Tag: innovation

Thomas Friedman’s Advice to President Obama is Spot On

From time to time, Thomas Friedman writes something that has the power to change lives.  So far, Friedman’s The World Is Flat has had the greatest impact on me, as it inspired my business partner, Jesse Davis, to start work on our startup, Entruset.  The ideas in his book are still reverberating through our company today, as we got our first mention in the press in today’s Washington Post and continue to work to solve the problem he identified in the book.  You can read the entire story over on our company blog in a post called How Thomas Friedman and The World Is Flat Helped Spawn Entrustet.

I think his latest piece titled More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs has the potential to impact the lives of even more people.  Friedman says:

The most striking feature of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was the amazing, young, Internet-enabled, grass-roots movement he mobilized to get elected. The most striking feature of Obama’s presidency a year later is how thoroughly that movement has disappeared.

I remember getting inundated by posts from my friends on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the election urging me to support Obama, attend rallies or make sure to go out and vote.  The movement continued for the next few weeks, but has completely lost steam.  Even the most ardent Obama supporters among my friends aren’t engaged via social media anymore.  This in itself is pretty amazing, but not Friedman’s main point. He wants President Obama to re-engage America’s youth and doesn’t believe that going after Wall Street or other negative methods will work.  He continues:

Obama should launch his own moon shot. What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. We need to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again. We need to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation, the year of making our pie bigger, the year of “Start-Up America.”

Obama should make the centerpiece of his presidency mobilizing a million new start-up companies that won’t just give us temporary highway jobs, but lasting good jobs that keep America on the cutting edge. The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. Without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.

I am 100% behind this idea.  It makes perfect sense and would appeal to both sides of the aisle at at time when partisanship is at a seemingly all time high because of the fight over health care.  It would harken back to the Obama that many young people voted for, rather than the less than inspirational version of the President who we have gotten to know since his election.

I believe that entrepreneurship is our best hope for saving the US from its mammoth debt obligations.  We need to find ways to “grow the pie” rather than trying to raise taxes on a stagnant (or shrinking) pie.  I believe that all kinds of entrepreneurship are going to be necessary to solve our problems.  We are going to need traditional entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but we will also need social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus and the social entrepreneurs featured in Business Week.

I think that if President Obama were to make entrepreneurship a central portion of his presidency, he will find a huge groundswell of willing entrepreneurs who will be willing to help.  Friedman mentions National Lab Day and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship as examples of organization that are helping young people get interested in innovation.  Both programs would not be able to survive without older, successful mentors.  I think that entrepreneurs are willing to help out as mentors and young people are waiting to be entrepreneurs, but some are just waiting to be pushed.  Inc. Magazine contributor and author of Upstarts!, Donna Fenn says:

Over 75% of the entrepreneurs I interviewed for my book, Upstarts! said that they were very or highly likely to start another company; most had already founded two or more.”  She continues, “70% said their companies had a social mission. But make no mistake: they’re laser-focused on the bottom line as well and they understand why growing a profitable, sustainable company that creates jobs is a social good in and of itself. It’s pretty clear to me: this is a generation worth investing in.

Fenn‘s point is important because many startups are not only creating jobs and coming up with new solutions to problems, but they are also trying to make the world a better place.  If we can get more people to think with this mindset, the US and the world will be a better place.  So President Obama, please follow Friedman’s advice.  This is a no lose issue for you and the country.  You should be able to get support from both sides of the aisle.  You should be able to reconnect with an electorate that wants to support you, but has not because you have abandoned what got you into office.  Go back to the politics of hope, propose real solutions that everyone can get behind and see what happens.  I bet it will change lives.

Entrepreneur Profile: Justin Beck, PerBlue

Note: This post is the third in a new series called “Entrepreneur Profiles.”  These posts focus on an interesting entrepreneur who I’ve gotten to know and hopefully provide a window into their business that you might not otherwise find in a newspaper or magazine.

Justin Beck is the co-founder and CEO of PerBlue, a software startup in Madison.  PerBlue’s flagship product, Parallel Kingdom, is the first location based game built for the iPhone and Android and has over 80,000 players worldwide.  Founded in January 2008 while he was still in school, Beck and his team have worked to create a successful game and an interesting business model.  Beck graduated with a degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

Nathan Lustig: Hi Justin, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  Can you give me a brief overview of your company?

Justin Beck: Sure.  PerBlue was created when we started developing our flagship game, Parallel Kingdom, in January 2008. The first version was released in October 2008 and we’ve been steadily gaining players and improving the game ever since. The game is on its 3rd major version and we currently have over 80,000 players.

We have 7 more or less full-time people working for us and are growing nicely. We have also developed several other applications for the iPhone and Android platforms but our most successful app remains Parallel Kingdom.  As we’ve grown we have found our business to be building great multiplayer games for mobile platforms.

NL: What kind of background did you have to be able to start a mobile gaming company?

JB: I have been programming since I was 12 years old and love to do it.  I graduated from UW-Madison with a Computer Engineering and Computer Science Degree and I interned as a software engineer at Google and as a program manager at Microsoft on their ASP.NET team.

NL: Many founders of startups have some sort of an “ah-ha moment” when they first got the idea for their company.  Did you have one and what was it?

JB: I’m thinking that could be true for us.

I was working on a different startup with some friends from Google.  We were going to build a community bar and real-time chat for webpages as a script mashup, which was going great.  But when Andrew Hanson (my partner) and I were doing homework one night, we starting thinking about the next game we should make.  I was like, we should build something mobile, something people actually would play, simple, and we should throw GPS into it somehow to make it interesting.

From that conversation, we started with Parallel Kingdom.  It was about a month later when I realized the mobile space was really growing and I should invest myself into build a company around that space.  This was before the iPhone Appstore even existed.  I would say that was my “ah-ha” moment.  I just knew it.  It wasn’t a tough choice.

NL: What is the biggest reason you founded your startup?

JB: I love adventure.   I saw building a company as the next challenge in my life.  Two of my life goals were to work at Google and Microsoft.  I had been there and gotten offers from them, but this opportunity came up and the timing couldn’t get much better.  Many people assume lots of things about people who run their own business, many of these are explicitly not true with me.

I actually really like working for someone else and trying to make them as successful as possible.  I also really have no interest in the money.  I took a 2 year pay cut to do PerBlue.  So for me, it’s the adventure and challenge.

NL: What is the biggest unexpected challenge you had to overcome?

JB: I would say my biggest unexpected challenge was how hard it is to be a really good manager of a creative team. I am still working on it, but doing it well is very hard.

NL: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a startup?

JB:

1.       Play to win, commit yourself to playing the game and be willing to be very flexible in how you navigate the pathway.   Watch and model people who have built successful companies and learn from them.  (Watching failure doesn’t teach you how to succeed)

2.       Have a specific goal: we are going to do “this.” Drive yourself and your team to this goal.

3.       Have a schedule, (roadmap) that is a reasonable plan of getting to that goal.

4.       Commitment and talent are the 2 most important traits of your teammates.

5.       Stay focused.  You can only build one business at a time.  Choose your business and stick to it till its done.

6.       It’s a marathon not a sprint, pace yourself emotionally, mentally, physically

NL: What are three websites you check everyday?

JB: Not many. Pandora, Facebook, Google Analytics, PKStats, Bug Tracking is my honest list. But websites I check weekly bi-weekly when I am thinking about strategy or competitive research.

http://techcrunch.com
http://news.ycombinator.com/

I have my executives I try to watch.  Marc Pincus (Zynga), Eric Schmidt (Google), Jason Fried (37signals)

I like watching talks, Google Tech Talks are amazing.

NL: Do you have any funny stories or amusing anecdotes about starting or running the company?  Do people ask you “when are you going to get a real job?”

JB: There are lots of funny stories.  One of the easiest ones to explain is DB Death Day and yes it is a PerBlue holiday.  We had some problems with the database and issued a statement that:  “There was a massive forest fire in PK, resulting in every tree in the western hemisphere being burnt to the ground.”  Along with the loss of every GeoBuzz post.  It was a sad day, but somewhat comical looking back.

