Thriving Startup Community in Raleigh-Durham

There’s something about Raleigh-Durham’s high-tech startup scene that’s reminiscent of how the greater Boston area’s high-tech startup scene felt to me in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While I was 15 years younger then, and certainly more naive than I am now, that energy in Boston and Cambridge in those days was unmistakable and those who were part of the scene then will remember it as fondly as I do. Raleigh-Durham feels very much like that to me now and I suspect that other smaller markets comparable to Raleigh-Durham might feel the same way, as they each go through their own startup renaissance.  There are high degrees of enthusiasm, passion, and intelligence with very little arrogance, inferiority complexes and entitlement. While the startup ecosystem here has all the right pieces in place (world class educational institutes, state and local policy, public and private investments, infrastructure, talent, etc.) some for longer than others, the area needs a bit more time and cultivation until it gets to the next inflection point. There’s even a (mostly) friendly competition between Raleigh and Durham that adds to the area’s development.

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Boston Area Entrepreneurs: Have Lunch with Your Favorite CEO

My friend and entrepreneurial mentor Joe Caruso founded BREW (Boston Region Entrepreneurship Week) a few years ago and this year looks to be the biggest and best yet. As a quick aside, if you’re an entrepreneur in the greater Boston area you surely know (or at least know of) Joe. He’s reputation precedes him and it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs literally line up at his door to meet with him. While Joe is an active angel investor (with investments in HubSpot, Carbonite, Kinvey, SCVNGR & LevelUp, Skyhook Wireless, among many others) it’s through his intellectual capital that people find the most value.

Like previous BREW events, entrepreneurs have a chance to lunch with a selection of some of Boston’s hottest and most successful company CEOs and founders, including Jeremy Allaire, Desh Deshpande, Paul English, David Friend, Scott Griffith, Diane Hessan, Dharmesh Shah, among many others. But time is running out – so if you want to get involved with BREW, but especially have a chance to spend some quality time with a CEO who could share some very valuable wisdom and guidance (and potentially more), now is the time to make your request.

To request a lunch with a CEO, first check out the list here on the BREW CEO page, select your top 3 CEOs, and submit your request. The deadline is October 31st, after which time the CEOs will make their selections and schedule lunch with you. And your lunch will be just you and him/her – no interruptions.

Check out the list here, and read more about the CEO Lunch program here.

If you have any questions please let me know and I’ll do my best to help.

The Public’s Interest

Back when Bob and I started CitySquares, we did so based on some very important founding principals. We felt very strongly about serving the needs of local communities, local businesses, local artists, among others. Oftentimes we even contemplated the idea of establishing the business as a not-for-profit. We felt very strongly about serving the community, first and foremost. To the customers, to us, to the users, and to the organizations we partnered with, that’s what the brand was about, it was our brand promise. As we raised money from investors, as we felt the pressures of our preferred stockholders, and most notably when Lehman went under and the global economic crisis started, those values were tested, time and again. Our focus changed, our priorities changed, and like so many of the stories told in Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants (see my Sure Shot blog post on Small Giants), we learned some tough lessons. Even now, more than three years later, I clearly remember heated board meetings and arguments about what we “needed to do” and for whom we needed to do it.

Here I am now, starting Influential, a new business with an emphasis on the public good, with a focus on community, on people, on civics. While I have the benefit of history and its lessons, isn’t this the definition of insane? Alas! There’s a shift happening in society. Whether it’s because of Lehman, and the other institutions deemed Too Big to Fail, or because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there’s a backlash against corporations that don’t serve the interests of the people, of community, and of the public in general. There’s a backlash against prioritizing shareholder value over the public good. And now there’s a model for corporations who want to legally commit to putting the public good ahead of shareholder value. Thanks to the good people at the 501(c)3 B Lab, there’s the Benefit Corporation.

So what is a Benefit Corporation? While I highly encourage you to learn more on your own, I’ll quote the Benefit Corporation website,

Benefit Corporations are a new breed of corporation that are required to create a positive material impact on society and the environment and to meet higher standards of accountability and transparency.

At the time of this blog post, 19 states have passed benefit corporation legislation, allowing for the creation of benefit corporations, with several more pending.

And with that, I’m happy to say that Influential has incorporated itself as a benefit corporation. We are officially Influential, PBC. This, in and of itself, is not a terribly big deal, but what is exciting is that my co-founders and I agreed that we want to commit to these ideals, to the principles we feel so strongly about, and to lock-it-in, if you will, and literally make it part of our corporate charter and bylaws, to hold ourselves accountable and to enforce transparency. We’ve fully embrace the implications therein. We’re not done though. It’s not as simple as just deciding and incorporating as a benefit corporation, there are requirements, there are policies and practices that need to be implemented. And surely we’ll screw up. Old behaviors don’t change easily, but we will learn and we’ll get it right over time.

