One of my friends was recently asking me about startups and how that world works. And he mentioned this to me in the context of the CNN documentary Black in America, which recently aired, where they were asking is Silicon Valley the new promised land for African Americans? (my thoughts in terms of my current work can be found on point #4).
First, my friends should know better than mentioning something related to a heavily media propagated message into a conversation in which they solicit my advice especially related to business.
And second, they know that my disruption mode is all’ways on (Translation: I like to argue for ‘the sport’ of it). So don’t have kittens when I say something you don’t want to hear. Anyway, I think the conversation started something along the lines of this….
From what I can recall, in the mid to late 1990′s you were spending all your free time chatting on AOL Black Voices when the startup revolution in Silicon Valley was born. And that reality is playing out now.
I was there too for a short while so I understand how easy it is to get sucked into the randomness but entertainment of it all. But here’s the difference…while my friend was apparently following celebrity gossip, sports updates and the latest music (his words not mine), this is sort of how my experience went…
I remember dialing onto AOL in 1994 when it was 2,400 baud rate. I am not really sure if it was because I was working in the area of wireless, but when I got on chat (looooong before the days of TechCrunch and Mashable), I was trying to connect with others who understood technology. Everyday I was talking to hard core gamers like ‘the Digital Sister’ from NYC talking about first generation mainstream pop video games; a guy from St, Louis who had learned how to sell group beach trips through the internet and a model from Trinidad, living in NYC who was talking about ‘outsourcing’ some swimsuits she designed to be assembled in Brazil.
As for me, I was trying to figure out the latest trends in my industry and see who in THE WORLD could help me be the first to get my hands on the new XYZ gadget – around this time it was probably the Motorola 2 way pagers that would soon be released (which on Motorola time meant 3 more months from the date they promised it).
Be the first to master it
Getting my hands on the product before everyone else knew about it, meant I could play around with it, learn how to use it, program it, figure out all the bugs, the shortcuts, break it, fix it and more importantly, sell it to the marketplace FIRST (READ: Early Adopters mean they want it no matter what. So they don’t try to negotiate you down on the price which translates to the best commissions and they often give REAL feedback).
So I don’t know what my friend was doing with his countless hours he was on chat, however I mentioned to him, while I don’t recall exactly when they started using the word startup, I definitely remember learning about them when we had that short period in the late 1990′s when our major league sports stadiums and ballparks had new names for like 3 years and then they changed back. They were in the national newspaper, headlines of the Financial Times newspaper and in the Wall Street Journal. How could you not be curious to learn and discover more. And even if you didn’t subscribe to business newspapers….our everyday communities (at least in the more urban areas were also infused with a wee bit of the startup culture).
What’s the story behind ‘the story’?
How could you not notice while driving in downtown Baltimore, MD this giant purple sign that completely ‘disrupted’ the entire vibe of the street and community. And at night, it was like we were in Las Vegas with the animated led light show. And I was like ok, this is super cool, but WHO THE F/// is PSINet? All the stadiums that I know of have names of companies, people and brands that are like 100 years old.
Investigation mode on.
After doing further research (of course probably not effectively as Researcher Boy, jejej) not only was I able to learn about the industry but also who was connected to it. In the process, I was able to develop a relationship with researchers/directors at the MIT Media Lab back in the late 1990′s. I told them about some of the projects I was working on in wireless and also a project that I had launched where I was teaching preschoolers how to use computers in an experiential environment. The project interested them and they sent out some folks from their Human Interaction Lab who came to some of my classes and observed and recorded my teaching and training methods and gave me some great feedback on the program. And I got to go to their local media lab, volunteer some time and learn about their projects and work. And over the years, I have maintained my contacts and updated them on other things I have been working on and discovered using similar training techniques and processes.
Ask the experts about the buzz
And then there’s my other half (an economist by education, a day trader by profession) who keeps saying I don’t know why this company has a $400 million valuation (ON PAPER) and they are like 15 months old. This is completely unheard of. So I am like a curious 5 year old asking 50 million questions - What does valuation mean? How is a valuation determined? How much do you think the company should be worth? What will happen if this keeps happening? Where did these companies come from?
Use the products/services that you love
Back in the day (6 or 7 years) before there was Skype, there was this company called Covad talking about how you can make phone calls through the internet. They were soliciting people to buy their VoIP service and saying you could call ANYWHERE in the world UNLIMITED for the low, low, price of….
In theory, it all sounded great. And it would be cool to call anywhere in the world, but other than my relatives who lived out of state and maybe a few friends from the world of chat that I had maintained contact with, I don’t think I knew anyone who lived outside of a 50 mile radius from me. Anyway, I didn’t buy the service.
But a few years later after I read about all these companies that built kick ass technologies and networks, but later went bankrupt because they didn’t have a scalable plan or strong distribution networks or whatever reason, I decided to go back and start supporting the ones that ‘survived’. I think I also got a little bummed and had a guilty conscious (as I was still working in wireless/telecom) and kept reading about how Verizon and their affiliates were buying these incredible high end sophisticated networks and well maintained customer databases for pennies on the dollars. And then they would never do anything with them not even basic upgrades/maintenance and let them run to the ground. You just can’t stand by and let your fellow entrepreneur’s dream go out like that.
So when I saw that Covad had weathered the storm in the early 2000′s and were still hanging in there, not only did I purchase their service I registered for their class and became Covad Certified in VoIP. Eventually they got bought out by a Private Equity firm, so good for them!
Chat with the World
I basically told my friend that even though we experienced the bubble and it popped, everything happens in cycles. The next generation startup revolution is taking place now while the rest of the world hangs out on Facebook and Twitter (modern day AOL Chatroom, lol).
My advice to him…..
The easiest and fastest way to expand on your level of knowledge in the startup world is to start by making sure your ‘network of friends’ expands beyond those you only know in real life and your immediate community. They come from different places, different industries, different socioeconomic status and they do different things. When you read about interesting people doing interesting things, reach out and connect to them and tell them that.
And just as they are now open to your world, you are open to theirs. Don’t be afraid to go outside and play with them. Believe it or not, they will share their toys….if you ask nicely.