Posted on

Creating Value In a Meaningless Universe

Gold is an ancient symbol of value
Not all that glitters is gold. What is the secret of value?

In business, the concept of creating value or adding value to a product or service has become a go-to catchphrase. It’s simple enough, if you add value, then you make something more valuable. If it’s more valuable then its sale is inevitable. A product that has a greater perceived value and its price gives the advantage to the salesperson. A service that provides value for the customer seems like a no-brainer trade. It is simple enough, however, there are some complications to the simple formula. From at least an existentialist view of the universe, value is arbitrary, and from a market perspective, the buyer is always the arbiter. This means that apart from some cunning tricks of psychology, that the definition and appearance of value changes from product to product, service to service, and person to person.

As a purely capitalistic issue, that kind of variability does not scale well. For this reason, larger markets are made to work within broader value systems. For instance, every human being values, at least for themselves, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That means a product that either keeps you alive, keeps you free, or helps you pursue pleasure is an easier sell to a larger segment of people. This is especially true if the problem that it solves, the specific way in which it helps to protect or provide these values, is a problem that affects average, healthy people. While everyone is aging, for example, it is primarily a very specific age group that comes face-to-face with the threat to life and happiness that comes from aging. If the experience of a problem is differet across a population, the solution (and the product tied to that solution) may come in many forms.

So is there a universal method to assess and add value, or is it inextricably tied to the subjective experience? An answer to this question could be a potentially powerful tool for the business owner, salesperson, or marketer who can understand it. Not to mention the designers, product developers, and even consumers. An efficient and universally applicable formula for measuring and applying value would possibly mean the ability to set indisputable prices based on the value absolute that is provided from a product combined with the hard cost for creating it. First, it should be made clear that there is not necessarily an agreed-upon definition a value. Second, it should also be made clear that such a definition might not be useful or pragmatic for the sake of working with competitive markets. That all having been said, I would like to begin by presenting my idea of what value fundamentally is. This will require establishing a couple of concepts and jumping through a few hoops.

Are you trying to understand how to ethically and effectively add value to your product or service? Let’s get on a call together!

Do You Catch My Meaning, Here

If we lived in a meaningless universe, then this would be a very brief point to make. The problem, however, is that regardless of how well-developed existentialist or nihilist arguments are delivered, the universe has meaning, or at least has meaning in it. Human beings are in the universe, and human beings perceive meaning. The perception of meaning is enough for meaning to exist because meaning is a construct that doesn’t need further measurement, it just needs an activity to act on its behalf. Meaning is a result of equivalence and representation. For example, the word “banana” means “an oblong, curved, yellow fruit”. The word has meaning and exists to represent its object. In objective terms, the word banana is not equivalent to the physical fruit, but behaviorally, they do bear equivalence. The word acts as a stand-in reference to the fruit even when it isn’t there. If I said “look for the banana in the adjacent room,” I have referenced what you need to know to distinguish a banana in a room neither of us is in.

Almost every consumer product and service can be described in terms of meaning. Medicine can mean life or death to somebody, which is a pretty hefty meaning to carry. Figuring out what something means to somebody is a key way of learning the value it holds to them. The problem with stopping here is that as I’ve mentioned, one thing can represent or be equivalent to another. I did not, however, describe any top-level ideas or entities to which everything can ultimately point. This implies that meaning is still an arbitrary relationship. In order to create something fairly strong, we will need a top-level entity or series of entities that other concepts can inherit or derive subsequent referential meaning. At best we can say all meaning represents some experience and all experience represents some instance of reality, but without some way to usefully divide and measure reality, or some unit of reality, we reach a bit of a dead end.

Give Me Just One Reason

The word reason has a couple of meanings, both of which I will use in parallel here. For starters, reason is a way in which we are able to employ rational logic. Further, reason is also an explanation of purpose.

Rational Meaning

Rational logic is a system of managing values. For instance, mathematics tells us that 2 + 2 = 4. In other words, either side of the equal sign contains a statement of equal value. This works really well in the world of pure numbers but gets messier as we escape into the real world. It’s for this reason, actually, that money has come to exist in the first place. Bartering led to a variable ad hoc trading system in which certain people’s resources were inconsistently valued across the market. The items of trade were too real to hold a steady or universal value. Money created a way to capture their value. For example, if I collected berries for a living, the value of my berries was up to the whims of whomever I wanted to trade with. Not to mention, berries depreciate quickly because they will eventually spoil and rot. With a money-based system, I could convert my berries into their cash value, just like everyone else would do with their resources, and now we all have a single resource to trade that appreciates and depreciates at the same rate based on the same circumstances. Money, however, is also pretty arbitrary. The value is based solely on a manipulatable market, and that market based off of a combination of human behavior and natural influences. There is no conservation of value in this system, which suggest that the only is not absolute but that it also cannot be. Either that or the market as it currently stands is a highly inefficient engine.

