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5 Points of Inspiration: University College at Rockland Commencement Address

5 Points of Inspiration: Commencement Address

by Shannon Kinney

Thank you to Deborah Meehan and the the University of Maine Rockland (URock) team and to each of you for the tremendous honor of having me here today. I am most grateful to be here. I hope to spend just a few minutes sharing with you a bit of my experience and the 5 points of inspiration that I have found to always hold true.

But first, how did I get here? I grew up here in the midcoast and graduated from the University of Maine Orono with a degree in Journalism and Advertising. My career has been focused in media, primarily newspapers and shifted to the web in the beginning in the mid-nineties. At that time I was lucky enough to be on the small team that started the company, went on to build and design it, and launch it nationwide. I then went to Silicon Valley where I launched many large scale media web sites nationwide as well. I learned a lot in the Valley about the magic of creating a startup, and was lucky enough to work with nationally recognized media brands at the second largest newspaper company in the US and be in on the early days of companies such as Netscape, Google, eBay, LinkedIn, Craigslist and many more.

But Maine always held my heart more than the money did, and one day I realized it was time to come back East. The startup bug and mindset had forever changed me, though, and I continue to have an itch to create great products and user experiences online and to find business problems that need unique solutions. After working as a consultant with large companies such as the New York Times, Google, Microsoft, eBay and Yahoo on ways that they could better serve small businesses, I realized it was time to start trying it myself to help some local businesses, and 5 years ago Dream Local was born. Coincidentally, so was my daughter Rachel. It’s been a crazy ride raising them both, at the same TIME.

How did I do it? I stay inspired.

Now on to my 5 points of inspiration that I always draw from:

Life is a four letter word, living isn’t.

So many people, particularly in small towns, live life on autopilot, merely existing, letting life simply happen to them. Life has ups and downs, and it’s important to never, ever, take it for granted, or lie passively and watch it pass you by. And it’s easy for each of you to let others define who you are. Do not make this mistake. Your life is your life, and your time on this earth is yours to spend. Do great things. Go beyond the expectations that others have of you, the limits that you perceive you have, set your own standards. Aim high. Don’t settle for less from yourself. When you do, you will be disappointed.

  • In the later months of my pregnancy and early in the days of motherhood, I was overwhelmed. Many well-intentioned people said things like “you can only do so much” and “listen to your body” as I worked through the challenge of not being able to get out of my own way, and trying to build a new life for myself and this amazing new baby girl. Some family and friends would note support of my role and tell me that single mothers have it very tough and I should be patient with myself. There are aspects of all of this advice that were true, of course. But one day I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I had started using everyone else’s expectations as my compass, and it isn’t me to lower my expectations of myself that way. It just isn’t. The advice I gave myself that day was to get up and get moving, that I could accomplish considerably more than I was and to not lose sight of my goals. And in fact, the first formal business plan and financial model for Dream Local was drawn up three weeks after I got home from the hospital with Rachel even while I still managed my other business. Now, I closely monitor myself to make sure I don’t fall into a funk again and the way I can see it is if I spend too much time watching TV. It’s a passive activity, and nice for all of us now and then. If I see a pattern of doing it, it’s time to kick myself in the butt. Wallowing in anything is a recipe for disaster, too much inactivity is too. Placing limits on yourself and what you can accomplish and making excuses is a recipe for a life on autopilot and mediocrity. Nip it in the bud. Do not accept it.

Love is a four letter word, passion isn’t.

Find your passion. Seek it out with a single-minded ferocity and do not let anything get in your way. In the early years back in Maine before Dream Local, I was a consultant to large media firms and online companies. It was incredibly lucrative, and allowed me to balance my re-entry into Maine life with cities and the faster pace of Internet time because the projects I worked on were entirely focused on projects for clients like Google and media companies creating new products online, new revenue streams, and finding investment and acquisition opportunities. Most of my friends and family didn’t understand at all what I did for a living, I jumped on planes and flew around the country for work, but they didn’t know or understand what I did. It was kind of a running joke. I’d always hear “tell me what it is you do again?”  I was heavily using social media sites and in the beta groups for Twitter, Foursquare and using Facebook, but no one else here was and didn’t understand why I did. When I started the business it was not seen as a big deal, just another one of Shannon’s projects. Since then, my friends and family have seen me go through hard times financially as I gave up my big salaries and sunk all my cash into this “Dream Local” thing, and many must have wondered what I was thinking. They would hear me speak with passion about my vision to grow this business nationally and smile, but most likely thought it would never happen and that I was more than a little crazy (which I indeed am). But I’m deeply fortunate to be surrounded by a group of people that while they may have not understood why I was doing what I was, sacrificing all I did, they always supported me. I am truly the luckiest person in the world. Lucky to have that unconditional support of my family and friends. But it wasn’t blind support, they all know my passion for this runs deep. It’s who I am. No matter how many hours and hours of work, and days on the road, the airports, the financial strain, I am single minded in my focus, because this is my passion. Find yours. Something in your life that drives you to be the best version of you that you can be. Something that creates your legacy. We all have it in us, seek yours out and make it your life’s work to find it.

When you face a challenge, practice gratitude.

