Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 30, 2019
Lots of ink (digital, of course) has been spent on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the value, the power and the importance of teaching it to the next generation. Recently, I spent an interesting evening at the La Jolla Playhouse and became even more convinced of the power and importance of STEAM — adding ARTS to STEM.
The Innovation Lab, a Playhouse program, uses the pillars of improvisational theater to teach communication and “soft skills.” The goal is to promote creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. I took “the test,” which asked me to make up names of planets in the solar system that didn’t exist. It was classic improv, and Julia Cuppy, who runs the program, says that a high percentage of entrepreneurs become uncomfortable with having to come up with “nonsense words.”
If you are a scientist and you know the planet does not exist, then just making up a name or a sound for it in rapid fire succession can be somewhat challenging. I have often extolled the benefits of improvisation. After all, in the world of being a CEO, it seems to me that you make it up most of the time (I confess that is my own personal default position). The Innovation Lab seems like a good place to challenge your management team. The play that night was “Kiss My Aztec” — and while I am not qualified to opine on its theatrical merits, I do suspect that the off-the-wall madness and humor of it was probably a pleasant challenge to the evening’s attendees.
On a different front, I spent a cross-country airplane trip recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Talking to Strangers.” It is a fascinating dissection of various high-profile, serious confrontations — Sarah Bland, Bernie Madoff, Brock Turner, Amanda Knox and several others — and how the outcome of those interactions hinged so delicately on misunderstandings, miscommunication, missed cues and our own biases. Gladwell’s core theme is that talking to people we don’t know, to strangers, can sometimes, rapidly escalate to serious consequences, including death.
So I puzzled about the relationship between talking to strangers and “pitching to investors.” After all, the founder doesn’t really know who they are, what they are thinking and how easily mutual misunderstandings can arise. I know this is not life and death, but the book does give some clues as to how to avoid disastrous outcomes. Lots of incubator time is spent on teaching the entrepreneur the art of pitching — and I think some of that might be misplaced. We spend hours honing “the deck,” but if the first thing you do is turn on the computer and present the slides, then you are missing the moment. If you really understand your offering, it might be more powerful to keep the computer shut and just tell the story the way you would if you had kids around a campfire. If you are engaged in the telling, you will not be looking at the screen.
I recently found myself in a sporting event misunderstanding, which escalated with protests and threats, created by the simple fact that neither of us picked up the phone. The outrage at me came from a total stranger — someone I did not know at all. We both suffered from erroneous conclusions, mistaken intentions and the inability to accept truthfulness. Emails exploded and in the end, I followed some of my previous advice and simply fell on my sword. Done and done, but it did not have to be that way.
Finally, another brilliant company has been funded that defies rational logic, but again, what do I know? Meet Recompose, a Seattle-based eco-startup that is taking composting to a new level — it composts dead people. The CEO is Katrina Spade, and her idea is simple. Put a dead body in a vessel with some wood chips, alfalfa and straw and in about a month, the corpse will yield approximately four large wheelbarrows full of fluffy soil. The process costs $5,800 and uses one-eighth of the energy that cremation does. It is sort of an Instant Pot for your dead uncle who all his life wanted to be mulched in the back yard under the apple tree. Think about your customer acquisition — they are dying to use the service.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to [email protected].
Rule No. 629
Strangers and friction.