Essential Reads for Engineers and their Peers

By Elliot Roth

This is a list compiled by the University Innovation Fellows of life-changing books. Each is a wonderful exposition into different facets of innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve been working my way through this list, and have learned amazing lessons that have changed my perception on innovation, creativity, leadership and my journey as a student entrepreneur.

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IMG_9177By Elliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at rothet@vcu.edu and follow him on twitter @rothet

What the movie “Jobs” tells you about being an entrepreneur

By Elliot Roth

I went to see “Jobs” the other day with some friends and was thoroughly entertained. Ashton Kutcher’s acting was spot-on, with an excellent appearance from Josh Gad as Woz, who acted as Jobs’ conscience for most of the movie. I’m not sure whether Woz agreed with the performance, but it definitely tugged at my heartstrings.

The film was very Hollywood, with plenty of inaccuracies , but still gave some important lessons about entrepreneurship and starting a company:

1. Find the oddballs with the crazy ideas

From the very beginning of the movie, you can tell that Steve Jobs was a bit different. He dropped acid, cheated on his girlfriend, went to India, and sat-in on college courses without paying. Not only was Jobs different, but he gravitated to others who were strange, others with obsessions. You could label them as “geeks” but it’s more about having a single-minded determination and focus.

For example, Woz was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a fringe group of electrical hobbyists that believed in the social power of computers to connect and enable humanity. Back then, that idea sounded crazy, but this fringe group had the skill and knowledge to make it possible.

If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, but have no marketable skills, go to your local DIY meeting or Makerspace. You can learn something new, and find co-founders who may want to partner with you to bring their idea to life. Also, these groups may contain some of your first customers.steve-jobs-in-his-own-words

2. Customer first

Apple had its first customer before it was even a company. Paul Terrell ran a small computer parts store in the Valley and agreed to retail the Apple I. Jobs and Woz were in way over their heads before they even started. They needed to ship 50 boards in two months. They didn’t have the parts, they didn’t have the labor, and the prototype still needed some work. It was do or die.

The story of Steve and Woz’s first customer illustrates that you can never be ready for starting a business; you must constantly adapt and hustle to get things done. Their first customer also taught them some essential lessons for the future.

3. Oversell and over deliver

In the movie, Jobs is approached by Paul Terrell who still wants to buy the Apple I after a fumbling presentation. Jobs immediately begins underselling by saying that there are others interested in the Apple I (in truth there were none), but he’d stop by the shop. He walks into the shop the next day and immediately begins bargaining with such confidence that Terrell is taken aback and agrees to a large sale.

This salesmanship is repeated again when Mike Markkula comes to invest. Steve is quick and never loses his cool in the face of defeat or success. He renegotiates the contract to better benefit Apple and shows that Markkula isn’t dealing with amateurs.

What “Jobs” doesn’t show is the amount of behind-the-scenes research that goes into those snappy sales. By knowing the industry, and finance, you can make investments and sales work to your benefit. Steve knew that he needed some money in advance in order to build the Apple I. He worked out the pricing beforehand and oversold the computer to make a profit.

The last thing any entrepreneur should do is give up equity in your company. Steve knew that at a $300,000 evaluation, $90,000 is less than 1/3 of the company. At a certain point, it was this lack of control that ended Steve’s position at Apple. This happens over and over again to founders so be ready for it. Be indispensable to your company.

Overselling is nothing without delivering. Jobs delivered 50 motherboards to Terrell who immediately critiqued how they weren’t packaged products. Jobs countered by saying that Terrell could move more inventory by selling to hobbyists because he had all the components in shop, therefore he could make money. Without that quick counter, Apple would have ended as soon as it started. They under-delivered to their first customer. Terrell had taught them a lesson: customers only care about the final product and how simple and accessible it is to use.

