Wednesday, February 9, 2011

studying entrepreneurship, startups, innovation, and Ken Olsen

Read a fascinating article this morning about UMass Lowell students studying entrepreneurship in Turkey: eNews: Management students in Turkey : News : UMass Lowell.

What makes an entrepreneur? And what influence does the cultural environment have on the birth of a company? We're not talking Boston vs. Silicon Valley here. (Although someone should study the real cultural differences involved there too.) We're talking a whole 'nother continent and culture. These guys are onto something. Take the students out of their own cultural context to see what's common to entrepreneurship and what's influenced by culture, location, and underlying assumptions. Get down to the bare bones of the anatomy of entrepreneurship. The professor and students blogged about the experience too. Very much worth reading.

As sometimes happens, things I read as a result of tweets from vastly different realms converge thematically. My friend Tim posted a link to this article by Steve Blank critiquing Startup America. The keywords “startup,” “entrepreneur,” and “innovation” are all over everywhere in political discourse about how to fix the US economy these days. But what are we really talking about? What makes a startup? Where does innovation fit in? It seems like we're a long way from having a national innovation strategy or even a local innovation strategy. Steve Blank's post nails it with his distinctions among the four types of entrepreneurship: small business, scalable startup, large companies, and social entrepreneurship. A one woman tech writing shop is not scalable, not a technological innovation, and not solving a social problem, but I'm sure as heck an entrepreneur. So, maybe that's not the best anecdote to illustrate the differences, but you get the idea. Read the article. It's very well-thought-out and raises the questions that need to be raised. Maybe Steve Blank should be the Startup America czar.

Do we really know what it takes to build a successful, scalable, innovative startup? What can we learn from the legacy of Ken Olsen, founder of what was arguably one of the most important computer startups ever? As I've watched the tweet stream, the news feeds, and all the media since Ken's death, I've wondered about that. There's much more to the Ken Olsen legacy and the Digital Equipment Corporation legacy than people think.  I so wanted to ask for a moment of silence in memory of Ken Olsen at Monday's Ignite Boston, but realized that the word had not reached the press yet. I'd gotten the news through DEC alumni channels. I also realized that although the whole techie environment we were in that night was a result of Ken Olsen's legacy, many (most? I hope not) of the attendees would have no idea who he was or why he mattered even though they are techies. If they've heard of him at all, it's only because of a quote from long ago taken out of context. You know the one I mean. Let's study not just the rise and fall of DEC, but the ripples that are still flowing outward from that mill in Maynard.

So, Massachusetts entrepreneurs and innovators, let's remember Ken and do his legacy proud by making Massachusetts once again the innovation center of the world.

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