Jonathan Littman and Susanna Camp on high-impact entrepreneurship: An interview by Bob Morris

Jonathan Littman collaborated with IDEO on the bestsellers The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation (more than 650,000 copies sold worldwide in 12 languages). The author of ten books, five of his works have been optioned for films. His award-winning journalism has appeared in Playboy, the LA Timesand Forbes. He is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.
Susanna Camp is the Editor-in-Chief of journalist specializing in emerging technology, she was an early team leader at Wired magazine, and has also been on the staff of Macworld, PCWorld and Outsidemagazines. She has a master’s degree in education and is currently studying instructional design at Harvard.

They are the co-authors of The Entrepreneur’s Faces: How Makers, Visionaries and Outsiders Succeed, Littman and Camp are also Entrepreneurs in Residence at Schoolab San Francisco and Outglocal Consulting in Aveiro, Portugal.

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Before discussing The Entrepreneur’s Faces, a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Jon Littman: Around 2012, I began teaching international business students in San Francisco and leading lots of workshops for visiting professionals from Europe, Asia and Latin America. I began to see that this was at heart a human challenge. My focus changed from product innovation to a fresh attention on what are the mindsets and healthy habits that are necessary to help students and professionals become far more entrepreneurial. And that exploration led to our new book.

Susanna Camp: Realizing that I needed to “walk the talk,” I became an entrepreneur three years ago when we launched this book project. I wanted to experience first-hand the risks and rewards of working for myself. What I found through writing the book is that I am the type we call the Maker, the creator who obsessively prototypes. From the e-book (which has a different, choose-your-own narrative option from the print version) to the website, to the “What Type Are You?” quiz, to an executive course based on the book, The Entrepreneur’s Faces is really a tech-enabled platform. And Jon and I are the co-founders.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Camp: Everyone brings their own identity to an endeavor, shaped by their unique experience, circumstances, and lens of understanding. That’s why leaders need to celebrate diversity and give agency to the people on their teams. The human-centric model we’ve introduced in The Entrepreneur’s Faces is a great place for leaders to start. Begin with gaining your own self-awareness and then extend that empathy to team members. How will you help foster and support their entrepreneurial mindsets?

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Littman: Porter’s point applies well to smart entrepreneurs and startups. Most successful founders pivot a few times before finding the right value proposition, and let go of early ideas and features before zeroing in on what truly matters.

From Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Camp: I’d flip this around to say: “Cherish the truth but beware when you find it.” This is the central dilemma of the entrepreneur. They know they have to follow their own path to truth, but often it’s the path of greatest resistance! Entrepreneurs are constantly meeting challenges and setbacks, so they need to have an undying perseverance to stay the course.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Littman: The best startup founders love throwing themselves into a new industry. They have faith in their process, confidence that they will unlock opportunities that have been overlooked. That search for novel insights is the more important than the money.

From Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Littman: This fits our model like a glove. While we are often told to think of ourselves as unique, that is easier said than done. School, jobs and life can beat that out of you. We believe grounding yourself in your entrepreneurial type helps you find out what truly makes you tick. And that self-knowledge is just what we need to throw ourselves into new ventures.

From Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Littman: This is why a story, book or startup pitch must hit the heart as well as the mind. It’s about so much more than the numbers.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Littman: We would call vision without execution stopping at The Awakening, the first stage of the entrepreneurial journey. It’s not hallucination. It’s better than sleeping through life, but it doesn’t get you anywhere until you Shift into the next stage of the Arc and begin taking tangible steps toward your goals.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Camp: Empathy is essential for entrepreneurs – to care about big problems that need solving. You need to step into other people’s shoes to begin to unravel what they lack. For example, safety is paramount during the pandemic, so there are countless innovations you can spot all around you. From visual affordances in grocery stores pointing out the 6-foot social distancing protocols to more dramatic pivots, such as our local gym that turned indoor rooms into spaces for kids’ learning pods that paired with sports.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Littman: Boy does the world not need another app or website for a problem that doesn’t exist. Just because you or your friends think it’s cool doesn’t mean anyone will pay for it. Fortunately, extraneous inventions tend to come out in the wash. The market will tell you when there isn’t a need.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Camp: Successful workplace cultures embrace the entrepreneurial mindset. Far from a top down model, these cultures are open to transformative ideas potentially originating from anyone, including people outside the company. This goes beyond startups and small businesses, and can extend to anyone, any project, and of course applies equally to intrapreneurs within corporations. This kind of flexible, forward-leaning mindset is a rejection of business as usual, and a commitment to finding new solutions that serve customers better. The pandemic – and the sudden flexibility that corporations have had to suddenly adopt toward remote collaboration – has demonstrated the absolute necessity of innovative thinking.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Littman: Scaling creative talent. Software, AI and machine learning will increasingly perform many human tasks. Most CEOs don’t recognize how totally different creative, innovative staffers are from other employees, and how much they need to protect them from foolish distractions like meetings, the pressure to document billable hours, and other busywork.

