Forever Employable Stories: Tendayi Viki, innovation consultant, author and professor

In anticipation of the launch of my new book, Forever Employable, I’ll be sharing a series of interviews and stories from people from all different professions who have created a platform for themselves to make them forever employable. In this episode, I speak with Tendayi Viki, an academic turned innovation consultant and author.

Leading with craft and reputation makes it easy to build a network: how a psychologist transitioned out of academia and into the world of Lean Startup

After 12 years teaching psychology at the University of Kent, Tendayi Viki found himself in a tough spot. He had an established career in academia, a growing family and no clear sense of how to ensure he stays employed, employable and financially stable. Having seen true poverty growing up in Africa, Tendayi said, he was “motivated by fear” of not being able to care for his family as he got older. 

Paying attention to recent trends in the world around him, Tendayi recognized an increased focus on and need for usability researchers. His background in psychology and statistics made him an obvious candidate to move into the world of user experience. 

Not waiting around for research opportunities to find him he reached out to someone he knew who was looking for help in designing research studies. While this got him on the path towards the world of digital product design and development it wasn’t enough to sustain his family despite teaching full time and consulting on the side. Initially this seemed like a dead end but a lucky break got him invited for a year to teach and work at Stanford University in California. Now, it may seem like this type of “luck” strikes many of the folks who have been featured on Forever Employable Stories but it’s worth pointing out that luck is what happens when “opportunity meets preparation.” Tendayi was prepared for his next step in his career and when the opportunity presented itself he took the risk. He wasn’t sure where it was going to lead but the status quo wasn’t leading anywhere either so he decided to give it a shot — despite moving to a new country, with a young child and one on the way. And, oh yeah, no health insurance. 

Watch my interview with Tendayi Viki

Finding himself in Silicon Valley, he quickly latched onto the Lean Startup scene, which was in its formative days at that time. Steve Blank was lecturing regularly on the topic and Tendayi couldn’t get enough. Soaking up as much of that knowledge as he could, he brought his entrepreneurial spirit and new inspiration back to Europe where he gave every bit of free time and effort to the Lean Startup community. None of this was paying his bills yet but he knew there was promise in it as the movement grew. The interesting thing about his path to forever employability is that Tendayi always had a back up plan. For example, as he explored new job opportunities in the Lean Startup space he was technically “on sabbatical” from the university so that if it didn’t work out he could come back to his old academic career quite easily.

The stories he shares in the interview repeatedly show a measured approach to creating an exponential future and thought leadership that, while requiring a few big leaps of faith, always ensured there was a way to pay the bills. What I find fascinating about this discussion is that, again, the key component in Tendayi’s success was perseverance and a commitment to learning. As he began to transition towards a more public-facing phase of his career he realized that no one knew who he was. To build that reputation he took his learnings and led with craft. He did the work he began writing about. He applied the ideas he learned in Silicon Valley and shared his successes and failures. This built his reputation and this is what helped him plant his flag and develop an audience. 

Reputation building is something Tendayi takes very seriously. So much so that it’s a column on his Trello (kanban) board. It’s something he does every day whether it’s through his writing for Forbes magazine, working on his books, presentations or preparing for his next masterclass with his new employer, Strategyzer (Alex Osterwalder’s consulting company). This is key in ensuring that his next opportunity finds him. He is public and active and continuously sharing. 

I have to admit this was one of the more fun interviews I’ve done in a while as Tendayi and I go back a few years and have some shared experiences. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 


Transcript

JEFF:    I’ve got innovation consultant extraordinaire, professor, author, public speaker, column writer, and someone I’m super thrilled to call my friend, Tendayi Viki, with me today. Tell us your story.

TENDAYI:         It’s really cool to hang out with you again. Every time I turn an internet corner, you’re there somewhere. I can’t shake you.

JEFF:    I’m thrilled for people to hear your story because you’re a really great example of become forever employable. You had a career track you were on and since then, you’ve built off of that and expanded it. Give us the TLDR elevator pitch about yourself and your career in general.

TENDAYI:         I’m a former academic.

JEFF:    What did you teach?

TENDAYI:         I taught psychology. I’m actually a psychologist. I did organizational behavior mostly focused on intergroup dynamics. That was the big area I was kind of working in. I was also an expert in research methodologies and statistics. I taught the undergrad course on that for a long time. I thought that’s what I was going to do for a while until I woke up with a pretty upset wife and three kids and no money. My wife was also studying her PhD at the time and we’d be switching babies in the carpark and we couldn’t afford to put them in the daycare center. It was insane and a crazy period. I thought I was going to be an academic all my life and consult in the side, but what happened is I am now a consultant and I’m an academic on the side.

JEFF:    How long were you in academia?

TENDAYI:         It all depends on when you start counting.

