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Tackling the “Yes, And…”

When trying to solve big problems, or even just brainstorming with a team, you have to leave room to support the creative. Why? Read on.

There is a skill taught in improv classes that would be helpful for entrepreneurs to adopt – it’s the concept of “yes, and…” This allows for the comedians on stage to be open for whatever comes next – it says to the other members of the team that you are there to fully participate. It tells your team that even though you aren’t sure what is about to happen, you are open to whatever possibilities they suggest.

But why should entrepreneurs consider this? The concept of “yes, and…” opens the door to more creativity. In a brainstorming session of how to solve a big problem, you want ideas. By providing a positive reaction to any idea a teammate suggests, you are demonstrating that you care about participation. And positive reactions lead to more positive reactions, which lead to more participation and more ideas.

(Whose Line Is it Anyway, 2016)

This may seem challenging – and it is. But think about it: when you say “no,” or even “yes, but…” you’re closing off the door to possibility and creativity. When you respond with a negative, you’re making this about you, in a moment when it should be about team collaboration. When you say no, you’re typically just pushing your own agenda. Of course, there are times when you have to say no. Maybe the idea would break the law, or the budget would not allow for this idea to take form. But beyond that – saying no is about personal preference.

Instead of trying to push your ideas or agenda, meet people where they are. When meeting with your team to identify a possible solution to a big problem, create a space where you can say yes to the impossible. And when your team members see that you care less about success possibility and more about their contributions, the creativity will come easily, leading to more ideas and better ideas.

This is how to make a team feel supported, and how to truly collaborate. Remind yourself that as an entrepreneur, it is rarely about one conversation or one day, but instead it is about identifying a creative solution – let the possibilities flow. And take an improv class.

Guest Post: Lessons from Entrepreneurial Women in Male-Dominated Industries

As part of the Duke I&E Certificate, alumni entrepreneurs have the opportunity to serve as mentors for students in their courses. Some of them have offered to be guest bloggers for us! Read more for their perspectives and expertise on being innovators & entrepreneurs in the world beyond Duke. Today’s post is by Kelly Braddy Van Winkle, Vice President – Contracts at King of Texas Roofing Company, L.P.

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Kelly Van Winkle attended Duke, where she majored in Comparative Area Studies – Latin America and Western Europe. She received her Masters in International Management Studies from University of Texas at Dallas Business School. Kelly then became President of Heat Process Technologies Inc. which she founded in 2004. In 2011, Kelly entered the family’s commercial construction business. Kelly is Vice-President and Co-Owner of King of Texas Roofing Company, LP, which specializes in Commercial Single-Ply Roofing.

Creating a New Reality: If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It

Many times, innovation & entrepreneurship start in the “what if?” We take the fantasy behind the question, and turn it into reality. Whether you are starting a business, solving a global problem, or tackling big goals at home, read more for how to take your big idea into real life.

Fantasy provides a space for us to imagine possibilities that seem way beyond our reach. Reality brings us back to the here and now, recognizing where we sit and where our current exists. In order to bridge the gap, which is key in entrepreneurship, we have to bring ideas and concepts from our dreams into the world around us.

In a recent CreativeMornings talk, Dean Jacobs outlines that true creativity demonstrates a belief in today (reality) and a faith in tomorrow (fantasy), and without it, he argues, you will end up living by someone else’s agenda. Clearly, living by someone else’s agenda is not what we have in mind. So here are some ways to assist in being creative – and turn your fantasy into reality.

  • Study. Every single day. Find ways to practice your craft or your interest. If you want to bring the idea to life, you must make it your reality. Identify ways to share it with others, or to bring it into the work you do currently. Early stage entrepreneurs who reminisce about the first months or years of their work reference the practice necessary, even when working another full-time job. Eventually, the study moves from being something you want (fantasy) to something you are (reality), and while there is always more to learn, finding the time and energy is easy. What simple thing can I add to my daily routine that focuses on my idea?
  • Dream. Think beyond what currently seems possible. Instead of only spending time reading the news, split your time and spend part of it with your ideas. Spend time imagining what reality would look like if your fantasy came to life. What would be different for you? What would be different for the people or systems your idea affects? Spend time living in the fantasy, and identify what the common themes are among your big dreams. Chase those. What would an ideal world look like in relation to my biggest dreams?

