The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity

All problems are opportunities. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.

That is the headline from a recent presentation by Tina Seelig at the Stanford Entrepreneurial Leadership Lecture Series. It comes from Vinod Khosla, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems who became a general partner of the famous VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers in 1986.

“No one will pay you to solve a non-problem,” Khosla says in a video Seelig shows to her classes and this presentation.

So what about newspapers and mainstream journalism? I’d say we have a big problem here. And I think there are a lot of people who would pay you to solve it – starting with the group that met in Chicago last week.

Seelig should have been in that meeting in Chicago. She is the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and her insights in creative thinking and the entrepreneurial mindset have led her to write several books (her latest is What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20) and teach numerous classroom successes of applied problem-solving.

Her philosophy is to teach students to become comfortable with solving problems, so she starts with small problems and then gradually gives them bigger and bigger problems and, by the end of the course, the students are ready to tackle anything.

She goes through several incredible exercises of how to spur creative thinking for entrepreneurial strategies. In one example she divided a class into teams, gave them $5 “seed money” and two hours to make as much money as possible. (One team made more than $200 pumping up bike tires – and didn’t even win.) Other classes were given paper clips and the outcomes are amazing.

“We frame problems way too tightly,” Seelig says in the lecture.

Really? The news industry sure has, continuing to frame its economic problems so tightly that conversations which started in the 1990s about charging for content and linking continue today.

“If we keep unpacking them and unpacking them, we realize we have resources that are more valuable than we ever imagined,” she adds.

In 2007, the exercises became part of a world-wide entrepreneurship week series where students were challenged to create as much value as possible in five days using a pack of Post-It Notes. The concept has become a tournament and the past couple years of results are linked here. To see what a team did with rubber bands, play the video.

What do you think the group of newspaper publishers that met in Chicago last week would come up with, given a pack of Post It Notes or some rubber bands? (Or even $5?) How would news company executives fare at one of these tournaments?

Seelig’s lessons are excellent, especially if you’re someone who jumped (or was “pushed” by layoffs) off the proverbial cliff. If every problem is an opportunity, the bigger the cliff, the bigger the chance to succeed.

Seelig’s tips to become a successful entrepreneur:

1. Make your own luck. (Also known as “the harder you work, the luckier you’ll be.”)
2. Know how to fail fast and frequently
3. Don’t wait to be anointed
4. Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous

So listen to the podcast. (Unfortunately there isn’t video, which is really too bad since she shows several videos in her presentation.) The examples cited and the concepts discussed are the perfect antidote for the doom-and-gloom attitude found in many journalists today.

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