Emails to a Young Entrepreneur: Bringing Opportunity

Day 127 of Self Quarantine             Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  141,000

Bringing Opportunity

Flip Comic created by David Robinson

Embrace change as the bringer of opportunity. You should not fear change. You should fear lack of change, for change is the bringer of opportunity and it is through exploiting opportunity that you grow and develop as a person.”

Life Coaching Insights.


Three Sleeps Vineyard, Moser, Oregon August 2, 2013

Dear Mikhail,

I really enjoyed the many stories of your asking for help in your last Email. I appreciate hearing the many insights and wisdom you received as you opened yourself to asking others for help. I especially enjoyed your reaching out to help others so that you could experience both sides of the helping relationship.

I really enjoyed the many stories of your asking for help in your last Email. I appreciate hearing the many insights and wisdom you received as you opened yourself to asking others for help. I especially enjoyed your reaching out to help others so that you could experience both sides of the helping relationship.

One of my biggest struggles as an effectual entrepreneur is remembering that I am a bringer of opportunity when I talk with customers, investors, and talent I am recruiting. It is so easy for me to fall into the trap of asking for a handout. Or worse, I feel like a used car salesman.

Most of us when we enter a selling situation treat it as the buyer doing us a favor by buying what we have to offer. It puts the seller immediately into the one down position. The interaction changes when you realize that you are doing the buyer a favor by bringing them an opportunity. The nature of who has the power changes dramatically just by this flipped perspective.

As an effectual entrepreneur, understanding the opportunities that the buyer is interested in that intersects with the opportunity that I am uniquely qualified to bring the buyer is my goal. My father called this warm armpit selling. That is, he couldn’t bring his customers an opportunity unless they were able to “roll up their sleeves” and sweat together over the customer’s challenge. He needed to get to know his customer’s business.  He could only do that by working together with the buyers in the same physical space, preferably in their factories.

Dan Pink in his book To Sell is Human shares some research on this dance of opportunity bringing:

“At the epicenter of the entertainment business is the pitch. Television and movie executives take meetings with writers and other creative types, who pitch them ideas for the next blockbuster film or hit TV series. Motion pictures themselves offer a glimpse of these sessions. “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman,” promises an eager writer in the Hollywood satire The Player. “It’s like The Gods Must Be Crazy except the Coke bottle is an actress!” But what really goes on behind those studio walls is often a mystery, which is why two business school professors decided to helicopter behind the lines for a closer look.

Kimberly Elsbach of the University of California, Davis, and Roderick Kramer of Stanford University spent five years in the thick of the Hollywood pitch process. They sat in on dozens of pitch meetings, analyzed transcripts of pitching sessions, and interviewed screenwriters, agents, and producers. The award-winning study they wrote for the Academy of Management Journal offers excellent guidance even for those of us on the living room side of the streaming video.

Their central finding was that the success of a pitch depends as much on the catcher as on the pitcher. In particular, Elsbach and Kramer discovered that beneath this elaborate ritual were two processes. In the first, the catcher (i.e., the executive) used a variety of physical and behavioral cues to quickly assess the pitcher’s (i.e., the writer’s) creativity. The catchers took passion, wit, and quirkiness as positive cues— and slickness, trying too hard, and offering lots of different ideas as negative ones. If the catcher categorized the pitcher as “uncreative” in the first few minutes, the meeting was essentially over even if it had not actually ended.

But for pitchers, landing in the creative category wasn’t enough, because a second process was at work. In the most successful pitches, the pitcher didn’t push her idea on the catcher until she extracted a yes. Instead, she invited in her counterpart as a collaborator. The more the executives— often derided by their supposedly more artistic counterparts as “suits”— were able to contribute, the better the idea often became, and the more likely it was to be green-lighted. The most valuable sessions were those in which the catcher “becomes so fully engaged by a pitcher that the process resembles a mutual collaboration,” the researchers found. “Once the catcher feels like a creative collaborator, the odds of rejection diminish,” Elsbach says. Some of the study’s subjects had their own way of describing these dynamics. One Oscar-winning producer told the professors, “At a certain point the writer needs to pull back as the creator of the story. And let [the executive] project what he needs onto your idea that makes the story whole for him.” However, “in an unsuccessful pitch,” another producer explained, “the person just doesn’t yield or doesn’t listen well.”

“The lesson here is critical: The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. The purpose is to offer something so compelling that it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant, and eventually arrives at an outcome that appeals to both of you. In a world where buyers have ample information and an array of choices, the pitch is often the first word, but it’s rarely the last.”

