July 28th, 2010 — business, design, economics, philosophy, software, trends
Some interpreted my last post (about finding technical co-founders) as advice to “do nothing” — to wait until the stars align to start working on an idea. And in a way, that is what I’m suggesting. But that observation is really part of a larger picture of how a fully functioning entrepreneurial ecosystem works. In such a system, both ideas and businesses are born from personal relationships. However, outside of a few niche industries in a few niche geographies, these ecosystems do not (yet) exist. What then?
Start With What You Have
You may know I am a big fan of Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, the entrepreneurship researcher (now at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business). Her clear-eyed analysis of the entrepreneurial process suggests that entrepreneurship is a behavior and a process. She believes that entrepreneurs are made, not born. And I absolutely agree with her.
The last thing she would suggest that an entrepreneur do is “wait” before taking action. Instead, she suggests that all entrepreneurship is a series of successive “small bets” — specific kinds of bets, with “affordable” downsides and higher, or possibly even uncapped upsides. By participating in this process, the entrepreneur actually changes the world around them and influences the success of their later activity. In short, they begin to mitigate the risks of their own bets, enhancing the upside and lowering the downside of the entire entrepreneurial process.
And this is exactly how entrepreneurship works. In this model, you never “wait around” — you start right away, taking successive small risks, and then going from there.
Doing It Right (and Wrong is OK too)
Matt Mireles wrote in on the last post to express his objection that he felt that I was suggesting that folks “never even try to get off the ground.” And I realized that wasn’t my intent at all.
Matt wrote (among many other thoughtful comments):
At least in the stall spin you have altitude to lose! Your advice seems to be “don’t even try to get off the ground.” This bothers me.
Who cares if you throw the prototype out? Who cares if you switch from PHP to Rails? That’s all sunk costs. The only thing that matters is that you make progress, build the team and get customers.
Case in point: SpeakerText. My original co-founder built the site in PHP and the app in Flash. The product kind of sucked, but there were some cool features, it got the idea across and we used it to get some good press. He ultimately wasn’t ready to commit and we did the whole stall spin thing you describe (although we parted ways amicably and he still helps out from time to time). Burned through some cash, our angel round imploded, etc.
Matt’s experience, of working with mercenary developers, getting it wrong, losing some cash and probably also causing a certain amount of misery in the process, is not uncommon. And it’s perfectly awesome. It’s exactly what entrepreneurs should be doing, which is failing early and failing often! Think of the lessons that he’s now learned!
Does this contradict my other advice? Not at all. Because Matt did one key thing that victims of the “stall spin” never do, which is to control their downside risks. Matt lived to tell the tale. In flying terms, he gave himself enough altitude to live through the stall spin and recover; his willingness to learn from mistakes and his awareness of what he didn’t know made it possible for him to live, where most people die.
And that’s really what the last post is all about: how to avoid making fatal mistakes by aligning common interests, which is (in effect) a way of capping downsides.
I promised a follow-up post about finding technical cofounders, which will further explore what a functioning ecosystem looks like. But here’s a preview to ponder: in functional startup ecosystems, you see more alignment of interests, risk taking with capped downsides, and strong pre-existing relationships (by way of meshed social networks). Can’t wait to share those ideas with you.
In the meantime, take Dr. Sarasvathy’s advice and start now. Just control your downside risks, learn from failure, and know what you don’t know! And meet lots of people who can help you along the way. You’ll do great things!
June 5th, 2010 — business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, software, travel, trends
Pride, Passion, Talent on Display at Startup Weekend Seoul
I believe that Silicon Valley may soon be going the way of the floppy disk.
For the last two weeks I have been traveling around Asia with a group of tech entrepreneurs, on a trip called “Geeks on a Plane” organized by Silicon Valley investor Dave McClure. I took the same trip last year.
Why take a trip like this? The answer gets at some very real and seismic shifts taking place in the startup world that will be big news over the next few years.
Startups Cost Less
Ten years ago a successful Internet startup might require one to five million dollars in outside funding. Data centers, engineers, and software licenses were hot commodities and could easily drain a startup’s resources.
