Eli the Computer Guy: local bomb thrower or savvy critic of Baltimore's startup scene? - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Dec. 6, 2012 9:30 am

Eli the Computer Guy: local bomb thrower or savvy critic of Baltimore’s startup scene?

Eli Etherton has one message for Baltimore's tech community: "We don't push ourselves ... and if they don't start treating this like a business, then we don't have a tech scene."

Eli Etherton photo from the CBT Nuggets blog.

Eli Etherton — the self-styled “Computer Guy” whose YouTube videos and website are meant to teach “people how we get paid” — has one message for Baltimore’s tech community.

“We don’t push ourselves … and if they don’t start treating this like a business, then we don’t have a tech scene,” he said. Etherton has been pushing, particularly of late. But is it for better or worse?

He made waves on the Baltimore Tech Facebook group last week after McKeever Conwell, co-founder of Given.to, posted a blog Etherton had written subtitled “The Tragedy of NoBadGift.com,” the name of Conwell’s startup prior to his spending three months at the NewME Accelerator in San Francisco. Etherton’s overall conclusion was that Given.to had been “accelerated” into a usability, design and user interface disaster, a “worthless” app that’s barely serviceable for the impending holiday gift-giving season. (In another post, he indirectly chastised Technically Baltimore for its “lame coverage” of Betamore‘s opening.)

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“An amazing, gem of a startup has spent a half year being ‘accelerated’ [NoBadGift.com/Given.to spent three months at AcceleratoreBaltimore before joining NewME in August] and has come out the other side an unusable, uninspired, travesty,” Etherton wrote.

Backlash was swift. One commenter remarked Etherton’s post was “a shitty thing to say about a local startup.” Dave Troy of 410 Labs likened it to “an unsolicited public flogging,” encouraging people instead to “[m]ake or do not make; but do not bash.” Mykel Nahorniak wondered how Etherton’s assessment of Given.to was “contributing to the greater discussion of startups in Baltimore.” By Nov. 4, Etherton had published a separate, follow-up post wondering himself if he is “the basher, or the bashee, or possibly just an irreconcilable douche.”

It should be noted that Conwell appended a footnote to his original Facebook post where he mentioned Etherton is a person he respects, and that, since Etherton published his blog post on Given.to, the startup has “gotten some of the best feedback we could have asked for that we may have not gotten other wise,” Conwell said.

But the important takeaway from the Facebook exchange, one which people seem to agree on, is that treating Baltimore’s startups with kid gloves does nothing to help new companies figure out how to form profitable businesses with products or services people will end up buying.

The discussion is worthwhile given the squeeze on Series A venture capital funding in Silicon Valley, as we have reported, something that surely won’t be bounded by geography. A post by ReadWrite editor Dan Lyons (with the risible title “Let’s All Shed Tears for the Crappy Startups That Can’t Raise Any More Money“) calls the Valley a “Confederacy of Dunces” and points to what is perhaps the single biggest issue with VC funding drying up:

The great lie of these last few years is that anyone can be a tech entrepreneur. You don’t need to know electrical engineering or computer science. You don’t need to know anything about business. You just need a positive outlook and an ability to speak confidently while saying things that make little or no sense. [more]

It strikes Etherton as backwards, he said, that there isn’t “a lot of overlap” between Baltimore’s tech and startup community and the general business community in the region. He points to his YouTube videos, which he says make him $9,000 in revenue each month, as evidence of the ease with which people can build businesses and make money doing tech-related stuff.

“I still think of that [$9,000] as play money,” he said.

While brashness and snark is probably unwarranted, Etherton makes a valid point about startups needing to focus more on making money and not raising funding — oftentimes one of the main attractions of joining accelerators, their practicality being the intended, if ineffectively argued, thrust of Etherton’s Given.to blog post. But his point is also one that people in this city’s startup community agree with. As Ed Mullin of LCG Technologies has said: “Ideas are a dime a dozen. … How do you get some customers? Because if you have customers, you don’t need funding.”

Perhaps the bigger question, then, isn’t about Etherton’s delivery. More important is how the tech community balances its cheerleading of proven and successful startups, and brand new and unproven startups, with the reality of where Baltimore stands as a startup city, and where it still needs to go.

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