Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Laurie Barkman – Founder & CEO of SmallDotBig

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Friend & collaborator Laurie Barkman comes back as the first repeat guest on Agile Giants.  Since our first recording, she has launched a consulting firm (SmallDotBig), launched a podcast and returned the Tepper classroom as an instructor.  We have a great conversation on growth and innovation especially in times of transition. 

Also, note the special offer at the end of the episode for the Agile Giants community.

Show Links

Laurie’s LinkedIn
SmallDotBig website
Succession Stories webpage
LinkedIn Succession Stories Podcast Community
Mission statement generator

Full Transcript

Sean Ammirati (00:09):
Welcome to Agile Giants, lessons from corporate innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, co founder and director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab and partner at the early stage venture capital fund, Birchmere Ventures.

Sean Ammirati (00:22):
Each week, I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe fundamentally a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage, a group of entrepreneurs, trying to make the world a better place using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore the similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati (00:56):
On this week’s episode of Agile Giants, we have our first repeat guest. Laurie Barkman joined me at the beginning of Agile Giants really early on in this podcast to talk about what she was doing at the time. Since then, she’s pivoted her career to launch a brand new consulting firm. She’s launched her own podcast that I highly recommend, Succession Stories. And she’s gotten back into the Tepper classroom with myself and Melissa Murphy helping lead the CSL project course that last week’s episode shared the public demo day for the culmination of that project. We use each of those exciting professional adventures to step up a level and talk about how professionals should look at different opportunities that come to them. And then don’t miss the end of the episode where Laurie has a special offer for the Actual Giants community. So here’s the update on Laurie Barkman.

Sean Ammirati (01:54):
So Laurie, you have been busy since the last time you came on Agile Giants. You’ve done quite a few things and I want to get to all of it, but let’s start with the consulting firm that you’ve launched. Talk a little bit about what led you to launch that and the focus of the firm.

Laurie Barkman (02:09):
Sean, thanks so much for having me. It’s like having my own act two to come back on your show, which is fantastic. And I appreciate the opportunity to give an update on what I’ve been doing. I’ve had my own career pivots over the last … We talked on the last show, was about 25 years or so in industry and startups and corporate startups, which is what brought us together today to talk about things for CSL, which I’m sure we’ll get into in a moment. I started working with my own firm, SmallDotBig, recently about six months ago. But the backstory is that I created it eight years ago. It was after I had left a position and was thinking about my next and thinking, “Oh, I might try this consulting thing. Let me see how it works.” And I found it very challenging to do the work. I had two clients immediately, which were awesome. I was working with two different startups and working on some positioning and competitive assessments.

Laurie Barkman (03:12):
And then I had to do business development at the same time. And so that felt really challenging to me to try to do that. And so I felt it wasn’t the right time. And about six months ago, I felt like now it is time. And I’m glad I made that decision because I think in life and when you go through transitions for yourself, figuring out your next isn’t an easy thing. And I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. This gave me the opportunity to do it. My husband and I talked about it. It was just the right time for us and unfortunate for that situation to really be figuring out and crafting my next. So I next with SmallDotBig, is the name of the firm.

Laurie Barkman (03:56):
And that name has to do with transitions and growth and innovation. Even the graphic, when you take a look at it, that desire to go from where you are now to somewhere bigger than where you are. And maybe you’re a small business, maybe you are a next generation entrepreneur and there is that desire to grow, but something’s holding you back and that’s what has inspired me in doing what I’m doing today.

Sean Ammirati (04:27):
That’s awesome. Yeah. So it’s all about growth across a spectrum of different clients then. So talk about the types of groups you’re working with and then we can move on to some of the other stuff you’re doing as well.

Laurie Barkman (04:39):
Yeah, there’s really, the core is entrepreneurs like I said. My vision is entrepreneurship that improves the world. And so how I helped bring that to life is working with different entrepreneurs to achieve clarity so that their visions can take flight. And there’s different kinds of entrepreneurs. There’s the solopreneur. There’s the small business owner. There’s the well-established company that’s been around a long time, maybe a family held company, which I’ve been a part of and I talk about on my new podcast, which we can explore here in a second. But there’s also these companies in the middle that you work with them. So there’s a range of the fast growth companies that are independent. They may have venture back. So maybe there’s a small business, but they’re kind of in their own category.

Laurie Barkman (05:37):
And what I find fascinating about all of them and I do work across the spectrum is that there is a need for clarity, for alignment to enable these ideas to take flight. And so that’s what is really, from a client focus, it’s not so much the size of the company, it’s really that desire to get to that next level. And there’s something holding them back. They’re looking for outside ideas, maybe, but probably more so the process to work with their team work with their leadership, to align people around that vision so that they can execute with excellence.

Sean Ammirati (06:21):
Yeah, that’s amazing. And I love this sort of broad definition that you bring to entrepreneurship is something that you and I have talked a lot about. And I think it’s really awesome. And I think a lot of people, just because of their experiences, they get this myopic view of what entrepreneurship is to them from the experiences they’ve had. And I think you just had such a nice assortment of idea of experiences that you have, I think, a much more holistic and an appropriate view of what is, and who is an entrepreneur, which actually leads to the next question here, because you could have started a podcast about lots of different topics. You’re a natural for this medium, but you ended up launching a podcast called Succession Stories. What made you want to focus specifically on that podcast and maybe start telling people what succession of stories is all about. And then what led you to want to start a podcast on this area.

Laurie Barkman (07:18):
Coming on your show, Sean, was my very first podcast interview and you made it so seamless and fun. And it actually gave me the idea that maybe I could do this in the future. And another friend had randomly mentioned that to me that maybe you should start a podcast. And when I was thinking about who it might be for, what it might be about, what might be of interest, I didn’t want it to be just another one of those business shows. I had a sense I wanted it to be a business show, and I wanted to create content that was educational in nature, and it had a shelf life to it. But then it also was a way for me to amplify my own voice and to really spotlight my guests and put a spotlight on them and amplify their voices.

Laurie Barkman (08:07):
And so that was sort of the fundamentals of it. And then when I was thinking about reaching the audience, what audience am I trying to reach, I ultimately am looking to speak and engage with CEOs and leaders of their companies. And from my own experience, as an outside hire for a longterm strategic plan at a family business, I have the perspective of what it’s like to be in a closely held company that takes a longterm view of succession. And I just find that fascinating because their name is on the door. They foster a family orientation, community orientation, sometimes very different than your publicly traded company, your venture backed startup. And I’ve seen all of those. And so what I appreciated about this company again, was that longterm view. When I was interviewed, he literally said to me, “I’m not interviewing you for the next two years. I’m interviewing you for the next 20.”

Laurie Barkman (09:14):
And that has stuck with me and really resonated. So the idea behind the podcast also ties in with the Corporate Startup Lab and Agile Giants, because innovation is the thread and transitions is the thread. And I’m of course, curious about gen one, the first generation that creates a company, but I’m actually more interested in the stories with gen two gen three, et cetera, and that next generation entrepreneur, as I call them, when they take their seat, when they get the keys, when the Baton is passed, what do they do differently? And what has that journey been along the way? And that’s the part that’s really fascinating to me. And that’s what inspired the podcast, which is called Succession Stories, it’s insights for next generation entrepreneurs. And I invite people onto the show that have stories, sometimes things don’t go well. And I think we can learn a lot from those aspects. And I invite guests that not only are the CEO or a family member, but professionals who work in the ecosystem, as I call it, to enable these transitions to take shape.

