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Insatiably Curious w/ Jake Miller




Karen Mangia

Today on Success from Anywhere we will meet the entrepreneur, gardener, and painter who sees the future as a blank canvas on which to create. Insatiable curiosity is his preferred medium to make each day a masterpiece. Please join me in welcoming to the show Jake Miller, founder, and CEO of the Engineered Innovation Group.

Jake Miller

Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to talk with you today, Karen.

Karen Mangia

Because we talk a lot about work on the show, one question I like to ask every guest is what was your first paying job? And how did that job inform or inspire your career trajectory?

Jake Miller

I love this question. So, mostly I feel like most founders have the lemonade stand story, but mine has a little bit of a twist, no pun intended. So, I started a lemonade stand in my neighborhood. We had lots of neighborhood kids, but I decided I didn't want to work it, I wanted to lease it out. So, I leased it to my neighbor, buddy. I took 20% of his profits and also charged tax. Funny enough, I can't believe I'm telling anyone this, but I also was a clown for birthday parties. I was 14, making about $400 a party. I did a handful of them. Entertainment sort of has been something I've loved. But then my first real job was at McDonald's.

Karen Mangia

What I appreciate is that you had someone to run the lemonade stand while you were being a clown. So those were very profitable weekends. What is it that inspired you to step into the world of entrepreneurship? I mean, you've been at a number of large organizations, what was the inspiration for becoming your own entrepreneur? And then tell us about the business that you've created.

Jake Miller

I've always been a very creative person. In all aspects, like you mentioned. I'm a painter as well, in all my free time these days. I see so much opportunity out in the world. I mean, I even remember being in third grade thinking about inventions and ways to change the world. We had a classmate that had a disability, so I created a page turner mechanic machine, part of the way it was built. It’s about how you can help people around you in new and different ways. And while that invention never got a patent, or went to market, or was commercialized, it was a pattern in my life of wanting to create.

I always used to think that it had to be me being the person doing the creative. Like, I'm the one who must write the code, or I'm the one that must build the product. And it took me a long time to realize, that is not the case. I can also be a facilitator of that. I learned over the past 20 years of my professional career how to go from having to do or be the doer, to how do we build a team and place people who want to make cool things, and ultimately make the world a better place? And ultimately, probably my biggest passion – how do we build a world where people can spend more time with friends, family, and doing things that they find interesting, exciting, and stimulating? That's been my journey in the Engineering Innovation Group. I feel like that is the culmination of all those experiences where I can be that facilitator.

Karen Mangia

What you're talking about is looking in the direction of teaching people how to be innovative and creative. What do you say to people when they say, "Oh, I'm not creative." Sometimes people feel like, I'm not very innovative. I'm not very creative. How do you teach that to someone?

Jake Miller

There are different types of intelligence and I think that's why it's important for people to realize is that maybe I'm great or good at writing and maybe I'm terrible at mathematics, whatever it is, but I think it's not necessarily about teaching someone, it's more about helping them realize or opening their eyes to what their talents are. In my past companies, and even this company, one of my goals with employees is that if we see someone struggling or there's something that they're frustrated with or we think they're underperforming, the first thing we need to ask is are they set up for success? Are we asking them or tasking them to do the things that are best suited for the talents that they have? And I don't mean just our hard talents, like, can they code in a particular language. There are also their soft skills. So, I think it's more about us trying to uncover or an individual uncovering their particular genius.

Karen Mangia

That reminds me of another entrepreneur who shared with me. Her name is Sherry Grotto. And she shared that one of her strategies to bring out the best in people and set them up for success at work is to understand what they love to do and gravitate toward in their free time so that she could bring that more into their workplace experience. She used the example of discovering an employee was a big online gamer. And so, she was like, wait a minute, gamification; there's a certain set of skills and interests within that, how do I build your job more around that interest that will get the best from you.

