The Essential Entrepreneurial Mindset with Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

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Tara:  How do world-class entrepreneurs make the decisions they make and achieve the things they achieve?  This is Profit. Power. Pursuit., a CreativeLive podcast, and I’m your host, Tara Gentile.  On this podcast, we explore what it takes to live a sustainable, creative life by uncovering the strategic and tactical components of how creative people make money, take control of their businesses, and pursue what’s most important to them.

My guest today is Nilofer Merchant.  She’s been called the Jane Bond of Innovation because of her ability to guide companies through impossible odds.  She’s also launched more than 100 products, netting more than $18 billion in sales.  On top of that, she’s written two books, The New How and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, which I recommend to all of my clients as can’t miss reading for the new economy.

Nilofer and I talked in depth about her concept on Onlyness, the spot in the world only you are standing in.  We also talked about how networks are the best way in which work is done today, and how she’s working to enable each and every person to be empowered in this world.  Listen closely for the way Nilofer approaches having conversations with fear.

Nilofer Merchant, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  Thank you so much for joining me.

Nilofer:  I’m so glad to be here.

Tara:  Awesome.  So I’d like to start by talking about the phrase that you coined in your book, The New How, Air Sandwich.  You had corporations with varied levels of team members in mind when you wrote about that, but I have really noticed this problem affecting very small creative or idea-driven businesses as well.  I think we talked about that on Twitter maybe a few months back.  Can you talk about what an Air Sandwich is, and what kind of problems it can cause in a business?

Nilofer:  Sure.  So let me first define it.  So Air Sandwich is when there’s a gap between the high level direction, usually set by one person, and the execution, which is usually set by someone else, and in traditional organizations, there’s usually a bigger gap between those things, and so I started calling that an Air Sandwich, because just like a good sandwich, all the stuff that really matters, like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, all the stuff that really matters in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the peanut butter and the jelly.  And so if you’re missing the things in the middle, which in an organizational context is, you know, understanding, shared understanding, understanding the debates, understanding the tradeoffs, the set of things that helps make an idea turn into reality is missing, that’s when you have an Air Sandwich.

Tara:  Great, so I think with micro-businesses, largely, you know, they’re creating the vision, and they’re doing the execution, but they’re having a really hard time connecting those two things.  What can we learn from sort of the corporate model and, you know, what you’ve developed in terms of helping corporations get through this Air Sandwich problem that we can apply to connecting our visions with our day-to-day execution?

Nilofer:  Sure.  So let me just bring it down to … down to real Earth.  So back when I was a small business owner myself, because remember, I started Rubicon Consulting and grew it to a $4 million business over the course of 11 years, so … And when it first started, it was me in my pajamas with my computer on my lap, so I have some sense of what that moment looks like, and I will say the one thing that has always closed that Air Sandwich is to get really clear on the high level, where are you trying to go, the horizon, as I like to call it, and then figure out a way to be explicit with yourself about what are the different ways you could do it.

So I would, for example, do a map of five years out, and start to paint a picture, but then I would say, okay, for this year, what would be one measurable outcome that could be done within this year, and then I would sit down and break that down and say okay, so then, what would we need to do at work, at home, in fitness category, just every part of my life for that one thing to become real.  It included who I would hire or what kind of regimen I would put myself on so I had really high energy or all the different aspects, and I would type this up.  Tara, if I could send you the one-pagers, I had a one-pager for every year for ten years.

Tara:  Wow.

Nilofer:  And I saved them all in a box, in fact, and the reason I did, I saved them, is because somebody said, you know, sometimes, we forget to track how much progress we’ve made, because we always have a new horizon and we’re always, if we’re lucky, right, we get to keep building on what we’ve already done, and so then we move onto the next goal and stuff, and so I started saving these in a box, and what was fun to do over time is to go back and go oh, I may not have gotten every specific thing on the original, you know, like three years ago kind of list done, but it was very clear what the direction was, very clear of what the specific tactics might be, and then as you were playing out the year, some other opportunities would come up.  But I would actually, then, every day, so just to kind of bring this down to practical purposes, every single day, I carried around that little sheet of paper that was for the year, and I sat there for the month, so if it was the start of November, I would have sat down for the month and said, okay, here’s the kinds of things I’m going to do in November that will tie to the big picture goal for the year, and then every single day, for every single day of a week day, I would write down what would be the three things I would do that day that would get me towards the goals for the month, that would get me towards the goals for the year, and those are all the practical things I did as an entrepreneur to help close that gap between the big idea and the reality becoming, you know, real in the marketplace.

