Three Reasons Why It’s the Dawn of the Entrepreneurial Age

Three Reasons Why It’s the Dawn of the Entrepreneurial Age.

Opening Keynote, TechVenture2009 Conference, 16 Nov 2009, Tampa

Some moments matter more than others.

Humanity is at an inflexion point in history that makes this moment the Entrepreneur’s moment. When the history of this time is written, they will call it the true dawn of the Entrepreneurial Age. If entrepreneurship is where technology and business come together, then historians will call this the time when technology and business truly got down to… business. They will point to the dot com boom of the late 90’s as a trifling flirtation between technology and business, a momentary dalliance, an awkward first date. Exciting at first, and full of extraordinary promises, full of exuberant irrationality, with both sides boasting about how good it’s all going to be when they got home. (Maybe even suggesting an ever so titillating little fantasy about inviting Hollywood into the ménage…)

But then, when push came to shove at the end of the night, there seemed to be a lot of uncoordinated fumbling between technology and business. Like with many first dates, the desire and interest were there, but it turned out that neither technology nor business had any long term game. The great paroxysm of mutual adoration just sort of petered out, and, next morning, after a cordial goodbye, technology and business, each head-achy and cotton mouthed, took a brisk walk of shame back to their neutral corners. The boom ended, the bubble burst.

Technology and business sort of went their separate ways for a while, and entrepreneurship hummed along as a quiet, background process.

But now, a decade later, technology and business are flirting again. They’re a little older, a little wiser, a little more deliberate, and prepared to take their time and get it right.

And so I say it is this time – not just this epoch, but this very year, in fact, this 4th quarter of 2009 – that will be hailed as the true dawn of the entrepreneurial age. There are 3 reasons for this: 1. the true internet age, which enables modern entrepreneurship, has arrived; 2. the financial crisis has elevated entrepreneurship to godlike status; and 3. the culture of free/sharing/crowd-source/open-source is maturing.

1. The internet age is really here.

Are facebook friends with one of your own parents? Have you recently explained to another person how to tweet? Did you know that, as of 2007, half the people on Earth have a cell phone? We are now all connected all the time – in a new and completely unprecedented way – and that changes everything. I have written previously on the implications of this.

2. The financial crisis has focused a great deal of expectation on entrepreneurship.

In the throes of the deep financial crisis from which we’re only now beginning to recover, a great deal of attention has been focused on entrepreneurship as the bright light that will guide us back to our prior economic greatness.

Can entrepreneurship save the economy?

Entrepreneurship is miraculous, there can be no doubt.

As you know, if you’ve been following along, it just totally blows my mind that the hydrogen atoms in the water that makes up 70% of my body were created in the big bang’s very fires of creation some 14 billions years ago, and the carbon in my cells was created inside an exploding star some 5 billion years ago along with everything else in the periodic table of the elements, and all this stuff just floated around in space for a while until the carbon and the hydrogen and a bunch of the rest of it managed to smash together in orbit around the sun and then they turned into rocks and oceans and bacteria and Australopithecus and you and me and skyscrapers and iPhones. I mean, the universe made some stuff that turned into the slime on a hot rock in space, which, after eons of reproductive success, turned into you and me and our inventions. More particularly I’m amazed at the capability of the 5-pound hunk of jelly in each of our heads, the most complex machines in the universe as far as we know, in which electrochemical potentials race around constantly dreaming up new ideas or just dreaming about old ones (more often than not, dreaming about past or future instances of the aforementioned reproductive success), and that we, the soapy film on a watery planet circling a standard-issue star, that we can sit here and dream stuff up and then make our dreams manifest in the real world… that we, little bits of the universe, little highly organized matrices of smoke from the stellar furnace… that we can have ideas and dreams and we can look at the world every day and we can say “I can make it better.”

Well, it seems to me that the universe is veritably programmed for entrepreneurship and that entrepreneurship may in some sense be the very purpose and meaning of life, the very reason we exist, and so yes, yes, taking that cosmic mandate into account, yes, I do think that entrepreneurship is up to the task of saving this country’s economy.

Why has the financial crisis brought so much expectation to bear on entrepreneurship? Because when the old ideas are obviously, inescapably broken, the need for some new ones becomes easier to swallow.
For the first time in modern history, the conservative business practice is to embrace the new and the different. The financial crisis has taught us that our reliable institutions of yesterday are fallible, and every once in a while we need some fresh new ideas about how to run things.

This is unnatural for us. Embracing the new is not easy for us. We come from schools of fish and herds of animals and bands of monkeys for whom sameness is a survival trait and standing out from the crowd can get you eaten. We instinctively dislike change.

When Robert Fulton went down to the Hudson River in 1807 and said, “I propose to propel a boat up and down the river using naught but the power of steam,” they laughed at him and called his boat Fulton’s Folly. “It’ll never work,” they said. Newspaper editorials were written deriding the project. “Why do we need steam engines?” they said. “Sails and oars work perfectly fine.”

And of course, Fulton was right, and everyone else in the world was wrong.

Everyone who’s ever said, “It’ll never work,” has, for the most part, been wrong. Nevertheless, every innovation comes with a small contingent of persistent naysayers standing around taking pot shots at it. It’s as though our fear of change forces us to insist blindly on the impossibility of change.

Do those cries of “it’ll never work” sound familiar to you?

The conventional wisdom nowadays is that the Chinese can take our jobs, and they can manufacture our stuff, but that’s OK because the Chinese can only copy, they cannot innovate. Chinese innovation will never work.

On October 28, 2009, Techcrunch reported the story of Song Li, proprietor of a company called Zhenhai, which is a Chinese version of Now, Zhenhai did start off as a knock-off of, but Song Li didn’t just adopt the model wholesale. You see, romantic matchmaking has been a cottage industry in China for thousands of years, and it has survived to modern times. So zhenhai is free to use and free to search. If you find someone you want to date, however, you call one of Zhenhai’s matchmakers and you pay the company for the matchmaker’s services. This unique twist represents an innovative ushering of ancient tradition into the modern world.

O-M-G! The Chinese are innovating.

At around 1.5 billion people, the Chinese population outnumbers ours in the U.S. by four or five times. Say what you will about their rigid governmental controls and their tendency to copy our stuff, anyone who thinks that someone in a crowd of a billion and a half people isn’t going to cultivate a good idea once in a while is ignoring basic statistics.

3. It is the Dawn of the Culture of Sharing

What we’ve realized now that we’re all connected is that we like to share stuff. Especially music. But also ideas and recipes and political philosophies and stories… heartwarming stories of personal triumph and desperately agonizing stories of tragedy and hardship… and, of course, videos of dogs on skateboards and cats playing the piano.

We’re good at sharing. We’ve been sharing since we invented the campfire.

But we’re a bit schizophrenic about sharing when you come to think of it. We force sharing down our kids’ throats. When one of our children refuses to share a toy, what do we say, especially if the other child’s parents are nearby? We tell our child they need to learn to share and we force them to give up their toy!

But we don’t exactly enforce those sharing rules on ourselves in adulthood do we?

“Honey! Bob from across the street won’t let me drive his new Lamborghini.”

About some things we become proprietary. We have trouble assigning a value to things that are incapable of ownership. But with the crowdsourcing movement, these lines are blurring.

Wikipedia is probably the single most prominent example of the enormous value wrought by a culture of sharing. With millions of contributors, Wikipedia is pretty much the definitive source of all knowledge on the planet. Wikipedia is only one example of how a culture of sharing and crowdsourcing can create extremely high value. What the open source culture of sharing demonstrates is that people will contribute their time and energy and resources to an effort without getting paid, just because it makes the world a better place.

At some level, the open source culture of sharing is based on the proposition that the rising tide raises all of our boats. We’re all in this together. More sharing means more ideas in circulation. And that means more entrepreneurship.

So for these 3 reasons (the internet age is here, the world is holding its breath for entrepreneurship to succeed, and the burgeoning culture of sharing is in full swing) we’re at a special moment in history.

What does this mean for Tampa Bay as we strive to meet George Gordon’s challenge of becoming a top ten technology hub within the next five or six years?

A community has no will but for the will of the people who live there, no direction but for the sum total of the individual directions of its citizens. A community has no goal, attains no goal, that is not set and achieved by the people in that community.

Advice for an Aspiring Tech Hub

If you want entrepreneurship for Tampa Bay – if you want to see this great romance between technology and business blossom into a full-on marriage living in a McMansion in Palma Ceia and sending their kids to Academy of the Holy Names – if you want entrepreneurship to live strong in Tampa Bay, you personally must take action.

Don’t assume no prophets come from Nazareth. Don’t assume the guy next door can’t be the next Steve Jobs.

The founders of next hot global startup could very well be sitting in this room.

Encourage the entrepreneurs in your life. Celebrate their crazy ideas. When you hear yourself thinking, “It’ll never work,” take heed: for every single great, world changing idea, there has a coterie of weak-minded folks claiming the effort was doomed and would never work. In every instance, those people have been dead wrong.

Criticism is good. Skepticism is healthy. But blind pessimism and thoughtless anti-meliorism are just annoying.

