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More Tech Stuff Baltimore Needs

Occasionally we here in the burgeoning tech community in Baltimore have paused to take stock about how far we’ve come, and what would be good to do next. About a year ago, Mike Subelsky made some suggestions on the BaltTech blog, and he’s recently identified some awesome emerging leaders who have made a real difference in the last year. Many of the ideas he identified are ones that people have taken up and run with.

In my travels in the last year, I’ve come across several ideas that are working in other places that we should consider pursuing here – in no particular order.

  • Startup Weekend – Bring together a bunch of startup-minded people on a Friday, form groups, and build something entirely new from scratch by Sunday. Demo it on Sunday afternoon. I had the chance to attend StartupWeekend Seoul this summer and it was a great experience. Lots of relationships were formed and some truly great ideas were unearthed. We need a big-ish place where folks can hang out for 3 days straight and someone to take the lead.
  • Girls In Tech – This organization is a global group of women who are making a real difference in the tech community. Some have griped about the name, and I agree it’s somewhat problematic – however to their credit they are trying to do their best to attract young women involved in tech and create a culture that is at least somewhat fun and edgy. Behind the scenes, its founders and main movers and shakers are some of the most intelligent and connected emerging women leaders in the tech world; with strong leaders in China, New York, and San Francisco. I promise you that a Girls In Tech Baltimore chapter would find good connections worldwide.
  • Founder Dating / Find-a-Cofounder – These events have been popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York in various forms. The idea here is that if you can bring together a ton of people who all have a clear intent to want to form a startup – if they can find good partners to work with – maybe something will come of it. This seems like a great way to unearth “startup-curious” folks in boring jobs and pair them up with ambitious entrepreneurs who just need a strong partner. And every other combination. Worth doing. (And it looks like a meeting may be happening next week to start the conversation!)
  • Hacks and Hackers – Baltimore has the critical mass to support a chapter of this group that aims to connect journalists and tech/developer people. And entrepreneurs. News here is horribly broken and it’s going to take an entrepreneurial mindset to fix it. The sooner we can get journalists and smart startup people to get to know each other better, the sooner a new model will be discovered. Get on it.
  • TEDxBaltimore – I helped pull together TEDxMidAtlantic in 2009 and 2010, and TEDxOilSpill this summer. TEDxMidAtlantic aims to throw a spotlight on a wide range of creative thinkers in and around our entire region. Mel Brennan from YMCA of Central Maryland and Open Society Institute have been discussing a potential collaboration to help produce TEDxBaltimore, which would have the opportunity to focus on Baltimore and its future potential. I strongly support this and anyone who would like to step up will find support from YMCA, OSI, and TEDxMidAtlantic. Contrary to some recent tweets, no date has been set.
  • Entrepreneurs Unplugged – This event in Philadelphia features an entrepreneur on stage to discuss their story, successes, and failures. As long as they can keep from lying on stage I think this could be an extraordinarily powerful format. GBTC has had a Face2Face program for several years, which avoids the tendency that entrepreneurs have to whitewash over failings and details by pulling together a very small group over dinner. Both are awesome.
  • Reverse VC Pitch Party – My friends Larry Chiang and Dave McClure have been dreaming this one up, so VC’s can do “outreach and education and stimulate deal flow.” I think it’s a great idea and I’d love to see groups like my own Baltimore Angels as well as some of the VC firms in the region get up on stage and talk about the deals they like to see, the reasons startups should seek them out, etc. A great way to turn the tables and share perspectives that are all too often misunderstood.
  • CityCamp – In the spirit of BarCamp and SocialDevCamp (both of which could use folks to take the charge for updated events – we’ll all help!), CityCamp is a catalyst and a forum for talking about what’s working and what still needs to be done from an Open Government / Gov 2.0 standpoint. It’s what Baltimore City’s well-intentioned “Data Day” this summer perhaps should have been. There’s a lot of potential for involving folks from the design, architecture, and foundation community here too.
  • Junto & Salons – Ben Franklin convened a regular gathering of smart folks in Philadelphia, many much older than himself, to discuss ideas of the day and to trade notes about what businesses had gone bankrupt and the like; he called it a Junto. Lately I’ve noticed an increasing number of evening salon conversations about politics, startups, tech and the like. Our friends in Philadelphia revived the Junto tradition a couple of years ago, with awesome results. We’ve discussed doing it here but it hasn’t happened yet. Are you the charismatic leader?
  • Bootstrap Baltimore / Mosh Pit 2.0 – For the last two years Jared Goralnick has put together Bootstrap Maryland at University of Maryland’s College Park campus. This is a great event, and we could use something here in Baltimore that is aimed at drawing out the amazing quantity of entrepreneurial talent here in Baltimore’s many universities. A few years ago, GBTC hosted an event called MoshPit – a business plan competition for college students. We need to revive this program and meld it with something like Bootstrap. And we especially need to reach out to students in engineering, science, and the arts – not just business students.

