Louisiana Technology Park helps to grow early to mid-stage tech start-ups and digital media firms. The Tech Park was created in 2001 to bring promising, emerging companies, their products, and services to market faster and more effectively.
Nexus LA kicked off its Biz-Tech Fellows program Tuesday with quite the ice breaker— a rock-paper scissors tournament.
Participants paired off with others whom they had not met to play rock-paper-scissors. Losers were recruited to be cheerleaders for their opponents, who then went on to play against other winners. Before long, the room was divided in two. Cheers filled the air as a final winner was decided.
Andy Maas, who led the day’s discussions, said the exercise was intended to show that, although the majority of startups fail, everyone involved in the process is an important participant. Despite poor statistics for startup success, I was overwhelmed by the passion and drive of these young entrepreneurs.
Learning the ropes
Attendees introduced themselves and some shared details of their business plans. Their ideas ranged from hair-care products to an app that helps high school students apply to HBCU’s. It was truly inspiring to see such dedicated and gifted individuals already working on concrete business plans.
Participants learned what would be expected of them as a part of the program, as well as tips on how to solidify their business ideas and market them. Maas talked about value propositions, interview techniques and other basics of entrepreneurship, as well as things like intellectual property. Students listened intently.
The students have been eager to learn about the information we’ve been sharing. There’s a lot of excitement for the upcoming summer activities.
— BizTech Fellows Mentor Wendy Overton
While breaking for lunch, participants who had not yet found teams talked to others and the teams were finalized. Mentors set up Slack chats for the teams, which would also be used by the mentors themselves. This open line of communication between teams and mentors made me realize the huge emphasis on collaboration that is necessary for this program to succeed.
Balancing the budget
As part of the program, participants will receive a travel stipend to spend as they see fit for customer discovery outings. They will be working mostly remotely, with weekly virtual meetings until the program concludes on August 2. Mentors will be there to assist students with everything from travel budgets to customer discovery.
Although budgets need to be approved by mentors, creating the budget is an invaluable experience for team members and gives them practice making business decisions in a way that only this program can provide.
While some participants already had physical products and others were still looking for a team to join, all showed great potential as future entrepreneurs. I’m incredibly excited to see how their projects evolve over the coming months.
One of the major problems facing small businesses and startups is the leadership question: At what point does a small-business owner promote employees to leadership roles? And how do you identify and develop the right people for those roles?
Founder’s syndrome can stagnate a small business, leading to micromanagement and difficulty accepting fresh ideas. Devin Lemoine, owner of Success Labs, says she can relate to this anxiety that small-business owners have. “There comes a point where you're too connected to all of the relationships, you're too connected to the work, and it becomes very hard to let go,” she says.
This is why cultivating leadership is crucial to a small business’ success. Here are three ways to identify and develop potential leaders in your startup.
Recast the Role
It’s important to consider that leaders can be any age or come from any background. “Traditionally we think about leadership as being associated with people who have more experience or who have achieved certain goals,” Lemoine says. “But it behooves you to think outside the box. There's lots of opportunities to demonstrate leadership at any experience level, any age — especially in small organizations and startups.”
Leadership roles are as varied as individual skill sets; they can be developed in a variety of areas — management, diplomacy, even charisma. Younger employees often demonstrate eagerness to take on responsibility. Lemoine warns against missing opportunities for employees because of preconceived ideas of what a leader “should be.”
Learn from Experience
Common ideas of leadership associate it with personality traits — particularly traditionally masculine ones — but leadership is so much more. “Practical leadership is organic, growing from actions and reactions,” Lemoine says.
This is especially true for small businesses. Lemoine suggests making sure each employee gets exposure to each facet of the business. You never know when one person’s skill set may turn out to be exactly what you need for a project manager, and you’ll never know if you don’t give them a chance. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What would be a good developmental opportunity for somebody else?’ And then be intentional about letting go, and letting them prove themselves.”
Let It Go
But don’t just delegate — train employees to do what you do. Small-business owners run the risk of spreading themselves too thin, and offering on-the-job training to promising employees is a positive way to keep things running smoothly.
