A Letter to the HBS MBA Class of 2015

December 23, 2012

The admissions department at Harvard Business School asked me to write a reflection on my first semester in the MBA program for the Class of 2015 pre-matriculation blog. Here’s what I sent in. I hope it gives an insight into what I’ve experienced the last four months. In summary, I’m loving every moment. Come visit me in the Spring semester if you’d like to see HBS for yourself!

A Letter to the HBS MBA Class of 2015
A Review of the First Semester of Harvard Business School
By Ryan Allis, Class of 2014, Section F


December 17, 2012

Dear Future Friend,

Congratulations on getting into the HBS MBA Class of 2015!

As I left Aldrich Hall at HBS after finishing my last final of the first semester, I smiled, knowing that I would return home to San Francisco for the Holidays changed forever.

I considered a question as I walked through the Spangler tunnel on my way to the taxi stand, “What is it exactly that Harvard Business School does?”

Does it teach you finance? Does it teach you marketing? Does it teach you storytelling? Does it teach you operations?

Sure. But that’s not what HBS does.

What Harvard Business School does is:

  1. Teach you a deeply analytical thinking process critical to making high quality decisions and becoming a transformational leader;
  2. Enable you to build a team or find a team of superstars to go after any big world challenge that you wish; and
  3. Give you constant psychological reinforcement and mentors that enable you to refine and then actually execute on your dreams to make a difference.

Below I’ll share more about how HBS accomplishes each of the above based on my experience to date.


1. HBS Refines Your Thinking Process & Decision Making Ability

HBS teaches you a process for critical, analytical, and deep thinking that leads to a much better ability to make the key decisions that enable you to make a bigger impact in the world.

HBS teaches you to see one problem from ninety angles–equal to the number of classmates in your first year section with whom you’ll take each class and form meaningful lifelong bonds.

In your first semester, you’ll realize that there is rarely only one objective truth. You’ll see that rather there are various perspectives that many smart and reasonable people can hold. These smart classmates argue logically, often compellingly, enabling your mental models for the world to rapidly improve.

In your first semester you’ll realize that reality is seen through your own lens–which is a definitionally subjective lens. As you hear the various perspectives of your classmates your understanding of “what is truth” and your approach to seeing reality as clearly as possible will improve.

And in your first semester you’ll read 150 cases (that’s 2500 pages!) on topics ranging from building a business in the electroencephalography headset market to launching a water start-up in Tanzania.

2. HBS Changes The People You’re Surrounded By

As you might expect, HBS changes the caliber of the people in your life.

I have found that we are greatly influenced by the twenty closest people in our lives. If you are around amazing, inspiring, high-integrity and highly competent people then you are pushed, move upward, and grow. Your sphere of opportunities, perspectives on the world, and ability to contribute back to humanity all expand.

HBS allows you to not only get into the rooms in which the world’s decisions get made but also find a network of superstars to bring into the room with you. Nuclear physics PhD from MIT? Check. Solar panel builder? Check. Database scalability engineer? Check. Battalion Commander? Check. Tech CEO? Check. Financial modeler extraordinaire? Check. Synthetic biology hacker? Check. Diverse thinkers from dozens of countries? Check.

You’ll be able to build lifelong ties with people who are highly competent and want to make a big difference in the world–greatly expanding the frontier of opportunities available to you and your ability to find leverage points to influence the world.

After just one semester here I’ve formed close relationships with at least ten close authentic, caring, and extremely competent people with whom I know I will become lifelong friends, forever influencing the future direction of my life.

Coming in, I expected most people at HBS would be focused on the pursuit of business for the maximization of short-term profits and only a few would care deeply about using business to make a difference in the world.

Instead, I’ve found the large majority of students at HBS think about and care about our world and the progress of humanity and see business as a tool to make a scalable sustainable difference.

It seems that HBS takes applicants who have shown they have the raw material for global leadership and provides the thinking framework and global network necessary for greatly scaling their positive impact on the world.

3. HBS Helps You Use Your Life to Make a Bigger Difference in the World

Whether or not you already have your life dreams mapped out, HBS provides an ideal environment to take time to introspectively reflect on and clarify the purpose of your life. HBS provides the landscape for wide-ranging exploration and reflection and the support to go in any direction you wish.

After taking the time to determine how you wish to use your one life to make a difference, you can use your HBS network to build the team or find the team whose organizational mission aligns with your personal mission.

I’ve found that HBS helps students come out the other side of their time here with a better framework for how the world works, a clarified life purpose, a deeper compassion for humanity coming from enhanced exposure to cultural complexity, and the support network to fly higher than one could alone.

So you want to create a sustainable world? Awesome. HBS will show you how to create or join a clean tech team. Want to create a world in which every human has access to basic needs like food, water, and shelter? Awesome. HBS will show you how to build or join a team creating the institutions and businesses that create sustainable growth in frontier markets.

Need mentors for a synthetic biology software startup. Just go talk to a one of the many Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and they’ll connect you up with the right people. Want to join a team using EEG headsets to use thoughts to control computer software? No problem. On campus is the Harvard Innovation Lab with dozens of start-up teams. You are also just two miles away from the MIT Media Lab building the next generation of human computer interfaces and two miles from Kendall Square–the R&D and start-up epicenter of the East Coast.

The Psychological Value of Being Around People Who Think You’re Awesome

At Harvard everyone just assumes that you’re going to go do something special in the world. Of course, when everyone is telling you you’re going to do big things you believe you can do big things. A self-fulfilling prophecy emerges. And most people go off and end up doing pretty impactful things during and after school.

While this self-fulfilling prophecy of achievement is often found at some of the most prestigious schools and employers, at many places this sense of “you can actually go do anything you set your mind to and by the way here’s how” is incredibly rare. If you crave the combination of an inspiring environment with access to the people who can help you do anything you set your mind to, you’ll love your time at HBS.

Come Say Hello in San Francisco or Cambridge

Over this Holiday break I’ll be in San Francisco and Accra, Ghana for an HBS consulting project as part of the HBS FIELD 3 class–working for the Ghanaian news company MyJoyOnline.com. In the Summer of 2013 I’ll be back in San Francisco working on a new start-up called Connect.com. Come say hi over the summer if you come to California or say hi on campus next year.

I can’t wait for you to join us!

Get excited. An awesome new world awaits.

To building a better world together,
Ryan Allis

About the Author: Before starting at Harvard Business School, Ryan Allis was a tech entrepreneur and the CEO of iContact from 2003-2012. Now, he balances being in school with leading a new San Francisco-based start-up called Connect.com.


Innovators Support President Obama on YouTube

October 21, 2012

Back in August in San Francisco, I was interviewed by CNet Co-founder Shelby Bonnie on my thoughts on innovation in America and why I support President Obama in the 2012 election. The interview was part of the Technology for Obama Innovator Series and also included interviews with other entrepreneurs who support Obama like Drew Houston of DropBox, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Jon Bischke of Entelo, Dave Morin of Path, and Aaron Levie of Box.

