Some Uber-Valuable Reminders + My Top 10 Entrepreneurial Lessons

lightning_bolt

Last month I was asked to deliver a masterclass on “How to Launch a Successful Small Business” presented by Uber and General Assembly (GA).

I’ve been a GA Instructor for a few years now so I’ve done a number of purpose-run classes where a corporate teams up with General Assembly to provide value to their clients, employees, or network.

But for some reason, when I turned up to the venue and the elevator doors opened up to a room full of Uber drivers, I was surprised.  I suppose I’d been expecting a mix of aspiring entrepreneurs invited from the network of Uber customers and GA students, not men and women who already have their own small businesses as Uber drivers.

For some reason, I instantly turned into “Negative Nelly” and thought, ‘Oh man, my presentation has not been tailored to this group. These people already have their own small businesses – they’ll be so bored.’

By the time I was on deck, ready to present, it was standing room only and I was still thinking that they were really only there for the free food.

But, boy, was I wrong.

When it came time to wrap up my talk and move into Q&A, I still had little indication that what I presented had resonated with anyone in the room.  I asked if anyone had any questions and for a few moments…. crickets.  I even started to slide stage left, thinking “oh well, job done.”

But then the floodgates opened.  One after another, audience members raised his/her hand — there were lots of “thanks”, questions and, best of all, stories of their own side businesses and ideas.

One man described how he’d just quit his job thanks to Uber and was now a full-time driver developing a startup on the side.  And, while listening to his story and the others like it, it struck me how in line the Uber opportunity is with the ideals that drive Workible — giving people the power to customise their own work lives.  Whether Uber is a supplementary income, a full time business or a means to another end, it’s empowering men and women to achieve their goals.

Even after the Q&A, I had a swarm of people continuing the conversation, swapping cards, and requesting the slides.

For me, the experience was a reminder of the futility of snap assumptions and the value of sharing our stories and knowledge, whether directly or indirectly relevant, because you never know when a lightning bolt may strike.

So, with that in mind, here are 10 of my own personal entrepreneurial lessons that I shared with the group that night:

  • Get uncomfortable — Never in my life have I been so consistently faced with opportunities to step out of my comfort zone as I have as an entrepreneur.  The more I take those opportunities, not only the less scary and more invigorating they become but they are the most sure-fire way to take a giant leap forward.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst that can happen is they say “No.”  — That goes for investment, sales, customer/ user feedback, employee engagement, partnerships and more.  You’re not going to get anything or anywhere if you don’t speak up. 
  • Do everything you can manually, then automate/ build. — You can waste a lot of time and money rushing to automate a process that you haven’t thoroughly tested.  Best to avoid shortcuts and understand the in’s and out’s first.  
  • Make it work, then make it better. — This one falls under the “fail fast” adage in startup world.  Don’t overcomplicate things.  Do the absolute minimum required to test and see if something works/ is wanted, then take the next step. 
  • You’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes are good as long as you learn from them and bounce back.
  • You can’t do everything, but in the beginning you’ll have to.  Know when it’s time to let go.
  • Your time is precious. Be picky with who you spend your time with (especially potential clients who despite loving you or your product – after weeks, months, sometimes years – just aren’t ready to buy).
  • Keep your competitors in your peripherals, but don’t let them distract you.  It’s important to know what’s going on in the industry, but if you’re always looking over your shoulder, how are you supposed to get ahead of the wave? 
  • Get out of your own way, stop worrying about “what if” and do what’s best for the business.
  • No one really knows what they’re doing.  There is no right time or perfect pedigree that prepares you to kickstart a new business – just jump in and get dirty, learn and fail, get knocked down and get back up. You’ll never regret it.
Some Uber-Valuable Reminders + My Top 10 Entrepreneurial Lessons

Silver Linings and Clients that Kick Butt

Friday didn’t start out so hot.

Long story short:  A client alerted me that a “partner” of ours has been proactively trying to poach their business from us through some pretty deceptive sales tactics and slippery, unscrupulous technical tricks.

Once we worked out what was happening and how, she had some pretty choice words to say about the offending business… “unethical,” “appalling,” even “bully”… to name a few.   I have to admit, there were a few more floating around in my head.

But the point of this post isn’t to lament the betrayal by an alleged partner.  We’ll deal with that in due course.

