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MIT is a special place.
I was a student there from 1983 – 1990, got two degrees, and was booted out of a Ph.D. program well before I finished. I lived in a fraternity (ADP) on the edge of Central Square (351 Mass Ave) for four years. My first office was that address – for several years I got more mail each day than almost everyone else I was living with combined. My next office was 875 Main Street, just behind the frat. And daily, between Monday and Friday, I walked down Main Street to Sloan or Mass Ave to the rest of campus.
IHTFP was my motto, along with everyone else I knew. If you need some clues for what IHTFP can mean, there are many lists on the web. But “I Hate This Fucking Place” is one side of the coin and “I Have Truly Found Paradise” is the other. However, the coin – at least for me – was not equally weighted so it didn’t land 50% of the time on each side. I’ll let you guess which side it landed on more frequently.
I read Samuel Jay Keyser’s amazing book Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows the past two nights. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while but for some reason hadn’t read it. As I was scrolling through the infinite list of unread books I stumbled upon it and consumed it. It was just awesome.
I vaguely remember Keyser from when I was at MIT. Much of this book takes place during the 1980s when I was there and I remember many of the stories and situations he describes. I also remember a number of them he doesn’t that he doesn’t talk about that he was likely involved in, such as when my frat was put on probation and two of our members were suspended for a year in an “inappropriate publishing incident”, which coincided with a five year shift in campus views on pornography and sexual harassment during a period when the male / female ratio shifted from 80/20 to 50/50.
Toss in apartheid, a thing called the “MIT Committee on Discipline”, huge building and construction projects on MIT land around a very debilitated and pre-gentrified Central and Kendall Square, and a generational shift clearly to Gen-X as undergraduates, and you’ve got a pretty interesting time to be a senior member of MIT’s Administration.
Keyser is a great writer and story teller. He captures so much of what I remember clearly, but shows it to me from the administration’s, rather than a student’s, frame of reference. He does it with humor, even in the most frustrating and maddening moments. And like everyone I’ve ever encountered at MIT, he continuously teaches throughout.
I loved this book. As Amy read a Game of Thrones book (the last one I think – she just said something about really big dragons and lots of fire and death), I kept reading her sections out loud. As a Wellesley graduate now on the Wellesley board, who knows MIT culture and students well, I got some good belly laughs out of her.
Even though IHTFP, I will always think of MIT as a special place. So much of what I am, and how I approach things, was forged in the intense place that I describe as a daily assault on one’s self-esteem. A book like this one helps me remember the power of it against the backdrop of an institution that is a remarkably complex and amazing place.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. On an almost daily basis, someone out in the world sends me a physical book, which I love. While I have something like 500 unread books on my Kindle, I still love laying on the couch reading a physical book. So the stacks of books that show up keep me company and I chomp through them whenever I need a break from everything else.
Yesterday I read No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet. It was awesome and I recommend it for any entrepreneur out there either working on a company or thinking about starting a company.
If you don’t recognize the name Danny Lewin there are two big things to know before you dive into this book. First, he was the co-founder of Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ: AKAM – currently valued at $8 billion.) Second, he was likely the very first person to die in the 9/11 attack.
There are lots of other interesting and unexpected things to know about Danny before you start the book. He was born in Denver. His parents made aliyah to Israel when he was a young teenager. He was built like a tank and was a member of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal. He longed to be at MIT.
Akamai’s original name was Cachet Technologies. They entered, but didn’t win, the MIT $50K competition in 1998. As a judge for the MIT $50k until 1996, there were always a lot of VCs hanging around. In this case, however, the only VC who truly had conviction to get behind Akamai was Todd Dagres – then of Battery Ventures, now of Spark Capital.
Akamai was an amazing pre-Internet bubble story. From nothing to IPO in less than 18 months, a market cap of > $20 billion, followed by a 99% decline in the stock price post-bubble. Over the last decade, however, they’ve demonstrated that they have a real business, now valued at $8 billion with Q313 revenue of $396m, Q313 GAAP Net Income of $80m, and cash flow from operations in Q313 of +$158m. Not bad for a company that was written off completely a decade ago.
