One of the greatest insights into the entrepreneur’s mindset happened to me early in my incubator manager days. I was doing lunch-and-learns for our clients, prospects, and anyone else who cared to attend. After a series of these hour-long seminars on things like business planning, marketing, and employment law I noticed that our attendance continued to dwindle weekly. Boring speakers? Boring topics? Most likely. But we adjusted by adding other value – free lunches, upgrades to the lunches and things like that. Attendance perked up initially but then again began to dwindle.
Internally generated content was supplemented with frequent and high profile outside guest speakers. We amped up our own content to give it a broader appeal. Similar results occurred: initial upticks in attendance followed by a dwindling in attendance. It was around this time I put together a really solid lunchtime seminar about managing cash flow. We marketed it more broadly than usual to prospects and community members and we pushed to get as many of our clients there as possible. The day came and the seminar went well but, yet again, to a sparse audience. Terribly frustrating it was!
The day after the cash flow seminar I was out roaming the hallways chatting with clients and incubator tenants when I heard my name called from a very familiar voice. Dmitry! My favorite Bulgarian physicist who had a startup that was commercializing a revolutionary medical imaging technology. In his deeply accented baritone, he asked if I had a few minutes to discuss an urgent and critical issue he was facing. Of course, I replied, that’s I’m here for. Let’s go into the conference room to use the whiteboard. He then told me of a cash problem he was facing – a relatively common problem for startups. He desperately needed some guidance figuring out the best way to quickly get it resolved. We charted it on the white board but before getting into solutions, I had to ask him this: “Dmitry, this is a relatively common problem and is exactly what I spent an hour on yesterday in the lunch-and-learn on cash flow. You weren’t there!”
Came the reply: “Of course not, I did not have this problem yesterday.”
Wow! Insight! These innovators and scientists that I had the honor of serving were so focused on what was in front of them, so busy with the business and technology at hand, that they didn’t have time to go to a seminar on a topic that wasn’t of immediate value or utility to them. A topic that was of no interest to them unless they just happened to be experiencing it right now.
It wasn’t that I shouldn’t be scheduling seminars of interesting topics. I should. But it was my expectations of the entrepreneurial-minded audience that needed to be changed. Issues arise for them on a need-to-solve basis. Solutions without a current problem (e.g., attending a seminar on an obscure topic) are perhaps nice to learn about, but not essential to their day-to-day activity. In Dmitry’s case, we got the problem solved relatively easily and in a timely manner for him and his company. The only difference was that the issue occurred a day after the well-intended but obscure seminar provided a solution. It was of no interest to him. And perhaps it shouldn’t have been – that was his call.
Keep the innovator at the center!