Issue No. 06 - June (2012 vol. 45)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MC.2012.204
Erin Dian Dumbacher , consultant
David Alan Grier , IEEE Fellow
We transfer knowledge from one generation to the next with higher education, mentorship, and columns written from different points of view. Not all of these ideas work.
//DAG// I started the conversation to break the event's tedium and didn't really expect a substantive answer. "So what do you think?" I asked of the man next to me. "Not much here," was the response.
We had spent the afternoon listening to young entrepreneurs pitch their ideas at a conference that was supposed to match new technology companies with capital. Admittedly, all the presentations were suffused with excess enthusiasm, but several of the ideas seemed quite promising. Not the next Microsoft or Facebook, but viable businesses that would contribute to the world.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"None of them want much money," he explained. "We're looking to make sizable investments and get the control that comes with them." He paused before returning to his tablet. "It no longer takes much money to start a company."
With so many business services available through cloud computing services, new companies need little money to accomplish a great deal. They can buy IT services, financial advice, and marketing assistance for very little cash and keep control of the company firmly in their hands. The Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt stories confirm this notion.
Outside investment, of course, surrenders some of the control but also brings expertise—in corporate operations, market knowledge, and even connections to other firms. In pushing more activity to the self-driven cloud, are we creating another way for the rising generation of engineers and entrepreneurs to break with the past?
//EDD// Maybe. It's all about perception, and the Zuckerberg/Schmidt stories are beacons of hope to every aspiring, go-it-alone entrepreneur. Are they wrong?
We won't know for years to come, when we look back on the first half of this century's economic and cultural norms. In the meantime, pundits and researchers will continue to try to answer whether a millennial's propensity to work alone, fueled by technology, is unique. (Early signs point to "yes.")
Development of small businesses, the politicians say, will drive economic growth as we emerge from the Great Recession. But if David's right—and my talented and experienced but unemployed friends serve as any example—going it alone isn't a ready option for most. Capital, practical experience, drive, and a certain bit of confidence to say, "no one else brings to the market what I bring," are necessary.
//DAG// You can still visit real Palo Alto garage start-ups. Most of them would accommodate a Nash Rambler rather than a modern SUV.
The experience has a strong nostalgic pull. You almost expect to see Jobs and Wozniak or Hewlett and Packard walking the neighborhood, though it's hard to imagine the early Silicon Valley leaders carrying expensive lattes from the local coffee shop.
On my most recent visit to the area, I recently visited an example of the model that's increasingly common in technology start-ups: the firm has 20 employees but only eight work full time, and three live in the area. A complicated infrastructure holds them together with the support of a modest financial foundation.
The leaders of this company believe that they're changing the world and that they can accomplish their goals on their own. Technology brings all of their employees into that little garage, but does that same technology block the lessons of experience?
David Alan Grier is an IEEE Fellow and author of the forthcoming book The Company We Keep. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dagrier.
Erin Dian Dumbacher is a research director and consultant in Washington, DC. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @erin_dian.