Justin Williams, Founder CIVX, Tucson, AZ

Welcome to the KnolShare with Dr. Dave podcast, hosted on Grokshare.com and streamed on iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify.   You are listening to Episode #71 with Justin Williams founders of CIVX in Tucson AZ.


Dr. Dave Cornelius: Okay. Let’s start off with your name.

Justin Williams: My name is Justin Williams

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Okay. And what organization that you belong to or that you lead?

Justin Williams: Several, but I think the most relevant one would be CIVX.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Okay. And that’s CIVX?

Justin Williams: Correct.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Okay. So what led you to your current position in your journey?

Justin Williams: So with CIVX, it’s sort of the intersection of two threads of my world, that of an entrepreneur and an educator supporting the entrepreneurial innovation community here in Tucson, which is built on a paradigm of lean startup, and agile thinking, and customer value creation as a generalized set of principles and tools to help aspiring entrepreneurs build by creating high growth, often technology-enabled startup companies.

Justin Williams: I created an organization in 2011 around that space called Startup Tucson. It was built to be a framework for catalyzing the startup ecosystem here in Tucson. And so we built and launched and ran a variety of programs through Startup Tucson focused on things ranging from networking mixers, Startup Drinks, to pitch feedback meetups like 1 Million Cups, to growth incubator or we called it a venture development program called Thrive, and large scale multi thousand person innovation festival called TENWEST, along with a variety of other initiatives like a coworking space, colab workspace. Startup Tucson was an entrepreneur support organization and an incubator of initiatives to grow the ecosystem.

Justin Williams: Prior to that I had taken over the remnants of three nonprofits and merged them to become a local technology trade association called AMIT, Aerospace Manufacturing and IT. After running that for several years as the largest technology trade association in Tucson, we merged it with an organization called the Arizona Technology Council out of Phoenix and ran it for another three years before I left that organization. As part of leaving it, I also launched Startup Tucson at that point.

Justin Williams: The origin of this shift from the technology company, business economic development landscape to the more action-oriented individual work would actually be launching the event TEDx Tucson here in Tucson in 2010. So that was another key piece of this. And all of this is sort of the intersections of people who think about the future, who are willing to take actions, and feel empowered that they have the right to do something, that they have wisdom to contribute to making their community better.

Justin Williams: There’s an activist culture around leadership in a community, and so I began generalizing all of that work. The work in terms of building community through a trade association or a startup support organization using the values of having the empowerment or the permission structures that entrepreneurs and founders have to go implement some sort of change that they’d love to see instead of just feeling helpless, or feeling unable to, or without permission, or wisdom to be able to do something.

Justin Williams: That’s all one growth. From managing its trade association through and their vision to improve the world through their startup ideas. That’s one growth path.

Justin Williams: The other is that I’ve always been very thoughtful about the nature of a more civic landscape, including politics and elections, and being an active citizen in my community, and thinking about what I want for the world and for my country and my community. It’s always been something that I’ve felt, I think for all the same reasons that I felt like I could start a business, I also felt like I had permission all along to have influence over the direction of my country or my community. I’ve started to combine those two threads of community leadership and civic participation and this idea of entrepreneurial empowerment and this agile problem-solving mindset into a broader concept that is the origin of CIVX.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Okay, so who influenced your philosophy on life and business?

Justin Williams: Probably a lot of people. Interesting. Give me a second here. So this particular project of CIVX, probably the single most important intersection of thinking would be Steve Blank, who is the Lean LaunchPad founder and he teaches the Lean Startup Course at Stanford and Berkeley. I interned with him in 2015 I think, no 2012, when he was launching the educators program for the Lean LaunchPad. So that really helped me build a foundation for launching beyond the work that we did at Thrive and to start teaching and creating courses at the university that I teach. So the lean, agile thinking, I think, started primarily with my experience with Steve Blank.

