Marc Meyer – Professor at Northeastern University

Know your users, as deeply as possible, then spend just as much time knowing your channel partners. Only then, design your new products or services, your business model, your go-to-market strategy.

Professor Meyer is widely published in the field of product, service, and business model innovation and has worked with industry leaders in computing, industrial products, and consumer products around the world. He has also taken a leadership role in developing new methods for teaching entrepreneurship and has helped numerous students start their own ventures. Dr. Meyer is the founder of D’Amore-McKim School of Business’ Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group and Co-Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship Education, which combined education, incubation, and launch into a single, experiential learning system for undergraduate and graduate students from across the University, as well as alumni.

Professor Meyer was co-founder of VenturCom (which became Ardence and was acquired by Citrix), a leader in real-time process control and automation software. He has also been part of the startup teams for Phase2 Software Corporation (a distributed database applications developer), and Sentillion (single sign-on for health care, acquired by Microsoft). He has consulted in a number of industries in the area of new product strategy and platform management with companies that include IBM, Hewlett Packard, McKesson, P&G, Mars Incorporated, and BAE Systems.

Where did the idea for your ventures come from?

My most successful new venture ideas have come from being in the world of the target user, seeing first hand deep frustrations, and thinking creatively how to resolve those frustrations — to bring a clear solution to that user need. I believe that this is the core of any successful venture. I have helped start companies in software, in complex medical systems, in services, and even in food. In each case, there was a user who represented a significant, addressable market that was obviously searching for a better way to solve a problem. Solving that user’s problem kept all my ventures highly focused — a real key to success. For my first software company, it was a real-time operating system environment for industrial process control — used, for example — to more efficiently brew the beer that we as MIT grad students loved to drink in considerable volume. For another company, it was to provide a single sign-on, totally secure solution for doctors and nurses dealing with a myriad of clinical applications. For another, it was allow consumers like you and I to print personal messages and images on little candies. All of these, and more, get down to the point of solving a user’s clear problem where the user represents a significant target market.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My work is both University-based and industry-based.
As an academic, I am the founder and department chair of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group. In just seven years since startup, Princeton Review has ranked us the #7 entrepreneurship program for college students in the US, and the top program for technological entrepreneurship. We have grown from just two faculty at startup to now close to 20. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we are going to create new programs in one of our three key areas of technological entrepreneurship, next generation family businesses, and social enterprise. I also think about who we are going to hire next and new academic partners overseas.
At night, I can often be found coaching student or young alumni ventures in our on-campus incubator, which is called IDEA. We have about 150 ventures percolating in IDEA right now. Every month, 1 or 2 spinout as funded ventures, and I help a number of these on an ad hoc basis. I am a sounding board for range of decisions. In sum, I spend a lot of time working at different parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystems within and surrounding Northeastern.

In industry, I have worked on innovation projects with industry leaders throughout my career, and continue to do so now. Each year, primarily in the area of user centered design and platforming — two areas in which I have written books and am known in industry. While I prefer to keep the names of my clients to myself, I will say that on any given day, their is a good chance that you are using one of the products or systems that I have helped design — either a consumer goods type product, a major piece of software, or a piece of equipment. It has been so much over the years innovating as part of internal company teams. I typically spend two or three days a month outside of Boston enmeshed in a company innovation project. I also serve on the Board of a several really interesting technology ventures.

If you ask where do I spend the time to actually teach, all my formal classroom teaching is done on Saturdays with working professionals coming to school to learn and apply innovation methods to their own companies. I have great students. I believe that it is the synergy between my teaching, consulting, and research that keeps one at the cutting edge of innovation.

How do you bring ideas to life?