Now it is possible to get a startup to the point of testing it in the market — with real customers — for $25,000 to $50,000. This effectively removes VC’s from the equation at these early rounds and turns things over to angel investors. As angel investing becomes increasingly professionalized, success rates increase and more people become involved with it.
“Silicon Valley is a State of Mind, Not Necessarily a Real Place”
Pay attention to this one! This is a quote by Dave McClure and it captures what is happening perfectly. Everywhere you go, there are techies and entrepreneurs who follow the tech business scene, and they are all ideological peers.
Silicon Valley is all about embracing the idea that the world can be changed for the better, and that one can (ultimately) realize rewards by changing it. If you believe this, you are a part of Silicon Valley. What about that statement is related to place?
In Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo I have seen first hand the buzz and excitement that comes from people who believe that they can engage with the problems of our world imaginatively and productively. And they are not moving to Silicon Valley.
3D Printer at Singapore’s hackerspace.sg
Place as a Strategic Differentiator
Not being in Silicon Valley is very helpful if you are trying to tap into developing markets like those in China, Korea, and Japan. It is also helpful if you don’t want to have to pay Valley salaries and sucked into the echo chamber there.
As an example, a skilled developer in Silicon Valley might cost you upwards of $120,000 per year; the same person in India would cost $12,000 per year and in Singapore they would cost $48,000 per year.
If you are trying to build a product to serve the Asian market, wouldn’t you rather base your company in Singapore?
Being in “a” place is more important than being in “the” place
It is widely assumed that internet technologies like Skype and email crush distance and make global distributed business possible. True, but there are exceptions.
Real creativity, trust, and ideation has to happen face to face. This is where the magic occurs. If you don’t spend time with people you can’t create.
New-technology tools can help with execution, but only after the team dynamics are in place; they are great for keeping people connected and plugged in, but suck at creating an initial connection.
Love your place. Find the other like minded souls who love your place and start companies with those people. The creativity you unleash in your own backyard is the most important competitive differentiator you have. No one else has your unique set of talents and point of view. Leverage it.
Every City is Becoming Self Aware — All at Once
I do not know of a city anywhere in the world that is not presently undergoing a tech community renaissance right now. This is a VERY big deal.
Every city in the United States along with Europe, Asia, and South America is now using the same playbook — implementing coworking, hacker spaces, incubators, angel investment groups, bar camps, meetups and other proven strategies that will have the effect of cutting off the oxygen supply to Silicon Valley.
Let me say it again: Silicon Valley is getting its global AIR SUPPLY cut.
For the last few decades, Silicon Valley has traded on the fact that people are willing to move there to start companies. The MAJORITY of valley companies are founded by foreign born entrepreneurs. What if they stop coming? What if they find the intellectual and investment capital that allows them to self-actualize in their home turf, where they already have a competitive advantage?
The fact that we have made it so hard for new immigrants to come to the valley and create startups just makes things that much worse. That is why the Startup Visa concept is so important if America – not to mention the valley – wants to keep excelling in innovation and the economy of ideas.
“Soul-crushing Suburban Sprawl” – Paul Graham
The Valley Kinda Sucks
Everybody says that the big draw to San Francisco is the weather. True, it can be pretty nice at times. But it can also be pretty miserable.
The reality is that the weather makes no f*cking difference if you are slaving away 26 hours per day on your startup; and the fact is that humans only really perceive changes in weather anyway: you’ll notice a nice day if it has been preceded by 10 rainy ones, or vice versa. Studies have demonstrated this. Look it up.
Paul Graham said it best, “Silicon Valley is soul-crushing suburban sprawl.” And he also suggested that places that can implement a bikeable, time efficient startup environment without sprawl have a significant competitive advantage over the valley.
Nearly every major city is becoming that place for its community of entrepreneurs. All at once.
So Why Travel?
It’s simple: to go to where the startups will be coming from. Investors who wait around for startups to show up in the valley are going to miss out on serious innovations and investment opportunities.
This means leaving the Lamborghini parked on Sand Hill Road and cabbing it to a gritty hackerspace in the Arab section of Singapore to meet the innovators who are building the future. And this is something that most investors think they are too good and too important to go do.
