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The digital age is bringing creative empowerment and financial independence to women and youth in Afghanistan, priming them to become the nation's future entrepreneurs.
In the 13th century, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road, a trading route that connected China and Europe via Central Asia. Because branches of the Silk Road traversed what is now Afghanistan, my country became a crossroads of world trade at that time.
More than 700 years later, in 2011, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the “new Silk Road initiative,” a U.S.-led international strategy to help build overland trade in Central and South Asia. The goal was to boost economic development and social stability in our part of the world by once again establishing Afghanistan as a regional market hub. Both visions of the Silk Road focused on physical commerce. But what Marco Polo couldn’t imagine--and what Clinton apparently didn’t envision--is that the Internet can become the Digital Silk Road for the people of Central Asia.
Empowering Entrepreneurs Online
The hallmarks of entrepreneurial success in the 21st century are creative empowerment, financial independence, and the absence of geographic barriers. As a young Afghan woman who runs a successful IT business based in Herat, I have experienced this dynamic personally. I make my living from the Digital Silk Road, and I am convinced that online entrepreneurship can create a bright future for women and young people in Afghanistan and other developing countries.
Last year, I joined forces with Film Annex, an online film-distribution company headquartered in New York City. Together, the two of us created a company called Citadel of New York, which is doing its part to encourage entrepreneurship on the Digital Silk Road by bringing Internet access, IT hardware, and social-media education to tens of thousands of Afghan students. We focus on giving women and youth the tools they need to launch successful online businesses. Current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged our work recently in his essay titled "Afghan women on the march," published on Politico.com.
To this end, our next creation was WomensAnnex.com, a blogging and film platform that empowers the women and children of Central Asia with a “pay for content” model. Bloggers and filmmakers on the site get paid a share of ad revenues based on their Buzz Score, which measures the traffic their work attracts. Monthly payouts on Women’s Annex range from as little as $5 to several thousand dollars.
Topics on Women’s Annex include education, arts, business, and sports. The platform enables women to distribute and monetize their film and written content, as well as to connect with female role models through videos and blog posts. Women's Annex encourages women all over the world to be financially independent self-starters. Members are based in many developing countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Why is the Digital Silk Road so important? One of the most difficult challenges faced by Afghan entrepreneurs is traveling through a country that is only beginning to emerge from decades of violent conflict. By opening the gates of the Internet to young Afghans, we are giving them the means to travel the entire world without leaving their homes and schools. Afghan women won’t need a male relative to escort them outside the home when they are traveling the world online. Afghan children can learn about the world without needing a passport. They can also learn how to launch and scale profitable businesses.
To be sure, Afghan entrepreneurs face many other challenges besides the danger and expense of overland travel. These include endemic violence, poverty, corruption, and government bureaucracy, all of which stifle entrepreneurship. But the Digital Silk Road is largely unaffected by these constraints. Business ideas and international partnership opportunities travel the Internet cheaply and at network speed.
Governments, the international community, and the private sector can all promote entrepreneurship in Afghanistan by helping to bring Afghans online. Improving broadband Internet connectivity for Afghans and providing the IT hardware and training to use it effectively are not expensive or difficult propositions. This is especially true when we consider that the United States alone has spent more than half a trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan over the past 12 years.
In Afghanistan, the Digital Silk Road can promote business, markets, development, and entrepreneurship in a cost-effective way that will build on its own success. It also is an effective business model that can be applied in other developing countries in Central and South Asia and throughout the world.
It’s all about connecting people and their creative ideas. Ultimately, any business expert or entrepreneur will tell you that business is about people. This is where the Digital Silk Road can make the same kind of history that Marco Polo did.
Roya Mahboob is an Afghan entrepreneur and businesswoman. She is the founder and president of the Afghan Citadel Software Company, a full-service software-development company based in Herat, Afghanistan. Mahboob also chairs the Women’s Annex Foundation.
Raggedy-looking guys are considered hip. Similarly-dressed women are considered ill-groomed. What to do.I think most female tech CEOs can appreciate my frustration: How can male tech CEOs get away with T-shirts and ragged jeans up on stage, but as a female tech CEO, I couldn’t? The guys were considered hip, but I was just underdressed. I needed a brand. A hip female CEO tech brand that I could make my own. Along the way, I discovered that a personal brand is more than what you wear. Your brand is your public identity, and it can be a great asset if managed well. Here’s how I developed my personal brand, and how I continue to refine it. 1. Find Examples I looked for examples of women I wanted to emulate. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find many examples of female tech CEOs that dared step beyond the classic professional business look. I was looking for the Steve Jobs effect--casual, but confident. Sally Jewel was the REI CEO at the time. She always dressed in outdoor gear, representing both her brand and her personal passions. 2. Decide on Your Message The first step in any branding exercise is to determine what message you are trying to convey. What’s the branding goal? After some thought I decided upon a few key attributes that reflected both my personal passions and my company’s publicity needs: strategic thought leader, trustworthy, confident, smart and successful. 3. Get Help Where Needed Next, I focused on how I could turn those words into a great look. Although I love clothes, I was never particularly good at picking them out, so I got help. After describing what I was looking for - comfortable, slimming, casually elegant, light and preferably wrinkle resistant - I discovered Eileen Fisher fit the bill perfectly. I quickly assembled a basic wardrobe, mixing in a few pieces from other designers. To my delight, I was spending much less time stressing over what to wear and at the same time looking better than ever. 4. Be Consistent Once I had my personal message crafted, I began to incorporate it into my psyche. The best way to build a brand is to propagate it consistently, protecting the integrity of the message. I used to hear jokes at a past employer about their “brand police.” Given they are one of the top ten brands globally, it would have been worth hiring an entire army to protect the value of their brand. Guess what? You are your own brand police. Reflect your brand message every time you tweet, post, pitch, interact, lead or speak publicly. This is a truly empowering concept. Like a spotlight intensifies light, a well-managed brand elevates your impact. 5. Evolve Change is a constant in life. It is important that your personal brand evolves as you do: When you change jobs or take on a new role. When Sally Jewell left REI to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior, her brand changed. I went looking for an outfit, but found my personal brand. I thought I’d spend more time getting ready, but now I spend less. I thought it would be more work to communicate, but in fact it is easier. Life is full of pleasant surprises.
Why do entrepreneurs make the same errors, over and over? Here's how to steer clear of the Moron Hall of Fame.
Were there truly a Moron Hall of Fame, I imagine it would be a splendid Frank Gehry building shaped like a massive ear. It would serve as an icon to the biggest cause of meltdowns: failure to listen. Leaders are flooded with signals from various sources -- their market, their employees, board directors, and advisors. How they respond to this stream of information will govern their future prospects.
Great entrepreneurs develop deep conviction about their unique vision and believe there is little from the past that may be applicable, particularly if they are doing something disruptive. As a result, they notoriously shut out contrarian points of view. This is where the trouble begins.
The entrepreneur’s dilemma
To prevent failure we must look to the past, learn from others’ mistakes, and take good advice in real-time. All of this goes against the entrepreneur’s very strong conviction that what he or she is doing is truly unique. So as an entrepreneur, you are either doomed to live and die by your vision, or to force yourself to modify it based on a feedback loop. Pattern recognition is the key ingredient. Catching mistakes before they compound into failure is critical. Here are a few mistake memes. If they are hitting too close to home, that should be enough to sound the klaxon.
You don’t get it
Famously authored by Steve Jobs, the notion of “getting it” is reserved for those with compatible vision. Surround yourself with only those who “get it” and you are destined to fail. The only people who need to “get it” are those who are buying your product. Lack of traction in sales is a good signal that you may be ahead of the market, or perhaps you have misjudged it entirely. Experienced contrarians on your team may be able to save you, but only if you are willing to listen.
