How to Successfully Pivot Your Startup

The fundraising and engagement platform GiveGab made waves in January 2018 by purchasing one of its biggest national competitors. With the acquisition of Kimbia, GiveGab is one step closer to becoming the biggest charitable software program out there.

But that success would not have happened if the company hadn’t decided to completely change direction from its original vision of being a social network connecting volunteers and nonprofits. In 2015, GiveGab pivoted to focusing on helping nonprofits attract and maintain donors rather than volunteers.

The company’s CEO and co-founder, Charlie Mulligan, spoke with eCornell’s Chris Wofford about his “painful” yet highly successful pivot decision and to share tips on how to decide when it’s the right time to change strategic direction. What follows is an abridged version of Mulligan’s presentation, delivered as part of eCornell’s Entrepreneurship webinar series.

Mulligan: I’ve met thousands of entrepreneurs at this point. I think almost all of them would describe themselves as having a vision of what they want to happen and being very persistent. While I agree that these are really important traits, they can also impact the challenges of pivoting. If you really pride yourself on what you are doing, it can be very hard to have to admit that your vision was wrong. When reality hits, it’s sometimes like you suddenly realize you’re climbing the wrong mountain. It’s not a matter of changing little tactics. You have to change your entire strategy. That’s what a pivot is to me.

When you are starting out, there is really no way to predict the future. Yeah, some people get lucky but for a lot of startups you’ll find that the reality is different than what you envisioned so you’ll have to decide what to do. You can quit or you can be flexible and make a different choice.

Wofford: How do you know when it’s the right time to change direction?

Mulligan: It could come at any stage. When you’re starting out, you have this idea of what the customer wants. Well, you better talk to as many customers as you can and you need to realize that oftentimes you will hear what you want to hear so you have to be very careful and make sure that you start to listen before you get too far down the road. You might have to pivot very early once you’ve assessed the demand and done the research.

The key thing about a startup is a lot of times you’re trying to create something new or completely different, but when you’re doing research, the research is about old products or old ways of thinking. So you won’t really know for sure whether your new way is going to be right.

Wofford I’m sure the audience would love to hear the details of your decision to switch tactics at GiveGab.

Mulligan GiveGab set out to be the social network for volunteers, which meant that we were a connection portal to help volunteers and nonprofits find each other. We interacted with a lot of nonprofits and they were really happy to talk about this. They loved the idea and then as we built our product they thought it was great. We had a free product so we had thousands of nonprofits and hundreds of universities sign on. We passed 100,000, things were growing and moving fast and we were getting great press and great feedback.

But it didn’t take us long to realize that there was really low engagement. Nonprofits would sign up but then only come back like every six months to do something. It was really challenging to get them to actually post volunteer opportunities.

When I first started I thought it was going to be really easy to get nonprofits to post volunteer opportunities because they were consistently telling us that they need more volunteers. But we couldn’t get nonprofits to actually sign in and create volunteer opportunities. That meant that we were having a hard time matching the volunteers who had signed up with opportunities in their area. You know, a volunteer in Montana and a nonprofit in Minnesota don’t really match up.

That’s why we decided to go after universities to help build an ecosystem because a lot of times they have volunteers and nonprofit partnerships. The problem we found there was that it was a super long sale because we were talking to low level employees. We should’ve noticed this problem earlier but if you want to know what a nonprofit really cares about, you need to go see what the executive directors are doing. What the directors are doing is looking for donors, not volunteers.

Raising money is really what mattered the most and we weren’t listening to that. So we decided to go down a new path. We sat down and really looked at what the nonprofits were using their volunteers for. Almost always, the volunteers were being used as a direct or indirect way to get donors. It’s really about money for nonprofits and volunteers are a way to get donors more engaged. One of the things we kept hearing all of the time – and the research backs this up – is that only 19 percent of first-time donors ever come back. Nonprofits spend all of this time getting donors and then four out of five of them are gone and never come back. We were skirting around the edges with volunteering but the core problem was how to get more donors and keep them coming back. So that’s now the problem that we decided to solve.

Wofford How big was your organization when you decided to make this pivot?

Mulligan We had 90 employees and we had a lot of funding. We had dozens of investors and so I had to go back to all of them and admit I was wrong. Then we had to let about half our company go. These were really good employees so that was a very painful day.

For a lot of people, ‘pivot’ is just a word, just a strategic choice. For me, it’s a painful memory. It was necessary and I’m really glad we did it, but it was painful.

We had to totally re-brand. We were the social network for volunteers so we were highlighting happy volunteers and like things like that, which makes no sense for a fundraising platform. So conceptually we had to change everything. Then we had to build it and go back to our development team and say, “Ok, we’re starting from scratch, let’s learn how to do this.”

There are also laws around fundraising so there was a lot of work in just making sure we were doing things the right way.

Wofford That sounds really challenging.

Mulligan It was, but one of the great things about pivoting is that if you’ve built a great team, as we had, then you’ve already figured out how to work well together. In our case, the employees we were left with were great, so we got a second shot at something and the second product looked a million times better than the first product because we really knew what we were doing by that point and we had a system in place.

There’s also a certain amount of incentive in a pivot situation because maybe you’ve run out of money, so you know that this could be your last lifeline. So you better make progress and you better make it quick. There is nothing like the gallows to give people focus.

As an entrepreneur, it can be very challenging because you have told a lot of people about your vision and you’ve been very persistent and then you have to go and tell them, “OK my vision sucks but now I have a new one.” You’re asking people to buy into this new idea even though your first was wrong.

Wofford That must take a certain humility.