Jake Miller

Our job as leaders is not only to be the one to create or put in place those things to make that job more attuned to that person, but also empower that person to find it out themselves. I think that is what you're saying. But that was an epiphany I had probably even two or three years ago. It's not my job to say you should do it this way. I'm here to coach you and help you. And that's why I love to do it.

Karen Mangia

And that's part of the core values of your company. I opened with the reference to insatiable curiosity and something that you were purposeful about as you started your business was a set of core values that embodied what you talked about a few moments ago, making it possible for people to be fully present in their lives, with their friends with their family, while also ideally doing the best work of their lives. Share more about the core values and what inspired those as the platform for your business.

Jake Miller

When I decided to start EIG, I literally sat down and said, "I'm going to start a company, but before I do one more thing, I'm going to study what my own personal values are." This was because although I'd worked in a lot of companies with great core values, there was always a hole. And I never knew what it was and never really paid attention to it. I wanted to figure this out for myself first, because for me to be an effective leader, I think I need to be completely authentic, and I knew there were things about me where I wasn't.

I'll give you an example. I used to be afraid to speak up. Why? Why was I afraid to bring up an idea or a thought I might have? The answer may be that I don’t want to sound stupid, or I don't want people to think that I don't know what I'm doing. In reality, I think people like to ask the questions that are maybe the most off the wall, or maybe out there or on to something. We’re opening doors by allowing ourselves to think so far outside of the norm. That's where innovation happens. That is where those ideas that can change the world are born. I want to ask questions. I know if I'm going to sit and ask a prospect on a call for 20 minutes of questions, it's not because I don't know how to solve their problem; it's because I really want to make sure I've internalized and understood the problems.

Karen Mangia

What you're saying is great, discoveries begin as great questions. And the beginning of innovation is getting more curious and asking more questions. It's interesting because so many founders have a great idea for a business and then think about values later – their own and the values of the company. What made you start with that first as opposed to jumping into how fast I can sell something and get as much cash flow going as I possibly can, which is the temptation?

Jake Miller

Moments of vulnerability are important. That was one of those moments. I was at a point in my own life and career where I wanted more from it. You know, I've always given 100%, I've always given 150%, frankly, to any job. I just wanted to align my work to my personal life. And at the time, that was when my son was born; so, I was a new parent. And I was thinking that I’ve been working 12-hour days, six or seven days a week for the past 15 years. I liked my job. I love doing it. It's not that I was forced to do it. But also, there was something nagging at me personally about what I really wanted. I could have kept doing that forever, but there are also things I would like to do. I'm super interested in painting, reading, and traveling. I want to make sure I'm doing things to make room for my child and continue to make room for my spouse. And maybe it was a moment of crisis. That's probably not the right word, but I just really had this drive to think about this first because you're bound to lead a company of people, and I wanted it to be truly authentic.

Karen Mangia

Probably all our listeners ask that question at some point in our careers. Is this all there is? Is this what this is for the next however many years – I'm going to work a certain number of hours per day to make money for someone else for a certain number of days per week; is that fulfilling? I think what you're talking about is looking in the direction of your purpose and as well as value alignment. I mean, I think about this so much when people talk about being burned out at their jobs. And to me, I really simplify that definition of burnout as living outside of your values for an extended time period. What you just said illustrates that. If your priority becomes, I want my work and life to integrate differently and better so that I'm available to spend time with my son, and then you continue the pattern that you were on with work; it's not possible. You're going to feel burnt out because it's not in alignment with your values.

Say more about what the Engineered Innovation Group does. And I'll put it out there because as you know, not all our listeners are tech listeners. So, the challenge to you is – you've got to explain it in a way that my soon-to-be 100-year-old grandfather could understand – What does the Engineering Innovation Group do? You just made a reference to venture capital and working with startup businesses that are venture capital funded. Certainly, many of our listeners, whether they're in finance, or just reading the headlines about the financial outlook, are concerned about venture capital cash flow. How are you navigating this uncertain outlook in a time where everything we read would lead us to believe that either funding is paused or taking longer to win? What's your experience? And what advice would you have to either the startup leaders listening or to the aspiring startups and this whole topic of venture capital?

