It’s been a long, long time

Hello Blog World,

I realized I haven’t posted in about a year. It’s been a busy one. I’ve been in Oxford, working on my MBA at the University of Oxford and that is now nearly finished. It has been an exhilarating and amazing experience every single day to live in this beautiful city. One reason that I haven’t written much here is that I have been blogging about my experiences on a regular basis at the Financial Times.

On a professional front, I’m proud to report that Skillbridge was sold to TopTal in April. It was a great experience to grow a company from almost nothing into something much bigger. And I was able to work with super talented people along the way. I’m gonna miss that.

My other big announcement is that a film that I have worked on for over 5 years has now come to fruition. Catch AMANDA KNOX on Netflix as a Netflix Original starting September 30. And if you’re in Toronto earlier in September, come check it out at the Toronto Film Festival where it will be premiering. It is so gratifying when hard work pays off.

I’m also happy to report that my passion for healthy living is still in order. I was lucky enough to have the Green Templeton College gym in my backyard this year, eliminating my need for ClassPass. I feel as good as I ever have.

As much as this is a time of endings for me (Oxford, Skillbridge, Amanda Knox), I am excited about many new beginnings. I don’t know where the world will take me next, but I’ll be sure to update you as soon as I find out.

Talk soon,

Stephen

 

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Broken glasses theory

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Last week, I attended an event featuring three Democratic US Congressmen and one Democratic US Congresswoman. The event celebrated the launch of “Future Forum,” a way for Congress to connect with Millennials to work on issues that matter to young hard-working Americans. Amidst an assembly of New York tech entrepreneurs, the event, held at District CoWork (a co-working space), opened with a cocktail hour.

I signed in, popped on my name tag, headed straight to the bar, grabbed a glass of wine, and was shimmying over to a person I wanted to speak with when the unthinkable happened: My sleeve brushed against someone else’s wine glass, set atop a table , and SPLAT, the glass tumbled to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces.

Within seconds, a hundred faces turned to stare at me. I immediately started to clean up the mess I made. Then, I noticed a man helping me. He’d grabbed a plate and started to pick up large shards of glass with his bare hands. I noticed the man’s lapel pin, denoting him as a Congressman. This was Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Long Islander, who I’d never previously met.

What started off as us working together to expediently clean up the mess I made quickly turned into a conversation. He asked me about my work at Skillbridge, and I explained to him what we are trying to build. We ended up speaking for a while, and when the conversation concluded, he said to me, “Here’s my business card. Give me a call when you’re down in Washington.” Steve Israel’s act of humility — he didn’t have to help me clean anything up — may be why he is in Congress today.

This incident immediately jogged my memory back to a similar one from 2011: I was taken out to dinner by the CBS news crew who were covering Amanda Knox’s trial in Italy. Who saddles up next to me at the table? None other than Peter Van Sant, the news anchor and 48 Hours host. Peter’s an ace: he’s won four Emmy Awards, three Edward R. Murrow Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards, and more.

A dozen people at our table split a couple of bottles of red wine. And then, after a toast, I put my glass back down on the table, directly on the spot where, under the tablecloth, two tables of unequal heights met. Boom! The red wine spilled all over Peter.

Yet Peter Van Sant faced the red wine with humility. Despite his deeply stained white shirt, he insisted it wasn’t a big deal at all. A precursor to my more recent incident with Congressman Israel, Peter and I ended up talking and laughing all night long.

The lesson is that broken glasses and spilled red wine can be the world’s best icebreakers — and they give larger than life people opportunities to show that they’re human too.

Practical note: An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm taught me that, immediately applying club soda and salt to red wine will remove all stains.

Entrepreneurship is hard, so don’t claim that it’s easy.

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Entrepreneurship has definitely become cooler and cooler in the minds of Millennials during the past 10 years: Facebook was founded in 2004. That gave the Millennial Everyman hope that he too could start a multi-billion dollar business and retain ownership of it to the end. Then, the 2008 stock market crash and the subsequent recession erased the traditional job opportunities that Millennials and others had grown entitled to.

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, majoring in English and History. Why? Because I was told by countless professors and mentors to “study what I loved.” In retrospect, I should have probably focused on Marketing or Computer Science in tandem with one of my two humanities choices, but c’est la vie, those days are behind me.

