Season 1, Episode 4

CES 19 Thom Ruhe of NC IDEA

One of our featured speakers at CES 19 is NC IDEA. They are sponsoring scholarships for first time CES attendees to join the team at the North Carolina Startup Pavilion.

Joining Janet Kennedy on the podcast is Thom Ruhe, CEO of NC IDEA.

About This Episode

Announcer:                      00:01                   You’re listening to Trade Show Live! On the Road featuring conversations with the people who bring trade shows to life, including attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, and trade show industry thought leaders. We attend trade shows around the country in a wide variety of industries from healthcare to consumer products and everything in between. The podcast is a production of The Trade Show Manager, a trade show, consulting firm, and now let’s go on the road with Trade Show Live!.

Janet:                                00:29                   Welcome to Trade Show Live! On the Road. This podcast is a production of The Trade Show Manager and features an in depth look at the people, companies, and organizations that bring trade shows to life. In January 2019, we’re going to CES the Consumer Electronics Show with an amazing group of startups and business leaders will be in Eureka Park and displaying some of the best new ideas coming from the startup community in North Carolina. One of our featured guests is sponsoring a couple of scholarships for members of our North Carolina Startup pavilion is the team from NC IDEA. NC IDEA empowers entrepreneurs to reach their full potential by offering support when they need it most. With me on the podcast is the president and CEO of NC IDEA, Thom Ruhe. welcome Thom.

Thom:                               01:18                   Thank you, Janet. It’s a real pleasure to be here with you.

Janet:                                01:21                   You have had an entrepreneurial mindset for many, many years.

Thom:                               01:27                   Yes, I have. I like to say tongue in cheek. I spent the first 20 years of my career starting and growing companies and then I’ve spent the last 15 years helping others acquire that gene mutation. So that has really given me quite a career of advantage and great pleasure, because it really is a privilege to do the work that we do.

Janet:                                01:50                   You know, you make me wonder about the age old question. Is it nature or nurture? Can you make an entrepreneur or are you born with that mindset?

Thom:                               02:01                   yeah. I, I appreciate this question. I love debunking it every chance I get because I think it’s an insidious inference. That you have to be born with entrepreneurial DNA, so to speak. it’s my firm belief that we’re all hardwired to be entrepreneurial, but what isn’t equally distributed are the resources, the encouragement, the environment, the assets to realize or accentuate or pronounce that innate ability that we all have now, and for some people it’s just they just never get a chance to express it, but if you give them that opportunity, that encouragement, that support, everybody’s got the potential to be quite entrepreneurial.

Janet:                                02:46                   I think of it a very essentially is the ability to be creative and to problem solve. And sometimes that’s to make money for yourself. Sometimes that’s to make money for your business and sometimes it’s to figure out what to do when you burn the cake.

Thom:                               03:02                   It’s a way of thinking. We refer to the vernacular that’s very common now is calling it the mindset, right? We define that as the underlying beliefs and assumptions that drive successful behavior. So what is it intrinsically that motivates you, that drives your locus of control to say, I’m dissatisfied with my current state of existence. I want something better. I want to be something better. And I can express that I can achieve that goal by providing value to others and that value is manifest in either a product or a service or a performance that I do for, you know, an existing employer. But somehow I bring value to others and for that, you know, I have economic stability in my life. And then all the rest is a question of scale. So you can do that for more people in, at a higher scale than your economic reward for that is greater. But that’s the essence of really what drives what we do.

