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  • How Sunny Bonnell took the fire in her belly and turned it into one of the most buzzworthy design companies of 2014

    Sunny Bonnell is a branding expert and serves as the co-founder and creative director at Motto. Here's how she breaks away from the mundane and utilizes her rebellious energy for good.

    A Maverick Spirit

    As far back as I can remember, I've always been an insatiable overachiever. I was often described by my parents as the one with the lionheart. In my early 20s, with my co-founder Ashleigh Hansberger, I channeled that maverick spirit into starting Motto, a branding and design firm that helps visionary leaders around the world build inspiring brands using their most meaningful asset: their purpose.

    The company that started in a 14 by 14 room with $250 and a no guts, no glory approach has since been recognized in Inc.'s 30 Under 30, GDUSA's Top Creatives to Watch in 2014, and several of the design industry's leading publications. Though I have had many mentors in my life who gently nudged me north when I got lost at sea, I also believe in trusting your instincts. There have been several times when I've been given advice that I didn't listen to in favor of my own values and convictions.

    Still, the beauty of entrepreneurship is the journey we take and sharing that learning with others. To that end, here are a few pieces of advice that I carry with me each day.

    1. Be loyal to the nightmare of your choice.

    I heard Anthony Bourdain say this on Parts Unknown as he endured a difficult and dangerous trip across the eastern part of the Congo. The journey was harrowing--he called it the most stressful, terrifying trip of his life. But he braved the nightmare because he is committed to his dream and his work.

    I was so taken with the phrase that I decided to research it. I learned that it originally appeared in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and speaks of fully committing to the path you have chosen, for better or worse.

    2. Remember the fire in your belly.

    My parents have always been very influential in my life, and they were also entrepreneurs. As a result, I grew up with an entrepreneurial spirit that made it nearly impossible for me to work for someone else. My mother in particular never failed to inspire me with her courage, fiery point of view, and remarkable attention to detail.

    Over the years, both of my parents have given me incredible advice, but there's one thing in particular that's always stuck with me. Anytime I've ever become discouraged or arrived at the point of giving up, they would remind me: "You can go on, and you will. Remember the fire in your belly--it will be the only thing that sees you through."

    3. Don't be a slave to the ordinary.

    This is a mantra that Motto has adopted. You're always presented with opportunities to either fit the mold or break it, to fall in line or buck the status quo. We've worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and companies over the years on issues of brand positioning, naming, and design, and the one trap we see most often is that they know, in theory, that "different" is a competitive advantage, but fear of failure keeps them bumbling around in the sea of sameness. In order to be remarkable, you can't be a slave to the ordinary.

    There's an old Namibian proverb, "Learning expands great souls." When I embarked on the entrepreneurial journey almost a decade ago, I realized very quickly that I didn't have all the answers, nor did I need to. Navigating through business is much like navigating through life--an ongoing process of learning about who you are, what you stand for, how you can be better, and what you can offer to the world. Now go do it.

  • Big, crazy ideas? Check. Lots of risks? Check. Fearlessness? Oh, yeah. Welcome to Inc.'s annual list of the Most Audacious Companies.

    What's an "audacious" company? It's a superlative we chose very carefully. On the one hand, such companies are defined as bold, courageous, even heroic. Yet, on the other, they are defiant, presumptuous, irreverent, and even cocky. They see a better way to do something and work to make it happen, fearlessly committed to not only making their vision a reality but also spreading that vision.

    These are the companies we celebrate. Below, you'll find an interview with the crown prince of audacity, Mark Cuban, on what it takes to build and run a bold company. Then continue scrolling to see our list of winners divided into five categories: technology, marketing, social impact, design, and culture.

  • In our search for 25 companies that could change the world, we asked five experts to weigh in on what audacity means to them.

    Though it doesn't guarantee success, audacity has long been a key ingredient behind the most inspiring entrepreneurial ventures. It is certainly represented in the individuals below. As we searched for our list of 25 companies that could change the world, we asked a panel of experts to define what audacious means to them, in their particular area of expertise. Here's what they said:

    Design: Bre Pettis

    Co-founder and CEO of MakerBot Industries, a leading manufacturer of 3D printers
    "Innovation and the absurd are a paper-thin distance apart. One of the ways toward innovation is to explore the absurd. When you do that, you get innovation. Being playful, exploratory, trying things out, no matter what you do, you learn from it. Simplicity is one way to be audacious. I've spent more money making our software simple than making it powerful. The biggest challenge is to make something accessible, friendly, and simple. If you do it right, nobody knows you did it."

    Marketing: Anthony Sperduti

    Co-founder of Partners & Spade, a creative studio whose clients include J. Crew and Target
    "Audacious marketing is not the lowest-common-denominator marketing. It's marketing that's all right with not everyone liking it and some people even hating it. It's all right with having a particular point of view. A lot of companies aren't comfortable with doing that. Audacious marketing is when a brand decides to take a chance, not talk to everyone, and have a contrarian point of view. When you do that well, you have big benefits. You wake people up and command attention."

    Tech: Cheryl Cheng

    Partner at BlueRun Ventures, a VC firm that has invested in tech companies, including PayPal and Waze
    "One of the markers of an audacious company is definitely whether it's going to disrupt a category that's either highly entrenched or hasn't seen innovation for a long time. There are incumbents who own the market, and they're going to lobby and resist change at every point. The key to audacity is that it has to be timed perfectly. You can say, 'I'm going to send people to space and vacation on Mars,' but if it's outside the realm of possibility, it's not really audacious."

    Social impact: Bert Jacobs

    CEO of Life Is Good, a clothing company that has raised millions of dollars for children's charities
    "Audacity is when there are 999 other people who are looking to reduce their negative impact, but then there's one out of 1,000 who actually wants to solve the issue completely. Those people catch you off guard and turn a system, culture, category, or industry on its head. They say, 'What if?' You have one wild and precious life. The people who are part of real change, not just something that chipped away at a problem, deserve credit."

    Culture: Jason Fried

    CEO of Basecamp, a Chicago-based software company with a flat organizational structure
    "People who are audacious are willing to be misunderstood. They're ahead of the way others are thinking about things, and it's hard to make a decision when the rest of the world says it doesn't make any sense. But it can't just be one person who's willing to do that. Those ideas and the willingness to be misunderstood need to extend throughout the organization. Audacity has to be pervasive."

  • He's known for being irreverent, bold, and--yes--cocky. Here are five classic Cuban moments.

    What does it mean to be an audacious entrepreneur? Ask Mark Cuban, he ought to know. The Shark Tank star and Dallas Mavericks owner is known for being bold, irreverent, and--yes--cocky in his business dealings. Read on for five classic Cuban moments.

    1. Trolling Yahoo.

    Cuban and his partners sold to Yahoo in spring 1999 for a hefty $5.7 billion, which made Cuban a billionaire. Maybe it was worth it, but the audio product eventually disappeared from Yahoo's offerings.

    2. Always the Maverick.

    Since buying a controlling stake of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks in 2000, Cuban has been fined 20 times by the league--a total of $2 million--mostly for criticizing officiating. This year, he said he wanted one last fine from outgoing commissioner David Stern; he got his wish, for $100,000.

    3. Swimming with Sharks.

    Forget the show-biz convention of air kissing your co-stars. Cuban says the tension on the five-season ABC show Shark Tank is real: "Trust me, there are times when you just want to reach over and punch Kevin or Lori."

    4. Taunting Regulators.

    Many people would be quietly grateful if they were cleared of an insider trading charge. But when a federal jury acquitted Cuban in 2013 for a questionable stock sale, Cuban challenged the SEC to "treat American citizens the way they should be treated."

    5. Playing Trump's Cards.

    The two TV billionaires have been sparring for most of the 21st century, but Cuban's cheekiest jab came in 2012, when he offered Donald Trump $1 million to shave his head for charity. Whatever is atop Trump's head stayed intact.

  • In the design category for this year's Most Audacious Companies list, we found elegant and beautiful products in some unlikely places.

    An airplane that can take off from and land on water. A sleek device that could put cell towers out of business. Toothpaste like you've never seen (or tasted) before. When we went searching for this year's selection of most audacious design companies, we looked for elegance and simplicity--and we found it in a very diverse set of objects. Scroll down to check out the five that most caught our attention.

  • Mystery Ranch backpacks found a loyal following amongst Navy SEALs and wildlands firefighters. With users like that, they had to be built tough.

    Veteran backpack designer Dana Gleason launched his latest company, Bozeman, Montana-based Mystery Ranch, to make packs for skiers and mountaineers.

    But his most fiercely loyal customers have a more serious purpose in mind. Gleason found his company's niche after an encounter with a Navy SEAL, a fan who persuaded Gleason to design a backpack for the military.

    That first prototype led to a contract with the SEALs, followed by a host of other Pentagon contracts.

    The packs are designed to help a person (a soldier, hunter, firefighter, etc.) carry heavy loads with as little strain on the body as possible. To that end, an external frame was designed to support unusually shaped and unbalanced loads, like large weapons, firefighting gear, or elk carcasses.

    "The idea was to do something that matters," says Mystery Ranch CEO Dana Gleason. "Not just to build some great stuff but to build it in a way that made a difference."

    Because its packs are popular with soldiers and hunters alike, Mystery Ranch takes care to make the gear stealthy. Zippers, for instance, are wrapped in nylon cord to prevent clinking.

  • Man on a mission: Bob Chapman (top row, center), CEO of manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller, and the employees of the company

    Bob Chapman, CEO of the $1.7 billion manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller, is on a mission to change the way businesses treat their employees.

    "The usual corporate-culture buzzwords, like engagement, productivity, and performance, are self-serving to companies," says Bob Chapman. "We want to release human potential." Chapman is the 68-year-old CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a $1.7 billion diversified manufacturing technology and consulting company based in St. Louis that can trace its roots back to 1885. He is an indefatigable advocate for what he calls "truly human leadership," or THL.

    Chapman argues that the goal of management is not boosting the bottom line but fostering a better world. That isn't to say that THL can't boost the bottom line. Since 1988, the privately held company has achieved 15 percent compound growth in its share value. Thanks to the acquisition of dozens of underperforming companies, Barry-Wehmiller now manufactures a variety of items, including food packaging, labeling equipment, and conveyor belts. "When people thrive, companies thrive," says Chapman. He spoke with Inc. about his vision for leadership and why he thinks it's so important.

    I became CEO of the company in 1975, at the age of 30. We had some challenging times, but we turned it around by 1989. The problem was that our growth in the '80s and most of the '90s was largely driven by acquiring struggling companies that had the same financial or market problems we had learned to overcome. It was all strategy and no culture. That began to change in 1997, when I had an epiphany. I was visiting a company we had just acquired, and I was hanging out in the kitchen before work started. The team members were all talking about March Madness and how they were doing in the office pool. They were having fun. You could feel the energy. But the closer we got to the start of the workday, the more the joy went out of their bodies. I found myself asking, "Why should people have to leave work to have fun?"

    I had been taught, both in school and in my first jobs in public accounting and the business world, to see people not as people but as functions: "That person is a receptionist, that one's an engineer, that's an accountant," and so on. I didn't realize what an impact that has on people. As I spent more time thinking about this, I found out that the vast majority of people--about 80 percent--feel they work for an organization that does not care about them. That's a startling number.

    We created some friendly contests at a couple of our plants that really got employees fired up. As we did that, we realized there was something larger going on. We had discovered something important about the value of helping everyone feel more fulfilled. So we developed our "Guiding Principles of Leadership," where we defined some of the things we wanted our company to be about. This was right around the time of Enron's collapse, though, and people said, "Enron had some beautiful statements on their walls about their principles and beliefs, but obviously those didn't mean much." So I said, "We're going to put this in people's heads and hearts, not just on the walls."

    I began to meet with employees at our locations, and I learned a lot about some traditional aspects of manufacturing life. For instance, office workers could pick up a phone and make a personal call whenever they needed to, while people in the factory had to wait for an official break and then use a pay phone. They had to punch time clocks and ask permission for everything, but the office staff didn't. To the factory workers, it felt like they weren't trusted. So we got rid of time cards, installed free phones, let people get coffee anytime they wanted to. We did everything else we could think of so that no one felt less equal just because they worked in one part of the building and someone else worked in another.

    At the core of THL is the belief that leaders shouldn't manage people; they should steward them. After all, who in your life do you "manage"? Your spouse? Your children? No, you care for them. You acknowledge the deep responsibility you have for them. We wanted to be sure THL became permanently embedded in our culture, but we knew we couldn't achieve that by sending people to any university or graduate education program, because they all teach management. So we launched our own university to create leaders who can become good stewards of the lives entrusted to them. Our target audience is not senior leadership but frontline leaders, the people to whom about 80 percent of our staff report. We focus on them because that allows us to touch as many lives as possible.

