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10 Questions With Chris Heuer (S1, Ep7)

Social Media Club’s co-founder talks about the problems with corporate innovation, accelerators, and why his new startup Mentor Bureau is the solution.

Photo credit: Chris Heuer

Editor’s note: This was originally published on LinkedIn.

When he co-founded Social Media Club in 2006, Chris Heuer looked to establish an organization supporting those interested in social media’s potential — he wanted to build a community. It’s in his nature after all. From his time as an entrepreneur and a consultant with Deloitte and also his own firm AdHocnium, Heuer’s goal has been to spark innovation within companies to help drive things forward.

After talking with startups and mentoring them at Google’s Launchpad accelerator and also as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Collider accelerator, he’s taking on a new role: founder of Mentor Bureau, a consultancy to help guide startups through growth beyond the accelerator/incubator stage. In this issue of “10 Questions”, I asked Heuer about his experience in tech and why the accelerator model is broken.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

What drew you to technology and what inspires you to be an entrepreneur?

I’ve always been curious about the world around me, why things were, what things did, and how they worked. Not about a specific thing, but about everything. I was also blessed with what I call a “foggy photographic memory”— not good on the details, but a great view of, and remembrance of, the bigger picture. What drew me to technology was that curiosity, and growing up when I did, just as technological change really began to accelerate in the 1980s.

I was in a gifted program in 6th grade where we did a lot of role-playing games, stock market simulations, and other creative pursuits. I found it came easily to me. In my tweens, I decided that I wouldn’t do just one business, but would help many, and the idea of being an entrepreneur started to take seed. I designed a simple typography logo for HHC — the Heuer Holding Company. Reflecting on that now, it seems Mentor Bureau is an evolution of that idea, of supporting and directing multiple businesses (more on that below).

It helped that my mom believed I could do anything, and she instilled that belief in me. With that deep support, I became a “jack of all trades,” interested in everything, not just one thing. I believe it has hampered me in the traditional world of employment but served me so well in my life as an entrepreneur, a mentor, and a consultant.

You were at the forefront of the early days of social media marketing and even created an international community with Social Media Club. What was the impetus for this and how has this guided you throughout your entrepreneurial endeavors?

In 1994 I read Howard Rheingold’s book “Virtual Community.” One of his most poignant insights IMHO is embodied in this simple phrase that he used to put in his email sig file, “What it is -> Is up to us.” Don Miguel Ruiz talks about this world being “the dream” in which we live and as such, a world in which we are in control of our own dreams, our own story. Of course, Tony Robbins, Dan Millman, Wayne Dyer, and so many others have reflected this thought in other ways, but in essence, I not only believe but know that the world in which we live can be whatever we make of it. That truly anything is possible, so why not make it the best world we can.

I attended the first Barcamp in 2005 and left with a desire to bring the unconference model to a more traditional business audience. The experience was so powerful. I wanted to host a Web 2.1 Unconference opposite O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 but worried that no one would show up or that I would fail in other ways. Then I heard my mom’s voice in my head and I realized there was no choice but to try and make it happen. I redefined the success metric of that initial event as learning about the market, pushing myself, and more importantly, creating an absolute in it becoming a reality. Fortunately, the Web 2.1 event was a success and encouraged me to do more.

Furthering my pursuit and belief in our ability to create a #BetterWorld, I realized that the unconference wasn’t the movement, but one of the methods — one that needed to focus on the positive use of technology for common understanding and benefit. Seeing that social media was the next wave of global change, more so then Web 2.0, we changed directions and created the non-profit Social Media Club. There was a lot going on then, but I kept having this nagging fear that if the collective “we” didn’t figure out how to love each other for who we are, and help lift all boats per se, we would be rapidly approaching the end of our species. I wrote about that back then, and while I didn’t focus on that darker message, it was always driving me to find new ways to bring people together for a common cause.

What did these initiatives teach me about being an entrepreneur? Everything. Mike Arrington (founder of TechCrunch) used to give me shit for giving it all away and choosing to do a non-profit endeavor. Looking back, Mike was right. I should have set Social Media Club up a lot differently. With that said, I learned how to build a movement, and how to get people aligned. I also learned how many wonderful people there are in the world who share a common cause and a set of shared values, who were also interested in making a better world, they just needed an invitation, permission, a shared space in which to convene, and someone directing conversations towards right thought and right action.

As someone who focuses on innovation, what are companies, organizations, and even startups missing about true technology disruption?

Unfortunately, they are missing a lot. Not enough people really look to understand the consequences, to ensure they are creating shared value and not taking away from others. The only large organization I have seen do this well is Google X, where there is a strict societal impact review on any of their potential moonshots. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should — science and progress without a moral judgment on what is right for humanity truly isn’t worth it, especially at the edges of science which we are now exploring.

Then, of course, there is the opposite problem. The bigger the company, the greater the fear of failure, which means the greater the likelihood they are unable to be truly innovative. This, by its very nature, requires failure in order to succeed.

