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.
April 8th was One Day Without Shoes, spearheaded by TOMS Shoes to evangelize the plight of children around the world who don’t have shoes. Hitting close to home, Booneville, KY was the site of a TOMS shoe drop. For these kids, lack of shoes means reduced access to education and increased incidence of disease. For me, walking barefoot was an interesting exploration of the most basic form of human transportation.
Events like this are the epitome of social entrepreneurship, combining the support of a worthy cause with a brilliant marketing plan and a sustainable business model. That’s why TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie‘s picture hangs on our Rockstar Wall at Awesome Inc, and why I’ll be highlighting his story in my talk at Saturday’s Appalachian IDEAS conference.
Thanks to “Cool”, avid TOMS fan and member of Team Alpha, I was inspired to spend most of my day barefoot. It was amazing how strange I felt in the beginning, leaving my house without shoes on. I quickly discovered how painfully uneven the sidewalks are in my neighborhood. Next came the realization of how much slower I was moving compared to my normally hurried pace. I noticed my feet garnering plenty of strange looks as I progressed through campus to meet up with 50 other barefoot marchers. It would have been great to see more people participate in the walk, but it sparked plenty of curiosity from onlookers, who were eager to learn why a pack of young people were traversing UK’s campus with naked feet. After the walk, I continued on to Awesome Inc. At the completion of my 1.3 mile journey, my dogs were tired and slightly blackened. After a few hours of touch screen business development work, I had a hankering for a sandwich. Although weary of potential rejection, I strolled into the nearest sandwich shop, and was delighted to order my favorite #13 sub without a hitch. I’m not sure they even noticed I was barefoot! Sandwich in hand, I set out to find the latest copy of Ace Weekly to read about “Techsington”, which highlighted some of the great things going on for Technology Month in Lexington. Once I finished lunch and discussed user interfaces with some brilliant UK Computer Science seniors, I set out for a half-mile walk to help Shannon, one of the founders of Nextington 4, move some furniture. Following the return trip to Awesome Inc and a shoeless meeting, I finally gave in and put on my sandals for the No Mercy gaming event at Bakers360.
The great thing about this day without shoes is that it still hasn’t ended. When I take a shower tonight to wash the road grime off my feet, I will be thinking about the kids who don’t have that opportunity each day. When I wake up tomorrow and my feet are still sore, I will compare my meager daily trek to the meandering voyage that kids in Ethiopia take across harsh volcanic soil. Will I buy a pair of TOMS Shoes tomorrow? Probably not. But the next time I’m in the market, I will think about how my feet feel right now, and consider whether Sketchers or Asics are doing anything to prevent that feeling for kids around the world.
As an engineer, I was rather curious about the effect of different pathway surfaces on the comfort of my feet. Here’s how Lexington’s surfaces ranked:
- Grass: like heaven to sensitive feet
- Carpet: not painful, but the uniform texture is uninteresting to my toes
- Asphalt: when well-traveled, the smoothing effect of tire rubber accumulation is pleasant
- Concrete: predictable when smoothed, providing decent distribution of force
- Gravel: about as painful as those sharp edges look
- Raised aggregate: deceivingly painful, unpredictable. There’s a reason I seldom walk barefoot on my parent’s driveway.
- Steel access grates: stay off
- Time barefoot: 12 hrs
- Distance walked barefoot: 1.3+1+.5=2.8mi
- Average temperature: 54 deg F
- Precipitation: 0.34 in
- Sandwiches purchased from restaurant while barefoot: 1
What is more American than the GE of Jack Welch’s heyday? I think America should follow suit, and kick out the underperformers. This will help reduce our immigration deficit with India and China. Here are the criteria for determining America’s bottom 10%:
- Creative output: How much have you used your brain to synthesize new works of art or solutions to problems?
- Health: How well have you treated you body in order to avoid preventable chronic illness? Sorry smokers and junk food aficionados, you place undue burden on our healthcare system.
- Involvement: Apathy killed the cat. Join a group, a church, a cult, a non-profit, a team; there’s bound to be at least two other people in this country who think kinda like you. Then, find a way to contribute to an intelligent discourse on societal issues.
Those citizens found to be in America’s bottom 10% will be exported to China and India, who have been kind enough to send us their most creative, driven, entrepreneurial people. The question is: will America’s deported underperformers be allowed in?
This satirical rant inspired by:
Please support the Startup Visa movement: http://startupvisa.com/
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!
Entrepreneurship is an uphill battle, pitting the strength of human will against the headwinds of a fickle market. Everything that entrepreneur gets, he or she earns. Cycling is not much different, especially in the context of the rolling hills of Central Kentucky. There are ups and downs, that conveniently alternate without warning. Frequently you have to climb out of gulch, yet you can’t quite see the end. This is where determined cyclists and determined entrepreneurs can empathize. When you’re not at the top, but you want to be, you focus the entirety of your consciousness to make it happen.
Sometimes, entrepreneurship isn’t popular. Your friends and family, possibly your spouse, can be averted to the idea of discarding the security of a corporate job to pursue your passion. When commuting on my bicycle, I am frequently told by the drivers of neighboring cars that I should, “Get off the road!” or, “Buy a car you idiot!” Has this forced me to stop riding yet? No. Like a successful entrepreneur, I have taken the time to observe the big picture. I have a 1 mile commute. While this is a 20-minute walk, it is barely a 5-minute bike ride. During rush hour (ie the time when I actually commute), driving a car this distance through downtown Lexington takes about 15 minutes. I don’t think my choice to commute by bicycle is that novel of an idea, but it seems to have far more benefits than drawbacks:
- Nearest bike rack is immediately outside the doors to my office building. The parking lot is around the back, across the street.
- During a 15-minute car ride through city traffic, 2 things are successfully accomplished
- Waste a lot of gas heating up an engine
- Build up a lot of frustration, wanting to go somewhere but being inhibited by the herd.
This is where I find the greatest similarity between entrepreneurs and commuter cyclists. So many people are frustrated with their jobs and their commutes. Yet, instead of looking for and being willing to try another viable option, they continue to give into the unintentional societal norms that suggest that a good benefits package is more important than following your dreams or that paying for the luxury of gasoline has better results than daily exercise.
Entrepreneurs and commuter cyclists must always be alert. They stand out from the herd, so they must learn to protect themselves. But likely that is the reason they have chosen their path in the first place. They care so much about their passion that they manifest the will to execute upon it. How the world is a better place as a result of these pursuit.