608: 5 Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs | Bob Moesta

Podcast Cover Image: 5 Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs Featuring Bob Moesta
Podcast Cover Image: 5 Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs Featuring Bob Moesta

On our latest episode of the Conquer Local Podcast, George Leith chats with Bob Moesta, an innovator, entrepreneur, and co-creator of the Jobs to Be Done Theory to investigate consumers’ motivations and decision-making processes. The co-founder and president of the ReWired Group, Moesta helps leaders and companies repeatedly innovate and reliably predict and drive lasting success. He is the author of Learning to Build: 5 Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs, and co-author of Demand Side Sales 101 and Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life.

An experienced product developer and engineer by training, Bob worked on and launched over 3,500 new products, services, and businesses across nearly every industry, including education, health care, defence, auto manufacturing, software, financial services, and construction. 

Bob is a guest lecturer at The Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan School of Entrepreneurship, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He holds degrees from Michigan State University and Harvard Business School. He has studied extensively at Boston University’s School of Management, MIT School of Engineering, and Stanford University’s d.school. 

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5 Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs


George: This is the Conquer Local podcast, a show about billion-dollar sales leaders, marketers leading local economic growth, and entrepreneurs that have created their dream organizations. They wanna share their secrets, giving you the distilled version of their extraordinary feats. Our hope is with the tangible takeaways from each episode, you can rewire, rework, and reimagine your business. I’m George Leith, and on this episode, we’re pleased to welcome Bob Moesta. Bob is an innovator, entrepreneur, and co-creator of the Jobs to Be Done theory, to investigate consumer motivations and decision-making processes. He’s the co-founder and president of the ReWired Group and helps leaders and companies innovate, predict, and drive lasting success. Bob is the co-author of “Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life,” and the author of “Learning to Build: The 5 Bedrock Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs.” An experienced product developer and engineer by training, Bob worked on and helped launch more than 3,500 new products, services, and businesses across nearly every industry, including education, healthcare, defence, auto manufacturing, software, financial services, and construction. He’s a guest lecturer at the Harvard Business School, MIT, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Bob also holds degrees from Michigan State University and the Harvard Business School. He studied extensively at Boston University School of Management, MIT School of Engineering, and Stanford University’s d.school. Get Ready, conquerers, for Bob Moesta, coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local” podcast. 

George: Always love having an engineer on the show because the earlier George is a sales professional, I’ve been doing this for about 35 years. There was absolutely no engineering in my sales career, but I’ve come to appreciate over the last 10 years how engineering and sales are fused together. Excited to have you on the show, Bob. And I know that you live in an area that’s almost as cold as where we live, just outside of Detroit, but thanks for joining us on the show.

Bob: Yep, all my kids played ice hockey. I had an ice rink in my backyard for almost 17 years straight, so it’s, I love the winter.

George: Are you a Wings fan?

Bob: I am a Wings fan. Yep, big time.

George: All right, well I won’t hold that against you.

Bob: No, you can’t hold it against me. It’s all right.

Engineering Background and Product Development

George: Well, Bob, in the show notes, it says that you’ve been, you know, engineering for over 40 years and that you launched over 3,500 products. I’d like to hear about, you know, how did you get here, Bob? Like that’s a hell of a career.

Bob: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, so, I think one is, my mom would tell you I was an engineer out of the womb. I’ve always been breaking things and fixing things since I was a little kid. But I happened to meet four very special people when I was about 18 years old. One of them was Dr. Deming, who was a gentleman who went to Japan in the fifties. He was actually 85 and I was 18. And he taught me basically how to go develop products. And so I’ve worked on everything from the guidance system for the Patriot missile to 5 Gum, to Pokemon Mac and Cheese, Basecamp, QuickBooks, and just about everything in between. And so for me, I’ve always loved to be creating things and bringing things. And the other thing is I love to help people. And so ultimately, I’ve done seven startups, and this last one is really geared towards helping people develop new and better products. And to answer your question directly around sales, is one of my mentors, his name was Clay Christensen. One of the things that I always asked is like, “Why at business school are there no sales professors? “There’s usually everything else, “but there’s no sales professors.” And so, ultimately, I went off and realized that sales is the hardest thing that I ever had to do, and that ultimately I needed a different approach to it. So I wrote a book called “Demand-Side Sales,” which is, let’s stop selling and let’s start helping people make progress. And so most good salespeople don’t sell, they just help people. And that to me is at the core of kind of what that book’s about.

