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The Rungs of Learning with David Niu, Founder of TINYpulse

David and I met when I was the Chief Strategy Officer at Tangelo and I immediately gravitated toward his intense desire to making things better for human beings. A self-described "serial entrepreneur", David's restlessness for knowledge and skill building has long been part of his DNA.

In addition to starting several companies which were eventually acquired, David has written a book called Careercation: Trading Briefcase for Suitcase to Find Entrepreneurial Happiness in which he describes his learnings from selling his belongings and traveling the world with his wife and then eleven month old daughter.

Enjoy this month's Rungs of Learning blog interview with David Niu!

What prompted your “careercation” and what key learnings did you get from it?

I was at a conference in Amsterdam and one of the speakers was Ricardo Semler, a successful Brazilian entrepreneur. He was speaking about how when employees got older and aged out of the workforce, it’s a time when they are super knowledgeable. They are retiring and have a lot of time but don't have a lot of outlets to share their knowledge. He instituted an idea that, when you’re starting to transition to retirement, you work 20% of the time and then use the rest of your time to give back by mentoring and coaching others. It was an inversion of how time was spent earlier in their career (work 80% of the time and spend 20% of their time giving back).

It inspired me to think about how I was spending my time and what I was learning. American culture is about working really hard, not unplugging as much and not traveling as much. That’s when I came up with this idea of instead being this hard charging entrepreneur and waiting until I retire to do some of the other things, can I break up my career and have these career vacations throughout to recharge and reset and have more time with my family? The answer was “yes”.

You’ve been an entrepreneur many times over. What skills do you think are essential for entrepreneurs? Are they innate or can you learn them?

I like to believe that skills can be learned, and that people aren’t predestined to be X, Y or Z. That said, from my experience and what I’ve seen in myself, and much more successful entrepreneurs is a sense of resilience. Things will happen all the time and there are so many up and downs along the way, so we have to remain resilient.

The second skill I think is needed for entrepreneurs is positivity and keeping the glass half full. Things are going to stink, and we are going to have super lows, but the sun is still going to shine tomorrow. It’s up to us as to what we’re going to do when bad things happen.

Lastly, another skill required for entrepreneurs is agility. A bias for action is critical. We can think all we want about how customers will respond to a marketing message or sales technique but who knows! Just throw it out there and see what happens. At first, I didn’t understand the saying “perfect is the enemy of good” but, if you get it to be good enough and ship it out there, you can learn from that.

What learnings have you taken from the corporate world into the startup world?

One of the learnings I’ve taken from the corporate world is that processes are there for a reason and, if done right, they can be very helpful. Things like hiring and onboarding can be an afterthought for entrepreneurs (guilty as charged) but it’s super important because once you hire someone, those first 30-60-90 days are key to their experience.

Another thing I learned when I was a consultant is that hierarchy matters. I learned that each level has a role in the process. Now days, I think about who the right person is to talk with from the other side and I understand the importance of the relationship at all levels.

I’ve also watched external leaders like what Satya Nadella has done at Microsoft. He turned it from a “we know everything” culture to “we have to outlearn our competition” culture and level up their learning. He’s reinforced that it’s okay not to have all the answers.

As a leader, how do you propagate a learning mindset in your org?

I think first you need to lead by example. In our industry, there’s a huge conference that is the Superbowl of learning and we brought some of our high potentials to it with us. The conference is Tuesday through Thursday and I used to just fly in and fly out, spending minimal time there.

Then I got this idea that we could maximize our time there and we started identifying learning goals ahead of time. Then, instead of rushing to the airport to fly back afterward, we’d stay an extra day to debrief what we learned and commit to two things we wanted to do differently from the conference. It became about sharing what we learned, teaching it to others and then applying it.

Another example is we had a concept called TINYscholarship at TINYpulse. If you wanted to go to a conference, buy a book or go to a class, you could apply for a scholarship and, if it was approved, you could get the funds to go do that. We encouraged people to use it and some did for continuing education, finishing their degree or going to conferences out of town.

What’s a hard lesson you learned earlier in your career that has been a teaching moment for others?

There’s a book called The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The whole thesis is that everyone experiences gratitude, affection, and love in different ways. For example, my love language is acts of service so mowing my lawn or taking out the trash are things that show me you care about me. But if your love language is gifts, you like to receive things. People are wired differently.

When I was young, I viewed the world from my lens that people are all like me and that they are motivated in the same way I was. As I got older, that certainly wasn’t the case and I realized that each individual is so different. Of late, my coach has been helping me unpack motivations of different people and I know I need to match my style with the other party and what motivates them. I still struggle with it because it’s not intuitive for me like it is for other people. I have to work very hard at it.

You just mentioned you have a coach. How have mentors or coaches helped you grow as a leader?

Growing up and early in my career, I had this notion that a coach or a counselor felt like a crutch and a source of weakness. I’ve totally changed my mind and done a 180 on this. One of the best stories someone shared with me was that when Michael Jordan was at the height of the game he had coaches for free throws, nutrition, etc.

When I was in college, I had someone that gave me some good career advice. When I was in consulting, someone mentored me when I expressed an interest in working in the greater China practice and, most recently with TINYpulse, I’ve had some fantastic board members who’ve given me great advice and guidance.

I feel like some of the best coaches are the ones who don’t say “you should” but they share their stories and experiences, and you glean from them what you like.

One of the things I’ll invest in my kids when they go to college or get their first job is a life or career coach that they can turn to, so they don’t have to wait until later in life to benefit from that like I did.

What are you in learning mode these days?

One of the biggest blessings of being an entrepreneur is to learn and reinvent and add new tools to the toolkit all the time. I’m learning right now about blockchain, crypto and AI. I think these are so fascinating about their potential to change the world. It’s been fun to dive in and talk to people who are more much more knowledgeable because I think it will impact all of us over a lifetime. I look at blogs, particularly tech like Geek Wire, to see what’s going on and who’s getting funded and take a lot of notes. I also talk to individuals who are also interested in learning about these same things to exchange ideas.

These topics are tangentially related to my role but I’m spending time on them because I’m personally intellectually interested in what are the manifestations and applications of them. They give me a ton of energy.

David recently sold his company to Limeade, an employee well being company. He is currently overseeing their future innovation. You can pick up his book "Careercation" on Amazon.

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