If You Build It, I Will Come

By Tom Frank, CFE Executive Director

158065aTFrankI recently had the pleasure of co-hosting the distinguished alumni awards for the College of Engineering in one of my large survey classes. I really enjoyed listening to the accomplishments and career paths of the winners; several of whom were interviewed on stage.

At one point, one of the award winners, who just happened to be a CFE founding Board Member, Steve Carnevale said, “To me, entrepreneurship is about building things and selling things.”

And I agree with him heart and soul.

Now before I start getting angry comments from all my friends involved in social entrepreneurship I want to be very, very clear: I think successful social ventures also fall within this simple definition.

In my own career, I know of many examples of companies that built cool or innovative things that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. But if you don’t actually build something…hardware, software, service, product, etcetera…can you really call yourself an entrepreneur?

I worked as CEO for the first set-top box company called Akimbo. The box itself was a big, ugly, clumsy thing that didn’t look anything like the pretty Amazon Fire or Apple TV. But the Akimbo box did basically the same thing. Ten years ago, it was impossibly hard to convince content creators (like the HBOs of the world) to license their content to this ugly box and allow Akimbo to sell it through the Internet to customers. No one had ever done this before!

Ultimately, Akimbo failed because too much money was invested to buy content and attract users, the math didn’t work, and the user experience itself wasn’t very awesome. Or maybe I was just a bad CEO? (Although, in fairness that one was already circling the drain by the time they hired me). However, many of the founding members of Akimbo ended up at another set-top box start-up called ROKU and they are doing just fine, thank you.

Did they build something better? Yes.

I’ve also built a few philanthropic organizations in my time. What we were “selling” has varied, but included access to education and equal rights. These efforts were also about “building” because we had to create organizations and solutions to challenges where none existed. We had to create “products” for people to engage with and become involved with as volunteers or donors. We had to create processes to allow all of these things to happen in the most efficient way. We had to deliver results to allow the organizations to grow and become more self-sustaining.

Build. Build. Build. Sell. Sell. Sell.

Within that same week I was reflecting on the wise words of our distinguished alumni, I also overheard another conversation between strangers at a coffee house. These individuals were talking about various things one table away from me, and at some point one of them said casually “Oh, and I have a start-up on the side.”

REALLY???

All I could think in the moment was it sounded like he was remembering to tell his friends he just adopted a terrier or bought a used Lexus. This did not sound like a driven individual who was going to be building or selling anything in the near future. So I continued to eavesdrop, and it turns out I was correct in my assumption. The alleged “start-up” was a conceptual and research oriented hypothesis.

Small digression for those of you who are unclear: “Start-Up” is a PHASE on the path to becoming a successful COMPANY. It is not an identity or an end state or a good way to characterize a hobbyist approach to driving any real innovation…and laying claim to such title if you aren’t committed to your task with blood, sweat, and tears cheapens it for those who are! (Rant over).

So if you are trying to build something, or sell something that has value to consumers or businesses or society in general… or you are struggling to create something that will require you to build in the future… I am all ears and all yours.

If all you have are ideas, but already want to call yourself an entrepreneur … I can recommend a great coffee house where you can hang out.