Jobs to Be Done Theory

George: Well, I wanted to get into both of the books. The first thing I wanted to talk about, though, is this unbelievably amazing Jobs to Be Done theory. Can we talk about that theory?

Bob: Yeah, so one of the things I realized is I was told two really big lies in engineering school. One was the whole premise of, “Build it and they will come,” which just doesn’t hold true at all. So I used to, I built a couple of products and nobody came. And I, you know, I had to go get a job because my products didn’t work. And so I started to realize, like, I can, you know, like, building it and they will come doesn’t work. The other is, if I ask people what they want, they have no idea what they want. And so when you try to go and ask them what they want, like, they can’t tell you what they want in the future. And so Jobs to Be Done was kind of my hack because I’m dyslexic and I can’t read and write, and that I had to go talk to people to understand what caused them to say, “Today’s the day I change my dog food,” or what caused me to say, “Today’s the day, you know, “I need a new accounting software.” And when you start to actually understand the context that people are in and the outcome they seek, it’s the situation that actually creates the moment for the product. And so by understanding, basically, those struggling moments in people’s lives, that’s how I’ve been aiming all of my innovations is only where people struggle and they wanna make progress.

George: You know, it’s fascinating when you discuss that, and I’m a huge fan of Clayton Christensen as well. But, you know, that whole concept of what we position in a chunk of marketing material with the feature benefit may not be speaking to the catalyst as to why somebody needs our product or service.

Bob: Exactly, exactly. I think the other part is we end up trying to spout all the features and benefits that we can do without knowing where they’re coming from. And what I’ve found is that one is most people only need three or four benefits. They’re only looking for three or four. So when you tell them 10, they’re like, “Ah, I don’t need all that. Like, can I get a discount?” And so you start to realize if you don’t talk to people and understand where they’re coming from, you end up actually shooting yourself in the foot a lot of times.

Author of Demand-Side Selling 101 and Learning to Build: 5 Bedrock Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs

George: So let’s get to the books. We got two of them. You mentioned “Demand-Side Selling 101,” and then we’ve got this other book, “Learning to Build: The Five Bedrock Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs.” And if there’s one thing you know about our show, we love lists. So let’s get into those five steps that you talk about.

Bob: Yeah, the five skills. Yeah, so my youngest happened to graduate from college and leave the house, so I’m an empty nester. And as I went to kind of start to clean out the house, I realized I had 847 volumes of notebooks that I’ve been taking for over the 50 years, or 45 years. And so I went back through them. And when I think about it, like I was, again, dyslexic, illiterate, can’t read, can’t write, 18-year old, like I was told to be a baggage handler at the airport, but somehow I didn’t end up there. And so part of this is to realize what my mentors had taught me. And so I looked back over my career and said, “I’ve worked with so many people and I’ve worked on so many different projects, like, what are the essential things that these really successful innovators and entrepreneurs possessed? And what did my mentors teach me that helped kind of build that foundation?” And so I kind of boiled it down to five skills, right? Skill number one is empathetic perspective, really good innovators and entrepreneurs can see things from different people’s perspective and see it through space and time. And so you start to realize they’re really, really good at, if you will, connecting dots by actually playing the role of different people, right? Skill number two is this aspect of being able to uncover demand, they realize that their products don’t create demand, but demand is based in struggling moments, and they know how to see struggling moments and build product for that. The third one is cause and effect and that they have causal structures. They clearly understand how things work and are always curious to see how things work. The fourth one is what I call prototyping to learn, this is what I consider one of my superpowers. And that, to be honest, over the years, I realize, like, most people prototype to verify as opposed to prototype to learn. And so this is where you actually prototype to make things fail so you can learn, right? And then the last one is identifying and managing trade-offs. And if you look at really successful innovators, and entrepreneurs, and teams, you’ll realize that, like, I might not possess all five, but every one of my team has all five. And those five skills make, like, they’re the essential ingredients of being successful in entrepreneurship and in innovation.

