Generosity is the Best Strategy, Being a Good Customer & Looong Term!!!

Rohit Rajgarhia, Apr 11, 2021 in Business + Transformation

What a joy to be joined by Greg on our call today, someone whose entrepreneurial spirit has transformed his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, U.S. into a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem full of possibility, community, and celebration of the human spirit.

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More on Greg's journey here:

Greg Tehven, who is turning the world of economic development on its head and inviting people to build the communities they want to live in. Confronted with the business failings of his beloved hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, he asked himself what the community could offer to the public, that would help get it back on its feet. An unexpected answer surfaced, based on the city's small population and open spaces: drones! Fargo now hosts an annual drone conference attracting attendees FROM around the world. The town has quickly become an appealing city for college graduates, business leaders, and tech enthusiasts. Co-founder of Emerging Prairie, curator of TEDx Fargo, and host of a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem, Tehven is changing what it means to harness the power of our communities, and improve the human condition."

Much gratitude to Greg, and you all, for co-creating this "experiment"! :)


Greg: Hello to all of you. I'd imagine, for some of you, it's early in the morning, and for some of you, it's late at night. I'm joining you from Fargo, North Dakota. It's the largest city and one of the smallest States in the United States. It's in the central part of the United States, near the Canadian border.

I've been a starter of things for kind of my whole life -- from when I was a kid, to organize the backyard sporting events, to when I was in high school, when I got cut from the basketball team, I started a basketball league. So all the people that couldn't make the team could participate. When I was at university, we started this organization that grew and I've always been a starter of things. I am not a well-educated person. I don't have fancy degrees. I haven't done very much practical research, but my thoughts today are to try to convince you -- my hope today is to convince you -- that generosity is the greatest business strategy available to you. :)

So I've got some arguments to make, to try to help you consider that. My hope is that I would leave you with some questions, some questions that you could think about, whether it's today, tomorrow, or down the road. These are some of the things that have helped me build an organization that has made an impact. That's helped me discover incredible relationships. That's created an environment for me to live the life that I'm just so grateful for. And maybe there's some blessing in these thoughts to you, or maybe I'll just talk really fast and you get some free time and you can do whatever you need to do the rest of the day. :)

The first thought, as you're building businesses, is one of the greatest gifts that we can do is we can share friends.

I was 19 years old, fresh out of going to summer camps. I don't know if any of you got the opportunity to go to summer camps, but I had really long, curly hair and the summer camp necklaces and the beads. I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, and I went to this conference on faith and values. Our small group leader challenged our group to say, "Hey, let's go 0 to 60. Let's consider each other best friends. Let's just start with the assumption of being best friends for the three days we're together." And it was amazing on that shift. I had no idea the president of the United States' niece was in our small group. So all of a sudden my best friend is the president of the United States's niece. But as we parted on this experience, as we developed these relationships, was this idea that we can send friends.

And one of the ways we can continue to build our friendships is to send friends. Since I was 19 years old, I've made a practice out of that. I've received friends, I've shared friends. And one of my favorite business tools is to make digital introductions because you get to positively affirm two people in your life with the hopes that they will spend time together. I find this strategy of introducing friends of people that might like each other, people that might never meet each other, as an incredibly strong ability to build networks. Because oftentimes the first thing someone does is say, "Well, how do you know Greg?" "How do you know Audrey?" "How do you know Nipun?" And I've delighted in that experience.

I also think when you live in an isolated place like Fargo, North Dakota -- which, in the United States, when people are trying to go to all 50 states, it's statistically proven that the 50th state they pick is North Dakota.

The world doesn't come here. So how do we send the world to us? And how do we receive the world? I think we can travel. But in a socially responsible way, we can also meet the people from around the world and in our communities. And so I would just encourage the strategy of sharing friends. It is a generosity strategy, but oftentimes there's incredible gifts that happen because of it.

The second thought for all of us building things, starting things, is to be a great customer.

I love my wife. We've been married for almost five years. I'm pretty intense, Type A. She's a harmonizer. She's joyful. She's empathetic. Thank God opposites attract, because I got an amazing wife.

She wanted to start a flower shop. And her great-grandmother would send letters to family members and always sign the letters with "Love always". And her grandmother would always sign the letters to family members: "Love always".