Justin Williams: Even before that, a collaborator and friend and colleague of mine brought Steve’s work to my attention, Aaron Eden. Together he and I grabbed Steve’s slides and started teaching a cohort using Lean Startup even before we had gone through this program. So I would say Aaron introduced it to me, Steve’s really the catalyst of the concepts for me. That’s on that founder, agile thinking concepts.

Justin Williams: The other piece of it, more on the civic and the global world and where we live is the author Thomas Friedman. He wrote a book in 2016 called Thank You for Being Late, and it was a really powerful book. It hit me at an important time and played a huge role in this transition from how do I work in the technology industry, how do I work in the business industry, how do we build and grow technology-driven businesses and economic development, and transition that into a concept I’ve been developing around civic engagement using those same concepts and tools? How do you make changes in your local community? How do you feel empowered the way an entrepreneur feels empowered? How do you gain that empowerment through the use of agile and lean startup thinking? And then how do you meet and use the types of thinking, and communication, and tools that we use in this world to build relationships in your local community and create positive impacts? And so that was the origin of the concept for CIVX.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Excellent. So what would be your ideal form of work if there was one?

Justin Williams: Okay. I think that I have a lot in common with people who love watching Ted Talks, and the reason that I love watching Ted Talks is that they are designed to be ideas worth spreading. And those ideas are powerful when they are combined with action. And so I think the reason I like it, I think the reason many people like it, is that those ideas are inspiring, they’re novel, they’re a new way of thinking that you hadn’t encountered before. And so my ideal way of working would be heavily involved in and using that kind of thinking to improve the world. Working with people who compliment my contribution in those ways. I think that there’s a book and a Ted Talk called The Originals. And the mindset that’s talked about in that Ted Talk,

Justin Williams: I think is how I look at the world. I’m trying to see patterns and parallels and things that don’t exist today or aren’t common today and choosing the ideas out of that, that make the world better, and then trying to put those into action. That last part is important. It’s very easy to sit around and daydream and I think there’s all the potential in the world for someone to have a very vivid imagination, but it’s about which ones matter. How do you put them into action and how do they affect the world? And so being able to use that creativity to meaningfully and quickly make an impact in my community or in the marketplace or in the world. I love doing that.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Awesome. So let’s get into the theme of the primary part of the interview where we talk about value. When you think of value, what comes to mind?

Justin Williams: I actually have a way of describing the value proposition using the Lean Canvas. So I’ll probably start with that, although I think it’s a geeky, narrow, way of describing it so I can, for the purposes of interview questions, I can kind of speak more probably later. We use the Lean Canvas in teaching entrepreneurship and the framework of the civics innovation canvas is nearly identical and it’s that when you’re trying to solve problems in the world, there are three pieces of the puzzle that you have to think about. What is the problem, who has that problem, and what solution do you have in mind? And I think many people jump right to the solution that they have in mind because they think of themselves as the person in some problem that they encountered is the problem.

Justin Williams: And so then given that they are the customer and the experience they had is the problem, all of their energy goes into thinking how to solve it. Creative people often do that. And the value proposition is the fourth piece of the puzzle and it takes into account the problem and the conception of the solution. So the value proposition is the reason that the customer pays the money they do for the solution and it is not the solution itself. That’s the confusing and difficult part for many people. The value is the benefit you gain by having the problem solved for you. It is what you get and when it comes to something in the business world, it’s what you get that is why it’s worth paying

Justin Williams: whatever the cost was that you paid because the value you get in return is greater than what you paid. Without paying it, without putting in the time to purchase it, the money you used to purchase it, the effort to get the solution, the research, whatever you did, the investment you made to acquire that solution, all of that combined is worth it because the solution delivers value to you. It does solve the problem, but that’s not the value proposition. Value proposition is what you gain when the problem is solved. In the world of teaching this, probably the most abstract and difficult concept for people to really wrap their head around is this idea of value, because they often think of it as a statement of the solution and it’s really not. It’s the benefits you gain by implementing the solution at the cost you spent to get it.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: That’s an excellent response. So let’s move on to thinking about happy, contributing people. What would you include in a working environment that would enable happy, contributing people? Share about one or more experiences that you’ve had where you were in a space where you felt that you were able to be one of those happy, contributing people so that we can understand. What else would you add to that space?