4. Hiring is your worst mistake

There were two hiring mistakes in the movie. The first came from Steve’s best friend, Daniel Kottke. When hiring, there are numerous things to consider. The first is if new hires can create value for the company, the second is if they mesh with the team, the third is if they can adapt and learn, and the fourth is if they share the same values as the company. The movie portrayed that Kottke was only friends with Jobs and lacked the skills to adapt as Apple grew. Although the movie took some liberties, the story is generally true.

The second hiring mistake was John Sculley, the former CEO of Pepsi-Cola and a proclaimed “marketing-genius.” Seeking to augment Apple’s marketing department, Jobs hired Sculley, who had great success with Pepsi’s brand in the late 70s. Sculley did not directly fire Jobs, but let the board axe him after the Lisa failed and the Mac did not produce the numbers they expected. Sculley was more focused on immediate gratification and revenue rather than long-term outcomes. When picking a CEO, you not only need someone who is a good executor, but someone who aligns with the core ideals of the company. Sculley bent to the will of the board instead of embracing the ideals of “thinking different.”

5. Relationships or business. Choose one.

A recent article caused an uproar among the entrepreneurial community. In it, the author states that entrepreneurs cannot have relationships. Steve Jobs is a perfect example of this. In the movie, he left his pregnant girlfriend and disregarded former friends, all in the pursuit of Apple. A start-up takes up your attention and, in order to be successful, you need perseverance in order to make your idea come to fruition. Relationships may pose as distractions when there are one-hundred-hour work weeks. That is why it is much easier to start a business when you are young. You have the energy and limited attachments; you can afford to be thrifty and frugal without others to count on you.

If you ever become a CEO, it will become even more difficult. Many founders are divorced because their startup is all-consuming. A relationship is a balancing act that is very difficult to keep steady during the tumultuous first months of a start-up. Also, if friends are working in your company, your relationship is fundamentally changed. It’s lonely at the top, and emotions cannot cloud decisions made for the good of the company.

6. Heart over talent

Emotions run high at many points in “Jobs.” The love that he poured into Apple is felt throughout the movie. Steve was the company, the company was Steve. Without that love of the values that Apple espoused, there would be no Mac, iPod, or iPhone.

There is a scene in the movie where Steve goes around recruiting for the Mac team. He seeks out not the technical best, but the ones who really care. The team goes on tours of art museums, nature walks, and works with determination and attention to detail because the product is an extension of themselves. The Mac team is an example of how a group can transcend the sum of its parts to become something truly incredible.

7. Every detail matters

Let me repeat that. Every. Detail. Matters. It is not the overall product that the customer remembers, but the little experiences that go with it. The Mac team had this incorporated in its DNA. Only take projects at which that you can excel. Always produce terrific work. This means that you should say no to 99% of the things that come to you. For that 1%, hit it out of the park by crafting delightful user experiences that change the way people interact with the world.

The first thing that Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple as CEO is to cut all the projects that weren’t innovating. They were the projects that were clones of what other companies were doing, projects that were focused on product, not user experience.

One of the first lessons to learn as an entrepreneur is to start a business because it is different. The second is to build experiences into your designs so customers always come back.

8. Go for needs not sales

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” ~S.J.

Steve led his company like Wayne Gretzky, always going to the open spot, where the next big play was going to be. The Mac was years ahead of its time. The iPod revolutionized the music industry. I’m not even going to talk about the repercussions of the iPhone.

Jobs excelled in his ability to find the need of the customer, the root of the problem, the “pain point.” He then created with simplicity in mind, taking from Braun designer Dieter Rams to make a blank canvas for customers to interact with and imbue personality into. Apple’s products are beautiful because that is what users needed even before they knew they needed it. This attention to need has enabled Apple to develop products that are years ahead of its time and to rightfully hold the spot as the number one computer company in the world.

9. Absolute focus and adaptability

It’s a long way to the top. The only way to get there is with unyielding drive. Steve was a very direct person. He got straight to the point and wasn’t afraid to cut through bullshit. As Woz said: “Steve doesn’t like foreplay.” Jobs had a single-minded determination to carry out a project. He’d forgo relationships, food, and sleep in order to finish. Entrepreneurs would do well to take from his example.

