Entries Tagged 'business' ↓
January 11th, 2014 — business, design, economics, philosophy, trends
Much has been said about entrepreneurs and their oft-stated ambition to “change the world.” Making money is nice, they say, but they really want to “put a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs once said.
Some see this as high-minded conceit: Change the world? Through tweets and hashtags? Photo oversharing? A world where everyone is constantly staring at their phones? Is this change actually for the better? All valid questions, to be sure.
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and while “changing the world” might be a bit of an overreach, one thing is true: Entrepreneurs are the people who get to decide which universe everyone else lives in.
And this has some other deeper implications.
The degree to which quantum physics has any impact on our everyday world is hotly debated by philosophers and physicists. But there are some ways we can interpret quantum effects as entrepreneurs that are interesting.
One theory is that there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and the world we live in is just one of many possible worlds. So who decides which universe the rest of us will live in? To be sure, political and military leaders do, but so do writers, musicians, scientists, inventors — and entrepreneurs.
When you think about it, we all have the power to propose something new. These proposals may be modest, or they may be starkly different from what has come before. Our ability to nurture these new proposals and steer our world into the universe where these new ideas take root is really the fundamental act of entrepreneurship.
So in some sense, entrepreneurs are quantum time travelers — able to steer the world into a new dimension that might not otherwise have existed.
Can you imagine the world we’d be living in if Steve Jobs hadn’t willed the iPhone and iPad into our universe before he passed on? It would be substantially different (and Microsoft’s stock price would certainly be higher).
Entrepreneurs aren’t the only people who have this power to shift us into a new universe: anyone can do it. Whether you’re a nonprofit worker, a lab scientist, a musician or just a rank-and-file employee in a company, there is almost always a way to start with what you have, what you know and who you know, and transform it into something that’s fundamentally new.
It is the collective output of those who dare to make these proposals that defines the shape, rhythm, texture and nature of the world we live in. That puts each of us in a position of incredible responsibility and power; for if each of us is capable of steering the planet in a new direction, then why aren’t we doing it?
Entrepreneurship researcher Dr. Saras Sarasvathy coined the idea of “effectuation,” a theory that states that entrepreneurs use a particular kind of logic in advancing their proposals.
Essentially, they gather up everything they are, have and know, and then they place a bet on a next step. That bet will typically have a higher upside than downside, and they can afford to continue if they lose the bet.
Following this continuously almost always means you can advance an agenda and make it grow. And Sarasvathy discovered that this is exactly how expert entrepreneurs operate. They don’t typically have a big master plan. They just execute a series of modest bets, and they’re aided by the people and experience they gather along the way. That’s it.
I find all this incredibly empowering; we have a simple recipe that enables us to continuously and collectively select a better universe than the one we are currently living in. And anyone can do it, just by thinking the way entrepreneurs think.
The money that comes from creating a positive change is a nice side benefit, but it’s hardly the point. Money’s just a tool to enable us to keep selecting a better world.
So can we change the world? Perhaps not. But we can each help to choose a better one. And that’s true power.
This piece originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of SmartCEO Magazine (Baltimore).
January 6th, 2014 — business, economics, software, trends
While I’m deeply involved in entrepreneurship, breathing it day in and day out, and actively follow many discussions around it, I tend to shy away from writing about it most of the time. Why? Because I’m generally too busy doing the entrepreneurship to talk about it. In the end, it’s the facts of our accomplishments that will speak far louder than some hollow words.
But every once in a while it can be helpful to take note of where one stands and what one has learned. This is one of those moments, and I’d like to take a moment to share a few thoughts on what it takes to start a product company. (Most recently, I’ve been hard at work building and launching Mailstrom through my company 410 Labs.)
- Building a sustainable business is the only thing that matters. Entrepreneurs get caught up worrying about all kinds of shiny objects: tech trends, investors, hot markets, compensation schemes, founder personalities, community — you name it. Those things are interesting, but there’s only one thing that matters: building a sustainable business. That means recurring revenue and controllable costs. Watch those two items and then maybe you’ll have something to talk about.
- Know your CAC/CPA and LTV. If you’re building a recurring revenue business, you need to know your customer acquisition cost and lifetime value of the customer. You need to understand this really, really well. To understand customer acquisition cost, you need to know all of the costs that go into acquiring a new, paying customer. To understand lifetime value, you need to understand your customer retention rates really well. If this makes your eyes glaze over, you’re not an entrepreneur.
- The hard part comes after the funding. It may seem like securing funding is a great milestone, and you’ll be tempted to pat yourself on the back. Do that for a minute, but get the hell back to work. You have real work to do now. If you don’t understand how to deploy that funding, and more importantly have a plan for what happens when (not if ) you run out, you’ll be out of options. Be humble. This stuff is hard.
