How thought leadership can impact communities and entrepreneurs.
An interview with Andrew Button about using thought leadership to connect with people and solve big problems in small places.
In rural communities, there are many would-be entrepreneurs with big ideas.
Can you imagine how much change for good would happen if every entrepreneur could bring their dreams to life?
In order to better understand the role thought leadership can play in reaching entrepreneurs, we’re sitting down with Andrew Button, Founder and CEO of Mashup Labs. He’s helping rural entrepreneurs grow their ideas, their businesses, and their communities.
Today, we’re talking about thought leadership, nonprofit startups, and how creative ideas and insights can make a real difference to communities that need a boost. Andrew discusses the difficulties in getting a big idea off the ground, finding people who share your perspective and curiosities, and those who are willing to lend a hand to help things grow. There’s a critical mass challenge, finding enough interested people to make an entrepreneur’s dream a reality — and Andrew knows how to make it happen.
Finally, we discuss how Andrew is stepping into the role of a thought leader and the courage it takes to stand up and make your voice heard. Andrew shares why people should not be so concerned with the aspect of failure but more on getting your ideas out there, testing the theories and sharing what you’ve learned, right or wrong.
While Andrew specializes in activating people in rural communities his advice is solid for any landscape and we hope you’ll take the time to listen to this episode.
Three Key Takeaways:
- In order to find those who share your thought leadership views, you’ll have to be courageous about your viewpoint — even if it doesn’t align with the norm.
- Thought Leadership allows you to connect with people in places and roles you might not otherwise access.
- Don’t wait to ‘perfect’ your thought leadership. Put it into the world, test it in real situations, and share what you learn with others.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
Bill Sherman Have you ever thought about how thought leadership can make an impact in your local community and help people solve some of their biggest problems? My guest today is Andrew Button, founder of Mashup Lab, and co-founder of Awesome South Shore, a community backed micro fund that gives away a thousand a month cash, no strings attached to people with innovative ideas to do something awesome in their community. We’re going to talk about thought leadership, and nonprofit startups and how creative ideas and insights can make a real impact on communities that need a boost. I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Andrew.
Andrew Button Thanks so much, Bill. Great to be here.
Bill Sherman So thought leadership has a bit of ambition to it. And solving big problems that are often more than one individual or even one group of people can solve on their own. I want to begin by talking about how communities solve big problems. You’ve got a perspective on that, both from working within government and now working in the world of startup. So if I were to ask you, how do you tackle a big problem? On behalf of the community. Where do you start?
Andrew Button Yeah, it’s a great, great question. And I think it’s a question that a lot of people sitting in rural towns throughout Canada and rural America and the U.S.. Are contemplating and thinking about, because oftentimes in these smaller places, there isn’t thousands of people that you can go and just find and coffee shops everywhere. Right. Like it’s there. There is a bit of a critical, critical mass challenge that some rural places have, but the problems and challenges those communities face are no less big. Yeah, those are the things that often people that find themselves and choose to be in a rural place want to try to tackle. So the thinking around, you know, finding folks that are like minded and believe the things that that you that you believe, I think is a first big step in that. And I think the way you do that is through sharing the things that you believe and the things that you’re thinking about, the things that you’re curious about. And that begins to attract other folks in that small town that that believe and think the same thing and are also curious about the things that that you’re curious about. So I think just being courageous around sharing your perspective and how you might be thinking differently about trying to solve some of those big, big problems is really the first place to start. And then I think as you share those things well beyond just your small community, you begin to plug into a network of like minded folks that are also trying to tackle these challenges in their own towns and then can start to share some experiences and best practices and all the things that may be working and some of the things that may have been massive failures that they’ve tried this as well. I’m learning from that.
Bill Sherman So you raised an excellent point, right? If I was looking to do a tech startup in Silicon Valley or in Austin or Boston or New York, I would know where to find other tech startup minded individuals. And there’s a community and there’s an infrastructure. Right. And. As you said, in some way like minded individuals attract. But if you don’t have a population density. That can be a challenge. Right. And you’re living in rural Nova Scotia, so that’s not a place where you have Silicon Valley, sort of you go to a Starbucks and there’s 32 people who are working out to start a business. Everyone’s working out to start a business there. So let’s talk about your journey just a little bit contextualizing and then what you’re doing in helping people create those connections to solve problems.
