A handful of technologies have contributed to an explosion of entrepreneurship in the past decade, making the prospect of starting a tech company — or tech-enabled company — more accessible to people around the world.
- Amazon Web Services makes it possible for anyone, anywhere, to set up a server, build a prototype, and even launch a product with very little expense. What’s more, it can scale to nearly limitless capacity, so fledgling companies can have confidence that they will be able to grow without having to invest in server capital for a long time, if ever.
- Google has indexed an enormous amount of the world’s information, both making it accessible to entrepreneurs who need to learn something, but also making their companies and websites discoverable by others. Google has also created collaborative, real-time document-editing tools in Google Docs that many people in business now find indispensible.
- Facebook has built an audience of 1.44 billion people worldwide. Entrepreneurs can use it to create and grow their own networks, and their companies can benefit from the enormous amounts of demographic, psychographic, and activity data about actual consumers that Facebook makes available.
- Widespread connectivity, especially for mobile devices, have empowered more than 2 billion people worldwide to get on the Internet in some form or another and to learn about — and connect with — the rest of the world
As a result, the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs is lower than ever. Geography, race, gender, educational background — all make less difference than they ever have before in starting companies with potentially global reach.
I thought about this a lot this week, as I was moderating a panel discussion on the democratization of entrepreneurship at Hero City, the incubator/coworking space that’s part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem venture capitalist Tim Draper is building.
My co-panelists agreed that the technologies listed above have been critical in making entrepreneurship more accessible to more people than ever before.
But in addition to the tech, they were quick to point out that, if you are concerned about fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, you need more than just technologies.
It starts with people
Community is probably the foremost requirement. You can build a virtual community around yourself, or find one, regardless of where you are in the world. But don’t underestimate the power of face-to-face contact in establishing the kinds of deep ties needed to kickstart innovation at the highest levels. For that reason, incubators, accelerators, and coworking spaces — which have popped up in nearly every country and every major city around the world — play a critical role. Panelist Andy Tang, the CEO of Draper University, made it clear that in-person communication is an important part of Draper U’s agenda for training would-be entrepreneurs.
Or, if you can’t get into one of these programs, there are alternatives open to all comers. YouNoodle CEO Torsten Kolind, another panelist, enthusiastically recommended Startup Weekend, a semi-regular weekend business hackathon, now in hundreds of cities, where people form ad-hoc teams and try to create companies in just a couple days.
Paying it forward
One of the things that’s critical to making a community work is a pay-it-forward mentality. Panelist Emily Baum, who is the founder of Keyrious, a startup maker of connected luxury items, explained it this way: She compared New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco by the way people respond when you ask them for a favor they aren’t able to deliver on.
In New York, she said, if you ask someone for something they can’t do, they just say no — and they’re often rude about it.
In Chicago, they’ll spend five minutes apologizing for not being able to help you.
In Los Angeles, they’ll cheerfully say, “Sure, I can help you out!” even if they know they have no intention or ability to do so.
But in San Francisco, if you ask someone for something they can’t do for you, they’ll say, “I can’t help you, but let me introduce you to someone who might be able to.” Then they’ll make an introduction — and that person will actually respond. Even if that person can’t help, they’ll make another intro — and so on, until you get connected with someone who can help you.
For that reason, Baum said, she figured she was able to get her company off the ground four times faster in the Silicon Valley area than elsewhere.
Don’t forget the facts
Don’t underestimate the value of data, panelist Lauren Feldman said. She’s a consultant and analytics expert whose favorite tool is not any of the above cloud-based, Web 2.0 technologies: She prefers Excel. As hard as it may be to use sometimes, it’s an essential tool for gleaning insights from data, and that’s critical to helping your startup succeed.
Because, as Kolind pointed out, while all these technologies make the barrier to entry lower for you, they do the same thing for thousands, if not millions, of potential competitors. So it’s easier and cheaper than ever to start a company, but it may be just as hard, if not harder, to succeed. That’s why understanding what’s really going on with your customers is so important.
Stay hungry. Stay foolish
Finally, panelist Toro Orero suggested, curiosity and zeal are still essential for would-be entrepreneurs. He told stories of self-taught engineers in Nigeria, where he is from, who taught themselves multiple programming languages simply by Googling for the answers to their questions. And, his advice to an entrepreneur who was considering moving from Kenya to launch a business in the U.S. was, if she was serious about the move, to go for it with great enthusiasm.
Because at the end of the day, no amount of technology can help lift a company off the launch pad if the founders lack enthusiasm and commitment. It takes a certain kind of craziness to start a company — and to stick with it through the inevitable hard times — which may be why Hero City is filled with sort of loopy cartoon iconography casting entrepreneurs as superheros.
You need that kind of self-confidence to succeed, it seems.
But an AWS account and a copy of Excel go a long way, too.