Reason as a purpose is very similar to meaning with one major and important difference. Meaning places equivalence between two or more entities, whether those entities are words, products, or concepts. Purpose, however, implies a sense of utility. A meaningful universe represents something, while a purposeful universe has something that it needs to do. It has a point and is trying to get somewhere. As a value system, purpose is goal-oriented. Things are more or less valuable as they aid or distract from progress toward a single outcome. In post-modern culture, there is a zeitgeist of doubting any form of universal reason. It is unfashionable to describe things at large in a context of purpose but quite the opposite at the scale of the individual or an organization. I definitely do not have a strong argument that there is a purpose to the universe, so there may not be a great argument here for universal value. However, arguments that can be derived by advocates of Richard Dawkins can suggest a type of purpose to human life. Genes and cells as functional units exist with a utility; this utility is to propagate. While there is great success found from using sex and sexuality as a sales and marketing model, it is also clear that both are subject to sweeping cultural influence. While genetic propagation is fairly objective, the rituals, methods, and symbols of them are not. Again, another dead end.

Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It!

Now that we’ve described meaning, reason as rationality, and reason as purpose as being merely packages and envelopes for value let’s describe what value is. Value as a word simply describes the quality of an object, entity, or idea. The shine of gold is a quality of that metal. The fungibility of a dollar is a quality of that tender. The rarity of a gemstone is a quality of that mineral. These qualities are values because they can be encountered or measured. When we use that word in common speech, that is when we say that something is “quality” or is a “thing of quality”, we are describing the virtue of its combined or prominent qualities as being remarkably high or noble. They are virtues. For that matter, the word virtue, which simply means a quality that can be experienced (virtual) also has an intrinsic implication of being good for honorable. So while value, quality, and virtue all simply describe the properties of a thing or idea, positive or negative, they all seem to insinuate something positive. Why? Because value is generative.

If we were to take the above and start describing what value is, we might have to say that value is made of experience. That it is generated by existing consciously. That value is phenomenological and the value or quality of something is based on the gestalt of the experience of encountering it. This, however, still seems very human-centric. If we didn’t exist there may very well not be any value in the universe. If you wanted to get more universal, we have to take a step back from experience. It’s for that reason I say that value is a measurable packet of attention. After laughing at the fun wordplay opportunities like “paying attention,” and “raised interest” you might stop and say “hey, attention sounds even more human-centric than experience!” I’m going to play a little fast and loose with the definition of the word, but attention means “to regard something, to take notice of it, or regard it as important”. It comes from the Latin root -tendere which means “to stretch”. It’s the same root as words like intention and extend.

So I’m going to say that attention isn’t merely a conscious activity like experience is. Attention is a response that validates the existence of a secondary entity. If I throw a rock at a glass window, you better believe that window paid attention. By shattering it validated the stone flying through the air. “Valid” and “value” also come from the same root. If something is valid, it evaluates to true. If something is true, it is real. And by our first definition of meaning it, therefore, represents a part of objective reality. I even go as far as to say that attention is the gold standard of value. Now, if it’s the gold standard, then what is the currency? Well, the difference between monetary standard and currency is that the currency is the representation of the former. And it is completely fungible, that is its value is equivalent to all other forms of itself. One dollar has the same value as each other dollar. I think that effort is the representation of attention that acts as the spendable and tradeable universal currency for attention. If attention is finite and consistent in the universe as the total amount of validations capable within the universe, then effort is the sum total of all work that can be done in the universe to become validated. There are a lot of interesting questions here. Not least of which is, “does that mean that the more real something is that the more valuable it is?” or “does that mean that the greater impact something has is also the greater value?” The intuitive answer to these things is yes, but I think they deserve your own conversation. Let’s get back to our original topic.

How does this work?

If attention and effort act in the way that I have described above, then it stands to reason that to make a product or service more valuable you simply need to apply more attention and effort into it. Well, that seems to be a huge duh. It’s very intuitive, but just like gold and money, you have to decide where to spend attention and effort to get the best result. What is it called when you pay the right kind of attention and extend the right kind of effort? Pay them in a way that is generative, that creates something more? It’s called caring. The secret to value is to care. And it is just that simple.