Andrew Button Yeah. So I guess the most important thing to know about me is I’m unapologetically a rural guy. If you haven’t picked up on that already, and the reason for that bill is like I spent my entire life living and working in rural places and I grew up in a small town in in Newfoundland here on the east coast of Canada, met a girl from a small town here in Nova Scotia, where we call home today. And yeah, I spent the first 15 years of my work career working in various government and not for profit organizations trying to figure out how to help people in small town places start and grow, grow companies. So it’s like within that environment that gave me a bit of perspective and insight into what was in the realm of the possible, in rural right, to being able to work with entrepreneurs that were doing world class things in his old 100 year house in a town of 700 people and all the neighbors and he was at the UPS truck showed up a lot and they were shipping products all over the place. I got to get a bit sort of look under the hood of some of these companies. And they really sort of exposed me to the idea of, you know, the things that we aspire to do in the world are possible from a rural place. You can do it. There’s some definitely some challenges and some things that make that a different experience. And if you’re in a high density urban area, so the my career in rural economic development kind of opened my mind to these things. There was a period of time, though, where if anybody that has done economic development work in a rural place will appreciate the fact that everything you do is connected to your rural economy in some way, your ability to recruit doctors, your ability to fundraise for recreation facility, to keep, you know, residents, keep residents there, all of a sudden a big employer shuts down. Now you have two or 300 people that had to get retrained and reintegrate into the workforce. Somehow everything is connected to your rural economy. And it’s very easy to get spread a mile wide and only able to go an inch deep on a lot of that, the challenges and I started to pick up on this this idea that there was this massive pool of untapped entrepreneurial talent that were sitting on the sidelines, not plugging in to this ecosystem. I was trying to build for them, to help them explore ideas and just got obsessively curious about how do you activate that group of people? How do you get their attention? How do you get them to trust, to step on to the field of entrepreneurship in that community, to start to grow companies and just really wanted to go an inch wide and a mile deep on just that one aspect of rural economic development. And that’s where Mashable I was born, was from that space.
Bill Sherman And one of the things that I think has changed over the last 20, 30 years is the ability for ideas to originate literally anywhere. Right. And the communications tools that we have, the innovation. I love your example of the random UPS truck just picking up and delivering boxes since like what’s going on over there. Right. And so we can no longer assume that geography is destiny in the same way that the past is. But I think also from a storytelling perspective, you know, there’s this myth that, you know, rural environments face brain drain because there’s no opportunity to do smart things if you’re in a rural location. Right. And so how do you reframe the story?
Andrew Button Yeah, that’s a really great question that I actually got asked a similar question at a conference I got asked to speak at probably five years ago now, and it was around sort of reinventing or rejuvenating rural places and there was a couple of hundred people at the conference and I sort of shared some of the early things that we were doing. And somebody stood up and said, Listen, I have a question. Like the people that are in this room are the converted. We believe that know new things are possible for rural. How do we convince the people that aren’t in this room that this is what’s in the realm of the possible? And I said, You know what? I’ve stopped trying to convince people of things a long time ago. I just go do the things that I feel can have a huge impact. And I go tell that story to as many people that are willing to listen and raise up and hold up those examples of things that give us an indication of what might be possible. And eventually the people that may not necessarily be in the room start to pay attention and their sort of circle of meaningfulness becomes a little bit smaller. And the people that we’re trying to attract into the conversation becomes a little bit bigger. So it really isn’t about trying to convince people that a new narrative is possible. I think there’s a lot of time and energy that can get wasted there. I think you just go do the work, learn some things and share those learnings and insights over and over and over again. And eventually the right kind of people start to show up for your conversation.
Bill Sherman So let’s talk about the conversations that you’re having and the communities that you’re serving. You’re working with entrepreneurs. You’re working with communities. Let’s talk about how you make an impact within a community and a group of entrepreneurs. What are you doing?
Andrew Button Awesome. I this is a topic that really gets me excited because it really started in just one small corner of rural Nova Scotia where based on that 15 years of work I’ve been doing in economic development, I thought that was a different way to attract a different kind of entrepreneur into the game again, to get them off the sidelines and into the game.
Bill Sherman Now, when you use a different type of entrepreneur. Yeah. To find that different type for me.
