Meg Arnold » Thursday, March 1, 2012
visible brain

Trust Your Crazy Ideas

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.



About The Author

Meg Arnold became CEO of SARTA in November 2009, after being closely involved as a SARTA Board member since late 2005. Prior to joining SARTA, Meg was with UC Davis for six years, with both UC Davis InnovationAccess and UC Davis CONNECT, where she developed programs to support campus-originated start-up companies, and participated in technology transfer licensing to new start-ups.

Read more from Meg Arnold »

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6 Responses

  1. Jerry Lu says:

    Agree with Jeff that Sacramento is cool outdoor. Another crazy idea: How about a cruise on American River? Another side benefit is that we folks living by Folsom Lake may take it to attend workshops at Drexel.

  2. Gabriela Lee says:

    Dr. Curtis Carlson, President and CEO of SRI International, gave a talk at UC Davis today, as part of the College of Engineering’s Distinguished Lecture Series. The topic was “Creating Abundance in the Global Innovation Economy”. Among the most useful take-aways, from a very informative and exciting presentation, were the 5 disciplines of innovation that lead to success:
    (Important customer needs) * (Value creation) * (Innovation champions) * (Innovation teams) * (Organizational alignment) = SUCCESS
    Meg challenges the community to share crazy ideas. How about having a number of Innovation Champions from the Sacramento region assemble Innovation Teams to take on the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE? This is a $10 million competition to bring healthcare to the palm of your hand:
    While we are at it, the X Prize has additional challenges coming up; visit their website for more information. InnoCentive is another source of challenges that the creative minds of this region could tackle.

    Who will step up to these and other challenges? The entrepreneurs will.

  3. Laura Good says:

    Failcon looks very interesting! I wonder if they will serve humble pie during the break? :) I love the idea of having some physical space technology clusters. What’s the next step to make this happen?

    My crazy idea is to figure out what our unique culture is in Sacramento and make it work for, rather than against, innovation. Williamson shared how The Idea Village used the New Orleans love of seasons to promote innovation by creating the “Entrepreneur Season”–a progressive calendar of events leading up to the big event–an Entrepreneur Week that follows Mardi Gras. Too often I think we try to apply Silicon Valley tactics, which spring from a very different culture, to accelerate innovation in our region.

    I’m a Silicon Valley transplant who has also lived in Orlando and Salt Lake City. I’ve been in the Sacramento region for 4 years now–long enough to know this is no Silicon Valley (thank goodness!) but not long enough to put my finger on the heart of the culture of the die hard Sacramentan. Risk aversion (compared to Silicon Valley taste for risk taking) as identified in Meg’s post won’t get us there; but what is in our Sacramento lifeblood that will?

    • Sacramentans are fiscally risk averse, but not personally risk averse. Most Sacramentans, as individuals, possess a wide variety of skills, tend to take personal risks, and generally are a bit nuts. But when Monday morning comes around, you will find all of the piercings covered up, the right clothes on, and people toeing the line. That is because the focus in this city has been upon attracting the most risk averse industries- government, ag, health, and business support (call and processing centers, etc). This has limited the amount of capital coming into the city, imho.

      The key to getting people to take the risks may be in making the risks appear more personal, and not directly related to their business identities (and, yes, there are big dichotomies between the two here).

      Another thing that *must* happen is that the commercial rents in downtown/midtown Sac must come down. Downtown, last I checked, had an 80% vacancy rate. Yet their real estate is still over $1.50 a square foot. That is the extremity of Sacramentan business risk aversity in action- refusing to permit even the idea that the rental market might crash due to deflation, so instead crash the rental market by not renting. What I think would fix this problem is for the commercial property owners to dedicate a percentage of their empty space to startups that are meeting certain program guidelines (insert definition here), and offer them whatever the startups can afford, even if it is a small percentage of the rent. That probably would have to be an officially sponsored program, unless someone could personally appeal to the people who sign the dotted line on the agreements. Ideally, this could be tied to a monthly pass program for rail as well (which would encourage more spending in the city center, growing more interest, etc).

      The reason I say this is because that will encourage more businesses to relocate centrally. The place I currently work for actually considered moving to downtown as they expanded, especially when they saw the vacancy rates. But when it was found out how truly intractable the comm. prop. owners were about their rates, they stayed in Rancho Cordova, where they had better deals and the RC city bureaucrats were easier to get along with.

      Lowering the rates, in general, will bring in a lot of startups, and completely change the face of Sacramento’s economy. There are a lot of businesses that would love to relocate to downtown. Rent is probably the biggest issue, outside of payroll, for a new tech company.

  4. Evelyn Cook says:

    Excellent idea about bridging the physical gap! That makes so much sense. Could the cities offer breaks to the tech start-ups to get them in concentrated areas?


  5. Jeff Pearson says:

    Meg, thanks for being a champion to help develop our Region. I also attended Innovate and was very inspired by Tim Williamson. I am both a tech enthusiast as well as an outdoor enthusiast and believe firmly that we are not exploiting what is cool about our Region. People are attracted by or motivated by what they believe is cool, what they like to do and how they push the envelope. As an avid Mountaineer, Mountain Biker and Whitewater rat I am amazed by abundance of World Class adrenaline rushing activies right in our back yard. We have the American River in backyard, we have amazing Skiing at Tahoe less than an hour away, tremendous single track Mountain Bike trails, and phenomenal Climbing just off Highway 50. We have huge crowds coming up from Silicon Valley to enjoy this bounty each weekend, yet as a Region we have failed in my opinion to capitalize on this. The American River in particular is one the best White Water venues in the entire country, my crazy idea is let’s make Sacramento the Whitewater capital of the West for adrenaline seeking techsters. Why drive from Mountain View to get your whitewater fix on occassionally when you can live here and do it every afternoon. Biking is another rush to explore, the Folsom to Sacramento trail system of the American River is world class. We need to paint a picture of the how you live outdoors in this area and I do not see it. If you want want to make some place cool you have to have something unique that you cannot do elsewhere. I have lived all across the west in Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Washington and Colorado and there is nothing like what we have in American River right here in a large Urban area. If you want to do something cool let’s appeal to the inner Kayaker of the upcoming tech superstars and set ourselves up to become the coolest new area in the West. You cannot bomb a Class V stream like the North Fork of the American in NOLA.

    Jeff Pearon

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