I, along with these leading innovators and entrepreneurs, believe that President Obama is the best candidate for business, innovation, immigration, and education.

Below is the intro video from Tech4Obama followed by five videos from my interview. Please feel free to share these videos with your network.

Intro – Tech Entrepreneurs on Innovation and President Obama (2:06)

1. Innovation In America (4:42)

2. Innovation and The 2012 Election (2:24)

3. Lessons Learned in Business (3:05)

4. The The Story of iContact & The Steps for Innovation (4:30)

5. Keys to Success & The Start of Connect (3:33)

You can watch the full series of videos on the Tech4Obama channel on YouTube.

President Obama Has Been Great for Business

Here’s how the stock market, job market, and corporate profits have fared the last few years. President Obama has truly been great for business.

  1. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 92% since March 2009
  2. The country has created 4.3 million new jobs since the bottom in March 2010
  3. Corporate profits have increased 64.8% since January 2009

Keeping in mind the depths of the Great Recession during which President Obama came into office, this performance is very strong for one term. Even in normal times, this would have been very strong performance as President.

I also like much prefer President Obama’s perspective on women’s rights, foreign policy, immigration, and creating the jobs of tomorrow in clean energy and advanced manufacturing here at home.

He’s earned my vote for a second term.

What Harvard Business School is Teaching This Tech Entrepreneur

October 8, 2012

Reflections on the Last Three Weeks at HBS:

Over the weekend, I took some time to reflect on my last three weeks at HBS and the key lessons I’ve learned. This post is a follow-up to “What I Learned: Week 3 at HBS.”

As an entrepreneur, I continue to be really glad I’m at HBS. From classmates and through the HBS case methodology and out-of-class simulations I’m learning a lot that I’ll be able to take with me into to the next company–particularly about leadership and organizational behavior.

Here’s more color on what I’ve been up to the last three weeks and what HBS is teaching this tech entrepreneur so far…

A Journey Back in Time to iContact in Q4 2010

This time, I’ll begin with a story.

It was October 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had been the CEO of iContact since 2003. I had recently turned 26. I was definitely learning as I went along. The firm at the time had around 250 employees and 60,000 customers. We had just closed on a $40 million round of financing that August from PE firm JMI Equity. We faced, perhaps, our greatest strategic choice yet and the stakes were higher than ever before.

To continue our growth–should we:

  1. Launch a free version of our product to reach a lot more users (and eventually more paying customers) as a competitor had shown to be possible;
  2. Develop a social media marketing product to enable us to serve our core small business customers more fully;
  3. Move upmarket into serving larger customers;
  4. Some combination of all three.

All the information needed to make the right call was at my fingertips. But what was the right strategic choice?

I spent weeks agonizing over the decision and looking at the internal, customer, and market data from every angle to make up my mind. Then, I kicked off a month long process to bring my executive team in on the planning process. Then, we went through a five month operational process to implement the decision.

Wait a second–did you catch that? I spent a month making up my mind and then I brought my executive team into the process? What was I thinking?

Strategic Mistakes I Wouldn’t Have Made Had I Attended HBS Before iContact

I made (at least) three critical mistakes in the above strategic planning process.

  1. I brought in my executive team after I had spent a month making up my mind on the decision. I didn’t bring them in on the process early enough and I didn’t properly incorporate the information they had into the process. By the time I brought them in–the bias-toward-action get things done entrepreneur in my blood was ready to act and implement. But from their vantage we hadn’t even discussed the key strategic decision yet.
  2. I didn’t create a process under which needed information could be freely brought to the table.
  3. I still thought my job as CEO was to fix the problem rather than develop my team to fix the problem.

One of the key “HBS takeaways” from the last few weeks for me has been that to continue to grow beyond initial success, an entrepreneurial founder CEO must change their very nature and slow down to:

  1. Create effective processes for disciplined information sharing.
  2. Give up as many operational roles in the company as possible.
  3. Bring the senior team in early on during strategy formation.

The Key Difference Between a Start-up CEO and a Later Stage CEO

As I’ve reflected this weekend on the last three weeks of classes, I’ve crystallized some thoughts I’ve been having recently regarding the key difference between the CEO of a start-up and the CEO of a larger company.

As CEO of a large profitable company, if you do nothing, a lot continues to happen just fine–for quite some time anyway. Larger profitable companies have an infinite number of months of operating funds on hand (as long as they stay profitable).

As CEO of a start-up, if you do nothing initially, you never go anywhere. And once you’re burning through cash, if you do nothing, you go out of business. In general, start-ups are burning through cash every month and struggling to survive.

Start-ups may only have 2-9 months of cash on hand (sometimes less!). Start-ups often have a short timeframe until they will be either forced to generate more revenue than expenses, raise another dilutive round of capital, or go out of business. And so, if you’re leading a start-up, generally you have to act. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Right now.

The big mountain in front of you will only be moved through the will of a determined, focused, and fast moving leader. You think as you go. You develop a great deal of self-reliance. You intimately understand the customer problem you’re solving because you live it daily. You have a clear vision. And you just make it happen through sheer determination and persistence.

The Chief Everything Officer vs. the Chief Empowerment Officer

In the first year of a start-up, the title “CEO” stands for Chief Everything Officer. You’re often the chief janitor, chief recruiter, chief marketer, chief spreadsheet maker, chief evangelist, and sometimes even the chief engineer. If there’s a problem–solve it. If there’s an issue–fix it. The mantra is: Do. It. Now.

The very reason why so few start-up founders can successfully scale as a leader beyond 50 employees is simply this–start-up founders too often don’t get the training or mentoring they need to go from the perspective of “I’ll fix it” to “I’ll develop my team to fix it.”

After your firm reaches 100 employees, “CEO” stops standing for Chief Everything Officer.

After 100 employees, “CEO” begins to stand for Chief Empowerment Officer. Your job is not to do everything. Your job is not to solve most problems yourself. Your job is to develop your team and empower your team to solve problems.

While fixing the problem yourself and micromanaging the solution is often quicker in the short term, micromanaging actually makes the company slower to solve problems in the mid-term and long-term.

Why? Because micromanaging inserts a bottleneck (you) in the process and fails to develop critical team problem solving skills. This reality seems obvious. But, too often the start-up entrepreneur who actually makes it to 100 employees feels like they’ve succeeded against all odds and so they should just continue doing what got them there.

What is the Job of the Later Stage Venture-Backed CEO?

So, what is the job of the later stage CEO (post-100 employees)? Here’s my take:

  1. Recruiting and leading the senior team and holding them accountable to pre-defined quantitative goals.
  2. Guiding the team in developing a cohesive and focused business and product strategy with clear market positioning.
  3. Intimately understanding the needs of customers and market trends.
  4. Raising capital and managing resource allocation.
  5. Guiding and building the culture of the organization.
  6. Managing investor, board, and analyst relationships.

None of these six job requirements say, “fix operational problems yourself” or “set strategy yourself.” Yet too often–this is what Founder CEOs continue to do way too long into their tenure.

