Disruptors among us

Security Theater KnifeIt seems that every healthy and thriving community, city, social group or ecosystem remains healthy and thriving because they can handle having a disruptive element with an important role to play.

The disruptors are the people or events that shake up the status quo, question why things are done a certain way, or introduce an element of chaos or discontent into the system and forces it to evolve, change or adapt.  They are the people whose survival or well-being is not dependent on the stability of the system; revolutionary new ideas and significant change rarely come from those whose livelihoods and sense of security depend on things going along as they are.

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Y Combinator wisdom on helping startups succeed

LaunchPad_300I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers."  This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.

I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better.  I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.

If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time.  The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step.  As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.

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On maturity

Edison/Ford TreesAs a young person I was aware of the concept of maturity as something that could be sought, developed, worked on, but I was never quite sure how to measure whether or not someone had achieved maturity.

I've defined maturity in different ways throughout my life, most of them probably flawed.

Recently I've come to see maturity as a measure of someone's ability to understand the motivations of other people, to build for themselves a context about how a given situation or set of decisions has come about, and to have empathy for those motivations and that context.

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Layers of the economic development conversation

Pizza NightAs many communities talk about economic recovery and future development, the conversation is often framed around the question, "what's the best investment of taxpayer dollars to achieve economic growth in our area?"

The question is scaled up and down - from "what's the best investment of the U.S. federal government's taxpayer-funded resources to recover from a down economy?" all the way to (in my local case) "how should Richmond and Wayne County, Indiana spend funds captured through the EDIT tax to develop the local economy?"

For many people, the question in that form doesn't have any problematic premises.  But it's at least worth noting that there are some assumptions built in:

  • That the government and/or economic development corporations are the best entities to facilitate economic development
  • That taxpayer dollars should be used to fund economic development activities
  • That economic development as traditionally defined is a good thing

And so on.  Within each of those premises you can probably break them down further, e.g. if you ask people what economic development means, for some it's primarily "job creation" and for others its "improving quality of life" and for still others its "developing infrastructure."

The reality is that there are a number of layers to the conversation about economic development, most of them never touched or examined in the mainstream.  We might visualize those layers this way:

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Book Review: Hatching Twitter

hatching-twitterThe cover art and subtitle of Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal are perhaps more sensational than the actual story of Twitter's creation turns out to be, but it's still a really interesting read for anyone who's curious how a company with such a dominant place in our culture came about.

Bilton takes us back to the tentatively formed relationships that brought Twitter's founders together, the failing startup idea that necessitating thinking up a new idea that would become tweeting, and the tangled web of investors, supporters, detractors and high-profile users that would redefine Twitter many times along the way.  If the account is to be believed, and Bilton seems to have done his research, there was a fair amount of drama along the way: ego and jealousy between founders of the success and limelight the others received; dealing with conflicting demands from users, media, investors and employees; inexperienced leaders finding themselves in over their heads, and so on.  I doubt these scenes would be sufficiently exciting for a Hollywood dramatization a la The Social Network, but it was actually refreshing to learn of the real and human ups and downs that were at play.

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Getting rid of all my books

Tech BooksOkay, not ALL of my books.  But a few months ago I did start trying to significantly reduce the number of printed edition books that I was storing at home.  It was one part of an overall attempt to minimize the amount of physical stuff in my life. Here I'll share a few thoughts on how it worked.

I'm not quite sure when I made the mental shift toward being ready to get rid of a bunch of my printed books.  In the past I've always been someone who was skeptical of digital books and book-reading as a long-term substitute for printed books (though apparently I started changing my mind on that in 2011).  I've also always told myself that it's been worth the shelf space, moving boxes and related effort to own and carry around a healthy book collection.

If there was a book I thought I might ever want to reference for anything ever again, I should keep it.  A book that felt like it would be worthy of loaning out somewhere down the road was surely a keeper.  If I thought I could feel or seem a little smarter or a little more well-rounded by owning a certain book, it stayed on the shelf.  If a book was a gift or had an inscription from a friend or loved one, I felt obligated to keep it forever to honor that history.  If there was a book I hadn't gotten around to reading or finishing, I told myself it was better to hold on to it for when my interest returned.  Books on hobbies long since abandoned and ways of thinking long since changed were all there, just in case.

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Book review: Netflixed, the story of Netflix

(I've been reading a lot of books lately about the stories of how various technology companies came to be, and it's been great food for thought as I work on the next chapter in my own professional life story. This is the first in a series of blog posts about these books.)

Netflixed-Gina-KeatingI remember hearing about Netflix from a geek news site sometime in the early 2000s, and I think I was among the first folks in my town to try the DVD subscription by mail service that they'd launched in 1999. I was skeptical of it, having a hard time imagining a day when I wouldn't rather just stop in to the local movie rental store than bother with ordering a disc online and then waiting for it to show up by mail. But I tried it out, thinking it would be an interesting way to access some of the independent and obscure films that local stores wouldn't bother to stock.

And so I took my place as one of the many video watching consumers that Netflix, Blockbuster and other media companies were battling to attract and keep as customers over the last 15 or so years, leading right up to present day where the release of the second season of the Netflix-produced House of Cards on Friday was a major media event.

That battle and the personalities that made it interesting are the focus of Gina Keating's great book, Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs.

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