Lemoine suggests establishing a leadership structure, but maintaining flexibility. “Sometimes what makes you successful as a startup is that ability to pivot and be creative, and sometimes there's a loose structure surrounding that,” she says. “It should never bog down into micromanagement. You want just enough structure and process to where people can understand how to be successful and the owner-founder can stay informed, knowing everything is moving in the right direction.”
Lemoine suggests keeping a knowledge-transfer matrix to identify which candidates are most qualified to specialize. Identifying each leadership candidate’s strengths, and matching them to projects that utilize those strengths, is a great way to cultivate leadership, she says.
The net impact of all this travel is hard to pin down. On one hand, many workers seem to consider business travel a perk and actively seek it out. About 60% of North American workers say travel programs and policies are important when choosing a new employer, and data shows that millennials and younger generations are especially keen on work travel.
At the same time, workers don’t always seem to be handling the challenges of this jet-setting paradigm very well. Frequent business travel has been found to increase a professional’s physical stress load and can negatively affect well-being in a variety of ways, according to multiple studies.
Fortunately, there are some smart steps you can take to maximize the positive aspects of business travel while limiting stress and disruption of your normal lifestyle.
Bring Your Regular Life with You
Seasoned business traveler Mary Ellen Slayter, the CEO of Rep Cap, a B2B content marketing firm in Baton Rouge with clients around the world, says that when professionals first start traveling heavily for work, it’s usually seen as an exotic experience. That often means regular rules for everyday life don’t apply — for example, you tend to eat out more often and rarely exercise. “You treat it like a vacation,” Slayter says.
But when you start traveling regularly for work, the secret to making it sustainable is to bring as much of your regular life with you on the road as possible, she says. And one of the first steps is to make space for exercise. “I don’t stay in a place that doesn’t have a functional gym,” she says. “If that’s important to you, don’t let that go once you’re on the road.”
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Maintaining a healthy diet is also key to positive outcomes during long-term travel — but with hectic schedules and limited on-the-go options, this is often easier said than done. In fact, corporate travelers expense up to $3 billion in fast food every year.
Slayter says to start by just saying no to room service, which is often disappointing, overpriced and not particularly healthy. Instead, she suggests asking the question “What does eating well look like at home?”
“Then try to bring that with you on the road as much as possible,” she says. “That might be going to the grocery store and getting things or just scoping out a healthier way of eating while you’re there.” Delivery services like UberEats and GrubHub can also help you move beyond room service without resorting to unhealthy fast-food options.
“Technology is a pretty important part of how I travel,” Slayter says, starting with apps for airlines and hotels that can make for a more efficient and less-stressful overall experience on the road. She’s hardly alone. Seventy-nine percent of “mobile travelers” used a mobile phone to complete a booking in 2017, and that number is only expected to climb.
Slayter says her airline app helps her stay on top of booking flights and any schedule changes, and her hotel app allows her to check in early and skip the line at checkout time. “I avoid standing in line,” she says. “It’s not a big deal if you do this a couple of times on vacation, but if three times a week you find yourself somewhere, it’s much better.”
Prioritize Convenience and Comfort
Slayter recommends investing in quality luggage that can handle the wear and tear of repeated travel and that has enough storage for all of your items. And she says to resist the urge to overpack for business trips. “If I’m somewhere for more than a week then I’m just going to get my laundry done,” she says. She says one way to avoid packing too many items is to strategically choose garments that can be mixed or matched throughout your stay.
Slayter says she eliminated all liquids in her bags to help simplify airport security. Instead of traditional toiletries, she uses dry products such as Lush toothpaste tablets and shampoo bars that can stay in her bag through security checkpoints.
Finally, Slayter also suggests avoiding checking bags to save time and eliminate the potential headache of lost luggage. “Checked bags are my nightmare,” she says. “But I also don’t come on the plane with an overstuffed suitcase. I could be gone indefinitely with a carry-on bag.”