    Academics from two graduate business programs wanted to validate what we were doing, so they surveyed our team members, and 79 percent said they believe the company actually cares about them, the complete inverse of how most workers feel. Another thing they discovered, and this even surprised us, was a sense of altruism within the company. What happens is, if I can send you home fulfilled, knowing that who you are and what you do matters, then pretty soon you start caring more about the people you work with. Caring becomes part of the culture.

    I'd like to awaken this country to the fact that we're destroying the very thing that we should value: the opportunity to live together with meaning and purpose. Leaders have to step outside the daily issues surrounding profitability and say, "What's this all about?" I talk to CEOs all the time and everyone agrees with me, but they say it sounds too hard. I say, "You bet it's hard to be a good steward of people, but what's the alternative? This is the fabric of life."

    As told to Inc. editor, Scott Leibs

  • Beats controls some 70 percent of the headphones market, thanks to lightning-fast marketing and a smart grasp of pop culture.

    In six years, Interscope records mogul Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop icon Dr. Dre have turned Beats By Dr. Dre headphones into a $1 billion-plus business. Now, together with new president and former Interscope executive Luke Wood, they're faced with a new challenge: taking a hot brand and making it, you might say, even hotter.

    To that end, Beats Electronics has introduced portable and wireless speakers, co-branded smartphones--and in January it even launched a new streaming music service, Beats Music, to compete with the likes of Spotify. Beats Electronics, despite some ferocious competition, still controls almost 70 percent of the market for premium headphones. For that it can thank lightning-fast marketing and an unbeatable grasp of pop culture. Iovine and Wood explain how they and Dr. Dre pulled it off--and what they have to do to stay on top.

    Find the Golden Niche

    "You've got to be lucky enough to identify a problem where you think you can help," says Iovine. Back in 2006, Iovine felt the music industry had two problems: first, the degradation of record sales because of piracy. Second: the degradation of audio quality because of Apple's plastic earbuds. "Apple," he says, "was selling $400 iPods with $1 earbuds. Dre told me, 'Man, it's one thing that people steal my music. It's another thing to destroy the feeling of what I've worked on.' " But the Cupertino, California, tech giant was both their bane and their inspiration. "Steve Jobs was the first to marry technology directly with popular culture," says Iovine. "I thought, Wow, technology is the new artist." He and Dre settled on a plan. "They're making a beautiful white object with all the music in the world in it," Iovine says. "I'm going to make a beautiful black object that will play it back. Dre and I decided to market this product just like it was Tupac or U2 or Guns N' Roses."

    Ignore the Critics

    "We got dumped on by audiophiles on Day One," says Iovine. Beats headphones weren't tuned evenly, like the usual high-end headphones. They were tuned to make the music sound more dramatic. Iovine adds: "We wanted to recreate that excitement of being in the studio. That's why people listen." But skeptics also wondered why anybody would pay $200 for headphones when you got the earbuds for nothing. "I was like, 'Bad audio is free,' " Iovine says. "When you believe in something, the last thing you say to yourself is, Well, no one's doing this, so there must be no good reason to do it."

    Assemble an All-Star Focus Group

    When developing the first Beats headphones, Iovine would lay out various prototypes in his Interscope offices and then poll everyone who came to see him. "It was this incredible parade of the world's great artists," says Wood. "M.I.A. or Pharrell Williams or Gwen Stefani or would come around, and I'd ask them, 'What do you think of this one? What about this? What about that?' " says Iovine. "It's not a numbers thing. I go to people with great taste." As he and Dre prepared to launch the final version of Beats, Iovine sent a pair to another world-famous guy: LeBron James. Iovine had been hanging out in the editing room with James's friend and business partner Maverick Carter during the development of a documentary on the basketball star. "Mav called me back and says, 'LeBron wants 15.' " Iovine sent them, and they turned up on the ears of every member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team when they arrived in Shanghai. "Now that's marketing," says Iovine.

    What Are Consumers Thinking About? Make That

    "When we look at marketing for our year ahead, we don't look at what products have the best margin or which ones sell best--that's detrimental to progress and innovation," says Wood. "We ask, 'What do we think the consumer should learn about?' " This year, they're talking a lot about wireless speakers and headphones--"We want to teach people that Bluetooth can sound good," says Wood.

    Trust Your Gut and Double Down

    "I always go back to my experience in the music business," says Wood. Today, as then, Wood looks for the "tug"--the little sign that he has a hit. Then he trusts his gut, and doubles down. Back in the day, a tug could be an album that gets sudden critical acclaim or a band that suddenly sells a lot of merchandise at its gigs. Now, he says, he gets the same sense from how fans--and Iovine and Dre's music-industry buddies--respond to Beats's ads and products. When an ad featuring Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Garnett with the slogan "Hear What You Want" got a big response on Twitter--and Iovine got complimentary emails from none other than and rapper P. Diddy--"we knew we had something," says Wood.

    Beats rolled out more ads, including one featuring a press conference with outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, that did even better. It ran in the third quarter of the playoff game against San Francisco. When Sherman talked trash about his opponents in the postgame commentary, the Beats ad also got attention.

    Move Pop-Star Fast

    When Iovine heard Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," he smelled a hit--for Beats Electronics. Iovine and Wood got the rights to use the song in an ad and then got Thicke to reshoot the music video--within five days of the original shoot. Then Wood phoned up the CEO of RadioShack and offered to make the ad a dual promotion; RadioShack partly footed the bill. Beats has moved even faster. The Sunday before Black Friday 2012, phoned Iovine: He had just recorded a single with Britney Spears--would it make a good Beats ad? Within 72 hours, Beats filmed and cut a new Black Friday commercial with the song; it aired during Thanksgiving football games. "We got to break a new song, and got millions of dollars in broadcast advertising exposure," says Wood.

    Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

    Co-marketing deals with big brands are a big part of the Beats playbook. Since the beginning, they have put Beats audio in products ranging from HP laptops to Chrysler 300s to HTC cell phones--and Beats has enjoyed plenty of the big guys' marketing muscle along the way. "We sold half a billion worth of product before we paid for one ad," says Iovine.

    Hide the Gold Records in the Basement

    "I'm always thinking about what Beats is not, about what's missing," says Iovine. "When you succeed, don't think you've done this incredible thing. Stay focused on the product. I never collected the gold records of the albums I engineered." (Iovine has worked for U2 and Tom Petty.) "My father asked me why I never put them up. I said, 'Dad, they haunt me. I can't think about anything yesterday.' "

  • Heroic. Inventive. Bold. Audacious companies are over the top--but in very smart ways. The 'Shark Tank' star and Dallas Mavericks owner explains how it's done.

    What is an audacious company?

    Some transform waste products into energy; others battle diseases or make scary donuts. They inform, entertain, and educate.

    Then again, so do many, many businesses. What, then, qualifies the 25 companies we spotlight in this package as "audacious"? It's a superlative we chose very carefully. On the one hand, such companies are defined as bold, courageous, and even heroic. Yet, on the other, they are defiant, presumptuous, irreverent, cocky, and sometimes disrespectful (the menacing donuts, for instance).

    Audaciousness stands out as a quality that not every company is willing to court nor every investor to finance. To earn that label, you must not only accept risk but thrive on it. You must be confident your crazy idea is anything but. You must be willing to do everything it takes to get from concept to reality in a market space with few, if any, mile markers.

    "You have to know how, where, and when to be over the top."

    As a serial entrepreneur and the crown prince of audacity, Mark Cuban notes: Many bold companies don't set out to be audacious. They see a better way to do something and work to make it happen--labels be damned. Yet audacious they are, because they remain fearlessly committed. In some cases, they vow to not only make their vision a reality in their own companies but also to spread that vision to others, hoping to ignite broader change.

    These are the companies we decided to celebrate. To find them, we reached out to dozens of experts across all industries and plumbed the depths of our reporting over the past year. We've divided the winners into five categories: culture, design, marketing, social impact, and technology.

    We chose 25 businesses. We set no criteria in terms of company size, years in business, or any other factor. These companies are honored solely on the basis of the quality and success of their audaciousness. How do you build such a company? Inc.'s Scott Leibs asked Mark Cuban, the man behind the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and a star of TV's Shark Tank. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

    How important is it for an entrepreneur or a company to be audacious?

    There is a context for everything. You have to know how, where, and when to be over the top. There have been lots of people who have tried to be audacious, to peg their success to that quality. But it's not easy to do. Your idea can't be goofy; it's got to be genuine and well thought out, or people won't respect it. People see right through gimmicks. It also has to be well timed.

    How do you time audacity?

    Think about the impact of social media. This is not 1985, when, if you got on one of the three major TV networks, you would have tens of millions of people know about you, and the same would be true in national newspapers or even trade magazines in a given industry. Your audacious idea would have time to take hold and could get a big audience via a few channels. It's a different world now. The life cycle of what's audacious might be only a few weeks, maybe even just a few minutes. So you have to know when to go, how to communicate your idea, and what the life cycle will probably be.

    A big part of making an audacious idea succeed is knowing who the listeners are, how they are listening, and how to communicate with them on which platform. In fact, going back to what I was saying about context, it's entirely possible that you don't think what you're communicating is audacious but everybody else does, and they pick it up and run with it.

    On Shark Tank, you listen to lots of pitches. Do any particularly audacious ones stick with you?

    Yes. A guy came on and said he could mine gold from the ocean by creating a hurricane inside something about the size of a phone booth. It sounds crazy, but there was no question that he was authentic. He wasn't loud, he wasn't big, he wasn't trying to be anything he wasn't, and the effect was that you found yourself thinking, Maybe this guy is smarter than I am, and because he sounds authentic, I'm going to listen very intently and then decide how I feel about it. Now, I couldn't get my arms around it or my head around it, so I didn't invest. But I thought hard about it because he really came across as being genuine.

    If an entrepreneur does get an audacious product or service off the ground, should he or she try to make the corporate culture audacious as well?

    No. When you've got something that is 24-karat gold in audaciousness, let it speak for itself. You can be subdued in how you present it and how you produce it. The thing itself is what counts.

    Of all the things you've done, what would you label as the most audacious?

    When we started the streaming business [AudioNet, 1995], no one thought streaming was legit. No one was doing it; we were the first. We said, "Look, audio and video over the Internet are going to impact the world in ways you can't possibly imagine." We started streaming probably four months later, working with KLIM radio station, and people who knew about it and were living around the world and could access it said, "Oh, my God, you just connected me back home!" We would make these audacious statements that the world just got smaller, and that we were the ultimate cure for homesickness, and that streaming was going to take over media as we know it. That was pretty audacious and, obviously, it turned out to be true.

    Anything else?

    I've been audacious in how I sell the [Dallas] Mavericks to fans. I try to be over the top, because the business is largely about fun and I am selling a unique experience. If I were selling health care equipment, audaciousness probably wouldn't be in the mix, because people want to know that they can trust the company, and so you don't want to do anything to make them believe otherwise.

    Having pitched an audacious idea that nobody said could work, what advice would you give someone in that situation today?

    First of all, if you have a concept, you have to turn it into a company. An idea by itself is not enough. It's like talking about your idea for a great novel when you've never written a sentence. Do the footwork, the research, to know your industry--know the business better than anybody in the world, so that when you start conveying to people what your audacious take on that business is, you have the facts and figures to back it up. When you've done your homework, it becomes a question of showing, not convincing.

    Do you think the act of being an entrepreneur is inherently audacious?

    No, I think that's too sweeping a statement. I think it just depends on what you are trying to do. When Twitter says, "We are going to give you 140 characters to communicate, and we are going to make it the new broadcast medium that will reach 250 million people in five years," that's audacious on its face. If you have a better way to sell eyeglasses, that's great; you may have a product or service that is very needed and that you execute very well, but neither the founder nor the concept is necessarily audacious. But it's still a great business.

  • Bridge International Academies has built 300 schools serving 100,000 students. But that's only the beginning of its mission to wipe out poverty and make money doing it.

    "This might sound crazy, but I didn't understand why people didn't think it was going to work," says Shannon May, co-founder of Bridge International Academies. In 2008, she and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, set out to raise money for a chain of thousands of schools they hoped would serve 10 million students across the developing world. "Everybody wanted us to have built one school first," says May. "I was like, anyone can build a school."

    When your goal is to eradicate world poverty through education, scaling slowly isn't an option. Bridge International Academies is only seven years old, but the for-profit company has already built 300 primary schools serving 100,000 students in Kenyan slums and villages. Having won over high-profile investors--including Bill Gates, Omidyar Network, and Khosla Ventures--Bridge is opening a new school every 2.5 days. Bridge refers to its scaling model with the deceptively simple moniker Academy in a Box. In fact, it's an elaborate system combining standardization, technology, best practices, and data. The founders' experiences add up to a master class for entrepreneurs working in the developing world. "Bridge is pioneering not only a business but an entire approach," says Matt Bannick, managing partner at Omidyar Network. "I think they'll have a profound impact that ultimately will enable us to provide much better education to so many people."

