Thursday, 13 October 2011

Chicago Ideas Week Day 3 (Think Chicago)

The day started off with
a panel moderated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Google's Chicago office.

The event was super small, just for the 50 of us undergrads and a couple of the Google employees and consisted half of their pitch for doing startups in Chicago and half of answering questions about how to go about doing it.

The Panel:
1. "Find something that frustrates you in the world and just decide one day to fix it.
      ~ Desiree Vargas Wrigley, Founder of GiveForward
2. "You have to quit your job, cause until then your idea is a hobby and not a passion" 
      ~ Matt Maloney, Founder of GrubHub
3. "It isn't just the idea: it's really in the execution. [...] having a talented team is critical."
      ~ Phil Nevels, Founder of Power2Switch

The Tools: <- "networking"  (which means having good, deep conversations with smart people you respect and trust, not just handing out business cards)
Incubators (traditional like but particularly  and also specific ones like
MBA programs at entrepreneurially focused schools like Booth.

Why Chicago:
Chicago has a newer, smaller tech startup scene than the Valley and is more forgiving than in New York. Other entrepreneurs and investors in Chicago want you to succede: there is less of a inter-competitive spirit between companies and more of a mentorship culture in Chicago than in Silicon Valley. Talent in the Valley jumps from company to company every 9 months: in Chicago you can really keep a team together for a few years without making it big: important because most companies take this long to mature and become successful. Talent is cheaper here than in SV/SF and NYC (good for entrepreneurs, if bad for  talented people!).

Chicago is the city that makes no small plans. It raised Obama as a community organizer and generally believes in the power of individuals causing social change through organization and leadership, including through private, entrepreneurial ventures. People in Chicago, from the mayor on down, want you to succeed because they believe in what you're doing. It is a city that thinks of entrepreneurs as agents of social change and not as high-margin, high-risk investment opportunities.

Oddball Point:
The most important policy choice that a mayor can make to encourage a tech scene in his or her city is to make generous, protected bike lanes.

Next we split into groups for company visits.


It was great to talk to Matt Maloney more privately. He's a seriously impressive individual that exudes puissance, knowledge, authority and calm: seeing him with the mayor he was a bit nervous, but back at GrubHub he was the master in his workshop. Below are some of the most interesting things I learned from talking to him.

A startup is a way of making society more efficient. You make society more efficient, this adds value to society and that's where profit comes from. The internet is making efficiencies in areas across society not only possible but obvious.  This is why it is exciting and important to go into technology now and why this is actually adding value to society and not just moving wealth around.

You should make your on-boarding process for new-hires slow and hire even more slowly. Make sure that you can instill your vision of your company and of the future of the industry into people as they come in, so that the company's vision stays focused. As a founder, once you start hiring people to do all the actual work for you, the only real control you can retain on your company is to make sure your hires understand the goals and the vision and then trust their actions.

The best way to find great people to do design, marketing, business, etc is to find people whose work in these areas you respect, and then ask them who _they_ respect.  You aren't the best judge of who is good in fields you don't know much about, but people you know in these fields do.

It is important to grow your product and idea as a hobby at first, so you can get a product going, get momentum, and learn about your users and their needs, etc before it becomes a matter of the life or death of your company. It is, however, equally important that at the right time you drop that first job and start to pursue it full time.

Entrepreneurship is about finding the better way of doing something. Be flexible and open to change within your company as you are outside it. Constantly ask yourself "is there a better way to do this" and never be satisfied that you've found the best solution.

Always focus on the value that you add to society right now, on the product as it is right now, and on the current users needs.  Don't get too caught up in the high level plan for social change because the way people will actually use your product is inevitably not going to be how you intended it.

Coudal Partners

Next we headed over to a small design company called Coudal Partners.  A fascinating company, Coudal found itself in the recession of the early 2000's in a crisis of identity: it was an advertising and branding company that was doing a lot of work they weren't proud of.  They started trying to make their own videos and, frustrated at the lack of quality packaging for their pilot dvd's, decided to make their own.  The brand they created is Jewel Cases.  Coming off this surprising success, Coudal has continued to make brands and products in whatever area is interesting to them and frustrates them.  They design products that they are proud of and happy using and typically this results in brands and products that other's like as well.  Their biggest brand at the moment is Field Notes: a brand of very high quality, American, adventurous and nostalgic notebooks and pencils that can be found in a variety of high-end male fashion stores.  Their products remind me a great deal of the best of Japanese design, in minimalism, functionality and style but with a rustic, American touch.

Also check out their layer tennis videos, and "field tested books" (such as Stumbling Unhappiness)

The amazing thing about Coudal is that they just said screw you to doing things they don't enjoy. They make products they're proud of and interested in for themselves, and if other people find those things useful and want to buy them: all the better.  Really an inspiring message.

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