Business guru: Alexander’s axioms
Alexander Blass, President and CEO, Alexander Blass International, is the inventor and founder of person-to-person giving technology on the Internet, that has been referred to by the media as the “eBay of Giving”. He is an internationally acclaimed entrepreneur and innovator who was in town for the second Abu Dhabi Innovation Forum. He shares his secrets for success with Ketaki Banga.
Alexander Blass serves as President and CEO of Alexander Blass International, an executive consulting and training firm based near Washington DC. Now 36, he is the youngest grand prize winner ever of the Daily Record’s Top Innovator of the Year Award, which credited him with “revolutionising charitable giving” in 2007. He is the inventor and founder of person-to-person giving technology on the Internet.
Alexander is also the recipient of the Daily Record’s Influential Marylanders Award, recognising the top 50 people in the state, up to the Governor, as well as the Baltimore Business Journal’s Top 40 Under 40 Executives Award. He was also honoured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Wharton School of Business.
Previously, Alexander was a venture capitalist, equity research analyst, strategy consultant, senior government executive, and software developer, beginning his career at KPMG Consulting. He has worked with leading organisations worldwide on opportunities totalling over $1 billion, as well as serving on boards of various for-profit and non-profit organisations in the US and overseas. Alexander has been an invited expert at the National Science Foundation on a dozen occasions, making investment recommendations on over $100 million of emerging technologies for the US government.
Big ideas always begin with a tenacious innovator but they require a great team to be successful. Don’t underestimate the power of the potential partnerships and collaborations you have all around you.
Sometimes you wonder if innovation is top down or bottom up? In my view it’s kind of a trick question because the employer-employee relationship is symbiotic; they are dependent on each other. It’s essential that an innovative culture runs through the lifeblood of the entire organisation. It has to trickle down from the top to attract and retain the best talent. Today’s talent expects and demands it. You have to give them the tools and resources they need to innovate – you can no longer compete on salary alone.
But it’s also from the bottom up – it’s also the young, tenacious talent where many of the recent greatest inventions and developments have come from. The younger generation we have today is less risk averse, more open to taking that step and looking at the world a bit different. So it has to be a two-way street.
Your innovations reveal a lot about who you are and your passions and values. Look at any innovation and you’ll learn about that innovator. When someone revolutionises a certain industry, something gave him or her that fire in the belly – that motivation to shake things up.
That’s because all of us are unique and have unique experiences that make us who we are today. We all have two toolboxes – personal as well as professional. Your personal toolbox is where you come from, your influences, and what and who has shaped your life. Your professional toolbox includes your CV, your education, training and experience. It is essential for your personal and professional toolboxes to be in symbiosis, to be in synch, to be working together to maximise your potential whether you’re an entrepreneur or a large company because, guess what, even the largest companies are made up of human beings and all of us human beings have our own ambitions as well.
Your employees have their own quest: “How can I align the goals of my company to my personal ambitions?” It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or business owner, we all have individual goals and the challenge is to integrate the goals of your business with your personal aspirations.
So what are my passions and values? How did I use them to reinvent myself as an innovator? I love technology and entrepreneurship but what else am I passionate about? You’re more than just your CV! What do you do outside your work that motivates you?
My parents really emphasised the importance of philanthropy and helping others. They always said they’d rather run the risk of helping someone who didn’t truly need their assistance than turn away someone who really needed their help. That message resonates with me to this day, decades later. What a powerful message to teach children!
I had a good job as a venture capitalist but over time I felt largely unfulfilled. One of the fund’s portfolio companies went from a $500,000 fund investment to a nearly $500 million all-cash acquisition by a Fortune 50 corporation. That’s pretty exciting stuff. It’s as good as it gets when you’re out of business school. But what wore at me over time was that out of all these eager entrepreneurs pitching their ideas – the next big thing – I couldn’t recall even a single one that was about helping other people. I began to feel like my job was to make rich people richer. It wasn’t fulfilling after some time.
Right then everything clicked. Philanthropy had been in the news over and over; this was 2004. There were people like me, and people who wanted to help, and this big black hole in between. I was tired of sitting on my couch, yelling at my television saying, “This doesn’t make sense any more. We can do this better.” So many industries had been revolutionised through technology – we’d cut out the middleman – how could philanthropy and fund raising still be in the dark ages.
I realised I had to combine my professional qualifications and interests with some of those key influencers in my life, and apply the social networking theory to the fund raising process (which today doesn’t sound very innovative, but in 2004 this was innovation). Social networking wasn’t as big as it is today, but what could be more social and person-to-person than fund raising! So I invented and patented person-to-person giving technology on the Internet where you directly help those in need. It took three long years to develop; innovation isn’t easy or overnight, but I am happy to say that after three years of work we became somewhat like an overnight sensation because we were focussing on the human element. And the wonderful thing was we were helping so many people around the world through our innovation. It wasn’t about us, it was about them. And that’s why it was interesting for the media.
So you now know about my passions and role models. What about you? Everyone has a story. What is your story?
Innovators are constantly reinventing themselves, and that’s okay. It’s actually not just okay; I believe it’s a good thing.
Prior to my “big idea”, I never had a single day of experience in the non-profit sector. That works to your advantage. All of you can revolutionise any industry you choose because innovation is better when it’s with an open mind and a fresh perspective. Sometimes you get too entrenched, too set in an industry. We are too close to it; take a step back and say we can do this better.
Think about these questions: What were you doing five years ago? More importantly, what will you be doing five years from now? Look around you – opportunities are everywhere. I’m not saying quit your job tomorrow, but in all seriousness you can innovate within your organisation, in your daily jobs.
