EPISODE 017
The Unlikely Underdog
Listen to this conversation with Andy Raskin, an entrepreneur and previous tech startup founder that many people underrated throughout his journey. Upon learning how to tell stories in a compelling way, similar to a movie screenwriter, the trajectory of his career changed.  Surprisingly, his degrees from Yale and Wharton played just a small part in his journey, earning him the status of "self-employed" at a school reunion.

settings
Read It
Would you prefer to read it rather than listen to it? No problem.

Host - Monique Mills:   

[00:00]          From my understanding is that you also were a tech startup founder earlier in your career and that makes a difference as well, having the experience to then go and help others. So let's take it back to just the very foundation of what people would know you as if they look you up on LinkedIn. And so your title basically says you're an expert in strategic narratives, right? So for those who don't really understand what that means, can you describe it in simple terms?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[00:36]           Yeah, well, so first of all, because I run my own practice, one of the downsides is like-- So I went to an MBA reunion not too long ago, and they make little name cards for you. So it's like your company and your title, and mine just said, self-employed. And then people kind of look at you feeling sorry for you. So that's kind of the downside of taking a non-traditional path.


(music)


Host - Monique Mills:   

[01:18]          Welcome to the Unpolished MBA podcast. On this podcast, we have conversations with tech startup founders and entrepreneurs and traditional corporate MBAs. Many say that startups equal the unpolished MBA because those without the formal business education are scrappy and do many things untraditionally to achieve business success. But anyone who has built a business from an idea can attest to the fact that the experience is another level MBA, and there's nothing quite like it. The candid conversations shared here is helpful to both sides of the fence. One is not better than the other, just different. Let's jump in.


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[02:04]           Yeah, strategic narrative, the way I’d define it is the strategic narrative is the story in someone's head that guides their actions and decisions. And so as a company, you know, the companies that I work with, we're basically trying to influence buyers. And so the way I look at it is we're trying to put a new story in their head that's going to have them kind of share what we see as the urgency for the thing that we're delivering. Hopefully, that's a true story, we're not trying to brainwash them with some falsehoods, but yeah, that's how I think about it.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:50]          So that creative side of being able to copyright per se, I would say your talent is in line with screenwriting, it's like visual. You extract the emotion. Where did you learn that? And did it come naturally?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[03:12]           Well, thank you for saying that. That's a great compliment. Well, actually, it's funny you say that. So what happened was, you mentioned that I was a startup CEO early on, when my co-founder and I had the idea for that company. So basically, like you said, we were engineers, we had an idea for an app. So this was dot com years so Windows app is what I'm talking about, and we coded a little prototype, and then we thought maybe we could get some investors for this. And so of the two of us, I spoke English natively, so we decided okay, I'll write the business plan. So I wrote the plan and we sent it to some VCs, and the reaction was really bad. One of them wrote back, “Andy, I rate every plan I get on a scale of one to 10, and yours is a one.” And in parentheses, he wrote a “worst” in case we thought maybe one might be the top of his scale. But then he wrote “Reason: not a compelling story.”

                      [04:19]       And I didn't pay much attention to this but a few weeks later, I was walking by this Barnes and Noble in Manhattan where I lived. And there was a sign in the window, and it said, “For anyone who wants to tell a compelling story”, and there was an arrow to these books. The books were screenwriting books, and I knew nothing about this. But we had nothing to lose so I bought the books and read them, and they really described a very different approach to structuring the narrative and really the pitch. If you think about it, every movie really is a pitch. It's a pitch to the main character to usually go on some kind of adventure or change in some way, and it's a pitch to the audience to sit there for this and watch this. So, I decided, okay, but what if we try and sort of reshape our pitch according to what these books are talking about? And I think we did a pretty surface job of it in that first try but it changed enough so that we started getting more interest from VCs. We got invited to pitch and the pitches went better, and we had an investment from some pretty good VCs, like a few months later. And so that was, I think, really the beginning of it.