Tara:  I think this interview is going to be a must listen for my clients, because that’s very similar to the structure that I put them through, and I love the way that you just described that, so thank you.  I want to kind of shift gears a little bit and talk of another term that you coined, which was from your second book, 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, and that’s Onlyness.  Can you tell us more about what Onlyness is?

Nilofer:  Sure.  So Onlyness is that spot in the world only you’re standing in.  It’s a function of your history and experiences, visions and hopes, and I use those four words very specifically.  I’m saying it’s everything that might have happened to you, even if it sucked.  It’s everything where you’re from, and sort of what has shaped you up to this moment, but it also has to include your aspirations and dreams for where you want to go.  So it’s both the moment, it’s the creative space that you’re living in that is both the past and what has made you, and the future and what is pulling you into the future.  And I use the term Onlyness, I was trying to struggle, I was struggling, excuse me, with the word when I was first creating it, because I was looking at words like talent, or uniqueness, and let me explain why I didn’t use those words.  So I didn’t use terms like uniqueness that were relative terms.  So when I was the only woman in a boardroom, for example, people used to say I was quote/unquote unique, and I wanted to turn back to them with the most sarcastic tone in my voice, and say, you know, 52% of the population is a woman, so that doesn’t make me very unique, you know?

The other part of my business, I want to say something like I’ve shipped over 100 products, generating $18 billion in revenue, so my commentary around, like a market move, is probably more linked to that then the fact that I’m a woman, right?  And yet, people would say that was quote/unquote unique, so I was trying to find a non-relative word.  So something true to you, and I was also trying to claim back that thing that a lot of has been in our lives, especially if you’re weird or wild, and most of us who are solopreneurs or freelancers are weird or wild in some way or another, that’s what makes us not want to fit into corporate structure.  We have often been the quote/unquote only person, in some setting, that’s totally the weirdo at the table, and I was trying to take that weirdo element and make it the positive strength that it is.

Nilofer Merchant on Profit. Power. Pursuit.Tara:  Let’s talk about that weirdo bit a little bit more, because I think, you know, you’ve also written about Onlyness as turning a negative into a positive, and I know I found this to be true in my own brand and in my own business as well, is that, you know, like I can turn something like, you know, I get a little too intellectual, a little too nerdy into something, and I can actually make that the positive focus of my brand.  Are there things that you personally were told that were negative about your personality or the way you worked that you’ve discovered that are really assets in disguise?

Nilofer:  Oh, gosh, I don’t even know which one to choose, but I’ll choose one I have written about.  It’s by someone who’s actually a fellow thinker, someone that I really regarded, and someone who’s exceptionally good in the marketing space, and so when I turned to him, it was because I was trying to name my now second book, because as you know, Tara, I’m working on my third, but when I was trying to name it, I knew, because of my experience with my first book, that naming might not be my thing, because I’m not a marketer, and I am purely a strategist, and so you know, usually, I help other people do this kind of thing, and so I turned to him and he said, I’ll never forget it, because I turned to him and I said, “You know, I really need advice about how to even just think about the process of naming it.”  So I had probably three-quarters of it written, blah, blah, blah.

And he said, “You know, as a brown woman,” this is how he started the sentence, and I’ll never forget the whole sentence, so I’m going to say it and then I’m going to come back to what the implications are, so, “As a brown woman, your chances of being seen in the world are next to nothing, because if you are really edgy to an audience, you won’t fit in to what they expect of you, and therefore, they won’t listen.  If you’re not edgy, you’ll never stand out.  So…”  And then he’s staring at the ceiling for a little bit, kind of like mulling that one over for a second, “So you’ll never be seen in the world.”

And the implications of that, of course, are huge.  First of all, sometimes, you know, we’ve all been told that some part of our life, I can repeat so many stories I’ve been told in my career of you know, that’s not going to work, because of who you are.  And I’ll tell you the ironic moment is not only did I get myself up off the ground, not only did that book become one of Harvard’s bestsellers, not only did it get me named one of the top thinkers in management, the number one person to shape the future of management, but the day I got announced as a speaker for TED, the very first note I got in my inbox, very first note, was, “Congratulations,” from that person.  And I said, and I was such a little snot about how I did it, because I really wanted to circle back with this guy, ‘cuz I said, “Hey, so I thought you said I’d never be seen in the world?”

