Monday, December 31, 2012

Going Out with Van Gogh

"I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort- and disappointment and perseverance."       Vincent Van Gogh

About a month ago, Annie and I went to the Becoming Van Gogh show at the Denver Art Museum. I really liked it. So, for 2012, I will go out with a post on what I took away from the experience.* Unfortunately, the show's website doesn't have many pictures of the paintings. So to see what I am talking about, you really should go. Really. 

A caveat- I am not an art critic or art professional (duh). And, some personal biases- since Van Gogh's paintings are are very popular, and therefore somewhat scarce (as in, not every museum has a bunch of 'em), I just wasn't a huge fan. I'd seen Sunflowers and Starry Nights, and heard the insipid Elton John song. Meh. 

In any event, my comments here, what I want to go out with, have to do with creativity. And on that front, I was very impressed. "Becoming Van Gogh" provides (reinforces?) some observations on creativity that I think apply beyond art. 

#1 Even Geniuses Suck. Vincent was only an artist for 10 years (1880-90). I never knew that. And his work sucked through much of this period. OK, maybe it is fairer to say it sucked in the beginning, and was unremarkable during many of these years. He painted "visual sermons"- basically a dark palette, heavy figures, toiling for God's greater glory. If I saw these in an old attic, I would not have picked them up. But for the name, they would not be notable. His notebooks reveal his frustration with his work, and his work reveals nothing of what would come in just a few years. So, just think how it might feel to be Van Gogh, before "Becoming Van Gogh." In 1882, he said "success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures." He said this long before he had any success with his art. So he sucked, but he was optimistic. Perhaps you may have felt that way at some point in your life? One is often optimistic when you start; you suck and you are naive, so you get better as you work, and you don't really know how you compare to others who don't suck. 

#2 It Takes Others. At some point, however, you do start seeing others who don't suck. How you react to them makes a big difference. Do you reject them, or learn from them? When Vincent moved to Paris in 1886, he took up with another young artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. The two friends were assigned the seats reserved for "weaker students" at drawing classes (this also seems to be a common theme among some creative people, sitting in the back row, being put in the "slow" section, but I digress).  While in Paris, he began to borrow from what he saw others doing: Japanese art and the neo-impressionists. As the show's curators put it: "brilliantly, he combined these two seemingly incompatible approaches...Van Gogh surprised perhaps even himself as he created something utterly new." Perhaps it is confirmation bias on my part, but this recombinant approach fits so well with studies of how innovation happens. Besides Toulouse-Lautrec, he also befriended Gaugin in 1887. In Van Gogh's words: "For the great doesn't happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together." Imagine, how it might feel, to be hanging out with renegades, those painters in Paris who exhibited their paintings in small restaurants, and rarely sold anything. Before they became Van Gogh (or Gaugin, or Monet). 

#3 Breakthroughs Happen Unpredictably. What was so amazing to me about this show was how one gets to see, in effect, the fossil record of an explosion of creativity ... learn, practice, struggle, suck... Explode! This was not linear. In one year, starting late in 1887... it all changed. His art blossomed and he became the artist he is famous for being. This seems similar to what happens in biology and society as well. In retrospect, we can see patterns, but breakthroughs are difficult to predict. Van Gogh wasn't a child prodigy. He wasn't an award winning artist. He didn't go to the fancy schools. And then he became one of the most famous artists of all time. And it was so short. A year later, he cuts off his ear and by mid 1889 he is in an asylum, dying of a self inflicted gunshot in 1890. He became Van Gogh, and then he was gone.

#4 Is There a Correlation Between Madness and Creativity? It was interesting that the show did not discuss Van Gogh's mental state in any detail. Perhaps because so much has been written on the topic, and it is all speculation. Not so long ago, I wrote about Small Batch Madness, and quoted Aristotle: "no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness." Van Gogh had more than his share of madness, and it appears to correlate with the time of his greatest excellence. It makes me wonder, is creativity found along the path to madness? Is creativity about seeing the world differently than everyone else, but in a lesser degree than those who are "mad"? 

I don't know. So I will leave you with my favorite Vincent quote from the show's entry gallery: "I'll start with small things." Wise words. I wish you the best for 2013!
* if you are one of my newer bleeps, and wondering what the hell Van Gogh has to do with the BOP, please reread the intro to my blog. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Recent reads and some ramblings thereon

Just finishing up Little Bets by Peter Sims.  An easy to read, up to date summary of thinking on the creative side of innovation, and one that would go well with "Where Good Ideas Come From," "Medici Effect" and "Steal Like an Artist". It will be the last book I read in 2012. Thanks, Peter!

