Speaker | Entrepreneur | Author

Sam Davidson's blog

Every Tuesday, I write.

I share an idea I’ve come up with, a struggle I’m wrestling with, a puzzle I’m turning over in my head, or a story that I think the world needs to hear. You can sign up to get these emailed to you each Tuesday morning by clicking here

On Thursdays, I write at Batch about a business idea or concept, usually through the lens of my day-to-day work as co-founder and CEO or from the viewpoint and lessons learned of our purveyors. Follow along here

On LinkedIn and Twitter I often toss out quick thoughts and ideas that aren’t ready for longer posts just yet or something that I’m seeking feedback on. 

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Posts in Entrepreneurship
What We Do

I've written before (and acknowledge that this is not my original observation) that the difficulty with calling oneself an entrepreneur is that no verbs exist for what we do. Bakers bake. Painters paint. Designers design. 

And entrepreneurs? We entrepre….what?

Those of us trying to forge slow companies - where our work and life align - understand that we do a lot. And while there's not an easy verb that captures our noun, we do what's needed, when needed to build our slow legacies.

We work hard on the 78th go of the recipe even if we know it's not quite right because that means the 79th or 80th will be.

We bathe the kids and read bedtime stories and kiss goodnight and then we stay up a few more hours to figure out the P&L because we can't miss payroll.

We write another note to the reporter asking if our story is a fit yet.

We attend the conference and shake the hands because one of those hands may be the one we need to pen an email, scratch our back, or open a door.

We tell our story to anyone who will listen with as much passion as we first told our spouse, parent, or business partner.

We launch a new vertical over a weekend because it makes sense and if it is to be, it's up to us.

We say yes.

We try. Oh my god do we try.

We smile at rejection, celebrate at success, grieve at failure, wait for opportunity, and always do it bigger and better than we did the last time.

We get on planes and in cars to chase a dream and build a life worth living.

We fold boxes, deliver packages, answer phones, reply to emails, show up at parties, talk to bankers, and forge partnerships.

We roll the dice.

We ship. We launch. We sell. We close. We iterate. We pivot. We push. We move. We disrupt. We try. Oh my god do we try. 

We create the change we hope to see, both in communities and in our own lives. We go forward toward the destiny we build for ourselves and our families. We don't stand still, we don't give up, and we don't let fear grip us to the point of not entrepreneur-ing. 

We build. 

Together, we build. 

 

On the Backs of Strangers

While roadtripping with my daughter this past weekend, we made a stop at Cracker Barrel (I don't know about you, but it's really only acceptable to eat at the Barrel when you're at least 100 miles from your home). After our meal and a quick perusal of the built-in souvenir stand, I told my daughter I needed to use the restroom.

While traveling with her solo, this can be a bit of a challenge. If it's a small restroom, like you'd find at Chick Fil-A or Starbucks, she usually goes in with me while I hastily accomplish the necessary. But bigger restrooms at airports or larger restaurants present more obstacles (dirty stalls, urinal cakes, loud hand dryers).  

A very nice woman overheard me asking my daughter if she wanted to wait just outside the restroom or come in and she offered, "I'll watch her. I'm a grandmother. " (This is something both of my daughters' grandmothers would say, by the way.)

I thanked her, ran in, emptied, and ran out. This woman and my daughter were chatting about the toy she'd picked out. 

I thanked the woman repeatedly and we were on our way. 

This interaction could have happened anywhere, but that it happened at Cracker Barrel makes it more Southern and a perfect scene for some movie where all the actors sweat throughout while performing with terribly overdone accents.

I'm a trusting individual and had no qualms about letting my daughter speak with someone new for 45 seconds (yes, I counted). Once we pointed our car north to finish the trip, I realized that most of what we build in our lives is done on the backs of strangers

When community becomes anonymous

I don't know all of our customers at Batch. Same goes for Cool People Care. Onward is a different story because as you consult, you get to know someone and his or her work quite deeply. Occasionally I'll recognize an order I see come through at Batch or CPC, but most of the time these names are mysteries.  

At first, it wasn't like this. Early orders at each company were peppered with friends and family. Familiar faces greeted us at festivals and fairs and often handed over $10 or $20 bills out of kind empathy.  