And he goes, “Did that bother you?”

I go, “Yeah, so don’t ever do that again, and let me explain to you, you know, that it cost me several months of my life, thank God it didn’t cost me more, but those of us who turn to each other for help are being incredibly vulnerable and soft right in that moment, and because I trusted you, I was especially vulnerable and soft, and you took that moment to point out something, by the way, that might be your truth, but it’s not my truth.”  And that’s probably the one lesson I would want any of us to take away is no one else can define your truth for you.  You have to define it for yourself.

Tara:  So true.  What do you do personally when you are faced with that kind of “feedback”, for lack of a better word, that, like you said, can put you on your back for two months?  What do you do to get yourself motivated again and plugging forward with your goals?

Nilofer:  I think the term you were looking for was “bullshit.”  That’s not feedback.  That’s bullshit.  So …

Tara:  Yes.

Nilofer:  And I’m being specific because somebody else’s limiting definition of you can never have enough space for you to be creative.  Never have enough space for you to actually go do the work you need to do.  So any time you ever feel yourself shrinking in front of someone or because of something someone said, run away from that person.  You get to decide for yourself where power lies, and the power of the narrative is one of the biggest powers we have, the story we allow ourselves to hear about our self.  I’m not saying lie to yourself, because you know, there’s moments where I do sit there and think gosh, am I limiting myself by being too edgy or whatever, right?  But you get to determine that, not someone else.

So the first thing is like really to get that message out there.  None of us can allow ourselves to become smaller because of someone else.  If we do, we’re doing it to ourselves.  It’s not them.  It’s us.

Then the other thing I do is, the reason I actually snapped out of it, to be quite honest, was because I was telling the story to a friend who happens to be very strong in the feminism space and very strong in the tech space, and I happen to be sharing it, because I’d just finished mentoring some other young women, and I said, “I hope that the experience I’m having doesn’t get repeated onto this next generation.”  So I was relaying the story more in the context of why I was spending all this time with this other generation.

And she said, “You know, if that … ” because the way I’d repeated the story was not by saying the bullshit part, and so she said, you know, “Just in case no one’s told you, that story is complete bullshit, and let me tell you why it’s complete bullshit.”  And she really told me what I’m trying to hopefully pass on in this conversation, which is you get to define it, it does not define you, whatever it is.

Tara:  The need to see that kind of detachment from bullshit is so important, and I think so many people get attached because of just exactly what you said, you know, we’re vulnerable in those moments of asking for help from people, and so we kind of … we attach ourselves to whatever they say about us, and I just really appreciate, you know, you kind of demonstrating that detachment.

Nilofer:  Yeah, and I think that the key in the lesson is who do you surround yourself by?  So you know, whatever you call it, posse or squad or friends or professional colleagues that you appreciate learning from or mentors or sponsors, because we all have different names for roles people play in our lives, but to be able to pick up the phone with people, and to be able to relay a story like that, and for someone else to be able to say that’s bullshit, right?  And so we have to really, the one thing I wish I had done early in my career, and Tara, I’m 47 years old and I feel like I’m just learning this lesson, is to be very intentional about who is in your inner circle, and how to tell your inner circle that they’re the inner circle, and so that way, when you need that place to be soft and vulnerable, there is a group of people who you can count on, you know, to be there for you, and I wish I had just really understood how much you need that as a creative person in your life.

Tara:  Yeah, I’m really glad that you brought up this question of people, how have you gone about finding who’s going to be in your inner circle and kind of developing those relationships with the people that you need to have supporting you, the people that you want to have supporting you?

Nilofer:  Well, I think the thing is, so I’ll tell you what I used to do in the past, and then to show you the contrast, sometimes, it’s helpful to do the what not to do story, like don’t dress like this.  This is the emotional equivalent of what not to do that my friend does on the telephone show.  So the what not to do, what I used to do is I used to say, you know, I should be gathering critics in my life who can help me get better at an idea, they’re the ones who are going to poke all the holes in it, etc. etc.  And so I largely had people who were extremely smart, but not necessarily very kind and not necessarily very compassionate, and I just was a punching bag, so if I … which made me good at certain things.  Like I’m extremely resilient, and I think because I value the push and pull of idea development with other people, that part was really served, but what I forgot I also needed or didn’t acknowledge enough is how much you also need the place to be soft, and one of my friends who’s become a friend is Nancy Duarte, and I’ll repeat what she said to me. 