Sean Ammirati (10:36):
Yeah. And you’ve had, I think, great interviews with both types of guests. So you had one of the owners of the Steelers, the Rooney’s on, which is probably a canonical, closely held family run business. And then he had Tony Uphoff, who we both know well from Thomas, who is very much taken a similar role on Thomas that you did in the company that you came into, where he’s the outsider hired to help make this happen. And so I think he’s done a nice job exposing some common threads across both of those people’s activities, as well as ways that it’s unique, ways that each of those roles … I think it’d be naive to assume that the family member gets to behave exactly the same way that the hired outsider does. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both of those. And so if people are interested in that, they can find Succession Stories on all of the podcast platforms. And then we’ll share this in the show notes as well at the end, but what’s the website that you point people to?

Laurie Barkman (11:37):
I point people to my website, which is smalldotbig.com/successionstories.

Sean Ammirati (11:43):
Perfect. Okay. And I’m curious so far, what’s been the biggest surprise being a podcast host?

Laurie Barkman (11:51):
That people love to talk about themselves. No, that’s not it. We all know that already. I think the biggest surprise as a host is the authenticity though that’s comes through. I think people really do want to share what they’ve learned and they’re not shying away from the challenges. And I respect that a lot. I also am finding, as a host and it’s something you may have sort of intuitively known, but when you give, you get, and what I’m finding as a host is this is a whole new platform for me. I had to learn how to do this from scratch. And I thank you for your support and encouragement to enable me to do that and others who have helped along the way. But more than anything, it’s that understanding that this is, again, I’m creating an ecosystem as a newpreneur as a solopreneur.

Laurie Barkman (12:50):
And I say solo because yeah, SmallDotBig currently is just me. But I also recognize that there’s a virtual team around me. And so many people have come forward and said, “I want to be part of your virtual team.” And that’s how I approach the show too. Anybody who comes on my show, they have gotten to know me, I’ve gotten to know them. And we are now part of each other’s professional ecosystem. And that’s the larger picture here is I’m creating content that’s meaningful, insightful, that hopefully engages and helps people. And that’s my “give”. And I’m really finding a lot of joy in that. And then hopefully the “get” that will come are the connections, the collaboration, and ultimately the value that I can provide to clients or that folks in my ecosystem can provide to clients to enable their visions to take flight.

Sean Ammirati (13:44):
Yeah, there is something magical about the podcast medium along that dimension too, because I think people sort of inviting these conversations into their ears as they drive or go for a run or whatever, there’s just something very unique about this media that way. And I think you’re doing an awesome job with it. It was a pleasure to help you start it. But I just think you’ve done a really nice job having these conversations be conversations that flow naturally into that. So I would encourage everybody to check out Succession Stories if they haven’t yet.

Sean Ammirati (14:21):
And I’m sure guests are now thinking, or those who are listening are now thinking, “Okay, well, that’s enough,” but there’s one more thing that you’ve also done that we alluded to earlier, which is you’ve also started coming back into the classroom. So you’re helping lead the Corporate Startup Lab project course with myself and Melissa Murphy. And last week’s episode, we published the public demo day. So people heard a little bit about the projects and things like that, but I thought it would be fun to get your take. And maybe I thought a good way to open this up would be to ask you how’s it been getting back into the Tepper classroom?

Laurie Barkman (14:54):
You would think it would be less work being on this side of the podium. And I guess technically it is, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed being in the classroom with you and Melissa. It’s a very interesting class because it’s a capstone class, as you’ve described to the audience. It’s masters level students who have a pretty good understanding of their domain, but what they haven’t yet learned is pulling it all together in a very ambiguous situation for a client. And so it obviously feels different to them, to us. To me, it felt like consulting that yes, I was an instructor of content with you and Melissa, but really it was that advisor coaching consulting role that I felt really comfortable with and really, really enjoyed. The students are like sponges still. They really want to learn, and it wasn’t all problem-free.

