Mark Shay on Thomas Edison and Listening to Your Customer

Noodle Expert Mark Shay discusses the genius of Thomas Edison and the importance of knowing that your customer really is always right.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Thomas Edison — what an amazing guy and what an amazing time. His labs were reported to be the core of the industrialization of the U.S., with everything from electricity in the home to recorded sounds. When I was a kid, I saw his labs in New Jersey and imagined what it would be like to be in an environment that created so much growth and prosperity.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Ask for forgiveness, not permission. At first, it sounds a little devious, but I think of this in the perspective of changing the ways things get done. Throughout my career, I have been at my best when I am entrepreneurial and free to tackle problems without worrying about who I may upset or what those solutions may do to the prevailing status quo. I have worked at a couple of universities and large corporations and was amazed at the politics and territorial attitudes that had little to do with the greater good, and more to do with protecting the domains of power brokers. I lost at my attempts to reform those places, but had fun trying!

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

It depends on the student. If the student is bold, confident, and competent, I'd send her to a place that is off the beaten path, like Vietnam, Ghana, or India. She would gain even more confidence by doing something truly epic. If the student is timid and hasn't hit her full potential, then she is best of in friendly, English-speaking countries like Scotland, New Zealand, or Ireland. Family background and foreign-language capability would impact my recommendations.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I was one of those kids who's a B student no matter where you'd put me. Along the way, I definitely stumbled, even once getting a whopping 1.1 GPA in my first semester as a college sophomore. That taught me to sober up, stop fooling around, and start to set my sights on tangible milestones, like graduating. I love to learn, but have to admit that I'm a little impatient in the process.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

Opportunity led me down the path I took. I was smart enough to realize when good luck was responsible, and I learned early in my career that my customers are smarter than me. By listing to them and understanding that their perception is the reality, I was able to build some nice businesses and do some good work. My field is business building and sales. My clients have been universities and education providers who I help recruit and retain students.

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