My interview with Jason Jepson for the MediaTech Ventures podcast.
During this year’s South By Southwest, I was interviewed by Jason Jepson for the MediaTech Ventures podcast. MediaTech Ventures is a global venture development group for the media and technology industries. During our discussion, we talked about the importance of exposing yourself to the unfamiliar whether that’s through keeping a flexible schedule at South By or attending conferences outside of your industry.
I discussed how embracing the unexpected is a theme that I’ve recreated in the CTO Summit, where we setup facilitated conversations and networking opportunities for attendees across numerous industries. With a no-sales approach, this single-track conference provides opportunities for collisions between people that may have never met, but are solving similar problems in their companies.
Additionally, I shared how I use human-centered design in my approach to working with companies, which starts with getting really curious about their challenges and the challenges of other businesses in their industry or geographical area.
I also talked about my desire to help the underserved compete through innovation strategy and a grassroots approach that empowers the doers of an organization to participate or lead its transformation in markets where their competitors have access to more resources.
We wrapped up by talking about the importance of setting milestones in the pursuit of audacious goals and the value that creates for personal ownership in the process and reinforcing the grit required to see such a large undertaking through over the long term.
Watch and listen to the episode:
Transcript from my conversation with Jason Jepson for the MediaTech Ventures podcast:
Speaker 1: Douglas Ferguson, man, the president, the founder Voltage Control. Thanks for doing this. Appreciate it. Appreciate the time. South By, it’s very busy, as we were talking earlier, I’d like to get your take for all the entrepreneurs that are at home that are watching this or all the ones that are watch it later, man, I’m doing South By. What is your slice of life slice of advice for the person that goes, “I’m going to wake up at 8:00. I’m going to have my breakfast at 9:00. I’m gonna try someplace and then I’ll go to holy roller, whole foods corporate, but by 10:00 until 10:00, I want to have a meeting every hour.” Or do you try to break that part of the brain and go, it’s chaos. I’m going to run with the chaos. And I believe, I call it serendipity, you called it …
Jason Jepson: Douglas Ferguson, man, the president, the founder Voltage Control. Thanks for doing this. Appreciate it. Appreciate the time. South By, it’s very busy, as we were talking earlier, I’d like to get your take for all the entrepreneurs that are at home that are watching this or all the ones that are watch it later, man, I’m doing South By. What is your slice of life slice of advice for the person that goes, “I’m going to wake up at 8:00. I’m going to have my breakfast at 9:00. I’m gonna try someplace and then I’ll go to holy roller, whole foods corporate, but by 10:00 until 10:00, I want to have a meeting every hour.” Or do you try to break that part of the brain and go, it’s chaos. I’m going to run with the chaos. And I believe, I call it serendipity, you called it …
Douglas : Collisions.
Jason Jepson: Collisions.
Douglas : Yeah. I don’t dig that. I love that you brought up chaos because I’m a big fan of complexity theory. And as we’re dealing with complex adaptive systems, which South By would be one.
Jason Jepson: Absolutely.
Douglas : We have to use tools and methods that work in a complex environment, which would be probing and sense making. And so as the environment continues to change, someone might not show up for that coffee meeting or or the line might be too long for the session you want to get into. And so I would really encourage folks try to explore new things. Don’t be so regimented in your schedule. I’m sure there might be things that need to happen. You might have a prospect that’s in from out of town. Absolutely hold that that meeting and try to work around it. But also just embrace things that might emerge. If you bump into someone randomly, there can be a lot of benefit from that.
Jason Jepson: Where do you see in what you guys do? And especially you talked a little bit off camera about the conference you put on. I’d like to touch back to that. Give a little insider baseball [inaudible 00:02:30] because there’s a methodology that seems like it follows through from your company. I’m assuming it falls from the top down and it follows from you to your company and how you want people to respond and react, whether it’s at a conference or not to your partners and sponsors around you and what that looks like. Can you …
Douglas : Sure. Yeah. At the CTO summit, which is coming up on April 9th it’s a conference, one day, single track that we’d put on for CTOs and that are on that track. So directors and VPs that are thinking along the same line and building technology and the teams that support that technology. And we put these events on and to create an environment where people can meet each other and we can create those collisions for people that would never have met. And also we have folks that are sharing in 20 minute Ted style talks. And then we also have a facilitated networking where folks can get to know each other a little bit better.
Douglas : And we don’t relegate the networking to the bathroom breaks we actually facilitate it. So there’ll be conversations that are based off of methodologies and activities that we use with our corporate clients. We bring them into the conference as well. And we also ask our sponsors that come with that mindset, knowing that’s an environment we’re creating, it needs to be a sales free zone and it should be about building relationships, not necessarily trying to create a transaction there in the moment.