No.  I felt compelled to write about this experience because it’s a testament to the strength of our client relationships.  I’m really proud that we’ve been able to foster such a great relationships with the companies we work with that not only will they stand by us when another organisation tries to lure them away from Workible, but they’ll also go to bat for us. (In this instance, my client called the red-handed company more than once that day to tell them what she thought of their practices).

It’s great reassurance that our focus on client relationships and continually adding more value for our clients is the right path.  In a hot market like HR Tech, we’ve established firm foundations that give us an edge against competitors — big and small.

it-was-never-a-dressAfter all was said and done on Friday, my client sent me this image and a few of her “Thoughts for the Day” that I’ll share with you below:

  • Competitors are a reality – not a surprise
  • Your product will always be chosen for the value it brings your client
  • So the way to compete is to constantly increase your value for the client – not outdo the competitor
  • Be the ones that set the agenda and walk the path with expertise and integrity – you want to be proactive – not reactive.
  • Know what you are and what you are not
  • When all else fails – and you do not want to seek alcohol as a solution – sunshine, chocolate and TED talks.
So while Friday started off not so hot, by the end I felt pretty great.  In the words of my client, “Bring it on!!!!! Kick butt is what we do!”
Silver Linings and Clients that Kick Butt

Monkeys see, Monkeys do – but Monkeys will always be one step behind

innovationCopying others is a business reality.  Always has been.  You see someone doing something successful, you want some of that success for yourself so you look at what they’re doing and imitate.  But you will struggle to become and remain an industry leader by simply following the “Monkey see, Monkey do” philosophy because without an understanding of why, you’ll forever be one step behind.

When we started our business in 2011, we were in a land of our own.  Fiona and I were people with a need.  A need we validated with others and supported with statistical analysis of labor market trends globally that showed the need would grow substantially in coming years as the workforce evolved.  Armed with a strong business case, we went to market.

But in that first year, we made a fatal flaw – we copied an existing model.  We tried to force-fit the online classified approach to the flexible workforce.

A year in and only marginally profitable, we were scratching our heads as to what was holding us back?  It took a thought-provoking global tech conference in Silicon Valley to wake us up.  Why were we limiting ourselves by re-purposing a model?  And not just any model, but a dying one that’s becoming less and less effective by the day.

Liberated from “the way it’s always been done’, we were free to call on our creativity and design a new way custom-built to cater for the idiosyncrasies of our market.  It allowed us to innovate, not imitate.  So, after months of research and development, we put HireMeUp out to pasture and launched Workible.  And as a testament to the success of our brave new model, Workible surpassed HireMeUp’s revenue by 1400% in it’s first year.

This experience taught us an important lesson that remains core to our business… Never be content with the obvious answer.  Or the first few solutions or the way it’s already been done.  Clear the deck.  Start fresh.  Challenge the status quo and approach the question or problem from a place where there are no rules.  That is where innovation happens.

Apple's 1981 "Welcome, IBM" Ad
Apple’s 1981 advertisement published two weeks after the debut of IBM’s first personal computer. The playful ad was Apple’s way of “welcoming” IBM into the PC marketplace.

Now, like I said, copying is ingrained in the business world.  And,  it’s even more prevalent today when technology businesses are sprouting up like weeds.  It’s becoming harder and harder to defend against copycats.  There are vocal advocates who commend imitation over innovation as a better way to make money because it’s more of a sure bet.

It was frustrating when we first started speaking to investors about the untapped market of flexible workers because they couldn’t see it being viable.  Fast forward a year or two when copycats and competitors started popping up and suddenly not only did more investors agree it was viable but then pointed to the newcomers and thought they had come first.

The majority of our competitors have profiles on Workible hidden amongst our job seekers and employers.  One in particular has been infiltrating our user bases since our pre-Workible days as HireMeUp.  We often find our exact language used in website copy and ads (what’s that saying… “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”)

But, it really doesn’t bother us (okay, we may make a few not-so-nice remarks and have a laugh when we find one – we’re only human!)  At the end of the day, you can’t hide and you can’t stop people from replicating what they can find.  You just have to keep moving.

So, when it comes to innovation versus imitation, for those of us at Workible, we prefer to stay one step ahead.

