February 21, 2008

Let the games begin!

Entrepreneurship Week at Stanford will start tomorrow, Friday, Feb 22 at 4:00 PM. The week will be jam-packed with opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship and to get your hands dirty. There are talks and panels, as well as workshops and competitions. Check out the entire list on the E-Week web site.

Highlights of the week include the showing of Imagine It, the world premiere of the film based on last year's Innovation Challenge; venture capital speed dating; a panel of journalists talking about getting media attention for your business; talks on social entrepreneurship and international entrepreneurship; a start up job fair with over 100 companies; networking events; and finally a showcase of student projects from this year's Innovation Tournament!

The Problem Hunter

I have never met anyone who is more obsessed with solving intractable problems than Mir Imran. He is not only a serial entrepreneur, he is a parallel entrepreneur! He has started over 20 companies, has over 200 patents, and is aways running many new ventures at once.

Mir is best known for being one of the founders of the implantable defibrillator. Since then, he has passionately pursed incredibly diverse medical mysteries. He looks for the most daunting problems across the entire medical landscape, from neurology to cardiology to gastroenterology, and pulls together teams of scientists and engineers to develop solutions. He has his own incubator, called InCube Labs, which is essentially a well equipped laboratory, in which he nutures these new ventures. During each day he switches roles endlessly.... Sometimes he plays scientist, sometimes entrepreneur, and other times he is the investor. When asked if there is ever a conflict of interest, he playfully answered, "If you don't have a conflict of interest, then you aren't doing anything interesting..."

I think you will enjoy this interview with Mir Imran.

February 14, 2008

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Interest in "social" entrepreneurship has been soaring. The number of conferences and business plan competitions on social e-ship are growing rapidly, the number of courses offered on university campuses is expanding, and social e-ship is getting a lot of press. For example, the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship ran out of spots after admitting 750 people several months in advance of the upcoming meeting in Oxford, England; Bill Gates gave a talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos on creative capitalism that was reported widely around the world; and companies such as B Corporation are sprouting up that encourage companies to bake a social mission right into their by-laws.

So, what differentiates a social entrepreneur from a plain old vanilla entrepreneur? I must stay that it isn't clear to me.... To loosely quote Carl Schramm, president of the Kauffman Foundation, when he spoke at Stanford last year, "all entrepreneurship is 'social' because at a minimum it generates jobs and stimulates the economy." Given that as a baseline, companies can be socially responsible in an endless number of ways. If a company has family friendly policies, it is socially responsible. If a company recycles used materials and installs solar panels on the roof, it is socially responsible. If a company makes medical products that save lives, it socially responsible. If a company makes energy efficient cars, it is socially responsible. A company certainly does not have to be a not-for-profit to be socially responsible.

I would argue that people use the word "social" entrepreneurship because they don't always know what entrepreneurship is... The way we teach it, entrepreneurship is about identifying problems and solving them by leveraging scarce resources. It means creating value, where value can be measured in a wide range of ways. It is extremely limiting is you define value only as making lots of money.

For many years, I have been an advisor to a large student group at Stanford, called BASES, that runs the campus-wide business plan competition. Several years ago they started a parallel competition for "social" business plans. The number of submissions were small and the prizes were much smaller than for the traditional business plan competition. Over the past few years, the number of submissions for the Social E-Challenge has grown until now there are as many submissions as the E-Challenge. There has always been healthy debate about whether a plan can be entered in both competitions at the same time.... My fantasy is that some day the winner of the Social E-Challenge will also be the winner of the E-Challenge. It will demonstrate that a company that is attractive using traditional metrics can also have a powerful social agenda.

This is one of the most popular video clips on the STVP Educators Corner featuring Guy Kawaski. In this clip he talks the importance of having the goal of making meaning for your company as opposed to making money. He argues that if you make meaning, you are more likely to make money; but if your major goal is to make money, then you are unlikely to make either.

February 8, 2008

No Problem is too BIG

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Jeff Hawkins, who is arguably one of the most brilliant people on the planet... and this is not an exaggeration. What I love most about Jeff is his drive to solve amazingly daunting problems. For example, he became passionate about how the brain works - specifically the neocortex - and taught himself neuroscience on the side, while running Palm and Handspring. He came up with some very compelling theories and wrote a book, called On Intelligence, that summarizes his ideas. He didn't stop there... He started a company, Numenta, to build computers based upon this theories. It appears to be working. Despite the fact that he is not a formally trained scientist, he was asked to give one of the keynote addresses to the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting last November. The room was filled with over 5,000 neuroscientists. Now, that is pretty amazing!

But, Jeff has not stopped there. He is also fascinated with the nature of time, and has some fascinating ideas that I am not going to embarrass myself by trying to explain. He is also intrigued by the idea of creating brand new "senses". He reminded me of a story in his book about a scientist who helped blind people experience the world by placing a camera on their foreheads and putting an array of tiny stimulators on their tongues. The tongue was chosen because of the density of sensory receptors. Within a short time, the blind person could "see" the world with his or her tongue!

Jeff is interested in finding out if you could take this concept to the next level. What if you created a device, like a glove that senses the world and transmits that information to an array of stimulators on the fingertips, which also have a very high density of sensors. (Imagine, a small camera on the each of the ten fingertips turns them into ten eyes!) A person could wave his or her hand in different ways to "see" the world. It would be fun to speculate about using different types of sensors: What if they responded to infrared light so that you could see like a snake, or ultraviolet light so that you could see like a bird. This might be valuable for people with normal vision in addition to those who are blind. Jeff is so interested in this idea that he if trying figure out how to motivate others to work on this. If you have some ideas, let me know.

You can watch video clips of Jeff talking about a bunch of his ventures on the STVP Educators Corner.

February 6, 2008

Too much passion?

Today's Entrepreneurial Thought Leader speaker was Christine Benninger, the president of the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. She brought up an interesting point... When they hire people they need to make sure that they are not TOO passionate about animals. If they are too passionate, then they will do anything to promote their own agenda and are not good team players. This got me thinking, can one be too passionate in other areas? I think so.

Sometimes you can be so passionate about a cause, a business, or a person that you become irrational. It is important to balance your passions with meaningful data. For example, when picking a career, it is just as important to tap into your passions as it is to understand your skills, and the market for those skills. For example, if you are passionate about something, such as music, but you are not a great musician, then it doesn't make sense to try to support yourself as a rock star. Alternatively, you can be a great fan of music and enjoy it on the side; or you can tap into our business skills and become a music promoter, getting the thrill of being around musicians and contributing in the ways that play to your strengths.

On the other extreme, if you do something that plays to your strengths, but does not resonate with your passions, then you have an equally negative outcome. People in jobs like these feel drained by the day-to-day grind. The key is to find the overlap of your passions, your skills, and the market. That is the sweet spot! So, passion is a great motivator... but it needs to be mixed with an equal measure of reality.


It is much easier to learn things when you experience them yourself than when someone tells you about them. I think back to my old days as a neuroscientist... I had several courses where we covered the basics of neurophysiology and all the related mathematical formulas. I could describe them and could pass tests that asked me to regurgitate them, but I didn't really understand them until I spent time in the lab sticking tiny neurons with electrodes and seeing the results myself. I would increase or decrease the voltage and the currents across the cell membrane would change. Now I got it! The formulas came to life and I finally understood them.

I now spend my time coming up with experiences that allow people to experiment with a wide range of skills, such as opportunity recognition, challenging assumptions, leveraging limited resources, negotiation, etc. I have found that just as my experience in the lab, you need to experience and experiment with these variables before you truly understand them.

One of my favorite simulations uses custom made jigsaw puzzles. Essentially, several puzzles are mixed together and each team is given a handful of pieces and a stack of poker chips, which is the currency of the game. They are challenged to complete a puzzle. There are fewer puzzles than there are teams, and the "marketplace" changes often as I throw new twists into the game. It is fascinating how much the participants learn in just one hour. Check out this short video to see this exercise in action.

