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How To Deal With A Smart, Disruptive School Kid

Or how to deal with a kid like me.

Growing up, I was a teacher’s worst nightmare. I was really smart. I got high standardized test scores. I read books. I went to a top public high school, so I had all of the advantages. But I “never realized my potential” in school.

sleeping in class

I got bad grades. I disrupted class. I challenged teachers’ authority. I slept through class. See preferred technique above. I got the right answers but refused to show my work. I got my first detention in 1st grade music class for tripping a friend, but skipped it to play in the intramural soccer championships. In second grade, I refused to learn cursive because “we’ll never need to use it.” In fourth grade, I refused to write in my assignment notebook because I would finish my homework in class.

In fifth grade I made a teacher’s life miserable because she called people living in Africa in the 1500s “African American” and I never let her live it down. In sixth grade, I flunked art class. In seventh, I got kicked out of an english class for the final two months of the year because I made the teacher cry. In 8th grade, I was written up seemingly 100 times.

In high school, one teacher threatened to flunk me even though I had an A average on my tests because I “wasn’t a good class citizen and didn’t participate in class.” Another teacher referred my case to the guidance counsellor because he thought I had a disease because I slept in his class so much. I even got a death threat from another student because I got a higher grade on my term paper and he couldn’t fathom that I was smart because I didn’t add anything in class. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Why? Because I was a smart boy. I was bored out of my mind. I hated the rules. I didn’t care about the process, just the end product. I was messy. I didn’t have good penmanship. I didn’t like to sit still. I thought I was smarter than the teachers, and in some cases I was.

I was also struggling find my place with my peers, so I took on the role of the class clown. And I was good at it. I challenged authority. I pointed out when teachers were wrong. I did the bare minimum. I made their lives miserable because they were boring me to death.

By the end of high school, I wanted to go to a college that as I liked to put it “treated me like a number, not a name,” where I could do my own thing. I went to Wisconsin, found things I was interested in and have been successful since then.

For some smart kids, school is terrible. It tries to beat the creativity out of you. It tries to make you conform. To write and draw between the lines. Luckily, school never had a chance with me. Many of my smart friends had similar problems. And I’ve met kids and parents who have this same problem today.

So how should schools and parents deal with smart kids who are like me? Here’s a list of ten things parents can do to help their smart kids survive school.

1. Find teachers who are willing to work with you

My parents were at wits end, but they constantly demanded that teachers find challenging work for me, or give me alternative assignments. For example, in fifth grade I read 400 page biography of Jackie Robinson and wrote a book report instead of reading a 75 page book that was assigned. Or in 8th grade when a teacher agreed to let me do my own research papers on topics that I wanted. Thanks Ms. Marco, Ms. Keane, Mr. Lauasser, Mr. Gilbert and more.

2. Demand that your kid learns on his own

My parents didn’t really care what my grades were, but if I wasn’t reading and writing on my own outside of school, I was in trouble. Make a deal with your kid that you’ll relax a bit on grades if they continue to learn outside of school.

3. Tell your kids it’s not acceptable to disrupt other kids’ learning

Although I didn’t always follow this rule, I knew I would get in trouble at home if I was disrupting class for others. That led directly to my sleeping in class kick.

4. Teach Life Lessons

My parents explained that while I may be smarter than some of my teachers and that I was bored, life isn’t fair and that I’d have bosses or businesses dealings with people who were unfair, not as smart as me and where I didn’t get to set the rules.

5. Find a non academic outlet outside of school

My parents pushed me to take up reffing soccer at age 12. It gave me power, responsibility and someone to scream at me when I screwed up. It kept me in line. Check out programs like, Sector67100state and others in your area.

6. Find what interests your kid and let them work on it

I wrote stories about hockey and soccer. I learned math from baseball stats. I loved learning about foreign countries. I put most of my effort into learning through things I liked. Play to their strengths.