Janet:                                04:04                   Thom, I’m dying to ask you this question. It’s about the hustle mentality and there’s a lot of really strong debate on both sides going on online between those Internet entrepreneurs that have gone out there and said, hustle, hustle, hustle, work seven days a week, put it all in. And then ultimately you’re going to get rich. And let’s face it, the get rich part is going to be probably a single digit percentage of folks out there. The “make a good life, make a good living” part is much greater. But the hustle mentality that you, you are not a good entrepreneur if you’re not working, you know, 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Thom:                               04:47                   Yeah. I think that’s again, one of those wonderful myths or cliches. Probably a better way to state it, of entrepreneurship, right? That you have to deplete yourself and sacrifice sleep and relationships and everything else in furtherance of your entrepreneurial pursuit. To me that’s just silly, right? A ton of effort without direction is meaningless. There are certainly times when you’re going to have to burn the candle on both ends, right? Product launch, you know, large, large event. You got to prep for the CES show for example. But yeah, you’re going to have to have a couple of weekends who are going to go sleep deprived and you got to burn the midnight oil. But if you are doing that as a sustaining a status quo without understanding why, then you should really be questioning what you’re doing. And I think the smarter play or, or let’s just say that more balanced play is if you get to some sort of self defined equilibrium, you know, I need to financially achieve x, Y, or Z, or I need to have a company that allows me to control or the flexibility to work when I choose to work, whatever that is, that’s different for different people, right?

Thom:                               06:05                   But if you can “know thyself,” so to speak and work a plan that achieves that, then I think you’ve accomplished something. And if that means you can do that 20 hours a week, you know, God bless you, that’s great. If you have to do 60 hours a week to attain that, well, and that’s what you have to do. And then at some point you need to decide does that work for you? But, but understand why it is you’re doing what you’re doing. I didn’t give you the red meat answer to that.

Thom:                               06:34                   Really what it says. I think it’s just a stupid argument and people really delude themselves on, and I’ve seen this where people are unsuccessful and then they throw their hands up in the air and go, how can I be unsuccessful? “I’ve been working 16 hours a day.” If you’ve been doing 16 hours a day of the wrong stuff, it doesn’t matter that you’re doing 16 hours a day. If you were doing six hours a day of the right things to do, you might be wildly successful. Right? So this notion that I have to suffer for my craft, that’s part of the process. That’s just, again, that’s movies, this the stuff of lore and legend, not reality,

Janet:                                07:14                   Right. Well, and we all get sold a bill of goods because what we’re looking at is the online influencers, public persona. We have no idea what happens when he gets home to talk to the wife or the kids and a lot of the other things. We’re only seeing the story that is the way they choose to portray.

Thom:                               07:36                   It’s crafted. Everybody has a perfect life on Instagram and Facebook,

Speaker 2:                        07:40                   Entrepreneurial mindset. I think I’ve had it my whole life. I just never quite saw how to put it into action and I understand that part of what NC IDEA is doing is actually creating facilitators to help people think through that process.

Thom:                               07:59                   We are absolutely helping facilitators and others help other people get that orientation towards action. You know, we find, and I have found doing the work I do literally all over the world in services, some great organizations like the World Economic Forum, not to mention Kaufman and others that people can get to that exciting excitement stage. Like I’ve got the idea or I’ve got a notion of an opportunity, you know, I get this antsiness like I really want to do something about it and that’s where it stops, right? Because they get home and the kids are driving them crazy and there’s a good movie starting tonight or I jump on facebook and three hours later, you know, I’m not getting anything done. So we really want to help people understand that it’s a bit of a self awareness. When am I failing to do anything beyond just getting excited? Because there again, right? Excitement and energy without action is a very little value.

Thom:                               09:08                   The law of diminishing returns, a accelerates very quickly there. So what we try to do is say, you know, recognize that in yourself when you’re at that stage and say, okay, for those that can then you know, and maybe it could be the epiphany of, oh, this is going to be harder than I thought and I’m not going to do it. Then great. At least you can stop deluding yourself that, you know, “I coulda been somebody”. Obviously I’m being tongue in cheek with that, but, but more to the, our hope is that people will go, oh, okay, now I understand. I, I have to now do small tests, right? I have to see, okay, how viable is this idea and how do I start getting some feedback and how do I just for me and the team here is probably tired of hearing me say it.