People are the primary fuel for any successful entrepreneurial venture, but hiring is more difficult than ever in today’s tight labor market.
In fact, hiring quality people is the top concern among startup founders, ranking even above revenue growth and customer acquisition, according to First Round’s State of Startups 2018 study. More than 66% of founders in the survey said they were concerned about securing top talent for their organization. A separate study by venture capital database CB Insights found that team issues were cited as the top factor behind nearly a quarter of startup failures.
The stakes for hiring the best people for your startup are clear, even if the path isn’t always straightforward. However, avoiding these four common startup hiring mistakes is a good place to start.
Hiring Your Friends
Katee Van Horn, a diversity and inclusion speaker, coach and author, says founders often turn to family, friends or other members of their personal networks to fill jobs early in their company’s life cycle — even if those connections aren’t fully qualified for the positions. “It’s scary to be an entrepreneur, so you want people you can trust and rely on,” she says.
The consequence, Van Horn says, can be a homogeneous thought process that limits a company’s ability to innovate or avoid mistakes. “You want someone who will actually challenge you to be better,” she says, as well as people who can help you “find the right answer, not the same answer.”
She suggests looking for talent outside of your community or network when possible, or asking your network who they think is the best at the skills you’re looking to acquire.
Not Checking All the Legal Boxes
While a leader in an early-stage venture can be tempted to pay people under the table or with cash, any short-term convenience that these shady arrangements might offer will be eclipsed by long-term issues, Van Horn says.
Van Horn says startups at any size and stage should secure an attorney and an accountant, and understand the rules for contract workers and employees. “It’s very worth it to have an attorney, to have a payroll expert, to have these different things in place, so come tax time you don’t screw yourself or screw the other person by not having the right pieces in place,” she says.
Asking People to Help for Free
Van Horn says it’s common for penny-pinching early-stage startups to ask professionals — sometimes friends or acquaintances — to perform work for free or at a reduced rate. It’s an especially prevalent practice when it comes to website work and graphic design.
“If you're using people as a free resource, you get what you pay for,” she says. “They might say yes, but are you really going to be able to say ‘this isn’t exactly what I wanted’ when they’re doing it for free?”
If you want someone to perform work for your startup — whether they’re an employee or a contractor — pay them what they’re worth, Van Horn says. “If they’re good at what they do, they should be earning that pay and you should be able to get what you really need,” she says.
Hiring Based on Similarities, Not Values
Van Horn says hiring based on a loosely defined “culture fit” can be a trap when hiring people who you might like socially or who are similar to you. Instead, look for the best-qualified candidates who are also aligned with your clearly defined values as a company.
“You want to have someone who is actually aligned to you from a values perspective, but also someone who is going to challenge the way things are being done and the way you’re thinking — in an appropriate way — because that’s how you get better,” she says.
Two Louisiana Technology Park members are helping ExxonMobil develop virtual reality training modules for its recently announced facility expansion at its Baton Rouge polyolefins plant.
Tech Park-based video game developers Pixel Dash and King Crow Studios, along with Thibodaux-based 3D Media, will be part of the team supporting the training initiative for ExxonMobil’s planned polypropylene project, which is scheduled to start production in 2021.
The connection was facilitated by Louisiana Economic Development’s FastStart program, which provides customized employee recruitment, screening, training development and training delivery for eligible, new or expanding companies — all at no cost.
Through an augmented-reality tool, trainees experience a virtual environment that mimics the real one, which lets them safely go through maintenance tasks until they’ve mastered them. The emerging technology will help employees safely meet performance requirements.
Forging a Partnership
Spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile says ExxonMobil is in the midst of a transformation of its manufacturing operations. She says company leadership identified the Baton Rouge polypropylene project as an opportunity to focus on technology strengths.
“Our goals were to position and showcase our high-tech capabilities and support those local vendors through the project,” Cargile says.
To facilitate connections with area technology firms, ExxonMobil turned to the FastStart program, which identified the three VR developers. ExxonMobil is also partnering with Baton Rouge Community College to support a virtual reality training lab where students can be trained on process technology and industry-related scenarios.
