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Tonight’s book is The New Polymath by Vinnie Mirchandani. Actually, it’s the book I read the last two nights as it was too much to get down in one night. I’ve been promising Vinnie that I’d read his book ever since he sent me the galleys a few months ago. I tossed the PDF up on my Kindle which, when I got around to it, was unreadable because of the tiny font and the way the Kindle scaled the PDF to fit the page. I promptly went on to another book and never read it.
Vinnie was patient with me and was willing to keep talking to me and provide some advice on a completely unrelated topic. When the book came out I hopped on Amazon and plopped down whatever they charged me for the Kindle version. And I’m glad I did, not just because I like Vinnie and his writing, but because it’s an excellent book.
The New Polymath was an excellent tour de force of innovation. Vinnie served up example after example after example in an interesting and relevant framework that kept things moving, unlike a lot of business books where you hit page 79 and just stall. In this case, whenever an example started to peak, it was time for the next one. Last night, I stopped and went to bed when I was about halfway through and considered letting the book sit for a few days but tonight when I finished dinner I sat down and finished it off.
The only chapter I found too long and uninteresting was the one on BP, but I couldn’t figure out if that was because of what’s currently going on with BP or if it was just too much by the time I got to it. But, like a reference on someone where the inevitable “does the person have any weaknesses you are aware of” question arises, I get to point to the BP example and say “ok – that one wasn’t my favorite, but it was minor compared to all the great stuff in this book.”
It was kind of fun to see lots of friends and colleagues as examples. This was an unexpected surprise as I hadn’t previewed the book in advance and had never talked to Vinnie about it. Like any good polymath, Vinnie covered a lot of different ground. While there was a tech / IT / Internet focus, there was plenty of cleantech, energy, bio, and broad business (non-tech) examples. And there were a couple that were deliciously surprising and unexpected.
Vinnie gave me a copy of a book to give away to one of you, demonstrating his command of social media marketing. I’ve decided to run a competition – the best haiku with the word “polymath” in gets the book. Leave your haiku in the comments (make sure you use a valid email address so I can email you if you win.) Show me what you’ve got.
Update: A few folks emailed me that they couldn’t find the Kindle Version of The New Polymath. For some reason it’s not linked to the hardback edition.
I’m in Washington DC again – this time to talk about innovation. I’ve been here three times in the past year – the first time was to hear Bilski at the Supreme Court in November and then I was back in March to talk about and promote the Startup Visa.
Yesterday, Thomas Friedman article wrote another great OpEd about the topic titled A Gift for Grads: Start-Ups. As with many Friedman OpEd’s, rather than just railing against the situation, he suggests several specific things that can be done – in this case by the current administrationb. His premise is that to solve the unemployment issue, especially among recent college graduates, we need three things: more start-ups, more start-ups, and more start-ups. And to do this, Friedman talked to Robert Litan (vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation) and Curtis Carlson, (CEO of SRI International) and came up with the following.
- Create a cabinet position (Secretary Newco) that is focused on pushing through initiatives that help startups and unleash millions of entrepreneurs
- Staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign student who graduates from a US university
- Create a meaningful entrepreneurs visa
- Cut capital gains taxes to 1% for startups
I strongly agree with each of these. My one small addition to the Secretary Newco idea is that person should be an accomplished entrepreneur rather than a career politician, policy person, academic, or lawyer.
Over the next two days I’ve got a meeting with each of my Colorado Senators (Michael Bennet and Mark Udall) as well as a summit at the White House led by Phil Weiser (Director of Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council), Aneesh Chopra (CTO of the US), and Vivek Kundra (CIO of the US). Our summit includes a small group of VCs from different parts of the US that I’ve helped put together and it’ll focus on the issue of early stage entrepreneurs and innovation throughout the country (specifically – more than just Silicon Valley). I’m also participating in a roundtable titled Implementing The National Broadband Plan and Protecting Consumer Choice: The Venture Capitalist Perspective with fellow VCs Brad Burnham from USV and Santo Politi from Spark Capital. And, as a special bonus, I’m going over the CIA later today for a tour, although I can’t talk about it, so you didn’t just read that.
I don’t spend a lot of time in DC, in politics, or even following politics (I’ve never been a political junkie) so these short immersions are fascinating to me. Hopefully when I look back on the time I’ve spent on this stuff I’ll feel like it’s been a productive effort for the cause of entrepreneurship and innovation in the US which is the thing I spend all my time actually working on by helping create new companies.