Laurie Barkman (15:50):
And that was part of it. They got to experience, some teams more than others, what friction can feel like friction in the team, dynamic friction and the uncertainty and trying to solve and plug through that, friction and the client relationship and dynamic when things don’t quite go the way you would expect and that resiliency of dealing with all of those things. And so that brought me a lot of pride to see those from end to end during the semester, the student experience, because they were my client. And I wanted to make sure that they had a great experience. And I think through what we brought to them for you, me and Melissa, as a team, that also brought me a lot of pride that I thought we did a really nice job coming together as our own mini startup, within a course and a curriculum that’s still relatively new to the Tepper School of Business. And I thought it was great shot. It was a great experience.

Sean Ammirati (16:48):
It was amazing. And you and Melissa were just incredible additions to the class. It was so great. So appreciate you doing that. And I know the students that as well. I think the difference in my mind between most okay teachers and most great teachers is exactly what you said. We need to remember that our customers ultimately are the students, and this is a unique one because we also have a real client in the sense of the project sponsors who have business deliverables based on what the students are doing, but ultimately we’re there to serve the students and to make the students successful in the same way that as an executive and in the companies that you’ve run, making your employees successful ultimately helps make the company successful.

Sean Ammirati (17:33):
So I said this up front, and it’s definitely true. You’ve been really, really busy since the last time you came on. I thought a question that would be interesting for the audience to think through and hear you talk through would be, how do you think about prioritizing and evaluating different opportunities as they come to you? Because there’s just a lot of stuff on your plate, and I’m sure there’s a lot of other stuff that could be on your plate that you have to say no to. So how do you think about the sort of prioritizing and evaluation of those different opportunities?

Laurie Barkman (18:04):
There’s a couple of different ways I’m looking at that. And it is a challenge when you’re a small team or you’re a solopreneur, and you have to make those resource decisions. So there’s a couple of different lenses. My first lens is what’s the core of the value that I bring based on my skills, my motivation, and my fit. And from that, the three pillars are innovation, transition and growth. And so if there’s opportunity where I can make an impact and add value to the client, and they’re motivated to work with me to make changes and to achieve what it is they want to achieve. That’s sort of lens number one. Lens number two has more to do with my vision, personal mission and values and how I stitch that together from a purpose and what I bring forth. And I don’t have that all figured out to the extent to say, “Here it is, and I’ve worked on it for 10 years.”

Laurie Barkman (19:04):
An I’ve just started this process. And if any of your listeners are wondering what I’m talking about, or if they haven’t done it, it’s something to get started on. It doesn’t mean you have to sit down and write it all one day, but it is a grounding mechanism. And so what I work on and I’ve figured out I work on and add the value around a couple of core things. I use the CAGR acronym, not for accounting purposes, but to describe some of these things. And as I mentioned earlier, with my vision of enabling entrepreneurs to achieve their vision, to make a difference in the world. And so if I unpack that a little bit, it’s the “how” part, the “what” part that comes next. That’s somewhat tricky for people to articulate. And so I’m living that right now, too.

Laurie Barkman (19:55):
So I feel your pain if you’re trying to write these things down for yourself, but it’s really a worthwhile process. And so what I’m coming up with around clarify, I work with people to help clarify their intent, what motivates them and what brings them joy, to amplify what that is, to take that to the next level. The show is one example of that, to help amplify voices. But if it’s a team environment, making sure all voices are heard. The grounding element of having these wonderful ideas, but they’re all in your head so they’re not going anywhere. How do we bring it to a level where we can execute with excellence? And then the resilience part is probably the most important because when you get knocked down, you got to get up. And we’re in a pandemic. Things are not going the way that businesses thought it was going to be going six months ago. And so even more now than ever, I find the resilience is what keeps people stepping forward. So that’s my CAGR, to clarify, amplify, to ground and to be resilient.

Sean Ammirati (21:08):
I love that acronym. And I’m curious if people are thinking, “Well, I need to come up with my own version of that.” Are there books or processes or tools that you would recommend to help them maybe start down the path of coming up with, because it probably won’t be the same four things for them, so they need to come up with their own version of that. Are there tools or resources that you could point someone to, to figure this out for themselves?

