Saturday, September 15, 2012

Entrepreneur of Another Ilk

Back in March, I featured a post about Sara Blakely's interview with Kai Ryssdal on Blakely is the founder of Spanx. During the interview, she offered a few tidbits:
  • "I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs end up getting in the way of the growth of their own business, because it's a totally different skill set, to run operate a business."
  • "I learned very quickly what I liked to do, what I didn't like to do, what I was good at, and what I wasn't good at, and as soon as I could afford to hire my weaknesses I did."
Hard lessons to learn, but important ones. Know yourself, as the old hemlock-drinker said. Self-knowledge, and self-honesty are paramount to the success of an entrepreneur. Why then is there so much resistance to the honesty of a research entrepreneur who seeks to fill the gaps in business development expertise, marketing and sales, any more so than if an MBA with drive and verve seeks to fill in their gaps in technical fields?

I think of my days as a graduate student and recently-hooded PhD, asking career advice of professors. No matter how well-intentioned, nearly every conversation returned to academia, how to get a foot in the door for a tenure-track post. I realized then that we are all limited to some extent by our own experience. The same is true today of many of my entrepreneurial advisors.

But the path of an entrepreneur is singular. Why then try to fit us all into the same boat, with the same skill sets, the same motivations, the same paths to success? The tent of entrepreneurship ought to be a big one, an inclusive one. I tire of hearing "give me an A-team with a mediocre idea over a great idea with a B-team any day." Why not pair the greatest ideas with the best teams to deliver results?

That's the true path to success.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lingering Bitter

Recently, I was contacted by a colleague, whom I've known since I first entered my current field. We met at a conference as I began my transition from a would-be academic to a full-time research entrepreneur.* She asked me to write an article for a book she's editing, in particular to capture and promote my vision for the field. Six years since I entered the fray, I am still in many ways an outsider. She wanted an outside-the-box perspective, rather than asking "the people who are developing more of what we have today."

Validation. As I said to her on the phone, "it's good to know I have things to contribute to the field." I was thrilled to be asked, and more than happy to oblige.

* For those who don't know my history, in the three years surrounding completion of my PhD, I submitted fully 150 faculty applications for employment, netted three or four interviews, and not a single offer of full-time employment. I spent one term in "adjunct servitude" with no benefits, too many students, and a salary that barely covered my gas. If graduate school was one of the best times of my life, the academic job search ranks among my lowest points. Discovering the entrepreneur within me was a remarkable journey. I can only imagine that there are thousands just like me. I hope for them that they find entrepreneurship or something equally satisfying to renew and sustain them.

Executive Summary: Inspiration

In 1974, a cast of wild-eyed dreamers gathered at the New York Institute of Technology, with the aim to replace hand-drawn imagery with computer animation. Over the course of the late 1970s the team was acquired by Lucas Films. In 1986, Lucas Films sold the group to a young Steve Jobs, and Pixar, Inc. was founded. In 1996, Pixar delivered Toy Story to a stunned and amazed public, erupting a revolution in computer-generated imagery (CGI) that leap-frogged generations of craft cultivated by the likes of Disney Animation Studios. This revolution is still alive today, delighting a new generation of audiences, and wending its way into myriad business and entertainment uses. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Don't Be Hasty: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Ents

The ancient character of Treebeard the Ent in J.R.R. Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings" is constitutionally averse to haste: "Do not be hasty, that is my motto." Much of the popular notion of entrepreneurship, and seemingly that most valued and promulgated by some investors, is one of rush, speed, first-to-market, quick-to-exit.

What percentage of that sort of entrepreneur survives long enough to actually succeed? And by what means is success measured? These are relevant questions for someone who has decided to forego the comforts of relative certainty that seem to be the aim of getting a job. [I demur on this point, as I've little experience in my 44 years of getting or keeping what might be construed as a typical 9-5 job.]

Before rushing headlong into any plan of action, I seek to know: What are my motivations? What is it I seek to accomplish? What is the point of it all? The answers to those questions should help to clarify when and where haste is warranted or to be avoided. If the goal is to produce something lasting and sustainable, to propel true innovation, rather than superficial repackaging, then endurance may often trump haste.

I was recently pushed by a potential investor to provide a quick demo for some capabilities we are developing. I have utmost confidence that we can deliver, but the time scale is likely beyond his expectation. In the next breath, he explained that a partner of his believes he had worked on "the same thing twenty years ago". Really? I thought.

How incongruous that someone could believe that time is of the essence, and yet argue that two decade old failed attempts to develop a technology (that is completely absent from present offerings, but could revolutionize the field) could somehow forestall our efforts.

For now, I'm happy to put the Ent back into entrepreneur.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Purpose and Mission

In our single-minded drive toward profits, one of the first casualties is sometimes purpose. I long ago observed that passionate people who start out fighting for what they believe in sometimes find themselves believing in whatever they are fighting for. If we're not careful to assess and reassess our mission and how our actions move toward or away from that purpose, we may inevitably drift leeward at the mercy of the winds.

Why are we in this game in the first place, and what do we wish to accomplish? Some would reply: profit, of course, it's only business. Hm. I really wonder, how many people go to their graves lamenting that they hadn't focused enough on making more money, that they hadn't succeeded in increasing their company's profit margins during the last quarter? It seems there must be more to life than that.

Cresswell Walker recently posted a letter from Lagos, Portugal to The Economist, published in the June 16, 2012 print edition. Due to its elegance and concision, I quote it in full:
Would it be too cynical to pose the same challenges for companies that you posed for robots? I thought Isaac Asimov's three laws seemed particularly germane to both: protect humans, obey orders and preserve themselves, in that order. It seems corporations have them in reverse: preserve themselves, obey orders (follow the law) and protect humans.

Failing as we do to elicit moral behaviour from organisations, which are made of people, how can we hope ever to succeed with machines?
It is true that a company cannot accomplish its mission if it falters as a company, just as a politician who fails to get elected forfeits their influence over legislation. Is a politician able to recover from a campaign that compromises principle? Can a company accomplish a worthy mission by sacrificing the humanity of its leaders and employees?

The task is to hold onto principle and purpose, while achieving success. Anything less is unworthy of the effort.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Acquiring Entrepreneurship

I've notice a lot of advice lately for job seekers to ascertain what skills are being sought by companies, then set to work acquiring those skills. There's a good deal of chatter in the political economics domain about schools being reorganized to address the skills gaps companies identify.