7. Let them fail

Your kid is likely arrogant. Let him fail. I refused to write in my assignment notebook and I forgot my work a few times. My parents didn’t make excuses for me and made me take lower grades.

8. Force him to accept the consequences of his actions

Don’t let him blame other people when he fails and things go wrong.

9. Help him learn from his mistakes

Don’t “I told you so” him. It won’t work. Say “maybe it would have been better if you did X next time” and leave it at that. Your kid is smart. He gets it. He just doesn’t want to admit it.

10. Plan for the long run

My parents always told me that they would be furious if I got bad grades that didn’t let me get into a decent college. They tolerated lots of bullshit as long as I kept decent grades. Set your long term expectations clearly and demand that they follow them.

Did you ever have these problems? How did your parents and teachers deal with you?

How to Talk to Media and Get Quoted in the Press

The first time I was interviewed in the media, I think I was about 19 and was incredibly excited, but also nervous.  Over the 30 minute interview with my local newspaper, I talked a ton and thought it went really well.  When the article came out, I wasn’t even quoted and only got a short mention.

The next interview I did with another newspaper, they quoted me, but took some of the quotes out of context and tried to pin me into a corner on one aspect of my business.  Over the next three years, I got better at talking to the media and giving public presentations, culminating in a 20 minute presentation to a congressional committee (PDF) and a TV news segment about my website.

Fast-forward six years.  My business partner Jesse and I have been interviewed 100s of times for major newspapers and blogs including the NY Times, Mashable, the Financial Times, TechCrunch and have appeared live on Fox Business News, two local TV stations and multiple radio shows including NPR San Francisco.  Now we both get prime coverage, tons of quotes and compliments on how well we handle speaking to the press.

So what went wrong in 2005? And how have Jesse and I gotten to the point where we’re completely comfortable in any media situation that comes our way?

In 2005, I talked quickly, rambled and didn’t really practice ahead of time.  I gave up too much information just because the reporter asked.  I talked about too many things, but not one super interesting stat.  In short, I made the journalist’s job hard.

Over the course of 2005-2008, I got better speaking to the media with practice.  In 2009, just before we were launching Entrustet at South By Southwest, we hired a PR firm called Shift Communications to help us out with our launch for our first few weeks.  They did a good job helping us get in the news, but to me, their real value with in their prep work.

Shift interviewed Jesse and me and then told us which parts to keep and which parts sucked.  They listened in on our first interviews and then helped us with “after action reports.” After each call, Shift employees told us how we could have said something better, the parts the journalist really liked and the parts we should drop for future interviews.  After a few weeks, Jesse and I were clearly getting better.  By the time our contract with Shift was up, we were pretty good.

Over the next few months, we honed our interview style on our own.  Here’s 19 tips for giving interviews so that your quotes get used and you don’t say something you regret:

Before the Interview


1.     Practice.  Write down 3-4 key points that you want to get across and practice saying them concisely.  Practice on your friends, family, in the mirror, random victims in the coffee shops/bars.  Try reaching out to small blogs and pitch them your story.  If you make a mistake or are nervous, only a small audience will notice.

2.     Get 1 go-to stat.  Ours is three Facebook users die every single minute and Facebook doesn’t know who they are or what they wanted done with their accounts.  With ExchangeHut, it was we facilitated ticket transfers for 10% of the student section during homecoming games. Our Facebook stat has been used in the NY Times, Atlantic, TechCrunch and many more.

3.     Get Feeback. Find someone outside your company who will agree to listen to your first few interviews while you are giving them who can provide feedback after the interview is done.

4.     Make a plan. Decide if there is anything you absolutely don’t want to discuss and go over your 3 main points you’ve been practicing.

During the Interview


5.     Relax. The interviewer wants to get your story.

6.     Ask how much time you have. At the beginning, ask the reporter if he has a hard stop, which is asking if the reporter must stop at a certain time. If you only have a short window, don’t chitchat, just get right to the point.