JEFF:    Let’s go with the years you were actually teaching.

TENDAYI:         That’s 12 years.

JEFF:    Where were you teaching?

TENDAYI:         At the University of Kent. It’s here in Canterbury. The funny thing is I live on the same campus even now today. You know how professors get these houses that are on campus? I still live in one of those houses.

JEFF:    Do they still know you’re there?

TENDAYI:         Yeah, they do. I pay them rent because I’m an honorary professor.

JEFF:    In Forever Employable, I talk about several qualities that help folks become forever employable. In your case, I see a lot of emphasis on continuous improvement, entrepreneurialism, and reinvention. Let’s talk about coming out of academia and this concept of reinvention. You decide to reinvent yourself. Were there things that happened during your academic career that helped you build up that self-confidence to reinvent yourself?

TENDAYI:         I’m glad self-confidence is not one of the things you’re making me focus on because I don’t have any. I have very low self-confidence. I’m more driven by ambition and fear. Fear of waking up one day and not being able to care for my family as I get older and there’s competition in the marketplace for various things. I’m really scared of not being able to take care of my family. That’s what drives me. The entrepreneurial thing came with trying to deal with that because my kids are right there and there’s a certain standard of life that I’d like for them to have. I’d like my wife to smile at me when I come through the door. Those kinds of things. That’s what drove me.

The way I started thinking about how to branch out is I rooted myself in my discipline which is psychology. I thought I might be a usability consultant. Doing like user testing and all these things. I emailed a guy out of the blue and said, “I see you run a usability firm. I’m a psychologist. I can help you with doing various kinds of experiment designs.” He was like, “Yeah, come on board.” He gave me a couple of gigs and he was like, “I really like working with you.” After a while, he gave me even more work specializing on my statistics expertise. It was okay. I was getting by but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t really see a way out of that. Then I got a lucky break.

The lucky break was I was at a psychology conference and there was a lady there who was a professor from Stanford. She liked my work as a psychologist. She invited me to spend a year at Stanford as a research fellow. Fully-funded, fully paid. I get to Stanford and I realize I’m in Silicon Valley. That’s how dumb academic I was. I didn’t even know Stanford was in Silicon Valley. I was so in psychology. I didn’t live in the business world at all. It’s really interesting because you start bumping into people and the Stanford credential opens doors. I’m at Stanford and anyone will have coffee with you because they probably think you could be a Google founder or something. I got into the d.school environment there, going to the talks, going to Facebook’s first incubator. It’s probably the only one they ever ran. That was also on University Avenue. I used to go hangout there. That’s where I saw the founders of Lyft. They were called Zimride at the time. I went to them because I was like, “Why are you called Zimride? Have you ever been to Zimbabwe?” He was like, “Yeah, I’ve been to Zimbabwe. That’s why it’s called Zimride because when I was in Zimbabwe, I saw people doing ridesharing.” I was like, “I’m from Zimbabwe.” Then we had lunch. John Zimmer is his name. I don’t think he remembers me these days, but before they became Lyft. They were being incubated in that Facebook incubator.

I could really see the links for my usability interests into the startup space, the agile space, the lean startup space. The threads kind of pulled me in that direction. I just thought this is what I’m doing.

JEFF:    There’s a lot of folks that look at people who have built platforms for themselves and are recognized experts or thought leaders and they say, “They got lucky. They got a lucky break.” I think people like you and me will also say, “We got a lucky break.” As I was writing this book, one of the things that dawned on me is I love that saying by Seneca, the old philosopher, where he says, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” You were lucky but I think in many ways, you were prepared for that opportunity. You stepped out of academia. You were expanding your horizons. You were looking for the next best thing for yourself. Then the opportunity presented itself.  You said you had no self-confidence. I’m going to push back a little bit. How many kids did you have at this point before you moved to Stanford?

TENDAYI:         Before I moved to Stanford, I had one and my wife was pregnant.

JEFF:    You moved to Stanford with 1 ½ kids en route. You said you don’t have any self-confidence. I don’t see it. I see preparation and opportunity and then being willing to take that chance. It’s a big deal to make that hop over there. I just wanted to call that out. You’re in Silicon Valley. You’re starting to get steeped in this lean startup, startup culture, lean, agile design thinking. You’re at the d.school. How do you start to apply that? You’re a psychologist. You’re a statistician. How are you blending all that stuff and where does it take you from there?

