Saturday, January 29, 2011

Losing a Leg

Historically, the autocrat's strategy for control could be the three legged stool of poverty, malnutrition and ignorance. Recent developments indicate that smart phones have knocked one leg out from under that stool. It is increasingly difficult to keep a populace ignorant of what is going on in the world.

Years ago I read Iqbal Qadir's provocative article on the impact of ICT on development and governments- much of what he discussed is now coming true.

"By influencing governance, these technologies can release resources trapped beneath vested interests. This impact is far greater than the conveniences for which these technologies are ordinarily known."

The other two legs may be cut short as well. Iqbal's brother helped develop Cell Bazaar in part to transmit better market data to Bangladeshi farmers so they could get better prices and higher incomes. And a recent story on NPR detailed efforts by Mercy Corps to use mobile cash to replace more traditional forms of aid (including often disruptive food aid).

The impact of the smart phone on the BOP dwarfs the impact of most aid, development and social entrepreneurship programs. In recent days, it also seems to also be dwarfing the impact of national intelligence, diplomacy and news media.

Some refer to mobile phones as "just" a tool. You know, like fire, the wheel, agriculture, genetics....

Egypt & Entrepreneurship:Tectonic Demonstration Effects

This past week I was fortunate enough to meet with some leaders in the field of innovative philanthropy and impact investing. So thanks first to my guides at Mercy Corps, Lemelson Foundation, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Imprint Capital and Omidyar Network.

One term I heard quite a bit was "demonstration effect." For our meetings, this meant examples of investments that provide impact and return on capital. Or enterprises that serve poor customers fairly and make a fair profit they can share with their owners and employees. Each of these could start self-reinforcing trends, attracting more human and financial capital to mission based companies.

More generally, demonstration effect recognizes the power of examples over ideas. Hearing about an idea that has never happened is very different than seeing something unexpected happen. Real examples open people up to new possibilities, and shift their frame of reference. The unlikely becomes more likely, and the world is never the same for that person. As these events are shared, they ripple to companies, communities and societies. There is no going back.

This morning, the AP is reporting that China is blocking #egypt on their twitter like services. The street demonstrations in Egypt were in part a result of the demonstration effect of similar protests in Tunisia. Could it be that China is worried that it is next? That the democratizing force of social media will drive a different type of domino effect? Tunisia ->Egypt->China? And imposing internet darkness may backfire on these governments.

These are tectonic political shifts. The longer the built up energy is surpressed the more impressive is its release- in building continents, the result can be earthquakes and in building nations, the result can be revolutions. The Latin root of this word is "to build," and tectonic means "building through structural deformation." In other words, creative destruction (right Mr. Schumpeter?) Continents, countries, and industries are built on ruptures, shifts, shaking and destruction. I wait, hopeful that Egypt (and any other countries that follow) don't add violence to the list. Iran's brutal repression is still a fresh gash on this hope for a better world.

In a more personal light, I spoke to one of my African students earlier this week. She told me that she had never thought of herself as an entrepreneur but that my class had shown her a) examples of others who had decided to make a difference through entrepreneurship, and more importantly, b) given her personal experiences that had shown her that she could be an entrepreneur. She made some tough decisions at some cost and difficulty and now has embarked on a new venture. Another dandelion starts to bud through the soil and sunlight provided by demonstration effect.

Throughout history, the power of seeing something work opens our eyes to new possibilities. Whether it is a "demo" of a new product, the self realization of one's potential, or the possibility of over- throwing an autocrat, the demonstration effect has vast potential for rapid replication. This can be both scary and exhilarating. These are common emotions to unreasonable people- revolutionaries, activists, entrepreneurs, hackers and (ad)venturers. Emotions that I imagine were felt in Boston in 1773 and are being felt in Cairo today.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Entrepreneurial By Nature

My longtime bleeps may think this post will once again refer to the debate on whether entrepreneurs are born or made. But- surprise- that topic has almost nothing to do with this post.