Mulligan Sure, and you also have to make some super painful choices. Like I said, we had to let employees go. We had to go back and talk to investors and let them know that all of their investments just went backwards. Nothing about it is fun but you have to just face it head on, so I just owned it. I think that approach was super helpful.

You have to pick your new course of action and then you have to forget the past. Pick your new vision and just sell that like that was the only one you ever believed in. And of course you’ve got to somehow get everyone to buy into this one as much as they we’re into the first one. These are all way harder things than I think people realize.

Wofford It certainly sounds hard. Was it a challenge to keep morale up?

Mulligan Well, when you’ve just let half your workforce go, keeping morale up was already a challenge. People’s workloads had doubled and then it was like, “Now let’s do it over.” I think what helped us is that we spent a lot of time making sure that our new course of action was picked by everyone, not just me.

Wofford Everyone needs to be on board to make a pivot work.

Mulligan Right. We had conversations with the people that we were going to keep and said, “Look, if your heart’s not 100 percent in this, you need to let us know because there are people we are letting go whose hearts are 100 percent in this.” That wasn’t a threat, it was just the reality. I think people really appreciated the openness and transparency. When we let people go, we really supported them but we also sat everyone down and said, “OK guys, we’ve got to forget about it. There is a lot of pain here, but we need to just move forward.”

When we did our pivot in January 2015, we had five nonprofits raising money on GiveGab.
At the end of the year, we had 700. All paying customers, so we were making money off all of them. We are currently on pace to potentially have well over 20,000 nonprofits by this year. We also have 10 states using us as their statewide giving day platform later this year. So the pivot worked.

Wofford Wow, it’s very impressive. Congratulations.

Mulligan We’re really excited and of course relieved. We saw the bottom and that makes you appreciate it more when things are really working.

So much of the startup ethos is ‘vision and persistence’. I think you need vision and flexibility. You can also think about it in terms of the difference between persistence and resilience. Persistence is putting your head down and running into the wall. Resilience is putting your head down but looking around a little and realizing there’s a door over there and you can walk right through it.

Wofford Charlie, thank you so much for sharing your experience and giving such great advice about changing strategic direction.

Mulligan Thank you, Chris. I enjoyed being with you.

Want to hear more? This interview is based on Charlie Mulligan’s live eCornell WebSeries event,The Startup Pivot: Changing Strategic Direction. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Entrepreneurship topics.

Have a Great Startup Idea? Beware These Seven Pitfalls.

As a follow-up to his recent presentation on what makes a great startup idea, Cornell entrepreneurship expert Bradley Treat has returned to eCornell to discuss some of the common pitfalls that often keep great business ideas from succeeding. Below is an abridged version of his discussion.

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People often go down the entrepreneurial path only to discover that their idea actually won’t work before they’ve made it very far. What I want to discuss today is how to spot potential pitfalls in your business idea and address them early on.

Most of this presentation comes from a class I teach at the Johnson School called “The Business Idea Factory”, which helps students work through a business plan or business pitch.

YOU DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO GO BIG

Most times, when we are looking for great business ideas, we look for really big markets. We’re thinking of being as big as Walmart, which basically sells everything to everybody.

But there’s always a counterpoint. The counterpoint to Walmart is a company called Fox 40, which makes whistles. The founder of Fox 40 was a hockey referee. As he was refereeing a hockey game, he went to blow his whistle – it was one of those metal ones with a little bounce-around cork thingy – and it didn’t blow. Maybe it was cold, covered with sweat or whatever, but it didn’t work. Some of the players saw him raise his hand to indicate a penalty but some did not and, as a result, a player got hurt.

He said, “Okay, I need a whistle that always works in all situations.” And so he developed a whistle that is loud and works whether it’s wet, cold, high-altitude, you name it.

When he said, “I’m going to make a whistle that always works,” was that a huge market? Of course not. But is it a great company? Yes. The whistles have become very popular with the military, the police and lifeguards.

My point here is that you can go big, or you can play small, and still find success.

HIGH MARGIN ISN’T THE ONLY MODEL

Another thing we tend to think about when starting a new business is high margins. We like businesses with high margins, but there is again a counterpoint to be made.

For example, Harley Davidson has extremely high margins on their motorcycles. And people who buy Harleys are not buying them just to get from point A to point B. It’s a state of mind, it’s who you are. You can go to a tattoo shop and choose multiple options for Harley Davidson tattoos. Harley is a brand for life and they tend to keep people. The motorcycle aficionados out there would probably say that if they made a list of bikes with the highest-performing, cutting-edge technology, Harley Davidson might not be at the top. But it’s that brand identity that gives the company such an extremely high margin.

Now look at Costco. I guarantee you will not find a Costco tattoo on anybody. But they do extremely high volume with extremely low margins. They just move a lot of product. Their number one product is toilet paper. So they’re a great counterpoint example of how a low margin/high volume model can work.

EXECUTION TRUMPS ALL

Let’s take Planet Hollywood. This company was started by A-list celebrities – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore – but it went bankrupt twice. With that kind of marquee value, you might ask, how that is even possible? Or you could look at Dive!, a restaurant that was opened by Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest movie director of our generation. But the thing bombed. He lost like $20 million on it.

What these examples have in common is that they prove that the success or failure of restaurants and bars is not the concept. It’s the execution.

Great restaurateurs make it look easy. They’re like professional basketball players draining three pointers. But if you want to be successful, particularly in the hospitality or service industry, it’s not about having a great idea. It’s about having the right experience. The truth of the matter is that there are very thin margins in the industry.

