Bryon Returns from Beijing, China

Bryon returned from Beijing tonight after spending five months on exchange with Elon University in China. He emailed his return flight details a few days in advance and a request to eat a large American hamburger pretty much immediately upon landing. We drove into Chapel Hill and Bryon had the Montana Burger at Top of the Hill which he nearly finished. Damon and I snapped some quick pictures of us with Bryon before my camera entirely ran out of power.

He mentioned a bit about the recent earthquake in Chengdu in central China. Apparently in Beijing it wasn’t very strong although some of the higher buildings were felt swaying just a bit. According to Google maps it looks like Shanghai is actually slightly closer to Chengdu than Beijing. Some of our family friends are currently in Chongqing which is also in central China, just a few hundred miles away from Chengdu. Reports on the condition there during the quake were pretty incredible. For several days people didn’t feel safe to go back inside so they slept in the parks and open areas and most of the stores were closed.

Weekend in Chicago (Cubs, Roger Creager, Rooftops)

Erik, Arvind, and I (all UNC alums) spent last weekend in Chicago. This is my entrepreneur crew. I’ve worked with both of these guys in the past in entrepreneurial ventures including Preation, MainBrain, Factrivia, and iContact. We have a lot of fun and categorically bore everyone around us to tears while getting engulfed in business ideas and discussions of what might be. We get together a few times a year for one reason or another. Although we’ve all talked for years this was actually the first time Erik and Arvind met in person. We first all worked together on MainBrain back in 2002 while Arvind was still in Sydney, Australia.

Erik had the first rooftop gathering of the year which was the prompt for the get-together. His apartment building has an exceptional view of the Chicago skyline about 3 miles south. Apparently the weather had warmed up the previous week and short notice was provided via email. I left Raleigh/Durham at 5PM on Friday and it was 86 degrees, upon landing in Chicago it was 55 degrees and very windy. As an aside, I left Chicago to go on to Las Vegas for a conference and thus left Chicago on Sunday at 5PM at 52 degrees to then arrive in Las Vegas at 7PM at 88 degrees. It’s hard to pack for this.

On Saturday night we saw Roger Creager at Joe’s Bar in the downtown after spending the day being tourists. He put on a great show as usual. We took the train down to the river and did Wendella Boats’ architectural river tour which was my fourth time on that trip. It was fun as usual, great content, cold as all heck. We also had cocktails at the Signature Lounge at the top of the John Hancock Center when the tour finished. Of note, the new Trump building is going up nicely and it looks incredible. It’s right on the Chicago river and it’s very tall. I would love to have a condo in there near the top.

On Sunday the three of us joined the graduating MBA class of Notre Dame on one of the roof decks on Sheffield street overlooking Wrigley Field. We had a great time. Chicago is a great city.

At Warrillow in Las Vegas

David, Frank, and I are at the annual Warrillow conference in Las Vegas this week Monday through Wednesday. The tabletop booth looks really nice and the side presentation which involves an on-screen web-based value calculator. Thanks to the Preation team for a job well done there. The calculator application been rock solid all day and the graphed results have been received well, several have been sent which is exciting!

Today was registration and some general presentations that were really all pre-conference content, much being lead by sponsors. Overall the content was good, some of the coverage of new marketing methods (online) was a bit outdated but probably appropriate for the audience members who are typically in charge of both traditional and new media marketing to small businesses.

Google’s presentation abused the term small business a bit while trying to prove that new media channels including YouTube contain lots of content and lots of visitors interested in finding information about small businesses. I found this to be odd considering all of the research that Warrillow has done to prove that small business don’t enjoy being called small… they prefer terms like business owner and entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur myself (and small business owner :)) I completely agree. So, Google is a sponsor of the conference but isn’t paying attention to Warrillow research. I enjoyed the irony.

For a pre-conference day the foot traffic was exceptional by our booth. I took this picture after walking a round of the exhibit floor during a really slow spell. I was excited to return to the iContact booth two minutes later and see a crowd of three talking with David and Frank when I bet there were less than 10 people talking with exhibitors in the entire space at the time. A lot of good connections have been made already.

Rules-of-Thumb From Successful Entrepreneurs

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Three interesting rules-of-thumb were discussed among a group of entrepreneurs I met with recently. I found the points interesting at the time but now that a few weeks have passed I’ve found myself either mentally referencing them or mentioning them to others frequently enough to justify taking a second to write them down in a place where they might be shared with others.