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(Walt Disney, GettyImages)

  • Collaborate. Think about the people and resources you may need to be successful. Not just today, but years down the road. Invite them to be part of your process. As you get new ideas and new perspectives, you pull more people into your story – which brings it to life. By sharing in the creative process with others, you will start to piece together ways in which the things you’re learning align with your current and future. Who is one person I can tell today about my fantasy idea?
  • Commit. One of the pieces of advice given in goal setting activities is to write goals as if they have been achieved instead of as if they have yet to be reached. Consider this. Instead of identifying the things you want in life by fantasy statements, identify them as reality: “I am the successful owner of a specialty cheese shop,” as opposed to “I will be the successful owner of a specialty cheese shop.” For some, this will require reminders. Don’t just write these things down in a journal – put them places you visit frequently (your bathroom mirror, your car, your desk at work). Recite them in your head. How can I regularly remind myself of the reality I want?
  • Act. Perhaps the most courageous step of all. None of this matters if you don’t take the leap. Similar to an actor stepping on to the stage for the first scene of a play, you have to cross the line to bring others with you from reality to your fantasy. Step into improbable situations, and act in ways that lead you closer to your goals. As you make small steps toward success, celebrate them. As you make small steps away from success, learn from them. Know that failure will be part of your journey, but it won’t define you – it will bring you closer to merging your two worlds. What from my fantasy can I first carry into reality?

In order to be successful in entrepreneurship, we have to think beyond what seems possible. We have to innovate.

 

Guest Post: The Most Lucrative Investment, Yourself

As part of the Duke I&E Certificate, alumni entrepreneurs have the opportunity to serve as mentors for students in their courses. Some of them have offered to be guest bloggers for us! Read more for their perspectives and expertise on being innovators & entrepreneurs in the world beyond Duke. Today’s post is by Nick Talwar, originally shared on Medium.

In June 2012, I quit my job, moved to San Francisco and “took the plunge”, so to speak, and finally did it…I fully invested in myself.

One of the most lucrative investments we make is in ourselves. Forget stocks, real-estate, commodities, and other assets. The most lucrative investment of all is the one that gives you an opportunity to create freely, full-time, with no distractions or unwanted external pressure.

Like a newborn that gazes at something full of wonder, without judgment or expectation, you will see great things happen if you commit to returning to this child-like state. You’ll find not only what you love to do, but also what you’re meant to do.

As an engineer who loves creating new things to help people, I have always wished to have the the time and opportunity to live this way.

Entrepreneurship and artistic lore is full of stories on why many chose to take the proverbial plunge and double-down on their dreams. However, little has been written on “how”. What were the steps they took to be in the right frame-of-mind to do it? How did they make their decision? Perhaps it’s fitting…it might be a bit contradictory to read a blueprint or look to another for instructions on self-actualization.

Contradictions aside, for my inaugural essay here, I’d like to share with you how I mentally prepared and rationalized investing in myself so I could live a fully creative life for awhile. Like any risky, attractive investment, there’s boundless upside, but the journey may be tumultuous. Understanding how risky and unnerving it could be, I spent a good six months preparing. Here’s what I did.

Surveying the Landscape

At the outset, one of the toughest obstacles to overcome was dealing with nebulous fears about the job market on the whole. Fears about things that were beyond my control—namely macro-economic forces, especially in tech, and how I could be in jeopardy of joining the ranks of the unemployed or under-employed in the current economy. Some questions that raced through my mind were: is the current environment supporting creative tech entrepreneurship? Could we be in a bubble?

After gathering data and speaking to respected people, I realized that macro-economic fears and questions such as these weren’t so important. The forces at play between the overall investment and market climate in tech as well as consumer demand for products were so far removed from my own individual sphere of influence. In essence, my own skills and impact would be the leading indicator of success, not overall aggregate factors. Fortunately, I am in the tech industry, which isn’t as vulnerable to global economic factors as say, finance, or parts of the federal government.