Steve also had a diverse skill-set. He understood many things at a moderate level, which allowed him to communicate clearly and effectively with all sorts of people and employees. At different points he was an engineer, artist, manager, salesman, and advertiser. As an entrepreneur you must be able to learn quickly and do what ever job is necessary. Steve Jobs threw his entire being into his work and it showed.

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We can all take value from the life that Steve Jobs lived. His legacy lives on in Apple and in the numerous products he produced while working there. The film ends on the cusp of his success with the iPod, and shows the culmination of all the lessons he learned during his lifetime. I would recommend any aspiring entrepreneur to see the movie to discover how Apple became synonymous with innovation.

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Elliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at rothet@vcu.edu and follow him on twitter @rothet.

Jargon: Ditch it

jargondefBy Elliot Roth

Jar-gon: (def.) Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

The vocabulary of a student leader should be streamlined so that she or he can convey ideas to all. In other words, don’t use jargon. The following six terms are confusing to everyone. Take my advice and try to use plain English instead. It will clarify your thoughts and quickly convey your message.

Pivoting
Pivoting is the act of changing strategy. It is also something you do in basketball, the point of rotation around a lever, and a late 90s rock band. When you discuss “pivoting” you are talking about changing business strategy and are normally opening up the floor to discussion. Instead of saying “let’s pivot” use an open-ended question like: “how might we change our business strategy?” This gets the point across to everyone in the room.

Innovation
This term has been used so many times I’m not sure what it means anymore. The dictionary calls it “the introduction of something new.” That means your peanut butter and pickle sandwich is an innovation. That means the moving slime mold you found on the bottom of your freezer is an innovation. Innovation has become meaningless in this day and age and is bandied around by colleges that want to seem hip with the times.

Entrepreneur
What a silly French word. Quite recently, I asked a roomful of students what this meant and the response ranged from “business owner” to “world-changer.” An entrepreneur is a person; everyone agreed on that, but what this person does can range from electronic circuitry maker to garlic bread baker. In reality, it is far simpler to just say what you do rather than classify yourself as an entrepreneur.

Pipeline
When did ideas become oil? Ideas are not something to be mined and converted in a linear process. Each idea is unique and should be handled in a different way. The phrase “innovation pipeline” causes confusion without additional explanation. Instead of using this outdated metaphor, use something that will keep your communication clean. A pipeline signifies a process for ideas to come to life. Clarify what is going on during that process so that outsiders can easily understand how your group makes ideas happen.

Information Silo
When I first heard this term, I had no clue to what it meant. To the uninformed, it sounded like VCU had just opened up a farm for books. An “information silo” is a difficult idea to communicate but essential to understand if student leaders are to change their universities. All it means is that a group doesn’t share. Using that kindergarten concept of sharing is a better way to motivate people to collaborate.

Culture
There is a popular movement in the business community to create the best possible company culture. Culture as a word doesn’t mean anything; it incorporates many individual characteristics. The reason that changing culture is so hard is that the word incorporates qualities ranging from staffing to whether or not there is a foot massager for each employee. Every management problem should be dealt with individually instead of trying to change an entire system at once.

In the words of another University Innovation Fellow, “Cut the bullshit.” Jargon only confuses the situation. If a phrase has to be explained each time it is said, it should not be said. Speak plainly and your words will have a much greater impact.

IMG_9177Elliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at rothet@vcu.edu and follow him on twitter @rothet.

Create Something Every Day: A Guide to Becoming a Producer

By Elliot Roth

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????CREATORS CREATE to

hone their CREATIVITY.

Engineers are artists. The best of them are making something everyday to exercise their creativity and problem-solving abilities. But, all too often intention is overshadowed by procrastination.

Everyone is guilty of procrastination. It’s easy to promise yourself that you’ll do something but it’s a different matter to actually do it; that’s why gym membership purchases increase after New Year’s. That’s why so many entrepreneurs are starters rather than finishers. However, there is a way to become a finisher, and it starts with a few key steps.