What a different way to look at things. It's interesting to me the implication that those job-seekers who hesitate to learn new skills in this way are too lazy to get a job. Underlying this is the presumption that somewhere out there, outside ourselves--in the hands of HR professionals and hiring managers--is the description and definition of an ideal career, and all we need to do is remake ourselves to match that ideal. It reminds me of "The Stepford Wives". Not my ideal!

One aspect of this that may easily be overlooked is that the skills pre-identified by companies, HR departments and hiring managers are likely those required to maintain the status quo. They may be known and proven, but they are unlikely the skills needed to make breakthroughs and foster innovation.

As an entrepreneur, I've worked to understand my talents, and passions, my skills and interests. The aim has not been to acquire skills that others have identified, but rather those that serve my purpose. Where my talents are weakest, the choice has been between learning new skills myself or relying on others to supplement those areas, always driven with my own goals in mind.

I have joked that my weakness as a job candidate, my inability to convince others to hire me, led to my entrepreneurship. If noone else will give me the job I want, then I'll just have to create it myself. I begin to understand that the worldview that underlies that attitude is what has prevented me from becoming a good employee and has driven me to be the entrepreneur that I am.

Monday, June 11, 2012

SBIR Eligibility at Time of Proposal

In the SBA's current proposed Policy Directive for SBIR, they propose a change in the time of eligibility determination. During the recent Navy Opportunity Forum, David Metzger addressed his concerns about this change. I confess this is the first time I've heard him speak on matters of SBIR when I differed with his view.

The proposed change (Section 121.704--When SBA Determines Size and Eligibility) states that the current regulations determine eligibility only at the time of award, whereas other SBA government contracting programs determine eligibility at the time of proposal. Their intention is to bring these separate determinations in line, and to provide a date certain to small businesses to ensure they are eligible at the time of proposal.

Metzger's contention is that this would reduce the number of SBIR eligible firms that are created. Here's why: Let's say you're a professor at a university, or a mid-career engineer or scientist in industry. You've got an idea that responds to a need or requirement for an SBIR. You prepare the proposal, while retaining the comfort and security of your "day job", with the intention of jumping ship or spinning off should your proposal be selected. By that view, determination at the time of award allows someone in a comfortable position to risk less because non-selection would mean merely that they keep their jobs.

While I'm sympathetic to the idea that lowering the barriers to business creation is in general a good thing, what David fails to acknowledge is that many research entrepreneurs don't have the luxury of a secure professorship or corporate paycheck. SBIR is strongest in providing seed-capital and direction to support great ideas that might otherwise languish, regardless of their source. Truth is, those of us most committed to building a long-term sustainable business based on innovative R&D are not cowed by the risks involved in striking out on our own. It is those hungry entrepreneurs who will remain most committed to seeing their ideas through, while many of those coming from industry or university settings may simply fold and return to their pre-SBIR status at the earliest sign of trouble, e.g. "the valley of death," possibly conducting the research, but failing to commercialize the results.

Even if they do succeed at commercialization, here's a scenario that I am not sure SBIR was intended to foster: Let's say you're that mid-career corporatier; you propose to an SBIR agency, and get selected. You take a leave from your post, spend six months or a year on Phase I, get selected for Phase II, and spend another couple years developing your technology. Towards the end of your Phase II, you make some phone calls to your old employers, pitch the new technology to them. They like that the government has paid your salary for a few years and has taken all the risk of the early-stage out of the picture. You've identified a transition customer, so your old company agrees to acquire your company, and hire you back.

The risk has been reduced for the inventor, who moves from the comfort of a secure job, to the temporary certainty of a government contract or grant. After a few years, the ostensible small business is simply reabsorbed into the large corporate structure. How is that different from the government simply contracting directly with a small division or team at a large prime? I've nothing against such an arrangement, and don't argue that innovations can't arise this way.

I simply don't believe that that is the greatest strength of the SBIR program. When I started my firm, I was three years out of my PhD, had spent most of that time applying for faculty posts (~150 in all), and finally gave up the hunt for an academic job in exchange for working full-time to make my R&D vision a reality. I'm far better at research than applying for jobs. Without SBIR, my company never would have survived, and I might be pumping coffee at Starbucks.

The issue is how best can the federal government spend its precious resources to support and stimulate transformative innovations that otherwise would never see the light of day. The safe and comfortable professor or corporatier if they're committed to them will likely pursue their interests regardless (as they already have access to more than 95% of federal R&D investments). Let's leave SBIR to drive innovations where they might otherwise never have a chance.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Seeking a Model

I've written before about Pixar. It's an inspiring tale about a handful of dedicated dreamers, seeking a means to transform computer generated imagery, with the aim to produce a feature-length animated film entirely of computer-generated graphics. After more than two decades, they accomplished that vision, and today the technology is ubiquitous. They began life in 1974 as a team of researchers at the New York Institute of Technology under Ed Catmull, absorbed by George Lucas' Computer Division at Lucas Films around 1979, purchased at a fire sale by Steve Jobs in 1986, then eventually acquired by Disney.

E Ink is another firm that started with a bold vision to transform a field. E Ink Corporation started in 1997 as a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab. In 2006 Sony adopted E Ink's ePaper display, followed in 2007 with Amazon's launch of the Kindle also with E Ink's electronic paper.

The difficulty with these models is that the first was driven by the profligate investment by a series of billionaires caught up in the vision (or oblivious to it, depending on your point of view): Alexander Shure; George Lucas; Steve Jobs. Alvy Ray Smith (one of the original team of researchers, and an eventual founder of Pixar) has called these three "accidental visionaries". The second was a spin-off from a prominent lab at a storied university that attracted large sums of venture capital early on ($15.8m when it was a year old, and another $37m two years later).

What then is a bootstrap entrepreneur to do, whose innovations don't result from a hefty investment by an institution of higher learning, that doesn't immediately attract the interest and funding from deep pockets? That is the dilemma. I've come to realize that many models exist to follow for an entrepreneur whose ideas are quick to the market and straightforward, where a clearly defined product is the first order of business.