                      [05:49]       And then after that company, I got so into this kind of story thing from those books, I started writing articles. I took classes on how to write, and I took a class at the YMCA, called “How to Write a Magazine Article”.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[06:08]          Wow. That’s interesting.


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[06:10]           It was fantastic. The guy actually taught us not only how to write them, but how to pitch them and that was really exciting to me. I found I was pretty good at it, so I sold articles to magazines. And it was just a hobby, it wasn't my main thing, but I just loved it. It was so much fun. And eventually, when that company-- So that company was acquired after a few years, and I thought I’d do another startup but then I went to see a career coach, and I was talking with her and somehow it came out of the first session that what I really wanted to do is become a better writer. And so I took more classes, and then a magazine offered me a job after reading some of my freelance pieces. And so I was a journalist for a while and I think that really helped a lot in the work I do because it was a lot about condensing into very small format, small number of words. You know, why should you be excited about this company or this innovation? So, yeah, I think a little bit of it goes back to that.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[07:21]          Wow. Well, now I see how it's been like a series of different investments in yourself that got you to where you are. So I would be remiss not to mention your background. So you're a Yale graduate, a Wharton MBA, and I'm sure that's not something you have to walk around with because who would know, right? What you do now, it's just so well done but your undergrad is in computer science. So tell me how did you even make that transition? Why did you study computer science, first of all, but then how did you make that jump?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[08:04]           Yeah, well, I was always interested in math and science, and I had learned early on to code. Basically, my mom started a little database consulting business out of our house, where early on, she bought this Mac - they weren't Macs - Apple II, it was an Apple II. And basically, none of her friends had PCs at work, so she had a friend who was an editor at Weight Watchers Magazine. So the friend would send my mom all the magazines and my mom would type in all the recipes into a database program. And then when they needed, for a new issue, I don't know, like a chicken recipe with under 1000 calories, they'd call my mother. And to run the query, my mother would run the query, and then sometimes when she wasn't home, she taught me how to do it. And then I started learning, I started teaching myself basic and stuff so I kind of knew, but I was very undecided about what to major in.

                     [09:05]        And then, you know how schools will have this shopping period where you can kind of go to check out classes, a friend of mine told me he was going to this computer science class that was like the weed out class, like really hard and just terrifying what people said about it, but I said, “Okay, whatever. I'll go and just check it out.” And wound up it was taught by this guy named Alan Perlis. So Alan Perlis was the first recipient of the Turing Award back in I think, the ‘60s or something. And he started out the class by saying, “Programming is the purest form of poetry.” And that's kind of like what? I kind of got it, this idea that very few words creating a lot of power and all this stuff. And then he said in the same class, he said, “Think about all the cathedrals and the great works of architecture that humanity has built and some of them have taken hundreds and hundreds of years.” And he's like, “Imagine the kind of programs that we are going to have created, like that infrastructure that we'll be creating in, say, 500 years.” And just seeing it in this kind of light made this just seem so interesting to me and I just found I really enjoyed it so I went with that.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[10:36]          Wow. So I'm glad you mentioned your mom because I also heard your podcast and you have your mom kind of insert some words. And so I love the way you break it up. That's very interesting, and it breaks up the monotony. Your mom is really funny. And I don't know if she knows that, but she's very funny. Does she realize she's had that impact on who you are now or is she just like, “I don't know. Think guy is crazy”? Because she tells you that--


