On Thursday of last week, a man from New Orleans threw down a challenge to our capital region: “trust your crazy ideas” about advancing innovation and entrepreneurship, just as the coolest startup city in America has done. (INNOVATE was great. If you missed it, you definitely missed some inspiration.)
So this blog post offers two crazy ideas. While there are lots of other crazy ideas out there that are worth exploring, I was the one writing this blog post at midnight, so I got to choose. Let us know what you think about these, and also what your own crazy ideas are, too!
But first let’s talk about challenges. Currently, I’m convinced that we must address two significant challenges in order to have innovation truly thrive — both of which were the subject of passionate discussion among tech company CEOs at the TechTalent Roundtables that SARTA convened in early February. Our first challenge is that our region’s culture is unproductively risk-averse. And our second challenge is that our 450+ tech sector companies are spread too thinly on the ground of our geographically large region.
First, about a risk-averse culture. Also at INNOVATE, Mark Otero stood up and told us all that he had failed thirty times at KlickNation before their first success. That’s a lot of failure, but they were definitely pretty productive. They weren’t fun, certainly, since no one likes to fail. But they were productive, because Mark and his team learned how to create games that didn’t fail. They learned the value of persistence. They learned how to take significant risks to pursue their dreams. And then they succeeded. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.
So, crazy idea #1: how about an award for the Most Productive Failure? Or our own FailCon. Celebrating not the act of failing itself, but the act of trying in the first place, and then trying again using the tangible lessons learned. At first glance that sounds like it could be a real downer. But I suspect it would be the opposite – a high-energy, informative, infectious, genuine, and possibly unintentionally funny day.
Second, about being spread too thinly. We have more than 450 tech companies in our region. (I’m going to say that a lot this year, so brace yourselves.) But still the tech sector – including med tech and clean tech companies – is little recognized. Not visible. Not able to break through the image we, and others, have of ourselves as either a government town or a cow town. And, critically, not able to create much of a “tech culture.”
This affects how investors think of the region (or don’t); it affects how employment candidates either here or being recruited to move here think of us (or don’t); and it puts a “damper effect” on the overall creative give-and-take that innovative companies require.
And SARTA is already working on this challenge. Our “virtual accelerator” programs seek to overcome that. We offer one-on-one mentoring via VentureStart. We provide peer-based CEO Forums. We convene the community through events such as INNOVATE. We organize the educationally rich Leadership Series. Workshops. We talk to the media about our tech companies as much as (and sometimes more than) they’ll tolerate. And this is all important and useful. But not sufficient.
So, crazy idea #2: let’s pursue not just virtual accelerators but real, physical ones too. Let’s partner across the region with a network of four or five physical accelerators, each with a specific cluster focus. The function these serve is to create the necessary critical mass in each cluster, convene like-minded innovators, and make the work and the companies doing the work more visible. As companies succeed and grow, they’ll move out, choosing their own locations and expanding the network. Maybe they’ll stay nearby, or maybe they’ll move some distance away. But the hub will exist, and the growth of the network will become much more organic than it is today, and vastly more scalable.
Between celebrating our risk-takers’ “productive failures” and clustering our innovative companies together, we’ll help our tech sector help itself, and the entire region will benefit in the long run.
So, what do you think? What crazy ideas do you have? Let us know by commenting below.