But what of innovations like computer graphics or electronic paper? These are platform technologies, visionary, transformative. They involve the creation of something entirely novel, not merely the repackaging of existing technologies. Their potential is far greater, and wide-reaching, but the case for investment is more convoluted. The models for a Research Entrepreneur in such a field is rather difficult to find. Finding or establishing the path is the journey and task I have embraced.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Marking a Path

One of my favorite principles is cultivated naivety, which I define in a tutorial I prepared for new employees a couple years ago as:
The principle that it is better to be ignorant than to make hasty assumptions. It is an empirical stance: the presumption that novel evidence provides the luxury of learning through experience.
In simpler terms, just cover your ears and say "nah nah, I'm not listening" whenever you hear or read that something is impossible, or that a particular path is the standard by which all others must be tested. Each entrepreneur follows a unique path. At times there may be similarities, but I see them as more incidental than necessary. I am convinced that to truly excel one (whether a company or individual) needs to mark their own path.

I wrote a couple months ago about reaching a point in my life as entrepreneur where I wanted to reach out for more support from others, and was considering bringing on a CEO or hiring an individual or team to lead business development. Years ago, I described myself as an accidental entrepreneur. In the interim, I've come to embrace that aspect of myself, and to realize that entrepreneurship is not a detour in my life, but a direction. That said, as I've pointed out elsewhere, there are no typical entrepreneurs.

My path has led from academia and cross-disciplinary research that fell between the cracks of academic departments, to starting and leading an R&D based business. It has been said that nothing focuses a mind like a crisis. Our crisis as an R&D business was having multiple proposals over the past couple years go unfunded. We remain committed to the projects, but without funding, it's rather difficult to pursue them, and frustrating to be held back from work that we believe is worthwhile.

Perhaps, I thought, we need a quick product, a fast break, something to sell tomorrow, then we'll be expanding our sources of revenues, hedging the lean times when R&D funding is not forthcoming, and providing a fount from which to continue the efforts. In the past couple months, I've reached in that direction, but haven't found that path any easier or more direct than the one I've followed since founding the company four years ago.

We are unapologetically involved in early-stage research, and are content with the challenge of bridging basic with applied research. Lately I've returned to a view that that perhaps may remain our true home. Finding and building that niche, connecting the needs of users with translational research, and delivering solutions to the market with the technologies we develop, is the task we face.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


What bothers me about investing these days is the disconnect between a company's inherent worth--its capacity to address market needs and customer desires, translating those solutions into real profits for the company while delivering benefits for its customers--and the value of its shares.

NFLX, source E*Trade Financial

Let's take Netflix for example. Netflix was founded in 1997, as an online version of a traditional DVD rental and sales outlet.* In 1999 they lighted upon a brilliant scheme: offer DVDs through the mail by subscription for a flat monthly fee. By early 2000, they dropped the per item model entirely. Brilliant!

In 2002, the company went public. Already in 2000, CEO and founder Reed Hastings saw the future of Netflix as "owning a transition stage as rental converts to video-on-demand." Clearly, ahead of his time, the streaming model was in mind. To put that in perspective, YouTube was not founded until 2005.

Towards the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Netflix was on a tear to increase its share of streaming as a percentage of its business. By 2011, the decision was made to make the shift. Sure, there were some missteps in designing and executing the shift, and in anticipating and responding to customer confusion and resistance to the shift.

But here's my take: the model is sound. The DVD through mail model was innovative in terms of distribution and convenience. The streaming model is liminal (in part because the infrastructure to handle the huge amounts of bandwidth required is still fragile as ISPs seek a profitable path forward) but clearly the future. A future that Netflix foresaw.

But the share price of Netflix stock is volatile beyond reason. In the middle of 2011, around the time of upheavals regarding separation of DVDs from streaming, the share peaked at around $300, dropping below $70 before the end of the year. Then back up, and now, today, shares fell off a cliff, off by 10-15% from yesterday!

NFLX falls off a cliff 4/24/2012, source E*Trade Financial
Sure, even at today's pricing, Netflix trades at a PE ratio north of 30. And the news that came out yesterday is that Netflix exceeded analysts estimates. While revenues grew by 21 percent, it lost 8 cents per share as opposed to the 27 cents per share analysts expected. The point I make is that stock prices, and the wild swings of over-selling and over-buying, are out of line with a company's core, which is delivering market solutions, and making a profit on sales that exceed costs.

A business leader should remain focused on this: how do I develop and deliver products and services to the market that benefit my customers and make a profit for my company, employees, and owners? But the stock market distorts these values. It certainly gives this entrepreneur pause in considering whether going public is an exit strategy to aspire towards.

Full disclosure: I currently own no shares in Netflix (NFLX). At the end of 2011 I made two purchases of shares at $67.25 & $67.89 respectively. All these shares were sold in February 2012 at $129.75. I am a customer of Netflix, formerly subscribing to the DVD mailing subscription, then DVD and streaming, currently streaming only.

* Much of the history of Netflix is gleaned from &

Monday, April 23, 2012

Shares Per Earning?

In the heyday of gargantuan Urban Assault Vehicles, before petroleum topped $100 per barrel, the joke was that fuel efficiency could be measured in gallons per mile not miles per gallon. I have written on this blog critically about established companies that refuse or decline to pay a dividend to their shareholders. Recently, Apple (AAPL) decided to reinstate dividends after a 17 year absence, in an effort to draw down some of its reported $100 billion stockpile of cash, and incidentally to reward shareholders. Their announced quarterly dividend of $2.65 translates to an annual dividend yield of about 1.85% at today's stock price.

I've mentioned how the Price-Earnings ratio (PE) is often used as a rough measure of valuation, with a 15/1 PE ratio being a traditional conservative target. Apple currently trades at a fairly reasonable PE of 16. I've also noted the recent increase in dividends by financial institutions, to yields around 2.5%.

E*Trade's website is currently touting high-yielding stocks, with the highest yield (by AT&T) at 5.7%. Wow I thought. What's their PE ratio? As it turns out, their annual dividend of $1.76 is significantly higher than their earnings per share of $0.61 (trailing 12 mo. earnings for those curious). And their PE ratio is a not so appealing 47.

That means, AT&T is currently paying out dramatically more to shareholders in dividends than the company is earning. The shares trade for about what they did a year ago, having come up from a trough in the fall. What is their strategy here? Their quarterly dividends have been above $0.40/share since 2008, and have slowly increased from the $0.20s to the $0.30s, and into the $0.40s over the past decade.