Old rules don’t apply
This was perfected during the infamous dot-com meltdown. When challenged to explain how MyAwesomeIdea.com might make money some day, the answer was, “Make money? That’s in the old economy. Everything is different now.” In fact, everything did become different, except the idea of making money. It was how you made it that changed. Innovations do break rules, but the rules of business physics tend to stay intact. E-commerce was a major innovation, but it is still a low-margin high-volume business just like brick-and-mortar retail. If your business model includes the equivalent of an anti-gravity device, you are likely headed for hard times.
Denial runs deep in the human genome, so this instinct is very hard to fight. In entrepreneurs it is like a force field. There is a pervasive feeling that bad things only happen to other companies. But no one is immune. The denial bubble generally gets busted the first time you have to do layoffs. This difficult task is a sign that you were in denial to many signs that things were not on track. Even in the face of directives from the board, first-timers will delay tough decisions in the hope that somehow their special shields will ward off evil. Those delays can lead to the beginning of the end.
No matter what your age, there is someone with more experience who has already blazed through failure. You need to find your Yoda, someone who you will trust to provide tough love to keep you from driving off a cliff. Then you will have to make yourself listen no matter how counterintuitive it feels.
Company failure rates have remained torturously high, yet most failures are caused by the same kinds of mistakes. Airline pilots are required to have recurring simulator training where they will face the very situations that others have failed at. They are forced to listen. Take a page from their book, and you will stay clear of the Moron Hall of Fame.
If you have fewer than 50 employees, you don't have to. If you have more, it could make sense to send employees to an exchange
This is part of an eight part series of how to cope with the implementation of Obamacare. Check back tomorrow for part four.
Once you’re fairly confident which boat you are in--small or large employer--you can start making some decisions. First and foremost: Will you offer employee coverage?
If you’re a small employer, you don’t have to; the law doesn’t require it. And now that public health exchanges make guaranteed, “affordable” coverage available to individuals and families, employees of small companies are not as dependent on work-based health plans as they have been in the past. “You have to ask whether employer-sponsored coverage is an important part of employee retention and attraction,” says Michael Bodack, a broker with York International in Harrison, New York. “For some small companies, there’s no downside to dropping coverage, paying people a couple of extra bucks, and sending them to the exchange.”
If you’re a large employer thinking of adding or expanding coverage in 2014, you might want to wait. A 2013 study by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine found that roughly 37 million people now getting employer-sponsored insurance would be financially better off getting coverage through public exchanges.
Largely this is because they could qualify for credits and subsidies available to individuals and families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Although the ACA limits how much you can ask workers to pay for self-only coverage, there is no requirement that you subsidize their family members as generously. As a result, the cost for family coverage through an employer could be double or triple what it would be through an exchange.
In 2013, covered workers contributed an average 29 percent of the premium for family coverage, or $4,565, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Say one of your workers makes $35,000 a year and has a nonworking spouse and two kids.
Average-priced employer coverage for the family would cost about 12 percent of household income. If this same family went to a public exchange, it would qualify for subsidies on the basis of household, not individual, income. As a result, the employee could buy a silver-level family plan for just $1,373 per year, or about 3.9 percent of household income after subsidies.
The catch: Neither employees nor their family members can claim exchange subsidies if self-only affordable coverage is available through their work. The only way to make sure they can get the subsidies is to not offer that coverage. That will open you up to a $2,000 per-person annual penalty, after your first 30 workers, in 2015. (Unless you try a skinny plan approach; see No. 6.) But, Blumling says, “it could make more sense to pay the penalty for your employees’ benefit.”
The incentives that motivate best are noncash, tangible, and specific.
Believe it or not, numerous studies attempt to answer the question of which is the more motivational carrot: straight cash or a tangible reward. Professors Scott A. Jeffrey and Gordon K. Adomdza studied 441 call center employees at a financial services company and found that "people think more frequently about noncash tangible incentives (merchandise and travel) than cash incentives and that as the frequency of thought increases, performance increases," they write in Human Performance. "This leads to a larger performance boost for tangible incentives compared to a cash incentive of equal purchasing power."
Other studies emphasize the importance of specifying the noncash reward. In the Journal of Economic Psychology, psychology professors Victoria A. Shaffer and Hal R. Arkes found that "when given a hypothetical choice between cash and noncash incentives, participants chose the cash incentive." But as soon as the topic was no longer hypothetical--and a specific noncash reward was on the table--participants worked harder for the reward.
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company put this concept to the test as far back as 1994. "Their plan was simple and elegant," explains Duke professor Dan Ariely, who specializes in behavioral economics. "First they ranked their 60 retail districts according to previous sales, then divided them into two groups of equal performance and assigned one group to receive monetary incentives [for selling a new line of tires] and the other to receive tangible incentives of equal value to the first group... It turned out that the tangible-reward group increased sales by 46 percent more than the monetary-reward group.
"One explanation," Ariely continues, ". . . is that we can visualize tangible rewards (imagine yourself on a Hawaiian beach), which creates an emotional response. Money, on the other hand, is not accompanied by images as often (aside from maybe Scrooge McDuck swimming in piles of it), and lacks the emotional pull that tangible rewards have, so [it's] less effective in motivating employees."
That's the wrong way to go about it, says Homebrew co-founder Hunter Walk. Instead, build a big business by focusing on these three things.
According to one estimate, there are only 39 tech start-ups in the U.S. valued at $1 billion or more. The reality is that your company will probably not join this Unicorn Club.
And that's OK--because setting out to build a billion-dollar company from the get-go is not the right way to achieve your dream, says Hunter Walk, co-founder of the venture capital firm Homebrew, on his blog. As an investor he doesn't ask founders, "Is this a billion-dollar company?" Instead, he looks at the size of the problem they're aiming to solve, the company's "why" statement, and its revenue streams.
Here's more advice from Walk on the makings of a big business:
Solve a billion-dollar problem.
Your start-up's value isn't only tied to the size of the market you're targeting. Sometimes, the market doesn't even matter--especially if you are founding a disruptive start-up. "Billion-dollar start-ups don't always start out as billion-dollar markets," Walk writes. "Billion-dollar companies often create new markets by tapping into unmet demand. Billion-dollar companies can start out looking like toys." Your valuation will come from the size of your problem? How painful is the problem your start-up is set to solve? If it's big enough, you're looking at a big company.
Have a strong "why" statement.
Why are you and your founders dedicating so much time and effort to solve this problem? Walk says that you need to have clear and sincere motivations to help drive your company's success. "A big evergreen problem to solve and a superior team that wants to make sure they're the ones to solve it [is a] recipe for a billion-dollar company," he writes. Make sure your why statement is strong enough to carry you through the peaks and valleys of starting up--not just "near-term opportunism."
Create a recurring revenue stream.
How will your company return your investors' capital? If your start-up's revenue streams rely on billing customers for work done, you'll have a "much smaller multiple of revenue," he writes. A better option is a recurring revenue stream, such as a subscription model, that doesn't involve you having to hunt your clients down to collect.
Technology is utterly changing the way that companies spend money on marketing.
I recently posted the 15 Greatest Marketing Innovations of All Time, so this is probably a good time for me to write about where marketing is headed. The four trends below are based on an unpublished chapter of "The End of Sales as We Know It," which I coauthored with Howard Stevens.
1. Marketing will become more tactical. In the 20th century, marketing was often seen as a strategic investment, so important to corporate success that there was not much point in measuring it. With the exception of direct marketing (catalogs, mailers, etc.), it was difficult to measure many marketing activities anyway, so few companies tried.
Today, however, companies gather far more data than in the past and have become far more sophisticated about measuring just about everything. There are now very few marketing activities that aren't "sliced and diced" to see whether they're actually making money.