But if you are to grow, you'll need to find those strangers who believe in you, too. If your idea is to flourish - no matter how long it takes - you'll need the interest and support of those you don't know. In fact, when you get this interest and support, you can assume you're going somewhere. It's easy for your mom to tell you that you're on to something. It's better for business that someone who didn't birth you confirm that notion (see: Idol, American). 

When snagged

Last week, we had a slight shipping snafu at Batch. All is well now and as best we can tell the people we let down the most were ourselves, only because the highest expectations placed on this small, slow company are those put there by its founders. In the midst of our hand-wringing we found that it was the strangers' patience we appreciated and needed the most. 

Friends will gladly smile and nod and still hang out with you when your product doesn't live up to the hype or when you miss a delivery deadline. Strangers, however, can quickly demand refunds or pan you online (which is well within their rights). But it's awesome to see empathy and understanding from people you've never met, people who are rooting for you to succeed even without a blood relationship. 

Slow companies are built on the backs of strangers. The trust found there takes time to cultivate, of course. But the world and our most enduring societies took a while to get there, built up over time because one stranger started to trust another until a community took root. 

And on the way to community, something great happened. We all stopped being strangers and started being friends. 

On the Precipice of Possibility

I've found that possibility is a scary place to be.

Sure, it's a hopeful place to be. The optimist in us longs to be on the verge of possibility and wants to bottle the energy, excitement, and expectation there. But while we're busy trying to capture that feeling, fear sneaks in and we abandon our efforts because we realize that if we actually jump, we might fall flat on our face. 

And tonight I write standing on that precipice, about to leap. Equal parts of hope and fear stand with me as Cool People Care, the company I've been running since co-founding it seven years ago, debuts our line of merchandise tomorrow at one of the largest trade shows in North America. 

I'm excited for several reasons. After seven hard years of telling our story, grinding, failing, winning, dreaming, guessing, and trying, off we go, ready to jump. Seven years ago this month, we were busy building a brand and over-engineering a website. And tomorrow I'll stand in an exhibit booth and try to convince buyers our line of cause-related apparel will be a hit with their customers, all while helping support charities around the U.S. 

I've also learned that you don't get to stand on this precipice as often as you think. When you launch a company, things are new and exciting. You can stir up interest and support among family and friends and you may even get a media mention or two. But soon that buzz subsides and you're left with the grind of the flatland where it's back to business as usual. 

But then, maybe after a year of negotiation, you sign with a distributor who believes in your story as much as you do. And then you get the chance to climb again to the precipice. And when you're there you need to soak in the view. But don't take too long. You'll need to leap soon.  

Tomorrow, we'll jump. And for two days in Atlanta, we'll either fly or fall. And that's the journey. You get to the precipice, but as soon as you do, you need to move on. You can't live on the precipice. You just get to visit and use it as a launching pad toward the next big thing.  

But for now, for this moment, I'm standing up and standing tall and getting ready to leap. 

And, fittingly, here's two minutes describing how we got here: 

The Cross-Pollination of Companies

This piece on Rick Rubin is fascinating. I was gripped in the opening by this line: 

He’s in the midst of a session at the legendary Shangri-La Studios—the bucolic, residential recording complex set up by the Band in 1976 as “a clubhouse where we and our friends could record albums and cross-pollinate one another’s music,” according to the late drummer Levon Helm.

The best songwriters and musicians get that cross-pollination is key. Pastors forget this and try to write sermons in solitude. I see companies do this, too, protecting what they think are secrets, wary of outside advice that could actually help them.

This is also the upside of incubators and accelerators, letting your ideas flow freely with other peers in the early stages of their great big idea. You can see what sticks and "sample" from what others are doing until your company is ready to come out of the oven, fully baked. 

I've never started a company alone, nor will I. All of my ventures (four in all as of today) have begun with a co-founder or a team.  

I'll never try to pollinate alone.  


Speaking of, check out what we're doing at Made Nashville. Our first box of monthly locally-made goods will ship in September. Drop us your email address if you want to be notified when it's time to deliver our first batch. 