It quickly became apparent that what really mattered was my own personal landscape of opportunities and if my experience and skills gave me the tools to seize these opportunities. How would I be perceived in my space? Would I have credibility to find opportunities to succeed? Was I experienced enough?

The only way to test this was to immerse myself in the market. I traveled to the Bay Area often and met startup founders who were looking to grow their teams. Fortunately, there were interesting opportunities and ideas people needed help to build. It gave me objective, real-life assurances and feedback that there were many exciting roles that might be right for me. Accordingly, the anxiety about the environment I’d be diving into subsided.

The bears morphed into bulls in my mind. My fears subsided and I came away not fearful of whether I could find an opportunity, but it became more about what was the right opportunity. Learning about my own deficiencies and where I could improve was an added benefit of the process.

Finding When You Were Happiest

Surveying the landscape led to a number of options. All seemed to have their merits. So, I was faced with a conundrum…how do I objectively weigh them against one another? To add a nasty twist, how could I weigh those all against the most risky, amorphous option: taking the plunge and going at it alone?

My initial process for evaluating these options was fundamentally flawed.

Unfortunately, I let the lizard, reptilian brain take over. Instead of looking inward to see what would make me happiest, my evaluation of each option depended on how others would perceive my move. It’s the default way many look at climbing the proverbial career ladder: How will this look on my resume? Will I be perceived as successful?

I don’t mean to suggest that what others or society at large thinks about you is completely irrelevant. We are a social species, constantly looking for little reassurances and positive feedback that we are going in the right direction. It’s a deep need that reaches even the smallest things we do (we all can relate to the excitement and contentment that arises from many “likes” and positive comments on one of our random Facebook postings).

However, just looking externally is a dangerous proposition. You may end-up becoming what others want you to be rather than what you want yourself to be. If external factors are your only barometer, you expose yourself to ever more competition with many people competing for the same scarce resources and rewards. I felt like the rat race just required me to work harder and harder to claw my way to the top, which has pretty weak marginal returns holistically. It’s better to set and meet your own metrics of success.

Dissociating your internal wants and desires from the equation often leads to disaster. I know perhaps a few too many that live a life of perceived achievement from another’s vantage point only to be personally unhappy with what they do or wishing they were doing something else. I needed to reconcile the two. If not, my individuality and freedom of expression would be hindered by external perceptions.

Analyzing all my experiences and memories became my single priority. I looked at every project I had ever done and everything I had ever shipped. Which experience had the best combination of positive impact, creative spirit, and camaraderie with others?

Searching for when I was happiest led me to a familiar place. My backyard, in the early 90s, was the Microsoft campus. Basketball became my first love and I often played on the courts amongst the sprawling buildings merely two miles away from my childhood home. Exposure to technology and innovative people became inevitable. Growing up in this tech boom, what should have been an ordinary suburban upbringing became unexpectedly vibrant.

Inspired, my friend, Emmett, and I started building websites for local businesses when we were 13. Some modest success followed (Flash intros and HTML before CSS, anyone?). Without realizing it then, it was my first taste seeing the pace of Internet growth creating demand faster than technologists could support. So, we acquired the skills that could scale these demands.

Since then, I’ve been seeking to return to an experience like this. All my favorite projects since then have been an attempt at returning to these roots. Working with people I like, in a fast-paced environment, where ideas from inception to implementation are ours is quite amazing. It became clear that taking the plunge, the amorphous option, was the right one for me.

Getting Your Financial House in Order

Next, I did the more mundane, yet important objective analysis of where I stood financially. One of the biggest obstacles throughout this whole process was getting a clear picture of my financial health and how much to budget so I could live creatively. It was also by far the biggest source of stress. At any given moment, I would wonder, do I have enough money saved to do this? How much runway is enough? How can I minimize risk and avoid unexpected financial losses?

In order to alleviate this stress, thoroughness was key. The first step was to simply consolidate my accounts and positions. It’s surprising how over the course of employment the many separate financial institutions you may need to use to accomplish your goals. From high-yield savings accounts, checking accounts, credit cards, loans, and investment portfolios (personal and from your employer), when income is coming in, your overall liquidity may be low since capital is tied-up.