The first concept which I really loved was in reference to how entrepreneurs (although appropriate to literally everyone) build and maintain wealth and I found it to be very true of the paths I’ve seen other people succeed along. It was said that you build wealth by taking the most valuable resources you have (your intelligence, connections, unique skills and talents, physical resources, time, money, etc) and bringing them together to focus on a single effort and that you maintain wealth by taking the most valuable resources you have and spreading them as far apart from each other as you can. That’s fascinating to me. If this is true it implies that the old saying “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” might apply well to people maintaining wealth but in the case of entrepreneurs trying to build wealth it might be the reason for their failure. I certainly agree that success in a startup is about focus and pooling every resource you have, because in the beginning money is low and available time is high.

The second concept was more simple but was meant to provide a framework for thinking of milestones in wealth creation. It’s very interesting to me because my original goal in starting a number of startups previously was to build a company to $1M (M = million dollars) in annual sales. When you’re in your late-teens this seems like the mark of success no matter how you slice it, and at that age it probably is. It was said that the 2-10-100 million dollar rule applies. I’ll explain. At $2M of personal net worth you have enough money to not worry about money again and to probably not have to work if you don’t want to. At $10M of personal net worth you’re considered wealthy and you can pretty much do whatever you want to. You also have enough money to comfortably leave behind enough for the next few generations in trusts, etc. At $100M you basically cross the threshold where your available financial resources exceed any normal person’s ability to spend cash in a lifetime by so much that you will basically need to spend your time trying to figure out the best ways to give the money away. Which you better be doing a lot of if you have this much money! I thought this perspective into what drives people with these higher levels of wealth was very interesting and very much in line with the few people that I know that have reached these levels of financial success. Also to note, the $2M first mark was recently increased from $1M due to inflation according to the person who told me this.

The third concept was put much more simply than the rest. It was said that “the best time to sell your company is when someone offers to buy it.” This brief and comical statement probably rings true with many entrepreneurs who own private companies whose stock is worth as much as monopoly money (my preferred term for it) until a reasonable buyer comes along and declares a dollar amount he would be willing to purchase the company for. It’s a truly odd situation when you’re in it. I’ll add to this a great story told to me by a successful entrepreneur about 24 months ago. He was advising a friend on the possible sale of his business and the friend posed the situation to him that he wasn’t sure if he was ready to sell his company and that a prospective buyer had offered him $10M for the business when he was absolutely sure the business was worth at least $20M. My friend asked his friend a great question which was this, if you had that $10M in cash right now instead of your business, how would you invest it? After little pause he responded that he would put some of the money into the stock market, would save some of it in a trust for his children, and would put a bunch of it in low-risk bonds and other safe financial vehicles and then would probably put 10% of it back into the business to see where it could go in the future. What my friend then explained to him was that conceptually if he decided not to sell the business for $10M he was also at the same time making the decision to reinvest all 100% of his $10M (currently available to him in cash through a sale) back into the business. The point immediately made was that a reasonable person is perfectly capable of determining an appropriately risk averse portfolio for their cash investments but that entrepreneurs for a variety of reasons (the pride of parenting the business, the emotional commitment, the pattern of work they’ve come to love, etc) can easily make very poor financial decisions regarding the equity they own in their businesses. In this case the entrepreneur had become so focused on putting all of his resources into growing his business that he lost sight of his responsibility to protect the wealth he had so far created by spreading his bets wide and far (back to concept number one). I love the concept and completely understand how this can happen in the heads-down world of high-growth startups.

I hope these morsels of thought are valuable to you and that you might easily navigate the course of building a successful company while not forgetting to take care of yourself along the way. Good news though, it’s a fun ride and in the world of fast-paced technology companies there is always time to learn from your mistakes. Happy business building!

Who needs dual monitors anyway?!

Some time last fall we noticed that every employee at Preation had two monitors, either two LCD screens or two flat CRT monitors with the exception, ironically, or both members of our design team. The software developers seemed to have the nicest and newest screens and nearly everyone on the sales team (and myself) used their laptop as one of their two screens having also a free-standing external LCD screen.

Having dual screens become so renowned in the office that our head of web strategy Neil quickly dubbed the term Twonitor (pronounced Twa-ni-ter), the result of smashing the words Two and Monitor together (new word creation through word smashing is also a bad habit of mine, I call it newomashing for short). Also to note, last year Neil coined the popular office term crepulent, for no specific reason that I can recall, to describe something of low quality that shared both crappiness and a generally accepted disgust from the people who had to interact with it. The perfect term for things like printers that constantly get paper jams.

Anyway, after the realization of the odd mismatch in screen equality among company teams it didn’t take long for our lead designer Randall to politely request a second screen for himself. Naturally it made lots of sense, if not the most sense, for him to have the nicest visual displays for his work environment. When he made his request we put the purchase on a list of upcoming hardware needs and then pretty much forgot about it for a few months until the purchase was to be made.

