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Why “Startup Communities” is Even Bigger Than I Realized

2012/11/03 3 comments

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.”

Book cover of Startup Communities by Brad Feld

Buy this book.

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.

Brad Feld speaking at Awesome Inc in Lexington Kentucky

Brad discussing Startup Communities at Awesome Inc

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.

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My Day Without Shoes

2010/04/09 1 comment

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:

  1. Grass: like heaven to sensitive feet
  2. Carpet: not painful, but the uniform texture is uninteresting to my toes
  3. Asphalt: when well-traveled, the smoothing effect of tire rubber accumulation is pleasant
  4. Concrete: predictable when smoothed, providing decent distribution of force
  5. Gravel: about as painful as those sharp edges look
  6. Raised aggregate: deceivingly painful, unpredictable. There’s a reason I seldom walk barefoot on my parent’s driveway.
  7. Steel access grates: stay off

Stats

  • 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


Forget Immigration Reform. What About Deportation Reform?

2010/03/30 Leave a comment

GE: Efficiently removing low performers, and rewarding top performers.Immigration should be a 2-way street

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%:

  1. Creative output: How much have you used your brain to synthesize new works of art or solutions to problems?
  2. 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.
  3. 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/

Why UK’s Loss Is A Good Thing For Kentucky

2010/03/28 Leave a comment

Basketball does not equal Happiness

The mood was very somber as I watched the Cats fall to West Virginia with a few dozen UK fans in a downtown Nashville sports bar. This was the basketball season that induced feelings of regret that my graduation (and lost access to $5 lower-level tickets) may have been premature. After half a decade of lackluster basketball seasons, this team full of Diaper Dandies was supposed to be the one that led Kentucky back to the Final Four. I have noticed a markedly positive hue added to the demeanor of Kentuckians during the past few months, and have attributed it to the success of our most prominent sports team.

But tonight signaled the deterioration of our happiness crutch. And that is far from being a bad thing. A crutch is an artificial support. It holds us up when we are too weak to do so on our own. But in this case, we are NOT too weak. In fact, we Lexingtonians are strong beyond our own belief, but we have become accustomed to relying on the success of five guys with numbers on their backs as the source of our happiness. The problem with this situation does not lie with the players or coaches of UK’s basketball team. They have worked their tails off, augmenting athletic ability with creative approaches to defeating varying opponents. The problem lies in us, the fans. Our energetic cheers and free-throw hand-signage rituals have ZERO cause-effect relationship to the game. Because of this, we as fans have no right to fully relish in the joy of victory or agony of defeat at the same carnal level as those players directly involved in the game. If we continue to derive our happiness from the actions of others, the disappointment felt now by Cat Nation will continue to proliferate. But there is a solution, and that is to create.

Sitting on page 182 of Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class“, my opinions of the effects of individual creativity on local economies are likely quite skewed. Yet, the recent athletic disappointment seems to be an excellent application for the empowering nature of human creativity. Whether or not we make use of it, all people are privileged with the ability to innovate, to bring into being useful and beautiful ideas that had not previously existed. Just as John Wall’s paint brush is a basketball, I have several friends who produce their artwork with soldering irons or Objective-C computer code. As every individual is capable of exercising creativity, we no longer have to outsource the production of our happiness. Following a few basic assumptions (that people prefer to be happy, and that they have free will), I am excited that UK’s earlier-than-expected exit from the NCAA tournament will mark the elimination of one distraction from my self-production of happiness. Are you willing to join me, Lexington?

Following Saturday’s MobileX conference in Nashville, I had the chance to converse with a presenter from the event who is a somewhat recent transplant from Kentucky to Texas. This has afforded him a newly external perspective to the ecosystem of the Commonwealth, and the familiarity with a few Midwest locales for use as benchmarks. I was intrigued when he noted, “Everyone feels like they’re second-best. Dallas is a huge city, and the tech community there wishes they could be as good as Austin. When I lived in Oklahoma City, their tech community was really starting to flourish, but they still felt inferior to Dallas.”

The quote endowed to us by Eleanor Roosevelt might have been more insightful than I have previously realized. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” While frequently used to exemplify strength in the face of an opressor, in these cases, the inferiority complex is not necessarily pushed by the Austins, Bostons, Seattles, or San Franciscos. We “uncreative cities” pull this veil of inadequacy over ourselves. We deem ourselves to be second cities, when in fact we are just other cities.

Nashville is a perfect example of how to avoid this self-loathing slope. While the city’s skyline might not be laced with the logos of Microsoft, Apple, and Google, it is THE Music City. I met several seemingly small-name developers who have created hugely popular applications for country music superstars and massive events like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. No, they aren’t creating the next overhyped location-based game or laggy augmented reality demo. They are writing apps that appropriately serve a market that Nashville knows very well: music fans. This is an excellent model for “the third coast” to understand: build what you know.

By embracing the unique character held by our own regions, residents of cities like Lexington, Omaha, and Oklahoma City can tap into existing networks of expertise to achieve success in long-tail innovation. This will enable us to control our own destiny, and to create our own happiness. Once this is achieved, we fans can enjoy spectator sports as intended: a supplemental source of entertainment,  not a solitary source of happiness.

SXSW Download (in brief)

2010/03/18 4 comments

My $500 name tag @DaveMc9ee and @balanon are famous ReWork talk by David Heinemeier Hansson

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:

Hung out with some cool people

Closing Thoughts

  • 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!

An Entrepreneur’s case for Bicycles

2009/10/09 5 comments

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.

My Three E’s

2009/10/02 Leave a comment

I am passionate about the 3 E’s (I know, Jack Welch has 4, but that’s an unlucky number in Japan, so I’ll stick with 3).
Engineering
Entrepreneurship
Environment
Each of these have a deeper than surface meaning.
Engineering is all about problem solving. In the popular sense, engineering is about understanding the laws by which the physical world operates and using that knowledge to create structures, devices, chemicals, and software. In a more human sense, it is about learning from our life experiences. It is about rewarding intelligence over laziness. It is about being open-minded, observational, and retaining a life-long thirst for knowledge. It is about knowing that you don’t know everything. It is about believing that facts are more convincing than opinions. It is about knowing your expertise, and trusting others on their expertise.
Entrepreneurship is literally undertaking an endeavor. It is popularly used to describe those who start their own business ventures. It also describes my favorite definition of leader: “Not necessarily he who strives to be first, but he who is first to strive.” Being an entrepreneur is about ignoring antiquated social norms and being your own person. It is about taking a step back, looking at the big picture, and seeing what others are missing. It is about rallying the pimps (ie your coolest friends) and getting them to collaboratively do something awesome. It is about not settling for the old and proven, but venturing out into the uncertain unknown. Entrepreneurship is about sacrificing good now for great later. It is about following the vision of Gordon B Hinckley, who at age 92 stated, “I am no longer a young man filled with energy and vitality. I’m given to meditation and prayer. I would enjoy sitting in a rocker, swallowing prescriptions, listening to soft music, and contemplating the things of the universe. But such activity offers no challenge and makes no contribution. I wish to be up and doing. I wish to face each day with resolution and purpose. I wish to use every waking hour to give encouragement, to bless those whose burdens are heavy, to build faith and strength of testimony. It is the presence of wonderful people which stimulates the adrenaline. It is the look of love in their eyes which gives me energy.”
Environment, in the green movement of the new millennium, is about stepping back from a myopic view of the consequences of human activity on this planet. What one of us does today effects everyone tomorrow. Therefore, environment is about solidarity. It is about never being alone on this journey. Environment is about service and sacrifice. It is about not separating the end and the means. It is about Stephen R. Covey’s “Third Alternatives”. It is about consensus, equality, liberty, unity, and teamwork.
These are deep-rooted beliefs. I will never think it is dumb to be smart. I will always hope you dance, instead of sitting on the sidelines. I will respect the earth and all people who live here.
What is unanswered is this: how will I make progress on all 3 of these when I wake up tomorrow morning?