Innovation is the future

13 Jan

Yesterday I attended an event hosted by The Tomorrow Plan. I had never heard of the group but was invited by some YPC-types so I figured it would be good networking (and a chance to check out the recently renovated World Food Prize headquarters). The topic was ”what it means to live in a regional city” with speakerBill Fulton, former mayor of Ventura, Calif. who now works with Smart Growth America.

The hour-long presentation turned out to be very interesting and served as an affirmation of what my employer, StartupCity (as well as the entire tech community in Des Moines) is doing.

“The jobs that will drive your community into the future are not routine, ordinary jobs,” Fulton said. “The way you are going to compete is by encouraging people to bring creativity and innovation to everything they do everyday. The people who drive the new economy are not people who want to spend their weekends driving a lawnmower.” Hallelujah!

Fulton’s speech was focused on how changing demographics will affect city planning. Suburban sprawl is likely to become a thing of the past, he said, as Baby Boomers retire and seek walkable communities and as Millennials continue to favor urban dwelling over cookie-cutter lifestyles. Quality of place and sense of community will continue to be important to the next generation of workers. If a city is to survive and thrive in the next century, it must address those desires, not just in housing options but also in the types of jobs available.

Fulton’s discussion had me beaming with pride for the Des Moines tech community (StartupIowa, the businesses that make up Silicon Sixth AvenueSilicon Prairie NewsTechnology Association of Iowa, and so many more). We are creating exactly what Fulton has prescribed for the future growth—a sense of place.

While everyone I meet in the local startup scene is fiercely competitive (that’s one key element of the entrepreneurial spirit, after all), they are also incredibly encouraging of each other. Everyone is quick to offer advice, connect people, share resources, and promote each other. They are protective of this community that is being built—unwilling to let anyone plant a treacherous seed that could fracture the solidarity.

I strongly believe that the continued effort to create a solid tech startup scene in Des Moines will serve to make the city stronger and the kind of city that Fulton believes will grow in the future.

Unfortunately, the audience at the event yesterday was heavily weighted toward the public sector. To succeed in its mission, The Tomorrow Plan must involve the private sector as well. Clearly, we know how to make things happen!

To learn more about The Tomorrow Plan, attend its first public meeting on Jan. 31 from 6-7:30 pm at the Eastside Senior Center. Conveniently, the event starts immediately after the city’s first Startup Fair.

2012 Detox (slightly off topic)

9 Jan

Fair warning: I told you I’m not a total geek. And this is my least-geeky post yet. But I’ve had people ask me about it, so I’m going for it anyway.

Confession: I went off the rails at the end of 2011. I ate like it was my job and spent money like I was made of it. The holiday season has a way of doing that to me. So, like so many other Americans, I resolved to reign myself in on January 1st. I joined my friend Laurie in her quest for a No-Spend January, and I added some health goals to her financial fitness plan.

The plan is lofty, to be sure, but just the detox I need to re-boot my system. On the financial side, I cannot spend any money that isn’t necessary. Basically, that means I can buy groceries and gas but nothing else. No going out to eat, no bar tabs, no movies. On the health side, I am giving up alcohol (GASP!), sugar (BIGGER GASP!), soda, and fried foods, and choosing only whole grains.

The New Year didn’t exactly start as planned. January 1st brought with it the obligatory hangover and the overwhelming need for grease. So I caved and ordered Pizza Hut. Violated both my financial and health rules on Day 1. I convinced myself it was okay because it was Sunday—I would start the plan on a Monday. And I did. I’m happy to report that I’ve been (mostly) faithful to my rules since. My only violation was spending $5 to play pool with friends. And I kicked myself later that night when I remembered I can play for free at work.

It’s been one week and I’ve lost 1.5 pounds and (based on previous spending) saved about $400. I’ve also gained  some valuable insights:

  1. I waste a lot of money on really frivolous things (Do I really need another pair of shoes? Is that Groupon really too good to pass up? Will I really listen to that song that much if I download it?).
  2. Eating healthy is a choice and really not a difficult one (the horrible sugar cravings only last a few days, I swear).
  3. Having fun doesn’t require alcohol, bad food, or lots of money. Last Saturday, a few friends and I attended a cheese and meat tasting, hosted by The Cheese Shop, and hit the downtown riverwalk to take photos and soak up the sun. Free, healthy, and a great time.
  4. I’m a much better chef that I realized and I actually kind of enjoy cooking.
  5. According to this article, my plan will help me improve professionally. It could be the placebo effect, but I think it’s working. I’ve been more energized about my work and more productive in the last week than I have been in a long time.

Time will tell, of course, whether I stick with it and create some new healthy habits. I’ll report back at the end of the month and let you know. I hope to also share some tricks/tips with you in case you want to give No-Spend February a shot.

