The Competition Conundrum

Read this post on United Prosperity this morning. It reminded me of Nathaniel Whitmore’s self-proclaimed snarkiness on Twitter a few weeks back at the announcement of “yet another” web-based social change content aggregator. I reacted:

This looks sadly like a manifestation of one of the downfalls of our current philanthropic system. Why, when a project like Kiva already exists, has crossed numerous startup hurdles, and is well on their way to actually making it in to the mainstream, would someone choose to create a competing organization with no significant competitive advantage (that will spend money on redundant overhead, not to mention having to learn many of the lessons already learned by their predecessor) instead of throwing their energy, passion, and whatever innovating ideas they have behind the existing successful project!? It’s hard to see that as anything other than ego getting in the way of the best interests of the cause.

It was an honest question. Still is. But it’s got me wondering something else.

Does everyone who’s thrown themselves behind an idea develop a competitive advantage blind-spot?

Some days I think I have. Someone sends me a link to a site I’ve looked at dozens of times and I can fire off a response email with half a dozen points of differentiation without even looking at the screen. I even find myself getting impatient when others don’t seem to see how clearly different the Tipping Bucket is from this other site they’ve come across.

When it comes to assessing the “competitive landscape,” I’ve pretty much stopped listening.

I’ve spent so much time analyzing, evaluating, classifying and subdividing the players in this space…I’m so familiar with the subtleties of distinction and overlap, that I hardly listen when some well-meaning associate starts a sentence with “Oh, it’s like…”

Thing is, it’s those perspectives that really matter. These cursory, uniformed, unsophisticated perceptions shape the market, and social entrepreneurs (myself included) would do well to pay attention to them.

Social Venture Startup: Lessons Learned(?)

Had some fun with a presentation for a group of students at BYU last night.

For those who don’t have 4 whole minutes, or who just find my voice annoying, here’s a quick recap:

Be Social.

This isn’t referring to some sort of holistic life balance—since I obviously haven’t figured that one out. I’m talking here about the social life you give your idea.

When something truly innovative and exciting takes root in us, a lot of people have this really counter-intuitive reaction to protect it, to be afraid to share it, to put it out in the world. Trust me. I did this. All it took was one person asking me “what’s to stop Causes from just implementing this next week?” and I panicked. I deleted the blog post I’d put up about TB, I didn’t attend any of the social venture competition networking events. I really guarded that idea.

And I regret it.

Talk to people. Share with them, ask for feedback, let your idea have a life. The chance of someone actually stealing it is a tiny price to pay for what you’ll gain by talking to people.

The second way I would tell you to be social is to purposefully engage with social media. That means you have to get beyond Facebook stalking  You don’t have to produce a lot of content, probably the best thing you can do is listen to other people, and then let them know that you’re listening in meaningful ways.

And, if you haven’t figured out Twitter yet. You need to. Period. Let me just say that I the two most lucrative and beneficial connections I have made to date both happened through Twitter. You’re missing out if you don’t get it yet.

Double-Dip at Every Opportunity

Second piece of advice is to double dip whenever you can. Please don’t apply this at parties—that’s not what I mean…
I just mean that you should find ways to get credit for your work. Better yet, find a way to get paid for it. If you can’t make the things you’re doing that you’re passionate about fit into your studies, your work, etc. it may be time to change your major/job. There’s a lot more flexibility to the academic system than most students take advantage of.

“They’re more like guidelines anyway…”

Speaking of flexibility. Your business plan is a working document. Remember that.

Use ALL the resources that are available to you to get ideas, mercilessly edit your own work, and perhaps most importantly, do everything you can to get things as concrete as possible—the numbers you need are out there. And if you carefully track both your sources and your assumptions, you’ll be much better able to adapt when things come along and change your plan—and trust me, they will.

Oh, and remember to put your contact information in your business plan. We got all the way through the competition without catching that little detail.

ASK!

The last thing is to ask for help. There are people out there just waiting to get excited about your idea and jump on board. Open your mouths. My favorite question has become “what would it take to get this for free?” After getting into a few $1500 conferences in exchange for a few hours manning the registration desk (an awesome networking opportunity anyway!) I ask this question all the time now.

You’ll be surprised what you can get.

Tipping Bucket Baby Pictures: 6 Months

This is a quick snapshot of some of what’s happened since May.

