September 18th, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, software, trends
Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who wanted to establish a substantial private investment seed-stage fund in Baltimore. Combined with the efforts of several groups, including Baltimore Angels and the new proposed Invest Maryland $100M fund, I remarked that there might suddenly be a glut of available funding for companies!
What would this mean? Some have said that the mid-atlantic region has suffered from a shortage of startup funding; that angels are too few and far between, and that large investors and VC firms are “risk averse.”
I don’t think this is a) the real issue, or b) especially true. Companies that have shown strong growth have had no problem securing the funding they need. I’m thinking of Sourcefire, Advertising.com, BillMeLater, Under Armour, and plenty of others.
But this does not mean that a perceived surplus of funding would be a bad thing. If a perceived availability of capital caused an influx of folks looking to engage in entrepreneurship, more entrepreneurial efforts would form. If more people were confident that they could grow a new business when they meet with success, then they would be more inclined to get to that point.
Most entrepreneurial endeavors really don’t need much in the way of funding; the best companies start when people throw their lots together to work on things they care about. Often, young people do best at this because their cost of living is lowest.
So, since “funding” is actually the last thing that most startups actually need, how would the psyche of potential startup entrepreneurs be affected if lots of funding was obviously and ostensibly available?
I think it would help, but not because people are taking advantage of the access to funding. It would help because it would lessen fear around entrepreneurship and convince more people that it was a “normal” path to pursue. So, let’s bring it on. Prepare for a glut of startup funding in Baltimore. It’s coming, and you don’t even especially need it.
What would you start working on today, knowing that there’s plenty of funding coming for ideas that show promise?
August 1st, 2010 — art, baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, politics, software, trends
Putty Hill, a film by Matthew Porterfield (2010)
Something amazing is happening in the world of filmmaking. Crowdsourced funding mechanisms like Kickstarter.com are enabling a new generation of filmmakers to get a foothold doing what they love, where they want to do it. They’re using social media to find acting talent, and new digital camera technologies are making it possible to create amazing high quality films for a fraction of what it used to cost.
I’m particularly impressed by the work of Baltimore filmmaker Matthew Porterfield, whose films “Hamilton” (2006) and “Putty Hill” (2010) exemplify the new kind of “cinepreneurial” skillset which will certainly come to define 21st century filmmaking. (You can read here about the funding and creative process behind Putty Hill.)
Porterfield is a nice, unassuming guy who teaches film at Johns Hopkins and directs his students that if they want to make documentaries, they need to go to New York, and to go to Los Angeles for pretty much everything else. For today, this is sound advice. It’s the same kind of advice you’d give talented coders looking to unleash the next big web technology — go to San Francisco, because it’s where the industry is centered — at least right now.
But if you ask Porterfield why he doesn’t take his own advice, he’d likely offer a cryptic sort of answer — that he’d considered it but really couldn’t imagine himself anywhere else. I don’t know him well enough to speak for him, so I hope he weighs in here. But Matt and I are kindred spirits: we both are actively choosing place over anything else, and investing our time and talent to make it better.
Let’s Invest in Maryland Film, Not in Hollywood
Baltimore and Maryland have been the home to many well-known movie and television productions over the years, not the least of which have been Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, and a slew of Baltimore native Barry Levinson’s films including Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon. And most all of these productions received significant subsidies from the State of Maryland.
As budgets have continued to tighten, the O’Malley administration made a strategic decision to cut back on investment in film production subsidies. And that has probably been a very wise decision. Other states have been more than willing to outbid Maryland, offering ridiculous breaks. And Maryland really doesn’t need to be in yet another race to the bottom.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who lived around the corner from me in Bolton Hill when he wrote it), and it was originally set in Baltimore (original text). Yet the film version was set in New Orleans and had a subtext about a dying woman retelling the story as Katrina bore down on the city. Why? Subsidies. New Orleans offered more subsidies than Maryland would. And so the story was changed and moved there. Who knows if the Katrina storyline was a condition in the contract!
