Adding value; from intern to entrepreneur

How failures can lead to simple lessons and big change

By: Thomas Villeneuve, Co-Founder

Need to buy a new laptop before school starts? You google “best value laptops”. Online shopping on your favourite site? You filter by “sale” or “price high to low”. There’s no shame in it, you, like me, want something that does the job, but doesn’t break the bank. However, once the cost, outweighs the value it brings you, the product is no longer a value-add, and you don’t buy.

Value can come in many forms, utility, convenience, joy… and cost can be defined not only financially, but also in terms of time and energy… The things you buy are value-adds to your life in one way or another, and that is why you buy. This idea of a “value-add” and its importance cascades contexts. Though, when you think of value the first thing that might come to mind are no name brand groceries or thrifty clothes.

Although most of us understand the value of cheap pasta during finals season, the idea of being a value-add to a company is more abstract. Starting university, I looked more fervently for internships to apply to than I ever did for good online sales. But I got fired from my first internship.

Truthfully it was a blessing in disguise, as it taught me the importance of adding value and helped me launch my first entrepreneurial journey later.

At the time though, I costed more than I outputted for the company, and was let go.

Sink or swim

Shifting this perspective from the business to consumer relationship, to the broader idea of businesses, we notice that new ventures are only sustainable if they are adding value to the entities in their communities and thus reaping enough profits to stay afloat. Should they not be able to provide value in excess of their cost, they fail.

Companies like Airbnb provide the value of affordability in excess of their room fees and buyer uncertainty to the tune of billions in revenue. They add value not only to their clients, but also to their hosts. On the other hand, companies like Kodak fail. The excessive cost of the film in their cameras coupled with their poorer image quality could not compete with new convenience electronic cameras provided (which Kodak invented first in secret). Kodak sought to maximize profits rather than add value to customers by holding back the new tech, leading to their downfall as camera kings.

In the same vein, like consumers choosing cameras, companies only add pieces of software to their portfolio of tools if the addition adds value in excess of their costs. Like companies buying new software, institutions “buy” these same value-added companies on the stock market, and VC firms invest in start-ups.

This investment provides the resources needed for growth and they enable the opportunity to receive profits in excess of their initial investment. Firms invest as they believe these companies are value-adds to the system and will generate profits for them in turn. In this system, and broadly, entities only survive if they are a value-add to their system.

Start off as a 0

On the individual level, like a business, being a value-add to your team and community is a key driver for success. We all know, and some of us have been that team member who’s only contributions were read receipts in the group chat, complaints about the professor, and a name on the finished product.

But in all honesty, even I have found myself in a similar position, and this was why I was let go from my first internship. Although I had some interesting work to do there, I also had many tasks that were mundane and procedural. I wasn’t producing and thus wasn’t given the opportunity to try my hand on more interesting projects, even though I pushed for it.

After being told I would not have my contract renewed and with six weeks of runway left, I decided to make a change. I accomplished my tasks well and on time and took initiative to help my coworkers in any way I could. Many tasks I was assigned were just as routine, but my initiative gained me my colleagues’ trust and gave them more time to focus on doing new and better work. Later, I was even included in some of the new projects my colleagues had time to begin because I took some of the more mundane work off their hands.

Lots of AI and ML companies are doing just this — conquering the routine tasks. These companies automate the easy tasks and free up time and resources for employees to tackle the sort of tasks that provides value to themselves and their clients. Adding value does not necessitate doing anything new or different from before, it can often be achieved by reducing the costs associated with the tasks.

By trying to be the 1 I ended up as a 0, and by playing my role as a 0, I became a 1.

Just as tasks that get automated might not be flashy, being a value-add does not necessarily need to be either. Doing the basics well and being a quality resource to others are invaluable building blocks of being a good addition to any system.

Does it track?

This all boils down to the same central idea.

Although the success of products, companies, and people are dictated by many factors, whether an entity adds value to its customers, shareholders, and community is the rule of law for success. Some may still fail, but none will succeed without it.

Value addition is a big part of BOLT, our team members, and our participants’ success. As a business-tech competition founded at McGill, BOLT has hosted over 150 students through 3 competitions and is now opening a second chapter at the University of British Columbia.

The idea for BOLT sprouted from the desire of a CEO and graduate of McGill to give back to the McGill community, noticing the need for more business-tech integration on campus. BOLT helped fill this gap by both providing a vehicle for corporate sponsors to meet, educate, and hire elite talent, while also adding value to the students who participate. BOLT provides an opportunity for students to learn, interact, and compete in the landscape of business-tech, and that is its value statement — to integrate business and STEM talent to accelerate innovation in its communities.

Being a value-add to our constituents is not only a key reason BOLT has seen success, but something we teach our participants. When competitors tackle our business-tech problems, they are taught to not only solve the problem at hand, but gain experience in adding value to the consumer, company, and community for whom their solution is made.

The inception and growth of BOLT has seen its obstacles, but the continued dedication to our team and focus on being a value-add to our community has been a large proponent of our success. Knowing our values has also been a driving factor in gaining traction with students and sponsors.

Providing value is key, but if you do not know what value you provide and are not able to voice it, you’ll lack the ability to show your value through and through.

It’s up to you

In many ways, focusing on adding value has helped me in my personal, professional, and entrepreneurial ventures. I’ve learnt the need to be a value-add to succeed in any environment, the importance of building a solid foundation by completing the basics, and how to voice the value I aim to provide.

With all this in mind, it serves to wonder, in your circles, what value do you seek to provide?

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