I spent the first ½ of my week in Las Vegas attending a conference on behalf of Sprint. South by South West is a well-established cultural conference that takes place in Austin, TX each year, but they’re extending the SXSW brand into other parts of the country. V2V (Venture 2 Vegas) is the first of its kind with Las Vegas playing host to almost 1K entrepreneurs and innovators.
There were a few stumbles and I question why it wasn’t held this October in a venue located near the revived “Downtown Project” (adjacent to the upcoming “Life is Beautiful Festival,” a combination that would have easily delivered on the brand promise of SXSW), but overall I’m walking away more enlightened and energized about what’s to come in my career.
Conferences can often be a mixed bag and I treat them much like I did business school…you’re only going to get as much out of them as you’re willing to put in. For me, this conference was special…I got to hear from one of my business idols (two if you count McGinnis), listen to a forefather of the internet, develop deeper relationships with KC community leaders, collide with like-minded innovators and speak on a panel for my very first time.
There’s so much to share and many of my insights will continue to develop here on this blog over time… I’ll wander through some of the high points of my trip so you may have to bear with me. Hit me up in the comments if you want to hear more specifics!!
It’s not fair for me to narrow this to one take-a-way but I’ll try… Tony is someone I’ve been following for a long time because of his very progressive views on the importance of company culture. If I had to pick one quote, it’s the following:
“Brand is just a lagging indicator of company culture”
He talked about selling his first venture to Microsoft for $¼ Billion. He didn’t sell out because of the money but because, in his words, he just didn’t like working there any more. His focus with Zappos is on the employee experience, looking to create a community where his employees collide with the other innovators in Downtown Las Vegas. Tony has successfully built a company culture that reflects each individual Zappos employee, focusing solely on customer service that eventually results in the sale of more clothing. Zappos is not a shoe company, it’s a company that will always deliver happiness to their customers, regardless of the product they’re selling…maybe even an airline some day soon?
Bonus Points – I also got to shake Tony’s hand after a random encounter at a pool party in downtown Vegas…pretty awesome moment for me.
For those who don’t know, Steve Case is the founder of America Online (AOL) and literally responsible for getting America “online.” I don’t know what comes to mind when you think of AOL (probably CD-ROMS being delivered to your door, a screeching modem connection, chat-rooms and that friendly voice exclaiming “YOU’VE GOT MAIL!”), but we owe a lot to this man.
When AOL was founded, 3% of the US was connected to the internet and on average those people were online 1hr per week. AOL created the tools and applications that made the internet real, effectively revolutionizing how we now communicate and conduct daily life. Steve talked a lot about his views on the continuing internet revolution and the fact that it’s not limited to a single city:
“60 years ago, Detroit was the center of American innovation, not Silicon Valley. What happened? They lost their entrepreneurial mojo.”
This quote is something that resonates with me and helped provide some context to what I wrestle with in my company. Almost 120 years ago a farmer in Abilene, KS decided to stand up to the Bell monopoly, giving the customers he served a choice in their communication provider. Decades later, we laid the first all fiber-optic network across America and soon after launched the very first national wireless network.
The entrepreneurial mindset is not something reserved for 2 people in a garage or a start-up just trying to make it in “Silicon Wherever.” Entrepreneurial thinking is a mindset that challengers everywhere must adopt to survive… Whatever industry you’re in, take a look around. Does your company have its entrepreneurial mojo?
Launch KC and Think Big Partners held a cocktail party Tuesday night to get some of the KC people together as well as some other interested conference goers. The party was in a penthouse at “The Hotel” (That’s with a capital T for those out there trying to find the right place…..*cough*……Brian). It was off of the beaten path, requiring a $10 cab ride to get there, but as I exited the elevator on the 62nd floor and rounded the corner, the sound of 50 people having simultaneous conversation filled the hallway. My take-a-way:
The Midwest’s neighborly attitude and ability to work together will help us win!
The city’s Big 5 initiative is ambitious, hoping to make KC one of the most entrepreneurial communities in America. KC is relying on one of our strongest assets…the Midwest cultural values of a hard work ethic and a neighborly attitude to make waves in the tech/entrepreneurial scene. KC has long been plagued with an invisible line that for some reason fosters a centuries old “border war.” It can be fun during football season, but the entrepreneurial community is showcasing our ability to compete together as one.
Among the party attendees was a strong contingent of KC start-ups, government agencies, foundations, corporations and venture funds. We all get-a-long in a way that is unique from the start-up communities I’ve visited. There’s still a long way to go but the conversations happening in this room were evidence of how far we’ve come by working together.
KC is thriving and will continue to do so because of our desire to collaborate. We may never get to the population density of other larger markets, but we have a leg up when it comes to the “collision density” that Tony is striving for in Downtown Las Vegas.
A Corporate Role in the Entrepreneurial Eco-System
Kevin McGinnis and Jeff Slobotski sat down on Wednesday to have a fireside chat. In a story I’ve heard many times, Kevin talked through the last couple years of Sprint getting more involved with the entrepreneurial movement in KC. The symbiotic relationship between corporations and start-ups has been well documented and a lot of times, it can be misconstrued that the benefits are lop-sided. Kevin brought in a few examples of the benefits Sprint has seen since engaging more in the community, but the following really hit home for me:
“Employee satisfaction picks up when our employees engage in the entrepreneurial ecosystem”
I’ve taken a lot of inspiration back to my day job through my involvement in the entrepreneurial community. Participating in local hack-a-thons, start-up weekend, mentoring and just hanging out with some of these innovators in KC has given me a fresh perspective on my career. As a corporation, we have access to a lot of valuable assets ranging from intellectual property, money, customers and more…but our most valuable resource is locked within the minds of the domain experts we’ve trained over the last few decades. Getting those people out of their desk every now and again to “collide” with the larger eco-system is critical to our success. Giving employees the freedom to sit down as a mentor and walk away with a better understanding for the entrepreneurial mindset will change culture at Sprint in a way that can’t be trained or handed down.
If you’re a corporate employee in Kansas City and you feel like you’re doing your job the same way it’s been done for years, then stop it. Stand up, get involved, change something. The community is ready for you, but much like a business conference, you’re only going to get out what you put into it.
Let me know if you need help getting started.