I was honored and pretty darned excited to be a judge for the Cisco Innovation Challenge held at the Arizona State University downtown campus in Phoenix.
“The goal of this challenge is to empower a generation of global problem solvers to suggest new Internet of Everything solutions and technologies.” ASU Entrepreneurship & Innovation
After a first round of judging, 8 finalists were chosen, from local community colleges, to compete in the live pitch event. I was one of the four judges for the live pitch event and boy was it ever fun!
After 25 years as an entrepreneur, it was really cool to be on the other side of an idea. Instead of strategizing how to start, run, and grow a business, I was tasked with looking at how students tackled the challenge of a new business idea.
As judges, our job was to look at whether or not the students used technology to solve environmental or social issues. We looked their presentation, their problem/solution, the market/impact of their idea, and their call to action. The call to action was an important piece because monetary prizes were being awarded and funded by Cisco.
I took a lot away from the experience and I thought I’d share some of the business lessons that struck me most.
These 6 business lessons can help just about anyone starting or growing their businesses.
I was surprised by the realization that no matter where you are in your business, 6 months in or 10 years in, some of the same lessons apply.
1 – 50% of Success is Showing Up
Sure, having a great idea matters. Having a great business model matters. Having a solid business strategy matters.
But, strip away all of the research, strategy, plans, and numbers, and the truth is, showing up matters… a lot.
Showing up means doing the work, trusting the work, and knowing the work. If you come to the table with a world class idea but haven’t done the down and dirty work to back your idea up, you’ll get nowhere. (Think about the Segway.)
If you come to the table and you have a medium-okay idea, but you’ve done the work, I’m going to pay attention.
After each presentation, we were tasked with asking a few questions. I kept my questions simple and straight-forward. Easy to answer because the presenter had either done the work and could answer, or hadn’t.
If you want to impress your clients, sponsors, vendors, funders, etc. You need to show up every day and do the work.
Simple, and yet, I see this all the time with business owners who want to grow their businesses but have management and operational gaps that haven’t been addressed. We can’t move forward with growing a business if we skip over the hard or mundane.
All the work, in all the areas of a business, matters.
2 – Confidence Wins
I can’t stress this enough… practice confidence. Learn how to make eye contact, learn how to stand with confidence, and please, for the love of spaghetti… learn how to shake hands properly.
When you look and behave confidently, you can smooth out the edges. What I mean by that is that when I see a confident person, I have a much higher level of trust in them and when they make a presentation mistake, I’m more likely to overlook it.
A couple of the presenters were so self-confident that their credibility with me rose above the other students. Their confidence helped to pull me into their presentation, they made good eye contact, and they felt so much more credible.
When dealing with others in any kind of situation, especially career or business related, confidence will get you much farther. Confidence can truly open doors.
As much as confidence wins, the lack of confidence can shut an open door quickly.
Because in the U.S. we rely heavily on the handshake in business, it is paramount that you learn to do it right. I shake hands a lot and I have become increasingly dismayed at how terribly most people shake hands.
After the prizes were awarded at the Cisco Innovation Challenge, I made a point of congratulating and shaking hands with all of the presenters. It was a pretty mixed bag, some handshakes were good, some were adequate, and then there was one spaghetti noodle shake. It was so spaghetti noodle I felt the person had absolutely no bones in their hand or arm.
I was startled! Really! And it took everything I had not to just yank my hand back.
Practice the hand shake people… please, it matters.
3 – Stories Are Great But…
“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” Winston S. Churchill
I really believe stories require the same parameters as the quote above.
Stories are great but you don’t want to put your audience to sleep and you don’t want your story to overshadow your presentation.
A short impactful story is far more effective than a longer one with more detail. The key is in finding the most impactful nuggets.
For the presenters, most of them spent a bit too much time on the story aspects of their presentations, drawing attention away from necessary facts and figures. More importantly, the presenters were given only a short amount of time to give their presentations, so running long on the story aspect left a few presenters out of time.
Learning how to tell a good story is a skill every business owner needs. Stories are a powerful selling tool, knowing how to use them and how to do so succinctly is as important on day one of your business as it is in year 10.
4 – Give ‘Em What They Ask For
So one thing I learned very early on was that if I simply gave my college professors what they asked me for, I’d be successful.
It seems like an odd lesson, right?
Well, if it seems odd to you… that could be part of the problem.
There are countless opportunities to get creative and when those opportunities come along, take them!
But, there are still times when conforming to parameters matters, and that is not a bad thing.
As a life-long non-conformist, you can be sure that I love to step outside the lines but recognize when following instructions matters.
At the Cisco Innovation Challenge, the students were given parameters for their presentations. They were asked to answer certain questions and they had a specific amount of time. Those instructions were critical because our judging guidelines followed those parameters.
Of the eight presenters, many followed the instructions and provided exactly what was asked for. As a result, judging their presentations was easy and my marks were higher.