“Are you telling me that you drug me through a year of freshman philosophy just to tell me that if I care about my product and customers, I give and I get more value?” Yes. Yes, that’s precisely what I did. I think it’s important to realize that it’s easy for us to have our attention and effort put into other places, but fundamentally if we are trying to create a world of ever-increasing value we need to make sure that we put in the right effort and attention. We need to make sure that we care. Care about our products, services, customers, the market itself, and the ecosystems that they all interact and. As I possibly demonstrated above it is a concern of universal scale. Care is an economic and sustainability matter and should be held in mind constantly and dearly.

Are you a business owner or entrepreneur planning or designing a new product or service? Consider putting care first. Are you a salesperson or marketer? Place care directly in front of your audience. Are you a buyer or consumer? Search for the products that not only you care for, but that care for you, that are strong with the aroma of care. It is the key to value, to ethical success, to conscious capitalism, and to sustainable economic development. We can all reap the benefits from a wealth of care, and it’s a paycheck that’s paid with each instance of effort, not the week after. We have to care more if we care even at all. I say this fervently and in earnest, not because I’m trying to drive a point, but rather it is because I truly care.

Let’s talk about how to use care to generate value in your product or service!

Posted on

The Mentor Mentality and Wilmington Entrepreneurship

The road less traveled may make all the difference to Robert Frost, but to seasoned business people, it might be crappy advice to blaze your own trail. On Tuesday, April 16th at Iron Clad Brewery, a crowd of entrepreneurs and business owners gathered around brews to hear 3 panelists discuss the mentor mentality. The event was run by the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and hosted as always by its founder Jim Roberts. Roberts presented speakers with experience in mentoring and in mentoring programs to share much-needed insights with the audience.

The speakers on Tuesday night came from different successful backgrounds in engaging in mentorship in their industries. Dominic Taverniti was a mentoring founder, then a member, of CharGrow in Asheville. Hailing from Chicago Kevin Carson comes with several exits under his belt and runs AI BRIDGE. Finally, the Director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), Diane Durance, introduced a new university mentor partner program. Each of the three provided a short presentation before a facilitated Q&A.

Jim Roberts, Kevin Carlson, Diane Durance, and Dominic Taverniti speak on a mentorship panel at Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington
Jim Roberts, Kevin Carlson, Diane Durance, and Dominic Taverniti

Wilmington’s entrepreneur ecosystem might struggle with being taken seriously in neighboring regions. In the last couple of years initiatives have been proposed to increase the number of startups generating revenue, startups with successful capital raises, and those with substantial exits. There has also been activity to expand the amount and variety of funding sources and of patents produced from the region. One other thing local leaders are trying to produce is mentorship opportunities. For that to be effective, however, they will need entrepreneurs that listen.

Diane Durance and Jim Roberts described an “ask-hole,” someone who asks for advice, doesn’t listen and wastes everyone’s time. Ask-holes in the ecosystem cause trouble, as they put a bad taste in mentors’ mouths and dissuade them from participating. This is a problem. As a precaution, the April 16th gathering was as much about training entrepreneurs what to expect from mentorship as much as it was about presenting new mentorship opportunities in the city.

What Is a Mentor?

In the context of the event, a mentor is an individual experienced in a specific aspect of business or entrepreneurship who volunteers their time to assist a less experienced entrepreneur through a confidential agreement. Generally speaking, a mentor will be an older individual that has seen a lot more of the ups and downs of scaling a business. He or she will have advice and direction that can be headlights on a dark road for a young startup.

Mentors are a sounding board for green entrepreneurs. The panel agreed that a good mentor listens more than speaks. As a mentor, Kevin Carlson wants to get into the entrepreneur’s head and understand their passion. This type of attention helps to align mentors with mentee goals. Dominic Taverniti recalled a situation in which he spotted a scaling opportunity for a mentee only to learn that it wasn’t the entrepreneur’s vision. These can be red-flags for poor fit or miscommunicated expectations.

The audience at NEW learns about local mentorship opportunities. Photo credit Jim Roberts.

What a mentor isn’t is a board member, an executive, or an employee. Further, a mentor isn’t there to tell the mentee entrepreneur what to do. They are there to provide insight and give options that the entrepreneur may consider and take. A mentor also is not a “Yes man” who simply agrees with everything they hear. A good mentor ought to provide a bit of “tough-love” since the market certainly won’t be any kinder.

