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8 Entrepreneurial Insights from the Pilgrims

November 29, 2013

Richard Branson‘s got nothing on William Bradford.

As the governor of Plymouth Colony for more than 30 years, Bradford oversaw the development of what could be considered one of America’s first entrepreneurial ventures. An impressive leader, Bradford leveraged his clarity of vision and accuracy of decisions that lead to the Colony’s impressive growth despite adverse conditions.

But he wasn’t alone in his accomplishments: the members of Plymouth Colony also embraced an entrepreneurial attitude.Had that not happened, Bradford could not have succeeded. To paraphrase a popular leadership proverb: without followers, you’re just someone out for a walk.

Pilgrim's Pride in Legos

Flickr: Lego Junkie

In that spirit, having emerged energized from an exceptional Thanksgiving meal prepared by Eric Greenspan, another notable entrepreneur (and quite a cook), I prepared the list below of 8 entrepreneurial insights from the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims:

1. Have Vision: It took tremendous ability to envision life in the New World and the confidence to venture forth into the unknown. Similarly, in her noteworthy TED Talk, The secret structure of great talks, Nancy Duarte discovered that great leaders define “what is” and “what could be.”

2. Embrace Ambiguity: The Pilgrims had no idea what to expect when they departed for the New World they and, when they did arrive, they were 200 miles off course.  Yet they didn’t let that stop them from venturing forth into the unknown with determination and drive. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and approach a challenge from an unfamiliar perspective.

3. Confront Adversity: The Pilgrims endured an almost endless array of hardships and challenges during and after their 66 day sailing. During the first winter 45 out of 102 settlers died! Yet, they persevered and made the most of what they had. It is often through challenging times we discover a strength inside ourselves that might have otherwise been dormant.

4. Take Risks: Imagine how history might have been different if the Pilgrims had not taken a risk and boarded the Mayflower? I might not even be sitting here writing this blog post. Consider the thoughts of former hockey great Wayne Gretzky who is credited as saying “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Although he has no connection to the Pilgrims, his words are exceptionally relevant.

5. Celebrate Community: This idea is the most thematically related to Thanksgiving — after all, it is the reason the holiday is celebrated. Although the way we give thanks is different from the Pilgrims’ experience, the goal is the same: gather with friends and family to celebrate the achievements while embracing gratitude for everything you have, not what you don’t.

6. Leverage Partnerships: The Pilgrims were not fully prepared to flourish in their new home. Had they not signed treaties with Native Americans like Samoset (a member of the Abenaki tribe), Squanto (a member of the Pawtuxet tribe),  and Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoag), the Pilgrims very well might not have survived that first winter.

7. Encourage Innovation: Sometimes adversity can inspire ingenuity; necessity is the mother of invention after all. And, if ever there was a group of people who needed to be innovative when an original option failed, it was the Pilgrims. Even on of their original two ships, the Speedwell, proved unfit for the Atlantic crossing, which forced them to consolidate into the Mayflower.

8. Give Thanks: There are many things we don’t have enough of, but there are also a many things we have in great supply. The Pilgrims didn’t have much yet they appreciated what they had (they certainly didn’t fight each other over the latest Xbox the day after Thanksgiving). People want to feel appreciated, even for “just” doing their job.

Happy ThanksgivingAlthough the Pilgrim’s first arrived nearly 400 years ago, their entrepreneurial achievements are as relevant as ever.  

So, if you own your own business or are otherwise independently minded, consider integrating the 8 ideas above into your operations. 

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Does an MBA Make a Degree of Difference at a Startup?

September 15, 2013

Apple-for-the-TeacherSteve Jobs serves as a reminder that, sometimes, passionately pursuing your dreams — not a formal degree — is the secret to success as an entrepreneur.

Likewise, a Wall Street Journal article questions the value of an MBA degree at startups — both the knowledge acquired and the cachet of the degree itself.

The article introduces General Assembly and Starter School; both focus on action over excessive ideation — similar to educational innovators like Khan Academy, Team Treehouse, and Code Academy:

  • Offering courses in web development and user experience design, business fundamentals, data science, product management and digital marketing, General Assembly is as a “full-time immersive programs, long-form courses, and classes and workshops on the most relevant skills of the 21st century.”
  • Teaching people how to build software and start companies, Starter School focuses on learning by doing, emphasizing practical skills in three intense phases over 9 months.

Each program (and others similar to them) offer a simplified curriculum without the formality of a traditional degree. They’re designed to give attendees enough information to get an idea going without impeding their progress.

In a time when the median cost of a four-year degree at a public institution has risen to $16,000 per year, even people who aren’t business majors are finding themselves performing a cost/benefit analysis when it comes to higher education.