Fortunately there are scrappy, forward-thinking folks like McClure who are willing to go out there and embrace the future and begin the creative destruction the next wave of innovation will bring to valley culture.
Our challenges are too great to demand that innovation happen one way, in one place, with one set of people. Innovation needs to be systematized and distributed, and this is the opening act.
The Future of Entrepreneurship
I had a great conversation with Dr. Meng Weng Wong today, founder of Joyful Frog Incubator in Singapore. We pondered questions:
- In the future, will companies form teams and then try to get funding, or will entrepreneurs just gather, form ideas and try things?
- How do bands form? And are incubated startups just boy bands?
- Are we not always just betting on individual ability to execute?
- Doesn’t team (and execution) always trump idea?
- Is entrepreneurship a cycle? Shouldn’t exited entrepreneurs come hang out with first time entrepreneurs and try ideas together?
These are important questions in their own right, but the most important thing is that we are asking them. And so are people around the world. And it has nothing to do with Silicon Valley, the place.
Want in on the ground floor of this next wave of innovation? Understand the change that is coming and leverage it in your own backyard. Get involved.
Because I guarantee that in five years the Valley will be a very different place and that we will see thriving startup communities bearing real fruit in every major city.
Why go to the Valley? Good question.
A couple of acknowledgements: Shervin Pishevar pointed out that he and Dave McClure have been talking up the “Silicon Valley is a state of mind” concept for some time; he deserves proper attribution. Hats off, Shervin — the idea certainly resonates with me and I applaud both you and Dave for recognizing and acting on its power.
Also, Bob Albert — an entrepreneur I met in Singapore — came up with the “Is Silicon Valley Dead?” meme while we were chatting, and he deserves credit for crystallizing that idea. It’s been said before, but for different reasons; the forces driving this set of changes are distinctly different and I think we’ll be seeing this notion repeatedly over the next few years.
Dave McClure tweeted this article with the title “The Future of Silicon Valley Isn’t in Silicon Valley,” which is perhaps an even better title, even if it’s a touch less meme-friendly.
Thanks to everyone for engaging in this conversation!
May 16th, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, politics, trends
The American educational system deadens the soul and fuels suburban sprawl. It is designed as a linear progression, which means most people’s experience runs something like this:
- Proceed through grades K-12; which is mostly boring and a waste of time.
- Attend four years of college; optionally attend graduate/law/med school.
- Get a job; live in the city; party.
- Marry someone you met in college or at your job.
- Have a kid; promptly freak out about safety and schools.
- Move to a soulless place in the suburbs; send your kids to a shitty public school.
- Live a life of quiet desperation, commuting at least 45 minutes/day to a job you hate, in expectation of advancement.
- Retire; dispose of any remaining savings.
- Die — expensively.
Hate to put it so starkly, but this is what we’ve got going on, and it’s time we address it head-on.
This pattern, which if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize as entirely accurate, is a byproduct of the design of our educational system.
The unrelenting message is, “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be successful.” Sometimes this is offered as the empirical argument, “College graduates earn more.” Check out this bogus piece of propaganda:
But what if those earnings are not caused by being a college graduate, but are merely a symptom of being the sort of person (socioeconomically speaking) who went to college? People who come from successful socioeconomic backgrounds are simply more likely to earn more in life than those who do not.
There’s no doubt that everyone is different; not everyone is suited for the same kind of work — thankfully. But western society has perverted that simple beautiful fact — and the questions it prompts about college education — into “Not everyone is cut out for college,” as though college was the pinnacle of achievement, and everybody else has to work on Diesel engines or be a blacksmith. Because mechanics and artists are valuable too.
That line of thinking is the most cynical, evil load of horse-shit to ever fall out of our educational system. Real-life learning is not linear. It can be cyclical and progressive and it takes side-trips, U-turns, mistakes, and apprenticeships to experience everything our humanity offers us.
The notion that a college education is a safety net that people must have in order to avoid a life of destitution, that “it makes it more likely that you will always have a job” is also utterly cynical, and uses fear to scare people into not relying on themselves. Young people should be confident and self-reliant, not told that they will fail.
