On the East Coast Startup Summit

Guest post from Mark Simchock:  

Could the Princeton area be the next Silicon Valley? Well, yes (and no) is what Fred Wilson (iconic VC / Partner at Union Square Ventures shared with a room-full of primarily university students at the East Coast Startup Summit 2012, sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, last weekend (April 20-22, 2012). Specifically, what Wilson said was, “You don’t need to go to Silicon Valley to do a start up.” He clarified that, saying that location is not as important as it once was. Proof, he noted, can be seen in the “super exciting” – a phrase used by the next speaker David Tisch – startups that are popping up all over the globe.

Wilson began with a hyper-condensed history of the technology / software sector, how the plot arc started on the East Coast in 1946, eventually moving west in the mid/late ’50s, and remaining centered there until fairly recently. The drift away from a Silicon Valley-centric view of the world is due to the “installation phase” being over. The tech industry is shifting from a model where innovation and success was focused on building the (technology) platform, to a model where using the established “installation” is where the action is, Among the examples that Wilson pointed to was the renowned crowd source model of  Kickstarter.com 

When asked what Wilson and Union Square Ventures looks for in a start up, he listed four key attributes: The right people, with the right idea, packaging that idea the right way for the market, at the right time. For instance, video sharing websites existed prior to YouTube, but they were too far ahead of the wide adoption of broadband internet access.

Wilson exuded confidence, saying “It has never been easier for an entrepreneur to get funding than it is today.”But there was a not- so silver lining to Wilson’s VC rain making. Later in the Q&A; session he lamented the fact that capital is currently being drawn to ideas and sectors where the moment of truth (i.e., success or failure) happens sooner rather than later. Investors are now less likely to be interested in ideas that might take ten years (or more) to determine whether it would be successful. Yet big and complex problems can take a long time to solve. 

Oddly, Wilson made no mention of his outfit (or his peer firms) making a conscious effort to be less short-sighted. It was as if Wilson was saying, “Aim high and think big but nor too high or too big”. To some this should give pause. Perhaps this is the Achilles heel of capital – it uses a self-serving definition of success? What if, in these times of unprecedented global scale, there are problems that for the capital-based market are “too big to solve” or “too big to finance”? Time will tell if we’re placing too much trust in “free markets.”

Following Wilson was David Tisch, Managing Director of  TechStars New York  Tisch, a former lawyer, skipped the history and focused on the immediate. He suggested that the shift in power is to big swinging software driven models that break the rules to disrupt old stale industries. He too emphasized the importance of team, market, idea and product, but also added that, in the end, it’s execution that makes the difference. Ideas, even original ones, are plentiful. What’s rare is the ability to turn a raw idea into a need-satisfying product. His student-centric advice was to build something now; have a prototype (because talking isn’t a fraction as effective as showing); and to be fearless and share your idea with as many people as possible. 

The last and presumably youngest presenter was Joseph Cohen, founder and CEO of Coursekit.  And present he did. Of the three, Cohen, a designer by nature and trade, was the only one to use Power Point slides. Cohen’s pearls pushed against the grain of technology cliches and theorized that modern day tech entrepreneurs exhibit characteristics that are more archetypal artist than Big Bang Theory geek. In support of his theory Cohen noted that  artists get to do what they want and they (try to) make money doing it. As an artist you also get to “invent the future.” Further along Cohen promised that, “the internet is still a wild west…land is still being grabbed” which drew no noticeable reaction. Perhaps the roomful of mostly male students, that dwindled in numbers as the afternoon progressed, already knew this, digital gold panning tools packed in their laptops and ready to go. Apparently history can repeat itself. 

It was an inspiring spring afternoon. As I walked across campus I wondered about the odds of the next Mark Zuckerburg also being in that same room. I’m sure if you asked those who attended they would say, “Yes, of course.” Naturally, myself included, affected as I was. 
— Mark Simchock 
For Simchock’s account of the Tiger Launch Startup Challenge, featuring Bill Wilson, founder of FastCompany, see his blog. 

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