As an accountant, Leonard C. Green might be the first person you would turn to for tax advice, but not necessarily for recommendations on how to run an innovative company. But overlooking Green due to his CPA status would be a mistake. Green is the founder of the Green Group, a Woodbridge-based accounting, tax, consulting, and advisory firm that specializes in entrepreneurial thinking.
Green is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner and President Management program and has been an owner, advisor, and investor in a pet food company, a thoroughbred horse breeding and racing operation, a pro sports team, a commercial real estate management corporation, and numerous startups. He is also a professor of entrepreneurship and family business at several universities including Babson College. Green has written numerous articles for publications, including Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.
Green will speak at the Princeton Tech Meetup’s meeting on Wednesday, October 11, at 6:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Fee: $5.
At the meeting, Green will discuss lessons from “The Entrepreneur’s Playbook,” which he wrote and which was published earlier this year. The book includes 15 exercises and goes hand-in-hand with a website, www.greenco.com/theentrepreneursplaybook. There readers of the book can log in and submit answers to the book’s exercises and and receive feedback from Green himself. An excerpt from Green’s book follows:
It’s typical in the nation’s colleges and business schools for the students to rank their professors. (I’ve been fortunate. At Babson, the nation’s leading college for the study of entrepreneurship, I usually come in at or near the top of the students’ lists.) But it is also typical for professors to rank their students. (It isn’t published anywhere, but rest assured, we keep track.) So, what do my rankings reveal? Two big things:
1. It is easier to teach graduate students than the CEOs who attend my executive education classes. Even though those CEOs are accomplished and learn quickly, the grad students learn faster.
2. And it is easier still to teach undergraduates than all those smart people going for their MBAs.
When I tell people this, they ask the logical follow-up question: “Do you think you would be more effective teaching high school students, compared to those in college?”
My answer? Yes.
Some of them, meaning to be funny, go further and ask, “Does this mean junior high school students would learn even faster than those in high schools, and elementary school students would outperform those in seventh and eighth grade?”
I know they are joking, and even though I had never taught anyone that young, my answer was always (a theoretical) yes. I will expand more on this point in a minute, but my thinking was simple: the younger you are, the more open you are to new ideas. As we get older, the more we think we know. The problem with that, as Mark Twain pointed out, is clear: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble; it’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”
I knew from teaching that the more open you are to new ideas, the easier it is to be entrepeneurial. And I had always believed that the younger you are, the easier it is to develop the entrepreneurial skills you are going to need going forward. But I didn’t know that for sure.
Then, a few years ago, I got my chance to find out. My grandson, Kenny, was in the fifth grade at the Buckley Country Day School on Long Island, and his class was doing a unit on business and entrepreneurship. Kenny volunteered me to come into his class and talk about what I do. Kenny’s mother, my daughter Beth Green — a lawyer who once worked with the negotiation expert Roger Fisher of “Getting to Yes” fame — was excited but concerned. “Dad, they’re only 10 and 11 years old. What can you possibly say to them from your college and graduate school classes that they’re going to understand? Buckley wants you to fill 90 minutes. How are you going to hold the kids’ attention?”
Beth then paused and gave me a look that I recognized from her teenage years, the one that conveyed, “You are totally clueless, Dad.” But she simply asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I told her it was going to be a piece of cake. I was going to use the same opening-day “presentation” that I give my Babson students. Beth looked even more horrified, but that is exactly what I did. I stood up in front of Kenny’s class and, after we spent a few minutes getting to know each other, I showed them a plain drinking mug and asked what they could do to “alter or change the mug so that it would be worth more.” (In business schools, the concept is known as enhancing value. To fifth graders, the idea is described as making more money.)
They got very excited and in minutes came up with the following ideas:
Add the name of the school.
Have two handles.
Add a thermometer, to tell you the temperature of the liquid inside.
They passed test number one; they truly enhanced the value of the mug! For my second exercise, I pulled out my smartphone. “Okay, you all know what this is.” (Most had a phone of their own, and they were all very familiar with what the devices could do.) “Let’s do an exercise to see who is most innovative,” I said.
I divided the class into teams of four and gave them 15 minutes to answer this question: “It’s five years from now: How will you be using your cellphones? I want you to compile a list of as many functions as you can.”
