Saturday, February 12, 2011

Eating Crow and Loving It - 24 hours after REoMN

On January 21st, I wrote a scathing blog post about my disappointment in not seeing very many tech entrepreneurs in the crowd at a couple of the Jumpstart Community Advisors meetings that I had been involved with.  Because I grew up in Minnesota, I am as good as anyone at living up to the theory that
It's not whether you win-or-lose; it's how you Lay the Blame.
I blamed a bunch of folks from Cleveland, who keep coming to Minnesota in the middle of winter to do an utterly thankless job,  for the problems that I saw effecting the tech startup crowd, here in the land of the single-digit daytime-highs.  I ranted and raved about how we tech entrepreneurs were being overlooked and how unfair that is, to a group of people that I know to be committed to building great companies.  I wanted to know just why-the-hell those of us that are trying to build tech companies, and some of us who already had, weren't being appropriately represented in the building of the Regional Entrepreneurship Action Plan.

It turns out that, like so many other times in my life as an entrepreneur, picking a fight was more a self-motivation tactic than a reasonable or appropriate way to handle my frustration.  BUT, also like so many times in my life, by creating an enemy, (whether real or perceived) I forced myself to make sure I hadn't just written a check with my mouth, that my ass couldn't cash.  I don't know why I seem to always do this; maybe it is immaturity or maybe it is just so I don't have to take a long hard look in the mirror and confront the real problem... ME.  I think we are all a little bit guilty of doing this from time-to-time and, in this case I may have struck a nerve.  Let's face it, none of us wants to admit that maybe there is a reason why our companies don't get funded, though that thought is always lurking in the back of our collective Midwestern, self-loathing, minds.  Of course the issues that we ultimately started to address last night, at REoMN, are more complicated and nuanced than that, but it is always easier, as entrepreneurs, to blame the investors, rather than take personal stock and even (gasp) responsibility for our own situation.  It is really tough to get yourself to the point of self-awareness, at which you can say, "ummm.... I guess maybe the problem doesn't HAVE to be them."  Maybe the reason we feel ignored is that we do a shitty job of presenting ourselves as a unified group.  Even worse; maybe the problem isn't in the presentation, maybe we really aren't interested in becoming a collective.  And maybe it is safer and easier to deal with the humiliation of failure, if we aren't around others when it happens.
When a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it... Do all the other trees stand there and laugh at it?
So, first let me start by saying, publicly, that I was wrong about the willingness that Mike Mozenter, Beth Fitzgibbons, Mark Smith and Jack Ricchiuto, the awesome team from Jumpstart, showed to engage the community that I knew existed here but that I felt, before yesterday, wasn't always heard.  I really didn't think that someone from another city, a contrasting community and a completely different set of shared experiences, could adopt our plight as their own and help us, with true sincerity; to work through the issues we face, here in Minnesota, so that we can build our own path to chase our dreams and reach heights that we haven't even begun to imagine yet.

I am sure I offended Mark, Mike, Beth and Jack, when I popped off and, if I am being honest (and when am I not?), I have to admit that pissing them off was as much my intent as revving up the folks here.  I guess I figured that if I challenged them to a fight, so to speak, they would, at least, have to prove me wrong.  Well, not only did they prove me wrong, but they did so in such a completely professional, intelligent and obviously caring manner, that I am utterly embarrassed to have used this cave-man method at all.  What I know now, that I didn't know then, is that these folks aren't doing this for any other reason than they truly want to apply their talents and experience to situations where they can be helpful.  They went completely out of their way to accommodate my little tantrum and never treated me, the group I helped assemble, or the event itself, like the pain in the ass that I am sure it was.  They cheerfully, gracefully and with dogged determination, rose above it and truly listened to what we had to say.  I am not sure that, if someone had busted my chops the way I busted theirs, I would have been as classy as they were.

About the previous Jumpstart meetings, I had written:
...I can't help but wonder what is the point of doing a "regional survey," holding meaningless meetings and getting a whole bunch of bullshit input, from a group of folks who want someone else to do the hard work.  
Why don't we demand that they (JCA), instead, act like real entrepreneurs.  They should have just come in, started working and made something happen.  They aren't acting like entrepreneurs; they are waiting for all the lights to turn green at the exact same time before they pull out of the driveway.