The time came and the additional 19 inch LCD screen was purchased. But as luck would have it Randall was out on a week of vacation when the screen arrived at the office and it enticed several people as it sat there still in its box waiting to be put to work. Finally the tension was too much and it was removed from the box, salivating likely ensued. Since the new screen matched a screen being used by another employee it would need to be part of a shuffle to get everything into a new arrangement.

I was out of town at the same time (luckily my extra monitor was spared) and when I returned I found the following arrangement (see pictures below) among service team workstations (designers and developers). I thought to myself “I love it!”

The team had not only divvied up the nicest monitors for themselves but had made a point to give Randall the dual-screen setup he requested… comprised of the oldest pieces of junk with screens on them that they could find in the building. Truly crepulent! They also iced the cake by giving each of themselves what could only reasonably be referred to as Tronitor. I’m not entirely sure where the old monitors came from but I bet they have some ties back to our early startup days when we used to purchase computer monitors from the UNC Chapel Hill University Surplus store at Carolina North for fifteen bucks a piece. And I mean PIECE, as the pictures show.

Randall returned the following Monday and as one might imagine was less than thrilled with his new computer system. Although being quite low-tech he may still have harnessed the most pixel power of anyone in the office… I think they were 24 inch CRTs. Although, that assumes that all of the pixels were still working which just wouldn’t have been possible considering their age. Naturally the prank arrangement was dismantled and everyone had a good laugh, but not before Randall got at least a few hours of work done as if he was looking through a stained-glass window. We’re all glad he’s got a good sense of humor!

Prank Workstation Arrangement

Workstations shown below belong to team members in the following order: Phil (developer), Christina (developer), Lee (developer), Randall (designer)

Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party Dinner at Dorton Arena

Last night Sarah and I attended the Jefferson-Jackson dinner of the Democratic party of North Carolina at Dorton Arena at the NC State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, NC. The crowd was very lively but the competition between candidates for the party nomination was still polite. Both candidates were smart to include their support for the other candidate were they to win the nomination and confirm that they were sure the other would do the same for them. That actually worked with the crowd pretty well which surprised me. I guess as a crowd member I’m a bit more competitive than the rest. Although Sarah and I were attending on tickets provided by the Obama campaign we remained unbranded and didn’t hold up a sign, for several reasons. Here are a few more photos of the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party Dinner.

Hillary gave a very Clinton-like speech, I immediately recognized the style. I saw Bill Clinton speak while on the campaign trail for President in 1992 in Fayetteville, Arkansas where I lived at the time. I was 11 years old and I remember the only glimpse I got of him in person which required a high in-place jump at the back row of the crowd. There must have been 15,000 people on the main lawn of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville at that time. The state was strongly behind him despite the promise not to seek the Presidency that he made while running for the Governorship just a few years before. Surprising to me Hillary seemed to talk more about empowering people and ensuring equality than Obama, specific talking points were the minority of her content. I guess we are still in the primaries.

Obama was classically charismatic and wasted no time in engaging the crowd in a series of rolling cheers in response to his hard hitting style. It’s fascinating to see someone so young on the podium talking about taking the position of President. His speech roared to start and then quieted for about 15 minutes as he went through a laundry-list of issues and the ways they affect average Americans. The closing involved a number of more specific actions and initiatives he would take as President and another direct but polite attack on Hillary’s plan to make the Oil companies pay the gas tax this summer. He made a great and comical point that temporary gas tax relief won’t sound like such a great idea when gas is ten bucks a gallon. The crowd loved it. Although, in concept this flies a bit in the face of his plan to provide a small cash rebate to all Americans when he becomes President. In my opinion politicians need to cut the crap on these temporary reliefs and cash bonuses and figure out real plans that provide relief over the long term while ensuring stability so that emergency relief isn’t needed. But I digress.

The event was well attended and expectedly ran way over schedule. I don’t think we left the arena until around 11PM. It was an exciting night and satisfied my need to see the democratic candidates speak in-person before making any decisions. If you’re interested which candidate I’m leaning toward now you’ll have to ask me in person.

The post above was made on 5/3/2008. It’s now 6/4/2008 and Obama has received enough delegates to claim the nomination for the Democratic party. The Wall Street Journal had a great article today graphing both candidates’ pledged delegates and superdelegates and their rank in national polls from October 2007 through today. It’s really interesting to see that the day I made this post was one of three times during the entire campaign in which the two candidates were tied in national polls and was also the single point at which Obama’s superdelegate count exceeded Clintons’… she never regained that lead.

Team Preation/iContact Places 3rd in Charity Plane Pull Event

Team Preation/iContact with Special Olympics AthletesTeam Preation/iContact placed third out of 65 corporate teams at the 2008 Plane Pull at RDU to benefit the Special Olympics of North Carolina. Five team members representing both Preation and iContact pulled an American Airlines Embraer Regional Jet (weighing 40,000 lbs) along a 25ft course in a record 10.00 second time.