But, maybe these programs are irresponsibly encouraging acting on ideas without first thinking things through? Consider this Wired article warning that the ‘failure’ culture of startups is killing innovation.

Despite  Jobs’ achievements with Apple, an MBA is still a tremendous value to individuals with entrepreneurial aspirations — present company included.

Receiving my "Outstanding MBA Scholarship" award at Woodbury University (May 7, 2005).

Receiving my “Outstanding MBA Scholarship” award at Woodbury University (May 7, 2005).

Eleven years ago today I took the first step towards earning my MBA at Woodbury University.

I found tremendous value in my MBA program, learning a great deal about running a business and discovering a new career path into teaching.

In my experience with startups or businesses operating with that mindset, I’ve found that they don’t necessarily value an MBA.

Most startups are focused on producing “results” even if those results are rushed and need to be reworked later.

Conversely, earning my MBA taught me the value of “measuring twice and cutting once” which results in a more methodological approach.  This doesn’t always fit with the startup way of work that often values quantity over quality, usually in an effort to impress investors.

That’s not say an advanced degree holds no value in a startup, but there is no guarantee that it will. But, in my opinion, education is always a worthwhile investment, as long as you are willing to invest the effort to maximize its return.

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Two “Giant” Losses Offer Seven Super Bowl-Sized Life Lessons

September 8, 2013

Déjà blue — or seeing red?

With the 2013 NFL Season now upon us (and today being the New England Patriots‘ first game) I felt compelled to look back at how the team did last year and discuss how they might fare this season. My big question: will their good or bad history repeat itself?

As you might recall — or, if you’re a Pats fan, as you might like to forget — last season the team lost their first home opener in 10 years to the Arizona Cardinals. This after having looked like the class of the NFL the week before when they handily beat the Tennessee Titans on the road.

It was an awkward reminder of their most recent Super Bowl loss, which in itself was a bizarre replay of the one they had lost four years earlier. Lately, being a Patriots fan has some striking similarities to the date made famous by Punxsutawney Phil: Groundhog Day.

As a Patriots fan, the proximity of the Groundhog Day holiday and the 1993 movie of the same name to the Super Bowl has a unique significance: Just like how in the movie the same day happens over and over again, on Sunday, February 5, 2012 the Patriots fell to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 46 — their second championship loss to the same team in four years.

Although disheartening, the Patriots’ Super Bowl 46 loss was nowhere near as gut wrenching as their Super Bowl 42 loss to the Giants. That failure also ended the Patriots’ quest for a perfect 19-0 season.

While emotionally I wanted the Patriots to win Super Bowl 46, rationally, I had my concerns throughout the season as the team somehow stayed alive with a patchwork defense and an inconsistent offense.

Despite being disappointed by the Patriots’ inability to bring home a fourth Lombardi Trophy, I realized failure presents pathways to personal progress and, in response, devised the seven introspective insights below — one for each of the New England Patriots Super Bowl appearances:

1. Expectations Undermine Attitude:  When you feel entitled to something, that expectation creates an assumption that you will get it because you “deserve” it. Generally, when this occurs, you become complacent and assume the outcome is inevitable. This is a recipe for disaster.

During their (almost) perfect season, despite claims of “humble pie,” there seemed to be an expectation that the Patriots would win Super Bowl XLII and make NFL history. Brady was even dismissive in response to then New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress’ prediction that the Patriots would lose 17-23.

Ironically, the Patriots would actually only score 14 points in their 14-17 loss to the Giants (though they did score 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI, but once again the Giants outscored them with 21 points — cue sad trombone).

2. Junkyards Don’t Always Make Juggernauts: No team has done more with less than the New England Patriots. Since the beginnings of their dynasty, the Patriots built from the draft and reformed players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss who had lost their way with other teams.

Former Patriots Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli is famously quoted as saying “we’re building a team, not collecting talent.” This is a philosophy similar to that portrayed in the recent Brad Pitt film Moneyball (affiliate link) which is ardently embraced by head coach Bill Belichick.

While this Moneyball inspired approach might’ve brought the Patriots success, two successive Super Bowl losses and a string of post-season upsets call that into question. Realistically, Moneyball never lead to any World Series wins for Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s.

The Patriots are notorious for collecting picks in each year’s NFL Draft, but then “trading down” with other teams to pick later and pay their players less. Notably, in an article titled The Clutch Enigma: Tom Brady the author argues “It’s not that Brady has lost his ‘clutchness,’ it’s simply that the Patriots’ teams (namely the defenses) have gotten worse, and Brady has become the focal point.”

Miraculously, the team traded up in the 2012 draft to select Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. In Week 1 of the 2012 season Hightower and rookie Defensive End Chandler Jones demonstrated the potential immediate impact a top tier player can offer.