Last night, on the heals of reviewing the incorporation filings, I sat down to catch up on some reading, specifically this article from The Washington Post, titled “Maximizing shareholder value: The goal that changed corporate America.” The timing was perfect, it only validated our thinking, our decision, and our commitment to restore, in some small way, the ideals of the corporation. The following quotes really leapt off the page,

Across the United States, as companies continue posting record profits, workers face high unemployment and stagnant wages.

and

… a deep-seated belief that took hold in corporate America a few decades ago and has come to define today’s economy — that a company’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value. The belief that shareholders come first is not codified by statute. Rather, it was introduced by a handful of free-market academics in the 1970s and then picked up by business leaders and the media until it became an oft-repeated mantra in the corporate world.

and

“We don’t build companies to serve Wall Street,” said Margaret Blair, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “We build corporations to provide goods and services to a society and jobs for people.”

and cited from an article by Daedalus – American Academy of Arts and Sciences,

“Corporations have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices, thereby earning a profit that attracts ­investment to continue and enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy,”

[and]

“The long-term viability of the corporation depends upon its responsibility to the society of which it is a part. And the well-being of society depends upon profitable and responsible business enterprises.”

and

The mantra that executives and corporate board members have a duty to maximize shareholder value has become so ingrained that many people assume it must be codified somewhere. But legal experts say there is no statute in state or federal law requiring corporations and executives to maximize shareholder value.

and finally

“Let me be clear that this pressure comes from the media, from shareholder advocates and financial institutions in whose direct interest it is for the company to get its share price to go up,” Blair said in testimony before a House hearing in 2008, “and from the self-imposed pressure created by compensation packages that provide enormous potential rewards for directors and managers if stock prices go up.”

I could go on. And on. It’s a long article but very much worth the read for anyone interested in such topics. But there you have it, them’s the facts.

Anytime I’ve made a career decision because of money, I’ve regretted it. I’m not on this earth to make money. I’m not sure what I’m on this earth for, frankly, but it’s certainly not to make money. The time I have here is finite, and if I can work with purpose (let alone live with purpose), I will. And I’m thrilled about doing so through Influential, PBC. I’m especially thrilled about the moral commitment that I, and my co-founders, have made to stay true to ourselves, to our founding values, and I’m excited about tackling some huge problems, building a responsible company, building a company culture based on these values, and ultimately taking our time to do it right.

With this ideological commitment and framework underway, there’s another one I’m excited about – a management methodology called holacracy. But I’ll save that for a future blog post.

 

You Can Be Very Abrasive!

That’s what she said to me. It was around 2004 and she was a mentor to me. I held her in such high regard, I admired her and when she spoke I listened. We were having lunch on a beautiful spring day in Harvard Square, dining on a restaurant patio. She was cultured, she had the pedigrees, she’d been around the world and back, and she’d totally kicked ass over her highly entrepreneurial career. Now, in her early 60s, she was as wise as she was inspiring. And she said, “you know, you can be very abrasive sometimes.” My fork stayed steady in my hand while I paused and humbly and sheepishly responded, “I know.” I sat back to hear her out.

A few years later I find myself far from the guy I was then, yet very much still that guy. I feel like I’ve come full circle in many ways. And only when you go on that journey do you really learn. A pattern has been revealed.

Today I start a new stage of my career. After two and a half years at Litle & Co., as their Vice President of Marketing, and through their late 2012 acquisition by publicly traded Vantiv, I’m getting back to what I do best – startups and entrepreneurship. My experience at Litle & Co. was nothing short of educational and enjoyable. I learned so much. Most of all, I proved something to myself, and that was the biggest gain.

For the most part I’m taking time off, to enjoy spring and summer, to see friends and family, to enjoy life, but also to make my next move a smart one. The next stage of my career is an important one. At 37 it has to be wise. Not conservative, mind you, but wise. I often fantasize about a totally different career path, one of journalism, or of science, always something that might make real change in the world. As one of my best friends often says, “the last thing we need is another app to help me find the pizza, review the pizza, get a deal on the pizza, take a picture of the pizza, and clip recipes of the pizza.” I’m often frustrated by the lack of real innovation out there, truly transformative stuff, specifically in the digital space. Stuff that really makes a difference. But it’s not enough to be frustrated, that breeds apathy. Instead I’m embarking on something new here. I’m also often frustrated by what I’ll call the cult of personality that’s come out of and surrounds the Internet’s entrepreneurial scene, here in Boston, in NY, in Silicon Valley. Scenesters, hipsters, hangers-on. Me toos. That stuff is just such a turn off. And none of it even really matters. But again, it’s not enough to be frustrated and annoyed by it.

So with that I’m launching an experiment, if you will. I call it Sure Shot Labs. Sure Shot Labs will be the vehicle that helps me navigate this transition, these bumpy roads. Through Sure Shot myself and a few trusted and passionate colleagues will try something new for all of us. We’ll build products and invest in ideas we have, on our terms. The traditional start-up model is gone. The lean startup is here. We will consult, yes, we will make our clients happy indeed, and we will take the proceeds from those engagements and invest them in the lab, in our experiments, in innovation and in products. This will be fun.

When I think about that conversation with my mentor nearly 10 years ago, I think about the young man I was. I think about how “abrasive” I was. It was unearned confidence and it was fear. Back then I had to compete with others who were smarter, bigger, stronger, more experienced, more wealthy, more well connected, and more educated. Today I still have to compete with those people. And they still might be bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me, wealthier than me, more well connected and more educated. But what they lack, and have never been able to compete with, is my endless tenacity, my ability to wear them out, like a wolf and its prey. And the street smarts, the innate will to work smarter, to work harder, to out-think and out-smart, to out-play, to outwit and out-will. I’ve always been out of my league. I’ve always been in over my head. I’ve rarely done things their way. I don’t plan on starting today.

 

Point Counterpoint: Entrepreneurship

There are a lot of gainfully employed people out there who are considering the entrepreneurial path. I meet them all the time. Some are nascent entrepreneurs who have the idea but they lack the courage to just do it. They point to many things as reasons, excuses, rationalizations, what have you. Oftentimes these folks are listening to their gut – which is a good thing. They’re afraid of something, and they don’t quite know what it is. Having been on both sides of the equation, I thought I’d present my own version of Point Counterpoint based on some of the things I’ve heard wannabe entrepreneurs say to me. But first, a little history to create some context.

After futzing around in sales for a bit, I jumped into the high tech industry in the mid 1990’s and worked in a wide range of roles for Fortune 500 companies like DEC, GE Capital, Bell Atlantic, among others up until late 1998 when I joined a Cambridge, MA based dot com. That variety of work in the high tech and Internet industries provided me with incredibly valuable exposure, experience, and skills. It also fanned the flames of an entrepreneurial spirit that I think I’ve had all my life. After surviving several rounds of layoffs at the dot-com, my day came on January 4, 2001. The next morning, I woke up and told myself I was done being “an employee” and decided to start my own company, using the skills, experience, passion, gusto, and entrepreneurial energy that was now almost uncontainable. Hindsight being 20/20 of course, I started that company for a mix of the right and wrong reasons. The second company, CitySquares, I started for all the right reasons. I don’t need to walk you through my next 10 years, so I’ll jump ahead.

On January 4, 2011 (10 years to the day), I became “an employee” once again, not at a company of my own founding, but as Litle & Co.‘s new Vice President of Marketing. It’s been six months in this new role; at a successful, profitable, 200 person company, with a 12 person Marketing team, and I can say with both pride and joy that I’m very happy.

Having a solid decade of hard-nosed, scrappy, sometimes bloody, mostly enjoyable, and relatively fruitful entrepreneurial experience has given me an entirely new perspective and approach to being “an employee.” The kind of professional maturity, growth, and development that being an entrepreneur provides simply can’t be gained with any schooling or, I believe, traditional employment.

Point 1: I just can’t work my ass off, put in long days, week after week, month after month, year after year, all while putting up with someone else’s bullshit, stupidity, and politics with no real upside and payout at the end. So, being an entrepreneur puts me closer to the end-game, puts me in the drivers seat, and because I’m in charge, my success or failure is almost entirely up to me.

Counterpoint: That sounds really nice, and I said the same thing 10 years ago. The reality is that while, yes, you do end up in the drivers seat, you are in charge, your success or failure is almost entirely up to you, you still need others to get there. Unless your Tim Ferris, you’re going to need some partners (of some form), some staff, legal and financial services, and if you have half a brain you’ll leverage an advisory board. You might even need capital, and hence you’ll end up with interested shareholders, perhaps a board of directors. So yeah, now you’re the one creating the bullshit, the stupidity, and politicking. While you’re the one in charge of your success or failure, you’re also the one in charge of everyone else’s success or failure too. How’s that for pressure? How’s that for long days, weeks, months, years? The likelihood of “success” is no greater or lesser because you are in charge, if anything you just created more obstacles for yourself. It really boils down to one thing: how you define your success. Success means different things to different people, I’ve opined on this quite a bit here on this blog. So think about what you really expect out of this move you want to make, and sit on it for a while.

Point 2: I’ve got a killer product and I don’t want my employer to have a piece of it – it’s my idea, so I’m going to start my own company.