Go ahead and steal these ideas. There are plenty more where these came from. Borrowing working ideas from other places means they have a much higher chance of success than trying to design a totally new event format from scratch. Plus, it gives the potential for direct exchange with organizers elsewhere.

If you are interested in pursuing any of these ideas, ping me – I can put you in touch with the originators of these events. And thanks again to everyone who has stepped up to make a real difference here. We are changing this city one mind at a time.

In Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, Cofounders Find YOU!

My last couple of posts have been about finding technical cofounders, either at the start or over time. Many of you have chimed in with your own experiences and thoughts. And I’ve promised to talk about what it takes to find cofounders. Here goes.

The Ideal

You hear about it all the time. Three friends leave Facebook along with two friends from Google to start a new skunkworks project. It gets some traction, some revenue, some press, raises some money, gets huge and then sells out to Google or Disney or whoever. And then the process starts all over again.

This all sounds great, but outside observers often make a fatal mistake; we think, “Wow, that was a really great idea. If I had that idea, I could have done that.” Or even worse, “I totally had that idea. I would have done that but I couldn’t find anyone to help me past my prototype.”

What the external observer fails to account for is the power of pre-existing relationships. How do companies like this get started? At bars, parties, over lunch, and over time. Notice that the company was formed by “friends.” That’s really how it works. So, how to get started?

Making Friends

Many people, especially engineers, are not particularly extroverted. But at the end of the day, if all good entrepreneurial endeavors are born from relationships, it is necessary that you be a social creature. That means cultivating many personal relationships — and not just on Facebook or Twitter either. A good litmus test? If you know somebody well enough that they would consider inviting you to their house for a party or dinner, that’s a good indicator of a strong relationship. We’ll call these “strong ties.”

There may be countless other relationships which are not quite that far along, and you’ll need those too. These are your “weak ties” and will be the people who can help you find accountants, lawyers, customers, and vendors. Some of these relationships will ultimately evolve into “strong ties” as well. You need a lot of both.

So how do you go from being “just you” to having all of these relationships? One stupid thing you could do would be to move to Silicon Valley. In one move, you will manage to weaken your existing strong ties, blow up your weak ties, and force yourself to rebuild all of that from scratch. But too many people assume this is the only answer. (In fairness, there are a lot of great people in the Valley, and if you know people there already, it might help you move forward; but that’s a subject for another post.) But even there, you have to be a relentlessly social creature and meet anyone and everyone who might be potentially interested in what you’re doing.

When I talk about becoming “social” I am not talking about being some kind of socialite, bon vivant, or “party animal.” I think we all are frustrated with the constant barrage of networking events and the people who want to “be seen” at them. I’m as cantankerous and introverted as the next geek, yet I’ve made it my business to become extremely well socially connected — and not because it’s cool to be connected, but because I’ve sought out people in my area and around the world that care about the things I care about.

Getting Out There (in Engineered Contexts)

One way you can become more social is to go to events and meet people. Startup Digest (which I co-curate here in Baltimore) is a great way to find out what events are going on in your area that might be relevant to startups.

Many “businesspeople” feel out of place at “geek” events, and vice-versa. But if you are really serious about starting businesses, you need to get to know people of all stripes. Go to each event and tell people your story and even more importantly, ask people about theirs. What’s your story? “You’ve been doing X for Y years, and now you want to try to do Z.” Nothing more than that. People want to help you succeed.

As I mentioned, we all get frustrated with traditional networking events — stand around drinking a beer, talking to 10 people who find you odd, and pretty soon you’re checking the clock. So, instead of going to generic networking events, think about ways you can “engineer the context” of the event. Here are some:

  1. Events with a speaker plus networking are almost always better than events with none.
  2. If there’s no speaker, make sure there’s a focus or targeted community you want to understand better.
  3. Events with multiple speakers (like Ignite) are even better because they expose you to many points of view.
  4. Raise your hand, ask questions; share your expertise and passion publicly and let others find you.
  5. Be the speaker. Find a way to present to a community you care about.
  6. Be authentic. Don’t pass yourself as expert on something you’re not.
  7. Hold your own events, or sponsor others. Host a Tweetup, targeted to people you want to attract.
  8. Befriend thought leaders; ask how you can help with later events.

These are just a few ways you can go about building your network of potential cofounders. But these all pale in comparison to what I’m about to tell you.

Start Coworking Today

If you really want to start building your network of potential cofounders where you are, there is simply no substitute for spending time with a lot of them on a regular basis. Coworking is a great way to do that.