Now please shift your attention to The Entrepreneur’s Faces. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

Littman: Three years ago we saw a surge in people starting or wanting to start new businesses. There were bestselling books, like The Lean Startup, but nothing was focused on the individual, on the human factor. We decided we wanted to write a book that would inspire all sorts of people to adopt a more entrepreneurial way of thinking and doing.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Camp: Entrepreneurial people embraced our mission, while others with more traditional backgrounds told us that it wasn’t possible. That you couldn’t write a book with ten heroes. That you couldn’t write a book without a celebrity. But we knew we had a winning formula. We forged ahead and acted like entrepreneurs. We learned to behave like a startup to achieve our goal, and that meant believing in ourselves and in the supreme value of being entrepreneurial.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Littman: This was an entrepreneurial journey, so when we first set out, we didn’t really have a preformed idea of the book. We were prototyping, which is so important. We love the final form, a chronicle of ten fascinating entrepreneurs simultaneously facing and overcoming the many challenges of creating a company. Very little was planned. A lot of experimenting and hard work was required to come up with this narrative structure.

I agree that innovation is a process, not a destination, and that it involves a sequence of separate but interdependent stages. All roads may have once led to Rome but more than one now leads to breakthrough innovation. There are differences between the IDEO process and the Pixar process as well as between those two and the process you recommend in the book. You call yours “The Arc.” Why?

Camp: We call it the Arc because the next stage of innovation will be largely about maximizing our potential as individuals. Ours is a human-centric model, a foundation for discovering your individual assets and liabilities. The Arc recognizes that every individual, project, product or company moves through stages. So we are essentially encouraging people to identify who they are and where they are in their journey, and that self-knowledge and honesty can be tremendously empowering.

The Arc consists of seven stages that are essential to entrepreneurial change. Should they be completed in sequence? Please explain.

Camp: Yes and no. Your entrepreneurial journey always begins with an Awakening, that first inspiration, and if you take action, you’ll make the Shift to taking the first tangible steps. Early on you also create your Place, which is both physical, the city or location where you build your company, as well as the human network. From there many of the stages can overlap. For instance, you can Launch while you are simultaneously searching for more funding, what we call The Money. The key is that you are intentional about the importance of these stages and recognize that it’s tough to get to the level where your business model passes The Test, which will mean finding sufficient paying customers. Finally, it’s even harder to reach The Scale, where returns are large and you know you’re making an impact.

Which of the first six seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

Littman: Thousands of startups have gotten funding, created products and launched. It’s a heck of a lot harder to succeed at the Test – to essentially create a viable, profitable business. That usually takes a pivot or two to find a unique offering and target a specific customer group.

I think some of your best ideas are provided when you discuss the ten “Faces.” For those who have not as yet read the book, what is a “Face”? A point of view, a perspective, a persona, a collaborative function…all of the above? Something else?

Camp: Bob, I’d have to go with your astute descriptions, and answer:  all of the above. The Face represents your approach to your work and life. If you’re an Athlete, for example, you crave competition. An Evangelist is a gifted storyteller, who can move hearts and minds to sell the product before it even exists. The Maker is a tireless prototyper. And there’s no reason you can’t aspire to be all three. But it also comes back to teamwork, and the collaborative function that you mention. We are human, and knowing what qualities you lack helps you to find those strengths in other team members or partners.