Since the SVC:
Miles flown – 39,564
Nights spent in airports – 12
Conferences attended – 5
Presentations given – 8
Business cards distributed – 262
Thank-you notes written – 65
Project partners invited – 11
Partnerships negotiated – $158,500 (approx)
Bones broken – 2

I’ve LONG since lost track of hours spent on things like web-design or re-working financials or just trying to figure out what order to do things in. And I’ve long since lost track of the number of people who have helped and encouraged me in various ways…but I guess we know it’s at least 65…and I’m behind on thank-you notes, by the way.

There is, of course another way to look at the last 6 months.

Since the SVC:
Websites launched – 0
Applications launched – 0
Donations processed – $0
Buckets tipped – 0

…somehow I don’t get the same feeling from this one. They tell you that it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will. They’re wrong. So far I’m thinking it’s more like 3-5 times as long.

But we have made some significant progress. And with the momentum from the past several months, we’re realistically looking at a launch in the next 90 days. Stay tuned!

Lost and Found

On the poster-sized post-it calendar on my living room wall, I called this “the Month of Jetlag … or How to Write a Prospectus at 30,000 Feet.” And, though I am no closer to clearing that particular academic hurdle than I was a month ago, JetBlue’s “all-you-can-jet” pass has proven quite an adventure. Here’s a quick recap:

Number of Flights: 20
Cost/Flight:
$29.95
Miles Flown: 39,248

LOST/LEFT/MISPLACED

  • 1 black half-zip REI layer jacket
  • 1 pair of fuzzy green slipper socks
  • 3 sets of miniature shampoo/conditioner bottles
  • 1 set of scriptures (left with CouchSurfing host on first NYC visit)
  • 1 Pilot G-tech C4 pen. Dangit.
  • Cell phone (temporarily—on the seat of the car that had just dropped me off at the airport—thanks JetBlue ladies and Jessi)
  • A couple hundred hours of sleep 🙂

FOUND/GAINED/DISCOVERED

  • A new allergy
  • How to walk on a fractured foot
  • The best place to spend the night in JFK.
  • Not the best place to spend the night in LGB.
  • 1 set of scriptures (delivered to airport by CouchSurfing host last night in NYC-thanks, Julie!)
  • A fantastic spot for home-made whole-wheat vegetarian pizza in Portland
  • Great 4/$1 dumplings in Chinatown in New York
  • The “historic nub” of Boston (and it only took about 2 hours to get there…from across the highway)
  • Increased appreciation for the designers of public transportation systems
  • Half a dozen fantastic organizations with whom to collaborate on a social entrepreneurship curriculum
  • Great new vocabulary words like “sector agnostic” (more on that later)
  • About a hundred follow-up emails to write

I’ll be attempting a return to “normal” life this week and anticipate blogging will be an integral part of processing this past month. Stay  tuned.

A New Prescription for Innovator Growing Pains?

Aaron Sklar’s exposition on the potentially analgesic effects of integrated evaluation really got me thinking. He points out that innovation is by nature uncomfortable, and suggests carefully-defined and continually re-defined meaningful metrics can play a role in easing that discomfort by clarifying the”end” to keep in mind.

Perhaps there’s even more to it than that:

So often in life, discomfort is the result of poorly managed expectations: It’s the classic “this won’t hurt a bit” you hear from the well-meaning nurse as she jabs a 4″ needle into your hip, the regularly-spaced reassurances of how important your call is while you wait interminably on hold, the gut-wrenching panic when you try on “your size” at a new boutique only to discover you can’t even button the trousers.

In addition to, or perhaps as a result of providing structure in a new (ad)venture, integrated, authentic, continual evaluation creates a different set of expectations in an organization. We expect to discover things that don’t work, we expect middle-of-the-ride course corrections (and the accompanying jolts), we expect transparency and honest critique, and we expect iteration.

It’s amazing the levels of “discomfort” we can adapt to if we expect it, and the performance we have the capacity to achieve through it is even more exciting.

Hockeystick-ing

This is my new vocab for the week. You can find it here. But in case you happen to lack a somewhat-less-than-engaging class during which to search through all the comments for the explanation, I’ll just tell you.

Going hockeysticks describes a period of radically accellerated (usually positive) change. Think of a hockey stick as it’s held by a player. Something, anything really, putters along at a fairly stable, respectable rate for a while and then [BAM!] it takes off on a completely (often exponetially) different trajectory.

