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On Wednesday and Thursday I spent two awesome days with my long time friend Martin Babinec (the founder of Trinet), his partner at Upstate Venture Connect – Nasir Ali – and about 1000 members of the Upstate New York entrepreneurial community.
Martin and I first met around 1991 when we were both building our first companies. We were participants in the inaugural Birthing of Giants class sponsored by Inc., Young Entrepreneurs Organization, and the MIT Enterprise Forum. It was a four day retreat at MIT’s Endicott House for entrepreneurs who were under 40 who had founded companies doing over $1 million in revenue at the time. I had barely crossed the threshold (Feld Technologies has 12 employees and was slightly bigger than $1m) and for the first time as an entrepreneur I spent a concentrated chunk of time surrounded by 50 of my peers. Looking back, it was a remarkable collection of people including my roommate at the program Alan Treffler (CEO of Pegasystems) and Ted Leonsis (then CEO of Redgate – acquired by AOL – where he was then vice-chairman for many years as he worked closely with Steve Case to turn AOL into the amazing company it was in the 1990′s.)
Enough reminiscing – when Martin came to Boulder last year to learn more about TechStars and tell me how he was planning to help rejuvenate the Upstate New York entrepreneurial community with his newest venture Upstate Venture Connect, I immediately committed to come spend a day or two with him talking about entrepreneur communities when I had some time. I don’t remember thinking hard about the early February date when we set the date last fall, but on Tuesday I found myself on a train from New York City to Albany as an effort to get to Upstate New York before the impending snowpocolypse.
Since Upstate New York had gotten so much snow so far this year, everyone was freaked out and all of the events on Wednesday were turned into conference calls that I was going to do from Martin’s house. Martin and I woke up Wednesday morning to a mild overnight snow and the gang involved hustled to get everything back on track. Over two days, I participated in nine meetings in Syracuse, Ithaca, and Rochester and met around 1000 people involved in Upstate New York’s entrepreneurial community, including entrepreneurs, angels, a few VCs, students, university people (profs, admins, and entrepreneurial leaders), more entrepreneurs, and a bunch of local and regional government folks.
When I do things like this, I don’t have a standard presentation. I hate giving powerpoint presentations – I think the world has already had too many of these, so I try to understand the audience in advance and tailor my talk to them. I try to do half talk and half Q&A so if I miss the mark there’s still plenty of time to go where the audience wants to take me. Plus I get bored listening to myself talk and want to just do random questions after a while.
Martin and Nasir arranged an incredible group of people. The two main themes were “building entrepreneurial communities” for events where there weren’t students and “Do More Faster: The Entrepreneurial Life” for the events with students. While I did plenty of storytelling about Boulder, TechStars, The Startup America Partnership, Do More Faster, and random entrepreneurial experiences I’d had, I found the dialogue and Q&A around building entrepreneurial communities to be extraordinary.
I’m a believer that there is the potential for over a hundred entrepreneurial communities across the United States. While Silicon Valley epitomizes an entrepreneurial community, there are natural resources everywhere in this country that can support continuous entrepreneurship – especially high growth entrepreneurship and innovation – over many years. I encouraged everyone to take a long view – 20 years from today – as they went about building their entrepreneurial communities. I also hammered home the point that entrepreneurs have to lead the entrepreneurial communities and that its a collaborative effort across all constituents, not a zero-sum game of one organization vs. another, and the entrepreneur has to be at the heart of it.
I came away optimistic about the potential for the Upstate New York region. I hadn’t realized that there were 500,000 students in Upstate New York universities (about 100,000 new students, or “fresh meat for the entrepreneurial community”, every year), which is a tremendous natural resource to build on.
Martin, Nasir, and everyone else who hosted and met with me while I was in Upstate New York – thank you for the hospitality. I had a blast and hope it was useful for you. As our friend Arnold once said, “I’ll be back.”
Last summer, my long time friend Martin Babinec and his colleague Nasir Ali asked me if I’d come spend a few days in Upstate New York talking about TechStars and entrepreneurial communities. I first met Martin around 1990 at one of the very first Birthing of Giants events and we were both early YEO members together. At the time, Martin had recently started a company called Trinet which today is a large and successful PEO. We’ve been friends for 20 years so it was easy for me to say yes to spend two days with Martin in Upstate New York and help him further his mission of expanding the entrepreneurial communities throughout the region.
Martin’s organization, Upstate Venture Connect, is hosting me on February 2nd and 3rd in Ithaca, Rochester, and Syracuse. The full agenda is on the website and the public events include:
2/2/11: 4:30p – 5:30p: Sage Hall Room B9, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
2/2/11: 6:00p – 8:30p: UVANY Capital Forum, Ithaca Country Club, 189 Pleasant Grove Road, Ithaca
2/3/11: 11:30a – 1:30p: Somewhere in Rochester (TBD, hopefully by 2/3/11!)
2/3/11: 3:00p – 4:30p: Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester
If you are interested in getting together, go check out the agenda which lists who to contact and how to register for the various events. If you bring a copy of Do More Faster, I’ll happily sign it. And yes, I realize that it is very cold in Upstate New York in February. Hopefully we’ll generate some entrepreneurial heat together.
On Tuesday, I spent the day at TechStars New York. After spending Monday in Washington DC for the launch of the TechStars Network, it was really fun to spend the day and go deep with the first TechStars NY class.
By the time I got to NY on Monday night I was exhausted. My day started at 5am with email, followed by a run, a few conference calls, and then the big announcement at the White House. Several other meetings followed with a final event at the Case Foundation. David Cohen and I then hopped on a train, cranked on emails and interviews all the way to New York, and then I finished the night (after some more email) with a one hour lecture by Skype to a class of San Diego based students.
I usually have no trouble getting up at 5am, even when I’m tired, but on Tuesday I couldn’t pry my eyes open so after a few tries I just slept until I had to get up for my first call. By 10-ish I was at TechStars. I then spent 20 minutes with each company doing what I call the “top of mind drill.”
Having met with every TechStars company at least once, I’ve found that it’s not terribly useful for me to have the team members spend the 20+ minutes we have in our first meeting introducing themselves. I’m already familiar with the companies through the selection process and I just want to get into the mix with them. It’s week four so by now they’ve had tons of mentor meetings (my understanding is that at least 70 mentors have rolled through the TechStars NY offices at this point – thank you mentors!) So – I look for a quick under five minute introduction (“just explain what your business does and how it works”) and then spent the next fifteen minutes talking about whatever is top of mind.
I love the top of mind drill. It starts off with the simple question from me: “What’s on the top of your mind?” Some of the TechStars founders get it immediately and dive into a very specific issue that they are wrestling with. Others ramble around for a few minutes at which point I stop them and suggest they focus on what they think their biggest current issue is. They almost always get it the second time and we end up with ten solid minutes on one or two things that I can give them actionable feedback on.
I was planning to come back on Friday but I decided to detour to Miami Beach to spend the weekend in the sun with Amy. As a result, we cranked through all 11 companies during the day. I bought a purse on ToVieFor (don’t tell Amy – it’s a surprise), agreed to be an early alpha publisher for OnSwipe, and overall had a great time. I’m super psyched about all the teams I met – it feels like the TechStars New York program is very high quality and off to a great start.
We finished up with me giving a talk and doing some Q&A. Given that I had just been at the White House for the Startup America Partnership, we talked about that some. I gave my view of the overall cadence of the TechStars program now that the first month was coming to an end, and then I finished with a story about one of my biggest failures (Interliant) and some of the lessons that I learned from that experience.
I’m writing this from a plane Thursday night heading to Miami where I’m going to try to catch my breath after four deliciously intense days. You’ll hear about the other two – my whirlwind tour of Upstate New York – in a future post.
I feel strongly that the one of the important elements of building a sustainable entrepreneurial community over a long period of time is for the entire existing entrepreneurial community to be extremely welcoming to young college graduates. For the folks with a knee jerk reaction to call me ageist, please note that I said “one of the important elements …”
There was a solid article yesterday in the Northern Colorado Business Reporter titled College grads make their own jobs. If you follow this blog, follow TechStars, or have read Do More Faster, you know that I have put a lot of energy into the Boulder entrepreneurial community, but have also spent a lot of time helping other entrepreneurial communities that I invest in (such as Seattle, Boston, and New York.) And, like Caine from Kung Fu, I’ve recently been wandering around the US (next week – Upstate New York) spreading my views, philosophy, and advice on creating and sustaining entrepreneurial communities. I continue to study and think hard about the dynamics of entrepreneurial communities around the US and believe that there are at least 100 cities in the US that can have strong, significant, healthy, 20 year plus sustainable entrepreneurial communities.
In the short term, welcoming young college graduates into your entrepreneurial community has a huge impact on local economies. If young college grads start up new companies rather than take jobs at existing companies, they create obvious short term job growth. If any of these new companies grow, they create additional job growth. In addition, it keeps smart, well educated people (college graduates) in the local community.
This is not a zero sum game – these recent college graduates are not taking jobs away from other companies, especially entrepreneurial ones. Instead, they are creating entrepreneurial job expansion in the local community. As a result, existing experienced entrepreneurs and everyone around the local entrepreneurial ecosystem should welcome the young college graduates into the entrepreneurial community, mentor them, give them low cost excess resources (such as let them camp out in your office if you have extra space), and help them by being an early customer or partner. Namely – make a bet on them of whatever kind you can.
I’ve seen this play out in Boulder for over 15 years. It’s just awesome to watch it build – there is a strong cumulative effect. Many of the 22 year olds that I met in the mid 1990′s are now in their mid to late 30′s and are playing key roles in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. And the folks like me who were in their 30′s in the 1990′s are now in their 40′s and 50′s and are continuing to play it forward aggressively to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Oh – and it’s a ton of fun. Don’t ever forget that. As a 45 year old, while I might not be able to stay up until 2am anymore, I love hanging out, working with, learning from, and mentoring 22 year olds.
If you want to participate in building a long term entrepreneurial community in your city, spend a few minutes right now figuring out one thing you are going to do for one upcoming college graduate in the class of 2011 and put it in motion today.
I don’t read much history – for some reason I don’t get into it. I do like biography and get most of my “history reading” from it. So – it’s always special when I can get a bunch of biography, history, and – well – CHARACTERS – all in one book.
Amy and I were with our friends Nick and Helen Forster at The Kitchen in Boulder about a month ago. Somehow the topic turned to our families and genealogies. Nick was talking about growing up in this old mansion in upstate New York and eventually suggested that I read The Astor Orphans: A Pride of Lions. Nick’s a fascinating guy that – with Helen – runs etown (a weekly radio show produced in Boulder) – so I figured it’d be fun to find out more about his ancestors, especially a group he referred to as “eight kids who were direct decendents of the Astor’s who lost their parents when the oldest was a teenager and rattled around in this huge house I grew up in.”
What a book. The Astor Orphans are the ten owners of Rokeby who were bequeathed the property by their mother – Margaret Astor Ward Chanler – for them to “share and share alike.” The next year, the children (aged fifteen to three), lost their father John Winthrop Chanler. These kids were direct decendants of John Jacob Astor (the richest man in America at the time). They belonged to America’s social and economic elite (which you can infer from their names – Winthrop, Stuyvesant, Livingston, Astor, Beekman, Armstrong, White, Ward – you get the picture).
The book traces their lives. Several died young, so the main characters were the eight kids who lived to be 50 or older. They accomplished amazing things in their lives, had great adventures, and were hugely entertaining and – in many cases – scandelous characters for the age they lived in.
After I finished, I dropped Nick a note saying “It was fabulous – definitely a different world then the one I grew up in. Now that I have all the relationships / context, tell me how you fit.” Nick wrote back “My great grandfather is Lewis Chanler, the one who was Lieutenant Gov. of New York and one of the brothers who committed Archie to Bloomingdales asylum. He was also the pioneer of Legal Aid, apparently, going down to the Tombs and representing clients for free. The house, Rokeby, is where I lived before I moved to Colorado in ’75. Oddly, the current batch of cousins in Rokeby are equally related (by marriage) to both my mother and father.”
What fun! The Archie that Nick refers to was the oldest (and wildest) brother. His younger brothers decided he was crazy and put him in an insane asylum named Bloomingdales. Given the laws at the time, Archie ended up getting stuck for four years! He eventually escaped to Virginia and was declared sane there, but couldn’t go back to New York for fear of being put back in the asylum. Seventeen years later he was finally declared sane again in New York, after waging a huge legal war on his situation and the “lunacy trust” of the United States. He coined the phrase ‘Who’s Looney Now” and – ironically – turned into a major eccentric as he got older. In a complex, magnanimous gesture, he “forgave” his “ex-brothers and ex-sisters” (as he referred to them) after he was declared sane, saying “let bygones be bygones.”
This book is 300 pages of riotous stories around the history of this incredible group of wealthy and eccentric orphans. As with any biography, there are tedious parts, but precious few, as the flavor and history of the time they grew up in is a fascinating contrast to our always connected email cellphone airplane (eventually teleporting) world.
There are also great lessons, as Nick finished his note to me with “My mother, Clare Chanler, also was raised in England and then came back to NY in the 30’s. She had the full glory of the family fortunes, but it pretty much ran out on her generation, which was fine with me – truly. I went to some good schools and grew up around a lot of beautiful houses, but I could see that the dough was not the secret. I have the benefit and the burden of learning that early and then trying to combine ambition with purpose, a tricky balancing act. ”
May we all be so lucky, talented, and humble as Nick.