Justin Williams: Let me think about it from the leading perspective. So that’s been most of my work in the last 15 years or so. And it’s interesting because when you’re paying a salary, a lot of the value that the team members get for their participation is the livable wage, the life that income provides to them. So merely by paying a wage, it goes an awfully long way towards creating a happy, contributing climate. I say that because a lot of my work is contrasted with volunteerism, where you don’t get to do that, where you don’t have the resources to hire the professional staff to do the kind of work. So in the volunteer world, as a leader, you have to do much more, I think, to be able to gain momentum and have value created by the team than you might as an employer paying a salary because that salary goes so far towards getting people to show up every day and to put effort in and to take their time and creative energy and make some sort of outcome.

Justin Williams: And it’s hard. It’s very hard because these people need salaries and so in order to have any kind of success when you’re not paying a salary… I think my biggest area for future improvement is that of a manager. My contributions are more as a visionary leader type and less as a cultural, social staff management person. I know that there are good answers that people give and that are best practices. I think my answer is going to come from a little bit different perspective. If you can paint a vision of where the group is going that inspires people, you’ll be able to find the alignment with that passion that they have inside of them. Then they will show up and be present and be creative and make contributions, even when they’re not getting paid because they believe in it. I think of it as tapping into their passion.

Justin Williams: And I think that in an employment world, anything you do that makes volunteerism work, remains true in a work environment as well. So if you can find ways of doing work or reasons for staff to be engaged around their passions, then the work will get better, the time invested will go up, the energy for it will be better, the camaraderie will be better. So thinking of management of staff using the volunteer management mindset, I think can be really powerful. And for me, my way of doing that is to be a positive, constructive person

Justin Williams: and to be hopeful and try and be funny and fun to be around, but also to be vocal about all of the elements of the project that are why we’re doing this. Why are we all here together? You’re not getting a paycheck. You’re not here for that reason. That means that you believe in something more and you’re willing to give up the time. And that’s, I think, my key way of doing things is to find those things that bring people together with their passions. When they’re aligned with mine, we work together as a team and it goes well. And then having the humility to be a leader who recognizes that their skills are in a certain domain. And in mine it’s less about particulars of management and more about the vision, the outcome, the camaraderie, the community, and less about the discipline of management.

Justin Williams: And so then taking that and empowering other people around you to lead, even if you’re in charge, to be the leader that people look to for those things. And to take a back seat, to not need to figure that all of the attention is put on that you see yourself as a leader both as the inspiration role, but not the leader of every single role. In fact, many ways you are willing to be an individual contributor, even though you’re the boss, you’re in charge because you know where your competencies lie. And I think it’s balance that I’ve tried to bring over the years.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Okay, great. Let’s think of the satisfied customers. We have about nine minutes. What would create satisfied customers? Think of civics. And if you could give us an answer in terms

Dr. Dave Cornelius: So what would create satisfied customers? So people being engaged with CIVIX.

Justin Williams: We’re still learning why people are participating in the work we do. We’ve run our first experiment, and satisfied customers come when you deliver value to your customers, and their value is individually defined. They, just like a volunteer, they come to you because they believe that they’re going to get something out of it. And what that is, is often very individualized. And so being attentive to having empathy for your customers gives you a tool, I mean as a mindset, a human relationship to their needs that allows you to be focused on creating value. And by doing that you will satisfy your customers, and that’ll show up in a lot of ways, right? It will show up in the solution that they have purchased, right? That that solution works in the way that they expected it to.

