Double bottom line is a relatively silly name for a simple concept: businesses can be about more than just profit.  Double bottom line usually means “profit and social good” and triple bottom line usually means “profit and social good and environmental sustainability”.  God knows what a quadruple bottom line would be, since environmental sustainability seems to fall under social good.  Really, double is the sweet spot: profit and “not sucking”.

Despite the name, the concept is fairly important.  Most folks aren’t aware that CEOs have a fiduciary duty: one of which is that they are legally obligated to maximize profit for their shareholders (and can actually be sued for not doing so).  By formally introducing a second bottom line and writing it into the company mission, they are then allowed to use that second bottom line as a justification for taking actions that aren’t explicitly profit-oriented.  Which, in turn, prevents them from being sued for not doing terrible things in the name of profit.  Pretty nifty.

So explaining this over dinner to a friend, I used the restaurant we were sitting in as an example.  It might be more profitable, I posited, to swap out our green salad for some fries and if this restaurant was publicly traded, shareholders could conceivably try to force that that move.  If it was a double bottom line restaurant, however, the manager could argue that it would make people fat and that would be a legitimate defense.

Which got me thinking: what if more restaurants, private or public, were double bottom line?  That is, what if they were concerned with reducing the calorie count of the food that they served?  Large chains already are, because in NYC and some other markets, they are required to put the calories on the menu.  But when I go to any of New York City’s wonderful restaurants, there is literally no reason for them to pay attention to my health – taste/value ratio is literally the only bottom line.

The idea behind double bottom line is not only that it protects companies who choose to pursue “not sucking” but that it sets another goal for employees to strive for and in turn differentiates that company.  It is the most authentic form of marketing: saying something and doing it.  We all want to be healthier – is it really impossible to compete as a restaurant willing to help us do it?  For those that say yes, consider that twenty years ago, there were almost no double bottom line companies.  And now Tom’s Shoes.  Chobani.  Seventh Generation.  Warby Parker.  Ben & Jerry’s.  Patagonia.  It is a very long list.

Restaurateurs – you need to step up your game.

Recently, after giving a flurry of talks and press interviews, I started talking to colleagues from a variety of fields about the process of speaking and the somewhat bizarre rituals that occur in order to create good events.  Almost everyone I talked to had some funny story about speaking, and the humor was often generated by unexpected deviations from the community norms around talks.

Which made me realize that there were community norms, but like most norms, they were encoded and passive and rarely discussed.  Which naturally made me want to discuss them.  So now, settle back and enjoy a few definitions, a brief rant, and the occasionally lame joke.

Now that you know why I’m writing this post, let’s get to the what of the matter.

Invited talks are exactly what they sound like: an inviter (usually an individual, though often acting on behalf of a group as an organizer, curator, or editor) and an invitee (presumably an expert in the field).  The inviter generally sends the invitee a personal note or gives them a call, asks if they’d like to talk at a particular event, and relays details about the event.  The implicit assumption is that the invitee is doing the inviter (or at least the inviter’s organization) a favor by appearing; travel costs are often covered and if they aren’t, the invitee is at least wined and dined.  The invitee is free to talk about whatever they want and they submit nothing in advance.

This usually works out well because the community is self-policing.  If the invitee was a bad speaker or prone to giving inappropriate talks, they wouldn’t get invited to give them again – interests are aligned because presumably the invitee wants to be heard in the world and so is motivated to present such that people will continue to listen.  And because they are invited by an individual, there is also a smaller social effect at work, such that the invitee doesn’t want to disappoint the inviter, who puts some of their reputation as an editor/curator/whatever on the line in having issued the invitation.  A bad talk is bad for all and so there is a strong aligned pressures for everyone involved.

But invited talks do have a significant downside: they favor the established over the undiscovered.  You’ll rarely see a grad student give an invited talk, for example, unless they have a particularly notable career already.  Inviters tend to work with known quantities, often those they have personal ties with, and this can lead to a cyclical series of invitations that means you hear the same ten people speak most of the time.  It also means that hot topics tend to rise to the top because of a recency effect: the inviters often heard the invitee speak recently, which makes them top-of-mind for inviting.

Submitted talks aren’t new, but they are become more common in some arenas.  Basically, they’re the opposite of an invited talk: people are asked to submit proposals or videos or some sort of evidence of what a talk is going to be about to the inviters, and then the inviters select from that pool.  Usually this submission process is open to almost everyone, although there may be explicit or implicit requirements.

