February 5, 2017: My regular readers may have noticed longer intervals between TechDrawl posts. Your editor has transitioned from considerable “drive-by” mentoring through my affiliations with UT and the Austin tech community toward deep immersion in four promising ventures. All these are at inflection points where things are getting real. Their common thread is data science, even though they serve very different markets. There are countless generalized startup lessons coming from this work, but I can no longer really talk about them without indirectly divulging too much private information.
If you are a seasoned entrepreneur with an exit or having built something of scale, you may enjoy contributing your time in pitch sessions, office hours, and mentoring. I plunged into all those as part of my EIR role at UT Austin and was happy to do so. I am grateful for my years with the Longhorn Startup program and subsequently with Bob Metcalfe’s Innovation Center, but my appointment there has concluded. During that time I got swept into a digital health project in Georgia that expanded from a few months to a few years. And now, as mentioned above, I’ve got four to tend. I’ve always found my best calling to be getting more continually involved in IP-based ventures as an active board member or advisor, or even occasionally an operating officer. I’ve felt that I could give more useful advice and perform more critical functions if I were present for all acts of the play and not just witnessing an occasional scene. On this Super Bowl weekend an apt analogy to me is that enjoying a football, basketball, or baseball season means following your favorites from start to finish and understanding what the sportscasters call the “body of work.” Seeing one game doesn’t give you any authority to second-guess the coaches.
There are enormous volumes of books, blogs, podcasts, websites, and other resources on entrepreneurship, startups, and all things related. I’ve personally contributed more than ¾ million of those words just in TechDrawl. This is an area now taught with emphasis in most universities, especially those with engineering and science pedigrees. And, it’s taught well. There were no such courses when I was coming along in my undergraduate and graduate schools. When we were building Peachtree Software there were no incubators or accelerators. There was not one venture capital firm in the South. In those days we all had to figure things out on our own. But, many of today’s great institutions like Microsoft and Apple arose during that pre-Internet time and stand strong today. Even Peachtree remains a force as Sage 50 Accounting, its ultimate home long after I sold it to MSA.
I have written often that MSA’s motto was “People are the key.” Everyone in the company wore a symbolic key as a lapel pin or ladies’ pin. That is really the common thread in all things entrepreneurial. Some individuals combine the gifts of leadership, moxie, creativity, intelligence, and motivation and just make things happen. The have the ability to make even alternative facts become true as they create the products that become great companies. When you have the privilege of getting to know such people, those are the missions where you want to ride along.
My tasks in my various current assignments involve many skills – writing, sheet spreading, deal crafting, business development, presentations, strategic planning, fundraising, and more. However, more than 50% of my time is focused on people issues. No startup boils down to just a numbers game. Even if you open a hardware store, as I have done in the distant past, everything revolves around the staffing. In the retail hardware business, you need product knowledge across more than 100,000 SKU’s, a capacity for hard work, honesty, stamina, punctuality, and customer skills. Your inventory management and merchandising are no better than your employee’s ability to serve your clientele. If you fall short on that today, your customers will just buy everything on Amazon – if they can afford to wait an hour!
Although I am an avid reader, I prefer military histories and biographies rather than business books. To me the lessons of history are more applicable to the people issues of running a company than are the more prescriptive formulas of most business writers. Similarly, nobody’s golf instruction book or video is going to teach you the game of golf; it may help tune you up or understand a particular swing flaw, but it won’t result in a low handicap. Neither will being a “range queen.” You have to actually play the sport, all 18 holes, and keep score. Even if you’re a natural like Bubba Watson or John Daly, you have to create your game on the course and devote the effort there to make yourself competitive at the highest levels.
Of late my business research has been slowly binge-watching Mad Men from Season One forward. I had previously seen only the final season, and, per my analogy above, catching just that one portion gave me little insight to the whole story. At this writing I’m in Season 4, and there’s been hardly an episode where I didn’t take away something that was relevant to my businesses the very next day. The mores, or lack thereof, in Mad Men characters are beside the point. One gets to watch a group of people who are more entrepreneurial than corporate, who face all the ups and downs of running their own business, selling it, getting it back, and keeping it in tune with the times. It is a memory trip through the Sixties for those of us who came of age in that decade. It’s a reminder of how today’s rapid changes in Washington and our society are not all that new; its world was not lacking for tumult. Mad Men is a story about people working together to build something; those people are the key. It’s no wonder that with such richly drawn characters that series connected with a big audience and is still relevant. (I have not been so influenced as to take up constant smoking and nonstop drinking, thankfully.)
So, faithful readers, be looking for TechDrawl more on ad hoc basis for the near term. I’ve read recently that as one ages working puzzles like Soduku and crosswords aren’t sufficient for keeping the mind nimble. Taking on complex tasks like learning a foreign language is a recommended alternative. I think I’ve found my complex tasks; that next language will have to wait, jawohl!
<Image of taking the big, deep dive by Virginia State Parks staff, via Wikimedia Creative Commons license.>