Tom Tom Founders Fest Recap: 6 Lessons Every Founder, Coder, & Creator Can Use

With intent, not by default

Every year in Charlottesville, Virginia, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, and creators from around the globe descend upon the gorgeous landscape of downtown Charlottesville for the annual Tom Tom Founders Festival. This cross discipline conference is one we look forward to every year, and this year it did not disappoint.

We attended lectures in the Applied Machine Learning track, heard founding stories, went to talks from prominent media figures, and attended panels on diversity. It wasn’t just a well rounded weekend – it was an inspiring weekend. We came away from the festival energized, full of new ideas, and motivated to tackle new projects.

Today’s Tom Tom Founders Fest recap includes 6 lessons every founder, coder and creator can use – so you can be inspired, energized, and motivated, too.

Lesson 1: It’s not about you; it’s about the work

Marie Schat, a coach from Seth Godin’s altMBA program, had attendees dig deep and get comfortable with their insecurities. She reminded us that leading is a daily choice (one that we should always choose) and that fear, discomfort, frustration, and doubt are all your friends.

Everyone experiences these four emotions. It’s what we do with them that makes us happier (and more successful). Lean into these feelings and figure out what your edge is without tipping over.

“Don’t wish it was easier, get stronger.”

Don't wish it was easier, get stronger

Photo credit: RTS Labs/Ashley Ray

Lesson 2: There are no creative geniuses

There’s a myth out there that creativity is this unattainable thing that people either have or don’t have – that there are “creative geniuses” out there who are just naturally creative. Here’s the thing: decades of research and science shows this is simply not true. In fact, “aha moments” are normal cognitive processes that happen when the left side of our brain (the side that handles logical processing) stops working so hard and lets the right side of our brain (the side that deals with distant or metaphorical association) process.

You see, the right side of our brain is full of weird associations and metaphors – knowledge you’ve collected through experience. When you do something simple like take a shower – something that doesn’t require the logical side of your brain – those “aha” moments happen. The solution or idea was there all along, you just needed to let the left side of your brain rest so the right side could recall it.

Mozart, J.K. Rowling, Paul McCartney, Steve Jobs … anyone seen as a “creative genius” all have one thing in common: they are constantly consuming content in their niche in order to have raw ingredients for creativity.

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary. JK Rowling

Photo credit: RTS Labs/Ashley Ray

Lesson 3: Balance the familiar with the novel

Whatever it is that you create – software, novels, music, products – there’s a sweet spot called the “Creative Curve” that will determine whether that thing is a hit. As humans, we crave the familiar (for safety), but we also love the novel (for potential reward). These are basic instincts that we all have that can help guide us when it comes to creating products people will love. You need the right mix of familiar and novel.

The Creative Curve

Photo credit: RTS Labs/Ashley Ray

So how do we figure out that balance? According to presenter and researcher Allen Gannett, “Careful observation and recreation of the familiar. Build a baseline and focus on the novel twist.”

If the topic of creativity interests you, he just published a book called “The Creative Curve.”

Lesson 4: Give data strategy a seat at the table

If you’re dealing with data, simply collecting it will not solve your problems. One theme reiterated throughout the conference was the importance of doing things with intention – as a leader, as a creator, and even as a data scientist.

But let’s talk data, since half the talks we attended were data related (and we live and breathe data, too, for ourselves and for our clients). We attended a great talk on how to fail at analytics by Antonia de Medinaceli. Her talk had us saying “Yes!” the whole way through.

If you’re going to take on data science and machine learning, it’s important that you spend time on the process. Ask yourself WHY you’re collecting the data. Identify the problem you’re trying to solve. Figure out what’s going to move the needle for you and what you’re going to use the data for. Then ask yourself this: is it monetizable? This is stuff we talk about with clients all the time, so it was great to see it presented to a larger audience.

Everyone in your organization has a responsibility to think about data – from C Suite to IT to marketing. However, there needs to be someone who can give direction when it comes to data strategy. Who can ask the right questions and think through the why and how and lead your culture to be data driven. That is what it means to give data strategy a seat at the table!

Lesson 5: The numbers are not the story

Ironically, this nugget comes from a talk by Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post – and it was also echoed by a data scientist in another talk. Amy led a master class on the Anatomy of a Story (we’ve got writers at RTS Labs, too). She reminded us of something a lot of business owners seem to miss when it comes to investing in a business intelligence (BI) solution and getting their hands on data.

Amy says, “The numbers are not the story – they tell you where to look for the story.”

Just like reporters need to start with a central reporting question before they formulate their story, data scientists and business owners need to understand that collecting data to find the nugget is backwards. You need to decide what problems you’re trying to solve (in other words, what your central reporting question is) and then look to the data to help answer it.

As Dan Rather said in his Thursday night talk, “You can know all the facts and still not know the truth.”

Lesson 6: Have empathy

Here’s something that Dan Rather said in his powerful and insightful keynote that we’d like to leave you with:

“One of the things that unites us is empathy.”

It’s important to understand what it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes. Empathy is just as important to practice as a designer or coder as it is to practice as a leader. But empathy requires listening. So, listen to your people. Listen to your users. Listen to your audience.

To recap: Lean into your fears and embrace your edge. Understand there is creativity inside you, and that there are no creative geniuses. Consume all the content related to your niche and fill your brain with raw, creative ideas. Understand that the numbers are not the story but that everything you do should be with intention. The world could use more empathy, so practice it daily. And finally, GO CREATE. Do that thing you’ve been meaning to do. Start that business you’ve been meaning to start. The Tom Tom Festival is all about inspiring innovation, so now we’re passing that inspiration on to you.

Do you feel inspired? Here are a few resources to help you get started with your next project.