Listen for the Whistle …

Before dawn on a chilly Saturday morning in October, they lined up at least a quarter of a mile long to board the train.  Why?  Steam locomotive Nickel Plate 765 was going on an excursion!  Tickets had sold out within hours!


Even more remarkable, all along the way from Fort Wayne to Lafayette – and then back -they lined up at nearly every crossing to take pictures, movies, or just wave.  They  pulled over on the side of the road.  They stood outside in yards and fields.  Where the track parallels Highway 24, they caused a traffic jam in one lane by slowing down en masse to keep pace with the train.

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They stood in crowds or even by themselves, anywhere they could, to get a glimpse of 765 – to see the steam and hear the whistle.  There were hundreds of us riding the train, but I am absolutely sure that more than that were on the roadside – in groups of 1 to 30 or 40.


Aboard 765, the atmosphere was a cordial throwback to the warm personalized service you’d expect from days gone by.  Here’s car host Scott giving us our overview of what to expect (yes, 765 might just lurch a bit now and then, so be careful when you get up to walk to the concession car).


Fernando Tarango and one of the smoothest sax players around were adding to the mood.  Here they were teaching us how to sing the Wabash Cannonball (since we were in fact tracing part of the path of the Wabash Cannonball).  Fun fact – the gentleman on the left side of the photo below is one of the original engineers of 765, along for the ride!


Perhaps the best part of the train experience is that you see an entirely different vista than when you travel by car.  Here’s a view of downtown Fort Wayne that I hadn’t seen before.


765 is operated by volunteers, like Scott, associated with the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society.  Here they are poring over the locomotive at our stop in Lafayette to make sure we were ready for the return trip.

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This isn’t a 765 thing, but while we were in Lafayette I was able to grab lunch at a great food truck, EMT – Emergency Munchie Truck.  Gotta put in a plug for them.CAM00043

And, of course, Fernando couldn’t resist playing some more music as we waited for the shuttle to take us back to the train from downtown Lafayette.


Among all of the volunteers, I need to call out Kelly Lynch.  Not only does Kelly handle communications for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, but he is leading a bold vision to bring Nickel Plate 765 to downtown Fort Wayne.


The concept, Headwaters Junction, is on the table along with other plans to transform our downtown riverfront area.  It is a superb plan that deserves to happen – not just because it would be fun or cool – but because it can do so much to improve the quality of life in our city and bring tourism revenue here.

Think about it for a second.  For this weekend’s two excursions, 700 tickets sold out in a mere couple of hours.  Hundreds (maybe thousands) of people lined up at crossings, along highways, in fields, on overpasses – on both days – just to catch a glimpse of this historic steam locomotive.  Given the number of cameras I saw on tripods or being held by hand, I’d hazard a guess that more videos were shot between Fort Wayne and Lafayette this weekend than in Hollywood during all of last year.

I personally urge you to support this project however you can.  You can start by visiting the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, googling the many videos online about 765, going to see 765 in its current home outside of New Haven, or riding the Santa train in December (yes, there’s another excursion coming up soon).

Whatever you do, remember to … Listen for the Whistle!

Center of the Diamond


Ted Serbinski of Detroit made the point in his May 8 post that the Midwest has an amazing amount of assets in this diamond.  For example …

  • 8 of the 25 entrepreneurial colleges (Entreprenuer Magazine)
  • 6 of the top 20 engineering schools including Chicago, Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, Illinois (US News and World Report)

Hey, what’s that in the center of the diamond?  That’s us – good old Fort Wayne right in the center of the entrepreneurial resources!

Fort Wayne’s Comic Con

appleseed comic con

The Appleseed Comic Con draws comic artists from all around the region to Fort Wayne each year.  But what makes me smile each year is the amazing number of highly talented comic artists from right here in Fort Wayne.  It’s always good to see so many local artists (or in some cases those who studied here and have roots here) creating so many great products.  See you next year!

You can browse through all of the Comic Con artists at   Before you do, enjoy a few pics of some (not all. sorry) of the Fort Wayne artists.

Innovating, Part 2 – Asking the Right Questions

So, you have studied your market and identified what customers and other stakeholders in the market value.

  • What they love.
  • What they hate.
  • What they wish for.

You’ve compared yourself to competitors.  You know what works and what doesn’t.

  • The various product features that provide best in class value.
  • Where your product lags behind in value.
  • Where your product is ahead in value.
  • The opportunities for creating value that NO ONE provides at all.

You have a great set of insights that can guide you as you create ideas for a new breakthrough product.  Time to go to work!

Identify the Right Challenges

You first want to identify the top 10 to 15 challenges – the areas where ideas will make the most impact.