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[11:09]           Oh, yeah. She knows it. I mean, I think she doesn't realize she's being funny in the moment but then when I'll play it back for her she’ll sometimes laugh at it, laugh at herself, which is good. Yeah, and by the way, there's one of the episodes where I think she's talking about the CEO of Drift, David Cancel, and how listening to him made her want to be innovative, like, “Oh, he makes it sound so easy and so exciting.” And then she says, “Well, of course, I'm not a computer person, as you know.” But now I've shared it, she was a computer person, and very early. She wound up doing other things but don't let that fool you.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[12:00]          I love it. I love that part with your mom. So one of the things I've heard you mention before as well, or I’ve seen you right before too how companies will go into action describing how their solution is better than the next person, basically, bragging is what the term you've used. So how does what you do put a stop to that, right?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[12:31]           How am I the bragging cop? Yeah, so there's this traditional way of seeing pitching and really selling, which is problem-solution. So the buyer has a problem, we have the solution. And then for differentiating, that kind of sets you up almost just by the way it's structured to then say, “Okay, well, there are other solutions, let me tell you why we're better than those solutions.” And so it turns you into what I call the arrogant doctor. So you have a pain, I have the solution or the cure, let me tell you why it's better than all the other cures. And what I started seeing people like David Cancel a Drift, and before that, Zuora at Tien Tzuo, and before that, Marc Benioff at Salesforce, they approached it in a totally different way, which was they started not with a problem, but with what I call a change in the world.

And specifically, they started with, “Hey, there was this old game you were playing with Zuora--” which sells software for doing subscription billing. They're saying, “Hey, there was this old world where you just sold people things outright. They would buy things and that was a great world. And so everything you've done, your billing systems, everything is built around a sort of single transaction for a product.” And he’s saying, “Well, now there's this new world where people actually don't want to buy the product, they want to just pay for the services they get without the hassle of the owning, so it's what the CEO of Zuora calls the subscription economy.

                      [14:28]       We live in now this new world, and people want the services, right? And he’s saying, well, because of that shift, wow, there's this whole new way you have to act in order to win. And of course, there are challenges in winning in that new model, and we're going to help you overcome those. But it's really this setup. It's not saying, “Hey, we're the ones who are going to help you best overcome those challenges versus A, B and C.

They're saying, “Hey, we see the world this way, and ideally, we're structuring in a way so that nobody else is talking about it this way.” And if we do that, we’ll say, “Hey, we're here to help you win this new game. If you want to win the old game, well, there's a lot of solutions for you. Go for it. If it's about this one, then this is the one you should do.” So it takes the bragging out. We can say, “Hey, these other solutions they just weren't built for this new game”, which is a little different. It’s subtle, but I think important different from, “Let me tell you how we are better than them.”


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:43]          Wow, that's extremely powerful. And I work with a lot of tech startups and ecosystems so I'm bringing it home to them. Thank you.


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[15:52]           Great.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:54]          Thank you. So I mentioned earlier that you do have an MBA from Wharton. What made you go to get your MBA?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[16:15]           So after college, I worked as a coder. And maybe because I was like 10 years too early, or 15 years too early, I just found it like it didn't seem like a great life to be staring at a screen all day. Probably if that was later, it would have changed but-- I had taken Japanese a little bit in college just for a little bit and I really liked it. Unlike the computer science classes, we would talk to each other, we would have parties. It didn't hurt actually, that there were more women in these classes, you know? There weren't no women in my computer science classes but definitely, the ratio was probably much worse than it is even today.

And so after a year or so of coding, I kind of saved up my money and I went to Japan and studied Japanese. And at the end of that year, my Japanese was getting decent. I got really depressed though, because it was time to come home back to New York and I was like, “Well, I guess I'm going to have to work in a bank.” Like a Japanese bank maybe in New York, because who else was going to hire me for speaking Japanese and knowing computers? So that prospect really bummed me out.

So I turned the TV on, and it happened to be this TV show on Japanese TV, but made in New York about Japanese celebrities visiting New York and living out their dream. So one of them wanted to like Mick Jagger, one of them wanted to kayak around Manhattan. It just looks so cool. So I actually wrote down the production company, and when I got back to New York, I wound up working for that company.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[18:10]          Wow.


