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Tag: startups

Fixing America Starts With Small Businesses. Here’s Why

I just read an article written by Joan Williams in Harvard Business Review titled “What So Many People Don’t Get About the Working Class.” She discussed reasons the nation is in the political state it’s in, and the reaction the middle class has had after years of job losses and an overarching sense of being left behind.

The article resonated with me because I grew up in a conservative farming town of 8,000, attended a university known for its agricultural programs, and then went on to work at The Boeing Company for five years. I now live in liberal Seattle. I left Boeing to start a company, then worked in technology and management consulting in cities across the world, and now have started another company.

Having spent half my life on one side of the conversation and half on the other, I see entrepreneurs as the ones standing in the middle. What it takes to start, run, and grow a small business requires a multitude of skills, including but not limited to:

  • Managing teams with empathy and understanding
  • Making strategic hiring decisions
  • Building a compelling story to get buyers in the door
  • Following local policies, demographic shifts, and labor issues
  • Keeping a national perspective when it comes to supply chain issues, taxes, and trend shifts

And so many people are impacted by a small business each day, whether as customers, employees, or founders. From an FAQ article written by SBA.gov in Sept, 2012:

“Small businesses make up: 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms, 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs, 49.2 percent of private-sector employment, 42.9 percent of private-sector payroll, 46 percent of private-sector output, 43 percent of high-tech employment, 98 percent of firms exporting goods, and 33 percent of exporting value.”

Although this information is almost five years old, the significance of small business hasn’t changed much. From stories of Radiator Springs in the Pixar movie “Cars” to popular books like “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, it’s not hard to find insights into the middle class struggle and see how it ties to small business ownership.

In Dr. Williams’s article, she talks about the dream of owning a business and the scarcity-driven fear of feeling left out as blue-collar workers have found it harder to take care of their families, let alone take risks to get ahead.

So what does this mean for you? As a current or future entrepreneur, you have an opportunity (perhaps obligation?) to reach out in your community and help shape our nation in the coming years. The rest of this article contains some suggestions that will go a long way toward undoing the divisive rhetoric and populism facing all of us today.

1. Entrepreneurial viewpoints are contagious, so get to know someone you don’t agree with

Too often we surround ourselves with perspectives and inputs that support what we already believe. As an entrepreneur, you get even less time to take in what’s going on outside of your business, which means it can be harder to invest in a diversity of perspectives. Yet, finding at least one relationship–an actual person, please–that can help balance out bias means you’ll be able to see where others are coming from more easily.

We all want to be heard and valued. As an entrepreneur, you can reflect that balanced perspective with the business community, employees, and customers you interact with every day. Imagine the impact of treating everyone with respect and common understanding. That can begin with you.

2. Focus on employee ownership

Scarcity, fear, and the instinct to survive drive people to make decisions against their own long-term interests. Many people in the U.S. have been feeling increasingly left out of the American dream. They feel left behind and without opportunity.

Creating a path for every employee to own a piece of the business is one way to help counter that. Whether it’s allotting equity in your company or sponsoring employees to start their own ventures, ownership breeds a sense of purpose and pride that can be matched by few other things in a professional’s life. From the pride of owning something, to the additional revenue that can come from the business succeeding, degrees of ownership can help rid individuals of that sense of scarcity.

3. Volunteer for small business workshops and literacy programs

Unemployment is historically low, but underemployment can be a bigger issue for people trying to provide a future for themselves and their families. Not only that, but job satisfaction has been shown to impact everything from health and energy, to community participation and healthy family life.

I’ve had the chance to meet with people all over the world, talking about innovation and discussing people’s goals to create new things. Of the hundreds of people I’ve spoken to, many weren’t happy in their jobs and wished they had the tools or abilities to do their own thing.

Barriers to making a change can include lack of education or skills, inexperience, or lack of knowledge about existing sources of funding. The right mentorship from people who have catapulted over similar obstacles may be part of the answer. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but equipping more people with a path toward becoming one will help them create their own opportunities.

Furthermore, children of disadvantaged homes often struggle in school due to issues surrounding basic literacy. Those same children often grow up struggling to compete in everyday work environments. Consider volunteering your time to help kids get caught up. It can have a lasting impact and help each child feel like they have a shot at success.