So when Christy wanted to start a flower shop, she decided to call the shower or the flower shop Love Always Floral. And she was going to build this flower shop with the idea of spreading love and joy. It was really interesting to see who her first customers were. Mmany people actually asked her for discounts, because she was starting and they thought she should give a discount for exposure or opportunity. What was surprising to me as her husband was it wasn't her family `member`s. It wasn't her friends. It was other entrepreneurs. And they didn't ask for a discount. One bought flowers every week for an entire year, and he didn't even live in our community. Other people use it as a tool to give gifts to others. And I think for anybody that has started things, we can remember what it's like to have a first customer.

For me, I worked in minor league baseball as a bat boy, which means I ran and picked up the bats after the players played. And I remember when the opposing team, they -- the gentleman that was the organizer of all the equipment and the team -- gave me a tip. Of $40. It was Brent Pru. I am loyal as I'll get out to Brent, ever since then. And I think we can all remember our first customers, but it's a reminder when people are starting things we can vote with our checkbooks by buying the product. We can vote with our feet by showing up to the art gallery. We can vote with our boys by sharing these new opportunities with others. And it just is a really positive experience.

I think oftentimes, especially in the arts community, people will often penalize artists for their lack of business skills and pay them less. But what an opportunity it is for all of us to pay them more or to buy their product and help them. So I would encourage you to think about paying attention when people start things to be a great customer, be a great advocate, cause we all know how wonderful that experience is.

The third thought I have for you is to consider building a long-term view. If there's anything COVID has taught us is there are short-term fears. I remember just weeks into COVID, walking with my children and having this thought: 'I need to let go of my wants and focus on my needs.' And it turns out, in my COVID journey, my needs have been met. I've been very, very fortunate.

In our organization, we have a staff of 17 employees. What we built our organization on was impactful events. In the COVID era, those weren't available to us. And I challenged my team to have a longterm view. How could we build partnerships with our community, with the organizations we work with, over a hundred years, vs. signaling desperation and making short-term, poor decisions?

I believe it is a privilege to have a long-term view. And I believe not all folks are in a position where they have the opportunity to do that. But for those that are, I think when you have a longterm view, you have the ability to transform communities and organizations.

For us, we've been doing TEDx Fargo for several years. It's been a strong program. This summer we're going to have a reunion of past speakers, and past sponsors. And we will not allow anyone to pay for tickets. We will not allow anyone to sponsor. We will say, "We want to give you this gift and provide the opportunity to reconnect in a slow way."

It turns out our governor is a past speaker. So he offered his home. It turns out several friends have resources that they want to contribute. And I have full confidence it will be an incredible event. But I think it's the privilege of having a long-term view that allows us to be generous. We'll have a hundred profile folks there. We'll have 25 at-risk youth that maybe never would have a chance to meet a gentleman that runs Treehouse Masters on Animal Planet. Or an astronaut whose husband was the pilot for SpaceX's flight, Doug Hurley. And yet, I feel so good planning an event that is about transformation over decades and generations. And I find that I am at my best when I can think long-term. When I think less about transactions, more about transformation, and the opportunity to use my privilege and my platforms to be generous to others.

So that's what I'd ask you to think about. As you consider generosity as a strategy, how can you share your friends? How can you be a great customer for others? And how can you challenge yourself to have a longterm view?

I'd like for you to sit with two questions as we finish up these thoughts. One is: what are the invitations you can make, whether it's someone into your home, or into your organization? I think the power of an invitation is amazing -- whether it's to have someone give a talk, whether it's to have someone give a toast at a meal. I think the power of an invitation is underappreciated, and yet it's something that we all have each and every day. Inviting people to celebrate their wins. Inviting people to share their challenges or their concerns. I believe invitations are powerful.

The other thought I would encourage you to think about is where are the intersections in your life?

Our organization's business strategy has been built around the thinking of the intersection of the traveler and the local. How can we help folks that come to our community meet the folks in our community and have positive experiences. I believe in a very polarized world. If we can have more intersections of locals and travelers -- of folks with one belief in another -- and the more we can use ourselves as a neutral platform to bring them together, we create understanding, we create empathy, we create awareness. And in our work we've had a *transformational* experience by helping locals and travelers connect. Our goal is to always get people on each other's holiday cards -- that they become more than a business relationship and a business card, but they become part of their story and their families.

In summary, I have a firm belief that generosity is the best business strategy available to us. And yet, I've been convinced, time and time again, that I cannot out give my community. Every time I try to be generous, I am delighted in an unexpected and wonderful ways. It's an honor to share some of this time with you. I met Audrey when I was in right out of college -- you know, a North Dakotan in Silicon Valley, I was a bit out of place. I've had the opportunities to spend time in India, teaching. I once was at a retreat in India where they showed Nipun's TEDx Fargo talk, and they had no idea who he was. They had never met me before. And I thought to myself, "Wow. This wonderful, strange world is incredible."

And when I was in India last, at a retreat where there were more volunteers than there were attendees, and the volunteers' role was to delight the attendees like me, who got to go to India with a pregnant wife. And these volunteers came up with the idea to order flowers from my wife's flower shop for my wife who designed flowers and then found out they were for her! It was absolutely easy when I asked my wife, if I could have a few hours away from the kids -- as she's with three kids under three right now -- because the light of those 70 volunteers who I believe at least one of them is on this call, and I think to myself, "What a generous and wonderful life."

Abbreviated Q&A

Audrey: What's your process of kind of finding value or reframing value, or seeing value in places where it might not be traditionally expected?

Greg: Let me share a couple of things that popped to mind. One is: I'm most interested in doing projects or activities where no one person or one organization or one check can solve the problem. In our most recent project, there was a very significant entrepreneur in our community that asked, "What's our community's major? If we were a college or university student, what would be our major as a community?" He's an engineer, and he asked what's work worth doing? What is our right to participate and can we make an impact?

In that process, we decided agriculture is our "major". Advanced technology and agriculture is a really important thing, and so we're working on powering the first ever 100% autonomous farm. So we've attracted significant capital from organizations like Microsoft, and in that process, we brought a lot of people together.

Most people would take an idea like that and wait until they have it all figured out. For us, we decided to take a different approach, which was to get 1% of the work done, identify the problems we wanted to solve, and then share them with others and help them become part of the solution, sourcing the crowd. And I think when you think about big problems to solve, one of my colleagues always talks about "If you're out, make the problem bigger. Get more voices involved, make the tent larger." And that's really helped us.

The other piece in my personal problem process as a North Dakota kid -- you know, I'm not from a Ivy League school, or I'm not from the right side of the tracks, if you will. I have imposter syndrome. I feel personally that I'm not good enough. And I think back to what one of our emcees from one of our events said. She gets really nervous when she thinks about what she's going to say, but when she thinks about how she can serve her audience, she's no longer nervous. And when I think about value, I'm at my worst when I'm thinking about how I will get valued. When I'm at my best is when I can think about how to add value for others. And so maybe those are two, two ways to think about that. One is make the problem bigger, and bring more people in. And the other is think about who you're going to serve vs. how you're going to benefit. And those have guided me well.

Matt: I've been used to being involved with the standard VC for profit model, and now organizing in a very different way. I would love to hear any feedback that you may be able to provide around a project to build an application to give away for free to help thousands of children run these Children's Parliaments.

Greg: I spent a lot of time in the venture capital space with folks and I think a challenge in the VC space is it's about the outcome, versus the process of how you get there. And I think part of the value of making an impact is how you get there. And the ends don't justify the means. I think about one of my friends who had a terrible experience with venture capital. He's now building a company just based on his values, and that value isn't monetization -- that is, value isn't shareholder return, it's integrity, it's solving problems, it's improving the human condition. And I would encourage you to take the time to really think about how you want to do this and why you want to do it. And I don't mean "how" as strategy business plans, but what are the values that you would want someone to look at your organization from the outside and go, "Ah, I get it. I see that." And so I would think about: what are the ingredients into the experience, versus just what's the outcome. Maybe the transformation is with your team and not the hundred of thousands of people that you hope to serve. And maybe that's where the impact might be.

Greta: Could you expand maybe with an example of some of the dynamics that you've worked with in this really interesting place where you are, of bringing together non-local perspectives into a local experience?

Greg: Yeah, sure. So I'll use the TEDx platform, which is globally relevant. TEDxFargo has been one of the top TEDxes in the United States for a few years, pre-COVID. And I think about intention. So we were able to build a platform that had a big enough audience to draw on people's ego. So we could get big names to come, because there was a big enough audience. Whether it's the president of Microsoft who came and spoke, or the publisher of Forbes, or Olympic gold medalists. And the reality is their talks often, based on views, have never done well. They were kind of in and out. They were the headline to get the crowd. But what would happen is we would get all these other folks. And we would think about their experience. So we would tell them, "Hey, you're going to volunteer for us by giving an 8 or 12 minute talk. We're going to provide resources on how do you give the best talk of your life, but then we want to serve you the rest of the time you're in town, because we want to be generous with that. And so we would think about who picks them up at the airport. We would think about what their route to the airport was. We would think about where they stay, what their welcome experience was like. I think the magic of what we figured out was: You would have 2000 people at an event. They would do their talk, but we would say, "Hey, while you're in town, we'd like to do these other meetings with you. Would you be willing?" The top chef in Minnesota came. So he met with the young chefs of our community. The top architect from Chicago came. So he met with the young architects. And it was those micro events around the macro experience, which is where all the magic was.

We had a former Playboy model come, who was one of the top researchers in caregivers. So there's the work of those that are sick. And then the caregivers, and the tragedy that caregivers go through. And so, she came, unique story, and we served her. And all of a sudden, we get her on the radio, and the radio show host is hosting her, not knowing that he's going through a traumatic event around her research topic. And they become friends, and they're hugging. And all of a sudden, this 60 year-old, former Playboy model (and for those that aren't part of Playboy culture, I'll let others explain that later) is, you know -- there's just these beautiful moments.

I think, so often, I've spoken around the world. And you know, sometimes I'm just there transactionally. You drop in, they get you on the stage, you know, dog and pony show -- clap, clap, clap, and you're off. But it's thinking about the guest that's coming, and how you can add value to each and every one of their steps.

And so Greta, my encouragement for you is you have this attraction that they're coming, but what are the things around it? I once went to a gathering where once I got off the plane -- it was in India -- and they brought me into this gift shop. And I'm like, "Oh, wow, I've seen this model before. Bring me to your friend's gift shop, and everybody comes in, and they're trying to get you to buy stuff." And I'm like, "Wait, I just spent a lot of money to be here." And we got up to the till -- and somebody had bought our gifts for us. And every one of us on that tour bus received the gift of whatever we wanted. And it was overwhelming. I sat in the bus with a Nobel Peace Prize winner after that, who cried -- who talked about the challenge he has in his life of receiving.

So I think about the ability to delight when we bring people to our communities to create this space for the world to unfold and to just use generosity, to truly transform. And there's economic impact of this, because then people want to go back to this store because they have this experience and they can't describe it. We've learned in our work -- we get folks that are interested in economic development to pay us for what we do. But our underlying mission is to spread, increase, The amount of love in the world. And love is the most powerful marketing tool, but most people don't know how to articulate that. They don't know how to believe in that. They don't see that in a business plan -- like, "we're going to increase love." But yet when you do it, and you experiment with it, it's so delightful.

Theresa: How have you dealt with experiences where not everybody comes to the table with the same intention or goals? How do you create the environment that can really help to further your goals, while addressing the reality that people also come with motivations that deviate from yours?

Greg: I was a very goal oriented person. I'd set goals, milestones, all of that. And in my thirties, I switched from goal orientation to value orientation on how do I want to be? Our organization's business model is simple. If a tree adds value to a community, a community will water and nurture it. If a tree doesn't add value to a community, the community will let it die. I've let go of my desire to have all these goals. Every year, I get this feedback from my board, "Oh, you need a strategic plan." And our teammates always say, "What's our plan?" And I'm like, "Just don't die. You know, let's show up tomorrow." I believe you are representing a viewpoint that's about you.

And that's okay. I've had more enjoyment in my life when I realized my abilities are to support others within big problems to solve, because I maybe don't know how to get there. And so, yes, there is a risk of bad actors; but yet, bad actors can be the ones that are the most lovable. And if we can turn a bad actor, we could have more impact than somebody that's maybe operating within a strong value set that we align with, and have less impact with that person. So with taking a risk, I don't know you well, but maybe in the way you're thinking about it is how do you bring people in and help solve their challenges? How do you follow their lead? And maybe you just have more experiments versus focusing on outcomes.

I'm a fifth generation family farmer. We're trying to power an autonomous farm. I never went in a tractor as a kid that grew up on a farm. I was in the basement playing computer games about farming. But I believe if you can bring people together, and give people voices and elevate folks, you can get to the problem. Sometimes, to solve really hard problems, the less you know, the more effective you are, because you're not built with bias and all that, and you can bring other people forward.

Like, I run a software development school -- our organization does. I don't know anything about it. I don't can't code. I can't tell you what a one or a zero is. But I knew how to bring the people together to interrupt the policy within our state. So we've had 30 graduates whose lives have been transformed, and since COVID started, and now we're competing with the university, having the most software developers. Sometimes it's about identifying the problem to solve versus how to solve the problem.

Ari: What have you learned or what are you learning about how to replicate and what you've learned locally in the virtual realm, as you do work? And what's not replicable? What requires returning back to a more intimate, three dimensional relationship in order to achieve that sense of transformation and contribution?

Greg: I actually really struggle in digital communities. My eyes went crazy early in COVID and I'd go on these calls and I'd get headaches and I'd be like four or six hours in. And so I rarely jump on calls anymore. I find I'm more present over voice than with video. And research is starting to share that -- that voice can be more intimate than video because, like right now, I see myself, which is narcissistic of me to look at myself and then all of you. And it's just complicated. I think the practice that we all have the ability to get better at is just being present. Who's around us? I was listening to a podcast about the Grateful Dead, and they talked about this band that was so present with each other, that the crowd responded.

And I think we know those people in our life that are present with their server, or they're present with their colleague. And we certainly know those that aren't. It's been a huge limitation for me, and a challenge, of how do I just stay present with my kids o, my family? And it's distracting. I mean, literally you can jump on a call at any time, anywhere with almost anyone. There's now no barriers to connect. And, yet, how do we connect with those that are in front of us? And how do we still focus on that just as much? So I sit more with the tension than a solution to the question. And I think you have "carpe diem" on your shirt. I walked across Spain once and I had two shirts with them. One was carpet diem in like 7 languages. And I just always positively have great memories. So thanks for the gift of wearing that shirt.

Nipun: There's a lot to learn from that. Like how do you actually be just nonstop in that mode? Not as a technique, you know, not even as a strategy, Greg, I would go even beyond, I mean, you use the phrase "generosity as a strategy" and my experience of you, I think is: "generosity as a principle".

Rohit: Were there moments in your business journey where like generosity was not turning out to be the best business strategy? How did you engage with that moment? What did you learn about yourself, and what did you learn about business in that moment?

Greg: Early on, when we were building our organization, we were doing our work for free, and then we would tell people we have an overpriced consulting company to pay for it. So we would overprice and we would tell them, "we're going to overcharge you for what you want so that we can do this stuff for our community." And that was getting working, and then there was a day that we couldn't make payroll. I think we had five teammates and I was a thousand dollars short for payroll. We did an exercise where we personified our business, and we said, "If our company were to die, who would be at our funeral? What would they say? Who would be excited that we were no longer going to exist? Who would show up, who would speak, who would say something?" And that's what gave us the roadmap to understand what we were doing.

I called two of those people and said, "I need a thousand dollars to make payroll." And it's the first time we'd ever had a philanthropic donor join our effort. And it was in that moment when I realized I had a lot of fear around money. But for some people, they've got plenty of money, they need purpose. And it's this idea that a beggar begs so others would know the joy of giving. And by creating an invitation for him to join us, that was really powerful. And it created a lifetime relationship.

For me, I've been time poor, I've been financially challenged, and that's where I'm at my worst. And I challenge "Oh, these things don't seem like they work." I get frustrated. I get impatient. But now, having built social enterprises since I was 18 -- so half my life I've been building social enterprises -- it's why I talked about having a long-term view. You gave an example of a promotion, which is a short-term context. But if we think about the arc of our lives, and in creating the environment of demonstrating values over time, people are attracted to this. Like one of my friends, Irene, I started an organization with her. She's from California. She's the first non-white county commissioner in Hennepin County. Asian-American. Hennepin County is where George Floyd's= death took place. She's the best gift receiver of anyone I know. People give her gifts, she makes big deals of it. I'm terrible at receiving gifts. Irene gets way more gifts than I do. And I think it's joy and it's celebration.

So I think as you think about things in a longer term, and we learn that it's okay to give, but we practice receiving. For some of us, receiving may be more difficult than giving. My family struggles with receiving. And so, it's also learning to receive. And that may be an ironic twist to this experience on this call. We're talking about generosity, but sometimes we have to say, yeah, it's okay. It's okay that that person at that gift shop in India bought me these scarves that I didn't really need, that I felt pressured into buying, and they "pressured" me to, then, receive. And so my wisdom or my thought for you might be: how can you focus less on what you can get? And maybe you practice being a great receiver for awhile.

Hosts: Wow, Greg, you've given us a lot to chew on. Thank you so much for joining us and stepping away from your three little kids on really short notice to be here with us and show up with your presence. You have a very unique way of translating values in the business world. And you really have been continuosuly been trying to live it for so many years, so it is a real honor to have your field of goodness merge into this little field of goodness. Thank you for taking the time.

Greg: Thank you for giving me the space. And to all of you, and on behalf of your communities, thank you for pursuing this. I remember when some of these ideas were introduced to me, I thought they were mind-bending. You know, how do you make money doing this stuff? How does it work? I don't know, I just think that it's an incredible adventure. And if you think of it as an experiment versus an outcome, it's definitely a path worth going on.

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