Coworking is a worldwide movement based on shared workspaces for creative professionals. They’re run by their respective communities with the goal of getting teleworkers out of the house and making friends. In Baltimore, I helped to form Beehive Baltimore in February 2009, and it’s grown to include over 100 professionals in its ecosystem. On any given day, there are between 10 and 20 professional programmers, designers, marketers, and entrepreneurs that participate in our community. That same story is repeating itself in every city in every country around the world.

There’s simply no substitute to being around people, sharing ideas and the occasional laugh with them, and getting a feel for what makes them tick. In a sense, you’re engineering the kind of workplace context that occurs when “friends from Facebook and Google” leave to form a startup.

You’re creating the same opportunity for after-work drinks and weekend interaction. You’re creating a shared context for the reinforcement of ideas and exploration of imagination. And it’s vitally important you do this with others.

Relationships First, Ideas Second

Ideation is a social exercise. But ideas are cheap. If you have an idea but haven’t yet strengthened it by sharing it with others, odds are it’s still a pretty weak idea. (And if you’re scared to share your idea with someone, gosh, well, I’ll get to you later.)

I keep a list of about 150 business ideas at any given time. My idea list over the years has included ones closely resembling Google Earth, e-Bay, Foursquare. These ideas, while great, were in many ways obvious and “in the air” at that time — what mattered is execution, and others beat me to it. And that’s OK. It just shows that execution is the only thing that matters.

Sharing ideas with others allows you to get buy-in from other potential cofounders. If you are able to get three or four of your coworking friends excited about an idea, and one of them suggests a tweak that makes it even better, chances are you have something pretty strong there. Run with it. Get that team to build it at night and on weekends. They very likely will, because they believe in the idea. (IndyHall Labs is a great example of this dynamic.)

Your Cofounders Are Your First Investors

If you can’t convince technical people to at least show interest in working with you on your idea, you are likely going to have a very hard time changing that later by waving money at them. At the end of the day, people want to work on stuff they believe in. Start from there.

Also, investors will be excited to look at a team of eager people who are already working together to attack an interesting problem — much more so than a lone entrepreneur who needs to “raise money” to “find programmers.”

Put Yourself Out There

In the end, entrepreneurship is not something you really control. You have an idea of where you want to head, but almost always you end up someplace else. That’s fine. And that’s the point. Entrepreneurship is something that happens to you.

And so, if you start today and get yourself out there, talking about ideas, asking people about theirs, developing weak ties and pushing your weak ties to become strong ties, you’ll get there. And people will start finding you. Because over time you’ll learn that some of your ideas resonate, some don’t. And you’ll pursue the ideas that resonate.

Resonance drives interest. Your cofounders will find you. If you build something awesome, customers will find you. If customers find you, investment will find you. A large percentage of VC deals happen not because someone pitches them, but because VC’s find a hot growing business that’s attracting attention.

It’s been said that advertising is a tax for being boring. And there’s probably an analog in startup-land. Don’t be boring. Be remarkable. Get out there and meet the people you’re going to build your future with. That’s how this process works, and it can happen anywhere in the world if you employ the right approaches and understand that it’s relationships that drive the startup engine more than anything else.

Design for Behavior: Part 2

socialdevcampfall-1

Twice last year, I had the experience of putting together SocialDevCamp East, a barcamp-style unconference for software developers and entrepreneurs focused on social media.

Sounds straightforward enough, but that sentence alone is jam-packed with important design decisions. And those design decisions carried through the entire event, and even into its long-term impact on our community and our community’s brand. I’ll explain.

Barcamp-Style Unconference

In the last few years, the Barcamp unconference format, focused on community involvement, openness, and attendee participation has gained a lot of traction. I won’t write a ton here describing the format and how it all works as that’s been done elsewhere, but the key point is that this is an open event which is supported by and developed by the community itself. As a result, it is by definition designed to serve that community.

So what are some other design implications of choosing the Barcamp format? Here are two big ones.

First, anyone who doesn’t think this format sounds like a good idea (but how will it all work? what, no rubber chicken lunch? where’s the corporate swag?) will stay away. Perfect. Barcamp is not a format that works for everybody – particularly people with naked corporate agendas. It naturally repels people who might otherwise detract from the event.

Second, the user-generated conference agenda (formed in the event’s first hour by all participants voting on what sessions will be held) insures that the day will serve the participants who are actually there, and not some imagined corporate-sales-driven agenda that was dreamed up by a top-down conference planning apparatchik three months in advance.

The fact that there are no official “speakers” and only participants who are willing and able to share what they know means that sessions are multi-voiced conversations and not boring one-to-many spews from egomaniacal “speakers.”

The Name: SocialDevCamp East

We could have put on a standard BarCamp, but that wasn’t really what we wanted to pursue; as an entrepreneur and software developer focused on the social media space, I (and event co-chairs Ann Bernard and Keith Casey, who helped with SDCE1) wanted to try to identify other people like us on the east coast.