Put yourself on an information diet

It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday night as I sit down to write a paper at my computer. I jot down the first sentence, then check Facebook to see if my friend has responded to my most recent message. Three hours later, I’ve still got one sentence and I’m watching Harlem Shake videos.

When the entire world is at your fingertips, you can lose yourself for days in mindless junk. Distractions are endless, and while you gorge yourself on information, your bloated mind is drained of the motivation to create. Deadlines keep piling up, you’re always rushing everywhere, and you’re stressed and drained at the end of the day. That is the way your brain feels when you only consume information.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Turn off your phone. Turn off your internet. The best way to keep yourself honest is to have a way to keep track of the days you produce content. This could either be a distinct schedule, or a calendar that you cross off as you go. The trick is to be accountable to someone other than yourself. If you’re accountable to a calendar, a deadline, or a certain amount of time at a certain hour, you are more likely to succeed.

As an entrepreneur, you’ll see leaps forward if you pick a specific time each day to work on your project. Many articles state successful people take a couple hours in the morning to start their day with creating. The trick is to wake up and immediately begin so that you start your day out on a positive note by creating value.

Consuming without producing anything of value is a waste of resources. Consumption should have meaning. Each bit of information you take in should lead you to new ideas. New ideas stimulate a snowball effect, through which you gain greater insight and knowledge. Without the outlet of creation, the knowledge you gain stagnates and eventually evaporates. The best way to work out your mind is to make something.

Do something. Do anything. Just get started.

This mantra has been especially helpful to me in writing. The best advice I ever got about how to write was simply: “Write every day.”

While that may seem daunting at first, particularly if you don’t have a good idea, it is far better to do something than nothing at all. The minute pencil touches paper, thoughts become reality and you immediately discover ideas that you would never have realized without starting to create. The same holds true for any discipline. Write, draw, doodle, craft, play. These simple “paper prototypes” allow you to begin finding new knowledge.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t look perfect. Something is always better than nothing. Yoda and his crazy green Jedi knowledge are dead wrong. The truth is, most effort ends in failure. Despite this fact, amazing things happen when people try.

A problem that many wannabe entrepreneurs face is that they begin many projects, but don’t follow them through to completion. The reason they don’t succeed is because they aren’t consistent.

Consistently improve

When I was in 11th grade, my friend Dan got an award for attendance. It turns out that he had missed a single day of school in 11 years (he’d had the flu). He was top of the class and got in to a prestigious school with a full ride scholarship.

Dan illustrates the rewards of consistency. By going to school every day, Dan learned and practiced far more than his fellow classmates. Attending class became a habit, so much so that when senior year rolled around, he didn’t skip a single class.

Consistency favors sustainability over speed. If you’re going to dedicate yourself to becoming an entrepreneur, you must think on a larger timescale. Begin building positive habits early so that they become a part of you. The most important thing to remember is to strive to improve consistently. Bill Gates improved Microsoft consistently as a CEO.

A side benefit of consistency is that people will be more honest with you about your work. It’s far easier to tell someone that their baby is ugly if they are going to make another one tomorrow. Honest feedback leads to dramatic improvement and stronger relationships. It is much harder to be honest with yourself.

This past April, I tried to write a poem every day for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). Thirty poems in thirty days is a HUGE challenge. At first, I was very dedicated and stayed up late writing. But then I started to slack. After missing a day or two, I couldn’t keep up and quit halfway through the month.

There were a few key elements missing in how I went about this gargantuan task. Primarily, I failed to develop a routine. I was continually distracted by “more important” things, and cared more about the outcome than the process. I wasn’t able to delay gratification in order to create something of value.

Delay gratification

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In 1970, a Stanford experiment conducted by a psychologist Walter Mischel tested children on their ability to delay gratification. He placed a marshmallow in front of them and told them that they could eat it, but if they waited they could have a second one. The amazing results showed that the children who could delay gratification were much more successful later in life than their counterparts.