We had known each other for something like ten or fifteen years.  Brilliant, brilliant entrepreneur.  As a woman entrepreneur, there aren’t that many of us, we both knew each other in Silicon Valley, we both published our first books with O’Reilly, so you know, we had a number of connections, and at one point, she turned to me, she goes, you used to be a lot less soft, and now you’re soft and it gives us such a different relationship.  And I realized that I had made a twist in my own life of who was my inner circle, had I established that with them, and then I could give myself permission to be soft, and then for me, then, it’s making a list of what those people are, and just a few years ago, I was telling my husband, you know, if I had to make that list now, what would it be, and we just sat, and happened to be lying in bed, and so we just sat there and made this list up.  It’s going to be someone who I can be, you know, the rock star speaker who just did a 5500-person audience a few weeks ago.  Also the person who just won, I’m now one of the top 50 ranked management people in the world, blah, blah, blah, right?  Like they’ll totally get that, but they’ll also get that I’m a complete neurotic person stressing about whether or not even one person will buy my book.  Right?  So those two can both be true in the same body and the same person, and that colleague, that friend, that close inner circle will be the person who totally gets that both of those are both true at the same time.

Tara:  I’d love to go a little bit further in that direction, because I think this is, probably especially for the women in our audience, definitely for me, so maybe this is more of a personal question, that contrast between ambitious and resilient and almost like hard-nosed in the face of failure or criticism juxtaposed with being soft, being vulnerable.  That’s a really difficult balance to strike, and you know, we … I think we’ve been taught so much that … that the hard side of you is what needs to show up when you’re speaking, in the boardroom, when you’re on a client call, when you’re on a sales call, whatever it might be, and I know for me personally, it can be really hard to tap into that softer side.  What do you … what did you do to try and make that softer side of you more accessible in the moments when that was going to serve you best?

Nilofer:  Truthfully, I think it’s that I’m cool with it.  I’m cool with the fact that I’m flawed.  I’m cool with the fact that I’m going to make mistakes.  I’m cool with the fact that I am neurotic at times.  I’m cool with the fact that I am scared at times.  Like I think I have finally forgiven myself for being a human being.  Do you know what I mean by that?

Tara:  Mmhmm.

Nilofer:  And if I’m okay with me, then I’m going to trust my instinct when I’m in a conversation that if I’m going to connect with you on something, I’m going to go and be real about this one thing in this particular way, or I’m going to tell you a story in a particular way, and I’m going to trust that that’s all … that’s all part of the plan, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll recover from that, too.

I’ll tell you something that, so the intellectual argument for what I just said, so that you’re okay with yourself?  I’ll tell you the intellectual argument of it, because I just learned it recently.  I was talking with Carol Dweck, this is probably now two or three years ago, and it’s on my blog, so if you Google my name and Carol Dweck, you’ll probably find it, but Carol who wrote Mindset, and I were sitting in her office at Stanford University, she’s in the Psych department overlooking the Squad, the Quad area of, you know, Stanford University, and so I had said, “Okay, so I get everything you’ve written.”  Like we had had this nice, long conversation.  I said, “Well, what’s the conversation you’re having with yourself when you want to be a growth person versus a fixed mindset person?  What’s the internal conversation you’re having with yourself?”

And she said, “Oh, no one’s ever asked me this question.”  And she says, she looks at the ceiling, and she says, “You know the conversation you’re having with yourself is, ‘Regardless of what happens, I trust that I will figure it out from there.'”

Tara:  Mm.

Nilofer:  And I think that’s the thing is you have to be okay with you, and then everything else, like, you know, because you’re going to make mistakes and you’re gonna sometimes, one way when you sit there, and later you’re like, oh, maybe I should have acted another way, or whatever, right?  Like it’s all good, and it will all work itself out in the long range.

Tara:  Nice.  So let’s shift gears a little bit, and I want to talk about some of the concepts from Eleven Rules, because I love that book.  It is one of my favorite books, and it is required reading for pretty much everyone who works with me.  Either they gain it through osmosis, or they actually sit down and read it, but one of your rules for creating value in the social era is that collaboration is greater than control, and I think that many of our listeners, myself included, would self-describe as control freaks.  What are some ways that entrepreneurs can give up control even in tiny little organizations?