We chose the word Social to reflect the fact that we are interested in reaching people who have an interest in Social media. It also sounds “social” and collaborative, themes which harmonize with the overall event.

We chose the wordlet Dev to indicate that we are interested in development topics (borrowing from other such events like iPhoneDevCamp and DevCamp, coined by Chris Messina). This should serve to repel folks that are just interested in Podcasting or in simply meeting people; both fine things, but not what we were choosing to focus on.

Obviously Camp indicates we are borrowing the Barcamp unconference format, so people know to expect a community-built, user-driven event that will take form the morning of the event itself.

We chose East to indicate that a) we wanted to draw from the entire east coast corridor (DC to Boston, primarily), and b) we wanted to encourage others in other places to have SocialDevCamps too. Not long after SDCE1, there was a SocialDevCamp Chicago.

Additionally, our tagline coined by Keith Casey, “Charting the Next Course” indicates that we are interested in talking about what’s coming next, not just in what’s happening now. This served to attract forward-looking folks and set the tone for the event.

The Location

We wanted to make the event easily accessible to people all along the east coast. Being based in Baltimore, we were able to leverage its central location between DC and Philadelphia. Our venue at the University of Baltimore is located just two blocks away from the Amtrak train station, which meant that the event was only 3 hours away for people in New York City. As a result had a significant contingent of folks from DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, many of whom came by train.

Long Term Brand Impact

These two events, held in May and November 2008, are still reverberating throughout the region’s community. At Ignite Baltimore on Thursday, SocialDevCamp was mentioned by multiple speakers as an example of the kind of bottom-up grassroots efforts which are now starting to flourish here.

The event has the reputation of having been a substantive, forward-looking gathering of entrepreneurs, technologists, and artists, and that has gone on to color how we in the region and those in other regions perceive our area. Even if it’s only in a small way, SocialDevCamp helped set the tone for discourse in our region.

Design? Or Just Event Planning?

Some might say that what I’ve described is nothing more than conference planning 101, but here’s why it’s different: first, what I’ve described here are simply the input parameters for the event. Writing about conference planning would typically focus on the logistical details: insurance, parking, catering, badges, registration fees, etc. Those are the left-brained artifacts of the right-brained discipline of conference design.

Everything about the event was designed to produce particular behaviors at the event, and even after the event. While I make no claim that we got every detail perfect (who does?), the design was carried out as planned and had the intended results. And of course, we learned valuable lessons that we will use to help shape the design of future events. Event planners should spend some time meditating about the difference between design and planning; planning is what you do in service of the design. Design is what shapes the user-experience, sets the tone, and determines the long-term value of an event.

More to Come

I’ve got at least 3 more installations in this series. Stay tuned, and I’d love to hear your feedback about design and how it influences our daily experience.

WARNING – GEEK/PHILOSOPHER CONTENT:  It occurs to me that the universe is a kind of finite-state automaton, and as such is a kind of deterministic computing machine. (No, I was not the first to think of this.) But if it is a kind of computer, then design is a kind of program we feed in to that machine. What kind of program is it? Well, it’s likely not a Basic or Fortran program. It’s some kind of tiny recursive, fractal-like algorithm, where the depth of iteration determines the manifestations we see in the real world.

As designers, all we’re really doing is getting good at mastering this fractal algorithm and measuring its effects on reality.

See you in the next article!

Three Events You Can’t Miss

Ignite Baltimore Logo

 

The self-organizing tech community event has finally come of age here in Baltimore.  Here’s three events you can’t miss.

My new company, Roundhouse Technologies, is a sponsor of all three, and I’m speaking at Ignite Baltimore and am event co-chair for SocialDevCamp.  Each of these events is an example of the kind of self-organizing community events that I believe will shape the next wave of tech on the east coast and which I believe will give rise to the next great wave of innovation. And this time, that innovation is going to happen in places besides the towns along 101 and Interstate 280.

I’ve not talked a lot about Roundhouse yet publicly, but we’re methodically building things up, and we’ll have more to say soon. Stephen Muirhead and I are heading up the company. Stephen is an experienced executive and entrepreneur, and among other distinctions is the former president of Microprose Software, maker of the Sid Meier Civilization games, (ironically now owned by Atari, with which I had a long association, though under a previous incarnation).

So, anyway, lots of stuff is happening.  Ignite Baltimore should be amazing.  If you have not RSVP’d yet, please do so now to be sure you can get in.  The space is limited.  SocialDevCamp East was heralded as one of the top tech events on the east coast, and we’re expecting another amazing day on November 1.  And if Twin Tech II (held a couple of weeks ago in DC) is any indication of the scale and energy we can expect at Twin Tech III, we’re in for a heck of an event.

Tech is very much alive and well in DC, Baltimore, Philly, and New York.  Watch it unfold in the coming months and years!