Four weeks ago I was interviewed on Microsoft BizSpark's radio/web show in Mountain View. During these weekly segments, Doug Crets (BizSpark's social...
Silicon Valley, known the world over for pioneering technology software delivery models including SaaS (software as a service), PaaS (platform as a service), and BaaS (backend as a service - note: yes this is the correct term), has today announced it will adopt BLaaS as a standard software delivery model...
Cities, like companies, are often built from nothing.
Among the wreckage of a failed "anything" often comes the biggest and most promising opportunities of all. But making lemonade out of lemons is no small feat and requires an extraordinary amount of vision, leadership and resolve.
When the economic bust stripped down much of the "local" Las Vegas -- from jobs to real estate value to small business -- it was hard to see the silver lining. While luxury hotels and world-class shows continued to stay above water, downtown essentially became a ghost town; construction anywhere outside the new Vegas strip came to a grinding halt; and thousands of people lost their homes if not their livelihoods.
A few weeks ago, I was having a long overdue "coffee catch up" with my friend and fellow entrepreneur, Maren Kate, who founded Zirtual in 2011. On a whim she told me I should meet up with her in Las Vegas the following weekend to check out their new HQ and what was happening with the startup scene there. While I had read and heard about the Downtown Project and the massive influence Zappos' founder Tony Hsieh had on the Vegas startup community, I was ill prepared for what I would experience -- on a soul-moving level.
Community, collisions, and co-learning
"According to Krissee", our tour guide extraordinaire, the goals of the Downtown Project are three c'd: community, collisions, and co-learning. The first (community) is fundamental to having any sort of long-term success; the second (collisions) is not so obvious. It stems from the idea of urban density, in which 100 people per square acre are required in order to have a thriving city center. When people live and work in close proximity, often colliding with each other in natural ways, magic can happen. Co-learning is also fundamental to building a sustainable infrastructure where "Return on Community" reins supreme. Without shared knowledge and education, all bets are off.
Real money and the real gamble
The Downtown Project is armed with 350M and has divided the funds in four key areas:
1. $200 million for real estate
2. $100 million for education
3. $50 million for technology startup investments through the Vegas Tech Fund
4. $50 million for local, small business
But how will Las Vegas, a city best known for its desert-laden landscape and tawdry, tourist attractions overcome the perceptions and be taken seriously for emerging startups, their founders and teams? Will they be able to attract enough talent to support companies who commit to building and growing in Vegas?
According to VegasTech's Gabriel Shepherd, one of the ringleaders of the emerging startup scene, it's not a secret that Las Vegas is typically thought of in the context of casinos:
"As someone who grew up here, tourism is certainly an industry I am appreciative of, and that will never go away. But it's exciting to hear other startup communities, founders of successful companies, and investors mention Vegas in the larger discussion about viable tech startup cities."
Andy White, who spearheads efforts at the Vegas Tech Fund, has a front row seat to the impending startup explosion. When I sat down with him to pick his brain specifically with regard to their recent investments, I was impressed with the number of startups that have both emerged from the local community and those who have made the move to Vegas to launch their companies. Unlike other investment vehicles, which typically evaluate nascent startups primarily in terms of team strength and passion as well as product viability, the Vegas Tech Fund requires founders to be heavily involved in the local community and committed to seeing it thrive.
LaunchKey (a passwordless user-authentication app), Bluefields (an organizational app for sports teams), Skillshare (a global markeplace for classes), and of course Zirtual (subscription-based, virtual assistant services) -- which fundamentally changed my life in about three days flat -- have all "bought in" to the new Vegas vision. The founders of these companies are committed not only to building profitable companies but to creating local jobs, giving back to the community on a variety of levels, and ultimately re-investing resources into Las Vegas.
A city as a startup
Beyond just typical tech-driven companies, other organizations within the startup ecosystem have begun moving operations to downtown Vegas.
Frank Gruber, founder of Tech Cocktail, recently opened an office in Las Vegas and believes in the mission of the Downtown Project:
"I saw a community being built in downtown Vegas that reminded me of the approachability of Boulder before it was crowned a startup city. Yet Las Vegas, as a whole, has a huge name and brand, with unique resources. We opened an office in Vegas because we were excited about the notion of helping to build 'a city as a startup'. We'll continue traveling the globe looking for and covering startups and showcasing different communities, but we can do that from anywhere, so decided to make Las Vegas our home because we fundamentally believe in the long-term vision."
Why should startups consider Las Vegas?
Convenience: Las Vegas completes the West Coast trifecta of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Not only is it a short, cheap flight in and out of either of those cities, but it's also home to some of the biggest tech conventions in the world. Those who choose to set up shop in Las Vegas will have access to world-class events in their backyard while being able to easily shift between two other tech and media hubs.