I don’t really have an opinion about whether Benjamin Button should have been filmed in Baltimore, but I do have an opinion about engaging in zero-sum games with 49 other desperate states: it’s bad policy. And I also think the time has come to admit that big movie studios are the next big dinosaur to face extinction. Why should Sony or Disney or Universal make the bulk of the world’s content when every man, woman, and child has access to a $200 HD camera and a $999 post-production studio?
Investing in Cinepreneurs
John Waters is one of Baltimore’s great artistic assets. And it’s not because of film subsidies. His work is known worldwide, and it celebrates the quirky, distinctive voice of Baltimore. Matthew Porterfield is distinctive and quirky too, and he makes beautiful pictures: he’ll be next to make his mark. And there are dozens more teeming around places like MICA, the Creative Alliance CAMM Cage, Johns Hopkins, Towson University, and UMBC. We need only to nurture their talent and the ecosystem.
Browncoats: Redemption, 2010
Another film, Browncoats: Redemption was made locally last year and created by local entrepreneurs Michael Dougherty and Steven Fisher. It is utilizing an innovative non-profit funding model. The film’s is raising money for five charities and it leveraged social media and Internet to recruit 160+ volunteers and market the film.
Instead of blowing money on Hollywood productions that bring little more than short term contract and catering work to Maryland, why don’t we instead start investing in the artists in our own backyard? Just as IT startups have gotten much cheaper to jumpstart, it’s now possible to make films for anywhere from $50 to $150K. If we dedicate between $5M and $7M to matching funds raised via mechanisms like Kickstarter, we could make something like 150 to 300 feature length films here in Baltimore. This would unleash a new wave of creativity that would yield fruit for decades to come, and put Maryland on the map as a destination for filmmakers.
We already have great supporters of film in the Maryland Film Festival, Creative Alliance, and many other organizations. It wouldn’t take much to get this off the ground. Instead of going backwards to the 1980′s in our view towards film production (as former Governor Ehrlich has recently proposed), let’s take advantage of all the available tools in our arsenal to jumpstart the film industry and move it forward in Maryland.
For every new artistic voice we nurture, we’ll be building Maryland’s unique brand in a way that no one else can compete with. It will make an impression for decades. And investing in film and the arts will help the technology scene flourish as well. Intelligent creative professionals want to be together. And coders and graphic artists think film and filmmakers are pretty cool.
We shouldn’t let an aversion to the failed subsidy policies of the past get in the way of forging a new creative future that we all can benefit from. We can invest in the arts intelligently. Let’s start today.
July 31st, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, politics, software, trends
I live in Baltimore, in the great state of Maryland. I’ve been studying the economic development process here for many years. While this post contains observations specific to Maryland and Baltimore, the concepts likely apply in other geographies as well. I am curious to hear your perspectives from where you live.
Shh… they don’t know they’re obsolete!
There’s a growing disconnect in economic development. Government sponsored economic development outfits are tasked with 1) growing the tax base, 2) attracting new businesses, 3) helping existing businesses grow, 4) aid in the creation of new businesses, 5) develop and grow the local workforce.
In Maryland, the State Department of Business and Economic Development traces its roots back to the Bureau of Statistics and Information, which was formed in 1884 to compile statistics about agriculture and industry. As industry shifted dramatically in the 1950′s and 1960′s, the focus shifted to providing small business loans and seeding the development of new jobs.
Vast consolidation in manufacturing starting in the 1970′s meant that states were particularly anxious about job losses. The loss of a single plant could deal a staggering blow to the tax base, and could mean a huge loss of jobs — often leading to a demoralized workforce and a downward spiral of negative economic growth. (Think Detroit.)
The Zero-Sum Game
As a result of this process, states began to engage in heated battles to attract and retain manufacturing facilities. The primary tool available to economic development authorities has traditionally been tax credits and other “incentives,” which might include deferred taxes, regulatory considerations, and a “turnkey” permitting process.