Andrew Button Awesome. I love getting this question to. So the thing that I really noticed is that there in many rural places, including the one I started, my BlackBerry. There were there’s a whole ecosystem of support there. Small business centers that are offering training around how to write business plans or people that issue loans local community colleges, running entrepreneurship courses and chambers of commerce that run training programs and all kinds of stuff. What I began to notice was that there was this pool of entrepreneurs that weren’t plugging into that ecosystem because they felt like all of those things were for somebody else that wasn’t them, because they didn’t call themselves entrepreneurs. They didn’t believe the ideas they had were viable businesses, yet they thought that they weren’t for far enough down the path to be considered a, quote unquote, legitimate businessperson. But they were some of the most entrepreneurial and innovative people in our community, but they were completely hidden in plain sight.
Bill Sherman And so this is the person in the kitchen with an idea who doesn’t know how to take it forward.
Andrew Button Exactly. It’s that person in the kitchen, a stay at home mom that is just trying to figure out how to do things to make their lives easier and better, trying to get their kids off to after school. It’s the 73 year old retired executive that that thinks there’s a new way of, you know, tackling a big problem in their community, but that maybe a social enterprise is not a business. Like what we’re learning, Bill, is that there’s this there are so many people that don’t necessarily identify with these labels of entrepreneur and business person that are absolutely the kinds of people we want doing things in these communities. And that’s really the kind of entrepreneur that Mashup Lab has focused on, because we believe that you have those. You can activate that pool of entrepreneurial talent. It’s actually exponentially bigger than the pool of entrepreneurs are currently plugging into the ecosystem that has a huge impact in a rural place.
Bill Sherman Well, in terms of thought, leadership and where ideas come from, I think we have a stereotype bias in some organizations, large organizations. Oh, good ideas only come from the C-suite or this small group of people who are in research or product write, or they come from big cities or they come from 20 somethings. And I remember I had a conversation on a podcast couple of years ago with Mike Mansfield, and Mike was talking to me about and he’s in the Netherlands, a startup competition they did with older adults. And the winner of that competition, I believe, was a man in his eighties who had come up with a app that he wanted to design and implement. Right. And so what you’re talking about and the stories Mike was talking about is when we put a box around people and say, ideas only happen here, we ignore a lot of good ideas.
Andrew Button No. Absolutely. And I think and this is something I learned from my economic development days, transitioning into the way we do things now with Mashable.com is we unintentionally use language that is unapproachable. In the run of our regular course, we talk about trying to find innovators and high growth potential companies and startup founders and all of the language that you hear in the dominant narrative when it comes to startup innovation and entrepreneur.
Bill Sherman Oh yeah. It’s very, you know, HBS, Stanford Business School, you know, those are the language of we’re looking for unicorns. And if you can’t become $1,000,000,000 valuation, don’t even try.
Andrew Button Yeah, and I think there is a place for that and there’s a reason to use that language to attract those kinds of kinds of, of entrepreneurs to, to rural places. And those things can exist in a real place. It isn’t an either or conversation. This is a both and conversation that I think we’re missing. And but what we’re learning is that there is a massive amount of people that are just using different language and a different approach and a different invitation to step on to the field, become, you know, take a, you know, get activated to go do something about the idea that they that they have because they don’t necessarily resonate with the picture that often gets painted again, oftentimes very like unintentionally. And we’re not necessarily where we’re doing it. And that was the big aha moment for me was when I actually got around other entrepreneurs in co-working space trying to do the things with Mashable, like I did in my economic development days, and couldn’t understand why nobody was coming up to my events and I would show my poster and my ad to some of the entrepreneurs in the co-working space, and they’re like, Andrew, I would never come out to do anything like that that looks completely stale and not innovative at all. It was because of the image, the language, the approach. The invitation I was putting out there wasn’t approachable to the kind of entrepreneur who are hoping to get into the room. And that’s, I think, something that a lot of folks, again, are well-intentioned people just don’t necessarily know what they don’t know. And when you know better, you’re able to do better. So that’s what we’re like.
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Bill Sherman So you’ve talked in several points about building communities and investing in communities, not only from an economic development perspective, but creating communities of entrepreneurs in places where they might not be. I want to ask you about how you attract the unusual suspects. Right. You’ve used that term and I think through we’ve had as a through line in this conversation. Who are the unusual suspects? Both as entrepreneurs and then the people who would support them.
