Thursday, February 21, 2013

More ways to keep the American dream in America

I read Dave Troy's post Keeping the American Dream in America with interest. I agree with everything he says about needing to get aspiring entrepreneurs to focus on solving more important, technically-challenging problems instead of devising endless variations of incrementally-better consumer software.

There are other obstacles to achieving the kind of entrepreneurship Dave wants to see, besides the ones he mentioned. Those hard problems are going to end up being solved by older people not currently enmeshed in "McStartup" culture. Innovation in fields like healthcare, education, biotechnology, or government are likely to come from people working in those fields already. I'm thinking of people like Jess Gartner, a former schoolteacher who just received funding from Accelerate Baltimore to create an new product that will revolutionize the way we fund schools and track funding outcomes. That's not an idea that Dave's "Red Bull-drinking, Ramen-eating young programmers" could think of, unless they had worked as teachers.

To solve the "McStartup" problem, we need more entrepreneurs like Jess or my partner James Curran, people who have established a career and built up some work experience, who have firsthand knowledge of screwed-up situations that could be improved with new technology (using James hard-won expertise, we are attacking a tough problem in the online media industry).

Because these are also people who may have families, who may be the breadwinner, I have a theory that we could encourage more mid-career people to start or join serious startup companies by increasing our support for risk-taking behavior in the United States. Off of the top of my head, some ways to support risk-taking behavior would include:
  • Better access to affordable, quality childcare: A big reason I can afford to take the risks I do is that we have a lot of nearby family help, and we were lucky to get our kids into an awesome, affordable preschool.
  • More widely-available, affordable healthcare: I know someone who delayed starting his now-highly successful, real-world-problem-solving tech company because he needed to provide health coverage for his wife who had a pre-existing condition.
  • Well-funded, well-managed public retirement system: Middle-aged people might be willing to take more risks if they felt they didn't have to save every penny in order to stave off penury in old age.
  • Restored public support for higher education: Someone who graduated from college years ago with outstanding, crushing debt is probably not going to jump out of a comfortable job to start a tech company.
You get the idea. I realize these are all liberal causes, and I wonder if liberals have ever tried to position initiatives like these as supporting an innovative culture. Have there have been any studies done that would support my theory? If you take an entrepreneurial, self-starting culture like we have in the United States, and increase support for mid-career risk-taking, do you get more innovation and more new companies?


Phil Epstein said...

Dirty hippie, move to Europe! But seriously, since (western) Europe has all of these, why do they not have more of an entrepreneurial culture? I would hazard to guess it's complex, but having a lot to do with their histories. I'd like to think that with our already-established risk-taking culture that these kinds of reforms would supercharge things.

Unknown said...

The questions in your last paragraph are interesting. When I was in business school, they sort of beat us over the head with the idea that "firsthand knowledge of screwed-up situations" is where the seed of innovation occurs - otherwise, entrepreneurs risk pursuing a solution without ever defining the problem (or, in other words, validating the market). I had never thought about the folks with this first-hand knowledge as a specifically mid-career group - your example of Jess says as much. I think the genius of the questions you posed is in the fact that a mid-career group would have a better understanding of the systems, resources, and influence structures in their field of work, and therefore would be more successful at affecing change. So more companies and more innovation? Not necessarily. But better, more effective application and adoption of innovation? I'd say it's possible.