Clearly they have a treasure chest of cash ($23 billion to be accurate), else they couldn't sustain such a dividend through thick and thin. The yield at least in part explains the share price. But how sustainable is this approach? With 5.9 billion shares outstanding, they're spending more than $10 billion per year in dividends, or about $6.75 billion per year more than they are earning. Three to four years then it would seem, unless they increase their market share.

*Full disclosure: I personally own neither Apple nor AT&T stocks, and have no immediate plans to purchase either.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Innovator as Sculptor

I don't mean the plastic arts per se. Erwin Schrödinger said:
The task is ... not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.
There is talk that innovators create disruptive technologies. Iron oxide may sizzle and flare, but it quickly burns out. A flash in the pan may momentarily disturb, but not likely disrupt. Disruption follows transformative innovation, not simply novelty or difference.

Not all that glitters today will be the light bulb, telephone, or computer of tomorrow. What most we can learn from nineteenth and twentieth century inventors is their commitment--the unrelenting drive to define new problems and solve them often before the world had even awakened to the possibility of their existence.

It is common to see a setback as a sign of defeat, to read an obstacle or hurdle as an impasse. The process of deconstruction may be easy if the focus is simply on identifying the flaws in what has come before. We can all complain with little effort or engagement about the failings of one technology, process, or another, like clicking thumbs-up or down on a website.

But this is not innovation. Destruction is simple. Innovation requires the emergence of something new out of what was before, or even what didn't appear to be; it is sculpture in its most essential form: to envision and realize potential out of raw substance.

There is a long, deep view required for true innovation. It is a willingness and ability to see beyond the amorphousness of yesterday to the form of tomorrow. It is not simply seeing in a child's eyes the glimmer of accomplishments to come; it is imagining that child in the raw soup of chemistry and cells from which they may someday emerge.

In practical terms, it is creating a vision of tomorrow, based in sound ideas, backed by knowledge and evidence, but challenged on every side and at every turn. The difficulty is not the envisioning, but holding fast to that vision, through the fog of quotidian existence. It is the patience of the planter, who sets an apple tree for their grandchildren to climb, along with the forethought and perseverance to align the tree and property today with what will be in fifty years.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Publish or Patent?

The mantra of the Academy has long been "publish or perish". The April 14th edition of The Economist presents an op-ed entitled Academic Publishing: Open Sesame in which they argue:
Government bodies that fund academic research should require that the results be made available free to the public. So should charities that fund research.
This is a significant issue for those of us who receive government funding to support for-profit R&D (such as the U.S. Small Business Innovation Research awards). A major dilemma for unaffiliated researchers is whether to publish or patent, or in some cases simply stay mum (trade secret, anyone?).

Academic-minded government agencies, like the NIH, NSF, and Department of Education may likely view the lack of peer-reviewed publications by the principal investigator on the subject of their proposed research as a sign that their ideas have low value in that domain, and may thus not fund the research. But publications may foreclose the possibility of patenting an invention or innovation, a death warrant for self-supporting R&D-driven companies. It's a Catch-22 of sorts. But if the end game is to commercialize the innovation, jockeying for the first influx of early-stage funding needs take second seat.

For researchers supported by an academic institution, especially those with tenure, the choice to give freely of their knowledge is an easy decision to make. Their jobs and careers are secure. Yet university technology transfer offices must keep the balance between enlightening publications and enabling ones, to preserve the potential for patents. But the ranks of unaffiliated, world-class researchers is growing as opportunities in the Academy diminish or become less appealing. We simply don't have the luxury of a fully-staffed and accommodating tech transfer team.

While I've asked the question before whether defensive publishing may not at times be worthwhile, it seems the best long-term tack for small businesses and independent researchers is simply to keep quiet, even at the risk of being marginalized by the broader field.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Solution in Search of a Problem?

I have found that all too often entrepreneurship is stereotyped from an almost exclusively business-minded stance. We frequently hear statements like:
It's not about the technology; it's about the sales.
So, how do you monetize that?
Ah, so you're a solution in search of a problem.
Well, no, not really. The problem with this sort of dismissal is that it presumes only one aspect of a venture is relevant, that only one sort of expertise is valid, and belittles the great diversity of other knowledge and skill sets as meaningless. It reminds me of the attitudes of many insecure academics, who seek to denigrate their colleagues in adjacent disciplines, because their respective specialties don't fully overlap.

It seems to me, we need each other to accomplish great things. It is true that one can make a lot of money without doing anything earth-shattering, and that without revenues even the greatest innovation may fail. It's akin to politics in that way: the best leadership is empty if your candidate isn't elected.

But entrepreneurship isn't simply about counting the money (that's for the Bernie Madoffs of the world). Entrepreneurship is about taking calculated risks to accomplish something greater as a result of your efforts than you started with.

No, I am not a solution in search of a problem; I am a technology in search of a business model. I am a game-changer is search of sustainability.

Would anyone today question the value of Pixar's innovations that Disney acquired for $7.4 billion in 2006? Was the company worth the $5 million that Steve Jobs paid Lucasfilms in 1986, or the subsequent $50 million he reportedly poured into it over a decade to keep it afloat before Toy Story was released?

Did Ed Catmull, who led the enterprise from it's origins at Alexander Shure's New York Institute of Technology beginning in 1974 start with an eye toward monetization and a solid business model? No, I think it's safe to say that for 22 years his principal aim was to solve the technical challenges that would enable a feature-length animated film to be rendered.

Thankfully, he expended his greatest effort in line with his talents, and left it to others, more skilled in the realm of sales and marketing, to work their magic there. Somehow, I can't imagine the marvels of CGI to ever have reached such lofty heights had it been otherwise.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Founder's Punctum Saliens?

The punctum saliens is an inflection point, a point of no return. At times, we wish we could turn "no return" into "know return". But then, certainty is not within the realm of an entrepreneur As Thomas Paine wisely reflected in On the Crisis (there's always a crisis, is there not?): "That which we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly."

A few years ago, I attended an event at which the discussion of early-stage funding arose, and I objected to, and clarified the various concepts regarding early stage. I wrote about it here. At times, I have described myself as allergic to investors. But the truth is, I mostly seek to avoid conversations wherein the two parties are speaking mutually incomprehensible languages. It's not that I dislike investors, more that I realize I simply don't speak their language.