How to Be a Good Mentee

To avoid earning the title of ask-hole, the mentee needs to be coachable. That is, they need to be willing to listen to advice and execute on it. If they disagree with a mentor’s suggestion, then they may respectfully prove them wrong by demonstrating it through data or execution. An entrepreneur should remember that their mentors are volunteers offering valuable time and pay respect to that by not giving too much pushback or being a pushover. Discourse and respect are key in the relationship. What this boils down to is that an entrepreneur mentee must be coachable. This involves being attentive and respectful, understanding the value of advice, and implementing the advice.

Coaching in Wilmington

Under Diane Durance, the UNCW CIE began mobilizing a coalition to bolster local entrepreneurs. This organization includes several businesses in the Wilmington area. At the event Durance announced a new program to connect mentors to entrepreneurs through the university. She designed a methodology for getting talent together with entrepreneurs in which a team of mentors work with a venture. It is a peer learning group that helps the mentee move forward.

Why group mentoring? One-on-one mentor matching is hard to facilitate, especially when you’re new in town like Michigan transplant Durance. Further, skilled mentors are had to find. Teamwork helps to culture both mentors and entrepreneurs alike. The program, which involves a once a month mentor meeting, allows entrepreneurs to come to mentors and present their business. After being vetted and approved, a mentoring team is assigned to the startup, which doesn’t need to be CIE tenant but needs an active membership if matched.

To learn more about mentoring opportunities in Wilmington, contact the UNCW CIE for group mentoring, or for step-by-step startup mentorship contact Bill Warner at Entredot.

Posted on


This particular video made me think a lot. I realize that I myself have had a huge problem with focus. My problem was a little bit different though, it wasn’t so much that I would begin too many projects. Rather instead of starting a lot of projects, I got involved in other people’s projects. I became the best support person and the greatest team player, however, I very rarely started my own thing.

Doing this meant something heavy, it meant that I was very involved in other people’s work however I never found myself in a situation where I can work on something that was close to my own heart. This is very similar to being a North American wage slave, except with the problem that the investment is much larger. Because of this, I was unable to extricate myself from the other projects that I did care about, but they just weren’t my soul search, my life’s purpose.

You can get both a large breadth of experience, and a great amount of confidence in your execution abilities by involving yourself in someone else’s endeavor. Both of these things are very good, very noble and probably make you a better person. I generally suggest taking a role in someone else’s work, at least for a time, for the following reasons:

  1. to build your authenticity both in the field and as a team player
  2. to increase the amount of accomplishment by society
  3. and to gain favor when you work on your own thing.

The caveat is this: knowing how long something is slated to go on before getting involved really helps to make sure that you can pull yourself out of something that is less important, at least to you, and free yourself so that you can involve yourself in your own work.

Greg McKeown, the writer of Essentialism, has said something in several lectures that always runs very strong with me when I hear it. That’s the greatest enemy to focus is Success. So be careful what you choose to succeed in because if its success outlives your desire to be involved with it, you find yourself tied, chained and wholly bound to it.

Posted on

3 Strategies for Early Startup Traction – NEW Event

Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington at Ironclad Brewery
Local Entrepreneurs Gather to Pick Up Clues

The monthly gathering of Networking for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) met the evening of April 12th at downtown Wilmington, NC’s Ironclad Brewery. Featuring business and entrepreneurship panels, this month presented David Gardner, founder of CoFounder’s Capital Fund and one of the most active angel investors in the region; and Justin Miller, the founder of Deja Mi and WedPics, one of the rising startups in Gardner’s portfolio.

From North Carolina’s Raleigh area, they visited Wilmington specifically to bring insights to the Port City based on their experiences from both the investor and entrepreneurial sides of the relationship, respectively. The forum style was panel moderated by Merrill Mason of Smith Anderson Law, a founding member of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED).

David and Justin gave the audience many tips and reminders that can make vital changes for entrepreneurs. There were three very important takeaways from this panel.

Get more than money from your investors

Much of the dialogue revolved around the investor and entrepreneur relationship stages of the mutual journey. This relationship, they explain, begins long before any commitments are put to paper.

“It’s very tempting to accept anyone that comes with the offer of money, especially in the earliest days of a startup trying to gain traction or even stay alive.” David confessed that in his first 25 years of being the one asking for money, he made some hasty decisions when accepting investors. In retrospect, he advises entrepreneurs to be as picky with their investors as investors will be with them. In short, whenever you give away equity, make sure you get more than money in return. An investor with a large network of potential customers or experience launching similar businesses is much more valuable than one that only brings a check.

Make influencers your customers

Inspired by the idea of recording the full experience from all aggregated photos and videos from a single concert event, Justin Miller left IBM’s creative department to launch Deja Mi. He was his own target audience and knew how to find the people he would market the app to, but the app failed to get serious traction. Responding quickly to keep his business alive, he explored all of the verticals he could best move his idea and progress toward and found that weddings came up every time.

Through WedPics – the name after Deja Mi pivoted – the entire wedding experience could be recorded through smartphones instead of through disposable cameras that wedding parties generally distribute during receptions. Since her wedding day is the one day a bride is guaranteed whatever she wants, that made her the key influencer for the sale. Once she is sold onto the app, by default so is the rest of the guest list.

Similarly when investing in Stealz, a university loyalty card app startup based in Raleigh, David Gardner did his due diligence to locate where his traction would be. Jeff Brock, an investor with experience in restaurant deals and an impressive rolodex of industry contacts, was brought on as an advisor.

Together they targeted location after location determining interest and cost of sales acquisitions. After determining that each sale came at a financial loss, they targeted local franchise restaurants. This move proved intelligent as success for their app propagated up the chains, eventually leading to their adoption at both Taco Bell and McDonald’s. This, only because they placed their app in the hands of those with leverage to pitch it to the right stakeholders.

Revisit your business plan often

Like many first time entrepreneurs, Justin Miller had no idea what he was doing when he started WedPics (neé Deja Mi) and had self proclaimed “delusions of grandeur” when pitching to investors. Reality contrasted starkly against idealized expectations of a flooding user base and $5 million in his first year. Gardner points out not to rely on fortune telling, but rather to use past performance as the most reliable indicator of future events.

Review your business plan monthly and measure predictions against actual performance numbers. This isn’t merely to give means to cry yourself to sleep. Rather, it allows insight to readjust actual performance. What’s most important about this point is the call to action, exercising it, and often.

Passion and problem solving are very often described as being key skills in entrepreneurship, but the above points cover two other important topics: performance and potency. They remind us to fully utilize our human capital, including our investors, to identify the most powerful sales audience and how to take the guesswork out of predictions. The next NEW event will be held again at Ironclad on May 19th with a new panel and more crucial information.

Posted on

Freelancing With a Stable Income

I freelanced making websites, e-commerce shops, and web applications for several years before incorporating and running a business. At first I didn’t know if I ever wanted to move on from freelancing. Running a business is hard enough without the pains of employment, offices, phone lines, articles of organization, and so on. Eventually I knew that it was less about the job I wanted and more about the life I wanted.

After much deliberation I decided to build a small business. But the plan was to keep it small. Really small. Not in breadth, reach or income, but in team size. A small, nimble organization keeps things fast paced, fun, and allows for the flexibility that comes with the freelance lifestyle. On the other hand, managing a team means leverage so that my time can be spent in my favorite activities, and others’ in theirs, and we all make fairly good change from it at the end from whereever we want.

Recently a local client of mine expressed similar concerns. Her primary concern was that, in a consultation, she expressed three concerns with making her freelance business generate a stable income and relevant presence: growth, hiring, and location. The following are some insights I would like to share based on that consultation.

Concerning Growth

Generally freelancers have a wide variety of services they provide. This is often because they want a wide net to catch the most fish, or because they haven’t settled into the service they want to focus on.

If your company has no standard rate, but that you have several services with different rates, I would recommend focusing on your support services in order to to gain the highest leverage. Once you’ve determined you can do this, raise your rates a touch. Even $5 or $10/hour can make a huge compound difference! Identify the service that is most requested versus the service you prefer to offer most. Focus on these two, and gear toward them so it’s easy to market to.

It may seem like shrinking, but that’s the magic in this illusion. Knowing exactly who to target means that prospecting and sales is now a science, rather than a guessing game. A series of niche testimonials makes a great case to close out any competition in the exact arena you are focusing on. This also makes it easier to turn down work. “Why would I want to do that?” I’m sure you ask. In short, when running a business, decision making is your primary activity. The ability to accept or shut down work in seconds rather than minute or hours of deliberation will not only provide peace of mind, it will free your time.

