Would you attend a conference featuring your network?

I've been using a thought experiment in the personal branding class I teach to entrepreneurial Fordham students that I think is worth sharing. I asked them to curate a conference--just as a mental exercise, not for real.

The conference format forces them to do a couple of things that haven't been easy to get them to think about and has a lot of potential lessons for how they think about networking and personal brand.

First, they have to narrow down a particular field. With respect to their careers, it's tough to get across why just deciding to be a marketing major isn't enough. They need to focus more, go deeper. Taken in the context of a conference, no one thought that a generic marketing conference seemed that interesting. We talked about focusing on horizontals and verticals--like financial education, technology's affect on art or mobile food. These intuitively sounded more interesting and I think it will help anchor students in their career goals--that specializing in a horizontal plus a vertical will help focus them.

Building out the panels is a focus on trends and news--but more importantly what's going on right now that people are talking about. If you can't, off the top of your head, come up with 5-10 panel topics for an area that you're interested in, than you're just not paying enough attention.

Speaker lists are a good way to figure out the quality of your network. How do you determine speaker quality? Do they have experience? Is it unique experience? Did they build Pinterest or comment about it from the sidelines. Being close to the source of trends and being unique seemed important. Building out a list of who in your field of interest would make for a great panelist is also a great target list for who you should build relationships with.

It also helped them think about what made *them* interesting. Are they prepped well for meetings. Do they have clear and concise answers? Perhaps there are some contrarian beliefs that they hold. Would they make a good panelist themselves?

It's been a fun and evolving exercise and I look forward to continuing to evolve it.

Reverse Engineering a Career

I run into a lot of people trying to switch careers and join a startup.  They're trying to get product positions and marketing jobs in particular, but they don't have any prior experience.  That leaves them in the infinite loop of not being able to get the job because you don't have experience, but not being able to get any experience, etc, etc. 

It's a solvable problem.  You can do nearly absolutely anything within one or two years time--as long as you put your mind to it and construct a plan.  I'll talk more about this at my upcoming General Assembly talk, but here's the outline.

One of the inspirations behind the company I started in the career development space was a conversation I had with a Fordham student.  He was interested in venture capital and was a year away from graduation.  I realized that a position at Union Square Ventures was going to be open in a year and that he had a terrific chance of getting it.  He seemed perplexed that they'd even consider hiring someone out of school.  What I told him was that no other people had a year head start.  It was unlikely that *anyone* was thinking out a year ahead that getting that particular job was their goal.  He could decide right then and there that he was going to get that job in one year--he just had to do all sorts of stuff to be the number one recruit--after figuring out what that was.  It was an exercise in reverse engineering.

This can apply to most jobs--save for things like coding and design that tend to be more hard skill based.  However, I'd make the case that if you really did dedicate yourself to something, you could make a lot of headway in two years time--especially if you had some natural inclination.  Me, I can't draw my way out of a stick hat, so I'd be a lost cause--but a creative person could do a lot with design classes in two years.

In any case, you're going to have to start out with a very detailed job spec.  You need to know exactly what someone in this role is doing now--and there's no better way to do that then to just ask.  If you want to be in venture capital, ask a bunch of junior VC types what they actually do all day, and ask a bunch of partners what they expect the junior VC types to do all day (I wonder if this would come anywhere close to matching up.)  Write down all the tasks done, skills used, etc. and see which ones overlap the most.  Those are the "requireds" and the rest are the "preferred".  See if you can group these attributes into types.  Some product managers might be more technical, working on feature requirements and interfacing with the engineering team, while others might be more like brand managers who are the GM of their brands.  Not every employee needs to be the same, but everyone needs to be awesome in some way--just figure out the various types of awesome that fit into that particular role.

Your job description now becomes your checklist.  When a product manager tells you that they monitor and track analytics using the following pieces of software, now you have to go out and learn how to do that.  That could mean taking classes that cover Google Analytics, asking different product people to sit down with you for 30 minutes to show you how they use the tool, or maybe even contacting someone at Google to invite them to run a class on Google Analytics best practices not just for you, but for others trying to do the same thing.  Service providers are generally apt to do this kind of thing--showing you how smart they are by teaching you tips and tricks for the stuff they use, knowing that a lot of people won't have the time to do this on their own, so you'll probably wind up paying them to do it.

