San Francisco’s New Entrepreneurial Culture

My old friend Nathan Heller has a new piece in the New Yorker about how youthful go-getter entrepreneurs, and the companies they’re founding, are remaking the culture of San Francisco. I am quoted in the piece. It’s impressionistic — it gives you a feel of the place — more than it advances a single overriding thesis. This sentence caught my attention:

[San Francisco contains a] rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.

 Worth a read.

Knowledge & Networks Enabling More Youth Entrepreneurship

Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship, practiced around the world, is hot. There are several reasons why starting a tech startup is easier and cheaper and therefore as popular as ever today: the vanishingly low costs of laptops, storage, video conferencing and other technology tools; talent marketplaces like Odesk and Linkedin; cloud computing infrastructure like Amazon Web Services; distribution platforms like Facebook and Twitter for spreading consumer internet apps; a more structured and accessible angel financing market (facilitated by AngelList and others); and so on.

The entrepreneurship boom is particular pronounced among youth. High school and college kids, when surveyed, are clocking in at record highs in terms of expressed interest in entrepreneurship, and as far as media reports and VC whisperings go, it’s no longer unusual to hear about a teen who’s starting a company or setting up some sort of organization or leading an entrepreneurial cause. Youth benefit from all the aforementioned forces that enable more entrepreneurship generally — especially the tech advances that have made everything cheaper.

knowledge

But there’s one category of change that, to me, is as important an enabler of entrepreneurship as any other: in the past few years, the body of knowledge about how to start a company, how to code and work with technology, and how to thrive as a businessperson in general has gotten extremely well organized and of course is freely accessible to all.

Back when I got interested in tech entrepreneurship in the year 2000 (I was 12 years old), I harbored a boatload of raw interest but knew next to nothing about technology and business, and didn’t have relationships with any tech/business entrepreneurs, either. There were no entrepreneurship bloggers. Information on the web was scattered and of uneven quality. I remember posting questions about market segmentation on the low-tech forums of IdeaCafe.com and being confused by the answers I got back.

So from day one, I hustled relentlessly to chip away at my ignorance by doing things that seem positively old school by today’s standards.

I went to the San Francisco Public Library and loaned out books on marketing.

I looked up local event listings in Silicon Valley, tracked down the bios and email addresses of the speakers, and, rather than physically attend each public event, the day after the event was scheduled to have happened I emailed the speaker and requested a copy of their PowerPoint deck. The speakers assumed I had attended, and were happy to send me their decks, on everything from pricing strategy to customer service to internet trends.

I lobbied my 7th grade history/economics teacher, who had a collection of Harvard Business Reviews stacked up on his reading shelf, to allow me to copy a few articles in the school’s Xerox machine. I ended up copying thousands of pages of HBR articles into a custom binder that I kept for myself. I had to stop when a school administrator caught me using the copy machine and insisted, kind of incredibly, that I should buy the re-print rights to articles I wanted for myself instead of photocopying them.

I cold called the business school dean at Golden Gate University and asked if I could audit their business classes, and they agreed. I sat in several classes on management and marketing for free.

I went to Goodwill and bought cassette tapes of Tony Robbins’ original classic Personal Power — my first introduction to the self-help genre. (I have agency in the world!)

I attended a “tech camp” at the University of San Francisco to learn Basic (but switched to HTML and CSS). It was okay. There were no good online classes for on-going instruction; I had to teach myself basic HTML by viewing the source code on web sites, copying the code into BBEdit, and then deleting and editing lines of code line-by-line until I figured out what each command did.

I met with volunteer SCORE counselors at the local SBA office and they taught me about income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements.

And I reached out to businesspeople in the community to begin building a professional network. The very first person in my network was my neighbor Mike, to whom my first book is co-dedicated. He was the first node, and he introduced me to a few people, and it grew from there.

Today, on each of these fronts, one has a much easier go of it. For example, sites like VentureHacks and Ask the VC and Mark Suster’s blog and Quora threads explain every aspect of the startup process. LinkedIn is now a directory of most people in white collar industries, and there are many groups there and on Facebook for young entrepreneurs to meet each other and connect. On the tech side, CodeAcademy and several others teach basic tech skills in a structured manner on the web.