Concerning Hiring

There are two paths I’d recommend in hiring. The first has a high success rate but requires more cash flow; the second is harder but has less risk.

1) Find/train a contractor to do your simplest high quantity service. For this, you would have a freelancer/contractor whose job it is to take your work as soon as it arrives and prep all of the easy tasks. For instance, a support job might require initially installing firewall software or registering DNS filters. Their job would be to do this the moment work has been acquired, leaving more complicated or specific configurations to you.Your primary job would then to be to make sales until your hire is completely booked, after which you could break from sales to take all of his work over down the line, clear the pipes, then return to sales. The problem is that constantly running contractors require fast, consistent cash flow

2) Find/train a salesperson to sell your physical products on commission. This one would have a trained salesperson sell your Seagate hardware to clients. You would include a markup enough for you to gain profit and her to earn a commission. Her pay would be largely based on the volume she sells (since products are more leverageable than services) and can produce more revenue faster. This means you can focus on sales and work with the assurance that there will always be a consistent income. The problem is that it requires a skilled, knowledgeable sales person, which can be hard to find, and harder to negotiate a commission with.

In either case, don’t hire unless you’ve met these three criteria:

  • The job you’re offering is necessary to the company. This can’t be something you can go a week without tending to.
  • You have enough work in the pipeline the be suitably booked yourself.
  • You have enough saved to pay that person for one month if income died.

Also, prepare yourself to know where to find a new employee BEFORE you need them. This means that you should identify the site, agency, or audience you will farm in to get your next hire when work is light. When you’re slammed and need to release pressure on the valve is no time to need to break and build a Linked In or Craigslist strategy. This means you can go straight into prospecting immediately.

Concerning Office Space

Wilmington and RTP are rife with coworking spaces. UNCW’s CIE or the more expensive (and exclusive) TekMountain, along with AU and others in Raleigh offer affordable opportunities for space.

If you aren’t ready for that, try to make deals with existing agencies you fill a whitespace for. A whitespace is some service or expertise you offer that they don’t. This way, you can sit in their spare office space and invite clients there. In return, you are on call to help with their services for a highly reduced tenant fee. I’ve done this myself with local journalists and another digital agency.

On the whole, I wouldn’t concern myself with this at an early stage. Coffee shops, Skype, and tea house conference rooms are plenty and more affordable. When it’s time for you to expand, typically you will know. Focus on having a discretionary $20k available before worrying about renting space. The fees can become ridiculous on top of moving, security, storage, insurance, and networking.


The trick is to have preparation as you go into each new phase. Choose potential clients in your field, know where to find our hires, determine which office scenario you will want. Further, be consistent. Make sure you reply in timely ways and are available when you say you will be. This will keep loyal customers. By offering fewer services and to fewer industries you’ll be less likely to ever over promise.

Posted on

Expanding your Business Beyond the City Limits

It’s hard enough starting a new business. First off, there is the statistical fact that 90% of them are doomed to fail. Beyond that there’s the battle of bringing an idea to market, and identifying that market to begin with. Once you’ve celebrated the victory of your startup actually starting up, what comes next? It’s often said that a business that isn’t growing is dying, so many owners and founders will find themselves looking beyond the horizon into parts unknown. But what does it take to accomplish this? Where do you start to grow your business to extend past its birth town?

On January 27th Jim Roberts hosted another installment of NEW, Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington, an ongoing entrepreneurial event that works to strengthen business growth and leadership in the Port City. Held at Ironclad Brewery, this event ran with a theme of building your business beyond the city limits. The point of small business is seldom to stay small, at least for business flippers and serial entrepreneurs. The event featured three entrepreneur panelists: Joe Procopio, Mac Lackey, and Brandon Uttley, and was moderated by Ben Brown, reporter with the Raleigh News Observer. Each speaker brought their own perspective to the task of expanding your business beyond local.

Focus on Building Entrepreneurs, Not Startups

Joe Procopio has twenty entrepreneurial years and five exits under his belt. He was the Founder and CEO of Intrepid Media and ExitEvent and serves as the chief product officer of Automated Insights. Placing a stronger effort in building the local ecosystem to support your business, he believes, is an integral step to growing your business beyond that same ecosystem. Joe’s philosophy can be summed up in one phrase, “the rising tide lifts all boats.”