As states rushed to use these tools to attract and develop these “big projects,” a kind of zero-sum game emerged between states trying to attract companies and capital. Large corporations were now in a position to effectively “shop” for the sweetest incentives. As you likely know, states have not shown much restraint in their willingness to offer breaks. In fact, it’s all been very embarrassing — a rush to the bottom, where states compete not on their own merits, but on how many baubles they can afford to dole out to their latest suitors.
This disease has so stricken governments, Governors, and their economic development teams that they’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with “big projects” as well. Folks in government, who on average have very little first-hand experience with entrepreneurship or business, tend to think in “causal” terms. If we do X, then Y will happen. And so the logic is that if you want a big result, take a big action.
And so they chase after smokestacks and big iron, trying to attract heavy manufacturing, big developments by big developers, corporate headquarters, sports teams, stadiums, and slot parlors. But here’s the paradox: these projects, while flashy, just don’t pay off. Tax subsidies are never recouped, and the jobs that are created tend to be bottom-of-the-barrel service industry jobs that barely support a living wage.
Baltimore’s subsidized Camden Yards stadium produces $3 Million per year in tax revenue, but costs Maryland taxpayers $14 Million per year in subsidies. The heavily subsidized Ravens stadium produces $1.4 Million per year but costs taxpayers $18 Million. Failure to impose or enforce job quality standards as part of subsidy packages provided to multiple hotel developments in Baltimore has led to many low-wage jobs and nearly none of the higher paying jobs that were promised. (These conclusions were taken from this report by the group Good Jobs First.)
Maryland, in an effort to develop a strategic focus on biotechnology, instituted a $6M program of tax credits (later increased to $8M) for investors in biotechnology companies. The program has proved wildly popular, and to Maryland’s credit, it recognized the importance of investing in an industry that had already taken root here and, thanks to the presence of the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration, was a natural strategic focus for our area.
The only question is how effective the biotech tax credit is at actually developing these kinds of jobs in the long term. It’s a little early to judge how effective the biotech tax credit program will be, but we can make these qualitative observations about that industry:
- Developing a new biotech product (whether a drug, device, or process) has a very long lead time.
- Because of long lead times and the need for highly-skilled workers, development is very expensive.
- Failure is common and is often stark: big bets on molecules that don’t pass approval processes or are copied by competitors can lead to epic financial losses.
- The kicker: successful companies are often acquired by firms based elsewhere, leading to job losses or relocations, ultimately undoing the benefit originally intended.
I do not want to overemphasize the potential downsides; there are many tangible benefits of this program both now and in the long term. The only question is whether we can do better.
Betting On Ourselves
What if, instead of trying to offer subsidies to outsiders, we start investing in ourselves? A tax credit for biotech is a step in that direction, but what could we do with a comparable program for Internet and IT startups? What if we made investment capital available to Maryland businesses as part of a strategy to develop new companies that actually stay here for the long term (and are not susceptible to subsidy bribes from other locales)?
A new program called Invest Maryland has been proposed by Governor Martin O’Malley, and is based on similar programs instituted in other states. The program would make $100 Million in venture capital available to Maryland businesses. Funds would come from tax prepayments made by insurance companies in exchange for tax credits. The theory is that the cost of the tax credits would be exceeded by the benefit in business development provided by the venture investments.
Done properly, this is probably a very sound program. But to be maximally successful, I believe we need to start placing strong bets on information technology startups in particular:
- IT startups are very capital efficient. Thanks to lean startup methodologies, IT startups can get up and running for as little as $50,000 to $150,000 in investment.
- Maryland already has the highest concentration of information technology workers in the world. It’s a strong strategic fit for exactly the same reasons that biotech investment is a good fit.
- To achieve strong returns with early stage investments, it’s often necessary to invest in 150 or more companies. The small capital requirements of IT companies allow for many more investments to be made with less capital, thus increasing the odds of success.
