Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Ode to the Valley

I loved reading Justin Rosenstein's inspirational, heart-felt post Do Great Things on TechCrunch this week. It talks to the same "Death of Big Ideas" phenomenon I blogged about after visiting SXSW Conference last year, and makes a powerful case for why the pursuit of Big Ideas by us, the privileged members of the Valley tech community, is a moral imperative.

You must read Justin's piece in its entirety, but as a preview here are some of my favorite quotations from it:
Technology, community, and capitalism combine to make Silicon Valley the potential epicenter of vast positive change. 

And with increasingly severe threats to our survival — rapid climate change, an unstable international economy, and unsustainable energy consumption — it is more important than ever that we... change the world, foster happiness and alleviate suffering, for us and our fellow beings.

[I]n the face of threats to humanity’s future on the one hand and the extraordinary potential of mankind on the other, at some point we must ask: are we capable of more?

Life is short, youth is finite, and opportunities endless. Have you found the intersection of your passion and the potential for world-shaping positive impact? 

Don’t lose the fire you started with. If you’re going to devote the best years of your life to your work, have enough love for yourself and the world around you to work on something that matters to you deeply... in order to do great things, we must attempt great things.

Why Are Kids Losing Interest in Entrepreneurship?

As you can judge by its title, this Forbes article posted more than 2 months ago is quite troubling: Kids Lose Interest in Entrepreneurship as They Get Older. In this article, Forbes peeled back the onion on an otherwise rosy 2011 Gallup poll on entrepreneurship to find that
While 65 percent of fifth and sixth graders plan to start a business, only 34 percent of high school kids do. (see graph below)
Thus, somehow as a country we lose 50% of our total entrepreneur population in middle school! And what troubles me even more is the lack of any substantive or serious discussion on this (critical) topic by any politician or educators.

What is amiss?

The Forbes article takes a stab at a response:
For insight into why older kids are less likely than younger ones to plan to start businesses, I turned to my resident expert on what kids think – my fourth grade daughter Hannah.  Hannah’s explanation was that kids learn about alternatives to an entrepreneurial career as they get older.  As kids become interested in other jobs, the share that plans to start a business declines.
But with all due respect to the author's fourth grade daughter, this does not seem to get at the heart of the issue. In my own childhood experience and that of most toddlers, the various white collar and blue collar professions are the first "jobs" that kids get exposed to: Firefighter, Police, Doctor, Nurse, Mechanic, Pilot, Flight Attendant, Captain, Cashier, Factory Worker (especially if chocolate is involved), Factory Manager, Actor, Actress, Ballerina, Athlete, Teacher, etc. Instead, what I think is the culprit here is the fear of failure that a lot of educators instill in children that turns otherwise adventurous souls into scared puppies.

It has been a truism for a long time that small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engine of growth of our economy. Yet, it seems that somehow our primary education system systematically manages to kill the very engine of growth we are trying to fuel. What do you think? Can we do a course correction? Any and all solutions are welcome!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's the Semantics, Stupid!

A Matter of Semantics
 I have to take a deep breath whenever someone brushes aside an argument as one over mere "semantics", as if there is a "reality" out there unperturbed by our linguistic filters. After all, "Why argue over words?" goes the common adage! And although that kind of attitude may temporarily get us out of a heated argument and allow the parties to save face, cool off, and part amicably, it is completely counter-productive when it comes to making one of the most important decisions about your startup, which is formulating its strategic positioning.

Why Strategic Positioning Matters
Coming up with the right positioning for your startup is at least half the battle (if not most of it)! For one, I have been involved with several startups where a change in that elusive positioning statement was the single most important contributor to its ultimate success or demise.

If you think I am exaggerating, monitor your own gut reaction to the following positioning statements: "to help people find the most relevant websites for their search queries" versus "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". Do you think Google would have been as successful in building a world-class team with the former statement, even though semantically they are basically referring to the same underlying algorithm (aka, PageRank)? Or would you feel the same about a company that aspires to be "the best website creation tool" versus one that aspires to be "the world's leading tool for small businesses to get online and grow their business", despite having the same technology? In fact, at Webs, where we made that exact change in our mission statement 18 months ago, we set in motion a positively reinforcing set of events that led to the successful exit of the company last month.

The Critical Role of Words
As the examples above illustrate, when it comes the positioning statement every word counts, as does the emotions they evoke individually and in combination with the other words in that statement. Choose those words carefully as each evokes a different mental state (e.g., "male sibling" evokes  very different feelings from "brother", despite referring to the same person).

Marketers are fully aware of this and spend endless hours on crafting the right slogan(s) and testing them against the audience. You can run your own experiments online by spending a few dollars on some Google ads and comparing variants of saying the same thing; can be quite fun!

When taken seriously, coming up with the right positioning statement by choosing the right set of words is not a trivial task; but once you get that single statement right you will see how much easier it is to recruit, raise money, motivate your team, and even set product development priorities.