7.     Talk slowly. Reporters are taking notes, so talk slowly.  If you’re live, talking slowly makes you sound relaxed, smart and personable, even if you’re not.

8.     Don’t ramble.  Try not to speak for more than 30-60 seconds at a time.

9.     Answer directly. Don’t use business buzzwords and don’t speak too technically.

10. Don’t feel like you need to answer every question. If you don’t want to answer a question, don’t.  Develop a line to sidestep the question.  Say, “we’d rather keep that stat private.” Or “we’re a private company and we don’t disclose those figures.”

11. Don’t fill silence. In non-live interviews, silence is ok. The interviewer is gathering her thoughts or taking notes.  They don’t want to hear your nervous verbal diarrhea.

12. Let the interviewer finish. Even if you know what the question is going to be.  Nothing pisses off a journalist more and it makes you sound like an asshole.

13. Don’t sell.  Inform. Nobody likes a salesman.  Being a salesman is the quickest way to piss off a reporter, who will not include your quotes.  Be yourself.

14. If you don’t know, admit it. Don’t make something up.  The correct response is “That’s a great question we hadn’t though of yet.  I’ll research it and let you know the answer when we find out.”


After the Interview


15. Say Thanks. Send a thank you email telling the reporter that they should feel free to contact you if they have any follow up questions or need anything clarified.  Include your phone/email.

16. Follow up with facts. If there is anything to add to the story, email the reporter before the article is published.  For example, Oklahoma just passed a law that allows executors access to online accounts of dead people.  I emailed a link to any reporters who were still working on our story and might benefit from it.

17. Respond to comments/Twitter. When the article is published, make sure to respond to comments and interact on Twitter.

18. Do an after action report with your friend who listened to the interview.  Be honest and demand honesty from your friend.  If they don’t provide honest feedback, you’ll never get better.

19. Be honest with yourself and learn from each interview.  Take your friend’s feedback and incorporate it into your next interview.

Do you have any tips or strategies you use to make sure you get quoted?  Do you disagree with any of my tips?  What would you add to my list?

Photo Credit: Jon S.

Don’t Be Afraid of Competition

I just got back from a trip to New York.  While I was there, I met with a promising entrepreneur who has a great startup that has been pretty successful so far.  He is in the middle of expanding his business nationwide.  We came upon the topic of competition and how to deal with it.  I realized that many people have some misconceptions about competition.

My advice was “don’t be afraid of competiton.”  I learned this lesson when I was running ExchangeHut and talked about it at last year’s Entrepreneurial Deli event in Madison.  While we were running ExchangeHut’s trading platform for college students, our biggest fear was that Facebook would launch a marketplace that would crush our competitive advantage.  When we heard that Facebook was launching its marketplace, we changed big parts of our strategy to react to the new competition that had yet to launch.

Big mistake.  When marketplace first launched, it was fairly useless and was not a competitor to our business.  We had changed some of our bigger plans because we were afraid of competition and did not expand as quickly as we had planned because of it.  Our competition did not hurt us.  My point is that you never know if your competition will actually be successful.  If you have a great idea, don’t immediately change your plans if you hear about competition.  Execute on your ideas and let the chips fall where they may.  If your idea is good and you execute well, you will be successful.

Another point on competition:  Don’t be afraid to get in contact with your competition.  This isn’t t say that you should tell your competitors (or the world) every last detail of your plans to conquer the world, but you should be on good terms with the other people and companies in your space.  We found that it paid off to get to know the other startups that were in our market.  We talked to just about everyone in our market.

We even ended up being able to work out some great deals with competition because we were on good terms with them and they knew we existed.  There really is no downside to being on good terms with the others in your market.  You never know when a great opportunity will present itself to you or one of your competitors that will be beneficial to both of you.  Plus, if you plan to start another company, these contacts will be valuable later.  If we had been afraid of competition and not talked to them, we would have missed out.  Moral of the story: don’t be afraid of competition, get to know them, but don’t tell them everything!