Other favorites from recent months:
-Startup Communities by Brad Feld- maybe it is pride in the Colorado roots of this book, but I think this should be required reading for entrepreneurs (as well as any politician or government official who wants to talk about "job creation"). Startups are such an important, but misunderstood part of the economy. Why should entrepreneurs read it? To understand how important the ecosystem/community is, and how important it is for them to give back/pay forward to that community.* For BOPreneurs? While not Brad's focus, I think there are some great foundations laid here. For instance, the work of Village Capital, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Echoing Green and The Hub are encouraging similar approaches to building startup communities, albeit not always with a geographic focus.**

-The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Communities by Stephen Marglin. You know how some books just take your world view and shake it in a way that it doesn't ever get back to the way it was? Well, for me, this was one of them. We will see how it stands my test of time, but for now, it goes up on that top shelf of books, which include Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Friedrich Hayek, Hawken & Lovins(s), Hernando deSoto, William Easterly and Peter Singer (umm, yes, I do live with some internal intellectual tension).*** This book attacks many of the precepts upon which our modern economy is based. Rather than asking how do we make markets work better, he instead asserts the limits of markets. When should humans prioritize markets, and when should we prioritize community? If you are open to the idea that "the foundational assumptions of economics are cultural myths rather than universal truths" I'd encourage you to look at this book. For entrepreneurs, I think that, as with many unpopular perspectives, this book provides a multitude of new ways to solve problems (aka, "opportunities"), and new tools beyond the popular "market based" approaches.****

What does 2013 hold? Well, my next package from Amazon contains: 1) Marjorie Kelly's "Owning our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution"; 2) Michael Shuman's "Local Dollars, Local Sense" and 3) Nassim Nicolas Taleb's "Antifragile- Things That Gain From Disorder." Looks like time for some more "intersectional reading."
*The day after I posted this, Brad posted this 2013 advice for entrepreneurs: "Give Before You Get."
**Note: In my work at Bohemian Foundation, we fund some of these organizations, or organizations affiliated with these organizations.
*** Challenging ideas can be pernicious, burrowing pests at times. Your established view is like an immune system, and can fend off the weak ones in time. But some just grab hold and make you itch for a while. Then they become part of your ideabiome (metaphorically speaking).
****Just to be clear, I am still a fan of market based approaches, in many instances. It is my "go to" bias. But so much of my work is in areas where markets have, at least until now, failed. As my colleague Tom Dean has written, market failure can be a rich vein of entrepreneurial opportunity. And there are many good examples of social entrepreneurs who have used market approaches to solve market failures.  Perhaps an example is illustrative of the quandary: which enterprise will have a bigger impact in bringing clean water to more people who need it- Spring Health (started by my friend Paul Polak) or Water For People (run by my friend Ned Breslin)? This is a hard question, with no easy answers (and it was my students' final exam question this past semester!). Spring Health has a purer, market based approach. Water for People uses markets, but it also uses other community development tools, because it believes that market based approaches will only reach 85% of the people in a community, and their goal is to reach everyone, forever. The untouchables, AIDS orphans and others won't all get water. Spring Health acknowledges the issue by providing water delivery, at a higher cost, to the untouchables. Both are admirable ventures, yet they raise the issue of whether a business model should be based primarily on market forces, or whether other approaches may also be needed to address these challenges. Perhaps it depends on the community's view of whether water a right or a commodity? Because we wouldn't just use markets to provide rights, right?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

When Failure Isn't OK

Part of approaching startups as experiments is that there is the potential for failure.
It's become a meme: fail early, fail often, write a failure resume.
I'm OK with failure, unless it's a failure of imagination or effort.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Charity 2012

Well, for the fourth year in the row, I am going to share our year end charitable donations, as well as some of the reasoning behind them. I know that this is often viewed as "nobody's business"... my reason for sharing is to encourage others to give. Not necessarily to the organizations that I support, but in an intentional and researched way.

Last year, we started a family fund with the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, so we now use that for the bulk of our donations. All five members of our family are involved in choosing and researching organizations they would like to support, so our donations reflect some common values around what is important, as well as more specific individual interests. 

Before diving in, I would like to highlight several resources that people serious about intentional philanthropy should consider. You are not alone, and if you are want to explore why you should give, or how to do it effectively, there are some good resources.

-The Life You Can Save, both a book and a website from Peter Singer that will challenge you to become an active donor.
-Big Bang Philanthropy- identifying and supporting high impact organizations around the world that are implementing solutions that reduce poverty.
-Givewell. Started by several people who wanted to make sure their donations really made a difference.
-Half the Sky Movement. Nicolas Kristoff & Sheryl WuDunn's site for organizations reducing oppression of women and girls. 
-Charity Navigator. Ranks charities on financial health and accountability. 
-Global Giving. A community of funders working on a number of projects around the world.
-Innovations for Poverty Action. Has started a fund targeting the most effective interventions against poverty.
-Social Impact Exchange. 100 effective non-profits based in USA. 

OK, enough of resource links. Let's cover what our family supported this year. As in past years, we organize our giving into five areas.

1) Environment- because we can't live without it (~20% of our donations in 2012)

-The Nature Conservancy-protecting ecologically important lands and waters worldwide.
-Trust for Public Land- conserving land for public use in USA.
-IdeaWild (C)- small grants with a big impact on biodiversity.
-Trees Water People (C)*- community based sustainable development, focused on reforestation and ecological restoration.*- global grassroots climate activism. 

2) Health- because health is the cornerstone of development; it's hard to work or go to school if you are sick. (~20%)

-Doctors Without Borders- emergency medical aid, in 70 countries. 
-Vision Spring- affordable eyeglasses in Central America and India
-Mothers2Mothers*- reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Africa
-Against Malaria Foundation*- efficient distribution of mosquito bed nets.

