Startup/Yoga Parallels

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The following post authored by Lev Kaye originally appeared here in Entrepreneur Magazine on May 29th, 2014.  It is reprinted here with permission.

Startups and yoga are two cultural phenomena that have become mainstream over the past decade. There’s a 20 percent chance you’ve tried a startup, a 40 percent chance you’ve tried yoga and a 100 percent chance you know someone who’s tried one or the other.

As a startup founder and yoga dabbler, I’m struck by a parallel between startups and yoga. To pursue either one well, you must focus on your center and build your flexibility. That creates a paradox in the startup world. Two startup imperatives, focus on the core business while remaining flexible, seem to be in conflict.

The Paradox. Radically focused on your startup’s core mission? You might pursue the wrong target market or feature set for too long. You might hurt yourself by not pivoting quickly enough. Maintaining your startup’s flexibility? You may explore too many potential growth avenues and not push hard enough on the single product-market fit that will enable your startup to succeed.

Startup literature is filled with firms that either never gained traction, or did so and then flamed out, because they were either too core-focused or too flexible. Unpacking the nature of yoga can help us resolve this startup paradox.

The term “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit word for “yoke.” Just as two oxen yoked together can pull a heavy load, yoga joins together mind and body to achieve a goal. In yoga, disciplined mental effort increases your body’s capabilities, leading to greater health, longevity and sense of fulfillment.

Yoga teaches that physical and mental centeredness, i.e. core focus, is the starting point. By paying close attention to breathing, the central activity of your body, you begin unlocking greater capabilities in your muscles and connective tissues. Yoga starts at your center and, from there, builds strength and flexibility.

The Discipline of Flexibility. The same principle applies both to successful yoga practitioners and to successful startups: Focus on the core enables flexibility. To Rob Bernshteyn, CEO of successful late-stage startup Coupa, your core means not just your line of business, but also “the set of core values that keeps your culture intact. If a startup were to define “agility” as a core value, it could evolve its line of business without losing focus on customer success.”

Agility-as-core-value aligns with the principles of the Lean Startup movement, which teaches that startups succeed by learning as much as they can from customers over the shortest iterative cycles at the lowest possible cost. Just as one can perfect a balanced yoga pose over a series of trials and errors (gravity often wins), so too a startup can take a disciplined approach to experimenting and learning, building flexibility in the process.

The Startup in Your Mind’s Eye.  Yoga and startups both harness the power of vision. In yoga, a meditative state is often used to induce a vision. The student is encouraged to picture something in his or her ‘mind’s eye’. Startups are frequently tied to a vision, typically that of the founder. John Foley, founder and CEO of innovative indoor cycling startup Peloton, believes a founder’s higher consciousness comes from accepting that a startup’s reality, at least initially, may fall short of his or her vision.

“Compared to where a founder sees his or her business ultimately going, it’s almost always a disappointment to launch the version 1.0 product,” Foley said. Yoga teaches the student to pursue an intention without becoming discouraged at the gulf between vision and present reality. That is a critical skill for entrepreneurs facing significant resource and capital constraints.

With important parallels between startups and yoga, it seems the insight for entrepreneurs is that there is no paradox after all. You can stay centered without sacrificing flexibility, however doing so requires discipline and placing your vision in proper perspective. If customer learning is a startup’s oxygen, then achieving traction represents a startup’s mastery of poses, each one guided by intention and achieved through disciplined practice, leading to business health, longevity, and the team’s sense of fulfillment.


The World’s Leading Expert (In Something)


My late grandfather, Saul Kaye, was among the millions of Brooklyn kids raised by hardworking immigrant parents.  He came of age during the Depression, studied hard, served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and spent his postwar years doing his part to build America into a powerhouse, while building a respectable middle-class life for his family.  (You’ve heard similar stories before.)

What’s less typical about his story, however, was that my grandfather became one of the World’s Leading Experts In Something.  A chemist and inventor, he knew everything there was to know about one tiny subject:  How to use a particular gas compound to sterilize hospital and lab equipment.  Saul spent most of his career working for and consulting to private companies such as chemical and equipment manufacturers, despite never having earned a Ph.D.  He became an expert mainly due to his work, not his study.