Jason Jepson: Do you see the concept or the idea of … and you’ve touched on this here and I’d like to bridge this into what your company does because it’s a little bit backwards, but full direction here, conversation versus pitch.
Douglas : I love the fact that you’re using this word conversation because a lot of what we do is about designing conversations. We bring teams together to solve tough problems and we use methods for integrated decision making, which means that we’re going to bring a team together that may have just formed or have never met because they’re the stakeholders that need to take this big product forward. But they’re all on different teams, maybe sometimes different companies. And so whenever we’re looking at building a conversation, we have to think about where we want that conversation to go and what are the constituent parts or the milestones that we need to hit along the way. And then we start to think about the methods and activities that might get us there. But ultimately I would say every conversation starts with an invitation.
Douglas : Because we had to invite someone in.
Douglas : And so we were talking about this and this is a much more of just a random encounter conversation versus a very designed conversation. But you can use these conversation design principles in your everyday conversations as well. You brought up this point of, if I just come and throw my title down and that’s how I described myself, then it closes the door. Right. And we want to really think, especially at the beginning of the conversation, how we create openings. And we do that by invitations. So we really invite people to think about what we do or get really curious about them and ask probing questions to explore. And so it really is about just almost using improv techniques to really open up a conversation so it converges. Now at some point we have the equal and opposite challenge, which is how do we close it out?
Jason Jepson: I know. We’re going to have that problem at the end. I have that problem all the time because I love the probing nature. I loved the idea of the banter back and forth of sharing stories. I wonder in this, how does all of this go back to … Let’s talk about when you first started your company, how you build a base and an idea and then take this concept that seems a lot less of, all right, our benchmark is 12 million by Monday and if we don’t do it, I’m going to lose my mind, versus our benchmark is looking at this sector, talking to these people, opening up this chapter and understanding the impact we can have because we understand and see this role differently and if they follow our methodology based on a conversation, not based on a pitch, we can change their world. Does that make sense? Because that’s what I’m feeling as we’re talking.
Douglas : Yeah. For me it’s about human centered design and I’ve applied that to how I build business. Historically, I’ve been a CTO at startups and we focused on building software. So now I’m building a company, but I’m using the same methodologies that I use for building software and it just getting really curious about the potential customers and people who might become potential customers and what trajectory are they on, what problems they’re they’re struggling with. And also, when I began to talk to them about what I do, how they respond to that and then what stuff did they react negative to. It was really curious to me when someone rejects something, but I can tell that they need it. And so what does that disconnect, right? Do I need to change my language or is it just their perception and how do you navigate around that stuff? I found that to be a really fun design challenge.
Jason Jepson: Do you see, and you talked about this, you’re not just looking at the trajectory of your company and the impact you can have, but you’re looking at the trajectory of those industries and either they’re super hot and everyone’s going after with or they’re growing and you figured out a way that you can help them grow farther or be greater. It seems like you’re doing just as much research on your company and building and doing what you need to do as much as you’re doing it on the other companies that you’re going to have a conversation with.
Douglas : Yeah. And the fascinating thing is the research that I do for my company, for my growth, benefits my customers. Because then I have this holistic view of the situation they’re in, which then is a great perspective for them. Because typically, it’s not totally ostrich in the sand, but people get in their own zone or in their tunnel and they’re just going. So if you come in with this extra perspective, it can be really valuable. So I found the stuff that I’m doing to enlighten myself as far how I can navigate the market and help customers helps enlighten them as well.
Jason Jepson: What industries are piquing your interest these days? What’s a couple of things that are on your radar?
Douglas : I’m really fascinated by … It’s not so much of an industry as it is just general target, I guess, which is the underserved. There’s a lot of activity on the coasts. There’s a lot of cities that have amazing companies that have been around for years. A lot of times they’re family run and they just don’t have access to the same resources and and they’re desperately at risk of getting run over by Amazon or whoever else is coming along from a big tech and big funding standpoint. And so I’m really interested in serving those communities. In fact-
Jason Jepson: How would you serve them?
Douglas : Helping them explore strategically where they can take their company so that they don’t get disrupted. So basically innovation strategy. There’s a lot of folks that tackle innovation from the top down, but but our approach is a combination of the two. If they’ve already started programmatic work with someone else, we augment that from the bottom up. So we’re all about how can you empower the doers. And the teams that are figuring this stuff out, help them create durable decisions that last and a lot of products that build momentum much faster.
