With great pride, I was one of three graduate school teachers who were nominated for the Thomas Kennedy award for best professor. I thought that it would be helpful for those students who missed the speech and might have wanted to hear it if I posted it here. I should mention that I gave it without referring to my notes so some of the written parts were skipped and some new ad libs were added. With great affection for my students:
Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I would like to use my time here today to offer you a sort of Whitman Sampler of advice, a Forest Gump box of chocolates, so to speak. I have for you, eight small observations and conclusions that could be taken as profound advice, or as a statement on the absurdity of life, or simply that, as most of you already know, I’m nuts.
1. On winning an election
The last election that I won was in 1959. I was running for class president of my fifth grade class. Yikes, that’s a long time ago. My mother, who was otherwise known as the Carl Rove of the Bronx elementary school political system, was my campaign manager and her plan to get me elected was to give candy to each and every member of my class. Well things haven’t changed that much for political campaigns today except the candy has gotten more expensive. And as I said, it worked and I won that election.
My mother died twenty four years ago but I was wondering whether she had anything to do with this election. Did any of you get candy before you voted?
While thinking about my mother’s dedication to her eleven year old child it might be a good time to also think about how we tend to fall from our ideals of integrity that are clearly reinforced during our education. I have observed two ways that we typically begin our descent. Here’s my warning.
First, it’s often a small transgression that starts us. We’re a bit short on our cash flow, we borrow a little for a few days from the federal withholdings, the days pass, nobody notices, the crises passes. We survive. What has happened though is that we have chipped away at our moral compass. We now feel a bit empowered to break the rules. We wake up a year or two or ten later as Tiger Woods or Bernie Madoff; so talented, yet so fallen.
Entrepreneurship offers you unusual freedom from the prying eyes of others. That freedom means that your responsibility to form your own boundaries is amplified. Make sure that you create for yourself a clear definition of the behavior that you believe will build a legacy that you aspire to and then never ever waiver from it. I remember when my youngest daughter was a teenager and returned from a kid’s party with her shirt on inside out. It was clear that something had happened. After some interrogation by both her mother and me (using various CIA techniques) she admitted that all of the kids had thought it would be cool if they all went streaking outside (basically running in their underwear between the bushes). Of course, the boys had to wait inside while the girls ran, and the girls would wait inside while the boys did it. My advice to her (and this was 12 years ago) was to live her life as if it was constantly in the public eye. How would she feel if her streaking picture was on the front of the local town newspaper? Well, it’s interesting what has happened since then. We have youtube, facebook, twitter. Our lives are constantly on public display. It further emphasizes the importance of my advice.
The second way that I see transgressions begin is through the acceptance of behavior by others that is less than ideal and yet willingness to associate with that person in the hope of achieving some benefit. It might start with a casual conversation that indicates a less than ethical attitude by a potential business partner, but rather than pull away, the potential benefits of the relationship seem too appealing.
Just to be clear, you are talking to the devil. You can’t out con a conman. You must pick your friends carefully and in the same way, pick your business associates carefully. If you observe any lack of principle on the part of a potential business partner, customer, or vendor, I strongly advise you to walk away. Life is too short. There are plenty of good folks out there to do business with. Don’t worry about getting even. Simply get away.
2. On Space and Time
Now you’re not going to believe this stuff. I did some research on Wikipedia. Did you know that it takes the earth 365 days, or equivalently, one year to travel around the sun. What a coincidence? But think about this, if the earth were located where Venus is, not only would we all be venutians (and our sight challenged citizens would be referred to as Venutian Blinds) but if, for example, you’re currently 27 years old, instead you would be 44 years old and your parents would be that much more pissed that you still don’t have a job.
Or, think about this.. Did you ever notice that a foot of length, 12 inches, is about the size of a person’s foot? What a coincidence? So listen: If we humans were all the size of Rhesus monkeys, which are about a third of our current size, with tiny little feet, the Boston Marathon would probably take around 8 hours to run and a dollar bill would be a foot and a half long. That’s crazy.
Our lives are divided neatly into earth years. And each year we make a measurement of our progress. For example, we celebrate our birth date (which, by the way, would come more frequently on Venus – another benefit of Venutian living – more gifts). And when we’re little, once per year we get our report card. (As many of you might expect, “plays well with others” was not my strong suit in elementary school.)