There's also a ton of content out there.  Just start looking for blog posts on "10 SEO tips for startups" or "How to write a marketing survey".  The web is a big open textbook written by practitioners. 

Now you need some practice.  You've learned what exactly other people do, and how they do it.  Now you need to get out there and start offering it.  Unfortunately, you're still stuck with the experience issue.  Then again, how many lean startups are out there with lots of stuff to do without the time to do it.  If you were trying to teach yourself to become a UX expert, and you've interviewed a bunch of people about conducting user interviews and looked up every great blog post on the subject, is it really that hard to find a startup willing to let you do this with new and existing users?  Just ask around at the companies you like and ask them whether or not they've actually sat down and tried to work through real user interviews.  I'll bet you get a lot of "Yeah, we listen to our users" or "We showed it to some people before we launched and they liked it".  These are prime candidates, because they haven't really committed to doing this the right way--and I'm sure they'd let you conduct user sessions.

You'll also want to journal what you're learning.  Writing about the techniques you learned about, where you learned them, and even what set of skills you found that most professionals considered to be important accomplishes three things.

First, it acts as a mechanism for synthesizing what you've learned.  You'll never learn so much as when you have to teach someone else to do something--and blogging about something you just learned is a way to do that. 

Also, sharing the resources you found will also encourage others to add to the list.  When you post the most useful blog posts on sales that you found, people will undoubtedly leave others in the comments.  Sharing knowledge leverages the community by encouraging others to share back.

Lastly, it helps your brand as a continuous learner.  When you do apply for a job, being able to show someone what you've been doing over the last year to learn creates a very favorable image of you that will undoubtedly set you apart from others.  You set a goal, did the leg work, and executed well.  It will give someone the confidence that you can learn new things with the same zeal and that you'll work hard to achieve goals. 

When you offer your newly learned skills for free in a project (something you can do while you have another job) and you write about it, if you create a good public case study, undoubtedly others will want you to do the same for them.  If you spent a Saturday afternoon conducting user interviews and you learned a lot about how people do something on a particular site, leading to some really interesting insites, you're going to have your Saturdays booked for a while.  Eventually, you're going to be able to say, "Hey, I'm actually pretty swamped right now" and the response will be "We'll pay you!"  Bam.  Welcome to being a paid consultant for something you didn't even know how to do a year ago.

It's also important to take these projects and loop back with the professionals you've talked to.  Take the sales plan you wrote up for a startup back to the head of sales for a more mature company and get their feedback.  Iterate based on their feedback and your experience.  With each new project you do, you're going to get better and better at it if you incorporate your learnings into a good feedback loop that improves the way you execute. 

This doesn't necessarily have to take 1-2 years either.  I'm sure someone who tries this will wind up with a job after six months.  I just don't want to promise anything too soon, because becoming a top tier professional takes a lot of long term determination. 

Oh, and by the way, I've given this advice to tons of people over the years, and rarely does anyone ever take it--so if you do decide to do this, let me know, so can at least have more than one example that it works.

One thing that's important to note that to imply that anyone can do just about any other job with a year of work doesn't necessarily mean they'll become an expert.  In fact, I once wrote a post called "Respecting the Craft" about how too many people think they're a smidgen away from greatness in a lot of fields.  No, this post is meant to encourage people to put in the work that gets them in the door somewhere--to start out.  Reading a bunch of blog posts isn't a substitute for a career's worth of experience--but it will definitely, when put into practice, get people focusing more on your projects then how you look like all the other MBAs out there that they've met. 

Follow-up #fail

I take a lot of meetings to just try to be helpful, especially with people's careers.  Other times, I'll take a very early meeting with an entrepreneur throwing around a few ideas or someone who comes to me when things just aren't working.  I feel like I give pretty decent advice--and that's just purely based on the excitement of the person when they walk out of the meeting.

Yet, I probably never hear back from 85% of these people.  I have no idea whether or not they ever put any of these ideas into practice, whether they worked, or whether they failed miserably--which would be good data for me.