Pink, Daniel H.  To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (pp. 157-158). Riverhead Hardcover. Kindle Edition.

The art form of warm armpit selling is being passionate about the opportunity you are bringing and then collaborating with the “catcher” to create a joint opportunity.

Watching a friend with her delightful “terrible two” daughter reminded me of a different form of this collaboration that my wife became expert at in raising our three children. The “terrible twos” were not a fun time for me at the Walter house. My answer to every request was “No.” My friend changed the frame for the “terrible twos” stage by offering a meaningful choice rather than dictating a way forward. Instead of “put on your coat” she would ask “Which would you rather wear – the red coat or the blue sweater?” Who knew it could be that easy.  Just flip your perspective to inviting the child to participate in the decision process.

I first understood this bringing of opportunity mindset in 1980 while we were selling the idea of an office automation system to RJ Reynolds Tobacco (RJR). They were looking for a way to replace their aging paper tape Telex systems that were cumbersome to use and expensive to operate.  As RJR was expanding the number of office and manufacturing sites, the speed with which they could move information was increasingly important.  We did a half day analysis and realized that our preliminary design would nicely match their needs since this was primarily an electronic mail application.  Then the client gave us a rude awakening.   They liked our ideas but IBM had agreed to give them a systems analyst and a corporate telecommunications consultant for a month to analyze their needs.  We knew we could not match that offer but got the customer to agree to give us a chance to bid on the results of the IBM system analysis.

A month later we got called back in and given a copy of the IBM analysis.  My spirits soared.  All the IBM folks had done was draw a few illustrations and copy some brochures.  I knew that we could do better in a few short hours.  We recently installed one of our new word processors so we could turn out nice looking proposals in short order.  I asked if we could come back the next afternoon with the analysis and proposal that we had been working on for the last month (a small white lie, but the work that we would do that evening would look like several months work compared to the IBM analysis).  The client agreed and we hurried back from Winston-Salem to Charlotte, NC.  I phoned ahead to my colleague, John Churin, to clean up the architecture diagrams that we created.

Drawing on our previous design work we created a twenty page analysis with several diagrams and a three page consulting contract to design their system for real, for a mere $50,000.  We took the proposal back the next afternoon and the customer was most impressed.  They never expected DEC to upstage IBM, and to do a free analysis in the process.  The customer agreed to our proposal and the next day sent us the approved purchase order.  This was a first for our region, getting a paid project just to do a specification.  We were off and running.

While John and I were the primary consultants on the project, having real customer dollars allowed us to bring our opportunity to the rest of our organization by tapping into expertise around the country that we didn’t have.  Under the guise of project reviews we received great guidance and critiques of the completeness of our designs.  We went back with a 100 page specification and a twenty page proposal for the next phase of the project.  The customer was impressed, but then gave us the bad news that RJR was reorganizing and that this project was cancelled.  While disappointed, we now had a very complete specification that we’d been paid for.  We had received real customer dollars without requiring DEC to invest. Now we could bring this opportunity to other large enterprises.

Bringing opportunities to customers or investors is a bit like the bespoke tailor story that Larry Keeley shared with you in your Institute of Design Introduction to Design Planning.  In the Himalyas when a family decides it needs clothing, they hire a bespoke tailor who lives with them for a month. The tailor watches the activities of the family and then custom crafts clothing to “fit” the needs of each family member. The story nicely fits what a human centered designer should do.

The bespoke tailor metaphor also fits what you as a “bringer of opportunity” need to do – understand the needs of your customer and then work with them to tailor the opportunity to fit their needs.

Much as a good parent comes to understand the unique capabilities of each child and adjusts their environment, books, toys, and experiences to pursue their opportunities, you need to bring the right opportunity at the right time for your customers, investors and talent.

As you mentioned several times in your previous letters, a lot of the advice you are getting comes in the form of “tell more stories.” I heard that advice for so many years and mostly ignored it because I knew I wasn’t an English major in college nor had I ever focused on generating narratives. Finally somebody pointed me to Steve Denning’s notion of a springboard story.

Steve explains that

“. . . a springboard story enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change.

“A springboard story has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information but through catalyzing understanding. It enables listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context.”

Steve gives an example of how he experienced the power of a springboard story:

“The origin of my interest in organizational storytelling was simple: nothing else worked. As a manager in the World Bank in 1996, I had been trying to communicate the idea of knowledge management and to get people to understand and to implement it. At that time in that organization, knowledge management was a strange and generally incomprehensible idea. I used the traditional methods of communicating with no success. I gave people reasons why the idea was important but they didn’t listen. I showed them charts and they just looked dazed. In my desperation, I was willing to try anything and eventually I stumbled on the power of a story, such as the following:

In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia logged on to the website for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia and got the answer to a question on how to treat malaria. 