Start-up Genes and Cruise Ship Captains

So why is it that the successful “start-up CEO gene” negatively correlates with the successful “large company CEO gene?” Why must this lesson on micromanagement and process be learned eventually by nearly every start-up CEO as they mature?

This phenomenon occurs, I believe, because the key trait that leads to success as a start-up CEO (which is a relentless bias toward action and focus on rapid implementation and incremental improvement) is often the exact trait that causes that same person to become impatient with the processes necessary to prudently make the right decisions and run the company when it grows larger–at least without the right mentorship and training.

Sometimes the swiftest speed boat racers (entrepreneurs) end up sinking the cruise ship (the large company) by trying to turn it too fast and too frequently. Larger ships require coordinated plans and defined processes to properly turn their direction. Speed boat racers rarely enjoy “process” and “planning” and often have this “success bias” that makes them think what’s worked so far will continue to work.

However, if the entrepreneur is going to build something that long outlives them and makes the impact on the world they hope for, it’s either time to learn to manage a large organization or bring in someone who can.

As HBS Professor Noam Wasserman has noted in his research on Founder-CEO succession, “While the Founder-CEO’s skills were a good ‘fit’ for the contingencies faced by the company before, enabling the company to reach its critical milestones, those skills are usually much less important now that the company faces radically different contingencies (Organization Science, March-April 2003).”

While an outside professional CEO often doesn’t have the same passion for the business as the original founder(s), disaster can occur if the unprepared entrepreneurial CEO keeps the helm too long without the right guidance and mentoring.

While
the Founder-CEO’s skills were a good “fit” for the contingencies faced bythe companybefore, enabling the
companyto reach its critical milestones, those skills are
usuallymuch less important now that the companyfaces
radicallydifferent contingencies.

I Learned The Micromanagement Lesson – Yet I Clung On to Strategy

As CEO at iContact for nine years, over time I “half learned” this lesson regarding not being a micromanager.

We had built a wonderful and experienced seven person Senior Leadership Team including an CFO, CTO, CMO, Chief Architect, SVP Sales, SVP Support, and VP HR. In every case, I was fortunate to have hired people much more experienced than myself. I let Tim run finance, Ralph run tech, Kevin run sales, etc.

I had learned the key lesson around 2005 that my job as CEO was to hire people more experienced than me and hold them accountable to clearly pre-defined results, not to process. Thus I could step back and the company grew–from $3M in sales in 2006 to $48M in sales in 2011.

While I gave up the individual departmental operational responsibilities (and benefited greatly from having done so), what I never truly gave up at iContact was strategy. This ultimately, was one of the practices that prevented us from succeeding further and reaching a greater potential.

We would have these quarterly and annual strategy retreat sessions–but too often they turned into me guiding the team toward what I thought the right path was instead of the other way around.

Strategy is Really About Choice and Focus

By the end of 2011 at iContact I finally came to understand the value of process and integrated thinking in the setting of corporate strategy. I brought a bit of a more structured process into how we thought through 2012 strategy, asking each team member to prepare position papers on what they would do if they were CEO.

By then, however, the market had become more competitive, the path we had embarked on for 2011 hadn’t worked as well as we hoped, and we had fewer good options to choose from. Ultimately, we chose to sell the company to Vocus in February 2012 to gain liquidity and access greater distribution channels.

So which of the four choices did we choose in 2011 at iContact?

Strangely, #4. We did all three of the above listed options! We launched a free version, launched a social media product, and positioned upmarket.

If had taken HBS Professor Michael Porter’s strategy class back then I would have known that strategy is about choice. A “do everything in one year” strategy rarely works. While things turned out okay–in hindsight I believe if we would have focused on executing one of those key moves in 2011 extremely well instead of attempting all three we may have been better off.

How HBS Has Taught the Key “Micromanagement Lesson” Three Times In The Last Three Weeks

It really wasn’t until the past three weeks as HBS has consciously taught this “micromanagement lesson” three times that these learnings above have truly cemented in my brain. I have to say, learning through experiential cases and team simulations at HBS is a lot less costly than learning on the job!

Over the past three weeks, HBS has attempted to teach us this oh so important lesson of how to bring the best out of a team at least three times…

1. During the Everest Simulation – We were put on a team of five and given the task of reaching the top of Mt. Everest in a computer simulation. We were given the roles of leader, marathoner, doctor, photographer, and environmentalist. I was the environmentalist. While I’ll leave out the details in order to not spoil any surprise for future classes, suffice it to say the simulation was very effective at teaching the importance of the leader creating a process to share information.

2. During the Shad Simulation on Building Circuit Boards -

HBS split the entire first year class into around 75 teams of 12 students. Each team had a leader designated and was in charge of creating an assembly line process to build three different types of circuit boards – economy, deluxe, and imperial. We learned not only how to organize our labor for maximum efficiency of output in a timed contest, but more importantly how to create a process to share information effectively within a team of twelve very smart people.

Here is an example of one of the boards we built. We built 28 of them in 20 minutes with a production team of 7.

Here’s my team (Team 47!)

3. During the Wolfgang Keller Konigsbrau Case in LEAD class -

This case chronicles the path of Wolfgang Keller, General Manager of a Ukrainian Premium Beer Brewery, as he figures out what to do with his head of sales and marketing, Dmitri Brodsky. While I won’t describe the case in much more detail, suffice it to say that Wolfgang was the classic micromanager and hadn’t yet learned the lesson to hold his team members responsible for results rather than process.

It was the class discussion however with our LEAD Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan that left me with the best takeaway of my time so far at HBS. She told us, paraphrasing, “There are two types of leaders. Those who solve the problem and those who develop people who solve the problem.”

I was so glad to hear HBS reinforce these two key business lessons time and again:

  1. Build and develop a team to scale yourself.
  2. Teams which have a good process of information sharing (combined with smart people in the room) generally get much better results than those in which the leader does not create such a process and whose team members keep key information in silos.

What I’d Do Differently Now

Summarizing my key leadership lessons at HBS so far, here’s a comparison of what I thought prior to coming here and what would I have done instead had I already been through the first six weeks of HBS…

Topic

What I Thought Pre-HBS

What I Probably Should Have Done — Incorporating HBS Lessons

Strategy Development

I thought my job was to analyze the internal, customer, and market data and come up with a viewpoint relating to company strategy, then to lead my team to seeing it the way I did and have them build the operating plan to implement the strategy. I would often spend weeks analyzing data and only once I had come to a pretty firm perspective, hold a quarterly strategy retreat. Unfortunately the retreat was generally held after I had already made up my mind and thus I missed incorporating critical pieces of information that may have helped us make better decisions.

Instead of brining the full executive team together for 1-2 days per quarter, I should have brought together a small committee of the key members of the senior team to discuss strategy at least monthly in shorter meetings as part of the input and analysis phase. Instead of analyzing quickly at the last minute and then rushing to implement an all-of-the above strategy, I should have forced us to clearly choose and communicate our target audience and differentiation factor and built up a year long program focused just on moving toward that well-defined and well thought-through market position. My bias toward action got the best of me.