Successful innovators embrace the uncomfortable and what others are unwilling to do. You have to get comfortable with discomfort. Innovators know that common sense is all too common. If someone told me I had common sense, I’d be offended. I want to have uncommon sense.
Innovators know that regret is far worse than failure.
You know that big idea that’s been gnawing at you for ages? That big idea is not going to go away. You have a very simple decision to make – you can either follow your passions, take a risk, try and make it happen, or you can wait until someone else halfway around the world does it instead. Because I can assure you, if you’re right and you just know this idea will work, if you don’t do it, someone else will. And that regret of wondering “what if” is so much worse than the regret of trying and learning from the experience.
You could be sitting on your couch, watching the television one day and the news flashes about someone else making it happen and you yell at your TV, “They stole my idea!” Well, guess what, no one stole your idea my friend because you never got off the couch to do it. They did it. Don’t let that happen to you. You have to take calculated risks.
True innovation requires a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice. None of this is easy and I do not want to oversimplify. Innovating is difficult, but tell me one thing in your life that has ever been fulfilling that came easily to you. I can’t speak for you but the most fulfilling things in my life have come from tenacity and “sweat equity”, lots of hard work and perseverance. But if you follow your passion, it doesn’t seem like hard work because you love what you’re doing.
If people don’t tell you your idea is crazy, it’s probably not that innovative. You want people to tell you that you’re crazy. Think about how absurd the business models of some of the most successful innovations, such as Amazon and eBay, would have sounded at their inception.
“Let me get this straight – you want me to buy something from a stranger on this thing called the Internet, who lives a few thousand miles away, prepay for the item, based upon a photo that’s not even verified and hope that it arrives at all a week or two later, much less remotely in the condition depicted in the photo. That’ll never work!”
“Wait – you want me to buy a book online, pay for shipping and wait ten days till it arrives when I want to read it right now and there’s a bookstore five minutes away. I can sit there, touch the books, hold them, browse through them and take them home tonight. What problem are you solving? That’s ridiculous! That will never work!”
The same reaction applies to the online dating phenomenon which is popular in some countries. “So you’re saying I should meet a stranger on the Internet. They’re going to lie about their height, their age and weight, and who knows what. You don’t verify those things. My parents didn’t meet online! That’ll never work.”
Do you see the trend here? All of these ideas sounded ridiculous at their inception but they’re all now massive and only in hindsight do they seem obvious. Now they’re obvious; back then they were innovation. Look at Facebook – it has over half a billion users; if it were a country it would be the third largest country in the world.
Only after you’re successful do people say, “Why didn’t I think of that!” If they say you’re crazy at the start, you may be on the right track. Take it as a compliment.
Innovators are optimists by nature. You think about what’s possible, not what’s impossible. You look at the world differently. Don’t think about what makes sense today; think about what makes sense in the future. Create the trend; don’t follow the trend. If I ask how many of you are on Facebook, nearly everyone will say yes. Now let me ask you a question – do you want to be on Facebook, or do you want invent the next Facebook? Think about what’s next.
A fascinating concept I’ve noticed when I travel is that ancient texts often predict the society of today, like the upnishads in India; they talk about people separated by distance being able to talk, and wireless and the Internet. How was that even possible?
The answer is – our innovations reflect the society we want and, when technology catches up with our ambitions as humanity, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. When we can, we make it happen.
Innovators get inputs from lots of smart people but, ultimately, you make the call. Collaboration is essential for success. Get inputs from people whose opinions you respect – your mentors, family, friends, partners. It’s essential, but the final say has to be yours. You’ve got to tune out the sceptics and contrarians if you believe in something. Have confidence in your own abilities.
Your innovations are absolutely useless and won’t help anyone if nobody knows about them. You’ve got to get the word out. How do you do that? The most important thing to remember is that the media and media-seeker relationship is symbiotic as well. We tend to think, “If only we could get the media’s attention people would be beating a path to our door. We really need the media!” Well, let me tell you something, they need you as well. You need your story to be told, but the media also needs great stories to tell. They need to fill content 24/7!
When we launched person-to-person giving technology, my picture wasn’t there in the front page press coverage we got. Well, who cares! What was there instead was a photo of a beneficiary of our service – a couple who used our technology to raise money through their social network to adopt a child. It was the human element that captured the imagination of the media. Remember, the story is not about you; focus on the human element because that’s what the media is interested in.
Talk about the impact of your technology, not the technology itself. Then take that and build momentum. Momentum is such a powerful concept! Like when you go to a restaurant and it’s totally empty, you think, “It can’t be that good, nobody’s here. I’ve seen 200 people next door. Let’s eat there. It must be better.”
Don’t underestimate the power of psychology in decision making. Where do we send our children to school? Where do we go on holiday? The clothes we wear, the cars we buy. Build that momentum because those local stories become regional stories, which become national stories. And those become international media sensations. And at that time you won’t be trying to call them – they will be calling you.
If you only take away one message from this, I hope it’s this: True innovation improves the human experience.
What does that mean? Did you save someone time? Did you save someone money? Did you make someone money? Did you put a smile on their face today? You need to fill a void. Remember it’s not about you, it’s not about your innovation, it’s about your customers. You are changing lives every day.
Think about this: Do you have an innovation looking for a problem, or do you have a problem looking for an innovation? Answers to this question will have enormous impact on your business.
So, challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo, be willing to take calculated risks because you know regret is far worse than failure, improve the human experience in some small incremental way. But above all else, never ever forget who you are, where you come from, how you got there and who got you there.