Andrew Button Yeah. I think this is one of the one of our biggest learnings over these last particularly over the last three years as we have expanded what we’ve done, not just here in rural Nova Scotia, but we’re now working with entrepreneurs and in 150 different communities across from Canada and now in rural America as well. And I think the idea of being this is where thought leadership has actually become a field that I’ve had to sort of step into, because what I’m learning is that as I’m sharing these insights and these curiosities that I have things that I’m wondering about, things I now have a new perspective on, it’s resonating with a different kind of kind of person. And you know, the story I’ll I’ll share with you is there was one this was probably about a bit a year or so ago now. And I was on a another podcast just talking about the things that I was observing in rural economic development. And I ended up getting an email from a random person and saying, I really like what I heard on the on this podcast. Can we jump on a call? And long story short, and they were a successful entrepreneur. They just sold one of their one of their companies. And the message that I share was that, you know, often oftentimes the thing I got frustrated with when working in that bureaucracy of government and not for profit was that things just weren’t able to happen quickly enough. And I was impatient. I wanted to make things happen more quickly. And that one thought that one sort of perspective resonated with them. They said, You know what, I’m frustrated by how slowly things are moving as well. What would it look like for me to fund a pilot project to bring your virtual business incubator here and use the data from that that demonstration project to then go back to our economic development folks and our local governments to say there’s a new way of doing some things might this might be a good idea to fund. And we’ve now done three different projects in that same community from that one pilot. So in my economic development days, that’s not a person I would normally have a funding conversation with, right? I may have a mentorship conversations to have, but some entrepreneurs can mentor them. But I would never have thought to think that they’re just as interested in seeing new things happening in their communities as well. And sometimes they have the means of being able to make some things happen more quickly and they’re able to take a little bit more risk that unfortunately, sometimes our governments and our most powerless just aren’t able to do for some obvious reasons. So by just sharing those ideas and sharing those different perspectives, a new type of person shows up into your conversation. And sometimes that translates into some really interesting projects and some new opportunities that, you know, you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.
Bill Sherman Well and expanding on that. You gave voice to something you wish would happen, that you could move faster, right? You could have stayed silent about that, but you put it on the table. And that resonated with this person in a way that a mentoring conversation wouldn’t have and led to a what if conversation. One of the things that I think we need to do more often in thought leadership is the willingness to put not only the ideas onto the table, but also our goals. What are the things that make us passionate? And to be able to say, here’s what I’d like to be able to do. And if it resonates with someone, then they’ll go, Hey, let’s see how we can do this.
Andrew Button Yeah, for sure. And to be quite honest, every opportunity that has come up for Mashup Lab in these last 18 months has come from simply putting out into the world what I believed to be true. And eight years ago, I didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of data to back up those beliefs. I had a bunch of hypotheses, things I believed to be true. We didn’t have the actual results to back it up. And today we have the results to back up those beliefs. But it was just a hunch at the time. And now that we been able to sort of combine those two things of like I had this hunch, these are things we believed to be true. We got early indication that they are in fact true. And these are the results that we’re seeing that adds a whole other level of trust to the to the conversation. And when you start to put those things out into to the world of, I believe these things to be true, and if you can back it up with some early results, even if they aren’t necessarily successful projects, this was a complete failure. But here’s what we learned from it, and this is what we would do differently next time. That works just as well a lot of times. And when you start to do that and get comfortable with sharing those learnings and sharing that perspective, then I believe you have a better chance of striking a chord with the right kind of people that you need to connect with. And when we think about how to get messages out and get our voice heard, we’re in a period of time and there’s a whole plethora of ways to do that. Tik Tok, podcasting, blogging, video, blogs, all sorts of channels. And if you aren’t taking a stand on some things and sharing what you believe, you just get lost in the noise. There’s just a lot of noise out there. So it’s becoming even more important, in my opinion, to step into this notion of thought, leadership and being able to take a stand on some things. But that takes a lot of courage, and it also takes a lot of overcoming some imposter syndrome, which I think is a bit of a stumbling block for some folks. But we got to get over it because that’s how we help make the things that we want to see in the world happen.
