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The New Human Race
A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
Feb 18th 2000

By Brent Holliday

“Hey now, you’re an all-star
Get your game on…
You’re a shooting star.”
Smashmouth, All Star

I am listening to the radio in Seattle as I navigate the 405 traffic mess.  Jobs.com has a commercial on that features Tom Peters, the loud-mouthed guru of personal career advancement.   Tom screams at the listener to “get up out of that cubicle.  It’s a large wired, web world out there and you need to build your personal arsenal so that you can attack the uncertainty and succeed in the 21st century.”  Then the lady comes back on and says that jobs.com is where to go to find that better place to be.  Sell the dream.  Oh yeah.

There is no doubt that we live in an ever accelerating pace of change.  But, what exactly does Tom mean by success?  In my line of work, I always talk about building successful companies.  By default, successful companies are built by successful people.  So, what is a successful person in 2000?

Fast Company is the manifesto of the newly empowered “free agent nation”.  It reads like a “how to” to succeed as a corporation of one.  Brand yourself.  Find new markets.  Be loyal only to you. Be competitive.  All in the name of personal “success”.  And, in almost all cases, the sexy places to be are in technology.  The “new economy” is real and you had better be part of it, or else.

Corporations have been summarily thrashed in the 90’s, first by Doug Coupland and then by Dilbert.  It is so un-cool, un-hip and plain boring to work at a big company.  Climb the corporate ladder?  I’d rather climb a razor blade.  Do we really admire the automaton Japanese corporations with the 100 year business plans like we did in the late 80’s?  Not any more.  Now we celebrate a resume that reads like a weekly journal (On Monday, I worked at XYZ, but felt my growth was restricted, so Tuesday I jumped for a new company that empowered their employees with fat stock options…)

If I am to buy into the new business rules, if I am to play the new game, then what is it that I am trying to win?  What is the “success”?  Being loyal only to me gets me… what exactly?

Well, let’s see.  Succeed rhymes with greed.  I think it is safe to say that society, in the US has equated the new success to the instant billion dollar fortunes being won in this incredible growth period. Everybody talks about personal worth of the top executives at many of these new companies as though they were throwing around football scores. In Canada, we have not been as brazen at talking up the success as measured by monetary worth.  It feels almost rude of me here in Canada to even present to you a matter of public record that anyone could look up in about 3 minutes: Norm Francis, CEO at Pivotal has shares worth about $170 M today.

Any of the people that have “succeeded” in making millions will publicly state that it isn’t about the money.  Put yourself in their shoes.  I’m sure you have.  What would you do with all of that money?  Would you feel that you had succeeded?  Or would you look at Jim Pattison (a billionaire) and say, I’m gonna be more of a success than him.  Is it ever enough?  Once you reach a certain level of wealth, is “success” more about having a bigger net worth?

The “success” that Tom espouses has turned into a voyeuristic scorecard.   Top 25 leaders of the new economy.  Top 100 richest people.  Top 100 richest people in technology (now almost the same list).  Most powerful people in the Silicon Valley.  Top 40 under 40 in Vancouver and in Canada.  And we eat it up.  We buy those magazines.  We read those lists and we dream.

So, is success about making one of those lists?

I know my definition of success includes money.  I bet about 99% of you would agree.  However in my experience, success is all relative to scope.  You can be successful and create wealth from running a business in your town.  You will be satisfied at the end of the day at accomplishing your goals in a local or regional market. You will achieve personal success.  Similarly, you may be successful at a role within your company for which you are rewarded.  This used to be a noble thing.  But Tom Peters says NO, keep going.  Be better.  Stand still today and you will be squashed like a bug.  If you didn’t make a list, how can you be a success, he says…

At the end of the day, the level of success at which you feel satisfied, the time that the competitive juices stop flowing, is a very personal thing.  I would have to say that most people don’t stop at personal success as a means of being satisfied.  If you accomplished all of your goals in life and you could retire without ever giving a hoot about what others thought, then you are in the minority.  Most of us do care what others think, especially in our peer group.