Nilofer:  So you know, like let’s do ideas, since all of us are in this knowledge economy, creative economy, whatever you call it.  We’re in the business of making ideas.  So let’s use ideas as the thing we’re going to talk about for a second, and then I’ll use you and I as an example for a minute. 

So I published a thing called Onlyness in the 2012 book.  I am now working on a book that will be published by Viking/Penguin sometime in 2016, probably the latter half, that’ll be about Onlyness entirely.  It’s thirty or so stories of people living out their Onlyness, first in how they see it in themselves, then as they find their fellow, like people, and then as they galvanize action making something a reality.  I notice that you tweet on it, have coached on it, etc. right?  And I’m not threatened by that in any way.  I could be, right?  I could be like most people, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, control.”  But actually, the way I think about it is, “I wonder if she’s really good at coaching on it, because if this book and this idea takes off the way it looks like it might, she might really be an interesting person to partner with.  Or would she be the person to right the tools book, right?  So the way I start to think is less about can I control the idea, but what’s the end game?  And the end game is I want to enable each and every single person to be as powerful as they can be in the world, even and especially if they’ve been told by society that they do not have a seat at the table. 

So I’m looking for especially women, people of color, and young people who are told, “Gosh, your idea doesn’t count because you don’t know enough,” or uneducated people, or blah, blah, blah, right?  And I’m figuring out how to get that 50% of the population back into the economy.  That’s my goal, and I am sure that this idea is part of that, and then I’m just going okay, so who else wants to play?  Who else wants to play?  Who can extend this idea?  Where are they going to take it?  What other ideas are they going to build on it?  Blah, blah, blah.  And then an idea gets a chance to not just be something I hold tightly like in the fist of my hand as if it’s my own, but I get to hold it open, like an open hand, you get to pick it up, you get to mold it into something you’re doing, you get to take it to another group of people that will come and take it from your hand, and to me, that’s a more powerful and bigger idea than something I control.

Tara:  What I also really like about what you just described is that it’s not necessarily about finding, like giving up control within an organization, but giving up control, sort of throughout the network, because what I see with my clients, and you know, other microbusiness owners, is that they are kind of isolating themselves out of a need for control, and the people who are really, really getting ahead are the ones that are finding new and interesting ways to partner up with people, like you mentioned, and this concept of collaborating with people, giving up control over your own ideas so that you can find those partnerships seems to me like a great move forward for a lot of business owners who are looking to grow in a different way.

Nilofer:  Well, networks are the way in which work gets done today, absolutely, so we can state an absolute truth, and so then a question, so the piece of advice I give to people who are working within companies who want to live out their Onlyness, I ask them to speak up more within an organization, because their ability to speak up and own and idea and champion something, even if it’s the weirdest and wildest thing anyone in that room has ever heard is going to turn out to be an opportunity.  Promise.  It’ll improve the team performance at least by 30%, and it may also, even if you suck, even if the idea sucks, right?  That research has been out there, and then when you’re outside the organization, when you’re on your own, it’s to figure out what networks do you want to belong to and with, who do you want to know, how do you want to build on their ideas, how do you want their ideas to influence yours, and networks are going be the way in which we’re going to extend each other’s work.  So I think about it as which guild, if I was back in the 17th Century, and an artist, which guild would I belong to?  Well, networks are just the more common way of us thinking about it.  Hubs.

Tara:  I love that.  So another role that you mentioned in the book is that consumers become co-creators in the social era.  What do you see as missed opportunities for entrepreneurs when it comes to really empowering their consumers to become co-creators?

Nilofer:  I think most of us try too hard to try to lock everything down, and you might remember this Tara, but I’m not sure your audience would know that for my second book, I actually blogged the book, five big sections of it, at Harvard.  Harvard had never done a multi-part series before.  They have since I created it with them, but we had a big idea.  we thought it wasn’t worth waiting until it was perfect.  We thought it would be really fun to see if we could see what people said and what questions they had and all that stuff.  So I literally wrote parts one and two, we had kind of a sketch for all five parts.  I wrote parts one and two, pretty much locked it down, then we went to press with one.  Then I waited to see what did I hear.  I had proofed two.  We went to bed with two.  I waited to see what did I hear with three.  And so on.  And it was this, you know, it’s almost like what’s that game, I have it in my head where it’s like that jump rope game where there’s two …

Tara:  Double Dutch?

