Long Overdue

Episode 7: Cultivating Your Library's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, Part 1

May 05, 2020

Rob Herndon, president of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, joins Duncan Smith, founder of NoveList and EBSCO's chief strategist for public libraries, to debunk several myths about entrepreneurs and share how all people can become more entrepreneurial in their thoughts and actions.

Learn more about the Entrepreneurial Mindset Training Course discussed in this podcast.

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Tammy Ross: Welcome to Long Overdue: Libraries and Technology, a podcast for librarians where we explore important trends and topics in the library industry. My name is Tammy Ross for EBSCO and this is the first podcast in the series called ‘Cultivating Your Library's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.’ Today we'll be hearing from Duncan Smith, founder of NoveList and EBSCO Chief Strategist for public libraries. We'll also be hearing from Rob Herndon, president of The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, a leader in entrepreneurial mindset training. Duncan's conversation with Rob will focus on debunking several myths about entrepreneurs are and how we can all become more entrepreneurial. Without further ado, I'll turn things over to Duncan.

Duncan Smith: Thank you, Tammy. When we think about entrepreneurs, the image that comes to mind is that of tech geniuses who created huge enterprises in Silicon Valley. However, a recent article in Harvard business review provides another view of these individuals. Beyond Silicon Valley, Alex Lazaros describes frontier innovators, entrepreneurs who are operating around the globe and economies outside the tech hub of Silicon Valley. Unlike the unicorns in the Valley, these individuals seek balance growth instead of venture capital, focus on solving real problems and invest in their teams. They also embody a way of thinking that is opportunity driven and solution focused.

This mindset is what sets this group apart and gives them the strength, creativity, and resilience to achieve success. Yet according to research, the rate of new entrepreneurial business starts has remained flat for the past 20 years. Rob Herndon is president of The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, a company that has a lot of experience in surfacing and supporting entrepreneurs. Rob, tell us a bit about yourself and your company then tell us which of these two competing images of entrepreneurs is true.

Rob Herndon: Thanks Duncan. I'm happy to be with you here today. Our company, the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, was founded with the idea that by understanding and deconstructing the way that entrepreneurs think, people from all walks of life could be helped. And my background includes over two decades of leadership experience in the federal government with the last five years running leadership development programs. And when I came into the company almost four years ago, I saw the connection between how entrepreneurs think and how leaders think. It was very intriguing to me to get involved with this work. Now, the question that you asked is exactly what our company was formed in 2007 to answer. For too long in the entrepreneurship space, we have had what we call a visibility versus representation problem.

There's entrepreneur that all of us hear about via media, movies and entertainment are folks like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and others who got their start, generally as venture backed high growth firms. The people that are not discussed in mass is where our work is focused on the underdogs or unlikely entrepreneurs who are everywhere in our communities, both here in the US and around the world. Those aren't who people think of when they hear the word entrepreneurial and actually a book by Tufts professor and he was formerly of Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago, Amar Bhide titled The Origin and Evolution of Small Businesses, gave us some great insight as we started our efforts over a decade ago.

What Bhide showed through his research is that the well-planned venture-backed startup was by far the exception to the rule and that large established businesses like we've all heard of today, like Walmart, HP and Microsoft had what he called humble improvised origins where the founder had no idea what lay ahead but figured it out as they went and only began on average with a few thousand dollars. What surprises many people is that the founders of what are huge multinational corporations today didn't have big life changing ideas. With very little formal planning and as crazy as it sounds, had very little experience in their chosen fields.

And Bhide's work was backed up by a study from the Kauffman Foundation from a few years ago, I think it was in 2016 that showed a small fraction of 1% of new businesses get startup capital investments. And the good news, this is good news for people who think that they need a lot of money to start moving on their idea, especially if their geography or their current financial situation could seem very limiting for accessing capital. And so coming across from this work, from Bhide really validated what we were seeing from interviewing hundreds of everyday entrepreneurs and allowed us to debunk much of what the average person thinks entrepreneurship really represents.