Broadband for ALL, dammit (a slightly political rant)

29 Dec

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by someone I’d never met asking if I’d like to get involved with the Broadband for America coalition in Iowa. She said several people had told her that I might be a good person to help the organization. I’d never heard of Broadband for America but, following her smart move to stroke my ego, I decided to check it out. And then I immediately told her to sign me up.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m not a geek. I’m never the first to hear about the coolest new widget, nor the earliest to adopt it. And until recently, I am not one to keep up with the latest news affecting the technology sector. So while I know what broadband is (high-speed Internet access), I didn’t know why there was a coalition promoting it for America.

Broadband for America’s mission is simple: To make broadband access available to every household in the nation; to provide data transfer speeds to make broadband valuable to users; and to provide the bandwidth necessary for content providers to continue to make the Internet awesome. Why? Because broadband is essential for job creation and for keeping America competitive in the 21st Century.

I’m guessing nearly every person reading this has broadband at home. But I was surprised to learn that 100 million Americans do not. The Internet has become as important to our daily lives as electricity, so why shouldn’t it be as readily available to all? That’s the goal of the National Broadband Plan, an effort by the FCC that is supported by Broadband for America. The Plan—mandated by a stimulus bill in 2009—outlines suggestions for providing the country with broadband service over the next 10 years.

If all of that is old news to you (like I said, I’m often late to the show), you may be more interested in Broadband for America’s latest initiative. The organization is circulating a petition called “Hands off the Internet,” which urges those in Washington to stop it with unnecessary (and, in my opinion, dangerous) Internet regulations that could potentially destroy online innovation.

Time to step off my soapbox, which I promise not to drag out too often. Before I do, however, I would urge you to take a look at the Broadband for America site and—if you agree with what they are up to—sign the above-mentioned petition. It only takes a second but is at least one small way to have your voice heard.

…and now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

Need a job? Get creative.

15 Dec

Scott Rocketship just lost his job, joining 13.3 million other Americans in the world of unemployment. That sucks. But instead of sending Debbie Downer tweets about his new situation, he is harnessing social media to find work. Scott has the right idea—and other job seekers would be wise to take a page from his (virtual) book.

I’m just old enough to remember when job searching meant reading the Sunday newspaper (and I mean the PRINTED edition) and then sending resumes and cover letters (and I mean via SNAIL MAIL) and hoping someone would call you back for an interview (and I mean on a LAND LINE). Then came the Internet. By the time I graduated college, job searching meant searching online classifieds, emailing a resume, and waiting for a return call via cell. And that’s the method many people are still using nearly two decades later.

Emailing a generic resume to every listing just doesn’t work. Not when unemployment is 8.6 percent, and definitely not if your skill set is outside high-demand fields like nursing and IT. In a crowded unemployment market, you have to get creative to stand out.

Back to Scott. In just a few hours, he created an interactive online resume on Storify, a web service originally designed for curating news stories from social media sources. It includes an Instagram photo of him, tweets from people who recommend him (and some from himself about his skills), and links to his writing projects. The site is simple yet dynamic, which is important when you are one of hundreds or thousands competing for one job opening. It’s only been a few days since Scott lost his job but I’ll be interested to learn how well his creative approach works.

I’m always on the lookout for cool freelance writing and project management work and, as such, I’m always interested in cool ideas for marketing oneself. A quick online search uncovered a few creative ideas for modern-day job searching:

• Creating a video resume, posting it on YouTube, and then linking to it on Twitter and other social media.
• Adding QR codes to resumes to link to online portfolios or other supplementary information.
Stalking hiring managers like prey on LinkedIn. It doesn’t have to be creepy.
• Advertising yourself like a business on Facebook, Google, and more. This 28-year-old got his dream job for $6.

I’m sure there are many more amazing ways one can get creative in their job hunt. If you’ve done something unusual or know someone who has, please share your stories with me (just leave a comment here). If you are searching for a job, maybe you will be inspired by what others are doing and try a new approach.

Am I sexist?

9 Dec

I’d feel more comfortable having a woman as a mentor than a man. Is that sexist? At least one man in my office thought so when we got on the topic of why there aren’t more women in tech startups.

The debate started when I read about a new Des Moines startup called Hoops & Garters in Juice. The online bridal registry was started by two women, which I thought was pretty awesome given the scarcity of women-led tech startups both locally and nationally. In fact, only 3% of tech firms are founded by women even though we make up more than half the population. Why such a disparity?

My co-worker believes women and men are fundamentally different (I agree) and perhaps women are more risk-averse or aren’t willing to give up family time to start a business. That doesn’t explain, however, why women own 28% (and growing) of all businesses in this country. Clearly there is something about technology that doesn’t appeal to women in the same way other entrepreneurship opportunities do.