He states that a stronger entrepreneurial community is integral to creating more successful startups and points out a huge gap between the number of startups formed each year and the number of investable entrepreneurs that are available to nurture them. A support network that can identify leaders, along with an infrastructure capable of supporting the constant return to the well of knowledge required to educate throughout each stage of their ventures, is vital.

The framework to provide the events, resources, and education would be created by the community of business owners and entrepreneurs, Joe continues. The drive and direction needed to build and sustain it isn’t that which would come from government or other sources. Such a platform would be a sturdy one to train entrepreneurs in and build businesses upon, but would take time. Based on a premise by Brad Feld of the Foundry Group, Joe states that the Triangle is in year five of a twenty year cycle which Wilmington is just starting. This indicates that a mature version community described above is a task that reaches out into the horizon, which is something to consider while planning growth.

Speak Directly to Your Audience

Brandon Uttley comes from a background of public relations and web design, and now focuses his attention on the phenomenon of podcasting. His book Pod Castaway was recently released on December 31 and outlines the difficulties of entrepreneurship and getting heard by your audience. He stated that terrestrial radio stations are aware of the threat podcasting presents to them. “From what I know, iHeartRadio has considered doing a local business-oriented podcast in Charlotte, but it has not come to fruition.” It provides an opportunity to present quality, on-demand content to your target market.

Podcasting, according to Uttley, is nearly a blue ocean. With between 250–300 thousand active podcasts vs. nearly a million active blogs and bloggers, the competition gap is not negligible. If your niche, topic, or category is saturated, it may be necessary to do as you would with any product and differentiate by focusing on or stacking together topics. Even still, Brandon remarks that podcasting is hard, especially as a solo gig. You will have to hustle to produce content and keep your audience interested and satisfied with between daily or weekly updates. As Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is The Way, told Uttley the week their books were ranked together on the Kindle best seller list, “publishing is both a sprint and a marathon.”

Starting a podcast can also be a low cost and simple process. His general shopping list included a Mac or PC, a decent USB mic, free editing software like Audacity, an account with Libsyn for hosting your files, a WordPress blog to store the information, and a place to record audio, which could be the back of your car. Once you have the supplies, clearly define your audience using avatars or personas to outline the segment you are speaking to and hoping to reach with your message. He also recommends joining a mastermind group to help develop ideas and make discerning decisions.

Design, Distribution, and Direction

Mac Lackey offers the advice to use storytelling to control perception. Mac explains that while primarily focusing on tech companies, he once had the opportunity to be the founder of an aspirational brand, Mountain Khakis. This put him face to face with the story telling process, from how he presented himself as a component of a company that represented a city he didn’t live in, to promoting the lifestyle it represented itself. Story telling is in and of itself an art form, so Mac provides a framework for creating this perception using the Three Ds: Design, Distribution, Direction.

Design is where the story telling process begins. Through design the entrepreneur can shift the focus of the conversation away from the negatives and distractions, whether real or perceived. As an example, he discusses business cards. They are a generally inexpensive tool and are often at the top of the list of cut costs. Lackey suggests, however, using incremental investments in the card designs, such as a thicker stock and cleaner edges, to change the perception to a larger company at first impression. As an investor, Lackey filters through many investment presentations at his desk, many of which are black and white and dull. When he comes across a bound and color printed presentation, however, his attention is immediately excited and that becomes the first presentation he reaches for. Focusing on incremental, attention-focusing improvements to one’s brand can help manage the high cost of marketing and the problem of shouting into the wind.

No story, no matter how well designed, can reach the customer on its own. For this reason Lackey recommends partnering with a capable distribution channel who already has access to the market. With his soccer startup KYCK, he found the biggest players in the market and formed exclusivity agreements with them. This win-win relationship meant that KYCK did not need to incur costs of generating market penetration. There are manufacturer matching services that can assist with these.

Finally, to create a powerful story and to attract the key players into it – your team and your customers – you must inject a profound direction into your brand image. “People want to be a part of something going somewhere great.” Tell the story that supports this. “We will be the number one manufacturer in this sector,” or “we will eliminate this problem from our customers’ lives.”

In Summary

If building a community is a key step to building strong startups, there will be no difficulty for founders in Wilmington. Ironclad Brewery, which served as the event space for the panel, was filled wall to wall with men and women who raise their hand to the title of entrepreneur. Moderator Ben Brown, a seasoned reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, expressed that he was impressed both with the informative panel of “heavyweights” and with Wilmington’s growth.