In practice,  how are various Faces involved in the process? Are all engaged in each of the seven stages, for example, or only individually on an as-needed basis? Please explain.

Littman: Great question. All of the Faces – Makers, Athletes, Outsiders, and more – must tackle these stages. Depending on someone’s success with their project, product or company, they’ll advance to the higher stages – the Launch, the Money, the Test and even sometimes the Scale. If we are talking about a team or a startup itself – certain types that are skilled at bringing more ideas and energy are critical during the early stages – the Awakening, Shift, and Place. We think it’s great early on to have the drive of the Athlete and the compelling storytelling of the Evangelist, as well as an Outsider or Accidental to come up with the great idea.

Let’s examine three of the Faces. Please explain what you consider to be the single greatest value that each contributes to the process. First, the Outsider:

Littman: Outsiders bring the powerful insights of the “beginner’s mind” and the ability to step away from current rules and seeming market realities to reimagine a business from scratch. Every team or company needs Outsiders.

Next, the Guardian:

Camp: Guardians protect people by taking down barriers or confronting inequities, a critical capacity during the pandemic.

Finally,  the Collaborator:

Littman: Collaborators put the process and team above their ego, and elevate others for the common good. The pandemic has made this type even more essential. We all need a little more collaboration to rise above the dangers of going it alone.

With all due respect to contemporary entrepreneurs such as Sam Walton, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos, I think there are valuable lessons to be learned from various pioneers who once roamed throughout the vineyards of free enterprise long ago. In your opinion what is the single most valuable lesson to learned from each of these three?

Littman: I was fortunate to interview Bezos in person for an hour in 1997 for a major story for the LA Times and saw Steve Jobs onstage close up a few times. Jobs created a culture around extreme quality, Bezos around rapid prototyping, Walton around low cost at scale. Innovation is reflected through highly specific cultural focus.

Finally, Benjamin Franklin and the development of public services such as libraries, police and fire departments, print media, and mail delivery

Littman: Ben Franklin was such a generous and wonderfully prolific entrepreneur and inventor. Of course in the public services that you mention, but also in so many other realms – bifocals, swim fins, and lightning rods. He was in many aspects the business/public service version of a true genius like DaVinci.

However different they may be in most other respects, what do the greatest entrepreneurs throughout history share in common that is most relevant to the 21st century?

Camp: They did not assume others had all the answers, and had the vision and confidence that through experimenting – through dozens or hundreds of prototypes – they could create something genuinely superior.

To what extent (if any) do you agree with Plato that “necessity is the mother of invention”? Please explain.

Littman: I had the pleasure of studying Plato at UC Berkeley as a Rhetoric major and I have to say that the Greeks got a lot right a long time ago. The pandemic has ushered in tremendous innovation and invention, quite simply because old ways and rules have suddenly been upended.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in The Entrepreneur’s Faces will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Camp: We’ve already started doing online workshops and webinars around the book. We’re finding that young people or those starting on a new path really get excited about discovering who they are – their entrepreneurial Face.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Littman: Placing the right people on teams is critical to companies. By helping owners and CEOs to identify people’s specific archetypes, we believe our book will inspire many to be more thoughtful when it comes to attracting talent and achieving diversity.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Camp: “Can entrepreneurship be learned?”

We answer with a definitive yes!

It begins with self-awareness about your type’s strengths and weaknesses, and then setting off on this wonderful journey of discovery. We teach a class at the University of San Francisco called “Creativity, Innovation and Applied Design.” We work to open the students’ minds to how they can be more creative, and innovative. You can be creative about how you look for ideas, and how you develop them. The class itself is innovative. We emphasize experiential learning. Learning by doing. So we’re not just giving them case studies and asking them to write papers about them. We’re having them design products, brainstorm new ideas in a collaborative team setting for how to innovate their own university, and finally to pitch their work in front of the class. The result is a dynamic class where the students bond over shared learning.


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