Last night was the GBTC’s Tech Nite – the annual convergence of Baltimore’s tech community. During a break in the networking, several of the region’s leading entrepreneurs were asked to reflect on Baltimore’s future. Many painted great visions for our community. And as I thought about what made them successful as entrepreneurs, my mind wandered to Steve Jobs. Actually, my thoughts settled on the iconic image of Apple’s logo and its talismanic power over us…
Behind that incredibly clean, crisp, yet partially bitten apple, was the man who picked it. He picked it as the brand for a company who knew before us what we could not live without. But by taking one bite, he unleashed its complex spiritual imagery. Such an apple is perfect, yet incomplete, and we all have been tempted by its powers without fear. But Steve’s apple also suggests the imperfections required in those who reach for perfection. Not in those who purchase his apples, but in those who want to make them. Frankly it made me wonder what made up the DNA of Baltimore’s entrepreneurs who filled the stage last night. Every one of them is a very different person. From Greg Cangialosi, to Paul Palmieri, to Adam Zilberbaum, and the others we celebrated as a community.
So what makes someone an entrepreneur? Nature or nurture? What’s the common denominator among our region’s entrepreneurs? What do they have in common with Steve Jobs, the uber entrepreneur? Moving past the religious iconography, one realizes that in Steve’s partially eaten, forbidden fruit lies a reflection of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
So what did we see in our own region’s entrepreneurs last night? Passion. Confidence. A sense of what can be. Drive. But just like Steve’s apple, the image is incomplete. Most of us seek some sort of balance among the things we care about in life. Yet with every “successful” entrepreneur, that balance is perennially at risk. The external gauge of success for entrepreneurs, the yardstick we measure them with, is calibrated in financial terms – ultimately in the value the market places on a company. And while it would be naïve to say that such value isn’t a driver for any entrepreneur, when you really tune into the vocabulary they use, it isn’t money or wealth or some financial measure of value.
A clue to why the vast majority of “successful” entrepreneurs seem out of balance, that the apple is never complete, lies in the language they use. Theirs are words imbued with their drive for perfection – whether it be in a product, in a market solution, in meeting a need – it is language that is unceasing, that isn’t ever satisfied. Knowing the stories of several of the entrepreneurs the community celebrated last night – they each sacrificed various aspects of their lives in that drive for perfection. They’re restless when they aren’t driving forward and even when they’re trying to tune into family or tune out a vacation – their minds don’t stop churning, and they inevitably head back to one place – where the drive consumes them again…
Steve Jobs could have declared victory, by anyone’s measure, after he was thrown out of Apple – forced to leave his Garden – and yet he reinvented digital media while in the Wilderness at Pixar. But he was restless, and that which he loved – the cool stuff he saw in his mind’s eye not being created back at Apple – drove him to return. Most of us would have given up, rationalized some sort of closure, blamed others. The funny thing about entrepreneurs is they can’t stop running those films of the past and ones of the future. They all have unrelenting studios in their minds.
On the GBTC’s showcase last night were entrepreneurs in all stages of company life. Some with successful (our definition) exits, others just starting to gain traction with their ideas; others growing at what must seem an unsustainable pace; and some stable, mature, well financed in their market. But at their core (couldn’t help myself), they’re not really satisfied. It’s not that they’re unhappy, it’s that they’re never done – what most of us would measure as success is simply for them a milestone – and the itch to tackle ineluctably returns.
As evinced last night, Baltimore is at a crossroads; there is an emerging generation of entrepreneurs coming into their own. The space was filled with innovative people ready to move the community to a new place – it’s all part of a natural evolution. And a healthy one, where entrepreneurs increasingly drive how our community engages and grows. As with any evolution, what was safe, what was expected loses value, but exciting events, programs and people fill the void. Greg Cangialosi might have said it best when he rattled off a series of happenings in town that excite him and almost seamlessly included his vision for an accelerator that would enable more entrepreneurs to emerge. All of us need to own this vision together to embrace change and to recognize with appreciation what got us here. As more buy into an evolving future, it will get crowded. There will be conflicting views. But if you listened to Jason Pappas, Chair of the GBTC, carefully, as the evening wrapped up, he saw this future, only beginning to take shape, is coming up in your rear view mirror really fast. How cool would it be if instead of a couple of lights in that mirror, you saw hundreds. Not careening into each other but coming straight up behind you. I suspect Jason, Greg and others last night might be right. The objects you see might very well be closer than they appear. Stay tuned.-30-