Need to grow your business? Think like an artist.

Creativity isn’t just for kids and artists.  According to a survey of CEOs*, creativity is the most important leadership quality for success in business.  Whether you are stuck on how to get your product distributed, attract investors, tell your story or fend off encroaching competition, a little artistic thinking could provide your answer.

How can you build your creative capacity?


circle timeArtists are curious about the world around them, and see different perspectives.  Perhaps you need a little more curiosity about your clients to open up a conversation about how your product is relevant to them.  Or can you learn more about your competition to see the critical gap they are missing? Taking an interest in the sales success of a company in an entirely different industry might trigger a lightbulb moment about your messaging or tactics.  Sometimes focus seems at odds with curiosity, so you may need an intentional effort to be an explorer.


As the gateway to innovation, creativity is just another word for problem solving.  Revenue is stuck in third gear. Prospects won’t move. That one developer is holding up your entire product launch.  What you need is soft skills packaged as a technical or visionary breakthrough.  And when you figure out how to generate the ideas and solutions that your company needs, you will have the new global currency of creativity.  Your employees trade on it, and the new market for company value trades on it too.


collaborative install_2Imagine the performing artist who puts himself on stage time and time again.  Fully exposed and producing un-retrievable images to an audience of friends and strangers. How many thousands of paintings, photographs and pots sit unsold in galleries and stands?  So what can we learn about how an artist summons the courage to act on her ideas and visions, and takes the boldest of moves to put her entire identity and livelihood on the line for all the world to see?  In the flood of artistic attempts comes the beauty of the Vietnam Memorial, the David, the Sistine Chapel….these efforts changed the world in profound ways.  Your business can too.

Innovation InstituteMcColl Center view

To translate the skills of artists to business people, the McColl Center for Art and Innovation pulled together a National Advisory Board comprised of specialists in leadership, training, coaching and human resources.  The result is a new “Think Like an Artist” program specifically for business and non-profit executives to help them harness the creative resources they already possess within themselves and their people.  Led by artists and a new Director, the program aims to unleash creativity in executives, ultimately helping leaders deliver better performance on their main stage.

To learn more about how to “Think Like an Artist”, contact Sheila Mullen  at or go to

*IBM 2010 Global CEO Study

Photographs courtesy of McColl Center for Art + Innovation

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Common Sense for Founders – Part Two

Lady and hand (540x361)Business is about dealing with people, so developing a few soft skills to complement your technical expertise comes in handy when starting a company.  Here is a little common sense for the road:

  1. Pick up the phone.  All the interpretation, miscues and delays on email and text can easily be resolved with a quick phone call to clarify a meeting objective or next step. There’s nothing inappropriate about lobbing a quick call – if the person is busy, they won’t answer.
  1. Ask questions. Instead of bracing for an interrogation, or stressing about expectations for a presentation, make it your job to ask good questions that buy you time and protect you from landmines.  Inquiring minds show intelligence, interest, and desire for a relationship.
  1. Get a Yes.  A small “yes” is better than a big “no”.  Move the relationship forward with small asks that can get a positive response until you get the “Big Yes” (a sale or investment).
  1. Just like dating.  Use some intrigue to lure in your prospect.  Don’t be too needy or give away all your secrets too early.
  1. Give back.  Do you think people are helping you just because they like you or feel spiritually compelled to mentor, or that they should help you because they’ve already been successful? Get over it – figure out their interest and meet it, or be prepared for the gravy train to end before you’ve gotten your free ride.
  1. Look in the mirror.  If colleagues aren’t working out, it’s not just because they are stupid and lazy.  Reflect on how your ability to motivate and lead can impact the results you get from those around you.
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Common Sense for Founders – Part One

Watch Your Step (540x361)Call me a nudge but some things I see Founders do (or not do) defy common sense.  So here I go – the first 6 pieces of my mind:

  1. When you get a meeting, move a mountain to meet in person.  Connecting in person for a few minutes over coffee beats a phone call or email every time, especially if you aim to build a long term relationship, get market intelligence or honest feedback.  Many founders are so focused on efficiency that they miss the value of all the unexpected and intangible learnings and leads that happen in person.
  1. Just in case you didn’t know, business starts at 8am (or before). No one is watching what time you come in the office, but in a left-brained city like Charlotte business starts early. So phone and text should be at the ready.
  1. Does anyone still have a smartphone without email?  Acknowledging that email is dead and text rules for anyone under 35, if your prospective customers are the old guard then you better have a way to get their emails.  Promptly.
  1. Respond within 24 hours.  But only if you want their business. Or advice. Or money.
  1. Look people in the eye.  The age of ipads and iphones has led to a constant stare into the screen. If you are working to build a relationship with potential customers, advisors or investors then you need to build trust and respect, which starts with eye contact.
  1. Notes show interest, but you are not in class. Jotting down a few notes in a personal meeting shows interest and commitment to follow up. Writing down every word de-personalizes the meeting and puts you in a subordinate position.

There’s more. Stay tuned for Part Two!

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How to Make a Difference and Get Results

FT GuideBest known as Europe’s answer to the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times has recently published their Guide to Management in conjunction with the Chartered Management Institute in London.  Lucky to know the author Ann Francke, I got the chance to provide my own advice for the The Last Word section on Advice From the Front Line:

Top tip

To keep that constant perspective on what’s most important, one of my favorite maxims is Dr. Stephen Covey’s theory of “big rocks”– know what’s most important in your life, and let all the “little rocks” fill in around the boulders. How easily we can get distracted by other people’s priorities!

Top pitfall

Ah, get that monkey off my back! Originally discussed in the Harvard Business Review in 1974, the politics of responsibility and delegation are still a trap, as I see myself and others take on responsibilities that “are not my/our job” and get on the slippery slope of being stuck with the ugly monkey.

Top takeaway

Clear vision is just another term for focus – the key to both long and short term success. For leaders in organizations both large and small, focus can be a constant challenge. Entrepreneurs who chase today’s shiniest star, or corporations who creep into far-afield business lines, rarely have a winning strategy, just a constant temptation. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last, addresses focus in his “hedgehog” concept and quantifies the impact on business results.

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6 Questions from the Startup Judges

Between judging for  Startup Weekend, the Innovation Fund North Carolina, UltraLight Startups Future Energy and in a few weeks, the Charlotte Venture Challenge I’ve heard over 50 pitches this year including those at the Charlotte Angel Fund.  Based on actual mistakes I heard over the past two months, here are 6 key questions where you don’t want to be flat-footed:

  1. Have you talked to any customers?  Now imagine yourself in New York City, standing in front of a crowded room, addressing a panel of investors including GE Global Research, Clearpoint Ventures and Shell International and you get this question.  You do not want to say “No”. You can hedge that you’ve thought about who some customers might be and that you will be talking to them very soon, but clearly that’s not soon enough.  Your credibility just went down the tubes.  NEXT!
  2. Who are your competitors?  I love it when entrepreneurs tell an audience that they have no competitors.  Water competes with Coca-Cola. Cash competes with credit cards. If you think you have no one else on the field, you better watch your back. Likely you are not looking at your market broadly enough, or in terms of needs versus solutions.  While you are identifying who is truly taking up your market share, also get ready to explain how you are different and why others in the market have failed to address your customers’ needs.
  3. How do you make money? If you aren’t generating revenue yet, be ready to explain who is going to pay for your solution and why you believe they will.
  4. Who else is on your team? This is no time to be a hero, steadfastly fighting alone in your mission. If you can’t find anyone else to join you, or you haven’t asked, or everyone has said No, then it’s time to figure out if it’s you or the idea that has left them cold.  Having a strong team is critical to early stage investors, so round out your skills with partners, a virtual team and advisors. Which leads us to the next question –
  5. Who are your Advisors? Strong advisors can add a lot to the credibility, expertise and access of your startup.  Attracting advisors is the first test of your vision, leadership and selling skills.  Identify your dream team and make a plan to meet and recruit them. Then motivate them to engage and stick with you by offering a small amount of equity.
  6. How much have you personally invested in the company?  This question was particularly important to the folks at Innovation Fund NC, because it shows a tangible level of commitment to your business.  Our local angel fund lost interest quickly in a founder who had no plans to leave his day job for 18 months. Investors want to see true skin in the game with both time and money.  It’s got to hurt a little before an outsider will jump in to share in your risk.



InnovationFund_NorthCarolina (1)

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Mentoring Tips for Businesswomen

bizwomen-mentoring - CopyLast Monday I had the pleasure to meet a huge crowd of women and fellow mentors for the Charlotte Business Journal’s first BizWomen Mentoring Monday.  Along with 9,000 women in 40 other cities, more than 300 women in Charlotte packed in to get five minutes of advice from a round-robin of 58 mentors.  Here are the questions I heard and my advice:

Q. I work with kids and we want to connect to the startup community in Charlotte.  How do I start?

A. Contact Packard Place and Queen City Forward and consider getting startup founders to mentor your kids.  It’s a great way for founders to wear the mentoring shoe on the other foot and give back to the community.

Q.  A man in my office asks me to get coffee and treats me like a little girl.  What do I do?

A.   Look around and see how he treats others in the office.  He may treat all junior employees the same way, in which case you may have to overlook his paternalism as harmless as long as it is not over the top. If you feel you are being treated differently, read Crucial Conversations to prepare for a delicate but effective approach.Crucial Conversations

Q. I have a new job leading an Annual Fund campaign and feel out of my element. Any advice?

A.  Don’t reinvent the wheel!  Lots of folks in Charlotte have experience running successful annual fund campaigns for non-profits. Reach out to folks who have worked in development, using LinkedIn, AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) or your personal connections.

Q. My boss is bullying me.  I’ve never experienced anything like this, and my attempts to discuss it with him have been dismissed.  Have you ever dealt with this?

A. Oh yes!  And it’s not easy.  Best to address this before the pattern sets in.  Try not to over-react or get emotional, and be in control of your own boundaries.  Also try to understand his point of view as far as the feedback or message he is trying to send. Read Crucial Conversations and Boundaries.  If he’s just an ass, you should find another job if you can.  You don’t have to put up with a bully and it is not your job to fix him.

Q. My restaurant business is going well and customers keep asking me to expand to other neighborhoods.  We have good cash flow and no debt, but an expansion would require more capital.  How do I approach expansion?

A.  In two minutes, my advice is to talk to your customers – a lot – then assess your location options and consider just one for a pilot expansion.  Keep your expenses to a minimum, such as a six month lease on the new space.

Q.  I’ve just moved into my first non-profit role and the culture seems very different from the corporate world.  Am I imagining this?

A. You are right – you are in a very different culture.  Become an anthropologist studying the people, their reactions and approaches and make your internal relations at least a third of your job until you get your bearings.

Please chime in with the advice you would offer!

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Winning Despite Obstacles

Barb wire twist (540x362)Our stock price was down to $1.75 from $22.  We were in a Smart Money magazine fold-out as one of the internet companies closest to the sun – flaming out. Customers were getting skittish about buying our leads. Barrons said we were out of cash. LendingTree – circa 2001.

In response, our beloved CTO Rick Stiegler stood on a chair in front of a few hundred employees and shouted – “We weren’t as good as we thought we were at 22 [dollars per share], and we’re not as bad as we feel now. So just get back to your desks and create great products to make our customers happy.”

Thereby Rick poignantly demonstrated LendingTree’s core value – Winning Despite Obstacles. So much is wrapped up in those three words.

Winning is not just succeeding or achieving.  It’s more – Starting every day with a game-on attitude and the drive and spirit of a sportsman.

The word “despite” infers expectation of a tough competition, and embracing it.

Obstacles are mere hurdles for the runner, to be leapt over not defeated by.  Market shifts, regulations, competitors, funding gaps – all to be faced not as crises but as mile markers for the race.

The story ends with a sale two years later at the original price of $22.  A good day at LendingTree.

May we all take this value into the new year and capture the leaderboard in our endeavors.

Photograph courtesy of Gabriella Santander. 

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Why Techies Need a Business Partner

Last week I had two very different conversations with two very similar companies. Both had technical founders in the same general industry, but one founder had managed to recruit a team including a former McKinsey consultant, an investment banker and a seasoned sales lead – all willing to work for equity. The other founder was waiting for funding to recruit a business partner. Which company would you bet on?

Hiking Sticks - it takes two

Hiking Sticks – it takes two

If you need a business partner, don’t wait for funding. It is highly unlikely that funds will come first. Investors want to see a team, and you’ll need some business savvy to put together a pitch or even a grant request.

Here’s some advice for recruiting business partners:

  1. Get exposure to the business community.  Join networks, incubators, accelerator programs or university challenges to get on the radar. Let people know that you are open and interested in finding a strong business partner.
  2. Sell your vision.  Money follows vision. And that money includes people working for no cash because they believe in the vision.  If a business person can see the market potential and the uniqueness of your product, they may be willing to take the risk to come join you.
  3. Be willing to share equity. It makes no sense to hold onto 100% of nothing, when you could recruit a team to build you company and own 25% of something.  Ownership is a strong motivator, so share some upside when you find talent interested in creating the future with you.
  4. Be willing to share cash.  When the cash does come in, from investors or revenue, then it’s time to start paying enough to keep your team together. The dance of negotiation will determine how much and how soon, but the carrot of a strong vision for the future will keep negotiation on your side.
  5. Be willing to share control.  New owners want to put their fingerprints on the strategy and priorities for the company. You may think they are crazy, and maybe they are, but that’s where your powers of persuasion and willingness to share risk come to bear. Your new partners want to succeed as much as you do, and are investing their sweat and time as well as giving up other income opportunities. Trusting the intelligence and intention of your team is the only way to go.