Justin Williams: But often when it comes to business, the individual widget or the individual technology or access to an app or a site, those are part of the value proposition. And I think from an engineering perspective, it’s very often seen as the totality of it. But the truth is that the relationship with the organization matters a great deal. How they’re treated, how people think and act during interactions, how that is perceived by the customer. It ends up that the value proposition and the satisfaction comes from the totality of all of those things together. So you could deliver the best product, and if you deliver it in a way that makes you look like a jerk, if there are alternatives, people are going to choose something else. They’re going to choose to send their business somewhere else. So being aware of the fact that there’s more to the solution than the particular technology or product that you’re delivering, and that there’s a holistic satisfaction and a holistic relationship between you and your customers that you’re focused on will go a long way.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: That’s for sure. Let’s talk about thriving business. So please describe your idea of a thriving business that would come out of CIVIX, and something that would be born out of this great idea that you have.

Justin Williams: So I think CIVIX is unique and interesting because the projects that come out of it are very wide and differentiated. They are not projects that are intended to be technology driven businesses like Founder Institute or Thrive was. They could be as varied as a series of work that a participant does and their conclusion on working on a problem, how to improve a problem in their community. An example I’ll use is the idea in one of our cohorts around how do you get high school students to be engaged citizens as they’re leaving high school, right? How do you get them to vote? How do you get them pay attention to the issues at hand and stay informed and care how to register to vote? That sort of project, it can come in a number of different forms.

Justin Williams: And in doing a project like that, success would be that in this case the initiative is to how do you get 100% of high school students registered to vote before they graduate high school, right? That’s the intention and mission of that effort. And so part of that would be how do you make sure that they’re interested in participating in this, that they have the opportunity to participate in it, that if every graduating senior in high school in Tucson that’s eligible to register to vote is actually registered, would be a measure of success. But I think beyond that, a measure of success is that their parents and the community around them trust this program enough, particularly in a partisan landscape like we live in now, that it’s not designed to persuade young people to take positions politically. There is no mission for larger change other than civic engagement, that people are actively engaged as citizens. And so that means gaining the trust and delivering value to the school districts, to the school boards, to the parents, in addition to the students themselves. And so success would be that those constituency groups, that they feel supportive of this program in a way that allows it to expand and grow and operate year over year.

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Awesome. So have about three minutes and I want to talk about business agility. That may not be something… I don’t know if you’re familiar with it or not, but how do you see CIVIX as an organization? And if you think of the Fourth Industrial or Digital Revolution, right? In the global market, how do you see organization being transformed based on what’s going on in the context of the Fourth Industrial or Digital Revolution?

Justin Williams: Okay. So CIVIX, I think, is designed specifically to solve that problem. So the book “Thank You for Being Late” by Thomas Friedman is a much more interesting read than the book, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” on exactly the same topic. It’s just written by a fabulous author. But the concept that inspired CIVIX is the fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is essentially a wave of advanced technologies that have ramifications beyond the… and a pace of growth that is beyond what we have ever seen in the world before and exponentially beyond to the point where it shapes and impacts society in ways that are much broader and more difficult to wrangle with than things we’ve ever seen before. The technology is getting so powerful and so quick to be created that the pace of innovation is so dramatic, that people, individual people, struggle to keep up with that pace of change.

Justin Williams: And so CIVIX is about lifelong learning. It’s also about individual empowerment. Those are critical factors for being capable of managing and navigating a rapidly changing world. But it’s also built on the principles of agile thinking, iteration, experimentation, data gathering, data-driven decision making, right? That these tools as the belief behind CIVIX is that those tools are critical for any human being to function in a world where the pace of change is exponentially growing and that you as an individual need to function in these ways. And that it’s not simply about building a search process for a business model that will make profits or a search process that will make a product more useful and valuable more quickly, or search for scientific truths in the universe. It’s a search for how to relate to the world and the people around you using the same techniques as the scientific method and agile thinking and lean startup, right? How do we adapt to the changing world around us using all of those same tools?

Dr. Dave Cornelius: Thank you for your contribution in our conversation today.

Justin Williams: All right. Thank you, man. We’ll talk soon.

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