Me@Sea: From One Bubble to Another

I named this blog Bubble and Blender to denote the conditions that make Silicon Valley a unique place.  It is a bubble of economic inflation, most certainly, and also of out-sized expectations and shared, if sometimes skewed, values.  It is a blender that dices and mixes and perhaps even homogenizes ideas, technologies, and cultures.  The title also references the froth that builds around the search for the Next Big Thing, the drive to the exit, the chase to the trend, and worship of personalities, all of which I have come to find so disenchanting.

Which is to say that the very things that make Silicon Valley great are the things that may one day be its demise. Likely, I stand alone – and more than a little nervously so –  in my assertion that Silicon Valley’s best days of innovation and achievement may be behind it.  The cycle of bubble and burst has accelerated with Internet Time. Hundreds of startups chase investment rather than markets.  Would-be entrepreneurs build apps instead of companies.  With a dollop of  seed money, the emerging super angel investor class has become the taste makers of technology. In short, it becomes easier and easier to see the “silly” in Silicon Valley.

Admittedly, I have been in a very different bubble in the last two weeks.  Thousands of miles from Silicon Valley, “roughing it out” with slow and intermittent connectivity, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and talk to a different kind of entrepreneur.   The companies at work at Unreasonable@Sea  don’t spend a lot of time courting investors or worrying about stock options.  They work hard on their businesses knowing that, quite literally, someone’s life may depend on it.  In  port, they talk to government ministers, universities, villagers, country managers at leading global brands. They talk to anyone who will listen and they listen to anyone who will talk.

These companies are much more than what I imagined when I wrote, in November of 2011, that the business of building a business is hard. so you might as well make it matter.  “Solve tough problems,”  I wrote then, and repeat today. “Make an impact.”

That’s what the Unreasonables are doing.

Interestingly, only one of the 20 entrepreneurs lives in Silicon Valley.   Only two are Americans.  All are building potentially large, global, for-profit, investable businesses.

These entrepreneurs get tossed into the category of social entrepreneurs, as if there is any other kind. Every entrepreneur seeking to build a sustainable business of scale is a social entrepreneur. They create jobs in their communities, pay taxes in their states and nations, contribute to the economy as procurers of goods and services.

That term, social entrepreneurs, tends to conjure images of do gooders whose time in the Peace Corps profoundly turned them to a life of service and a vow of poverty.  We admire social entrepreneurs. We sip our grande cappuccino (as if there really is such a thing) and watch their TED talks. Then, we get back to the business of building “real” companies.

Among the insights from these first 12 days is that we need to erase the concept of “social entrepreneur” as something different and apart from regular entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs.  These so-called social entrepreneurs simply have different customers and usually different sources of capital.  They often work more closely with governments and NGOs.  “Traction” for them is a commitment from a foreign minister to support a trial in a rural village, or a the purchase of a hundred units in a pilot program in a developing country.  Investment many times comes in the form of a grant from a government or foundation. But the process of pitching investors and engaging customers is not all that different from what “real” entrepreneurs experience.

The real difference between the two, however, is outcomes.

For the most part, today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are actors in an investment scheme.  Startups are a commodity to be invested in and traded. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you understand that that’s the game.

Aboard this ship, though, and at the newly opened Hub in Accra, Ghana, for example, these entrepreneurs see things a little differently. They are in business to make money, absolutely, and they have every intention of building for sustainability and scale.  There is, however, no short game.  These entrepreneurs are in it for the long run.  They are in it to have impact.

And that’s what view their businesses differently.

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