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.