What’s Hot? What’s Not?

This week, three leaders in higher education told me that my new company idea is incredibly timely.  Wow!  It sounds like I have landed on something that is hot!

Being in the hot zone is no accident.  You don’t get there because you sit around a conference table and come up with the next big idea.  And, you don’t get there by falling in love with your product.  It takes hard work and persistence to have the three conversations that I had this week.  I have been working on my business idea for over a year.  I have invested a lot of time and money in determining what’s hot, and what’s not.  In countless discussions with trusted advisors and potential customers, I shaped my concept to fit the incredibly timely need.  And, I haven’t even begun to build the product yet.

Some of the things that you can do to make sure you are in the hot zone with your new business…

  • Get involved in an industry association.  I joined SIIA, an organization that has a big focus on educational technology.  And, I got involved in the organization, attending local meetings, joining a committee, mentoring and judging for their ed tech incubator.  This gives me regular access to other start ups and to see what they are up to.
  • Attend conferences.  In the past two months, I went to LearnLaunch in Boston and SXSWEdu in Austin.  Next month, it’s the Arizona State GSV Education Innovation Summit and then the SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit.  While expensive, conferences provide you with unique access to other entrepreneurs, legacy companies that are interested in innovation, potential customers and investors.  Where else can you get all that access packed into a 2 or 3 day experience?
  • Conduct interviews with potential customers.  This is critical.  Visit customers.  Get them on the phone.  Listen to their needs, their pain points, and their reactions to your solution.  Record the interviews so that you can capture it all in their words.
  • Secondary research.  And more secondary research.  I spend hours every week trying to keep abreast of the trends, industry reports, and following the money in my industry (who’s buying or investing in what and how much).  I try to get my hands on whatever reports and information that I can.  Some leading providers of reports and analysis include Outsell, Simba and Eduventures. Media to read: Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed and Edsurge.  There are also a ton of reports and government sites, depending on what you are looking for. For example, I always read the National Study for Student Engagement. If you regularly scan the media, you will hear about them as they are published each year.  Finally, check out the sites of the big industry players.  They often publish studies or white papers that can help you. For instance, my company, O’Donnell Learn, just published a study with Blackboard on Faculty Progression to Digital.

Get ready to roll up your sleeves.  This is hard work.  But, you have to put in the time to be sure you are HOT!!

What Are Your Competencies?

I spent 4 days last week at SXSWEdu—lots of meetings and sessions seeped in all the education technology trends. Some of the words that I heard uttered over and again: MOOCs (massive online open courses—yes it seems to have become a word), education playlists, adaptive learning and OER (open education resources–that means free). Generally, the trends this year centered around digital content.

Next year, I predict, it’s going to be all about competencies. Schools are under fire for failing to prepare students for tomorrow’s workplace. Most schools—particularly post-secondary—are focused on getting students to KNOW things. But, the workplace needs us to teach our learners how to DO—how to think critically, solve complex problems, access the information needed to do this, collaborate, communicate, and the list goes on. These are competencies, not bits of knowing!

Industry innovators at Southern New Hampshire U are piloting a $10,000 four year college degree that is entirely competency-based (see article in New Hampshire Union Leader). This degree isn’t for everybody; it is a workplace-sponsored program for educating lower-payed employees.

But, I think that SNHU is onto something bigger than a degree. All of us, as we strive through our journey of life and work, or entrepreneurship, need to build our competencies. Do things that take you out of your comfort zone! Learn by doing. And, build your portfolio of competencies.

If you are interested in building entrepreneurial competency, and you are willing to put in the work that this takes, then check out My Entrepreneurial Journey, an immersive program developed at the Acton School of Business. MyEJ provides a wide range of activities and experiences that will help you to build your entrepreneurial competency.

It’s Not What You Know. It’s Who You Know.

connecting[1]Isn’t that the truth! A few months ago, I met with a friend who is a very successful entrepreneur and asked him for advice about launching my new business. He responded that you already have everything you need to launch your new venture: expertise, passion, and most importantly, your network.

My new company isn’t going to look anything like yesterday’s companies. Business development will likely be more important than human resources. And I spend a lot of time meeting with really smart people who can help me figure out the future. I would bet that everyone you need to know to build a successful startup is within 3 degrees from you on LinkedIn or FB.

“Who you know” is a two-way street. I can’t stress this enough. I also spend a fair amount of time helping other people build the network. This is critical. And, you can’t believe what you learn by giving advice or connections to someone in need. By so doing, you have also earned the right to reach out and ask others for help.

