We’re on a mission to find the point in people’s lives where things shifted to launch them toward success. We interview successful people and share their stories to find their critical shifts. Our hope is that through these interviews, we find commonalities that will help us all shift upward toward greater success.
Growing up, I always dreamed about what I would do if I ever got to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. After a lot of tooth rotting research, it’s an easy answer. I would drink the Fizzy Lifting Drink and fly. That would change everything! As I grew older and started watching James Bond, I thought the coolest part were the innovations that Q was creating in his lab. I wanted to go there and use all the cool gadgets he made!
Meet Bill Fienup. He’s the Founder and Managing Director of mHUB an innovation center focused on physical product development and manufacturing.
I first met Bill as he was moving some huge equipment into a space across the hall from our office in 2013. He talked about the physical product innovation center they were building, I couldn’t have been more intrigued. Bill showed us a bunch of his amazing gadgets. Light up walls, slinky machines, and Red Bull can shooters to name a few. Bill was building a real life version of the chocolate factory or Q’s lab! They were using these projects building fun gadgets as their testing ground as they were creating other more meaningful products for their businesses. (The idea of working on these side projects to drive our ‘regular’ work forward is something that we’ve run with at LaunchPad Lab in a program we call Space.)
The enthusiasm, drive, possibility, and excitement that you felt just walking into that room was invigorating. To see how far they’ve come in realizing their vision in such a short amount of time is astounding. I try to be around people who have big dreams and the ability to exceed them. Bill embodies that.
Learning to apply himself
It’s hard to believe it now, but growing up in St. Louis, Bill struggled in school. His parents knew he was incredibly smart, despite the fact that Bill was failing his classes. For example, in just 3rd grade, Bill was trying to build a perpetual motion machine in his bedroom! In school he just wasn’t applying himself. His parents knew they had to do something, so they decided to send Bill to a smaller school to receive more personalized attention.
As they continued pressuring him to do better, the threat of summer school forced Bill to begin applying himself in the classroom. As he did this, it started to make sense to him that a little extra effort made a huge difference in his grades. Bill was clearly smart, he just needed to learn how to apply himself. This small change in attitude got Bill into a highly selective high school.
Shift 1 — Hard Work
As Bill was about to enter that high school, his math teacher took him out to lunch. She knew Bill’s situation and knew about his recent change in work ethic. So, she gave him some of the best advice he had ever received. She told him that in order to get good grades in high school, all he had to do is try really hard for only the first three weeks. That was it. Three weeks and then he could coast.
As I was interviewing Bill about this, he laughed and said, “But it was a trick! It lasted a lot longer than three weeks.” The truth is, his teacher recognized that if he started applying himself for those first three weeks, he would create an expectation for himself to continue working hard. She nailed it. His work ethic was truly solidified in that short time. As Bill puts it, “I applied myself for three weeks, and then it became a habit. My grades really reflected the effort I was putting forth.” Without his math teacher challenging him with that three week test, Bill wouldn’t have been admitted to MIT. He is proof that intelligence and hard work are an unbeatable combination. The work ethic Bill found in that short period of time is still ingrained in his everyday life.
The Road to Nerf Guns
Bill attended MIT after high school, where he also earned his masters. Not surprisingly, this was an incredibly formative time. The resources at his disposal were amazing: state-of-the-art labs, brilliant professors and industry leaders, and the advice of his classmates all at his fingertips. “I was really spoiled with the resources there,” Bill explained.
As a student, Bill got the internship that would make anyone’s inner-child jealous. Hasbro hired him to help design the next generation of Nerf Guns and Super Soakers. (Seriously! I’m jealous just thinking about this.) This opportunity to be creative and challenge himself while making the toys he loved, was inspiring and certainly a ton of fun. It really solidified his love of designing products and launched his career.
After graduating, Bill spent 6 years working as a consultant at IDEO and at Insight Product Development. During that time, Bill was building products for other companies. Looking back, it was inevitable that he would take his experience and work on products and businesses that he fully-owned. Bill was tenacious and knew he had to take a risk and quit his job. So in 2012, that’s exactly what he did. Bill quit his job, and started working out of his kitchen developing his own products. It didn’t take long for Bill to realize there was a problem. Developing a product on his own was nearly impossible.
Shift 2 — Recognizing an Industrial Need
Once he started working out of his kitchen, Bill realized how many resources he needed that weren’t available to him. Electrical guidance, lab space, tools, and assistance with marketing were at the top of the list. All these things were at his fingertips when he was at MIT and the consulting firms, but now he had virtually no access to them. He realized that the industry-wide lack of collaborative spaces was a major problem and decided to do something about it. Bill has this ability to get things done and very quickly he had a community of people wanting to help, space to use and equipment being donated practically everyday. It was called Catalyze Chicago at the time, and an accessible product development innovation center was born. As excitement grew, Bill partnered with Haven Allen who led a manufacturing initiative out of World Business Chicago. Together they landed the funding, donations, and sponsorship and turned Catalyze into what it is now. Rebranded as mHUB, it is now the center for Chicago’s manufacturing ecosystem.
When I asked him about mHUB’s greatest impact, he explained,
“The value’s really in the community; it’s the collisions you have with other members. This is where you pick someone else’s brain who’s an expert, and everybody solves part of the problem here. You can get advice over lunch at the water cooler, or over a beer at the bar; or, you may overhear someone’s problem who’s sitting next to you. We yell out solutions here.”
Bill is seriously one of the smartest people I know. Intelligence only gets you so far though, and hard work is something that can be taught and practiced. Bill has that unstoppable combination of both. (That’s also why I try to be around him as much as possible!) Building a business from the ground up can be a very emotional and vulnerable experience and creating mHUB was no different. Bill’s drive has helped mHUB overcome any obstacles and thrive as it has become a space that breeds creative collaboration, mentorship, and fosters a sense of community.
For Bill, hard work and persistence go hand-in-hand.
“Hard work is about being motivated. As an entrepreneur especially, because no one is there telling you to get out of bed. Hard work to me is really about just putting the time in…and keep getting up after each failure.”
Having gotten to know Bill, it’s very clear that those “first three weeks” of hard work have never stopped.
- Make applying yourself a habit
- Take risks on initiatives you’re passionate about
- Set big goals and work hard to exceed them.
Personal Website: http://fienup.com/
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