Monday, January 18, 2021

Tesla: What makes a great entrepreneur?

I'm reading a 500-page book on Nikola Tesla grandly titled, TESLA: Inventor of the Electrical Age, by history and engineering prof W. Bernard Carlson.

It's a fascinating but tough read, with more science in one book than I've seen since Grade 12 Physics (which I only survived because I had a smart mentor, my friend Jeff who is now a professor of astronomy at LSU).

Of course, I'm reading this book for the entrepreneurship bits, which is where the story comes alive. I was especially taken by Tesla's encounter with Westinghouse, the fledgling manufacturing company that went on (thanks to him) to become a powerhouse in, well, electrical power.

Tesla sold a number of patents to Westinghouse, which made him a partner of the company and its founder, the inimitable George Westinghouse. He was pretty accomplished himself, filing his first patent at age 19, for a rotary steam engine. At 22 Westinghouse invented the first air-braking systems for trains, variations of which are still used today on trains and heavy trucks.

Where Tesla was a brilliant, conflicted scientist, Westinghouse was the complete entrepreneur, a focused founder and disciplined business leader. The company he founded still exists (it's now called CBS, named for the broadcasting firm acquired by Westinghouse in 1995), and the brand name lives on through licensing deals with other companies

What characteristics produce a great entrepreneur? You'll see most of them in this description by the legendary Nikola Tesla:

"I like to think of George Westinghouse, as he appeared to me in 1888.... A powerful frame, well proportioned with every joint in working order, an eye as clear as a crystal, a quick and springy step – he presented a rare example of health and strength. Like a lion in a forest he breathed deep and with delight the smoky air of his factories. Though just forty then he still had the enthusiasm of youth. Always smiling, affable and polite, he stood in marked contrast to the rough and ready men I met. Not one word which would have been objectionable, not a gesture which might have offended.... 

"And yet no fiercer adversary than Westinghouse could have been found when he was crossed. An athlete in ordinary life, he was transformed into a giant when confronted with difficulties which seemed insurmountable. He enjoyed the struggle and never lost confidence. When others would give up in despair, he triumphed. Had he been transferred to another planet with everything against him, he would have worked out his salvation."

Tesla's assessment of Westinghouse's physical attributes wouldn't pass muster today. But his colorful depictions of the man's passion, energy, strength and resilience go a long way in describing what it takes to win at business in the 21st century. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Coaching Call – Pitching, Prioritizing and Planning

I had a great coaching call with an entrepreneur the other day.

He has a complex tech product that needs to break through… but most of his clients aren’t technically savvy.

We spent a lot of time reviewing his product to figure out the best way to explain it. My protégé has always taken too long to explain it – to the point where I suspect most prospects start to get confused (and a little anxious) before they understand how the product can help them.

 So I said: explain this product to me in 10 words or less.

 We never got there. But we got it down to about 20 words. And that’s a huge win.

 When you can explain the concept behind your innovation more efficiently, new opportunities open up. Prospects become more engaged. You get better questions, and more time to answer them. And you’ll have more chances to focus on your most important benefits and differentiators.

 Work on that positioning statement. If you need help, I offer free advice and tough love on my specialty Twitter account, Instant Clarity, @clarity_instant.

 On our call yesterday, we also covered priority setting. My mentee has a great idea for a new platform that could take his product to a whole new level, and attract international interest. The trouble is, he faces a long slog to make it happen – and of course, resources are limited. Plus, every minute he spends on the new project means he’s not building revenue from the basic product.

 How do you deal with game-changing big initiatives? Don't try to do it all yourself.

Here are my suggestions:

·        Reach out to other people who have pulled off big projects like this. Ask if you can pick their brains. If they're amenable, ask them if they’d be willing to become mentors or advisors – ie, open to a call once every few weeks or months so you can draw more ideas and/or motivation from them.

·        Find someone to work on the project with you (or else take over the other duties you’ll be shirking in order to work on your Big Idea). Look for other entrepreneurs between gigs who might be willing to work on a project for the experience rather than a salary – and weight the compensation so they get the lion’s share if they meet the targets you've set.

·        Look into hiring interns: students looking for/in need of work experience. Give them the tough, dirty jobs you're not good at. They’ll appreciate the real-life experience and put their energy behind it. At the end, pay them more than you agreed to at the beginning.

       ·       Put together a board of advisors for your big project. Bring on as many supporters/mentors as you can. When you start working on something new, you risk wasting weeks of time reinventing the wheel. Find people who have already been where you are going, and get them on board. Pay them if you have to, but it doesn't have to be a lot. Most people enjoy helping out, and derive a lot of benefit from coaching others.

Finally, people don't talk a lot about business plans any more. I think that's a mistake. Before he starts working on his bold new initiative, I asked the founder to do the thorough homework required. Start by figuring out how long it’s going to take, what resources it will require, and how much it’s all going to cost. Work out in advance what success will look like; who your key allies/suppliers/customers will be; and how to best approach them.

When you're in the middle of a new initiative, when people are calling and texting you and problems are breaking out everywhere, work can get very confusing and stressful. You’ll be glad you have a plan to ground you and a road map to follow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Top Tips for Acing your Next Media Interview

Over on LinkedIn, my friend and occasional crony Michael Corcoran offered his thoughts today on best practices in training business people to speak to the media. Then he tagged me to add my thoughts. 

So here we go. 

First, Mike's big idea for mastering media interviews: 

"As a spokesperson, your primary job is NOT to answer an interviewer's questions; it's to deliver your key messages effectively. 

"That doesn't mean you don't answer the questions. It means using each one as an opportunity to tie your answer back to one of 3-5 key messages you want to convey to the media outlet's audience.

"Recognizing this distinction not only starts media training off with a huge lesson but puts subsequent tips, tricks and practices into their proper context." 

 Mike also suggests: 
 - finding out questions and planning your answers well before the interview starts 
 - recognizing nothing is off the record 
- resisting the temptation to fill moments of silence (like after a short, crisp answer).

These are all sound strategies for surviving media interviews. But I added a few of my own. 

 My advice: 

 1. Always tell the truth. Your "spin" does not outrank your personal commitment to truth. If you lose credibility, you put your career at risk. 

2. Try to create rapport (small talk) with media before the interview starts. Building trust starts early and never stops. 

 3. Know the audience you most want to reach. What is the message they most want/need to hear? 

4. Even when you ask for questions in advance, media usually reserve the right to ask additional questions - which may come to them on the spot, or may have been reserved as a surprise. Expect the unexpected, and stay calm even when pressed. 

 5. Make your job easier by promoting ethical behaviour, transparency and accountability at your organization. The best cover-up is no cover-up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Getting off on a Comet

We're lived our lives being aware of comets. Some of us remember being disappointed in 1986 when Halley's Comet came and went without a ripple.  

But for just a few days more, we get to see one LIVE! For those in the northen hemisphere, Comet Neowise is low in the northwest sky after sunset. Wait at least an hour, because the comet is slowly growing dimmer. But it's fascinating to see, even if you find that the best way to see it is NOT to look directly at it, but appreciate it out of the corner of your eye.

Discovered in March, Neowise is a 5-kilometer-wide evaporating iceball visiting from the outer solar system. If you miss it this month, it'll be back again in about 68,000 years.

Professional photographers have taken some incredible pictures - most of them based on prolonged time exposures that my Pixel camera phone can't do. 

The Best Way to Watch Comet NEOWISE, Wherever You Are
Comet NEOWISE over Mount Hood on July 11, 2020. Credit: Kevin Morefield Getty Images

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
the highest resolution version available.
 Comet NEOWISE over Stonehenge. Image Credit & Copyright: Declan Deval

Comet NEOWISE above Hollywood. Credit: Zihao Chen Getty Images

Stupid plane.

And here is my contribution to astrophysics.
Taken in Bala, Ontario, July 17, overlooking (fittingly) the Moon River.

Keep looking up!