Thom:                               09:53                   I call it. It’s a game of forward momentum entrepreneurship. Unfortunately in public it looks like these giant strides, right? It went huge. I sold it and made a ton of money. In reality, it’s really more about just moving forward. Some days you’re going to move forward by an inch. Some days it’s going to be by a mile, right? But as long as you’re moving forward, you have forward momentum. You’re, you’re doing all right and you should be happy with yourself that you’re doing all right because that will, as long as you’re moving forward, you’ll have something to react to that you didn’t have to react to yesterday because the market will tell you something, potential customers, we’re telling you something. Suppliers will tell you something. Employer employees will tell you something. You’ll be learning and then making decisions that are informed by the goal at the end,

Janet:                                10:43                   You’re doing such a great job with myth busting. I want to throw another one at you and that is one of the things that I have heard is your business, your entrepreneurial ideas never going anywhere unless you are 100 percent all in in essence, basically saying, if you haven’t saved up enough money to quit your job, you know too bad, you’re not going to be a success. If you’re not all-in, what do you think about that?

Thom:                               11:11                   I think that this notion that you have to be all-in in order to be successful is nuanced and again, I think it distracts from more relevant questions, but I’ll. I’ll bite and give you a reaction to it. It’s this notion, right? When an explorer hits the foreign shore, they burn their boats because they know now going back is not an option and the theory is that that somehow puts you in this mindset that you’ll work harder, you’ll work longer. It feeds this narrative of the suffering entrepreneur and that’s why I’m not very keen on this notion. That being said, there is plenty of data that says, Hey, if you’re still keeping your day job right, which is presumably 45 hours a week and you’re trying this other thing, you probably don’t have enough hours in the day to apply to your entrepreneurial startup. That’s where this starts, this are you all in or not.

Thom:                               12:13                   That’s when the narrative starts becoming way more nuanced. That means maybe your company is going to grow slower than it might otherwise if you were full time, 50 hours a week on it, you know, like you are at your job and those, those aren’t wrong or right answers. Those are just certain realities of time utilization and applying it towards things that need to get done. And so when people try to cast this notion like, well, we can’t like that because you haven’t quit your job to do this yet. Would just say statistically I have a bias against potential the potential for that from a pay standpoint. But if you can show me how, what time you can apply to it is adequate for the progression, the forward momentum, as I alluded to earlier for the business, then I’m fine with that.

Janet:                                13:05                   All right, that makes sense. I’d love for you to compare and contrast the US entrepreneurial mindset or ecosystem with your experience in the World Economic Forum as you’ve worked with, I assume, countries around the world. What’s different and what’s the same?

Thom:                               13:25                   Thank you. That’s an interesting question. I have worked with and for NGOs, universities, foreign governments, and quite literally, I like it because of the alliteration, but literally from Brazil to Bangladesh and have seen every slice of entrepreneurial humanity that the world has to offer. And there’s a couple of observations I have from this first and foremost, and this goes into public perception and myth busting right? I think in the US there’s this notion that we are the world leader in entrepreneurship. And again, spoiler alert, we’re not. What has been the kind of the, American secret of entrepreneurship that is been unleashed around the world and the rest of the world is awakening to what had been historically a US competitive advantage. So thank Israel, for example. Israel on multiple ways that you might measure is probably the world leader right now in entrepreneurship and early stage activities.

Thom:                               14:31                   They’ve put billions of dollars into funding startup early stage type of things. They’ve invested heavily in technology transfer and commercialization from universities. They had great corporate partnerships. They reach internationally, they go anywhere in the world where if there’s a piece of technology that advances something. So there’s that reality of our observation. The other observation I’ve had is I’m the kind of learning and teaching front of entrepreneurship. In the US, what dominates a lot of curricular or training programs or on entrepreneurship or what I refer to loosely as the silicon valley narrative, which is a plan and pitch type of entrepreneurship curriculum, namely I have to come up with a big idea. I write a plan around it. I shopped that plan to some folks to fund it. I grow something very quickly and I exit and you’ve heard that a thousand times over, right?

