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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Friday, September 12, 2008

Entrepreneurs: Need Some Expert Advice for Your Start-Up?

Bill Warner, founder of Avid Technology, called this morning with some disappointing news.

Bill asked me to be an "expert" at next month's Innovation UnConference, being organized by MassTLC. He told me that I would be the smartest expert there by far, offering entrepreneurs sage advice about how to work with the media. That was flattering.

But now, Bill has lined up a lot of much smarter people to consult with the entrepreneurs who attend the event. People like Howard Anderson, George Hatsopoulos, Rich Miner from Google, VisiCalc co-founder Dan Bricklin, Vanu Bose, 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe, Russ Wilcox from E Ink, Reed Sturtevant from Microsoft, and James Geshwiler from CommonAngels.

I'm humbled. Looks like it'll be a cool event.

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