Strengths and Weaknesses in Innovation

George: And one of the most, you know, you talked about mentors, and there was a lot you talked about in there, mentors, you talked about having empathy. But I think that everyone will agree when you build a great team is when magic happens. And it’s okay to not have one of these skills if you can find someone else that has it, and then focus on the things that you’re good at. I think that’s what I hear you saying.

Bob: That’s exactly right. I’m also a very big proponent of like, I think we should need to be able to understand what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are and figure out not, most companies focus on you developing your weaknesses. And what I would say is, I’ve built all my businesses on the premise of literally leveraging the crap out of people’s strengths and literally finding people to supplement people’s weaknesses. So instead of trying to find somebody who’s really good at out-of-the-box thinking and design, as well as good at, you know, accounting, and, you know, project management, like, those two things don’t go together, and try to make somebody who can do both, usually they can’t do both well. And so dividing the work up and figuring out that is what I do.

George: So if we could summarize the book, “Learning to Build,” in just a couple of sentences, what takeaways would you give to our audience?

Bob: That innovation and creation is a learned set of skills. And that you might not think you can build something, but the fact is the more you can hone and refine these skills, the better you can be at creating things and being an innovator and entrepreneur, and that it’s a learned trait. It’s not, you’re not born an innovator. You learn how to be an innovator.

The Value of Mentorship

George: I love that, by the way. And I also think it’s super impressive how much time you’re spending now mentoring younger talent. And, you know, for our audience, you know, I think one of my biggest regrets, I’ve talked about it on this show, is that I didn’t recognize how important mentors were earlier. I look back at it now and I can see the mentors as clear as day, although I did not identify that I needed them. And identifying that you need mentors earlier is a huge key to success. So, you know, you’re investing a lot of time into that, and I commend you for that. What are some of the common things you hear from folks when you’re doing these mentorship sessions?

Bob: Well, so I wrote a blog post, I don’t know, or I co-authored one at the Harvard Business School on getting the mentoring equation right. And when you look at, basically, the relationship of a mentor and a mentee and understanding the progress that they’re trying to make, ultimately, as a mentee, or a mentor, I wanna actually make progress by seeing people learn the things that I’m helping them with. And at the same time, I want, the mentee has to actually be explicit about the progress they wanna make. And the more I can be explicit about, why me, and what can I help you with, and when are we done. Because what’s interesting is Clay was my mentor for a long time, and at some point, he turned to me and said, “No, you’re not my, “I’m not your mentor, we’re peers.” And the moment we became peers is when we started to create new things together. And so, to be honest, a lot of times as being a mentor, what I want is I want to actually get people to my level so then I can go create new things. 

George: Well, so then the student becomes the master then, at the end of the day.

Bob: Exactly, exactly. And, but it frees me up to now go do other things. And so part of it is to realize it’s a two-sided equation here, and to understand how does it work, and knowing when are you actually benefiting from each other and when do you start competing with each other? And ultimately, by Clay just making the simple thing is we’re peers, we now can have very different conversations than me being the mentee listening to his bated breath and trying to figure out what he means by things, as opposed to that, now we’re collaborating on Jobs to Be Done theory.

George: Well, now I’m super jealous because to be mentored by the great Clayton Christensen and then to become equals is a pretty impressive thing to put on-

Bob: I would never say I ever felt like an equal, but that’s how he’d say it. And the strange part of this is that I got four hours a quarter for 27 years with Clay Christensen with no agenda. I mean, and we would sit down and he would talk about what he’s researching and I’d talk about what I was doing, and ultimately we would connect with, my networks and his networks didn’t really, kind of, they didn’t overlap. So I would bring people to him and he would send people to me. And it was just a, like, to be honest, today is the second anniversary of his passing, so I’m, you know, it’s a special day to me. And so that’s why I’m actually happy to be able to talk today.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

George: Well, Bob, rest in peace to your mentor and colleague. And, you know, he’s taught us all so much. So, you know, a little bonus session then, I’d like to go back to that book “Innovator’s Dilemma,” and I talk about it quite a bit when I’m speaking in front of, you know, business owners around, you know, being innovative. And quite frankly, if you’re not gonna innovate, you’re probably not gonna make it. And that’s, and sometimes you don’t see disruption. And that was one of the themes I took outta the book. It kind of came outta nowhere. It, you know, when you think back to “Innovators Dilemma,” what would you share with business owners and entrepreneurs today that they need to be thinking about? Because I think the lesson of that book has even been more amplified in the world we’re living in today.

