Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Notes from Today's Innovation Unconference

Today, the MassTLC took a giant step toward reinventing itself...reframing the value proposition of a trade association...and reinvigorating the culture of innovation in Massachusetts. It happened at a new event that the MassTLC team and trustee Bill Warner put together called the Innovation Unconference. (Bill is the founder of Avid Technology and Wildfire, and a mentor to lots of local entrepreneurs.)

Why was this such a big deal? The event offered a pretty close to perfect "trade"... Seasoned entrepreneurs and investors were invited to come and share their insights about building successful companies, and newer entrepreneurs were invited to share the challenges they're dealing with. The former group got to hear about (and ideally assist) a new generation of companies, and the latter group got some guidance and powerful new connections.

And it was hugely important to the culture -- the entire focus of the day was creating a new wave of important, successful, innovative companies here.

Some notes from the event are below. The one thing that'd be nice to see at next year's edition is more execs from the more established companies here -- I'm thinking EMC, Raytheon, Akamai, Nuance, PTC, Progress Software, Evergreen Solar, etc.

Bill W. kicked things off by opining that bad times are the best times to start a company. He said he started Avid in September 1987, a month before the stock market crash of that year. "This is a time of great opportunity," he said. "This is not a pep talk. This is reality." One quip: In bad times, people do the things their spouses wouldn't let them do in good times, Bill said.

Then, the entire group converged on a few stacks of paper, and wrote their ideas for sessions in magic marker. The ideas were announced on a mike, and then posted on the wall in various time slots. Everyone went to the sessions they thought looked most interesting.

I got recruited to a session that Tim Rowe of Cambridge Innovation Center proposed on fostering more innovation in Massachusetts. Tim began by noting that we're still the #2 region in the US, as far as venture funding of tech, but other regions are growing faster while we're remaining stagnant. I drew a picture of a magnet and suggested that Silicon Valley is a giant magnet for people who want to do inventive stuff in tech. We're a magnet for people who want to get a great education. How do we get more of those people to stick around?

My suggestion was that we need to do a better job of exposing students to entrepreneurs -- with talks on campus, and visits to local companies. We need them to mix and mingle with VCs. We need to support their start-up ideas and helped them get plugged in to the innovation economy.

Recruiter Jeff Leopold said we have a dearth of experienced executives here.

I think Phil Weilerstein said that people here "behave like New Englanders. It's hard to get past their reticence." Someone suggested that we need more hot tubs to foster the free exchange of ideas. Someone else suggested personality transplants.

Someone observed that it's a plus and a minus that in Silicon Valley, you always run into people who work in tech.

I suggested that one of the advantages in Massachusetts & New England is the heterogeneousness - the mix of software, Internet, biotech, med devices, robotics, cleantech, etc. What if we redefined the terms of what we're doing... that we're the world's hub of innovation, the R&D capital, the idea accelerator...not simply a nifty little cluster of tech, or biotech, or cleantech.

Tim spent the last section asking people for specific ideas. What could we do to improve the competitiveness of the region?

Lee Hower from Point Judith Capital said that he knows some senior-level execs in the Valley who are from this region, but are nervous about coming back to New England: are there consumer Internet companies to work for; if I start one, can I hire the right people to join it; if my start-up doesn’t succeed, are there other places that I could land?

Bill McLaughlin of Lois Paul and Partners asked, How do you get biotech and tech together in an integrated way – like perhaps having a MeetUp or an event in Boston.

Jean Hammond of Golden Seeds said we may need to import investors who aren’t afraid of consumer investments.

We should highlight the networking groups that exist, and perhaps consolidate some of them to give them more influence and power, said Laura (?)

Lee Hower said we need big, stand-alone tech companies that are started here, and built here, and become big public companies. We need to encourage big thinking across the ecosystem – investors, entrepreneurs, and young people.

Margaret Olson from Plum said we should be "more rah rah about what we’ve got."

Alex Benik from Battery Ventures said we should focus more on students. He also said that there is a culture of the entrepreneur as celebrity in Silicon Valley, which is a good thing.

Michael Greeley from Flybridge suggested that we ought to create micro-ecosystems around star entrepreneurs, connecting them with VC firms and encouraging them to form lots of companies with up and coming researchers and entrepreneurs. He mentioned Bob Metcalfe at Polaris, Bill Warner, or Boston Scientific co-founder John Abele as examples. Flybridge, he said, has a relationship with Michae Cima and Bob Langer of MIT, and has funded several start-ups out of their labs.

Someone asked, why wouldn’t multi-million-dollar school endowment funds do some seed-stage investing... in promising start-ups founded by their alums?

Joyce Plotkin from MassTLC said that "public-private partnership doesn’t exist in this state." The Boston Foundation has said that we "lack the colabroative gene," and that's a problem. Branding and marketing are something we could do better.

After Tim's session wrapped, I offered a session on working with bloggers and media, with co-conspirators Bill McLaughlin, Patrick Rafter, Adam Zand, and Doug Banks. I didn't take notes... but will look for some folks who blogger or Twittered it and link to them later. I'll also try to post the few slides that I showed.

During lunch I met with two groups of entrepreneurs working on killer stuff, and we talked about how to move their ideas forward and generate buzz. Mostly, I think they enjoyed hearing from one another and swapping ideas.

My favorite session of the afternoon was led by Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, former columnist and publisher at InfoWorld, and now a partner at Polaris. His session, simply, was about selling.

"Engineers have no respect for salesmen," Bob said. "Selling is every bit as complicated as designing ASICs."

Bob laid out the four phases that many companies go through with regard to selling.

First is the waiting phase: we’ve built a better mousetrap, so let's wait until someone discovers our product.