An Emerging Market
Cody Louviere, founder of King Crow Studios and director of digital media for the Louisiana Technology Park, helps other game developers with business development needs through the Tech Park’s Level Up Lab, a video game incubator.
Louviere says his firm has worked on other VR projects, including a game that teaches people how to make gumbo, a first-person shooter in partnership with another developer and a combat simulation game based on the history of the USS Kidd.
While VR games are interesting, business demand for VR training is skyrocketing, including from a number of larger corporations in Louisiana, Louviere says. “Larger companies are adopting this because it is more cost effective,” he says.
Pixel Dash co-founder and CEO Jason Tate says his firm — a successful developer of games for PC, mobile and consoles — has worked on VR projects including some industrial training simulations. He says the value proposition for companies that need effective training is clear.
“The people who we’ve talked to that have tried it, they understand how VR really brings training to the next level,” he says. “They can do a lot more than what you can do just on a regular computer screen. It really is the next logical step for a real immersive training experience.”
ExxonMobil retiree Ken Miller, who is consulting on the project, says the company expects the number of regional developers in the VR project to grow as development of the training modules advances.
The Power of VR Training
Virtual reality creates a computer-generated sensory experience that transports users into an immersive digital environment. It simulates a physical presence in a non-physical world to help users experience scenarios such as emergency response situations, providing opportunities to safely train staff.
ExxonMobil started experimenting with virtual reality in 2003 with two fully immersive visualization rooms. In 2014, advancements such as positional tracking, room scale and initiatives to reduce motion sickness in VR technologies led the company further into the technology.
Traditionally, training situations might require shutting down production to walk employees through required skills in volatile chemical environments. In addition to lost production time, the tanks and vessels involved could carry asphyxiation and combustion risks for trainees.
The planned tool will eliminate these issues. “We’ll create the environment where they can conduct the actual training without having to put themselves in jeopardy,” says Paul Helton, executive director of LED FastStart. “All of our clients are expanding their workforce, yet each one of them faces unique challenges. Our goal is to solve those challenges with the smartest tools available. Sometimes we create a new tool, and almost always the new tool has benefits for other LED clients too.”
Miller says VR training applications allow companies to test for events that happen infrequently in the real world, such as plant startups or shutdowns, or emergency operations.
“VR allows you to immerse the person into an environment to test their understanding and train on the steps associated with things that are safety critical but that don’t happen very often,” he says. It also allows the company to more effectively gauge how well trainees have absorbed the information from training, he says.
Helton says FastStart plans to expand its augmented-reality/virtual reality training to other clients, while its e-learning modules are being used by dozens of clients. Companies including Select Comfort/Sleep Number, Waitr and EA have adopted LED FastStart training technology and procedures and integrated them into company-wide workforce training missions.
Baton Rouge-based consultant Landon Snow says some old-school business leaders resist the idea of working on their culture because they just aren’t inclined to prioritize this “soft skills”-centric topic over day-to-day business operations.
“My response is ‘It’s too late — you have a company culture,’ ” Snow says. “The challenge is how intentional do you want to be with your company culture?”
Snow is president of Snow Consulting, which grew out of his success at Brown Industries, an industrial services company that navigated sudden growth after landing a contract with a multinational corporation. He became vice president of culture in 2013, overseeing its rapid growth while maintaining a thriving culture.
“We realized that if we put people first, the company was more successful,” he says. “When we really did shift our lens from thinking about the end goal of profit to looking at investing in people, we noticed that momentum would start and the return was actually greater.”
Snow offered insights into why culture matters and some strategies for building better culture at a recent Tech Park Academy event at the Louisiana Technology Park. Here are some of his key points.
Embrace the Power of Culture
Snow says culture is much deeper than installing a pingpong table in the breakroom, buying better coffee or having birthday celebrations for your employees. Rather, culture is essentially the behavior of your company when you’re not there, he says. It’s also the personality of your company that describes the behavior of your organization and why you choose those behaviors.
Why does this matter? Snow says people, especially younger generations of workers, want to work for someone they like and they want to be a part of a bigger vision — and they’re much more likely to seek out a company that provides those things compared with members of previous generations.
Beyond attracting and retaining talent, a good culture facilitates trust and harmony, which in turn supports better efficiency within your organization, Snow says. “Culture doesn’t slow things down; it speeds things up,” he says.
“I believe that if you can create a thriving work environment where people have bought into your vision and want to work with you or around you, you can accomplish so much more.”
Create a Mission and Core Values
Snow suggests that business leaders take a long, hard look at their own actions. Your organization, he says, is a manifestation of your behavior and your philosophy.
“You cannot delegate culture. You cannot fake culture,” he says. “Blame is a missed opportunity to grow.”
Snow says the first step to creating a better culture in your company is to have a mission and core values. A clearly defined set of core values that explains why you do what you do allows your people to buy into something and serves as bumpers that will keep you in line as your company progresses.
Let Those Core Values Be Your Guide
Once you’ve established your core values, the next step is to hire and fire based on those fundamental tenets.
That means finding a qualified person that will be able to embody and execute your vision, mission and core values, Snow says. Training and experience can be cultivated, but a person who doesn’t fit your mission, vision and values will only get worse over time, he says.
If you make an exception because someone is good at their trade but toxic to your company environment, you will break your culture, he says. “That person cannot stay,” Snow says.
Practice Regular Maintenance
If your organization invests in culture, Snow says, it will eventually reach a tipping point at which the culture serves as a magnet for talent. But regular attention and care are needed to maintain that culture, particularly as you take on new talent.
Snow says organizations must be intentional with their onboarding processes, using them as tools to acclimate new hires to the culture. A regular investment in training is also vital, he says.
Finally, regular feedback is essential to set up your team for success. Snow says he prefers regular feedback sessions throughout the year rather than constant feedback. “Don’t let people guess how they’re doing,” he says.
As the labor market across nearly all industries continues to tighten, companies are taking more aggressive steps to retain their best talent.
While simply paying your top performers more can be an effective retention tool, it isn’t the only way to keep your best and brightest around. Plus, a salary boost isn’t always feasible, particularly for startups and other small businesses with limited resources.
Here are three ways to keep top performers without breaking the bank.
Offer More Flexibility
Robin Schooling, head of people at Strio Consulting, says that if you don’t already offer flexible schedules or remote-work options, it’s time to consider it. This could include allowing people to adjust their start and end times, to come to the office just a few days per week or to not be tied down to an office at all.
Schooling says the desire for more flexible time and remote work is an undeniable trend among younger workers. “I certainly see it on the candidate side,” she says. “Quite often the candidates will ask ‘Is there remote work’ or ‘Can I work from home a couple of days a week?’ If companies say they don't offer remote work, they’re going to lose out on candidates on the front end before they ever get them in the door.”
Vacation policies are also good places to implement additional flexibility, she says. Providing flexible or unlimited vacation rather than a prescribed number of days can work particularly well for salaried employees. “There is no additional cost to your company’s bottom line and, if you’re truly a results-driven organization, this works well,” she says. “People focus on getting their job done and then have the freedom to take off when and how they wish.”
It’s also important to encourage people to actually take their time off — and to build a full break from the workplace into your culture. “We’ve actually written it out in our policy: ‘When you’re on vacation that means unplug,’” she says. “We don't want you to be answering the phone or answering emails. Truly get away.”
Help with Professional Development
A 2018 survey found that nearly 90% of millennials were looking to grow their career within their current employer. The same survey found that offering career training and development would keep 86 percent of millennials from leaving their job.
“People want to continue to grow their skills and professional capabilities — so find ways to do that,” Schooling says. “If you’re not big enough to have an internal learning and development department, make sure they're getting that elsewhere.”
One way to do that is to cover the membership costs for professional organizations and give your employees a budget so they can attend events or conferences, she says. Not only does this provide people with valuable skills, but it benefits your business when your employees keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date, she says.
Empower Your Employees
Empowerment means letting your employees have control over their own work and letting them unleash their creativity to find the best way to get their work done. This requires more focus on outcomes and less attention paid to processes.
“People don’t want to adhere to tedious processes or stick to the conventional framework if there’s a better way,” Schooling says. “Make sure your top performers have the freedom to adjust how they get their work done.”
In certain situations, giving a top performer a new title can provide a mental boost and extra sheen with external customers, while also acknowledging a shift in responsibilities or a change in the scope of their job.
This is often an effective motivator for external-facing positions such as sales and marketing, Schooling says, although you should use it judiciously to avoid inflated titles that don’t actually match job duties. “You have to think about the unintended consequences that could flow from that,” she says.
Accountability can have a wide range of positive impacts on organizations — from increased employee commitment to better morale to improved performance. Despite this, many companies and leaders have not fully integrated accountability into their cultures.
The average human being spends about two and a half hours per day in drama, according to research from Reality-Based Leadership, a leadership training and employee development firm founded by New York Times bestselling author and thought leader Cy Wakeman. Drama, according to the company, is defined as any disruptive behavior or thought pattern that really takes away from results.
“A simpler way to define it is we look at drama as waste in the workplace — but it's not typical waste you see, like in manufacturing. It's mental and emotional waste,” says Alex Dorr, VP of People Evolution at Reality-Based Leadership.
Dorr says reallocating all that wasted time and energy from drama to business operations that actually matter can have a dramatic impact on your company. Here’s how leaders can better recognize the sources of drama in their organizations, then use simple mental techniques to get people back on track.
Dorr says the first thing to understand is that ego behaviors are the biggest source of drama in the workplace because ego keeps us from accountability.
“Ego is judgey, gossipy, tattling, venting, scorekeeping,” says Dorr. While ego is a universal human condition and can give us necessary confidence at times, he says it also serves as our filter on reality, often bending and distorting what we experience and take in. “It’s this part of our brain that is the judger of all things, the creator of all stories,” he says.
Dorr says one of the ego’s favorite ways to stay alive is through venting — a behavior that leaders often entertain because they went to stay approachable. In reality, venting is the ego’s way of avoiding self-reflection, Dorr says. “Self-reflection is the foundational gateway to accountability, and accountability is a kind of death of the ego,” he says.
Another way for leaders to help employees get beyond the ego, particularly when it comes to venting, is to ask a more constructive coaching question like, “What would great look like?” or “What could you do to help?,” Dorr suggests. “It gets someone out of venting and into the better part of her brain,” he says.
Make Buy-In Mandatory
When Reality-Based Leadership asked successful leaders what it takes to live in a high state of accountability, most started with the idea of buy-in, Dorr says. This was often expressed as a commitment to do whatever it takes to get the results they were seeking as long as it was not illegal or unethical.
However, Dorr says too many companies have made buy-in optional. He says while organizations should incorporate collaboration and feedback, when a decision is made on a strategy or direction, team members need to buy-in and fully support the plan to the best of their abilities.
“There's no such thing as a third option when it comes to commitment,” he says. “When it comes to buy-in, you either stay in joy or you leave at peace. Both are peaceful.” Instead, companies often allow employees to reach an unaccountable place of hate and sabotage that brings everyone down, he says.
Dorr says leaders can't force someone to buy in, but they can ask questions to facilitate a better choice to either buy in or leave in peace. Examples include, “What's your plan to get on board or what's your level of willingness to deliver on this strategy?”
“If someone says, ‘I'm not willing,’ that’s game over,’” he says. “You can’t work with the unwilling.”
Encourage Healthy Attitudes About Resilience
Once someone is all in, Dorr says, the next most important factor for accountability is resilience, which is the ability to stay the course in the face of obstacles and setbacks. But resilience isn’t about powering through challenges on your own, Dorr points out.
