When Ilana Odess took the stage at Harkness Hall on June 10, she told the audience she wanted to discuss her failures as well as her successes. She’d given herself a difficult task; Odess’ resume hasn’t left her with many failures worth mentioning.
After working for a time with ICL, an Israeli chemical company, Odess – who is Israeli – helped the massive multinational Johnson & Johnson expand into her native country. A few years later, the company’s Israel branch, under Odess’ leadership, was earning Johnson & Johnson its highest revenue-per-capita of any country in the world.
This was the first in a long string of successes: Odess moved on to executive roles at several different medical companies before becoming the CEO of her current venture, Woven Orthopedic Technologies, which develops engineered fabrics to reduce complications and recovery time for patients undergoingorthopedic surgery.
Odess has seen just about everything that can happen in business, but she managed to distill her wisdom down to five lessons for an audience of entrepreneurs, beginning programmers and members of the Yale community:
1. Be relevant. Every startup fits somewhere along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, whether they provide basic food and shelter or help customers achieve self-actualization. Startups are most likely to find success when they can fill an unmet need – making something unlike anything anyone else has ever built before.
2. Know your business. Know the answer to every question someone might ask about your work – and make sure you can explain your company to people who know nothing about your market. Speaking of markets, make sure you’ve defined yours carefully. Knowing specific, quantifiable details about your business shows people that you have done your research, and that you’ll work diligently to provide accurate results.
3. Build a great team. Odess compared building a team to building an ecosystem. “We hired people based on their strengths,” she said, explaining that every team member knows exactly where they can do the best work. She likes the idea of hiring people who can function as generalists but have expertise in targeted areas. “When operating in a startup environment,” she said, “people have to wear many hats for the company to operate efficiently and control costs. I look to hire people who can function in many different roles but who have specialized knowledge in certain areas.”
4. Embrace change. No business plan survives contact with the open market. Odess cited a Harvard study showing that companies that change course three times underperform compared to those that change course six times. The Affordable Care Act, for example, forced many medical companies to rethink their business models; Odess adjusted faster than many competitors, and her business grew accordingly.
5. Be relentless: Odess believes that our minds are capable of pushing us further than we expect, and that some of the greatest businesspeople on the planet have discovered this. Steve Jobs, for example, watched his company lose hundreds of millions of dollars without him, then stepped in to turn things around by refusing to part from his vision of the future of computing. (This author notes that mental strength is more powerful than we might assume; just thinking about a swimming match beforehand can improve one’s speed in a race.)
Odess left the audience with a reminder that team-building is central to succe
ss: “Put the right people on the bus, even if you don’t know its destination.”