“This was June 1995, not June 2001. This was not the capital of Zambia but a tiny place six hundred kilometers away. This was not a rich country: this was Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world. But the most important part of this picture for us in the World Bank is this: the World Bank isn’t in the picture. The World Bank doesn’t have its know-how accessible to all the millions of people who made decisions about poverty. But just imagine if it had. Think what an organization it could become.

“In 1996 in the World Bank, this story had helped galvanize staff and managers to imagine a different kind of future for the organization and to set about implementing it. Once knowledge management became an official corporate strategy later that year, I continued to use similar stories to reinforce and continue the change. The efforts were successful: by 2000, the World Bank was bench marked as a world leader in knowledge management.”

Buried in the springboard story discussion above is the springboard question – what would the World Bank organization be if we had our know how accessible to millions? I call this the springboard bringer of opportunity question.

Following our near success with RJ Reynolds, we brought our office automation opportunity to DuPont. The DuPont sales rep and I went to lunch with Ray Cairns, CIO for the Textile Division, and we talked about the history of our efforts and the capabilities of our ideas.  He was an active questioner and probed far and wide about where we’d been and where we expected to go.  He knew that we were developing this capability in conjunction with our customers and then would move it into DEC’s central engineering.

Our unique offer to Ray was they would have an unlimited use license for the first version of the software within DuPont.  Then, if they liked the tools, they would have to buy licenses for the next version of the product.  This offer allowed them to amortize the cost of the project over quite a few hardware systems which made the costs appealing to their financial analysts.  We appeared to be giving up quite a bit of future software revenue, but we were betting that we would have a new version of the product well before they were ready to deploy the software across a lot of systems.  This offer was win-win for both corporations.

I relaxed and felt quite good that the decision maker would decide in our favor.  Little did I know what I was in for in the formal meeting with Ray and his twelve direct reports.  We had professional 35mm slides to present our story and product ideas.  At the end of the 30 minute overview presentation, Ray asked several warm up questions and then hit me with the question that rocked my world: “how has this product helped impact Digital’s bottom line, either positively or negatively?”  He knew from our lunch conversation that the product didn’t even exist, so that it couldn’t have much of an impact.  I knew he wasn’t a stupid man. What was going on here?

In a flash of desperate panic brilliance, it came to me that he wasn’t really asking about DEC; he was using me as a convenient foil to get critical education across to his management team.  I mumbled a few things about our unique approach to developing application software in conjunction with a customer.  Then, I turned the question around (the springboard bringer of opportunity question) to the DuPont management team and asked them how they thought this product might affect DEC’s bottom line?  It is much easier to speculate about the cause and effect in someone else’s organization when you are at a level of optimal ignorance than to do speculation about your own organization.

What ensued was a great one hour conversation with Ray’s technology executives about the implications of such a product and technology on a large, complex organizational system like a Fortune 50 company.

After the meeting, we were awarded the order and we now had the funding to take the ideas of our specification and our demonstration into a full blown product.  The learning for me in this meeting was quite revealing.  Our way of approaching the selling of our ideas to individual contributors and middle managers was the more traditional features and benefits – what Simon Sinek refers to as the “What” and “How.”  Ray made clear that at a certain level of management, the rules change and the offer must move from features and benefits to higher order implications.  In this case, we had to show what effect our product would have on both the revenue side of DuPont and the expense side of DuPont.  In order to answer that kind of question you have to move from the product under study to the system under study.  In particular you have to look at the interactions of an entity with its environment.

We were really rolling now. I’d evolved from presenting lots of facts and features to understanding how to bring opportunity through the springboard story and the springboard bringer of opportunity question.

Yet, I still didn’t understand how to systemically bring about opportunity in a large meaningful way. David Stone, DEC’s European Software Services VP, showed me the real power of combining an exciting opportunity pitch with a large group collaboration to generate business results.

I was asked to speak at the DEC European Software Services Meeting in Majorca, Spain, in 1980 to describe what we were doing in the U.S. with Office Automation.  I gave an overview of the product and the kinds of customer solutions we were generating AND the revenue we were creating.  This got the European managers attention as they were going through a revenue shortfall at the time.   The immediate set of questions I got was about translating the product into each European language.  It was an “oh, of course” type of question for me, but was unheard of in products of the early 1980s where the user interfaces were hardwired into the software code.  I shared that it should be no problem.  If you want to change the interfaces, just change the forms using the standard VMS tools.  All of the messages that we present on the screen are forms so it was easy for a systems analyst to just go ahead and change them.  And we’ve adhered to all the VMS coding conventions so all the National Replacement character sets should work.