Peer-recognized success is not a personal thing at all.  It’s a moving target.  How do I impress the people that I work with or against every day?  How do I get to the point where they all say that I am a success?  What is the metric for that?  Enter our good friend,  ego.  After greed, there is ego in helping us define success.  Would you be happier having not made millions if you knew that every peer has recognized you as a winner?  Think of the scientific and academic communities and their “peer-review” governance.  This is clearly where success comes from for these groups.  I met “Illiad” the other day.  For you non-geeks, he’s the author of User Friendly, a wildly successful comic strip that only true network and computer geeks get.  If he never made another dime in his life, it’s quite possible that he would be happy with his success.  On the streets of Vancouver, he’s another guy.  In a developer’s conference, he’s the man.  In his peer group, he walks on water.

There are a few of us that would not be satisfied with peer-recognized success.  There are people who want more.  Greed and ego are a huge part of the success definition, but the opiate for them is power.  It’s not necessarily an evil Gordon Gecko thing.  I’m talking about the burning need to be in front of the world stage to share their thoughts, consult with the leaders and rub shoulders with the elite.  These people want to change the world and are usually the leaders of industry.  Steve Jobs is the poster boy for these people.  Somewhere along the way in Steve’s life, he saw that he might create something “insanely great”.  Then his definition of success moved from peer recognition to world recognition.

My trouble is that, while I recognize that you don’t have to buy into the new standards for success in society to actually achieve your own personal success, in my role as a VC, I am looking for people to build companies that are driven to be world recognized, world changing successes.  It is not enough for me to back successful regional companies.  I need to get involved with big ideas that could be huge companies.  Are you that kind of person?  Have you joined this new societal revolution that Tom Peters espouses?  Have you stopped to think about when, where and why you would be satisfied?  Does that meaning of success have a dollar figure attached to it?  Are you making the next “insanely great” thing?  Lots of questions, I know, but you should be honest with yourself before you head out to create a new success story.  Is it in you?

Random Thoughts –

-         John Manley must be the guy in the audience that laughs a minute after the punch line.  Our intrepid Industry Minister admitted today that, yes Virginia, Canada does have a brain drain to the US.  It’s about time one of these cabinet folks stuck their necks out and stated the reality (the cynic says that he is just trying to take his foot out of his mouth from the NHL bail-out fiasco).  He went on to blame it on corporate taxes, not personal.  His reasoning was that opportunity was the main draw of the US for technology folks, not tax avoidance.  He’s right.  A full-scale assault on corporate taxes is important.  But the statement that Silicon Valley personal tax rates were virtually the same as Ontario’s was a bit too much.  Top rates don’t kick in until $250,000 annual income in California and at $60,000 in Ontario.  Capital gains taxes are about 15% different and California law allows for you to re-invest the gains and avoid tax.  All of this noise before the budget tells me that we are in for some good news on Feb 29th.  My fingers are crossed.  As for Manley, is it just me, or were he and Beaker (from the Muppets) separated at birth?

-         Incubators consolidate!  The announcement today that Itemus has been created to roll up a bunch of incubators for technology, including Vancouver’s Idea Park, was good news for early stage venture capital.  Everybody and their brother had started an incubator in the past year, after the success of idealab! and garage.com in the US.  Seems like an easy concept.  Invest a small amount in very early but promising companies and then put them in common space to share resources and share guidance from experienced mentors.  The idea works well as long as there is a plentiful supply of VC money to follow the incubation period and give these companies the fuel they need to really take off.  In some cases it is better to be in an incubator than to go it alone with some angel money.  In some cases it isn’t.  When Itemus gets rolling, it will have larger financial resources to offer the incubated companies and can fund them even if traditional VCs are unwilling to jump in.  The people that have started these incubators for the first time are learning a very important lesson:  Very early stage investing is a LOT of work.  It is a daily battle.  One person I know that is involved in an incubator said he might have been better off just running a company himself.  In the incubator he is twice as busy and has less of the upside (as a percentage of his ownership).  I’m not sure Itemus can solve that problem.  Regardless of the size of the incubator, the sleeves of the experienced mentors need to be rolled up and the tough work done.  Interestingly, some prominent incubators like Launchworks in Calgary and Brightspark in Toronto are not part of Itemus. 

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday

Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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