3) Social/International Development- Admittedly, a catch-all category. But basically for organizations that are working on innovative, primarily private sector approaches. (~15%)

-One Acre Fund- making small farmers in Africa more prosperous.
-iDE (C)- creating income and livelihoods for poor rural households in several countries; small scale irrigation technologies. 
-Nepal Youth Foundation- helping disadvantaged youth in Nepal.
-Women for Women International*- supporting women in post conflict areas. 
-The Mission Continues*- fellowships for returning veterans to use their leadership to make an impact at home.

4) Education- We are fans. Much positive change comes from education. (~12%)

-Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship- entrepreneurship for disadvantaged kids in USA
-Engineers Without Borders (C)- water and energy projects in developing world through partnerships with engineering schools
-Akili Dada- scholarships for talented secondary school girls in Kenya
-Book Trust (C)*- improving literacy and book access for disadvantaged kids in USA

5) Local Community (all are Colorado based)- there are many needs in our own communities. (~33%)

-Food Bank of Larimer County
-KUNC Public Radio
-SAME Cafe- great non-profit restaurant in Denver
-United Way of Larimer County
-Slow Money Soil Trust*- community finance and agriculture; bringing money back down to earth.
-Food Family Farming Foundation- healthy school lunches
-Intercambio*- language and cultural training for immigrants to Colorado
-Growing Gardens Boulder
-Alzheimer's Association of Colorado
-SAINT (Senior Alternatives in Transportation)- helping seniors who can't drive
(C) means Colorado based
* indicates this is our first year supporting this organization. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Diablog 001: Kevin Starr

Hi Bleeps-
So I have had this idea for a while that it might be interesting to start getting other people involved in this blog. First, I have had some great guest posts from folks like Carl and Teju. But I also wanted to try something I called a "diablog"... a mashup of a blog and a dialog. Kevin Starr and I were emailing back and forth about my recent post on Small Batches, and I asked him if he minded if I used it as an MVP of a diablog. One of the many great things about Kevin is his willingness to play guinea pig, so here goes.  I kept editing of the email thread to a minimum... rather than add links to the thread, you can find links to the organizations Kevin mentions here. Let me know what you think... who/what else would you like me to probe or provoke with this format?
Happy holidays, Paul

Kevin sent this slide from a talk he'd given: 

Paul: ... thanks for looking over my blog on small batches/experiments. As I said to someone else, it's smart to keep an organization "quick and crafty." And you know, I think you are a madass. I liked your slide showing stages... idea -> r&d -> proof -> replication -> scale. And I liked your line under scaling companies that "all good organizations continue to have a lab to help them innovate and evolve"... what is an example you've been impressed by? One Acre's experimental farm popped into mind...

Kevin:   Yeah, One Acre is a perfect example.  They are continually honing their model, and trying out new things.  They know that you need to separate your work at scale from your experiments until you have proven stuff to integrate into operations and model.  One Acre is in fact planning to expand their r&d as they grow, which i think is a really good way to go. 

All labs should be "crafty and quick."  That doesn't mean that organizations should stay small, just that they should continually improve their model and operations via that part of the organization designed to "fail fast" and obsessively iterate.

Paul: One of the challenges I see, and what I liked  about the New Belgium article, is that these labs are separate, yet part of, an organization. In a lot of the work on innovation inside existing organizations, there is a tension between getting the main business done, and doing the r&d need to position for the future, offer new services, etc. Another tension is bringing experiments into the mainstream when they look promising.  Do you have any stories from Mulago organizations on bringing things into the mainstream, or of scaling them back into the main business? What should organizations think about when an experiment works?

Kevin: Well, they shouldn't do experiments unless they are ready to do something with the result. Nuru, One Acre, Proximity Designs, Kickstart, Kiva - and I could add a lot of other names, but these are all Mulago organizations that have ongoing trials of new ideas, technologies, and products.  They are eager to make use of the products of their experiments - that's why they did them in the first place.  When I was doing medicine, there was a useful saying that more should have adhered to: "don't do a test unless you know what you're going to do with the result."  The same should be true for field experiments.

Paul: As usual, you have better examples than I. I usually tell the story of the dog that chases the school bus every day. Then one day he catches it and says "now what?"  So, building on your point, one thing that concerns me about a lot of early social ventures is they haven't thought this through, and sometimes their experiments have consequences or risks that fall on the people that can least afford them. In early days of Envirofit, we took great care to compensate taxi drivers for the day that their motorcycle was in the shop for the retrofit, and we were worried about what happened if the system failed. Not just because we wanted it to work, but because that would be a day's lost income for the driver, plus having to push the vehicle home, etc. In medicine, there is a lot of early pre-clincal work and testing before one tests safety in humans... it doesn't seem that the same thought goes into our sector. The best work i've seen on this is the BOP Protocol that Stu Hart, and his crew at Cornell, put together. I'm a little worried about the lean startup, go do experiments approach in the social sector... 

Kevin:  Well, it’s hard to do market trials with monkeys…..really, though, few of the “experiments” we’re talking about have much potential for harm – things like different marketing approaches, trying out new crop varieties on test plots, better recruiting strategies.  You’re not trying out new therapies on unwitting patients or having a bunch of farmers bet their farms on a crop with an unproven market.  You’ve got a firewall between your experiments and the interventions that you take out into the world.   If and when people are part of your experiments, they should know what they are getting into and be enthusiastic participants in a mutual adventure. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Small Batch Madness

Interesting article in today's Coloradoan on craft brewing and "the big rise in thinking small." Much attention in the social sector is on "getting to scale" and entrepreneurs are told not to bother if they aren't  going to reach 1-10-100 million people.

I first learned about diseconomies of scale from Jill Bamburg, and one such diseconomy may be the inability to do rapid, low cost experiments. Which seems pretty important to be able to do. Hard to figure out how you'd do an MVP* of a new beer without actually making it and tasting it, right?

This ability to do small batches, as the article points out, also allows you to preserve and pursue the crazy and the mildly mad. And as Aristotle said, "no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness."

So if you want to be innovative, do small batches and small bets. And be a madass. It's good for your soul.
*minimum viable product (lean startup jargon for a basic prototype or experiment).

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA at Colorado State University from Kathryn Ernst on Vimeo.

Real students. Real work. Real problems. So proud of what you guys are doing and will do.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Making Meaning Matter- Venture Gapitalist guide to #SoCap12

The Social Capital Markets conference turns five this year. Wikipedia tells me 5 year olds are more advanced than 4 year olds, and have taken on adult proportions. But they also "ask innumerable questions: why, what, where, when, how?"

This year's theme, which seems quite advanced for a 5 year old, is "Making Meaning Matter." I am guessing this is a nod to John Doerr's  advice that entrepreneurs should "make meaning." For the past few years, I have posted a Venture Gapitalist Guide to Socap, so I thought I'd offer two ideas to share/recombine, with an eye to helping answer the innumerable questions that face those of us who work at the intersection of money, meaning and mattering.

First, today, Brad Feld's book "Startup Communities" launched. I was fortunate enough to hear Brad cover the main themes of the book a few weeks ago. I think they are useful for SoCap, age 5. Here are a few notes I took (these should not be a substitute for actually reading the book):
1) Startup communities need to be led by entrepreneurs. Yes, that is a period at the end of the sentence. Full stop. You are either a leader (entrepreneur) or a feeder (university, investor, service provider). On this topic, he warned against the patriarch syndrome, where "old white guys try to act like gatekeepers."  Ouch (I noticed Brad appears to be younger than I, and about as white).
2) To build a startup community, you need to take a long term view. What does he mean by long term? He said "a generation," but his publisher made him say 20 years. He said that's OK... if you start the clock over every day (so you never actually "get" there).
3) You have to include anyone who wants to be included. No titles, no admission requirements. You join by showing up. He made an interesting observation that the more things get organized, the less inclusive they are.
4) A startup community needs to be about events and activity. Startup weekends, hackathons, meet ups.    Doing it, not talking about doing it.

At age 5, how is SoCap doing on these four criteria? I know that after year 2, it reached out to entrepreneurs with more significant scholarships and assistance- I think it saw creeping patriarch syndrome, and opened the door a crack. I think at year 5 it seems pretty welcoming to entrepreneurs from certain networks. Each year this crew is larger, and more diverse. Still a challenge to bring people in from around the world, but very different from a few years ago.

Despite the usual puffery about billions of dollars flowing into impact investing, I think in general SoCappers recognize the emergent qualities of this space, and are taking a long term, "builder" approach to impact investing. So far, our 5 year old is doing well on #1 and #2. But then we get to "inclusiveness" and "activity"- I think these are challenges for SoCap. How to be inclusive, but also have a sustainable business model? How to have a conference which actually gets stuff done? Will SoCap choose a path of becoming a startup community, not a conference? It seems to moving in this direction, but so hard to tell with a 5 year old.

Second, Andy Hargadon and I have been working on some ideas for applying the concepts of lean startups more broadly.  How do we take the concepts that are building Silicon Valley web startups, and apply to them to "the other 99%?" of entrepreneurial ventures? Our view is that MVPs, pivoting and business model canvases are necessary, but not sufficient, for building the types of companies the world needs. We want to encourage entrepreneurs to start somethng, that matters, with soul. Our observation is that starting something is a first step, but that entrepreneurs would do well to focus on starting things that matter. And, to do that in a way that endures, they need to build something with soul. Intentionally building a culture and brand that is, well... immortal.

So to recombine these two ideas for SoCap... can SoCap become a startup community for companies that matter, with soul? I think it has as good a chance as any, and at age 5, is on it's way. If you are at SoCap, what are you doing this week to help this happen? And if you aren't here, how can you become involved? How do we raise this youngster to make a real difference in the long term?
For SoCap history buffs, some of my former posts and escapades:
2008 Panel with Tim Brown, Paul Polak, Kristen Peterson and me (video)
2010 Venture Gapitalist Guide for 2010
2011 Welcome to Emergence: Venture Gapitalist's View on #SoCap11 and SoCap Redux

This post is dedicated to my second ever blog reader (my Mom), who not only wrote her thesis on "The Meaning of Meaning," but then tried to explain existentialism to me when I was about ten years old. Which may explain my deep interest in meaning. Or not. And I am getting dangerously close to having 100,000 views of this blog. So thank you, whoever you are (besides my Mom) that reads my occasional ramblings and helps me makes sense of this journey.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

If RCTs Could Kill

Samer Abdelnour posted "If Stoves Could Kill" on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog the other day. Several people mailed me the link and asked me what I thought. Waving the red cape in my face, I'm afraid. And I have been to a bullfight, so I know it is not a good strategy to be a bull.  

I wasn't bothered by Mr. Abdelnour's main point, about whether cook stoves really reduce violence against women in refugee camps. I think he makes some good arguments about that. But then he keeps going, and says "Research is beginning to question the ability for efficient stoves to effectively reduce fuel consumption and health risks." I think this statement, and the "research" it is based on, is misleading, erroneous, and dangerous. 

To see the back and forth, look at the comments to the post. Heck, join in if you like what either of us has to say. I'll probably need help, as I am taking on the much exalted "Randomized Controlled Trial," and some people who are very smart, very well-intentioned (and much of whose work I admire*).

The problem isn't "If Stoves Could Kill"... instead, it is that their absence does kill. The use of traditional cooking methods and fuels kills many people every year. More than malaria. More than the tsunami. And some of this is preventable. With better stoves, better business models, more work. I don't know when, how or if the market will take off, and real impacts on health will be achieved. I think it will take time. And as the authors of the "Up In Smoke" paper say, it will take changes in behavior. So probably a long time. But I think it is more likely to happen from people that make stoves and sell them to other people, than from people that write reports.** 

And what if, instead of asking about stoves, we turn the question to RCTs? What is the potential impact of misusing data, or poorly designed studies? One JPAL associated professor was quoted as saying "it is more satisfying to answer small questions well, than big questions badly." I would add that it is also dangerous to use answers to small questions to do anything other than answer small questions. A more accurate conclusion for the study might have been: "people in Orissa don't like using crappy stoves that don't work." Not, as Mr. Abdelnour states, to call into "question the ability for efficient stoves to effectively reduce fuel consumption and health risks." 

Why do people seek to extend these studies' conclusions well beyond their boundaries? It seems to me that is a guaranteed way to answer bigger questions badly. If bad studies end good programs, the results really could be deadly. 

*here is a TED video of Esther Duflo, discussing vaccination, bed nets and education (but not cookstoves)
** Phil Auerswald put it well: "What works in entrepreneurial exploration. Why? Because we don't know what works."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

One Acre Fund Growing

One Acre Fund was highlighted today in Financial Times. As my long time bleeps know, this venture is scaling, having impact, and closing the gap financially. According to this article, it is now serving 130,000 customers after just a few years.

This is venture gapitalism at work- One Acre Fund is recouping 85% of its costs from loan repayments (from its customers).  In this virtuous cycle, the farmers are largely supporting the business that allows them to double their productivity. Which increases their income and reduces their food insecurity. A new wrinkle on "helping those that help themselves." Does One Acre Fund still need donations? Absolutely, but they are able to have a bigger "impact" footprint with their model, than if they merely used these donations to buy seed and fertilizer and gave it to the farmers.

A recent report by Acumen Fund and Monitor discussed the needed role for early philanthropy to prime the pump for social ventures. My colleague, Tom Dean, has written on the entrepreneurial opportunities that result from market failures. And the Blue Ocean framework helps analyze opportunities to create and exploit new markets by reimagining an industry, and then reinventing it.

The One Acre team has mashed up these ideas, added more than a dash of intolerance, and created an enterprise that is changing lives in rural Kenya. Their recipe: "We use markets to eradicate hunger permanently."

They aren't discussing it, analyzing it, or considering it... they are doing it today.

Monday, August 20, 2012


In a politically correct world, tolerance is valued. And much of the time, it is a valuable skill for entrepreneurs. If you are tolerant, you get exposed to more people and ideas, and you have a more diverse group of people to discuss them with.

But there is also room for intolerance. At your core, I hope you are intolerant. Not of other people, races, or religions. But of something that sucks. In fact, I'd say you are unlikely to be successful if you aren't intolerant at the core.

Some stories I heard one day not so long ago.

"I had a professor that died from AIDS at [Ivy League School]. How could that happen? I didn't look at the world the same way after that day."

"How can it be that whether or not a child gets an education depends on where they were born, and whether they are a boy or a girl? I can't live in a world where the answer to a person would be 'you are uneducated because you were born in the wrong place at the wrong time'."

"There are thousands of refuges each year, and the US doesn't even fill it's quota each year. How can we live with ourselves if we don't do this work."

Every one of these speakers has started a leading social venture, making real impact. The setting was private, so I won't share names. But for every one, finding something intolerable prompted long term action. What is it that you find intolerable and unacceptable about the world as it is? What won't you tolerate?

Intolerance is the cold fusion of the imagination... a source of perpetual entrepreneurial energy. There are no laws of thermodynamics for your imagination. The only limits are those you put on it. And intolerance pushes you through the limits that have kept society from solving a problem.

The irony? It is only from intolerance that the world will become more tolerable.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Interesting slideshare on brands and innovation in China. Several years ago, I heard Yvon Chouinard answer a question about why Patagonia manufactured apparel in China. "It isn't because it is cheaper, it is because they are much better at welding seams and working with our fabrics. And they are getting better every year."

This deck shares the same message across many industries. Those that dismiss China as being about making stuff, rather than designing stuff, do so at their peril. They are expanding their footprint in the value chain of many products and services.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Social Enterprise and Self Esteem

Excuse a somewhat curmudgeonly post. It has been sitting in my "drafts" for some time. Time to hit publish or delete...

It occurs to me that the social enterprise field (#socent for all you who are changing the world by tweeting about it) suffers from a surfeit of self esteem. I am fine with passion and enthusiasm, but I also like to see some healthy debate and critique. Even the self esteem movement recognizes this.

Sure it is important to celebrate success. But too often, this field seems to crown celebrities long before success shows up.  Too often praise gets in the way of the real hard work. Let's not celebrate what's new, but what's working.

A few suggestions:

1) You don't come first. The customer/user does. I don't care what conferences you spoke at or attended. Neither do your potential customers.

2) It isn't about "helping" others, it is about working with others to fix something that sucks.

3) Entrepreneur is an attitude. I don't introduce myself as an "American Entrepreneur." Why do you call your partner an "African Entrepreneur"? (or "microentrepreneur"). Have you asked her what she'd like you to call her?

4) Keep an eye out for how often you use the word "they."

That's probably enough for now.

Much better than a slide deck

I love the video animations that RSA Animate puts together.  Maybe it's the novelty of this medium, but I find it a very engaging way to be introduced to an idea... much prefer it to a TED talk or Slideshare.

Here are a few of my favorites... click 4 times and you can learn a lot in 45 minutes.
- Jeremy Rifkin on Empathic Civilization
- Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From 
- Sir Kenneth Robinson on Educational Reform  and
- Daniel Pink on Motivation

Monday, April 16, 2012

This is what disruption looks like, Part II

I have been using the Lean Startup and Business Model Generation tools in my MBA capstone. One of the ideas we have been using is to create a minimum viable product ("MVP"), and then test it with  potential customers. It seems to be working quite well in the class.

But since these books are pretty new, and there aren't so many examples out there, we have also had several hundred students searching for examples.

Today, one of my students, Abhishek, sent me this example, with the following comment: "To test their MVP Pebble used where they put a video for the watch with the intention of raising $100,000 to manufacture this watch. They met their target funding in less than 2 hours and currently have raised more than $2 million due to the huge interest in the product."

He sent me this email at 9:30 am this morning. By 4 pm, they were at $3.2 million.

Several years ago, Paul Graham and others started pointing to how the cost of starting a startup was dropping, and that this was, perhaps an existential threat to venture capital. For a while, Kickstarter probably just looked cute to the VCs... non-threatening. But in the past few weeks, first Congress passed a crowdfunding bill, and now a startup has raised over $3 million on Kickstarter in a matter of days.

Wonder if VCs still think that's cute? Or are they starting to feel nervous?

This looks like a whole new way of bootstrapping...and it will be interesting to watch how it develops, as well as what other types of products and services begin to hit larger numbers on these platforms.
For an interesting podcast on how Kickstarter got started, as well as concerns about where products like this fit (compared to projects like documentaries) check out this From Scratch interview.

-May 7 update: interesting analysis from Robert Fabricant at Frog Design. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unreasonable Crowdfunding

Teju Ravilochan is a co-founder of the Unreasonable Institute, which accelerates entrepreneurs tackling global challenges with 6 weeks of mentorship, access to capital, and a worldwide network of support. This is his second guest post on BOPreneur (here's his first). As my bleeps know, I am a believer in network building and open source innovation. As this post shows, however, it is much easier to say than to do, and this is a challenge to making the social enterprise sector more inclusive globally. What unreasonable steps can you take to help? What unreasonable changes could they make to the Marketplace?

The Trouble with Unreasonable Crowdfunding

Here at the Unreasonable Institute, we believe in militant transparency. It’s a value coined by our founder, Daniel Epstein, and it means being honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly. This blog post involves all three.

The Good

When we began the Unreasonable Institute, we did a lot of research about selection methodology. We asked investors how they picked the entrepreneurs they invested in. We researched hiring practices. We even looked at the Med School admissions processes. We discovered that most of the time, written applications and interviews are poor predictors of performance. What matters most is testing a candidate’s ability to do the job you want them to do.

In addition to picking the best possible entrepreneurs, we also wanted to generate revenue without asking our participants to pay to attend the Institute. We didn’t want to make the program inaccessible to deserving entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford it.

So we came up with the Unreasonable Marketplace, where we challenge our 50ish finalists to raise the $10,000 it costs to attend the Institute. The first 25 to do so are the entrepreneurs we accept. The best part? They are not allowed to pay it themselves. They raise it from others in small increments (to avoid the “Rich Uncle Problem” of a wealthy connection giving you all the money at once). Hypothetically, it was the perfect solution. Candidates prove their ability to galvanize, mobilize, and raise capital, they don’t pay for the program, and we generate revenue.

And surprisingly enough, it works. Over the past two years, the 48 entrepreneurs that have attended Unreasonable have raised a cumulative total $370,500 from more than 7,000 people in 50 countries.