The pull time of 10.00 seconds qualified us in the top ten overall and we got to pull again to determine the top three placing teams. In the first round of pulls our time ranked 2nd among all teams, including the 10 additional law enforcement teams. In the championship round our second pull time of 10.14 seconds was good enough for fourth overall and third among other corporate competitors. These two pulls were the only attempts our team has ever done since this was our first year to compete in a plane pull competition and since no one could turn up an extra Regional Jet for us to practice on before the competition. Bummer.

Team Preation/iContact pulling American Airlines Regional JetVideo of our second plane pull is on YouTube. Also, video of some commentary from myself and my wife Sarah our photographer/videographer between the two plane pulls for the event is on YouTube as well. Team members on the rope in the second pull video are (from left to right): Dwayne Taylor, myself, Wes Garrison, Lynn Morehouse, and Justin Rauschenberg. The event was held on April 19th at the Raleigh/Durham International Airport in North Carolina.

Special Olympics of North Carolina raised over $150,000 this year from the Plane Pull event.

Memristor and the Meme

Richard Dawkins\' The Selfish GeneResearchers at HP have developed a fourth type of fundamental circuit element called a memristor (in addition to the standard resistor, capacitor, and inductor). The element is based on a 40 year old theory about an electronic component that could remember and mimic states it has experienced in the past, essentially a unit of memory. The memristor provides a variable level of resistance based on the amount of current it is receiving, and when the current is turned off, the memristor retains that level of resistance.

At a higher level, like a gene, the memristor is able to recognize a variety of inputs and provide consistent responses at a later time in result producing a pattern of behavior more complex than other current circuit elements. Much like the fundamental intelligent elements that make up humans, the gene, electronic technology has gone through an iteration of evolution with the development of the memristor. I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’ work in The Selfish Gene as parallels between the memristor and his concept of the conceptual element of the Meme are really similar.

Kauffman Study on Startup Founders

left featureThe Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City just published the results of a research project led by North Carolina entrepreneur and Duke Professor Vivek Wadhwa. The results include a comparison of the success of startups (opened between 1995 and 2005) by the level of education achieved by their founders. I would assume the founders in most cases completed the mentioned level of education before launching the startups although I’m sure a few crazies 🙂 did both at the same time for a while.

I’m fascinated to see that even in the risky and dynamic world of startups the correlation between education and success (as measured by annual revenue and a count of workers employed) is strong. Startups founded by alums with higher degrees and from Ivy-League universities had an average of $4.5 million in revenue more and 37 employees more than founders with high school degrees. In the middle were four year degree founders from a wide variety of universities, like myself from UNC. Also very important to me was the fact that 45% of founders started their companies in the same state where they received their education, as I have now done several times.

The correlations:

  • the level of education of founders to the success of their startups (in terms of revenue generated and workers employed)
  • nearly half of startups open in the state that their founders received their education

Both of these are great explanations for why the Triangle of North Carolina has so many entrepreneurs and a high number of success stories. I wonder though if the level of education (or more importantly the pedigree of the university) is simply a driver of access to other successful people and opportunities and thus the cause of the effect more than the value gained from the additional learning. I’m sure a lot of people would argue otherwise. But, the fact that a state’s investment in public universities comes back in job creation from 45% of the startups founded by its graduates on average is truly inspiring.

Kudos to the Kauffman Foundation for completing this research and for their support of UNC and other entrepreneurial universities across the nation. More information on the Kauffman study is available on the Kauffman website.

Technology Innovation Adventure

Aaron HoughtonFor over 10 years I’ve had a passion for solving problems with technology. Technology itself is an enabler like few we’ve seen in history yet its misuses equal its proper implementations. Innovation with technology when done right allows us to rethink progress from a simple linear path of fast to faster or small to smaller and instead make progress that benefits people, moving from one meaningful implementation to another.

The traditional technology race to increase speed and cut cost distracts many intelligent people and makes real progress with technology, especially real progress that benefits the people that use the technology (not that sell it), a bit elusive. This is probably one of the reasons I love the new Dyson commercials for the Airblade and the Ball. Dyson and others who dare to build solutions entirely different than their class of comparables are risk takers who venture to push humanity forward. Whether it be vacuum devices, medical equipment, or business software those who work outside of the bounds of the mainstream often experience their adventure with a small or nonexistent support team.

Mark Twain says “The man with a new idea is a crank, until the idea succeeds.” This blog is a tribute to entrepreneurs and creators of any type who live the adventure of moving technology toward the type of innovation that makes real progress by positively affecting people.