For instance, most people probably think, despite what they see as visible to them, most new entrepreneurial ventures are not tech focused. They're not run by folks who have MBAs. Just think about the things that happen in your community every day. Landscaping, personal services, photographers, restaurants, dozens of other products and services that are everywhere in our communities. These aren't whiz kids developing any of the latest app or video game. They are everyday people providing valuable services to their community and most start in an exploratory fashion. They didn't have it all planned out before they took the first step. They do what we call micro experimenting with our ideas until they show some results.

For instance, the person who wants to eventually open a restaurant might try the recipes out at a local farmer's market or try bringing them to their church socials. It's these small actions that can build and grow over time. It just takes getting started. It doesn't need to be all planned out. And another false idea that we hear a lot is that people have to quit their day job to devote themselves to their business. Many of these unlikely entrepreneurs use their day job to provide stability while they experiment with their entrepreneurial venture on the side and in the margins. They aren't quitting and mortgaging their home to pay for the new venture. Only when the new venture is really showing the results, do they make the leap to completely go out on their own if they ever do it all.

And for example, in our research we've run across folks like Ted and Sirena Moore who run Elohim Cleaning Contractors in Philadelphia. And they started this cleaning business, this large cleaning business with no startup capital. So a little bit Ted paid employees from his last unemployment check and they now 18 years later, I mean large buildings all across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and employ dozens of people. And by the way, Ted never graduated high school and Sirena was a teenage mum. And we've also interviewed folks like Brian Scudamore who while trying to pay for college, started 1-800-GOT-JUNK with a few hundred dollars and a pickup truck and 25 years later his company had revenue of over a hundred million dollars.

So it's stories like these that are the focus of our work and who we believe the world can learn the most from, because most people can relate to folks like this. And what we've learned from folks like this is that the key to their success really begins with their mindset. They have to be comfortable living in what has been described as a VUCA environment, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Sounds pretty familiar right now. Right? And interestingly, the everyday entrepreneur demonstrates qualities that make them very well suited for this type of environment.

It's through our training and programs over the last 13 years, we've shown how teaching people about the details behind this type of entrepreneurial mindset before they start into formal business planning, market research and other things, it can really give them an advantage and know what they're walking into when they want to start a business or solve a community problem or just become a better employee within an already established organization. So we looked at things that anyone can do and are common and replicable. Things like developing a personal vision, identifying problems that personally resonate with problems and issues they would like to solve.

And then how to micro experiment to refine and validate their ideas. And we really focus as well on the psychological nature of this entrepreneurial game and the typical roadblocks that people put up for themselves rather than persevering through whatever difficulties they come across.

So Duncan, I've gotten to know you over the last few years and I know you have some personal experience here. So as the founder of NoveList, some of these things sound familiar to you as well?

Duncan Smith: Yes it does Rob, as a matter of fact. NoveList became the solution to a very personal problem that I was having. I was a branch librarian who couldn't read fast enough. Not only could I not read fast enough, I couldn't remember what I did read and I looked like a deer in the headlights whenever someone asked me to suggest a good book. When I started asking my colleagues and talking to them about this problem I was having, it seemed that they had it too and we couldn't read fast enough. We couldn't remember what we read and we frequently forgot everything we knew about books when we had a reader standing in front of us.

So I started talking to a couple of my buddies about this problem and they just happened to be computer geeks. And so we began to wonder whether or not a database might be the... It might be a potential solution to this problem that I and my colleagues were having. So we made a decision to sort of start working on this solution and like you said, we kept our day jobs while we built a prototype. And as soon as we had a prototype, we started showing it to everybody who would sit down and let us. Librarians, readers, everyone that we could get to sit still long enough, they'll let us walk through the product and get their feedback. And then after we got that feedback, we would come back and we would make changes and we would go back out and show it again.

And then finally after a three years of evenings and weekends and no debt, because none of us were willing to spend our personal resources or much of our personal resources to risk our personal resources to a launch company, we sold our first copy. And then shortly after that we had some... A company approached us about and said, "Do you want to make NoveList real or not?" And we said, "We did." And that was the point where we quit our day jobs and really got started, so that's the NoveList story. And like you said, Rob, it really does mirror exactly that process that you found in your research with other entrepreneurs.