Monkeys see, Monkeys do – but Monkeys will always be one step behind

A Cautionary Tale Serves as a Reminder to Always Tread Strategically

vanity-fair-ncuniversal-brian-williams
Source: Vanity Fair; Pat Fili-Krushel, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andy Lack, Deborah Turness, and Steve Burke. Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photographs by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images (Logo), Natan Dvir/Polaris (Background), Jennifer Graylock/SIPA USA (Fili-Krushel), Gary He/Insider Images/Polaris (Burke), Matt Rourke/A.P. Images (Brokaw), David Sandison/The Independent/Rex USA (Turness), Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images (Lack), Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage (Williams).

Catching up on my Flipboard “10 for Today” emails this morning, a Vanity Fair headline caught my attention, “The Inside Story of the Civil War for the Soul of NBC News“.  The ex-journalist in me was grabbed by the headline and behind why I started reading, but I soon found that it was the entrepreneur that became engrossed.

In brief, the article centres around the public discovery of US anchorman Brian Williams’ inexcusable fabrication about coming under fire in a U.S. Army helicopter during the Iraq war in 2003.

In a day when true investigative journalism is scarce and it’s never been harder to compete for viewers/ readers due to the sheer volume of content available, to have a well-respected anchorman for one of the biggest media outlets in the US admit to lying — it’s a serious blow to the credibility of an already-shaky industry, not to mention society in general as it is the access to verifiable information gathered by independent media sources that empowers citizens to meaningfully participate in the political process.  But I digress…

The Vanity Fair article goes on to demonstrate that the Williams’ scandal is just the latest catastrophe in a series that have plagued NBC News since NBCUniversal was bought by Comcast in 2011 – and this is where the entrepreneur perked up.

You see, Fiona and I are facing some big decisions at the moment regarding the direction of Workible.  In our four years of business, we’ve never been in a stronger position and that is evident by the number of interested parties that have started to come calling — private and institutional investors, global partnerships, licensing deals, joint ventures and the like.

Reading the NBC story, you can see how key decisions began to destabilise the media company – long-regarded as one of the gold standards of television news in the US.  Inappropriate hires, poor management, civil war amongst staff and the biggest blow being the sale of NBCUniversal to Comcast, the Philadelphia cable/phone/Internet giant who applied cable utility company business logic to a broadcasting company where talent management is key.  And, actually, a very similar situation occurred when NBCUniversal was taken over by General Electric in the ’80s which was also followed by a period of instability and scandal.

Fiona and I have always been aware that the decisions we make from new hires to partnerships to investors have the potential to make or break the future of Workible.  On several occasions we’ve rejected offers of investment – even purchase – because the fit or timing just wasn’t right for one reason or another — not an easy thing to do as a up-and-coming tech company where cash is king and competition is never far behind.

I can’t help but feel that we’re at a juncture that we’ll look back on and point to as a significant landmark along the Workible journey.

So, as we navigate the opportunities we’re so fortunate to have, it’s cautionary stories like that of NBCUniversal/ Comcast that remind us to tread strategically and keep the long-term vision at the forefront of our minds at all times.

Watch this space!

A Cautionary Tale Serves as a Reminder to Always Tread Strategically

Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads?

I came across this TED Talk today delivered by Dame Stephanie Shirley that really resonated with me — and, subsequently introduced me to a new-found hero.

I don’t allow myself the “luxury” of taking 15 minutes to watch a TED Talk very much these days with so many things to tick off my “to do” list, clients to contact and email support to manage but this one caught my eye and with a headline like “Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads” — my curiosity was piqued, then the description (shared below) sucked me in and I just had to push “play”.

“Dame Stephanie Shirley is the most successful tech entrepreneur you never heard of. In the 1960s, she founded a pioneering all-woman software company in the UK, which was ultimately valued at $3 billion, making millionaires of 70 of her team members. In this frank and often hilarious talk, she explains why she went by “Steve,” how she upended the expectations of the time, and shares some sure-fire ways to identify ambitious women…”

You’ll have to watch the video above to find out what those ways are… I hope you find it as worthy an investment of your time as I did!


“It’s one thing to have an idea for an enterprise but, as many people in this room will know, making it happen is a very difficult thing. And, it demands, really, extraordinary energy, self belief, and determination, the courage to risk family and home and a 24/7 commitment that borders on the obsessive.”

— Dame Stephanie Shirley (aka Steve)

Here’s to all of the flat-headed, big-footed women!

Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads?