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How Your Community Discourages Great Startups

 

The Lone-Wolf Startup?

Entrepreneurship evokes images of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos – but the reality is that the lone-wolf genius with the change-the-world idea is rare. Today, it’s almost impossible to build a startup alone.

It takes a community of shared knowledge and of shared resources. A community that is more than just entrepreneurs: it includes people who work inside large companies and institutions; and investors, partners and customers. It takes a community that understands and fosters entrepreneurship, so startups can thrive.

Every discussion of startup communities starts and ends with Brad Feld and with Boulder, Colorado. Brad Feld is a former entrepreneur, angel investor and venture capitalist, and cofounder of Techstars. Few have been such a driving force in startup communities than Feld. He literally wrote the book on Startup Communities.

Most of Startup Communities’ tenets are based on Feld’s experience within the Boulder entrepreneurial community. He calls it The Boulder Thesis, and it reads like a manifesto for building entrepreneurial communities. Most of the tenets are straightforward cultural traits, such as: build a strong sense of collaboration; be inclusive; experiment and fail fast; and maintain a ‘give before you get’ mindset.

Brad Feld is describing startup communities’ most successful cases like Boulder, Austin, Seattle or Los Angeles – the ones that became examples for the rest of the world. All over the world, people are trying to recreate those startup community success stories in their own regions. Alas, most get it comically wrong. And it can ruin the entrepreneurial community for decades. It’s called T-Ball Entrepreneurship.

All over the world, people are trying to recreate those startup community success stories in their own regions. Alas, most get it comically wrong.

T-ball Entrepreneurship

You know T-Ball: It’s a sport for 4 to 8 year olds. It’s an attempt to give kids a baseball-like experience in a safe environment.

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The Experience Slide

The Management Team. It’s the most important slide in the investor pitch deck. This is what all new entrepreneurs learn from the get-go. And it’s this slide that speaks volumes about the perception of “experience” in this modern era of entrepreneurship.

As investors and advisors to a statewide economic development program, each month we’d listen to pitches by dozens of promising startup ventures seeking funding. All across the country other investors and experts were having the identical experience. The startup ventures came in three groups: Mobile app or web companies started by enthusiastic 20-something year-olds; university research spin-offs headed by experienced professors; and deep industry solutions led by former executives.

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Browse Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any entrepreneurship blog, and within minutes you’ll find at least 20 gems of entrepreneurial wisdom quoted from the mega-successful moguls. This wisdom is guaranteed to jumpstart your venture, and inspire you to entrepreneurial greatness.

These “secrets” or “rules” for success sound so powerful that they’re immortalized in motivational posters and animated gifs. They get repeated by mentors, investors and other gurus as unquestioned, timeless wisdom.

Usually this entrepreneurial wisdom is about starting a company, or about the key qualities it takes to be a great entrepreneur: Timeless gems of wisdom, uttered by bona fide successes.

It’s all great advice, with one exception: If you’re a struggling entrepreneur working in the trenches, this wisdom doesn’t apply to you. It’s bad advice.

It’s like listening to one of those AM radio hosts, talking about managing your money: diversifying your portfolio; paying off your credit cards and loans; buying gold, bonds and mutual funds. All good advice. Sound, wise, and completely irrelevant if you’re just graduating college, and looking for a job just to pay the rent.

Not only is the advice irrelevant, it can be downright destructive. It’s as predictable, as it is wrong – for you.

So let’s take a look at 7 of the common nuggets of wisdom and see how they apply to the average startup entrepreneur:

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Money and Power without Transparency and Accountability: A Toxic Mixture

 

I should have known better. But sometimes it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

When all these revelations about sexual misconduct and harassment recently became public, people were shocked, outraged, and angry. I wanted to weigh-in with an emotional response of my own. Yet my overarching emotion was better described as the absence of one particular emotion: Surprise.

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Getting time and attention from experienced advisors is a rite of passage for the first-time entrepreneur.
Free Advice

Entrepreneurial advisors provide everything from informed feedback, market validation and technical direction, to introductions that can lead to partnerships, investors and customers.

Advisors are often former serial entrepreneurs themselves with well-earned battle scars from risking, failing and succeeding enough times to have sharp
insights into the venture building process. They have a special empathy for the struggling entrepreneur. There’s satisfaction in helping an up-and-coming entrepreneur avoid the same mistakes, and giving them insights that will help accelerate their progress.

Not all advisors have the right experience, and it is very hard for the entrepreneur to know which advisors can truly help their company.  It takes many first dates to find those perfect matches. But advisors kiss a lot of frogs too: Frogs, hunchbacks, maniacs, dreamers, neurotics – and I suspect a few psychotics. Entrepreneurs come in all sizes and for advisors it can be exhausting to try to help them all – particularly those entrepreneurs who don’t really want to be helped, or who are not ready for outside advice.

So, for the entrepreneur about to go seeking advice from advisors, here’s some blunt, very blunt, advice:

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I get bored and cynical every time I read a blog post from a first-time entrepreneur who has “discovered” the 7 amazing secrets to entrepreneurial success.  Usually their amazement is because they were so inexperienced in the first place, and some basic truths about business and entrepreneurship never occurred to them in the first place.  Much like how an 18 year-old living on their own for the first time is amazed to discover that ‘if you don’t pay your rent on time, the landlord will evict you.’ It’s an important lesson, but hardly an amazing secret that now qualifies them as an expert.

SFrustrated-PixleBayo many new entrepreneurs self-anoint themselves an expert because they’ve started out so clueless in the first place. Expertise is not measured in the difference between zero knowledge and what you have just learned – expertise is what you know more, or do better, than the majority – or better than other experts.

OK. End of that preemptive rant.

Now an exception.

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cisco-march-2015
This morning, our beloved pal Cisco moved on to that big playground in the sky.
Heartbroken and devastated doesn’t even begin to describe our loss. If you ever met him even once, he made a lasting impression. He was special, and he probably made you feel special too.
cisco-005If you ever spent time with Cisco, you’d walk away with a custom thesaurus just to describe him: Energetic, Playful, Smart, Mischievous and Loyal. But really, the one word is “Love.” He loved people. He loved life. He loved you.

Even when he was supposedly an “old” dog – his energy level wore out his playmates, pet-sitters and even little children. When strangers asked how old he was and I replied, 13, 14 or 15, they assumed this meant months and not years. He was always a puppy – his tail wagging wider than his smile-  with the prospects of being around people.

Cisco was not only a fast learner, and by far the smartest dog you’ve ever met – he was smarter than most people. We would often practice and play: I would tell him to sit in another room. He would patiently wait while

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