Laurie Barkman (21:35):
Yeah. There’s a lot of tools and resources. I think a Cliff Notes version where you can access online really easily and just get a feel for the exercise is on the Stephen Covey website. He has a vision, mission, values, exercise that sort of stitches together those elements into a statement for you at the end. And it’s free and you can find it on Stephen Covey’s website. He’s one of the resources. I’m also able to work with people one-on-one. Let’s say it’s an executive who wants to change direction, or let’s say it’s someone who’s exiting their company. Maybe they’re selling their company and they want to think about their next. Maybe they want to start a family foundation. They want to transition themselves. And so Sean, as I think about my value to my clients, there are the enterprise teams that go through transitions.

Laurie Barkman (22:36):
And there are individuals who go through transitions and especially entrepreneurs who aren’t ready just to go sit on the beach and put their feet up. Maybe they want to do that for a little while. They get the money and they’re like, “Okay, I’m going to get ready to do something else,” but a lot of people then want to shape their next. And that’s the thing that I am really excited about, honestly. I think that there’s so much there for me to have impact. So SmallDotBig, going back to the types of entrepreneurs and what I am excited for my journey and my career in sort of shaping out my own next is these two aspects of transition. There’s the business transition that’s going to happen. Change is inevitable. And for us, and as individuals, change is going to happen. So I am open to taking on clients that want to work through these things and understanding this is hard stuff, but I have the empathy and understanding because I’m going through it myself. And I’m more than happy to talk with people about that.

Sean Ammirati (23:38):
That’s interesting. So you and I have talked a lot about SmallDotBig. I didn’t realize. So you are doing then some amount of executive as well on this personal mission, vision stuff, as well as part of the offerings. That’s good to know. As we sort of moved to wrap up, I actually want to come back to that pandemic point, because we are living in a unique time. To put it mildly, the combination of a pandemic and a recession is challenging. What advice are you giving professionals in this time of crisis?

Laurie Barkman (24:11):
Yeah. The first thing is to focus on resiliency and if you’re an operating company, it’s all about your balance sheet. And so if you’ve shored up your balance sheet, if maybe you’ve been able to take advantage of some of the loans or grants available to you, you have cash in the bank, that’s sort of step one. And I think companies over the last 60 days have been reeling from some of those immediate changes and have had to figure that out. So that was immediate. And now what I’m seeing is that it’s time to take a breath. It’s time to reassess. It’s time to regroup. people who had their strategy plan was, “My strategy plans to make it to the next two days.” I get it. And I did hear that quite a bit. So I think now it’s about steering your next.

Laurie Barkman (25:04):
I wrote a blog article about that recently. And taking the time to figure out what is next for your company or for your business. There’s a company here in Pittsburgh that was a B2B food provider, food service provider. They’ve launched a B2C platform, totally brand new for them. You have examples of restaurants that became grocery stores. You have all these examples, even just recently, the Pennsylvania Turnpike announced that they were going to go cashless. Finally, most of us are looking at that, going, “Okay, that digital transformation was a long time coming.” My point is, companies put new processes in place very, very quickly because they had to do some things differently to survive. Which strategies make sense to continue, which strategies make sense to end and which ones you want to accelerate?

Laurie Barkman (26:00):
And so that taking a breath, taking a pause, taking control of your next is the phase of where I’m advising clients and shifting from reacting to more agile strategy planning. So my strategy planning process with clients is like you would expect. We can do workshop, we can do sessions, we come up with a great plan. The execution of that is where the rubber meets the road, but the accountability follow through, you can to take that through for a year, and quarterly chunks. What I’m doing is I’m rethinking the strategy planning process so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming, that accompany now going to sit down and say, “I’m going to plan out the next three years.” That’s probably feeling very unlikely. Maybe they just want to plan out the next six months and that’s okay.