Jake Miller

We work with new companies, people that have new ideas, new ways of doing things. We define, design, and make those products a reality and bring them to life. That's the highest level of what we do. Now we do that specifically for software. So, software as a service company, typically VC backed or those coming out of corporate innovation labs. We see a lot more of that as of late, which we love. At the end of the day, I'll boil it down. I tell people, we're a software company without a product, our customer's product is our product.

And we are completely designed to operate with our customers. I would say, don't be discouraged. There are still investments happening. There's a lot of data that proves that there's a lot less, but I think what we're witnessing – I only have qualitative evidence for this – is a lot of the investors being choosier about what they choose to invest in. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

I think what that means is forcing founders or future founders to be clearer about what problem they are solving, who they're solving for, and why the way that solving it will be valuable and profitable. So, I think that part one is finding the process, and then a way to make sure that you're setting yourself apart from other folks with ideas. And at the end of the day, everything comes down to execution. So, if you can prove that you've got the right team and the right idea . . . you know, investors say they invest late; they tend to invest in the team, not the idea. That's very, very true. And in my job, because we run across so many startups every single day, I can say that is something I observed firsthand from when they once were a year and a half old out working with started VC-backed startups that typically are in what we call the pre-seed or seed round of funding.

In their first round of funding, and at that stage of funding, they're usually being tasked with, "We're going to give you X amount of dollars, and your goal is to prove that this is a viable concept and that someone would pay you money to use it." So, we have many customers like that. We've helped several companies, but we've also really leaned into corporate innovation labs, specifically in digital health.

Now, this was more of a company strategic decision for EIG. Health care is a mess. Healthcare needs lots of help and healthcare is ripe for innovation. I came from a healthcare health tech background as well. So that's a strategy that we're employing. So, if you are a founder going after a pre-seed or seed round of funding from venture capital or even an angel investor, be buttoned up and prepared to answer questions. Be expected to really knock your argument out of the ballpark. And I know you can do it. It really is just all about sitting down and just doing it. If you are someone in a corporation that has an innovation lab, or maybe doesn't have an innovation lab, but you have ideas and things you want to test, you have the luxury that a lot of other people don't. It’s about resources. But be very smart about the industries and the people. When you're trying to solve other problems that are ongoing and are going to exist, you're probably more likely to get the backing to go pursue those right now.

Karen Mangia

You're highlighting the importance of storytelling. And while I don't build products, my version of building products is writing books. And I know sometimes I fall in love with something I write like, I think it's amazing, brilliant, funny, whatever it is, and then it falls apart on the editing room floor because for someone else on the receiving end of it the message doesn't translate. It doesn't come to life. And I think about what happens so often with entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship and innovation. We fall in love with our idea and what we've created without thinking about the business case and the storytelling that goes with getting someone else invested in why this is timely, relevant, profitable, and having a solid definition of who is your customer, and especially if you're an innovation lab and a company, how bringing this innovation to market might shift your customer mix completely. And are you prepared for that?

Jake Miller

Exactly. It's probably part of your strategy. Well, what I see is a lot of our customers that have come to us aren't software companies; they don't want to be software companies. They're not software companies, but they're maybe a services company in healthcare, like a laboratory. And they're saying we're able to open a whole new line of revenue by building a companion product to what we're doing. And by the way, now, it's also not only opening revenue, but also a whole different target audience – it's a totally different audience. And now we need help figuring out how we even market and message to those people? How do we capture their attention? How do we get them to be new customers because we don't work with those sorts of people? Going back to the VC-backed founder – we call them type-A companies.

Here is one of the things that we do whether they ask for it or not. We always do this: ask what is your story? How are you telling people what you do? Do you have a story? What is the emotional hook? Why does anyone even care? If you can't articulate that, no one's going to care. And one you're going to have our time and investment, but two are you really going to be able to get the customers to care and want to use your product or service? Maybe not and I am continually amazed how many folks are not very good at that. So is the service that we provide? It's a big gap that people need help with. Not everyone's affordability.