    Bridge's roots lie in rural China. In 2005, May, then a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, was conducting fieldwork on a project to create an experimental eco-city. (Kimmelman, who had recently sold his successful startup, Edusoft, kept her company.) While teaching English in a primary school, May was shocked by the conditions and indifferent staff. "No one cared about these kids," she says.

    May and Kimmelman decided to, first, get married and, second, do their bit to change the world. "If you can raise the floor of what a generation of children know," says May, "then you've raised the floor of what that country can do as those children become adults."

    Wary of China's strict regulatory climate, the couple focused on sub-Saharan Africa. They visited schools and interviewed teachers and parents. "There were abysmal learning rates," says May. Like many African nations, Kenya was awash in schools, both public and private. Private schools can be expensive--as much as $20,000 a year--and vary drastically in quality. Public schools are plagued with problems, including no-show teachers who score lower on tests than their students. Many students leave the eighth grade unable to read or count.

    Even when they had just two schools, the founders did everything with an eye toward how they would function with thousands.

    The first Bridge Academy opened in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi in January 2009. The second launched a few months later. Bridge, which costs less than 70 percent of what the local private schools charge, reports higher scores in reading and math than public-school students taking the same tests.

    In the early days, the founders repeatedly bumped up against challenges peculiar to the region, including fending off whisper campaigns that Bridge was a devil-worshiping black-magic society. "You have to bring in pastors who pray and say, 'This school is not cursed,'" says May. Such accusations still bubble up, but "now parents rise up to defend the school. That's a sign of how far we've come."

    Bridge doesn't release revenue figures, but it serves 100,000 students paying an average of $6.50 a month, 11 months a year. Bridge projects it will reach half a million students by 2016, when it expects to become profitable.

    The founders decided to go the for-profit route because they thought it was the best way to fine-tune the schools and scale quickly, says Kimmelman, speaking by phone from Kenya. "When parents think our schools are doing well, they pay fees, tell others to come, and our schools are sustainable," he says, after apologizing for a dropped call caused by a passing herd of zebras. "If a school wasn't performing, they would pull their children away, we'd lose revenue, and have to close the school."

    And, of course, Bridge only succeeds at scale by amortizing costs across many students. Bannick cites a study showing that over 30 years, 201 nonprofits scaled from 0 to $50 million. In that same period, tens of thousands of businesses had done so. "For-profit entities generate the capital to help scale," he says.

    Even when they had just two schools, the founders did everything with an eye toward how they would function with thousands. Bannick says it was Bridge's ability to "innovate, replicate, scale" that persuaded Omidyar Network to become its first major investor, in 2009. Says Bannick, "Every step of the way they have been very thoughtful about, Do we have the systems to make it work with a dozen schools? With a hundred?"

    Scaling fast while hitting the necessary quality and price points in a place with little infrastructure required Bridge to control every aspect of building the schools. "It only works if you have a construction company, a curriculum company, and everything else under one roof," says Kimmelman.

    Launching a school begins with site selection: a combination of demographic research and surveys. Having established demand, Bridge builds the schools: simple structures of sheet metal and wood that are customized for climate. A more formidable challenge is hiring. Every four months, Bridge interviews roughly 10,000 people in order to fill 1,400 slots in new schools. All candidates are tested on a variety of subjects, and the most promising undergo five weeks of intensive training.

    Systems follow teachers into the classrooms. To ensure teachers are present, Bridge created software that runs on refurbished tablets. When teachers arrive at school, they use the tablets to check in via Wi-Fi. If they're late or don't show up, Bridge headquarters is automatically notified. The system also automatically contacts substitutes.

    To create the curriculum, Bridge employs teams of education experts in Kenya, India, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. They write scripts for each lesson, making sure the material meets national requirements and is culturally appropriate. Following the scripts, teachers across the schools theoretically speak the exact same words at the exact same time, a model that has its share of critics. May argues that though the scripts limit the creativity of the teacher, "that does not mean it takes away from creativity for the child."

    The founders hope that as teachers master material from their scripts and undergo training, a larger corps of proficient educators will emerge to serve all Kenya's schools. The needs are similar throughout sub-Saharan Africa. By early 2015, Bridge will have academies in Nigeria and Uganda, with India soon following. The company recently rolled out a lunch program, and Bridge-fabricated school uniforms launch at the end of 2014. "No one else is providing our customers with these services," says May. "When you treat them as a market, you can use volume to drive down the costs. So we can make much higher-quality products--education, food, uniforms--available than they ever had before."

    On quality, Esther Wambui agrees. Her three children used to attend another private school. Now they're enrolled at a Bridge school, which Wambui says is far superior. "Now my children can speak English," she says, high-pitched squeals and giggles audible in the background. "They love their teachers. They get homework.

    "They are doing much, much better," says Wambui. "We are very happy."

  • Storage is the last big barrier preventing mass adoption of solar and wind energy. If Ambri is successful, though, it won't be a problem for long.

    When MIT chemistry professor Don Sadoway received an email from Bill Gates's personal assistant in 2009, asking if he would meet with Gates, Sadoway assumed it was a prank, and ignored it. It wasn't until he got a follow up email, this time from Gates, himself, that he realized this was no joke. As it turned out, the billionaire had been taking some of Sadoway's free chemistry courses online. Gates wanted to talk to him about a novel concept Sadoway was working on to develop a new type of battery that could make renewable energy a practical, affordable mass market option, once and for all.

    The big problem with adopting solar or wind energy at a mass scale is the fact that there's no affordable way to store that energy for the grid when the sun's not shining and the wind's not blowing.

    Sadoway's invention is designed to solve that problem. "We sat in my office for 90 minutes," Sadoway says of his initial meeting with Gates. "He said, 'If you ever decide to spin this thing out as a startup, let me know. I'd like to put some money in.' "

    Sure enough, in 2010, backed by Gates and French energy company Total, Sadoway and then-Ph.D. candidate David Bradwell launched Ambri to develop a liquid metal battery that's both cheaper and longer-lasting than existing alternatives, like lithium-ion batteries. Each battery is made up of two types of liquid metal, one low-density metal that floats on top and one high-density metal that sinks to the bottom, with a layer of salt in between. The benefits are huge: The materials themselves are abundant and inexpensive. And the batteries can withstand years of use without degrading--after 10 years they'll still operate at more than 99.5 percent capacity--which leads to maintenance and replacement cost savings.

    Ambri, which now has 40 employees and is led by CEO Phil Giudice, is also backed by Khosla Ventures. If all goes according to plan, the team will begin distributing its batteries, which come stacked on racks inside a 40-foot shipping container, to three pilot clients by next year. "In 10 years, if this continues going the way it is right now, it could change the world," says Sadoway. "It's the last piece of the puzzle."

  • The Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership is trying to prove that creating jobs is the best way to tackle global poverty.

    Walmart is currently the country's largest employer, with some 2.2 million employees all around the world. If all goes according to plan, the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership is poised to surpass that number within a decade.

    Founded by President Bill Clinton and Lionsgate Entertainment founder Frank Giustra, and backed by billionaire Carlos Slim, CGE is a nonprofit that sets up for-profit businesses in developing countries such as Haiti and Peru. The mission: create good, local jobs--because a job is the most valuable thing you can give someone.

    "If you can create jobs and can give people source of real income, then poverty will take care of itself," says Giustra.

    Giustra appointed Mark Gunton to be CGE's CEO. It was Gunton who was tasked with coming up with a replicable model to create a massive number of jobs. "If you want to address poverty at scale, replication is the most important," Gunton says.

    Now, there are three types of businesses CGE builds. In places where there's a large but fragmented agricultural industry, CGE builds supply chain hubs, which process and package products from local farmers so they can be sold off to large buyers and multiply farmers' income. In other geographically remote locations, CGE builds distribution centers. These facilities employ local women to sell products from companies such as Procter & Gamble and Nestle that want to reach the so-called "bottom-of-the-pyramid." Finally, in places where existing businesses lack a qualified labor pool, CGE builds training facilities to help the local population fill those in-demand jobs. Each time one of CGE's students lands a job at, say, a hotel, CGE earns a fee from that hotel. All three entities are designed to make real money, not only so they can be self-sustaining, but also to enable CGE to build even more businesses around the world.

    After just over a year in operation, CGE has built six enterprises, with another six on the way. It's created nearly 20,000 jobs, trained more than 16,000 people, and has generated more than $13.5 million in income for these workers. Within five years, Gunton says, he hopes to have created 100 enterprises around the world. But perhaps more important, he hopes to influence other charitable organizations, by proving that combining business and charity is a surefire way to scale social impact.

    "We want to change the whole development paradigm," he says. "You're changing a life when you're creating a job."

  • Developing a groundbreaking vaccine isn't the only audacious part of Immunity Project. The startup is also trying to change the way medical breakthroughs get funded.

    In the mid-1980s, Dr. Reid Rubsamen was working as a medical intern in San Francisco at the height of the country's HIV epidemic. "I saw everybody die. 100 percent mortality rate," he remembers. It helps explain why Rubsamen, an anesthesiologist by training, who went on to found several pharmaceutical companies, is now on a mission to wipe out HIV and AIDS with a groundbreaking vaccine. And that's not the only audacious part of his nonprofit venture Immunity Project.

    Rubsamen's approach is straight out of Silicon Valley. Rather than seek the National Institute of Health's approval and grant money, Rubsamen crowdfunded his research. Heck, Rubsamen and his co-founder Naveen Jain even went through Y Combinator's incubator program.

    "How much great work is sitting around undeveloped because it couldn't get early-stage funding?" Rubsamen asks rhetorically. "This crowdfunding thing could be mission critical to allowing small ideas to bubble up the way they do in the tech space."

    Immunity Project's vaccine attempts to train the body's immune system to behave like a so-called controller's, someone who is naturally immune to HIV. Immunity Project's research team studied statistical data on precisely how a controller's T-Cells typically respond to the HIV virus and developed a vaccine to mimic that behavior.

    The seven-person team raised about $463,000 to fund its first round of tests on mice. If all goes well, it will pursue Phase 1 clinical trial tests, which Rubsamen estimates could cost up to $25 million.

    Critics call Immunity's methods flawed and its fundraising strategy misleading, because the vaccine is still unproven. Rubsamen, for his part, is the first to admit it might now work--and that's okay.

    "If our method works, I'll be delighted. If it just provides an important piece of information and leads to further discussion, that's great too," he says. "I'm not afraid to fail. I'm afraid to not try."

  • Oscar promises to be the insurance company you always wanted, but could never find. That is, if it can overcome all the hurdles that keep traditional insurers tangled up in red tape.

    "This is not Tumblr. This is not Spotify. This is not Square. This is a really complicated business," says Josh Kushner of his new startup Oscar. "It's a real business."

    In the world of tech startups, those are fighting words. It's a good thing, then, that the only thing bigger than Kushner's opinion of the nearly one-year old startup is its ambition. Oscar is New York's first new insurance company in 15 years, and it's on a mission to make health insurance truly consumer-friendly.

    Kushner, who has also invested in startups like Instagram and Warby Parker through his venture capital firm Thrive Capital, conceived of Oscar before the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, inspired by his own confusing experiences with his insurance company. The new healthcare law, however, proved to be a very fortunate coincidence.

    Kushner joined forces with serial entrepreneur Mario Schlosser and Microsoft veteran Kevin Nazemi to found Oscar in 2013. The company has since raised $75 million from the likes of Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, and General Catalyst, and has recruited top talent to its 60-employee team, including Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai.

    What makes Oscar unique is its dead-simple design and commitment to transparency. It has reinvented the sign-up process so that potential subscribers can get a quote in seconds. It combines the best parts of WebMD and Google Maps, by allowing subscribers to search for doctors in their area, as well as search for symptoms as simple as "my tummy hurts." Oscar's technology will then serve up possible diagnoses and recommend doctors who treat those symptoms. The most impressive feature, however, is the fact that members can see an estimate for how much a doctor visit will cost before they go to the appointment. The plan comes with other consumer-friendly perks, such as free email access to board-certified doctors 24-7, free generic prescription drugs, and three free physician visits per year. Meanwhile, Oscar feeds valuable patient history information to physicians to help them better treat their patients.

    Already, Oscar has signed up thousands of patients in New York State, but it still faces plenty of obstacles ahead. After all, one reason insurance companies traditionally keep patients tied up with red tape is because healthcare costs are so high. It's better to drown patients in paperwork than foot the bill themselves. Oscar's founders want to break that cycle for good.

    "There's a difference between what insurance companies want, and what's right," says Nazemi. "Our ambition is if we're successful, other companies will copy what we're doing."

  • Factual, the biggest behind-the-scenes startup you've never heard of, has already amassed data on 70 million locations around the world (and counting).

