I love French cuisine because creating an astounding dish like beef bourguignon requires only basic ingredients, brought together by patience and technique. The same approach can be applied to building a successful company. Rigorously practicing simple truths has merited rave reviews of my cooking, and earned me professional recognition, including AIChE’s 35 Under 35 award, Puget Sound Innovator of the Year, and Univ. of Washington Diamond Engineering Alumni. The core skills I use as an entrepreneur are simple but powerful: mastering innovation, focusing on corporate strategy, and building diverse teams. When put together, these skills create a recipe for success.
Innovation is like salt — too little is dull, too much is overwhelming, and the right amount can make an organization hum with energy and focus. Companies that maintain the right level of innovation change the world. Many books have been written on innovation, and it is easy to believe innovators simply see the world differently or make connections that are not so intuitive, but that is only part of the picture. The best innovators learn what problems are worth solving, which is almost always the rate-limiting step.
Failing to focus on the rate-limiting problem is expensive. For example, at Membrion, we abandoned two years of product development and pivoted to a different chemistry. We had to get past our loss aversion but, in doing so, we were able to move ten times faster in bringing the new chemistry from idea to minimum viable product.
As engineers, we often think that the rate-limiting problem is technical but sometimes it is not. The rate-limiting step may be in another department, such as marketing. That department might hold the key to accelerating the whole company by proposing a solution to a problem that engineers did not realize was worthy of solving. Mastering the art of innovation starts with properly identifying the right problem to solve.
Focus on corporate strategy
The famed cookbook author and teacher Julia Child emphasizes the importance of reading the whole recipe before beginning to cook. This logic can also be applied to corporate strategy. Onions may need to be chopped before heating the sauce, and a customer profile may need to be developed before the product. Effective corporate strategy requires knowledge of how all of the pieces fit together in advance and acting accordingly.
Strategy is especially critical for entrepreneurship, which requires concurrently syncing multiple competing timelines with little room for error. Integrating timelines around product development, customer adoption cycle, and financing requires finesse and an understanding of their interdependence. Knowing the sequence of handoffs between departments for a project is critical to delivering high-quality results and moving quickly. A basic level of understanding of marketing, finance, sales, operations, supply chain, manufacturing, and research and development enables drastically more effective day-to-day decisions. Like establishing a process flow diagram, understanding the interconnection between disparate pieces of an organization is critical.
Build diverse teams
Team-building is like gathering the right cooking utensils to make a meal. Can you cut a loaf of bread with a spatula? Technically, yes, but it will be a lot messier than using a serrated knife. Often, we think about team-building as assembling the right skills to do a job, but I have found that this is typically not the right approach.
Instead, think of team-building as putting the right personalities together. Lynn Taylor’s Core Value Index divides individuals into four categories according to their values: builder, merchant, banker, and innovator. Builders value action and results, merchants value vision and relationships, bankers value conservation and information, and innovators value assessment and solutions. I have hired chemical engineers that fit into each of these categories and when paired together they are nearly unstoppable because of their highly complementary problem-solving styles. Each of these engineers may have effectively the same technical skills yet their approach to problems is unique.
Choosing the right engineers for the team has been critical to Membrion. We have tapped into decades of research showing that diverse teams lead to better business outcomes. To frame it differently, data shows that not building a diverse team is actually a commitment to underperformance. Many companies and teams commit to underperformance. Part of the blame can be placed on implicit bias, which can be challenging to overcome during interviewing. Blame can also be placed on screening and hiring methods. Typically, we hire according to the required skillset, which, for a lot of systemic reasons, can cause minority and female candidates to be overlooked for technical positions. Prioritizing core values over skills can help to develop a more equitable workplace and industry.
It is nearly impossible to properly reduce the sauce the first time you make coq au vin. And, none of us will perfect innovation, corporate strategy, or team-building on the first try. The key is patience, discipline, and repetition to move toward mastery. Finally, we all know that the best cuisine is infused with love, and the same can be said of business. Love of craft, love of learning, and love of people build successful companies.
This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column of the March 2021 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.