A few tips for increasing “who you know”:

  • Get involved in some organization or association related to your start up. Begin giving back now!
  • Online networks are a treasure trove. If you “meet” someone who could help you with your startup, contact them. There is no online equivalent for a live conversation—face to face is ideal, but virtual is great too.
  • Conferences are expensive, but dollar for dollar, and if you use the opportunity to network, you get the best value for your investment.
  • Connect with people who are in between jobs, especially those who are pretty high up the food chain. They have time, and a little more perspective than people in very busy jobs, so they often have great ideas and advice and connections for you.

If you want a primer on building your network, check out the book: The Connect Effect, by Michael Dulworth, who is an expert on building personal, professional and virtual networks.

Charting A Path Through The Desert

DesertA few months ago, I transitioned away from running my first company, O’Donnell Learn.  That first Monday morning, I went into the office, sat down and thought, “now what?”

Starting a business is like charting a path through the desert.  There is nobody but you to figure out how to spend your time.  And, you have to be very disciplined about your time.   You have to plug along and put all those pieces in place so that you have a business (with customers) when you cross that desert.

Here are the primary ways that I spend my time these days:

  • Networking—meeting with      people who can help me get this off the ground, and helping others get      their initiatives off the ground.
  • Researching the market to      understand the problems and pain points, the need, and how my company can      uniquely fill that need. This involves hours of reading, and also speaking      to customers, experts and potential partners.
  • Planning the offering or      product.  This is a staged activity,      called market development.  Work with      customers every step of the way to shape your offering.  Right now, we are creating a two-minute video      that demonstrates our offering, which we will take to customers for      feedback in prep for creating our detailed product requirements.
  • Putting together my      advisory board and founding team—finding the perfect people for it and then      recruiting them to join me.
  • Articulating the vision      and message—then trying it out on others and then rearticulating it.  This takes a long time for every      business and new offering.  Getting      it right is essential!
  • Developing the business      plan and pitch for investors.

Wow.  That is a lot to get done!  And, I need to be very disciplined so that I am not scattered all over the place.  Here is a video I found that gives three great tips for time management.

Your Customer IS Your Business

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.
Sam Walton

Bridge-to-Customer_iStock_000005355437XSmall[1]A business requires customers—not eyeballs or clicks, but people or organizations that are willing and able to pay for your offering. So, who is your customer? We recently advised a high school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) company that is looking to expand its market share. I asked them: who is your customer? The answer: Superintendents.

Hmm… this needs to be narrowed down a lot more. In order to build a business, you need to be very targeted about who your customer is. First, is the superintendent really the decision-maker, or just an influencer? Who will drive that sale through for you and who is going to sign off on the payment? Secondly, you likely won’t have access to most superintendents.

A little startup will never have the bandwidth to target “superintendents”. You need to find a segment, a niche. That could be: private/parochial schools, districts with huge STEM initiatives, reform movements around STEM. You get the drift. Start with a group that you can find and identify, and get them to be customers—yes, paying customers. Then, you will have a business that you can scale and expand.

One other note, many startups try to expand too quickly, to be all things to all people. As I launch my new company, I am going to keep this in mind, and make sure that I get it right with that first group of customers before trying to expand out too aggressively.

Turning Your Cocktail Napkin Into A Business Plan

Yikes. I have been staring at napkin sketchmy computer for the past hour getting myself psyched up to begin writing my plan. Last night, when I drew my idea on a napkin for my friend, Jen, my idea was perfectly clear… I know that in order to get started on funding activities, I need to write the business plan. If you find this daunting, you are not alone.

Where do you start? Here are a few things that I have learned—having written dozens of plans over the years. First, to warm yourself up and get ready to write, jot down your story (free flow, top of mind):

  • Why are you doing this?
  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What is your business? This is where you turn that picture you drew on the napkin into a brief statement.
    Who is your customer? In education, this is usually a little complicated. Usually there are multiple layers of customer: your end user (students, teachers, parents); adopters (teachers, institutions). Also, what segment of customer are you targeting? There is a big difference between the elite universities and community colleges, between remedial education and graduate degree programs.
  • How will you make money? This is important! What is your revenue model? And what basis do you have for assuming your customer will buy what you are offering? It’s really helpful to look at competitors and comparable companies (which may not even be in your space) to help you figure this out.
  • Why you? What do you uniquely offer that would make someone want to invest in this business? That would make a customer want to purchase your offering?