I noticed this yesterday when two entrepreneurs that I really like came in for the second time, about 3-4 weeks after our first meeting.  We had a good chat the first time, I made some intros and suggestions for them.  They followed up on all the intros and let me know that they did--which was great b/c I hate when intros disappear into the void (Hashable solves this when people click on the follow up note).  They also told me that some of the suggestions that I gave them didn't work at all--good to know.  It was a very productive meeting that helped me work on next steps with them.  

When someone doesn't follow up at all on advice--even to tell me that the advice turned out to be terrible and not work at all--it really makes me regret even spending any time at all with the person.  I assume they walked out the door, never took any of it, and just went on their merry way.  That would be a real waste of everyone's time.

Here's a suggested way to follow up:

1) If you requested the meeting with me, it's your job to provide the thank you e-mail--and that should include a summary.  "Hey Charlie, thanks for meeting.  Your suggestions to do x, y, and z were really appreciated and I'll definitely keep you posted on how stuff goes.  I may not be able to get to them until December, but when I start, I'll let you know."

2) If you execute or run into trouble with specific suggestions, follow up questions are always welcome.  Same goes when you accomplish a specific task that was a suggestion--a post mortem on its success or failure would be great.

That's all I'm asking for--just let me know if any of the time we spent together turned out to be useful, not just because we had a good chat, but that it was actually impactful in some way.

Retraining Wall Street: What you should really be turning bankers into… and how

When the city announced its 11-point plan to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in NYC, it was met with quite a bit of skepticism for the few in the startup community who bothered to notice it.  Most of the existing entrepreneurs who didn’t need a financial downtown as an excuse to start a new company didn’t take the two minutes to read the city’s press release because they were too busy working on their businesses.  Much of the plan centered around taking those that had been laid off from Wall St and helping them start their own businesses.

I think the reality is that the mindset, DNA, and maybe more importantly lifestyle of somebody who worked for a big bank and didn’t leave until they were forced to doesn’t exactly overlap with what is needed to start a company—and I’m not sure that a 6 week training program can change that. 

However, what I realized this morning is that there are extremely specific needs at many well funded startup companies that aren’t being met.  For example, I’ve talked to at least four startups in the past two weeks that needed someone to run their web marketing—but not write site copy or do branding work.  They needed some hardcore quants to test strategies for loyalty and affiliate programs, measure ROI on paid search, etc.  Frankly, fine tuning the web marketing strategy and lead conversion of an e-commerce company is not unlike managing a portfolio, trading or doing financial analysis.  It’s putting a person in front of a set of quantitative tools, analyzing large pools of data, goal seeking, and optimizing.  It’s the kind of thing that, if you were awesome at it, you could walk into any startup that sells anything, pitch your ability to add directly to the bottom line and pretty easily get hired to do it. 

What I’m saying is, there are lots of opportunities at the startups we already have, and skillsets that are scarce.  Instead of creating more startups, why don’t we make sure the talent pool is deep for the existing startups that already have some traction and funding.  Let’s create more product managers and web developers, not more entrepreneurs.  While the job market is difficult right now, there are a ton of opportunities in startups that aren’t getting filled because they can’t find a specific skillset.  If someone were to train themselves to be a web marketing analytics ninja, they’d get hired in a second.  How to you get that skillset to a former financial analyst?

I don’t know if programs like Jumpstart NYC are going down to this level of detailed skills training—and the reason I don’t know that is that their classes are closed.   You have to attend in person and there’s no materials or courseware on the web.  Why not just release all the materials in public and record the classes to put them up  online?

Contrast that with how it looks like we’ll run our little learning Python experiment.  We asked the community for feedback on what books do use, how to structure it, and even for people to join Julie Steele and I in our little quest to learn how to program.  We got lots of feedback and we’re going to do the whole thing in public.  We’ll probably just get a little group of 5-10 people together, but we’ll share everything we’re doing so that others can follow along with us or even find the materials in the future and maybe add to them.

Not only would that increase the number of people who could possibly learn—like those who couldn’t make it in person—but it will be available for others to not only find it later, but to add best practices and materials to it as well.  I don’t think a big top down program could be dynamic and flexible enough to teach people the specific, detailed skills that are immediately useful to startups.  Group learning and public materials could get all these Wall Street tech guys working on trading systems coding iPhone apps faster than a city program could.