I mean, one of the most successful restaurants in the world is McDonalds. Their concept is not that special. It’s hamburgers and french fries. But just think about the volume of food they move. It’s almost unbelievable they can sell their food for as cheap as they do on the margin, but they’re very successful operators.

DON’T MISS THE REST OF THE ECOSYSTEM

Another thing to consider is the ecosystem. Most college students would agree that their textbooks are really expensive. But the textbook ecosystem isn’t just buyer and seller. There is the teacher, there is the institution, the publisher. It’s a very complex ecosystem.

So is the taxi business. It’s much more than just the driver and the rider. There’s a whole ecosystem of dispatchers and cab owners. There are also all the government regulations, and different rules for different places, such as airports.

At first glance, it might look like just two players, but in fact there are often many more. Understanding that ecosystem is very important. And it’s not only about understanding the rules and the players, but also the individual people involved that could impact your business.

NOT ALL ADVICE IS CREATED EQUAL

When you’re starting a business, you should be out talking to a lot of people. What you’ll quickly find is that you’re going to get a lot of conflicting advice. Some people will tell you that your best idea is A, others will say it’s B. What are you going to do about it? Whose advice should you care about?

Try the mosaic method. A mosaic, when you look at it up close, is just a bunch of broken ceramics. But when you step back, you start to see a picture. So you need to have a lot of conversations in order to see that big picture emerge.

The other thing is to make sure you understand the context in which people are giving you advice. A mistake many people make is to put too much stock in the advice they get from investors at the detriment of advice from potential customers. When an angel investor comes in and says, “Here’s what you should do with your business,” people tend to go, “Oh, well, they can write a big check so I should listen to them.”

I would actually discourage you from doing that unless you’re selling to venture capitalists. You should heavily weigh the advice of the people who are most relevant to your business, and if you’re already up and running, those who are actually using it.

ONLINE AD REVENUE – IT’S A TOUGH GAME

When people tell me their plans to do this and that in their app and I ask them how they are going to make money, they almost always say “ads.”

Well, the challenge with ads is the numbers just aren’t there anymore. The way that a lot of online businesses make money through advertising is described in terms of cost per thousand, cost per click, cost per action and so on.

The problem is, these prices have gone into freefall. The cost of ads has dropped precipitously. To make $3, you have to show a video a thousand times. To make $3 million, you’ve got to have a video that is seen 100 million times. Just do the math. You need just insane volume to make money off this.

When somebody tells you their big plans for an app and they say they are going to make money through ads, it means they haven’t thought about the business very well.

YOUR MOM ISN’T YOUR BEST CUSTOMER

The last pitfall I want to touch on quickly is confirmation bias. I see this a lot. Basically, when people are convinced that they have a great idea, they pay attention to all the data that confirms that their idea is great and ignore all of the data that says it’s a bad idea.

I guarantee if you talk to your mom about your business idea she’ll think it’s the best idea ever.
Instead of only listening to those whose inclination is to support you, you really need to go out there and talk to people who don’t know you. The best ones to talk to are your potential customers.

 

Want to hear more? This article is based on Bradley Treat’s live eCornell WebSeries event, What Makes a Great Startup Business Idea? Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Entrepreneurship topics. 

What Makes a Great Startup Idea

Bradley Treat is the type of guy that carries several business cards. He teaches entrepreneurship at the Johnson School at Cornell and at Ithaca College. He’s involved in the startup incubator Rev: Ithaca Startup Works. And he was also the CEO of the video and voice communications company SightSpeed before it was bought up by Logitech.

So the self-described serial entrepreneur was a natural fit to join eCornell’s Chris Wofford for a WebSeries event on what makes a great startup business idea. What follows is an abridged version of their conversation.

Treat: What I’m going to talk about today is actually an excerpt from a class I teach at the Johnson School called “The Business Idea Factory.” As people begin the entrepreneurial journey, they need to make sure they have some great ideas to start with. We’ll focus on giving you the tools to generate a lot of ideas and then help you filter out the best one and decide where to go from there.

To start the process, ask yourself: “What is a business?”

A business solves a problem that people care about. Someone has to be willing to pay for the solution. To break that down a little bit, the first thing we have to ask is, not what does your business do, but what problem does it solve?

Wofford: So this is really thinking about your potential customer in terms of what problems they might face and what kinds of solutions to that problem they’d pay for?

Treat: Right. Why do they care about solving this problem? Why should they be willing to pay you?

What I want to do next is give you some examples of businesses that solve problems. The first problem we’ll look at is the need to save money.

There’s a company called Forward Air, which is an air freight company that doesn’t own planes and a trucking company that doesn’t own trucks. What Forward Air does is to drive trucks between airports in the middle of the night.

You might say, “But Brad, why would somebody want to drive trucks to airports in the middle of the night?”

Well, what they figured out was a lot of air freight doesn’t have to go on planes. If you were to send an air package from Syracuse to Boston, you’d have to send it by 7pm. It’s not going to leave the FedEx depot in Boston until 7am the next day, so that’s a 12-hour period. They realized Syracuse to Boston is a one hour plane flight or a five-hour truck ride. So why not put that envelope on a truck and drive it to Boston? It’s much cheaper to drive mail than it is to fly mail. Forward Air figured out that they could handle a lot of airmail for the overnight carriers and save them significant money.

I also mentioned that this is a trucking company that doesn’t own trucks. One of the things Forward Air identified was the fact that many trucks sit idle in the middle of the night. So they went to truck owners and said, “Hey, your truck is just sitting there overnight. Let us use it. We’ll drive it, fill it back up with gas and get it back to you in the morning. You’ll make a little money instead of it just sitting in your driveway.” They identified a problem and solved it in a very unique and practical way.