Planning to live with no income is at odds with this approach. The metric that needs to be optimized is the amount of time you have to create. From my perspective, any unwanted risk that could jeopardize my runway liquidity needed to be minimized or removed.

Once I consolidated and increased liquidity, it became time to dissect my own personal burn rate. A spreadsheet of data outputted from my Mint account became the easiest way to keep track of my discretionary and non-discretionary spending. I also spoke to many people in San Francisco who gave me insight into what a monthly living budget might be.

Some back-of-the-envelope data…San Francisco is an expensive city. Expect to spend $1300-1600 per month on rent, on the higher end if you don’t start looking a few months in advance and decide to not find roommates. Although many locals will complain about public transport, it’s quite manageable with no car to get to the major tech hubs, although it does take becoming familiar with the trade offs of buses vs. trains vs. walking for a given route. If you plan on exploring the Valley weekly, budget $150 per month for trips on Caltrain to Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City, and Mountain View. If you are no good at cooking, budget $800 for food, $400 if you plan on cooking multiple times/week with some eating out like me.

If after analyzing your finances the total runway is shorter than you expected, you can make some adjustments. You can cut down on your discretionary spending, increasing your savings rate and consequently add to your available runway. After a few months of optimizations and tinkering with my budget, I was able to get more comfortable with my financial outlook and confidently take the plunge.

Consuming Less and Creating More

Consuming content is now so easy and ubiquitous that we forget that it may have a downside. Our own creative muscles may be getting weak, slowly making us ill-equipped to do the deep analysis and innovative work that drives value in the future.

Luckily, creative capacity can be improved. Just like it’s an outlandish expectation for someone who never runs to do a marathon immediately, it’s probably an outlandish expectation for you to paint the Sistine Chapel tomorrow. Fortunately, there are a myriad of easy ways to create content on the go to practice and hone your creative mindset.

Evernote, an app available on all platforms and devices, was crucial in helping me do this. I pledged to use any spare moment to write and verbally record my thoughts in the app. A few minutes here and there—waiting in line at the store, riding the bus—compelled me to want to spend longer periods in my spare time fleshing out ideas and writing essays like these. Each idea became more well thought out day-by-day, collateral for intriguing discussions with other technologists that created excitement and optimism to take the plunge.

To further support the goal of consuming less and creating more, I substantially cut back on the amount of time a day I spent blogs and news. At first, it was tough, but as time went on it made much more time for long-form reading, like books, that offered more depth.

Spared some of the banal and trivial characteristics of the tech echo chamber, my perspective became more broad when necessary and naturally acute along topics that really interested me.

A transformation occurred in how I view content. I found value in the longer-form essay that I now appreciate once again. If you’re still with me here, it’s why I’ve decided for my personal blog to author essays, and not posts, to give the reader not only more data and depth, but ample turns and opportunities to reflect.

Seeking Support and Embracing Self-doubt

The journey outlined above is a lonely one, no doubt. Knowing this would be the case, it was a useful exercise to practice working alone for extended periods of time again. Some of the most value created in my past projects and ventures required long, extended periods developing depth and understanding. Depth allowed me to appreciate the details and how to correctly differentiate my creation, which made it scarce and valuable.

After taking the plunge, whether you like it or not, you’ll have even more alone time. The standard hours that people are at work you’ll be alone. When most people are going out and having fun, consuming products and content after earning money, you may also have to be alone.

Folks champion the heroic story in tech about someone who set off by themselves on some Odyssey-like quest, building and creating then returning to bestow upon the world the fruits of their labor.

Reality is a bit more nuanced than that. Products aren’t launched in a vacuum. Mentors and a support network play a huge part. When I inadvertently go into hero-mode, I remind myself that I only have two hands, two feet, two eyes, two ears, and one brain. There’s only so much I can know and do. People are inherently social and need a few people to support them along the way. Finding them and keeping them close is pivotal.

Understanding this, and herein lies possibly the most important lesson learned, don’t take the plunge without a support group. Here in San Francisco, I’m surrounded by a few of my closest college friends also working on their own projects. Not only is it important as an emotional keel, but also as a sounding board for your ideas. A quick feedback loop is absolutely necessary.