It’s not only that there’s more information easily available today, but there’s refined curation. While I learned a bunch hustling about in my teens, I also wasted untold cycles of time. I read bad books; I met people who, in hindsight, weren’t worth the time; I read irrelevant articles while overlooking relevant ones; etc. By contrast, today there are various “best of” lists and other crisp navigational guides to finding very best content related to your business challenge.

I should say I’m aware that the “paucity” of free knowledge and resources available in year 2000 that I’m describing (when I began my quest of self-education) far exceeded what existed in years prior. So I had a huge advantage getting started, from a knowledge-perpsective, than prior generations. Even as we’re now all lapsed by the current teen cohort, as they whiz by us at faster and faster speeds…

Bottom Line: Democratized, free entrepreneurship-related knowledge and networks is the game changer for facilitating ever more youth entrepreneurship. It’s a great thing for the world. It’s a great thing for the young, ambitious, and inexperienced. Even if it makes me a little jealous of today’s teens!

Founders Hiring “Professional” CEOs to Run Their Company

Reid Hoffman’s new essay If, Why, and How Founders Should Hire a “Professional” CEO is worth reading for any entrepreneur or any executive thinking about joining a high growth startup. It’s a very personal topic for Reid, and an important one for everyone in the industry to think about. The concluding paragraphs:

20 years ago, venture capitalists were in a hurry to bring in professional CEOs.  Today, many of the same VC firms are busy touting their support for long-term Founder-CEOs.  Both approaches can work, which means that as an entrepreneur, you should focus less on what’s fashionable, and more on what’s right for you.  This is a highly personal decision, and the right answer depends on you and your team—including your co-founders and your VCs.  You might be a Steve Jobs, or you might be a Pierre Omidyar.  As an investor, I’m willing to back you, even if you’re not sure which one you are yet.  In every investment we make, we hope that the Founder-CEO will be able to lead the company to success, but if not, and if you realize as I did that you want to bring in a professional CEO, we’ll work with you to find someone who is a true partner.

So as it turns out, Ben Horowitz was right.  You always do want a Founder-CEO.  But that person doesn’t always have to be the Founding CEO.  Being there at the start isn’t the only path to being a founder.  “Founder” is a state of mind, not a job description, and if done right, even CEOs who join after day 1 can become Founders.

Steve Jobs Brainstorming at NeXT

Fascinating 20 min video of Steve Jobs leading a brainstorming session (among other things) at NeXT in the late 80's. At his death he was leader of one of the world's largest corporations; but in this video he talks as a founder of a fledgling start-up dealing with office supplies and payrolls. He implores his employees to regain the "start-up hustle." Good stuff.

Good Marketing is Good. Bad Marketing is Bad.

Fred Wilson blogged about marketing:

I believe that marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks or when you make so much profit on every marginal customer that it would be crazy to not spend a bit of that profit acquiring more of them (coke, zynga, bud, viagra).

Brad Feld piled on with a post titled: Why a Start-Up Shouldn't Have a Marketing Budget. Brad says when he hears the word "marketing" he vomits in his mouth a little.

But, Brad's not anti marketing. He's anti bad marketing. He actually says every one of his start-ups spends money on marketing. It's just that the marketing efforts are "wired into the DNA" of the product and company.

And Fred, after dismissing the importance of "marketing," endorses a bunch of activities from his portfolio company that could easily be called marketing.

The word "marketing" encompasses a bunch of good activities and a bunch of bad activities; a bunch of useful philosophies and un-useful philosophies. The question is which specific marketing activities and philosophies are productive and useful and which are a waste of time and money.

And that depends on the specific company, product, industry. We can all agree throwing $10k to a social media consultant to "promote" a product on The Twitter is a waste. But usually it's more complicated. For example, Fred noted he was referring only to consumer internet companies and not enterprise SaaS companies. That's a crucial distinction. Another example: manning a booth at an expensive trade show like CES may be a good marketing expense for Orbotix, but not a good marketing expense for other companies.

Marketing is neither good nor bad, neither a waste nor a necessity. It's both; it depends. This sounds obvious, and maybe it is, but it seems worth keeping in mind when reading broad-brush posts like the one Fred wrote this morning.