Thom:                               15:29                   That dominates, especially in academia, in higher ed. That dominates many of the programs. And that’s really, I think it’s problematic in a couple of ways. First of all, and most importantly it presupposes or it begins with an individual that has already identified as being entrepreneurial. So like if I’m a student now I’m opting in to major in entrepreneurship. As silly as that is of a notion I’ve already self selected. Right? So I’ve been activated. So what higher ed and academia is missing is that broader, much larger swath of the population that has entrepreneurial potential. They just haven’t been activated yet. They haven’t been exposed to something that flips that switch, so to speak, and that’s the difference internationally. So there. Then I use the example of the Ice House curriculum that I we talked about earlier when we were deploying that curriculum at my time in Kauffman. We were deploying it in the US and we’re deploying it internationally and I’m happy to say that that program is actually being taught on five continents right now and it’s been translated into other languages like Spanish and Portuguese. And what the rest of the world has understood is that if you go earlier stage and you focus on the mindset, we can mobilize more people working towards something entrepreneurial and whereas nobody can predict, you know, the winners and losers. It’s still is a numbers game and if you can fill the top of the funnel, you know much faster with more numbers, you’re going to have better outcomes on the bottom and adoption of that program. And, and deployment of that program. Is actually growing faster outside the US than it is inside the US.

Janet:                                17:19                   Now Your Ice House entrepreneurship program, you are talking to community colleges, four year universities, small business centers. I contend you’re in the wrong place. You need to be in elementary school.

Thom:                               17:31                   Well, we’re certainly already in a middle schools and high schools. So you’re absolutely right. You know, and this is the work of Ted Dinter Smith and Tony Wagner and others that are working on kind of a innovation narrative much earlier and there’s been studies on this too, right? We beat creativity out of kids going through the, you know, the public school and public education process. So I couldn’t agree with you more, you know, and, and even in a very unsophisticated way, I just look at my own kids. I have three children and they’re adults now, but they were all entrepreneurs growing up because they’ve lived in a house with a crazy dad who started and sold a company every three to five years. And you know, for them that was kind of the water that they swam in. So, you know, all three of them graduating college. No student debt, you know, my son just bought his first starter home, didn’t need me to co-sign. That’s because they had been starting and growing companies and my, my youngest daughter was I think started the earliest at nine, but they all were running businesses and they just saw entrepreneurship as a way to get what you want from life, right. That we have to make a more common experience for as many people as possible.

Janet:                                18:48                   Right. Well, I remember seeing a story in social media about the young man who had the hot dog stand and somebody called to complain about him and for once government did the right thing. They worked with this kid to get a health license. They got him the things that he needed to make sure he was testing the heat of the water, and they made him a more successful entrepreneur than shutting him down. And when I hear about people calling the cops on lemonade stands, I’m like ‘Really?’ that’s not in the right mindset.

Thom:                               19:22                   Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were more of those types of examples? There was one of the stories I’m most enamored with I had the good fortune several years ago to meet the founders of a company called Missouri Star Quilt Company in the Missouri Star Quilt Company is in Hamilton, Missouri, a population I think like 2,400. So this is small town USA, you know, anywhere in the country, the abandoned main street. From what I understand it is the birthplace of JC Penney, long since gone. And there was this family, it was a family with seven children that really out of a notion to give their mother or something to do or their mother, Jenny Doan was very much into quilting. Quilting was her passion, her hobby. So they bought. I’m giving you the very abbreviated story. There’s tons of videos on this and I encourage you highly to google it, but they basically bought her a piece of equipment so that she could start doing some quilting activity.

Thom:                               20:29                   And they thought, well, you know, maybe we could put a little small business around this, what we would call a side hustle today. Right? And then they use tools that are out there, they taught themselves things like youtube as a broadcast channel. And what can we do? Jenny has very, the camera just loves her. She’s got this just genial style to her teaching. Quilting comes natural to her and pretty soon, you know, they had 500 followers. They had 5,000, they had 50,000. They now have followers on their channels that are seven figures in the. Fast forward to the present. Missouri Star Quilt Company is a very large company. It’s the largest employer within a 50 mile radius. They processed 2,000 orders a day, right? And this is supplying the quilting industry. This isn’t an APP that whatever cracks your DNA for you. this isn’t a biotech life science, you know, bionic, you know, artificial limbs, better solar powered.

