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A Startup Lesson from Beyonce

Remember all the hoopla about Beyonce lip synching the national anthem at the Presidential Inauguration?  I think it dominated the media for close to a week and made her look bad.

But the whole reason it became such big, gossipy news isn’t because Beyonce didn’t sing live.  It’s because she allowed it to become a surprise instead of making a preemptive announcement.

She should have quietly released a statement with something like: “I’m deeply honored to be asked to sing the national anthem at the inauguration.  Unfortunately, the weather conditions and the outdoor setup make it very hard to sing this song in top-quality.  Out of respect for the President and the inauguration, I do not want to take any risks of something going wrong and will be singing a pre-recorded version.”

With hundreds of people sitting around her, did she not think this would come out?  Instead it became a mini-scandal when she could have mitigated the shock factor amongst the press and social media who loves to keep breathing air into stuff like this.

This is all to say: surprises are very bad.

While starting my organization, I was reminded of this very early from a board member.  He loathed the saying, “Don’t ask for permission now, ask for forgiveness later.”  That’s a good way to burn bridges and lose trust amongst people whose trust you need over the long-term.

In the startup environment, I think this advice is especially important when things are very, very unpredictable.  Startup leaders have a lot of ambition and personal pride which can often get in the way of admitting setbacks.  But when it comes to your closest partners (board members, mentors, and colleagues) it is essential for a few reasons:

1) Bad news is likely to come out anyway

2) If you don’t share, no one can help

3) When it does come out, others close to you will wonder what else you’re not sharing and trust you less

4) You’ll be a better leader by not shouldering all the heavy stuff on your own

The answer: over-communicate.  You’ll build trust, create a stronger team, and demonstrate your strong leadership skills.


One of the Hardest Things of Being a Founder

I’ve worked fairly extensively with four veteran fundraisers.  Last year, one was giving me advice that was entirely opposite the advice of another.  Both were veteran fundraisers and both had raised tons of money.

While I certainly wasn’t new to the game, it was a tough situation when two smart people tell you two very different things about the same situation.

Furthermore, of the three I was the only who new the nuances of the situation entirely.

The point I’m making is not about fundraising, but about building.  Free advice is abundant (so is expensive advice).  I’m regularly faced with contrasting advice from smart people that I trust.  It can be agonizing, frustrating, and paralyzing.

Here are some ways I approach this tough situation:

1) Look at what worked in the past for me

In the situation above, one side was suggesting a path that was different then the one that got me here.  What works for her, won’t necessarily work for me even though she had been very successful.

2) Get a third opinion

Though, this can also result in a third approach rather than a 2-1 majority (most scenarios that need advice from three people are probably not simple).

3) Read and research

Whether it’s a thought-leader whose writing clarifies your uncertainty or a case study, finding others in similar situations can be helpful.

You also have to consider, unfortunately, if the advice-givers have any agenda.  The worst thing I’ve done in these situations is to keep putting of the decision.  A couple years ago I changed the date of an event because I couldn’t figure something out and was getting mixed feedback.  That’s bad leadership.

Tough decisions are, well, tough.  Smart people giving you different advice makes it even harder.  Good luck!


What Moneyball and Facebook’s IPO Should Remind Philanthropy (and a Fear)

Moneyball successfully challenged 150 years of how business is done on the diamond. Facebook’s IPO shows the value of young people leading major innovation.

My fear is that both are seen as once in a generation breakthroughs and that each relied on a 1 in a million leader with superhuman insight.

That would be wrong. Both stories are actually quite common.

The same youthful intelligence, audacious leadership, and impact is happening everyday across the nonprofit sector from a new generation of leaders. On a smaller scale, but it’s happening — and that’s my point:

The difference is not in the quality of the idea or abilities of the leader. The difference is between the funding ecosystem in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors — exacerbated when young and unproven.

If the latter was supported with more money, more risk, and more attention, we’d be celebrating far more social change breakthroughs by a generation uniquely positioned to create them.

With increasing inequality over the last few decades, the irony is that it’s far riskier not to support new ideas from young leaders with fresh perspectives. The real risk is using these challenging times as a reason to doubt the relevance of new approaches and to continue placing just the same safe bets (or less bets).

(Not to belabor the point but something like 1 out of 5 movies make a majority of Hollywood’s profits and many lose money. Studios have to take five swings to hit one out of the park (pun intended). What would our communities look like if philanthropy had a similar approach?)

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