Originally, these were most common in very large academic conferences, where there were main invited talks, but plenty of smaller sessions that were filled in with people presenting papers, often in a panel format.  And by people, I generally mean grad students – they didn’t get travel money, they have no reputation, they’re just hoping to get noticed.  It isn’t quite vanity press, in that many more submit than get picked; it is more like trying to walk-on to a sports team – you only really show up if you think you’ve got a reasonable chance of being picked.

Recently, however, this format has expanded beyond second-tier academic slots.  With the rise of social media and the increasing ease of collecting electronic video, many venues, including TED and Ignite, have increasingly been at least partially filled with submitted talks.  The 2013 TED has promised that over half their speakers will come from a “worldwide talent search”, in which people submit applications and give a demo talk.

There is an argument to be made that the submitted talk is actually a form of egalitarianism.  Yes, not everyone always has the ability to submit, but it is certainly more broad reaching than the invited talk and it does help promote new voices.  In theory, the best of the best can rise to the top, even if they’ve never been seen before or don’t have the same stodgy track record that others may insistent upon.

But a major drawback is that because most submitted talks are still curated, the inviters actually not have significantly more control than with invited talks.  Not only are they taking a pass at initial submissions, but they continue that editorial power down the line; the presumption is that there are always more people who submitted than were selected, so if your talk doesn’t fall into the desired shape, you can be replaced.  Unlike the invited talk, where oversight is actively discouraged and inviters would have difficulty pulling back from someone once they have been invited and announced, submitted talks give inviters the ability to meddle in the content of the talk itself.

And why not?  After all, it is the inviters conference and can’t they damn well do what they please?  Depends on your goal for talks.  The trouble is that a format that appears more egalitarian (submitted talks) can actually be significantly less so because of the ability of the inviters to control content.  Just as tenure exists in academia to make sure that controversial research still gets done and controversial classes still get taught, there is a very real danger that the curation of submitted talks can actually stifle the very voices that the format originally encouraged.

Perhaps more passively (and more importantly), submitted talks also privilege a certain kind of speaker: one with time on their hands.

Preparing a submission, a video, and trying out adds to the already onerous process of doing a talk, which is particularly difficult if you’re not simply sitting on your duff and are actually trying to do things in the world.  In academia, the active researcher always has things happening in their lab and simply may not have time to go search for speaking opportunities and submit themselves to them – that is an inhibiting pressure in a world of competing pressures.  And outside of academia, people who are actively directing projects meant to help and change and create face the same pressures: they may simply be too busy to submit a talk that, if they were invited, they could find the time to give.

This is the true loss of submitted talks for me.  As someone who has never looked for the opportunity to speak, I treasure the process of spreading a particular message but would much rather be building than looking for someplace to talk about what I’m building. We can avoid the censorship issue by simply insuring that submitted speakers are allowed to speak freely on the topic of their choice, but it is difficult to get around the sheer inhibiting pressure that is the act of submission.  Any college admissions officer will tell you that inviting minority students to attend guarantees you higher admission from that pool that asking them to submit themselves, and such invitations have had a significant impact on the face of college enrollment.

Submitted talks make life easy for inviters, but I doubt highly that is the explanation for their rise.  Its us, the masses, the people who dream of one day being on the TED stage.  It fuels reality TV and game shows and the idea that we can be famous, if only just for a moment.

The problem is, fame should actually be earned – it should be a mark of respect for genuine achievements.  And in our clamor to have the chance at the TED stage, we’ve forgotten that what made TED so unique was the ability to see truly insightful talks by people who had put years into gaining the expertise that made their short talks such a mind blast of knowledge.  The reason we loved TED talks was because they were drinking straight from the geek tap.  And ultimately, submitted talks will water that down, because you will lose out on those geeks who you have to ask to come out of the lab or their non-profit or the boardroom long enough to talk to us about something they are truly expert about.

Let us do our job, as inviters and audiences, and not just pander to the need for instant fame.  Go find the speakers too busy doing awesomeness to submit an application and make them talk, for all our sakes.

Imagine people as a two by two matrix (which is pretty much how I see the world).  On one  axis is competence (genius, idiot) and the other is personality (awesome, asshole).

The genius/awesome quadrant is easy to make intros for: they bring value to almost every situation and they make you laugh while they do it.  Since we all want to be this person, we all want to meet/work/spend time with this person, and the real problem is not overwhelming them with connections.

