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2013 November

Alternate Endings for Start Ups

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Volano likes to be around the start-up community for a lot of good reasons and Omaha, though not without its challenges, has become an increasingly friendly place for entrepreneurs to pursue their ideas.  As a software company, we are particularly interested in how technological innovation can solve problems and make money.  Start-ups are often warned about the rigors and risks involved in going out on their own, pursuing capital, investing in an idea, people, infrastructure and staying in the money during the early growth years.  It would seem that most start-up companies get into business to eventually cash out or forfeit some measure of control and go public.    But this isn’t always the case and a recent blog by the NY Times explores start-ups who chose less conventional paths.

Last week’s NY Times blog explores alternative methods of gaining liquidity without an IPO or selling to a larger company, but these decisions can be tough.  Whether it’s the eyeglass e-com Warby Parker allowing “early employees sell shares to new investors” or the decision that some boot-strapped companies make to stay small enough where they are never beholden to outside investors and remain autonomous.  Other entrepreneurs seek partnership with larger companies or investors in order to reach loftier goals.  The challenge then is seeking the right relationships.  Andrew Dreskin, the cofounder of TicketWeb sold his company for 35 million to Ticketmaster and regrets today that he didn’t hold onto it longer, believing it could have been a multi-billion dollar company.

Other start-up entrepreneurs have opted to sell their concepts in order to finance retirement or projects and companies  to which they are more passionate.  Seattle entrepreneur Dan Shapiro sold his comparison shopping tool “Sparkbuy” to Google which helped finance his passion project, Robot Turtles, a  board game that teaches computer programming to preschool age kids.  This writer is interested in any board game that is not “Sorry” and actually teaches applicable concepts.

It’s hard to pass up the advantages of taking your company public.  First there is the obvious financial benefit of raising capital.  This allows business owners to pay off debt, fund initiatives and invest in research and development.  The prestige factor can also lead to a greater level of awareness through the publicity generated by the IPO.  Taking your company public can also help increase market share and in many cases, lead to profitable exit by the founder who may not be interested in continuing on with the business, especially given the loss of total freedom.  However, going public also leads to increased scrutiny, regulation and added transparency for investors.  These changes may be tough for entrepreneurs to stomach given their focus on growing their concept.

Social Media Forever and Ever, Amen

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There is no doubt that social media has fundamentally changed the way communities interact with each other.  Few would argue the profound impact, good or bad, that social has had on a global scale; be it the role of social media in Arab Spring to the countless photos of babies, cute and ugly that populate that blue backdrop of Facebook.  One paradox however in this fast moving internet conversation is that however easy it is to post something, the permanence of that message can come back to haunt a person like a court transcript.  Natasha Singer’s piece in the NY Times touches on the issue of social media as a conduit and potential obstacle to admittance into college.  As a parent, I’ve started to think in terms of the social footprint I’m leaving and am so relieved that I did not have a medium to voice my pubescent, hormonal discontent with all the perceived societal slights when I was a kid.  I also think about how important every photo and hand written letter is to my parent’s that link them to their forbearers.  My kids will not be lacking in source material for their parents.

We recently signed our seven year old up for his first e-mail account with zilladog.com.  I was hesitant to baptize him into the Internet community. However, he already plays with apps on my phone and games on Cartoonnetwork.com.  I thought reinforcing writing lessons on a keyboard and with a carefully monitored group of friends, all of whom need parental approval through the site to correspond, was more beneficial that having him vegetate in front of the games (and pop-up ads) that come with most on-line kids’ games.  This has me thinking about lessons I need to start teaching in regard to the power and permanence of language.  I wrestle between thoughts of raising our kids as Emersonians who learn how to entertain themselves in nature and appreciate the slow, unfolding beauty of the natural world versus the desire and obligation to ensure they are well equipped to participate in the age of technology and be competitive.  As in all things, I think balance is key.  What could you possibly have to say of interest on-line if you don’t divorce yourself long enough to engage in relationships, gain experience in face to face social interactions and utilize your senses to better understand the world in which you might commentate on Facebook?

In Singer’s blog she addresses social media as a tool that can be used to further define yourself.  In this case, she implies that an aspiring high school student on a UCLA admission waiting list may have successfully waged an aggressive Twitter campaign to help separate him from the others and gain admission.  Schools typically downplay social media as criteria for admittance but how could you deny yourself all of the puzzle pieces necessary to make an educated decision about admitting the right kind of students if you were on an admissions board?  Can and should social than be an ongoing marketing campaign to project a desired image of oneself for the sake of admission, be it corporate, educational or any other organization?  Sites like LinkedIn are for that expressed purpose but who draws the lines?  Is social any less authentic than a written essay or interview?  Either way, the more scrutiny we may come under, the more every word and image you’re associated with online can define you.

How Has Technology Changed Storytelling?

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Hunter S. ThompsonWe write frequently about the way in which technology alters and enhances the way we do business, communicate and conduct the countless, banal tasks that make up our daily lives.  Last week I discovered a conversation between prominent contemporary writers on how technology has altered storytelling on the New York Times.

This is a fun piece and doesn’t require that you read in sequence or totality.  There is some great stuff here.  I particularly like Marisha Pessl’s complaint, backed with some good examples of classic novels that would not have worked in today’s tech world.  She states;

The trouble with technology is that it eradicates a character’s ability to be lost, and it’s the state of being in the dark and the journey toward understanding that has given rise to the greatest stories ever written.

Omaha’s own Rainbow Rowell feels that cell phones have hurt plot structures for the same reasons.  Either the absence of cell phones needs to be explained up front so that intrigue can be had in a romantic meeting or missed encounter or, worse, your characters need to be “luddite” technophobes.  My 70 year old mother now texts with carpal tunnel inducing ferocity on her new iPhone.  It would seem that the days of characters who don’t possess modern communication devices are extremely numbered.  However, this can also open up story-telling opportunities and help shade in characters with information you might see on a text message or e-mail.  Frederick Forsythe, who wrote the espionage thriller “The Day of the Jackal” comments that the ‘illegal abstraction of classified information’ is in and of itself transformative and opens doors for the spy thriller genre.  You need only to read the newspaper headlines and check in on Edward Snowden to understand this phenomenon.

Douglas Coupland talks about an idea worth exploring; that there is a moral in the fact that this technology did not simply appear.  “They were created by human beings and, having been made by human beings, can only help bring about manifestations of ourselves which until now haven’t been possible.,”  Heeeaaavvvy right?  That’s a three beer conversation.  A.M. Homes said that she was taught by a writing teacher not to use brand names or products that would date your story.  This is almost unavoidable today as technology changes by the month.  Watching moves from 10 years ago does this to me, especially when the characters are apparently utilizing the modern technology in their lives.  I love the scene in Wall Street when Michael Douglas is on the beach and heaves the ultimate 80’s status symbol over his shoulder, a primitive cell phone that resembles a World War II radio for calling in air support.

I’ve always thought that whether you’re talking about genetic engineering or the weapons industry, our technology has far exceeded where the debate is at on the ethics and existential efficacy of these “advances.”  But I suppose previous generations thought the same thing.  The interesting thing here regarding fiction writers is that they aim to tell truths about the human condition by manufacturing characters and stories.  Basically lying.  Have we made it harder for our storytellers to shine some light on us because of our penchant for innovation?