Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Fascinating Discussion With Virginia Uldrick About Unleashing Creative Potential

I am producing a documentary on entrepreneurship, and recently had an interview with Virginia Uldrick, the founder of the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. Below is a snippet about how Virginia recruited out of the box thinkers, who are among the best in the world at what they do, and molded them into one of best high schools in the world.

There is a powerful lesson here for how to create highly innovative communities. Surround yourself with incredibly talented people. Give them rules of the organization must live by. Then make it possible for talented people to do what they do at the best level possible.

Uldrick: The vision of the school was to create the best arts high school in America, maybe in the world, to become the best in the world. We were successful. We are the number one school in music theory of a school for its size; we are one of sixteen schools in America doing service learning, the right way. We are one of two of the finest dance training programs in the world of a school of its size and the number of students served. Our teacher is one of three people winning the Nijinsky prize, the head of the dance department. How do you get people like this?

Warner: How do you get teachers to do this?

Uldrick: You do that very carefully by advertising in lots of places nationally. You do a lot of research.

Warner: What are you looking for?

Uldrick: Well we wrote the specs on that. We wrote what we wanted in a teacher. First of all, they have to be outside the box. They have to be an artist. The arts teachers have to be an artist. They have to be a distinguished artist. They have to have made some record in being a master teacher, either privately in the colleges or universities or in the public schools.

What do you write? You write the loftiest ideal’s that you can think about. But they are not lofty, just not done in the norm. You have to reach as high as your brain can take you, as your vision can take you. What is it that children need to know and be able to do? Not just this, but this.

Warner: So you've got a vision of the school, you've got wonderful people, how do you make it sure it operates right?

Uldrick: Well you have a plan of action; you know what the rules and regulations are. You have a set of procedures and guidelines to work through. When you are a state agency and you are also a public school you have two agencies you are working for and it’s tough. You have to satisfy both.

Warner: So you have a talented team of people, how do you make sure that the school runs the way you want it to run? You just told me you had a bunch of people thinking outside of the box.

Uldrick: Absolutely.

Warner: Somehow you've got make sure this works.

Uldrick: But you take what they think out of the box and make it fit into what is required.

Warner: How do you do that?

Uldrick: Not easily. But you trust, there has to be major trust between the president, the dean, the faculty, the staff, and the board, major trust.

Warner: How do you get that trust? You have hired a dance teacher who one of few people who won an award that Baryshnikov won. You going to tell that person how to teach dance?

Uldrick: Absolutely not! He is going to tell me how to teach it.

Warner: So how do you do that?

Uldrick: I am going to give him the rules of the agency and the state, and we have to live within those rules. Now, I will make it possible for you to do what you do, and want to do, at the best level possible. You tell me what you want, and I will tell you what you can have. Then we will try to get the wants, but we have to have what we have to have first.

So you build, its building blocks and you school those people into becoming [what they must be]. Yes its frustrating for people who aren’t accustomed to that. Because when you are in a public arena generally you go by these rules and you never step outside the box. As long as you satisfy these rules, it’s okay.

I think we have gone beyond that. I think that both governor’s schools have set a tone to go beyond that but you learn from those people what that have to have to be successful, to give these children the best that is possible and then you work hard with the private sector and the state to say this is what we need. This is not what we want, this is what we need. Now when we get what we need, we will tell you what we need on the next step, which is a want right now.

So you build your program that way. You build trust with your legislature and you build trust with your donors. You also can not build a donor unless you sit with that donor and you tell them what your vision is. You tell them how they can help satisfy that vision.

Not for the president, not for the dean, not for the teachers, but for that child. That child does not know what his vision is yet, fully, but he knows, "I want to be a dancer; I want to be a dancer."

Truth and Beauty: Part Deux

J. David Woodard, who teaches political science at Clemson and holds the Strom Thurmond Chair of Government, entered the fray over the book assigned to Clemson freshmen to read this summer, Truth and Beauty.

In the book, a woman makes bad choices in her life and pays the consequences. Sounds like a good book for college freshmen with a new burst of freedom to read. But Dr. Woodard doesn't think the book was appropriate because the author didn't spoon feed the freshmen readers a sermon with the proper moral lesson.
In the words of a local pastor in his letter to President James Barker, 'Lucy eventually pays the price ... not for these mistakes, but for her false sense of invincibility. Little is done to dissipate the moral fog, even by the book's end.'
Woodward quotes John Gardner that
Art is essentially and primarily moral -- that is, life-giving -- in its process of creation and moral in what it says.
Beyond the fact that many would argue with that definition of art, Wikiepida notes that:
[Gardner's] direct and often unflattering (perhaps courageous) judgments of contemporary authors harmed his relationships with many in the publishing industry...

Gardner published "The Life and Times of Chaucer"... [with] several passages in the text that either in whole or in part were lifted directly from works by other authors... [which] Newsweek magazine and other mainstream media outlets were quick to simply label it plagiarism...