Thom:                               21:32                   This is quilting fabric and patterns and colors. And, and, and to say nothing of how they’ve revitalized the whole downtown. So the company is pretty much bought up all of main street and it’s a destination. It’s a Disneyland for quilters and they have B&B’s. Now there they have multiple themed storefronts, so there’s seven or eight, so they have one Missouri Star Quilt Company and it’s all things fourth of July, they have one that’s all things Halloween. One thing that’s all things Christmas and it’s a destination and it’s revitalized this town and it’s not high tech and any of that stuff. Right? That just demonstrates that the potential to transform especially large parts of our rural communities that it becomes so economically disenfranchised. Entrepreneurship has the power to turn that around.

Thom:                               22:26                   I love this story so much because it is the power of a few people building something amazing. And recently Raleigh has been in a situation where we’ve been competing to bring a very, very large presence, both apple and Amazon to our town. And I see that as kind of the exact opposite, but I’m not sure that the upside of something that large is very good.

Thom:                               22:56                   So, you know, I’d like to say tongue in cheek that we won both hq two and the apple by not winning. And I think that’s true for a lot of the communities. We’re, we have the good fortune in the triangle here that we are flush with resources, so we probably could have afforded or accommodated whatever exorbitant financial incentives package was given to them, but certainly many of the communities, that pitched for these opportunities could ill afford it and if they had won, it would have been financially catastrophic. Beyond that, what’s more perverse to that process than trying to bribe large established companies that have the kind of cash reservoirs at both of those companies have, beyond that, what’s perverse about that is the missed opportunity to think if we have the collective political will and are willing to allocate the resources we going to throw at these companies, why don’t we invest in ourselves?

Speaker 3:                        24:02                   Why can’t we see a way forward to, to draft policy and programs that put money into economic gardening so that we plant the seeds and build the next Amazon, the next 10. Amazon’s as opposed to trying to buy them or bribe them. Right? This is a challenge. This, this smokestack chasing as an economic development practice, needs to die a swift and ugly death because it is flawed in its thinking. If you want to see an example of how that might look, you only have to look to my home state or at least used to be home state because now I’m proudly as citizen of North Carolina, but Ohio passed several years ago. This initiative called the third frontier initiative and it passed by voters. It was a referendum that went to the ballot and it passed twice. So there was the initial $900MM allocation and then another I think $400MM or $500MM bond issuance. So Ohio through popular vote that sustained and survived transitioning from an R to a D and back to an R. So it wasn’t a partisan football, right? They both parties had enough sense not to kill the golden goose and that what it did was it it pumped, it injected, you know, close to one and a half billion dollars into early stage entrepreneurial support activities and it has paid multiples multiples on returns.

Thom:                               25:40                   This is the kind of thinking I would love to see come to North Carolina. I don’t know in the current political environment if there’s the political will because it, it seems nowadays that an idea is measured by who had it versus the merit of it and I’m hopeful that there’s going to be some political winds of change coming so that we can start once again arguing about the potential of ideas and not based upon who had them

Janet:                                26:10                   Exactly. As you referenced, the Gardening Motif. We need to be planting seeds and seeing what grows and creating a fertile environment to make that happen. If you just try to bring in a fully grown pumpkin and plop it down, ultimately it’s going to kill what’s under it and ultimately it’s going to decay and I don’t see a big, big move like that. If they were talking 3000 jobs, maybe that would have been much healthier, but 10,000 has got to canibalize what’s going on in our current community.