Another example of a company solving the “Save Money” problem is a company called Kettleshell. This company invented a way to turn dumbbells into kettlebells. As you might know from the gym, a kettlebell sort of looks like a Civil War cannonball with a handle on it and there are a lot of workouts you can do with them.

Kettleshell converts a dumbbell into a kettlebell through a handle that bolts right on. If you’ve already got a set of dumbbells, you can now bolt this handle on and do kettlebell exercises using your existing dumbbells.

It’s a tremendous idea but interestingly, the founder originally thought he was going to save people money on not having to go out and buy a bunch of new kettlebells but it turned out that people in urban areas, particularly urban gym owners or urban apartment dwellers, were actually less concerned about the cost than the space. They didn’t have anywhere to put a bunch of kettlebells. So this product ended up solving two problems.

Wofford: It sounds like one of those products where you think, “Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?” What about addressing problems that aren’t money-related?

Treat: Another area where businesses find success is in making something more convenient.
A good example is Sean Neville, the founder of Simply Audiobooks. Audiobooks are still something that people listen to on a physical medium because so many people listen to them in a car. So Sean developed a subscription service similar to the early days of Netflix, in which subscribers get mailed the audiobook CDs. Part of their innovation was coming up with a packaging sleeve that allowed the company to mail multiple audio discs at once. Unlike Netflix, which would send one disc at a time, Simply Audiobooks would send all of the discs required for a book, which sometimes could be as many as 12.

At the time Sean sold the company to a Toronto private equity firm, they had 25,000 customers and were North America’s number one audiobook rental company. Each one of those customers was paying an average of $25 to $35 per month.

To understand how valuable the convenience they provided is, you need to remember that their number one competitor wasn’t charging anything. Their top competitor was the local public library, where users could get an audiobook for free. But the convenience of having the audiobooks come to your home and being able to send it back and forth was worth $25-$35 a month to over 25,000 people. Convenience is truly valuable even if you’re competing against free.

Another good example is a Cornell company called Rosie. Rosie is an app to do grocery delivery. Now, people typically view grocery delivery as a luxury item for rich people. But what Rosie discovered was that rich people actually like to go to the grocery store. They like to walk the aisles at Wegmans. They like to pick out their own apples.

It turns out that the people who really need something like this are folks for whom getting to the grocery store is actually quite inconvenient. This is primarily people without cars. It could be students, it could be people who can’t afford a car, it could be people who choose not to have a car because they use public transportation for most things. But going to the grocery store is wildly inconvenient if you have to take a bus. You have to fit all of your grocery bags on the bus or you have to pay for a taxi, and that’s both inconvenient and expensive.

So what Rosie discovered is that although they thought they would be selling to rich people, their audience was really those who found the value in paying a very low delivery fee that was cheaper than a cab and more convenient than a bus ride.

Wofford: I know someone who has a modest income with three children under the age of two. With the inconvenience of trying to take the kids to the grocery store, this sounds like a no-brainer.

Treat: That’s a perfect example of who Rosie reaches. The company polled college students and asked why they needed a car and the number one reason given was for going grocery shopping. With Rosie, you don’t need a car anymore. I can also tell you that university administrations don’t like having to deal with a lot of cars and parking and all the permits. They’d prefer that students do not have cars. I also know that here in Ithaca, our mayor is very excited about it because he’s trying to figure out how to get people out of their cars from an environmental standpoint.

Wofford: So this company is actually addressing numerous problems at once.

Treat: Exactly. When you’re thinking about problems, think broadly. It’s not just about saving money or saving time. There are always creative ways of solving a problem for someone out there if you can deliver on it in a meaningful way.

One thing I really like to point out to people is that you do not have to come up with a business that nobody else has ever come up with. It’s a popular myth that a good idea is one that nobody else has ever had. But think of Google. There were all kinds of web search engines that existed before Google but Google came in and said, “Hey, we can do this better, we can do it differently, and we will be able to compete with all of these.” And of course, they didn’t just compete, they completely took over the market.

The way we see it is that if there are no competitors doing it, that’s a problem. It means nobody cares and you don’t want to try to solve a problem that nobody cares about. Having competitors is good — you just need to know your competitors and understand how you’re different and unique from them. If you can be slightly different or slightly better or target a different, underserved market, that’s a tremendous opportunity for you. Don’t get discouraged and just say, “Gosh, somebody already came up with that idea.” Revisit the idea and say, “How can I do it better? How can I do it different? How can I find a new market that is being underserved?”

Wofford: I think that’s great advice. It certainly seems easier to improve upon something that already exists than to invent something out of whole cloth.

Treat: It is. If you can understand how big a problem is for people or how you are better than the competitors at addressing it, you’ll have an edge. Focus on the problem you solve and then you can build an organization around that.

So, where do you find the ideas? You need to put on your entrepreneur glasses and look at the world in terms of problems that you could solve. If they’re big problems, people will pay to solve them. The bigger the problem, the more they’ll pay. Find somebody who has their hair on fire and they will pay you a lot to put it out.

Once you change your lenses and look at the world through different ways, you can actually start coming up with lots of ideas. I would encourage you to put everything on the list.

Wofford: Let’s say you have a list of 100 ideas. How do you know which ones are worth acting on?

Treat: There are certain criteria that we can use to define what makes a good business idea. You have to make sure it’s a good business idea for the customer. We want you to say, “I want to make what customers want to buy.” That should be the focus rather than trying to sell something that you want to make. Understand the customer and build an organization accordingly.

Wofford: I’d like to now turn to the audience and take some questions. We had a good one come through from Lawrence in the chat window while you were speaking: “How should a successful startup value its equity prior to seeking angel funding?”

