Saturday, April 2, 2011

Something in the Air

Good morning, Michigan.

Several months have passed since my last blog post, mostly for reasons outlined in my last post, but also because of what I will chalk up to excessive sloth and scurvy. My brother knew someone in college who got scurvy because the kid literally ate noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is almost impossible to get scurvy in this day and age because Vitamin C is in pretty much everything - it is so prevalent in our world that Vitamin C even manifested itself as a human and performed that one song about being friends forever. So this one kid with scurvy that my brother knew I guess literally almost died because the doctors were not able to diagnose him because scurvy was so far from being a possibility in their minds. I don't have the facts to back this up but Steve hasn't gone out of his way to lie to me in the past to make me look dumb in a blog post 3 months after my last post. Don't start a precedent, Steve. Also, it has been so long since I've written that it is going to be hard for me to recall if I've repeated a life story of my own or someone else's. Don't hold that against me.

So I'm up this wonderful Saturday morning at about 5:30 am because of one of the fun things about being a parent - specifically, Dean decided that he did not like us last night and he did not very well embrace the sweet world of sleep. Because Maureen is fantastic, she managed him most of the night, but this time I volunteered to bring him downstairs so she could catch a little reasonable shut eye. Through a combination of Simon, Garfunkel, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, the baby finally calmed down and is now sleeping on the couch. Since he is asleep and I am wide awake, I thought it made sense to return to writing a little bit to talk about something kind of neat that I see going around me these days. And no, I am not talking about the damn frozen snow flakes that have been caked on my windshield every day the last two weeks. Go the hell away, frozen snow flakes. It's April, dudes.

On to my subject of choice, I wanted to talk about something happening with some of my peers that I find both encouraging and refreshing. Michigan has not recently been known as a place of innovation, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship. This does not mean that there are not great entrepreneurs in Michigan or that they have not been working hard at creating new technologies, businesses, and corresponding jobs, but Michigan is definitely viewed as a distant follower in this space. People have been saying for years, if not decades, that Michigan has to become more entrepreneurial and innovative if it really wants to find an economic way forward out of it's troubles. The problem has been that our success of the last century, driven by world-changingly creative and innovative people, has bred generations of citizens who understandably focused their lives around supporting the businesses that created our present. The need to create was, unfortunately, just not that important to the immediate well-being of a standard individual or the state as a whole.

People from my generation have heard this refrain for as long as we can remember, and it isn't going anywhere in the near future. It is in the fabric of who we are as Michiganders. The most difficult thing for us has been the fear that there really wasn't anything that we could do to change a problem so systemic, it has cost the state millions of jobs and severely hindered population growth. For example, I'm not really an "ideas guy." I find that I have a proficiency for taking others' ideas and tweaking them for improvement, but I'm not an inventor. If we're out to dinner together, I'm much better at taking something funny that you said and putting my own punctuation on it than writing the sentence myself. Realistically, as a good worker but not necessarily an innovative person, what can I do to change our state's entrepreneurial culture?

This is not an easy question to answer, but it seems like more and more people I know have been asking themselves some variation of the same thing. I don't run in a huge social circle, but in just the last year, four people that I would deem pretty good friends have taken very significant steps to position themselves in whatever way possible to contribute to solving the part of the problem that they are capable of solving.

I'll start with Mike because he has taken the most direct step in this regard. Mike is a well educated guy who had a good job at a large medical devices company based in Ann Arbor. If he continued on that path, he would have had a great and comfortable career filled with promotions. Last year, he decided to leave that firm to become one of the first three employees of a new startup based in Southfield, while at the same time starting business school at night. This is a company with a medical technology coming out of research done in Michigan based around preventing spinal nerve damage during invasive surgeries. Here's some info about them. I couldn't root for them more, but the truth is, who knows if they will be successful? Despite this uncertainty, Mike has taken the massive step of leaving his comfort zone with an awesomely possibly upside but also a realistic chance of failure. In Michigan, the general public probably might not view this risky move as wise, but this is exactly the type of risk that starts to foster a culture of innovation and startup business.

Next up, Todd. Todd is a pharmacist who manages a series of pharmacies. I'm sure he makes plenty of bank and could easily cruise down this path until he retires and decides to try to be a DJ on the electronic music scene. Despite this, over the last year, Todd has learned to code and has been feverishly working with a small team in their own sandbox,, to figure out how to commercialize some of his ideas. Now, Todd has a bit of the wanderlust and I'm doing my best to push back against that, but he, too, is using much of his free time to actively pursue the path of starting some form of business. Why? I'm not exactly sure, but it is clear that he has a drive to create and he's taking specific steps to become a creator.

Now, Reid. I was an undergraduate with Reid and we were good acquaintances during that time. Years later, he started dating one of Maureen's good friends, so I have had the pleasure to spend more and more time with him recently. Reid is a full time student in business school with a great job offer lined up for after school, but he has been working with a team of other students over the past two years on developing a company called "Are You a Human" (can't find their website). They are developing a very cool method to replace the standard captcha (those annoying, squiggly, hard-to-read words you have to type in when you want to buy a ticket from Ticketmaster). They are on the verge of turning this into a very real technology company based in either Detroit or Ann Arbor.

Finally, me (I mentioned four friends, and I am the best friend I know). I left my very enjoyable consulting gig surrounded by brilliant minds last year to work on a non-profit initiative called The MORE Program to create a previously non-existent entrepreneurial support ecosystem throughout the state. Our work is going quite well and we are excited about what we will be launching in the near future. In my role, I have had the chance to travel around the state and meet with entrepreneurs and economic leaders of all shapes and sizes. Some of the work going on around the state to support business in some of the places you would least expect is truly amazing.

These four individuals do not make up a huge sample size (that is my engineering background at work), and who knows where any of us will go. Despite the outcomes, this is exactly the type of culture we must continue to encourage. If you have a friend considering starting a business or starting to look down that path, don't tell them if you think they have a good idea or a bad idea (though if they have a bad idea that you believe will cause them financial harm, do suggest they seek out a seasoned mentor or adviser like at the statewide SBTDC offices), but rather give them unlimited encouragement to pursue their interest. If they ask your help and you're interested in participating, throw in for the challenge. Continue to support our state's entrepreneurs until they decide it's not what they want to do. Someone else succeeding does not mean that you have failed.