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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.
After a long really fun day yesterday at TechStars and StartLabs I wandered over to 34-101 to be on a panel for Joost Bonsen and Joe Hadzima‘s IAP class 15.S21: The Nuts and Bolts of Business Plans. It’s not really a class about business plans rather a class about starting a business and has been regularly modernized by Joost and Joe. On the panel were the two founders of Super Mechanical (creators of Twine) which is an awesome project that used Kickstarter for its initial financing (and that I’m an excited supporter / customer of.) I had a fun day and wish I had found more IAP courses to help teach and participate in this trip.
After the course finished at 9:30, Joost and I wandered over to the Muddy Charles for a beer. When I crawled into bed at 12:30 my head was full of a ton of awesome ideas that came out of our rambling three hour discussion. I’ve been friends with Joost since the early 1990′s when we first met around the MIT 10K competition and have been a huge fan of his ever since.
Among other things we talked about the startup ecosystem in and around MIT and the evolution of Boston as a region. The comments in my post from yesterday titled I’m in Cambridge, Not Boston were great and stimulated additional thinking on this topic, as did Joost’s experience here over the past 20 years. Joost has incredible knowledge and history of the region and of MIT, which occasionally appears in posts like How Kendall Square Became Hip: MIT Pioneered University-Linked Business Parks but is really apparent when you spend extended time with him talking about MIT, how it evolved, what it is today, who has been involved along the way, and the entrepreneurial community that has evolved around it.
About mid-way through the conversation Joost dropped two phrases on me that blew my mind. The first was “Creative Construction.” As we were talking about startup communities and the new book I’m working on, Joost said “How about a play on words on Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and call your theory about startup communities “creative construction” instead. After I put the exploded pieces of my brain back together and said “that is exactly fucking right” he went on. “Think of entrepreneurship as a tool of mass construction.”
The play on words is just delicious. And right on – we are talking about an awesome positive force in the world and should be using language that represents that. At the core of our conversation was the notion that an entrepreneurial region like Boston is actually a collection of 100,000 person “entrepreneurial neighborhoods” (that’s what Kendall Square is, as distinct from the Fort Point Channel area, or the Leather District, or what’s going on in Davis Square, or …). And the idea that creative construction drives this – and the neighborhoods are part of a broader entrepreneurial community (in the region) is a construct that resonates with me.
I’m off to HubSpot to give a talk, a swing through Venture Cafe at CIC, and then back to StartLabs for the rest of the day. My three weeks in Boston (well – Cambridge) with a side trip to New York is coming to an end. It’s been amazing, enlightening, educational, productive, and a lot of fun.