For entrepreneurs and corporate innovators, my methods are in the books I have written. The reader can simply look them up on the Web and purchase them from Amazon if interested. But beyond the books, it always starts with a) form the right team, b) go to the target users, deeply, and focus in on their needs, frustrations, and behaviors, c) design the solution that uses the latest technology, but also leverages internal company or industry platforms to speed up time to market and reduce cost of goods, d) spend just as much time noodling on the business model, and running some early financial projects of sales and operating profit, and then e) figure out a way to quickly test the solutions with real target users, validate the business model, fix things, and then go for scale. If it is a new venture, I am thinking about the potential investors, form Day 1, including myself. If it a corporate innovation team, I am thinking about senior executive sponsors, including the CEO, from Day 1. All of this is in my two books, New Venture Creation (for entrepreneurs), and The Fast Path to Corporate Growth (for corporate innovators.)

What’s one trend that really excites you?

In education, it is experiential entrepreneurship education, as opposed to just traditional coursework. At my university, we combine coursework with 6 month Co-ops in early stage companies, with on-campus venture incubation, with immersion into the broader innovation ecosystem in our regional economy. The students are totally on fire. It is so exciting.
As both an entrepreneur and corporate innovator, the combination of Cloud, Mobile, Analytics, and Social are transforming every project I consider, everything I design, and transforming everyone’s experiences, regardless of category. In many ways, I wish I was 30 again, and not 57. There are such big problems in the world, and such powerful tools now to solve them.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am a very curious person — and I enjoy solving problems in teams. I also stick with things to completion. You will find all three traits in successful innovators and entrepreneurs.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Packing stinking squid in a fish market on Martha’s Vineyard for $1.80 an hour when I was 14. I learned early on that there had to be a better life than having someone order me to pack 100 lb boxes of squid into little boxes for fisherman. Later on in life, I had to eat chunks of wet dog food in order to get a consulting gig with a very old-fashioned, tough-it-out senior executive in a large pet food business. I learned then that there were in fact worse things than packing decomposing squid. I was also a security guard from midnight to 8am in the morning for a few years to help pay for college — but then again, that job wasn’t so bad at all because it was at a girl’s college;

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

That’s a really tough question. It would be easy to say “nothing at all.” But the truth is that successful entrepreneurs and innovators learn by making mistakes, and then doing better the next time. If I said that I wished I had done something different in my early 20s, then I wouldn’t have made a mistake or two, and then, not have learned from those mistakes. I believe that everything happens for a reason. You simply need to be able to look above the current angst or pain and understand the learning during the troubles, and grow from it. By the way, I am still doing that. Right now in fact.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Know your users, as deeply as possible, and then spend just as much time knowing your channel partners. Only then, design your new products or services, your business model, your go-to-market strategy.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I have been involved in a lot of businesses. It always gets down to team. And within the team, diversity of skills as well as competence matter hugely: a great technologist, a great sales person, and someone who really knows about money — who has it, how to make, and how to keep a good chunk of it. My external advisors have also always been pivotal to success — and I supposed that now I have become one of those advisors in my own right, helping young entrepreneurs.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Too many little ones to name. The big ones, always a misjudgment of people/team — never of market, technology, or consumer need.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I would rather fish. Actually, all my friends and students know that all too well.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

The elegance of the Mac OS, the utility of Find my Phone and Cloud-base backup and storage, and Skype all the time, all over the world.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Rather than recommend one specific book, let me try this one on your readers – because it has worked for me. View your life as a book, with each five years or so as a specific chapter.

What are the chapters so far? What have you learned in each chapter, and what do you know now about what you do best? For the next chapter, what do you really want to do, as opposed perhaps to doing just what you are doing today? Who have you have met along the way that you want to include in that next chapter? What is the context, the location, the type of team you want to build, and importantly, the life style you want to lead? If you are not already on that path, what is the best way to get started? And if you are on that path, how do you put your foot on the accelerator?

In sum, view your own life as a book and try to make it the most interesting read you can for yourself, your family, and your friends. As one of my closest friends said to me just the other day, “This ain’t no dress rehearsal, my friend.”


Marc Meyer on LinkedIn: