The Life of Tom Kuczmarski and the Creation of the Chicago Innovation Awards’, ‘

Tom Kuczmarski spends every waking moment of his life making sure that tomorrow is far more interesting than today. He’s been a teacher at the Kellogg School of Management for three decades, a seasoned consultant, and an innovator’s innovator. He also knows that things don’t always come-up-roses, like when he ventured into the flower business.

An aggravated customer offers a dead flower to a shopkeeper who suddenly loses interest in staying in the flower business. “The day I knew it was over was when a woman came in on a Sunday and she came up to me with her one hand on her hip and this bouquet of dead flowers in her hand and she said, ‘I bought these flowers ten days ago and look at them – they are dead. I want my money back.’  I thought, ‘It was ten days ago! They should be dead!'”

Home of the Basketball Hall of Fame (and Tom), Springfield, Massachusetts doesn’t just host’m, it creates Hall of Fame talent. Family life was pretty low key and laid back for Tom and his folks living in the rural outskirts of Springfield proper. Tom stayed in Springfield through college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, until grad school came banging down his door and brought him to the Big Apple and Columbia University. “I was a good kid, and at about age ten I started my first entrepreneurial business. My parents had given me a movie projector and I charged a quarter for kids to come watch movies in my basement. And I still have my record of the money that came in. I think it was twenty-two bucks—it was big money!”

“Growing up, I had my own lawn service as a teenager and by the time I went to undergrad I had all sorts of jobs. Then by the time I went to graduate school, at Columbia University, I was teaching eighth grade English at the Cathedral School of St. John the Devine, had my own ‘bartendering’ business, Tomski Bartendering, with a tag line of ‘Feel like a guest at your own party.’ I would do private parties. I also did American Indian dancing at the same time, so I was busy in graduate school.”

“Early on it was the same goal an entrepreneur would have—how do you do something and survive, grow it, make money? Yeah, I needed money. When living in New York I found that the energy, anonymity, and the diversity—all these things just coalesced. I was doing the bartendering, the American Indian dancing and teaching at the Cathedral School. And I got paid big bucks for that—I got paid $100 a performance for that Indian dancing. I would dance through a hoop that would be on fire, all sorts of cool stuff. I started the troupe. We did events. It was something I got involved with as a kid. It didn’t have a name but I kept it very authentic and very real as opposed to ‘woo woo woo’ type of mockery you see on TV about Native Americans. When I was at Columbia I took a course with Margaret Mead and I did a paper on the Iroquois League of Six Nations and their Democratic Approach. She wrote four pages of notes on this paper which is pretty cool.”

Working for “the man” is part of a complete breakfast, and a great reason for Tom to take his talents Chicago.

“Being at Columbia was great. I got a Master’s in International Affairs and then an MBA. After graduating with a Master’s in International Affairs, I got a $10,000 a year job offer from the United Nations and a $10,000 a year job offer from AID. Both were great, but I couldn’t live on $10,000 a year in New York City with school loans in 1974.”

“Not knowing if I would get a job offer or not, I actually ended up with a bunch of them and I took one with the Quaker Oats Company here in Chicago. I wanted a job—I wanted to pay these school loans. I wanted to go work for ‘the man’ and make some money. Of the offers I got, I liked Quaker Oats the best because of the people there. I was going to stay here for two years and then move back to the East Coast. Quaker Oats was great and I was starting to understand a little bit about business, but I wouldn’t say I was totally cognizant of the underpinnings of business, but I was starting to get it, and like it. ”

“They put me in charge of new products at Quaker and I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing. In 1976 through 1978, I worked on two projects; I worked on Aunt Jemima Frozen Crepe Batter, which lets you pour in your frying pan and have beautiful crepes. That was launched and lasted in the market about nine months before it died. The other was Chewy Nut Granola Bar and I was always fascinated at—here you have two products—what makes one a success and what makes one a failure.”

“After that, I went to Booz, Allen & Hamilton and worked for them. They were a management-consulting firm but I was able to focus on new products and new services while I was there, so I did a lot of work in that field and really got turned on by it. I guess I saw, shockingly, that so many companies were doing it wrong and I kept thinking—why are they doing it this way?  That lasted five years and that is when I finally said, ‘I gotta go back and do my own thing!'”

Fearing the golden handcuffs, and with a child on the way, Tom needed to make a switch, and fast. “Between Quaker and Booz Allen, it was about eight-and-a-half or nine years. I was in my early thirties when my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I gotta get out of this before I get sucked in forever!’ But two years into good old entrepreneurship, with my total income having significantly decreased from what it was at Booz Allen, I decided to go back to Booz Allen and say ‘I’ve found the right path and I learned my lessons.’ I went back and I just couldn’t do it. I left there saying to myself, ‘Oh God, I’m screwed. I’ve got to make this entrepreneurial thing work.'”

Tom was a hungry man filling his plate up at the buffet of business, but much like a food buffet, after the third or fourth, you’re quickly reminded of your own mortality and that last half-eaten samosa is just gonna have to be left behind.

“When you are a super star you think you can start multiple businesses at once, so at the age of 32, I started Kuczmarski & Associates which was consulting for cash-flow purposes. I actually was teaching at Kellogg and I’ve been teaching there for thirty-one years. I started a flower business called ‘Blossoms Anytime’, I tried to start a nightclub called Tommy K’s, and then my wife and I were going to open the Oxford School, which was going to be a private school, and we put a bid in for a place on Magnolia. Do you see any problem with starting five businesses all at once?  I would say it is pretty ridiculous.”

“My primary income was coming from the new products and services at the consulting business. Early on the teaching was covering the cash flow. The flower business lasted for two years and the nightclub never got off the ground. It was fantastic because I learned, by the time I was thirty-four, who I was as a professional, a teacher-writer-consultant. It was writing books and teaching consulting and that’s who I was. I was pretty lucky to figure that out at age thirty-four.” (Tom has been consulting for twenty-eight years, spent thirty-one years at the Kellogg School of Management, and is releasing his newest book (his sixth) coming out on November 8th.)

You’re only as good as your last innovation, in the world of consulting. “We have twelve full-time people and five contractors so it is small in terms of its size.  We try to take on only three or four projects at any point in time so we can all be involved, as opposed to just sell the work and not do the work. It works out really nicely. We like it. We have four, five, or six people on a team working with a client and we do B2B and B2C. What we’ll do is develop the innovation strategy for a company. Then we will go out and do the qualitative research with consumers or with the customers to find out their problems, the user needs. Then, we will help generate the ideas or the solutions, turn those into concepts, take those back out and test those concepts.”

“A big thing for us is putting together a business case so you can provide real-world numbers to a client so they are able to make a decision.  Then we go to a Gravitytank like company and start having designs and prototypes made and start implementing things in the market place. It is the type of business where you are only as good as your last job sold, so our projects are four, five, or six months in length.  You constantly need to market yourself and get the word out and continue to focus on selling—prospecting while you are doing the work. It goes in waves, where people will get it, and there will be a good balance, and then we’ll be too focused on doing the work. It’s like riding a bicycle and then you take one wheel off—you fly off. I think that balance between doing the work and selling the work is always a challenge.”

“Innovation usually gets wrongly defined as high-tech. I define it this way:  it is any new offerings—so new offerings can be a service, a product, a business, a process—that provide new benefits to some end-user—whether it is B2B or B2C, or constituent, or employee—that is differentiated from competition and ultimately is valued by the consumer or by the customer. If you have those conditions in place, that is an innovation and in turn, that is what drives economic value within a company.”

“Too often, companies start there and they say ‘we have to fill a growth gap or we have to increase our margins, so let’s come up with some successful new products and new services and some new businesses,’ as opposed to going out and understanding first what the un-met needs are in the market place. And, then, of course, everybody says, ‘but with technology in particular, people don’t know what they don’t know.’ People have frustrations and they have pain points, but it is how you enable technology to try to address that to make people’s lives easier or better, improved, etc., where the two come together.”