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Who is teaching young entrepreneurs in NYC? Getting NYC educators interested in entrepreneurship together.

In any given week, I meet with two or three entrepreneurs who want to talk with me about their business--just to get some feedback.  They know that I used to be on the venture capital side and vet business plans and ideas on a regular business.  I'm happy to do it when I take some interest in the idea, mostly when I feel like I can add some value.  Plus, I feel like it's actually useful for my own business--to see what technologies and processes other people are using and to help generate new ideas.  I've been very fortunate to learn from folks like the guys at Union Square Ventures, to see successful companies get launched and grown, and to have the opportunity to run a business on my own, so I do feel like I have something to add.  That's why I'm teaching entrepreneurship at Fordham University.

However, I'd imagine finding me as an up and coming entrepreneur must feel a little bit like finding the A-Team--especially if you weren't in established innovation networks.  You can't even go see Mr. Lee at the Chinese laundry first.  (If you don't get it, you didn't grow up in the 80's.)  I don't put myself out there as an expert for hire or have a fancy nickname for myself like Dr. Startup.  In fact, a lot of really good people in NYC to talk to about your startup idea are totally under the radar--just helping give feedback to whoever just happens to stumble into their network.

On the other hand, a lot of the people most above the radar on this kind of thing aren't exactly people I'd recommend to go see.  I have to assume every city has this, but I like to call them the "Venture Vultures"--various startup strategy folks with murky resumes who will promise to connect you to capital, technology help, strategy help who simply don't have a lot of there there.  In the Web 2.0 boom, tons of people hung up shingles offering to up startup businesses, and I'm hoping the recession will weed out most of these folks, because I think a lot of them do more harm than good.  When entrepreneurs with real potential run into these pseudo-virtual incubator strategy consulting types and get bad advice or no real results, and that's who they see trumpeting themselves in the community, it gives the community a bad name. 

The reason why these folks can self-promote their way to noteriety, however, is because of an educational vacuum for new businesses in NYC.  If you had an idea for a new business, or you had already built a product, service, or technology and you needed business strategy help, where would you go?  What about if you were a student?

If we really wanted to improve NYC's ability to support innovation, more so than money or space, I think putting more effort into educating students about entrepreneurship would be worthwhile.  The bottleneck for creating new companies in NYC isn't desks or angel capital--we have plenty of both--it's the fact that there just aren't enough entrepreneurs with good ideas who know how to execute on a business.  We need more students learning the technologies that allow innovation and more students taught how to turn their passions into ideas--and then into businesses (or just find their passions in the first place).

EDIT: Let's be clear on what I'm saying.  I think NYC is a great place to start a business--I just think that not enough of the best local minds are in the mindset that such an endeavor is possible or worthwhile.  On top of that, those that really want to learn need more access to the experienced people who can teach them best practices.  I actually think the infrastructure for a startup here in NYC is pretty good--we're just not getting enough new entrepreneurs at the top of the funnel.  New York City schools don't exactly pump out lots of students with the business or tech wherewithal (or interest) in starting a new company (athough perhaps that might change now that they can't just assume they'll get hired by big banks anymore).  NYC students are taught how to work for big companies, not to start small ones. 

I'm specificially interested in programs for students.  It's an entirely different thing to take someone who has already established themselves in a career and help them with a new business idea.  They at least have networks.  They know people in their industry and they have a sense of how to create value. 

I want to meet whoever is working with local students.   In fact, Fordham has generously donated space for about 100 people during the day from 9-5 at their Lincoln Center Campus on Tuesday, April 28th to bring everyone educating local students interested in entrepreneurship together.  I'd like to hold a small conference to share ideas, solutions, best practices, and step one is figuring out who is out there.

If you are involved with a university incubator, tech transfer office, entrepreneurship program, degree, or certificate, or if you just teach students in programs and subjects likely to create innovators, please get in touch with me.

I've created a form to gather all the interested parties.  Even if you can't make it on that day, please let me know who you are and what you do.

You can find the form by clicking this link.

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