Making Something From Nothing: James R Langabeer Of Yellowstone Research On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
I wish somebody would have told me was that it just isn’t as fun as you think to be your own boss! You have nobody to blame, or go to for help. Try to find a mentor, or somebody that’s more experienced than you in a similar business or venture. Ask for their help — and take their advice!
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Langabeer.
James R. Langabeer, PhD is a management strategist, entrepreneur, and professor. He has founded or led several successful companies, including a healthcare information technology company and a business intelligence software firm. He has also developed several large-scale community initiatives and programs as an endowed professor at UTHealth Houston. James is best known for his expertise on management decision-making and founded Yellowstone Research, LLC to provide strategy consulting for leaders in healthcare, supply chain, and consumer goods firms. He was named a finalist for the 2022 Success Magazine most influential leader award, and his writing has been published in Forbes, Psychology Today, and over 125 academic journals. His latest book is The Quest for Wealth: Six Steps for Making Mindful Money Choices (Routledge Press, 2022).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was very fortunate to have been born overseas in Tokyo Japan, the middle child of an Air Force officer/Certified Public Accountant, and a loving and energetic mother. They were both from the heart of the Midwest in Peoria, Illinois. We moved around quite a bit, which showed me that growth in life is fed by new opportunities and new scenery. We shouldn’t get complacent, or remain in one place, literally or figuratively, too long. With a military family, you learn a lot about discipline, and I was also taught the importance of money and how to make solid conservative financial choices. Our parents constantly tried to model how important it was to exercise leadership, whether in your work or personal life. I tried to lead, travel, and take advantage of as many opportunities as I could to keep moving forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One thing my father used to always goes something like “a coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one.” He encouraged us to take chances, get out there, and do something despite potential consequences. He wasn’t afraid of much, and “action” was always preferable to inaction. I’ve been lucky because I believe that risk-taking is essential for innovation and entrepreneurship, so those early lessons have helped me immensely with my ability to get things done.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that significantly impacted you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I loved the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber. We read it in high school I believe, and then much later I saw the film version with Ben Stiller. The story made a lasting impression on me. At its core, I believe it is about the difference between dreamers and doers. There are some people who wish they had a better, more exciting, heroic life. And others who go out there and are brave and courageous. Most importantly, it shows that you can go out there and change your life, and make it all come true.
Also, I read in business school the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. I don’t remember much of it, but what stuck with me was the idea that you can be actually grounded in daily rational thinking (about consequences, the future, planning) yet still be present in the moment. That there can be a balance between being analytical and still be mindful. I think that’s really important for us, since we tend to think of things in extremes rather than harmony, and prefer one way over another. Since I focus on how people make big (strategic) choices, I like to know that you can be congruent between these perspectives.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
I think this is completely correct. So many people think they have ‘killer ideas’, but don’t act on them. Some times, these are just re-do’s of what is already out there. But in other cases, people have really good ideas, but can’t figure out the first few steps. It’s really rare to find somebody with a good idea, that can actually pull it off. That’s why entrepreneurs who can get an idea to the commercialization phase are fairly rare. When I’m advising young entrepreneurs, the first thing I always ask them to do is to make a few notes, briefly detailing these points:
- What’s the core concept?
- Why does this inspire you?
- Why is this unique?
- What business problem or need does this solve, and for whom specifically?
- Why are you the right person to tackle it?
- How might this be monetized?
These just need to be a sentence or two for each point. I don’t recommend a detailed business plan at first. Details in a traditional business plan just bog people down in a writing exercise and make you think about the “practical” matters. Not having answers at first, is what you have to get comfortable with! So don’t worry about all details at first, try to remain conceptual. We tend to go right into the details, and gloss over the most important aspects. This creates too much focus on the wrong components of planning, which are virtually unknowable at this point. I see people worrying about their pricing strategy (how much to charge) when they really don’t even know who they are solving a problem for. These details will all come later, but first, start with the concept and the innovation.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
People often dismiss their own abilities and their own originality. I think it’s because people are thinking about ideas for things in the wrong way. Even an incrementally better service, product, or even process enhancement can all be ideas that can be innovated. It’s not necessarily just one ‘big thing’. The best way to really know if this is a unique idea is to more carefully explore it. Write down the answers to the conceptual questions earlier. Try asking a few people what they think of this idea, especially those people who might have the need for the product or service you are thinking about. Then, as we all do, “Google it”. See what exists that is out on the public domains. I wouldn’t worry about a patent or trademark or legal matters at this stage — start by asking questions and doing some basic research.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
Even before this, let’s talk about what’s most important — developing your ‘story’ about this big idea. You want to work on creating a compelling pitch that will seize people’s interest immediately, yet not too much where you lose them. Think of a 15 or 30 second pitch around your vision. Don’t try to confuse people. Simplify as much as possible, as if you’re talking to somebody who knows nothing about this! That is the most important thing — simplify your ideas, and what it could mean for them or others. Give people a reason to be excited and wanting to hear more.
Then, you’ll need to work through the mechanics. You have to have a solid grasp of competitive intelligence — who are the competitors in this area. Not only other companies but competing products that might fill the same need. What are the gaps today? You want to end up with an idea of the size of the market potential. What is the opportunity? What is the up-side?
Once you have this, people should get some validation on their ideas. You tossed the idea around to a few people earlier, but now you need to get serious with some research. A/B testing is a good way to try to see what potential customers might prefer, if you can narrow things down. Surveys, interviews, or small focus groups might help provide insight. Before investing a lot of your personal money, or that of an investor, validate that this makes sense to potential real customers.
Then think through what you need to make this happen from a value-chain perspective: Do you need to manufacture a product? Open a retail location? What suppliers would you need? What are the start-up to do this in the beginning, and and ongoing costs once fully scaled? What would a team or organization look like for this? This is the heart of the financial projections you’ll need to consider.
With all this information, you should be able to now create a revenue model. Think of a small pilot to deploy this, and always build in a lot more time than you think you need to get something out there. In my projections, I usually expect zero revenue for many months, and only expenses. You’ll need to make sure you have at least 6–12 months of expected expenses saved to get going. This is where you might need to consider financial alternatives: self-funded, angel investors, venture capital, or debt (loans).
See how easy it is to get mired down in details? There is a lot to plan. So take it one step at a time!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?
The first thing I wish somebody would have told me was that it just isn’t as fun as you think to be your own boss! You have nobody to blame, or go to for help. Try to find a mentor, or somebody that’s more experienced than you in a similar business or venture. Ask for their help — and take their advice!
Second, I’d say to others don’t sweat all the details too early on. You just get too overwhelmed. At the same time, I wish I would have thought through financial alternatives earlier too. You might reach a point of financial ‘vulnerability’ or even desperation, where you think of don’t have any alternatives. I have found myself taking funding from companies that probably weren’t in the best interest, but I thought I had no other choices at the time. Strategic planning can help you prepare for these times!
I also think I under-estimated the value of a solid team at start-up. Whiel everything starts and stops with you, it’s not just about you anymore. It has to be about finding partners and employees that share your vision and can take it to the next level. When I started up a healthcare information organization, I brought in a few people immediately that could absorb the vision, and create passion and energy. This is essential to the first year of a new venture.
I sometimes wish I wasn’t always so frugal. For instance, now I know that spending money on outside consultants can be useful. I often find myself thinking through things by myself and probably didn’t reach the best option. If I would have spent a little money on an independent management consultant or market research firm, they could have played a more active role in helping me do the research, simulate alternatives, and come up with a better path forward. I strongly recommend the use of a consultant to help go through these steps from idea to implementation.
Lastly, I wish I had thought through this important question a little more closely: “what does success look like”. We get worked up with a few things, such as customer counts, or dollar volumes of sales. Yet, these aren’t the best indicators for most companies. Entrepreneurs often want to create a product and become rich, successful, or well-known — or just create a useful product or service. But articulating that a lot more clearly, with detailed performance indicators and specific goals, could help you gauge success better.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The very first step is to be able to articulate the vision into a story. Work on refining the message so well that you can literally tell people what it is, what it does, and why they need it without seeing them yawn or turn away. This crafting of a compelling, yet concise, story is what successful entrepreneurs master. Think about your role this way:
- Messaging. You own the story, the brand, and the vision.
- Master Planning. The most important choices are yours to make. Develop and maintain a strategy blueprint.
- Mobilizing. You have to think about your leadership team, resources, partners, and suppliers. These are all vital to early-stage success.
- Momentum. Focus your energy on maintaining momentum and moving toward your 1, 3, and 5-year goals.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
No, not an invention development consultant. But, I would definitely consider using an independent consultant for helping do some of the initial research and providing advice on markets and competitors. You must own the vision the concept, but you can use a consultant to gather the intelligence and the research to create prototypes. Use a consultant to help you with revenue or cost projections. Or, use them to help work on validation and implementation. They can be worth their weight in gold, and allow you bandwidth to focus on what really matters — your message and momentum-building.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
There are some advantages to both. Generally, for most people, I recommend using your own resources for as long as possible. You’ll hold on to more of your “sweat-equity” and future profits. But this can also limit growth considerably. For some types of companies, such as information systems or those requiring significant capital expenditures, it might be necessary to consider outside investors, such as venture capital firms (VC). VC funding can be great and can help the company sustain years of losses since they aren’t always focused on short-term profitability. I’ve gone through multiple rounds of funding, and each time, you lose a little bit more of your ownership. So make sure the growth of the firm outweighs this ownership devaluation. It’s a hard choice to make. In the end, do the one you feel most comfortable with and can sleep best with. If you go the VC route, make sure you do all the due diligence to find the right partner, future board member, and advisor. That relationship is key to your growth and success.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
To me the most important societal areas we have to address with bold ideas are around mental health, homelessness, climate changes, substance use, and immigration. I have tried to create a few programs to address a few of these, but so much more is needed. One really successful project I have created is helping those who are struggling with substance use and mental health disorders, especially opioids. One of these programs, the Houston Emergency Opioid Engagement System (or HEROES) helps provide free integrated treatment and recovery services for people struggling with substance use disorders in Texas. We’ve helped re-build thousands of lives for individuals and their families. As with any initiative, I think it’s important to define a future state that is better than where you are, and do something rather than nothing. We need innovators in these areas, and I applaud the work of people like the Gates Foundation who are using their resources to combat important social issues.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As somebody who is highly vested in the technology world, I’d have to controversially say that we need a better way to manage mobile technology has taken over our life. We need some kind of controls over how phones and technology are dominating our brains! We need better mental health interventions that can help reduce loneliness and suicide rates. I think mobile technology is one area which can be improved significantly.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Being a big fan of great leaders and brand-builders, I would love to meet Oprah Winfrey. She’s so smart, always well prepared, and seems to know everything! Everything she touches turns to gold it seems, from her magazine, books, films, podcasts, and other business ventures. She is a terrific role model!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Making Something From Nothing: James R Langabeer Of Yellowstone Research On How To Go From Idea To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.