Information Sharing

I didn’t create a process under which needed information could be freely brought to the table.

I should have created a process under which needed information related to strategic decisions could be freely brought to the table and one through the painful work to create an agreed upon accounting costing system to better calculate the profitability of our two major customer segments (like in the case of Kanthal the Swedish manufacturer).

Developing Your Team

I still thought my job as CEO was to fix the strategic problem rather than develop my team to fix the strategic problem.

While I did give up almost all operational control to the six departmental heads, I still retained strategic control. I spent too much time cerebrally “in my own head” reviewing data and figures and not enough time pushing the team (who had a lot more experience than I did) on what they would do strategically.

Why Does Learning How to Lead Larger Organizations Matter to a Tech Entrepreneur?

What HBS is effectively teaching me are the key leadership lessons and analytical frameworks necessary to be the CEO of a 10,000 person company. There are so many differences between leading a 100 person company and a 10,000 person company.

HBS seems to be pretty good at preparing leaders to run large organizations. As of May 2012, 40 of the Fortune 500 CEOs were HBS graduates, three times the next school, Wharton, with 13.

But tech entrepreneurs rarely build organizations that get beyond 1000 employees, right? Look at Instagram, who sold to Facebook for around $750M (after pre-close stock price fluctuations) with only 13 employees. One can probably list out most of the tech companies that grew beyond 1000 employees in the last 10 years (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Salesforce, Tesla).

So why does learning the experiential lessons behind leading a larger organization matter to me as a tech entrepreneur? Three main reasons.

  1. Next time I build a company I want to be able to scale with the firm as a leader fully as it grows–hopefully well beyond 300 employees.
  2. Someday I hope to be a great investor–investing in companies that are building renewable technologies, synthetic biology technologies, and information technologies that are making a huge positive impact in the world. To be a great investor a number of your firms will ultimately need to scale well beyond a few hundred employees–and I want to have the background to be able to guide them every step of the way from start-up to well beyond their IPO.
  3. Third, someday I’d love to work in public service and hopefully be able to make a positive difference leading parts of government with lots of team members.

How HBS Evolves The Thinking Process

Through the case method and the new analytical frameworks provided, HBS changes the process behind how you think through problems and their solutions. HBS rewires the neurological structure of your thought. At times I can “feel” two concepts being connected in a new way inside my brain during class.

HBS has no doubt helped me already in becoming more analytical and giving me better frameworks to think through tough decisions. Ultimately as a CEO of a big company–while you may be making minor decisions daily you’re really in charge of making just 1-2 big decisions each year. Getting these two annual big decisions right (and then creating the right plan to execute on them fully) is what HBS is helping me prepare for.

While having a bias toward taking action remains one of the most important traits for the start-up entrepreneur–once you have the company operating sustainably and have an executive team in place (say beyond the first 3 years and ~100 employees) the priorities must shift toward analyzing problems fully and with defined processes.

At the later stage it is critically important to take the time to really analyze the internal, customer, and market data with your team, listen to what they are seeing in their departments and in the market, and taking the time to implement one key focus that brings together the strategic, operational, and financial plans. HBS is really good at teaching these type of analytical and team thinking processes.

Will I forget my proclivity toward having a relentless focus and intense bias toward action in the early stages of new start-ups in the future? Absolutely not. But now, if I can get a company beyond a couple hundred employees again, I’ll have much better tools and frameworks to build upon for long-term growth.

But Can HBS Teach Consultants and Bankers to Be Entrepreneurs?

All this exposition regarding how HBS is teaching an entrepreneur to be more analytical begs the question–if HBS is so good at teaching entrepreneurs to become more seasoned CEOs, can they teach management consultants and bankers to be good early-stage entrepreneurs?

Running with the from earlier metaphor, if HBS can teach speed boat racers to slow down and become deft cruise ship captains, can they teach cruise ship captains to speed up and become adept speed boat racers?

Well, in store for first-years like me in the Spring is a required class called “The Entrepreneurial Manager” as well as a requirement to start a small business in a module called FIELD 3. I am looking forward to seeing how HBS chooses to teach the key principles of entrepreneurship to those from larger firm backgrounds.

What is the key lesson that I hope HBS gets across to MBA students wanting to found their own businesses?

In my experience, the key lesson for the aspiring entrepreneur to learn is to not get stuck in analysis paralysis and to take action every single day toward building something that customers desire while rapidly experimenting and incrementally improving as you get feedback. I’ve found that action, constant refinement, persistence, and a deep-rooted passion for creating a change in the world that doesn’t yet exist are the keys to the early stage of entrepreneurship.

Is a Shorter Program Available?

So what can you do if you’re an entrepreneur who wants to learn how to scale yourself as a leader but don’t have two years to invest in an MBA? You may wish to check out the HBS Owner/President Management Program (OMP), General Management Program (GMP), or Advanced Management Program (AMP).

You get the same professors and get to develop a lot of the same intuition and analytical frameworks in a shorter timeframe (though you’ll miss a lot of the lifelong relationships built on campus).

Key Learnings For Me Over The Last 3 Weeks

Here were my major take-a-ways over the last three weeks:

  1. Leadership – A key part of the leader’s role is to define a process to get information out onto the table.
  2. Leadership - The leader shapes how the team works by managing its work process and thought process to come to better decisions.
  3. Leadership – The transparency of information and individual incentive structures is key.
  4. Marketing – How to use the Six M’s framework to establish clear objectives in advance of a messaging campaign.
  5. Finance – How to calculate the present value of a set of cashflows via the formula Present Value = Cashflows / (1+Discount Rate)^Time Periods) and choose an appropriate discount rate. Calculating net present value is helpful when comparing the values of various projects in today’s money based on the key concept that money today is worth more than money tomorrow.
  6. Finance - How to convert GAAP net income into free cash flow via the formula Free Cash Flow = EBIAT – CAPEX + Depreciation – Change in Net Working Capital. This process is helpful in converting GAAP net incomes into the actual amount of cash that is available per period (month, quarter, year) to those considering purchasing a stake in the business.
  7. Technology & Operations Management - How to optimize the output of a complex production process.

The Cases

Here are the cases we’ve read the last three weeks with a one-liner on each as well as the non-case classes. I write just a sentence on each so as to not reveal any significant analysis. If you’d like to read some of the cases yourself check out HBR Publishing.

Marketing (MKT)

  • Healthymagination at GE Healthcare – Which new products in the R&D pipeline should the GE Healthcare CEO choose to commercialize based on GE’s desire to increase access, increase quality, or decrease cost by at least 15%?
  • Electric Vehicles - Plugging in the Consumer Class - How can makers of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVS), plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), and electric-vehicles (EVs) best position and advertise their products?
  • Population Services International - Will Balbir Pasha Help Fight AIDS? – How can a non-profit working with sex workers in India launch an effective ad campaign to make a major impact in the use of condoms?
  • Pepsi: Lipton-Brisk – How can Pepsi utilize a Superbowl ad for Brisk to re-position Brisk for male millennials?
  • Sephora Direct: Investing in Social Media, Video, and Mobile – How should the head of Sephora’s marketing allocate her budget across in-store kiosks, social media, produced video, user generated video, an IOS app, and an iPad app?
  • Nike Football: World Cup 2010 – How can Nike beat Adidas using social media leading up to the 2010 World Cup?

Technology & Operations Management (TOM)

  • Process Simulator – An exercise using a factory simulation program to develop intuition around what occurs when you introduce variability of machine output into a production process.
  • Toyota Motor Manufacturing – How does a Toyota plant in Kentucky handle an issue with seat quality within their assembly line process?
  • Building Circuit Board Chips Simulation – In teams of 12 we built an assembly line process to manufacture electrical circuit boards and then competed against other teams to produce the most chips with the least inventory left over and maximize cashflow from “operations.”

Leadership & Organizational Behavior (LEAD)

  • Everest Leadership Simulation – Create a process for effective information sharing and lead your team successfully to the top of Mt. Everest without being rescued.
  • Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley – How can a rebellious yet high-performing employee be groomed after tiring of a manager who doesn’t give him the immediate feedback he needs to improve?
  • Karen Leary at Merrill Lynch – How can a branch leader create optimal performance conditions for a Taiwanese wealth manager who does things a bit differently than usual?
  • Heidi Rozen at Softbank Venture Capital – The story of a highly effective networker in Silicon Valley.
  • Wolfgang Keller at Konigsbrau Beer Brewery – The story of a micromanager who tries to solves problems himself rather than building his team to solve problems.

Financial Reporting & Control (FRC)

  • Boston Chicken – Discusses the mid-1990s accounting practices of Boston Chicken (now Boston Market), particularly those related to accounting for the risk of default on self-provided loans to unprofitable franchises.
  • Kanthal – Swedish manufacturer of electrical resistance tools for heating. Discusses how to create a corporate information system for calculating profitability on a per customer, per product, and per order basis and how to get move customers from being unprofitable to profitable.

Finance (FIN1)

  • Subprime Crisis and Fair Value Accounting – What happened in the 2008 financial crisis, specifically related to the fair value accounting of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Mortgage Backed Securities (MBSs)
  • CEMEX – Patrimonio Hoy Microfinance Scheme – Comparing the net present value to CEMEX and their customer of a way of financing cement purchasing to alternative options
  • Ocean Carriers (Discounted Cash Flow) – Calculating discounted cash flow (DCF) of investing in building a ship that the firm would lease.
  • Ecosecurities – International Carbon Finance – Understanding carbon trading markets and calculating net present value on a Chinese ventilation air methane project.
  • State of South Carolina (Capital Markets) – Learning about capital markets and how to calculate mean return, standard deviation, covariance, and correlation.

Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD)

  • Negotiations Day – A team exercise in which we negotiated the terms of the sale of our firm with another team representing the other party. This was an absolutely wonderful exercise and brought back lots of memories of January 2012 for me doing this at iContact. I led the sale negotiations for our team and ultimately failed due to coming across as too aggressive, which caused the other team to run the clock down and give us an ultimatum offer we couldn’t accept. I learned to be firm and clear but to also be cordial :-) .
  • Global Immersion Dinner – Ghana – We had dinner together with our group of ~55 who will be going to Ghana in January for 8 days for a company consulting project. As part of FIELD 2, HBS is sending all 919 first-year students to one of ten global countries in small consulting teams.

Outside of Class

The last three weeks have also included a number of out-of-class activities.

  • Nexus Summit on Global Youth Philanthropy – Two weekends ago I gave a talk at the Nexus Summit on Global Youth Philanthropy on “The Big Picture – How Our Generation Will Create a Better World.”
  • UN Foundation/Mashable Social Good Summit – Attended day two of the conference during the same weekend in New York. Spent time with friends Elizabeth Gore, Aaron Sherinian, and Diana Walker from the UN Foundation, Sergio Fernandez de Cordova and Angela Mwanza from the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council, Brian Forde from the White House, and Kathryn Minshew of The Daily Muse.
  • Ray Dalio Presentation – The head of the hedge fund Bridgewater gave a talk on his macroeconomic theories, investment philosophy, and the right amount of quantitative easing and money supply.
  • Harvard Start-up Scramble – Stephen Douglass from Babson asked me to judge at the Harvard Start-up Scramble. 14 teams presented after working for 40 hours over the weekend to refine their ideas and pitches.
  • Section F Retreat - Last weekend we ventured to West Dover, Vermont to bond as a section of 90 and get to know each other. Led by sectionmate Mike Liu, a team of four of us recreated “Gangham Style” for the section talent show with the help of a chicken, a gorilla, a shark, and a handful of horse stick carriers.
  • Renewables Dinner – I hosted 18 HBS first years who have been working in clean tech for dinner along with an MIT graduate engineering student Tiitian Palazzi and the COO of SolidEnergy Systems Jim McQuade (HBS ‘11). I’m becoming more and more interested in nanotech, solar, synthentic biofuels, and battery storage start-ups and the general question of “How do we innovate our way toward a carbon neutral world within 30 years?”
  • Start-up Work in the Harvard iLab – 3x per week Skypes with the team in San Francisco working on the new start-up. I am working on the new company from the Harvard iLab on the HBS campus each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon and am loving the environment. At Harvard you used to get kicked out for using university resources to start a business. At the iLab, you get kicked out if you’re working on school work. I love it!

As you may be able to tell by now, I love keeping busy.

That’s all for now. I hope you’re enjoying the reflections and writing.

Feel free to leave comments below.

All the best,
Ryan

Slides: All I’ve Learned by 28

September 3, 2012

Here is the download link to the PDF slides of the “All That I’ve Learned by 28″ project I did earlier this month to document what I have learned in the first 28 years of life and to back up my brain before heading to graduate school. Feel free to share.

The content is broken up into four sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. All That I’ve Learned About Life
  3. All That I’ve Learned About The World
  4. All That I’ve Learned About Business

I’ll be posting the videos in late September.

Enjoy!

Ryan

Week One at HBS

September 3, 2012

I just finished week one in the MBA program at Harvard Business School. I’ve had a long flight out West for Labor Day to write down some reflections.

The immersive experience is truly exhilarating. Everyone is so prepared and intelligent. Sectionmates can hold so much case information in their head at once and then speak extemporaneously on demand. Since everyone is smart and everyone wants to look good in front of their peers, everyone prepares.

The Sections

The Class of 2014 at HBS has 920 students. There are ten sections of about ninety students each who take all the required classes together in year one and create deep bonds with one another over time. In my section (section F), we have (at least) two Ph.Ds, two attorneys, two MBA/MDs, a Navy officer, an Army officer, a solar energy entrepreneur, a fashion entrepreneur, a guy who ran a hospital, and a nuclear engineer. Not to mention some of the sharpest consultants, investors, and bankers I’ve ever met from Bain, McKinsey, BCG, Goldman, KKR etc.

