One of the great joys and blessings of modern business is the opportunity to connect and transact with dynamic, emerging growth companies all over the world.
I recently had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Vladimir Lempert CEO and founder of Spetztekhosnastka, or “STO”, a plastics design and manufacturing company headquartered in Dniprodzerzhins'k (about 200 miles Southeast of Kiev), in the Ukraine.
Vladimir is a great example of the both "tough as nails” and visionary global entrepreneur that make this by far the most exciting time in human history to start and build a business.
While the media focuses on various distractions - debt crises, currency swings, the price of gold, deficit super-committees - that passes as business news these days, Vladimir is just laser focused on profiting from the new world of opportunity exploding all around him.
Like the unique combination of high-quality engineering talent, low labor costs, and a surprisingly stable tax and regulatory environment that is the modern Ukraine.
Like the increasing consumer purchasing power throughout Eastern Europe that is exploding demand for STO's innovative packaging technology, creating for Vladimir the very "high class problem" of managing and financing hyper - growth.
And like his opportunity - even though STO is a relatively small 300 person company - to credibly compete for and win business all over this 7 billion person world of ours.
Does Vladimir have his challenges? Of course.
But the eye-opening thing is that even though his business is located in a place that, for a lot of us, our first reaction to it is some combination of "too business unfriendly," "too out of the way," and "you have to be kidding me," if you got under the hood of Vladimir’s business as we have these last few weeks those challenges would seem very familiar to a business near you.
Or one in Shanghai. Or Rio. Or Seoul.
Or Lagos or Monterrey.
Or Prague or Peoria.
Like entrepreneurs everywhere, Vladimir needs to manage his cash flow, motivate and develop his employees, balance his focus between new and existing customers, and incorporate Internet and cloud technologies into his business practices.
And while doing all of that, he also has to constantly adjust his strategy and tactics in response to the ever-swirling, always storming competitive seas that is modern, global business.
Now, I won't get into the macroeconomics or the geopolitics as to the effect of new entrants like Vladimir into an old-line industry like plastics, other than to say to Vladimir’s "first-world” competitors simply that it is high time to either get better or get left behind.
And heck, isn’t this true for the competitors of the literally tens of thousands of companies like STO that are flowering in emerging economies around the world?
As for the rest of us, we all win.
My firm has a new client 7,000 miles away, a lucky financier will be connected with STO and make a very pretty return on capital, jobs and prosperity will be created in a locale where until recently there has been mostly heartache, and consumers the world over will benefit from innovation on products and services that improve their quality of life.
As for Vladimir, well this new, blessed world of ours – with new customers and technologies and management and competitive best practices always just a click away - is just one massive life-changing boon.
As it is, if we just let it be so, for the rest of us too.
Saturday night, I had the distinct pleasure of attending Jamie Wheal’s and Steven Kotler’s “Flow Salon” at the Summit Series’ awesome home in Malibu, California.
The evening was memorable - to say the least - on many levels.
First, by whatever name you call it - "the runner's high," being "in the moment," "in the zone", "when time slows down," "the opposite of writer's block,” flow has been studied and celebrated by mystics, athletes, artists and their coaches and guides for centuries.
While even the most articulate among us struggle to put into words exactly what flow is, where it comes from, and what it means, simply hearing the Saturday night tales of “flow states” from Jamie and Steven’s assembled group was beyond exhilarating.
Steven shared his story of how attaining flow through surfing cured him of the Lyme Disease that had left him bed-ridden for three years.
Jamie shared flow states from various vignettes in his life – from skateboarding as a young boy that ignited in him a lifelong love of the outdoors and action sports, to being at the bedside of his dying mother and having his hand on her heart for her last breath, to when as a management consultant he had facilitated moments of great group creativity and common cause that are the emblems of high-performing teams and organizations.
And the stories went on - from world class cyclists, skiers, tennis and soccer players, to writers, musicians, and artists, to entrepreneurs and executives - of fleeting moments of full “aliveness,” of “oneness,” of pure joy and peak productivity – that alternately inspired, intrigued, and thrilled the gathering.