Long-term rewards are arguably better than short-term rewards. However, it is difficult to see the steps involved in getting to the end result. The best way to achieve is to be consistent in your work. Produce something simple and easy every day and you will get closer and closer to your goal.

Practice makes permanent

Producing content on a regular basis leads to many valuable things. At first everything you make seems terrible. Don’t despair. Over time, you’ll improve your skills as you learn through producing. You get comfortable with making new things. All this practice will enable you to hone your skills, so that when you have an epic idea, nothing can stop you.

The more you put out into the world, the more you receive. However, beware of sharing your small successes. Recent studies have shown that if you share what you are working on, you are less likely to follow through. So don’t share. Commit first and work out the early kinks, get into a habit, gain momentum, and then tell the world.

You will begin building a skill-set that can advance you personally, and produce ever-improving quality projects that will attract other creative people. Other self-made experts will come out of the woodwork and share ideas with you.

Don’t worry if the content you produce is not up to par yet. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to accomplish mastery of any subject. Most communities accept this fact, and welcome newcomers with open arms. The entrepreneurship community is like that; serial entrepreneurs mentor young entrepreneurs because they want to give back. The only way for young entrepreneurs to improve is to consistently practice. Originality comes from practice. Mastery comes from practice.

If you follow these steps, and produce consistently, nothing will be able to stop you. So go and start creating. The path to 10,000 hours of mastery begins with a single hour of creativity.

elliotrothElliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at rothet@vcu.edu and follow him on twitter @rothet.

Bottling the Bay Area and Stanford Magic

Student Ambassadors travel to Bay Area, attend Stanford E-Week

Nine top-performing Student Ambassadors had an immersive experience in Silicon Valley last week to bring back best practices to their campuses. Some may say, “What happens at Stanford can’t be replicated in our region!” Perhaps not in its entirety. But, we think by breaking down the constituent parts of the magic that is at Stanford and its surrounding area, Student Ambassadors learned valuable new tools that will enhance their own Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I) ecosystems.

Student Ambassadors reported that the trip was life-changing for them and as one student described, it was a “completely tremendous experience, exceeded literally every other leadership/entrepreneurship event I’ve ever had the chance to attend.” They learned about several key-ingredients in the secret sauce at Stanford, including the importance of optimizing SPACE for creative thinking, to “unencumber the mind from constraints”. They learned about being EMPATHETIC, which allows them to get at the root of the source of the problems for people instead of just treating symptoms of assumed problems. They were involved in 2-hour and 12-hour DESIGN CHALLENGES saying, “it was cool to work with a team of strangers to get something done.” They attended a lecture with Tom Byers that “broke down entrepreneurship” and spent some one-on-one time with Byers who inspired them to lead an E&I movement on their campuses.

Off-campus, they met examples of rising-star INTRAPRENEURS at Google and EBay/PayPal and saw first-hand how Google’s open workspaces, casual atmosphere, and amenities like free food and laundry service maintain happy/healthy/productive people who foster an their inherent culture of design thinking, creativity and innovation. Students returned to the d.lab to have a one-on-one with CEO Rick Klau of Google Ventures who imparted words of wisdom like “beware of small successes”, and kicked-off roundtables with 12 portfolio company CEOs. Student Ambassadors also attended lectures and signature classes like the Entrepreneurship Thought Leaders Series (top download from iTunes U) with the four founders of SkyBox Imaging, followed by a discussion of their backstories with the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Class, taught by Draper Fisher Jurvetson Partner Heidi Roizen.

All-in-all, the trip was amazing, exhausting and inspiring. Students Ambassadors are all digesting the experience and returning to their campuses having bottled a bit of the magic. Stay tuned for more as we develop step-by-step materials that teach Student Ambassador how to implement the implementable on their campuses. In the meantime, recruit a Student Ambassador to attend our Spring Training, which begins at the OPEN Conference on March 21st of this month (register here: Apply).

~ Humera Fasihuddin, Manager of Student Programming, T: @ihumera

UPDATE 3/26/13: View additional photos at the Epicenter Facebook Album.