But isn’t this unfair to entrepreneurs from developing countries? It certainly appears that way if you take a look at, for example, 2011 Fellow Moses Sanga. He didn’t have shoes until age 13. He hadn’t seen a computer until he was 15. He is the first person from his village to get a high school diploma. The nearest place to access internet is 17 kilometers from where he lives, and he started his company with $500. But while it would seem impossible for him to do so, Moses succeeded on the Marketplace. He attended our 2011 Summer Institute, raised $60,000 and became a TED Fellow

And It’s not just Moses: we’ve also had a former child soldier from Liberia, a Pakistani woman from a remote tribal region, and a Nigerian farmer succeed on the Marketplace.

How did this happen? Even we were surprised. 

First, these entrepreneurs worked hard. Khalida, from Pakistan, went door to door in her village collecting cash contributions (which our Marketplace can accept and verify). Moses visited CEOs of local businesses in Kampala to ask for their help.

We also went to work for them. We formed a partnership with HP in 2011, who generously contributes $42,500 each year into a fund that the entrepreneurs on the Marketplace allocate amongst themselves. The stated intention of the fund is to support entrepreneurs from the developing world. We reached out to our mentor network and asked them to support entrepreneurs from developing countries who they believed deserved a spot. We reached out to press and landed stories in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal blog, and even HP’s blog, aiming to drive traffic to the Marketplace. 

The Bad

But despite all these efforts, we’ve observed that 85% of donations on the Marketplace come from people who know the entrepreneur they’re supporting. Some US-based entrepreneurs have still failed to succeed on the Marketplace and I by no means seek to downplay the incredible accomplishment of raising $10,000 nor the creative approaches that some of our entrepreneurs have employed. But this means that ultimately, the Marketplace becomes a test of the size of your network, more than it does your entrepreneurial ability.

The Ugly

So what does that mean? It means our Marketplace, which we’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours building, is unfair. Entrepreneurs without large networks are flat out disadvantaged in this process. And this unfairness is visible even on our current Marketplace.

Take a look at 2012 Finalist Narcisse Mbunzama. He’s a former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s started an incredible company called Mobile Agribusiness. It currently reaches 500 farmers, providing them information about weather, how much to sell their crops for at the market, and information about how to better grow their crops. Not only is it targeting a need for 80% of Congo’s population (who are farmers), but Narcisse and his team built this company despite living in a country where 5.4 million people were killed in the last decade in what has been the called the bloodiest civil war of our time. And while three entrepreneurs from Brazil and the United States have raised their $10,000 in 15 days, he’s only raised $70.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our Marketplace. I believe in it. It selects entrepreneurs that are a perfect fit for our program: those that are willing to take on the seemingly impossible task of raising $10,000 in small increments from hundreds of people. And when they show up in Boulder, they knock it out of the park.

But it pains me deeply to see that by the merit of his work and effort alone, Narcisse is unable to get more support. We’ve matched him with an Unreasonable alumnus to help him strategize and shared his story with the press. But he, and other deserving finalists in the same position, continue to struggle.

The reason we exist is to create a world where no one is limited by their circumstances. We believe coming to the 2012 Unreasonable Institute could change the lives of the entrepreneurs on the Marketplace. It did for Moses. Our team now knows that we must find a new solution next year to select our 25 entrepreneurs. And we will.

For now, we need help. The Marketplace, which lasts 50 days, is just past its halfway point. If you believe in entrepreneurs like Narcisse and in their work, join us. Help us bring them to the Unreasonable Institute. Help us help them to serve people who desperately need their unrelenting drive, who need their determination to transform their world. They just might define progress in our time.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"I See Dead People"

 A famous line from the movie "Sixth Sense."

Some people thrive on trusting their intuition. Despite what the behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists say, many believe they can predict the future, or at least bits of it. When good things (or bad things) happen, we remember our wanting them to be so, and say "I could see it coming." Of course, our mind doesn't bring up all the things we thought might happen, but didn't.

I think there is something to intuition, even if we can't predict the future. As Steven Johnson notes in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From," slow hunches play a big role in innovation. Ideas don't really happen as light bulbs. They emerge, as one's mind reassembles puzzle pieces and learns new things.

For innovators, having problems to wrestle with is important. It provides the soil from which the slow hunches can grow. [for my bleeps, we could say that most innovations are rooted in suckage]. That gnawing problem gives one a perspective from which one views the world. It is a lens of unique creativity. It is where our intuition lurks. As we assemble many combinations in our mind, are we tapping our sixth sense?

Today, I heard the story* behind CeaseFire, a program aimed at stopping gang violence that was started by an epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin. Dr. Slutkin had been working in Africa on the HIV epidemic. Upon returning to Chicago, he saw that violence was similar to an infectious disease in the way it was spread between people in a community. Millions of people have lived in Chicago without noticing that. It was Slutkin's experience that gave him a different way to see a gnawing problem. And come up with the idea that violence could be treated as a public health problem.

How are you applying your unique perspective? What problems need your experience thrown at them?  What can you prevent? Where can you see live people, that might have otherwise been dead?
*Thank you to Andrew Zolli for the story. To find out more about Ceasefire, look here, and here. It is not a new story, although it was new to me. There is also a documentary, The Interrupters.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

This is what disruption looks like

My wife says Sal Khan is one of the best teachers she has ever had. She went to Boulder High, Smith College, Colorado College and University of Colorado, and has taken classes at Front Range Community College. Until Sal, she thought she had had some wonderful teachers. She also likes that she can learn from Sal whenever she wants (try that with Mrs. Maple, or Professor Hudnut). And she can learn at her own pace.