Yeah, I know, "what an asshole."  It was unfair for me to have ascribed nefarious motivations to the Jumpstart team, without first having given them the opportunity to rectify the situation.  This is a hard lesson to have learned at 41 years old; and in public no less.  I felt immeasurably worse last night, when they got to Joule and immediately started moving heavy furniture, attacking the job-at-hand and basically kicking ass the way I would expect any "Real Entrepreneur" to do it.  It was at that moment that they became, in my eyes, not hired guns, but people with whom I felt I had something in common.  Seeing people work hard always makes me feel better about them - maybe that's just my Midwest sensibility or maybe its just having spent so many years grinding away as an entrepreneur, but I have a ton of respect for folks who just roll up their sleeves and get to work, instead of waiting for others to do it for them.  Either way, they showed their true stripes throughout the night and I think we were all impressed.

So, now let me tell you a little bit about my experience over the past couple of weeks, leading up to the event.  within 24 hours of me ripping them, I was contacted, individually, by several members of the JCA team to immediately start planning a new, separate and decidedly different event.  Wisely, they let me take the lead on inviting people, using my network and organizing the gathering.  This was brilliant on so many levels that I can't begin to address them all, but most importantly, because they know that if we begin to take ownership of our own problems then we will be miles further down the road toward devising our own solutions.

After telling them that I was going to hold my own event, and them being surprisingly accommodating to that notion, a different member of the Jumpstart team sent me a personal message At least every couple of days,, to inquire about details, without ever making suggestions about what I should do.  they let me own it.  the brilliance of this is something that I actually do know quite a bit about, and began to recognize during this process.  The best managers are those who allow others to use their talents in the way that they are most comfortable.  In this case, by allowing me to take the lead, they were allowing for one of two possible outcomes, whether they realized it or not.
  1. If I started shouting from the rooftops about how we in the tech startup community were all getting screwed and nobody showed up to rally against this egregious slight, then they would be able to point out that I was just some crackpot with a big mouth (something that I could still probably be accused of) to whom no attention need be paid.  Put another way, they gave me enough rope to hang myself.  OR...
  2.  We could actually come out, in force, like we did last night, and take our place among the other entrepreneurial institutions of our state, alongside the med-tech, bio-tech, agriculture and bio-science folks, who seem more adept at grabbing headlines and scarce investment dollars.
In the end, there was really no possibility for a disaster to occur because either way the outcome would prove a point.

So now it is time for me to offer up some of the real, measurable and completely exciting outcomes from the first gathering of the "Real Entrepreneurs of Minnesota"  As I communicated to the Jumpstart team earlier today:

  • I am pretty sure that a company got funded last night at the event
  • My company hired a designer today whom I met last night
  • 3 people have contacted me to tell me that they found new co-founders for their companies
  • 2 others in attendance were hired on-the-spot
These occurrences alone, tell me that we need to do more stuff like this!

So, before I finish up, I need to share a an email that I got very early this morning.  In the interest of privacy, I am not going to tell you who sent it, but I will say that it was sent to the Jumpstart folks and I was merely copied on it.

Driving home last night it occurred to me why I was smiling.  I recalled saying “that’s a great idea” at least 8 times.  To an idea geek and serial entrepreneur that is as good as it gets. And I wasn’t alone, I could see the little light bulbs going off over everyone’s head all night long.

It also reinforces to us that this is the secret to a good E and startup environment. Shared ideas, shared passion, shared success. The opportunity for networking, connecting and mentoring are the precious capital.  Do that and capitalism efficiently takes care of the rest, anywhere.
Darren, thanks for the leadership.

Team Jumpstart, thanks for humoring Darren.

Let’s go start something,

I can't take any credit for the success of the event last night.  I was simply the guy with the big mouth that got folks pissed off enough to show up.  That doesn't make me a leader, that makes me a gadfly.  In fact, the success of last night's event can't be measured at all; not right now. we will only be able to truly recognize and quantify whether we moved the needle at all by continuing the discussions that were begun in our small groups.

