Mentoring an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Lessons from Boston

Dave Balter and Jennifer Lum have written a piece in Inc. about mentoring and how this is helping to connect the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boston.

It really excited me for two reasons. Firstly, I find myself formally and informally mentoring entrepreneurs on a regular basis. It is something I’d like to formalise more into a wholistic entrepreneurial coaching program. Given this, many of the points made in the article resonate with me.

The second reason for my excitement is that I am a big believer in creating truly matrixed entrepreneurial ecosystems. I’ve experienced first hand how Silicon Valley, for example, works and one of my passion areas is fostering such an ecosystem in Sydney and across the region. Sydney is currently where Boston was circa 2010. We have a solid level of entrepreneurial activity bubbling up and some high profile wins. We also have successful serial entrepreneurs returning to our positive economic climate. But we are not sufficiently matrixed.

I was talking with a colleague yesterday who, having returned from a stint working in Silicon Valley, found Sydney to be bubbling with pockets of activity, but no true connection between them and unless she was looking hard these pockets were easy to miss completely.

This article explains beautifully just what is required to create a more matrixed ecosystem. It was only once:

Boston’s start-up “ecosystem” began to deeply interconnect – like some massive neural network…the community is nurturing, embracing, and considerate of its entire being…what was once an environment of competition and posturing has been replaced by one of cultivation and brotherhood.

Are you starting to get the picture?

The momentum that’s brought Boston into 2012 is irrefutable. Everywhere you turn new nodes are being created and synapses are firing.

Similarly, Sydney can benefit from the approaches Dave and Jennifer are advocating, namely spiderweb mentorship and horizontal entrepreneurism.

The crux of the piece is around spiderweb mentorship, which they illuminate on as such:

This is about creating the strongest start-up “web” possible, by weaving an incredible tapestry of ideas and connections, allowing for random new offshoots, connecting divided webs, and oscillating the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem into action.

How can this be achieved?

They argue, and I wholeheartedly agree, that this occurs when experienced veterans (mentors) focus not on making each individual entrepreneur better, but on making the system as a whole stronger. Mentors must be open and willing to (a) connect with people beyond only those with the right “credentials” and (b) focus on the development of “web-like” interconnectivity to other mentors and entrepreneurs.

There are 5 critical behaviors mentors need to follow in order to achieve this:

1. Take the unknown meetings with ambiguous agendas.

Yes, I do this, but will counter that while I’m a big believer in serendipity it can sometimes prove frustrating and one does have to balance the number of such meetings versus those with specific business agendas.

2. Follow the law of three introductions

I like this. I’m always looking for connections across my network and love watching synapses occur when like minds meet.

3. Be constructive – and critical

Indeed. Enough said.

4. If you’re a spider, show up!

I agree that corporate execs should be more prepared to mentor.

5. Start your own web

Looking back 15 years – it was the best thing I ever did!

 

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Living in a Post-Geographical World: Address is Approximate (Hat Tip to Steve Jobs)

My family has been travelling since the 1670′s when two Du Toit brothers left France as part of the great French Huguenot movement. They went to Holland, which had recently begun colonising the tip of Africa. Recognising opportunity, they led a movement of settlers and arrived in Cape Town in 1676. The result was a wonderfully rich cultural mix (and some great wines) in the Franschoek region of the western cape of South Africa.

Fast forward a few hundred years and we dispersed to the UK and Australia when crime became all too pervasive. I’ve since also lived in the United States, and regard Sydney and Palo Alto as the closest things to home.

Like many others who have had similar experiences I consider myself post-geographical. It’s not where I am physically that matters, but what my mindset is, who I am interacting with and what I am aiming to achieve.

That’s why this video by Tom Jenkins resonates so much with me.

I love the vision he portrays and his message also talks to what Steve Jobs said many years ago in an interview, namely that the world we live in is made up of man-made constructs and constraints. That the people who created them are no smarter than you are and once you realise this you need never be constrained by them – create your own world, wherever you are!

Address Is Approximate from The Theory on Vimeo.

