Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Idling vs. R&R

I'm not so comfortable waiting, idling the engine, while anticipating a response or a reply or some action by someone else. It's a question of controlling my environment I suppose. There are many uncertainties in life, and many points at which one does not have direct control.

You can make the presentation, but you have to wait for the audience questions or the client's decision; You can build the display, turn on the lights, and open the doors, but you have to wait for the customers to arrive and make a purchase.

It's that time in-between that seems the longest. There are times to idle the engine, when you know your party is coming out soon, when finding a spot to park wouldn't be efficient.

But there are times when it's best to turn off the engine, go for a stroll in the park, smell the breeze, pet a dog, pick a flower, dip your toes into a fountain or a pond, lie back in the grass, shut your eyes, feel the sun on your cheeks, and dream.

Today's a day (mostly) for R&R. I do have that call from a reporter to take sometime today, to discuss my R&D business that has been idling for months. Might it be revived? Will one of the alternate paths I've been exploring take over instead? What will tomorrow bring? Or a year from now?

I settle in the grass, close my eyes, and let it all fade away, for now... Rest and relaxation and recuperation and rejuvenation and ... rrr ... zzz.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I would say, the hardest part by far about being an entrepreneur is the sense of isolation. But then... that's my experience. I can imagine, easily, as I see pictures of smiling groups highlighted in local business magazines, that entrepreneurship for many is a social activity. They say the solopreneur has an uphill battle. But I suspect the sense of isolation is the cause of my entrepreneurial bent rather than its consequence. Where are all those others, eager to collaborate?

Isolation is being alone in my home computer room, with five workstations or at my office with eight desks, at 7:00 am (sometimes 5:00 because I couldn't sleep) trying to catch the demons of the night as concrete ideas or actions, realizing that I do not have all the tools to make them reality, looking around and hoping that the dust bunnies will arise in wisps to lend a hand, then sighing at the dust, and seeing it traverse the floor only from my own exhale, finally getting started on something, anything, to stay active, knowing that the next adventure won't begin on its own.

Friday, September 13, 2013



Auditions... I used to be a performer, actor, singer, musical theater, opera. But I never liked the auditions. I've never really liked applying and interviewing for jobs too much either. I don't like being judged. To be honest, I kind of like me the way I am. When I went looking for a doctoral program, I thought of it like getting married. "If they're not in love with me, I'll keep looking." I guess it's that more than anything that makes me an entrepreneur.

But now I find myself back on the stage, standing cross-legged, and wanting nothing more than to visit the bathroom. Yesterday, I went to talk with a career coach. I got little more than advice on tweaking my resume. Frankly, I've gotten interviews... that's not the problem. But getting the job, that's been the hard part.

I've learned that nobody wants to hire an entrepreneur. They all think I'd rather be working for myself. And who can blame them? Last week, at a writer's group, after my reading of a couple chapters from my novel "The Chameleon" one of the other writers suggested I check out, an Amazon site, affiliated with their subsidiary Audible. It's an exchange site for the creation of audio books.

So, I've got a few auditions out there. One's already been rejected. But it's gotten me active again. I set up a new voice recording studio in the office. I had had one setup in the upstairs apartment, but since I've been renting that out, I had taken it down. As my office is fairly empty these days (down from a staff of eight, to just me), I figured I could refashion the conference room as a recording studio.

That was fun, and I've been off and running this week. I've recorded six segments: four audition pieces, and a couple chapters from my novel. I've been recording myself, editing and mastering the audio. Not sure yet where it will end up, but it's something to do.

And as a bonus, it adds to my database of recorded voice. The research I've been involved in over the past several years, focuses on the human voice and speech technology. One of these days the world will wake up and realize that today's synthesized voice just sound awful (think SIRI). One of these days, someone will have the foresight and vision to start funding my research again. But for now, this is a way for me to stay active in my chosen field.

We'll see where it heads. Can't say it's a well-trodden path, but it's nice to be on it nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hills & Valleys

There are ups and downs when you steer your own course. I've given the advice to others enough times to always drive their own lives, that I must believe it myself.

But there are times, when I'd just as soon take a backseat, let others navigate, get out when the vehicle stops, look around, and pick up a shovel and pruners; a pick, bag, and compass; chef's knives and oven gloves... just about anything settled and secure.

There are times, when (Robert Frost be damned) I'd like to know the path before me has been well-trod, that it leads to a city, town, or village, where a warm body can get a hot meal, some labor and a payday.

The life of an entrepreneur, whether chosen or by fate (and I'm not sure there's a way to tell the difference), has its ups and downs, its Olympus Mons and its Mariana Trench. The trick is to stay in the cart when it dips and lifts of its own, until the steering mechanism is once again firmly in your grips.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


I have been studying up. To be honest, some of the most enjoyable times of my life have been in the academy. Graduate school was a time of optimism and potential. Much of what followed was a disappointment.

After receiving my PhD in 2005, I spent a few years spinning my gears in the sand, sending out cover letters and CVs to hinder and yon, pouring my heart and soul into nearly every application, researching the school and position, making my case as best I could. I was miserable at the task, and miserable performing it.

Several years of that and a stint as adjunct, with the relentless prodding of a career/life coach I had engaged, I finally dropped the search and remade myself as an entrepreneur. That suited me (especially once I discovered SBIR, a program of the U.S. government that provides a means for independent researchers and small businesses to compete for a small slice of federal R&D dollars). SBIR provided funds for basic and early applied research for me and a small team that lasted about five years. Only, things have changed. Priorities in Washington and budget cuts have shifted the focus from basic and early applied research to latter stage development of already proven technologies. The buzz has morphed from "high risk/high reward" to "rapid innovation".