When I was on vacation last week, I read John Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. In addition to be a superb book, it had a bunch of tasty little nuggets in it. One of my favorites was “the three i’s – innovator, imitator, and idiot” that was attributed to Warren Buffett.
I thought of this nugget this morning when reading Fred Wilson’s post When Government Funds Business. In it, he concludes “When government funds business, it messes everything up.” One of his examples is the delicious irony that Citi – which just got more government money – is running traditional print ads in the NY Times.
Fred’s wife Joanne’s reaction to this is "We are paying for that ad. In a newspaper that less and less people read every day. No wonder they are in trouble". Yup – I’d put that behavior in the idiot column.
However, I’m aware of some things going on at Citi that I’d put in the innovator column. They aren’t public so I don’t think I can talk about them, but I’m amazed at how forward looking, innovative, potentially transformational, and relatively inexpensive these activities are. They are the kind of fundamental investments that you’d hope major companies are making to stay relevant in the next decade.
While most people aren’t innovators, that’s ok. Many American’s understand the importance of them and – when the innovators take leadership roles – they motivate the non-innovators to follow them. In a twist on Buffett’s line, I’d suggest that if you apply it to leadership, you can segment leaders into three categories: innovators, imitators, and idiots.
When I think about my experiences with large companies, I see Buffett’s quip all over the place. Their leaders include innovators, imitators, and idiots throughout the organization. Same with government. The challenge is the innovators – especially when they are in a culture that is playing defense or simply trying to survive – often get drowned out, discouraged, or marginalized.
I believe that one of the key foundations that America has been built on is the innovator. At all levels of society, throughout history, the innovator has led, created change, and inspired greatness throughout our history. People love to follow the innovator. While the innovator is willing to take risks that might result in failure, not taking the risks often results in even greater failure.
My appeal to all leaders in big companies – and in government – is to innovate. Play offense. If you don’t know how to do this, look around for the innovators in your organization and team up with them. Challenge the imitators to step up their game. And don’t tolerate the idiots in any way, shape, or form.
I’m heading out to Seattle for a board meeting and a few other things. Tonight, I’m going to be doing an event called Beers and Boulder with Brad. I’m going to talk about entrepreneurial communities, the critical importance of entrepreneurship and innovation today, TechStars, what we’ve done in Boulder to drive entrepreneurship that can apply to other cities such as Seattle, and why we are expanding TechStars to Boston. I’m then going to stick around until they kick us out answering any and all questions and talking with whoever wants to hang out.
The event was the idea of Dave Schappell of TeachStreet and TA McCann of Gist. They’ve done an awesome job making it easy for me to “just show up, talk, and answer questions.” Three great sponsors – Beacon Law Advisors, Square 1 Bank, and Microsoft BizSpark are underwriting the event.
Fred Wilson has a magnificent post up this morning from Berlin titled Bits Of Destruction. In it, he nails a critical point about innovation.
“This downturn will be marked in history as the time where many of the business models built in the industrial era finally collapsed as a result of being undermined by the information age. Its creative destruction at work. It’s painful and many jobs will be lost permanently. But let’s also remember that its inevitable and we can’t fight it. Technology and information forces are unstoppable and they will reshape the world as we know it regardless of whether or not we want them to.”
Go read the whole article – he gives several real examples (publishing, banking, retailing, and auto). Then come back here to finish up and hear my punch line.
I’ve been living and working in and around innovation and entrepreneurship my entire adult life, starting with my first company and the research I did as a masters and Ph.D. student at MIT Sloan School under Eric von Hippel. My life experiences, along with all the history I’ve studied, come back to the same notion.
Innovation is a continual process of creative destruction of the norm.
People talk about economic cycles and waves of innovation. These are intersecting forces that drive each other. But innovation is not just limited to business, technology, and science – it impacts all of our existence on this planet. Think about innovation in religion, philosophy, art, architecture, social structures, forms of government, urban planning, economic theory, expression of human sexuality – whatever you want.
In the late 1990’s, there were a bunch of people, myself (and Fred) included, who believed that the Internet would have a dramatic impact on the way our world works and we live our lives. After the Internet bubble burst in 2001, there were a lot of people in “the established business world” who said something akin to “see – that was just a fad.” Anyone who has clung to the idea that the Internet was a fad is in a world of hurt right now, as the premise, functions, and implications of the Internet revolution of the late 1990’s becomes deeply instantiated across the global economy.
The next 20 years are going to be awesome. We inevitably will have lots of challenges and pain along the way as the waves of creative destruction pummel existing norms. But that’s just the way innovation works – and has always worked.