Corporations perhaps most of all have an idea about where innovation should be coming from, and they miss that the true source is the human condition and the friction we encounter in trying to live our lives. This means, the best insights and ideas can come from anywhere, so we shouldn’t be discounting someone who does not have the right title, role or station in society. This is where respecting all individuals, listening closely to the world, and creating systems for crowdsourcing insights becomes paramount to discovering and creating technology fueled disruptions.

You recently launched Mentor Bureau. Please explain what that is and why it’s so important now?

The current startup ecosystem is badly broken, and we need to drastically rethink our concepts of value, organizations, employment, equity, wealth generation, and even the foundations of our socio-economic order. The VC version of the startup game is not optimized to empower the kind and scale of entrepreneurship and innovation we need in the world today — especially given the massive societal challenges we are facing. The automation of jobs will cause massive unemployment, and the impact of climate change will create new migration paths away from rising waters, where our population centers will become even denser than NYC and Hong Kong today.

If we keep supporting a primary path to startup success that is only for those who are seeking to become unicorns, in a specific region (e.g. Silicon Valley), with all the greatest talent and wisdom being locked up for years by tech giants and VC’s (vis a vis blitz scaling), humanity won’t be long for this world. As a society, we have come to worship power created through celebrity, control, and money. This thinking is a leftover from a time when scarcity was the norm, but today we live in a world of abundance resulting from our technological advancements. Couple this together with the belief that we can make the world anything we want it to be, and that is what is driving me now.

Mentor Bureau is a business that better distributes the wisdom of startup success, of systems design, of entrepreneurial growth, of #SmoothScaling, to help entrepreneurs build more sustainable, profitable, businesses. While we are particularly interested in helping startups figure out how to support their existing products and customers, eventually we hope to connect the energy of passionate founders with the wisdom of those of us with decades of experience. In particular, I’ve long felt that we know what we need to know to do things the right way and avoid repeating many startup mistakes, but this knowledge is not accessible or evenly distributed. Mentor Bureau is my idea for how we solve this challenge and support a new kind of entrepreneurship that is not getting the time of day from VC’s or Accelerators.

At Mentor Bureau, you reference the “4 Rs”. What are these and please explain the approach.

The Four R’s represent a simplified version of one of these approaches that explains how we differ from a traditional Accelerator. Rather than treating the startup journey as an experience on rails, similar to a video game narrative or amusement park ride where everyone gets nearly the same experience, we offer a bespoke program unique to each founder.

In simplest terms, we seek to bring in the Right mentors, with the Right expertise, in the Right way, at the Right time. We strive to get the right personality fit between the mentor and the founder(s) who also have the right expertise for the opportunity being pursued, customizing the approach to the specific needs of the founder and their startup at this moment in time.

You offer a “pop-up advisory board” at Mentor Bureau. What is it and how does it benefit startups?

Amongst the early mentors in Mentor Bureau, we have collectively served on hundreds of advisory boards, and as founders, managed dozens of them. It is one of the many weak points of the current startup game as many advisory boards are formed merely to validate an unknown entrepreneur and demonstrate access to luminaries and experts in order to get funding. Unfortunately, few are actually managed effectively to deliver their full potential value.

There are many reasons for this — not having access to the right people, not enough compensation being available at early stages where they are formed, not enough structure, not having enough time, not securing the right commitments, and many many more situations that lead to advisory boards that don’t really add value.

Right now, we are offering startups a pop-up advisory board. This can take many forms, but initially, we see this as a full day business planning workshop with a hand-selected group of our mentors to dive deep into the most difficult issues and decisions facing the founder/CEO. Through a straightforward intake assessment process, we work with the founder(s) and the founding team to get clarity around the most pressing and the most valuable areas of focus. Then we bring together the right wisdom for their specific needs. Given our extensive global network, even if we don’t have someone in Mentor Bureau today, we can reach beyond our current members and recruit the right expertise for most situations.

In this way, we can provide invaluable advice at a crucial moment in time where the startup does not have access to the right people to inform their decision making. We can also connect them with further people, insights, resources, and systems that can take the business to the next level. This is another way startups can access the wisdom and experience to accelerate their business, but also a way they may be able to see the actual value of all the mentors without having to give up their highly valuable equity.

Why should companies and startups put their trust in you to help them find their place in the market and achieve real innovation?

We are the first to say be wary of anyone calling themselves experts, saviors or gods. While some of our top line marketing may use relatively glowing language about the level of our wisdom and value, what makes our mentors true masters is the knowledge that we have insights and ideas, but few of them are absolutes. We treat the ideas as a hypothesis that must be tested to determine the validity and the appropriateness for any situation.

At present, we are working with companies that have already found an inkling of their place in the market and proven that their innovations are of value to some customers. What they can trust us with is that we have an understanding of the methods they can use to better validate their position. We have designed numerous systems for scaling companies effectively and efficiently. Further, and perhaps more importantly, is our understanding that there are few “best practices” that can be directly followed in any given situation, but that instead, we must apply our experience and knowledge to each company and their specific situation in some unique way. We think about frameworks and guidelines more than we do about rule books.