Now, while the evening could have stood on its own as just a great Saturday night out on the town, what saved it from descending into psycho babble and even a bit of self-congratulation was Jamie and Steven's inspiring vision.
You see, the goal of their Flow Genome Project is to do nothing less than to distill flow - this so enchanting elixir of human experience - into its component parts.
To fully understand and document the neuroscience and biochemistry and maybe even the quantum mechanics underlying it.
And then, to make it available - on demand - to anyone with the requisite amount of courage and commitment to seek it.
Now, let me be clear. Even though everyone at the salon agreed that "being in flow" is the most fun they have ever had, Jaime and Steven are not narcissists, nor pleasure seekers for its own sake.
Far from it.
Rather, they are inspired by the power of flow to shift paradigms, to spur innovation, and to allow access to previously undiscovered paths and creative avenues to solutions to some of humanity’s most vexing problems.
Like cancer, depression, and addiction.
Like dysfunctions of family, team, company, and nation.
Heck, about how answering - experientially - those vexing questions of meaning, purpose, and journey that are part and parcel of the global, 21st century life experience.
Their goal is to do so - through a quintessentially modern, public/private, profit/non-profit business plan - by the year 2020.
Will they / can they do it?
Time and experience will tell, of course.
But, either way, on Saturday night an eclectic group of seekers, strivers, athletes, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs were very inspired by Jamie and Steven’s courage and commitment to share the early steps of their journey.
So Jamie and Steven, godspeed, and may the force - and the flow - be with you.
A very bright spot in the U.S. economy right now is angel investing. According to the Center for Venture Research, angel funding activity in the 1st 6 months of 2011 totaled $8.9 billion, an increase of 4.7% over the same period in 2010.
The numbers tell the inspiring story of entrepreneurial, “can do” America – more than 26,000 companies raising capital from more than 124,000 individual investors.
Some nuggets of interest from the report:
• 39/61: The percent of angel capital that went to seed stage companies and the percent that went to more mature companies, respectively
• 39 (again): Percent of angel funding that went to healthcare / life sciences-related companies
• 5: From the report: “Angel investments continue to be a significant contributor to job growth with the creation of 134,130 new jobs in the United States in 2011, or 5 jobs per angel investment”
Not included in this report are the changing rationales / reasons as to why angels invest.
Making a lot of money, obviously, is at the top of this list. There is no form of investment - not the stock market, not real estate, not gold, not commodities nor art nor collectibles - that can even remotely compare to the life-changing returns that a successful angel investment can yield.
I have a friend who was one of the first investors in a startup media and entertainment company that grew to become one of the largest firms in Europe in its market niche.
Even though his investment into that company was only in the mid five figures, and even though he had been otherwise unfortunate with a slew of other angel investments and with his own business ventures (and unlucky in love to boot!), that one successful angel investment transformed his life.
He now lives on a spectacular hundreds of acre estate with its own lake, multiple guest houses, and with panoramic views to five different states from his master bedroom.
He has gone on to invest in dozens more startups and early - stage companies, and puts most of his “work” time into various charitable and philanthropic efforts.
And oh yes, he is also now very happily married with a wonderful, young family.
And all of this because he carefully listened to everyone that told him that most companies fail.
That investing in early-stage companies is extremely risky.
That the CEO of the company he invested in had never had a successful exit before.
That the “economy” was unstable and that a recession was looming.
My friend listened very carefully to all of this well-meaning advice.
And, praise to be, he ignored it all and invested anyway.
Now who knows how many of the 124,000 brave souls who were angel investors in the 1st 6 months of 2011 will have outcomes as life-changing as my friend’s.
But, unlike the 300+ million Americans that have NOT made an angel investment this year, our 124,000 at least are in the game.
They both are and they are enabling the “doers” of our entrepreneurial land.
And win or lose, for that they deserve our thanks and our praise.