Counterpoint: Really? The only way is by yourself? I’m glad Christopher Columbus didn’t say that, or Neil Armstrong. Even Leonardo DaVinci had help from the Catholic Church. So OK, you’re the genius with the killer product, but you need to do product stuff right? Cool, and congrats on that title by the way, it’ll come in handy when the going gets tough, or when real business matters need attention – cuz you’re pretty much off the hook. Oftentimes you hear the “product entrepreneur” say, “I just need a partner, someone who can help me raise the money, move some product (aka ‘sell’ the product) while I build it.” There is nothing more annoying to me. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to do that stuff too, jerk! So, because you’re the nerd with the new gadget you get to scurry off into a corner somewhere while everyone else protects you from the bad people who want to make money off it? How dare they! Maybe you should go start a non-profit then, or build it and give it to a third world country – all so you can sleep better at night and keep your moral high-ground. Face facts Wozniak, you need to get some skin in the game too. Being an entrepreneur is about making business decisions, not product decisions. You don’t get to bake your cake and eat it too, while others sell the cakes, clean the bakery, and stock the shelves. You need to develop some real business skills, skills that will pay off for you in the end. If you don’t develop those business skills, everyone else will figure out a way to take your toy from you while you’re picking your nose. Trust me on this, those bad people who want to take your toy and get rich, they got skills – they’re trickier than you are. You might be a genius, but they’re snakes. Smarten up, and think twice before you hit the streets with your fancy new toy. In fact, given all this, if you really don’t have the chops, really don’t have what it takes, maybe you wanna reconsider talking to your employer about it – but talk to a lawyer first (you know, the bad people who do law stuff).

Point 3: I have big dreams, man. I wanna live this life, I wanna go places and see things, but I wanna do it in style – like on my own yacht, with my friends. You know, I wanna be a pimp!

Counterpoint 3: Playa please! I can’t even respond to you without wanting to punch your mouth. Ya know what – you’re right. Go out there, baller, get that money. I’ll be right here when that album you were gonna drop falls through the cracks, or when your steroids website costs more to build than it ever generates in cashflow, or that “super connected” club promoter ends up being shady and stops returning your calls. Yes, lightning does strike and some people in this world (out of 6 billion) do get rich quick. But if you get struck by lightning, it ain’t gonna make you rich, it might make you a bit brighter though… we can only hope.

Point 4: I just can’t work for someone else. I need to work at my own pace, in my way, with my style.

Counterpoint 4: You must be a millenial. I bet you went to a Charter school too. Hey, I mean that with respect – you are indeed one of god’s special creatures. This world is going to be a much better place once those baby boomers and gen-x’rs are outta the way. I honestly don’t know what to tell you, Moonbeam. I think you have some really really hard lessons ahead of you, and you’re going to find out that mommy and daddy learned the hard way too. They tried to protect you, they really did, but they were kidding themselves and actually doing you quite the disservice. Where’s Tiger Mom? Can you spend a couple days with her? I think she’s onto something. No one appreciates the beauty with which you see the world, and no one quite understands that the world can be a better place if they’d only _____. I think you should lead the way. The fact of the matter here is that no matter what I tell you, no matter what anyone tells you, you are a special creature that needs to experience real pain and suffering before you will listen to anyone. Sorry, that was advice.

Point 5: Life is short, I don’t want to spend it working in a cubicle, or on a construction site.

Counterpoint 5: See above. Also, what’s wrong with work? You know, that’s just a part of life right? You realize that Julius Caesar worked hard, right? You realize that Bill Gates still works his ass off right? You know those special ops guys who killed Bin Laden, Team 6? Yeah, those guys work their effing asses off. Are you better than them? If you don’t want to work, drop out of society and backpack around the world. Or better yet, find something you’re truly passionate about, and find a way to make a living doing it. It’s simple. Now stop whining and get back to work.

I’ll stop there. I hope I’ve made my point. Entrepreneurship is really effing hard, and when people go into business for themselves (be it their own bakery, their own manufacturing company, their own high tech company, ad agency, whatever) – it’s work, it’s hard work. Entrepreneurship is no yellow brick road, Dorothy. It can be, yes, it has the potential to yield wonderful results. You really need to consider the reasons for becoming an entrepreneur. That’s what needs assessment, not how you’ll do it, but why you’re doing it.

Am I better off now than I was when I started? Oh hell yeah. Did I fulfill the dream I had when I started? Oh hell no. But that dream changed with time. I started down the entrepreneurial path when I was 25. I’m 35 now – I’m a different person, with different values, different perspectives, different dreams and goals.

After 10 years of entrepreneurship, personally speaking, I’m a much happier and healthier person, no doubt, and I’m a better member of society. Professionally speaking, I feel like I’m just getting started.

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