Laurie Barkman (26:52):
And so I’ve adapted the process to be more of an agile process. So question one is, do you have a plan for your business? If the answer is no, okay. Let’s start there. If you have a plan in place that’s part of your three year strategic plan, well, okay. That’s great. But maybe it needs a makeover. Maybe there are so many fundamental changes because of the external market factors, because of things that have changed within your company. So the controlling your now, navigating the now is about getting back to work, understanding the must do’s from a health and safety standpoint and the must do’s from a client standpoint or customer based standpoint. The market dynamics are shifting. We all know that. Taking it to your own business and putting up your control towers, if you don’t have them yet. Understanding the influences of your teams and how they work together to drive things forward is a way to move that. It can be a top-down for sure.

Laurie Barkman (27:57):
But the process that I help facilitate an advocate for is a bottom-up, and they meet in the middle. And that’s why the teams that I’ve worked with over my career, we executed. We were not one of the statistics that you’ve probably seen, which is 90% of the strategies that are developed don’t see the light of day. I don’t aspire to have any of my clients fall into that bucket. They’re going to be at the 10 percenter crowd. And so now more than ever, it’s that time, I think, to just take a breath. If your balance sheets looking okay you can focus forward for a bit and say, “What do we need to do differently? How do I get my management team on the same page? How do we move forward together into this?” And I don’t want to call it the next new normal. I think that’s the wrong phase. I think that’s the wrong nomenclature. We are in the next. Are we going to stay there or are we going to accelerate or are we going to change?

Sean Ammirati (28:52):
Yeah, I love that. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is there was a period of time, I think you’re right, where we just had to make sure that the businesses would continue. I think that there was a period of time where the challenge was basically just survival was success, but I think we’re moving to a point where the right question is not, “How do I reopen the business that I had?” It’s, “How do I reimagine my business for the world I’m in now?” And I think I’m doing that, moving from reopening to re-imagining does typically take … It’s important to take a beat and say, “Is our strategy the right strategy for the world that we live in today,” because to the examples you said, restaurants are probably always going to look different. Universities are probably always going to look different.

Sean Ammirati (29:38):
As faculty at Carnegie Mellon, the infrastructure is going to look different in the future than it did a year ago. We all need to figure out not how to just flip the switch on and get back to open, but actually figuring out what’s the new switch that we need to flip on and how do we reimagine those businesses. And the atomic units of figuring that out are looking at our strategies, re-evaluating them, and taking this top-down bottom-up, I think, is incredibly compelling.

Sean Ammirati (30:11):
So as we wrap up here, I thought it would be important just for people who want to keep the conversation going with you to know where they can find you. So obviously one is your website, smalldotbig.com. But where are some other places people can engage with you and find you online?

Laurie Barkman (30:27):
LinkedIn is a great place for me, personally. Laurie Barkman on LinkedIn. And you can also be a part of the community. Succession Stories podcast is also on LinkedIn. And you can reach out to me directly for anyone that’s thinking about their next and whether it’s for your business or for you personally, Sean, I wanted to offer your listeners an opportunity to work with me. I’m offering a free consult, a 60 minute consult for free, which I normally charge for. If people message me on LinkedIn and mention Agile Giants, I welcome that opportunity to work with them. So that’s something I wanted for folks to consider. And yeah, I’d really appreciate if you listen to the show. I love feedback. I would love to know what topics are of interest to you. It’s a great medium, and you can email me directly if you’d like, successionstoriespodcast@gmail.com.

Sean Ammirati (31:21):
Awesome. And please do take advantage of that offer from Laurie. I can tell us someone who’s gone to Laurie for advice a lot over the years, that will be a well-spent hour of your time to kick off a consult like that. And who knows? It could have all been into a deeper relationship between you and her firms. So thanks so much, Laurie. Really appreciate you making the time today. And stay safe.

Laurie Barkman (31:44):
Sean, thanks so much for having me on Agile Giants. It was great to be here today with you.

Sean Ammirati (31:53):
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend. And if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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