This is not to say that companies don't need a marketing strategy! However, now that activities under the marketing rubric are measured, the marketing group itself must become ever more tactical in order to make the metrics improve.
In other words, there will be a lot less of "the ads must be working because revenue went up" and a lot more of "27% of our website leads converted into paying customers."
2. Commoditization will drive marketing investment. There's a growing awareness that product categories go through four distinct stages, each requiring a different level of marketing investment:
As companies better understand this inexorable process of commoditization, they can allocate marketing budgets based upon the phase of the product category, rather than a preconceived notion of appropriate marketing investment.
In other words, there will be a lot less of "this product is our future, so let's spend marketing dollars on it" and a lot more of "it's time to shift responsibility for this product from Sales to Marketing."
3. Sales and marketing will stop squabbling. This trend emerges from the previous two, but to really understand it, some background is necessary.
Historically, Sales and Marketing have tended to play the blame game rather than work together. The common conflict usually sounds like this:
- Sales: "Marketing give us bad leads, so it's their fault we're not making our numbers."
- Marketing: "Sales doesn't follow up on the leads we give them, so it's their fault they're not making their numbers."
Or maybe like this:
- Sales: "We need better sales materials and sales tools."
- Marketing: "We spent big bucks on those last year and you didn't use them."
Better measurement of Marketing and a better understanding of product category phases tend to reduce opportunities for such disagreements to take place.
Better measurement helps Sales and Marketing define what constitutes a valid sales opportunity, based upon profiles that both Marketing and Sales have agreed upon. Tracking how well those profiles result in sales leads that convert into paying customers reduces the controversy.
A better understanding of product category makes it easier to plan and execute a gradual handover of responsibility from when Sales plays the primary role (the entry phase) to when Marketing plays the primary role (the commodity phase.)
4. Marketing will be more reactive and less proactive. The three trends above have been gradually manifesting themselves for the past 20 years, fueled by the increased computerization of marketing and sales environments. This fourth trend, however, is something relatively new, having developed only the past decade or so.
Traditionally, marketing has been seen as a "proactive" activity where marketing activities "create" a brand and "create" demand. That's beginning to turn upside down now that customers play a far more visible and powerful role in brands are perceived.
Review sites that post buyer experiences, for example, now play a bigger a role in defining brand image than any individual marketing activity. Using social media, companies can enlist customers and prospects to help with everything from defining product requirements to designing advertising campaigns.
If you think about Mad Men and mass advertising as the apotheosis of the old style of marketing, branding was seen as resulting from a flash of brilliance from a marketing genius. Today, effective marketing is more likely to emerge from a reading of what people are tweeting.
This is a profound change that's only beginning to be manifested in how companies and executives decide where and when to invest in marketing .
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Six Inc. 500 alums reflect on the simple twists of fate and brilliant strokes of luck that saved their businesses.
For Thanksgiving, we asked a handful of start-up leaders (and Inc. 500 alums) to share the a-ha moments, twists of fate, or strokes of genius that saved their businesses. Here's what they said:
What she's thankful for: Room to grow
When Julie Bauer founded her ad agency in 2009, she worked out of her New York City apartment.
"We had no idea what we were doing," she says. She wasn't sure that her "little company" would survive.
One afternoon, a client asked where to take a call in private. Without thinking, Bauer gestured toward her bedroom. "A moment later, I looked at my partners and said, 'I think it's time we find some office space,'" she recalls. "As I was mentioning that, the client came out and said, 'Julie, I think we pay you guys a bit of money, and honestly, I think it's time you hire a couple of people and find yourself an office."
A light bulb a went off for Bauer. She realized her company was going to make it.
She's now on her second office space and Grok made the Inc. 500 this year. "When we moved into the second office space, we had 28 people working for us," she says. "I looked around and I thought, 'We really are real now.'"Max Haot | Livestream
What he's thankful for: Second beginnings
Max Haot's live video broadcast site, Livestream, didn't always go by that name. It was originally called Mogulus.
Haot liked the name, which was a play on the term media moguls. But most customers missed that reference. They found the name confusing.
"In the beginning, I would just ignore the feedback and think, 'Well, if Google can build a company like this with a silly name, why can't we?" he says.
But Haot eventually realized the name was hindering the company and told the board it was time to change Mogulus. Everybody agreed.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, a company isn't really its name. It's a product, a team, a service," says Haot. "But a name is a brand, it's the foundation of the company." Today, his company draws more than 30 million viewers a month.Lexy Funk | Brooklyn Industries
What she's thankful for: A flash of inspiration
In 1997, artists Lexy Funk and Vahap Avsar were walking around New York City when they stumbled on a piece of billboard material.
"We were trying to figure out if we should stretch it or make a painting," she says. Instead, they decided to make it into a messenger bag. They liked how it turned out, so they made more.
After producing 12 samples at her studio apartment in Manhattan, Funk brought the bags to a trade show. Soon the bags were selling in stores throughout New York City.
"That's what launched our career in bags and apparel," Funk says. She and Avsar rented a loft space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a big ground floor garage and started selling the bags there. "For three years, we were in that factory," she says. "We even lived there." Their company, Brooklyn Industries, now has more than $15 million in annual sales.Hoby Darling | Skullcandy
What he's thankful for: A close-knit team
When SkullCandy tapped Hoby Darling (then a general manager of Nike+ Digital Sport) to lead the headphone company, sales were down 30 percent.
"When I got in, it became pretty clear that we didn't have the culture we needed to have to optimize the company," he says. "We had marketing, creative, and international in California. We had our sales leaders on the East Coast. We were a disjointed organization."
Darling felt the only way to align the culture would be to get everyone under one roof at the company's headquarters in Park City, Utah.
Darling closed the California office and asked the remaining staff to relocate.
"It was a hard call," he says, but it was the right one. "Our Number 1 mission is culture is talent. We hire, fire, and promote by that vision."Phillippe von Borries| Refinery29
What he's thankful for: A benevolent angel
In 2005, Von Borries and Justin Stefano wanted to launch a site to promote cool brands and local shops, but had trouble getting funding. All they had was a few thousand dollars.
But they convinced designer Steven Alan, of the famed men's apparel line, to do a fashion photoshoot in Chinatown.
In between takes, "we pitched him on the idea of Refinery 29 and discovering and unearthing great finds," says von Borries. Then came the ask: Would he be their investor?
To everyone's surprise, Alan said yes. He agreed to invest $160,000.
"It was probably the most important meeting we ever had," says von Borries. "It was a tiny investment that we somehow made last for two years."Blake Irving | GoDaddy
What he's thankful for: A talented team--1,400 miles away
For Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy, hiring Arnold Blinn to be chief architect of the company was a no-brainer. For more than 17 years, Blinn had thrived at Microsoft Corporation. Irving, the president, calls Blinn "one of those successful types who didn't have to work."
Blinn agreed to relocate from Seattle to Scottsdale, Arizona, where GoDaddy is headquartered. But as soon as the news was announced, Irving's inbox was flooded with offers from people who wanted to work for him...up in Seattle.
"I got so many of those emails, I asked the CFO how much it would cost to move a few people," Irving recalls. "I said, 'I think we're better off opening an office in Washington.'"
Within a day, he made the decision. This month, GoDaddy opened a 10,000-square-foot office in Seattle.Jamie Moyle | RealtyTrac
What he's thankful for: The walls coming down
When Jamie Moyle joined RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosure properties, the lease was up in the office. RealtyTrac's employees had worked there for nearly 10 years.
"We needed a face lift, but the office spaces we were looking at were set up just like this one," he says.
He asked the landlord to knock down the walls and turn the office into a large open space.
"It was wonderful for communication," says Moyle, and "interacting with everyone has shown the real gems."