“In the short form, innovation is a solution to a customer or consumer’s problem, frustration, or a need. Whoever does that the best, wins.”

Silicon Shmilicon, Tom was sick and tired of hearing about Silicon Valley juxtaposed to Chicago with the implication that Chicago is an inferior place to do business.

“There was a reason the Innovation Awards started eleven years ago, and it was two-fold. I love Silicon Valley and I think it is fantastic but there is a heck of a lot of great stuff going on here in Chicago. So first, how can we shine the spotlight here, and second, I just find in most organizations they do a lousy job of recognizing and rewarding people. In most companies people get paid the base salary and some bonus to develop some great new services, new business, new products, and rarely do they get any other form of recognition—in large companies, for sure that has been the case.”

“I wanted to try to do something that would say, ‘Hey, wait a minute—this innovation stuff is difficult, it is important, and it is valuable and we should be recognizing people more for it.’ So, I went to a couple of periodicals here in Chicago with this idea and they said ‘that’s a dumb idea.’ Then I went to the business editor of the Chicago Sun Times, Dan Miller, and he said ‘that sounds like a darn good idea. Let’s give it a try one year.’ So, we did.”

“Ten years ago we had seventy-five people come to the first Chicago Innovation Award at The Sutton Place Hotel across from Gibson’s. Dan said to me ‘there is a lot of energy in this room’ and I say, ‘yeah, there really is, it’s really amazing.’ At the first Chicago Innovation Award event, we had the inventor of the remote control, Gene Polley, and he was eighty-two or eight-four years old and he just thought this was great. So, Dan says, ‘well, should we try it again, one more year?’  And I said, ‘okay, let’s try it again one more year,’ and so then every year it has continued to grow and grow and grow. Five years ago is when we started saying, hey, let’s not have this be a once-a-year event, let’s start adding additional activities and different events each year.  Now we are up to six, so that has really gotten the word out.”

Keep your patents off my stage! It takes more then a couple of trademarks or patents to win admiration at the Chicago Innovation Awards.

“One of the ground rules set forth from the very beginning was not to reward people for just a great idea or just because they have a patent or a trademark. That is not what the Chicago Innovation Awards is all about. You must have demonstrated success in the marketplace. We never set any minimums or tried to define what an acceptable range of success means but you have to have some revenues.”

“People in the marketplace have to be saying something good about your service, or your product, or your business, and there has to be a real strong connection between what you are doing and a need in the marketplace. It’s great if it’s a new whiz-bang technology or something that is cool and satisfies a real need in the marketplace, but, it’s even better if you created a new category, or created a new space or a new segment. What we have also tried to do is create a portfolio for each year—a portfolio of innovations going on in Chicago is important. That is the other thing—it is innovation across industries, it is high-tech, low-tech, no-tech, small start-ups, and big corporations.”

“14 judges meet four times for 3 hours each and we start with the folks in my firm and, you know, Luke and Bryan and the other Chicago Innovation Awards people, and they do a really good job of sorting through those 409 nominations. The next meeting, we get it down to the top 75 and the top 75 are then the ones that go on the website—they are the candidates for the Peoples’ Choice Award and people can go vote on those top 75. Then the judges take it from 30 to 10 which is painful because there are not just 10 good nominations. There could easily be 15 or 20 winners.”

“The challenge for the event is, what is the business model that makes sense? From day one, you go to the awards and all these other events that we have—the nominee session, the media day, the Kellogg Practical Innovator Training Day—all of these things are for free and nobody pays anything for any of it. Our funding has come from sponsors, relationships and pride of the community, etc. What I’ve always said to these other folks is, you have to find those two or three folks—a media partner, a corporation, and an academic institution. You get those three onboard, and you’ve got the start of something really good.”