I have a heartfelt belief that we started something important last night; that we will all be increasingly proud of our roles in starting something amazing for the future of Minnesota entrepreneurship, as time passes and we build a new archetype for ourselves and those who follow us into the galaxy of possibilities that await.  Although, I have to admit, I am a little scared that when the buzz from the evening wears off, we will revert to our individual goals and our independent voices. But I will commit right here, in a public forum, that I will do whatever it takes to serve my community; my friends; my incredibly innovative, Tech Startup Tribe.

At least I will do it, if you will do it with me.


  1. Darren, a "gadfly" would have simply stopped at the pissing-off part. You turned around and made something real out of it. I know these events require the help of lots of people, and we have lots of awesome people around here. But you deserve a LOT of credit for the success of REoMN. I cannot believe the value I've already derived from that one evening, myself. I'm excited to be part of What's Next. Thanks.

  2. Darren,

    Thank you for leading the charge in bringing this fantastic group of entrepreneurs together. One of the things I heard from a few people is how do I do more networking like this? There are several entrepreneurship groups in the Twin Cities that meet monthly, and have a heavy focus on networking and collaboration.

    The one I’m most heavily involved in is called BizLounge. We’ve been around for just over 10 years. Our mission is it to inspire, educate, and connect emerging and aspiring entrepreneurs. We meet the 3rd Monday of every month, and usually have a guest speaker. You can see our event details at or follow @BizLoungeMN.

    I know of at least 4 other networking groups for entrepreneurs that were represented at the event on Thursday, including Booststrappers Breakfast, Lean Startup Meetup, TIES, and Minne*

    If you want to keep the energy going, we need to make sure we do a great job of expanding awareness of these groups and the others I’m sure were represented at the meeting. I hope the other groups use this blog post as a way to promote their group and expand awareness. There is no reason the energy in the room on Thursday can’t be carried forward each month through attending one of the many great entrepreneur groups in our community. Collaboration is often the greatest key to success and we have no shortage of ways to do that in the Twin Cities. Just look at the events calendar on Tech.MN and you will see our tech and entrepreneur community is as strong as any other in the Midwest.

  3. I hereby pledge that I will do whatever it takes to serve this community; these friends; this incredibly innovative, Tech Startup Tribe.

  4. Darren,

    I am in too. I do not come out of my own cave often/long enough to always know what is going on and I frequently need numerous reminders to do something.

    But push, nudge or throw an elbow when needed to get my attention.

    Do not ask me if/how I can help, we have known each other way too long for that. You know better than I

    Tell me what to do, what is needed to be done.


  5. Darren,

    I followed up with a lot of individuals after the event, and everyone was very happy--or even somewhat surprised--with the collective enthusiasm that we have for each other achieving our goals in our endeavors. I really liked the point you made about it being "safer and easier to deal with the humiliation of failure if we aren't around others when it happens."

    It took me over a year and a half to tell anyone about my barely legible scratches of notes for my startup that were hidden all in the margins of the back of one of my class notebooks. When I actually typed up my plans and ideas, I hid the files in a conspicuously-named folder on my computer so no one could even stumble across it.

    During that year and a half of finishing up college and attending 9 million networking events, I really started to feel the energy that came from tech entrepreneurs in our community. Then I may have mentioned my idea casually to a few people in September 2010.. ;)

    People are pumped and motivated and ready to help each other out... let's work on channeling and focusing the energy and momentum now before we "over-hype" it.

    Darren, thanks for getting so many of us in one place. You're a rockstar.

  6. Thanks for putting on a great event. Glad to hear that so many other people had as beneficial an evening for their entrepreneurial endevours as I did. My only question is:

    When is the next one? ;)

  7. Jon Wittmayer2:39 PM

    Darren, Way to get things going. I'm looking forward to helping this group in the future. Sorry I couldn't make the meeting (called away at the last minute), sounds like it was a really good one. Can't wait til the next.


Darren Cox

Darren Cox
Founder and Chief Evangelist - CaSTT - Commerce and Search for Technology Transfer