Karen Mangia

Right and speak the language of your customers. That's critically important. Do you have your go to market pitch, your pitch deck, framed around how your customer sees the problem, or something that helps them develop a sense of urgency and use their own language? We all want to be able to identify with what's being presented to us and think to ourselves that's a challenge I've been trying to solve. I'm glad someone can help right now because we talk a lot about the future of work, and what’s happening in the future. First, for anyone, even if they're non-technical, what are some of the important technology trends to watch or technology, to start getting a little curious about because it might change how we work or how we get our health care, or how we live?

Jake Miller

Also, in my favorite questions that really geek out on but I'm not going to go that far. The one is the most obvious right now if you read the news, you've probably heard generative AI or chatGPT or large language models. And so, I’ll start with that one, because it is probably the most prominent right now. But it does have potential and already is making big impacts on how we work every single day. ChatGPT is an example of one of those services that is allowing us to take vast amounts of knowledge on the internet and ask it questions and have it format responses in ways that are very, very human.

Take education as an example. In the education system, you'll hear lots of professors that are saying, teachers what are we going to do? How do we know an essay was written by a student because you can now go to chatGPT and say write me an essay as though by a 12th-grade student or a professor in such and such domain, and it will output an essay. ChatGPT I believe even passed the bar exam as an example. There are so many implications here. First, in education, how do we know people are becoming educated? We must completely rethink how we evaluate critical thinking.

Next, what happens to jobs? If we have jobs where writing is involved – let's say marketing for example, which was that first case I saw – then you don't need a marketer to write your copy anymore. You can just come to us and say what you need, and we'll generate text, yada, yada, yada, for better or worse. I don't think we're going to see massive layoffs because of this. I think we're going to see shifts in how it works just to be very, very clear. But I think that's something to keep an eye on and investigate because it's going to change things.

Karen Mangia

And it starts to look in the direction of thinking through the unintended consequences of what we build. Just because we can build something does not mean that we should. Something that comes to mind because you were talking earlier about health care technology and now with this chatGPT and something that can return a response that looks very human. What worries me, and probably some of our listeners, too, is context. I mean, imagine, I call my doctor's office and list a series of symptoms. ChatGPT sends me an email back that I think is from my doctor or physician's assistant that seems very personal and provides some information. I think we all worry about security. And we worry about context. These machine learning languages and technologies, and artificial intelligence are absent from the context. If you had to look into your crystal ball, how do you see that evolving? What's the kind of question we need to find our way there?

Jake Miller

I think the problem of context is being solved first of all, which is maybe scarier. I don't, by the way, find any of this scary. I find it fascinating. I think it's more just like, how do we keep it under control? I think what the world that I see, the vision that I would paint for folks is imagine you have 10 different new friends that know different things about you. You have one that knows everything about your health; you have one that knows everything about how you drive; you'll have one that knows everything about your pets, their history, where they came from, what their breed is, who their friends are. And those friends aren't people, they're AI agents, and we are going to interact as freely with those as you would if you and I were on a call right now. I don't think that's far away. And the reason I think that we'll experience it that way is for the exact reason you're mentioning – context. So, it's very easy to think I have a chat bot, I'm going to go to that chatbot about everything. Well, that's not how you interact on a daily basis. You say I'm trying to figure out how to bake a baked potato. (I literally had a friend ask me that the other day – how do I bake it? When you bake it?) You know, you're going to ask someone how you do something. How do you cook? Well, you're going to go to someone else for that, then if you're going to say how do I change a tire on my car. The Prime Robots do that, too, eventually. But I digress.

I think that is the way we should start thinking about how we're going to start interacting with the world, what is happening is, what is emerging in front of us, is a completely new way that humans interact with technology. And I think that's why people are saying this is like the printing press moment. We are going to see a major shift in the way we interact with technology. It’s not just a new type of database. It is a new way of interacting.