Then, as we get older, the report cards become a more formal document: our “official transcripts,” all part of our ever growing “Permanent Record.” And again, we continue to measure our progress.
In business school we learn to divide years into Quarters, much more precise. And, after you graduate, your official measurement will be your 1040 (that’s your IRS form just in case you’ve never filed taxes). What did you make this year? Are you still making progress?
It’s all so arbitrary. Time, distance, success, progress. Who made this stuff up?
As official entrepreneurs, you are hereby free to make up your own rules, your own measurements and your own definitions of success. My advice: Don’t simply buy into the systems defined by others. Select your own path, live in your own dream. Most importantly create your own concept of success and then achieve it.
And while I’m talking about success, let me add: If you haven’t figured it out yet, you’re going to fail many times on the way to finding your own version of success. Please, clean up your messes. Take responsibility for your errors. Your parents were right, clean up your room, but more importantly, learn to apologize for your transgressions and own your errors.
3. On Movies and Technology
I, and I’m sure many of you as well, love watching movies. I’ve heard it said that the most creative of any era are drawn to the latest technologies for self expression. Brahms and Beethoven in the 1700s were being drawn by the creation of new orchestral instruments. Rod Serling in the 1950s was being drawn to television, The Beetles drawn to electric guitars and today James Cameron, the creative energy behind the movie Avatar is drawn to film.
I observe that films and especially science fiction films can often serve as the first half of a sort of déjà vu experience in the future. For example, the Truman Show anticipated reality TV and YouTube. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, also with Jim Carrey, anticipates the ability to do selective memory adjustment (something that the government is working on as a way to reduce PTSD (post traumatic stress disorders suffered by war veterans). Jurassic Park anticipates the genetic recreation of long extinct species (in fact they just found intact genetic material inside the marrow of long petrified dinosaur bones and think now that this might be possible) and Avatar anticipates the ability as predicted by Ray Kurzweil, in his book “The Singularity” that we will someday be able transport our identities from our bodies into other vessels and achieve immortality.
If you lived in the early 1900s when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon, you would need to have waited until 1969 to see science fiction turn into reality. But today, technology is evolving much more rapidly. Technologically driven changes to our societies are occurring in ever shorter and shorter time spans. Societies, and more importantly, you no longer have the luxury to slowly adapt to technological advancements. You must embrace the changes and learn to live in a rapidly adapting world.
My advice: watch and learn from others. I am always surprised at how much I find in every book that I read and every movie that I watch that helps me with the anticipation of business trends and technological advancements. Remain curious and use every opportunity to learn someone else’s business model and ideas. It is through those discoveries that you will form your own new entrepreneurial ideas. And finally, stay involved in technology. It is more important to small company development than you can possibly imagine.
4. On Business Planning
A few weeks ago nice young student, an undergraduate business student, from BU came to talk to me in my office (as you know, I have the largest office in Babson, Pandini’s – with its own private bathrooms, men’s and women’s (that you’re all, of course, welcome to use). He had found me on the Internet (how random is that? – but more about that in a few minutes).
He wanted to interview an “entrepreneur” and apparently I was the only one that he could find. Imagine – he had to travel 15 miles from BU to find an entrepreneur – that’s 45 Venetian miles.
He came with a carefully constructed set of questions, almost 50, neatly typed on a single sheet of paper. Undergraduates are much better prepared than graduate students. He thought a lot about those questions. He started: “So, Mr. full time lecturer adjunct Caspe, he said, (addressing me with my proper title) I see that you started 5 businesses and I was wondering how much preparation and planning went into your first business? For example, how long did it take to create the business plan?” As many of you know, I said: “planning? None… business plan, none… in fact, I’ve never written a business plan – it’s not that I never used a business plan. Once my businesses were up and running and I was managing lots of people, and we were spending lots of money, of course I had my employees write business plans for me. But write one on my own? Nope, not a one. In fact, I told him, once I had raised some money from a VC who said after he gave me the check, “you know, Bob, it would be really nice if I had a business plan for the file. Could you write one?” to which I replied: Nope.. don’t have the time, how about it if you write it yourself.