    The goal of Factual is at once hugely ambitious and unexpectedly humble: to be the steward of the world's information. That means amassing data on subjects about which people need data, standardizing it and making it accurate. But unlike consumer-facing data giants like Google, Factual works quietly behind the scenes enabling other companies--even tiny startups--to offer sophisticated services to their users.

    Founder and CEO Gil Elbaz--who as a child poured over stats on everything from sports to economics to weather--would love to aggregate data on everything. As a business model that's a stretch, so for now he's focused on the vast location industry. Factual's database runs to 70 million businesses and points of interest across 50 countries in 29 languages. "You can't find another provider out there that will give you a global database of every place in the world," says Elbaz, whose previous company, Applied Semantics, was acquired by Google and created what is now Google's AdSense.

    The result, he hopes, will be a world that ultimately operates on close-to-perfect information. No more dialing wrong numbers. No more making lunch dates at restaurants that start serving at 5. "There will be so many mistakes that the next generation no longer makes and won't be able to fathom how people once did," says Elbaz.

    Factual compiles its data from millions of online sources: as many as 500 might contribute to the record of a single restaurant. That record might include dozens of attributes ranging from address and phone number to details about prices, cuisine, and the chef. "The data quality is very good because underneath the covers we generally have thousands of data points about each business," says Elbaz. "We clean them up so clients don't have to see all the complexity. You don't need to know every incorrect phone number someone has given for a business."

    Major companies such as Bing, Yelp, and Groupon share data with Factual in exchange for getting it back cleaned. Factual makes no consumer product so those partners aren't threatened by its scope. The company charges for its data on a sliding scale: Even startups with scarce funds can use it. Factual also helps clients create apps that deliver "personal, relevant, contextualized information," says Elbaz. Essentially, Factual takes latitudinal and longitudinal data collected by clients from their consumers' regular usage and marries that with its own deep knowledge of locations to produce predictive capabilities. For example, if Factual can tell that a consumer spends a lot of time at locations it identifies as hiking trails then that makes it easier for the app developer to suggest weekend activities.

    While the location market will keep Factual busy for many years to come, Elbaz imagines other verticals, including information on physicians and products. "At Google I saw this great company that was helping people organize information. But they want the whole game for themselves," he says. "I want to build a company that makes the world's information accessible so that any other software developer, advertiser, publisher, can tap into it to further their own goals."

    Robert Scoble, startup liaison officer at Rackspace and author of the prominent Scobleizer blog, says Factual could potentially have a "deep impact" on the mobile-developer community. "As we head into this age of context, where wearables and sensors are going to be mixed with mobile phone data, you need to know a lot about where you are or start from zero," says Scoble. "Factual lets you build a really robust app with this location data.

    "They're underneath a lot of the apps in the world," says Scoble. "But no humans know who they are."

  • At DEG digital consultancy, if you pitch a big idea, you build it from the ground up. It's not just a nice perk--it's good for the business.

    Plenty of companies reward employees who suggest ideas for new businesses. A little gratitude. Maybe a bonus. Perhaps a role on a new team. At digital consultancy DEG, CEO Neal Sharma goes further: You suggest it, you build it from the ground up.

    DEG's embrace of intrapreneurship began in 2007 when Cara Olson, a web strategist. returned from maternity leave eager to try something different. Back then, DEG was a small Web-development shop: Olson recommended expanding into email marketing. "I told them I wanted to own it, like it's my own business," she recalls. Go for it, Sharma encouraged her.

    Olson put together a business plan and started hunting local clients, then bigger, regional game. "I was wearing every hat--doing sales, servicing the client, doing the invoicing and the admin," says Olson. After 18 months, she brought on an employee, and her staff has nearly doubled every year since. Today, with about $10 million in sales, email marketing comprises close to half of DEG's revenues and feeds clients to other divisions.

    Other employees followed suit. Three of the company's seven business units were erected from the ground up by the employees who suggested them. Staff in some of those units have begun nurturing their own new business ideas as well. Not every new venture has been successful. But a developer conceived and built DEG's social media business, which now serves such clients as Lee Jeans and Hyatt Hotels. That intrapreneur, in turn, hired the employee who pioneered DEG's creative services.

    Each venture starts small, so the financial risk is manageable. The larger cost, says Sharma, is dilution of focus. "When the sales team and the marketing team have to go out and talk about these other things, and the executive team has to think about these other things, then the opportunity costs can be fairly significant," he says.

    Meanwhile, the non-entrepreneurially inclined benefit from DEG's unusual degree of mobility. "We embrace the idea of a corporate lattice, where people have the opportunity to move up, laterally, and sometimes into these new areas," says Sharma. Half of employees who have worked at DEG a year or more hold different positions from when they started. The company bestows new positions on existing employees, so long as those employees demonstrate they can be up to the job in three months' time. Sharma says such opportunities contribute to a retention rate north of 90 percent.

    (Other benefits reinforce that loyalty. Most notably, on their fifth anniversaries, employees receive two plane tickets to any destination in the United States. On their tenth anniversaries, it's to anywhere in the world. "We're looking for people to live lives chockablock with interesting experiences," says Sharma. "Travel, in our view, is one of the best ways to be interesting.")

    Underpinning DEG's culture is a trio of metaphors that Sharma calls his "Three Reasons Why Everyone Should Be an Entrepreneur." First, there is the car. "Never tell me it is riskier to drive a car than to sit in the back seat," says Sharma. "If you are driving, you get to determine how fast to go, how wide to make that turn." Second: the party. "If you invite me to a party from 7 p.m. to midnight and your colleague invites me to a party from 7 p.m. to question mark, I'm going to attend your colleague's event," says Sharma. "Because I'm not limited by anything but my ability to party. You should never be limited by anything but your potential."

    Sharma's final metaphor is the cathedral. "Everyone spends their days laying bricks," he says. "If you are going to do that, then why not build something that embodies your own hopes, dreams, values, and convictions?"

  • At SPARC, employees aren't allowed to have two bad days in a row. Here's how a little homegrown technology helps make sure it doesn't happen.

    "No two bad days in a row" is among the slogans shaping the culture at SPARC, which makes software for industries including green energy and human resources. CEO Eric Bowman knows he can't guarantee his people will never experience a bad patch. But his team's goal is to make employees feel happy and empowered. Homegrown technology helps: SPARC has created systems to enable everything from soliciting input for corporate planning to hiring for cultural fit to kicking off happy hour.

    Lots of companies invite employees to weigh in on minor issues. But at this $21 million Charleston, South Carolina, company, everyone from the dewiest college recruit on up contributes to corporate goal setting. Team members use a homegrown app to set work and life goals for themselves, which they review with their team leaders. They are also asked to suggest goals for the company--and those are rolled up through the organization. Over two to four weeks in winter, CEO Bowman and his leadership team pour over all that feedback and incorporate the dominant themes into the company’s annual plan. Among the goals originating with junior employees: “We become mobile in everything that we do.” “The goal is to get as many people as possible to do the CEO’s job,” says Bowman. “It’s about getting buy-in.”

    SPARC has also created an interview-management app employees use to generate questions for job candidates. The app is meant to support engineers and others without much experience interviewing people, but anyone can use it to make sure they cover all bases. “We hire for culture first, aptitude second, and resume third,” says Bowman. So the app might pop out such culture-related interview questions as “What makes you weird?” and “How do you bring fun to an organization?” (SPARC makes the interview app and some of its other employee-engagement systems available as commercial products.)

    Of course, interviews only tell you so much. Strong candidates also spend anywhere from a day to a week shadowing the people they’ll be working with to ensure a good fit. “We want to see what it will be like to interact with them and them to see what it will be like to interact with us,” says Bowman.

    For all the technology, SPARC’s top corporate value is “People first, first.” Bowman knows his employees could work anywhere, so he is intent on keeping them with kindness. At SPARC, hours are flexible and employees are strongly encouraged to work from home at least one day a month. Unlimited time off kicks in after the first year. Until this year, when costs suddenly skyrocketed, there was no payroll deduction for employees' healthcare insurance. (Now there is a small monthly deduction.)

    “SPARC demonstrates the best of organizational democracy,” says Traci Fenton, founder of WorldBlu, a global network of organizations committed to democracy and freedom in the workplace. “They have found a way to make their people feel seen and valued. They’ve created an organization of leaders and demonstrated a real ethic of care.”

    That ethic of care is evident in--of all things--SPARC’s approach to beer. Employees are welcome to tap the company kegs at 5 p.m. (and sometimes earlier). The care part is the arrangement SPARC made with a local cab company. Employees feeling a little wobbly just present their badges to the drivers, and SPARC will pick up the fare, no questions asked.

    And how do employees know when it’s OK to stop work and start hoisting beers? Well, wouldn’t you know, they have an app for that.

  • Can a fast-food joint pass on the skills and character necessary for the most-demanding professions? That's part of the mission at Pal's Sudden Service.

    On a recent Monday, Thomas Crosby demonstrated for an employee the best way to get French fries to stand up straight in a bag. Crosby is CEO of Pal's Sudden Service, a drive-thru dog-and-burger chain based in Kingsport, Tennessee, with 26 restaurants; and the fry demonstration was part of his mentoring duties. Each day the CEO and every other company leader--general-manager level and above--spends 10 percent of his or her time helping a promising employee develop a skill or aptitude. "Every single day, everybody has to have a name and a subject they plan to work with them on," says Crosby. "We ask 'Who are you working with today?' It's shorthand around here."

    No one eats at a fast-food joint for haute cuisine. And no one works at a fast-food joint to develop the skills and character that will prepare them for the most-demanding professions. The exception is Pal's Sudden Service, whose dedication to training and employee development was among those qualities recognized by the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, placing it in the ranks of Ritz-Carlton, Cadillac, and Federal Express, among others.

    "We realized that we are in the education business, just like any school or university," says Crosby, who has been with Pal's since 1981 and became CEO in 1999. (Fred "Pal" Barger who founded the company in 1956 remains active in the business.) "Schools are usually satisfied with having a valedictorian in each class, a range of people they graduate, and those that don't make the grade," says Crosby. "We want everybody that we hire to be the equivalent of a valedictorian if we are going to beat the competition."

    To earn an interview for an entry-level position at Pal's, candidates must first take a 60-question psychometric test online. Interviewers then dig deep into responses that run counter to the company's quality-obsessed, customer-centric culture. Training includes everything from how to iron the Pal's uniform to how to do statistical process control. Employees are certified for each skill: cooking hamburgers, working the shake machine, serving customers. (Pal's eschews dehumanizing speaker systems in favor of face-to-face interactions.) Every shift, a computer spits out at random the names of two to four employees at each restaurant to be recertified on a skill. "It's our belief that human beings, just like machines, need to be recalibrated," says Crosby. "If they are not 100 percent then their certification goes away and they are no longer eligible to work at that particular station."

    Employees who have scored 100 percent on four re-certifications are eligible to become coaches within their restaurants: helping their colleagues stay on-standard. "We are looking to get people to this mastery level," says Crosby.

    Turnover at the assistant manager level is 1.4 percent: Pal's has lost just seven general managers in 33 years. At the front lines, turnover is 32 percent, roughly a third of the post-recession industry level. "We want the experience here to be that, for your entire life, when you're a doctor or a chemical engineer, you'll look back and say, 'The things I learned at Pal's I still apply today,'" says Crosby,

    Ken Schiller, CEO of K&N Management, which operates two restaurant chains in Texas, has brought team members to Pal's 14 times in nine years to study firsthand its training and other processes. "Everything they do is based around achieving excellence," says Schiller. "It's a very long-term way of thinking. They were the real catalysts for us becoming the company we are today."

    "People ask Thom, 'What if you spend all this money training someone and then they leave?'" says Schilling. "His answer is: 'Suppose we don't, and then they stay?'"

  • The marketing company's viral videos have generated millions of laughs (and dollars) by shocking the bejeezus out of viewers.

    Before 20th Century Fox released the film Devil's Due in January, New York City-based Thinkmodo built a robotic, but realistic, devil baby and left its stroller unattended on the streets of Manhattan. The prank was filmed, along with the reactions of terrified New Yorkers. The results? On YouTube, the video has been seen more than 43 million times--and the critically panned Devil's Due pulled in more than $8 million in its opening weekend. Welcome to marketing by freak-out.

    James Percelay, 53, and Michael Krivicka, 37, founded Thinkmodo in 2011. (Percelay is a former Saturday Night Live producer; Krivicka, a filmmaker.) The original idea? To create crazy but realistic viral productions.

    And they've done just that over and over. There was the automatic, head-shaving helmet video. And the computer nerd who seemingly hacked into the giant screens in Times Square. (That last one was a promo for the film Limitless, a thriller starring Bradly Cooper and Robert De Niro.)