Thom:                               26:46                   I couldn’t agree more and I think if you need evidence of that, read very closely. A lot of the public narrative around that and see if you can pick out what’s absent from a lot of that public narrative and what I am now. I’ll lead the witness here. What’s absent is very a heartfelt, genuine support from the large corporate community and who would blame them, right? Every large corporation that’s been a great tenant and steward in North Carolina has been growing without handouts, right? Without incentives. Just quietly going about doing their thing and being loyal to the state. They are all. Everybody’s competing for talent right now and there’s a great shortage and now you’re going to say, oh, here’s this great big thing that’s going to be the sexy new that’s going to be competing for the people. You can’t find it as it is, and we’re going to pop that right in your backyard right now. It’s hard to get excited about that. Yeah, yeah. They’re going to be good citizens. They’ll give some perfunctory statement, but I know people that work at these organizations and they have many of them told me privately, yeah, we’re not going to shed a tear if they go elsewhere.

Janet:                                28:05                   So that’s the biggest of the big. Now let’s talk about the smallest of the smallest briefly. One of the things that I love about NC IDEA is what you call your family and that people who’ve been through one of the NC IDEA programs, processes, grant awards, they’re very vested in that aren’t they?

Thom:                               28:28                   Yeah, I mean we really think and know through our own experience. We have the privilege to work with our folks at a discrete moment in time, a discrete point in their adventure, their journey of entrepreneurship. You know, we want them to know that for the time we were officially together, which might be defined by the term of the grant period, we’re vested in their success and, and forward momentum, but well beyond. We want them to know that we’re here for them and a resource to go forward because, you know, this is this critical mass feeds the ecosystem and where we can have more and more people getting involved and having these peer to peer relationships. This virtuous cycle starts from it. So for example, we host, with, with relative frequency, a, what we call kind of tongue and cheek, alumni events.

Thom:                               29:24                   We bring folks, we invite people. We have a newsletter that we publish lucidly just to alumni. We have a slack channel just for them. And so every other month or so we say, okay, you know, I’ll, I’ll pick up the beer tab and we’ll have some hors d’oeuvres thrown out there, but you know, if you want to come by and catch up and talk to others, you know, feel free to do. And we are always humbled by the number of people that want to come in. And they just, they say, listen, thank you. We appreciate this because it’s kind of, you know, that designated time to stop and take a breath and get our batteries recharged. They just tell us the most flattering things that warms your heart and you realize, oh yeah, that’s right. That’s why we do what we do, right? Because we’re helping these people and when they’re wildly successful, then we’ve been very specific and deliberate about this particular.

Thom:                               30:18                   Next point I’m about to make is we say, hey, listen, remember to pay it forward. At some point you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful and you’re going to be in a capacity of not begging for resources and help and other things, but you actually going to be in a position to offer resources and help. And so please consider and remember us when, when that happens, we had it was, this was several of our labs cycles ago. one of the folks going through the labs program was just so enamored [with the program]. He came into my office, he snagged a piece of stationary. We have these cards that have our logo on the top and he grabbed it, grabbed a pen and a scribbled out I o n c idea $1,000,000. And he signed it. He said, I have no idea what I’m going to make good on this, but I will someday and I hope you’ll be here and you’ll have this when I can come in with that check. And obviously I don’t expect that, but, metaphorically, the sentiment of what he is saying is what we’re striving for, where everybody feels that they’re part of something bigger because at some point a critical mass that again, that virtuous cycle kicks in.

Janet:                                31:29                   That is awesome. And I very, very much look forward to having some of the scholarship recipients that you guys are going to be awarding attending CES with us this year. I think that is such a cool idea.

Thom:                               31:44                   It’d be my pleasure and I’m expecting great things from them. Janet, thank you so much for helping make that happen. It’s going to be very cool to see North Carolina has such a coordinated effort and, and frankly something that’s going to make North Carolina look even better than it already does.

Janet:                                32:00                   Absolutely. Well, thanks for being here, Thom.

Thom:                               32:03                   It’s my absolute pleasure.

Janet:                                32:05                   You’ve been listening to Trade Show Live! On the Road, a podcast that’s production of The Trade Show Manager and features an in depth look at the people, companies, organizations that bring trade shows to life.


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