At that point, I saw this bright young BU business student kind of deflate and scanned his list of questions. Unfortunately, all of them were based upon the presumption that I followed the traditional path to starting a business – invent a product, write a plan, build a prototype, make the website, raise money…, He paused. And he tore up the list of questions.
My advice: Business plans are kind of like his neatly typed questions, often irrelevant after the first answer. Don’t put too much time into planning. Put it into doing.
5. On regrets
One of my young interviewer’s questions was whether I have any regrets about decisions that I’ve made, or would choose to have done things differently if given the chance. My response was that the actions that I do regret the most were those where I have failed to show proper patience, appreciation and kindness to others. A trait that I have attempted to control with the help of my wife who is considerably more civil than I am. But in business, I have no regrets, nor do I believe that it was really all that much in control.
In the spirit of ending my accumulation of regrets, therefore, let me say now that I am terribly proud and appreciative that the graduate student body has elected to offer me this recognition and approval. I truly value your opinions and I can think of nothing that I value more than what you have given me.
And to those of you to whom I’ve been a bit too rough, or unkind, I have two comments: First, I am truly sorry and second get over it. If you think I was hard on you, wait until you do some cold calls. Please allow me to join you in the celebration of your accomplishments with no hard feelings. And please do understand that for me, it’s all about your success, not mine. It’s your turn, not mine.
In some way, I think that the biggest regret that my generation has is that we didn’t leave you a better world. But, the good news is that it’s your turn. My advice: Pick one way to make it a better planet. (other than moving it to where Venus is) and do it. You have both the power and the responsibility to make this a better place. By the way, you’re what I picked, my way to make a better world is now through you.
6. On randomness
As many of you know, I have integrated a book called “The Drunkard’s Walk” into my course and I spend a lot of time talking about how, as John Lennon said: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.” I have been watching each of you as you perform your own drunkard’s walk, some more drunk than others. Much of your destiny is defined by events that you will not be able to control. As I’ve shared with you, that doesn’t mean that you just sit back and wait for it to happen to you but rather, that you must have a plan for survival that gives you a chance to enjoy the serendipitous things that are going to occur and avoid your demise at those that are less fortuitous. And, that the most important advice that I can offer to someone starting out in business is to focus on survival. Your cash flow. That’s it. Don’t spend more than you make and you’ll never go out of business. It’s not real complicated.
Also related to randomness is the topic that I frequently have brought up in class regarding our tendency to retrospectively and selectively analyze businesses (often through the case study method) in ways that tends to lead to improper assumptions. We often, for example, study only the winners and not the losers.
My advice: don’t be too impressed with the advice that you’re given. (including this advice) Make your own decisions based upon your own instincts and have the confidence that you can accomplish anything. And that leads to my next topic.
7. On Fear
Again, as many of you know, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about fear in my class. Sioma mentioned to me that the image of that chicken that I use in my class presentation has been burned into his memory. In fact, he’s lost his taste for chicken at this point.
But the right word isn’t fear, it’s really phobia. Fear is our natural response to a real threat, a form of self preservation.
Have you ever seen those guys that jump off of mountains wearing those odd suits with wings under their arms? They should be afraid. Yet, oddly enough they don’t appear to be controlled by fear. The last guy I saw on TV, his partner who was going to do the 60 minutes interview with him, had actually died just before the interview– probably flew into a mountain. But this guy, he still wasn’t afraid.
But just as clearly as you can imagine the rational fear that you might feel if you stood on the edge of that cliff wearing a spandex suit with wings, there’s another image I want you to imagine, of two pre-teen girls standing at the edge of a swimming pool, holding hands, and afraid to jump in. The water is chlorinated – there isn’t a live bacterium within miles. It’s only 6 feet deep and there are lots of adults standing within easy grasp. They can swim and the water is 80 degrees. And yet, they’re afraid. And they hold hands as if to say – if we jump together that’s better. At least then, if I die, so will you and our parents can at least mourn together.
That’s not fear, that’s a phobia – an irrational fear that’s not based upon a real understanding of the potential outcomes, but rather they’re just afraid.