And hopefully a lot of them will, like my fortunate friend, have one or a few of their angel investments transform their lives.
Like so many, when I heard that Steve Jobs had died, I was both greatly saddened and worried for how the heck were the rest of us going to get by without him.
And isn't that the ultimate compliment?
For in addition to bringing so much beauty and joy into the world and to creating one of the most admired and profitable companies of all time, Steve Jobs was one of the few leaders in this incredibly complex global business world of ours who really seemed to know what he was doing.
Didn’t he have that supremely important sense of how to design, market, and deliver products and services that we all really wanted?
And in his greatest trick of them all, didn’t he and Apple really give us products and services that we then found out that we really needed as well?
Steve Jobs' ability to do this again and again in the "TED" industries that so define our modern world - technology, entertainment, and design - make him if not the greatest businessman in history, then certainly in that so rarified conversation.
Now the challenge for the rest of us is to a) create market and societal conditions so that the next Steve Jobs is as likely to happen as possible and then b) to find and back him or her with every penny we've got.
Let’s leave a) to the sociologists and focus ourselves on b), or How to identify the right entrepreneurs to back.
Ok, say it: Identifying the next Steve Jobs is an absurd and impossible undertaking. Statistically speaking, it is way too needle in a haystack.
But if Steve Jobs ever let statistics decide for him, he would not have accomplished 1/1000 of everything he did.
No, as opposed to statistics, let's evaluate three meta-themes that embody much of the “Steve Jobs way:”
#1. Have a maniacally consumer-centric vision and approach;
#2. Be confident and even arrogant enough to believe that you can play and win in big, global markets;, and
#3. Be a great organization-builder.
For better or for worse, #1 and #2 above fall into the category of “you know it when you see it.”
So for our purposes here, let's focus on Steve Jobs as an organization-builder – arguably both the most under-rated and important part of his legacy.
Steve Jobs as an organization-builder can be best summed up by Robert Pirsig’s famous definition of quality as being "the result of care."
Wasn’t everything about Steve Jobs the result of care?
The way he meticulously prepared for presentations.
How involved he was in Apple's recruiting processes - personally conducting thousands of hiring interviews.
And, of course, his famously exacting design standards and his exhortations to Apple's engineers to do their best work.
And then go and to do better work still.
While times and products and markets and strategies radically changed over his long and storied career, his paying attention, his caring, did not.
So in the entrepreneurs we choose to back, let’s look for this caring above all else.
It is a good for its own sake.
And oh yes, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 its stock was trading at $3/share.
"If you grow up in the suburbs of anywhere, a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings. And for anybody who's on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage, it's possible."
- Russell Crowe, Academy Award acceptance speech (2001)
Last week, I had the unique pleasure of attending my first parent-teacher conference for my five-year-old son, Jay Jay.
As any parent can attest, it was touching on many levels, and sitting in my little boy's classroom brought me pleasantly back to my early school days so long ago.
And as I looked at the artwork on the classroom wall, where the children, as they have done since time immemorial, had painted pictures of who they were going to be when they grew up - firemen and astronauts and princesses and super heroes - it struck me in a whole new way where the wellspring of the entrepreneurial spirit truly lies.
For our children - with their infinite enthusiasms and imaginations, their unwillingness to accept no for an answer, their so natural proclivity to dream very, very big - aren't they who we strive to be when we embark on a new project, start a new company?
Now, you may say that innocence and idealism is all well and good, but in the hard and tough world of global business let's put our childish ways aside.
Let's accept limits.
Let's quote statistics - heck, isn't it great to quote statistics?
Especially those that show how long the odds really are.
With, of course, the unspoken being why even bother to try?
But sitting in little Jay Jay’s class and imbibing his upward-looking world of "Why not?” and even better his world of “Why not me?” I don't think so.
No, in the entrepreneurs I choose to back, I’ll take Jay Jay’s take on things.
I want men and women that dream and act big.
Ones that make the businesses they are building, the projects they are working on, the most important things in the whole wide world.
And golly – you either chip in to help or just get out of the way.
And you know what else? When these entrepreneurs come to me and my firm with their big, crazy dreams, ideas and plans and visions, I'm not going to quote statistics back to them.
And if I do, only to make the point that they are not going to end up a statistic if I have anything to say about it.
Because just like it is not the right thing to do to tell a five-year-old that in all likelihood they're not going to grow up to be that fireman, that astronaut, or a princess, or a super hero, so it is also not the right thing to tell an entrepreneur of any age that they are destined to fail, that they have no shot.
No, our duty is to meet them where they are, to dance in the possible, to dream with them of a better world, and their very important part in bringing that world to be.
And if that dream never comes - and does it ever really just as we dream it?
Well, that is just fine, too.
Because, like my little boy Jay Jay’s, our futures will be different from how we dream them.
But it is only by honoring that space of childhood imaginings does anything truly great come to pass.
Healthcare makes up a full 20 percent of the American economy.
Accordingly, small changes in regulations or technology create massive opportunities.
Today, billions of healthcare spending is moving to a handful of new companies because of a single new technology: Genetic Diagnostics.
In the past 24 months, the cost of genetic testing has dropped dramatically, and the diagnostic business is booming.
Nearly all the traditional drug and healthcare companies are unprepared for this transition, and will see their businesses disrupted.
Why? Well, genetic diagnostics – when done right – offers a revolutionary value proposition.
Genomic information can indicate your susceptibility to diseases including cancer, diabetes, and cystic fibrosis.
And not only can genetic tests predict disease, they can also predict the effectiveness of common drug treatments, including pain and diabetes medications, and treatments for obesity and hypertension.
Quite simply, doctors, clinics, hospitals, patients, and diagnostic labs need genetic tests to make major healthcare decisions for patients.
And the companies – many of them still in their startup and early, emerging growth phases - that create, distribute, and conduct these tests are having rocket ship growth.
The news that Congress is seriously considering major re-writes of the painfully anachronistic rules on small securities offerings could just be the straw that breaks the back of this now 12 year equity investing return drought.
Two bills currently being considered in Congress – the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act and the Access to Capital for Job Creators Act – shows that Washington is finally starting to grasp the chasm that separates the financial services industry as embodied in soulless and too big to understand banking institutions, and the action hero worlds of emerging company entrepreneurs and the investors that back them.
And that our fair regulators have at least an implicit understanding that very real (and real time) reputation and compliance checks and balances of our always on, always connected, online world is just better than the Feds’ analog and antiquated regulatory regime.
Heck, even consideration of these bills is a welcome sign that a consensus has formed that out-of-date and ineffective regulations - far more so than taxes - are the worst inhibitors of job growth and economic vitality.
How so? Well, the proposed bills would update core aspects of the securities laws – most of which were written in the 1930’s - to reflect how 21st Century business is actually done.
As in over e-mail. With relationships initiated, cultivated and maintained online.
They would exempt companies looking to raise $5 million or less from standard SEC filing requirements and lighten the virtually impossible to follow rules on utilizing social networking and other Internet-based communications to market offerings.
As a patriotic American, I say "hooray."
As an angel investor, I say “how can I get in on the fun!”
If these bills pass, I would predict that the value of all private companies would jump at least 10% simply because their pathways to liquidity would be far, far less.
Now attaining liquidity is almost always only possible via either a rare and difficult whole company sale or a public offering.
In contrast, these bills would remove many of the regulatory shackles that prevent secondary markets powered by inexpensive online deal syndication and transaction tools like Profounder, SecondMarket, and Prosper.com from flourishing.
And because they would allow smaller investments in private companies to be made almost as easily as into public stocks, they would address one of the biggest challenges of the Main Street investor –how to get pieces of the best deals.
Quite simply, the result would be more investors getting more of what they want - liquid, high performing equity investments.
Now what could be better than that?
So congress pass these bills!
Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Boyan Josic’s Daily Deal Media Conference in Chicago.