    Of course, there's no equation for creating a successful viral video campaign. They're as risky as they are difficult to pull off: When an attempt at trickery goes wrong, it can leave a lasting bruise on a brand's image. Yet Thinkmodo's daring projects have not only always avoided crisis, they've gotten better over time. Since its launch, the company has produced campaigns for 14 clients, including an underwater nightclub video for luxury watchmaker Technomarine.

    "There are many companies out there with a value proposition that is implicit or explicit: We will make a viral video for you product or service or company. And that is an almost impossible promise to make," Altimeter Group Analyst Rebecca Lieb says. That's why she is so impressed with Thinkmodo's repeated success. "It's unusual. It's laudable. And it's a very, very strong testament to their creative abilities," she says.

    With each production, the team temporarily grows. "We expand up to 50 people based upon the project, and then we contract to our lean mean size. Everything we do requires a whole different army," Percelay said.

    So are Percelay and Krivicka sweating about whether or not they can keep it up? Maybe. But lucky for them they work well under pressure. "We know what we can do," Percelay said. Thinkmodo will probably pull in somewhere between $4 million to $5 million in revenue this year. "The results," says Percelay, are "our selling card."

  • What would happen if charities cut out the middle man and asked people to send cash directly to the poor? GiveDirectly is in the process of finding out.

    The old saying goes: If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime.

    GiveDirectly, a New York City-based charity, openly challenges that idea.

    Founded in 2008 by Paul Niehaus, Michael Faye, and Rohit Wanchoo, GiveDirectly enables donors to transfer money directly to the phones of people living in poverty in Kenya and Uganda. In allowing these direct cash transfers, Niehaus and his co-founders are on a mission to debunk a flawed assumption that dominates the charitable world, which is that poor people need to be told what to do with their money in order to spend it wisely.

    "We're spending all this money on aid and development," Niehaus, now an assistant professor of economics at University of California, San Diego, says. "Are we sure we can't do more good by giving that money away? Asking that question is important."

    But when he first asked that question of charities back in 2008, they were reluctant to admit he might be onto something. "People said if this works, why do we have jobs?" Niehaus remembers. "We realized we were going to have to do this outside the confines of any organization."

    Since it officially launched in 2011, GiveDirectly has raised $22 million and has become a darling of the Silicon Valley set, earning donations from the likes of Google, Good Ventures, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. So far, GiveDirectly has distributed that money in large lump sums over the course of a year to 50,000 people and counting. (The nonprofit targets areas of extreme poverty but high mobile-phone use.) Recipients have used the money to buy everything from livestock and land to new roofing.

    Knowing that GiveDirectly would have its dectractors, Niehaus also partnered with Yale's Innovations for Poverty Action to conduct a full impact study of GiveDirectly's work. The study compared people who had received the money with people who had not. Months later, recipients had increased their assets by 58 percent, had decreased the number of days their children went without food by 42 percent, and had lower cortisol counts, a biomarker of stress.

    Meanwhile, members of the academic community are more than happy to support GiveDirectly's claims about cash transfers. "There is no good evidence to suggest that the poor do not spend the money prudently, and a significant amount of evidence to suggest that they do," says Johannes Haushofer, a researcher at MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. "The premise of unconditional transfers is that we might have less of an idea of what helps the poor than the poor themselves, and until this is disproven, I find it a useful starting point."

    Niehaus hopes GiveDirectly can not only improve people's lives, but also improve the way charity works across the board. "It's very much about thought leadership," Niehaus, who doesn't take a salary from GiveDirectly, says. "Our track record of giving people fishing lessons isn't so great. Should we keep spending our money teaching people to fish, or should we give them money and let them buy a fishing pole?"

  • First, Goldieblox fought the Beastie Boys. Then it snagged a Super Bowl spot. Viral marketing? This two-year-old toy company is all over it.

    GoldieBlox went from a Kickstarter campaign to a Super Bowl ad in less than two years. That doesn't happen without hitting a serious cultural nerve.

    The company, founded in mid-2012 to create building and engineering toys for young girls, won Intuit's Small Business, Big Game competition. After making it to the final four, Americans voted GoldieBlox worthy of airing a commercial on TV's grandest stage.

    The result? A loud, energetic, catchy anthem of an advertisement in which girls rise up, ditching their dollhouses and rocking horses by--fittingly--sending them on a rocket to the moon.

    GoldieBlox founder and CEO Debbie Sterling is certain that things are just getting started for the toy company. "We're now on our way to becoming a household name," she says. "There's credibility in the notion of making a history-in-the-making product."

    Indeed, GoldieBlox launched its mission to smash the stereotypes of girls' toys at just the right time. The discrepancy between male and female engineers--87 percent to 13 percent worldwide, according to the National Science Foundation--has become a hot button issue. Companies that target these sorts of issues in the social media age have the ability to catch fire, says Los Angeles-based branding expert Matti Lesham.

    The Super Bowl competition wasn't the first time GoldieBlox found success on social media. The company initially created buzz on Kickstarter, when it nearly doubled its $150,000 funding goal. (Fellow audacious company Upworthy gave an assist that helped the campaign go viral.)

    And the company made headlines last year when it found itself in a legal battle with the Beastie Boys, over its use of the song "Girls" in a video advertisement. The two sides reached a settlement in March; the outcome wasn't necessarily a bad one for GoldieBlox. The company will donate a percentage of revenues to charities that support STEM education for girls. (The band will choose the charities.) But GoldieBlox walked away from the deal with a little more street cred among its fans.

    All the exposure seems to be working. At New York City's Toy Fair--the toy industry's biggest trade show--GoldieBlox won awards for "People's Choice" and "Educational Toy of the Year." The winning toy helps girls build their own belt-drive machine. Take that, Barbie.

  • To end landfilled waste, PK Clean is converting 20,000 pounds of plastic into 2,500 gallons of fuel--every day.

    You may feel good when you put your empty soda bottle in the recycling bin, but traditional recycling is a highly inefficient process. Because there isn't much of an infrastructure for recycling plastics other than PET--the plastic found in soda bottles--plastic is a hard thing to get rid of. In 2012, there were 32 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Only 9 percent of that waste was recovered for recycling.

    PK Clean thinks it has the answer. The four-year-old startup based in Salt Lake City wants to end landfilled waste by recycling it back into oil, says CEO Priyanka Bakaya. The company's process, known as catalytic depolymerization, converts plastic waste into fuel. This has been tried before with limited success--the process can be expensive and unreliable--but Bakaya is confident her design is a breakthrough and "quantum leap over anything previously attempted in the space," she says. It also "allows us to substantially bring down costs to ensure commercial viability."

    In 2010, she set up a pilot plant in Pune, India, in which she ironed out the kinks in the process. Bakaya then met Arjun Gupta, who was pursuing a master's degree in engineering at MIT, and the two decided to found PK Clean and build a U.S. plant.

    Last summer, using savings and money from contests, including $20,000 from the Cartier Women's Initiative, they built their first commercial-scale plant in Salt Lake City. When operating at capacity, the plant turns 20,000 pounds of waste into 2,500 gallons of fuel that can be sold to refineries. Their goal is to sell plants to other recyclers, with the potential to work directly with industrial companies producing mass waste. "We realize we first have to get started in the U.S., but the long-term vision is a huge market overseas in developing countries," says Bakaya. That's a lot of soda bottles.

  • Assaf Wand tapped some of the nation's top designers to redefine products for seniors. It was long overdue.

    Assaf Wand has been a trader, a venture capitalist, a McKinsey consultant, and the founder of two telecommunications companies. But if Wand's resume screams Silicon Valley, his most recent startup is decidedly more Boca Raton. With Sabi, which is located in Palo Alto, California, Wand is targeting the over-65 crowd by bringing great design to everyday products such as canes and pillboxes.

    There are few product categories that have gotten less love than canes and pillboxes. The way they're marketed to the elderly is seriously flawed, too. "It's all about being sick and old, and what will happen the day after you die," Wand says. So he launched Sabi to change the conversation.

    To fulfill his mission, Wand pitched his idea to some of the top designers in the country. "It appealed to them on a portfolio level," Wand remembers. "If they're doing a TV for Samsung or a charging station for GE, why not make something for grandma, too?"

    Yves Behar of fuseproject, who has designed for Herman Miller, Jawbone, and Prada, accepted the project immediately, working with Sabi to design its first line of pillboxes.

    "If you look at the manufacturers of those products, they've never been focused on their customers really," says Behar. "They've been focused on the lowest common denominator."

    Now, Wand is working on a walker that won't require people to put tennis balls on the bottom of the legs, as well as a line of products for the bathroom. Wand says, "Going to an unsexy market and making it sexy, that's what makes a company interesting to me."

  • Imagine never having to worry about a wi-fi signal ever again. Steve Perlman, founder of Artemis Networks, has a plan to make that dream a reality.

    When Steve Perlman first began developing the pWave in 2002, YouTube didn't exist, the iPhone was still a few years away, and there was no such thing as Netflix streaming. And yet Perlman predicted that within a decade, personal data usage would lead to a massive wireless capacity issue. He was right.

    Right now, wireless networks cover every mobile device in a given radius. In the age of Skype, FaceTime, and viral cat videos, these networks are tremendously strained. And because they have to be organized in a specific pattern, to avoid interference, adding more antennas only exacerbates the problem.

    The pWave, an invention of Perlman's San Francisco-based startup Artemis Networks, changes all that. Using complex mathematical algorithms, this novel antenna transmits a unique signal to every phone, giving everyone a personal network. Instead of interfering, the waves transmitted from the pWave actually work together, meaning there's no limit to the number of antennas that can be installed in a city. And because pWave doesn't require costly LTE technology, it could potentially lead to a new generation of cheap smartphones.

    "It turned out to be a way bigger breakthrough than we ever thought it would be," says Perlman, who plans to license the technology both to carriers and to entrepreneurs.

    Of course, like most inventors of breakthrough technologies, Perlman was met mostly with doubt when he pitched the idea to his colleagues in the industry. "I was at times quite skeptical, but he always came up with the right anwers," says Pieter van Rooyen, a fellow telecom entrepreneur, who sold his wireless technology company to Broadcom for $100 million. What turned van Rooyen into a believer, her says, was the fact that Perlman developed the technology to be compatible with current LTE technology. "That's the key here," he says.

    Perhaps the most impressive part of Perlman's decade long quest? He financed it himself. "In the early days, investors laughed at us," he says, adding that now he's being bombarded with investor interest. "We just say thanks, but at this point, we're no longer interested."

  • Look out Crest and Colgate--Hello Products is shaking up the toothpaste aisle with innovative design and a friendlier approach to dental care.

    If there's one design concept that rules the toothpaste aisle, it's homogeneity. Drug stores across America are filled with row after row of those red and blue rectangular boxes, and the marketing isn't any more diverse. If one brand claims to "kill" gingivitis, the other "fights" it. All of it drove Craig Dubitsky crazy.

    As one of Method Home's original investors, and co-founder of the colorful and highly stylized lip balm brand, eos, Dubitsky has staked his career on bringing great design to forgotten categories. So just last year, he launched Hello Products to bring friendlier, more beautiful branding to the sleepy $30 billion dental care market.

    With ample contacts in the industry, he partnered with BMW's DesignworksUSA to create the packaging.

    "We loved that David and Goliath story, where Craig was taking on these major incumbents and was going to disrupt them," says Peter Falt, director of creative consulting at DesignWorks. "Craig understands that if you're going to get in there with the big boys you really need design to compete. It's really a business weapon."

    Dubitsky also built 20 custom tools to manufacture the bottles, flew in toothpaste caps from Italy (they were the only ones with a butterfly hinge discreet enough for Dubitsky's taste), and once adjusted the buttons on Hello's breath spray by one 20,000th of an inch, just to guarantee that satisfying click. "These are the things that keep me up at night," Dubitsky says.

    "He's just manic enough," says Falt, laughing. "It's his tenacity and his follow through on the vision that makes all this happen."

    Today, Hello's products, which range from Mojito Mint toothpaste to Pink Grapefruit Mint mouthwash, are being sold in 200,000 stores and counting, yet still, Dubitsky isn't totally satisfied with the finished product. "I'm never happy. It always needs to be better," he says. "That's what you call a virtuous cycle of paranoia."

  • What if flying a plane was as easy as taking a sports car out for a spin? The founders of Icon Aircraft want to make flight accessible for the rest of us.

    To understand the crucial difference between the Icon A5 and a commercial airplane, look no further than the cockpit. In your average 747, it's is a psychedelic patchwork of switches, lights, and gauges. The A5's cockpit is as sleek is as a sports car. In fact, it looks a little too easy. That's the point. "It's designed to be ingeniously simple," says Kirk Hawkins, a former Air Force pilot and CEO of Icon Aircraft. "And trust me, that takes genius, and it ain't simple."

