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.

Is Silicon Valley Dead?

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

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!

Tip: Be with People who Love what You Love

This morning, I attended another of Jeff Pulver’s Social Media Breakfasts.

Every time I go, I end up risking a parking ticket. The metered spots are invariably for 2 hours, and 10AM comes almost instantaneously. I can’t tear myself away to go mind the meter; been lucky, so far.

At these events, I’m continuously engaged with friends new and old; like-minded people who love ideas like I do, and who can bat them around like tennis pros.

If you’re like me, you find this kind of intense interaction to be exhilarating and stimulating.

This is what we want to facilitate at SocialDevCamp East — a thoughtful conversation about new ideas and how to realize them. We want to discuss the future in an informed way, synthesizing the lessons of the past with today’s emerging trends. We want to include economics, psychology, and design in this discussion. And iPhone and Rails and Twitter.

Anyway, if this sounds like a conversation you want to have, we guarantee that SocialDevCamp is going to be a blast, and that the day (and the party afterwards) will be a blur. A good blur; a blur you can leverage in the form of new ideas, relationships, and opportunities.

We want to thank our two newest sponsors: and Also thanks to David Kirkpatrick, Senior Technology Editor at Fortune magazine, for attending.

Looking forward to seeing you and your ideas in Baltimore on May 10th!

Dave, Ann, Keith, and Jennifer