  • Where you lag the farthest behind competitors.
  • The product interactions customers value most highly.
  • The big gaps that no one in the market provides.
  • The industry holy grails that no one thinks possible.
  • The short list of “Aha – NOW I see what they want!” ideas you gathered while organizing your market data.

You do have to “fix things” or catch up to competitors where you are so clearly behind that it works to your detriment.  But, your biggest gains will come from addressing the areas of customer value that your competitors don’t even know about.  When your solution appears on the market, it can look like magic to them since they don’t understand the base value being fulfilled by your solution.

Craft Effective Brainstorming Questions

There is science (and maybe some art) to getting good ideation results.  Follow this question formula.

  • Design a [element of the product] that fulfills [one or more of the contributors to value you have discovered].
  • Example – Design a [user interface] that [provides the experienced user some detailed control].

Or this formula.

  • Design a [element of the product] that fulfills [one or more of the contributors to value you have discovered] without diminishing [some other contributor(s) to value].
  • Example – Design a [user interface] that [provides the experienced user some detailed control] but [is still easy enough for a raw beginner to understand].

To make an effective question, always ask the brainstormers to design some TANGIBLE element or feature of the product.  And, always direct them to some specific set of CUSTOMER VALUES to fulfill.

Address a Variety of Produce Elements, Values, and Degrees of Difficulty

First, at the end of your ideation session you will want to have amassed hundreds of ideas for a variety of product elements – to compile into ideal product concepts.  To give your team a good inventory of ideas to compile, select a group of challenge questions that cover a range of tangible product elements.

Second, it may go without saying, but you don’t want your ideation questions to focus on just a few challenges.  Try to cover the most important challenges – across a range of customer values or customer interactions.

Third, you will want a range of difficulty. You’ll need some fairly easy questions – defined as ones where you are sure participants can come up with LOTS of ideas – to get the sessions started on the right foot or to pick up a sleepy session.  And, you will also want some questions that stretch your participants to go past their limits.  Once they have been primed with the simpler questions – so they are used to pumping out ideas a mile a minute – you can tackle the hard challenges.

  • holy grail issues
  • contradictions that look mutually exclusive
  • complicated issues where multiple customer values and interactions intersect

Write Your Ideation Session Prep

When you present the question at your ideation or brainstorming session, you can’t count on your participants having a deep understanding of the customer values or challenges you discovered in your upfront research.  Even if you sent them a primer to read ahead of time, don’t count on them to have read it (or to remember it).

Instead, create a brief handout or presentation that refreshes their memory about the issues.  It always helps to verbally highlight the interaction values and issues before you start the brainstorming for each question – and let them ask questions.  A one-page simple handout is helpful for them to use during actual brainstorming so they don’t have to keep all of the issues in their heads.


Once you have 1) effective questions 2)) across a variety of elements, values, and difficulty, and 3) background prep, you are ready for ideation.

Subsequent posts in this series will describe more about other innovation steps.

For more detail, Innovation Rules and Tools is a practical handbook that describes a complete set of innovation steps that you can use to make innovation happen on demand in your company.  For each step, it describes a set of general rules or keys to success along with multiple tools you can apply from day one.  It is available in paperback and Kindle from

Announcing Knowledge Base!

Kbase Home Page

UPDATE: Knowledge Base is now FREE!  We have turned off the paywall – didn’t feel right to us – and you can now “pay with a tweet” to support Knowledge Base at no cost to you – or donate to support Knowledge Base financially. Oh, and we are up to 221 articles.  Enjoy!

Yesterday Founders launched a new product called Knowledge Base.

So, you know how the internet is stuffed with some really great information about doing a startup, but how it is tough to find.  You often have to fight your way through an avalanche of news stories, the latest editorial gossip and hype, and today’s trending meme just to find it, right?

Well, we decided that it should be easy to find great startup advice.  So we have curated over 200 articles so far – PLENTY more to come.  We categorized them, and we tagged them so they can be found easily (you can search for a word or phrase, too).

And then we decided that because startup people value their time, we would summarize each article.  We write the 1-3 “genius ideas” we found in each article and a “tl;dr” section with a brief paragraph or some bullet points summarizing the article.  Of course, we respect the original authors – we don’t cut and paste, we link out to the original article, and our titles include the author’s name.

So, right now, for example, Knowledge Base includes 69 articles about creating your Product, 60 about Marketing, 52 about Funding – among many others.  Doing an SaaS venture and curious about the metrics to watch?  There are 7 articles for just that.  Managing a launch?  5 articles.  Hiring key employees?  5 articles on hiring process.

I’d say it goes on and on, but it doesn’t – it stops at 203 articles – today.  By the time you read this, there will no doubt be plenty more.  We add new articles each week.

A Marketplace of Ideas

A while ago, at Fort Wayne City Council, Eric Kuhne of CivicArts presented Headwaters 2.0, a vision for our downtown riverfront that builds on Headwaters Park.