Nilofer:  Double Dutch, that was the word, and you’re jumping.  You’re jumping in and out of the rhythm of the game, the person who’s holding the ropes, that’s one part of it. There’s the ropes themselves, and there’s the people who are interplaying with the ropes.  We’ve got to think about it much more in that interactive way.  So the question is, you could be the rope holder, you could be the person jumping in, you want to think about who could you be doing a dance with?  And the reason the Double Dutch thing came to mind is just because it is playful.

Tara:  I love that.  You’ve also written that our goal is to learn our way into the future.  What should we be paying attention to to learn what we need to create the future that we really want?

Nilofer:  I’ve give you my best tip for how I’ve learned this.  So for eleven years, I ran a consulting business, and before this, I used to think my job was to know a lot, and in a consulting business, obviously, they hired me because I was competent, and you know, had a lot of information and all that stuff, but I learned my job was really to figure out how to engage other learning, so that once I left the building, that team would carry it over the finish line, because my success was not a PowerPoint Slide, because that was Mackenzie.  My success was an outcome in the market place, and I wasn’t the only one who’s going to do that, right?  So I needed a bunch of other people to see the idea and believe in it and all that stuff, and so what I learned to do to go into meetings was not to say here’s the four things I would say or try to communicate.  I actually really sat there and crafted what would be the questions I would want to know more about, and I would right in the corner of any meeting notes what those questions were, and I think the smarter I’ve gotten in life, it’s by sitting there thinking more about what do I need to know before I go into a conversation with someone?  What am I curious about with them?  What do I … what could they tech me?  And the more I get better at asking questions, the more I become essentially proficient at learning, because what it helps you to do is to identify what you don’t know, and the minute you’ve done that, you’ve toggled your whole brain over to reception mode.

Tara:  That’s a really great strategy for people, I think.  That brings me to sort of something that we’ve been sort of circling around in this conversation, which is imposter complex or the inner critic, you know, whether it’s getting vulnerable with your relationship-building, or whether it’s finding the softer side of who you are, or whether it’s asking questions instead of going in with a solid plan or a solid I know this and you will listen.  How have you combatted that inner critic voice or that imposter complex over the years?

Nilofer:  Well, some of it is time in the sense that you do have credentials, you do have your experience, you do have things that you’ve done, and you have to realize no one gets to take that away from you, so you know, you can stop having that conversation.  And then I also, I have to talk myself down off the ledge by having a conversation with fear.  So instead of … I think most people have a relationship with fear, like they see it around the corner, and then they run like hell from their inner critic.  I actually sit and have a physical conversation with my inner critic.  Actually sit and like go, “Okay, now is the time we’re gonna chat.”  I’m not kidding.  I actually do this.  I sound insane, don’t I?  “Now is the time we’re gonna chat,” and I actually sit there and try to listen for what is the critic trying to tell me.  Because the critic’s job is trying to serve, or fear, right?  Fear’s job is to try to protect, and try to protect you from failure, to try to protect your ego from being crushed.  Ideally, it would have protected me from that guy who told me what he did, you know, about the brown woman thing.  This inner, and in that case, it was my, you know, external critic, right?  But when we have an inner critic, it’s to try to protect us, and I think the question I have to have is what do you need me to do?  Is there stuff I need to manage?  Is there stuff I need to learn more about?  Is there certain skill development I need to do?  Well, then those are points of fact.  Okay, let me go work on those things.  But then the rest of the time, inner critic, you sit right here, I’ll be back next week, we can talk some more.  But you can’t run my whole life, girlfriend, you know, because I’ve got other shit to do, and I have, like, I need to focus on those other things, and the thing is, the minute I sat, I actually had a bench in Los Gaz, which is where I last lived, I had a particular bench where I met fear and my inner critic, and I had like, you know, kind of a little ritual around it.  I would go to the bench, I would have the conversation, then I would go away from the bench, and be like, “I’ll meet you here next week.”  And I haven’t found that exact spot in Paris here, but I’m very clear when I’m having this conversation, because then, once you honor that commitment with yourself to actually listen to that critic, then it teaches you something.  So you’ve got to listen for the part you need to learn to, and then you just need to figure out how to park it for a while, but you can’t ignore it, because the more you try to ignore it, the more it screams at you.

