What I learned [at Heart]

Some (a lot) of this, isn’t new, or news: a better way of putting it is things that I have picked up my whole career, that is top of mind at the moment. Kind of like the coach’s exhortations not to land on the rope is just words until you learn the hard way by nearly breaking your damn ankle. Or …. Other advice that we know we should follow but don’t always, sometimes to our detriment.
In retrospect one thing that was not clear to me while I was in it that is clear now is that I’m not ever going to make a good consultant. Not enough skin in the game. I need ownership. Not full control; goodness knows I don’t like the responsibility that comes along with that. But actual, tangible, ownership.
One of the things that my friend Jaco said over and over about the social enterprise space in South Africa is that social entrepreneurs don’t need advice: they need people to pick up the bricks alongside them. Well … I beg to differ. They need both. But what they don’t need is bad advice, or half-hearted advice, or uninformed advice. It is true that everyone and their brother thinks they can mentor a startup. Having tried to mentor some and being in a position where I am now being mentored makes me not an expert per se, but less of a naïve bumbler than I could be.
I have been meaning to write this post for a while but never quite got around to it, or there was always something more pressing. But as I was sitting in New York on my final day in the U.S. talking about the challenges of bringing cheap connectivity to the world, the past got rehashed. It just did. So. Here goes:
Lesson #1People are the only important thing. I know it’s a cliché, but damned if you can do much of anything, especially change the world, without a good team. Ownership is what matters; great ideas are just that. The magic is in the strategy, the beauty is in the execution.
Lesson #2Look around. Partner intelligently. Don’t be so distracted by your own internal operations that you neglect to see what is going on around you. Don’t get caught in the trap of ‘not invented here’ or ‘we could do this so much better than they could.’ Be smart. If you are legitimately wanting to do something, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you’re not looking for credit. I know, I know, in the do-gooder world the credit, and kudos, and continued/additional funding is everything. But when chasing the glory makes the pie many multiples smaller … in the business world this is called a lapse of fiduciary responsibility.
Lesson #3Be clear on why you’re doing it. Here, I mean the customer ‘why’ not just the social ‘why.’ No clear customer value proposition means no solid foundation on which to build a business. If you want to be a charity, be a charity. If you want to build a business, find a customer need first then figure out a social angle.
Lesson #4You can’t sell someone something they don’t actually want. Need I say more? Actually, yes, I do need to. This can sometimes work for once or a few times, but when buyer’s remorse occurs … you’ve not only lost a customer but you’ve generated a potentially angry, resentful customer. Don’t be that guy.
Lesson #5You should always have a plan. Don’t know where you’re going -> don’t know how to measure if you’re being effective or not. It’s a good recipe for drift. Know where you’re going long-term, know your short-term priorities, and, most importantly of all: make sure everyone in the company knows them. Better still, let them co-create the plan, to the degree that this is possible and makes sense. But also … if you don’t have goals then the goal posts can shift, or staff can under-deliver, and neither case is easily handled if you weren’t clear up front.
Lesson #6You don’t get big by thinking small. OK maybe I didn’t learn this one at Heart but it’s definitely been the theme of the day since.
Lesson #7If you see something, say something(used without permission of the New York MTA who somehow trademarked the phrase). It is the responsibility of management to solicit advice and feedback, and it is the responsibility of staff and advisors to offer honest feedback. Saying ‘I told you so’ feels great. You know what IS great? Not having to say ‘I told you so’ because you course-corrected.
Reflecting on my U.S. trip …. It was longer than I had anticipated, and when I counted it up I’d hit 13 states: Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington, and New York. I counted wrong on Facebook (forgot Iowa!). 13 states, 11 domestic flight segments (of which only 4 were round-trip), 5 rental cars, and all 4 time zones. Had a hell of a time separating work expenses from personal expenses, I can tell you that much.
I slept short, I slept long, I relished seeing friends I hadn’t seen in literally 10 years, and I enjoyed making the acquaintance of new friends. I drank with executives. I drank with Vikings fans. I donated blood. I ran a beer mile. I played in a corn maze and a corn bin. I watched a Vice Presidential debate, a Presidential debate, and the election after-math. I even made a cameo appearance in the Tailgate32 Minnesota episode. The best was at the very end:
John: “We’ve now lost Ellie, too.”
Aidan: “Isn’t this how all horror movies start?”
Mike: “I think there’s cider over there.”
Love you, too! Miss those guys to pieces …. Social media doesn’t help. Neither does the cough I’ve had since Denver. Thanks a ton, Mike. Bloody hell.
But you know, it’s rather like anything you’ve enjoyed tremendously: I am so glad I did that, it’s an experience completely unlike any other that I’ve had before or will have since, and it’s also one that I’m lucky to have had. It’s not everyone who gets to hop on that RV with a documentary film crew for 2,000 miles. But it is also not my reality. Sometimes I can’t actually believe that my reality is what it is; I feel like if you pinched me I’d wake up.
And maybe I will … I had a very “this is the Matrix” moment on the New York subway. After all, who really knows? I took the red pill ages ago.
  • “I’m not jaded. I’m just tired.” – Kosta
  • “I might move here. There’s money here.” – Kosta
  • “I love my haters.” – Carl
  • “But you can eat white bread, right?” – coffee shop guy when I said I couldn’t eat wheat


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