You cannot believe what they imagined. Not only would they be able to watch any television program or movie whenever they wanted, everything would be instantly customizable. They would put in their preferences, and shows would be recorded automatically; songs would be compiled instantly into playlists — and everything would be voice activated. Their lists went on and on.
Then, I had them do exactly the same thing that I always have my college, graduate, and even CEO students do during the next part of the exercise. I said, “Now that you have forecasted where the market is going, I want you to think of as many products as you can that people will want to use in the future.” Again, they were remarkable. They produced more ideas faster than any group I have ever taught. In fact, I think one of their ideas is going to make someone a lot of money. Let me tell you about it.
Say you are about to go shopping at a “big-box” store; Target, Home Depot, Best Buy, etc. These stores are so huge — some are three full acres — that it can be difficult to find anything.
As you enter the store, let’s say a Super Walmart, which sells everything a typical Walmart does, plus groceries, you receive an e-mail on your phone asking if you would like to download a detailed map of the store and see what is on sale. If you click yes, not only do you get a map complete with a search function (looking for cereal, it’s in aisle 22 on the left), but, as you approach the cereal aisle, you are offered a coupon, via your cellphone, for $1 off a box of Cheerios. Linger in front of the lawn mowers for more than 90 seconds and not only will you get a coupon for $100 off any riding mower you buy today, your phone offers to set up a side-by-side comparison of the models you are considering.
It’s a wonderful idea and it is definitely feasible. I checked. (It’s surprisingly easy to do with existing technology.)
The idea satisfies one of my criteria for success: it creates a win-win situation — actually, a win-win-win in this case. The customer wins because he gains an easier way to navigate the store and receives targeted discounts. The product seller wins because he is able to provide an incentive to an interested customer to get him to buy. And the store wins because it is creating value for its customers (which will probably increase sales).
Someone, I believe, is going to be extremely successful with this idea.
What have we just learned? Well, first, my grandson and his classmates are smart. And second, it really is easier to teach entrepreneurship to younger people. Why would these fifth graders come up with more ideas than my college and graduate students — or CEOs typically do in the same amount of time?
There are three reasons, and they are something to keep in mind if you are older than 10 or 11:
1. The older you are, the more you’ve seen, so there is a tendency to be skeptical and say, “No, that will never work, because…” whenever you — or someone else — comes up with a new concept.
2. Since you are usually worried that you could look foolish when you come up with a new idea and it fails, you stick to the safest suggestions. When you are 10 or 11, you are not cursed with self-doubt.
3. And most important, they were thinking about entrepreneurship in the most effective and productive way. If you want to become more entrepreneurial, come up with a better mousetrap, as those fifth-graders did. Instead of thinking about a new revolutionary idea that isn’t in the marketplace, start by improving on something that already exists to solve a real problem people have.
Let me explain. One of the first things that invariably happens in my Babson class is that when we begin talking about what products or services the students might sell, someone will say, “I have an idea.” Well, I am not surprised they do: ideas are remarkably easy to come by.
But you don’t want to start with a completely new idea; you want to start with a market need, which is just a fancier way of saying that you want to come up with a better mousetrap.
For a lot of people, that statement is counterintuitive. They ask: Shouldn’t you start by coming up with an idea for a product or service that has never existed in any form?
The answer is no. Here’s why.
It’s natural, when you are pondering how you can create a product or service, to want to think about coming up with a unique idea. It would just seem to make sense. After all, if you are trying to create something new, why shouldn’t you start with something unique?
The reason you shouldn’t is because, it’s remarkably inefficient and it’s inefficient because ideas are easy to come by. I will let you prove it to yourself. Take the next two minutes and write down all the things you’d love to see created, whether or not you would want to have anything to do with creating them. For example, list that jetpack that would allow you to fly to work and the device that will get the dishes from the table to the dishwasher. Ready, set, go. If, you are like most people, you came up with at least 10 ideas within those two minutes. (As I said, generating ideas is easy.)
The problem is you can’t do much with most of those ideas. Some are not yet feasible; we don’t know, yet, how to get those dishes into the dishwasher by themselves. Others are going to take much more money than you can easily lay your hands on; the cost of mass producing jetpacks that allow you to fly is going to be huge. While the vast majority of the ideas you generate are probably intriguing, odds are you don’t have the necessary skills, talents, or even interest in making them a reality.
All this explains why you don’t want to start with a unique idea. You want to begin by improving a concept that already exists.