4. Engage with your local government

Local issues lead to national campaigns. This election was won because small-town issues outweighed the opinions of urban populations. Wherever you live, there is a local community where people across many walks of life engage in issues that affect them. As an entrepreneur, you’re a part of that conversation each day, possibly without knowing it. Consider then, how you can take a more active role in supporting initiatives that help everyone succeed. These may include:

  • Fundraising for a new school
  • Participating in a business plan competition
  • Getting involved in ballot measures that locally could have a positive impact on economic growth.

Ridding your community of opportunity scarcity means we’re all better off. It also helps reduce the effectiveness of fear mongering and hate.

5. Stop considering college as the only path to entry

Education is a traditional barrier in professional environments. Yet, I’ve worked with many smart people with only a high school education. Treating college as just one route to success rather than the only one is an important step. You can do this by:

  • Supporting a trade school by volunteering for mentoring, guest speaking, and participating in hiring fairs
  • Advocating for blue collar workers (ex: consider incorporating local fabrication shops into bids for product prototypes vs outsourcing everything).
  • Considering skilled people for employment regardless of their backgrounds

People are feeling a divide, where those with formal educations are perceived as the “haves” and those without are the “have nots.” As an entrepreneur, you may have insights into how to break down this divide within your own organization.

Consider how you might use these approaches in your own community, and leave comments below on other ideas that might help heal our country and world. As an entrepreneur, you’re more equipped than you know to encourage change and help fix some of what is broken in our society.

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10 Steps to Turning your Idea into a Business

“Your billion dollar company starts with a million dollar product, and your million dollar product starts with a hundred dollar prototype.” – Spark.io Team (http://bit.ly/1e1xkuk)

I think there’s alot of great ideas out there in the world that never get off the drawing board because X gets in the way of Y. Whether it’s finances getting in the way of the prototype, or work commitments getting in the way of reading that book you need to research the topic you want to improve, there’s a world of things getting in the way.

I encourage you to take these 4 steps in mind, and accept that in the time it takes you to read this note, you have the time to take your idea and get it to the next step which you can then justify putting some time and effort behind. For what you’re already paying for (a computer, internet connection, chair) you have all the tools you need to create something great.

Step 1. Open up a word document and describe in 3-500 words write down the problem you think needs to get fixed, and potentially your idea to fixing it.

Step 2. Post that idea online, on a social network, and get people’s feedback on what they think of the idea.

Step 3. Accept your idea in it’s present form isn’t A) the last idea you’ll come up with and B) not the final form it needs to be in.

Step 4. Take that feedback, noodle on it, refine it, and write 500-1000 words on the idea

Step 5. Do research online to see what exists out there already to solve this problem, and how your product might be different

Step 6. Figure out what it takes to bring this product / service to market for as little money as possible. You’d be surprised how much is already out there for little to no money to help bring your product to market.

Step 7. Build a support team that’ll encourage and keep you accountable to bringing this to life. Keep in mind it’ll change 100 times, and ideas are plentiful so don’t worry if you feel like you need a new one.

Step 8. Take the first step in your research plan, fail, learn from that failure, try and try again.

Step 9. Get encouragement, get feedback, get more encouragement

Step 10. Never, never, never give up and keep trying to solve the problem without holding the solution too closely. That solution can look 100’s of different ways, but you only need one solution for the problem.

The risk you’ll face is falling too much in love with a single solution, and spend too much money trying to make it work. If it’ll solve the problem, the product / service will sell to people that need help, so it’s about awareness and feedback to keep making it better – both can be cheap, but will take time so get encouragement to keep working on the right combination of solutions and awareness.

You need money to scale, and help grow exposure, but prototypes and trials are cheap and t-shirts are a nice to have, not a need to have so don’t worry about the thickness of your business cards when you haven’t yet sold your answer to the problem.

An important note on Patents – They are great in theory, but once that idea goes public then it’s an easy step for a larger company to change the idea just slightly and avoid infringement, so make sure you can quickly get funding for the legal support you’ll need to enforce that patent, or keep it un-patented until you’re getting enough exposure and success that you know you’re on the right track with the idea as is. It can take 7+ years to get the patent filed, so focus first on getting the concept to market so you can prove the interest, get the investment, and grow the company while getting advice on when to pull the patent trigger.

A note on Advisors – it’s important to find 3-5 people that have been where you’ve been at before, can help you get to where you want to go, or help steer your idea in the right direction. Start by meeting with professors or community college teachers, that are teaching classes on the subject you’re researching. You can reach out to professionals as well, such as lawyers or financial advisors, and get some simple advise for free but consider bringing them on as advisors in exchange for a small piece of ownership if they’re on board for that. Don’t get too many advisors though, and don’t give away too much of your company or you’ll run into real problems when you have investors getting involved.