- A large portfolio of seed-stage IT investments can yield internal rates of return of up to 25-30% annually, which is terrifically high. That is in addition to the benefit of building a permanent base of IT businesses in Maryland, and all the job and tax-base benefits that would bring.
- A large number of ventures would, statistically, also have to produce a large number of failures. This culture of continuous endeavor would de-stigmatize failure and allow for repeated teaming and relationship building. Inenvitable losses are not losses, but in fact fertilize the forest floor — building the ecosystem for the long term.
- A culture rich in startups will keep us from exporting our best and brightest to other places, which we do routinely right now.
$10M for IT Startups
As Maryland’s leaders and legislators consider the Invest Maryland initiative, I propose that the state set aside $10M of its $100M fund specifically for IT startups. With that $10M, I propose that Maryland invest in up to 200 seed stage IT firms at anywhere from $50K to $150K per company.
Doing this well will be difficult. However, by partnering with existing entities such as Baltimore Angels and members of the business community, we can make that investment maximally productive. We’d need to figure out the details, but we can’t expect government employees to make these investments on their own without domain expertise. By leveraging the people in the community that want to see these investments occur and who do have appropriate domain expertise, we can dramatically increase the effectiveness of this fund.
And if the initial $10M investment proves effective, we should consider enlarging the program to $25M or higher later. This strategy carries very little risk for the state and would create a stunning worldwide buzz about the vibrancy of the startup culture in Maryland, and would highlight the innovative private-public partnership that sparked it.
The businesses we routinely cite as our biggest successes — Under Armour, Advertising.com, SafeNet, Sourcefire, Bill Me Later, to name a few — all came about as home-grown successes. They are not here because we brought them here from someplace else. They’re here because they were grown here from scratch, by people who love it here.
If we start now, placing a large number of bets on our brilliant citizenry, we will do something remarkable: we’ll launch a virtuous cycle of entrepreneurship — the opposite of the kind of downward spiral associated with the rust belt era.
Instead of the simplistic “causal logic” associated with “big” economic development, we’ll be using the logic of entrepreneurial “effectuation,” of the kind promoted by entrepreneurship researcher Dr. Saras Sarasvathy.
It is the combined effects of many people pursuing entrepreneurship that will lead us someplace extraordinary. Suddenly, Baltimore (and Maryland) will become the cover story on the airline magazine — the “hot” place to be. One (or ten) corporate headquarters relocations will never do that, because it won’t bring about endemic entrepreneurship in the culture.
Making lots of small bets instead of fewer “big” bets makes government nervous. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who accomplishes something big, and with short gubernatorial terms, it’s tough to get ramped up with plans that might take 10 or 12 years to realize. But that’s exactly what’s needed.
We need to resist the temptation to focus solely on big development, and instead bet on the tiny startups. The big wins will come when these firms flower, and the ecosystem that gave them life comes into its own. Yes, that might happen on someone else’s watch — but it’s still the right thing to do.
A recent report from the Kauffman Foundation proclaims, “Job Growth in U.S. Driven Entirely by Startups.” If this is the case, Lord knows we could use a lot more startups. If we want new jobs — and not jobs poached from other states at great expense and flight risk — the only logical choice is to focus on creating new startups.
And if solid returns of 25-30% can be realized on a large portfolio of startups, shouldn’t we drop almost everything else and focus only on that?
The first state that adopts this strategy will be sowing the seeds of an incredible, dynamic culture of entrepreneurship. Is Maryland ready to take the challenge?
July 29th, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, philosophy, software, trends
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.
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?
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:
- Events with a speaker plus networking are almost always better than events with none.
- If there’s no speaker, make sure there’s a focus or targeted community you want to understand better.
- Events with multiple speakers (like Ignite) are even better because they expose you to many points of view.
- Raise your hand, ask questions; share your expertise and passion publicly and let others find you.
- Be the speaker. Find a way to present to a community you care about.
- Be authentic. Don’t pass yourself as expert on something you’re not.
- Hold your own events, or sponsor others. Host a Tweetup, targeted to people you want to attract.
- 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.