No, this post has to do with Colorado. What some refer to dismissively as one of "the flyover" states. But they are wrong. That is old school thinking.

In December, a small group met to talk about how to promote Colorado's entrepreneurial and innovative culture. As is often the case with a small group, someone said something, and someone else built on it, and all of a sudden, we had a pretty cool mantra. "Colorado... Entrepreneurial by Nature."

For those entrepreneurs who are digging out of the most recent blizzard on the Right Coast, or stuck in traffic on the Left Coast, maybe it is time to come to Colorado. Not to ski, but to create. I live not too far away from a city named after the man who exclaimed over a century ago: "Go West young man, and grow up with the country." Well, old Horace had a point, I think.

A personal story. During law school, I interviewed with a prestigous old Boston law firm. At one point, they asked me where my parents went to college and what they did. I doubt they know how that ticked me off. At that point, mentally, I turned on my heel and walked out the door on the East. In the West, we don't care where your parents (or you) went to school. We don't care much about what you wear or drive (though you get points for riding your bike or horse). Mostly, we care that whatever you do, you do well. It isn't about your daddy, it is about you. If you can hang with us, in business or out on the trails, you are welcome to come along.

Now, if this were an official campaign, this is where I'd break out lots of numbers to convince you that moving here is a no-brainer. But it isn't an official campaign, so let me just tell you about my day. While all days are unique, this day is fairly typical for me, and offers some flavor of why I am always happy to come home to Colorado.

I flew in from SF late last night. When I woke up, I thought I might head up to the mountains to ski later today- it has been a great snow year (in the mountains) and there is nothing like a bluebird day on the slopes. But I've been away a lot, and the forecast was for a nice few days on the Front Range. Very nice. Sunny and 60's. In January. So I decided to stay in town. Since it was early, I connected with a few people in India (12.5 hours), catching them before their weekends started. Then exchanged emails with a few folks in the east, and a phone call with a microfinance friend in Boston who called me "old school" for picking up the phone to chat. Then a bit of time reading and preparing for next week's class.

OK, no biggie so far. I could have done this most anywhere with an internet connection. But it was a bit past noon, and had warmed up nicely outside. So I jumped on my mountain bike* and took a ride up through the foothills and along the reservoir. The sky was blue, and the trails were tacky. It was so warm I was tempted to swim in the lake until I remembered that it was January and the water was probably freezing.

After the ride, I "had" to swing by New Belgium** to drop some papers off... and fill up a growler. They suggested Trip #7, a recently released Black IPA. I caught up with a few folks, met intern Drew of the new Lips of Faith Drew's Beer, then heard briefly about brewmaster Peter's recent trip to another brewery where he had seen some exciting stuff. Then, I was off to chat with a friend about some challenges and upcoming changes as his company begins to market in Africa. And we did put a dent in that tasty Trip #7.

The point is not that I get to do interesting stuff. It is possible to do interesting stuff with interesting people almost anywhere. This makes the "where" of innovation both less important (got internet?) and much more important (do I live in a place that makes me feel alive/joyous/energized?). While you can tap into big parts of the global innovation community from a lot of places, there are far fewer that offer the range of opportunities that Colorado has. It is a place to be entrepreneurial...artistic...musical...athletic... by nature***. Maybe it is just me, but I think the combination of good work, good biking, good weather (and good beer) is pretty special. At least for me, I can't imagine better growing conditions for new ideas and ventures.****

If you want to come check it out, might I suggest TEDxMileHigh on April 7. They plan to highlight some of the entrepreneurial gems of the state. Then you can spend a few days to investigate Denver, Golden, Boulder and Fort Collins. And then go take a few days to ski, or go mt biking in the desert.

Entrepreneurial by nature... sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Maybe we will see you around.
Just a few examples:
* A Yeti. From Golden, Colorado.
** One of our wonderful Fort Collins breweries.
*** For music: Aspen Music Festival, Telluride Bluegrass, Red Rocks, New West Festival
**** Supporting Data Point: Recently opened Innosphere for start ups is already full.