- The Series A crunch is real. The funding environment today is quite brutal and you can expect to spend several months of your time working just on securing a “Series A” size funding round (for the sake of simplicity let’s define that as a post-seed round of $1M or more). Investors are looking for not only traction, but real revenues, social proof, and growth. They want to know why you are the entrepreneurial team that’s going to survive and thrive. There are thousands of other teams out there who won’t, so the odds are against you.
- My dog can raise a seed round in this climate. With the myriad startup funds, accelerators, and crowdfunding available today, it’s easier than ever to raise a seed round. While raising a seed or small angel round is definitely a validation that you may not be insane, it’s no validation that you’re sane either. Startups are hot and these days, everyone’s an “angel investor” (even me.) But just because you raise that seed round doesn’t mean you will have a clear path forward.
- You are responsible for your success — not your investors or advisors. It’s tempting to think that having a rockstar list of investors and advisors is going to catapult you to success. In fact, that’s just not the case. While having “name brand” people on your team can accelerate the growth and create additional options for your successful business, the onus is on you to deliver that successful business. They are not going to make it happen for you. It’s ALL on you.
- Building products is hard and requires tireless analysis and iteration. Building products is ridiculously hard work. Every day you need to devise new experiments and analyze the results. You need to continuously iterate and improve every aspect of your product. You have to make clear headed choices about what is important and what’s not, frequently leaving even good ideas unfinished. In short, if you’re not comfortable with scientific method, numeric and statistical analysis, and ambiguity (yes, ambiguity ALL THE TIME) then you have no business being a founder.
I hear new entrepreneurs talk all the time about how everything is going so great — they had a great pitch meeting or secured a funding commitment, just hired a new person, or setup some shiny new piece of technology. And those things are all great. But remember, until you have a product that is generating real recurring revenue and you fully understand the dynamics, you don’t have a business, you have a conjecture.
And don’t get me wrong, as a fellow entrepreneur, I love a good conjecture. But what is really impressive is when you can start to make make it sing and scale. That requires tons of hard work — hard work that’s not flashy, doesn’t let you write upbeat self-congratulatory status updates, or put out self-serving press releases.
All that matters is your customers, the value you’re creating for them, and the dollars and goodwill that value generates. Let’s talk about that, because the rest is noise.
December 21st, 2011 — baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, trends
There’s been an explosion of interest in new “startup accelerators,” incubation, coworking, startup funding, and new-manufacturing efforts in Baltimore in the last few months; unfortunately this appears to say less about Baltimore than it does about the growth in interest in these efforts worldwide.
Here’s a list of some efforts in this space:
- “Accelerate Baltimore” at ETC Baltimore
- Accelerator led by Cangialosi and Lane
- ETC Baltimore itself (Canton and 33rd street)
- Baltimore Node, Hackerspace on North Avenue
- Sizeable Spaces, coworking in South Baltimore
- Capital Studios, coworking on Central Avenue
- Beehive Baltimore, coworking at ETC Baltimore
- Accelerator effort being driven by Mike Brenner
- Accelerator/cyber/techspace in Harbor East, led by Karl Gumtow
- Innovation Alliance effort being led by Newt Fowler
- Theater/workspace being discussed by Chris Ashworth/Figure 53
- Shared warehouse workspace being discussed by Andy Mangold/Friends of the Web
- Baltimore Angels (Cangialosi et al)
- Invest Maryland fund (DBED)
- TEDCO’s Innovation fund
- Abell Foundation fund (tied to Accelerate Baltimore)
- Wasabi Ventures fund (investing in city, affiliated with Loyola)
- Fabrication Lab at Towson University
- Fabrication Lab at CCBC
- Fab-lab ideas discussed by John Cutonilli
- Highlandtown workspace development led by Ben Walsh
- Mike Galiazzo, pushing Local-Made, (head, Regional Manufacturing Institute)
Did you know about all of these things? Amazingly, many of the people leading these efforts don’t. Or if they do, they’ve not actually talked to the people involved. To me, this is a problem.
Why? Because folks attempting to gather support for these efforts don’t have all the facts. They either haven’t sat down and listened to people’s motivations, and they’re flying blind. Or it means that they have been unable to sell other like-minded entrepreneurs on their vision, which probably means their vision is not that compelling. And that’s even worse.
But this is not all that’s wrong.
Two Serious Problems
One: there’s a tremendous amount of duplication of effort represented in the list above. Why duplicate all of that administrative, accounting, legal, and governance overhead? By pooling more of these efforts together, that overhead can be minimized and shared.