Eric Kuhne at Fort Wayne City Council  Headwaters Park 2

In addition to a great civic architectural concept – which would dovetail quite nicely with my friend Kelly Lynch’s vision for Headwaters Junction – Eric presented an almost larger-than-life vision for downtown Fort Wayne.

Even more interesting to me was to hear Eric talk, in the midst of all this, about a concept that sounded awfully familiar.  Eric said that he envisions downtown Fort Wayne as a “marketplace of ideas”.  In our age, as he put it, “A city is more than a marketplace of goods.  It can now be a marketplace of ideas.  It is the true measure of a great city.”  Toward that end, he design of Headwaters 2.0 would bring people together and foster “that magical thing that occurs in a city – accidental encounters.”

When he said that, I immediately thought of Nick Arnett, who had introduced me to the concept of placemaking some time ago.  He had explained placemaking in much the same way – purposefully designing the physical assets of a place (typically downtown Fort Wayne in our discussions) in a way that structurally encourages chance encounters among creative people – to foster innovation and city vibrancy.  Hearing Eric say the same thing made me love the Headwaters 2.0 plan even more.

I also thought of my own business, Founders, where we are building an entrepreneurial community with the same goal in mind.  We are purposefully bringing entrepreneurs, creatives, and independents together in our coworking space – and happily watching as they combine forces to bring new things to life.  By the way, Founders is located within a stone’s throw of the southwest border of the proposed Headwaters 2.0.  We could easily go hang out there on a cool summer evening.  We could recharge our batteries with a walk along the riverfront.  I could ride my bike on the trails and River Greenway through Headwaters 2.0 to about two blocks from Founders.  Sweet!

So, to those who are reading this, I say throw your support behind Headwaters 2.0 and help create that “Marketplace of Ideas” – and a very cool park – here in downtown Fort Wayne!

Innovating, Part 1 – Knowing Your Market

Some friends of mine, Alex LaPrade and Ray Angel, have started an investment fund, Lion Fund.  One of their investment precepts is that market is more important to a startup than team.  The fact that this is contrary to the traditional belief of betting on the team is the subject for another day.  Today, however, I’d like to discuss the similarities between this element of Lion’s investment philosophy and the innovation process I employ and write about.

As Alex puts it in a post titled “A Contrarian Thesis on Startups for the Rest of Us” …

“Before gambling on whether an idea will work or not, start with market research (yes, it sounds like it’s straight out of a 1950′s B School class) and find out what is valuable to this market.  Remember, the more valuable your product or service is (and the bigger the pain point it helps solve), the more you’re able to charge (e.g. more revenue for you and we’re all capitalists, not communists, right?).”

The innovation process I describe in my book Innovation Rules and Tools starts with a step called Discovering Value.  The whole idea is to learn what the various customer segments and stakeholders in the market think is valuable – before you create and deploy your product / service / business model solution.  Like Alex, I think it is just common sense.  Why would I create a solution that is designed to make money until I know what people value (another way of saying pain point)?

Learn What the Market Values by Studying What People Do

The best technique for gaining market understanding is the good old fashioned one-on-one interview – combined with observation.  There is nothing quite like talking with someone (i.e. asking open ended questions and doing a LOT of listening and note taking) for an hour or more and doing a deep dive into their perceptions, beliefs, and values about what they do in that market and how they interact with the product you are designing.

When I talk with customers, I listen for the activities they do (or want to do) – from cradle to grave as they work with the product.  When I hear a new activity, I’ll have them either walk me through it verbally – or beter yet let me observe them doing it.  I learn in depth by asking lots of questions like, “Why did you do that?”, “Why is that important?”, “Tell me more”, “How do you do that”, “Who else is involved”, and more.

Organize Your Market Knowledge by Activity

I like to organize the data I find about a market by the customer’s or stakeholder’s activities.   My colleague Ron Sears at the Design Consortium (I worked with Ron as a protege for 6 years) leads the discussion of his Product Value Matrix innovation process with this …

“The value anyone receives from a product must, by definition, stem from that person’s interactions with the product. If you don’t use, touch or interact with a product in some way, it has no value to you at all.”

If you create a thorough description of each activity (or, as Ron would put it, interaction) for each customer segment or stakeholder group and keep it up to date, you possess a comprehensive guide to value in your market.  I call this “The Book”.  For each activity, it can tell you not only what people want to accomplish, but also what they like, hate, and wish for.

Compare Your Competitors, Yourself, and Your New Concepts

You can use The Book to rate your competitors across each activity, noting what the winner does to achieve success and what the loser does to lose.  Knowing  which competitors do a great (or poor) job with an activity already, how they do it, and why it works (or doesn’t) gives you even more market insight.