TENDAYI:         It was crazy. I don’t know how often this happens to people but the blessing of that moment was that it was almost an addictive experience. Like I couldn’t stop going to Steve Blank’s weekly lectures. This was in 2010. I couldn’t stop going to the meetups. I couldn’t stop reading all the blogs. I was so into it. That drove me a little bit crazy because now I was in this dilemma of the fork in the road. Do I keep going in this direction because I’m reading about only this and not really publishing the psychology stuff that will get me promoted to the next professor stage? I thought what I’d do is I’ll come back to England and keep my day job and I’ll do an MBA. I thought that’s what you do when you want to get into business. At the university I worked at, if you’re a professor, you get to do the MBA for half price or free depending on what negotiations you did. It took me two years. First year was half price. Second year was free. I got a free and a half MBA. When I’m doing that, I’m also doing other things that were a little bit insane. I got in touch with every lean startup person I could get in touch with like Sal and Rob Fitzpatrick here in the UK. I’d go wherever they were hanging out and follow them around. I was volunteering for free to coach at the Lean Startup Machine. Then after they see me coach well, maybe they’ll ask me to do one of the kickoff talks. I started giving those kickoff talks for free. I started doing a little bit of blogging but not that much. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough yet. I was doing free stuff.

I remember even going to Amsterdam because there was a version of Lean Startup Machine that was happening and giving speeches there for free. The thing I distinctly remember about that was that they bought me my plane ticket and my train ticket and I had 50 cents in my pocket. I was that broke back in those days. All the money was going into looking after the kids. I arrived at the event at about 11PM and all the food was gone. I knew at these events they had pizzas and stuff. I was like, “You’ve got to give me some food.” The organizer was like, “Okay,” and they took me down to The Kebab Shop and bought me dinner. That’s how it was back then. It was hand to mouth living. I was so focused on becoming an expert in this field that I went out into the world and learned as much as I could and created connections.

JEFF:    There’s a theme here in these forever employable stories. The word perseverance comes up over and over and over again. To me, it’s this interesting thread I’m seeing in these conversations. You said it yourself. “I wanted to learn everything that I could about this. I worked for free. I had 50 cents in my pocket. I went to the meetups to get the food.” That’s a perseverance there that pays off after a bunch of time. Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

TENDAYI:         Not entrepreneur in terms of founding stuff, but I consider myself entrepreneurial. I’m willing to try stuff and step out. I don’t want to take too much credit. I also really understand what my motivations are. I understand the things that drive me. The things that drive me are family. My commitment to my family. I’ll step out and try and create as much stability as I can. Also, my background. I’m from Zimbabwe. I grew up in Africa. If you’ve ever seen poverty. I have an energy, almost a force that pushes me towards trying things and attempting things. It’s almost in that that you encounter your blessing. I’m a Christian which is why you hear me saying blessing a lot. Like the luck preparation thing you talk about, for me, it’s almost like backwards. For me, as a Christian, the belief it, that you get your blessing and then you’ve got to nurture it. There’s work to do. You don’t actually just get the opportunity and then go… Then you wait for the next opportunity. You don’t become a bag of money walking down the road. The thing that helped me with all these free talks, I ended up giving a free talk at a Lean Startup event and then I met Craig Strong. The first time I met you, I was with Craig at the Lean U.S. Conference London. You were the host with the most. I gave that keynote with the M&M metaphor.

JEFF:    I do remember.

TENDAYI:         All of that stuff happened because of Craig, who I met, at this one Lean Startup event in London. I also distinctly remember the night I met him because my wife was in Zimbabwe and I had to drop off my son at my auntie’s house so she could watch him while I gave the keynote and then go pick him up. This was a free keynote. I met Craig that night and then Craig invited me to come and give the keynote at Pearson. You were at Pearson. That same keynote that you gave in that series, that’s the same one that I gave. That’s what got me to meet Sonia.

JEFF:    All the stuff you’ve done is risky. Can you share a story of how you mitigated some of that risk? How did you make sure if it falls apart that you have a safety net?

TENDAYI:         Because I have a family, I could never step away from earning. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve done working extra hours. I was still teaching at university when I was doing all that Lean Startup stuff giving keynotes, speaking at Pearson, and all that. I still would wake up in the morning and teach class. The best way to build a business if you’re our age and you’ve got kids is to either have a really big nest egg and then walk away from everything or to… That’s the way I worked it. When I went to Stanford, it was a fellowship. It was paid for. I could pay rent. I could get food. My job back in England was guaranteed when I came back because you just take leave to go on fellowship. When I finally ended up working at Pearson, I didn’t just quit. I asked to take a sabbatical from the university for a year and then I went away and worked at Pearson. Only after the year did I go, “Okay, I think there’s something there.” Then I quit my job.

JEFF:    Let’s talk about your current book. Your most current book is called?

TENDAYI:         Pirates in the Navy.

JEFF:    Pirates in the Navy based on a Steve Jobs quote. What’s the book about?