And our goal is to help startups engage different mentors with different areas of expertise every month, or even every week, as their business needs grow or change.

Corporations and other entities are increasingly interested in tapping into the startup ecosystem and create their own version of an accelerator often with a specific angle or specialization (e.g. offer access to AI technology, design tools, access to telecommunications, etc). What’s missing from this thinking?

This approach can certainly help corporations do something innovative, but it doesn’t often result in the systemic and cultural change that is required for corporations to become innovative. I think what is missing is simply engaging the executive leadership in exercises that will shift their mindsets about the need to encourage and foster failure in the pursuit of innovation. Clayton Christensen’s work in the Innovator Dilemma shows some ways they may be able to create and foster innovation at this level. One of my many micro-mentors, Curt Carlson, would also encourage them to think more about the iterative process it entails. Tom Chi, another of the greats, in my opinion, would simply argue it needs to be faster — his rapid prototyping method through paper-based role-playing could certainly be more widely used.

But what I really think is missing here is the alignment of purpose as opposed to the alignment around profit. IDEO, more so then the Accelerators, does an amazing job working to get the right people on a corporate innovation team who are aligned in this way and aligning the incentives properly. They also struggle to recruit the very best people, like their managing directors, founders or principal investors, to get engaged in the projects. All too often, due to time restrictions, geography, and poorly aligned compensation models, the top people do the selling of the project as with the big consulting firms but are just not able to show up to do the actual work when the time comes.

Who are the people in corporations and accelerators tasked with innovation? What characteristics should they possess to produce the right results?

From my perspective, while someone needs to be responsible for fostering a culture of innovation and running the programs/systems that lead to it, innovation could very easily be everyone’s job, not just one person or a team of people. Many times, the lower-level employees are not even given the respect they deserve from the top executives, let alone the respect they deserve as a member of the corporate tribe. As such, some of their most brilliant innovations are not even seen or heard, even when submitted through an employee crowdsourcing platform. There are a lot of reasons for this, but in older, larger companies, in particular, it’s simply a different caste system that dampens innovation to the point that those employees end up leaving the company and doing their own startup.

Corporate innovation programs should be more open to the whole of the ecosystem, giving everyone the respect they deserve and constantly listening to what people are saying, and watching what people are doing. To this end, I think more companies should bring in a Chief Anthropologist, an Artist in Resident, and an Entrepreneur in Residence. People who are free thinkers and are not restricted by the bounds of the pursuit of increasing profits from quarter to quarter.

Finally, in working with RallyBright last year on developing higher team performance, I developed a model for the characteristics required of an individual for being more innovative. In the article, BRACE Yourself for Innovation, I lay out these five traits in more details — Boldness, Resilience, Adaptability, Curiosity, and Empathy.

Founders approach these same accelerators for the money and also the notoriety, but after they “graduate”, they may feel that they’re left without a guide. What are some common struggles that they deal with? How can they overcome this doubt and succeed?

First, it’s important to note that not all Accelerators, not all mentors, and not all founders are created equal. Some are obviously better than others. Accelerators such as TechStars and Y Combinator do a better job with their alumni then others do, but the biggest challenge I’ve seen and indeed the impetus for starting Mentor Bureau is that most Accelerators do a terrible job of keeping the mentors engaged and providing them with real value beyond access to deal flow. In fact, some I’ve run into lately even run a quota if they provide advisory expertise.

More often, however, alumni deal with a situation where both the Accelerator and themselves are at fault.

  • The program doesn’t have enough of a structure and expectation for their alumni community.
  • They often don’t have an alumni community manager.
  • The alumni don’t feel comfortable with continuing the relationship and pursuing the support that would be made available to them if they asked for it.

It’s in this scenario that we hope to be of high value, advising the startups how to get the most value from their Accelerators by having greater clarity around their challenges and needs and being more proactive in asking for the help they need. Whether due to the power balance of the relationship or the simple awkwardness, many times, the startups just don’t feel comfortable pressing the Accelerators to improve the programs to meet their needs, or advocating more strongly for themselves.

Let’s be honest about this. Many Accelerators exist to truly accelerate the growth of the company by lifting their exposure and stamping them with a seal of approval that enables them to raise large amounts of capital more easily. In my experience, very few startups are really in the situation to have this be the right fit for their needs.

The startup journey is much more difficult and precarious then just raising money. For those who need help with all the rest of it — people, product and process, for those who aren’t seeking to become unicorns but have a great business idea built on real-world insights, that is where Mentor Bureau can be of the most value.

Special thanks go out to Chris Heuer for participating in this discussion. “10 Questions” is a project designed to learn more from the people in tech and how it relates to businesses. If you’d like to be interviewed, I’d love to hear from you — send me a note on Twitter (@thekenyeung), Facebook, or here on LinkedIn. You can also find this entire series shared on Flipboard and also on Medium.

#tech #startups #accelerator #innovation #corporate #business #tech #growth #mentorship #entrepreneurship

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Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung

Technology Editor at Flipboard. Journalist and marketer. Formerly with VentureBeat and The Next Web.