A Vision for Baltimore’s Tech Business Ecosystem

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

On Serendipity

How do bands form?

I’ve long been fascinated by this question. What are the odds that the Beatles could actually come together? And is there anything that we can do to not only accelerate that kind of unlocking of creative potential, but to actually engineer its maximization?

And I’m not talking about New Kids on the Block, or other [s]exploitative measures designed to achieve a simulacrum of engineered success.

Most people hate their jobs. They watch the clock. They drive someplace to do something they’d rather not be doing, and when they’re done, they drive back so they can do something else entirely, or forget their troubles in rituals like binge eating and drinking.

They find their coworkers boring and shallow. Workplace parodies like Office Space and The Office reveal deep-seated anxieties about the nature of our work and our workplaces. Even worse, we train people to accept that kind of quotidian boredom in our schools: factory-style learning produces workplace-style disengagement. No wonder there’s such a problem with bullying: the teachers bully the kids, and the kids bully each other. Both are bored, cynical, and disengaged. Bullying is, by far, the most interesting and engaging thing going on in most of our schools. No wonder kids latch onto it.

If four kids from Liverpool can form the Beatles, what can four kids from Baltimore or Boston do? Arguably, there’s as much locked-up potential everywhere. Just like Einstein proved that Mass is Energy, and the conditions for conversion need to be just right to unleash it, I think we can prove that unlocking human potential is just a question of setting up the right conditions.

Our schools aren’t working. Anything good that happens in schools, public or private, happens essentially by accident. Kids might stumble into one or two good teachers or engage in a similar number of creative projects that they actually care about. Tragically, many kids never get that chance, even once.

Our workplaces aren’t working. With some significant exceptions, workplaces are dull and destroy the spirit. The few, exceptional, entrepreneurial workplace environments that promote any level of self-actualization should be celebrated. They do exist. But for the most part, we’re a society of zombies living for the weekend. That shit is broken.

Coworking, entrepreneurship, and community-powered endeavors are leading the way in the right direction. They help accelerate the serendipity required for self-actualization and engagement. The best chance we have of unlocking a Beatles-like level of creativity is through things like coworking and barcamps. One of the innovators behind them, Chris Messina, has said they provide “accelerated serendipity,” and that coworking is like “Barcamp every day.”

But we can do better. Why is it that the best we can do is to try to accelerate serendipity? What might we do to engineer it? Acceleration just means we’re bumping into each other in random ways more rapidly. If we engineer that bumping, can we achieve better results faster?

How to do this? I’m not sure. Certainly being conscious of that goal, and breaking out of old patterns are key. More people who are presently unfulfilled in their work need to quit their jobs and seek local like-minded spirits. We need to find ways for teams to come together more reliably.

But John, Paul, George and Ringo can teach us something else. They didn’t say, “I’ll form the Beatles if someone can introduce me to four world class bandmates and ensure it’ll be a success.” They just put themselves out there and started playing in places where an audience, and other musicians, could find them. And they unlocked one of the most powerful creative forces in recent human artistic history.

What can you do if you put yourself out there and let others find you? What can you do if you try? You may never know. And your kids will never know as long as you’ve got them on a treadmill of team sports and factory schooling. How are you letting your kids put themselves out there creatively? Or do they have no time for that?

We’re pushing our delusions down into the lives of our kids, and it’s immoral. Just because you have no time to take creative risks, don’t force it on your kids. Leave some holes in their schedules. Knock it down to just one team sport. Give them time to play.

And give yourself time to play. Maybe, if we all could open ourselves up to the possibilities right in our own backyards we could use today’s technology to truly the maximize formation of creative teams. The Beatles didn’t have Craigslist. Maybe if they had, they could have found a good drummer.

Beehive Baltimore Celebrates Nine Months of Coworking

This was originally written as a guest post on Gus Sentementes’ BaltTech blog for the Baltimore Sun.

What if there was a place where freelancers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and financiers could meet up to collaborate on up-and-coming startup ideas? That place exists today, and it’s called Beehive Baltimore.

On October 1st, Beehive Baltimore will celebrate its first nine months of operation as a coworking facility, located in the Emerging Technology Center in Canton.

If you’re not familiar with coworking, it’s a shared workspace for creative professionals who might otherwise work at home or in a coffee shop. These days, anyone who works primarily via laptop and the internet is a great candidate for coworking!