Moyle, who joined the company in 2012 when his site Homefacts was acquired, says he and his team weren't used the walls.
"We were just a few guys in a room. It didn't feel right to have a bunch of closed doors."
Expressions of gratitude at work boost morale and lower stress, so how's your business doing at encouraging a culture of gratitude? Take this quiz to find out.
This time of year many of us pause in our personal lives and give thanks, but when it comes to American business, giving thanks is pretty alien concept. A recent study found that only 10 percent of Americans thanked a colleague on any given day, and just 60 percent reported they never or extremely rarely express gratitude at work.
Sure, it’s Thanksgiving week, you might say, but is work really the place for showing gratitude?
Yes, say scientists, who have found that creating a culture of gratitude at your workplace pays dividends all year round. The same survey found 93 percent of workers believe grateful bosses are more likely to succeed. Hearing 'thank you' at work, an array of studies have concluded, boosts happiness, reduces stress and generally improves satisfaction. That can’t hurt your bottom line.
The trouble is building a culture of gratitude at work isn’t easy. Bosses often worry that expressions of thanks are less than genuine (i.e. butt kissing in disguise), while workers a little lower down the food chain have told researchers they worry giving thanks could make them seem weak or invite colleagues to take advantage of them.
So how can you as the boss untie this knot of skepticism and fear and begin to encourage your team to start thanking each other? A good place to start is with a self-diagnosis. Just how grateful or ungrateful is your company? If you’re willing to take a hard look at this issue, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies positive psychology, has the self-assessment for you.
The 25-question, multiple choice quiz produces a "gratitude score" for your business, giving you a baseline from which to improve and flagging up the kind of experiences and policies that encourage -- or discourage -- on the job thanksgiving. Expect questions that ask you to rate the truth of statements like:
My organization devotes time at meetings or provides other opportunities to enable us to explicitly thank other members for their work.
The people who get ahead in my organization are the people who claim all credit for themselves.
Take the complete quiz here. So what if your score leaves plenty to be improved upon? Greater Good has suggestions on how to cultivate a culture of gratitude, offering five tips in a separate article.
Were you happy with your gratitude score?
Employers should have the good sense to know when people need and deserve a break. Employees are human beings, not profit centers.
When the world's largest store declared that it will open on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in its history, business owners everywhere, but especially in the fashion industry took notice. Instead of shaking their heads in disgust, and coming out against it, most let the moment silently pass.
I cannot. I am as capitalist as they come, but I believe in sustained and responsible capitalism. Contrary to the beliefs of Wall Street moguls and other shortsighted stewards of large corporations everywhere, the true value of a company lies not in its quarterly earnings but in its work force. It is the work force that guarantees the long-term health of the company, and thus its longevity.
Employees do not cease to be human beings once hired. It's their individual humanity that makes them rich assets to our companies. It is their efforts, their ideas, their spirit, their ingenuity, and their commitment that make companies grow. This is true across every industry and at every level of the corporate ladder.
I'm far from alone in my views. A petition on the site Change.org to "save Thanksgiving" asking retailers and workers to keep store closed on the holiday has attracted more than 200,000 signatures.
I know that if I, as a business owner, want those contributions to not only continue, but to be top notch, I need to make sure the needs of my staff are met. That means having the good sense to know when people need and deserve a break. Despite the fact that my company is in the wholesale jewelry industry, I make a choice to not have my employees working over the Thanksgiving holiday.
My team works hard serving our customers with integrity, energy, and kindness throughout the year. We make sure to let our customers know far in advance that we will be closed for Thanksgiving (as well as the week between Christmas and New Year's), and we have never had a complaint from a customer for closing during this time. On the contrary, most of our customers tell our sales reps how happy they are to know that she will be able to enjoy time off with her family or doing something enjoyable.
When it comes right down to it, I probably lose a few sales during this time, because someone really needs to order,and goes elsewhere while we are closed. I understand that, and I am OK with it, because I know the small amount of money temporarily lost by being closed is nowhere near the loss of staff morale and loyalty that would be permanently destroyed if I decided to disregard my employees as human beings and see them instead as profit centers.
Even in a tough economy, I would never consider asking my employees to work during the holidays. I care about them as people beyond the walls of my office, and I respect their contributions to my company too much to ever do that. And the result is that over 50 percent of my employees have been with my nine year old company for more than half of its lifespan.
This means my customers benefit from the continuity and my company from the stability my staff provides. Nothing is more valuable to me, and I challenge any of those business owners who care only about short-term earnings to see where that kind of management gets them.
Serial entrepreneurs reveal what they wish they had known when they were first starting up their companies.
In the world of start-up literature, you'll often hear things like:
"Fail often and fail fast."
Or: "If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough."
Maybe true, but still. No one likes to fail--and it's never easy. Just ask the following entrepreneurs who learned the hard way. Their failures offer four concrete takeaways for any start-up founder.
1. It's easier to start a company than to end one.
Businesses are easy to start--that's why sites like MyCorporation exist. For Brad Barrett, the hard part was figuring out how to shut one down. About 10 years ago, he was running a company called Connect Center that provided workspace at hotels like the Hilton at the Dallas Fort Worth airport. He raised $400,000 in angel investments and all seemed to be going according to plan. Then his contact left the Hilton, the dotcom crisis killed investment opportunities, and the company started to sink. Because he still had investment money, he kept trying. "That kind of money makes you try other angles and do anything to keep going," he says. But in the end, persistence couldn't save the company--Barrett had to pull the plug. The failure didn't scare him away from entrepreneurship, however: He now runs a successful start-up that makes an infrared grilling plate.
2. It is possible to raise too much money.
Plenty of cash is always a welcome relief, right? Not for Michael "Luni" Libes. At one of his previous start-ups that shall not be named, he found that raising too much money at an early stage caused too many problems. "All funding buys you is time. But just as nine mothers can't make a baby in one month, no matter how hard you try, a bigger team can't get more product into market in less time," he says. Libes now sees funding as something appropriate for a company that has already found a market. Without funding, companies are forced to be agile and smart. With funding, they'll hire too fast and add layers of complexity that obfuscate the real market goals.
3. In the beginning, it's not possible to have too many status updates.
Everyone with a stake in a fledgling company likes to see that it's making progress. But often there's a temptation to report progress intermittently in a grand unveiling, especially as a way to impress investors. That's a major mistake, says Iqbal Ashraf, who ran a business networking company in the 90s called NetworkChord. He decided early on to meet with his teams and report on company progress only as needed rather than let everyone know what was going on each week or even daily. That meant employees started missing meetings, dropping workloads, and eventually creating a snowball effect of risk. "Daily reviews help not only to track progress but to surface potential future issues," he says. Eventually, he did start doing two progress meetings per week, but it was too late. Fortunately, he learned the lesson. He now runs a successful consulting company called Mentor's Guild.
4. Grow slowly so you can keep a handle on team dynamics.
Growth is always a win for business, unless it reveals a problem in the organization. Kratee E-commerce and Consulting is a media company that operated from 2009-2011. Company founder Ankur Agarwal proved he was a successful manager with a small team. When the company turned a profit, he decided to expand operations and hire more employees. Then, everything started spiraling out of control. "Micromanaging everything that my staff did was the culprit," he now says. "I left very little room for my team to do something on their own, fail, and learn from it. And thus I ended up doing a lot of work myself." With his new company, the product search site PriceBaba.com, he gives junior staffers much more leverage and ownership.
To outpace the herd, you have to know where you want to go. Otherwise, you'll be trampled.
In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, the most sought-after and desirable employees are the ones whose bags are always packed-;not because they are disloyal or disinterested but because they recognize that “up or out” is the way of the world today.
If you’re not ready, willing, and able to step forward and seize the next best opportunity, within or outside your company, then you’ll discover pretty quickly that the people making the decisions and the key personnel selections will look right past you when the best opportunities are on the table.
They need people who will jump at the chance to move across the country to take on new and uncertain challenges, without the slightest qualms. Most of all, they want people who understand that there are no guarantees of comfort, security or success these days, but there is a guarantee that anyone standing still (or “just” doing their job) will be blown away by people who are doing a whole lot more and who make their interest, aptitude, and attitude known.
The world today is divided into targets and gunslingers, hot shots and has-beens (regardless of your age). Everyone is in someone else’s sights and plenty of people are gunning for your position. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your boots by the side of your bed--just like firemen do.
It’s not so much that your current bosses take you for granted (although there are certainly elements of that) or are dissatisfied with your current performance. But if it’s not abundantly clear that you want it (whatever the “it” happens to be) a lot more than the next twelve guys, and that you’re prepared to make the commitment and the sacrifices necessary to see things through and get the new job done well, then it’s very easy today for the company to find someone else who’s a better bet.
So what can you do to boost your visibility and tilt the odds in your favor, without overstepping the bounds of propriety or pissing off your peers? Here are a few things you can do now to get ready to be great.
Sharpen Your Sights and Step Up Your Skills
It helps a whole lot to know specifically what you’re shooting for. Chasing too many rabbits usually results in you ending up empty-handed. Set a goal, make a plan, and go for it. And while you’re waiting for good things to happen, make sure you’re constantly honing and updating your skill set, adding new tools and technologies to your war chest, and learning all the while from anyone and everyone willing to share with you. Good listeners are in terribly short supply and you’d be amazed at how much valuable information people impart if they know you’re interested and that they’re appreciated. Soak it all up.
Streamline Your Story and Skinny Down Your Price Tag
It’s actually quite possible to be too much of a good thing in the job market and to be perceived as over-qualified for a position that you’d absolutely kill for. It’s nice to be subtle and to stay above the fray, but that’s not what people are looking for today. They want people who want it and want it bad and who aren’t afraid or ashamed to admit it. Those who never ask rarely, if ever, get what they want.
Don’t try to be so delicate or oblique that your message and your interest get lost in the process. You want to be sure that, when the time and circumstances are right, you’re in the game and on the short list and that you make your interest, appetite and aptitude for the new position known to all concerned. Don’t ever assume that anyone besides you knows what’s best or right for you--and shame on you if you don’t tell them.
Don’t price yourself out of a new opportunity before you even get a chance to have a conversation with the people doing the search. You never want to negotiate against yourself, but it’s very important to make sure that the folks around you (and above you) know that money isn’t the thing that matters the most to you.
Money is just the way that people without talent try to keep score. Doing important work, doing it exceptionally well, and getting the right, timely results is what ultimately counts and where the real satisfaction in your work will be found. Making a bump in your current compensation a prime consideration in your next career move is a major mistake. Prove yourself first; it always pays off in the long run.
Scrap Your Entourage and Bag Your Baggage
Package deals may work great for travel agents and casinos, but they don’t help in the hiring process. In fact, they’re a major hindrance. Worry about yourself first and foremost. Then, once you’ve made it over the hurdles and beyond the barricades, you can always reach back for your buddies.
Making a successful move might require you to lose many other impediments as well. As sad as it is to say, the more tightly bound you are to your community and outside activities, the less likely you are to make it onto many a short list. There’s nothing wrong with such ties (from a social and family standpoint they are probably a very good thing), but you should understand that there’s an embedded choice they represent that, unless you actively signal and communicate otherwise, could have serious career consequences. So be aware that family and community ties are just that--“ties” that can restrict and limit your chances to move onward and upward, whether anyone ever admits that to you or not.
If you're not winning, it has nothing to do with how many X or Y-chromosomes you possess. It has to do with the rules of engagement in the world of business.
Columbia Business School recently released a study that says women who do favors or offer help in the workplace find themselves less valued by those for whom they have done the good deed. So-called feminists everywhere are using this study as yet another battle cry to show why women are disadvantaged by gender in the workplace, which is really a neat little excuse to explain why people who happen to be women sometimes have trouble getting ahead.
As an entrepreneur who happens to be a woman, my reading of the study and the complaints it voices about women's workplace obstacles is of an entirely different nature. I read it as a study on what works in terms of making oneself valued and getting one's strengths noticed, which apply to male and female entrepreneurs alike.
The principle idea is this: If you always provide services for free, don't make the most of industry networking contacts, or always look for compromise in deal-making situations, you will miss valuable opportunities to grow your business, and ultimately, to be seen as a top choice and resource by potential business partners.
Rules for Engagement
This has nothing to do with how many X or Y-chromosomes you possess, it has to do with the rules of engagement in the world of business. The Columbia study, rather than being a call to cry victim, is actually a great roadmap for anyone interested in moving his or her company forward, regardless of gender. Here are the rules of the road.
1. Your time is precious, so don't give it away to just anyone. Business contacts ask for help for myriad reasons. Most of the time, it's a good idea to offer a taste of your insight or your company's services to the person asking. Doing so can broaden the network of people you know, create deep conversations where mutual sharing of insight occurs, and open doors to future collaboration.
However, there are times when the person asking for the insight is someone you should steer clear of, either because he does not value the time you invest in the exchange, or because you feel it is a one-sided encounter rather than a dialogue. There is nothing wrong with saying no. This kind of person will undoubtedly ask someone else to whom they will be ungrateful, as the Columbia study notes.
If on the other hand, he is asking because he genuinely respects your skills, is willing to share his own insights as part of the process, and intends to act as an advocate for your expertise in the marketplace, then full speed ahead. Successful leaders of both sexes carefully allocate their time and expertise where it will serve their careers and their companies best.
2. Take a hand in your destiny. As business owners we do not always have the right answers. When that happens, it is time to reach out to people in your network and seek advice. This can be hard because it might feel embarrassing or seem like it will come at a high price. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The entrepreneur who is willing to reach out even in a tough moment is one that has the strength to stick around. Your contacts will respect that, and they will be more than willing to share a few minutes of their time or a few kernels of wisdom with you. Most importantly, they will also see you as someone they can also come to when they are in need of a reciprocal bit of wisdom. This network building is an indispensable part of advancing your business, and it can only occur if you actively make it happen by reaching out and creating bridges-;and being able to do so has nothing to do with gender.
3. Limit your willingness to compromise. The Columbia study indicates that women are in effect "punished" for their volunteerism or willingness to accept a duty no one else wants with little in exchange. Likewise, entrepreneurs who constantly seek compromise when deal-making find themselves often taken advantage of.
How can you avoid being taken for an easy touch?
- When planning a deal, decide what you need to walk away from it with when all is said and done.
- Also, think about what you fear most losing in the deal. Decide how to mitigate that fear rather than allowing the other side to use it against you.
With these two sets of benchmarks firmly in place, you can construct a deal that keeps you on firm ground.
If you are being asked to compromise on any of your takeaways, be prepared to walk away from the deal. Potential partners and adversaries alike will respect your clear vision, and your deals as well as your partnerships will turn out stronger for it. Firmness is not a characteristic owned by one sex or the other. It is something every entrepreneur should exercise in the name of driving her business.
You can be your own best advocate or your own worst enemy in moving your business in the direction you want, no matter what stage your company is at.
Forget funding. The real challenge is finding an idea you can actually execute.
Anyone can come with an idea for a company. But not everyone can come up with one that’s both practical and worth quitting your job for.
Sources of start-up ideas can come from just about anywhere--a theme or problem from an entrepreneur’s daily life, an emerging trend, a gap in a specific market or a passion for helping others in an inventive way. It's not the source of the "aha" moment that seems to challenge entrepreneurs, though. The real struggle comes with the ability to find an idea that’s worth the toil of starting up.
That's why Daniel Gulati, a tech entrepreneur and author of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders spent a month investigating where successful entrepreneurs found their ideas. He surveyed 50 founders in three different stages of company development (pre-funding, growth and acquired/gone public.)
After thorough research and detailed follow-up interviews with 15 founders, he came up with a list of the top five sources of now-thriving start-up concepts:
1. I experienced a pain point in my life and wanted to solve it.
2. I met someone talented and we started a company together.
3. I have a special skill or passion, and I turned it into a business.
4. After working in an industry for a long time, I saw a customer need.
5. I researched many ideas and eventually narrowed it down to one.
The most popular source by far is the pain-point motivator, says Gulati.This makes sense since starting a company requires long hours and seemingly endless focus. Both are likely much easier when you feel a personal connection to the purpose behind the company. Gulati explained that the key to this factor is understanding how much your own problems are worth.
Neil Blumenthal offers a prime example. With his company, Warby Parker, he was able to solve a personal frustration--that is, spending too much on expensive glasses. He combined this concept with an initiateto help others in the process. (Warby Parker gives a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair bought.)
Rent The Runway also launched based on a personal dilemma: Attaining designer clothes on a consistentbasis is not affordableor practical for young women. The solution was simple. Give women an option to rent rather than buy.
While you can draw from any of the sources on the list for your start-up idea, drawing from a passion and personal frustration--that happens to respectively inspire or annoy others as well--might be a good place to start.
Sheryl Sandberg says managers need to talk more openly about pregnancy. I want to believe her. I really do.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is successful, outspoken, smart as a whip, and works like heck. And she really, really cares about women and leadership.
If those traits were more widely shared, maybe the advice she gave at a recent Salesforce.com event wouldn’t seem so strange. But we’re not there yet.
Onstage at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce event last week San Francisco, Sandberg spoke about pregnancy and the glass ceiling. She noted that as managers, we don’t ask women about their plans to have families. We don’t dare, for fear of being accused of discrimination.
But talking about pregnancy, Sandberg points out, isn’t illegal. It's illegal to quiz employees about their plans to have children, and it's illegal to discriminate based upon pregnancy. And as managers and as an economy, we lose out on the talents of many women when they take jobs below their skill level or potential because of the fear that, should they become pregnant, they won’t be able to succeed as professionals and as parents at the same time. We need to support these women, says Sandberg, and that starts with honest conversation.
Sandberg offers a script for forward-thinking managers to use with their female staff:
You may want to have kids one day. My door is open. Come talk to me anytime.
If you want to have children I'm not going to give the good [opportunities] to someone else because you're pregnant. And I'm going to help you take a leave and come back if that's what you want to do.
I love the idea behind this--that a manager wants to support a staffer no matter what turn her life takes, and that they’ll work together to make sure the employee doesn’t lose out if she becomes a mom.
But what employee in her right mind is going to have this conversation? She'd have to really trust her boss to make it work. Afterward, I can't help but think she'd wonder, every time she went to her boss's office, if her boss was scrutinizing her belly. And the employee would have to be comfortable talking about whether or not she wants to have children--a hugely personal, and often fraught, journey--with her boss.
It gets worse: What about the employee who tells her well-meaning boss that yes, she wants children, but then, for whatever reason, does not become a parent? Do most women want their bosses to know that much about their lives? Would most men?
That leads us to a rather elegant solution: If you're going to talk about families, and responsibility, and work-life balance, don’t just talk to women. Have this talk with everyone.
Let everyone be equally uncomfortable, let everyone worry about their privacy, and let everyone squirm in their seats as they wonder how much they want to divulge to their boss. Then we'll make some progress.
Everyone loves the story of the successful founder who messed-up along the way. But do we really tolerate employees who stumble? Not often--in real life anyway.
We all appreciate a good comeback story. A person tries their hand at something, fails (the more spectacular the collapse, the better), and then stages a successful second act. It's a classic. That's the heart and soul of all those tales of company-creation derring-do.
Over the years, the idea of failure has taken on special significance in the world of entrepreneurship, where it is treated as a badge of honor--as something indispensable. (See "Welcome to the Church of Fail") A few years ago, in fact, the notion of "fail fast" became quite popular among many entrepreneurship programs.
But, is our embrace of failure mostly rhetorical? Do we really mean it? Do we even practice failure management at our own companies?
Take a look around the "entrepreneurship industry" The programs, events, blogs, videos, for the most part, celebrate successful entrepreneurs. These are important, of course. As my colleague at the Kauffman Foundation, Paul Kedrosky, says the more we expose people to successful entrepreneurs, the more entrepreneurship we'll get.
So why is bringing failure into the equation so important? Well, in terms of actually learning, and of building companies, examples of success are of limited usefulness. This is because the exploits of many of the entrepreneurs are, as a baseball writer wrote recently, "unrepeatably good." (No one, after all, does Jeff Bezos better than Jeff Bezos.)
But actually managing and learning from failure is a lot harder than giving props to business legends who overcame hard times. The challenge of opening ourselves up to failure--personal, business, or otherwise--is sharpest in our daily organizational lives. And that's where we fall short. I'm sure we all call ourselves tolerant of failure and say that our culture is forgiving and supportive. Yet for any given idea or project that doesn't pan out it is often not treated very well in anyone's organization--if tolerated at all.
For one thing, nobody likes to admit they were wrong, or that they made a mistake. That's why the first impulse of most of us in the face of failure is to cast around for other people to blame or circumstances that we couldn't control. This is true even in the most collegial offices. This is true in any company whether it has 3 or 300 employees. We're only human after all--the stories we tell ourselves define us, and we all do everything we can to preserve that self-narrative. No one is exempt from this.
The way one manages failure will shape your company's culture on a daily basis, and subtly push people in a certain direction. It's often a case of focusing on an employee's strengths and avoiding their weaknesses. (And the same goes for you, too, by the way.) It's acknowledging that a failed project was an against-all-odds risk--but a risk worth taking.
In other words: Don't just read about failure and nod in agreement; don't just sit through seminars celebrating its merits. Actually try to make it work for you.
Former employees of the payment app start-up, which raised a historic $25 million pre-launch, claim the founder is a "shark" who treats staff poorly.
A few weeks ago, Business Insider named 19 people who have already left a tech startup called Clinkle.
Clinkle is a buzzy payment app that raised $25 million pre-launch. Earlier this year, it claimed to have gotten the largest seed round of financing that's ever been raised in Silicon Valley. The app's CEO, Lucas Duplan, is a first-time founder. The app still hasn't launched publicly.
Now, two people who say they are former employees have written a brutal post on Quora about what it's like to work for Clinkle. These people say they were glad to quit, and list 31 employees who have left the company. It's not clear if the authors are on the list or not. Not all of these people quit. Some may have been fired or were students who had to return to school.
The reason everyone is leaving, these two say, is simple: It's because of the startup's founder, Lucas Duplan. Duplan is no older than 22. When asked for comment, a Clinkle spokesperson replied: "We're not going to get into the habit of commenting on anonymous posts about the company."
"The man really has no right to be in the position he is in," the pair write on Quora. "He hurts his employees daily and shoves it under the rung [sic] as collateral damage. He only cares about one thing and that's making the company successful--ironically enough he never stopped to notice that as a tech company in today's tech industry, where it is nearly impossible to recruit great talent, his number one asset is his team, yet his way of showing appreciation if any at all, is by superficially throwing money at the problem."
Obviously, the post should be taken with a grain of salt. These are disgruntled ex-employees, and we haven't heard Duplan's side of the story. And being a CEO isn't about making friends; it's about making decisions that help the company, regardless of whether they are popular with staff.
In fact, the alleged ex-employees acknowledge that Duplan is "brilliant in his own right," as evidenced by the fact that he was able to accomplish what no one has done before and raise a $25 million pre-launch round.
But they say Duplan is a "shark" and that his employees are nothing more than "a pawn on his chess board."
This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
The improbable but beautifully executed pivot. The prescience about technological change. The insight about what users want and need. Aaron Levie, the 28-year-old CEO of the billion-dollar cloud-computing company Box, just keeps getting it right.
Aaron Levie is pacing onstage, a microphone in one hand and a coffee in the other. His Kramer-like hair bobs above his head. We’re in the lunchroom of Box's 97,000-square-foot Los Altos, California, headquarters, and a group of about 50 new Box employees, mostly in their 20s, sit on steel picnic tables facing Levie.
“There are phases in technology,” Levie announces, midway through a presentation that sounds more like a TED talk than a welcome speech. “Mainframe to PC, PC to cloud, to cloud and mobile. These things come around every 10 to 15 years, and we’re in one right now.”
He pivots and changes direction.
“And what that means,” Levie continues, “is that it’s a catalyst for IT buyers to implement the next generation of technologies that they’re going to run their businesses off of. This opportunity did not exist in ’03 or ’05 or ’07 or ’08 or ’09. It is happening right now.”
Levie leaves no room for doubt: The hard drive is finally dead. The PC is on life support. The office worker of today has gone rogue; most likely, you and your employees are accessing your files from iPhones or Android phones or maybe tablets. All the trends we’ve been hearing about for years -- the consumerization of IT, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), software as a service -- are now fully upon us. The research company Gartner predicts that by 2015, at least 60 percent of information workers will be accessing their content on mobile devices.
For IT departments, the convergence of these trends presents an extraordinary challenge: How do you manage so much information on so many different platforms?
“You have iPads, Android devices; you have iPhones; you have Macs,” Levie tells his new recruits. “It’s changing the IT landscape fundamentally. And we have to make sure that we’re growing as aggressively as possible, selling to all the CIOs as the solution to run their business on.”
Box has about 20 million users, spread out among 180,000 businesses, who use the platform to upload files, collaborate, and share content online. Box has customers at 97 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500.
“We have to build the best brand,” Levie says, “and we have to develop our site around the enterprise. If you don’t become the company that rallies developers in the ecosystem, you don’t get to have the network effects.”
His speech is winding down. He clicks to the last slide.
“What we’re relying on is that we can build enough traction, get enough of the industry, that we become the de facto platform in enterprise,” he says. “That gives us a launch-off point into a bunch of other services. It will be determined in the next year and a half to two years, because the market is adopting this right now.”
Levie asks for questions, and an awkward pause ensues. He stands there sipping his coffee, eyeing the room, when, finally, an employee raises a hand.
“Is it possible for a company to last forever?” the employee asks.
Levie laughs, a sort of nerdish chortle that echoes through the room.
“Well, um, ha ha, yeah,” Levie says. “I appreciate you think I know the answer to that. So that’s good. And…the answer is yes. It is possible. And we will be that company!”
The recruits laugh as Levie takes a moment to actually consider the question.
“I mean, it’s possible we won’t even have capitalism in 200 years. Maybe the Internet even won’t exist. The idea is that you’re always talking about disrupting, always talking about what’s next.”
Box, which Levie launched out of his dorm room at the University of Southern California in 2005, is a golden child among Silicon Valley tech companies. The company has more than doubled its revenue every year and is on pace to reach $100 million by the end of 2013. Box has more than 900 employees, spread out in offices in Los Altos, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Munich. Next year, Levie and his co-founder and chief financial officer (and boyhood friend), Dylan Smith, plan to take the company public.
Investors, who have poured $300 million into the start-up, are valuing the business at $1.2 billion -- a sign both of their belief in Box and their confidence that cloud computing has finally matured. In one recent survey of IT buyers, researchers noted a “whopping 65.6% of respondents indicated cloud as a top investment area for 2013.”
Even these numbers, however, don’t explain why Aaron Levie is Inc.’s Entrepreneur of the Year. That has more to do with his anticipation of change and his boldness in doing what looks crazy in the short term but in time looks revolutionary. Cloud storage is basically a commodity. Levie recognized this early on and changed Box’s orientation from consumers to enterprise customers, where his relentless focus on great design was particularly striking -- and thus he put some distance between Box and the pressures of the commodity marketplace. He moved quickly into mobile. He got out in front of fears about security. He was, and is, unencumbered by legacy ideas and models, and he keeps making good decisions.
Levie likes to say that fundamental shifts in technology come around only every 10 to 15 years, and much the same could be said about an entrepreneur like him. He possesses the sort of wisdom and focus you’d expect of an industry guru, but he acts with the 24/7 obsession of a scrappy start-up founder. Give him 10 minutes, and he will make you a believer. Scott Weiss, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, one of the venture firms that have invested in Box, describes Levie as a “glow-in-the-dark” entrepreneur. “He’s unmistakable,” Weiss says. “You talk with him for five minutes, and he says something funny and something smart and something insightful. He’s a larger-than-life character.”
He’s also only 28. Levie stands a little under 6 feet tall and has a slim, wiry frame. His hair sprouts in a graying forest above his forehead. His eyes, deep-set and bluish-gray, are each covered by a thin wisp of a brow. Like a lot of young tech entrepreneurs, he has a uniform; his is a slim-cut J. Crew suit, a pressed button-down shirt, and red sneakers.
Levie’s routine over the past several years has been stringent. He wakes at around 10. He showers quickly, and arrives at the office by 11 a.m. He downs two coffees, sometimes holding two cups at once. He rarely eats breakfast or, for that matter, lunch. He spends 90 percent of his daylight hours in meetings or interviews, to which he walks very quickly or even runs. He is almost never at his desk. At around 7:30 p.m., he takes a nap for about an hour, and when he wakes up, he gets really, really productive. Each night, he probably sends a couple of hundred emails, and by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., he’s finally done. Levie does not take weekends off, and, in the last handful of years, he has taken one vacation, a three-day trip to Mexico with his girlfriend.“Tip: Take the stodgiest, oldest, slowest moving industry you can find,” “And build amazing software for it.” Levie recently tweeted.
For all his decisiveness, he is a somewhat uneasy man -- self-deprecating, certainly less cocksure than your average 28-year-old centimillionaire -- and as he talks about Box’s competitors in a crowded market, I begin to understand why he drives himself so hard.
“My hair’s gotten grayer,” says Levie. “I was gray before Obama was.”
Box’s daily battles are with Accellion, Citrix, Huddle, Google, Hightail, IBM, and Oracle -- and the biggest of them, Microsoft. Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration tool is a behemoth that generates nearly $2 billion in revenue from 65,000 companies, which manage a total of 125 million SharePoint licenses.
SharePoint was built in 2001 and was originally focused on sharing files within a company’s intranet system. Microsoft has made efforts to keep the platform up to date, but there is a broad sense that it is falling behind. As a Forrester report put it recently, SharePoint is experiencing its “awkward teenage years.” The report went on to note that SharePoint’s “uninspired user experiences mean that business management isn’t satisfied.”
At Box, the user experience trumps all. Levie’s big insight, in 2010, was that successful enterprise platforms of the future would be driven by mobility and design -- the ethos that has propelled the consumerization of IT. Consumerization means people are rejecting clunky business-specific hardware even for work purposes; they insist on cool consumer devices.
This had been talked about for years, but it really hit an inflection point in 2011, when smartphone shipments outpaced PC shipments for the first time in history. Then, tablet sales began to explode. The research company IDC predicts that in 2013, for the first time, more tablets will be shipped than laptops. The effect of this proliferation of mobile hardware has been a shift in expectations around the software that runs on them.
“People aren’t going to put up with crappy software anymore,” says Ben Haines, the chief information officer of Box. “You have to have a fast, good user experience. And people expect to have their information everywhere. If you’re building an application that takes four weeks of training, you’re doing something wrong.”
If you’ve ever used an old-school collaboration tool like SharePoint, using Box is a pleasure by comparison. Let’s say you have a large document you’d like to share with colleagues. It could be a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, or even a large movie file. You log in to Box and quickly upload the file, tagging it with any relevant information. Other users within your Box network can then log in to their own accounts, download the file, or share it with others as they please. The Box platform also integrates with other enterprise software providers (including Salesforce, NetSuite, Zen-Desk, and others), which means you never really have to click off screen. The site is designed with light-blue accents and a news feed; until recently, it had a Like button--it’s a bit like using a work version of Facebook.
And, as with Facebook, many of Box’s early users were driven to the platform because their friends or colleagues were using it. It had a viral network effect because it was different, better. Using Box makes sending files easier and makes collaborating with co-workers faster. In some small way, it makes work more fun.
“Tip: Take the stodgiest, oldest, slowest moving industry you can find,” Levie recently tweeted. “And build amazing software for it.”
Over the past few years, employees disenchanted with SharePoint’s stodgy user interface or simply frustrated by the difficulty in sending large files over email began migrating to Box. It was easy enough to do: Box is free to the basic user. And as users signed up in droves, IT managers -- who wanted a better way to secure the sensitive company files being trafficked through Box -- began to take notice and started buying up Box “seats,” the industry term for subscriptions.
It was a Trojan horse strategy -- sneak inside the enterprise and then expand from within. Today, Box’s revenue growth comes through viral adoption within its enterprise customers -- at each renewal cycle, IT managers are adding more and more seats. For businesses, the service costs $15 per month per seat, while enterprise customers pay around $35 per seat.
This story represents a powerful lesson to entrepreneurs entering the enterprise software business: Build something employees aren’t told to use but something they want to use. Levie didn’t start off by selling to IT department buyers; he started off by creating a great, free product that would attract early adopters. Once these employees got hooked, they wanted more, and IT buyers were forced to purchase. Today, Box has a sales team of more than 300 people, responding to inbound sales calls from around the world.
On the second floor of Box headquarters, the company has set up what it calls the Genius Bar/IT Desk, an area in which about a dozen mobile devices, ranging from Android smartphones to Apple tablets, sit on wooden stands.
In 2010, when Apple unveiled the iPad, most of Box’s largest competitors seemed to treat the tablet as if it were a peripheral device that most people would just use in their personal lives--a consumer play. Some tech bloggers were enthusiastic, but the more mainstream audience seemed to fail to grasp the oncoming significance of tablets. Stephen Elop, then the president of Microsoft’s business division, said in an April 2010 interview that the company planned to take a “wait and see” strategy to launching any software for the iPad. Not surprisingly, IT departments, which tend to take their cues from Microsoft, followed suit.
“When the iPad first came out, the initial reaction of IT was like, ‘We don’t support that,’ ” says Josh Stein, a managing director at the VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. “But end users said, ‘Well, tough. We’re going to use these. I want to use my iPad for work, and I’m going to use it whether you let me or not.’ ”
Levie was way ahead of the curve. In January 2010, when Steve Jobs stood onstage and announced the iPad, Levie knew this tablet would change everything. (“I commit to spending 10% of my annual income on ipads,” he joked on Twitter.) In the winter of 2010, Levie called his developers into a conference room and ordered them to have a Box iPad app ready as soon as the tablet became available in stores.
“Aaron just walked into the board meeting and said, ‘We’re betting the company on this thing,’ ” Stein says. “And it was a great bet.”
On March 24, 2010 -- a week before the iPad was released and two months after he first ordered his developers to create the Box iPad app, Levie took to Twitter again.
“I’ve just seen the future... and there’s no longer any paper in it. #boxipadapp.”
Technically speaking, building a mobile platform on which to send company files isn’t all that challenging. The real difficulty is proving that the information will be secure. The idea of being able to share any file with anyone at any time is alluring, but it also introduces a massive security risk, especially for businesses dealing with sensitive customer information such as credit card numbers and health care records. Among IT professionals and their employers, there is tremendous unease. Levie saw that as an opportunity.
“The idea is, ‘How do we make Box become the enabler for them to be able to move to the cloud--the solution for their security in the cloud,’ ” Levie says. “So not that it’s a check box that allows them to adopt Box; it’s actually the reason they put documents in the cloud.”
The promise of superior security is why the start-up drchrono became a partner of Box. Drchrono provides a medical platform for doctors and patients. At a recent health-tech conference in Silicon Valley, drchrono’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Daniel Kivatinos, demonstrated how doctors use the drchrono iPad app to quickly pull up a patient’s medical history, along with any relevant images, such as sonograms or chest X-rays. The company isn’t pulling any of that data from its own servers--it uses Box as the back-end content-management system to secure its files.
Box is able to provide this service to companies like drchrono because, as of April 2013, Box was certified as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, compliant, the industry standard for protecting electronic health records. Getting HIPAA certification is the official way to assure patients a provider is taking all the right steps to protect their medical information online. But becoming HIPAA compliant is a notoriously lengthy and expensive process. (SharePoint is HIPAA compliant; some other Box competitors are not.) HIPAA compliance is proving valuable: In 2013, Box’s sales in the health care industry grew more than 81 percent."It’s a powerful lesson about the enterprise software business: build something employees aren’t told to use but something they want to use."
Today, about 30,000 third-party developers use Box’s application programming interface, or API, a set of functions that allows a third-party company to access Box’s internal data and to layer its information onto Box’s servers. Box is recording about 700 million API calls per month from third-party developers--a measure of how often users are pulling information from Box on an app.
Nonetheless, fears about data breaches are a drag on Box’s growth. Enterprise companies are not yet convinced that putting sensitive company documents into the cloud, let alone on the servers of an eight-year-old start-up, is worth the risk. Many of the companies that use Box -- especially Fortune 500 companies -- have not fully integrated their systems within Box’s servers. They use the platform to upload and share files, but that doesn’t mean their employees are allowed to post and share just any company documents.
“The market is not mature yet,” says the analyst and writer Krishnan Subramanian. Because of these fears, Subramanian believes Box’s $1.2 billion valuation might be a bit exaggerated. He puts it at closer to $1 billion. It’s not just Box or even cloud content-management services that face concerns about security, either. It’s the entire software-as-a-service industry.
Levie knows this, and when you spend enough time around him, you begin to notice something peculiar. Despite Box’s meteoric growth, and despite the company’s valuation, and despite the fact that Levie himself is worth north of $100 million, he genuinely seems to view himself as the underdog, and not merely in the marketplace. It’s more a cosmic, even philosophical view of himself.
One of Levie’s favorite writers, Malcolm Gladwell -- whom Levie recently brought in to speak at a customer conference -- once said that underdogs are “capable of things the rest of us can’t do [because] they look at things in different ways.” In his most recent book, David and Goliath, Gladwell asks, “And what does it take to be that person who doesn’t accept the conventional order of things as a given...?”
When Levie first announced that he was building an enterprise software company for the modern age, he was 23. He had no idea what the conventions of the game were. He had never used any of the software he hoped to disrupt. But to Gladwell’s point, not knowing the conventions--or simply refusing to acknowledge them--appears to have become Levie’s best asset. And the fact that he feels the odds are against him and against Box--that isn’t a reason to stop; it’s a reason to continue.
“We are the forefront of a really transformative industry,” Levie told his group of new recruits. “So make sure you’re working as hard as possible to make sure we win.”
“And that’s mostly,” he said, “my last word.”
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