Two: we don’t have enough human capital to support all of these different efforts. We simply DON’T. Many seem to think it will somehow materialize, but from where I sit, with possibly the widest-angle view of the landscape here of anyone, I don’t see that flow of new startups or even new individuals that can support all of this. It just doesn’t exist.
Baltimore has an opportunity to become a regional and even international destination for people looking to start or join entrepreneurial enterprises. But for that to happen, we need to have stuff here that can actually become a destination.
And unfortunately, the efforts currently underway are not likely to become that destination because duplicated overhead will keep each effort small and parochial.
However, if more of these efforts pooled their resources and talent – and most importantly identified a BIGGER and more IMPORTANT vision for what it is they are trying to achieve, there would be many positive effects, such as ample governmental and foundation support. And that would be hugely helpful in funneling in the sorely lacking regional and international *human capital* that we so desperately need here!
One Possible Vision
Baltimore has an opportunity to become the hub for digital manufacturing and mass-customization technology on the east coast.
Cangialosi and Lane are already talking about supporting some basic fabrication capabilities at their proposed facility on Key Highway. Gumtow’s effort has placed fab-lab capabilities high on its priorities list. CCBC and Towson have fab-labs, though it’s my understanding they may be underutilized. If you’re going to spend money on fabrication equipment at all, it should be utilized 24×7 in order to maximize the asset.
Something bigger – like taking over the WalMart in Port Covington, or the Meyer Seed Warehouse in Harbor East – could support an accelerator, fab lab, and shared workspace. Thinking a little bit bigger would also have the effect of lowering per-square-foot costs dramatically, and even dramatically altering the real-estate ownership structure.
Baltimore is already home to Under Armour, and at some point in the near future (similar to what happened with Ad.com) it will start throwing off new entrepreneurs with experience in consumer products and manufacturing. Where will they go? Will we keep them here in Baltimore?
Focusing on the intersection of manufacturing and technology is important because it represents the one shot we have at rebuilding even a little bit of a middle class here in Baltimore. Because of that, you’ll find abundant support for such efforts — support that can further reinforce Baltimore’s reputation as an international destination for digital and manufacturing.
The More the Merrier?
I am a fan of placing many, diverse bets rather than making a few large ones. But it’s also important to make strong bets. Unfortunately, Baltimore is right now setting itself up to have many weak positions instead of a smaller number of stronger ones.
I strongly urge the folks leading these efforts to get to know each other and coalesce around a bigger unifying vision that can turn Baltimore into an important regional and international destination for entrepreneurs.
Because without agreeing on a bigger vision, it’s likely that these efforts – each led by well-meaning individuals but with individual motivations – won’t ultimately amount to much, and it would be a shame to waste so much time, effort, and talent.
Thanks to Brian LeGette for his collaboration on some of the ideas underlying this post. Also, everyone on this list is a friend: happy to make introductions and advance the conversation.
December 14th, 2011 — baltimore, business, design, economics
It can be difficult to see the forest for the trees when it comes to defining what it is we in the so-called “tech community” are trying to achieve.
The confusion begins with names: some call it the “startup community,” the “tech business community,” or #BmoreTech. Whatever. I’ve been splitting these hairs for several years now, and with the help of many others and after many personal experiences with organizing groups, events, venues, and businesses have developed a simple but powerful vision for the community.
We’re all trying to build an ecosystem that looks something like this (click to enlarge):
Before we get into the specifics of this vision, here are a few basic values that underly it:
- People are the lifeblood of the community. The ecosystem requires educated, creative people. We should strive to enrich and build compelling opportunities for the people in our community.
- Businesses generate the wealth that powers our community. Strong businesses make a strong community. We should aim to make our businesses stronger and more valuable.
- There is a role for everyone. Diversity of expertise and background is essential to a strong business community. We should aspire to have a healthy mix of product companies, service companies, business service providers, and many types of venues and events for relationship building.
- We should celebrate our successes. Celebrating successes, whether they are successful exits or just milestones, is essential to creating a community that values growth, curiosity, and experimentation.
- We should connect people together. Trust and strong relationships are a precursor to new business formation. With strong trust relationships, we’ll have more new businesses and they will be more successful.
With this in mind, here’s how this model works, step by step. It’s a cycle, and for simplicity, we’ll start at the bottom.
- Getting into the mix. (6 o’clock) New participants, exited entrepreneurs, investors, hackers, new entrepreneurs come together via a mix of venues and events. By “venues” I am talking about spaces that offer opportunities for daily, ongoing interaction between individuals. They’re “high touch” while being “low risk.” Think coworking, hackerspaces, regular café coworking, incubators and accelerators, and educational institutions. By “events” I’m talking about one-off or periodic events that afford people an opportunity to get together, get to know one another, and try new things. (Think Bmore On Rails, Startup Weekend, EduHackDay, CreateBaltimore, etc.) New investors can participate in angel groups and pitch events.