Beehive Baltimore opened February 1, 2009 specifically to cater to these kinds of professionals, and the Beehive community now has over 40 members including people in web design, programming, marketing, public relations, finance and other information-based industries.

Last Thursday, we held an open house at the Hive for prospective members and others in the community to stop by, meet some of our members, and find out more about what coworking is all about.

Beehive is designed to be a community of peers, and does not aim to make a profit. Working in partnership with the Emerging Technology Center in Canton, Beehive aims to connect freelancers, seasoned entrepreneurs, and other professionals via long-term relationships that lead to mutual benefit – and possibly to new startups!

The Hive (as we call it) has also already given birth to multiple events and meet-ups that might not otherwise have a place to meet. Some of the groups that we either have hosted or have helped create include:

  • Baltimore Angels (an angel investment group)
  • Baltimore Hackers (a computer language study group)
  • Baltimore/Washington Javascript meetup
  • Baltimore Flash/Flex User Group (a group for users of Adobe’s Flex platform)
  • Refresh Baltimore (a web professionals group)
  • Barcamp Baltimore (a user-generated tech conference)
  • TEDxMidAtlantic (coming on November 5th)

On October 1st at 12pm, Beehive Baltimore will host its first “Show and Tell” event, where participants are invited to share their projects, startups, or prototypes and get feedback from the group.

And on October 15th, Beehive Baltimore will be recognized by the Maryland Daily Record as an “Innovator of the Year.”

Several Beehive members and affiliates will be providing some guest posts for BaltTech over the next two weeks while Gus Sentementes is on vacation. So stay tuned for some voices from the Hive over the coming days!

Beehive Baltimore is part of a large coworking movement. Hundreds of cities all around the world from Los Angeles to Charlotte to Paris to Shanghai have implemented coworking facilities, and we see ourselves as connected to these communities.

And so coworking looks to be an integral part of the tech startup ecosystem – where entrepreneurs, creative talent, and angel investors can all come together to talk about the Next Big Idea.

To find out more about Beehive Baltimore, visit http://beehivebaltimore.org or email info@beehivebaltimore.org.

Design for Behavior: Part 3

Coworking Is Like Barcamp Every Day

Last time we showed that the Barcamp format is a simple design that promotes certain behaviors and outcomes. Coworking is a design that promotes a similar set of behaviors on an ongoing basis. This shouldn’t be too surprising as both ideas were conceived and developed by a lot of the same people — Chris Messina and Tara Hunt, among others.

In this round, we’ll cover some of the underpinnings of the design of Coworking; in fact there is so much to cover, the next installment will be dedicated to coworking as well.

What Coworking Isn’t

Upon hearing about coworking (independent workers sharing workspace), most people immediately engage their left brains: OK, so you get a space and then split the rent — you get office amenities at a much lower cost, get out of the house, and work in a “real office.” People immediately assume it’s some kind of real estate play and is similar to the concept behind the postmodern “executive suite.” This conception is dead wrong.

This faulty conception is what has led some to think they would start a “coworking space” and then wade into a lease and other commitments assuming that if they build it, they will come. Who were they building it for? The fact is there is no guarantee that anyone will ever come to any coworking space. So, these folks are left holding the bag wondering what they did wrong.

They failed to build a community first.

Timeline: The Birth of Coworking in Baltimore

Library and Lounge at Beehive Baltimore

Implementing something like coworking or a barcamp is fairly straightforward, but just like making a recipe, the order in which you add ingredients is important. These were the steps we took:

  • July 2007: I heard about coworking online and discussed it at length with Noel Hidalgo while vacationing in Berlin, Germany
  • September 2008: Discussed the concept with Alex Hillman from Philadelphia’s Indy Hall while vacationing in Vienna, Austria
  • October 2008: Mentioned the idea to my friend local attorney and business leader Newt Fowler; traveled to Philadelphia to meet with IndyHall founders Alex Hillman and Geoff DiMasi who generously gave us a crash course in coworking dynamics
  • November 1, 2008: Held a session at SocialDevCamp East 2 to gauge interest in coworking — formed a Google group with 30 members on the spot
  • November 6, 2008: Had our first session at a local coffee shop to see if folks would show up; at least 10 did
  • November 2008-January 2009: Regular coworking sessions at the coffee shop Tuesdays and Thursdays; each day had 5+ people show up
  • December 2008: Sustained interest confirmed our idea that obtaining a space might be a workable idea; developed an arrangement with a local technology incubator location that would allow us to get started without assuming any significant risk
  • January 2009: Incorporated Beehive Baltimore, LLC with a minimal amount of capital from three partners to insure the venture’s success. Secured charter member commitments from 20+ members which would insure our monthly rent number would be covered.
  • February 1, 2009: Had a community “barn raising” where our members and their families came to assemble furniture and setup the Hive
  • February 2, 2009: Grand opening day of work at the Hive with many members present. We’ve been growing and thriving ever since, hosting events like Twestival and Refresh Baltimore.
  • February 15, 2009: Article in the Sunday Baltimore Sun about the launch of coworking in Baltimore

