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!
I’d like to expand on this eventually, but likely it will remain short. We packed a lot into one week in Austin.
I greatly enjoyed SXSWi 2010. No better place to make connections in the tech startup scene, while chatting with touchscreen UI designers, eating Rudy’s BBQ, catching up with old friends and making new ones, and wishing that AplusK would get out of the way so we could extract a nugget of wisdom from Paul Graham.
My favorite sessions
Ok, so I liked most of the sessions I attended. These are the ones for which I took notes worth sharing:
- Touch + The Holy Grail of Delight: Met the RazorFish guys, lots of insight on what fits in public places between mobile devices and home web shopping
- The Happiness Project: Reminder that “the days are long, but the years are short”, inspiration to cut back to a 1-sentence-per-day journal
- Roadtwip: met Kurt from CitySourced and heard about his adventure into the near future of America
- Third Coast, How to Be a Startup Outside of Silicon Valley: The CrowdSpring guys from Chicago shared how they did it
- Don’t Move! Build a Startup Community Where You Live: Boulder, Portland, and Omaha talk about how they’re growing w/o going
- Why You Aren’t Done Yet: a little shot in the arm from David Heinemeier Hansson from 37Signals
- How Nerds Can Foster Democracy in Local Government: We use tech, we have different perspectives. Time to use them.
- Zero Waste, The Future of Green: Toyota did it. Austin is ambitiously on their way there. Waste is so 20th century.
- Moblizing the Power of Interns and Managing GenY: Our rockstars from Team Alpha could have taught this session.
- Student Startups, Entrepreneurship in the University: why wait? Software and ideas are cheap, your time is prevalent, and your co-founders are sitting next to you in class!
- ‘Seed Combinators’, Startup Incubators 2.0: There was energy in this room! But too few women and 40-yr-olds. Most important session for Awesome Inc.
- Pervasive Games and Playful Experiences, Rendering the Real world: I learned this lesson through a chore challenge for my roommates: Points –> Productivity. Games have always been fun. Mobile devices just make it easier to keep score.
- How The Other Half Lives – Touring The Digital Divide: I may not have an iPhone, but most of the world is struggling to learn how to use a mouse and radio buttons. The internet scares them. How do we help? Discussion led by two librarians.
- How to Save Journalism: Led by Lexingtonian and Fark.com creator Drew Curtis, new and old media discussed their strategies for the future. Pay walls don’t sound fun.
Hung out with some cool people
- On the CapMetro Bus: Baratunde, Alexander, Damien
- Monks of Invention Conclave SXSW 2010: Moshe, Shaun, Pek, Tim, Jason, Andy, Julian, Sasha, Brian, Bradley, Cecilia, Russ
- Olark: Matt, Ben, Zach
- David McGee‘s crew: Alex, Kennon, Brad
- Henry’s friends and the Chevy Roadtrip Champions from Detroit: Hajj, Brandon
- Student Startupers: Brandon, Ellen
- RazorFish: Steve
- MobileXers: Charles, Adam, Jon M
- Kentuckians: Randall, Will, Luke, Brian, David, Drew, Jon C (now in Seattle)
- Time to relearn web development. I was so cool writing HTML back in 1996, but the world has come a long way. Some UI/UX design insight will help for touch screen apps, too.
- Crowdsourcing some answers for this one: What is more valuable: go through a seed combinator program (get paid, network, create) or MBA (pay them, network, learn)?
- Creativity WILL drive the future. I want to be at the wheel, not just along for the ride.
- HUGE opportunity to bridge the Digital Divide (see above). It will take simplicity on the far side of complexity.
See you at SXSW 2010!
This week, Awesome Inc has enjoyed being the host venue for two events that experiment with new, digital approaches to old concepts: politics and games. These are deeply ingrained traditions that affect how we as a society make decisions, and how we interact with other human beings in structured, competitive environments.
It’s been interesting seeing a variety of generations interacting with each other, and creating/sharing content via their smartphones and MacBooks. Next step: integrate stuff like this into the educational system. With ready access to free blogs and video posting, why are students still writing papers and delivering presentations that are only seen by teachers/professors and ultimately buried in a desk drawer? Post it online!
Moderator: Prof. Kakie Urch of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications.
The first forum featuring all four 2010 candidates for Lexington mayor will be from 6-8 p.m. Wed. Feb. 24 at Awesome Inc. on Main Street, a technology incubator in downtown Lexington.
The forum, subtitled “Digital Democracy,” will be online in real-time in several formats, with bloggers as part of the panel.
The forum is sponsored by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky.
About 60 people will attend the forum in person, but voters all across Lexington and beyond can participate in the digital aspect of the forum on Twitter, Cover It Live, UStream and local blogs.
Participants will discuss the design, dynamics and potential of Collective Intelligence (CI) Alternate Reality (AR) games. Following this, participants will play a game or participate in the game as Non-Playable-Characters (NPC’s).
The hopeful collective resolution of the game will lead players and NPC’s to lunch, where all participants will discuss their play experience, review play statistics and share what they learned. In a final session, players will discuss how they would modify the game to help their audiences address specific issues.
At the end, participants will know if and how a CI/RA game can help them solve particular change, communication and education goals.
This started off as an e-mail to Luke and Brian, but now it lives here. Since then, Luke also informed me of oneweekjob.com