And that has left me and my team out in the cold. About a year ago, I let the others go, as I could no longer ensure payroll would be covered, and I've done nary a bit of research in my field since then. Lately, I've taken to reinventing myself again. I'm working on a novel (one that first took form as the seed of a screenplay intended to highlight the technology I was developing). And I've gone back to school in a manner. I've been taking classes on Udacity and Coursera, as well as other online and offline tutorials. I've been learning Java and improving my C++, as well as honing up on Mathematics which I'd not revisited for three decades.

I've been studying Lean Startup principles and other business coaching tools. I'm advising a couple other technology startups, and incubating a few other business ideas, unrelated to my research, that might sustain me and my family financially for a while, or serve as launchpads for other ventures. I'm keeping busy, and just hoping and believing that my spirits and ideas will keep long enough to jumpstart my income before our savings run out.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fail fast!

I've heard the expression "fail fast" as advice for a startup. I begin to understand. In a sense, my success for five years in running my R&D startup was a case of failing too slowly. In fact, the reality is I was working on the research and formulating the ideas that eventually became my startup for years before establishing a business account. Properly speaking it was far more than five years.

One lesson I learned was to separate the vehicle from the driver. One difficulty I have had is that I identify quite personally with the research that became my startup. That's a problem in itself. Years ago, in the midst of building the first iteration of my company, I devised a metaphor that the company was simply a vehicle that I drove around in, that the important parts, my ideas, my passions, my experience, my knowledge, those were all things I kept in the glove box or the trunk. Once the vehicle got old and tired, I'd just take those things out, and move to a new vehicle.

While it's a good metaphor, I wasn't ready to learn the lesson I was teaching! That's because the company I was building was too intimately entwined with the research. Rather than keeping those items in the trunk, I had put them in the fuel tank! I was running the company on them.

I've started over again. One thing I've realized lately is that it's never too late to learn something new. I've been dusting off my programming skills, and decided to revisit mathematics after a 30 year hiatus. I've been sold on MOOCs, currently taking three classes on Udacity, and enrolled to begin one on Coursera later this month.

I'm advising a couple startups that other people have founded, and working on two different new ideas for startups I'm in the process of founding. The tech startup I founded 5 years ago is still around, but I've put it on the back burner for now, as I rebuild my chops. I'll jump start it again, when I'm ready to fail fast (or skyrocket).

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Been a while; I might be back

It's been a good long while since I've written here. A great deal of upheaval in my business had silenced me. Just over a year ago, I laid off the last my employees, at the culmination of a three-year R&D effort for the U.S. Navy. The work had been progressing, and our client was satisfied with our progress and prototype, but (due to reductions in funding and shifts in priorities) we were unable to attract either follow-on R&D funding, or outside investment, at least in the immediate term.

As a researcher, I continue to believe in the effort, and remain convinced that a lacuna still exists in the technology that will be filled by what I've got under development. But the funding isn't accessible in the short-term to support my full-time working on it, nor to support a business solely focused on it. There were some attempts to extend the scope, to find adjacent efforts, but I have so far been unable to leverage the core technology in a new viable direction. I believe that some technologies just take time to develop. As I've written before, it took the Pixar crew more than 20 years, and probably close to a million hours of effort to finally achieve Toy Story. They were lucky in having funding throughout that period, and clearly in the end it paid off.

Shy of finding a series of billionaire investors with a long view and patience, I am left putting the research on the back burner for a while as I focus on the need to sustain my family financially. One lesson I have learned is that running a research-based business may be hardest when the founder is strongly attached to the research and results. That is, often a business requires dramatic shifts in approach, in subject, in product, in service, which can only be accomplished with sufficient personal distance.

Put another way, it's one thing to be interested in marriage, or in buying a house, and quite another thing to be committed to a particular person or offering. I don't regret my personal attachment to the research I have been conducting. But I do recognize that as an entrepreneur, that attachment gets in the way of pivoting to achieve a viable business model.

That said, there is nothing that holds me back from new ventures which will afford me that distance, likely providing a clearer path to achieving success, and the hope that I might return to this effort down the road, when I have more freedom to pursue it. I think of this as the Elon Musk approach: make your millions first, then do what strikes your fancy. Musk has been able to found and lead Tesla Motors and SpaceX after having achieved success with PayPal. It's not to say that what was achieved with PayPal was not worthwhile, that it didn't have a positive impact on people's lives and on facilitating business and financial transactions. But something tells me he's far more passionate and personally attached to those newer ventures.

So, I've entered that journey. I expect to write about it here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Funding Innovative Science

Government budget cuts and deficit reduction become a dangerous game when innovation and science take a hit.As Anthony Hyman writes in his Jan. 11, 2013 piece in Science: "A Science Editorial called for 500 [NIH New Innovator Awards] in 2009, only 51 were awarded in 2012." Hyman describes programs in Europe that hire and fund young researchers for five or nine years to work on their own projects, at their own pace, to encourage innovation, and create independent scientific leadership. We need more of these sorts of programs around the world.

There is too much short-term thinking driving governmental and corporate policies. If we plan only for today, there will be no tomorrow. Even before today's toxic environment of cut first, ask questions later austerity, there has been too little commitment and investment in science and innovation. There is striking hoopla given to flash in the pan repackaging and rehashing of existing technology, and too little support given to high-risk/high-reward efforts.