No matter what you accomplished before school, it’s more or less impossible to bring even a modicum of arrogance into the classroom as everyone is equally as impressive. Around a third of our section is from another country, bringing diversity of thought and perspective. While I’m still getting to know everyone in the section, I know we have classmates from Nigeria, France, Russia, Japan, China, India, Singapore, and Brazil.

The HBS Learning Model

Here, it is cool to be smart. We learn from each other as much as from the professor. The professor becomes a facilitator more so than an instructor. The experience of being in a rounded classroom utilizing the case method with so many other inspiring people is unlike anything I’ve been part of before. Needless to say, I’ve loved the experience so far and look forward to the months to come.

The case method works as everyone in the room is as smart and experienced as you are. There are no laptops. There are no mobile phones. Just eighty minutes of pouring into every detail and taking away the enduring lessons from a complex picture–three times per day. You never know when you’ll be cold called to present/summarize the case to your classmates, creating internal pressure to be ready for your moment. Nearly everyone is present and engaged even if they’ve been up till 3am.

You have to track mentally with each classmate comment in order to be able to be ready to make the next comment though quality of commentary is more critical than quality. A quality comment is one that is relevant and timely and moves the learning process forward in the class. A helpful scribe sits in every classroom taking notes on what was said, enabling later grading of participation by the professor.

Students With Competence & Compassion

HBS has made a concerted effort to bring in people who care about making a difference in the world and building shared value. It’s clear that it is no longer possible to get into HBS without having done something that makes a difference in a community or in the world. The smartest investment banker or management consultant won’t get in unless he or she has demonstrated a desire to serve humanity in some shape or form. I have heard that one the primary admissions criteria for interviewers is simply, “Does this person inspire you?”

After the debacle of the 2008 financial and housing crisis and the relatively high correlation between the graduates of top three MBA programs and the architects of the housing bubble, it is refreshing to see HBS admissions seeking to bring together a body of individuals whose purpose is to change the world for the better. I thought upon arriving last week that perhaps 20% of the individuals I met would express a desire to improve the world. Instead, I’ve found the overwhelming majority of students share this desire and realize the power of responsible business leaders to create sustainable models for building a better word. Here, sustainability has the double meaning of financially viable and environmentally viable.

Bravo to HBS leadership for systematically implementing a structure that brings together some of the most competent, caring, and compassionate people in the world for two years of life-changing and experience broadening peer pedagogy.

HBS appears as much a leadership school as it is a business school. It is a place for future and current leaders to refine their skillsets for building and growing sustainable organizational structures regardless of sector and accomplish much more than they could individually while meeting the people that will help them on their journey to impact the world at scale.

While I cannot properly compare the HBS experience to the Stanford experience, I am impressed so far with the promotion of the study of technology (both in the materials sciences, biotech, and info tech) and entrepreneurship.

A Place Friendly to Entrepreneurs

HBS also has made an effort to attract entrepreneurs. Some of my entrepreneurial friends in San Francisco and North Carolina had a difficult time understanding why I’d go to business school–historically considered the place for the risk adverse. I explained the school recently launched a new Innovation Lab (iLab) with available office space for startups and embarked on a top-led effort to welcome those who have started companies or wish to co-found firms in the future.

HBS also has a number of resources housed within the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, an Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, the FIELD program in which everyone on campus is required to start a small business in their first year, and a number of second year courses on technology and entrepreneurship. Unlike the past, entrepreneurship is today seen as a legitimate path into HBS and encouraged on campus.

While it will no doubt be challenging for me to balance leading a start-up on the West coast while being in school, HBS makes it as easy as possible. With a strong co-founder and COO running the day-to-day ops in San Francisco, and the ability to check-in around 3pm after classes each day, I know the company will make it through with my focus split for the time being.

While the school has already taught many well-known entrepreneurs and Global 2000 leaders, often it has been the undergraduate Harvard drop outs (Gates, Zuckerberg) who have built the most well-known technology companies. I can only imagine in the years ahead a number of world changing leaders will emerge from HBS with the innovative mindset and business intuition of a Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Musk.

Operational Execution

Everything pretty much runs like clockwork at HBS, leaving the student endless opportunities for engagement and learning. Much like a Porter strategy case, the interlocking systems of operational execution and aligned processes for strategic differentiation have been consciously architected.

One suggestion I could make for improvement so far is to have a professor teach a required 80 minute session on the alumni portrait project to help guide us in our first day reflections on “what we wish to do with this one wild and precious life.” The only other recommendation I’d have would be to form a Science and Engineering Club on campus to complement the Energy and Environment Club. I hope to be part of creating this club in the time ahead as I’ve developed immense interest in nanotechnology, renewable energy, robotics and synthetic biology this summer after attending Singularity University’s Executive Program and watching Dr. Jeffrey Grossman’s videos from MIT.

Week One Cases

And then, we have the cases. We have read nine cases so far in four days of classes. The average is 2 or 3 per day–requiring the student to hold immense amounts of information in his or her head and create a mental map for rapid information retrieval and summary of each case.

The cases are 15-25 page documents covering actual historical business situations from the perspective of a main character (called a protagonist) with a handful of tables and exhibits with additional detail. The professor often puts the students in the roles of the case protagonists and at times asks students to role play critical moments in a beautifully improvised learning experience that when done right can be magical.

The initial week cases were selected by the faculty to teach broad lessons while exposing us to entrepreneurship, globalization, marketing, social enterprise, and organizational behavior. In Leadership, we’ve studied the case of Erik Peterson at Biometra. In Marketing, we’ve studied the cases of Snapple’s resurgence under Triarc and Black and Decker’s 1992 decision to brand their high end power tools as DeWalt and give them a distinctive yellow color. In Finance, we’ve looked at arbitration in a Major League Baseball collective bargaining dispute with the Kansas City Zephyrs and evaluated the forecasted financials of a Tanzanian water filter startup.

In START, a two day program for students before the beginning of regular classes, we looked at the Zappos case of building a company with a great culture and focus on the customer experience and the awe-evoking case of a Bangalore heart hospital that provided low cost angiograms and open heart surgeries to tens of thousands of patients and then raised equity financing and scaled globally.

The most compelling moment often comes at the end of class when we are shown videos of what happened after the case (or get to hear from the case protagonists in person themselves).

Just in this first week I’ve picked up really valuable lessons around branding, management, and financial planning. Synthesizing these diverse lessons into a whole picture each week will be an enjoyable experience for me as I grow and learn. Time and again, we’ve learned from the cases (Black and Decker and Snapple in particular) that strategy is a collection of integrated processes that differentiate the company and its products and align internal resources toward becoming the best in the world at providing a particular type of value to a particular type of customer.

Irrational Exuberance?