Treat: I would actually encourage him to not value it. I know that sounds like a dodge, but valuing early-stage companies is extremely difficult to do. It becomes a sort of a thumb in the wind.

Still, there are techniques we can use, the most notable of which is something called convertible debt. What this says is that any money that comes in will be valued at some future date and there is a whole mechanism for doing it. You can actually find a lot of these templates online but basically what it says is you put the money in now, that money will earn interest, and then at some future date it will convert into equity once we have a better way of determining valuation.

Wofford: Here’s another great one: Once you’ve got a good idea for a new or improved product, what’s the best way to go about getting it out there?

Treat: Let’s go back to the Kettleshell example. He made the handle that goes on the dumbbells and he thought he should go out and build a prototype out of steel, aluminum, rubber handles — the whole thing. I said, “Don’t do that. Just make a mock-up.” So he went over to the art supply store, got some styrofoam, some duct tape, and some spray paint. That was enough to make a mock-up that he could put into gym owners’ hands. They were then able to give him feedback and suggest some changes. That styrofoam version turned out to be way more valuable than had he made the real thing. He was able to get pre-orders based on a CAD drawing, essentially. The more you can talk to customers, the better.

Wofford: We’ve got another audience question here, this one from Rohit in India. “I have a great product idea, but building it requires funding. I’ve done my research and believe this product will be the first of its kind. Where and how do I begin?”

Treat: Well, as I said earlier, it is rare that I find something that’s truly one of a kind. So I would challenge Rohit by asking how people are currently solving the problem that his product addresses. You may be solving it in a unique and different way, but how are others currently solving it? If you can go out there and talk to customers and find out what their needs are, then they’ll help you build the products.

I would challenge you, Rohit, to think very creatively about how you can get a minimally-viable product. If the guys from Kettleshell can do it with Styrofoam, then you should be able to creatively come up with some way to demonstrate your product.

Wofford: We have a question from Lance, who asks if you can recommend any other resources for generating ideas.

Treat: The best way to come up with a lot of ideas is to talk to a lot of people. Ask them open-ended questions about what problems they face. The more open-ended, the better. What’s your top expense? What check do you hate writing each month? What is one thing that you do in your job that you wish would just go away?

If you’ve currently got a job, look at the company you are at right now and ask yourself “What’s something that my company does now but shouldn’t be doing because it’s not our core business?” That could help you spin it out into a whole new business.

Wofford: Those are all great ideas. We’ve unfortunately run out of time, so I want to thank Brad for joining us and thanks to all of you in the audience for posing such good questions.

Treat: Thanks Chris, this has been fun.

 

Want to hear more? This interview is based on Bradley Treat’s live eCornell WebSeries event, What Makes a Great Startup Business Idea? Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Entrepreneurship topics. 

Here’s How to Make Innovation Real

There’s a wealth of information on innovation out there, but how can you turn all the theories into action?

Professor Neil Tarallo, a senior lecturer at Cornell’s Hotel School, focuses on how to foster innovation within the workplace in his most recent discussion with eCornell’s Chris Wofford.

Wofford: Neil, it’s great to have you back here with us. What do your students and our webinar viewers need to know about innovation?

Tarallo: My favorite definition of innovation—and believe me, there are many of them out there—was articulated by Peter Drucker, a great researcher out of Harvard who really had a great take on how and where innovation and entrepreneurship come together.

Drucker said, “Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance.” I really like that concept of a new dimension. It provides us with opportunities to apply things in a very different way than they’ve ever been applied before.

Innovation really comes in two different levels. One is incremental, or what some people call “sustainable innovation.” And then there is disruptive innovation.

Wofford: Can you walk us through what you mean by those?

Tarallo: Well, an incremental innovation is really a small improvement or upgrade to an existing concept. It can be technology, a product or service. Think of software upgrades that fix minor things or add new features. In the physical world, think of Gillette. They started with a single razor. Over time, Gillette has innovated and created a lot of different things. They went to disposable razors, they have multi-angle blades, they have lubrication bars. So Gillette is an interesting example of how incremental innovation has allowed a company to sustain market leadership for a very long time.

When it comes to disruptive innovation, we’re talking about innovation that changes the way people think about things. Clay Christensen coined the term to describe a process by which a product or service takes root initially in a very small and unnoticed way but gathers momentum as it goes to the market and then people start to really grab onto it.

One of the interesting things about disruptive innovations is that we don’t know if disruption is happening before it actually starts to happen. An example of this, to stay within the shaving realm, is Dollar Shave Club, which has taken us away from the expensive replacement blades by saying they’ll just send you new blades every month for just a couple of dollars.

Wofford: Right, for them it is a subscription-based product and a recurring revenue model for the company. That’s kind of how they get you.

Tarallo: Exactly, and that disrupts the old business model that Gillette created, which was to give you the razor handle and then sell the blades at very high prices.

The important thing to remember is that both incremental and disruptive innovations are necessary for organizations. In my opinion, you need to have a plan for both the incremental improvements that you’ll be doing as well as constantly searching for that disruption that’s going to completely change things.

These two innovations generally focus around three areas: technical innovation, product innovation, and service innovation. A great example of service innovation is how Netflix changed the movie rental business.

But in order for innovation to be successful, you have to create an opportunity within the organization for entrepreneurial behavior to really manifest itself and to take hold. You need an organizational architecture that fosters and supports entrepreneurial behaviors so that you can be chasing after these innovations as you go along.

Wofford: How does a business go about establishing that?

Tarallo: There are two components that I think of when I try to action innovation within an organization. One is what I like to think of as “opportunity discovery” and the second is value proposition design.

