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.
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.
The title of this post is also the first question posed to students applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This question almost seems almost too personal for an MBA program, but then again, the GSB isn’t any ordinary MBA program. I was one of the lucky students who made it through that rigorous application process, and even survived 96% of my 2-year deferral period. But last week, I decided to decline Stanford’s offer of admission for the MBA class of 2013 in order to keep leading my startup company, AwesomeTouch. For those of you who I haven’t already talked with in person, I’d like to explain why.
If you’re looking for the short version, here it is:
- I discovered that I don’t need an MBA to run a company.
- I love what I’m doing right now, and who I’m working with.
OK, now for the longer version. If you don’t know the full story of why I was going to Stanford in the first place, I’ll start with a recap. I spent most of my life wanting to be an engineer, which led me to engineering school. While I was there, I lead a student team where we designed and raced solar-powered cars. While doing that, I realized that I just liked being around engineers, not necessarily being one. I had heard that combining an engineering degree with an MBA was a good way to do this, and my dad has an MBA, so I applied to the program at my university.
This was when my friend Luke told me that an MBA wasn’t really about the classes, it was about meeting people, and that staying at my alma mater wouldn’t get me that many new connections. He suggested I try some top-tier schools, like Harvard or Stanford. Since I hadn’t heard of any others (yeah, I was that naive), I applied to both. I’m really good at standardized tests (which would be a useless skill if our educational system wasn’t so messed up), so I rocked the GMAT. With a few awesome letters of recommendation from peers, bosses, and professors, I got into both. I visited Harvard, but ruled it out. Ivy League seemed too stuffy for me. So, Stanford, here I come.
But not so fast. Wanting some business context before I started the MBA program, I checked the little box on the application that said “2-year deferral”. This meant I was accepted as of May 2009, but I wouldn’t start the program until September of 2011. During those 2 years, I was expected to “work full-time to gain relevant experience.” I had heard about a thing called “entrepreneurship”, but didn’t know what it was. So, I asked Lee Todd, the president of my university and an engineer-turned-entrepreneur, and he suggested I check out the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. I spent my first 6 months as an intern doing due diligence for KSTC’s venture finance group. It was like candy for my brain. I got to meet a dozen new entrepreneurs every week, and spent my time researching the technology and market factors that they claimed would make their business successful. I was learning so much! But after a few months, I realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the table. I didn’t want to watch entrepreneurs, I wanted to be one.
My same friend Luke who introduced me to Stanford’s MBA program also introduced me to his business incubator program, called Awesome Inc. Luke, my friend Brian, and a few others were entrepreneurs who liked helping other entrepreneurs get started. They recruited me to run this part of Awesome Inc they called Labs. It sounded really cool, but I didn’t really know what it was (and neither did they). Eventually, we found out that Labs could work as a conduit between the business world and the engineering school I had just graduated from. Lots of smart kids do amazing projects, but they get shoved in a drawer at the end of the semester. We started off by working with the senior design programs, and helping students to turn their projects into products. AwesomeTouch was our first success. It was actually born out of 3 projects, one of which was the mapping technology we use today. In the beginning, we had no idea whether it would survive or not. But for the past year, it has been a little flame that we just can’t snuff out. It keeps finding new fuel and growing larger.
Through this process, I realized that I didn’t need an MBA to start a company. It felt like it just kind of happened. Well, in reality, I had a lot of mentors. In the business world, mentors are like professors, except we don’t even pretend that we can repay them for all the value they provide to us. Some of my mentors were personal acquaintances, while others were just random startup veterans sharing their thoughts on their blogs. But all combined to deliver a very clear message: if you want to learn how to run a business, the best way to do so is to run a business.
Even with this well-supported conclusion, my heart was set on Stanford. If the picturesque campus hadn’t sold me at first glance, I would have been hooked by the location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the amazing peers I met during admit weekend, and the incredible allure for a competitive type-A like me to get to introduce myself as a graduate of the most selective MBA program in the world. However, after 2 years of planning my life around Stanford, I decided to walk away. But, most importantly, I wasn’t parting on some idle whim. I had found a more attractive direction, and this one had a shelf life.
In the spring, AwesomeTouch applied to a startup accelerator program called Betaspring. After a few rounds of interviews, and rejections from other programs, we got in. Huge honor, huge surprise. I had been reading for 2 years that these “startup bootcamps” were the new alternative to MBA programs for entrepreneurs. Here was my chance to have my cake and eat it too. I planned to attend Betaspring with our team, but use it to transition myself out and head for the MBA program at the end of the summer. The problem was, I fell in love. Our enterprise touchscreen software company became an indoor wayfinding company. This all of a sudden was Human Transportation, my passion (you can read about it here). After seeing that a startup accelerator program could deliver on its promise of awesome mentors (like Ben, Sean, Brad, Angus, Josh, Charlie, and Jonathan) as well as connections to investors and customers, I realized that I had found a shortcut to all the connections that I wanted to make through the MBA program. So, if my primary reasons to go to Stanford were (1) learn how to start a business and (2) make the connections necessary for it to be successful, then I no longer had a reason to go.
The first week of August, I began throwing this idea around with Brian. I had convinced him to be my replacement as CEO of AwesomeTouch, and the transition had already begun (per our website and LinkedIn profiles). I sought some advice from other entrepreneurs, admits and GSB alumni, and they suggested I try to defer one more year. In the early stage, startups are crazy. Maybe it would be more stable in a year. I emailed the GSB’s admissions staff to explain my story, and got a call back from Derrick Bolton, the admissions director. While Derrick is sometimes portrayed as the GSB’s gatekeeper, my experience lends to a different theory: he’s the designer. When going through the admissions process, I never felt like I was a faceless number, or a hacker trying to crack the code and break through the door. I felt like I was selected, like the missing piece of some unfinished puzzle. When Derrick called me, I asked about extending my deferral. Wisely, he suggested that I reflect not on when I wanted to go to business school, but if I really wanted to go. The extended deferral was not an option. I reflected some more, and concluded that for my prescribed reasons, it was no longer a logical decision. In spite of how amazing the opportunity was, I knew that I must I turn down my offer of admission to the GSB.
Since it prompted me to turn down Stanford, somewhere in here I should tell you about the crazy awesome stuff we’re doing with AwesomeTouch. Here’s the short of it: we’ve found a way make giant touchscreens affordable, so more places will have our maps, and you’ll never have to get lost inside an airport, hospital, shopping mall or college campus ever again. That’s pretty cool. But what’s more important is that we’ve found a scalable way to create maps for inside buildings. This may seem like a small step, but if you look at Google Maps, you’ll notice that for all the outdoor roads they’ve collected, they don’t have any maps of indoor hallways. We humans spend 80% of our time indoors, so there’s a lot that Google is missing. We’re calling this project BuildingLayer, and someday it’s going to power the world’s best indoor location-based services.
So, you might be wondering what my Stanford application essay claimed “matters to me most”. My answer was my family. They have been the only constant in my nomadic life, and are consistently a source of inspiration. Both my grandfathers are entrepreneurs, and I recently learned the full story of my grandfather Jim’s career choice. You see, he was a smart kid, too. He spent his whole live preparing to go to a prestigious engineering school. Just before he was to start, he realized that this degree path would train him to sit at a desk and make calculations all day long. He instead opted for the hands-on approach and became a plumber’s apprentice. I, too, have chosen the hands-on approach, and I’m excited to see where it takes the family we’ve formed at AwesomeTouch.
PS: If you’re in a similar situation (startup or b-school?), and need some additional reading, start with these:
Steve Blank – Entrepreneurial Finishing School
Vivek Wadhwa – Is an MBA a Plus or a Minus in the Startup World?
Charles Huang – The blue pill or red pill: Start-up life or an MBA?
Brian Scordato – Don’t be a hippo (be yourself)
And for kicks, help Mike Moradian decide if he should go to HBS or work on CampusBuddy
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!