In sum, if you have an opportunity to come to HBS, even if it’s for one of the many Executive Education programs, go for it. And if you wish to be a solid candidate for the HBS MBA program in the future, invest just as much time and effort in the work you’re doing to make a positive impact in the world as you are in your profession. Or even better, ensure that your profession is actually how to you wish to change the world (i.e. you’re working for a company or organization whose particular way of changing the world aligns with how you want to change the world).

I likely sound exuberant and excited. It is because I am! I am glad to be here. Almost giddy like a little kid in a candy store, perhaps. It is a great privilege to have these twenty months ahead of me to learn and grow and be pushed. Afterward I will take on an immense responsibility to use my remaining time on this planet to make a difference. I look forward to that day while being fully focused on the present.

My TEDx Presentation – “Creating a Better World”

January 20, 2012

On December 10th, 2011 I gave a TEDx presentation in Raleigh on “Creating a Better World.” Here is the video.

And here are the slides from the presentation:

TEDx Ryan Allis – Optimism for the Next 40 Years of Human History

Today’s Fuel Explosion in Nairobi

September 12, 2011

I’ve got a special place in my heart for East Africa, having visited there three times and with investments in Pengo Loans and Think Impact, both with operations in Kenya. After visiting the Kibera slum in Nairobi in 2009 to see the work of Carolina for Kibera, I feel especially for those who are living day-to-day in the slums of Nairobi and other parts of the developing world.

Today in a Nairobi slum called Sinai a fuel pipeline starting leaking. Immediately hundreds of people gathered around, grabbing every container they could to capture the fuel. Soon thereafter, the pipeline caught fire and exploded. At least 100 people immediately burned to death in the explosion and ensuing house fires in the densely concentrated slums. Another 120 went to the hospital with severe burns.

Below is a news video of the story from the local Kenyan NTV. Take a look at the living conditions of these communities. Often without electricity, running water, and sewage. Yes, it’s true that 39% of the world survive on less than $2 per day (a per capita income of $730 per year), and yet so few people are aware of this. For those of us in the United States living on an average of $130 per day (the U.S. per capital income as of 2011 is $47,240), this type of existence is surely hard to fathom.

And here is another video from NTV showing some of the burn videos in the hospital (warning: graphic):

Here’s the NY Times article.

Going to Egypt Tomorrow

June 24, 2011

Hello from Boston. I’m here today for year three of the EO/MIT Entrepreneurial Masters Program.

I am excited to be heading to Egypt tomorrow as part of a U.S. State Department and USAID funded program in alliance with the Egyptian and Danish governments. I’ll be headed there with American entrepreneurs Shama Kabani, Alexis Ohanian, and Scott Gerber of the Young Entrepreneurs Council.

We’ll be mentoring 48 young Egyptian tech entrepreneurs ages 18-30 in Cairo with the NextGen IT Entrepreneurs Bootcamp and judging a business plan competition. Four of the winners will be coming to the US in October to intern at iContact for three weeks. I’m passionate about using business, technology, and entrepreneurship as tools to make a positive impact in the world, so this will be a great opportunity to see Egypt and work with great tech entrepreneurs in an exciting part of the world.

This will be my fourth trip to Africa, but first in North Africa. In about 5% of my spare time, I invest in tech entrepreneurs in the US and Africa via the Humanity Fund, so when I was asked to go by Scott Gerber I knew it would be right up my alley.

Egypt is passing through a very significant time in it’s history and it will be fascinating to be there. Quoting one of the participants in the program, “Egypt holds an important place in human history as one of the birthplaces of commerce, and the knowledge and experience of Egyptian business people will lead to many exciting and valuable products, services, and innovations for years to come. This is a great time for Egypt to truly shine.”

Here’s some additional info on the program. More blogging to come as I’m there…

=================

NexGen IT Entrepreneurs Boot Camp
Background

The NexGen IT Entrepreneurs Boot Camp, is a collaborative effort by the Government of Denmark, the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program, the United States Agency for International Development’s Egypt Competitiveness Project, and the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre, affiliated with the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. The NexGen IT Boot Camp is a series of training events that includes a Business Plan Awareness Class and an IT Master Class.  The later will be taught by US and Danish Delegates in which prizes will be awarded to four winning teams.
Process of Selection of prizes
After the each winner is announced first and second place winners will chose what prize they prefer, the internship in the US or the Boot Camp in Denmark.  The third place winners will chose depending if first and second place split their choices.  The fourth place winner will be given the remaining prize.
More on the US internship @ iContact
The US internship will be with iContact in October. iContact is based in Raleigh, NC and is working to make email marketing and social marketing easy so that small and midsized companies and causes can grow and succeed. Founded in 2003, iContact has more than 300 employees and more than 700,000 users of its leading email marketing software.
As a B Corporation, iContact utilizes the 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Model, donating 1% of payroll, 1% of employee time to community volunteering, 1% of equity, and 1% of product to its local and global community as part of its social mission. iContact works hard to maintain a fun, creative, energetic, challenging and caring company culture..  The triangle business journal (Local North Carolina business newspaper) has named iContact one of the best places to work.  The company has been listed on Inc. 500 3 years in a row and its founders Ryan Allis and Aaron Houghton were selected by Inc. Magazine 30 under 30 in 2009 as two of America’s Coolest Young Entrepreneurs.
Two of the winning winning teams, composed of two individuals, will win the opportunity to gain critical knowledge of how to grow a business during a three weeks internship at iContact in Raleigh North Carolina.  The iContact internship will be an entrepreneurial rotation in which the interns will learn about the critical parts of the business including marketing/sales, IT, customer service and finance.  The internship is paid for by USAID through the Egyptian Competitiveness Project (ECP).

The NexGen IT Entrepreneurs Boot Camp, is a collaborative effort by the Government of Denmark, the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program, the United States Agency for International Development’s Egypt Competitiveness Project, and the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre, affiliated with the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. The NexGen IT Boot Camp is a series of training events that includes a Business Plan Awareness Class and an IT Master Class. The later will be taught by US and Danish Delegates in which prizes will be awarded to four winning teams. Two of the winning teams will travel to the US in October to intern at iContact, a very rapidly growing American tech company.

More on the US internship @ iContact

The US internship will be with iContact in October. iContact is based in Raleigh, NC and is working to make email marketing and social marketing easy so that small and midsized companies and causes can grow and succeed. Founded in 2003, iContact has more than 300 employees and more than 700,000 users of its leading email marketing software.

As a B Corporation, iContact utilizes the 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Model, donating 1% of payroll, 1% of employee time to community volunteering, 1% of equity, and 1% of product to its local and global community as part of its social mission. iContact works hard to maintain a fun, creative, energetic, challenging and caring company culture. The Triangle Business Journal has named iContact one of the best places to work. The company has been listed on Inc. 500 3 years in a row and its founders Ryan Allis and Aaron Houghton were selected by Inc. Magazine 30 under 30 in 2009.