I have actually never heard that statement about getting a real job.  Most people are very encouraging.  Most people don’t understand what it takes to build a business. So that makes their empathy hard. I think the most negative person towards PerBlue was my recruiter at Microsoft when I turned down their offer and counter offer, but that was her job.

NL: What/who has been the biggest help to you and your company?

JB: My mentors have been amazing.  During PerBlue’s life I have now had about 7 mentors, as the life stage of the company changes the mentors I use and depend on also changes.  But I can’t imagine doing this without mentors.  My partner Andrew has also been an amazing asset, starting a company with a partner is an extremely wise idea.  Team is what makes the company, without the PerBlue team, we would have never gotten off the launch pad.

NL: What is the most fun part of running your company?  The least?

JB: I would say the most enjoyable parts of running PerBlue, are working with the team, building and solving big problems, having things work, and seeing players love the game and play it so much and actually see our business become successful.  I personally get a lot of gratification when I see my co-workers growing and become excellent at what they do.  I think the least enjoyable part of my job are the days when it seems like everything “breaks” or when things just don’t go like you need them to.

NL: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, you had some great advice.  Good luck in the future.

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Is Your City Startup Friendly?

I was talking with a few people at the last High Tech Happy Hour and the last Capital Entrepreneurs meeting about what makes a city startup friendly.  We came up with a short list, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  What makes a city startup friendly and how can cities that are not startup friendly make changes to become more startup friendly?

Startup friendly cities need to have a high density of smart people.  Potential founders of startups need other smart people who could be potential partners, contractors or employees.  Most cities that have a high density of smart people happen to be cities with large universities that attract a huge supply of smart people each year.  It helps that these cities have universities because it’s even better to have young smart people, rather than simply smart people.  Young people can afford to take bigger risks and are more willing to work longer hours for little or no pay than older people who may already have families, mortgages or other obligations.

Another helpful characteristic is low cost of living.  If founders can live cheaply and find cheap office space, it makes it much easier for a startup to get off the ground.  Additionally, having a low cost of living allows startups to stretch their investment dollars much further.  Employees, rent and just about everything else is cheaper.  I talked to one Madison-based founder who has successfully sold one company and is on his second startup who believes that Madison’s low cost of living is one of the most important reasons why his company succeeded and his competitors did not.

Access to affordable office space in a business incubator is another key characteristic of startup friendly cities.  Business incubators are an important asset for startups, especially if they are affordable.  Unfortunately, many incubators I’ve seen end up charging close to market rates.  Incubators are an important step for startups because they are usually the first move from working out of the founder’s bedroom.  They also provide camaraderie, connections and bring startups out of isolation because the rest of the people in your office are also running startups.  It’s much better for a startup to move into an affordable business incubator with other startups, rather than move into an affordable office space next to a lawyer, construction contracting company and a non-profit.

It is extremely important for startups to interact in a community of other startups. Having other entrepreneurs around, especially entrepreneurs who have been successful in the past, is important because founders can ask for advice when they have problems.  A mentor program like MERLIN Mentors is very important because it matches up experienced people who have been successful before with inexperienced startup founders.  These mentor programs not only build a community of startups, but they provide specific feedback to startups and help them overcome challenges that they might not if they were left on their own.

Another important aspect of an entrepreneur community is free networking events like the High Tech Happy Hour and Capital Entrepreneurs. Events like the High Tech Happy Hour bring smart people together who are not necessarily focused on entrepreneurship and startups, but are fertile ground for finding employees.  Local, free entrepreneurship groups like Capital Entrepreneurs offer founders of startups a place to meet others who are doing what they are doing.  It also creates a community and gives founders of startups some semblance of co-workers.  Starting a startup can be lonely if you do not get out and interact with others who are facing the same challenges and dilemmas that you are.

These free networking events provide a way for experienced entrepreneurs to mingle with people who are just getting started.  Experienced entrepreneurs set an example and show everyone in the city that starting a company is viable.  They can also provide advice, but simply having experienced, successful entrepreneurs in your city makes your city startup friendly.  Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have these networks.  Others like Madison and Boulder are just getting started, but are on the right track.

These experienced entrepreneurs can introduce inexperienced founders to professional service providers like lawyers and accountants who are willing to help entrepreneurs.  It also helps if your city cultivates a network of experienced, flexible professional service providers.  These service providers should be willing to take equity, give discounts or defer payments into the future for startups that they think are going to be successful.  It is extremely helpful if startups can still get top notch professional services, without breaking the bank during the company’s research stage.

These professional service providers can help startups gain access to capital that they need to fund their business.  Ideally, a startup friendly city will have VCs, angels and other rich people who are interested in investing in startups, but not all cities must have all three.  A strong network of professional service providers who work with entrepreneurs can make introductions to rich people who are willing to invest.  Some startup friendly cities can be heavy on angel and rich individuals, but light on VCs.  Another way cities can help entrepreneurs is by advocating for small business loans and other alternative ways of funding.

Startup friendly cities generally have support programs in place for entrepreneurs.  They tend to have low taxes.  It is much easier to start a startup in a city that does not have 10% sales tax, like the city of Chicago.  The state of Wisconsin provides a 25% tax credit to angel investors who invest in certified Wisconsin startups.  Wisconsin also offers low interest loans that are forgiven if the startup fails.  Both of these programs help entrepreneurs succeed.  Other states have implemented programs that fund early stage startups.

Finally, many people who start statups generally like living in cities.  They like walking to work and living in tolerant environments.  They like to be able to meet in coffee shops, go to interesting restaurants and enjoy life with their peers.  It’s best to have good weatherLow crime and good schools are also helpful.  Overall, creating a city with high quality of life keeps the three most important ingredients, experienced entrepreneurs, rich people and smart, young people, in one place.

Cities can begin to implement policies that help foster entrepreneurship.  Cities can start by creating a business incubator for startups that offers offices (with windows) at 50% discounts.  They can start to create mentor programs like MERLIN and create entrepreneur networking groups like Capital Entrepreneurs.  Service providers can start offering discounts or equity for service deals.  Once one service provider has success offering this deal, it quickly becomes the industry standard.  I’m not advocating that government do all of this.  People who want to see their cities become more friendly to startups have to do some of the work themselves.

Government does have a place.  It can offer incentives for startups to move to their cities.  It can lower taxes or offer government programs that provide easier access to capital.  It could create a new business incubator and it could help create a community of entrepreneurs by publicizing entrepreneur success stories or the local startup community.  Government could help make cities more startup friendly simply by being more friendly to startups themselves.

Characteristics of Startup Friendly Cities

Figure out if your city is startup friendly.  Rate your city on a scale of 0-2 for each characteristic and score total the score at the end.  0 means that your city does not do it at all, 2 means your city does is very well.

  1. Access to capital
  2. High concentration of smart people
  3. Low cost of living
  4. High concentration of rich people
  5. Network of experienced entrepreneurs
  6. Mentor programs
  7. Low cost startup incubator
  8. Low taxes
  9. Governemnt support
  10. Flexible professional service providors
  11. Free networking events
  12. High quality of life
  13. Tolerant, vibrant, walkable cities
  14. Large universities
  15. Culture of entrepreneurship
  16. Educated workforce
  17. Good weather
  18. High concentration of science and technology workers
  19. Direct national flights
  20. Entrepreneurship advocacy groups

I would say Madison, WI gets a score of 23/40.  Milwaukee gets a 13/40.  San Francisco gets 36/40.

How startup friendly is your city?  Do you agree with my list?  Do you have any characteristics to add?

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How NFL Coaches are like Midlevel Workers in Corporate America

Bill Belichick is widely thought of as the smartest coach in the NFL.  He has been hugely successful, coaching the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl four times in his 9 years of coaching, winning three.  Like many successful people, Belichick rubs many NFL fans the wrong way, leading many to revel in his failures.  Part of the schadenfreude can be explained by his somewhat abrasive personality and win at all costs mentality.  He was caught up in the NFL cheating scandal a few years ago where he was accused of ordering Patriots employees to tape opponents practices before important games.

It was no wonder that Belichick was universally slammed by pretty much everyone after his decision to go for it from his own 30 yard line in the 4th quarter last night’s Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts.  Here’s the situation.  The Patriots were winning by six points with a little over two minutes to go.  The Patriots faced 3rd and 2 from their own 28.  A first down in this situation wins the game.  The Colts defense stopped the Patriots on 3rd down, forcing a 4th and 2.  Instead of punting, Belichick ordered his offense back out onto the field to go for it.  They didn’t get it and Peyton Manning drove the Colts 28 yards for the game winning touchdown.

It’s obvious that the Patriots should have punted and forced the Colts to go 70 yards to try to win the game, right?  To steal a line from Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.  Belichick is way ahead of the curve.  According to research by David Romer at UC-Berkely, NFL teams punt way too often.

The Patriots convert first down from 2 yards out 76% of the time (ESPN’s stat from Sportscenter).  This stat means that by going for it, the Patriots had a 76% chance of winning the game.  Belichick only had to think that his defense would give up a touchdown to Peyton Manning and the Colts offense at a lower rate for it to be a good decision.  Manning had already driven the Colts to three 75+ yard touchdown drives in under two minutes in the game.  Belichick made the decision to go for it and this time it did not pay off, which brings me to why I love watching him coach a game.

Coaches in all sports, but especially football, almost always play it safe and go with conventional wisdom.  I’ve written about the lack of innovation in football before, mostly relating to play calling.  Last season I came up with a hypothesis:

I think it is because coaches fear being fired for not just doing poorly, but doing poorly a different way.  If coaches go with the conventional wisdom and fail, they will not be criticized as harshly as if they experiment and find new ways to fail.  If they succeed, like Mike Martz’s high-flying pass offense for the Rams called “The Greatest Show on Turf,” they are given some credit, but when the same coach experiences a minimal decline, he is criticized more harshly than a conventional coach.  For example, when Martz decided to pass in a late game situation, just like he had during other times in the game and failed, he was roundly criticized.  If he had run and failed, the players would have been criticized for not executing.   There is no upside for innovation here.

Today, I found out that this hypothesis has a name, via the Freakonomics blog:

If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing. This introduces what economists call a “principal-agent problem.” Even though going for it increases his team’s chance of winning, a coach who cares about his reputation will want to do the wrong thing. He will punt, just because he doesn’t want to be the goat. (I’ve seen the same thing in my research on penalty kicks in soccer; it looks like kicking it right down the middle is the best strategy, but it is so embarrassing when it fails that players don’t do it often enough.) What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.

It takes a leader to be willing to go against the grain, even when he knows that he will be excoriated by his peers.  He could have taken the easy way out.  If he did, today’s headlines would most likely read “Patriots defense no match for Peyton Manning and the Colts.”  Instead, we have “Colts make Pats pay for Bill’s unusually dumb decision.”

I think that this problem helps explain why big companies are slow to innovate.  They face the same problem.  Mid-level employees face the same problem as NFL coaches.  If they simply keep their heads down and do what 99% of the other workers would do, they will get credit if they succeed, but face much less criticism if they fail.  Most corporate cultures punish failing in a new way much more than failing the same old way.  If a mid-level employees actually do something innovative and it works, many times they are given less credit than they deserve.

I think this problem helps explain why startups are able to innovate much faster than big companies.  If big companies want to innovate faster, they need to empower their employees to go against the grain and make tough decision.  They need to actually mean it.  Companies need to view a failure for what it is, a failure, rather than get caught up in how the person failed.  This is not to say that someone who decides to pull the corporate equivalent of going for it on 4th and 20 from their own 5 yard line shouldn’t be criticized.  As long as the decision has a reasonable chance of success, they should be applauded for their innovation, rather than criticized for thinking outside the box.

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