When it comes to opportunity discovery, there is a clear methodology that applies. It starts with observation of the market and of potential customers, getting them to talk about their experiences—doing interviews with them to gather information, applying surveys and focus groups and the science behind those. It’s observing people and how they behave as they go throughout their days.

This process is actually called ethnography, which is sort of a fancy word, but it’s really a simple process of just watching people and taking note of what they’re doing and what they’re experiencing as they go through their daily lives. We’re looking for things that are missing for them as they try to accomplish tasks. We’re looking at problems that they encounter that need to be overcome and we’re also looking for pain that they’re experiencing along the way.

In those observations, I’m thinking about three specific behaviors: the functionality of what it is that they’re trying to apply, the social implications of what they’re doing, and also any emotional implications.

Wofford: We have some open-ended questions here that I think it would be good to get the audience to think about. When was the last time that you spoke with your customers regarding their experience with your product, service, or technology? If you would put your answers in the chat window please.

Tarallo: Look at that, someone wrote “just yesterday.” I like that, that’s great. Someone else replied “every single day.” That’s a lot of work so I would be curious how that actually works. Is that through a survey, and what do you do with that information when you get it? That’s really the big thing.

Wofford: That brings me to the natural follow-up question. What do you do with this feedback?

Tarallo: For me, every time a student comes into my office to talk to me about anything, I get information from them for some research that I’m doing about entrepreneurship and how we teach entrepreneurship. I’ll ask a very simple open-ended question, which is “What has it been like for you registering and taking entrepreneurship classes here at Cornell?” And when that student leaves, I have a little red book on my desk and I’ll open it up, put the date and their name and take notes on what they told me. So it’s good to pose these really open-ended questions to get your respondents to tell you stories.

Storytelling is really one of the most powerful tools in this process. When you can get people talking you through their experience, you really learn things you wouldn’t have anticipated.

Obviously an important part of that is to listen carefully, but you also need to look for those nonverbal cues as well as you go along. From there, you can start to generate a hypothesis about what is going on in the marketplace or what is happening within the context of your interest.

Wofford: And what’s the best way to get people to share their stories with you?

Tarallo: It can be through singular and/or multiple engagements, meaning I can sit down with you for an extended period of time and have a longer interview, or we can do multiple engagements where I’m talking to you for 10 to 15 minutes over a long period of time. Both of those are powerful applications of the interview process.

Surveys are another step. Here we start to move away from the qualitative aspects of our research and we start moving more into the quantitative. Surveys primarily help validate hypotheses by reaching a very large sample size. You can also use surveys at the very beginning of your process simply to identify the people that you want to be speaking with to make sure that you have a diverse population in your sample size. You’ll be looking for demographic information like race, geographic location, household income, age, and so on to ensure that you get the right population to ask. Otherwise, your validation is not going to be accurate and you’ll have problems going forward.

Focus groups are another popular thing but I personally stay away from them because there is a real science to focus groups. To run a focus group well, I think you need to be trained in it or you need to hire people to do it for you. And they’re expensive, so when I’m in startup mode, focus groups are generally not something I’ll incorporate.

Wofford: Whichever method you choose, you need to then do something with the information you gather. What do you do?

Tarallo: When we analyze the data, there are a handful of things we do: code the information that we have, look for patterns or anomalies in the information, and then start to generalize and create a narrative around it.

We want to track our assumptions and any biases that we think were brought in and then we want to validate it in the market through a series of controlled experiments and prototyping. We know that these experiments are often designed to fail, but they’ll teach us something that will help us move forward again and take that next step.

I’m a big fan of controlled experiments that are likely to fail, but when they fail, they’re not going to impact our market or people’s perception of our company. I’m not a proponent of the philosophy these days of going out and failing big and failing fast. Failure is just not a good thing, I’m sorry. Controlling it makes a lot more sense, as I can learn more when I do that.

This, in my opinion, is particularly true in the service industries. Service-based businesses are much harder to innovate in and much harder to build business models around. It’s relatively easy to hand somebody a tangible product or put a technology in front of them and have them tell you what’s wrong with it and then you can do an update or a new iteration. But if you’re trying something new out in your restaurant and it results in bad service, most of the affected customers won’t come back to your restaurant a second time. So we want to be very careful. It’s about testing. It’s about failing in a controlled way. It’s about repeating that process until we have what we need as we go forward.

Wofford: Can you tie all of this together for us?

Tarallo: As I’m going through the innovation process, I’m thinking about and utilizing all of the information that I got through the ethnographic research that I’ve done. Through that process of observation, storytelling, interviewing, surveying, and validation, I’m bringing those components in and placing them on the value proposition canvas, which is a powerful tool that presents a graphic illustration of what I’m experiencing and what I’m seeing in the marketplace. I use Post-it notes so that I can take them down and move them as things change, so it’s a very dynamic tool and really lets us get to where we want to go.

My advice to folks is always that if you find yourself sitting at a computer doing research, you’re doing it wrong. It’s all about really interfacing with the marketplace. All your hypotheses need to be validated in the market. We need to be doing those small controlled experiments that help us validate things without damaging our relationship with our customers.

Wofford: Neil, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Tarallo: Thank you, Chris. And just remember, it’s all about getting out there and trying it. You probably won’t succeed the first time you do it, but don’t be dissuaded. Get out and practice. It’s the application of it that you get better and better at.

 

Want to hear more? This interview is based on Neil Tarallo’s live eCornell WebSeries event, A Fresh Look at Innovation. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Entrepreneurship topics. 

