After a few years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that all business relies on the same simple principle: sell something for more than it costs you to produce. Along this line, I may have distilled the pair of necessary activities that any entrepreneur must master: know what you want, and ask for it.
Last year, I had the privilege of attending a special session of the Alltech Symposium, geared toward entrepreneurs. During this session, Jim Host and Pearse Lyons (two members of the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame) shared the journeys that led them to launch and grow their successful companies (Host Communications and Alltech, respectively). During his talk, Dr. Lyons dropped a nugget of wisdom that resonated with me. “Ask questions.” Dr. Lyons recounted a story from his youth, about being the kid who always asked questions. He annoyed his parents by always asking, “Why?” He questioned the establishment, in asking his boarding school administrators if he and his classmates could clean up after the school’s bingo nights. While it was nice to score some Be Good Points, what he really wanted was to collect the leftover beverage cans and bottles, knowing that he could recycle them and pocket the deposits. Even on his first sale of feed products (which would become the basis for Alltech), he wasn’t afraid to ask his customer (who had almost backed out on the purchase) if he would like to double his order! From his talk, it seems like much of Dr. Lyons’ success has come from the simple fact that he was willing to ask for what he wanted.
So, if there is value in this skill (asking the right question, of the right person, at the right time), what are we doing to ensure that our children are developing this skill? Based on my experience…not enough. With the increased emphasis on standardized testing, we’re pushing kids to get better at answering questions, but not at formulating their own questions. This seemingly small shift actually requires a major change. Asking good questions requires creativity, a skill that we’ve not yet gotten good at measuring. I will concede that iit take a lot more effort than measuring whether the correct answer was provided for a given question. In the story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a society is seeking the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything“. They pose this challenge to the a powerful computer, Deep Thought, which after 7.5 million years of computation, (spoiler alert) spits out the answer “42”. While living on in geek infamy, the number 42 is mostly useless without knowing the question to which it is an answer. When prompted for the question, Deep Thought is not powerful enough to render it, but proposes that a more powerful computer, called “Earth”, be constructed to resolve the Ultimate Question.
While my friend Luke Murray was guest blogging for Virgin.com, he wrote a post about how Sir Richard Branson wasn’t afraid to ask big. The result: he bought an entire island for less than 1/10th of the listed price…just because he asked the owner if he would accept a smaller sum. While the process of learning “question-asking” may seem without precedent, there is actually an excellent structure provided by one of the greatest inventions of human history: The Scientific Method. This method provides a framework for formulating questions based on what someone wants to know. And while most people are terrible at asking questions, it is a skill that can be learned. Yet, knowing how to ask questions does not mean that the process of asking is easy. As musician Amanda Palmer points out, “Asking makes you vulnerable.”
How can you do this in your own life? My friend Evan became frustrated when a vendor was supposed to send him some printed graphics but was running late. As a result, he didn’t want to pay the shipping fees for their product. Rather than just being mad, complaining to friends, or posting bad reviews about the company, he asked the vendor a question: “Will you give me free shipping?” Surprising to Evan, their answer was yes. I am still early in my journey as an entrepreneur, but the times that I have succeeded when: I knew what I wanted, and asked for it.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to Steve Jobs.
After spending a few days hanging out with Brad Feld, I’ve come to the conclusion that Startup Communities is not simply a book targeted at the minority of the population who currently identify themselves as entrepreneurs. What Brad is working on is actually much bigger. My conclusion stems from the idea that he left ringing in my head following his visit to Kentucky: “Every city was once a startup.”
I spent most of this morning researching the history of the founding of my city, Lexington, Kentucky. As Brad discussed his thoughts about startup communities, he kept referring to the “natural resources” present in a community. In the early days of the geographic area that would come to be known as Kentucky, a few people made the conscious choice to settle here. While their decision was not fully informed (they did not yet have TripAdvisor to review all the possible places to settle on the North American continent), they did the best they could with the available information in the late 1700s. They actively chose the Bluegrass region for its fertile soil, access to fresh water, and moderate climate. For a startup agrarian community, these are key ingredients. For a startup technology community, the key ingredients are much less geophysical. They’re human. As codified in Brad’s book, these ingredients include leadership by entrepreneurs, a long-term growth perspective, an inclusive culture, and events that engage and connect all members of the community.
I spent most of last evening discussing the fertile nature of Lexington with my friends over drinks. We’ve come to realize that our city has an abundance of untapped human potential: a core of stable employers, a continuous influx of smart people, and a sufficient mix of risk-taking individuals. It’s also a really enjoyable place to live, with good food, plenty of shopping, modern electricity/water/internet infrastructure, a swath of housing options, and a variety of entertainment choices. Yesterday, as we partook in some of the excellent nightlife offerings, it might have been apropos that we began our evening in Henry Clay’s Public House. Prior to becoming a statesman on the national scale, Henry Clay was not only a successful lawyer, but also an agricultural entrepreneur. Next, we moved to Lexington Beer Works, a recent addition to Lexington’s bar scene, with a host of specialty and craft brews. It’s no accident that this location has become one of the staple hangouts for the tech and entrepreneur crowd. Among its group of founders are veterans of Lexmark, the city’s largest technology company. To conclude our evening, we grabbed a snack from Dogs for Cats, a sidewalk vendor so-named for selling specialty hot dogs to the local populace of UK Wildcat fans. We paid for this food through Square, closing the loop on our tech-startup-community-time-warp of an evening.
Brad Feld has an assertion that “we can create startup communities anywhere”. There are two ways to read into this. One perspective is that we can create communities of startups (ie local groupings of early-stage technology companies). The other is to redefine how we view the general concept of “community”, through the innovation-centric lens of startups. Our communities, whether they’re local or virtual, official or informal, are forever imperfect and constantly changing. Yet, a core piece of human nature is an affinity for other human beings. We join together as sports teams, volunteer groups, and book clubs. We can’t help but form communities. But what if we more consciously formed our communities? The innovation frameworks used by startups are applicable far beyond the creation of technology companies. What if governments a/b tested as effectively as Google? What if schools iterated as quickly as Skype? Essentially, startup methods enable human organizations to take advantage of biologically-inspired innovation processes. And biology is pretty good at innovation.
Thus, my take-away from Brad’s visit is two-fold. On the surface, he provided excellent suggestions for building our community of technology company people (and reinforcement for some of the things we’re already doing well). Yet, perhaps more importantly, he reminded me that what we’re doing is much bigger. While companies focus on creating tangible products and delivering valuable services, the true end result is a more abstract thing known as a better life. The identities of some of the greatest innovators are often tied to their products, but the lasting impact that they have had is actually through the communities and lifestyles they created. Even in the case of Steve Jobs, it could be argued that, “Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.” John Gruber’s statement about Jobs includes a note about self-similar fractal design, a math reference that I’m sure Brad would enjoy. This distinction is important, so I’ll be explicit: the way we build our products, should be the way we build our companies, should be the way we build our cities, should be the way we build our world. Perhaps the Boulder startup community’s greatest creation isn’t Storage Technology Corporation ($4.1B acquisition), or TechStars (top accelerator program), but Boulder itself. By turning Boulder’s lessons into a book, Brad has articulated a new way for creating and re-creating our cities. That’s big.
If you’d like to experience the vision for Lexington that my co-founders and I share, I invite you to visit us at Awesome Inc. It’s our 6000-square-foot prototype of the future of this city.
I’ve always wanted to teach a class. A few weeks ago, following conversations with people in the Awesome Inc community, I decided to create a class called “Programming For Absolute Beginners”. This class offers an introduction to software development based on an excellent (and free) resource called Learn Python The Hard Way. We only announced the class internally (to our Tenants, Team Alpha, and the Experience teams at Awesome Inc) but still had 12 people sign up within 3 days. I was pretty surprised with the response; I thought it would be a struggle to find half that many people. And, following the first and second sessions of the 5.5 week course, both the students (and I) seem to be enjoying the process.
There are two reasons that I’m so excited that this course is able to take place:
I get joy in empowering other people. Education is one great way to empower people. “The more you know,” right? I’ve actually approached the class as more of a facilitator than a teacher. With the varying skill levels of the “students” in the class, and the ability for anyone to move through the material at their own pace, everyone in the group has the ability to serve as a teacher. So, at a meta level, I’m not only teaching a group of people how to be programmers, but also teaching them how to programming teachers. In fact, based on how quickly several of the students took on the role of peer-teacher, I didn’t really have to “teach” them how to do this. I just gave them the opportunity to use their skills. And while this might be bad for my job security as a teacher, it’s great for expanding our ability to help more people. And if that means that more people like Therese, who wrote her first program ever last night, will feel this empowerment, then our time invested is totally worth it.
The world needs more makers. For a generation or so, the title of “skilled workers” has gotten a bad rap. It has become viewed as a subpar status, denoting people who have chosen non-university educational paths, or pursued non-white collar careers. The thing about most white collar jobs, however, is that they operate at a level of abstraction beyond actual productive work. If white collar workers stopped working, we’d lose the ability to account, litigate, and manage. If blue collar workers stopped working, no new stuff would come into existence. There would be no food, no clothes, no cars, and no music on the radio. Herein lies the magic of programming: it’s a white collar job (read: prestigious, well-paid), yet it’s also a blue collar job (programmers actually make things). At this particular point in history, our ability to solve many of the world’s problems is only inhibited by our ability to understand those problems, and our ability to turn the solution into working software. Hunger, energy, peace, communication, drugs, poverty. In solving any of these problems, the lowest-hanging fruit can be addressed through appropriate computer software. So, by helping a few more people become developers, we’re doing a small part to make the world a better place.
A final note on this is how easy it was to go from discussing the idea for a class, to deciding to do it, to starting it. This all happened within 2 weeks. The two major factors that made this so easy:
- Availability of course material. Thanks, Zed! (also, thanks in advance to iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and even Wikipedia)
- The power of the Awesome Inc community. I didn’t have to search for a physical space to host the class, or struggle to market to a critical mass of potential attendees.
Based on our initial results, we’ll be offering more of these courses in the future. If there’s anything you’d like to learn (or teach), leave me a note in the comments!
Last week, I had the privilege to participate in Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit to San Antonio, TX. Since 1974, our local chamber of commerce has been organizing these trips that bring together business, government, academic, and community leaders to travel to another city. The “visit” aspect (versus just a group meeting somewhere in Lexington) serves two purposes:
- Find inspiration from other cities that are doing cool things
- Bring Lexington’s leaders together in a new environment, free from the distractions of home
The Leadership Visits have been the nexus for some of Lexington’s great assets, including Thursday Night Live which was inspired by a visit to Greenville, SC. On this visit, one of the highlights of San Antonio was the River Walk, now a major tourist attraction and downtown focal point, but once just a trickling stream. What not many people know is that there is a similar stream that flows under Lexington. On this trip, we learned that the Town Branch Creek is perhaps more voluminous than the creek that feeds the San Antonio River. The difference is, San Antonio chose to design a beautiful, open waterway. In Lexington, we conveniently diverted our creek through a buried pipe. For a city often described as “conservative”, the notion of unearthing a buried stream and manufacturing a downtown river is nothing short of audacious. But, looking at Lexington’s history, you may be surprised to learn that we have a penchant for progressive public-private partnerships. I hope we take a gamble on this.