But even the most rich and loving support network can’t be with you always. Left to your own devices, self-doubt will creep-in. We all feel it and it’s often hard to discuss openly.

When the inevitable self-doubt rears its ugly head, realize that it’s completely normal! In fact, it might even be necessary to force lines of inquiry to test your assumptions and decisions. You’re not the only one who has self-doubt. It’s universal.

I’m not sure if this is psychologically or scientifically true, but my own experience tells me this: self-doubt, at its core, is an emotion stemming from a weakness you know and feel about yourself. Address that weakness right away.

For me, when I feel it creeping in, I write it down. It instantly makes me feel better (often, when it is staring at you in black and white, you’ll see how absurd and trivial it might be). Then, I’ll see if there are steps I can take to dissolve that doubt. It may be reaching out to one of my peers or mentors for help. It may be I just need to learn one little skill that I know I need. It may mean I just need to call a close friend or my family to gain some confidence. Like most emotions, know that it’s fleeting. It’s only temporary and it too shall pass.

Taking the Plunge, Finally

My hope was that I could complete the above in succession, neatly. However, the necessary outcome—confidence in my decision by subduing fear and doubt—like all subjective matters of the heart, proceeded in chaotic fashion before reaching equilibrium.

One day, everything felt right. My finances seemed to be in order and budgets validated. My creativity sharpened through practice, giving me confidence I could build again. My support network all seemed to validate my assumptions and my decision. My own inner self-doubt seemed to fade. And I did it.

I’m now in San Francisco, living creatively and working on ideas. Come join me and reach-out on the left or leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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Nick Talwar grew-up near the Microsoft campus during the first dot-com boom. Inspired by Bill Gates, he started his first company building websites with fellow Duke ’08, Emmett Nicholas, when they were 13. After studying BME/EE in Pratt, he helped design and build Windows 8 at Microsoft. He founded a few consumer startups since then in San Francisco, most recently Keepsake (getkeepsake.com). Nick currently develops consumer mobile apps for startups and companies with his team in Chicago. 

Guest Post: The Crucial Thing Most New Entrepreneurs Overlook

As part of the Duke I&E Certificate, alumni entrepreneurs have the opportunity to serve as mentors for students in their courses. Some of them have offered to be guest bloggers for us! Read more for their perspectives and expertise on being innovators & entrepreneurs in the world beyond Duke. Today’s post is by Haley Lynn Gray, from The Leadership Girl.

Many times when an entrepreneur is in the beginning stages of starting a business they have great visions and ideas. They get off to a good start, and they focus very hard on building the “perfect” product that they just know someone will want to buy. But they tend to lose sight of something very important. Ironically, what they lose sight of is the importance of actually selling their products or services once they’ve started the business. So they give very little thought to what it will take to build a marketing and sales team and get things sold.  

You can start a company with a fantastic idea, but if you can’t sell it, you will fail. You can start with a mediocre idea, but if you can sell it, you will dominate the world around you.  Marketing is a very different animal now than it was a few years ago. Your customers want a story to go along with your small business, and you’re going to need a good communication strategy so they’ll feel good about buying from you.  

When I’m judging startup teams, I see marketing added on as a late afterthought, when instead, it should be integral to the entire company. Everyone needs to be marketing and selling rather than just relying on a sales team to take care of it for them. Many entrepreneurs starting out are surprised by how hard it is to find and hire the right sales people for their team. Instead, they should hire themselves as their first sales team, and build out from there. When people can build a relationship with them, it becomes much easier to get those sales and grow their business. That is possibly the most important job that the leaders in the organization will have — selling it to everyone who will listen.  

If you can master sales, you will grow your business and massively improve your chances of success. Give the attention to your sales organization that it deserves!

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Haley Lynn Gray is CEO and founder of Leadership Girl, a graduate of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and a serial entrepreneur. She is also a mom of four and Girl Scout Leader. Haley is passionate about helping women achieve their potential, and empowers them to overcome obstacles in leadership positions and entrepreneurial ventures. www.leadershipgirl.com