Two of the winning winning teams, composed of two individuals, will win the opportunity to gain critical knowledge of how to grow a business during a three weeks internship at iContact in Raleigh North Carolina. The iContact internship will be an entrepreneurial rotation in which the interns will learn about the critical parts of the business including marketing/sales, IT, customer service and finance. The internship is paid for by USAID through the Egyptian Competitiveness Project (ECP).

12 Life Lessons

April 15, 2011

Tonight I gave the graduation speech at the Leadership Triangle College Edition graduation that nineteen amazing local college students from Duke, UNC, NC State, NCCU, Shaw, Meredith, St. Augustine’s, and Peace college have participated in. In preparation for the speech I wrote down “12 Life Lessons” I’ve learned in the last ten years. I only mentioned a handful of them during the actual speech, but here are the prep notes…

  1. Surround yourself with people you like and admire. You are who you surround yourself with. It pays to choose the people you surround yourself with carefully.
  2. Put positive thoughts into your head. The internal message that you tell yourself over and over becomes reality. Thoughts become things. Don’t be insecure. Be confident. YOU ARE AMAZING! You are all here because you are brilliant. Life is a wonderful opportunity. Believe in your power to do good.
  3. Laughter is the best medicine for stress. Laugh at yourself often. Find what is funny in whatever situation you’re in.
  4. Take time to think about and write down your goals and frame them!!! Set bigger goals than you think are actually possible to achieve and try to hit about 50% of them. If you’re hitting more than 50% of your goals, they’re not ambitious enough!
  5. Don’t worry about what other people think about you. Just be yourself.
  6. Travel the world at every opportunity you get. Take an interest in what’s going on in the world. Know about the tremendous opportunities in Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America.
  7. Build authentic relationships in which you give. Don’t build fake relationships.
  8. To find a job, stop sending resumes out blindly! Just find 5 people who you want to be in 20 years who have accomplished what you want to accomplish and build an authentic relationship with them at least a year before you need a “job”. Start by offering to take them to coffee or lunch and keep asking 1x per month until they say yes :-) .
  9. Don’t take a normal job. Only take a job working with great people doing something you really enjoy doing.
  10. Find something you’re passionate about that you love doing that you enter the “flow state” when you do it, then figure out how you can create value (and maybe make money) doing that!
  11. Save and invest money whenever you can and never ever go into debt for something you don’t need. Make your money work for you.
  12. Spend more hours reading than you do watching TV! Book recommendations: Think and Grow Rich, Rich Dad Poor Dad, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

What do you think?? What key life lessons have you learned in the last ten years?

The Entrepreneurs I Met in Uganda and Kenya

December 30, 2010

(If you haven’t yet read my last post on investing in Africa you can read it here)

The Journey to East Africa

I left my parents’ home in Bradenton, Florida on Sunday afternoon and after a 30 hour journey through Tampa, snowy-D.C. and Istanbul, Turkey I arrived at 2:15am Tuesday at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. I was so happy to be back in Africa for the third time.

I got through immigration and customs and by 3am came out of the arrivals area at Entebbe to meet Roey Rosenblith and Abu Musuzza, two solar lighting entrepreneurs in Uganda who run VillageEnergy. They very graciously picked me up at such an early hour in the morning.

Roey and Abu have been working for a year and a half now on bringing affordable solar lighting to the 80% of homes without electricity in Uganda. They began their sales back in September 2010 after a year of R&D and production and are now rapidly building out their distribution model for their $60 home solar lighting systems.

I had invested in VillageEnergy back in January 2010 through a personal investment fund the Humanity Fund. There was much to discuss!

We jumped in Abu’s Corolla at the airport carpark and began the hour drive back to their apartment in Kampala. On the way I got an update on Village Energy’s operations. We arrived a little after four back at their place. After a quick demonstration of the VillageEnergy solar lighting system and a heated cinnamon bun (definitely not the first thing I expected to eat in Uganda), I crawled under the malaria net and fell asleep by 5am. We had a busy day ahead!

Tuesday – Kampala, Uganda

I rose at 9am and after a shower and some fresh chapatti and Kenyan tea the three of us went to the Kabira Club for a buffet breakfast.

There at the Kabira Club I met with tech entrepreneurs in a series of meetings Roey had set up.

Here’s are the entrepreneurs I met with  in Uganda.

  1. Roey Rosenblith and Abu Musuza from VillageEnergy
  2. Charles from Wifi Cloud who is starting a wimax phone routers business in Kampala
  3. Saidi Bakenya from One2Net is setting up a digital internet connection service over the TV spectrum
  4. Peter Kimuli from Carnelian who is building a micro hydro power plan in west Uganda
  5. Peter Benhur Nyeko from Benconolly Pess Ltd, who is in the bus and generator business
  6. Charles Kalema, who run a garbage and disposal business with 24 employees
  7. Dennis from Dmark Mobile, a mobile apps company with 23 employees
  8. Revence Kalibwani, a mobile app developer

Around 4:30pm we went to the Village Energy sales center to meet with their employees Aggie, Alex, Alex, and Charles. We then went to dinner at a local hotel to get feedback from the team on how to improve Village Energy.

At eight we visited Olga, a VillageEnergy customer who lives in area without electricity and has 3 VE units installed.

We capped off the night with drinks at 9:30pm at Cayenne in Kampala with Roey and Abu and their friends Simon, Jennifer, and Dennis. Dennis runs Dmark Mobile, a mobile apps company with 23 employees.

Wedneday & Thursday – Nairobi, Kenya

On Wednesday I woke up at 8am. Roey, Abu, and I drove to Entebbe to have breakfast with Revence Kalibwani, a mobile app developer. Then we went to the airport and I was off to Nairobi on Air Uganda.

Yesterday and today In Nairobi I met with:

  1. David Kuria from Iko Toilet, has 50 environmentally friendly pay toilets throughout Kenya. Has raised funds from the Acumen Fund and works with my friend Amon Anderson at Acumen.
  2. Elizabeth Myyuiyi from EcoBank Kenya to discuss SME loans and credit. Secured loans are going here for 14% per year and group guaranteed microfinance loans are at 25-30%. (Though the annual inflation here is about 9% so the real interest rates on these loans are lower).
  3. Gaita Waimuchii of NetBlue Africa, a web marketing agency, and AfricaPoint.com a 21 employee travel booking company in Nairobi
  4. Ben Lyon and Dylan Higgins of KopoKopo, mobile money backend integrator, API connector between MFIs and multiple platform mobile money solutions. Ben is from FrontlineSMS and Dylan is from Savetogether.org. They’re received investment from FirstLight Ventures and Presumed Abundance to date.
  5. Jessica Colaco from iHub Nairobi, tech incubator
  6. Wiclif Otieno from Kito International, non-profit that employs street-youth in Kenya
  7. Morgan Simon, founder of Toniic Impact Investors Network

During these discussions a number of other Kenyan and East African tech firms were mentioned that I’ll have to check out.

I’ll be posting next a report and video from my time this afternoon at the iHub, the tech incubator and innovation hub here in Nairobi.

Asante Sana,
Ryan

Tuesday – Kampala, UgandaIf

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