Welcome back to UpRamp’s Meet the Mentors. In this series, we’re showcasing the wealth of resources available to Fiterator teams throughout their journeys with UpRamp via the mentors available to them.
Phil McKinney has been President and CEO of CableLabs since 2012. Before that, he was VP and CTO for Hewlett-Packard’s Personal Systems Group. He had also served as SVP and CIO at Teligent and as a Director at CSC. He is the Non-Executive Chairman and radio show host of Killer Innovations, serves on the advisory board for Hacking Autism, and he is Chairman of the board for Pioneer Education Africa.
Phil is a thought leader in innovation and creativity, and as President and CEO of CableLabs, has been integral to UpRamp's mission to bring together the power of the connectivity industry with the cutting-edge innovation of the startup ecosystem. With #Fiterator3 kicking off this week, we're thrilled to bring you this conversation with Phil - and grateful for all of the support he has given us to make Fiterator the success that it is!
Phil, thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and thank you for giving your time and support as a Fiterator mentor! I recently learned that you studied architecture. How did you make the move from architecture into technology?
Phil: That’s true - my original major in college was architecture. I ended up switching to computer graphics and animation, which I also haven’t used at all in my career.
However, when I was a senior in high school, I participated in a program that heightened an interest for me in engineering and computer science. My passion is architecture, and I thought I would be able to use the technology I had learned in that field, but I was about a generation too early.
How have you seen your passion for architecture play out in the rest of your career?
Phil: To me, architecture elicits an emotional response. You walk into a building, whether it’s a home or an office, and you notice that it’s different. As an architect, you can design that response, that reaction. That’s how I approach my work in technology - I try to think in the context of an emotional response from the user.
That’s part of the reason I love the CableLabs video series “The Near Future”. These short films elicit an emotional response about how future technology will touch people and impact their lives.
What advice do you have for an entrepreneur who seeks to elicit an emotional response to their work, but is just getting off the ground?
Phil: You have to get to know your customer in order to capture their emotions. The biggest problem most people have is that they think of themselves as the customer, but if you're the one building the technology, you are automatically not the target customer.
To understand your customer, you need to go out and do the work. Put yourself in their shoes, walk their walk, understand their buying experience. For entrepreneurs, it’s key to remember that even with enterprise sales, the decision-maker is still human. You have to appeal to their personal emotions.
Let’s switch gears a bit. You have a radio show, a blog, and a weekly email talking about innovation. What exactly is innovation to you?
Phil: Innovation is a combination of a unique idea and an amazing story. For example, a mom & pop company in Paducah, Kentucky invented a machine to vastly improve fishery operations on the Mississippi River. So that alone is great. But 95% of their employees are former felons. The company works with local halfway houses to give individuals a job, a chance to learn, a new life.
The technology coming out of Silicon Valley is incredible, no doubt - but innovation is also happening in non-obvious industries and in non-obvious locations.
When you talk about innovation, do you envision a greater purpose?
Phil: Definitely. I attend the main TED conference in Vancouver every year, and there’s a woman who was on stage who calls herself the Queen of Shitty Robots. She makes these robots that are absolutely useless. These things are never going to turn into a commercial product, but people are inspired by it because they’re scared to try something when it might not be perfect. She shows them that they can create something, even if it’s not pretty or it doesn’t work.
The fear of failure is a real problem, and it’s part of why some companies find it so hard to innovate - they’re afraid to fail. That typically isn’t a problem for entrepreneurs, but they also need to understand that the people they are dealing with at larger enterprises might have a fear of failure.
How can startup founders, who are working on cutting-edge products/services, sell into an environment that fears failure?
Phil: You have to get past all of the corporate antibodies - those are the people saying ‘no’ - and you have to know how to appeal to them. For example, one of them is ‘ego’ - that’s the person who should have solved the problem, and now you’re stepping on their toes. Then there’s the ‘no-risk’ people - typically the CFO or the general counsel. They don’t want to change anything because it’s too risky from a financial or compliance point of view. You need to figure out whom you’re talking to and which antibody they are, and then come up with a strategy to get around each one.
That brings us to empathy - you have to address their concerns so that you can convert them into your advocate and bring them along. And ultimately, these people can become your biggest allies as you work your way deeper into the company.
In the startup world, we love to talk about “fail fast, fail forward”. Have you ever experienced that in your career?
Phil: I was a part of 13 startups before I reached my first IPO. It grew from five of us in a conference room with no money to revenues of $3B - but I also had 12 startups that died.
Failure is valuable from an experience perspective. It’s actually something many of the VC guys in Silicon Valley appreciate, because that means you know how meaningful it is and you’ll do everything in your power to avoid it.
Obviously, you have a lot of experience with startups. What was your most painful lesson as a founder?
Phil: Learning the difference between perseverance and knowing when to let go. It’s tough for entrepreneurs, because they really believe in what they’re doing, but they’re not always good at self-regulating when it’s time to pull the plug. That’s why it’s important to have trusted advisors who can tell it like it is. You need tough love and honesty.
A huge part of enterprise sales is making connections. You’ve been extraordinary at that - especially now, with CableLabs’ 60 global members. How do you do it?
Phil: It’s hard work, and you have to be committed. I maintain a list of my top contacts - probably around 75 people - and I make a point of being in contact with them every few weeks. It could just be a simple phone call to see how they’re doing, or it might be something I found that I think they’d be interested in. I make myself available when they need help with something.
#Fiterator3 launched at Summer Conference. What words of wisdom do you have for the new cohort?
Phil: Be open to all possibilities. Don’t constrain yourself. This industry is so unique, the relationships are different than anywhere else. Take full advantage of everything offered to you.
Last question: you’ve been a founder 13 times, so you know the dire need to stay caffeinated. What’s your caffeinated beverage of choice?
Phil: Flavored water - the caffeinated version.