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[18:12]           And just working on Japanese TV shows, on the news shows in the US, a lot of those wacky Japanese game shows before America copied them all. And that went really well for a few years, but then, the Japanese economy kind of tanked and the crew stopped coming. And also, there was a little bit of a ceiling for me as a non-Japanese person in sort of the Japanese media world. And so I started thinking about other things, and I had always had a kind of interest in business. And my great grandfather was an entrepreneur, started this factory in Brooklyn to build trucks, all kinds of stuff. And so I applied to business school and I actually was rejected by all of them.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[19:11]          What?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[19:16]           My GMAT scores are actually really good but they told me “Your experience, this Japanese TV show stuff, that's not relevant”, because they're looking for people who worked at Morgan Stanley as an intern or something, I don't know. And I think that's ridiculous. It's just there was so much that I learned actually in that job like budgeting and accounting and selling and people like wow.

But anyway, Wharton, it so happened, has dual programs called the Lauder Institute, which is like MBA and you get an MA in international studies with a concentration in some country at the same time. And at the time, I think they may still have it, they had a scholarship for certain language tracks. And so as a Japanese speaker, I got a scholarship for that, that covered a lot of the costs of that MBA. And that made it possible for me to do it, and also, I was accepted there. So that was how I got to business school.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[20:40]          Wow. I mean, to think that that was your last choice school.


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[20:47]           I wouldn't say it was my last choice, but it was the only one that took me. Let's just say that.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[20:51]          Wow. My final question for you really goes into how your experience in the MBA, did it help provide you with the fundamentals that allow you to be successful today? And in what ways?


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[21:09]           Yeah, I think MBA gave me a grounding in just sort of the tools and ways to think about business problems and evaluate business problems. I'm not saying you couldn't get those other places, you probably could. I had a really interesting experience at Wharton that I think is relevant too. There was a management class where we got this personality test. So the teacher gave us one. It was like a Myers-Briggs type thing. It wasn't Myers-Briggs, but it was like Myers-Briggs, and it gave you these scores. And based on the scores, you'd plot yourself into one quadrant of this two-axis chart. And the teacher asked everybody to come up to the front of the class and plot their score on the chart.

And I was in the back of the class, so I see everybody's going up and plotting their score in the upper right quadrant. And the professor remarks, he says, “Wow, yeah, this is what I expected because this is the quadrant for people who are really well suited to business.” And my quadrant, my score placed me in the opposite lower left quadrant, and he had actually labeled that quadrant, what do you call it? Oh, artists and mad scientists.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[22:33]          So basically, he’s saying that's the quadrant of unemployable or--


Guest - Andy Raskin:   

[22:38]           And not only that, he was like, “I'm sure none of you are in this quadrant but if you are, you might want to think about what you're doing here at business school. He thought it was so unlikely that he could say something like that. And I was so embarrassed, I was so ashamed of this that when I got to the board, I just put my score right at the top right with everybody else. I lied, basically. And it took me a few years, more than a few years, I think, to kind of embrace that side. I wouldn't say that I'm a total mad scientist and artist, but there's, I don't know, part of me that might be a little different from typical MBA people, and that's fine, too, if you are one. But just to embrace that, I think, took some time, and I often look back on that experience as something that was really influential to me once I could sort of grapple with it.


(music)


Host - Monique Mills:   

[23:45]          Okay, that's it. Every time I speak with a guest about their background, it gets more and more interesting with each episode. But I must say, Andy’s was quite unique. From going to Yale to study computer science, then becoming a coder to then studying Japanese in Japan, to then working on Japanese reality TV shows, to then being rejected by all the MBA programs except for Wharton, one of the top MBA programs in the US. He is the epitome of the underdog that always prevails.


The Unpolished MBA conversation continues, and you can be a part of it by going to unpolishedmba.com. Thank you for listening.

settings
GET IN TOUCH
Connect With Us

                                   Unpolished MBA © Copyright 2021, All Rights Reserved.                                                                                                                               

[bot_catcher]