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Customer Focus Propels Genetipetz

GenetipetzToy company Genetipetz is back in the market with a contest to let customers create mixed up animals to stuff and sell.  Last year crowdsourced ideas for genetically engineered toys led to the birth of the Snurtlegator, Mooraffe and Zebugraphant.  The deadline for the next contest is September 30 if you are, or know of, a budding designer looking for a legacy. Not only does Genetipetz outsource design to the public, the company’s customer focus propels its fundraising, marketing and distribution.

Initial Market Research

From the outset, Genetipetz successfully solicited input from potential customers.  Founder Chris Meade first set up a Facebook page for Genetipetz and gathered a following. Fans served as a virtual focus group, as Meade began to sketch out and post ideas to help people visualize his mixed-up stuffed animals. Next Meade set up free web-based surveys through MicroPoll to quantify preferences and determine target segments. Analysis showed that girls preferred Zebugraffants (zebra, lady bug and elephant combination) and boys leaned towards Snurtlegators (snake, turtle and alligator), so Meade knew he needed both toys to keep a broad market appeal.

Kickstarter for Capital

Once the toy designs were confirmed, Meade needed money for the first production run.  A rewards-based Kickstarter campaign generated demand and enough capital to cover the initial set of toys. While the crowdfunding approach did not raise enough money for hiring and marketing, it did allow Meade to work out some kinks in his process, and fund a critical trip to the annual Toy Fair in New York.

Toy Fair Provides Industry Immersion

Three days at the Toy Fair quickly opened doors for Meade.  In one week, he met folks from every corner of his industry – manufacturers, distributors, Big Box toy companies to Mom & Pops, catalogues to online powerhouses, attorneys, accountants and safety experts that specialized in toys.  While Meade shared his experience on crowdfunding, the others shared connections, insights, and inside knowledge that put Meade on the fast-track to navigating the toy space.  Customer focus was broadened to include wholesalers and distributors that now play a critical role in scaling Genetipetz.

Gaming Technology

The most intriguing outcome of the Toy Fair was Meade’s window into the world of game technology.  Relationships born in New York have led Meade to develop an NFC chip (think bumping Samsung phones to share photos) sewn into the feet of his toys with unique codes. Toy owners will go to the “Clubhouse” on the Genetipetz website to register their animals and unlock online games.  Soon kids will be able to name their pets and swipe them over their iphones to “power up” on certain applications, for example using a Snurtlegator to swim across a water barrier on a game board. Genetipetz animal


To protect his intellectual property for the game technology, Meade worked with Moore & Van Allen interns to file a provisional patent, after they researched what features were eligible. Exploring more gaming applications opens up exciting opportunities for education and more personalization. Once again, Genetipetz is focused on creating a deeper bond with customers, this time through the interaction between child and toy.

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Meet a Social Entrepreneur Proving the Power of One

jay boatIn 2010, Jay Jaboneta learned that almost 200 elementary school students in a Filipino island community were forced to swim a mile across the sea every day to attend school on the mainland. Disturbed by this hardship, and encouraged by a friend to do something more than just post on Facebook, Jaboneta began a movement he called Zamboanga Fund for Little Kids.

The group began by raising funds to buy boats for the kids in this one community. Soon similar needs were uncovered in other neighboring islands. Strong community organizing and artful social networking led to the formation of the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, which now serves 16 separate “Yellow Boat” communities in the Philippines.

Jay Jaboneta is a Filipino blogger, philanthropist, new media advocate, online community organizer and former Head of New Media in President Aquino‘s administration. Jaboneta was recognized by Yahoo! Southeast Asia as one of their “7 Modern Day Pinoy Heroes” for catalyzing the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, which has encouraged hundreds of children in the Philippines.

jay tedxToday Jaboneta is the Founding Partner, Fire Starter and Chief Storyteller for One Awesome Company and is a regular speaker on social media, digital technology and youth leadership. He was featured at the 2012 TEDXMontpellier in France and the 2013 TEDxKinnaird in Pakistan.

Jay met some of Charlotte’s social entrepreneurs and startup community recently and learned about their stories.  How can you have the power of one?

Photographs courtesy of Jay Jaboneta.

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