This is the story of the creation of that company. And the people behind the creation, mostly notably Lewin. The author, Molly Knight Raskin, writes beautifully, deeply, and thoughtfully. She combines an origin story (for Akamai), a coming of age story (for Lewin), and a tragedy (for Lewin, his family, his extended family, and Akamai.) While the tragic ending, which comes much to early, is the end of the book, it’s short (less than 10% of the book), appropriate in its level of drama, and helps us process the amazing life that Lewin lived.
I’m tired of the classic boom bust popular media story arc of “hero emerges from nothing, the hero does amazing things, bad things happen and the hero crashes, watch how the hero is no longer a hero, the hero fights and claws his way out of the cellar and rises again to be a hero.” This is not one of those books. Instead, it’s a great biography of an entrepreneur, his company, and his all too short life.
As I continue to talk about Startup Communities, I say over and over and over again that the leaders have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else – who I call the “feeders” (government, university, non-profits, big companies, VCs, angel investors) – have an important role, but the leaders must be entrepreneurs. Now – members of feeder organizations can play a leadership role, but in the absence of a critical mass of entrepreneurs, the startup community won’t ever develop into anything meaningful.
I was interviewed recently in MIT Technology Review in an article titled It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs. It’s part of a series they are doing titled The Next Silicon Valley. It was a long interview by Antonio Regalado who boiled my rambling down into a bunch of coherent answers to specific questions.
For example, when he asked, “What’s the most important step an entrepreneur can take to create a startup community?” I answered:
“Just do stuff. It’s kind of that simple. It’s literally entrepreneurs just starting to do things. If you’re in a city where there’s no clear startup community, the goal is not raise a bunch of money to fund a nonprofit, the goal is not get your government involved. The goal is start finding the other entrepreneurial leaders who are committed to being in your city over the next 20 years. Then, as a group, get very focused on knowing each other, working together, being inclusive of anyone else who wants to engage, doing things that help recruit people to that geography, and doing selfish stuff for your company that also drives your startup community.”
He got underneath some great key points about startup communities with his questions, which follow.
- People talk about technology clusters. You talk about entrepreneurial communities. What’s the difference?
- What’s the most important step an entrepreneur can take to create a startup community?
- Let’s say you are the mayor. Would you rather bring Boeing to your city or have a startup scene?
- You seem to think a top-down approach is pretty toxic.
- What’s the evidence that startup communities can happen outside of traditional technology hubs?
- In your book, you say entrepreneurs need to make a 20-year commitment to a place. Does anyone really think in those time scales?
- How would you measure the success of a startup community?
- In Kansas City you bought a house and handed it over to some programmers. What’s the idea?
If you want the answers, go read It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs.
On Friday July 19th, I’ll be hosting Bill Aulet in Boulder to discuss his new book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Lessons To A Successful Startup.
Bill, the managing director for the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, is a close friend and amazing thinker on entrepreneurship. The book is a result of many years of his work and thinking on creating and scaling startups.
The event will take place at Rally Software in Boulder, CO from 9am – 12pm. Seating will be limited to 150 people which means you better get your tickets NOW!
Bill’s book Disciplined Entrepreneurship is currently available for pre-order, but will officially go on sale August 13th.
I hope you will join us!
In the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, my CU Boulder bathroom donation (well – the gift I gave to CU Boulder that resulted in me getting to name a bathroom) made the TV news tonight in Boston on Fox 25. There’s apparently a new bathroom news cycle because of William Falik’s gift to Harvard Law School for the Falik Men’s Room at Harvard Law School. While my bathroom at CU Boulder doesn’t have the same elegant name (it’s known as RRM 209 in the ATLAS Building, or the Feld Mens Bathroom on Foursquare), I’ve got a better quote: ““The Best Ideas Often Come At Inconvenient Times – Don’t Ever Close Your Mind To Them.”
The two minute news clip, along with a Skype interview I did this afternoon, follows. MIT – my offer is still open – don’t flush it.