Bill Sherman So I’m going to ask a question of you and then I’ll give you my answer after you give yours.
Andrew Button Okay.
Bill Sherman When did you start to see yourself as a thought leadership practitioner? When did you start saying or thinking, Hey, I’m doing thought leadership because you’ve just described an arc. Where does that point in their.
Andrew Button I don’t I don’t really think I’ve hit that point, Bill, to be honest with you. And I think this is something that a lot of folks who we hold up to be thought leaders are a little bit uncomfortable with. Right. It’s the same thing with the people that we see as true experts in the world. When we call them experts, they get really uncomfortable with that because they’re so deep into the area of expertise. They understand how much they don’t know yet. And I think I’m still at the peak of that, Eric, where the idea of the things that I’m learning and simply being able to share that is deserving of a label or title of thought leadership. I’m not sure if I’m really, really so.
Bill Sherman And I’ll distinguish between thought leader, which some people treat like a merit badge for scouting or something and thought leadership, which is about taking ideas to scale. Yeah. And when I listen to your journey, right, you mentioned a few things. You mentioned the times that you had a hunch and then it became a hypothesis. And then from hypothesis to test, there’s a strong relationship between thought leadership and what I would describe as the scientific method. Right? It’s not about just having opinions. We could go to a coffee shop or a bar and we could have opinions and we could talk all afternoon. Right. But the moment that you say, let’s test this idea, let’s put it into practice and see what we learn, whether or not it turns out to be true. Then you’re asking questions and you’re looking to learn and scale knowledge.
Andrew Button Yeah. No, absolutely. And I think it’s one of the. Different approaches that I’ve taken with Mashable that I wasn’t necessarily taking in my economic development days, because in those days it was about coming up with the best strategy, the best plan, and there was a lot of time and energy that I invested into trying to figure out the puzzle in front of a whiteboard or in front of a computer. And what I learned in the early days of Magic Lab is that it doesn’t really matter how great your plan is. You learn a lot more by just going and testing and doing some things and being courageous enough to take some risks and some, some to take some risk in that and accept the fact that not all those of those things are going to be going to be successful. And I think that the challenge, though, is is being able to share now those different that different perspective that that may rub against the dominant narrative. Right. And maybe feel a little bit scary to be a bit of an outlier. But I think that’s the way that you end up attracting the kind of people that are going to help you achieve the things that you’re hoping to achieve in the world by putting those things out there.
Bill Sherman So as we begin to wrap up, Andrew, I want to ask you a question. You’ve been on a journey of thought leadership, whether or not you’ve seen yourself with that title. But I want to ask you, if you were to go back and give your earlier self advice, maybe when you were working with the province, maybe when you started Mashup Labs. What advice would you give yourself to be better at practicing thought leadership? What do you wish you knew that you know now?
Andrew Button I think the advice I would have given myself is, number one, go try some things and not be so worried about the failure aspect of it. And I would also give myself the advice. I probably held back a lot of sharing these things for fear of not really sure if I was right or wrong about some of these, but the ideas that I have and I think, you know, the quicker we can get over that notion that by simply putting out a thought or an idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that, you know, when you know better, you can learn, you know, do better and you learn from the things that you put out there. I believe that you’re doing those things. Earlier on in my career, we probably could have gotten to this this place that where we are today a little bit more quickly. And who knows? I may have been able to even influence the direction of some things by being in in the thick of that bureaucracy and that in that government. So be interesting to see what changed, what might have changed if I had done some of those things within that ecosystem versus looking to approach it from sort of outside of that ecosystem in a different the different way. But yeah, those would be the two things you could do some things, test some, some of those theories, and then start to share what you’re learning more quickly.
Bill Sherman Fantastic. And I think that’s great advice. Now if someone wants to get in contact with you, Andrew, how did they do so?
Andrew Button There’s all sorts of ways that you can find us on the Internet mashup lab dossier through our website. But the best way to contact and get in touch with me is through it, through LinkedIn. LinkedIn has been a really amazing resource for the things that we’re doing to help us connect. And you can find me on there and we chat and hit that connection request.
Bill Sherman Fantastic. Thank you for joining us today.
Andrew Button Thanks for the interest, Bill, and thanks for all that you’re doing to spread the ideas of thought leadership.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website. OrgTL.com and choose Join Our Newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.