John Gardner was married twice... [and] died in a motorcycle accident just days before a scheduled third wedding.
Evidently, Garner never absorbed the lessons of his own uplifting moral fiction. Perhaps Dr. Woordward thinks it would have been more appropriate for Clemson freshmen to have read a biography of the man he holds up as a moral beacon. Gardner clearly seems to have made bad choices and paid a price. Let's make sure, though, in this book that we don't challenge young minds to examine and debate the moral choices that Gardner made, but rather by the end of the book let's make sure we lift the moral fog they surely will be in.

My daughter is a Clemson freshman. She and I attended a reception at Clemson this week, where a top academic official told her that for eighteen years her parents had taught her a value structure and now she was independent and would have to test and build on that value structure herself. An image came to my mind of a National Geographic film where a newly born giraffe struggles and wobbles to get to its feet, teeters a few times, and then runs off into the savannah to make a new life for itself. If all the parts are there properly, the young giraffe will be just fine. It they're not, the youngster is not long for this world.

I'm confident, yet still pray, that my daughter has a strong foundation and will thrive in the intellectual milieu that is Clemson.

Startup Success 2006

This is a video of “Startup Success,” the Churchill Club’s annual look at what it takes to build a successful startup. This panel of five Silicon Valley entrepreneurs discussed the challenges and critical success factors necessary to reach the promised land. August 17, 2006.


Moderator: Guy Kawasaki, Managing Director, Garage Technology Ventures

  • Lauren Elliott, Founder, Personal News Network

  • Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder and CEO, LinkedIn

  • Joe Kraus, Co-Founder and CEO, JotSpot

  • Daniel Mattes, Co-Founder and CTO, Jajah

  • Alex Welch, Co-Founder and CEO, Photobucket

Global Cooling in 6-9 Years?

We're all familiar with the forecast of global warming due to the increase of man made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So, now along comes a Russian scientist that studies solar activity who predicts the beginning of a regular 200 year cycle of global cooling, not global warming.
On the basis of our [solar emission] research, we developed a scenario of a global cooling of the Earth’s climate by the middle of this century and the beginning of a regular 200-year-long cycle of the climate’s global warming at the start of the 22nd century...He and his colleagues had concluded that a period of global cooling similar to one seen in the late 17th century — when canals froze in the Netherlands and people had to leave their dwellings in Greenland — could start in 2012-2015 and reach its peak in 2055-2060... The Kyoto initiatives to save the planet from the greenhouse effect should be put off until better times.
Weather is such a complex phenomena that we can't reliably predict it a few days out. Can we really predict it several decades out? Perhaps the increased greenhouse gases will provide a blanket to protect us from the deep freeze to come.

Probably the scariest thing is that, as it has been for millennia, civilizations come and go based on the fickleness of the weather, we are at its mercy, we can’t predict it, and, at the end of the day, there is nothing we can do about it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

On Building a Civil Community

There are lots of experiments going on in creating online communities. One problem with communities is that there are always a few people that get obnoxious and drive off other more productive people. Think about the neighbors that insist on partying loud at 2:00 am. We've commented before that the example of Wikipedia demonstrates the need for an authority to make a community work.

Brad Warthen, The State's Editorial Page Editor, has written a blog for some time now. While most of the comments by others are good and constructive, a few people are shrill and insulting to others. To combat this, Brad has instituted some rules: Civility III (draft): Here's what I'm gonna do, for now.

From now on, Brad will let commenters say pretty much what they want if they put their name to it. Since there are legitimate times things must be said anonymously, he will allow anonymous commenters, but they will be subject to censuring to keep down the anonymous flame throwing. That makes sense, but some people will chafe at any authority, whether it's the referee of a basketball game, the administrators at Wikipedia, or the editor of a blog.

We can learn as much from Brad's attempt to build a civil community, as we can from the community’s comments themselves.

The real impact of open source

The open source movement will change the world - well at least part of the world. The challenge is figuring out which part.

Evan Tishuk at OrangeCoat forwarded a link to an interesting article, The real impact of open source.

The punch line is:
The real impact of open source is to sustain innovations in mature software markets, thus extending the useful life of software assets and saving customers money.
I think that's right. Open source software is changing the world. is built on the open source package, WordPress.

But open source has its limitations too. Having a dedicated group of volunteers writing software collaboratively is definitely not a way to do innovative, mission critical applications.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Brouhaha About Truth and Beauty

My daughter started as a freshman at Clemson today. I've been amazed by the brouhaha over the book freshman were assigned to read this summer, Truth and Beauty.