When life gives you challenges, don’t get sucked into negative thinking and doubt. Instead, be grateful. I mean this. And I know it is not easy. Many people thrive on drama, on bad news, on frustration. Do not fall into this trap. You must be grateful. For these challenges are what make you stronger. Many of you are non-traditional students and have balanced family, work and school to get here today. You know challenges.You understand the need for deep perseverance to keep working at it, to keep plugging along inching closer to your goal when it would be much easier to just drop it.  Each of you have studied hard to reach this milestone in your life. You understand what it means to face challenges.

And in your life and work, you will find more. People who tell you it can’t be done. People who will tell you that YOU can’t. You will be tested. You will hit barriers, closed doors, stone walls.  When you do, first, breathe and then be grateful,. Be grateful for the opportunity to grow, to become stronger. Then, kick the barrier down. Kick it down not just for yourself, but for those who will follow you. Each of you has a responsibility and the capability to pave the way.

  • In the fall of last year, I was lucky enough to be featured in a prominent article in Maine Magazine on entrepreneurship in Maine. Shortly after that, Dream Local Digital faced a particularly difficult challenge. One that if handled poorly could have shut us down. It was a very stressful time for me as I tried to navigate the waters and correct the issues while keeping the morale of my team high. I didn’t want to lose my company, but could see that it was a possibility.  I left work one day deeply discouraged, wondering if I had what it took to lead us through it. I stopped at the dry cleaners to pick up one of my suits I needed for yet another flight I would be getting on in a couple of days. While there, I saw one of my cousins, whose father (my late grandfather’s brother) is now in Knox home. We were not particularly close growing up, but always say hello when we see each other. My cousin lit up when she saw me at the cleaners. I couldn’t understand why, because I assumed that defeat and failure was written all over my face. I could barely muster a smile. But she continued enthusiastically to tell me that she had visited her father earlier that day and that he was having a good day and recognized her. Then, she went on to tell me that he showed her Maine Magazine. The nurses said he had shown it to everyone. And he told her “That’s a KINNEY. With a full page photo in Maine Magazine. That’s one of us. She did it”. My cousin told me this story and it changed my entire outlook. How could I let him down? And for that matter, how could I let my team down? My clients down? I needed to be grateful for this lesson that in the end helped me make the BUSINESS stronger, and that also made ME stronger. And it definitely did.

Build the brand of you.

The Internet, and social media in particular, have turned all of us into publishers. That’s a radical change in society, in our interactions with each other, and in how you manage your career. It’s important in all that you do, you live life to the fullest and build the brand of YOU. The way you treat people, the way you spend your time, the work you do, the life you live, are all testaments and parts of the brand of you. In the professional world today, you need to stand out, make a name for yourself. It used to be the only way people could do this was through work experience in your field of choice. Today, with social media and blogs, people can establish their own brands, their own expertise on their own. At Dream Local, we’ll refer to it as “street credit”. Some people will apply for an internship or job with us and their resumes will not really tell us anything, how they present themselves online will. So consider how you can further your career and enrich your life by building the brand of you, how can you make deeper connections with people, grow your networks in interesting directions, continue your learning.  And jump in. By all means, learn how to use your privacy settings when you do it. But never lose sight of the fact that you are building the brand of you YOU. Don’t wait for someone to tell your story, tell it for yourself. Help others. Be a resource. Teach. Learn. Engage.

And finally, my most important and final point of inspiration for each of you today,

Dream Bigger.

Whatever plans you have for yourself at this very moment, I encourage you to DREAM BIGGER. In everything that you do, set goals for yourself and keep yourself inspired to dream bigger. Midcoast Maine has the highest penetration in all of Maine of small businesses and micro businesses. That’s amazing. But there is a difference between creating a job for yourself and maybe others and creating a business. Early on in the days of Dream Local, we were excited about bringing on several local clients, many of which I am proud to say are still with us. We scoped out the services we would provide and how much it would cost, and it was not long before we reached the first real crossroads of the business. Do we just sit back and stop work at five, service the clients to the best of our abilities and get a few more here and there? Or, do we build a business that can scale. A team of three or four, or get bigger. Then, it became just Maine or nationwide.  I’m grateful that it’s never been confusing for me, and that I’ve been able to build a team that feels the same. I’m grateful that my team all have chosen to believe the dream, and dream bigger themselves. Despite the skepticism I encountered in the first three years of Dream Local while we were small and social media was fairly new, I persisted in my vision that this would become a very big deal, that we were really helping businesses and filling a need, and I have always known I need to DREAM BIGGER. Our business is actually named Dream Local because I knew to inspire my team, our partners, and our clients, we all had to see and share the dream. And we do.

Before I close I would like to acknowledge one special graduate, Jessica Greene, who has been a part of the Dream Local Digital family for nearly two years, although to me it seems as though she has always been there, she is part of our fabric. Her hard work and focus on her own goals keep her moving forward, and her dedication to balancing her school, her work and her family are an inspiration to us all. I salute you Jessica, you truly know how to dream bigger.

So as you consider your future and look forward to leaving this building perhaps for the last time to step into your life – I encourage you to jump into your life with both feet. If you want something, go for it. Live, do, act. Find your passion. Practice gratitude. Dream Bigger. But even more importantly remember, above all, UROCK!!!!!!

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