It was like I ignited a bomb.  Everyone came out of their seats and started throwing a hundred questions at me.  Seizing the moment, David Stone called a half hour break so that the attendees could get their questions answered informally and allow the country groups to caucus on what my presentation and the ALL-IN-1 product might mean for their business.  He then called the group back to order and gave them a challenge.  Based on what they heard, did they think they could make up any part of the $100 million revenue bookings shortfall Europe was projected to have for the year?

He first asked each country manager group to gather together and develop a straw plan for using the ALL-IN-1 product to address the revenue shortfall.  In the process, the groups were to identify any issues, questions or concerns that they had and they could pose those to me in their group presentations.  Each group went off and spent ninety minutes discussing the opportunity.  Then each of the ten country groups made their reports and identified their issues.  As each group reported, I went through my large library of 35 mm slides to find the slides that addressed each issue or question.  I got David to stall for a few minutes after the last group so I could arrange the slides in some semblance of presentation order.

I then stood up and gave a “custom” presentation addressing all of their issues.  The European country managers were really excited.  Until that moment I had not realized the power of a “custom” presentation to go along with our easily customizable product.  The group correctly sensed that this product was quite real and could be readily adapted for each country’s unique business needs.  In the past, Europe had to take a one size fits all set of products that were English language and US culture centric.  Long delays would occur to get even minimal localization done for each country.  Now they’d found a product that could be introduced simultaneously throughout Europe in each natural language at the same time as the US introduction.

David asked the country groups to take this new information and come back with a “committed” forecast of how much of the revenue shortfall they could make up with this product.  The groups quickly formed and in 15 minutes came back with their commitments.  The commitments totaled $120 million.  David scaled the numbers back to total $100 million to mitigate the exuberance factor.  I was blown away and now fearful for my life.  I wondered what would happen if they all woke up and decided they’d been railroaded into a commitment in the bliss of the moment.  I figured they’d shoot the messenger – me.

The group then started to work on the marketing program to make their commitments happen.  Using the natural creative competitiveness of the countries, David broke them into their country units to develop logos for the $100 million in 100 days campaign.  Then he organized cross-functional and multi-country groups to develop:

    • the twenty page newsletter that would go out to all sales and software personnel in Europe,
    • the training program for sales and software personnel,
    • the localization teams to translate ALL-IN-1 into each country’s natural language,
    • other applications that could be combined with ALL-IN-1 in each geography.

By the end of the four day meeting, the Europeans now had a major new product that was their own, a marketing program that they could roll out, and a new found respect by their sales peers.  I was asked to stay over another week to train the software consultants who would be doing the translations.  I asked that each country supply a software consultant to come work with our development team for a month at a time to make the US developers aware of multi-cultural needs.  Within the month, the European teams had ALL-IN-1 translated into 10 different languages and cultures.  Within the 100 days they’d exceeded their goals and in fact did $120 million of additional business.

In David Stone, I saw and appreciated a master at management leadership and motivation.  For the next year I spent as much time in Europe as I could to learn about changing the behavior of a large organization.  I asked David how he knew that my presentation would set off so much useful energy.  He laughed and said that he had no idea that it would.  “What I do is schedule an agenda that has as much informational diversity as possible running the gamut from product information, service information, corporate strategy, engineering strategy, organizational behavior change stuff, and management education.  I never know which of these topics will cause an energy hit with these 150 managers, but I’m confident that one of them will.  When energy resonates between the audience and the speaker then I go into action.  You are good at creating energy with a powerful product vision. I know how to move energy into actionable business results.  Business action is what I’m really good at.”

The bringer of opportunity contrasts with the solver of problems approach to selling. The solver of problems approach is summarized in the Blame Frame for addressing customer problems:

    • What is the problem?
    • How did it get this way?
    • Who caused it?
    • What are you going to do about it?

As you hear those questions, does your personal energy expand or contract?  For most of us, our energy contracts.

The bringer of opportunity works hard to focus on Outcome Frame questions to increase our own energy and our “buyers” energy:

    • What are we trying to create?
    • How will we know we created it?
    • What resources do we have to get started now?
    • What other opportunities does this lead to?

How can you think outside of traditional approaches to bring your opportunity to all of the customers, investors and audience members you are touching?

Yours in entrepreneuring,

Skip Walter

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Emails to a Young Entrepreneur, Entrepreneuring, Flipped Perspective, Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

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