I recently received an email looking for parents who were alarmed. Actually the email was from an organization run by a friend of mine who was a student with me at Clemson too many years ago. The email noted: reviewer Ruth Steinberg (Atlanta) had a good grasp of its content when she wrote that it was reminiscent of a "1950s lesbian pulp novel." Allyson Hamilton (Los Angeles) called it "a memoir of a disturbed woman and her girlfriend." While only suggestive of a homosexual relationship, it is full of gratuitous heterosexual sex on the part of Lucy.
When I moved my daughter into her dorm on Saturday, she had a cable connection for her television. And I'm supposed to be concerned about the gratuitous sex she'll read in a book. Come on. Who are we kidding? There's almost nothing she or her peers are going to learn about sex from a novel.

She complained the book wasn't good literature. "Fine," I told her. "Clemson's not asking you to agree with the lifestyle in the book or even like the book. What they are requiring is that you think and then articulately explain your position."

My friend was concerned that we are "subsidizing more and more things [faithful people will] find repulsive with their tax dollars." But an intellectual discussion on a college campus is not morally repulsive, even if the subject is. If some folks think this author is morally warped, wait until these kids get to Emerson or Thoreau. I remember being the only person in my English class at Clemson writing that Thoreau was in la la land on Walden Pond and defending the Puritan authors we read. My professor was very liberal and was having none of it from me. But I did get an A in the class, and I remember that as one of the most enjoyable, and in retrospect one of the most educational, classes that I had at Clemson.

My daughter's about to get exposed to a bunch of diverse lifestyles, some of which she will find morally repugnant. I appreciate that Clemson is willing to begin her intellectual exploration in a structured setting where first she has to listen to others in the room before she opines. I am proud that she's is willing to express her opinions in a setting where there are likely to be others who strongly disagree with her. I hope the discussion gets frothy. But I also hope that they can go get a pizza together when it is over.

Regardless of what else she has learned, if at the end of four years she has learned to think, her undergraduate experience will have been successful. She's off to a good start.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

One shot at websites that changed the world - and the commercial that made Super Bowl commercials Super Bowl commercials

It's almost hard to believe that all of this happened in the past ten years.

I was in a meeting yesterday of Next, a group of emerging technology companies in Greenville SC, and whispered to the guy next to me about the famous challege twenty years ago, "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?" We recognized that most of the people in the room were too young to have any idea what we were talking about.

Heck, most of the people in the room never saw the Super Bowl commercial that made Super Bowl commercials Super Bowl commercials.

I'm feeling old.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Eli Whitney's patent gets ripped off

Last week Adam Gautsch stirred the muck with his post, "The Problem with Patents."

Coincidentally, this week American Heritage featured an article about how Eli Whitney got ripped off by Southern cotton farmers who stole his intellectual property, the cotton gin, which made cotton king. If Southerners had had more respect for the need to incentivized innovation, rather than building an economy on human chattel, Southern history could have had a more positive outcome.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Expanding the Innovation Horizon: Global CEO Study 2006

It's IBM's turn to release a survey of CEO's perspectives on innovation - Expanding the Innovation Horizon: Global CEO Study 2006

A key conclusion is:
Business model innovation is becoming the new strategic differentiator. "The business model we choose will determine the success or failure of our strategy," one study participant said. In contrast to the findings of the 2004 survey, innovation in the enterprise's business model garnered nearly as much attention as innovation in a company's core processes and functions.
In Clayton Christensen's parlance, it's discontinuous innovations that need to be commercialized in new business models in order to address the needs of new markets of customers.

After a couple decades of programs like Six Sigma to drive down costs and improve quality, which primarily improved existing products sold to existing customers, American companies are finding they've squeezed most of the juice from that fruit. Now it's time to tackle the really difficult job of creating new markets.

Innovation management is where quality management was about twenty years ago.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Our reality is sometime just an illusion

We think we understand how our brains work, and we are under the illusion that we are rational creatures accurately perceiving our reality.

Here's a very cool experiment that causes our brain to perceive a reality that isn't there.

If our brains mislead us in something as simple as this, imagine how often we perceive illusions as reality in our daily existence without never realizing it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

An email to a friend: Why the Boston Consulting Group found returns on "innovation" aren't acceptable

A friend recently emailed me a question:
According to a Boston Consulting Group study, 3 out of 4 companies will increase spending on innovation this year but 1 out of 2 are unhappy with the return on investment. One critical reason for that is that no one knows how to measure the success of "innovation."

What are your thoughts on measuring innovation? How would you show a boss that the million dollars he spent on innovation last year was worth it?
We observed there are three kinds of innovation: selling more to existing customers, improving the productivity of existing processes, and creating new markets of customers. The question was whether if we could measure innovation better, we would get better results. After some back and forth, here's the conclusion I came to in the last email in the conversation:
In my personal experience here is what I have seen happen.

A) Certain people are responsible for increasing sales from “new products to existing customers.” This is a combination of sales and R&D people. At times there were increases in the budget for this, and sales out the back end of the process were tracked. We knew the ROI on this.

