Finally, a wave of companies are starting to see the benefits of employing individuals with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a form of autism that often yields incredible abilities alongside the more well-known social challenges. Companies like Specialisterne USA, Aspiritech, and Elephant Ventures have found us to be an ideal labor source for software testing; SAP and Freddie Mac have begun well-publicized initiatives to place spectrumites in a variety of positions; and the idea of Asperger folks becoming entrepreneurs has also taken great, fantastical flight.
The growing excitement is understandable. Most labor studies show that the unemployment crisis (for everyone!) will be resolved only through small business growth; many of our brainier brothers and sisters in Silicon Valley/Alley are either fairly or unfairly diagnosed with AS by the media; and startups--with their lottery-dream, billion dollar headlines--are all the rage.
But is enough being said about where the concept of the Asperger entrepreneur doesn't make sense? Yes, we know that individuals with AS have the potential to develop out-of-the-box ideas, and that when we set our minds to something, our inherent tunnel vision often allows us to build flawless products. But startups require funding, and funding requires networking, meetings . . . socialization. And herein, many of us struggle. Whether we like it or not, the differing behaviors of first-time Asperger entrepreneurs can present red flags to those Venture Capitalists or other investors who lack the spectrum experience required to trust us with their money.
Though I haven't reached the funding stage yet, I'm one of those Asperger entrepreneurs.
Some months ago, as I was transitioning out of non-profit Executive Directorships and in to existing consulting and writing endeavors, I began running one of these startups on the side, and it took off. We have an amazing team; our Chief Operating Officer is a founding attorney and former CEO of Country Music Television, our Chief Technical Officer is a former Senior IT person at LinkedIn, a former host for New York Times Radio handles a variety of media and writing duties; and we have what we believe is an amazing product--a very different type of social media platform to help all unemployed or dissatisfied workers find new employment. Finally, we all love it. Everyone's working for nothing because they believe in the project, we get along great, and speaking just for myself, I'm amazed at how much I'm enjoying the first for-profit venture I've ever found myself in.
But I'm not the only one on this team with AS. With the exception of the former NYTimes host (disclaimer: she's my wife), the aforementioned key players, including our additional Lead Counsel, all have Asperger's. And while all of us have accomplished or built extraordinary things in our careers, none of us have proven to be brilliant fundraisers. To cite just myself as an example . . . As temporary Chief Executive Officer, fundraising will be mostly my responsibility. And in my years running non-profits it was clear that I carried the potential to be a brilliant tool for a smart fundraiser, but that I myself was no brilliant fundraiser.
So as we near the end of the Research & Development phase, and explore, inch by inch, how to reveal ourselves to the world, the strategic question becomes "How?" Because as with dating and job interviews, there is no method guaranteeing that someone in a position of power will believe in you. For instance, read the blogs written by successful Venture Capitalists (VC)* and you will discover contradictory advice; starting broadly with those who feel the pitch is more important to them than the product, and vice versa. And when you get down to the nitty-gritty contradictions--such as what folks consider to be acceptable terms for seed funding--it gets more complicated. This puts even the socially-adept spectrumites into a bind of potential paralysis.
Then there are the questions of whether to take the online Angel List route, and risk reporting to multiple, small investors (if you're the CEO, how many phone calls do you want to take in a week)? Or should you instead just shoot for the moon with one large, dedicated investor? Do you want investors who will stay out of your way, or do you want real partners who will invest their time as well as their money? The list goes on.
Granted, I haven't been through this process, I'm in this process, writing pre-conceived notions and not proven strategies. But after examining all this, here are some of the thoughts our team is committed to running with:
First, and most importantly, focus on the product. Unlike in the non-profit world, if you build something that the world needs, and build it well, everything else will fall into place. Granted, your judgment regarding your product's value could be way off the mark, as contrary to all the sexy coverage of "WhatsApp" selling for $16.9 billion, the odds of startups making it might be as good as those faced by New York actors. But that said, if you don't believe your product will make it, why should anyone else believe in it?
Secondly, understand that the process will take far longer than you want it to. A downside to the for-profit world is that it progresses at a snail's pace. In one of my former Executive Directorships I spoke at dozens of Human Resources conferences, Corporate Diversity & Inclusion conferences, and I felt privileged to see the inside machinations of several Fortune 1000 HR departments. From listening to so many of these folks, one clearly sees that, even when an idea is a no-brainer for a large business, the amount of change required to implement the idea leaves you frustrated beyond belief. Corporate culture is notoriously top-down, and change is slow. Rarely do the head brass quickly heed the advice of their underlings--and that's only if said underlings wish to risk annoying the head brass by relaying said advice. This again, however, is a real "crisis vs. opportunity" situation, in that it gives you more time to make your product even better, and you have to think this way if you want to avoid frustration.
Third, know thy product. You don't really have to worry about famous VCs telling you one thing, and then another; because your business needs options. And your new business, if you listen to it, will point you towards the advice that will work for your new venture, and away from the advice that won't (work).
Fourth, know thy team--as a collective. In our case, because of who we are, we do not want stand-aside investors. We want partners who will join us, and fill in our holes. And in progressing along these routes we know that, Asperger's or not, we have more than enough social intuition to figure out which investors are comfortable with us, and which ones aren't (or as David Beisel terms it, "finding the true believers rather than convincing the skeptics"). Couple that with an analysis of investors' backgrounds, and we will find the best partners for our product.
Fifth, know thy team--as individuals. Using just myself as an example, you may have noticed I used the term "temporary CEO" to describe my role. I do so because despite what entrepreneur guru, Mark Cuban, says ("You don't need an MBA to be an entrepreneur"), I think the needs of our project dictate we will need an MBA running the show, perhaps right before the second, larger round of funding (should we be so fortunate, right?).
Sixth, be creative. After struggling with how to market the multi-faceted aspects of our product in under 10 minutes of reading time, we wrote a commercial script. It won't be professionally shot, we'll use a good digital camera on the aforementioned NY actors; but despite the production values, the (quite powerful) message reads loud and clear, and . . . in less than 90 seconds. Do your Business Plan in whatever way communicates what funders want to hear (and in our case, a url link to this video commercial will begin our written document). But how potential investors hear the information they need is irrelevant, so long as you are clear.
Lastly, embrace the freedoms of "unfundedness," while you can. Should you succeed, surprising stresses will accompany your good fortune. As I wrote about in my book, "Asperger's From the Inside-Out," happiness often doesn't follow winning the lottery (in fact, it has actually been known to destroy families). Just make sure you're doing something you love, something that excites you; so that even amidst money troubles you can wonder aloud about how lucky you are.
Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, and the author of "Asperger's From the Inside-Out" (Penguin/Perigee), "The Last Memoir of Asperger Syndrome" (TBD), and numerous articles. In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com
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