The Triple Bottom Line In an Entrepreneurship Enterprise

Entrepreneurs have a unique opportunity to structure their businesses in a way that achieves balance in the “Triple Bottom Line” (TBL). To find this balance in the TBL, you must manage the competing, as well as complementary, business interests of people, planet and profit. This one-hour webinar will highlight the value of a strong TBL strategy that promotes environmental and social initiatives while optimizing the financial health of the enterprise.

By the conclusion of the discussion, attendees will understand:

  • Why entrepreneurs should integrate this strategy throughout their enterprise
  • The framework and conditions necessary for establishing a Triple Bottom Line
  • Key factors for implementing a successful TBL strategy and how this strategic approach creates value for the entire business enterprise.

Click here to preview this WebCast. Sign up for a 30-day trial of our Entrepreneurship WebSeries Channel to attend for free!

The Startup Pivot: Changing Strategic Direction

On Wednesday 5/11 at 1 pm ET, we’re meeting with GiveGab CEO and Co-Founder Charlie Mulligan to talk about the pivotal maneuvers and strategic shifts that led to GiveGab’s rising success in recent years. Charlie will discuss lessons learned as an entrepreneur and offer advice on how you might apply them to your own startup. You’ll learn:

  • Why pivots are a common and necessary fact of life in startups.
  • How to decide when it’s the right time to pivot.
  • Best practices when changing strategy.
  • How to communicate around the pivot, both internally and externally.

I sat down with Charlie earlier this week to learn a bit more about him, GiveGab.com and his experiences.

Chris: What exactly is a pivot in the business sense?

Charlie: A pivot is a shift in strategy, which to me means you’re changing something significant (such as who your customers are or how you make money).

Chris: Is failure a necessary predecessor to a pivot?

Charlie: I would say failure is a common predecessor to a pivot, but not 100% necessary. If you discover a great opportunity in the mechanics of what you’re doing, it makes sense for a startup to pursue the bigger opportunity, even if the current one is doing OK.

Chris: I interviewed visiting e-ship lecturer Steve Gal from Johnson School at Cornell, and he described the pivot in the basketball sense: “You change your focus and direction, but you must keep one foot on the ground.” In GiveGab’s case, what was it that you gave up, and what was it that you gained in your organization’s pivot situation? What was the thing that kept you grounded through your pivot?

Charlie: Our pivot led us to change who our customer was (from universities to nonprofits) and how we made money (via fundraising vs. volunteer management), but it didn’t change our core as a connection portal between nonprofits and supporters. This allowed us to utilize a new strategy while still being able to build off our experience in the nonprofit world and our connections and partners.

GO HERE to register and to take advantage of our free 30-day trial subscription to the Women in Leadership Channel.

GiveGab, the Nonprofit Giving Platform, is an online fundraising and supporter engagement tool designed exclusively for nonprofit leaders. Charlie Mulligan has 25 years’ experience in entrepreneurship, corporate leadership, fundraising and sales partnerships. He has served as a speaker, mentor and consultant for businesses and nonprofits all over the world. His passion is helping mission-driven organizations gain the resources and skills necessary to succeed. Mulligan has a BA in Marketing from Penn State and an MBA from Cornell.

Know Thy Entrepreneurial Self, Build On Your Strengths

Here is a 5-minute excerpt from our recent WebCast for entrepreneurs, The Entrepreneurial Profile: Building On Your Talents. Professor Mona Anita Olsen, from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell, walks us through the Gallup Entrepreneurial Profile 10 (EP10), a new talents-based assessment that helps entrepreneurs discover and develop their entrepreneurial talents.

If this excerpt has piqued your interest, I recommend you sign up for your free 30-day trial subscription here and enroll through the Entrepreneurship Channel. For best results, try the EP10 yourself ($12 cost) before viewing the WebCast.

After you complete the assessment, you’ll receive a personalized report that includes your unique talent profile. Prof. Olsen provides her contact info at the end of the session, so feel free to connect with her for advice as you prepare to build on your talents as an entrepreneur.

Strategies For Moving Your Startup Into a Bricks-and-Mortar Space

On April 6 we’ll be hosting a WebCast for startups called “Build Your Business: Real Estate Challenges for Startups” with Cornell alum T.J. Hochanadel.

As host, I needed to learn a few things about real estate strategies for startups, so T.J. and I had a conversation earlier this week.

What should a startup be thinking about when readying for the big move into a bricks-and-mortar address? 

T.J.: Every company has its own unique set of criteria that drive real estate decisions. Startups should look closely at a number of things, like price, geography, image, scalability, talent attraction/retention, commutability, life cycle of business — we’ll take a close look at all of these during our WebCast.

T.J., Can you recommend any tools or resources here that may help guide the startup toward an informed decision about real estate?

T.J.: Business execs tasked with the assignment of securing an office space should really consult with a commercial real estate professional who can represent tenants’ interests. The best commercial real estate advisors/brokers spend time understanding the business to help you formulate a strategy around your office choice.

Here at JLL, we have a really cool interactive tool called the Square, which is meant to help business executives grasp an initial understanding of a real estate strategy that best meets their current/future business needs. It really helps to guide the conversation going forward.

What if my company is focused on acquisition? Should that change my game plan?

T.J.: Each situation is unique, and it mostly depends on how the acquiring company underwrites the real estate obligation of the company being acquired. I think the argument could be that a company focused on acquisition would want to maintain high flexibility in its lease. However, I can recall several examples where a company was acquired shortly after signing a long-term lease.

What if I live and work in an area where the startup culture is not very dense or developed yet? Should I go where there is a culture and supportive infrastructure around startups?

