Reflections on Running the first-ever Midwest Startup Conference

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As you may or may not know, I've been spending the majority of my time over the past few months planning for something big. Plenty of people thought we'd never pull it off, but our small-but-mighty team of 3 at Launch League hosted the first-ever Midwest Startup Conference, Flight on Friday, December 2nd, 2016 at the John S Knight Center. If you'd like to learn more about what this event looked like, check out my blog in Launch League's Directors Notes below:

Read more about how my team at Launch League put Akron on the startup map with "Flight":

http://www.launchleague.org/directors-notes-on-a-successful-flight/

I quit my job 2 years ago and I don't regret it

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2 years ago today, I walked into my boss's office at NASA and told him I was quitting. I still remember that gloomy October day - I was absolutely terrified and absolutely excited at the exact same time. I loved the people I worked with, and when I spoke to my boss, I had to hold back the tears. After all, I was leaving a family, of sorts, and also leaving the opportunities and career path I would have had with them. But I knew I was doing the right thing. Day in and day out, my skills and talents collected cobwebs. I went through the motions to get that paycheck every week. I tried hard to convince myself that I was doing the right thing for so long. "They have great benefits", I would say, or "it's a really low-stress job and the people are great". Or even, "the job security is awesome". But I couldn't change how I felt - job security did not equal job satisfaction.  At the time, I had plenty of excuses for why I was leaving. I used my startup as an excuse, and as true as that was, it wasn't the real reason. I wanted to make a difference - I knew I wasn't cutout to be isolated in a lab somewhere running tests. As much as I respect the people that thrive on that type of work, I knew it wasn't me. I realized that even though I always had high marks on performance reviews, I got lazy...professionally. I wasn't involved in any groups outside of work because I didn't care. I was disengaged. I stopped trying to learn and challenge myself. This was a dangerous place to be, and I see now that I had to leave to discover my true potential So I quit. And I never looked back.

I was fortunate to have a strong network. It's no mystery, my network is the reason I've been able to survive on my own. I made a relatively easy transition into a another job with a small consulting firm. Even though I'm no longer with them, I'll be forever thankful, because that job is where I got to discover my strengths and where I fit in the workplace. I discovered I had the skills, talents, and passions to fit in the role of a relationship builder and advocate (the dirty word for that is sales). But I found that I could make sales my own. It's not a dirty word for me - I loved building relationships and trust with customers and the employees that I worked with. I had found my place in the world, and now that I knew that, I could move-on to another job where I could use those skills to support a field I was passionate about - startups.

So I quit again. I realized that you can only discover your true potential when you let go of the safety nets in your life.

I think our generation has trouble with patience. We feel uneasy in a place of uncertainty so we tend to jump from one job directly to another without thinking about it. I did the opposite, and I am so glad I did. I took months doing nothing but networking, exploring, and learning about the field I love (entrepreneruship). I scheduled hundreds of meetings, and met hundreds of new people. I was a sponge. I wanted to know everything I possibly could about the field I wanted to work in, and it paid off. I eventually found a way to use my skills and talents and also work in the field I am passionate about (supporting entrepreneurs).

But I never planned for it.

I am a big fan of knowing what you want in life and what you're good at, but I'm not a big fan of plans. I find plans restrictive. Had I attempted to plan my career, I would have missed out on just about everything I've done since I left my job.

I let go of my financial planning. I know that sounds like a horrible idea, but to clarify, I let go of my obsession for investing I had acquired while working a regular job. I learned that like most things, you have to invest in the present to get a payoff in the future. So I invested in my career and myself. I drained my savings and my Roth IRA to take the time off I needed to find my next role.  Since I let go of the safety net and discovered my own potential, I am confident I can manage my finances. But I don't have to make a career of it. I was investing in myself today so I can live 70+ fulfilling years rather than investing in myself in 70+years and not living the way I want until then. I don't regret it.

I let go of my obsession with my pay rate temporarily, understanding that the payment I'm getting from the job I do now is worth more than millions. Being truly satisfied with your work and getting the non-financial payouts from the people you help is priceless. I let go of the high-paying salary I had after I left NASA and took a massive pay cut. I could barely survive, but I learned from that. I learned what is really important to me. And I'm happier. I don't feel like I'm working for money, I'm working for a greater purpose. And I know it will pay off. I know if I needed to I could go get a job. And I know one day I'll climb back up that salary ladder. But for now, I don't regret it.

So, if I could summarize these past 2 years and give advice to those reading this, here is it:

1. Decide what you're good at. What are those talents and passions where when you're using them, you feel absolutely fantastic.

2. Decide what you're passionate about and what you want to work for. Is it a particular industry? A special cause? A unique people-group? Find a way to work in that field and use the skills from #1

3. If you're not in the job from #2 using skills from #1, leave your current job, take some time off, and invest in yourself. It will be worth it

You won't regret it. :)

 

5 Things I’ve Learned Since Leaving my Full Time Job to Run a Startup

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For a short period of time after you make the ridiculous decision to leave the safety of an aircraft to tumble into the sky, you feel as though you’re in free fall. No control, just falling. Then, just as the weight of that decision to jump hits you and you realize how crazy what you just did really is, you remember something: you have a parachute. You remember that you’re not alone, that you’re not the first, and probably won’t be the last person to do this crazy thing. You can do this. And all of a sudden, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. You pull the cord and you drift back down to safety, if not landing directly on your feet, at least something close. And now you’re hooked. This is what it has felt like to leave my full time job to start my own company. Today I’m here to talk to you about what “falling” feels like, and what I’ve learned so far on the way down.

  1. The Importance of your ‘Why’: The first, and arguably most important experience I went through after leaving the security of a full time job was the opportunity to clear the clutter in my head and focus on me. Sometimes when we work for other people, we don’t have time to stop and reflect on ourselves and remember why we do what we do day in and day out. We are unhappy and we don’t really know why. We blame our bosses, we blame our coworkers, we blame our workplace. But we don't stop to think about ourselves. After I left my full-time job, I took time and was able to identify my strengths, passions, and gifts – the things I loves doing. With these in mind, I set new boundaries for my next job so that whatever I did, I would make sure my role revolved around my gifts. Now, I can serve the organizations I support better, and find lots of happiness in the day-to-day “grind”. I highly recommend reading Simon Sinek “Start with Why” if you’re at this point in your career.
  1. Potential without a Paycheck: Maybe this sounds obvious, but having a traditional job is limiting. The scary part is that I didn’t realize how limiting it was until I left. The comfort of a regular paycheck sets your own glass ceiling. Knowing that you only have to do “X” things to get “Y” direct deposited into your account every week is stifling, even if you consider yourself an ambitious, hard working person as I did. Once I left, I had no regular paycheck. I get asked all the time if this is scary. The logical answer is, well, of course, I have to be careful and have a plans for that, but scary? Absolutely not. It’s challenging, yes, and challenges bring out the best in people. All of a sudden my personal value is not defined by the numbers on my paycheck. My self worth is a product of what I actually do, not what time I clocked in and out of a building. My motivation shifted, I had energy and drive to go after everything and anything. Once I released limitation from a regular paycheck, I was open to re-defined who I am, what I do, and even what I’m worth.
  1. You Aren’t Falling Alone, You Have Your Network: I know what you’re thinking. Courtney, this all sounds great, but living without a steady income is still really scary! Remember what I said about jumping out of a plane? You do have a parachute, and you’re not the first person to do this. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute isn’t just stupid, it’s suicide, wouldn’t you agree? On the same note, I wouldn’t have left my full time job without having a solid network of people to support me first and break the fall if I needed it. (if you’re here, I highly suggest You Network is Your Net Worth by Porter Gale). When I left my job, my initial response was not to go looking for part-time work. I went after my network. I had meetings set up nearly every single day. Sometimes 2-3 per day. I’d meet with one person I knew, told them my situation, and they would refer me to two or three new people to talk to. My network grew exponentially in a matter of a few short months, and that network is valuable. Not only could I lean on that network to get a regular job if I had to, but within that network I’ve connected to potential investors, mentors, partners, and customers for my startup. Even more fulfilling, I’ve been able to make valuable connections between members of my network, and help people I never would have been able to help before.

“It's not about knocking on doors till the "right" one opens: it's breaking them all down until you reach your goal.

  1. Creativity Unleashed: I left a full-time job to work for a pre-revenue startup that can’t afford to pay me. I had two choices: opt for a part-time job, or look for creative ways to make a living doing the things I love. Of course I chose the latter. Following my passions, I’ve started consulting and speaking for an income. When you have the guts to leave a job and go after creating your own income, you automatically have a story worth sharing. I’ve found a way to use the story of my startup to do things I love for an income while supporting that startup.
  1. Instant Qualification, Now You’re ‘For Real’: whether or not you’re successful with your startup, when investors, friend, family, customer, etc hear you’re doing this full time, you are instantaneously qualified. There’s no longer any questions of your devotion to your idea. People trust you, and they trust you’re a safe bet to be leading a startup. Investors invest in people, not products, so the fact that I can now say I’m full-time with my startup is having an incredible impact on our ability to attract investment.

Today, I wake every morning both absolutely excited and absolutely terrified at the exact same time.

I’m not writing this to say leaving your full time job is easy, but I am saying that it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I love what I do day in and day out, help more people than ever before, and am accelerating my startup in ways I never could have otherwise. My advice to you: grab your parachute and jump!

 

Entrepreneur is a Verb

The following post is actually the transcript from my Pechakucha talk from spring, 2016. It highlights my perspectives on common misconceptions of success in entrepreneurship and ties them together with my personal journey to become an entrepreneur. The talk concludes with how I believe we can intentionally educate students today to break stereotypes and encourage them to pursue career paths in entrepreneurship:

At its most fundamental level, the word “entrepreneur” is derived from a word that means to “undertake”. I find this interesting, especially because of the ongoing debate as to whether or not entrepreneurship is something that can be taught, or if it is a quality we are born with.

Since I consider myself to be an entrepreneur, this is a topic I’m very passionate about. So I decided to conduct an investigation...to see if I could uncover the answer to this question, because I believe we have an incredible opportunity to intentionally education the next generation of entrepreneurs if we understand this.

I began my investigation by looking at the great success stories in entrepreneurship: the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of society. And what I quickly realized is that as a society, we tend to fall into one of two schools of thought when it comes to observing success in entrepreneurship. The first is that we assume great success must be accompanied by extraordinary talent. As-if Steve Jobs carried with him a shield of risk tolerance and wielded a sword of creativity and innovation. And in doing so, we are separating ourselves from these people, making what they do seem un-obtainable to the average person. The second school of thought is the ever-popular “quick-fix solution”: the idea that perhaps successful entrepreneurs get there by taking the secret “entrepreneur pill”, reading the best “10 steps to success in business book” or attending the best business school.

But we know better than this. We know that success in entrepreneurship is defined by a word called GRIT – a word that represents sustained effort over a period of time. The idea that success is the result of a marathon more so than a sprint. So the question becomes – how do we teach grit?

At this point, I decided to reflect on my personal journey to entrepreneurship to see what I could uncover there. Where you need to know about me is that I was born as an only child in a relatively average family. Neither of my parents had college degrees, and neither of them owned their own business, so you couldn’t say I was influenced by being brought-up in an entrepreneurial environment. I also wasn’t a straight-A student, but arguably, I was at the top of my class….since I was homeschooled.

When I took a moment to reflect on my homeschooled years, I realized something profound: that being homeschooled was just about the closest thing to being brought-up in a startup company I could think of. Allow me to explain: my day-to-day life was vastly different from the norm. It didn’t matter how or when I got my schoolwork done, only that it was done. It didn’t matter if this was in the kitchen, in the backyard, in a park, on a plane, on a train, or in the backseat of a car driving to one of 30 or 50 different field trips and group activities. I realized that I experienced my education rather than having been subjected to an educational system. And this had a profound effect on the way I perceived education for the rest of my career.

When I decided to attend the University of Akron to study Electrical Engineering, I went into shock when I was confronted with the 4 walls of a classroom. So I sought to create my own unique learning experiences through robotics and research projects. One of these projects eventually lead me to start a company as an undergraduate student…simply because nobody every told me I couldn't do that without being a business student.

When I graduated I tried my best to the “right thing” and get a “normal” job. I arguably had one of the coolest jobs a new grad could have asked for, working at NASA as a power systems engineer. But day in and day out, I hated my job. I realized that at this point, I was unemployable – not because I was a bad employee, but because I had been trained to be an entrepreneur.

Seeking to connect-the-dots, I was reading about one of my favorite entrepreneurs, Elon Musk. In an intriguing article by author Tim Urban, I saw a unique analogy used to describe the mindset of the successful entrepreneur. This writer describes Elon using the analogy of the cook and the chef. It goes something like this: the cook, you see, follows a recipe for their creation – a pre-prescribed plan for success. And while what they create might be “ok”, it’s certainly nothing extraordinary. The chef, to the contrary, takes their collective experience to create something truly magnificent.

The take away is this: true success in entrepreneurship seems to be more closely tied to experience than anything else. The successful entrepreneurs of our time got there by being entrepreneurial – not by reading a book, getting a degree, or waiting around for somebody to tell them they were qualified to do it. They just went out and did it.

So why is this such a hard concept to grasp?

Today we see plenty of fingers being pointed at our education system. In an iconic TED talk with over 38 million views, Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently states that as a society, we are actually born to be creative, but that we are educated OUT of our creativity as a result of antiquated structure and color-in-the-lines mindset enforced throughout our education system. I would take this a step further to say that we are actually born to be entrepreneurial. If this doesn’t make sense quite yet, just take a moment to think back to yourself as a child: were you not incredibly creative, innovative, and imaginative; running to risks, falling down, skinning your knee, only to get back up again? I believe this is the very definition of the entrepreneurial mindset.

So what happens to this mindset, and what can we do?