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It’s Obvious: A Rising Tide LIFTS All Boats

As followers of my posts will well know, I am a big fan of Ev Williams and the Obvious team, from the days when Twitter was a side project all the way through its massive growth.

So when they announce a new partnership I take notice – big time. Lift sounds really interesting and I’m looking forward to hearing and exploring it in more detail in due course.

My main inspiration for this post, though, were the comments made by Obvious regarding their ongoing journey in crystallising out their engagement model. In my view, these terms should be adopted by all companies as their core mission statement:

It’s important never to delude ourselves into thinking that technology changes the world. People are responsible for change – technology just helps out. At Obvious, our goal is to foster systems that help people work together to improve the world.

If you aren’t improving the world, get out of the way and let those who are do their work!!!

 

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Teleprompting, Obama Style

A tongue in cheek skit by The Onion…make sure you read the newsfeed at the bottom of the screen – says a lot about television news and politicians:

Obama’s Home Teleprompter Malfunctions During Family Dinner

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Moving To The Center: Loic Le Meur’s Take On Silicon Valley

Loic Le Meur is a French serial entrepreneur. After creating four companies in Europe, he became frustrated by one simple aspect: he was not at the centre.

The centre of the universe as far as Internet and social media is concerned is located in Silicon Valley.

Loic felt that not being based in the Valley meant being always a little bit behind. In San Francisco everybody is only a block away. If they are not a block away then they are half an hour away, so all the action takes place between San Francisco and San Jose.

Loic says that this strip has most of the companies he wants to do partnerships with. When I spoke to him he had done two partnerships with local companies that afternoon for his new venture, Seesmic. He believes that the geographical distance of Europe and Australia to Silicon Valley presents a paradox.

“We are in the Internet time sense so we should be able to do everything remotely, but honestly it’s wrong. Like the company I’m talking with this afternoon, I went to see them, when I could have done everything on the phone because nothing replaces a coffee together. I hope Seesmic replaces this a little bit.”

Besides the distance factor, he feels there is a lot more energy and positive attitude in Silicon Valley. While creating a social media venture is doable from Europe or Australia, for him the fact that everybody is in Silicon Valley changes a lot.

“There are two key differences to Europe – one is that people don’t complain here. They just move on. Even if they are in a bad shape, they just keep working, creating, doing and they don’t complain. Whereas in Europe, their first reaction is to complain. Then they try to get help. Whereas here they just do things.  And that is a big difference in terms of attitude.”

‘The other difference is trust. Here by default you have the trust of people. If you mess up, then you lose it. If you say you will do something they will believe you. It is super easy to get an appointment. Super easy to do a partnership. And then you have to just show that you can do it and do it. Whereas in Europe usually it takes years to get trust. They want to look who you are, they want to know what school you graduated from. The when you start it takes six months to get to a contract. It is very, very slow.”

Loic believes it is the combination of all these factors that does not make it impossible, just much slower. So when he was thinking about doing his fifth startup he moved with his wife and three children to San Francisco.

“Everything you can change, we changed. And we are superhappy so far.”

Loic began blogging in 2003, created the first blogging company in Europe and sold it to Six Apart. It was this experience which gave him the vision for Seesmic: the conversation we enjoy every day on blogs and social software in text, should happen in video.

“I still don’t see any reason why and I have not found anybody who can give me a valid reason why the conversation should not happen in video. There is nobody doing this. Youtube, DailyMotion, all the video platforms enable the long tail so you can forward videos, but there is no conversation, there is no social aspect.”

“Then there are the people who do live video, Yahoo Live, uStream, etc, are very interactive but this is limited to very few people because you cannot put more than 3 or 4 people talking together at the same time.”

Seesmic is creating video social software. They started with a simple video player and Loic tapped into his own blog community and asked this community to help him build Seesmic’s product suite.

Starting small with just fifty people, they had soon distributed 10,000 trial codes. And then they listened. They created a feature requests feed, which allowed these trial users to request features. They received more than a 1,000 feature requests.

This community has become a pivotal, collective, key influencer in deciding what Seesmic’s product is going to look like.