When I was an undergrad at Indiana University, I worked a few years on the telefund at the IU Foundation. I was quite good at it, and received several awards. But in the years I worked there, they only once or twice assigned me to fundraising for sports scholarships. It wasn't simply that I raised no money on that first night, but rather a sense that I was better utilized in other domains. I just didn't speak the language needed to carry off raising money to support student athletes.

That was a salient point. It is not so often a question of capability as it is a question of "for what?" In the four years I have led this enterprise, I've done well enough to bring in over $1m in non-dilutive funding, to support R&D efforts that I passionately believe in. I've moved out of my home office, to a building downtown. I've hired and fired. And I've made decisions (and delegated tasks) that I hadn't ever considered before then.

I'm most comfortable leading the technology side of things. I'm good at solving problems, about connecting disparate fields and ideas into a cohesive approach, about uncovering fundamental assumptions that serve as hidden roadblocks to resolution. I'm good at envisioning potential applications. But I'm not quite as adept at researching the market and determining price points, at grasping the strengths and weaknesses of competition, and the holes that provide a key to product success.

A restaurant runs smoothly only when the kitchen staff is skillful, the cleaning crew effective, and the waitstaff courteous and efficient. Running the technology end of my business is akin to being the chef. You must be responsive to the needs of the customers, and able to interpret their desires from the waitstaff. But somehow it's better that the waiters intervene.

Lately, I have come to realize there are limits to my capacity to continue wearing so many hats. The time has come to take a step back and decide just what areas are to remain my purview, and just which I will seek others to take on. Is it time for me to bring on a CEO or a VP for Business Development? I guess that may be the journey that begins around the next bend.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Don't stress it - press it, get your own Easy Button.

Yesterday, Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal interviewed President Obama in the desert of Nevada, as the President toured the country touting his administration's energy policy. I was struck not so much by his politician's campaign demeanor, as by the lack of understanding on both sides of the political spectrum of what it takes to lead innovation, build startups and create jobs and wealth for our society. It were as if President Obama has been shopping at Bain Capital's Staples. Excerpts from the interview are below.

Ryssdal: Uh, your administration has staked a lot on clean technology.
Obama: Yup.
Ryssdal: Green jobs. The m-, the biggest item most people know about that strategy is of course a company name Solyndra, which your administration gave loan guarantees to, that then went bankrupt, and has been the subject of many investigations. Uh, are you doin' your all-of-the-above strategy right, if that's what we have to show for at Solyndra.
Obama: We are doing the all-of-the-above strategy right. Obviously, we wish that Solyndra hadn't gone bankrupt. Part of the reason they did was because the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry, and flooding the market in ways that Solyndra couldn't compete.
But... understand, uh, this was not our program per se, Congress, Democrats and Republicans, put together a loan guarantee program, because they understood historically that... when you get... new industries... it's easy to raise money for startups. But if you want to take 'em to scale, oftentimes there's a lot of risk involved. And... what the loan guarantee was designed to do, was to help... startup companies... get to scale.
Um... did our President just say "it's easy to raise money for startups"? Can I push that button?

Here's the full interview:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Will Stock Collectibles Become Extinct?

Today's news is Apple's (AAPL) announcement about just what it intends to do with a reported $100 Billion in cash in the bank. Looks like a dividend is FINALLY returning. But will it buy futures contracts on supplies? Will it enter into large acquisitions? Hell for $100 Billion they could probably buy Portugal and Greece!

Here's some of the buzz:
I can only hope that this will usher in a new era of responsible capitalism, where profitable companies share those profits with investors. Here's a funny excerpt from an earlier NYTimes article (pre-announcement):
A. M. Sacconaghi Jr., an analyst with Bernstein Research ... said that issuing a dividend could help Apple appeal to new types of value investors.
What an odd thought! I guess that's the euphemism these days for those who are uncomfortable with Ponzi schemes: value investors.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spanx Bootstrapping Founder: "Hire your weaknesses."

By now, most of you have heard about 41-year old Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx undergarments, a bootstrapper, who in under 12 years turned a dissatisfaction in the unattractiveness of her own under apparel into a billion-dollar business. Quite a feat by any stretch. Much to learn from her experience.

She was recently interviewed by Kai Ryssdal on American Public Media's Marketplace. Some tidbits:
Kai: "How did you get, though, from that $5000, to a billion dollar company by some estimates, with no debt, no investors, and without really having to spend a whole lot on advertising? How'd you do that?"

Sara: "You know, I-I didn't know better, Kai, I'd never taken a business class, so I really did not even know how it was done. I didn't, I didn't even realize that people went out and got tons of VC, or raised all kinds of money. So, I thought, okay, w-, you know, I've got to do as much of this as I can on my own."

Kai: "Let me ask you the entrepreneurial question, though, how did you know, when did you know, because you're the founder not CEO of this company. How did you enough, how did you know enough to get out of your own way and hire a real CEO?"

Sara: "That's a great question. I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs end up getting in the way of the growth of their own business, because it's a totally different skill set, to run operate a business, grow it year over year versus be the one who started it. So, I knew, I had to be every department when I started it... I learned very quickly what I liked to do, what I didn't like to do, what I was good at, and what I wasn't good at, and as soon as I could afford to hire my weaknesses I did."

Kai: "Um, uh, not that you need to, but as you think about expanding, which-which obviously you are, uh, it's gonna take some resources, it's gonna take some capital, are you thinking at all uh-uh about taking this firm public?"

Sara: "You know, I never ever was open to it, uh until recently. And recently I just started saying, you know I-I feel open to the possibility of either something like that, or bringing in possibly an outside investor, 'cause I've been funding the business solely myself, and where we are right now, and the growth we want to uh have internationally ... it's gonna require a significant amount of investment, in order to do it. So I d- I just I want to do what's right for the business, and if it makes sense then I-I will do it."
Food for thought.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Entrepreneurial Clusters and the Clustering of Entrepreneurs

The word stereotype means literally a strong or firm impression. Entrepreneurs are known to "break the mold" (from which assumedly strong impressions might be cast). One might argue therefore that to stereotype entrepreneurs were a logical fallacy.

Cops in a Donut Shop

Here's an extract from a recent Economist article on the recent Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Liverpool:
[S]erious entrepreneurs want to create big businesses, not multiply small ones. They don’t give a fig about regional development.
Oh wow! I guess the use of the term "serious" might raise the stakes of fallacy to ad hominem status: the corollary of that statement of course being that if you care about regional development, job creation, and may not be obsessed with size and growth at all costs, you couldn't possibly be a serious entrepreneur.

