If you’ve ever had a conversation with Paul McConnell, you know getting him to stay on topic is a lot like trying to funnel water from a fire hose into a flask. And he knows it.
Between coworking space 1313 Innovation, the president’s council at the University of Delaware, his work with UD’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, the foundation he runs with his wife Linda, his involvement with investment firm New Spring Capital and, lest we forget, the real estate agency that bears his name, McConnell is being pulled in as many directions as his mind wanders.
It’s at least 125 directions. That is, after all, the number of partnerships McConnell says he is currently engaged in. At one point, McConnell said he was in 150.
“Herding partnerships is a lot like herding cats,” McConnell said. “It takes a superhuman effort to keep these partnerships together.”
Partnership breakups, company implosions — all things McConnell has been involved in in his 41 years of doing business, all things he’s still learning how to navigate. It’s the subject of his upcoming presentation at Delaware Innovation Week’s #Failfest on Nov. 16.
McConnell will talk about how to turn those setbacks into “speed bumps.”
“I’m not an expert, but what I can tell you is the setbacks will come all the time. Setbacks are really opportunities,” he said, adding that founders need to instill in their company culture an understanding of “failing forward.”
“Change is really good,” McConnell said. “You have to embrace change as part of what you’re really made to do.”
McConnell has gotten really good at embracing change. Consider 1313 Innovation and his move from real estate developer to flag-toting startup champion. How does that happen, and why?
“It was because we had to embrace what was new, even though it’s the opposite of what we were doing,” said McConnell. “[Coworking] means you don’t need an office. What could be more disruptive to my own business than that?”
It was a learning moment for the 63-year-old McConnell. What he found was a young startup community brimming with passionate people working on provocative projects. Coming from real estate, McConnell understood what needed to come next — space for that community to grow.
As of late, it would seem one space for a whole community to grow is exactly what’s happening in McConnell’s Hercules Building on 13th and Market. By taking in Wilmington’s maturing young companies like Carvertise and providing space for new tech communities like Girl Develop It Wilmington, First State .NET, Barrel of Makers and now Open Data Delaware, 1313 is collecting the pieces of a diverse innovation economy and placing them under one roof.
It’s a change of pace for McConnell, but not an altogether foreign one.
“Man oh man,” he chuckled. “Us real estate guys — we’ve always been community builders.”
He’s not building it alone, and he’s the first to acknowledge it by rattling off a list of names of people he said are beside him leading the charge for innovation in Delaware: fellow real estate developers Chris and Rob Buccini, entrepreneur and philanthropist Kris Vaddi and Christiana Care President and CEO Janice Nevin, plus many, many more.
McConnell might be all over the place in conversation and have his hands in a million-and-two projects, but he’s also fostering what’s becoming a robust tech ecosystem in Wilmington and beyond. But is he spreading himself too thin?
“I don’t think we’re too thin,” he said, a touch of a miff in his tone. “I’m 63, but I plan on doing this for a long time. I may get misdirected a bit, but I’m pretty clear with where I want to go with things.”