“The only thing that we haven’t talked about that could make sense is if it was on a national level—the American Innovation Awards or the U.S. Innovation Awards. That would be something I would be interested in trying to think about and even some of our media partners in the past, like when we’ve had Bloomberg Business Week, are ones that could certainly be a national sponsor. We wouldn’t drop the Chicago Innovation Awards, it would be in addition to the Chicago Innovation Awards—we could have the U.S. Innovation Awards.”

“This is the 10th anniversary and it was about a year-and-a-half ago when we said ‘there will be 100 companies that will have won the Chicago Innovation Awards on November 8th. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do a book that would portray their stories in it?’  Although 10 companies said they did not want to participate, we have 80 of the 90 so far portrayed in it.  In each one of the stories, we talk about the consumer/customer problem, the solution they came up with, what makes this unique, what was the break-through moment, what was the impact of their innovation, and what they see for the future. That’s cool.”

“We are using Bookends Publishing, which is a small regional house, to help publish the book. The myopic problem for a couple big book publishers, which we didn’t agree with, was ‘this is Chicago, only Chicago people will buy the book.’  I said read the subtitle—it says ‘How Local Innovators are Building the National Economy,’ so this should be viewed as a great model for other cities throughout the entire country of why entrepreneurship, why innovation is so important.”

There is no final hurrah, when you eat, breathe and sleep innovation.

“I have written so many books because it is the same thing for an entrepreneur. Does an entrepreneur build just one business and leave it at that?  If you are a true entrepreneur you are going to keep coming up with stuff. Why do you?  I don’t know why you do but you do. It’s the same thing if you are into writing books; you are coming up with new books all the time. But for me there are two categories when thinking differently about leadership—Values-Based Leadership came out in the mid-1990s and then the most recent one before this one was Apples are Square.  That one was published by Kaplan and that one has done great. That was picked by Fast Company in 2007 as one of its top fourteen best business books of the year and it sets up a whole new leadership archetype and basically says that the old boy control and compete form of leadership is now dead and gone. Well, it’s not dead; but it should be dead.”

“The new leadership construct that we talk about in this book is one that is based on humility, compassion, relationship building, collaboration as opposed to competition, decisiveness (but decisiveness is based on values, not just on profits), transparency or openness, and inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity. When you think of that type of leader, somebody who is humble and compassionate, cooperative, transparent, and open and vulnerable, it is a different type of person but it is someone I feel strongly is going to be leading more progressive innovative companies in the future as opposed to the old Jack Welch’s of the past. I can’t say it didn’t work because it did for him. So, one category is leadership books and then the other is innovation because those were Managing New Products, Innovation, Innovating The Corporation, and now Innovating Chicago-Style.”

To say Tom is a busy bee is an understatement.  Tom is currently still working with Kuczmarski & Associates, the Kellogg School of Management, the Chicago Innovation Awards, and is prolific author of six books.

As for one Tom believes in Chicago so deeply, he quickly fired off a memory from an old friend who was speaking out in ‘The Valley’.

“I was with my good friend Dipak Jain, the Dean at the Kellogg School, on the west coast and we were at a conference. There was the Dean of Stanford, the Dean of UCLA, and I think Harvard, and Kellogg. Somebody asked a question about the two deans at Stanford and UCLA—what role does the weather play in attracting students to your schools?  They laughed, and said ‘Everybody loves the weather here…’ and Dipak was the third person in line and they said, ‘Well, Dean Jain, I imagine you have a very different answer to that question given that Kellogg is in Chicago.’

“He said, ‘Oh, no, to the contrary. What we experience in Chicago is called the Refrigerator Effect and the Refrigerator Effect is that our people are sharper, they are smarter, and they are crisper than anybody on the West coast.'”

“I always loved that as an argument against the weather on the West coast. To some extent it is true. I find people in Chicago have a set of values that are just terrific—I see a desire for doing the right thing, doing good things, a sense of community—and sure you have some people in this town that think they are bigger or better than others, but honestly, I think that is a tiny, tiny portion. It is a small town and as soon as you start getting your feet out there, you keep running into the same people, it is really cool, it is really neat. I think it is the best city of all.”