Tara:  I love that personal ritual that you’ve developed.  That’s awesome.  So you mentioned Paris, and that’s kind of where I’d like to take the conversation next, as we start to wrap up.  One of the missions of this podcast is to find out how creative, driven people are pursuing what’s really, really important to them, and I have a feeling that your move to France kind of falls into that category.  So how did you make that decision to pick up your family from California and move them across the Atlantic?

Nilofer:  Yeah, when our whole jobs and everything were in California, well, so we really started with the vision, you know, so going back to the horizon, and I am especially good at this in our family, you know, between the family dynamics especially, I’m especially good at it, and so my husband had come to me, my husband who’s an engineer/CTO time guy, he come to me and said, “Hey, you know, by the way, I’ve tracked everything we ever imagined when we first met, and we’ve accomplished all those things.”

And I was like, “Oh.”

And he does, by the way, like he remembers the first, you know, time we kissed and everything.  Like, he’s that guy.  So I said, “Oh, well, we better come up with some new dreams, and a couple days later over a glass of wine, I said, “Oh, we have a minute,” like, let’s do some crazy dreaming thing, and I said nothing’s off the table, name anything you could imagine us doing in your wildest dreams, and one of them was to live at least a year abroad, and that was, and then probably like four and a half years from that conversation, we moved to Paris, and it took a whole series of ridiculously small chess moves to get across the board and get to the other side, but the one thing I’ve learned from the vision process to reality is give yourself enough runway, because if you say next year, I’m going to move to, you know, it seems insane, because there’s so many things you’d have to almost do too much, too much hard turning, right, to navigate, but if you give yourself enough runway, then even the biggest boat can make a U-turn and go in a different direction, and so we just started that process, and slowly, but surely, we figured out how to step up.  You know, so then we were looking at everything through the lens of that.  Like if we’re going to live a year abroad, would we say yes to this three-year board commitment?  Would we say yes to this particular new job?  Would we … You know, and we were just trying to navigate those things until we figured out what the interlocking pieces were, and then we also reached out to the network and said hey, we’re …. you know, the private network, not the big one, and said, hey, we’re thinking about doing this, do you know anybody else who’s ever done it?  And we went and found ten people in the course of a couple of years that had done it, and people who had failed at it, by the way, come, two months later, gone home, just different, different scenarios, and that also told us, okay, what do we want to do in relationship to that?  So we made a commitment to ourselves, no matter how hard it was, we were going to gut it out, and we’re really glad we did.  That we had their stories to draw on, because the first year was ridiculously hard, regardless of what the social media presence looked like, and the word divorce came up way more often than it should have in our household, but we got through it, because we had learned from the network what we needed to do.  So I think those are probably the two lessons is you know, ask for help, but then give yourself enough time horizon to kind of navigate change.

Tara:  Wow, to circle back to where we kind of started the conversation, did you have like a one-page plan like you described before for this move?

Nilofer:  Yeah, we had a, so in that case, we actually had like a big picture, sort of like move abroad, and then we said in year one, we have to figure out what geography.  Year two, we had to, so we actually did.  We had a high level like what we’d have to figure out, and then the final year was mostly about oh my God, like it was all the logistics of, and I think Tara, you just went through a move, so you probably know what it’s like to have to put all your things into storage or go through all your things, but that was the least fun part of it.  The earlier part of that, we’re going to go for our scouting trip, we’re gonna, you know, so just a whole series of things like that.  So we did, we match it up by a four-year plan, and then lived against that.

Tara:  Nice.  So what kind of opportunities has living abroad opened up for you or for your family?

Nilofer:  Well, I mean, personally, so I’ll talk about the personal side for a second then I’ll go to professional.  So I think personally what’s been amazing is my son is 100% fluent in French and partway through German and learning Spanish and learning Latin and I just, because that was our driver was we wanted our son to have this global sense of the world.  So that’s just been profound to watch, and then of course, he gets to make fun of my French.  He actually, at times, covers my mouth, because he’s like, “That accents just terrible,” and he’s 12 now, right, so he’s embarrassed by me a little, or he’ll help me figure out how to exactly say the specific thing I want to say.  So personally, on that level, we’ve grown as family, and I’m really starting to think about professionally where I would take the world.  I see Silicon Valley so much different.  So going back to the professional side now, so much different from the angle in which I’m sitting at now.  I kind of had this sense how much Silicon Valley had gotten the case of Affluenza, when almost everything they’re building is a photo sharing app or a food delivery service app.  I think they’ve lost perspective on what real world problems are and what they could be putting their energy to.  So with the rare exception of Google or Twitter, I think a lot of Silicon Valley has become, you know, they’ve just been struck by Affluenza.  They’re rich and fat and happy.  And I wouldn’t have necessarily seen that if I wasn’t here living so far away and seeing what interesting problems startups are starting to do here, and I think they’re much more socially conscious startups, and so I’m … it changes your perspective, and then I think … I think you’ll have to ask me, I don’t know, two or three years from now, what did this mean for our professional growth path, because I don’t think that that’s … I can see little mingling elements of things that might happen, but you know, it’s early, early days on that.