    Hawkins and his co-founder, designer Steen Strand, founded Icon in 2006, after the FAA created a new category of airplanes called "light sport aircraft," designed for recreational aviation. Now, everything about the A5, from its retractable wings to its ability to land on water, is designed with recreational pilots in mind. In fact, Hawkins insists the A5 is even safer than commercial planes, because they rely on the pilot being highly trained. At Icon, Hawkins says, "The obligation is on us to make the machine work for you."

    Getting Los Angeles-based Icon off the ground--pun intended--was no easy feat. "This isn't the kind of thing you can bootstrap with $100,000 and a couple friends," says Hawkins. "It takes $50 to $100 million before you can even test the market."

    Fundraising in a market that's accustomed to quick returns and software startups has been the biggest obstacle standing in Icon's way, and though the company closed a $60 million round--its largest to date--last summer, Hawkins says not having enough access to capital is still his biggest fear. "You just think, of all the reasons we could fail, running out of fuel is not the one you want to have," he says. "It'd be like a patient dying from heart surgery because of lack of oxygen."

    Of course, Hawkins will also have to overcome the challenge of creating a market of recreational pilots that doesn't yet exist. "Icon is looking to 'invent' a powersports category for aviation that reaches beyond the existing pilot base to introduce entirely new people to the opportunity to become a pilot," says Charlie Becker, communities director at the Experimental Aircraft Association. "If they can develop the right value proposition, they could tap into man's historical desire to fly."

    After eight years of planning and fundraising, this year, the $189,000 A5 will finally go into production, with 1,000 pre-orders already lined up. It's a big step, says Hawkins, but only the beginning of a much longer mission to democratize flight. "We're a long way from the The Jetsons," he says, "but I feel confident in saying in the future, we will move in three dimensions."

  • As Eventbrite faced missing its projections for the first time, co-founder Julia Hartz realized something key: A happy company is not always a high-performing company.

    For co-founder Julia Hartz, the pivotal moment for Eventbrite came in 2011 in the form of a dream. She dreamed that an investor came up to her and announced: "Congratulations. You've created the happiest, most mediocre company in the world."

    At the time, the company, which lets anyone sell tickets to an event big or small, routinely appeared on "best places to work" lists. The perks--nap rooms, catered meals, arcade games--were plentiful. And the company was in the process of doubling in size--from 100 to 200 people--largely with the help of employee referrals. In the competitive talent market of San Francisco, where Eventbrite is headquartered, the startup was more than holding its own. Yet, the company was set to miss its projections for the first time in its history.

    The dream led Hartz to an important realization: Many high-performing companies have terrible workplace cultures. Eventbrite had the opposite problem. The culture was fantastic. The performance? Pretty lackluster. The challenge was to refocus the team without ruining what made Eventbrite special. Hartz decided to start from a new premise: When employees excel, and the company succeeds as a result, that will drive more satisfaction than any perk can.

    "People think of performance as driving counter to culture," she says. "But they're intrinsically linked."

    Hartz and her senior team, which includes her husband and co-founder, Kevin, started setting goals and clearer expectations. They refocused developers on core ticketing products and the service team on creating a better customer experience.

    In the process, the business got stronger. People who weren't on board with the plan left. In 2012, the company released seven times more new features than it did the year before. The engineering team grew by 30 percent. By the end of 2013, Eventbrite surpassed $2 billion in gross ticket sales, and in March, it picked up another $60 million in funding. And happiness didn't suffer as a result: In 2013, the attrition rate was 5 percent; the average in Silicon Valley is upwards of 14 percent.

    "Setting a philosophy and being explicit about it is scary," Hartz says. "You can easily have fears about becoming stagnant or irrelevant. But it's important to provide a North Star--to provide an anchor."

  • Skybox Imaging doesn't want to just change the way you do business. Its tiny satellites will radically change how you see the world.

    Skybox Imaging CEO Ching-Yu Hu has a bold goal for her company: "To index the earth the way Google indexes the Internet." Doing so requires rocket power. Skybox has that covered: The company launched its first minibar-sized satellite, SkySat-1, into orbit last November aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket. By the end of 2015, the company plans to launch eight more. To keep that pace, Skybox has even bought its own rocket.

    Hu and two friends started Skybox while grad students at Stanford in 2009. The company has raised more than $91 million in funding and now has 120 employees. Her team is building a platform that can process, store, and deliver massive amounts of high-resolution images. Ultimately, clients will be able to see updated images of any spot on earth five to seven times per day. The company envisions big public companies as its primary market. Agriculture companies, for example, could use the images to monitor their fields to help determine when to change irrigation practices. Skybox's satellites are also being put to humanitarian use. Recently, they helped out in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

    For Hu, the satellites are the least sexy part about Skybox. "In our mind, we really see ourselves as an information company," she says. "In the future, our customers won't know or care about the satellites. They'll just care about the images that make huge decisions."

  • This quirky Oregon-based doughnut shop has legions of fans across the country and spends next to nothing on advertising. Here's how it works.

    Portland, Oregon's Voodoo Doughnut is one crazy retailer. It makes doughnuts with names such as Maple Blazer Blunt and Voodoo Doll (see below). Its co-founder has presided--as a minister--over weddings in the shop. It produces doughnut music. It would be comfortable in an episode of the TV show Portlandia. "We couldn't have opened this place in Memphis," says co-founder Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson, himself a Memphis native.

    For all the nuttiness, there are actually sound business principles at work here. The endgame is all about achieving that Holy Grail of marketing, word of mouth, and spending practically nothing on advertising. When Voodoo opened its first store in 2003, it didn't advertise on purpose. Even today, with lines regularly snaking out of its two other Oregon locations and one in Colorado, its advertising and marketing budgets are minimal.

    That's where the weddings and record label come in. Pogson, a former wrestling-ring announcer, conducts the nuptials--about 40 per year--in outfits such as a gorilla suit or a preacher costume. Afterward, the happy couple digs into doughnuts and coffee. The practice has earned Voodoo plenty of publicity. (The story line: It's not just a wacky coffee shop; it's the wacky coffee shop that performs wacky weddings.) Maybe that also explains Pogson and co-owner Tres Shannon's foray into the music business. They solicit and publish singles from independent bands and artists across the country. The catch? The song has to be about doughnuts. (Go to for a download.)

    Have Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen recorded a doughnut song yet?

  • Lots of websites can do viral content. Upworthy's redefining the category by getting millions of readers to share stories about topics that really matter.

    There's a reason it's called clickbait. Try as you might, some headlines are hard to resist. (Just ask BuzzFeed readers.) Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley started Upworthy in 2012 to take clickbait and use it to get people talking about topics that really matter.

    An unlikely pair, Pariser was formerly executive editor of the political-action website, and Koechley was formerly managing editor of The Onion. That blend of advocacy and humor can be seen in Upworthy headlines such as "One Simple Itty Bitty Teeny Thing We Can Do to Change the World."

    The company's 40 employees in 17 cities troll the Web daily for all things Upworthy: moving quotes, startling statistics, brazen ads, and viral videos. "We saw this big shift happen in how people consume media online," says Pariser, who's based in New York City. "A lot of what they see comes through Facebook and Twitter. We were concerned about whether the stuff that really matters was going to fare well."

    Upworthy's keen sense of storytelling and attention-grabbing headlines have not gone unnoticed by media industry insiders. Ken Doctor, a media analyst with Newsonomics, refers to Upworthy's style as "not a new skill but a tabloid skill." He adds, "What they're doing parallels what's going on with content marketing, which is a huge trend right now."

    The site does do its own blend of content marketing, connecting readers to causes for a referral fee. Upworthy also recently partnered with ProPublica, Human Rights Watch, and Climate Nexus to deepen its coverage. Eventually Doctor sees the site parlaying its marketing mastery into commercial storytelling, although Pariser and Koechley demur at the suggestion.

    For now, they say they're stressing quality over quantity, tracking "attention minutes," or time spent on the site, to measure impact. "We want to be in the places and in the formats where people are," says Pariser. "If Apple TV takes off, we'll need to figure out the right way to work in that ecosystem."

    The site has more than 7 million subscribers on Facebook, email, and Twitter, and reaches more than 50 million people a month. Can't you feel the world getting better?

  • A self-diagnosis can help you determine when it's time to walk away from your company.

    I have found that success in business is, in many ways, an internal game. Everything you do is a result of how you think. In one of my favorite books, "Think and Grow Rich," I learned one of the most important lessons of my entrepreneurial career and life: you become what you think about. If you do not think strategically, you’re going in the wrong direction. If that starts to happen in the course of running a business, it may be time to step aside. So how does a business owner recognize the signs that they may need to pass the reins of their business to someone else?

    Below are 4 ways you can self-diagnose and determine whether or not you should quit.

    1. You’re struggling to get out of bed each morning.

    This is, in many ways, the easiest indicator. It's definitely time to turn over the reins or get out of a business when you find yourself not wanting to go to work every day. A surefire indication of trouble is when you have very little desire to work weekends. Unfortunately, this feeling sort of creeps up on you, kind of like gaining weight. It's difficult for most of us to get our arms around it, because it's a gradual disenchantment. In fact, some people unfortunately stay in business too long, and the resulting bad attitude tends to cascade through the whole company. At that point, it becomes too late to step aside. You've already polluted the surrounding crops. This leads me to the next indicator.

    2. You’re lashing out at employees and discouraging them.

    Do the minor irritations or mistakes that employees make bother you more now than they did when you first started at the company? When you find yourself getting more and more irritated with the people you’re working with, that may be a sign that your turn is over.

    Now, in order to have a clear conscience, I must distinguish between two very separate ideas: The first is managing people and pushing people hard in order to get more out of them; the second is general irritation and negativity that tends to pervade everything you do. Those distinctions can be very subtle. Some of the best entrepreneurs are very hard people; they're hard on themselves and their colleagues. That does not mean that they should turn over the reins; in fact, that kind of drive and willingness to push is vital to the success and growth of most businesses.

    But if you find yourself getting fatigued and irritable, and directing this negativity toward employees, then you really need to think about whether you need to be in the company; the last thing that you want to be is a liability for morale. I have a friend who, before he sold a big part of his company, referred to himself as the black cloud, going from meeting to meeting spreading low-grade misery wherever he went. He knew it was time to get out. If you're becoming the Grim Reaper of your office, it may be time for you to get out as well.

    3. People who you trust notice a change.

    You need people around you who can give you honest feedback on how your behavior impacts other people. I recommend that every company (even small ones) have an independent board of directors, so that you have people outside of yourself, people who you sincerely trust, giving feedback on all elements of your business. This independent board should also include people who know you well enough that they’ll provide frank and honest feedback about you personally. Ask the individuals in this group whom about their perception of your behavior and impact on the office, with a particular focus on your behavior toward employees. They might be seeing something that you cannot perceive.

    4. You’re outwardly expressing frustration with customers.

    Your attitude, even internally, towards customers is another terrific point of reference. I've already evangelized at length about the significance of serving customers. They're the single most important element of running a business. They keep the lights on. Every decent entrepreneur knows that customers are the most (if not the only) important point of value. If you're beginning to show irritability toward customers, whether that means complaining internally to people at your company or engaging directly with customers with any kind of negativity, that’s a solid indication that it may be time to pass over control of the business.

    There may be other obvious business and strategic reasons why you’d want to step aside, outside of these psychological reasons. But I really believe that it’s your attitude toward customers and employees that would be the largest drivers in determining when you should sell or step aside to allow another person to run the company.

    As is true with personal health, an early diagnosis tends to avoid a much more serious problem (if not fatal problem) later on. You really have to be thoughtful in anticipating this irritability/disenchantment. You must be very honest with yourself about your general feeling about customers and employees. For most of us, there’s an inner voice that lets you know what you really think. Hopefully, you have remained invested enough in the initial vision and mission of the company that you’ll be able to recognize the benefits of passing the reins to someone.

    As painful as it may be initially, if that voice tells you that it's time to turn over control, you ought to listen. It will be the best thing for the company and ultimately, for your own happiness.

  • If you still need to be convinced to exercise, read this.

    People often assume that SEAL training requires vast amounts of physical stamina and mental strength. They would be correct. Members of the most elite special operations forces are developed like professional athletes. From day one of BUD/s (Navy SEAL training program) you have to dig deep just to make it to the end of the day. Then you have to wake up early and do it all over again. As the saying goes, "The only easy day, was yesterday."

    The stress of knowing the pain you will endure can be overwhelming. Whether it's surf torture or running for miles on the beach carrying heavy logs, your mind and body are growing in strength without you even realizing it. But there is a scientific method to the madness, if you will. No battle was ever won by a team asking for a time-out so they can catch their breath.