TENDAYI:         The book is about entrepreneurs that are working inside large organizations and how they can build a bridge between the work that they do and the way that their large company operates. There’s been a lot of talk about being pirates. Be More Pirate is a really great book. What I think people do is they take that to the extreme. They start to view themselves in an antagonistic fashion to the company that they work for. I’m saying you can’t really just be a pirate or be in the Navy. You’ve got to be a pirate in the Navy. It’s about legitimacy, power, and influence for entrepreneurs that are inside large organizations.

JEFF:    The book is currently out, correct?

TENDAYI:         Yes, the book came out two weeks ago.

JEFF:    Congratulations. I know how hard that is. Why write a book?

TENDAYI:         The first book I wrote The Corporate Startup, I wrote because I needed to plant a flag. It’s a phrase that you use. When I heard you use that phrase, I was like, “That’s what that was.” I knew that I wanted to become the people that I admired and I wanted to become Jeff Gothelf in order to become Alex Osterwalder. I just knew that and I remember saying that to my wife over and over again. I want what those cats are doing because I know I can do it as well. I’ve got the same skillset but nobody knows who I am. I’ve got to build a reputation. How do you build that? I’m going to move away from startups because that’s the space I’ve been operating in and I’m going to go into the corporate space because I got lucky enough to work with Sonia and learn how that works. I worked so hard on The Corporate Startup because I wanted it to be a big plant. Like put it into the ground like that. That’s why I write. Writing for me is reputation building.

On my Trello, there’s a board that’s called Reputation Building and it’s all the things that I’m doing to build reputation from articles to webinars to books.

JEFF:    For reputation building, what’s in your Trello board, like the kinds of activities.

TENDAYI:         The kinds of things that are on my Trello board for reputation building are The Forbes where I write and am a contributor. I’m always working on more than one book. It’s weird. I’ve got the books that I’m writing and then I’ve got the blogging that I do as well on the Strategyzer blog posts. Then I’ve got anything where I’m invited to either give a webinar or give a talk. All of that is under reputation building. Reputation building for me is the first thing I do every morning before I dive into workshops or any paid work. There’s two hours blocked off every morning for just the reputation building. It’s either writing or preparing the keynotes for the workshops or the speeches I’m going to give, having a call with my co-authors. It’s the thing that I need the most. That gravity.

JEFF:    How do you build your network?

TENDAYI:         That one is going to be a disappointing answer. I’m really bad at it. I took the approach that I’m going to be so good at my craft. I’m going to show the world that I’m so good at my craft and that’s the network. I don’t have a mailing list. I don’t have any of those things that clever people should do. I haven’t gotten to it yet. I don’t know if it’s smart or not. I’m sure it will come to bite me one day.

JEFF:    The reputation building you’re doing is not a mailing list but your writing, your blogging, your teaching, your speaking, that’s great.

TENDAYI:         Leading with craft and reputation makes it easy to network rather than just turning up and going, “Hey, let’s have some coffee.”  I always find that people that are actually important enough that you want to talk to them, they don’t have time to hang out with you.” They need to already know they want to talk to you before they meet you and that makes it easy.

JEFF:    This opens doors too then, right?

TENDAYI:         Yes. Also, being an ethnic minority, I sometimes just have to lead with reputation in certain conversations.

JEFF:    Crazy world we live in these days. Currently, we’re in the middle of this Coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns. You and I are still busy and I’m curious how the things that you’ve been doing are keeping you busy and helping you stay forever employable during a pandemic.

TENDAYI:         We’ve been very fortunate. If you’ve got a certain job sometimes, the thing just closes and you can’t work. For us, we’re knowledge workers. It’s been useful. A lot of our clients have agreed that the stuff we’re doing with them face-to-face, they can carry on with us virtually. In an hour from here, we’re doing the virtual Master’s class; 120 people have signed up and that was something we thought was a lost form of revenue for us this year. Now we’re thinking about hosting 2 or 3 more. This confluence, this meeting point between what I do and the ability to do it using technology has benefited the work that I do. I don’t know if that’s forever employable. I imagine one day if there’s a crisis when the internet is down…

JEFF:    That would be tough.

TENDAYI:         There’s always challenges. The goal we’re building in reputation is to have it such that people are willing to take risk with you. “So this has failed because of this change that’s happened but we still want to work with you. Let’s try this.” Because they want to work with you so much, they’re willing to try things with you. That’s how the reputation might save you.

For the record, and you need to keep this in.  There is an element of this which is also you don’t want to exaggerate the power of the human. I’m not Ayn Rand. There’s also a lot of blessing that goes on with born where you are, meeting the people you meet. Like Warren Buffet faith. There’s a lot of blessing that comes to a situation and then you’ve got to work your blessing. A lot of people are blessed but then don’t work with the blessing.

JEFF:    Community, networks, the people that you meet. That was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Pirates in the Navy is your new book. Go out and grab it.