With all the focus on the river, another key aspect of our host city was underemphasized: young leaders are critical in shaping the city of San Antonio. In our trip program, all participants under the age of 40 were denoted as “Emerging Leaders”. I commented to my friends before the trip In San Antonio, “If Mark Zuckerberg, age 28, lived in Lexington, would he be considered emerged yet?” I did notice a difference in San Antonio. People in that age range are just called LEADERS. However, that designation was objectively earned. They didn’t wait for a 40th birthday party to receive permission to lead at the forefront of their city. They just went out and made it happen. The two examples with whom I’m most familiar are:
- Julian Castro
- Mayor of San Antonio (7th largest city in the USA)
- Age 37 (Mayor since 2009, age 34)
- Lanham Napier
- CEO of Rackspace (>$1B annual revenue)
- Age 41 (CEO since 2006, age 35)
There are a few notable similarities about these two leaders. First, both are from Texas. They didn’t have to be sold on why they should live there. Both have graduate degrees from Harvard (Castro in Law, Napier in Business). This doesn’t make them inherently better leaders (heck, they even let me into HBS), but it does guarantee that they know what world-class means, and demonstrate that they aren’t scared to chase after it. Also, they are in terminal positions. They can’t move any higher up within their organizations, so the only way to achieve greater things is to drag the whole organization up with you. This differs from some of Lexington’s young leaders who are not in terminal, but transient leadership positions. The best basketball player in Lexington will leave for the NBA. Even within the world of sports, San Antonio’s professional basketball team, the Spurs, provide a terminal post, and one that is noted for its world-class leadership transitions.
I have a friend who works with Steve Westly, an advocate of rotating involvement in the 3 major sectors of society: business, government, and academia (I’d argue that religion fits in there as well). Looking at those three sectors, who are some of our young, already-emerged leaders within terminal organizations here in Lexington? I’ll offer a few (list is far from exhaustive, and is based totally on my familiarity):
Last year, I wrote about the departure of many of Lexington’s leaders. With the World Equestrian Games and other recent successes, I was worried that Lexington would go downhill following their departure. Now, I look at this in a different light. Perhaps these departing leaders had one last bit of insight: the most effective action they could take was to hand off the torch to a new generation. And while earlier I perceived the under-40 designation as a form of ageism, it’s in fact a testament to the associated wisdom of Lexington’s leaders. Those who recognize this gap are doing something about it. The reason that I, and many of the other young professionals, were able to attend this trip was through the generous private donations that provided Emerging Leader scholarships. Far from excluding, Lexington’s current crop of leaders is actively including their younger peers. But, as the saying (rather apropos in equine land) goes, “You can lead a horse to water…”
Dear leaders of my generation: the torch is now in our hands. It’s our calling to make Lexington a world-class awesome city. Let’s roll.
Bike lanes are not for cyclists. Bike lanes are for motorists.*
I realized this following a discussion about shared-use roadways (ie the majority of non-Interstate highways and roads in America). I have quite a few friends who don’t understand my choice to ride a bike on the road, partly because the see it as a choice. Where I live, it’s often not a choice, it’s the law. With the exception of bicycle police, cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s why they’re called sideWALKs, they’re meant for pedestrians. Thus, when I ride my bike on the road, I’m riding it where I’m supposed to be riding it. And, by law, I have the same privilege (yes, “privilege”, not “right”) to operate my human-powered vehicle on the road as those who choose to operate motorized vehicles.
When I’m riding my bike, I view myself as a person who happens to be on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I view myself as a person, who happens to be in a car. Between those two states, I view my life, my sense of urgency, and the importance of my travel to be equal. And I view the lives, deadlines, and importance of everyone around me, in cars, on busses, on bikes, and on foot to be equal.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the currently prevailing viewpoint.
When talking with friends who are motorists, but not cyclists, they consider their trips in cars to be more important than the simultaneous trips taken by cyclists. One argument is that cycling is multi-functional: while some cyclists are in the act of commuting, others are on their bikes for the purpose of exercise. And in this argument, commuting is considered to be more important than exercising.** While I disagree with that particular assertion, a more relevant disagreement is that the associated assumption that all trips in cars are for the singly important purpose of getting to work. Do these motorists hold the same disdain for fellow motorists transporting themselves in search of entertainment? Likely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also became upset when their potentially fluid rides are stalled by farm implements, and then show up to the ever-important work and eat a few corn chips, never making the connection.
I would assert that there are 3 reasons for which the journey of a particular vehicle on the road would be more important that that of other vehicles. First, emergency vehicles. There’s a reason they get flashing lights, and permission to blow through stop signs: they are operating in potentially life-or-death situations. Second, commercial vehicles (particularly, tractor-trailers). Think of something that you use in your daily life. Vacuum cleaner. iPhone. Banana. Socks. To quote a friend, “Almost everything you use in a day was on a truck at some point.” Often, those trucks are not just carrying Timmy’s stuff, or Susie’s stuff, but hundreds of people’s stuff. That’s important. Finally, buses. Sorry dude-in-a-Porshe, those 20 people on the city bus may not seem as stylish as you, but I’d like for you to convince me that their twenty lives have less collective influence on their world than your one. As you may have noticed, the importance I assigned here was not due not to some personified needs of the vehicle, but to the needs of the people that the vehicle was serving.
But maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe their frustration is misdirected at non-conforming cyclists, when in fact the true source of their frustration is an incorrect assumption about the predictability of our transportation system. I am guilty of this as well. When I am trying to drive from my house to a destination that is 30 miles away (separated mostly by rural highways), I mistakenly expect that this journey will take me only 30 minutes. But I am wrong. There are all sorts of factors, like stoplights, detours, accidents, and…traffic that can make my trip unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is the norm, although I tend to fool myself into thinking that it is the exception.
Which brings me to traffic. Traffic moves according to what I like to call the slowest common denominator (SCD). In my definition, this means that the slowest vehicles in a traffic flow determine the average speed of the traffic flow. This defies the assumption that aggressive, fast drivers are in control of the road. I have yet to see one of these vehicles successfully push traffic forward, bulldozer-style. Yet, I’ve been caught behind many an meandering, elderly motorist who has taken complete control of the rate of traffic on a two-lane road.
And this is where Bike Lanes come in. Bike Lanes are not for the benefit of cyclists. Bike Lanes are for the benefit of motorists. If sharing the road with cars were not a factor, a cyclist presented with the choice of riding in the normal lane or in the bike lane would be unlikely to choose the inferior, shoulder-esque mini-pathway. They would choose the main lane! The reason that bike lanes matter is because of cars. Bike lanes make it so that automotive traffic can continue with minimal impediment from cyclists. That’s right, bike lanes are a means of making it more fair for motorists, who wish to travel at a rate faster than the SCD of a bicycle. So, from someone who, whether I’m hypermiling or riding a bike, is often the SCD, you’re welcome 😉
* To avoid any unnecessary personal banter, I’d like to clarify that I distinguish the difference between a cyclist and motorist as the present (thus, temporary) selection of mode of transportation. Personally, there are different occasions on which I choose to be a cyclist, motorist, pedestrian, and transit rider. Regardless of this choice, I retain my own unique identity, not one assigned to me by my mode of transport. Sure, there are differentiating personality characteristics that people choose to associate with their preferred form of transportation, but we’re all just a flat tire away from being united as pedestrians 🙂
** I understand the economically-minded intent of the argument that commuting (to work) is more valuable to society than exercising. Yet, with the disproportionately high costs of healthcare, especially the reactive medicine needed to compensate for generally sedentary lives in America, I think I could make a case that the economically logical choice is that we all exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, and show up late for work.
Sorry to disappoint, but this post isn’t about basketball. It’s about something bigger: life.
My perspective is that of an entrepreneur, so my bellwether is the startup scene. But I’d argue that it’s a pretty good bellwether. At our core, we entrepreneurs are people who want to make the world a better place. We recognize problems, and instead of idle bantering, we create solutions. And we’ll risk everything to turn our vision of a better world into a reality. When you put enough of these people in a community, these powerful forces for artistic/musical/philanthropic/commercial good, life in that community gets better.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending two discussions on the relationship between entrepreneurs and investors in Kentucky. The first event was run by the Lexington Venture Club, who hosted a group of women entrepreneurs and investors from Lexington and Louisville. The second was through the Louisville Digital Association, who hosted a group of entrepreneurs and investors from Louisville and Lexington. That’s right, people from Louisville and Lexington, traveling to each other’s cities, on a random weekday in the middle of March, and passionately discussing something that isn’t basketball. What they discussed is much more important. Very few people are directly affected by the outcome of a basketball game. Nearly everyone is affected by technology. Nearly everyone is affected by the economy. And startups have a massive effect on both.
How do I know that Kentucky is going to win? Because we want it. Because we’re working together to do it. And we won’t stop until we get it.