    The same can be said for busy professionals. Beyond the battlefield, being physically fit and prioritizing healthy living can have a direct link to one's ability to perform well in the work place. NASA conducted a study showing that people who make exercise a habit are consistently more productive after seven hours of work than those that don't. Why? Because you'll have the following:

    • Better Executive Function. This skill set allows you to appropriately respond to the situation at hand, inhibit inappropriate behavior, and focus on the job in spite of distractions.
    • More Energy. When people are tired the last thing they generally want to do is exercise. But taking a nap won't get the job done. Exercising will boost energy and reduce fatigue in both the short and long term. With more energy you can accomplish more tasks. In a study posted in the Psychological Bulletin, 90 percent of the usually sedentary participants experienced increased energy when implementing a regular exercise program into their daily lives.
    • Less Stress. Fitness should be part of everyone's stress management program. Physical activity helps to bump up the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. It also improves mood and helps you sleep better. All of this helps your body control stress. When stress is reduced you make better decisions. Good decisions set you up for success.
    • A Clear Mind. This is one of the reasons I try to exercise during the workday. Instead of going to lunch, go for a run. This is an excellent way to break up the day and be ready to tackle whatever the afternoon will throw at you. Even if it's just twenty minutes of exercise, make it happen. When thinking clearly, you will be a more productive contributor to your team.
    • Confidence. Being physically fit gives a person more confidence. Training teaches you to live outside of your comfort zone for extended periods of time. That confidence bleeds into your performance at work, in meetings, speaking to a crowd, or whatever opportunities work provides. Confident people command respect, and that can go a long way for someone rising up the ranks.

    Nobody has ever regretted making exercise a part of their regular routine. You might think you can't afford to take time to exercise, but can you afford not to?

  • The most important time you spend is the time you spend alone.

    When did you last spend time alone?

    The CEO of a Fortune 100 company shared with me a remarkable experience he had. We were both in Florida for his senior leadership conference, but he arrived a few days earlier for a board meeting. With a day between the end of the meeting and the start of the conference, he found himself suddenly, unexpectedly free. It was, he told me, the first day in nine years that he'd spent alone.

    What was it like?

    Confusing. Exhilarating. Strange.

    The Importance of Solitude

    As business leaders, we find ourselves besieged by peers, colleagues, employees, board members, assistants, family members. Nobody gets enough of our time--and that includes ourselves. Instead, life becomes an unending tennis match, in which we're constantly responding to whatever comes over the net: successes, mistakes, challenges, doubts, needs. The most essential quality of an entrepreneur isn't boldness or creativity. It's stamina.

    People may feed and inspire you, but they also deplete you. And you need time to digest all the information that an interaction contains. If you think this isn't important, bear in mind that long term studies show that working eleven or more hours a day at least doubles the risk of depression. Working more than 55 hours a week induces cognitive loss, so that problem-solving and reasoning become weak. By contrast, creative and critical thinking are enriched by mind-wandering, by rest and by sleep: things you do best on your own.

    Time alone is recovery time. Here are three ways to find it--and protect it--even when it seems like everyone needs you.

  • Follow this CEO's example and book a buffer day into your schedule. This is time when you're out of the office and away from home. You might use the time to think, sleep, watch movies or catch up on work. But see no one. You'll be amazed how restorative it can be.
  • Use long haul travel as time off. If you're traveling with colleagues, don't sit together. (They might appreciate this too!) Do a few hours' work and then stop. Stare out the window. Daydream. Let your mind wander--but keep notes, because you're bound to get inspired.
  • Get home before your family does. Being home alone is a rare and delicious privilege and will recharge you for both your professional and personal life.
  • Would my CEO repeat the experience of a day alone? He was ambivalent. He found it immensely refreshing, he said, but uncomfortable. I'd say he needs to do it more often.

  • It's a jungle out there. The good news is that you can not only survive in it but thrive in it, if you follow a few basic leadership rules.

    Survey after survey identifies "uncertainty" as one of the biggest challenges facing business owners today. In the business world change is not only constant but massive and completely unpredictable. Labeling it the "new normal" doesn’t make it any easier to live with. However, you can keep up with and maybe even get ahead of continuous upheaval-;and help your people do the same-;by mastering these seven essential skills.

    1. Be alert, to everything

    Any business, no matter how successful, can become extinct (or at least weakened) very quickly by a rapid shift in customer preferences, the competitive landscape, or myriad other factors. Everyone from leaders to front-line employees must become highly attuned to the threats and opportunities your company encounters. Don't tolerate (let alone foster) a corporate culture that accepts complacency, hubris, or an internally focused, politically charged atmosphere.

    2. Understand what strong leadership really is

    The same characteristics that make people powerful leaders often pull them too far from the best long-term interests of their enterprise. Regardless, we do need strong leaders to get the best out of organizations and the people who work for them. This feature of human nature is not one that should be judged. Rather, it should be accepted, talked about openly, and managed. Be strong, in the right way, and demand the same of your top executives.

    3. Get everyone to lean in

    According to The Gallup Organization, about 70 percent of U.S. workers are not engaged or inspired at work. They ask a question in the form of an attitude: WIIFM, or “What’s In It For Me?” That is a very important question for each stakeholder in your enterprise. To invest anything-;capital, effort, time-;we must feel that there ultimately will be some benefit to us. Research confirms that obtaining the extra incremental effort from each individual can make the difference between marginal performance and extraordinary effort.

    4. Learn to balance the disparate needs of many players

    Today's competitive and ever-changing business environment requires complex interrelationships across businesses, as well as a keen focus on customer preferences. Leaders with a long-term view must adroitly balance the wants and needs of many external parties in ways that are mutually beneficial to all.

    5. Build the brand--from within

    A brand can bring people together internally and represent an enterprise to the world quickly and viscerally, contributing to the success of the enterprise. But to do that, employees, customers, and partners must consistently experience organizational behavior that complements the brand image and reinforces its authenticity.

    6. Be forever flexible

    Decision-making structures have changed over time, and then changed again. We centralize for a while and then realize that decision-making is too removed from the front lines. So we decentralize and then realize that we've lost efficiencies and focus. The best leaders recognize that their organizations cannot centralize or decentralize. Instead, they need to be flexible and adjust the balance over time.

    7. Embrace the power of evolution

    Today's most successful companies remain true to their core competencies while evolving their capabilities in response to their environment. Done right, these always-emerging capabilities will make a business more interesting, more profitable, and more continually relevant. By constantly evolving and innovating you won't merely survive, you'll thrive.

    Like this post? If so, sign up here and always stay up to date with Peter’s latest thoughts and goings-on.

  • A roundup of the day's news--curated by the Inc. editorial team--to help you and your business succeed.

    1. Pitching Formula

    Do you really know how to pitch investors successfully? Hunter Walk, the co-founder of venture capital firm Homebrew, says you need to walk investors through three phases of commitment: Convince them your startup is in a solid market, that now is the opportune time for disruption, and your founders are the right team for the job. Easy, right?

    2. Twitter's Profile Makeovers

    The new Twitter profiles have arrived--and boy, do they look like Pinterest. Will the new look attract users? It's hard to tell now, but one thing's for sure: You'll love the ability to pin a tweet to your profile page.--Mashable

    3. Wage Debate

    The debate over whether to increase the minimum wage is unlikely to abate anytime soon. But the flip side--imposing a maximum wage--is far less discussed. Most CEOs probably won't like the idea, but there is some evidence to suggest that capping top salaries at a set multiple of the minimum hourly rate could go a long way to rectifying the country's growing income inequality.--The Week

    4. Speaking of Salaries...

    How much more money do you make than your employees? Bet it isn't close to this: According to a new report, the CEOs of the country's top fast food chains make 1,200 times more money than their front-line workers.--Mashable

    5. Late Risers

    The city that never sleeps affords its workers the most time to sleep in, as New York's median work arrival time is 8:24 am--about half an hour later than the U.S. median. You can see where your city ranks by looking at this recent analysis of Census data by data journalist Nate Silver.--Five thirty eight

  • In race for relevance, universities up the entrepreneurial ante.

    Universities have always been top-notch incubators of talent. Now they’re taking the lead in incubating entrepreneurial talent.

    I’ve written about the tidal wave of university entrepreneurship at length--and full disclosure, I’m on the faculty at Columbia University, so I may be a bit biased. But with the confluence of interdisciplinary potential and ample mentorship opportunities available in the university system, on campus is one of the better launch pads for startups.

    Here are seven factors I see further changing the landscape of university entrepreneurship and education:

    1. Entrepreneur-specific programs spread: A multitude of schools are developing campus-wide entrepreneurship programs that provide space, mentorship and education to their entrepreneurial community. Columbia Entrepreneurship, Harvard’s iLab and Stanford’s dSchool are just a few examples. Soon schools without such programs will be in the minority.

    2. The “lean startup movement” takes root: The “lean” startup philosophy proselytized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries has caught fire among student entrepreneurs. Similarly, those of us who teach entrepreneurship have for the most part adopted it wholeheartedly. It’s principles are simple: Find out what your customers really want before building a product by speaking to them and “getting out of the building” first! This is great advice for entrepreneurs of any stripe and age.

    3. Government grants get focused: Even some government SBIR programs, which traditionally have funded university research, have jumped on the bandwagon of a more “scientific” and lean approach to entrepreneurship. To qualify for a National Science Foundation grant, for instance, faculty now need to participate in a program called iCorps, which is a bootcamp based on lean startup principles. This way the government can make sure that their grants aren't wasted on building products with no customers. In other words, the government will only fund companies that have a real shot at growing instead of science projects posing as startups.

    4. Investors come to campus: Venture Capital firms have now designed miniature funds that sit alongside their main investment vehicles specifically geared towards attracting student talent that they can cultivate and support. Examples of this are the Xperiment Fund up at Harvard, the Dorm Room Fund (which is on multiple campuses and is operated by hand-picked students), as well as many others that have established deep ties with college campuses.

    5. Festivals and Hackathons take over: Universities and student entrepreneurship clubs are now more than ever hosting hackathons, administrating design labs and putting on entrepreneurship festivals and venture competitions. They’re all further means of helping stimulate the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus.

    6. Administrations buy in: In many instances the entrepreneurial energy of the student body has caught university administrations flat-footed. The whole concept of an educational institution taking on a new role as a launchpad of entrepreneurial ventures is culturally alien to so many established universities. It is fascinating to observe institutions being slowly transformed (by necessity) to confront this new reality. But change they must, and change they are.

    7. Silo-busting becomes commonplace: Entrepreneurship is, by its very nature, a silo-buster. Problem-solving often requires multi-disciplinary teams to be effective and the natural silos that develop on college campuses do not encourage such cross-pollination. Entrepreneurship is changing all that and the administrators of the typical engineering, business, law, journalism and medical schools are realizing that there is a real necessity to facilitate cross-listing of courses and activities for their rapidly evolving entrepreneurship curriculums.

  • Giving your employees and open look into your compensation policies can ease resentment and help foster understanding.

    As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    The same can be said for wage transparency. After all, there's probably no issue more important, or emotional, to your employees than compensation. And whether it’s a cultural taboo to discuss how much you make, or because some workplace rules forbid actual discussion of compensation, lack of transparency can also foster real wage inequality, either consciously or unconsciously.

    In an attempt to make things clear on the federal level, at the beginning of April, President Obama issued an executive order to make pay transparent for employees of federal contractors.

    That order garnered less attention than the president's memorandum about federal contractors, requiring them to supply pay data to the Department of Labor in an attempt to close the pay gap between male and female workers. But it's just as important, as pay transparency and the gender gap in compensation are related.

    About half of all employees work for companies that prohibit or discourage discussion of wages at work, according to a January, 2014 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. The numbers are worse when you look at the private sector, climbing to more like 60 percent of companies that forbid such discussions.

    "While there may be no direct link between pay secrecy and pay inequality, pay secrecy appears to contribute to the gender gap in earnings," the study says.

    Though it’s a bit of a grey zone, workplace policies forbidding discussion of wages aren't legal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects the ability of employees to associate, organize and bargain collectively for conditions such as wages. According to the Act:

    Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.

    The president's executive order appears to have relied heavily on the language of the Act:

    Ensuring that employees of Federal contractors may discuss their compensation without fear of adverse action will enhance the ability of Federal contractors and their employees to detect and remediate unlawful discriminatory practices, which will contribute to a more efficient market in Federal contracting.

    While the federal government makes its own compensation scale fairly transparent, it's really startups that are pushing transparency in the private world. Among those is Buffer, an application-based online publishing company, which goes as far as posting online the salaries, and the equations for determining those salaries, of everyone who works for the company.

    "One of the highest values we have at Buffer is transparency," Joel Gascoigne, chief executive and founder of Buffer wrote on his last December. "Transparency breeds trust, and that’s one of the key reasons for us to place such a high importance on it. Open salaries are a step towards the ultimate goal of Buffer being a completely 'Open Company.'"