Today, Millennials are unemployed in record numbers, and many see “entrepreneurship” as the only way out of unemployment. Plus, entrepreneurs wear t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops to work year-round, and don’t have to answer to anyone… But let’s get this straight: Being an entrepreneur is hard work. It is far more difficult to run your own company than it is to be a cog in a wheel at a large corporation. There are many late nights, sleepless nights of nervousness, and you never know where you will be in six months time. Plus, working on weekends isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. That’s stressful, and it’s not for everyone, despite what some pro-entrepreneurship organizations would have you believe.

(Yes, many entrepreneurs become depressed from this stress too.)

Before I started SkillBridge, I had worked at 3 funded startups and started 2 of my own businesses. Both businesses “failed” in the sense that they never were acquired by anyone else, but they were both incredible learning opportunities and earned me a bit of money along the way. However, as I wrote on LinkedIn, you are NOT wasting your 20s working at a large company. My article says, “Many of my most intelligent friends from the University of Pennsylvania and other fine institutions started their careers at Google, McKinsey, or other large tech or consulting firms. Some of them are still there — and those who stuck around seem quite happy. For example, my good friend Josh Steinberg works for Google and now lives in Tokyo, his dream city, and has traveled all around the world, on Google’s dime. My other good friend Anastasia Leng founded Hatch.co after working at Google for 5 years. Neither of them would change a thing about their 20s. They were able to pay off their student loans, travel, and live excellent lives.”

Alas, there is also a grammar problem in the world: You don’t have a “startup” if you are not seeking to scale your business. You simply have a small business, and that is an excellent accomplishment. No, your nut butter stand may never achieve the scale of Nutella, but it’s very cool that you can derive income from it.

There are so many “pre-revenue” entrepreneurs out there, who are great at selling themselves, but once you dig a bit deeper realize they’re all fluff. Putting up a LaunchRock page for your idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur: Go build something, and then tell people you’re an entrepreneur. Go assemble a world-class team, and then say you’re an entrepreneur. Go make enough profit to live off of, and then call yourself an entrepreneur.

Too many people out there are selling this entrepreneurial dream but not detailing the amount of work involved to create it. Sorry kids, there are probably 100 people out there with the same killer app idea that you have, yet having the idea is only the beginning. Strategy and execution are everything.

I wouldn’t change anything about the path that I chose, because I value adventure and not knowing what is around the next corner. However, there have been times when I’ve been ready to turn in the towel. Unless you can tolerate high levels of uncertainty, you won’t go far as an entrepreneur.

The Reason Why Silicon Valley Can’t Find Europe… Because Europe Doesn’t Deserve To Be Found.

I got 79 languages and startups ain't one...
I got 79 languages and startups ain’t one…

I recently read Sten Tamkivi’s post on TechCrunch that states some reasons why Americans, in Silicon Valley specifically, should be investing in European startups. Tamkivi’s post was echoed by similar sentiments in a post by Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson. While there are here are 5 major tech hubs in the US (SF, NYC, Boston, LA, Austin) and a similar number in Europe (Berlin, London, Paris, Stockholm, and Helsinki/Tallinn), I do not equate these groups with each other, for reasons I will outline below. And while I admire both Tamkivi and Wilson, they are both wrong in this instance.

Here’s why:

1. Europeans Don’t Want To Put In The Work: In general, and I know this is a stereotype based on my time living in Denmark, Amsterdam, and London, Europeans are just not as hungry for success as Americans. In America, we are often ostracized by Europeans for not having a positive work-life balance. Well, any entrepreneur will tell you, that it’s really difficult to build a company when you’re only working for 7.5 hours per day. (I won’t take low blows on Greece and Spain here, as in America, we have Kentucky and West Virginia to grapple with…) That said, Germans do have a tendency to work hard, as do the Brits (due to the Protestant work ethic I learned about in high school).

2. In Europe, There Is Too Much Regulation: In Europe, everything is slow. Blame the bureaucracy. Blame the welfare state. Blame the aforementioned work ethic, but I found that it took months to do things that would be done in America in days. It’s so simple to hop on a web site and start a Delaware Corporation. (I know, lawyers are still better when starting a business, but it really is easy to do on your own.) Even when you look at the whole micro-entrepreneur food truck boom in America, it happened very quickly. In Europe, there are more food regulations than you can possibly imagine (though the food is certainly tasty over there). Europe’s more complex regulatory system, given how varied countries in the EU are, might be what tears that union apart.