Our topics were the growth and fundraising environment in the "daily deal" sector - which today happens to be both one of the hottest and one of the most maligned technology investment sectors in the world.
While I am by no means an expert in the space, I know serious, talented entrepreneurs when I see them, and Boyan’s conference was chock full of the kind of creative high IQ and high “EQ” people that smart investors love to back.
They ranged from Brian Lent, Chairman and CTO of Medio.com, an Accel Partners backed real-time mobile, predictive analytics solutions provider, to Jim Brown, Vice President of Business development at Admeris, a Toronto-based best of breed "cloud-based" mobile commerce payments provider, to Mark Donahue, CEO of TripAlertz.com, a leading travel - focused daily deal site.
And then there were the conference organizers themselves - Boyan Josic and his executive partners - Martin Tibbits and Joe Walker. While they don’t “come” from the daily deals industry (but really who does?), man do they possess so many of the great entrepreneurial skills that make this country great.
What I admire especially about them is their visceral understanding of the connection between technology, the customer experience, and making money.
Now, it was only by coincidence that the conference was held in President Obama's Chicago home town. And it was an even greater coincidence that I ended up watching part of his “jobs” speech at the same hotel where many of his 2008 presidential campaign events were held.
And by golly was the contrast stark between the energy of our President and his fellow Washington suits and that of the action hero entrepreneurs at the conference.
While Boyan and his merry cast were invigorated and hopeful as to the power of micro-innovation, small business hustle and just good old-fashioned greed as actually effective levers of real job creation, listening to the President drone on about "infrastructure" and "common cause" was like a time warp.
Heck, I was almost waiting for him to start talking about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration and about how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!
It felt like a liberal arts professor giving an economics lecture that is just off key because it is so obvious that the person speaking is talking about something they have never actually done themselves.
Luckily for me, the conference continued on the morning after the President's speech, and the deflation I experienced from it was quickly replaced by that happy adrenaline I always feel around people passionate in their entrepreneurial bubble.
I find that the best of them possess that delicate balance between starry-eyed idealism and cold-blooded-we're-going-to-make-money-darn-it-now-and-God-help-anyone-who-stands-in-our-way.
Really now, isn’t that the entrepreneurial change we can all believe in?
As opposed to the President’s unfathomable, Leviathan spending proposals - this latest $450 Billion incarnation is greater than the market capitalization of Apple - the entrepreneur's goals were human-sized.
Hire a programmer here, a freelance public relations staffer there. Book a plane ticket or two to see a prospective partner, and maybe while doing so buy a new laptop or tablet to better communicate the proposed strategic synergies.
Small decisions, little things.
But in their tens of hundreds of thousands aggregate, well, these are the decisions that are the making of a vibrant, prosperous, and dignified entrepreneurial society.
And decisions that create the kind of energy that all of the attendees shared at Boyan’s conference last week.
Not a profound and histrionic energy like that of a politician scrambling for relevancy and votes, but an earthy and common sense energy of entrepreneurs out to change the world one small pebble, one daily deal at a time.
Over the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to sit down personally with both the current mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, and the city’s former mayor, Richard Riordan.
The separate meetings were under different circumstances – a roundtable discussion with Mayor Villaraigosa regarding reforming the much reviled Los Angeles city gross receipts tax - and with former Mayor Riordan in a far more casual setting at “Bruin Woods,” a family retreat at Lake Arrowhead.
Both discussions were candid and spirited.
While I don't agree with much of Mr. Villaraigosa’s politics nor his tendencies toward self-aggrandizement, I was impressed with the fact that even though he has spent most of his career in the public sector, he had a good understanding of the local tax and regulatory considerations that either contribute to or distract from a city’s business and job creation climate.
At a minimum, he was empathetically aware of the massively negative social impact of private employers leaving the city for other locales with more favorable business climates.
And as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has noted, it is at the “big city” level, far more so than at state capitals and in Washington, where the real work of public - private business partnership is being done.
This is because mayors face daily the intercity competition for the people and capital that pay the taxes that fund their governments.