Tara:  Yeah.  Awesome.  So one final question, what are you pursuing next?

Nilofer:  I am pursuing this idea of Onlyness, because I believe it’s a way for people who have traditionally been powerless in society to have a form of power and a seat at the table.  I believe that will create more economic opportunity for themselves and their communities and our society as a whole, so I’m very excited about that, and I feel like I’m learning a lot in that work.  Related to that, I’m a fellow with the Prosperity Institute, which is a think tank based out of Toronto, which is worrying about societal equality, so that we have a society that works for all, not just the 1%, and they’re essentially helping me pursue the idea of Onlyness, so one of the things we’re going to be doing in the next year you’ll hear about is research to scope the impact of Onlyness in terms of business performance, but also in terms of economic impact as a larger economy, macro-economics kind of view.

Tara:  Fantastic.  I’m looking forward to that.  Well, Nilofer Merchant, thank you so much for joining me.

Nilofer:  Thank you.

Tara:  Find out more about Nilofer Merchant at, and pick up her books, The New How and Eleven Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era on Amazon.  That’s it for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit.  You can download other episodes of this podcast and subscribe in the iTunes store.  If you enjoy what you hear, we appreciate your reviews and recommendations, because they help us reach as many emerging entrepreneurs as possible.  Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode.  Our audio engineer was Jaime Blake.  This episode was produced by Elizabeth Madariaga.  You can catch up on older episodes in the iTunes store, where new episodes are added every week, and you can learn by going to

Why “Only You Can Do What You Do” is Limiting Your Business

Only you can do what you do” is a pop culture principle of the microbusiness movement. But it only tells a very small part of the story. And in doing so, keeps the impact these businesses can make on their customers and the world–as well as their owners–very small.

Yes, you have a unique set of skills, talents, and experience. Nilofer Merchant calls this “onlyness” and my friend Michelle Ward, the When I Grow Up Coach, calls this “uniquity.”

You’d be remiss to underestimate what that adds to the value your business creates and how it engages customers. However, your onlyness or uniquity is not the value itself. It is simply a channel for that value. It’s a differentiator. It may be a selling point but it’s not what sells.

I see this misunderstanding stemming from one problem and contributing to another:

First, microbusiness owners–and predominantly women–all too often see their businesses as a method of discovering their self-worth and an engine for igniting their personal development. While entrepreneurship and business ownership can, in fact, be part of the process of developing both, it is not the source of either.

Business development and personal development are not one in the same. One might inform the other but your attention to both should remain separate.

Only you can do what you do” tries to validate your specialness through your business.

But until you can stand confidently in your beliefs, experiences, and worth as a human being, your business isn’t going anywhere. You’re already special. You don’t need a business to validate that fact. And your business won’t.

Your business can’t make your special. You already are.

Click to tweet.

Let your business grow on its own merits not yours. Focus more on selling the value it creates for your customers and focus less on selling yourself.

Second, microbusiness owners use “only you can do what you do” as an excuse not to create leverage in their businesses. The adage blinds us to opportunities for scale. If only you can do what you do, then it reasons that you must be involved in every aspect of your business.

This is not the case. I’d much rather believe that you, in fact, can do what I do. But even if that doesn’t work for your business, it’s important to know that just because your perspective is unique, executing it is not.

Your perspective is unique, executing it is not.

Click to tweet.

What if instead of running yourself ragged, trying to do it all, you trained someone to act on your insight? What if your business was driven by your unique perspective and realized by others skill?

If you choose to forget “only you can do what you do,” what new ideas could you dream up? What new areas for growth could you explore? What ways could your business create a greater impact on the world?

— PS —

The Art of Growth, my book on redefining business growth for a new generation of entrepreneurs shares more ideas like this one. Grab your copy today.