3. Language: In Amurrrrica, we generally speak one language. English. It’s simple. You call your developer in San Francisco and he speaks the same tongue as your sales guy in New York and your CEO in Austin. In Europe, there are so many languages spoken that to attract a substantial and scalable user base for your product, you would have to have it translated into many different tongues.

4. Europeans Stay In School Forever: How many times have you met an Italian dude who’s working on his 3rd Masters Degree at La Sapienza in Rome and still lives with his parents even though he’s 37? Or a Danish guy who is doing his Post-Doctoral research despite being 42 years old? In America, we are surely educated, but in Europe, people are over-educated. I have attended both public and private universities in America, as well as public and private universities in Europe: In America, everything moves more quickly. You have more hours of class per week, and you learn a heckuva lot more. In Europe, how are people going to be starting companies when they finally finish school but also have a family to support? That’s why there are fewer European Mark Zuckerbergs or Evan Spiegels.

5. Security And Privacy: Tamkivi writes that “security and privacy” are great reasons to start companies in Europe. Find me an entrepreneur who doesn’t want to collect people’s data. Data = dollars. Harsh personal privacy laws, while good for consumers, mean less money for most entrepreneurs. There goes the incentive to start a business.

6. “400 Million Customers,” But Many Don’t Spend: Europeans are far more frugal than Americans. In America, we love junk. We love the latest and the greatest. We love to fill our closets with 85 pairs of the latest wears. In Europe, people buy things once, spend decent money on their purchases, and then don’t buy them again for years. Personally, I really like this about Europeans, but if I were a European entrepreneur, it would make me wary. Yes, they may have invented Hermes and Ferraris, but how many Europeans can really afford to buy a Hermes bag and a Ferrari?

7. Europe Is Old: Europe is the oldest continent ever. Medicine and technological breakthroughs will keep these folks living until they’re close to 100. Of those “400 million” consumers, most of them aren’t ideal customers. It’s too bad the healthcare sector is publicly funded in most European societies, as in this area I see room for innovation.

8. Global Skills = Nonsense: Yes, I agree that Europeans travel more frequently than Americans and are thus exposed to different ideas. However, some Americans (like, ahem, me) have traveled frequently and can also be exposed to these ideas. To think that Europeans have better soft skills than those from other places is nonsense. Yes, foreign exchange programs like Erasmus have become ubiquitous in Europe, and this is amazing, but Americans are also now studying abroad at higher rates than ever before. While Americans should surely learn more languages than just English, English has become the de facto business and consumer language of the world.

9. Grants: When you compare how films are funded in America vs. how films are funded in Europe, they are very different from one another. European countries have film commissions that deliver grants to filmmakers. Filmmakers apply for the grants and then wait months or years to learn whether they have been selected. In America, films are made by means of capitalism and Kickstarter: You hustle your brains off or you don’t get your film made. (Kickstarter, however, may further democratize European film production.) That said, my friends Torsten Mueller and Frederik Fischer received money for their startup Tame.it from “the German Ministry of Technology and Economics, the business development and promotion bank of the Federal Land Berlin and from a successful Crowdinvesting campaign on Companisto.de.” In America, our government may give money to occasional startups in the energy/defense sectors, but they sure as heck ain’t giving it to a Twitter context search engine. Plus, Americans are way more likely to use our disposable income for crowdfunding. (That said, in America, we still have nonsense laws that prevent the common man from crowdfunding in exchange for equity, which they have eliminated in Europe.)

In Europe, there’s a higher expectation that the government and regulation will solve problems. Perhaps it’s the inner-Ayn Rand libertarian in many Americans, but we have greater faith in the private sector than in the public sector. In Europe, there is also a more incremental, rather than disruptive, approach to progress. That said, don’t forget that the Dark Ages lasted for nearly 1,000 years.

This isn’t meant to knock European companies. I have many European startup founder friends, and I admire the work they do. I am also a fan of European companies like Skype and Spotify. That said, these companies had to come to America to truly make it.

I don’t think the future of Silicon Valley investors is across the pond. Tamkivi writes, “Yes, stuff is happening in Boston and New York, but not so much that a once-a-month trip can’t cover most of it.” Quite frankly, this is an idiotic statement, as New York specifically has seen its technology sector grow rapidly during the past few years. (I’m surprised that Mr. NYC VC Fred Wilson didn’t call Tamkivi out on this falsehood.) So yes, while Europe is certainly the place to go for wind energy startups (Denmark), architecture firms (the Netherlands), and a whole host of random startups from London to Sweden to Finland to Berlin, my bet is still on America.