Today, in my own work with experts, Saul’s story reminds me of a few truths about expertise. Two are Old Truths, and one is a New Truth:

OLD TRUTH #1:  Expertise Comes In Many Specialties and Sizes.  Saul’s specialty knowledge mattered only to a small number of people and chemical firms.  But it mattered intensely to those folks.  The importance of most experts can’t be measured by the number of people who’ve heard of them.  There are millions of niche-but-important topics, each containing its own World’s Leading Experts.

OLD TRUTH #2:  Formal Credentials Tell Us Less Than We Think.  Much has been written about famous successful college dropouts.  Less has been written about the people we’ve worked with whose value cannot be measured by their formal credentials.  Each of us knows someone like my grandfather who may lack the most fancy credentials, yet is extremely smart and important to his or her colleagues and clients.  (Chances are that we revere that person.)

NEW TRUTH:  We’re In The Golden Age of Experts.  There’s simply never been a better time to be an expert in something.  We can see this in a few important ways:

  • There’s a huge need for specialty knowledge – things that not everyone knows or can quickly pick up – and that need is growing geometrically.  Specialty knowledge cuts across all professions and job types, from the technical to the interpersonal. Everyone needs specialty knowledge – whether they’re an employee, a consultant, a business owner, or a student trying to land his or her first job.
  • It’s easier than ever for experts to engage with audiences, for mutual benefit.  The web allows niche communities to self-organize and thrive quickly.  Experts can, at very little cost, teach and guide their way toward a large following.  For the experts’ followers, there are now countless ways to learn from experts.

If you’re a World’s Leading Expert In Something (anything!) it’s time to stake your claim.  Your formal credentials don’t matter as much as you think.  You can find people who not only want, but need to learn from you.  You may simply need to start engaging in new ways.  What’s your particular expertise?  Team CredSpark would like to hear from you – feel free to comment below or email us:

 Image:  Saul Kaye, 1950’s

Test-Driven Career Development

Working on a startup is the new graduate school—you learn a lot, and you hope it will pay off someday.

I’ve learned a ton from my startup experiences, but I’d like to share one of the most important concepts to which our software engineers recently introduced me.  It’s called Test-Driven Development – and it contains a kernel of wisdom for anyone seeking to develop their career-related knowledge and skills.

New Approach To Building

Humans have been building things for millennia, and there’s been a standard approach:

  • Step 1:  Think about what you want.
  • Step 2:  Build it.
  • Step 3:  See if it works.

Simple, right?  And yet it’s fairly dumb, because you don’t know if ‘it’ works until you’ve already put in the time, the energy, and the expense to build it.  If it doesn’t work, you’ve wasted all three.

Enter some smart software engineers, who in the last 10 years have popularized a New Approach to Building Stuff, which goes as follows:

  • Step 1:  Think about what you want.
  • Step 2:  See if it works.
  • Step 3:  Build it.

Read closely.  They flipped Steps 2 and 3!  They don’t build stuff that’s going to break, because they figure out whether or not it’s going to work BEFORE they build it.  Smart, right?  That’s Test-Driven Development.  After they’ve thought about what they want, they first create a test.  THEN they build.  (More and more software is being developed this way—learn more here.)

Once Again, The Geeks Are Ahead Of Us

The Geeks (in my experience, the best of them don’t consider that term pejorative) have hit upon a key insight:  When you’re building something, the most efficient and effective way to start is by testing it.  Think about what you want.  Test it.  THEN build it.

What’s the thing YOU’RE building?  Your career.  No matter your age, nor your stage, unless you’re retired, you are likely building your career.  Given that few careers remain stable these days, most of us need to build and rebuild our careers.  But if we’re building something, how do we know if it’s going to work before we’ve put in the time, energy and expense?

The Geeks have pointed the way:  We should first test ourselves.

Start By Testing Yourself

Professional Development, also known as Professional Learning, is a large global industry.  Much of it is test-driven, as in the case of licensure exams (like the CFA) or voluntary professional certifications (like the PMP.)  But there’s much, much more to learn beyond just what’s found on existing, formal exams.

Based upon my many years in educational technology and publishing, including companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review, taking tests drives learning because (1) it makes you aware of what you do and don’t currently understand and (2) it focuses your learning on the most important things.  Just as in software development, testing your career development in advance can point out areas where YOU don’t ‘work’ as well as you need to—so you can focus your learning and career growth.