Resilient people in today's world have the largest network of positive relationships, Reality-Based Leadership’s research found. They have plenty of good contacts on social media, on LinkedIn or in their professional networks — and they actually asked for help early and often. “If they get stuck, they don't rely on themselves to be the hero,” Dorr says.
Ownership — the ability to admit how they helped or hindered a project — is another key factor in cultivating accountability, he says. Finally, successful leaders cited their willingness to continually learn from experiences, whether they are positive or negative, as a key element of accountability. “They could start to see their success or failure as fuel for future success — and they could commit to bigger things,” he says.
Eric Dexter’s career is a clear illustration of the power of building authentic relationships, both in business and in the community.
A native of Alexandria, Louisiana, Dexter joined Civil Solutions Consulting Group in 2015. The Baton Rouge-based civil engineering consulting firm assists governmental agencies, developers and architecture firms with the planning, design and management of transportation infrastructure, residential and commercial development, and disaster recovery projects and programs.
Dexter, who leads the firm’s marketing and business development initiatives while managing new and existing client accounts, has been instrumental in driving its growth and culture. He’s also active in the community, volunteering and serving on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations.
He shared some tips on his approach to networking and collaborating with clients and partners at a recent Tech Park Academy event at the Louisiana Technology Park. Here’s what he shared.
Establish Your Personal Brand
Networking and cultivating meaningful business relationships begins with developing a strong personal brand, he says. When approaching personal-brand building, Dexter says, it’s useful to think about three key areas: visibility, credibility and profitability.
Visibility refers to the power of simply showing up, whether it’s to a business event, networking gathering or some other function that offers opportunities for building relationships. “If people don’t know who you are and what it is you do, it will be hard to build personal and valuable connections,” he says. “Show up — nothing can replace your presence.”
Credibility, he says, refers to evaluating the people with which you spend your time and deciding whether those relationships are adding value to your life and career. If they’re holding you back, some adjustments may be necessary, he says. “You’re judged by the company you keep,” he says.
The last concept refers to measuring the return on the time you’re putting into networking, whether it’s a seminar, luncheon or some other relationship-building or business-development event. Dexter says this starts with understanding the value you want to get out of the investment of your time and resources — whether that’s new business or some non-monetary value — and then measuring that over both the short and long term.
Write Your Own Story
Perception is key when building connections and relationships, Dexter says, and you have a chance to affect what people’s perception of you is via social media based on the type of personal information you share. “Whether it’s LinkedIn, whether it’s Facebook, whether it’s Instagram, it’s creating a picture of who I want you to think I am,” he says.
Still, he warns against holding back too much information or trying to cultivate an overly perfect online persona. He says it can be beneficial to talk occasionally about your faults, failures or challenges.
“There is value to being authentic,” he says. “You have an opportunity more than any other generation to write your own narrative. You can be as free as possible telling what it is you do and how you do it — and most importantly why you do it.”
Be Purposeful and Authentic with Social Media
When it comes to social media, Dexter says to be authentic and purposeful with what you share. Publish articles, share, comment and “like” posts when appropriate. He also suggests taking steps to establish meaningful connections before conferences or events.
He says to avoid building up a fake persona, playing it too safe or asking for something as soon as you connect. Failing to research people and companies before connecting with them can also cause problems, he says.
Become a Student of the Business
Dexter says you need to understand your business by reading industry publications or community news sources. This is especially important when meeting someone new face-to-face in a networking situation, he says.
“Don’t ever assume the person you’re speaking with does not understand what you're talking about,” he says. “They may know more about this particular subject than you think. You have to do your research, do your homework.”
Get Involved in Your Community
A strong community advocate, Dexter plays a leading role at a number of nonprofits and associations, with focuses including business, education, economic development, the arts and social good. He suggests joining organizations, volunteering, serving on boards or committees or sponsoring events.
“If you're sitting at the house waiting for things to happen, it’s not going to happen,” he says.
Keep in mind that these contributions aren’t always going to generate a direct sale, he says, but the long-term benefits of building relationships can be powerful and pay off down the road in unexpected ways.
