On Thursday night March 4, 2010, I was on a panel of entrepreneurs speaking at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to a room of MBAs and Computer Science majors interested in entrepreneurship. The others on the panel were established Chicago internet entrepreneurs that have been involved in the Chicago startup community for a while now. This list included Harper Reed, ex-CTO of Threadless, now neophologist for Rackspace, Scott Robbin of Songza.com and Weightshift.com, and Adrian Holovaty of Everyblock.com. I felt very intimidated by this panel because everybody on it had accomplished something great except me. In a sense I was honored to be included in this group, but I couldn’t help thinking I was a sheep in wolves clothing trying to blend in the pack.
The panel was moderated by Robert Rosenberg, Assoc. VP, Communication Planning and Programming at University of Chicago, who incidentally reminded me of Steve Blank. The format was a seven minute intro by each speaker then followed by an hour of Q&A. I have to give a shout out to Borja Sotomayor for putting this panel together and making it happen.
It was very interesting to hear everyone speak and listen to their stories. Although I knew most of the speakers as friends, I really didn’t know their story. Harper gave us a glimpse of some of the issues Threadless had in regards to having to horizontally scale printers. Something you’d never think you’d have to think about in a startup, unless you were printing ungodly amounts of labels everyday. Scott Robbin told his story about how Songza took off and how he and Aza Raskin flew out to the west coast to meet with some serious big name investors and then selling to Amie Street in New York. I learned that Adrian got a $1.1MM grant to work on Everyblock which gave him the necessary runway to hire 6 people and build it into what it is today, right before MSNBC snatched them up. Some of you may also know Adrian as the benevolent dictator co-creator of the python framework called Django In short, everyone’s story was impressive and inspiring.
The Q&A panel was very well moderated by Prof Rosenberg. I thought he had good questions that led to great discussions. I thought it was interesting that none of the speakers had MBAs or even graduate degrees. I don’t think any of us had any business backgrounds at all. Scott had a degree in Acoustics. Fucking acoustics. He kind of stumbled into programming. None of the speakers had any sort of business plans either.
Questions from the audience included your typical – “How can I find a developer to work on my idea?”. Adrian had a good response to that: You have to have something to offer that a developer can respect. When you boil it down, in a startup, if you can’t create and produce, you need to be able to do sales and marketing – something that most developers hate. If you can sell what the developers make, that’s a great partnership. That’s oversimplifying it a bit but that’s it. He also made a point that a startup has to be able to make something. You don’t really have much of anything if you just have an idea.
Some of the other topics discussed:
Why there isn’t a vibrant Chicago startup community, differences between Chicago startups vs the other US cities, or why people don’t perceive Chicago to be a viable startup destination despite successes like Orbitz, GrubHub, Threadless, Groupon, Feedburner, Redbox etc.
Another question that was posed was how we as tech entrepreneurs with development backgrounds balanced or learned the business aspect.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. Borja thought it was a huge success based on the turnout and how many students stayed behind to ask questions and engage with the speakers. I certainly learned a lot and am sure the students di so as well.
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