Karen Mangia

Now I know how to bake a potato. So, I mean, this was just an insightful refactoring.

When I think about the world of entrepreneurship, we think about you know, what are we going to celebrate as success? One year from now, what do you want to be celebrating as the CEO of the Engineered Innovation Group?

Jake Miller

A year now I would love to celebrate having created and launched our first portfolio company. We have several ideas and one in the works that we would love to launch. That would be a huge point of celebration for us. In other words, not only are we really helping other people take their ideas and bring them to life, but we're also now in a position where we are able to bring our other ideas to life as well.

Can I add a second one, a bonus one? One of the reasons when I started the company – we have talked about this a little bit earlier – was core value use. We're working very hard here at EIG to make work more efficient for ourselves. And what I mean by that is, I would love to see, and I would totally celebrate if we were able to say we have a four-day workweek. Do you know why we could have a four-day workweek? Because technology makes us so much more efficient at what we do that we're able to give that time back to ourselves and our employees, so we can spend it with families and friends and things that stimulate us and make us interested and make the world a better place like that. I hope that sounds as authentic as it really is. I genuinely mean that it's not just platitudes. That would be phenomenal.

Karen Mangia

And you talked about helping people. Think about both the four-day workweek and the technological progress and what that could do to be of service to people. Based on what you have discovered so far in your journey, what advice would you have been to other entrepreneurs or to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Jake Miller

It's one of our core values, and that is abundance. Keep an abundance mindset. You know, I've had a handful of employees, including one of our newest say, “Jake, when I joined two weeks ago, I thought abundance was an interesting and cool core value. But I didn't realize I would literally think about it multiple times a day.”

When you run into a problem and feel that it is challenging or frustrating, many of us, not all, have an immediate reaction to scarcity. If I have got to fix it, I have got to focus. And we immediately start working from our lizard brains. And that's the best way to stifle growth. And so, fight that and keep an abundance mindset. Keep a growth mindset. Use that as a mantra. I cannot tell you how valuable that has been to me, and how I've seen that be valuable in the real world with people on our team as a core,

Karen Mangia

From austerity to abundance. That's kind of what I heard you say – something we can all take away to get out of that fear-laden state where we think there's only one way to win and only one right answer to a problem or only one path forward, and our job is to discover that one.

Something people say that they miss about the office is those casual water cooler conversations, which is why I always like to close the show with a lightning round kind of Fast Five questions. Imagine you and I bumped into each other at the water cooler. Maybe there were, you know, some treats there as well. And we were just going to have a quick chat. I'm going to ask you a question, say the first thing that comes to your mind. Are you ready?

Jake Miller

Let's do it.

Karen Mangia

All right, do you do your best creative work?

Jake Miller

AM.

Karen Mangia

Well, speaking of time, if you had an extra hour every day, you now have 25 hours a day instead of 24. What are you going to do with your extra hour?

Jake Miller

Sleep.

Karen Mangia

Spoken like every parent of a two-and-a-half-year-old, who's also an entrepreneur. Well said.

Karen Mangia

If you had to eat one meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Jake Miller

Oh, tacos, tacos.

Karen Mangia

And you didn't say baked potatoes. So that's a recipe now wasted. The zombie apocalypse is coming. Who are the three people you want on your team?

Jake Miller

Oh my gosh, this is going to take more than a lightning round. On my team. I don't know. That's abundance, abundance, abundance. Too many to choose.

Karen Mangia

How can good listeners learn more about you and your company and stay in touch with you and what you're discovering?

Jake Miller

The best way would be to connect with me or folks on my team is on LinkedIn. My name is Jake Miller, our website, engineeredinnovationgroup.com The longest domain you'll ever type in your browser.

Karen Mangia

I don't know. I have one that's readsuccessfromanywhere.com. So, I think I'm rivaling you.

Well, thank you to Jake Miller, founder and CEO of the Engineered Innovation Group, for joining us today on Success from Anywhere because success is not a destination, success is not a location, success is available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.


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