entrepreneurship, what follows is a summary of my reflections on being successful in this challenging way of life.
The discussion opened with a question regarding things might do in college to prepare as an entrepreneur. I made several observations:
- It is a lot easier for an extrovert (by the Myers-Briggs definition) to be a successful entrepreneur than an introvert. Extroverts get their energy from interactions with others. They are networkers and will generally have many contacts who will through interaction be an important source of ideas that might be the kernel of a thought that sparks other ideas and possibly a new business.
I noted that I had never (and I do mean never) had an original thought in my entire life. I was however adept at listening and synthesizing what I hear into valuable ideas that provide the foundation for successful business initiatives. I did this throughout my career, it led to good outcomes. The ideas weren’t new, but they were assembled in unique ways that added value. This led (or at least contributed) to new business initiatives that proved to be valuable and generated significant returns for me and my clients.
Finally, I have noticed that the “smartest” people tend to have and interact with large networks of peers. I believe that their network interactions are the source of ideas and the more interactions, the more ideas.
That suggests the value of being highly involved in the extracurricular activities and getting used to being integrated into a productive network. There are two reasons that this makes sense. First, while there are always some people who are naturals, most of us are not and practicing is useful if one wants to get good at it. And second, it is never too early to start building your network. Your classmates tend to be darn smart, and they will be a never-ending source of both valuable critique of your ideas and new (to you) thoughts that might be the kernel of idea that you can leverage into a successful initiative or business.
- You must be a good listener. Ideas (as outlined above) don’t come to you in magic flashes of genius, they come out of energetic conversations, interactions with others, that require active listening. If you are doing all the talking you will never hear the next big idea. So, shut up and listen. You might even find that your colleagues come to think of you as a better conversationalist if you follow this advice. What I can promise is that you will be “smarter” for it.
- As entrepreneurs, we can never stop learning. I spend considerable time reading, and not just on the internet. I pointed out that I am a member of both the IEEE and ACM. These organizations provide a never-ending (and sometimes overwhelming) source for ideas and my continuing education. I also pay attention to what others are reading and why. This helps me to expand my horizons and add new sources of ideas to my pipeline. Too many people see their formal education (whether that be college or some post graduate education) as the end of their learning. It can’t be. The world is changing and if you (don’t want to be left behind) want to take advantage of that next new idea, it is likely you will have to: 1) do some digging to find the neat new stuff early; and 2) put several different ideas from several disciplines together if you are going to successfully bring new ideas to market.
- Get comfortable not being comfortable. Entrepreneurs are in the business of changing the world and that is an uncomfortable role to be in. You are working with new ideas that might (will if they are good) change the assumptions people make about how they do business. And, since people like their comfort zones (they like things the way they are) you will need to get both yourself and your prospective clients through the discomfort so that you can reap the benefits of the changes you are looking to implement. You will also periodically (as an entrepreneur) have to reinvent yourself and get out of the comfortable position that you have constructed for yourself, so get used to being uncomfortable and making others uncomfortable too!
- Bring your previous experiences and apply them to your present situation. Pat Allin and I worked with large corporations that mostly made things. We brought our experience with improving the “order to cash process” from these organizations to construction and changed the way that general contractors interacted with their subcontractors. It was bigger than payments, it improved the overall level of collaboration between the parties and improved the interactions and trust between them. That said, when we started to sell our idea, most of our potential customers didn’t even realize that they had the opportunity to significantly improve their processes and were resistant to a change that would raise the bar as it relates to how business is done in construction. When the dam finally broke and several large general contractors took us on, it did. We changed the way construction payments were done and improved the efficiency and productivity in the process.
- Remember that you are on a team. Entrepreneurship is rarely a solo act. There are many parts that need to be played and you need to figure out which part you are going to play (i.e. what you are going to contribute) and do your best. The success that Pat and I had defining Textura’s secret sauce was largely based on our complementary skills. He had deep process and strategy experience and I contributed on the technology side. It wasn’t that we each didn’t have skills that the other possessed, but that we focused on our strengths and assisted in areas that the other excelled.
- Finally, constructively question everything. I believe that entrepreneurs take advantage of opportunities that other can’t see because they don’t look at the world and ask the questions that point to the opportunities. Sometimes like in the situation with Textura, neither Pat nor I knew enough about construction not to ask a lot of “why” questions and when we did, we got answers that made us think that there were opportunities to do things better.
This didn’t happen by chance. Both Pat and I were molded over many years by a culture that by its nature questioned the status quo and sought out opportunities to exploit circumstances that benefited both our clients and ourselves. Consulting is that kind of business. It forces its practitioners (at least the good ones) to examine and find opportunities for improvement, sell them and then implement them. And, every few years, you must reinvent the business and find/define a new set of products and launch a new business selling them. When you think about it, it is the perfect training ground for an entrepreneur.
That’s it. I started by saying that I wasn’t putting myself forward as an expert on entrepreneurship. And, I am not. What I can do (and did) is to observe and take note as I traveled the entrepreneurship journey, and these are my observations.
I kind of wish I had been as organized and complete in my discussion with the students. Maybe that is why I decided to write it down. If you know a young person who is interested in being an entrepreneur and my thoughts resonate with you, please pass this on.
Copyright 2018 Howard Niden
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