I understand that not every family has the opportunity to homeschool their child, and I’m certainly not suggesting that is the only answer. What I would endeavor to say is that we do have an opportunity to take advantage of this mindset early-on in our children’s lives by creating and allowing for entrepreneurial experiences in parallel with the traditional education system...and that in doing so, we can encapsulate that mindset and carry through a pipeline, so that we can in fact intentionally educate our children to be entrepreneurs.

I understand that entrepreneurship might seem about as frightening as jumping out of a plane, to most of us. But to a friend of mine who calls himself a professional skydiver , the 100th time he jumps out of a plane certainly isn’t as frightening as the first. And odds are, he’s learned a thing or two about what to do and what not to do.

So I leave you with this challenge: I believe we have members of our community that have jumped out of planes before – people that have started companies. And if these people can come together as a community, then we have an incredible opportunity to intentionally create entrepreneurial experiences for our youth, and make entrepreneur a verb in our community.

 

 

 

Taking-On the 20x20: Courtney's Pechakucha Presentation Guide

If you're on this page, you've probably gotten yourself into an infamous Pechakucha Presentation. While the opportunity to present 20 slides on something you're passionate about might seem fun/easy at first, once you dive-in, I'm sure you might find the task to be more challenging than you originally thought (I know I sure did!). My goal with this post is to give you a few pointers I learned while creating my presentation for PKAkron to make your presentation as fun and painless as possible. Here we go!

1. Ideation/understanding of format: To start with, I watched a bunch of example talks from the Pechakucha website to a "feel" for the format, what I liked, what I didn't like. I also wanted to steal some creativity on how to tie-together the story and the photos, and see if anybody had clever tricks. Definitely worth a half hour or so of your time to start here!
2. It's a visual-presentation, so think visual:  Usually people tell you to never lay-out slides first in a presentation and to start with an outline. However, because the PK presentation is so focused on visuals, I'd actually suggest starting with visuals to guide/refine your topic and outline.  I already had an idea of some of the ideas/big points I wanted to get across, so I started by looking for some cool free stock photos to use. I used THIS website, which has a fantastic selection of free photos (remember kids, you can't use copyrighted images in your presentation). Just by looking at images I got some ideas of concepts, so I downloaded a bunch that I liked then moved-on to the next step, just to get my creative juices flowing. Another tip: you can do a custom Google image search now that includes a filter for the license - so if you can't find a good stock photo, you can still use Google and just filter the search. Also, using personal photos is a great "+" - you don't have to worry about copyright, and in my opinion, your story should have some "personal" element to it anyways to make it captivating. Finally, please please please use high-res images! 
3. Outline and repeat: I started to make  high level outline in MS word...this is where things got iterative! I would write an outline, then a basic script, then say the script out loud. I would stop frequently to think about what I was saying, how it sounded, and if it flowed. Then I'd go back and re-write the script. I would do this in parallel with looking at the images I already had, started to lay-out the powerpoint and order things, then go-back and get new images as-needed. I re-ordered the presentation  A LOT as I practiced.
4. Timing: Once I was pretty comfortable with my script, I started to worry about the timing. I suggest not starting out worrying about the 20-second-thing because it will limit your thinking and creativity. It's much easier to dilute something down to its core after you have fully thought-out your concept/idea. Remember: you can set powerpoint up to change slides automatically every 20secs and rehearse that way, or use the stopwatch on your phone.
5. Transitions: A sneaky way to leave yourself some "wiggle" room with the 20-second rule is to construct your slides in such a way that there is a smooth transition between them - don't make the slides too tightly tied to your words. This way, if you're a bit over or under time on one slide, if it changes on you, the audience won't be too lost. I also left transition slides in the presentation when I was jumping topics to allow me to speed up/slow down/adjust as-needed in case I got off on my timing. These are slides with very little content to you can play around with your words as-needed.
5. PRACTICE! I'll be honest, I practiced multiple times every day for about 4 weeks until the presentation. Some of that was when I was just working on the script, but I'd say I had it down cold 2 weeks before. The practicing was brutal (I mean really, who enjoys that?) but it definitely paid off. By the time I got to the presentation, I understood my content. Note: There's a difference between memorizing and truly understanding your talk - I tend to avoid strict memorization because a small slip-up will throw you off. Rather, if you practice so much that you truly understand your topic and your slides, even if you mess up, you're able to recover.
6. Impress 'em: This might seem obvious, but do your best to tell a story and end of a big point. Don't just say "thank you" and walk off stage. (if you Google TED talk guides on how to end a presentation, you'll get some good examples - I actually did this and ended up re-writing the ending of my presentation because of it).  If you want to leave a lasting impression, if you can, go in without note cards. I actually find notecards more distracting (losing your place, crashing and burning, panicking, etc), so I actually suggest avoiding the training-wheels from the get-go so you never become reliant upon them. (This will also impress the crowd...most, if not all the talks I've seen have had people reading off of paper, which just looks unprepared).