Don’t be dissuaded by failure. It’s an artifact of the creative process and if you’re doing entrepreneurship right, failure is mandatory. Fail early, fail often. When you see your friendly neighborhood entrepreneur experiencing a momentary failure, or a spectacular failure, pat them on the back and remind them that they’re smarter now than they were.

Paul Graham, entrepreneur and founder of Y Combinator, says to be like Silicon Valley a city needs two things: nerds and money. (Technology, meet business.)

We’ve got a bunch of both here in Tampa.

Let’s hook them up. Let’s get the nerds some money.

Take a deep breath and recognize that entrepreneurship requires a deep cultural acceptance of new ideas. So naturally the hotbeds of entrepreneurship in this country tend to lean ever so slightly to the left of center. Conservatives tend to underestimate the power of a new idea. The most successful entrepreneurs come from the blue states.

Mahatma Ghandi, when faced with the rigid perspective of his orthodox rivals, said, “First they ignore us, then they laugh at us, then they fight us, then we win.”

Is it time to re-think the legality of non-compete agreements? The state of California has the 8th largest economy in the world, and I don’t know if you know this, but non-compete agreements are unenforceable in California. There are probably a lot of reasons for the colossal success of the technology venture sector in Silicon Valley, but I wonder if one of them might be a lack of restraint on the ability of smart, competent people to change jobs at will and go work for – or start – competing companies.

Try not to try to own everything. Try not to keep all the goodies for yourself. The culture of sharing is alive and well in Silicon Valley. In my experience, when you meet with a Silicon Valley investor and they’re not interested in working with you for whatever reason, the first thing they do is name three or four people from their personal network with whom you should meet, and sometimes they make the calls for you.

No one in Silicon Valley tries to own you. They’re proud to share you.

Also in my experience, there are some investors here in Tampa Bay who refuse to look at any venture opportunity that has already been shopped. If they’re not first in line, they’re not interested. Behavior like that will not help us become more entrepreneurially friendly. It will cause is to choke on our own frail egos.

Remember that we’re all in this together; what’s good for one of us is probably good for all of us.

I’m not suggesting we should abdicate capitalism, for God’s sake. I mean, if entrepreneurship is about anything it’s about making all the money in the world and sticking it in your ears and telling the rest of the world to go suck it.

I believe it should be the mandate of every organization in this region – every technology group, every entrepreneurship group, every chamber of commerce, every economic development organization, indeed every person or entity who wants Tampa Bay to become a more fertile garden for entrepreneurship – it should be their mandate to purposefully reach out to every other similarly situated organization in this region and ask, “How can we work together? How do our agendas dovetail? How can we help you? What are we doing that you’d like to be a part of?”

I would like to commend the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, in fact, and its outreach committee, whose charter is just that: outreach – connection – mutual help.

With just a little bit of outreach, and a willingness to stop hoarding ownership of our own particular puny plot in the sand, but with a slightly broader, more enlightened perspective, we can come together as a community, as the village that is rumored to be required in the raising of a child… and we can raise ourselves some startup companies.

There are some folks who did not want this event to happen. They are rumored to have encouraged their constituents not to participate in this event as a guest or sponsor. These are folks who apparently feel as though they are entitled to exclusive enjoyment of the venture community ‘round hyar.

To those who would attempt to thwart well-meaning efforts like this one, I say shame on you. Not only are you acting like a big fat bully. You are not being true to your core values.

If you truly care about Florida’s venture-backed sector, if you truly want to see the cultivation of more entrepreneurship in Tampa Bay, then when an event meant to celebrate entrepreneurship pops up on your radar screen, your only response, your only ethically and morally and intellectually consistent response, is to stand up and say, “Congratulations, how can we help?”

And if you don’t do that, if you don’t extend a hand in support, if you don’t at least stand there and applaud… if you instead elect to attempt to maintain the status quo and affirmatively try to quash the hot new upstart… if you complain about limited resources to go around, in a veritable echo of all those wrongheaded pessimists throughout history who’ve said “it can’t be done – it will never work,” then how seriously can the rest of us be expected to take your professed endorsement of entrepreneurship, really?

Because entrepreneurship is here to stay, and the shows aren’t going to stop, and the conferences and the breakfasts and the after-5’s aren’t going to stop, whether produced by David Glass or the next hot producer, and I look forward to the day when I can go see ten business plan presentations every week, every day here in Tampa Bay, and there’s event after event after event… and entrepreneurship blossoms.

And remember, to those who would attempt to forestall any so-called “competing” activities out of some shameful, intellectually weak, misguided, hubris-laden effort to control that which by its very nature cannot be controlled, I say again…

First they ignore us, then they laugh at us, then they fight us, then we win.

Thank you.

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