Rob Herndon: Right.

Duncan Smith: And certainly Robin, today's time we're seeing a lot of folks being entrepreneurial in our COVID-19 dominated world. I mean restaurants are offering ramped up delivery and curbside takeout service. I saw one restaurant that was even talking about this being a return to the drive in car hop places in the 1950s and here in Durham, North Carolina where I live, one enterprising restaurant is actually adding a roll of toilet paper or paper towels to orders that are placed with them. Now you talk about redefining your product based on customer needs, but Rob, not everyone wants to start a business. Some folks just want to get a job. How does the content contained in this mindset course that your company offers or how does an entrepreneurial mindset help those folks?

Rob Herndon: Yeah, that's a great question Duncan. And it's one of the cool things when we start talking about entrepreneurship through a mindset lens. We recognize and not everyone wants to start a business, nor should everyone start a business. But most people want to be involved with work that matters personally to them. And when looked at in this way, people learn to recognize how to take their talents considering that they're interested in and start looking outside of themselves at the needs of others to determine where they should focus their efforts.

And it's through looking at their work, through the needs of others that many people find that they automatically become more valuable in the workplace when they are solving the problems of people both up and down their reporting chain in a typical workplace. And entrepreneurs are expert problem solvers who have to communicate and collaborate effectively to get things done. And these are the same skills that employers are trying to instill into people in their organizations. As an example, if I was to ask you who would be the least entrepreneurial people on the planet, many people would probably say government workers.

And I guess I can say that because I worked for the federal government for over two decades, but we've seen outstanding results in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the employees are all participating in entrepreneurial mindset training in order to more effectively serve the taxpayer. And we think that is because the entrepreneurial spirit is really just the human spirit, and when you were given some leeway to solve problems within your sphere of influence in the workplace, the ownership of that process creates all kinds of positive outcomes, like better employee engagement and personal wellbeing. And of course for those looking for work or recently displaced from their jobs, having the skills of being more innovative and entrepreneurial and help them stand out and their peers.

Duncan Smith: Rob, that example from the Albuquerque really resonates with me because I know you know that right now public libraries are... Buildings are closed.

Rob Herndon: Right.

Duncan Smith: They're having to really begin to struggle and think about ways to deliver services in new and different ways. And this mindset is something that would be very useful to our colleagues out there. And then I also think that in the great recession back in the day, public libraries became known as places for people who are looking for a job to come and get support and help in finding their job. It seems to me with unemployment... People finally 3.3 million unemployment claims a week ago here when we're recording and more likely to come on the way. All of this is really, really, really important for folks to be thinking about and not get trapped in trying to reconstruct what was, when they should be thinking about what could be.

Rob Herndon: Exactly.

Duncan Smith: Yeah. Another area which is working very hard to adapt in this pandemic world is schools. It really, in fact, educational institutions at all levels. As a former teacher, how do you see an entrepreneurial mindset helping school support students in navigating the world in which we are living, and likely to be living to for an undergrad defined period of time?

Rob Herndon: Yeah, that's a good question and actually, here in my house right now, my wife's a high school teacher, she's trying to navigate this process and it's very volatile. It's very uncertain out there for both the students and the teachers and the administrators trying to figure this out. And I've been lucky enough to participate in educating young people at the university, community college and high school level. And I'll tell you, one of the things that pulled me out of the classroom to participate in this work was the potential I saw that it has the impact a large number of students in profound ways and in a lot of ways the world is... What's going on right now is forcing us to re-examine education in this way.

And our work in education has been the core of our work at The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative over the last decade. And besides the outstanding results that come from students going through typical entrepreneurship programs both in higher ed and the high school levels. What we're really excited to see over the last few years is how these ideas are being taken more and more by educators from all disciplines and being integrated in throughout their instruction. For instance, in Erie, Pennsylvania a few years ago I think late 2017, we trained all the seventh grade social studies teachers in the entrepreneurial mindset.