This should get you ready to start writing. A few other tips:

  •  Start with the executive summary. Get the sketch down on paper and then fill in the details.
  •  You will likely need to do a lot of research to craft your story or strategy. That’s normal. Make sure you keep a log of what you learned in the research (including statistics and sources), as you will need it for the plan.
  • I like to start with outlines and then fill in the easy parts first, rather than trying to be linear. Also, worry about organization and editing later. Just get it down on paper.

There are a lot of places you can go for ideas about how to structure a business plan. The Small Business Association site, How to Write A Business Plan, is a good starting point. Two other good sources: Entrepreneur, Your Business Plan Guide, and Inc., Writing A Business Plan.

Top 8 Things I Learned The First Time Around

checklist[1]I have already done the entrepreneurial journey a few times and have advised or rode shotgun with dozens of other startups. So, I have seen some patterns and am going to be sure that I adhere to these tenets in the next go around….

  •  Your customer IS your business
  • Know who you are: stick to your vision and values
  • Get the right people on the bus
  • Build it and they will come…NOT
  • Cash is king, so bootstrap every step of the way
  • Set goals and measure them
  • Nourish your mind, body and spirit
  • Make time for relationships, pay it forward

In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be exploring each of these.  Meanwhile, if you are interested in the perspective of some entrepreneurs way more successful than me, here are two:
Seth Godin’s Top Ten Things Every Fast Company Entrepreneur Needs To Know, wisdom from the marketing guru, as reported in Fast Company

Top 12 Tips for Small Business Owners from Barbara Corcoran, the real estate mogul, featured on Shark Tank

Kids Need Structure…Me Too!

This TED Talk by Colin Powell is worth 15 minutes of your time. It’s about how kids need structure, and how structure is derived from setting expectations.

Lack of structure is such a big part of the college completion problem. So many students, of all ages and backgrounds, come to college unprepared to create their own structure and realistic expectations. Structure can be as simple as a study schedule; instead of hanging around playing video games every afternoon, hit the library. When you are stressed out juggling school, work and family, this is the time to be sure you have structure around sleeping and eating.

General Powell’s eloquent message also applies to me as an entrepreneur. I have found that you need to set aside time for critically important but not so urgent things like networking, thinking, or keeping up with the industry research. Part of structure is setting goals, and then systematically tracking the metrics for these goals. It is so easy to let these things slip; then, before you know it, you are pedaling as fast as you can to catch up. If you pay attention to structure, you will chart the path to success.

Save The World Or Make Money?

Save The World Or Make Money?

A wise friend of mine asked me a question last month: do you want to save the world or do you want to make money? My initial reaction was, both! But, I took some time to ponder this question, and I realized that I want and need to make money. We have two sons in college, so money is important.

There is a new type of corporation in 11 states (not my state yet) called a B Corp, or Benefits Corporation, that was created for entrepreneurs that want to use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems (see the Certified B Corp website). So, maybe soon there will be a way for me to set up the company to both make money and change the world.

Every entrepreneur needs to have a vision and here is my vision: I want to create an outrageously successful company, one that is as cool as Google, one that every kid getting out of school wants to work for. I want cool meeting spaces and a foozball table and a meditation room. And, I envision a diverse team of really smart people who can continually help to evolve the way students learn. To make this vision come true, I had better focus on making money.

That said, making money cannot be my only driver. If you are going to be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to solve a problem. As my friend and advisor, Bruce, always tells me, “create a painkiller, not an aspirin.” You need to solve a real problem, and do it in a way that is authentic, and is differentiated from all the other organizations that are trying to solve this problem. Keep in mind, if you are solving a real problem, there are a lot of other smart people trying to solve that problem. So, cut through the clutter and make sure you are unique and provide value.

This Girl Is On Fire

I love Alicia Keyes! She is smart, beautiful and passionate. Her song, Girl on Fire, is my mantra.

To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to be on fire! You need passion. It is the only thing that will sustain you during those many weeks and months ahead of you as you conceive, launch, build and grow your business.

Being on fire, to me, is one part emotion and one part energy. A few years ago, an executive coach told me, “you are too emotional”. I thought long and hard about that comment, and ultimately disagreed wholeheartedly (no pun intended). When it comes to being Dilbert, maybe emotion is a bad thing. But, when it comes to being an entrepreneur, you need emotion to fuel the fire. Steve Jobs expressed it beautifully in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address (full transcript in the Huffington Post):

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

The other key ingredient in entrepreneurial fire is energy. I learned long ago, while moderating hundreds of focus groups and strategy sessions, that energy can light up a room and infuse a conversation. If you channel your energy productively, and consciously, you can literally make things happen. More on that later…