Now, my wife has a wifi connection (at least most of the time... don't get me going on Comcast). And through such connections, Khan Academy can reach 1/3 of English speaking world (the connected). Several hundred million people.

But this is Khan on a stick.  Without a wifi connection. So you can learn on a plane, or in a jungle, or base camp... from a great teacher. Or in a school without internet, or great teachers. And a lot of people can learn from Sal at the same time, yet they all feel like they are getting one-on-one attention.

Next step... a low bandwidth mobile app? Downloading classes to a cellphone? To get away with those pretentious computers, and reach those rapidly growing smartphone users? And Khan is working on a translation project, so other languages will soon be available. And then there is streaming... Khan isn't on Spotify yet, but he does have a number of free lectures in iTunes.

Coming soon... School of (N)one? Cost approaching zero? Is human knowledge like media storage in the end? You see, beside the cost of the thumb drive, Khan on a Stick is free. Of course, there is opportunity cost, your time listening to it, but it is likely to be lower than actually attending a class.

In my 9 years of teaching, I have learned that teaching and learning are different, and that they are not always related (unfortunately). A recent NPR story covered the ineffectiveness of lectures for learning, despite their broad acceptance for teaching in schools around the world. They form the basis of the business (as usual) model for education. More and more, the learners of the world are saying they want something different, and Khan Academy and Classroom of One are beginning to deliver real options. Are the teachers, and the institutions that employ them, listening to the learners? Can we learn?
Mr. Disruptive Innovation himself, Clayton Christensen, wrote a book in 2008 on the ripeness of education for disruption- "Disrupting Class". Sir Kenneth Robinson has made the case that schooling kills creativity. And none other than Mark Twain observed that schooling can interfere with one's education. Bringing up the bottom of this class, I have blogged about Disruptive Education and Educational Arsonists. And a hack you can do if you are accepted at an Ivy League school.
I believe that one learns a lot by attending school- about others, about yourself, about how to light a match off your tooth. It isn't just about the 3 R's. But I think that for schools to stay relevant and useful, a lot more innovation is needed. And, not everyone gets to go to school. Yet everyone, even Sal Khan, has something to learn.
Question to ponder:
If you provide a service... can it be put on a stick? It's not just a problem for food anymore.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Charity 2011

For the past two years, I have shared our family's giving in a year end post. This year, while I made the year end deadline for giving, I did not make it for blogging.

As in past years, we have tried to spread our giving somewhat equally between 5 categories, and various members of the family have proposed organizations they would like to fund. We have also continued to use Peter Singer's pledge to set a target for our giving as a percentage of our income.

New from past years, we set up a family fund with the our local Community Foundation. We intend to do our giving from this fund each year, which will also allow us to make our contributions on a more regular basis. We also decided to institute a minimum gift, so we would stay more concentrated in our giving. And as with past year's, we increased our total giving.

The last big change is that this was the first year that I had worked (part time) as a "professional" philanthropist (in that someone paid me to help them with their philanthropy).  I don't think this changed what we did a great deal, but it did result in some pruning and in reinforcing a few of our decisions from prior years.

I continue to work on the idea that charity is putting your money where your hopes are. Checking results and following up are important. I am also aware that too often, charity is more about making the giver feel good, than achieving real benefit for those in need. There is nothing wrong with the former, as long as the latter is accomplished. I have to say that we feel very good about the accomplishments of some of the groups we have been supporting for several years.

We also dropped a few for various reasons. Until the situation becomes clearer, Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute is not receiving more money from us. For others, it was a matter of prioritizing, as we were giving larger amounts to fewer organizations. So, for example, we chose to support Akili Dada over Pratham in education, not because Pratham isn't doing great work, but because they are much larger, and we felt our money would have a bigger impact with Akili. This is not entirely rational, I understand, but it is a family decision (need I say more?)

I hope this is useful to others as they decide how they would like to help others. I believe their is a need for philanthropy, and hope that this remains an area where individual giving, by people of ordinary means, continues to be important. There is a lot of talk about how the big foundations are changing the face of philanthropy... but the local homeless shelter, youth group, food bank or radio station? They all still rely on donations from people like you. They can all do more if you chip in. And it isn't just money, many of these organizations could benefit from your time and expertise.

I think it is would be hard to overestimate how important charity is in building strong communities. Imagine what yours would be without it.

OK, enough about approach and philosophy. Here are the organizations we supported in 2011:

Environment: Nature Conservancy; IdeaWild*; Trust for Public Land*; Property & Environment Research Center

Health: Doctors Without Borders; VisionSpring

International Development: One Acre Fund; IDE; Nepal Youth Foundation

Education: National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship; Akili Dada; Engineers Without Borders*

Local: Colorado Combined Campaign; KUNC; Food Family Farm*; Growing Gardens*; SAME Cafe; Matthews House*; Larimer County Food Bank.
* denotes organizations we began supporting in 2011.