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2012 DSA Annual Meeting Speech

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Think Like A Beginner, Again.

Starting a new business; finding that angle that sets the product and company apart and will appeal to a wide audience - that is the daily routine of the entrepreneur who is looking to break through the ordinary with something new and different.

Reinvention; obsoleting your current offering - this type of innovation is vital for every business at least once in its life cycle.  

While the former activity is happening every day at thousands of startups, the latter is not done enough, or at all, by established businesses. 

As a former CEO of a multinational corporation, I know that the higher up one goes in an organization, the more time one spends on things that will not directly affect sales.  Of course hiring people will have an indirect effect on sales.  But that is maintenance, not disruption.  

Especially as a public company officer, you can't help thinking in 90 day time periods, and about Board presentations, with at least some time spent on compliance (SOX, etc), human resource issues, compensation programs, employee evaluations, etc.   But when was the last time you spent time with your head of strategy and/or new product development and challenged them to phase out a best selling line and substitute it with something that meets the needs of the consumer in a much better way today?  It is uncomfortable to put aside a success to make room for the unknown that will be more exciting but is fraught with risk.  Experience gets in the way.  High sales of existing lines can almost be a liability.  It's a sure reason most people will want to "stay the course".  

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind but a few." - Shunryu Suzuki

Entrepreneurs look for the cracks.  They see the possibilities, where industry managers many times don't.  It doesn't mean that every possibility will be a $100M+ business, but the entrepreneur's ability to imagine what COULD be, and the "nothing to lose" attitude is much stronger than a pro.   

The question is, how do you foster innovation?  How do you think like a beginner and look for the cracks?  How do you keep or regain your edge?  And in this day of age, the ones doing the innovating are the entrepreneurs that spot the opportunities that the big guys don't see.  They think like beginners.  Experts mostly drive forward with a strong eye towards the past.  The past is an excellent teacher.  Lessons I've learned the hard way can be worth millions to an entrepreneur.  

But entrepreneurs have lessons of their own.   I urge more people in our industry to help strengthen your strategic thinking muscles by going outside the box, and helping more entrepreneurs in our industry for free.  Become part-time advisors.  Mentor.  It's worth it.  

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