And for far too many students, college is actually spent doing work that should have been done in high school — remedial math and writing. So, the dire warnings about the need for college actually become self-fulfilling: Johnny and Daniqua truly can’t get a job if they can’t read and write and do math. See? You need college.
An Education Thought Experiment
I do not pretend to have “solutions” for all that ails our educational system. But as a design thinker, I do believe that if our current educational system produces the pattern of living I noted above, then a different educational system could produce very different patterns of living — ones which are more likely to lead to individual happiness and self-actualization.
If we had an educational system based on apprenticeship, then more people could learn skills and ideas from actual practitioners in the real world. If we gave educational credit to people who start businesses or non-profit organizations, and connected them to mentors who could help them make those businesses successful, then we would spread real-world knowledge about how to affect the world through entrepreneurship.
If more people were comfortable with entrepreneurship, then they would be more apt to find market opportunities, which can effect social change and generate wealth. If education was more about empowering people with ideas and best practices, instead of giving them the paper credentials needed to appear qualified for a particular job, it would celebrate sharing ideas, rather than minimizing the effort required to get the degree. (My least favorite question: “Will that be on the test?”)
Ideally, the whole idea of “the degree” should fade into the background. Self-actualized people are defined by their accomplishments. A degree should be nothing more than an indication that you have earned a certain number credits in a particular area of study.
If the educational system were to be re-made along these lines, the whole focus on “job” as the endgame would shift.
“A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841
And so if the focus comes to be on living, as Emerson suggested it should be, and not simply on obtaining the job (on the back of the dubious credential of the degree), then the single family home in the suburb becomes unworkable, for the mortgage and the routine of the car commute go hand-in-hand with the job. They are isolating and brittle, and do not offer the self-actualized entrepreneur the opportunity to meet people, try new ideas, and affect the world around them.
The job holder becomes accustomed to the idea that the world is static and cannot be changed through their own action; their stance is reactive. The city is broken, therefore I will live in the suburbs. The property taxes in the suburbs are lower, so I will choose the less expensive option.
Entrepreneurial people believe the world is plastic and can be changed — creating wealth in the process. But our current system does not produce entrepreneurial people.
Break Out of What’s “Normal”
It may be a while before we can develop new educational systems that produce new kinds of life patterns.
But you can break out now. You’ve had that power all along. I’m not suggesting you drop out.
But I will say this: in my own case, I grew up in the suburbs, went to an expensive suburban private high-school — which I hated — where I got good grades and was voted most likely to succeed.
I started a retail computer store and mail order company in eleventh grade. I went to Johns Hopkins at 17, while still operating my retail business. Again, I did well in classes, but had to struggle to succeed. And no one in the entire Hopkins universe could make sense of my entrepreneurial aspirations. It was an aberration.
I dropped out of college as a sophomore, focused on my business, pivoted to become an Internet service provider in 1995, and managed to attend enough night liberal arts classes at Hopkins to graduate with a liberal arts degree in 1996. This shut my parents up and checked off a box.
I also learned a lot. About science. About math. About philosophy, literature, and art. And I cherish that knowledge to this day.
But I ask: why did it have to be so painful and waste so much of my time? Why was there no way to incorporate that kind of learning into my development as an entrepreneur? Why was there no way to combine classical learning with an entrepreneurial worldview?
Because university culture is not entrepreneurial. And I’m sorry, universities can talk about entrepreneurship and changing the world all they like, but it is incoherent to have a tenured professor teaching someone about entrepreneurship. Sorry, just doesn’t add up for me. Dress it up in a rabbit suit and make it part of any kind of MBA program you like; it’s a farce. Entrepreneurship education is experiential.
I had kids in my mid-twenties and now have moved from the suburbs to the city because it’s bike-able and time efficient. And I want to show my kids, now ten and twelve, that change is possible in cities. I believe deeply in the competitive advantage our cities provide, and I intend, with your help, to make Baltimore a shining example of that advantage.
I don’t suggest that I did everything right or recommend you do the same things. But I did choose to break out of the pattern. And you can too.
Maybe if enough people do, we can build the new educational approaches that we most certainly need in the 21st century. This world requires that we unlock all available genius.