February 5, 2008

Seeing Old Things in New Ways

One of the best ways to create opportunities is to see old things in new ways. The best artists do this all the time. They are able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, to transform a common scene into a work of art, and to make us see the world through brand new eyes. When we look at a great photograph, we are changed... It illuminates a world that we might have looked at, but had not really seen before.

Here is a photo taken by Forrest Glick of a French street scene. He has certainly taken the ordinary and made it extraordinary. In fact, all of Forrest's photos on OpenFloodgate are pretty remarkable. I encourage you to check them out.

Put me in, Coach!

Speaking of podcasts... Almost two years ago one of our Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders speakers canceled at the last minute. This always creates a problem and a whirlwind of activity in an attempt to fill the spot. I decided to volunteer myself to give the talk. This took a lot of chutzpah since the speaker lineup includes icons such as Carly Fiorina, William Perry, and John Doerr.... But, since there wasn't an easy alternative, my colleagues put me in.

I decided to craft a talk called "What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20...", based on a list of lessons I hoped to impart to my kid as he left for college. In fact, one of the lessons in the talk is "Don't wait to be anointed." That is, don't wait for others to ask you to take on a challenging role, but just do it!

Essentially, being entrepreneurial demands you to print your own business cards. It requires the confidence to take leaps that others might find daunting. I involves taking risks, some of which are small and others which are mighty big.

Risks come in all different forms. For example, some people are comfortable taking financial risks, others are comfortable taking physical risks, and others are comfortable taking social risks. I was pretty comfortable taking the social risk of getting up in front of the class and giving a talk, but I would never have been comfortable taking the risk of jumping out of an airplane.

It is pretty easy to teach yourself to be more comfortable with risks. The trick is to take small risks at first and to build confidence. And, it takes a willingness to fail sometimes. In fact, I often ask my students to write "failure resumes" where they have to outline all their biggest screw-ups, personal, professional, and academic. They have to describe the failure and what they learned from it. The lesson is that if you aren't failing sometimes, you aren't taking enough risks.

February 4, 2008

One Match Fires

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Ron Conway and Mike Maples for the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture series. Both are very talented angel investors, who fund early stage start-ups. They share some fascinating thoughts about how they evaluate new opportunities that flow their way, what they do to help young companies, and talk about nurturing your passions. One great line from Mike Maples is that if you are lucky enough to have a great education from a great university, and you are NOT doing something that you love to do, then you have flunked an important cosmic IQ test. He uses a bunch of other great metaphors. For example, he talks about angle investors using a single match (that is a small investment) to light a forest fire (get a big return).

This is one of thousands of podcasts and video clips at the STVP Educators Corner, run by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

February 3, 2008

You are Invited!

As part of Stanford Entrepreneurship Week, there will be an Innovation Tournament and you are invited to participate. At the beginning of the week, on Friday, Feb 22, an object will be revealed. Teams will be challenged to create as much "value" as possible in five days. Value can be measured in any way they want... All submissions will be in the form of videos of three minutes or less.

Check out the video invitation to participate:

The Perilous Pizza

I love the fact that creative inspiration can come at any moment. This ultra short story is inspired by driving home from work anticipating biting into a piece of leftover pizza. http://www.openfloodgate.com/creation.htm?creationId=484

Perhaps today I will be moved to write a story that is inspired by doing the laundry...

Making Your Own Luck

There are studies that show that some people really are luckier than others. But, the catch is that we make our own luck. You have to put yourself in a position where you have the chance to be lucky. For example, you aren't going to meet interesting friends if you spend all your time hanging out alone; you aren't going to win a Pulitzer Prize unless you begin writing; and you aren't going to start a cool new company unless you take the risk of starting one. As my wise father always said, "the harder you work, the luckier you get."