Learn from the Geeks:  Look for ways to test your career knowledge before you spend much time, energy, and expense on career-builds.  Research and perhaps seek out the experts in your field. See if they have, or can recommend, a test for you.  Odds are that it will help you build a career that works.

Fracking For Talent

Oil Derrick Gusher JPG

The Concept of ‘Tight Talent’

You’re probably familiar with the term “fracking,” shorthand for hydraulic fracturing.  It involves extracting oil and gas that’s locked inside rock formations, and it’s the biggest innovation in the energy sector of the past twenty years.  Though the practice is controversial, the fracking process contains an important lesson for those involved in educating, training, hiring and and managing people.

Think about your institution or organization, and your professional networks.  They contain rich deposits–not of oil and gas but of skill and knowledge.  These talent deposits come in two types.  The first is like pooled oil underground, easy to observe directly (e.g. writing ability, interpersonal skills) or identifiable through diplomas or standardized test scores.  These are what I call the Easy-to-Find Talents.  The second I call Tight Talents because they are like the so-called ‘tight oil’ locked inside cracks and crevices of underground rock–until recently, much harder to find and more expensive to extract.

Just like energy locked deep underground, talent lies hidden within pockets of your organization and professional network, waiting to be discovered, unlocked and put to use.

Consider the following scenario: you manage a team that includes a woman who runs a niche, rather obscure software application critical to your business and a man responsible for your brand’s social media presence.  On the same day the woman resigns and your boss strongly suggests you fire the man for an inappropriate Facebook post about your major competitor.

What do you need?  You need to tap into your network to find someone with an obscure technical knowledge set and someone else who understands the nuances of assertively promoting a brand without risking a libel lawsuit.  There’s no diploma for these skill sets.  But there may be a test, certificate, or some form of credential.

How Do We Unlock Tight Talent?

People Analytics is a hot topic for start-ups, industry alliances and established firms whose shared goal is to find and unlock the harder-to-find talent.  Some organizations are building a common digital infrastructure for issuing, sharing and verifying credentials that exist below the diploma level—sometimes called “digital badges.”  Others are developing games or software simulations to measure raw cognitive processing ability or higher-order thinking or so-called “soft skills.”  At CredSpark we’re unlocking Tight Talent by enabling the creation and sharing of highly-targeted tests of knowledge and skill designed by credible industry experts.

Collectively, the organizations referred to above are helping all of us begin to get beneath the Easy-to-Find Talents to unlock the tremendous human capital that’s currently not being accessed.  These innovations will dramatically alter the economy in the near future.

How Do You Know What I Know?

Nick's Head

Imagine you’re considering hiring me.  Does it matter to you what I know?  (I’m guessing it does.)

So, how do you know what I know?  Think about that one for 4 seconds.

You can look at my degrees and academic transcript, but how do you know what I actually learned in school?  More importantly, how do you know what I remember today?

You can see my employment history, but how do you know what I’ve learned on the job?  I’ve listed my job skills on my resume and LinkedIn profile, but how do you know if I actually have those skills?

You can talk to my professional references and co-workers, who probably have a good sense of what I know.  But I’m friendly with them.  How likely are they to tell you the whole truth (and nothing but the truth) about what I actually know and am able to do for you?

Let’s face it:  You don’t know much about anyone you hire.  Not with the main methods in use today.   Employers today rely upon checking diplomas, transcripts, resumes, and references.  These methods are not only limited, but also distorted. People are going to ‘puff up’ their resumes.  (The truth is, your job candidate can’t take sole credit for that game-changing product strategy; there were actually three other people who developed it.)  In general, job candidates are going to merchandise themselves to you.  It’s human nature.

No matter where the candidate has worked, no matter where he or she went to school, or whom you both know in common, you’re taking a risk in hiring that person.   How much of a risk?  According to multiple reports such as this one, hiring the wrong person can cost employers 30% of that person’s annual salary.

How can you reduce that risk?  Take a new approach to finding out what your job candidates actually know and are able to do:  Ask them to show you.  (Ideas on that in future posts.)

Graphic by Shannon Holloway.