Cost of living: This is perhaps the biggest barrier for emerging startup teams often living on small salaries, as they pour every cent into building their company. Beyond Vegas' tax breaks for businesses, the low-cost of living is extremely appealing. Not many tech-friendly cities offer 2,000 square foot, upscale, three bedroom apartments for less than $2500/month. You can pack a lot of developers into a living space that size.
Capital: If a founder is committed to the Downtown Project vision (assuming the product is solving a problem) the chances of securing capital is relatively high compared to other funding environments. $350 million is a good chunk of change and that amount is only growing as outside investors are beginning to "buy in" to the opportunities being created in Las Vegas.
As I stood in Hsieh's corporate apartment overlooking downtown, observed the construction happening within a five block radius, and listened to Krissee talk about the Downtown Project, something hit me like a ton of bricks: this was the ultimate American entrepreneur success story.
You build a massively successful company rooted in customer service and leverage technology to do so; you sell that company for a colossal amount of money and decide to re-invest that money into re-building a city, or at least a part of a city. Sure, it makes economic good sense, and of course money will be made; but above all else, you believe in building community and you believe in the importance of investing in people, not things.
This is the new Las Vegas. And I'll bet on this Las Vegas any day of the...
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And technology, for all its utility and profit-making glory, has been like miracle-grow for the human trafficking industry.
You want numbers?
According to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in 2004...
These lyrics, appropriately taken from Leticia Wolf's "I'm Gold," winner of PledgeMusic's and Givit's SXSW Showcase, are nothing if not a perfect reflection of our times. When things are manageable, when time moves slowly, and when we are given ample opportunity to cultivate thoughts and evolve at a pace aligned with our intrinsic human capacity, we don't talk about "life being hard," "things being real" and "being too busy."
After a week and a half of recovery from the SXSW chaos (exhilarating and exhausting all at once) and after spending the time to replay conversations, reproduce moments of peak interest, and review my notes, one outstanding theme came to light: it's time to focus on making complex things simple.
Real problems are complex, but real people want simplicity.
Setting the stage: a simple framework for understanding the startup landscape
When the economy cracked wide open in 2008, two things happened: companies disappeared into the abyss along with jobs and old modes of thought, and opportunities for innovation and new modes of thought began to shift the tides of change.
But change requires mutual understanding, a viable framework, and leadership. In terms of the startup landscape, we now have the "connective tissue" required to truly give entrepreneurs -- game changing entrepreneurs -- the foundation they need.
This is due, in part, to an open dialogue happening between the public and private sectors, as well as government-backed initiatives like the Startup America Partnership. What started as a short-term mandate to provide support to U.S. startups has turned into a long-term, fundamental resource for the entrepreneurial-minded in 32 regional markets across the country. More than 12,000 startups have been born, bringing in more than $6 billion in annual revenue, creating more than 100,000 jobs.
When I sat down with Scott Case, CEO of Startup America, during SXSW to pick his brain, one thing he said stood out -- because it's the most important aspect of widespread change and upward movement:
"As a national community we are starting to have a common language that resonates across regions and markets. As an entrepreneur getting advice from a variety of sources, I need to have consistent feedback. More startups from around the country are getting higher quality feedback and are forced to step up their game. The fact that we have more assets helps improve the quality of companies."
After the storm comes the calm. So how do we use this framework to uncomplicate things?
No. 1: Streamlined communications
Already a complex organism, communications is perhaps the most obvious sufferer when we think about areas of innovation where simplicity is required. Before one-to-many technologies came into play, the channels by which we communicated were fairly straightforward. They required patience, coordination, and accountability -- whereas today we are conditioned to move at a moment's notice -- and the modes were relatively simple. Fax. Phone. Email.
The convergence of mobile and social, along with the hardware required for full integration, is the exact point at which complexity began to mount. Not because the technologies were complicated, but because we (as humans) were not yet equipped to field and filter the firehouse of information coming our way.
Now the challenge (and opportunity) is two-fold. First, from a human communications standpoint, building platforms that enable one-to-one communication for specific human needs, cutting out the layers of superfluous information and crap that has piled up on the Internet (think TaskRabbit, The One-Page Company, and yes... I'm going to say it... Match.com) which makes it nearly impossible to make an informed decision.
Second, from a telecommunications perspective, reducing the complexity that comes from multiple carriers, WiFi, name-your-number "G" network, combined with various hardware, software, and cloud solutions. The best example I can cite to date is Voxer, which is essentially taking "push-to-talk" to a whole new level because of two main differentiators: it is country and platform agnostic.
No. 2: Simple products
From all the noise at SXSW, came one quote from Leap Motion's Michael Buckwald that I've stated over and over in the past two weeks, and I'm sure will obsessively continue to state because it's just so darn accurate.
"Technology's job is to make complex things simple, not to add complexity to simple tasks. In the future, people shouldn't feel like they're using a computer."
In other words, when applied correctly, innovative technologies reduce friction, provide immersion, and aren't cumbersome to our natural, always evolving human behavior.
Greg Kostello, CEO and founder of Givit, a recently launched platform for video editing (I have donned it the "Final Cut Pro for dummies," which means even I can use it) understands the challenges around creating products that have simplicity at the core:
"First, you must understand the ultimate goal of the end user. To make it truly easy for the average individual, you must forget how it has been done before. You must throw out everything you've known before, start fresh, and shift your mindset and think: 'what does the user want to achieve, and what is the simplest most engaging way to make it happen?' Some people think it's about limiting features and restricting controls, but that isn't the solution -- the real key to simplicity is providing functionality that is intuitively learned, easily accessible and results in a delightful experience."
While the consensus at SXSW was "no clear winner in the app category," it is for good reason. Apps have reached a saturation point in terms of primary innovation and have gracefully slid into utility and ubiquity. The complexity of our "app-verse" has somewhat subsided as users, marketers, and developers seem to finally understand how to best apply their capabilities.
Austin-based Q Manning, whose Rocksauce Studios has been building apps for big brands and developers alike over the past several years, has watched how apps have single-handedly fulfilled this need for simplicity:
"Apps are our ultimate achievement in simplifying the complexities of life. Twitter simplifies communication down to 140 characters. Mailbox simplifies the complexity of dealing with massive amounts of email. Clear makes to-do lists about as simple as they can get -- with a tap to create and a swipe to remove.
The bite-sized nature of mobile software, coupled with the ability to naturally swipe, spin, twist, pinch or tap a mobile interface, has allowed us to take complex ideas which used to live in spreadsheet columns and rows, and make them easier to digest or interact with."
The opportunity for app developers here is apparent: don't build another dating app. Please. Take a complex problem and build an app that feels like a natural solution for a human being who is now adept at using apps to organize their life, source information, and grow a business.
Beyond just lip service
This idea of simplicity and focus has always been the battle cry of experienced and well-intentioned entrepreneurs; but with the accessibility and affordability of technology combined with low barriers to entry, abundant resources, and (frankly) the necessity of starting up new businesses, our collective propensity to pile "shit on top of shit" is evident.
I'm not suggesting that we slow the rampant tide of innovation or discourage entrepreneurs from experimenting, building, and testing their ideas. But what I am saying is that bringing home tech gold requires the entrepreneur to solve real problems for real people.
We now have the framework, the language, the connective tissue, and the collective need. There is no excuse for building more complexity into our already over-indulgent, saturated lives. So, let's get to...
The SXSWi portion of the 2013 Austin, Texas festival was seemingly on steroids this year. Amongst the incredible cacophony of bands blaring from 6th street bars and sleep deprived techsters pitching their latest ideas to pretty much anyone within earshot, emerged a handful of golden moments as I ran around...
Today's Breaking News From Silicon Valley is brought to you by Yahoo! Inc. and Microsoft in a somewhat shocking, merger-like move. Because they can.
Facebook: Today, Facebook founder and female-exec-in-training Mark Zuckerberg and his extremely tolerant wife, Priscilla Chan, released a joint statement via the company's COO Sheryl Sandberg graciously...
Ahhh, SXSW. That time of year when every startup under the sun flees to the quaint, country-loving town of Austin, Texas only to have their big launch plans hijacked by the likes of Amex and Pepsi. And this year, possibly Uber and Airbnb too.
But have no fear, despite its...
Polytechnologiae (from the Greek poly, meaning "many" or "several" and Latin technologiae meaning "technology") is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one virtual relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent (albeit much to the confusion) of everyone involved, often in a cross-platform environment. It is...
After having left Chicago for the West Coast nearly six years ago, I recently returned on a technology-related business trip anxious to assuage my FOMO on perhaps the greatest tech opportunity in the U.S.
Within 24 hours of my arrival I was connected to a handful of the city's...
With the excitement of the holidays upon us, and the sheer exhaustion of the year behind us, it is important to reflect on what makes us great. At this moment, we take stock of what we (entrepreneurs) have built over the past decade.
Beyond that reflection, however, lies an...
As an entrepreneur with a front-row seat to the Silicon Valley tech scene, the premiere of Bravo's latest reality show, Start-Ups: Silicon Valley (which may have been better titled: Survivor: Silicon Valley) has many bubble-heads wondering if the "other Zuck" has what it takes to convey the stories...
Gender stereotypes prevail, no matter how much we wish they didn't. Women are perceived as detail-oriented multi-taskers who communicate their needs, wants, and desires about life, work, play and anything in between on an "over-regular" basis. We see men as dominant, big picture types with visions of how to move...
In the U.S., Labor Day generally marks the end of summer, the kick-off of NFL and college football seasons, and, for the fashion-forward, means those white shoes, pants, and other accouterments get pushed to the back of the closet until otherwise notified. As we face one of the most anemic...
Before startups where "hot" and being a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur was the quickest way to guarantee getting laid on the regular, the innovators of yesteryear, without the connectivity and democratization of information that technology now affords, built businesses around a solid skill set or profession, created educational institutions that...