- New business formation, access to capital. (9 o’clock) With trust, exposure, and experience, new businesses can form. With the prolonged exposure made possible by the “mix” phase, entrepreneurs can make more informed decisions about who to go into business with and have likely had more time to refine their ideas before ever beginning. This means a lower failure rate for new startups than in a less-developed ecosystem. As for investment capital, some will come from exited entrepreneurs, some from venture capitalists, seed funds, and governmental initiatives like TEDCO and InvestMaryland. We should aim to connect investors with nascent businesses. This will happen naturally to some extent in the “mix” phase, but we should consciously encourage it; bootstrapping should also be an option.
- Business growth. (12 o’clock) Some companies will grow to become strong product companies, others will become service companies. Some people want to grow their businesses to sell them, while others just want to build and run a great business. These approaches are all valid. We should celebrate the formation and growth of all of the companies in our ecosystem.
- Entrepreneur exits. (3 o’clock) Some entrepreneurs will seek the opportunity to exit their businesses and capitalize on their growth. This is most lucrative with product companies. When these exits occur, we should celebrate them as successes of the community as a whole.
- Entrepreneur returns to the mix. (6 o’clock) Exited entrepreneurs should be encouraged to re-engage with the community, either as investors or as active entrepreneurs to form new relationships and new businesses. The cycle starts anew.
That’s really it. If we can make this cycle work, we’ll have a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in Baltimore. (This is the exact same cycle that made Silicon Valley great, and is now working in places like Boston, Austin, and New York.)
That’s Great, But Where Do We Stand Now?
We have much of what we need in place: venues, events, investors, and businesses. But the two things we have most lacked are a cohesive vision for how this cycle is supposed to work, and also the last link in the cycle – systematically re-engaging entrepreneurs into the ecosystem.
However, just today came the news that Greg Cangialosi and Sean Lane are forming a startup accelerator in Federal Hill. That’s an example of two successful entrepreneurs getting back into the mix and re-engaging. We need more of that. But we need to make it easier and more attractive for entrepreneurs – there need to be obvious on-ramps and channels. We’re starting to get that in place.
My hope is that this vision, which I have shared in one-on-one conversations with many friends and leaders to much enthusiastic agreement, can now take root as the underlying force that animates our community.
Role of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council
There’s been much discussion about what the role of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council should be, and I submit that this vision, as I’ve articulated it here, is what the group has been moving toward for the last three years – and with Jason Hardebeck (who is himself an exited entrepreneur) at the helm, I believe we can move towards it more quickly now.
The GBTC’s job is to:
- Help build and protect the ecosystem. GBTC should be a watchdog that ensures the ecosystem has the right pieces in place and that they have what they need to function properly. This means working with government, educational institutions, and others to ensure that the conditions required for the ecosystem to thrive are present.
- Accelerate the cycle. The faster this ecosystem operates, the more successful we will be. Specifically, GBTC should connect people together, and celebrate our collective achievements, and help pull our educational institutions into the ecosystem. Ultimately this will pull in more smart, creative people, accelerating the cycle further.
- Make our businesses stronger. By connecting our community together better and providing venues, events, connections, and celebrating our success stories, GBTC can help to make each of our businesses stronger and more robust. This also means connecting businesses to service providers (HR, insurance, accounting, legal) and mentors who can provide value.
For all the drama and hand-wringing, it really is this simple!
Some have wondered whether they “belong” in the GBTC. That’s something every person and entrepreneur has to decide for themselves; there are obviously many valid and valuable ways to participate in this overall vision that are outside of the scope of the GBTC. However, if you care about growing and protecting this ecosystem, and if the group can help your business grow and succeed, I’d encourage you to lend GBTC your support; it just makes good business sense, as GBTC is the only group that has been tasked with this important work.
I know that others in positions of leadership in Baltimore’s tech business community (and at GBTC) share this vision. I encourage your comments and feedback, but before reacting, you might take some time to really think this over. This is something I’ve been looking at for several years, and based on everything I know, this is the right way forward.
The Rest of the Story
Oh, and there’s one more thing.
We all want to prime this pump and get this vision more fully underway, but I also think it’s reasonable to ask how Baltimore’s tech ecosystem fits into the bigger scheme of things. What relationship should we have with other ecosystems, in our region and around the world? Is the point to win or are we trying to thrive? I’ll be touching on this topic in an upcoming post, and it should help to clarify how this vision makes even more sense for Baltimore.