Baton Rouge-based startup Block is using a high-tech approach to disrupt the traditionally low-tech industry of lawn care while also making a positive community impact.
Block is a landscaping technology startup that is centered around an on-demand lawn-care app. With Block, homeowners can select the lawn-care services they need, get clear pricing, schedule service and pay, all within the app. The service is set to officially launch this summer.
“We provide on-demand lawn care so you have more time for what matters,” says co-founder and CEO Matthew Armstrong.
Rooted in Service
The idea for Block blossomed after Armstrong and his wife, who both helped start Antioch Community Church, decided to move to a north Baton Rouge neighborhood and look for ways to make a positive impact in the area. “We said ‘Let’s move and just see where we can help,’ ” he says. “ ‘Let’s observe, let’s get to know people, let’s build relationships — and then let’s just see what happens.’ ”
One of the ways Armstrong found to make a small positive impact in the lower-income neighborhood was to start mowing overgrown lots. Eventually, he started pondering how he could make a similar impact on a larger scale, which led him to the concept of on-demand lawn care in early 2018.
Armstrong reached out to Jacob Jolibois, a designer who was the director of digital at MESH, a branding and advertising agency in Baton Rouge, to pitch the company idea. The duo started kicking around the concept, writing up a business plan and tinkering with design ideas in their spare time. “We just started playing with the idea,” Armstrong says.
Later in 2018, Armstrong left his church position and convinced Jolibois to leave his job to work for the startup full time as chief product officer, luring him in part with the company’s key tenet of dedicating a portion of revenue to community improvement.
“For us it really falls back on a passion to show generosity, which is one of our top values the company was founded on,” Armstrong says. “The companies that I view as the most successful, and the ones I respect the most, have a purpose behind what they’re doing.”
Plans for the Future
Block will offer lawn mowing, trimming, blowing and edging in the Baton Rouge area although Armstrong says the company could expand its service line in the future based on demand.
The company plans a soft launch at the end of April in a few Baton Rouge neighborhoods, followed by a hard launch the following month. The founders are banking that the convenience and reliability of scheduling and paying for lawn service via a mobile app, as well as the value proposition of supporting a company that invests a portion of its proceeds into the community, will attract customers.
They say they will build the customer experience around three key values — generosity, service and joy — to set it apart from other lawn services. “That’s what gets us excited: We can inject fresh life and joy into such a mundane task as getting your yard cut,” Armstrong says.
“From the time you download it to the time you request your first mow, if we’re in your area, it’s less than five minutes,” Armstrong says. There are no contracts or minimum number of mows, and customers can choose what types of services they need. “It’s really putting all the power in the customer’s hand so they don’t have to do anything more than they want,” he says.
The company has hired four mowers, who have all been interviewed by the founders for culture fit and character. “We’ve had over 40 people apply and we’re pretty picky about who we’re going to let service our customers,” Armstrong says.
Interestingly, Block differs from the typical gig company in that it’s employing its mowers rather than making them independent contractors. “We wanted to bring them into our culture, make them family and then allow them the safety of being an employee, but allow them the flexibility of an independent contractor,” Armstrong says.
Armstrong says the typical Block mower is someone who may not have the ability or schedule to operate their own lawn company full time. For example, he says, they may need the flexibility to service five accounts in one week and jump up to 25 the next week. That’s all possible as a Block employee.
“What we’re doing is addressing a major industry pain point right now, which is there’s a labor crisis,” he says. “Many of the larger companies are really banking on these H-2B visas for seasonal workers to come in, and we are bringing into the workforce a completely untapped group of people.”
Employees, who must mow at least five hours a week but can go up to 29 hours a week, are paid a commission for each job. “Mow when you want,” Armstrong says. “We’re basically eliminating all the admin, all the business side of owning your own lawn operation. They just have to provide their own equipment, maintain that equipment and mow. We drop the job straight onto their smartphone, we carry general liability insurance, workers’ comp insurance and eliminate customer acquisition for them.”