I think this disconnect starts for women when they are very young. I don’t believe girls are encouraged in the areas of math and science in the way boys are. Research backs me up. There is a deep-rooted stereotype that boys are better than girls at math and science and, although false, that belief negatively affects girls’ performance in these subjects. A lack of female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professions only reinforces young girls’ lack of self-confidence.

My personal experience backs up these findings. I will never forget failing a timed multiplication test in the 7th grade. Rather than offering suggestions such as tutoring and re-testing, my male teacher informed me I could not take pre-Algebra the next year. He also told the entire class how many students passed and failed the test. His effort to praise the pre-Algebra kids ended up completely deflating my self-esteem. My single mother, who also didn’t excel at math as a child, compounded the problem by trying to make me feel better by telling me I didn’t really need math to succeed in life.

In recent years, educators have admitted there is a gender gap in math and science, and they are working to make improvements. Programs like Microsoft’s DigiGirlz also help get girls excited about STEM careers, but it will take time for their effects to be seen in the workforce.

During my workplace argument on this topic, I suggested women might be less likely to start a tech business because they don’t have as many role models as men, nor as many mentors of the same sex available to them. The sexist part, it seems, is that I believe women may be more comfortable (whether consciously or not) with female mentors. The four men participating in this discussion said if they made the same argument about men wanting to work with other men, I’d be up in arms. Perhaps. But I think there is a valid reason why persons of a historically oppressed class (women and minorities) may feel less intimidated around other members of that same group. We share an experience that others simply cannot understand. It is easier to let our guard down with each other because there is a foundation of trust that is established simply because of our common social circumstances.

When there aren’t other women in a field, I naturally feel less welcomed and more guarded (in the same way I would expect a man might feel like an outsider in a female-dominated occupation, such as nursing). For the first time in my life, I now work in a male-dominated office (there are 11 men here and only 3 women) and a male-dominated field. And it’s damn intimidating. So I am not at all surprised by the lack of women at networking events I attend.

I may not be surprised, but I am disappointed. When men or women are underrepresented in any field, it suffers. Your industry cannot address the needs of all if it is not being run by all. The tech startup world is simply not as innovative as it could (and should) be because women aren’t contributing enough to the process. And that’s a damn shame.

So, I ask you. Am I sexist? Actually, what I really want to hear are your thoughts on why my new industry is where it is. Why aren’t there more women starting technology businesses? And how do we change that?

30 Nov

Being unemployed sucks. I know because I was out of work for 6 months before taking my current position in October. So when a complete stranger emailed to ask me to coffee to discuss his job search, I immediately agreed. He found me through a mutual acquaintance, who thought I might be able to share some insight on career opportunities in the startup world.

I chatted for 30 minutes with this gentleman, who is looking to change careers at 50-something, and shared with him some awesome networking events. He also asked about Twitter (my twit-putation preceded me, yet again) and I shared my thoughts on how to use it effectively in a job search.

The whole encounter got me thinking about the importance of networking, particularly in a close-knit community like Des Moines, and the role technology should (and shouldn’t) play.

Though I’m not a full-fledged geek, I’m usually an early technology adopter. I was the first person at my first job to get email (and then showed everyone else how to sign up). I’ve been on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for years, and I’m now trying to figure out why I should care about Google+.

Over the years, I’ve incorporated all of these platforms into my networking repertoire, with varying results. Here’s some of what I’ve learned about successful “technetworking”:

1. Use it as a supplement. Technology should never replace face-to-face networking. For the introverted, sending an email or chatting on Twitter can be a non-threatening way to make an introduction. Likewise, technology may expose extroverts to shy (but important) folks they may not otherwise meet. While it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to start networking via technology, it eventually needs to transition into real-life encounters to become a truly worthwhile relationship.

2. Give as much as you take. I can credit social media directly for finding me my last two jobs, for creating at least a dozen of my closest friendships, for uncovering what became some of my favorite social events, and for rewarding me with a variety of awesome prizes and swag. That said, I’ve used it to help others find jobs, locate lost pets, spread the word about charitable events, and much more. The best way to get someone to help you is to first help them.

3. Don’t expect overnight results. If you think you can sign up for all the social media sites tonight and have your dream job or thousands of loyal new customers tomorrow, you are living in Fantasy Land. Virtual relationships are as much work as real-life ones—and they should be. People want to work with and help people they care about, and that extends to the online world. I can’t help everyone in my social-media circle, so I let the selfish, impatient ones weed themselves out and instead focus my time on those who engage in a consistent and meaningful way.

4. Consider your image. Before getting started, think about why you are using a particular site. What do you want to accomplish? This will help guide both the image you project and the types of people with whom you interact. I’ve been told by some that I’m too open and crazy with my social media but there is actually a method to my madness (basically, in the words of Groucho Marx, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”). Remember that anything you say on the ‘Net never EVER goes away.