May 15th, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, software, Uncategorized
The recent discussions of entrepreneurship here prompted several entrepreneurs to contact me, both via email and in person. Here is one kindred-spirit’s story, reproduced (and edited) with permission.
I’ve been reading your blog for the last week or so, and I wanted to let you know I appreciate your thoughtful angle on entrepreneurship, design, and intellectual life. Like many of your posts indicate, the challenges of developing personal creativity and starting something new are profound in our current culture. Last June I graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Maryland. Instead of acting on ideas to change the world, I did, as most graduates do these days, took the full time job that paid the most. (Chris Dixon’s post on the topic hits it). Add consulting and government consulting to where all the talent goes in the DMV. To a college kid, the prospects of a $70,000 salary are blinding. And if you consider yourself a self-starter, you realize quickly that you are fighting a powerful majority that would call you crazy for not taking such a lucrative offer.
That said, I have devoted a lot of my free time to developing my startup ideas through mockups and requirements. Yet, despite my engineering background, I just don’t see myself as the technical co-founder that many think is the necessary half of successful startup teams. I can spend hours reworking code, but developing from scratch is beyond me. So the question I have been struggling with is how do I find the real technical partner? As you posted, startups are about the people, but finding that passionate partner is incredibly difficult.
My current idea that I have been toying with revolves around [redacted]. From mobile app, to website … I am at a point where I would consider outsourcing app development, just because I believe in my idea and want to make progress. However, say a couple months into the future, I now have an iPhone App (and a lot less money) but I still don’t have a team to further the idea. In addition, I am not so sure my concept has clear profitability, but at my age (23) what’s wrong with idealism as a starting point?
Sorry for the length, but I wanted to offer some of my thoughts as to what it means to be on the outside of entrepreneurship, wanting in. Any return advice would be great!
My response to Lance:
Thanks for writing! Certainly sounds like you have the right spirit about things, and I agree with you re: Chris Dixon’s post. He’s got a very good take on things.
Some things I’d recommend:
1. Subscribe to Startup Digest Baltimore. Go to http://thestartupdigest.com
2. Go to Innovate Baltimore on Wednesday 5/19 and introduce yourself. http://innovatebaltimore.com
3. Come hang out at Beehive Baltimore. It’s where the community is centered. http://beehivebaltimore.org
4. Let’s find a time to talk some more. I am out of town for two weeks starting next Friday but we can find a time in June. Pick something: http://tungle.me/davetroy
Looking forward to meeting you!
Do you mind if I share your note, along with my response, on my blog?
I want to keep reminding people that there are LOTS of people like you out there…
Response from Lance:
Sure. No problem. If you could edit out the sentence or two about my current idea, that would be great. Also, I currently live in the Northern Virginia area, so I’ve been on the DC and Baltimore Startup since I was introduced to them at BootstrapMD. I just started looking for resources like InnovateBaltimore and BeehiveBaltimore around DC. Any suggestions?
My response to Lance:
You should consider moving to Baltimore as the startup + coworking scene is now a lot more active. Innovate and Beehive are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are some OK things going on in the DC area (Founders Institute, Launchbox Digital, Social Matchbox, DC Week), they run on weird schedules and are not active all the time. Baltimore’s scene is a lot more persistent and becoming much more interesting. Affinity Lab is like an expensive corporate version of coworking. Beehive is real coworking.
Anyway, I’m biased, but this is something we’re serious about in Baltimore and we’re committed to making it happen, all the way from the Governor to the Mayor to each individual startup.
Hope to see you around the Hive soon.
Why is being an entrepreneur considered so unusual in our university culture? I have a theory.
Bill Gates: dropout. Paul Allen: dropout. Steve Ballmer: dropout. Richard Branson: dropout. Warren Buffett: dropout. See a pattern?
Entrepreneurship is the opposite of University culture, which celebrates progressive levels of achievement, with the ultimate goal of becoming a college professor. Entrepreneurs create the circumstances of their own success, by changing the world around them and making their own game.
I’m not suggesting anyone dropout, but we do have to ask: is our educational system creating maximum value for society? Or is it just creating clones, steeped in the idea that there is only one true path to security and achievement, which are then manipulated by true entrepreneurs and leaders who really know how to shape the world around them? And which are you?