Coworking has an extremely bright future in Baltimore. At each stage along the way, we used tools like Twitter, Facebook, and events to discuss the initiative and get input from our community stakeholders. We figured out who would be served by coworking, drafted them into the discussion, and at each step made sure that we had buy-in from the people who would be the primary users. A chain of dozens of decisions led to a successful outcome; at any stage along the way, failure to observe and listen to our community could have aborted our efforts.

Now that our community is strong, we can exist anyplace; it’s not about the space, it’s about the people.

Some Traps to Avoid

Don’t try to “impress.” It doesn’t matter how “money” your space looks, or how “professional” it appears, or if it’s in a trendy place, or if it’s built with glass and granite. That said, having a pleasant workspace is always desirable, but people interested in coworking are generally not looking to convey a sense of status in their workspace. They are looking for community, company, and mental stimulation. You can get that in a modestly furnished workspace just as easily as in a high-rise office building. Find something that’s sufficiently good and pleasant; if you’re trying to impress people, you’re doing it wrong.

“Amenities” are nice, but people cowork to be around people. The trap of “shared expenses” often leads people to assume that one of the major draws must be that you can share toys like copiers, laser printers, air hockey tables, Xboxes, and fancy coffee machines. Sure, toys are nice. But folks can get good coffee or play videogames a lot of other places. What they can’t get is collaboration and community. Do that well and let the amenities take care of themselves.

Don’t overthink your rules and processes. A common worry among people not familiar with coworking in practice is that it can somehow be dominated by obnoxious personalities and that a well defined governance must be in place to manage everything. This is a huge waste of mental energy. If you build your community first and set the right pricing structure, everything will take care of itself. Communities are self reinforcing, and pricing sets disincentives for ne’er-do-wells. More on this later.

Remember that people are fragile and perishable. Your first and only asset is your community. Listen to them and be sensitive to their voices. They are your stakeholders. If you start holding coworking sessions in a place on the south side of town, don’t setup a formal coworking space on the north side of town and expect the same folks to show up. People are creatures of habit and have their own natural geographic orbits. If you do have to make a major change (like location), don’t assume that just making the change will make it so. Every decision that affects the community needs to be tested and validated by the community.

Don’t be afraid to lead. As a designer of your coworking community, don’t be afraid to make decisions and take steps that you sincerely believe are beneficial. The community will give you feedback if they think you need it. All groups need leadership, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because coworking is a community endeavor that all decisions must be made in tortured group meetings. Your community need not be a democracy, and it’s also not a commune. Your only mission is to be effective — so take the lead. Likewise, encourage other members of your community to take the lead and make stuff happen. If you get mired in egalitarian rhetoric, you’ll accomplish nothing, and people will get frustrated. Avoid meetings: use tools like email and Twitter to stay in constant communication, and opt for one-on-one facetime when that is what’s called for.

Don’t seek institutional validation. You may be tempted to leverage existing perceived power centers in your community to help “seed” your initiative. Don’t bother. It’ll come with strings attached, endless meetings, and you’ll spend lots of time explaining coworking to people who just won’t understand. Act and get things started; then await developments. Your community institutions and the press will scramble to understand what you’re doing once it’s clear you are successful. Then, you can accept partnerships that make sense: on your terms.

Turning the Vision into a Design

OK, so you get the vision of coworking — that it’s about community first and that you shouldn’t try to open a space without finding that community. Suppose you find your community and you’re ready to advance it to the next step — now what? We’ll cover this next time — how to design your coworking community for maximum joy and minimum administrivia. The good news is that you don’t need an elaborate set of processes or a council of elders. On the flip side, you do need to give it some thought. But, that’s what design is: thought.

See you next time — and we welcome your feedback on how you’re using design to shape your life!