Bob: Oh, for sure. So what Clay did is he went off and studied, basically, what causes very, very successful companies to fail when they’re at the peak of their, you know, history? Like people like Digital Equipment Corporation or US Steel, and understanding kind of what was the dilemma they had? And one of the things he highlighted was this aspect of that most, you know, incumbents, very big, large companies get toppled by very small companies. And it was like, how does this really happen? And it really comes back with two or three fundamental premises. One is that the incumbent is always better, bigger, and, you know, has a reputation compared to everybody else. And so most of the time the incumbent is looking down on the rest of the competition and literally going, “Oh, that’s bad. And ooh, that’s really not that important.” And you start to realize that at some point there’s, that they get blinded. The second part is that there’s a part of the market that is underserved. They can’t afford the expensive product, but they want something in its place and they’re willing to actually accept something that’s inferior because it’s better than nothing, right? And ultimately, the thing is is the third component is it’s a new technology or a new business model that then fundamentally changes how you go to market, right? And so if you think of cameras, this is one of my favourite examples, how in the world has Apple become one of the largest camera producers in the world? Because they weren’t set out to be a camera at all. And what happens is, if you look at the camera market, you look at Canon, and Nikon, and Hasselblad, what they did is they went upmarket, they got better and better at sensors, and lenses, and cameras, and all this other, but the number of people who just, like, the phrase I always say is, “The best camera is the camera with you,” right? And so, in a lot of cases, I’d be in, what, a kid’s soccer game, and it was better to have a picture off my Razr, you know, my Motorola Razr phone that was very blurry than no picture at all. And so you start to realize that what Apple did is they went in and they made it easier, and easier, and easier to take pictures and make it better, and better, and better. So eventually, the camera device market is off 90% in the last eight years, 90%. Yet the number of pictures that have been taken has almost, you know, 10,000 Xed. And so you start to realize that its disruption is at rise is when, basically, people wanna do something, but they can’t, and they’re willing to actually use an inferior technology that eventually will surpass the old technology. And that’s exactly what cameras have done in the phones.

George: The way that you described that was excellent because it helped even an old sales guy like me understand it. And now I’m sitting here thinking, “Why do I have this phone in my pocket,” which can actually record full motion video in high def? And what my gut is telling me, my hypothesis is, as more and more people wanted technology in their pocket, that the cost of providing better technology came down. And that’s now why we have this thing that’s happened.

Bob: Exactly right. Yeah, I don’t think people sit around and say, “I have this thing in my pocket. What do I wanna do with it?” What happens is they end up having a struggling moment in their life and they say like, “Oh, maybe I could do this.” It’s like, “Well, here’s a crappy picture, but it could be better. But, like, this is better than nothing.” And then, eventually, Apple picking up on those things and making the camera better, right? Think about it. I had to learn all this language. What’s an f-stop? What’s a shutter speed? What’s a, like all this language. And then ultimately I had to buy software to run the bigger cameras. Ultimately, I just wanna push the button and hit send, right?

George: No, that’s right. My colleague Jon Miller’s sitting right across from us here and he knows f-stop and all of that stuff. He is an expert on that.

Bob: Yeah, of course. But he’s in the profession, so he should know that, right? But, I think the fact is the rest of us who don’t wanna be in the profession, and again, you think Cannon, and Nikon, and Hasselblad are looking at Apple going, “Oh, that’s a great camera.”? They’re looking at it going, “That’s a crappy camera.” Like I always say, disruption is awry when the incumbent looks at a competitor and goes, “Oh, that’s crappy. Oh, nobody will buy that.”

George: Dismissive.

Bob: Right, and that’s like.