Trigger Events

I'm working with some friends on a new business idea. We're spending this month testing the concept and researching. As we put together a business plan, we're listing out our trigger events, stuff like:

  • When we sign on X customers, we'll then...
  • After we talk to X suppliers, we'll be able to...
  • If we decide to expand, we'll need to...

This kind of if/then planning lets us not get too far ahead of ourselves while also (at least in our minds) preparing for future success.

Whether you're planning a conference, a new company, a family, a retreat, or a speech, using trigger events allows you to not bet the entire concept on a pipe dream and helps cement your work in reality. Likewise, trigger events let you capitalize on momentum to keep moving forward.

What are your trigger events for your job?

The High Art of Mentoring

Mentoring seems to be more art than science. Those who have had a mentor or been a mentor often have mixed experiences. Some relationships and arrangements are great; others didn't quite work out so well for either party.

As such, I tend to stay away form formulas or rigid framework on this topic. In my experience, the best mentor-mentored relationships seem to be organic and even haphazard in forming. And, like art, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another.  

That's why I want to share part of two recent articles I read. Each offers suggestions for how to find a mentor or develop as one. Perhaps both articles will serve as a guide to you, no matter where you are on this journey.

The first is from Jeff Cornwall. He suggests that entrepreneurs in particular find two mentors:

What I can offer them is help on the issues and challenges that all entrepreneurs face, such as financing options, growing pains, partnership issues, ethical quandaries, and so forth. I can be their “process mentor.”
But, what I can offer them is not always enough. Sometimes there are issues that they face that are specific to their industry. That is why I always encourage entrepreneurs to also find a “content mentor” – someone with a depth of experience in their industry.

Go read his full post, including his perspective on what mentors get out of a mentoring relationship.

The second piece comes from Kneale Mann and he discusses the most effective mentors in his life, determining that each seemed to embody three distinct roles:

  • Teacher
  • Student
  • Graduate

Each mentor inhabited these roles to varying degrees, offering advice and action dependent upon the stage of the relationship.

Mentors can be great assets, but only if the relationship benefits each party. As you look for someone to mentor or someone to be mentored by, don't settle for what doesn't work for you. Like that large canvas hanging over your fireplace you glance at everyday, you need to find a mentor that helps your soul sing and makes you proud to claim it.

Six Qualities of Successful Social Entrepreneurs

One of the most interesting parts of David Bornstein's How to Change the World is his description of successful social entrepreneurs, which he synthesizes into six core qualities. 

Which of these do you have?

  1. A willingness to self-correct
  2. A willingness to share credit
  3. A willingness to break free of established structures
  4. A willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries
  5. A willingness to work quietly
  6. A strong ethical impetus

It seems good - no, great - social entrepreneurs work with equal parts ego and humility. One of their real skills, then, is to know when to use which for the good of their cause.

The Staying Power of Innovation

I found this gem of a statistic recently while reading David Bornstein's How to Change the World

In 2002, of the twenty largest service-providing nonprofit organizations in the United States (excluding governmental and religious groups), twelve had been established prior to 1920 and seventeen had been established prior to 1960. None was established after 1980. By contrast, more than half of the thirty companies included in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2002 were added to the index after 1980 (displacing other companies), and more than a third were added after 1990.

Bornstein uses this to encourage innovation, stating that more good could be done in the world by charities if we had some new blood in the mix, like the corporate world. I tend to agree with him.

But we can't throw out the reality of longevity, either.

The true skill of a leader, then, is to determine which traditions must survive and which ones aren't fit to. This is what really keeps you and your organization around - the ability to know when to build upon the past and when to tear it down and begin again.

How to Change the World

I finally slogged through How to Change the World by David Bornstein. I say slogged because this book is weighty and its content is rich. Think of it like that super awesome piece of cheesecake. It's delicious, but if you're smart, you'll back up off of it, take a nap, do some crunches, and then come back to it when you're ready for more.

I'd dare say the book is one of the definitive works out there related to social entrepreneurship. And whether you're just getting started investigating this world or you're knee-deep in it as I am, I recommend this book as a fantastic primer and examination of what's possible when you look for collaborative, market-based, or scalable approaches to solving some of the world's biggest problems.