You can also use The Book to rate your current product (if you have one) and your new concepts.  This ranking gives you an objective view of where you are behind or ahead.

Even better yet, The Book and ratings will pinpoint for you those activities where no one does a good job today.  These are areas where innovation can have the biggest impact, the areas where your competitors (and even you, so far) don’t seem to understand what it takes to be wonderful.

You are now at the point that Alex described where you are able to tell if a venture idea is wonderful or terrible – or what  I describe makes you ready to start ideation and create a brand new venture idea that is wonderful!

Subsequent posts in this series will describe more about other innovation steps.

For more detail, Innovation Rules and Tools is a practical handbook that describes a complete set of innovation steps that you can use to make innovation happen on demand in your company.  For each step, it describes a set of general rules or keys to success along with multiple tools you can apply from day one.  It is available in paperback and Kindle from



Innovation Rules and Tools Now Available for Kindle

Good news, everyone!

Innovation Rules and Tools, my handbook for how to make innovation happen in your company, is now available at for the Kindle!

Innovation Rules and Tools Kindle Edition

So, you can …

  1. Be learning how to apply hands-on innovation in a matter of minutes.
  2. Acquire Innovation Rules and Tools for only $7.97.
  3. Carry Innovation Rules and Tools with you electronically as a handy reference.

Why wait?  Go grab your copy now!

p.s. for you print purists, you can still purchase the paerback edition here.


Why Every Entrepreneur Should Cultivate Optimism

Recently I saw a post on Quora answering the question, “What is the single most unfair advantage a person can have?”.  Among all of the usual suspect answers, one stood out.


That short answer, by Sondra Webber, went on to say, “Studies show optimistic people are more successful, and happier, because they believe in themselves and more or less make it happen.”  That answer just happened to hit home for me that day, as I was thinking about the own life and my own entrepreneurial activity.

Pessimists Miss Opportunities

I realized that pessimists lose in three ways.

  1. Pessimists dismiss opportunities when they see them because they don’t believe the opportunities are attainable.
  2. They don’t see opportunities because they don’t believe that it is even worth looking.
  3. When we take a step in a new direction, the vista is different.  Pessimists don’t ever see positive new vistas that are built on the results of positive actions and thoughts.  Worse yet, they see new negative vistas built from the results of their negative direction.

The implications for optimists are the reverse.

Optimists See Opportunities

Optimists are open to opportunities.  They will try something.  Perhaps, as Sondra says, because they believe in themselves.  But perhaps, I think, because they believe in the opportunity, whatever it is.  I see that all of the time in my entrepreneurial friends here at Founders.  We’ll be talking about something, anything.  An idea will pop up.  Somebody will say, “Awesome, what a great idea!”  Someone else will say, “We’ve just gotta do that!”  And then maybe a couple of people will head to a whiteboard or the front windows with some dry erase markers.  Pretty soon domain names are being purchased and code is being written.

Optimists Create Opportunities

Believing that something can be done, and then starting to do it, is enormously powerful.  Starting work on an opportunity puts you in a position where you might see even better opportunities.  As I’ve recently retooled some of my own professional services, the product that I started creating has changed based on ideas I never even imagined until after I started developing the idea.  Had I pessimistically avoided developing the initial idea, I would never have seen the other more powerful ideas.  I’m willing to bet that every entrepreneur has experienced this same phenomenon.

That Helps Entrepreneurs Play to Win

It’s simple.

  • Because optimism helps you see and take advantage of opportunities, you can’t win without it.
  • Because optimism helps you create opportunities along a positive vista, you can’t win big without it.

Cultivating Optimism

Cultivating optimism is not difficult (yeah, I know that sounds sorta optimistic itself).

The first thing to understand is that cultivating optimism is not the same as reducing pessimism.  It is not setting aside time to identify and study those occasions when you have been pessimistic and vow to get better.  When you work to reduce pessimism, your framework is still pessimism, so although you may change you are still grounded in the world of pessimism.

Instead, try taking some time each day to practice being purely optimistic.  Take ten minutes (or more) and let yourself think optimistic thoughts (force yourself at first, if you have to).  Imagine you will have a successful outcome to some of the key things you are working on in your venture.  Imagine you will have a successful relationship with those people that are habitually hard for you to deal with.  Imagine that your team is really, really motivated, full of great ideas, and just plain primed to kick ass.  Imagine that the city looks sparklingly great early in the morning.  Imagine that you have everything it takes to be uber-successful in your market.  Etc.  Just practice being open, concentrate on how all that feels, smile a lot, and see where it leads.

I predict that two things will happen.

  • Your framework will change.  You will begin to think from an optimistic viewpoint, rather than a pessimistic viewpoint.
  • Your perception will change.  More and more each day (outside of your 10 minute practice time), you will see positive opportunities that will help you achieve success.

Have fun!