George: Start looking over your shoulder.

Bob: Yeah, dismissive.

George: ‘Cause you’re gonna get beat.

Bob: Exactly, exactly.

The Era of Accelerated Innovation and Technology

George: Bob, one thing I wanted to talk about before we wrap up is something that’s been, you know, gnawing away at me in the back of my mind for a while and just happen to have an engineering legend on the other end. So let me ask you. I remember seeing some presentations eight, or nine years ago when I got into the software business talking about this accelerated rate of innovation. And at one, you know, you think about the hockey-stick growth thing, and then eventually we’re getting to a point where we’re producing more technology faster, and faster, and faster, and then that technology produces even more. And so where do you think we are on that curve of the acceleration of innovation? Because it’s something that’s always gnawing away at me in the back of my mind.

Bob: Yeah, I actually think we have more technology than can be consumed. I don’t think we have enough struggling moments in people’s lives to know how to pull this stuff in. Like, we actually have so much innovation in the hopper that can help people, but for the most part, most people don’t even know to look for it. And so there’s, I always say, there’s, you know, technology in search of a job, right? And so I think of like, think of like the, what is it, the segue, right? Amazing, like how many people would say they would- Would you rather be on a segue or walk? It’s like, “Hmm, I’ll take a segue.” But like, not for the money that they were willing to put out for it. And ultimately, the person who’s changed the most in that thing was somebody called Birds, which is little scooters they put around the city. And they’re not that great, but they’re better than walking. And so you start to realize that a lot of times we’re over-engineering the innovations and not meeting people where they are. And so I think that the pendulum has swung from one side of being like, there’s, you know, people in search of, you know, problems we can solve, to now we have so much technology that most people don’t know how to fit it in their lives.

Automation in Sales and Digital Marketing

George: Well, and I remember someone telling me a number of years back that they were gonna automate sales in digital marketing. And to your point, I think there’s even more confusion now and even more need for someone to shepherd a customer through all of this confusion and how it all works together. Because, you know, there’s a lot of bogeys out there that you could be getting that’s costing you money if you don’t know how to fit it all together. So you’re right, the level of innovation is actually leading to more demand for that trusted expert to help guide them.

Bob: Well, I think that’s right. And I think the thing is is most people are trying to get to more and more self-serve. But the fact is that what happens is that the solutions that we’re picking are actually way more integrated. And so what they’re trying to do is sell you one thing and somebody else is trying to sell you something else and somebody else is trying to sell. But ultimately, so one of the phrases I hear all the time when I’m doing this is like, “I just want one throat to choke when this doesn’t go well.” And so they’re saying like, “I can’t buy from any one of ’em, but if there’s somebody who’s an integrator, I’ll buy it from them.” And you start to realize, like, that’s really the role of salespeople is to actually help them see options, see alternatives, and help them define the progress they’re trying to make.

George: Well, Bob Moesta, thank you very much for joining us on the Conquer Local podcast this episode, some great learnings-

Bob: Thank you.

George: Around how we can take those five skills and put them to work, your concept on “Demand-Side Sales 101,” and then in that amazing Jobs to Be Done theory. We just really appreciate you sharing here on the show today.

Bob: Thanks for having me.


George: Well, as you can tell by my enthusiasm, I really enjoyed our conversation with Bob Moesta. Valuable takeaways and to recap those five skills from his book, “Learning to Build,” skill number one, empathetic perspective, number two, understand how to cover the demand, number three, a good sense of cause and effect, number four, prototype to learn, and number five, good entrepreneurs identify and manage trade-offs. Bob reminds us that innovations and creations are a learned set of skills. No one is born an innovator, but you can hone and refine your skills over time. In other words, you learn how to be an innovator. If you liked Bob’s episode discussing developing skills of innovation and entrepreneurship, let’s continue the conversation. Check out episode 309, “Four Sales Formulas from Mark Roberge,” episode 601, “Make Your Systemization Look Like a Million Bucks with David Jenyns,” and episode 537, “The Roadmap to Achieving Sales Success with Wayne Moloney.” Please subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to your podcast. And thanks for joining us this week on the Conquer Local podcast. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.