The article goes on to observe the if-you-build-it-they-will-come obsessiveness of many policymakers with Silicon Valley and universities with incubators. They cite Rohit Shukla of the Larta Institute as countering that entrepreneur clusters are more often the product of accident than intention. To this entrepreneur's mind, the best thing that can be done to encourage entrepreneurship is to cease the stereotyping and just let people be people: some of us it would seem are inclined to create our own jobs and jobs for others to boot.

What Happened to the Democratization of Wall Street?

The New York Times this morning reports on announcements from financial institutions following the latest round of "stress tests" by the Federal Reserve:
 JPMorgan Chase announced Tuesday that it would...  increase its quarterly dividend payment by a nickel, to 30 cents... Wells Fargo increased its dividend by 10 cents, to 22 cents. John Stumpf, the bank’s chairman and chief executive said, “We are extremely pleased to reward our shareholders.” American Express, the credit card issuer, also announced it would increase its quarterly dividend by 2 cents, to 20 cents a share. Meanwhile, U.S. Bancorp raised its quarterly dividend, too, by 7 cents, to 19.5 cents.
But they note the appall some take from these actions:
“It’s frankly irresponsible to allow banks to quickly empty their coffers,” said Neil Barofsky, the former inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. “They should be holding onto this money.”
What an odd sign of the times! Now, I'm certainly not the first person in line to defend the likes of JP Morgan Chase, but if I get this right, there's outrage by some government officials that banks would dare to share their profits with their SHAREHOLDERS, as if sharing the profits of a company with its owners is somehow irresponsible. I wonder what their take is on the obscene salaries and bonuses at times paid out to employees, without regard to profits?

Let's put this in perspective: we're not talking about these banks stripping assets to pay off investors and top executives. JP Morgan Chase's (JPM) increased $0.30/share brings their dividend yield to 2.68% at today's prices; and Wells Fargo's (WFC) increase to $0.22/share brings their dividend yield to 2.59%; American Express' yield grows to 1.4%; and US Bank's (USB) hits the lofty heights of 2.47%. Hardly the profligate, irresponsible embarrassment of riches Barofsky's statement implies.

And who are those shareholders? My guess is a good percentage of them are everyday investors with vacation savings and retirement accounts, who frankly deserve a bit of the share in profits from the companies they invest in.

I guess that's why it was called the Troubled Assets Relief Program, not the Distressed Shareholders Relief Fund.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Another way out of the Ponzi scheme

I have questioned the value of owning shares in a company, if the shareholder has no share of the profits, e.g. when the company pays no dividends. I noted that with young and promising companies one argument is that they need to reinvest in themselves to continue to innovate and grow, but that the expectation is that their revenues and profits will thereby increase, so that one day they will pay dividends to shareholders.

Ponzi aka "Charles Bianchi" under arrest circa 1910

There is another way out of the Ponzi scheme of buy low-sell high marshmallow stocks. In a posting a couple years ago, I mentioned that about a decade ago I had bought shares in Ben & Jerry's. Within a year, the company was bought by Unilever, and shareholders were paid out in cash, rather than in stock of the purchasing company. We doubled our investment, and thus shared directly in the boon for Ben & Jerry's. But then, B&J had been paying dividends I believe, and certainly Unilever was at the time and continues to this day. With a present-day P/E ratio of around 17, Unilever (UN) pays a dividend of 3.75%. Not too shabby in today's market. [And just for the curious, I currently own no shares of Unilever.]

Without selling your seemingly worthless shares of some high-flying company which can't deign to share the profits with its shareholders to some sucker at a higher price than you paid, you could hold out the hope that some other firm will eye the company whose shares you hold and pay a premium to swallow up their holdings and market share.

Perhaps Yelp is simply a takeover target, and that $1.5B in market cap will be just a tasty morsel, tempting some giant to swoop in and pay off shareholders to the tune of $3.0B for the chance to turn a profit where Yelp has yet to succeed. Alas, there aren't many companies or countries out there willing or able to gobble up Amazon, Google, or Apple. So, Ponzi it remains.

[I noted last week that I was aiming for a 40% allocation of personal investments in stocks. I've modified that target to 51%. But the sell off of shares continues. Current stock holdings tally: 72% and falling.]

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wasserman's Choice: Avarice or Control?

The Kauffman foundation is promoting new books that they've funded on the topics of entrepreneurship and innovation. Among them is "The Founder's Dilemmas" by Noam Wasserman. I linked to find details, in hopes that I could download a sample on my Kindle. On Amazon's website, I was deceived by the lack of details into purchasing an inexpensive download of a Harvard Business Review article of the same title (only singular) by the same author. I guess I should have checked the page count (9 vs. 448 for the book).

In any case, I read the article, reinforcing my view that I am not among the target audience for Harvard Business Review. A few highlights from the article:
Most entrepreneurs want to make pots of money and run the show.
... you must choose between money and power.
... entrepreneurs as a class make only as much money as they could have if they had been employees. In fact, entrepreneurs make less, if you account for the higher risk. What's more, in my experience, founders often make decisions that conflict with the wealth-maximization principle.
... There is, of course, another factor motivating entrepreneurs along with the desire to become wealthy: the drive to create and lead an organization.
... Entrepreneurs face a choice, at every step, between making money and managing their ventures.
And on it goes. According to Wasserman, there are only two notable motivations for entrepreneurs, making money and having power. I don't know about you, but I don't list avarice and control among my top priorities. That doesn't mean that I've taken an oath of poverty and weakness, it's simply that as far as striking my top motivations to being an entrepreneur, Wasserman and HBR shoot wide of the mark.

What are my priorities and motivations? If I had to choose two they would be: freedom and accomplishment. I seek the freedom to pursue my interests, and the knowledge that the work I engage in will have a meaningful impact on society. But freedom is not quite the same thing as control, and accomplishment is surely not the same as wealth. Now I believe these are not mutually exclusive, but if I have a choice between power and a sense of accomplishment, or between wealth and freedom, my decisions would be easy.