B) Certain other people are responsible for “reduced costs.” This is a combination of operations, IT and R&D in terms of reducing the cost of producing the product, and primarily operations, IT, and sales in terms of trying to reduce the cost of other processes. At times there were specific budgets for this, and cost reductions were tracked. We knew the ROI on this too.

In KEMET’s specific example, the CEO (and everyone else) would tell you that the return on investment on these investments was not acceptable. We could measure it till the cows came home and the returns would still be unacceptable. The problem we had mature products and a mature business model and we kept squeezing the orange but getting less juice out of it. We could measure the juice coming out, there just wasn’t enough, and more precise measurement of the juice or of the effort to squeeze the orange wasn’t going to help much.

C) That leaves us with, “selling products to new customers.” Most companies don’t know how to do this. Reference Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator's Dilemma. The problem that Christensen identifies is that while A) and B) are high data activities where we can make data decisions, there is very little data about “new customers,” so inherently it is a low data environment. This is not a question of not measuring the right things, because there is not much to measure. When investing I used to remind people that we could do all the due diligence we wanted, and we should, but there was still more that was unknowable than was knowable. So Christensen says that in addition to teaching mangers to make data driven decisions in later stage businesses, we should also teach managers to make theory driven decisions in early stage businesses. This is the informed intuition that the entrepreneurs I spoke to were depending on. They were not placing wild-eye, unknowledgeable bets, it was just that their knowledge had been gathered informally over a long time and they were doing what humans do so well, which is find patterns in widely disbursed data. It's why experienced VCs bet on the jockey, not the horse. A great book on this phenomenon is Blink.

I have an informed guess about what the CEOs you are talking to are telling you. For the past couple of decades, major companies have invested a great deal in quality and cost reduction programs like Six Sigma. It is not that they have not executed this well, that is, if they measured it better they would get better results. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of juice in the quality and cost oranges. Today, in major corporations most of the juice has been squeezed out and so their returns on continuing to squeeze are diminishing. What they need to now focus on is entrepreneurial opportunities “selling products to new customers” but they don’t know how to do that.

“Innovation management” is at the same place “quality management” was 20 years ago. You and I have discussed this before. I don’t think the problem of “innovation management” is A) and B), as much as it is C).


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Day of the Longtail

Wikipedia says:
The phrase The Long Tail (as a proper noun with capitalized letters) was first coined by Chris Anderson in a 2004 article in Wired magazine to describe certain business and economic models such as or Netflix.
That's kinda dry and academic. Here's a much more visceral explanation of the concept: Day of the Longtail [Note: Long Tail has now morphed into one word: Longtail. English is a wonderful language.]

In Swamp Fox Insights, I made this observation about's business model:
Most customer-intimate strategies have been based on expensive products or local customer bases. has created a global, customer-intimate store selling $15 books over the Internet. Customers log onto with a standard Internet browser preinstalled on every new PC sold today. If the customer has previously registered, Amazon automatically senses who they are. Within seconds, the customer can find and order a book from his desk with one-click, as Amazon already knows the customer's credit card number and shipping address, and receive the book at his door a day or two later.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, set out from the beginning to build one of the most recognized and trusted consumer brands on the Internet. Already Amazon has extended its brand from books to music to other consumer product categories, as Amazon leverages the recognition and credibility it has with a large and growing on-line customer base.

Perhaps the most powerful element of Amazon's business model is what occurs over time. Amazon's system learns from its customers. As the customer buys more books, a purchasing history is created, which Amazon uses to customize a product offering by searching its catalog of millions of books to make a personalized recommendation of a few books the customer may be interested in. Every time a purchase is made, Amazon's system learns something new and can adjust its customized product offering for that customer. While others can duplicate Amazon's infrastructure, they cannot easily duplicate this critical mass of intimate knowledge of specific customers. Given similar pricing, it is not in a customer's interest to switch bookstores because the preciseness of the personal recommendations of any one bookstore would be diminished. The most valuable asset that Amazon is creating may be this deep base of customer knowledge.
Alas, I didn't come up with a catchy phrase like "The Long Tail" to describe the phenomena, and not quite as many people have read Swamp Fox Insights as have read Anderson's Wired article.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What Kind of Genius Are You? There's hope for us late bloomers

I was over talking to my twenty-something friends, Adam and Evan at OrangeCoat, the other day when they said any decent entrepreneur would have found fame, fortune and financial independence by the time they were thirty-something. That may not be exactly what they said, but it is what they meant, or at least that's what I heard.

I found an interesting article What Kind of Genius Are You? Now I understand that Adam and Evan are talking about "'Conceptual innovators' who make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young.Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans." Man do I understand that.

But I'm one of the "'experimental innovators,' Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers." At least I have the trial and error part down.

That makes me feel better, in a Lake Wobegon kinda way.