    Opening Up

    Want to give it a try? Online benefits and compensation company PayScale recommends these tips to help make compensation more transparent to your employees:

    • Explain how positions are slotted into different pay grades.
    • Show employees how they can progress through the company's pay ladder, which can function as an incentive to grow.
    • Convey and document the company reasons for pay differences, such as levels of education and degrees of experience.
    • Explain the total package of benefits and compensation to which employees are entitled.
    • Make someone available to explain compensation and benefits as a way to insure clarity.

  • You had better ensure it's fast enough if you want to hit this year's strategic goals.

    Ever watched (or, more painfully, been part of) a team floundering around an issue in a way that you know--and that the team knows--just isn't going to get it to an effective and efficient solution?

    Maybe you've wandered into a few meetings where the self-same topic keeps appearing over and over again, without your team ever achieving the breakthrough in understanding that's needed of the underlying issue to lead to a fruitful discussion of actual solutions?

    This pattern illustrates one of the key precepts in achieving predictable success: All other things being equal (i.e., you have a half-decent strategy and relatively adult individuals on your team), the primary factor in determining the degree to which you consistently achieve your organizational goals is something I've come to call "speed to clarity."

    What is "speed to clarity"?

    "Speed to clarity" is the lapsed controllable time between the emergence of an issue and its resolution ("controllable" because sometimes we have to wait for things to happen over which we have no control). And, all other things being equal, the faster your speed to clarity, the more likely you'll hit this year's strategic goals.

    One of my client CEOs calls it "from hunch to crunch," and it works like this:

    Let's say you notice that the sales of Product X are decreasing. How long is it before you know with clarity that it's happening because of a skewed commission plan; a new entry into the marketplace; cannibalization by Product C, or something else entirely?

    Say the pipeline from your research and development team has stalled out. How long before you know with clarity that it's because your top engineer has lost her mojo; or because your technology platform is outdated; or because the new neon-lit, windowless offices you moved R&D into are sapping the team's creative energies; or something else?

    For the viscerally managed business in the Fun stage, speed to clarity is innate--the organization typically isn't complex enough yet for problems to be that tough to work through. But when the business hits Whitewater, speed to clarity is one of the first things to suffer. And by the time the business enters Treadmill, the organization's structure is almost willfully built to hobble it.

    Losing speed to clarity is one of the main causes of leadership dysfunction. When I counsel a senior leadership team and sense a high degree of frustration in one of the key leaders, there is frequently a mismatch between that individual's speed to clarity and that of the rest of the team (which works both ways--the leader can be frustrated by having either a faster or a slower speed to clarity than the others).

    When I work with a team whose speed to clarity is tortoiselike--or, worse, one in which the trend is downward--there are usually one or more of three key factors at play.

    1. Overwhelmedness. Call it what you will: the post-industrial era, the social economy, the new normal--whatever term you prefer, the speed of information flow we all have to deal with now has reached levels that will swamp any leader lacking in basic productivity skills. And guess what? Your team members can't think straight if they arrive to every meeting already feeling overwhelmed.

    If the currency of success for complex organizations is consistently high-quality team-based decision making (which it is), then the foundational building block that allows those decisions to be made is personal productivity. Find a system and use it.

    2. Underpreparation. There's a rhythm to effective decision making, and it starts with the right preparation before your team even meets. Most teams with slow speed to clarity arrive at meetings underprepared and have acres of new information thrown at them during the meeting. Any wonder everyone gets befuddled?

    Start implementing a firm principle: no new information distributed during meetings. If information hasn't been circulated for prior consideration, unless there's an absolute emergency, it doesn't get discussed. (Of course, your team has to have implemented Point One above in order to find the time to read pre-meeting material.)

    3. Grinding monotony. Get the heck out of that windowless, arid conference room. Stop packing every meeting with 27 agenda items, 22 of which you never get to anyway. Call a shorts-only meeting. Hand out balloons. Do something, anything, to lift the grinding, soul-sucking monotony that most business meetings are drowning in--at least until you get your speed to clarity back.

    Looking for additional ways to enhance your team's performance? Download a free chapter from the author's book The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success, which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or someone else as an exceptional, world-class leader.

  • Sometimes a breakthrough product is the one you create as an enticement or an add-on.

    You're probably familiar with accidental innovations like plastics and penicillin--products that only came about because of the inventor's inadvertent mishap.

    The history of vinyl records, recounted in a recent New York Times article about the quest to research two legendary female blues singers, should remind you that there are incidential innovations too--products invented for one purpose, but that end up serving customers in an entirely different way.

    The Customer Base You Haven't Considered

    The earliest vinyl records were not initially made by record companies, but by companies in other businesses: toys and furniture. They were intended to be accessories, rather than products in their own right. Here's the explanation, from John Jeremiah Sullivan's superb New York Times story:

    A furniture company, that's how it started. The Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into making phonograph cabinets. If people had records they liked, they would want phonographs to play them on, and if they had phonographs, they would want cabinets to keep them in. The discs were even sold, especially at first, in furniture shops. They were literally accessories. Toys, you could say. In fact, the first disc "records" were manufactured to go with a long-horned gramophone distributed by a German toy company. So we must imagine, it's as if a subgenre of major American art had been preserved only on vintage View-Master slides.

    When I read this, the first contemporary company I thought of was Marlin Steel, a $5-million Baltimore-based builder of steel wire baskets and sheet metal material handling containers. In 2003, CEO Drew Greenblatt radically revamped the company's business model. Previously, the company had specialized in selling wire bagel baskets. It was sinking fast because of competition from Chinese factories, which were selling bagel baskets for $6--half of what Marlin's baskets cost.

    But through Greenblatt's leadership, the company transitioned from making wire bagel baskets for customers like Bruegger's and Einstein Bros. to making custom baskets, hooks, and precision sheet-metal products for customers like Boeing, Caterpillar, GE, Merck, and Toyota. The baskets used to hold bagels; now they hold "everything from microchips to turbine blades," according to Charles Fishman's recent story in Fast Company.

    The Job You're Really Doing for Your Customers

    In other words: a product that Marlin Steel initially intended for one purpose ended up serving quite another one. What stands out about Marlin Steel's story is that the company was nimble enough to adapt.

    It did not fall prey to the textbook business-model mistake of the railroad industry, which is a failure to properly define its capabilities in customer-oriented terms. Here's Theodore Levitt in a legendary 1960 Harvard Business Review article, sounding like a brilliant forerunner to today's mainstream notions of customer-centric innovation. Boldface is mine:

    The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented....

    Had Greenblatt stubbornly believed Marlin Steel was in the bagel business--or even in the restaurant business--there's no way he could've successfully transitioned the company. Instead he was willing to consider broader views of the potential market for his company's capabilities. He didn't think strictly in terms of baskets. He thought in terms of the service the company could provide by quickly fuliflling high degree-of-difficulty manufacturing tasks. “The lesson for Greenblatt,” Fishman writes, “was that the wire basket was only part of his product. To Boeing, he was selling engineering, precision, and speed, too.”

    The Vinyl Records of Today

    Had the toy and furniture companies of yesteryear realized the profit potential of the vinyl record, well--the history of the music business would've been radically different.

    Of course, the company that learned from all this was Apple, who famously entered the music business in 2001, even though they weren't a classic "record company." Apple was not going to make the mistake of the railroads, refusing to consider entry into a new market because of some locked-in definition about its corporate identity.

    Here's the question: Are there incidental innovations in your own organization--or in your industry--whose potential you're ignoring or overlooking, because making the leap seems too difficult?

    If so, just think of the railroads. And think of the records.

  • Tips on how to keep your meetings productive from top business leaders.

    Americans sit through some 11 million meetings every day--with the unproductive ones costing companies $37 billion a year.

    Since we've already looked at the most egregious meeting mistakes, we decided to explore how the most successful executives run effective meetings.

    After combing through the business literature, we discovered that Yahoo's Marissa Mayer grills her employees like an expert chef, Amazon's Jeff Bezos can't stand it when people agree, and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg wields a mighty notebook.

    Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sticks to a strict agenda.

    Sandberg brings a spiral-bound notebook with her to every meeting. In that notebook is a list of discussion points and action items.

    "She crosses them off one by one, and once every item on a page is checked, she rips the page off and moves to the next," Fortune reports. "If every item is done 10 minutes into an hour-long meeting, the meeting is over."

    Tesla CEO Elon Musk demands that people be super prepared.

    Musk has incredibly high standards. He has a reputation for firing people if they miss a deadline. So if you're meeting with him at Tesla or SpaceX, you have to be ready.

    As one anonymous Musk employee shares on Quora:

    "When we met with Elon, we were prepared," the commenter shared. "Because if you weren't, he'd let you know it. If he asked a reasonable follow up question and you weren't prepared with an answer, well, good luck."

    What else would you expect from the most badass CEO in America?

    The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs kept meetings as small as possible.

    Jobs led Apple to become one of the world's most valuable companies, creating consumer-friendly products with sleek designs.

    He ran meetings with a similar minimalism. He hated when they were too big, since too many minds in a room got in the way of simplicity.

    In one tale, Jobs was in a weekly meeting with Apple's ad agency and spied someone who didn't regularly attend. He asked who she was, listened to her reply, and politely told her to get out: "I don’t think we need you in this meeting," he said. "Thanks."

    Jobs carried the same standard with himself: When President Obama asked him to a meeting of tech darlings, he declined. The guest list was too long.

    Google CEO Larry Page says no one should wait for a meeting to make a decision.

    Page took over as CEO of Google back in 2011.

    He immediately sent out a company-wide email. The subject: How to run meetings effectively. One of his tips is to designate a decision-maker for every meeting. But even more importantly, Page made the point that you might not need a meeting at all.

    "No decision should ever wait for a meeting," the email reads. "If a meeting absolutely has to happen before a decision should be made, then the meeting should be scheduled immediately."

    Nike CEO Mark Parker doodles through his meetings.

    Parker doesn't just manage Nike's $24-billion-a-year athletic empire, he brings his own designs. Parker walks into meetings with a Moleskine notebook under his arm--full of his sketches of new products.

    In 2009, cyclist Lance Armstrong was in a business meeting with Parker, who spent the whole time doodling in his notebook. At the end of the meeting, Armstrong asked to see what he drew.

    "He turns the pad over and shows me this perfect shoe," Armstrong recalls.

    The doodles help clarify the brainstorming process, Parker says, one that's a constant balance between what design wants and what business needs.

    "I think about balance a lot," Parker says. "Most of us are out of balance, and that's OK, but you need to keep your eye on the overall equilibrium to be successful."

    Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman meets with people individually.

    Stoppelman has a one-on-one meeting with each of his direct reports every week.

    "Sometimes I feel like the company's psychiatrist," he shared on a Reddit AMA, "but I do feel like listening to people and hearing about their problems (personal and professional) cleans out the cobwebs and keeps the organization humming."

    Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer aggressively vets every idea.

    As we've reported before, Mayer gets to the bottom of any proposal brought her way.

    Product managers or designers sitting down with the exec have their strategies thoroughly vetted through a series of questions, such as:

    • How was that researched?
    • What was the research methodology?
    • How did you back that up?

    These questions are just one aspect of the many strategies Mayer uses to shake up Yahoo.

    Evernote CEO Phil Libin always brings a high-potential employee to participate.

    At any given meeting at Evernote, there will be someone there who doesn't belong.

    This is by design. The cloud note-taking startup has an internal program called "officer training," where employees get assigned to meetings that aren't in their specialty area in order to explore other parts of the company.

    "They’re there to absorb what we’re talking about," Libin says. "They're not just spectators. They ask questions; they talk."

    Libin got the idea from talking with a friend who served on a nuclear submarine. In order to be an officer of such a sub, you had to know how to do everybody else's job.

    "Those skills are repeatedly trained and taught," he says. "And I remember thinking, 'That's really cool.'"

    Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likes to get people arguing.

    If you work at Amazon, you'd better be comfortable with conflict. Bezos is famous for hating "social cohesion," that tendency people have for finding consensus for no other reason than it feels good.

    That distaste for agreeability is reinforced by Amazon's leadership principles, one of which reads:

    "Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly."

    Featured Video

    Mark Verge, WestsideRentals

    What the Media is Saying...

    Mark Verge will be speaking at Santa Anita Race Track; this will be our first monthly

    meeting with different speakers each month to help inspire your entrepreneur spirit.

     June 2, 2012

    Santa Anita Race Track | 285 W Huntington Drive, Arcadia CA 91007

    2PM - 4PM

    $10.00 per person | Please RSVP (limited seating available)

    E-mail RSVP | or call 310-255-7940

    Perfect Business is founded by serial entrepreneur Mark Verge, whose vision is to share his business knowledge with entrepreneurs who may be just starting out, as well as seasoned business owners who may be struggling in today’s challenging economy. As part of the Perfect Business mission, Mark actively volunteers his time performing speaking engagements for high school and university students.