But there's more to it than that. Just what entrepreneurs is he talking about? After completing my PhD, I spent about three years full-time just trying to get a faculty position, which in the best of circumstances would have garnered me an income of $45-60k/year (possibly less), would have required me to serve on numerous committees, and at least for the first several years would have left me little freedom to choose what classes I would teach. Suffice it to say, I earn more as an entrepreneur than those prospects offered (and multiples of the $15k gross I was earning as an adjunct), along with freedom and a sense of accomplishment. And I've been honored with creating meaningful jobs for others to boot.

Wasserman presents a false dichotomy: if I am willing to accept the prospect that someone else might be better poised to lead my firm to commercialization and profitability, then I must be motivated to be rich; and if I prefer to lead the company myself, then I prefer to be king. Truth is, the choices I make along the way will likely be guided by those twin motivations of freedom and accomplishment. And I'm okay with that.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Good Advice: The 5 Qualities of Remarkable Bosses

Check out Jeff Haden's article in Inc. on The 5 Qualities of Remarkable Bosses. All solid advice. I'd say his second point "Deal with problems immediately" should be expanded--"Deal with most things immediately". Now, that doesn't mean allow other people's priorities to become your own, but the less you put off, the more will be cleared off your desk, and the less there will be to distract you. As a correlate, anything that you don't deal with within a week, should likely be set aside, marked read, archved, or what have you. If you think of it again in a month, deal with it then; if not, let it go, it's not that important.

A few months ago, I made a tough decision to fire an employee for the first time. Haden's third point "Rescue your worst employee" is out of sync with the common line that as an entrepreneur you never lament firing someone too soon. Haden's point is that it serves you, the employee, and the business well to work on mentoring and coaching, with the concession that "sometimes it won't work out" but "the effort is its own reward."

In the case a few months ago, I had an employee who'd been with the firm for nearly two years. He's a likable guy, smart, funny, pleasant. But he just wasn't delivering. In fact, problems had emerged almost from the start of his employment. Did I wait too long to fire him? I don't think so. He made contributions to the company, albeit far less than he was capable of, and the experience taught me a great deal about mentoring and leadership, and what to expect from employees, and how to ask for it.

I'd like to think that I am a stronger entrepreneur for having worked with him, the company has grown, and that believe it or not the former employee gained both valuable experience and increased self-knowledge. It's like breaking up with a lover after a couple years. You don't have to regret the time and energy expended in order to understand that the time has come to an end.

As Carole King sang:

There'll be good times again for me and you
But we just can't stay together, don't you feel it, too
Still I'm glad for what we had and how I once loved you

I think it's important as entrepreneurs not to forget our humanity. I like Haden's view that we should always remember from whence we came, and be gracious.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Fetish: Stocks as Collectibles

News this week: Yelp IPOs. Friday's close was $24.58, 59.9 million shares outstanding, giving the company a market capitalization of $1.5 billion. In eight years, I hear, they have yet to turn a profit. So, what on earth are people buying? Shares...

Google sells for $621.25 a share, maket cap of $202 billion.
Apple sells for $545.18 a share, market cap of $508 billion.
Amazon sells for $179.30 a share, market cap of $81.6 billion.

What is the value of those shares? What exactly do you own, when you own shares of Google or Apple, Amazon or Yelp? Each one is worth one ticket to an arena with 59 million, 300 million, or 900 million entries. That's 3,000-45,000 Madison Square Gardens! One vote in an ocean of votes. That's ownership I suppose. What other benefit do you receive? You don't share directly in the profits. They pay no dividends.

Price earnings ratio is often quoted as a means to value shares, with 15 x earnings being a conservative target.
  • Apple at a P/E of 15.53 is pretty close
  • Google with a P/E of 20.89 is only slightly worse
  • Amazon's P/E of 130.60 is rather extraordinary
You can think of it like interest in a savings account. If the companies paid out 100% of their profits as dividends, it would take you 15.53 years to double your purchase price of Apple shares; 20.89 years to double your investment in Google, or a whopping 130.6 years to get out what you paid for a share of Amazon. To put that in perspective, a P/E of 15, with 100% of earnings paid out in dividends would be roughly the equivalent of earning about 5% compound interest on savings, quite attractive in today's market.

But then, that assumes 100% of earnings are paid in dividends, not normally the case. Or it assumes that the earnings will increase dramatically over time, and thus the dividends paid will likewise increase. But in many cases, 0% is paid out in dividends, leaving a shareholder with no direct benefit from owning the shares. Unless these companies at some point begin paying dividends, shareholders' potential benefit only accrues upon selling the shares. Your sole means to profit from owning these shares lies in your ability to sell those shares to someone else at a higher price than you paid. Someone else who would likewise have no ability to share directly in the profits of the company. What is that like? Let's see:

Say it's 1988: Cabbage Patch Kids have been around for a decade. You buy a dozen or so, as collectibles. $15 a pop, leave them in their packaging, with the hope that a few years later, you'll be able to sell them for $25 or $50 or $100 each!

What's the difference? To be honest, I can't see any. To be more direct:

A share's value must be the present value of all future dividends--otherwise stockmarkets would be a giant Ponzi scheme.
--The Economist, March 7, 2009

In the boom the argument was that young, hot, technology companies were forging new territory, and should be allowed to reinvest in their own growth, which down the road would be translated into profits for the shareholders. But then, Google, founded 1998 is already 14 years old; Amazon founded in 1995 is 17; and Apple, with its origins in the Bicentennial is solidly within Generation X at 36 years old. Just when do you expect they will start paying dividends?

And if never, are you really willing to continue participating in a Ponzi scheme?

For my part, I have every intention to reduce our vesting in the market, which currently stands at about 80%, down to about 40%, strongly preferencing those stocks and mutual funds that currently pay dividends, or whose young companies represent an innovation I believe in (like Tesla Motors). What will I do with the remainder? I think I'll invest in my own current business or start a new one. I was never much one for Cabbage Patch dolls.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You've got to be kidding

Annually the business is required to prepare a survey of "personal property" for the city, local district, and state tax assessment. They want to know how many desks and chairs, trash cans, toner cartridges, reams of office paper, lab notebooks, binder clips, staples, paper towels, tissues, and rolls of toilet paper we have on hand, so that they can double tax us on those items. Yes, like just about everyone else, we pay sales tax on office supplies and furniture that we purchase for the business. At one point, some bureaucrat had the bright idea that they could raise an extra couple hundred dollars from every business in the state, if they forced us to engage in the most absurd of exercises in time wasting. Our bill for last year was $83.45. It's not that I object to the cost, though in principle, why should I pay taxes twice for the same items? But what a huge waste of time both for the business, and for the state employees who have to process the reports, calculate the tax, deposit the checks. Isn't there an easier and more equitable means of gathering business taxes?