T.J.: Again, each business requirement is unique. Generally, I believe successful companies tend to locate in geographies that will foster their growth. Tech hubs like NYC, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, etc. offer many advantages over less-developed hubs.

A business owner will want to consider the effects a geography has on access to capital, talent, and other unique business resources, and weigh those against cost of operating in those geographies.

How does company brand figure into real estate considerations?

T.J.: An office is a place that most of us “live in” every day, so it is inherently going to be a reflection of the brand. For the startup out there who is in the process of raising a large round of funding that will enable them to grow their employee headcount, they’ll want a home that will help them attract and retain talent. Or for the fashion designer who is looking to open a showroom, a client’s optical view of the brand image will be significantly influenced by the showroom. As discussed above, each situation is unique, and it is important to undertake the heuristic process to determine the best strategy for reach business. We’ll cover all this and more next week in our 1-hour WebCast.

 

Go here to register and to take advantage of our free 30-day trial subscription to the Entrepreneurship Channel.

The eCornell Story: A Former Startup Helping New Startups Thrive

On September 7, 2000, the Cornell University Board of Trustees approved the creation of eCornell, a wholly-owned, for-profit subsidiary that would produce and deliver online courses authored by Cornell professors and extension faculty members.

With this charter, eCornell became the Ivy League’s first online education startup. Like any fledgling business, its founders — many of whom were Cornell alums — faced the challenge of defining and serving a relatively new market. Who were online learners? What did they need, and was it different from the needs of students sitting in classes on the Cornell campus? What expertise could eCornell bring to online learners that would set it apart?

Thirteen years later, we’re no longer a startup and we’ve found our niche. True to Cornell’s motto, eCornell has become a natural extension of the university’s ideals: the online outpost of “…an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” We provide a virtual community for learners at every stage in their careers, spanning disciplines and providing Ivy League instruction grounded in application.

But we haven’t forgotten our roots. Throughout the years, the eCornell executive team has been paying it forward, supporting entrepreneurs and new ventures at all levels — whether through undergraduate student projects, alumni startups, peer coaching, or new courses and certificate programs.

“We’ve been a strong supporter of Entrepreneurship@Cornell (Cornell’s university-wide entrepreneurship initiative) for years because we know there is a direct link between developing the management skills of new entrepreneurs and their ultimate success,” said Chris Proulx, ‘91, eCornell’s Chief Executive Officer.

Proulx and Rob Kingyens, Chief Technology Officer and Chief Marketing Technology Officer, regularly judge business plan competitions around the country and participate as coaches or panelists at entrepreneurship conferences. They also are dedicated to leading eCornell in a direction that meets entrepreneurs’ and business owners’ unique needs.

“Launching a new business is more than a full-time job. Many entrepreneurs, especially those who can’t yet afford to quit their ‘day jobs,’ don’t have time to go back to school,” said Proulx. “They need accelerated, actionable learning, at the right time and place.”

For entrepreneur Egomeli Hormeku, eCornell’s courses were a perfect fit, even while he was running and building a new multi-brand business.

“The structure of the coursework didn’t take away from my business; it only benefited the process. I thought the task of running five brands and taking courses with eCornell would be impossible. That definitely wasn’t the case,” said Hormeku, founder and CEO of The Hormeku Group, a holding company focused on mens’ fashion, cigars, spirits, and wine.

Hormeku completed eCornell’s Business Strategy: Achieving Competitive Advantage certificate program, a decision that he said allowed him to better see the business from all angles, fine-tune the practical information he’d already gained on the job, and learn how to compete in vertical markets some would consider daunting.

Like Hormeku, Adam Zembruski came to eCornell to fill a skills gap. But Zembruski, president of hospitality investment and management company Pharos Hospitality, LLC, needed to fill those gaps for his entire team, not just himself. Though Zembruski has decades of hotel management experience, his new venture was founded on a technical skill he and many if his employees didn’t possess: hotel underwriting.

“We formed Pharos with the intent to bridge the gap between real estate investors and hotel operators. These courses [in Hotel Real Estate Investments and Asset Management] have prepared me to anticipate and meet the needs of all of our current and future partners. The courses taken through eCornell were priceless,” Zembruski said.

If you’re registered for Startup Weekend, you also already know how important networking and connections are for entrepreneurs. At eCornell, this is another way we pay it forward: bringing like-minded, driven people together through courses designed for interaction. Fellow students become your sounding board and source of inspiration.

“The people I take courses with keep in touch with me, and we find ways to sharpen the vision of our career goals. These connections, and my eCornell courses, have helped me cut costs, strategically move more units, stay ahead of my competition, and realize new ways of being profitable. They took me from being a good entrepreneur to walking the road of becoming a great one,” said Hormeku.

For Startup Weekend Fredericksburg attendees, we’re continuing our tradition of supporting entrepreneurs. Save 25% when you enroll in any eCornell certificate program by June 30, 2013. Visit http://www.ecornell.com/swfred and use promo code SWFRED to get started.

Featured Post on Startup Weekend’s Blog

Driving Innovation, Agility and High Performance

Want to know how Best Buy Canada and Reuters transformed their learning culture to became industry leaders in training and development?

Join Speakers Marjorie Van Roon, Best Buy Canada; Amy Thomson, Reuters and Joe DiDonato, Elearning! Media Group as they teach you how to develop a top-tier learning environment at your organization.

In this session, Joe DiDonato, editor at Elearning! Media Group, will share attributes of the best in class learning & development organizations. Discover how collaboration, innovation and learning culture all drive performance.

Join us on Thu, Dec 1, 2011 1:00 PM – 2:15 PM EST for a free webinar. Register here.