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DCE Magazine

Channeling Your Inner Entrepreneur

Spring 2019

Have an idea for a game-changing product? Expert DCE instructors can help guide you to success.

Is the spark of creativity a gift possessed by a lucky few?

Or is it a skill set that can be taught to anyone with the drive to succeed? David Winikoff, instructor with DCE's Innovation & Product Development specialized studies program, firmly believes that we all possess that spark — we just need to learn how to bring it out.

A successful inventor and entrepreneur, Winikoff holds a half dozen patents on innovative communication technology and has mentored myriad companies, entrepreneurs and startups that have gone on to thrive and flourish. He also was an early investor in Tesla, SpaceX and Facebook.

Clearly, Winikoff knows how to recognize a winning concept that can be developed into a game-changing reality. And that's precisely what his DCE course is all about.

“I firmly believe that everyone is creative,” said Winikoff, an MIT-trained engineer and managing director of Inside Track Partners consulting firm. “The problem is that most of us have these creative ideas and don't do anything with them. The teaching part of creativity and innovation is to help people realize that ideas need to be nurtured, just like turning seeds and land into a bountiful harvest.”

There are skills that can be taught to boost the creative process, spark innovation and bring a product concept all the way to market. The trick is learning how to share your ideas in a collaborative way with others — tap into the creative power of a group whose judgement you trust — to fine-tune the concept and the approach. That's when the innovation kicks in.

“That's when you learn to sell your story to others, whether prospective investors, employees or customers,” Winikoff said. “On the innovation side there's a reality that the great idea is the starting point, but how you execute building the idea is at least as important.”

Mentoring teams of aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs is a passion that Winikoff brings to his introductory DCE course, Creativity and Innovation, offering a hands-on workshop based on the real world of product development. And many of the students end up creating products ready to be tested in the real world.

A track record of success

Winikoff has been involved in communication technology for more than 20 years, first with a startup creating customized phones for hotels, then becoming founder of a company that developed “social TV.” It was a revolutionary concept at the time, far-flung viewers interacting while watching the same program — and today Facebook is working on the same type of tech.

Along the way he has managed businesses with up to $3 billion in sales and mentored dozens of early-stage companies, including website-optimization company Optimizely and a big data company acquired by Amazon.

“What these very different companies all had in common were founders that were building products that they felt passionate about,” Winikoff said. “Their focus was much more on achieving a dream rather than making money.”

You might call Winikoff a visionary. He clearly recognizes potential when he sees it, having been a very early investor in Tesla Motors. It was the first pre-IPO company he bought into, and it has paid off spectacularly.

“Where I lived I used to drive by Tesla's manufacturing location, actually a converted car dealership site, which made me curious to learn more about the company,” he said. “The more I learned, the more exciting it was. I invested because of how much I wanted to support Tesla's success.”

He feels just as passionately about Elon Musk's SpaceX enterprise. “It's less of an investment and more about feeling like I'm a part of creating a permanent human presence in space.”

Winikoff also was an early investor in Facebook, and his belief in the company's potential didn't wane when the stock initially tanked. Many investors got cold feet, but Winikoff felt the company was on strong footing and poised to rebound in a big way.

“Interesting story about Facebook,” Winikoff said. “I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about my reaction to having a ‘losing investment,’ complete with a photo shoot with my family. That stock decline was very short-lived and the value of Facebook shares has risen 500% since then.”

Today he holds six patents, all in the area of unified communications, the intersection of phone calling, voicemail, email and calendar joined with location tracking. Remarkably, all of them were invented long before the iPhone era and widespread availability of apps.

Winikoff's patents include technology that makes your phone ring louder when you're in a noisy environment and automatically mutes it at night, when you're in a library or in an important meeting, sending most of your calls to voicemail except for essential contacts that you define.

“Back when I developed these, cellphones were mostly just used for phone calls,” he said. “I was in the minority back then, believing that there should be one combined device that people would carry for all their digital needs. And I anticipated location services being available, which is now common.”

An inventive process

Think you might have a seed of an idea that could be developed into a game-changer? Winikoff believes the most important step in the process is the first one — deciding that you want to take action.

“Having the idea is the start but you need to be motivated to turn it into reality,” he added. “Find a receptive audience, people who share your interest and are willing to help you achieve your goals.”

The Division of Continuing Education's online Innovation & Product Development specialized studies offers an excellent opportunity to take the leap and get hands-on experience participating in the creative process. From the initial concept to the realization of a market-ready product, participants are led each step of the way by successful, expert instructors.

“Innovation & Product Development is a lot like an individualized incubator program,” Winikoff said. “We teach about the process of entrepreneurship. This includes exercises and projects to help people brainstorm, collaborate with others to improve an idea, make difficult business decisions like product pivots, and pitch their ideas to others. My course covers all of these topics.”

When David teaches the course, students work in teams to brainstorm initial ideas and develop a final product goal into an actual business. It culminates in a mock pitch session, where each team presents their product and ideas in a way that's oriented to investors and stakeholders, Winikoff said.

Participants follow the same process as startups, from creating a product to seeking initial seed funding — and many of them leave with a solid blueprint for real success.

“Some of the product and business ideas that have emerged have been good enough that they could be viable,” Winikoff said. “And some of my students have left the course aiming to turn their ideas into real businesses.”

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