The idiot/asshole is also easy to deal with: you work with them only when you are forced to, spend no social currency helping them, and hope they don’t give you cooties.  If you’re particularly awesome, you can try to help them anyway; if you choose to do so, please do it by keeping them away from me.

The real issue is the other two quadrants, the mixes.  I know a lot of genius/assholes and they often end up in engineering or academia, where you don’t actually need many introductions, so they are slightly less of a problem for me.  When they do need something, you generally rely more on evaluating what they need than them.  For example, if they need an intro to a business person, you generally try to find the most tolerant business person you know and make sure you are around when they meet to smooth over the bumps.

Which leaves the awesome/idiot and this is the quadrant that has been stumping me lately.  They are nice people and so I do genuinely want to help them, but what do we do with people who simply don’t have the skills to manage the things they want intro’s for?

For example, I consistently have a few people who ask me for introductions to job leads that they just aren’t qualified for, and there is nothing more frustrating and conflicting.  On the one hand, you want them to get a good job where they learn something and can meaningfully contribute to society in someplace that makes them feel happy and healthy.  On the other hand, if they can’t do the job, they can’t do the job, and there is nothing worse for your credibility than trying to push the agenda of someone who just isn’t good enough to be able to run with that ball.

This may just be an offshoot of the global conversation people have been having about a generation that they feel is lacking in practical skills.  I’m with Jon Stewart in that I think the young people of today are actually fairly amazing in their ability to accomplish a variety of things, with some shiny standouts, and so I don’t have a particularly pessimistic view of the young.  But I’m still stuck on trying to figure out what we do with the people who aren’t standouts.

For introductions, at least, there is a standard formula: explain why the introduction isn’t the right one, offer to make the introduction you think is the right one, consistent positive feedback about being awesome (ignoring idiot, since that is something that can generally be changed).  And those are all important steps: too often, I think people just throw awesome/idiots to the wolves, which sets them up not only for an unpleasant, demoralizing interview, but also wastes the time of your contact, who now shares your conflict about what to do with them.

The bottom line is that we have to stop being afraid to tell people that they aren’t ready for an opportunity.  Sink or swim is great when you’re on Survivor, but genuine advisors should be taking into account the global well-being of the purpose and their long-term development, which means helping them understand their limits and find a place to grow beyond them.  Scaffolding FTW.

It is no secret that I love the active advisor role: my LinkedIn is rife with them (and let’s just appreciate that we no longer say “my resume”).  What is perhaps less evident is exactly how difficult being an active advisor is.  Not because of the time demands (although it can be demanding) but because in order to be an active advisor, you need active advisees.  And that can be a truly hard lesson for a founder to learn.

Most founders are self-starters; they wouldn’t have formed a company otherwise.  At the very least, they are capable of doing a great many things on their own, and I truly believe that most of them take specific pleasure from doing so.  The trouble is that makes them prone to a Rambo mentality, a one-man-army approach that means taking on more than you actually need to.  Sometimes, the burdens get to feeling good.

As an advisor, that’s hard to watch.  In an ideal world, you want them to realize “this is something someone else could do better” and almost immediately outsource it to the correct person.  From that view, the best founders are the ones who realize the specific function of each person in their team, including advisors.

Different advisors are good for different things, but overwhelmingly I think they have two strengths: the ability to impart mental paradigm shifting information in short bursts and the ability to connect above and around problems.

By the first, I mean simply that a good advisor can entirely change the way you view your approach over the course of a meal or a drink.  It is something you find in good college professors as well, that mind-blowing moment where they totally shift your worldview.  Taking advantage of that means introducing your advisor to whatever team member needs a paradigm shift and letting them have it.  Too often, the advisor meetings are just with founders: don’t make that mistake.  Introduce your advisor to the team and give them the chance to ask the questions they need answers to.

The second is far more standard.  Most advisors have a varied network, in part because they have also had to solve the same problems that founders have and thus have developed the networks that allow for those solutions.  Need to hire an engineer?  Call your advisors.  Need a lawyer?  Call your advisors.  Trying to get a bizdev meeting?  Call your advisors.  If it involves needing something that you don’t have and requires more than a day to get, your advisors can probably get it more quickly for you.

And here’s the key: your advisors want to help you.  That’s the whole reason they are your advisors!  Nobody signs up to be any kind of active advisor unless they really do want to be a part of making your company better.  By letting them do that, you’re not only making your life easier, you’re making them happy.  I’m always reminded of The Offspring lyrics: Now I know I’m being used. That’s okay, man, ’cause I like the abuse.