Here is a funny story that illustrates the point: One day I was at the grocery store and a man asked me a question about making canned lemonade. He had an unusual accent that I couldn't quite place. I answered his question about the lemonade, but didn't stop there... By the time we both left the store, I had learned that he was from Chile and was in Silicon Valley for two years to learn about entrepreneurship. His family in Chile owned many businesses and he was in line to take over the helm. He wanted to gain the tools to make the company more innovative and entrepreneurial. I offered to help him as best I could.

Two years later I found myself in Santiago, Chile and looked him up. He couldn't meet me due to prior obligations, but told me to bring some friends with me and go to an office building in the center of the city. When we arrived, we were treated to a private helicopter ride from the roof of the building up to his family's private ski resort in the mountains, and back again. I was sure lucky!

All this from talking to a stranger in my local grocery store...

Wall of Possibilities

Two years ago, I was in Beijing for work and got into my head that I needed to see the Great Wall at sunrise. This was much easier said than done... I asked the concierge at the hotel for help getting a taxi at 3:00 AM (to arrive at the Great Wall at 5:00 AM) and that was a dead end. I asked my colleagues, but they couldn't help. And, I asked taxi drivers directly to no avail. Meanwhile, several friends and colleagues became excited by the idea and decided to join me. They agreed to meet me at 3:00 AM in the hotel lobby. Needless to say, I had to figure out a way to make this happen...

I looked around and found an English language school near the hotel. I figured that someone would at least speak English and be able to help me with my quest. I wandered over and was eventually introduced to a 17 year old student high school student who spoke English quite well. I spent some time finding out about him: He was a talented athlete and a musician, and was in the midst of writing his college applications for schools outside of China. He knew of Stanford and said that he dreamed of going there some day. BINGO!

I offered him a deal... If he could help get me and my friends to the Great Wall at sunrise, I would write a letter of recommendation for him for college. It took him a nanosecond to accept my offer. To make a long story short, he made it happen and offered to come along a the translator.

The bad news is that I got sick and couldn't go on the excursion.
The good news is that my friends had an amazing experience.
The bad news is that the car they were in broke down on the way back.
The good news is that if I had gone, I would have missed my flight.
The best news is that this student and I still correspond and plan to meet up again in Australia, where he is now a college student.

Just another reminder that problems can certainly be opportunities...


It is really true that all problems are opportunities? It certainly isn't easy to see the "opportunity" in sickness, war, and pain. However, having the attitude that problems are opportunities allows you to look around the problem to see potential opportunities waiting in the shadows. Obviously, nobody wants problems, but they often unlock possibilities that would never have been revealed otherwise. They also allow you to stretch your imagination in a attempt to find the gems waiting to be found. For example, some people write amazing poetry when they are depressed. They channel the emotions through their writing, creating something wonderful from their pain. This poem is remarkably evocative, and obviously grew out of a lot of grief: http://www.openfloodgate.com/creation.htm?creationId=372

February 2, 2008

Entrepreneurship Week at Stanford

In just three weeks, Stanford will host Entrepreneurship Week. One of the highlights is the world premiere of Imagine It!, a movie that was filmed during last year’s international Innovation Challenge. Essentially, each student team was given one pack of 3x3 Post-Its and asked to create as much value as possible in five days. Value could be measured in any way they wanted. There were 90 teams at Stanford and hundreds of teams around the world. The film captures the spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship as the students come up with ideas and really make things happen. Below is the movie trailer. I understand that soon the entire film will be available for free to on the web. Stay tuned for details.

Flash Fiction

Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes…. One of my favorite forms of creativity comes in the shape of flash fiction. Some stories are so short that they are just one paragraph long. In only a few sentences, they capture an entire scene, a complete emotion, or even an entire lifetime. One of my favorites is a story by Greg Garmissa that is posted on OpenFloodgate. I think that you will agree that it fits an several generations into a single paragraph. Check it out: http://www.openfloodgate.com/creation.htm?creationId=750