Why You Don't Need Venture Capital

Check out Brian Hamilton's brief take on why you don't need venture capital. I think the essence of the matter is to allay the belief that businesses start first with outside investment. There are times when third-party investment makes sense, but hardly ever from the start.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Disqualified Entrepreneurship

My company is headquartered downtown in a largely depressed, somewhat industrial, Midwestern small city. According to Sperling's Best Places, Racine has a population of about 81,000, a median home price of $122,100, unemployment of 14.1%, and a cost of living about 11% below the US average. When my wife and I decided to relocate our family out of the Los Angeles area (neither of us were California natives), we had three main criteria in mind:
  1. Affordability (we were tired of renting again, after having owned a house in Denver, then a condo in Santa Barbara, but not about to buy into the overpriced Southern California housing market).
  2. Family (my family is scattered to the winds, but my inlaws are concentrated within a couple hours of here).
  3. Water (we learned to sail when we lived in Santa Barbara; my office is adorned with pictures of beautiful sailboats as inspiration for the boat we plan to own someday).
Racine fit the bill. Housing is still depressed here. The value of our home (purchased in 2008) has dropped about 6% since we bought it, putting us about where we started in terms of equity. But then, it's a place to live not an investment, and it satisfies that requirement.

About three years ago, we bought a small building downtown (four blocks from Lake Michigan) as the company was expanding beyond me and a part-time assistant. The downtown area is perhaps half vacant. So much real estate on the market. I see these buildings and all the potential they represent. I think of all the businesses that could fill them.

I've started getting interested in alternative investments. I'd far rather invest in a business that I am committed to building, than buy some miniscule share of a public company, where the value of my investment is driven more by perception than by anything else. But the odd thing about tax regulations, and the focus of virtually all government incentives for building and growing companies is that they preference investment in someone else's business but not your own.

While the IRS allows an endless variety of investments to be held in one's retirement accounts, there is this unbending rule regarding disqualification, which prohibits a party from transacting with themselves. As Pensco's Top 50 Questions & Answers explains:
Generally speaking, it takes three elements to create a prohibited transaction for an IRA:
  1. the IRA;
  2. a disqualified person in relation to an IRA (e.g., the owner or owner’s spouse, ascendants, descendants, etc.)
  3. a transaction between 1 and 2 above.
As I read it, that means, it's okay to invest in someone else's business, but not your own. Now, granted, it does appear there are convoluted ways to invest in a startup, or an existing company that you are a minority owner of, but as far as I can tell, the rules that prohibit self-transacting prevent such a business from being one's source of income.

In other words, if your IRA owns the company, you can't get paid by it. What's more, it would be forbidden for my IRA to buy a building that a business I own would rent, or for me to personally own a building that a business my IRA owns would rent. What an odd way to hinder entrepreneurship. Sure, your investment can grow in your retirement savings. But some of us still need to pay our bills today.

I look longingly at these vacant buildings, and glancingly at my retirement savings, invested in small stakes of large companies that I have little connection to, and I wonder just how much more I could accomplish, if I could take my own funds to invest in expanding my firm, or starting a new one.

Monday, February 27, 2012


There must be a fine line between perseverance and stubborness. There must be a difference between holding on to a failing idea and holding on to one that hasn't yet succeeded. Surely, there are times to let go. Knowing where to draw that line, like knowing when to buy a stock and when to sell is perhaps a skill, an art, or plain dumb luck. But then there is more to the principle of perseverance.

To persevere is not to always make the right choice, but simply not to give up. It is to make enough good choices to permit another go. I think of a talented poker player: It's not always coming out on top; rather it's making sure that your wins outweigh your losses. Or think of evolution: it's not that every random mutation need contribute to fertility and survival; rather that the collection of features and behaviors must account for more benefits than detriments.

And so it is with entrepreneurship: persevere, reflect, learn, grow, evolve, and try again.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Vision, Humility, Perseverance

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of being a Research Entrepreneur is the solitude. Inherent to being an innovator is a willingness to go out on a limb, to test the waters, to traverse the uncharted. To find oneself in the middle of a field, without guidance, and to choose to continue is a humbling act.

You may notice the words "solitude" and "oneself" in the paragraph above. There's a conventional wisdom that says single founder firms have an up-hill battle to success. Paul Graham, the well known and respected co-founder of Y-Combinator has gone so far as to list it as mistake #1 on his list of The 18 Mistakes that Kill Startups:
What's wrong with having one founder? To start with, it's a vote of no confidence. It probably means the founder couldn't talk any of his friends into starting the company with him. ...
But even if the founder's friends were all wrong and the company is a good bet, he's still at a disadvantage. Starting a startup is too hard for one person. Even if you could do all the work yourself, you need colleagues to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong. 
The last one might be the most important. The low points in a startup are so low that few could bear them alone.
Well, the point that you can't do it all yourself, that you need to brainstorm, that you need someone to cheer you up rings true. Yet the lows of being an entrepreneur are Everests to the valley I endured for four years post-PhD applying unsuccessfully for 150 faculty posts.

What exactly do we mean by "single founder". I've come to realize that even if there is just one person at the start of a company, the entrepreneur who takes the burden upon oneself, there is little reason to suspect that person is alone. There are any number of ways to form a team. There is of course the community of advisors you bring around you, and your spouse (if your lucky enough to have one who is supportive), and your family.

For a Research Entrepreneur, frankly any innovator, it's important to take to heart Tachi Yamada's quote, which serves as tagline to this blog "Innovation has no peers -- by definition!" Just as important as having friends to talk you out of stupid decisions, is the willingness and fortitude to stick to good ideas even when others dismiss them.

For my part, I would not be too quick to dismiss the importance of a life-partner, supportive and critical in equal measure, who is willing to talk you out of stupid decisions, argue with you when you obstinately stick to your ideas until you come to an understanding, cheer you when things go well, and sustain you when they go wrong.

More than five years after resigning from adjunct servitude, setting out on my own path, founding a business that supports and extends my research, creating jobs for others along the way, I'm still here, single founder and all. [And still happily married, I might add!]