I see fear as driving most of the decisions around me. Conquering that fear is part of entrepreneurship. You must develop an understanding that in fact you are risking nothing. A year of low income, the sense of failure. Who’s watching? Who are you afraid of disappointing? Our parents make us nuts. Get over it.
Lately, I have been studying small businesses that were started by former Babson graduates and after interviewing 10 businesses, I’ve found a simple common thread: their difficulty in forming successful partnerships. Next year I’d like to edit the video interviews that I’ve done into an hour long story about partnerships.
For me, my experience with partnerships has been great. For most of my business career I’ve had 3 partners and we completely trusted each other and shared everything. We never felt a need to own more of the company that the next guy and have voting control, we never regretted their making money as a result of our own efforts. We remained partners until we sold the companies and remain friends today. But, many of the partnerships that I observed that were formed by students aren’t so fortunate. Many ended quickly, some with bitter remorse. Some with legal battles. Now I understand the advantage of having a partner, someone to commiserate with, someone to share the joy with, someone to debate the choices with but I also observe that many of the partnerships here at Babson are born out of fear as opposed to common goals and aspirations. It’s like those two preteen girls: “I’ll jump if you do.”
Learn to break through your fear and make decisions without regard to it. And, if you choose to join as partners, make sure that your goals and aspirations align. And, I should add, that I’m not a fan of “co-presidents.” Pick someone to be in charge – even if they never make a decision in any way other than to either find a consensus or delegate the decision to someone else.
I should note that now that you’re graduating you’re running out of excuses. It’s time to start your journey.
8. On Jealousy
I always get confused on the difference between jealousy and envy. So you figure out which I really mean.
Over the last one or two years I have met many of you, become friends with some of you, mentored some of you. I’ve listened to your business ideas, and more often than not, replied “That’s a STUPID idea” but then, as you know, I’ve attempted to work with you to find a way to make it work and encouraged you to talk to customers and see what they say.
I have mixed emotions at this moment. I will be saying goodbye to all of you. Maybe not a permanent goodbye, but clearly not “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And, I will truly miss you. I will miss our discussions of your nutty ideas. I will miss hearing when you find success and we share a high five (a bit lower for Yuka). I will miss hearing about your life decisions, your families, your plans.
When my dog Mickey was still alive (he was a cockapoo) my wife and I would often go out to dinner and Mickey would come to the window by the door and get up on the bench and watch us walk to the garage. I could see his little head above the windowsill and his beady little eyes. And, I could read his mind: “Me, you forgot me, Me, wait.. I’ll be good, I won’t pee on the floor, I promise, can I go?” But we knew. He would pee on the floor and he couldn’t go.
Well, here I am. And all of you are about to embark upon your journeys, your adventures. I’m jealous. (or envious – again, you figure it out). Can I go? Wait? Me. I won’t pee on the floor. But, unlike Mickey, I know. I can’t go. It’s your turn. You must leave.
The only thing that I can ask, in the spirit of Mickey (he died a few years ago), is “please – if you’re going to leave me. If you’re going to force me to go through this trauma.. then please, please… Don’t eat at MacDonald’s. Don’t sit in a cubicle for the rest of your life. Find your passion. Follow your dream. Don’t be afraid. Don’t live by the measurements of others. Create your own sense of purpose and achieve it.
And, don’t forget. I can’t sit on that bench by the window too long. I’ve got to be let out. So please let me know what you’re doing. Stay in touch. Share your battle stories with me. I do want to hear. And, most of all, enjoy the trip and bon voyage.
But wait. There’s more. Tomorrow, you will be getting your formal certificate from Babson (that is all except for 3 of you, and you know who you are), but today, I’d like for to take the Bobson oath. Please rise, raise either hand or foot and repeat after me:
I, state your name, being of sound mind, do solemnly swear that I shall conduct my life with integrity I shall keep away from creeps I shall clean up any mess that I make I shall create my own crooked path in life And I will not write it down first I will remain curious, but most importantly unafraid ..buck buck buck and I will buy a boat left parenthesis motor close parenthesis and invite Bob for a ride So help me bob – (say that with more pleading) SO, HELP ME BOB.. AMEN
You may be seated, thank you.