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Startup School and Minnesota Converge

On Saturday I attended Minnebar, the Minnesota version of BarCamp. It was an excellent first experience, thanks to organizers Ben Edwards, Luke Francl, and Dan Grigsby. Very well attended, with lots of great sessions and conversations to be had.

Dan asked me to say a few words at his session, “Startup Camp Is Coming.” This was not due to any special knowledge I have, but rather because I attended Startup School a few weeks back. Being my first BarCamp, I did not know what to prepare. I quickly found that the long version of my Startup School thoughts would not be appropriate, so I figured here is as good a place as any to share my thoughts as they have crystallized over the past month.

I don’t have a lot to say about the value of a startup camp in Minnesota. I’m not particularly qualified to have an opinion on any of this stuff. I’ve been thinking about startups for under a year. I’ve been kind of sort of involved with them for under nine months. And I’m not really pushing hard toward any sort of success.

I left my corporate job in February without any income stream in place. I’m involved in a startup project (Scrawlers) that doesn’t expect to make any money. For income (and additional experience) I’m working twenty hours a week contracting for the Iridesco design firm in New York City.

So I’ll just describe my three biggest take-aways from Startup School to give you an idea how the whole conference comes together in one person’s mind.

Diversity is important

Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, one of the fastest growing companies ever, was the keynote speaker. One particular point he made was that hiring diverse talent leads to more innovation. By diversity, he meant hiring those with varying experience and backgrounds as well as the more traditional definition of diversity. Kapur felt one of the most common mistakes made at startups was to build “mirrortocracies,” which leads to two problems: ignoring better talent due to a desire to hire someone like yourself and suppressing the innovation that comes from varied life experiences.

The presenter directly following Mitch essentially stated the opposite. He declared that hiring young and technical is the way to go. Granted there are good points to be made about his thesis, but he didn’t really make them. I don’t wish to name names, but his company reportedly turned down a billion dollar acquisition from Yahoo! He suffers from a belief that his success is defined by his experiences, his state in life. Therefor, hiring more people like him will lead to greater success.

You can probably guess who I side with.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Google campus. It was striking how many women work at the company. I have never attended a tech event with greater than a 5% representation from the female population. I couldn’t even guess what percent of the people I saw at Google were women. Google appears to be a pretty successful company. Just sayin’.

In terms of startup camp, diversity is an important issue. Success will be enhanced with more diverse presenters and attendees. It was valuable to have that variation in experience so we could collectively determine who was worth listening to and who was full of shit. As you can see, contrasting these presentations becomes an invaluable educational experience.

Skill is a requirement for success, but not a guarantee

One speaker at Startup School very clearly believed his aptitude was the biggest reason for his company’s success. It’s not true. I don’t wish to name names, but he probably will not be offered a billion dollar buyout again.

While skill can get you in position for success, it’s very clear that however smart you are, there are thousands of entrepreneurs that are smarter than you. Lady luck is the biggest factor in your success. Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger, used to come off as someone who believed his intelligence was the sole reason for his success. He went so far as to write an excellent blog post about the Ten Rules for Web Startups, and then ignored five of those points with his venture du jour, Odeo. Since that experience, he has humbled up quite nicely - definitely worth listening to. If you’ve ever heard Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, speak, you know that Digg did not have every technical feature nailed, but they succeeded. I think he’d be the first to admit that he was in the right place at the right time.

There are lots of bad ideas

In other words, you will fail. If you’ve internalized anything from the great startup writers (Graham, Spolsky, and Sink), it’s that failure is inevitable. Indeed, Graham and Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail reiterated the same thing. Buccheit had a great point during his presentation about the sure way to success; redefine the meaning of the term. Change the definition from “I made a lot of money” to “I learned something.” Then pursue projects that will teach you. Graham hammered this point home by addressing everyone’s fear of uncertainty. Graham removed any doubts by telling everyone, “You will fail” and encouraging us to get on with it.

Something I wish I would have done more of was talk to other attendees. When reading about startups, you are frequently reading about success stories or reading opinions of the successful. Just like Buccheit’s and Graham’s statements, it is a little surreal to hear a phenomenally successful person tell you that failure is inevitable. What you see and what you hear do not mesh. The little bit of networking I did led me to the conclusion that there are a lot of bad ideas out there. This isn’t to say that these ideas had no merit and wouldn’t teach you anything. These ideas were simply difficult to imagine succeeding in a monetary sense.

Some ideas were empty from all sides. There didn’t appear to be a financial success in store and the technical aspects weren’t going to teach anyone anything. These are the things to avoid. It appears the best way to success is to get involved with ideas that interest you and teach you something. Then iterate. You’ll have some failures, but given enough attempts someday you should find yourself in the right place at the right time.

What does a successful startup camp in Minnesota look like?

This is the question Dan and Jamie Thingelstad planned to address with the Startup Camp session at Minnebar. I’ve written enough for now, so I’ll give you some of my thoughts and half-baked opinions later this week.

Update:My half-baked opinions are now posted.