Jason Jepson: There’s a study that came out, David Holley at XCom, he wrote this article, I think almost a year ago, nine months ago. 1.4 trillion globally, there’s 400 billion nationally here of P firms have to spend a certain amount of money, right? And they’re looking at SaaS companies and there’s a good and a bad to it. And I bring this up because we talk about these smaller places that are, let’s say scale. Let’s say they’re SAS and a P company looks and goes, “All right, Cincinnati, Kansas City, De Moines, and I got this little place over here. I’m going to buy all of those for $100 billion. I’m gonna bundle them up. Who’s going to Chicago?”
Jason Jepson: And I understand the idea. And for a moment you can get those people cash and hopefully if they have another dream or vision, they can start something else. But I bring it up because I wonder, isn’t it counterproductive then to what you’re doing and what you were trying to do? And I think what maybe their vision of trying to do is, which let’s build something that lasts and these fly over states, in these cities, in these areas, that is a staple that our coastal cities have. Right? It seems like we’re missing those staples. I’m glad you got bought for 50 million. I’m glad you got money. But what happened to …
Douglas : Are they gonna reinvest that back into the community or are they moving that to some other city? If we can help those cities become more viable in the long term, that would be an amazing mission to be a part of.
Jason Jepson: Yeah. I guess that begs the question, if that is afforded to you, do you think you guys can do that?
Douglas : I’m certainly going to try. That’s the vision. We work with a lot of corporates and I advise a lot of startups and we’re just now starting to just try and crack the nut on some of these other … tapping into some of these other cities and see how we can help them out. Ultimately, and you touched on this a second ago and I just want to come back to it. This difference between short term thinking and long term thinking, and when I think about innovation … Innovation can be defined in many different ways. One paradigm, one construct that people will use as horizon one, horizon two, horizon three. And so some people will get really stuck and some companies are doing only horizon once, so incremental stuff, optimizing processes
Douglas : And let’s face it, if you’re a big company and you do something that impacts the bottom line by 2%, that’s a big deal, right? But it’s not the same as developing at a horizon three innovation that adds a whole new business unit that unlocks a ton of future value and may be creates a mode or creates some defensibility around getting run over by the competition. And so I’m really passionate about creating structures that allow for all sorts of innovation and making sure there’s an intentional conversation around what the strategy is so that the doers are empowered to know how we should try to innovate.
Douglas : Because while I believe we shouldn’t just be shortsighted in our thinking, some leadership might think that that’s the right strategy and that’s fine as long as they communicate it and everyone understands, rather than just saying, we’re going to innovate. Let’s be very crisp or what our strategy is and that empowers the doers to then go do without having to … gives them autonomy.
Jason Jepson: Do you think in this world the innovators, there’s a communication break to inspire the doers. Where they come in and they’ve got this idea and they just … it’s like, “Let’s go for a hike.” And you’re like, “Great.” But no one tells you it’s Everest.
Douglas : Right. Wow, there’s a lot to unpack there.
Jason Jepson: We got all the time in the world, don’t worry about it.
Douglas : The interesting thing about Everest, the story I’d like to tell is, you don’t climb Everest .. you don’t just go, “I’m going to climb Everest.” Right? There’s base stations. And making those milestones into the work you do is super important. There’s an awesome book called The Power of Moments. And they talk about these poignant moments that you might have throughout your life or through your career and whenever you’re striving for a very, very monumental moment, like I’m going to be at the top of Everest, you have to create those base stations. So you don’t just say, “I’m going to learn Spanish.” Instead you say, Okay, in order to become … Well the issue is that a lot of people when they say, “I’m going to learn Spanish.” They immediately think, “I’m going to go become fluent in Spanish.”
Douglas : And the ones that actually get the closest to being there are the ones that set the milestones. So they say, “First I want to be able to ask where the bathroom is. Then I want to be able to read a menu.” Whatever those steps are. And if you set those steps and you work toward them, then you have those sub moments, those individual moments that you can hold and own. And even if you don’t make it past … if you plateau at some point, you could still look back and say, “I did all of these things.” And I think that kind of thinking and that approach is super important for teams and individuals as they explore this big work because they can’t look back and say, “Well it’s all for naught.” Because there’s going to be a lot of failure. And we have to look at what benefits we did get. And what accomplishments we’ve made along the way.