Bornstein mainly looks at the work of Ashoka fellows around the world and the good and innovate work their doing. This may or may not be of interest to you - the detailed ins and outs of an approach to poverty or child welfare or medical care - so thankfully Bornstein also includes his own conclusions drawn about what makes social entrepreneurs successful, what types of people are drawn to this work, and what you can do to get your idea off the ground.

As I usually do, here are some of the best quotes I found in the book (emphasis added):

In the United States and Canada alone, more than two hundred universities have established centers, courses, competitions, scholarships or speaker series focusing on this field [of social entrepreneurship].

Social entrepreneurship is not about a few extraordinary people saving the day for everyone else. At its deepest level, it is about revealing possibilities that are currently unseen and releasing the capacity within each person to reshape a part of the world. It does not require an elite education; it requires a backpack. The corpus of knowledge in social entrepreneurship comes from first-hand engagement with the world - from asking lots of questions and listening and observing with a deep caring to understand.

"I am an entrepreneur, and as an entrepreneur, I am always possessed by an idea." - Fabio Rosa, an entrepreneur profiled in the book

Changing a system means changing attitudes, expectations, and behaviors. It means overcoming disbelief, prejudice, and fear. Old systems do not readily embrace new ideas or information; defenders of the status quo can be stubbornly impervious to common sense.

"The laws don't matter if you don't have the institution to enforce them." - Bill Drayton

"If we take a charity approach, we will be here for 50,000 years and nothing will be different." - Jeroo Billimoria, an entrepreneur profiled in the book

[Change occurs with] an obsessive individual working behind the scenes - a person with vision, drive, integrity of purpose, great persuasive powers, and remarkable stamina.

"When I hold lectures, I tell people, 'If you really believe in something, you just have to do it and do it and do it, because if I had given up one month prior to 1989, I would have ended up with nothing.'" - Erzsebet Szekeres, an entrepreneur profiled in the book

I think the heart of it is that entrepreneurs, for some reason deep in their personality know, from the time they are little, that they are on this world to change it in a fundamental way.

"I had faith that if people told a part of their story that was important to them, it would convey their strengths to another human being in a way that nothing else could." - J. B. Schramm, an entrepreneur profiled in the book

One of the most important qualities of innovative organizations, I have found, is a strong commitment to listening.

It is said that chance only favors the prepared mind.

The most successful entrepreneurs were the ones most determined to achieve a long-term goal that was deeply meaningful to them.

Although it is probably impossible to fully explain why people become social entrepreneurs, it is certainly possible to identify them. And society stands to benefit by finding these people, encouraging them, and helping them to do what they need to do.

Numbers are problematic to the extent that they give the illusion of providing more truth than they actually do. They also favor what is easiest to measure, not what is most important.

Without a doubt, the past twenty years had produced far more social entrepreneurs than terrorists.

Your Children Are Watching

I know that not all of my readers have children, but when I ran across this quote, I had to share its impact:

"Both my parents gave themselves permission to pursue their dreams in life, to do something really excellent that was theirs."

This is what Bill Drayton tells author David Bornstein in the book How to Change the World. Drayton is the founder of Ashoka, an organization that is empowering social entrepreneurs around the world. Quite truthfully, Drayton's impact is immeasurable.

It's a good thing his parents weren't chained to jobs they hated and were willing to try something radical so he could do the same, in his own important way.

How to Find Work You Love (podcast)

In today's brand new podcast episode, I spend time interviewing Elizabeth Crook. As you'll hear from our conversation, we cover a lot of ground that is important for entrepreneurs, leaders, students, and anyone curious about changing the world. We tackle ideas and topics like:

  • How to find work you enjoy (or enjoy the work you find)
  • Why work can't be separated from life
  • Why we all need to ackowledge - and not hide - our gifts and talents in order to turn them into a career)
  • The importance of writing down and sharing your personal and professional goals

Give it a listen and I bet you'll learn a lot from Elizabeth. I know I did.

As always, be sure to subscribe to The Cannonball Podcast in iTunes. And, if you have any questions or comments about what you hear in any episode, be sure to leave a comment below.