Howard Tullman on the most important (and elusive) part of business

Flight Templates are templated flights, or sets of questions, written by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. With Flight Templates, Balloon users get unparalleled access to seasoned perspectives and proven business strategies across all areas of business, including leadership, product, marketing & sales, innovation, employee experience, culture, and more. This feature is part of a series on The Insight that profiles Balloon’s Flight Template authors.

Howard Tullman, one of the country’s most influential players in the venture capital space, has good news and bad news when it comes to the future of startups. The good news is that he believes the events of 2020 and 2021 will catalyze a renewed definition of success based on mission, values, and serving the greater good, as opposed to profit alone. The bad news is that this shifted picture of success hinges on genuine connection and collaboration, which Tullman predicts will be more difficult than ever to effectively achieve in a distributed world.

The legendary Chicagoan and former CEO of 1871, the world’s top non-profit startup incubator, has an uncanny aptitude for predicting trends like these. One of the first times he did so was back in the early ‘70s, when Tullman was a young federal trial litigator who believed he was embarking on a long, stable career in law. However, he quickly realized the core tenets he was taught in law school no longer applied.

“Law school taught you to be a lone ranger, but things were changing, and I knew that was not going to be a successful formula going forward in any industry,” Tullman recalls, nearly 50 years later. “If you weren't a good team player, it was pretty clear that you weren't going to be as successful as you might've been a few years before, when all that mattered was if you were the brightest person in the room.”

So, Tullman decided to make a career jump into entrepreneurship. Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early aughts, as he founded several companies and websites, dabbled in the film industry, and taught at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, his alma mater, Tullman kept his eye on the shift toward collaboration in business. That movement only grew stronger as the years passed. Soon, Tullman became an active champion of collaborative entrepreneurship: As the president of Kendall College, the founder of entrepreneurial programs and collectives including Tribeca Flashpoint and Experientia, and the executive director of the Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Tullman emphasized the importance of compounding colleagues’ backgrounds, skills, and knowledge to surface the best ideas and help individuals and companies thrive.

“In every industry, and I worked in really every industry, the most important thing was always the assembly and management of information. If you don't have the right information, you don't know what's going on throughout your company,” Tullman said. “What people don't understand is that you can only get that information if you talk to people and get their genuine thoughts.”

Opportunities for in-person interaction, of course, have declined significantly as most companies across the country and the globe have moved toward a remote-first workflow. Tullman also pointed out that only the higher-stakes professional interactions, namely meetings, are being replicated online through Zoom and similar platforms, while the most important ones have fallen completely by the wayside.

“In any Zoom meeting these days, the first ten minutes before the meeting starts, when people are touching base and reconnecting, is, without a doubt, the most valuable part of the meeting,” Tullman said. “Turns out, those water cooler collisions, those personal connections, are what make you willing to commit yourself to your colleagues and your company.”

At 1871, which he considers more so “a school for entrepreneurs” than an incubator, Tullman has seen collaboration flourish, not only among the founders who find camaraderie among their cohort but also in the products some of those founders are building. In the spirit of sharing entrepreneurial wisdom through an avenue that is just as innovative, Tullman crafted a three-part flight template series on Balloon, Entrepreneurial Leadership.

  • Gather Innovative Ideas
  • Address Human Capital in Times of Change
  • Uncover Sustainable Competitive Advantages

Each flight approaches its respective scenario with a strong entrepreneurial mindset and a conscious awareness of the importance of adaptability, innovation, and constant improvement. This angle makes the series a must-use for modern leaders, particularly those in startups, as Tullman noted that growing businesses that are still cultivating their cultures will have a more difficult time doing so remotely, as opposed to big businesses that already have stable in-person cultures to emulate online. Firmly, Tullman noted that one way to avoid his “bad news” prediction, that collaboration will suffer in a distributed world, is to find and implement scalable systems that will do the work for you—and he believes Balloon is one of them.

“What was exciting about Balloon was the idea that collaborative settings were the last place where information was blocked—hierarchically, gender-wise, age-wise, in a million different ways—from getting to the people that needed it,” Tullman said. “Being able to get accurate, honest information is the only way people can really be effective leaders, and that's what was really groundbreaking about this tool that would avoid all of those obstacles and really surface the best ideas. It’s a necessity for the future of work.” 

Check out Howard Tullman’s Flight Template Series

Serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, educator and author