And since then they've used these concepts to expose their students to the idea that they can generate positive change in their community by thinking like an entrepreneur, and there's a great video that is available out there on our website, on YouTube, of kids from the first program talking about the impact and one says that through an entrepreneurial mindset we can help make Erie a better place. And that's really the impact I was looking for when I began doing this work about four years ago. And then in the higher ed space, we've seen some really cool outcomes like students who normally drop out after one semester coming back at a much higher rate.

On a pilot study that we did with 1600 students at Pikes Peak Community College, 83% persisted to the spring semester versus only 55% when they weren't exposed to these ideas. So it was a 28% increase of folks who came back when they were exposed to these entrepreneurial mindset concepts. And the common theme that these students keep coming back to whether they're middle school students, high school students, or adult learners, is that by understanding and practicing entrepreneurship, students gain skills that transfer their studies and keep them moving towards the vision that they have designed for their future.

And they're not so easily knocked off track when bad things happen because they're always going to happen. And the world today is a perfect example of that. And we know from our research that because entrepreneurship tick a lot of the boxes, help improve things like self-efficacy, motivation and increasing hope, it can have a profound impact in the educational space. As an example, well one of the favorite entrepreneurs that I've gotten to know as a gentleman named Rodney Walker, who grew up on the south side of Chicago and was unfortunately living a life that too many of our young people find themselves in today, ended up in the foster care system, was homeless at one point and generally had very little opportunity when he looked around him.

But as he now talks about in his books that he's written and regular keynote speeches that he gives, it was the combination of practicing entrepreneurship, the mindset that's developed by going through that entrepreneurial process and having a committed mentor at his high school, that turned him from being on a path of literally failing out of school at ninth grade to graduating from Morehouse with his undergrad, Yale for his masters and now working on his PhD at Harvard. So for me the bottom line, Duncan, is that learning about the entrepreneurial mindset for someone who was thinking of it and exploring an entrepreneurial venture is critical. But we found that because the ideas are so applicable to what make us human for young students, they become very empowering, especially in these times of great uncertainty.

Duncan Smith: Rob, now every time I talk with you I come away with some new insight. My thought about this whole topic just gets deeper and richer as a result of the conversations we have. So I want to thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts with us today. And as I've listened to you talk and we have kind of, my three main takeaways are first of all, entrepreneurs are not just folks who start businesses, entrepreneurs are individuals who are opportunity driven and solution focused. Those folks embody the entrepreneurial mindset and I want to hit that word. Some of us may be entrepreneurs, but all of us can be entrepreneurial in the way that we behave and think and deal with the problems in front of us.

Rob Herndon: Exactly.

Duncan Smith: Yeah. Secondly, this mindset is not limited to the business world. It's valuable in a wide range of context. You talked about education and government, also nonprofits and even libraries, as I said earlier, would benefit from this style of thinking as we struggled to move more and more of our services to digital delivery. And then finally I think you'll agree with me on this, everyone has the capacity to become more entrepreneurial.

Rob Herndon: Absolutely.

Duncan Smith: Yeah. I'm reminded of all the individuals who know how to sew and have begun making masks for frontline healthcare workers. I doubt that any of those folks would view themselves as entrepreneurs, but their solution oriented approach to the country's shortage of mask is the perfect example of what an entrepreneurial mindset is capable of and an entrepreneurial mindset in action. So thank you again, Rob, for your time and sharing your expertise with us.

Rob Herndon: Thanks Duncan. I really appreciate it. It's been a lot of fun.

Tammy Ross: Thank you for joining us for this introduction to the role that libraries can play in supporting entrepreneurship in their communities. Thank you to Duncan Smith and Rob Herndon for sharing their insights. If you'd like to learn more about how EBSCO's new entrepreneurial mindset training course can help your library support entrepreneurial thinking in your community, please click the link that we've shared in the episode description.

Thanks for checking out Long Overdue: Libraries and Technology. If you like what you've heard, be sure to tune in for the next episode in our series. We'll be talking with a librarian from independence public library in Kansas, who will share how adopting an entrepreneurial mindset changed her thinking about her work, her role in the community and her life.

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