 

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What’s New is Old

There’s a phrase that history repeats itself, dating back thousands of years to the phrase “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” and the phrase is pretty spot on when you consider events like trying to attack Russia in the winter (Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler) or fighting a foreign army in their own country for control of the government, with an ocean in between you and them (American Revolutionary War, Vietnam, Afghanistan both times).

Often times in technology, it seems that people talk about the next great thing and how technology has changed mankind forever. If that were the case though, things should be getting better as the technology improves, because technology is a tool and people have more tools at their disposal. People though, take a lot longer to change, and when left up to their own devices – People can do some pretty rotten things. Much like Porn is often the great early adopter of new technologies (Phonograph, VHS, DVD, Internet, etc), criminals are often the most hard working when it comes to bending new technologies to their will, and often have the means to stay one step ahead of ruling bodies, because there’s people on both sides and people love money & power, regardless of what side they’re fighting for.

At any point in history, when we look at new technology, people used it at some point shortly after it was created to get their way – whether it’s medieval kings conquering nations with military advancements, or governments using drones to monitor & assassinate foreign terrorist leaders. However, there are times in history when real leaders stand up and stand for something which galvanized the will of man to do good – even if it was only one group, and only for a short period of time.

Even with technological superiority, evil can’t always trump that human will – because people in that time rediscover their own humanity, and help push the needle back the other way. Repression turns to rebellion, plutocracy turns into protest, and the corrupt forces that work to turn mankind towards a self-seeking purpose fall by the wayside because no one likes being forced to work for someone else. This is the great failsafe often build into technology, it’s only as good as the system is maintained, and a system can only be maintained as long as there are people willing to keep it running.

With the threat of big brother government stepping in, those that feel the world is being forcibly controlled by the rich don’t realize how frail our systems are, and how futile money is if ever people decided not to buy things from the people selling. The rich stay rich, because people don’t think it’s a big enough priority to change what they’re doing to dismantle the 1%. All the 99% would have to do is open small businesses, pay the taxes they have to pay, and only buy from locally owned & operated companies long enough for shareholder-controlled enterprises to completely panic and change the way they do business, not to mention the politicians that wouldn’t get elected because they listened to lobbyists instead of their own electorate.

I’m all for government, and I’m not for any kind of forcible conflict or change through warfare/rioting – This can be done 100% legally and peacefully – What I am for, is people taking responsibility for the situation we’ve found ourselves in. Children are overweight because they’re eating the wrong food, people are not making money because they’re doing the wrong kind of work, and America is is debt because it keeps borrowing money. The sad thing is, things aren’t bad enough yet that people are willing to make the changes necessary to reverse the course, because we’re being fed enough bread and watching enough circuses that Rome can burn around us and we’re cool with that. The thing about history repeating itself though, is that a new way of doing things will arise from the ashes of Rome, and we’ll be another chapter in the history books of great nations that fell asleep at the wheel because we were the frog slowly cooking in the pot, because those in power are awfully good at keeping the followers just alive enough to not put up a fight.

People tell me they don’t like either candidate running for office, but it turns out it’s not too late for a third candidate to run for office and get elected – there’s no winner by default in the US Presidential election, so if people really care about change then just don’t vote for either candidate , because good enough isn’t good enough – don’t settle for someone applies to presidents like it does for spouses. You’re wanting change, a country that does good, and a nation that repairs roads and fixes obesity then elect people that honestly are going to do that – Where there’s smoke there is fire, and I keep hearing from people that the scent is overwhelming this year.

You want change – Vote for a candidate you really believe will make a difference, or write in “Someone else” in your presidential ballot this year, and tell other people to do the same – You have more technology to spread the word at your fingertips than any other generation in history and can make a difference more powerful than Ghandi, Alexander the Great, or Aristotle. All you have to do is decide, like they did, to do something different and decide to bring others along with you.

Change happens the same way it always does, people decided they want a change then they get others rallied up to do the same, and change happens. If you don’t see change, be the change you want to see happen and don’t let another election go by without standing up for the life you’re telling everyone you wish you had. History only goes one way – backwards – and we have alot to draw on, regarding people that didn’t care enough to change before change was forced on them. Let’s be a milestone & not a caution for generations to come, because it’s not too late – It just takes a vote.

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