Why Smart People Build Things

Venture for America accelerator program 2016

One of the cool things of getting to a certain point in our career is we get invited to contribute in bigger ways. The ability to contribute is not just a competence thing. Yes, we have more to offer when we build our skills and become very good at what we do, when we are insiders in a specific industry, or have mastered (or on our way to master a domain).

That is what gets us on the list of potential contributors. But that is not necessarily what gets us invited to the game. Because that particular kind of gamecontributing in bigger ways, is one we invite ourselves into. And while we may get away with buying our seat at the table for some time, the measure of our impact goes up exponentially when we earn our seat at that table.

Wait, we invite ourselves, so how come we earn it at the same time? What's going on here? We'll get to that in a moment. First I want to tell you a story to illustrate why smart people build things.


Throughout the past sixteen years plus of my corporate career, I did things on the side to network a little, meet new and interesting people, learn more about different businesses, and what makes an event be useful but also memorable.

All the while, I kept taking what was working with running a listserv, moderating online and offline discussions, coming up with good ideas and producing monthly programs, promoting them, talking to people afterward, and so on, into my day job.

When I shared with my business mentor what I was doing, he thought I would be a good person to join an advisory board he was part of to help International MBA students at the Fox School of Business with their live consulting gigs. I signed up and every year I had the good fortune of meeting students from all over the world who were already making a difference to their clients and learning at the same time.

Once again, I kept taking what I was learning by teaching them how to tighten their story, use data to support strategizing, asking better questions, and so on to my day job. In that case I was building off the experience gained through creating and leading the business networking group, adding to that the feedback loops of knowing what worked in business to help accelerate the process of being the most effective with clients for the students.

Meanwhile, I started this blog in 2006 to scale helping more people and also thinking through issues and learning. Two years ago, through a dear friend I met through this post on failure (we ended up meeting face-to-face, which was super awesome), I got invited to participate in Venture for America (VFA) accelerator program with First Round, to provide business advice and mentoring to young professionals who are making a fresh start.

The other incredible coincidence in this whole thing was they are building businesses in Philadelphia, around where I live.

Up until that point, although my work has included strategies to build things and to help companies to the next level of growth, build partnerships, JVs, help mature brands find new life, help companies find a new homeall things that involve starting something, making it work, and get to where we are to where we want to beI had not appreciated fully the questions, uncertainties, and risk associated with starting something brand new.

Starting is the hardest thing we ever do. Yes, we may have less to lose when we're young, but that doesn't make the process any easier nor it diminishes its costsin time, energy, responsibilities we need to fulfill, and so on.

Many things impressed me during the first year. But one thing in particular stuck with me. Andrew Yang, VFA founder and CEO, is a strong believer that Smart People Should Build Things. Andrews's definition of “building things”:

we mean forming and helping companies and organizations that are innovating and creating value.

That are innovating and creating value. We're used to thinking about value as just monetary value. Focus too much on it, and we miss a broader definition of value that can help us become more agile in our thinking, more deliberate in our doings, and more effective in our work, and happier with our lives. Not just at some point where we retire, but right here, right now.

So we want money now and pursue the known prestige pathways to it. (never mind that it still takes years to master a skill, become really good at something, and then hope that by then there is still a market for what we learned in our expensive schools)

Andrew says professional training cuts both ways, he says:

In the startup setting and in most small companies, the output is action-oriented. You're not an analyst; you're the operator. You need to get things done and make decisions, often with limited information and resources.


for most small companies the value is in the execution. You push in a particular direction and find out if you're right in real time, and then change approaches accordingly. Mistakes are acceptable if they're the result of moving forward (whereas in the professional services context mistakes are regarded very negatively.)

Small experiments teach us much more than what works and when we stay with them why it did. They also teach us about ourselvesour problem solving skills, our appetite for risk, our mental discipline to practice talking, presenting, pitching, selling not just the idea, but also why it works to colleagues, peers, and (potential) investors. Says Yang:

If you want to solve a problem, you actually have to solve the problem.

We all benefit from gaining a better sense of how the numbers work, how to make things, how to innovate and lead or support a team. Because of the fast pace at which technology is changing our worlds, we need to accelerate this kind of learning. The experience of helping solve the problem gets us closer to being the next to step up to the plate.

Building things

Until we have the experience ourselves, we have no idea of how hard it is building things. Contrary to belief, entrepreneurship is not about creativity. It's about building organizationsin other words, it's about people, resources, knowledge and skill, plus sweat equity.

Andrew says:

People focus way too much on the inspiration, but, like conception, having a good idea is not much of an accomplishment. You need the action and follow-through, which involves the right people, know-how, money, resources, and years of hard work.

If you're curious about the book, you can find out more here.

This is my second year helping the smart entrepreneurs who are building organizations. Last week was demo day and the founders and teams blew us awaysharp, in the game, already growing or on their way to growth and profitability. We learn as much as we teach in these things.

Many organizations could benefit from understanding the organization building part. Our current incentives are not supportive of a better way, one that could give corporations back their strength, resilience, and endurance.

The important question then isHow do we know if what we're building is a company or just a growth path?

Easy, what kind of impact do you want to have?

Your answer may vary, but that's how you earn an invitation at the table.


More on innovation and failure, how intelligence and smart thinking are not the same thing, and some of the best things lazy people do.


I'm starting something related to using conversation as a tool to help with getting started from where you are right now so you can earn your invitation at the table. If you're interested in learning how you can become more effective so you can have a bigger impact, sign up to get first dibs here. Or use the form below.

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P.S. this is for people who want to both become more effective AND have a bigger impact.


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