The Entrepreneurial Push

Why do people start startups? To solve a problem or fill a need?  To be their own boss?  To escape the 9-5?   To make gobs of money? The answer is different for everyone, but its probably a combination of a few of these factors.  Lots of people I talk to have great ideas, but don’t end up taking the next step even though they would like to make money, be their own boss and escape their 9-5 job.  How come?

I’ve been talking with other entrepreneurs and doing a bunch of thinking about this question for the past few months, but had not completely put it into words until I read  Paul Graham‘s latest post about why he started Y Combinator, an innovative investment fund that gives techies mentoring, an office and small amounts of funding in exchange for small pieces of equity.

The most common reasons for people not starting their own companies are that they think it will be harder than it actually is, they are risk averse or are worried about capital.  For some people, these are real reasons not to start a business, but for many people who have good ideas, they are more excuses and rationalizations than reasons.  They simply do not know where to start or how to move forward with their plans.

This is not a personal failing on the part of people with good ideas who have not moved forward yet.  It is a failing of high schools and colleges for not teaching them the necessary skills and punishing creativity.  It is the failing of entrepreneurs who have been successful for not showing others the entrepreneurial process and its the failing of a society that makes entrepreneurship seem much more dangerous, risky and hard to do than it really is.  Potential entrepreneurs have to get past objections from family and friends who ask things like “why don’t you work for a real company ” or my personal favorite  “when are you going to get a real job.”

This isn’t to say that starting a company is easy and that everyone should do it.  It’s not easy and some people aren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs.  It takes hard work, perseverance and the ability to motivate yourself even when you run into obstacles, but it’s not as hard as people think.  Here is why Paul Graham started Y Combinator:

The real reason we started Y Combinator is one probably only a hacker would understand. We did it because it seems such a great hack. There are thousands of smart people who could start companies and don’t, and with a relatively small amount of force applied at just the right place, we can spring on the world a stream of new startups that might otherwise not have existed.

In a way this is virtuous, because I think startups are a good thing. But really what motivates us is the completely amoral desire that would motivate any hacker who looked at some complex device and realized that with a tiny tweak he could make it run more efficiently. In this case, the device is the world’s economy, which fortunately happens to be open source.

That “relatively small amount of force applied at just the right place” Graham writes about is the Entrepreneurial Push.

I have been trying to give the Entrepreneurial Push to as many people as possible, without having a name for it.  I think it’s important for people who have started companies to share their experiences with others to set an example that it can be done.  I try to use my blog and consultancy to show people that you can be an entrepreneur without a business degree, tons of startup cash and a team in place.  Whenever someone comes to me with an idea for a business, I try to encourage them to start going down the startup path because once they start to write their business plan, they are much more likely to actually start.

While we all don’t have the wealth of resources (time, money and experience) that Paul Graham and Y Combinator have, I think that entrepreneurs should go out of their way to give as many people the Entrepreneurial Push.   I started Capital Entrepreneurs, a network of young, Madison-based Entrepreneurs, partially in hopes that the group would influence more UW students to start companies while  in school or see it as a viable option after graduation.

What should entrepreneurs do to give others the entrepreneurial push that they need to get started?  Here’s a short list of ideas, but please comment with any other ideas or strategies that you have.

  • Advocate for entrepreneurship to make small business and startups more visible in other places besides California and Boston.
  • Give back by helping others who are just starting out to eliminate the “cloud of apprehension” surrounding entrepreneurship.
  • Join local entrepreneur clubs.
  • Speak in high school and college classes.

These small entrepreneurial pushes help smart people who are thinking about start their own companies actually start. They could create amazing companies that could change their lives or even the world.

Note: If you are an entrepreneur in Madison and are interested in joining Capital Entrepreneurs, shoot me an email.