On top of the request list a weeks ago was being able to send direct or private video comments. They did not have this high on the priority list, but watched closely as this feature grew in popularity as a request. Listening to their users they added this feature and it has been used a lot since then. Loic’s belief is that they have a unique opportunity to build out all the social aspects of Seesmic’s product with the people who are using it.

He sees people wanting two things. Firstly, they want an application that is easy to use, which is not for the geeks. He finds this very interesting as it confirm his belief that video is much more accessible than writing.

“You press a record button and it is super easy – anybody can do it, even if they do not know how to write. We try to build it non geek.”

The second thing people want is for the product to be integrated into other social software, such as blogs, social networks and not having the conversation centred only on Seesmic.

Loic also believes very much in the classic Silicon Valley saying that the dog must eat its own dog food. He posts on average five videos a day. He also has his own daily show, loic.tv, which can be found on both Seesmic and Youtube. This show is seen by about 4,000 people a day and it has passed 700,000 views in total.

“This is my way of building the company, I tell people how I build it”, he says. “It is a commitment, but it is also great social feedback. I find it fantastic because the community gives a lot back to me in terms of features and improvements so I feel that treating them as partners in the company rather than users or customers makes a big difference.”

In February Seesmic raised an initial $6 million in seed funding from a veritable who’s who of Silicon Valley angels. The round was led by Atomico, an investment group founded by Kazaa and Skype founders, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis.

As a serial entrepreneur Loic has no shortage of interest in his fifth venture. In determining who to bring on as investors he focused on people who really wanted to help and were genuinely excited about the product. He found that the Skype founders clicked immediately and he essentially raised the bulk of this funding round from them over a dinner.

Corporate governance does not seem to be a big issue to Seesmic. Getting on with the task of building a viable product is more pressing.

“The board doesn’t matter in a formal sense. Right now it is Atomico and myself. It doesn’t really matter because I talk to the 14 investors on a daily basis. There is not a single day when I don’t talk to one of them. What matters is the daily conversations I have with them. For instance last week I was discussing with Reid Hoffman how he grew LinkedIn. He was explaining how he didn’t charge anything before reaching 3-5 million members.”

“This is very interesting, because a big difference with Europe as well is that here when you get investors on board they don’t care about the revenues at all. They really care about the size of the community and the traction you can get.”

He believes this is a complete flip around to what you’d see in Europe and Australia.

“In Europe all the investors start with what is your revenue model. In the Valley they start with how can you reach a community of millions of people.”

As we reported previously Seesmic has gone on to raise a Series B of $6 million from Omidyar Network and Wellington Partners and you can listen to my recent audio interview with Loic here.

To conclude, Loic sees Seesmic contributing to being a driver for people understanding each other better, regardless of where they are or their culture. In today’s crazy world that is a much needed tool and we wish him and the Seesmic team well in their quest to make a positive difference on the world around them.

The Big Picture: A Vision For Social Media

Imagine a world in which:

every single human being is posting their thoughts and experiences in any number of ways to the Internet.

This is the world that New York-based VC, Fred Wilson, sees within his ‘grand vision‘ for social media.

I applaud Fred’s simplicity. All too often the bigger picture can become obscured by over complication. If we take a look through his firm’s portfolio, we quickly see that he is pulling together a mosaic that will progress us towards achieving his vision:

Twitter – microblogging

Disqus – distributed comments

Oddcast – conversational chararacters

Tumblr – microblogging

Zynga – social gaming

There are a bunch of other companies in the Union Square Ventures portfolio, but these are the stand out ventures that speak to Fred’s simple vision.

Turning this vision into reality will take a lot more determined effort by all of us. Besides supporting the right technology pieces, achieving standards (think what Gears is doing for HTML5), and gaining wide user traction there are regulatory and plumbing issues that will need to be solved.

Currently we see a lot of infighting and an almost continuous bitchmeme, at present this seems to be over whether Friendfeed is better than Twitter. And this within the context of a world in which millions are unable to express themselves, a world in which millions are dying because of oppressive regimes.

It is high time the social media industry rallied together. By focusing on this simple end goal, by setting a target we can come together around, we can achieve so much more.

[Picture courtesy of hellomartin]