YouTube videos hockeystick. Kudzu hockeysticks. Last summer, gas prices hockey…stuck?  Female hormone levels hockeystick about once a month. The US economy is definitely not hockeysticking. You get the picture…

Anyway, the analogy probably isn’t perfect. But, I can definitely think of some things I’d like to go hockeysticks right now.

Creativity Outside the Box

Second negotiation for MBA631 was also pretty simple. After a short discussion [literally 10 minutes of the 25 we had been allotted], we determined that the minimum price she could accept was more than than the maximum price I was authorized to offer, and without too much disappointment [figuring this was the point of the exercise] reported our impasse to the instructor.

Imagine my surprise when only a third of the class had come to the same impasse. Sure, some of the teams’ agreements were “invalid” as they had violated the terms of the case materials. Sure, technically, we had been right; there isn’t room for an agreement in a negative bargaining zone. But somehow, some of the pairs had come to novel solutions of compelling mutual benefit.

I was ashamed. I, the graphic designer, the “independent creative” had been singularly un-creative. I learned two very significant lessons:

  • Creativity is an indispensable tool. It shouldn’t be kept in my back pocket, it should be out in my hand, in use, at all times. How much is lost by simply accepting “impasses” at face value in all areas of our lives; difficult relationships, bureaucratic requirements, schedule conflicts, etc.? How many of those “impasses” might not be impasses at all if we just applied a little creativity–looked a the situation from a different perspective, questioned some assumptions, took a risk?
  • The efficacy of creativity is often contingent on trust. In the debrief, we talked a lot about looking beyond BATNAs and reservation prices to interests and values–the stuff way closer to people’s hearts that is the reason they ask for what they ask for and behave they way they do. But precisely because they are closer to our hearts, we often play those interests and values closer to our chests. We feel vulnerable exposing the deeper reasons for our opinions/desires/edicts, but choosing to do so anyway creates space, loosens things up, allows creativity to wiggle into the loopholes and create compromise and even mutual benefit in situations that otherwise might end up in “impasse.”

Why Doesn’t Win-Win Feel Like Winning?

Our first negotiation exercise for MBA631 was pretty simple. I was selling a biomedical manufacturing plant, she wanted to buy it.

In the end, it turns out that McKensie and almost exactly split the difference between the next best case for each of us. $4M more than I could have gotten otherwise, $4M less than the most she could pay.

Perfect solution, right? Best of both worlds for both of us, right? No hard tactics, no manipulation, nobody was taken advantage of.

So, why am I still trying to convince myself?

I Recant…

Not sure if one can technically recant something that’s never been formally stated, but I’m doing it. I hereby recant at least 40% of the malicious thoughts, derisive glances and scoffing mutters I’ve flicked at the retreating figures of unsuspecting consultants during my (still almost laughably short) sojourn in the corporate world.

Whew…check out that run-on.

Anyway, I have had the singular pleasure of working the past couple of weeks with a professional who has opened up a revisionist view of consulting for me. In the past, my experience has shown “consultants” to be overpaid, overbearing, and overestimated…pricey gorillas of various weights who spend an inordinant amount of time bashing things around and leave before anything’s been reassembled. I’ve seen these people lauded (and compensated handsomely) for their “vision” and heard many times how lucky [we] were to have them, but I’ve never really felt it. Don’t get me wrong, I relish the snip of scissors (or the crash of a machete) through red tape as much as anyone. And I’m no crusader for the status quo. But my previous experience has not shown consultants to be worth the price.

Not, that is, until I worked with Shauna. So far, she’s everything I thought a consultant would be when I started out naive and fresh in the world of business. She’s quick and flexible and visciously efficient. She’s free and open with her opinion, and quite insightful, but doesn’t slight the experience or intuition of others. She’s a fresh perspective but she’s not analyzing an entirely different painting. Plus, she’s given me enhanced access and added clout with the management. Approval on this over-due magazine insertion in 10 minutes instead of 2 days? I’m not complaining. Part of this, I’m sure, is that she’s a consultant of the investing variety and $2M in an outstretched hand gets management attention much more quickly than even my most frenzied leaping and shouting. Perhaps if we required all consultants to make such an investment…

I’m still not entirely convinced, but the flow of bad karma has definitely ebbed.