Douglas : And even if it’s a win, it takes a lot of tenacity and a lot of patience and a lot of grit. And so if you’re identify these little wins along the way, then you can own those and get to the big thing. So that’s one thing that popped up on the Everest thing. And then also, there’s another thing that people have to be aware of, which is what we in the biz call, the frozen middle. And this manifests in a lot of ways. Sometimes executives aren’t communicating at all. Sometimes they think they’re communicating, but it’s ineffective. Sometimes they are communicating and it’s just not getting through this frozen middle.
Douglas : And the frozen middle is management and management is designed, by its nature, to be operational and focused on efficiency and business as usual and making sure that the train runs on time.
Jason Jepson: Sure.
Douglas : And sometimes if we’re thinking about big audacious goals, we might need to slow way, way down. We might have to stop the train one day and just change how the wheels work or whatever. And so that’s a big challenge when organizations think about how to scale innovation. And often they’re creating groups off to the side so they can go around the frozen middle. But it’s a big challenge and so I think those are the two things that really come to mind when you talk about people being confused. A, it’s not being communicated or it hasn’t made it through that frozen middle or it’s getting stuck somehow or it got communicated poorly. We’re not being succinct about our goals.
Douglas : It’s just like, “Oh, we’re just going to innovate.” Then it’s like, “Well, okay.” And especially if when it’s vague and folks just start spraying pray cup kind of stuff or just following some passion, it’s going to get shot down if it’s not aligned with the business objectives. But it’s confusing and demoralizing if it hasn’t been communicated properly, because you don’t really understand why it got shot down. Typically it happens later in the game and it’d be much better to pre-filter that with some knowledge about what our missions and values are.
Jason Jepson: So one last question here and I’ll stay a little bit with the Everest thing. I heard this guy say this, the danger of Everest, the danger of the Amazon. On Everest you’re at the highest point of the earth. You can see everything. You’ve achieved the highest point, but there’s zero growth. There’s nothing up there, it’s dead. In the Amazon you can get to the lowest point, to where the growth is so overwhelming you can’t see the sun and it’s dark. As an entrepreneur, as someone who’s worked at startups and now has your own, what’s your advice for someone that thinks that Everest is the place to be based on this analogy and for also for the person who’s in the Amazon and is looking at all this growth, and maybe it’s that person in middle America who’s just the Amazons and everyone around them is blocked out the sun and they just want to get in those beautiful wheat fields of Nebraska where there’s a perfect amount of growth and there’s a perfect amount of vision.
Douglas : Yeah. There’s something to be said about … I don’t know … moderation.
Jason Jepson: How dare you.
Douglas : Anything done in moderation … So I think that’s a very pleasant thing to think about. And I’d like to go … For me, I’m really interested in going to places where it’s not necessarily the red ocean, but it’s not the desert. Where is there interesting opportunity? Let’s get out of the echo chamber and go to a conference where people aren’t talking about this stuff and I can talk about it. And then I can also learn from them because they’re thinking totally different than all these other folks. And so that’s one of my favorite pieces of advice to any of my mentors is go to a conference completely out of your industry because you will learn some amazing stuff.
Douglas : And I’ll also flip your analogy on a 10 a little bit and say … because you were talking about extremes, right? Extreme growth and extreme death and lack of growth and opportunity always lies in extremes. Now, you were talking about extreme markets, right? And so that might be something to avoid, but in their problem space and in the work you do always explore the extremes. And you may not want to stay there and you may not want to operate there, but go see what’s happening there, because that’s where you can learn a lot.
Jason Jepson: Yeah. I said that was the last question. We’ll close with this, sorry to everyone [inaudible 00:21:04]. I’ll tell people this, there’s more times than not, you’re talking about the same thing. You’re just seeing it differently sort of like you’re going to different conferences. Look at a dollar bill, hold it up to someone and say, explain this to me. And then you explain your side they’re totally opposite. But the barrier between those oppositions is literally paper thin. And we’ll wrap it back to what you talked about earlier. If someone’s saying no, but you’ve got the answer and you know they need it, how do you show them that the difference really is paper thin there and you’re on the same side, it’s just viewed differently.
Douglas : I think it comes back to … well, for me personally, the tools that were best come from human centered design. And so it’s all about reframing the problem and it’s assuming the person’s patient enough to be with you through this process of getting really curious and try to really understand their mindset and where they’re coming from. Then this is especially challenging when someone has different political views than you, or different … the things that are saying seem to conflict with your morals in some way. And I think that’s the best place to practice this type of stuff because it’s the most difficult. And so if you can master it in those kinds of conversations, you can apply them to any kind of conversation.
Jason Jepson: Beautiful. Thanks for the time, man.
Douglas : Yeah, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Jason Jepson: Appreciate it.