99U Conference Recap: Speaker Insights, Part I

Wow. It was another huge year for the 99U Conference this past Thursday and Friday in New York as 400+ creative minds came together to focus NOT on inspiration or idea generation, but rather on the mechanics of making ideas happen. The Times Center was charged with the energy of an audience full of creative intention as our power-packed lineup of speakers took the stage. Below, we break down key takeaways from the morning session of 99U speakers. Stay tuned for the rest of the recap tomorrow…

Eve Blossom – Founder & CEO, Lulan Artisans

After witnessing the horrors of the sex trade first-hand in Southeast Asia, architect Eve Blossom found her true calling: The creation of a sustainable business that would provide women (and their villages) with a viable economic alternative.  Eve laid out a unique approach to making ideas happen, one that focuses on sustainability:

  • Be a disruptive entrepreneur. For Blossom, being a disruptive entrepreneur means you care about the meaning, not just the money.
  • Create containers for collaboration. Rather than viewing her venture as a “company,” Eve views it as a culture – creating a framework in which to meet and work with amazing people.
  • If you build the right business, you are inviting people to join. When you create a business backed up by authenticity and passion, it is its own advertisement. You don’t have to sell people on your cause, it begins to automatically attract them.

 
Fred Wilson – Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures

As one of the leading venture capitalists in New York and a thought leader in the finance community, Fred Wilson knows what makes a successful entrepreneur. While many of us have a particular vision of what it means to be an entrepreneur (usually: build a big company, make lots of money, sell it off), Fred stressed that there are any number of ways to be an entrepreneur.

What matters are your goals. Do you want to make lots of money? Do you want to be able to be free and mobile? Do you want to manage people? Do you want to not manage people?  Fred’s takeaways:

  • “Entrepreneurship exists in the tiny space between madness and genius.” —comment by JLM on “The Herd Instinct”
  • “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” (Fred quoting a recent tweet he read.)
  • There are many ways to be an entrepreneur. Don’t get caught up in iconic ideas on what entrepreneurship is supposed to be.

 
Stefan Sagmeister – Founder, Sagmeister Inc.

World-renowned designer Stefan Sagmeister has made a number of films to accompany the typographic projects collected in his book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. For his 99U talk, Sagmeister dipped into a little bit of behind-the-scenes filmmaking process and provided the always necessary 1% by showing some of his lovely short films.  Insights from Stefan:

  • Don’t hang out of a window in a New York highrise for a film shoot without a permit. Sagmeister recounted almost getting arrested for looking like a “jumper” while dangling out of a window. And, yes, there is a moral to the story: Risk-taking is a necessary part of any creative process.
  • Choose your clients wisely. You can choose clients based on how much they will pay you, based on their integrity, based on their personality, or many other criteria. Sagmeister’s preferred criterion for selecting projects is asking whether or not they will allow him to learn. As creatives, we must always push the boundaries of our own knowledge.

 
Jack Dorsey – Creator & Co-Founder, Twitter

Much like the Twitter application itself, Jack Dorsey’s presentation was simple, to-the-point, and impactful. Jack’s tips on making ideas happen were limited to just four words:

  • Draw. Get your ideas out of your head and down on paper. (Jack showed an early sketch of Twitter.) Even as you put pen to paper, you’re already testing and refining your idea. You’re also making sure you’ll remember it later.
  • “Luck.” Recognize when the time is right for your ideas to be put into action. And when it’s not. Jack tried to launch a Twitter precursor when the timing wasn’t right, and it failed. But he kept the idea around and re-launched it when the time finally was right.
  • Iterate. Ideas aren’t born perfect. The Twitter team constantly iterates. Take, for instance, the evolution of the question from “What’s your status?” to “What’s happening?” Jack also noted that many of the app’s best improvements came from users: The word “tweet” came from the community, as did the idea to start “RT”ing.
  • Fin. As important as iteration is knowing when to stop. Sometimes ideas are finished, or they need to go up on the shelf until the timing is right. Knowing when to say when is as important as knowing when to act.

Leslie Koch – President, Governors Island Preservation & Education Corporation

As the president of GIPEC, Leslie Koch has brought new life to Governors Island, a tiny landmass just off the coast of Manhattan. Over the past few years, the island has become a hub of arts activity (from hosting an Olafur Eliasson waterfall to a huge Dutch design exhibit), and recent announcements for expansive parks and an NYU satellite campus are kicking things up a notch. Leslie broke down five simple lessons for creative execution:

  • Listen and ask the right questions. Don’t just talk, listen, really listen, to what people want. And make sure you’re asking the right questions – because that’s the only way to get good answers!
  • Understand the customer, product, and market. As Leslie mentioned, a surprising amount of people don’t really know who their customer is, or what they’re really selling. We are also frequently guilty of assuming that our customers are as intimately acquainted with our product (and forgiving of its foibles) as we are.
  • Develop a strategy and stick to it (but make sure your mother can understand it!). Once you resolve your strategy, do not waver from it. Also make sure to explain your strategy in plainspoken language that anyone (read: your mother) can understand. Everyone from Leslie on down to the janitor on Governors Island understands the strategy for marketing the island.
  • Think big, and act small. We need to have grand visions, but we also need to be executing on them every day. Find small ways to move toward your vision, to implement your strategy, every single day.
  • Marketing is all. In the creative community (and in government), marketing is often considered a dirty word. But, at the end of the day, marketing is what connects your product to your customers. It’s not something separate from your product, marketing IS what gets your product out into the world.

Scott Belsky – Founder & CEO, Behance

For his short talk, Behance’s own Scott Belsky broke the 99U down into a simple equation.
 
The 99U = Having the idea + Surviving the project plateau
 
Noting that, “We fall in love with ideas, but unfortunately we’re not monogamous,” Scott talked about the challenges of pushing through the “project plateau” – the phase of a project when the new-idea high fades and we’re left with sheer creative execution. Bored or impatient with the necessity of doing, we’re inclined to ditch the project plateau and jump back into dreaming and generating more new ideas. The result? Nothing gets finished. Or as Scott put it, “The project plateau is littered with the carcasses of dead ideas that never happened.”

Scott touched on a number of ideas, which are all captured in his new book Making Ideas Happen, that can help us push through the project plateau:

  • Generate ideas in moderation. We must not be afraid to kill new ideas that will take us off course.
  • Act without conviction. We have to act when we are unsure to keep the momentum going and rapidly refine ideas.
  • Encourage fighting within your team. Though many of us shy away from confrontation, conflict can actually help us hone our ideas
  • Embrace constraints. It’s imperative to break down projects into small, actionable units so that we can move forward without feeling overwhelmed.

You can read Part II of the 99U Conference recap here.For the granular, 140-character by 140-character report on Twitter, check out #99conf.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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