“Wilmington has come a long way quickly with start ups and I can’t help but think that this event nudged things further. Can’t wait to hear the first new podcast that comes from it.”
-Ben Brown, Raleigh News & Observer

After the panel, Ben opened the floor to questions, to which the presenters provided valuable information for the entrepreneurs to put to action. Overall each speaker placed a particular emphasis on a different part of the startup journey, each being highly important to the growth of one’s business beyond local boundaries. Create a community strong enough to support and deserve hosting your ambition, talk directly to your market in a way that they will listen, and design your brand to portray an incrementally greater vision over time.

Originally posted –

Posted on

Plant Seeds

Plant seeds, all day, every day. Put something valuable into someone or something, nurture it, harvest it. Invest wisely! Don’t lay seeds on bare stone. Don’t neglect to water the sprouts. Plant seeds forever. Create a garden of life and you will know an existence in which man was never cast from Eden. Invest in your work. Invest in your friends. Invest in your family. Invest in yourself. Invest in yourself, damn it! Plant your value everywhere and even in your final days the reaper won’t be grim.

Posted on

Future Work —Will Automation Impact Employment?

Technology has always existed to make work easier, and to that end it has been incredibly successful. But what happens when work becomes so easy that the technology simply does it for us? It’s no secret that I have my own opinions about the prospect of artificial intelligence affecting our job market. That said, I do believe that the dialogue isn’t complete by any means. In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Palantir reminds us not to become spoiled by the idea that the future will happen, because, unless we actively design and implement that future, it won’t be the one that we get.

Here in my state of North Carolina, there is a continuous discussion about employment and economy. Further, the entrepreneurial fire has grown hotter and larger over the past several years, triggering a period of job creation, especially in the digital and biological tech industries. With companies such as IBM with their Watson learning machine and Automated Insights content-writing robot Wordsmith based in the state, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance in the conversation. Are these companies actually taking jobs from humans by automating skills we rely on? Will we adapt quickly enough to feed people into the new workforce? Is our education infrastructure prepared to instill the next generation of workforce skills?

The Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State is hosting the 31st Annual Emerging Issues Forum Februrary 8–9 2016. The event, named “FutureWork,” is themed around the above issues and will focus on helping communities and companies in North Carolina prepare for the impact of automation and intelligent machines. This is a perfect opportunity for leaders and workforce members to be involved in the greater discussion, present their concerns, and learn more about the systems already in place on both ends of journey. This forum will be the first in history to be televised live on UNC-TV, allowing even those that may not attend to take part.

The forum, a two day affair, will begin at the Raleigh Convention Center for Day One on the 8th, and will relocate and continue at the Hunt Library at NC State on the 9th, Day Two.

The first day will be geared toward exploring what North Carolina can do today to prepare by creating quality jobs for the upcoming future. This should be a perfect discussion for entrepreneurial leadership to take part in to inspire the creation of more leaders, and also to help direct their own actions towards innovating their own models to suit the changing market.

The second day of FutureWork will involve hackathon sessions designed to help identify and dig into the obstacles presented by technological automation and the predicted market changes, and then create actionable plans and frameworks to address them. These hackathon sessions will be industry specific, and topics will feature the key sectors of Banking & Finance, Education, Energy, Healthcare, and Government/Smart Communities. Speakers and appearances at FutureWork will include Governor Pat McCrory, Governor of North Carolina; Martin Ford, Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and Author of “Rise of the Robots”; Vivek Wadhwa, Nationally Syndicated Columnist; Dambisa Moyo, International Economist and Futurist; and Jaylen Bledsoe, Youth Entrepreneur and Tech Prodigy.

Digital automation, robot manufacturers, machine learning, and electronic decision-making may have all been fantasies just decades ago, but they are now realities and are very present in our industries today. Many of these technologies are being pioneered right here in North Carolina. I personally doubt that jobs will ever deplete; as long as we have problems, there will be work to do. It is still a question, however, if we are producing the workers and leadership capable of identifying and solving these problems quickly enough to create and fill those jobs in the upcoming environment. FutureWork is a discussion that has already begun and has to be formally addressed, not just by thought leaders and experts, but by everyone touched by the economy.

Again, the future will happen, with or without your permission, but only the future that we actively create today will manifest tomorrow. If we don’t replace fear with understanding and ideas with strategies, we will miss the chance to inject our vision into this upcoming paradigm shift and will have to adapt to the consequences rather than direct them. With that in mind, regardless of our employment scenario – now or in the future – we have at least one more job to do.