I’m sure there are many more “rules” for technetworking success and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my meager list. Please leave a comment with your suggestions. And if I’ve never met you, let’s start a conversation. (find me on Twitter or shoot me an email, bmollenkamp at me dot com) and see how well this technetworking thing really works.

Geeky Gift Idea

23 Nov

Have a special geek in your life? Not sure what to get him or her for Christmas? I found something you’ll love — this awesome t-shirt from SnorgTees:

It’s only $19.95 and is so freaking cool, I’d wear one (hint hint). Consider this find to be my little Christmas gift to you. Happy Holidays!

There IS such a thing as a stupid question—and that’s a good thing

16 Nov

Whoever said “there are no stupid questions, just stupid people” was stupid. There are many, many stupid questions…and you better be asking them if you want your business to succeed.

I’ve learned a lot about the value of stupid questions in the last month in my role as City Manager at StartupCity Des Moines because I’m usually the one asking them. As a non-techie working in an über techie world, I almost always feel stupid. I don’t understand much of what I hear around me. Back-end utility? Gooey (um, I mean GUI?)? SEM? It’s all Greek to me. I know I’m ignorant and, as such, I’m not afraid to ask the questions that others who are supposed to know this stuff may not have the guts to ask.

Last week, I asked one of our startups why a button on his mobile app was green. Stupid question but it helped identify a problem that other ordinary, non-techie users might have. Yesterday, an applicant stopped by the offices to pitch his startup. I didn’t understand the technology behind the idea but I asked some stupid questions about why his target market (women) would want to use the site, and he left needing to rethink his approach.

Stupid questions can uncover some really important information. The people using your product or service don’t share your encyclopedic knowledge about it, nor do they have the same IQ as you. But their experiences are as valuable—actually, they are more valuable—than yours. If they don’t understand and love what you have to offer, then you have nothing to sell.

To uncover the stupid questions—and then make needed changes to address them—you need to look outside of yourself. Get in front of as many people as possible, even those you don’t consider a target market. Sometimes the stupidest (and best) questions come from the unlikeliest sources. Let everyone play with your product, if you have one, or describe what you are doing and how. Then give them permission to ask you anything.

Listening without judgment is key here. Remember, these are probably going to sound like stupid questions to you but there is something to be learned if only you curb your instinct to explain, justify, rationalize, and roll your eyes. Take notes on everything you hear, even if it seems totally silly to you, and watch for trends. If more than one person asks the same stupid question, it’s probably not so stupid after all.

By now you are probably thinking, “she’s just describing a focus group.” That’s true, it just happens to be a more organic, valuable, and cheaper DIY version. Long before you can afford to hire a big marketing firm to organize a formal roundtable of targeted users, you can empower yourself to improve your product using useful data from real-world users.

So the next time you find yourself saying, “that’s a stupid question,” stop and explore whether it might actually be an opportunity to improve.

Geekpreneurs: Can you tell your story or is it time to get help?

7 Nov

In the last year, I’ve been introduced to a lot of amazing startups and I’ve discovered two distinct types of tech entrepreneurs. The first is the Non-Geek Visionary, who has an amazing idea but doesn’t have the technical skills to make it happen. The second is the Geekpreneur, who not only has the idea but also has the ability to build it.

What I’ve noticed about these groups is that the latter often has a hard time recognizing weaknesses and bringing others on board to handle those areas. It makes sense. Their product is truly their baby—they spent countless hours taking it from dream to reality—and handing even a piece of it off to someone else can be scary.

Geekpreneurs frequently drop the ball when it comes to marketing. An encyclopedic knowledge can make it difficult to devise a clear, concise, and clever way to communicate the product to others. “I understand what I’m doing, why don’t you?” Building something amazing is meaningless, however, if no one knows about it, understands it, or cares about it.

Creating a great “elevator pitch” isn’t difficult, but it requires stepping outside of yourself to think objectively about your product. Unfortunately, that’s not something most of us can do. The most successful business people are masters at delegation and Geekpreneurs (as well as Non-Geek Visionaries who struggle with marketing) would be well served to ask for help when it comes to writing a bio, one sheet, web verbiage, and other marketing materials.

(Shameless plug: I love using my journalism background to help entrepreneurs tell their stories. If you need help, contact me.)

Are you a geek, nerd or dork?

4 Nov

Fun discussion in the office today with some of our in-house geeks. I got to be the smarty pants for once because I was able to educate these tech guys on the difference between a geek, nerd and dork. Smart and focused on a tech project but still able to get laid? Congrats, you’re a geek! Focused on tech stuff but not so smart and lousy with the ladies? Sorry, but you’re a dork.

I learned about the differences a year ago when I came across an awesome Venn diagram on the topic (source: Buzzfeed). I liked it so much I hung it in my last office. I think it hits the nail on the head. What do you think?