Certainly signing high profile players is no guarantee: see Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco — and also consider former Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick’s warning “…each free agent should come with a warning label stamped to his chest. What should that label say? Buyer beware.” At the same time, asking players to continually do more with less is more of a weakness than a strength.

Fortunately, the 2013 Patriots rookie class is off to an impressive start, adding youth and optimism to the team — so maybe this year’s draft will bear championship fruit.

3. Win or Lose, Players Get Paid: As a fan of a sports team, there is a good chance you are more emotionally invested in the success or failure of your teams than the payers. As Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plashke pointedly explains in his February 9, 2012 article For the pro athlete, it’s just a job, “The players don’t care as much as you do.”

Even Chad Ochocinco — with his abysmal record with the Patriots of 15 receptions for 276 yards and one touchdown — was still paid (I am reluctant to say earned) a base salary of $6,000,000 for tweeting and updating his Facebook status all season instead of contributing to the team!

And, if you’re curious how much your favorite player gets paid, have a look at this interactive infographic that lets you see the 2013-2014 season salaries of each NFL player, by team and position. I’ve set it to Pats on both sides, because if I don’t it defaults to Ravens and Broncos (shudder). Make it rain!

So, since playing is a job for the athletes, does it really make sense to so heavily invest ourselves emotionally in their performance?

4. Failure is a Launchpad for Learning: When failure occurs, it is human nature to look for a reason — a scapegoat — to explain why that which was never considered possible has now become reality.

Arguing over whose fault it was is relatively meaningless: in my opinion you can win a game on one dramatic play, but losing a game is the result of an accumulation of errors.

This occurred after the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl 46, where pundits pondered whether Wes Welker dropped what could have been a game winning catch or if Tom Brady threw an inaccurate ball. The argument can be made that consistency kills competition, and the Giants were the more consistent team that day.

This is not easy to do, but the upside is excellent if you can turn adversity into opportunity. Regardless of the reasons for failure, if you treat it as a learning experience, you never really lose — at least philosophically; I realize they keep score in sporting events!

5. Family — not Football — Comes First: I was most concerned about my younger son, Maxwhen the Patriots lost Super Bowl 46. When he went to sleep just before half-time, the Patriots were rolling.  The next morning he awoke to reality, but he just brushed it off  and was on to his next adventure.

He took their loss to the Ravens in last season’s AFC Championship Game harder (likely because he watched it unfold in real time), but again by morning the sunrise had dried away the tears.

It’s amazing what adults can learn from kids if we pay attention. It’s also amazing what a good night’s sleep can do!

Poignantly, following the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox — the teams my Dad grew up with — was a way for me to maintain a connection with him even during a long period when we were estranged.

Having that unique shared interest with Max (my older son, Jacob, has little interest in sports), creates a similarly compelling connection.

Talking about Boston sports teams with him and having been able to attend a Red Sox/Dodgers game last month is priceless Father/Son time.  A trip to Foxboro is in our future.

Notably, in a touching Los Angeles Times article published four days after Super Bowl 46, Chris Paul shares lessons on the importance of family in his life – in a very similar way as I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Papa.

6. Being with Friends Lessens a Loss: The next best thing to family are friends, and through a mutual love — or is it obsession? — of the Patriots I’ve found my way to a great group whom I would have otherwise never known.

Me watching the Patriots at TGI Fridays with AnnetteBoth virtually (via Facebook or a fan message board) and personally (at TGI Fridays or an equivalent place to watch a game), I’ve connected with a network of fans who are also friends.

Many of them have been there for me during challenging times and moments of celebration as well.

I’ve spent Thanksgiving with some of them and shared my first time watching a Patriots game with my younger son, Max, with the same “football friends.”

While I hope to never watch the Patriots lose another Super Bowl, watching it happen at the home of my friends Tom and Coni made the loss less significant because my friendship with them and their family is so significant.

7. There’s Always Next Year: Many Patriots fans didn’t expect the 2012 team to get as far as they did; so any of the wins after the regular season felt a bit like bonus content on a Blu-ray DVD. Despite that, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment and start believing (but see “Expectations Undermine Attitude” above).

On the bright side, the team “almost” won the Super Bowl with marginal talent in key positions. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remain a powerful pair and, if they can finally add a deep threat receiver (or two) and actually field some quality defensive backs, who knows — they could make an eighth trip to the Super Bowl this season.

Rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins already seems to have the makings of the next Randy Moss — let’s hope without the drama. Perhaps there is hope for #85 to rise from the ashes of Ochocinco? [Update after the game: put that hope on hold — with a dash of optimism]

Imagine if I liked the Chicago Cubs or any team in Cleveland?!  I’d really feel a sense of déjà vu like  former Major League Baseball first baseman Keith Hernandez in the short video below:

In Conclusion

To summarize the seven points above:

  1. Expectations Undermine Attitude
  2. Junkyards Don’t Always Make Juggernauts
  3. Win or Lose, Players Get Paid
  4. Failure is a Launchpad for Learning
  5. Family — Not Football — Comes First
  6. Being with Friends Lessens a Loss
  7. There’s Always Next Year

Given all the insights above, the one remaining question: should the Patriots replace Tom Brady with Punxatawney Phil? More importantly, will the Patriots return to — and, if they do, win — the Super Bowl this year?

  • January 19, 2014 Update: One game away from returning to the Super Bowl; a good run for a team with so many injuries and off-field issues. I am proud of what the Pats were able to do with the limited resources they had. And, of course, there’s always next year!
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Happy 7th Birthday, Twitter! #7Twitter

March 21, 2013

So what do you get a social network for its 7th birthday?

It was on this date — March 21, 2006 — that Twitter was born. Launching the service Jack Dorsey sent the very first public tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — back when Twitter was called Twttr (sans vowels).

Twitter Logo

Imagine if he had tweeted Watson to come join him in the room? Incidentally, it was another day in March — the 10th — in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell made that famous first call to Mr. Watson.

And there certainly would never have been Twitter if there never had been a phone: thanks, Alexander Graham Bell!

Speaking of Alexander Graham Bell, I had actually tweeted my above idea in 2009 — and (as you can see below) @Jack replied to the post, correcting me that, the first actual tweet he sent on Twitter was simply “inviting coworkers.”

Using a service called MyTweet16 I found the first tweets for two of my Twitter accounts: @generative and @dadsamore.

I located some of some of the earliest tweets for @matthewagilbert (which I started using as my primary Twitter account in June 2011). I also found some of the earliest tweets from @doctorious when I made my account public again in 2010 after making them private for part of late 2009 and early 2010.

Regardless of what my first tweets were or when they were sent, since I began using Twitter on November 20, 2008 — from the DeVry University in Bakersfield where I was teaching — it has been one of the main subjects about which I teach. Notably, it is also the reason why I was hired for at least one teaching job.

Twitter has grown exponentially since that first tweet. According to their blog post celebrating the anniversary:

“we have well over 200 million active users creating over 400 million Tweets each day. The steep trajectory of Twitter’s momentum is something @jack, @ev and @biz only dreamed about back in 2006.”

To celebrate this impressive achievement, Twitter created the video below:

So what DO you get a social network for its 7th birthday, after all? Honestly, I still have no idea, but Sir Richard Branson had some interesting things to say about Twitter — and that’s as good a gift as any!

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Great Caesar’s Ghost and the Ides of March Madness

March 15, 2013

“Beware the Ides of March!”

This was a soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar before his assassination by members of the Roman Senate on March 15, 44 B.C.

Beware the Ides of Ears?Although the term “Ides” merely refers to the date of the event – not what happened – it is a reminder of the dark side of humanity and a significant date in history.

Ironically, two days later on March 17, people joyfully celebrate the death of St. Patrick – the Patron Saint of Ireland.

A few days after that, on the 20th, the world welcomes the birth of spring with the vernal equinox. And, for college basketball fans, this is the month of March Madness!

The juxtaposition of these different events suggests a balance of positive and negative energy. Intriguingly, the month of March seems to encapsulate the cycle of life: birth, life, and death.

Notably, the first domain name, symbolics.com, was born (registered) on March 15 in 1985 — and given my involvement with the Internet, this is especially interesting.

On a more directly personal level, March has always held a unique place in my life; consider the following:

  • Except for leap years my birthday is one week before March 1st.
  • I became an initiated member of Theta Chi Fraternity on March 4th.
  • My original due date and the Boston Massacre were both on March 5th.
  • The DMV first granted me my California Driver’s License on March 6th.
  • I took my last undergraduate final at UC Santa Barbara on March 20th.

One of my most meaningful March memories was that day in March when I finished my last college final. After finishing the test, I gathered in the hall with a classmate for whom the exam was also her last.

We improvised a celebration with a small bottle of champagne she mysteriously had with her and an over-sized brownie I had purchased before the final. We talked, laughed, and wondered what opportunities and obstacles our futures held.

Looking back on that moment within the context of the themes discussed in this post, I realize that while you can’t always expect to succeed in life, if you work diligently towards a clearly defined goal, you are more likely to make progress.

Of course, the great paradox of life is that, the achievements for which we are entitled to claim responsibility are rarely those to which we had originally committed ourselves.

Nevertheless, you need to remain open to whatever opportunities the universe avails you of. Without question, you never know where something could lead. So take a leap of faith on occasion and reach for the stars.

Isn’t it better to have tried and failed – knowing you made an attempt – than to regret never having tried and not knowing what might have happened?

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