The next phase is arguing: you go out of the office and argue with people, trying to convince them that they should buy your product. It's much better than waiting, and you do sell more. But you’ll often win the argument and still not get the order, Bob said.

Next is the "suffer fools gladly" phase: the prospects are idiots, but you just bite your lip when they say something stupid. This strategy works, but most salespeople get stuck there. They disrespect their customers, and that leads to failures, like overpromising and underdelivering.

The fourth (and I presume most-evolved) phase is listening: you have respect for the customers, since they know more about what they need than you do. You ask them questions. You try to address their needs.

Bob offered some other great advice and jokes.

Some insight about approaching venture capitalists that he heard when he was an entrepreneur: "If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money."

Novice salespeople are afraid of the "no"….but when people say no, you can ask them why and then work on those reasons.

Bob then offered a secret to selling that he said none of us had heard elsewhere.

How do you establish credibility? By keeping little promises. People you're selling to always wonder, will the product work like he says? Will I get the benefits? One way to do that is a pattern of keeping promises.

If you say, I’ll be there at 5:00, don’t come late, or you’ve begun to teach them that you don’t keep promises. If you say you’re going to finish on time, you finish on time. (Bob promised he'd finish his presentation by his allotted time, and he did - with time to spare.) If you say, I’ll send you my brochure tomorrow, that's a little promise, so keep it. Eventually, you say, my products will work, and they'll make your life wonderful, and people believe you.

I found this funny: Don't allow people to eat or sit down in your trade show both, Bob advised. The space is too expensive for people to do things other than connect with prospective customers.

Some other thoughts on the conference...

The mix of people was great -- and there was a nice sense of urgency from it being a one-day event... I might not see these folks for a while. And the venue was perfect for schmoozing and also offered lots of different-sized rooms for the sessions; the event was held at the Sun Microsystems campus in Burlington. Moderator Kaliya Hamlin did a killer job of explaining the concept of an unconference to everybody there. (I'd been to one or two before, but had never tried to run a session...)

If you were at the event and have comments... or want to include a link to other blog entries, twitter streams, videos, etc., please do so below in the comments.

Update: Here's some coverage of the event from Friday morning's Boston Globe.

[ Disclosure: I was peripherally involved in the planning of the event, in that I listened to Bill Warner talk about it once or twice and offered some feedback that he immediately disregarded. ;) ]

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Anonymous Tom Summit said...

It was the best networking event thus far in the Boston area. The reason I feel this way is because people were there to contribute value to each other rather than just schmooze for leads and totally self serving motives.
I hope it happens frequently.

October 3, 2008 9:28 AM  
Blogger jlbrown said...

Great notes, Scott -- thanks.

I love Bob Metcalfe's advice about keeping little promises. When I started my business, I got one of my early clients because my competitor showed up late for their presentation. That was what the client remembered -- not the presentation, not the fact that my competitor was larger and more established, but that they were late. I've never forgotten that lesson, and as a result to this day I am early for client meetings.

I hope to be able to attend one of these meetings in the future. We definitely need more networking events -- formal and informal -- like this. We have a lot of great people and technology in the New England community, we just need to talk about it more -- a lot more -- among ourselves and the outside world, and not be defensive about it.

October 3, 2008 9:34 AM  
Blogger B Holbrook said...

As a young, unproven entrepreneur, this event was a good way of jumping in the deep end with my ideas. I just wish that I knew about innovation at an even earlier age. Dead set on medical school, I limited myself, and here I am starting almost from scratch. The importance of innovation and leadership is under-emphasized. Be proud that you're an entrepreneur because innovation keeps America alive.

In wrap up, Bill Warner asked everyone to introduce someone to someone else. "Handing someone your business card is not networking." I hope that the spirit of the unConference lingers a while.

October 3, 2008 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Helen Fairman said...

It was an inspiring day- I attended some of the same sessions, Scott, and your notes were dead on. Bob Metcalfe was one of my favorites, as well, and I had the good fortune to have him join our small table at the lunch innovation brainstorm, where he was entertaining and thoughtful, as always. Interestingly, his recommendation for inspiring entrepreneurship regionally was improving the public perception of entrepreneurs with media coverage. He specifically exempted you from his scathing commentary about the state of our local business media.

I did twitter a few notes from your PR session- millvillegreen. Also, the Laura you mentioned in the Tim Rowe session is my business partner, Laura Bartsch of Millville Partners:

October 3, 2008 1:57 PM  
Blogger Habib said...

I am still jazzed up by the "unconference", lots of energy in that room !

My personal favorite was a session called "Bring your ideas" where early stage startups shared their ideas and got live feedback in a room packed of experts. It was interesting to see how useful it is to share your idea with peers and experts vs the stealth mode approach.

I really enjoyed lunch with you, Pierre-Loic from Tracckr and Richard from MobileEd. Lots of interesting advice ! Thanks !

October 3, 2008 2:13 PM  
Blogger Adam Zand said...

Hi Scott,
It was big fun doing an UnConference talk about media and blogger relations with you, Bill McLaughlin, Patrick Rafter and Doug Banks. I was able to capture a lot of our session on

Here's audio and picture covering your 10 points:

General talk about negative bloggers and when to respond:

Finally, you wrap it up with talk about need for edge and honesty in media relations:

I have lots more content from the UnConference at

Look forward to speaking with you again and seeing if the UnConference community gets collaborative and delivers lasting innovation.

October 3, 2008 7:07 PM  
OpenID said...

Great write-up, Scott. Here are some photos from the event:

October 5, 2008 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Bill McLaughlin said...

Scott, thanks for driving the breakout session on social media. I captured a video of it along with a couple of other interviews of the unConference here:

October 6, 2008 9:51 AM  

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