This competition is fought on fronts including public safety (and both LA Mayors pointed out that city crime levels are the lowest they’ve been since the 1950’s), infrastructure, regulation, and tax policy.
Now the really GREAT thing is that on all of these fronts and more, local Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that pro-business policies are no longer an ideological choice, but a necessity for basic 21st Century relevance.
You see, because just like in the technology industry where decades of high efficiency competition have brought the cost of computers down over 99% in real terms, so too are market forces working their “tough love” magic on governments the world over.
So ignore the "it bleeds, it leads" media.
Ignore the side show that is politics as it is presented in our Drudge Report and our Huffington Post age.
The real game in government and politics these days is happening well below the radar.
It is happening in tens of thousands of little innovations, little loosenings, little efficiencies that politicians and technocrats are implementing daily.
And it doesn’t matter whether they want to make these changes or not.
They HAVE to because if they don't people and capital will just vote with their feet and leave.
To less regulatory onerous pastures, to lower tax seas.
This is great cause for cheer and enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and executives looking to start and grow businesses.
So now…what are you waiting for?
“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world."
- Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States
What if we asked Calvin Coolidge - old silent Cal - with his early 20th Century common sense and puritan ethic, for his take on current affairs?
What would he say about inflation? About risk-taking in today’s environment?
First of all, I think he would find it obvious that the combination of large budget deficits, trade deficits, and the Federal Reserve’s stated commitment to keep interest rates low makes the steady erosion of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar inevitable.
He would say that this will be very bad for the American worker, who will feel the double squeeze of both stagnant wages and a shrinking dollar.
He would probably also say that this coming inflation will be extremely challenging for businesses with little pricing power, and ones trapped in downward cycles of commoditization and relentless margin pressures.
But Cal - living in a time of opportunism and watching fortunes being made all around him like never before in history – would probably also see that for the vast majority of US businesses that are services and exports based, inflationary conditions can be advantageous.
Why? Because the best managed of them will be able to control their input costs (labor, rents) while adjusting prices upward.
How about if we asked old Cal about the stock market?
Remember, he presided over one of the greatest bull markets in history, where stock prices rose over 380% during his time in office.
I think he would channel the famous “outrunning the bear” parable:
Two campers are walking through the forest when suddenly they encounter a grizzly bear. The bear rears up on his hind legs and lets out a terrifying roar. Both campers are frozen in their tracks.
The first camper whispers, "I'm sure glad I wore my running shoes today.” “It doesn't matter what kind of running shoes you're wearing you're not going to outrun that bear,” replies the second.
“I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you,” he answers.
This “last man standing” wisdom would suggest to Cal that stocks will do well simply because the various alternatives are so much less attractive.
Starting with cash and treasuries, Cal would probably see that they both suffer from the double whammy of negative real return and serious principal risk as at anytime the issuer - the US government - can just get up and print away their value (unlike in Cal’s time, by the way).
How about gold? How would Calvin Coolidge - almost the comically stereotypical crotchety old-timer - view gold as an actual investment?
Well, he would probably say that its recent historic price run is directly related to the sheer terror that a wide swath of the public has toward their government’s monetary policies.
But Cal’s sturdy early 20th Century optimism would frown on the defeatism and pessimism that investing in gold represents.
No, as he believed above all that the proper business of America was business, he would in all likelihood see the business of investing as mostly involving stocks and bonds of operating companies.
Of the two, he probably would be partial to stocks. Remember, he presided over one of the great bull markets in American history.
And as a sturdy and self-confident New Englander of his age, he might say that if you're going to invest, then invest and take your swings for the 2, 3, 5, and 10 bagger-potential and beyond that only stocks provide.
So if he lived in our present age, would Calvin Coolidge – a man of the early 20th Century - think that we have a mostly bumpy and discouraging road ahead?
Silent old Cal would see the great opportunities abounding in our technological and global age.
And he would probably mostly counsel for government to just leave businessmen and women alone to pursue and profit from it.