Those that didn’t follow instructions affected their scores. Those outside-the-box presenters may have had charisma and great presentations, but they still had lower scores because creativity wasn’t on the scoring sheet.
This same lesson applies throughout the life of your business. There are times when it makes sense to totally step outside of the box. And, I know that it can be fun. But you must always be aware of the parameters given to you and whether or not those parameters are flexible.
A bank loan, a sponsor agreement, a vendor contract – these things matter and usually they aren’t flexible. That means, you’ll need to give ‘em what they want if you want to be successful.
5 – Perception… Yours and Mine
The truth is, even after we turned in our scoring sheets and began discussing our scores, we found that we all agreed upon the first place prize winner. It wasn’t necessarily the idea or presenter we liked the best.
But we differed on how we saw some of the other presenters and how we scored them.
It’s an issue of perception.
How we see our businesses is important and many times it can be critical but it’s not always as important as how others see our businesses.
This is one of the most difficult lessons to learn. It’s what I call a “forest for the trees” moment. The moment when the old adage “can’t see the forest for the trees” becomes real.
We really can’t see our businesses or ourselves in the same way that others can. Simply hit up Facebook and ask everyone to tell you the first word or two that comes to mind about you. You’ll, very often times, be really surprised.
That’s why you need to take a step back. From the very moment that you spark an idea through every year of your business, stepping back means gaining perspective.
Feedback is a powerful tool; varied feedback is even more powerful. It’s not enough to ask family and friends to look at our ideas or businesses because they will always spare you the hard stuff. And as friends and family we are programmed to say good things… or sometimes very negative things.
I learned at 18 that even the people that I thought loved me the most weren’t always my best champions. Family and friends have their own agendas when it comes to you, even when those agendas hold the very best of intentions, they can present skewed perspectives.
So check in with ‘strangers’ who are interested in your success but who don’t have an agenda. This can be business peers, coaches, consultants, mentors, professors, colleagues. And then, listen.
I am very oftentimes surprised that seasoned business owners don’t listen or actually hear what they are being told. It can be easier to just ignore the hard stuff and focus on those around us who keep telling us how wonderful we are…
Friends and family have agendas and they also have unspoken expectations. Paid employees or business partners can fall into that same category. Even business relationships where a barter is arranged can fall into that category. It is the nature of relationships with people… it’s human.
Amongst the judges, where no relationship existed outside our shared task, we were very vocal about our thoughts of the candidates. We also didn’t agree but listened intently, changed our perspectives a bit as we listened, and were presented with things we hadn’t thought of. We each came from a different perspective – not just as business people but also as humans with life experiences.
I suspect each student would have greatly benefitted from the discussion and those shared thoughts.
To the students I’d say, “reach out”. If one of the judges connected with you, take advantage of the knowledge.
For business owners I’d say, “seek out opposing voices, don’t run from them or wave them aside”. Those outside perspectives can be the ones that help you grow your business the most.
6 – Don’t Give Up
All of the ideas presented at the Cisco Innovation Challenge were great. I really liked the eight presentations we saw. All of the judges agreed that each idea had merit.
The only missing ingredient was review and refine. Each idea was great but each idea required more work. Some needed minor adjustment. Others needed more.
But, they all have promise. And that means, don’t give up.
Sure your first run out of the gate might crash, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It might just mean it’s not ready.
If you want to build a truly successful business, you must embark on a constant journey of review and refinement. No business is immune.
It should be a very regular practice to review where you are in your business, review where you want to be, review what’s working and what isn’t, look at numbers, look at industry trends, look at your customers, look at your processes… you get the idea. And, once you’ve exhausted the review process… adjust and refine.
Refining makes you better and it also creates a solution to one of the biggest business owner issues I see… overwhelm.
Reducing the stress and overwhelm of running a small business is paramount to the health of your business and to your health as an owner.
I suspect that just the idea of reviewing your business regularly can create stress and overwhelm but that’s why we have outside help. When a task truly overwhelms you, it’s time to either “buck up camper” or get someone in to help. The longer you ignore the ugly-to-you tasks, the bigger they become.
Don’t give up on ideas, tasks, objectives because they feel overwhelming! Simply find a way to work through them or get someone else to help you work through them.
I’d love to see the student ideas come to fruition and each of them can, with some refinement.
Lessons Are Steps
Because these business lessons transcend the age of a business, it’s important to remember that the very things you need when getting started are the same things you’ll need to grow and sustain your business over time.
Each of the above lessons are steps in the right direction.
Over the years I’ve learned that without the above lessons, turned into practice, I could not have accomplished success with my businesses. There were times when it was overwhelming and there were times when I wasn’t even sure if the idea would fly, but I stuck with it.
And, you should to.
Thanks to Arizona State University Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Maricopa Community Colleges, Cisco, and the students for being brave enough to do the work and present their ideas!
I see big things coming!
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