There’s a difference between thinking you have all the answers and wanting to find the answers. I can sometimes come across as someone with all the answers, but those who know me know that I’m more focused on lifelong learning than anything else. I’ve spent the first 30 years of my life feeling as if it’s my duty to find my own answers in life. Specifically, what does God want me to contribute. I lived in different places, worked different jobs, started different businesses, and served different purposes for different organizations over the years. What I’ve been trying to figure out, at least primarily, is what it is that I’m supposed to be doing on this planet. I figured out that it wasn’t mowing lawns in middle school. I knew it wasn’t working at Pizza Hut when I was in high school. Since high school, I’ve served on different boards from the March of Dimes and Dance Marathon to AIDS Services of Austin and the Austin Music Commission, in part to use whatever skills I have to help others. But nonprofit work isn’t my calling, it’s more of a passion and way to give back to my city. Hopefully, along the way, I've done some good including writing Real Role Models, raising more than $250,000 for charitable organizations and speaking in more than 100 public schools and colleges. I also learned it wasn’t sports or PR during and after college working for UT and FEMA. More recently, I’ve realized that my passions for sneakers (Sneak Attack), consulting businesses and running events (AvecMode) isn’t exactly what I should focus on either. And learning these lessons wasn’t easy, but much needed to get where I need to be as an individual and someone who wants to have a true positive impact. The most direct way I’ve been able to have an impact is by supporting local businesses and local creatives who are photographers, DJs, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, etc. These creatives are the very people that I’ve learn to appreciate the most and strive to support tirelessly. Ultimately, I realized I’ve been looking for something that would allow me to help more people than just the ones in my personal network. Localeur is about as confident as I’ve ever felt about something I’ve put my heart and mind into. I love to travel and learn new cities, I love social media and technology, and most importantly I love local. I’ve taken my lumps and learned many a lesson – especially as an entrepreneur - over these last several years that have hopefully prepared me to bring that extra bit of … whatever it is… to Localeur what I couldn’t fully bring to the many other jobs or projects I’ve done. Thank you for respecting my journey and being my friend.
This is going to sound really funny, but I’m pretty sure that I am one of the few people you’ll ever know to admit dreaming about being 30 years old as a kid. Probably as far back as third grade. I’m not sure if I had an accurate idea of what being 30 meant back then, but I knew that 30 seemed to be a critical time in the lives for the people I’ve grown to admire and learn about through books and personal experiences.
MLK published “The Measure of a Man” at 30. In 1985, Steve Jobs was removed as CEO of Apple Computers at the age of 30, which we now know was a major occurrence in his life as a leader. For a more personal example, when my mother was 30, she moved my older brothers and me (then an 8-year-old headed to 3rd grade) to Greenville, South Carolina, which would end up playing an extremely formative role in my life.
To a lot of people 30 is old. Perhaps their best years happened in high school or college or their 20-somethings. For me, I have always believed that the best is yet to come. Youth is still with me, just a different type of youth. The last six months, from marrying Star to launching Localeur, have been the most rewarding of my life and that was all before I turned 30. I know another 30 years isn’t promised to me, but I do believe that the first 30 years of my life have helped me to realize something I always believed as a kid.
Turning 30 isn’t about thinking about my life as an individual, but it’s about thinking about my life in the context of a family, a community, and the world. Finally, I’ve reached a point to turn all my ambitions, experiences, life lessons, and opportunities into something of real substance. Something that is truly deserving of 150 or some odd Facebook wall posts and comments in a 12-hour span. Something that really shows I was listening when all those hard lessons rushed into my life. Something that says my self-confidence is well-suited for my contributions to others. Something that shows God that I didn’t spoil the many gifts He has given me.
I consider myself a very blessed and lucky man in part because I never learned how to follow; at least not in the traditional sense.
One of the most annoying things about working within and around the fashion industry is how much follower’s mindset there is. So many of my conversations with bloggers, brands, designers, and marketers for fashion-related companies begin and end with questions about who else is doing something. I have trained myself to hide my disdain with these types of questions in person and over the phone, but it’s not easy.
If technology and social media have taught us anything in the last few decades, it should be that following someone else’s path – especially when building a business – is not a sustainable model. A company cannot be built to last if their business plan is to ride a continuous stream of short burst of copy-cat and me-too successes.
You ever wonder why when people think of fashion industry success stories you very seldom hear the word “entrepreneur”? It’s mainly because very few of them actually are. I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last three years mining through a lot of crap to find good people who approach the fashion and tech industry through an entrepreneurial lense. People like Alle Fister (Bollare) and Ari Goldberg (StyleCaster), Mick Boogie and Marcus Troy and designers and fashion brand CEOs like Seth Weisser (What Goes Around Comes Around), John Varvatos, Billy Reid and Uri Minkoff (Rebecca Minkoff). For every one of these individuals there are at least 10 people following their every move, literally, to try to make money by being an early adopting thief of those people’s best work.
I understand that certain practices are standard for various industries and that innovation – not necessarily invention – is where a lot of immediate profit is, but why even be in a creative industry like art or fashion or music or tech if you’re not actually going to create anything?
And, no, I’m not trying to say we should always be 100 percent focused on creating brand new things at all times. Actually that’s also a quick way to run a business to the ground because you’re not taking the time to focus on what your customers are telling you about your existing products and services. I’m not so idealistic as to think every season’s collection, every new product, every new offering has to be that…new. Recycling things from the past and siphoning from others is what helped the Civil Rights Movement (following in Gandhi’s footsteps) and Facebook (following MySpace’s lead, before taking over).
But come on, man! Or woman, as is often the case in fashion.
Don’t be mistaken, I’ve followed in the footsteps of many men and women before me and learned countless lessons from others. From my mother, I learned about accountability as she raised my two brothers and me alone. From reading about MLK and Ben Franklin, my idols, I learned about finding your calling and following your passions. From my high school track coach, Rob, I’ve learned well-roundedness, as he’s been an exemplary father, public school teacher, and competitive runner despite very little compensation in doing so. From my brothers, I developed my early and continued love for music, sports and style. There are many others I can point to for lessons learned and passions developed thanks to them.
But I’m no follower.
As I approach my 30th birthday later this year, the thing I’m proud of thus far is that I’ve charted a path for myself unlike anyone I know or have ever read about. From the way I spent my time in high school and college to D.C. and back to Austin, I’ve always sought a path that wasn’t made easier by someone else’s footsteps. When I moved back to Austin, I knew I wanted to start a business, but I never knew that Sneak Attack would lead to Style X which would lead to AvecMode getting business with the likes of ESPN X Games and that I’d get to work with some of my favorite bloggers, designers, and events in the process.
Was Sneak Attack the most brilliant, inventive concept? Not really nor was Style X, which largely depended on the success of SXSW. My point isn’t about the most creative, inventive business ideas, though. My point is that people should never follow someone else toward what should be their own unique set of passions and skills.
My passion in 2009 was sneakers, so I didn’t look around to do what someone else was doing, I launched a business. My passion in 2010 was seeing to it that a conversation I had with the late SXSW creative director Brent Grulke led to the creation of an authentic style component during SXSW.
Maybe I’ll never come up with something as genius as the Macintosh computer or A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders or Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but I can apply myself to a lifetime of two things: 1) pursuing my passions and 2) trying to bring a new perspective to what I’m doing instead of waiting for others to show me the way.
I have also been blessed to have a number of friends who’ve had the same mindset I’ve had about not following and trying to chart their own path. To these people I am grateful for the inspiration they routinely give me, albeit indirectly. I don’t envy any of my friends…I am motivated by them. People who follow are the ones with envy. They envy because they don’t focus on creating.
Whenever I get emails or FB messages from people, typically students I’ve spoken to in a classroom/speech setting, saying they’re inspired by something I’ve said or written and ask me for advice, I usually try to start by helping them identify their passions and getting them to be very focused on what truly matters to them. Like many of those fashion companies, there are a lot of short term benefits in following others and taking your eye off the creative ball, but the long term rewards take a lot of sacrifice.
I’ve sacrificed a lot of time, energy, friendships, money, and God only knows what else to be in the position that I’m in today. Last week, when I was recognized as an Emerging Business Leader by the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce, here in Austin, in the same hour Austin Under 40 named me a finalist for one of their awards, I thought to myself…”wow, all these years of hard work is finally getting me to a point where my perception of myself matches what others think of me.”
Anyway, back to the original topic…this all one big reason why our new project, The Neighborhood, isn’t an official SXSW event and why it’s going to be built with entrepreneurs – designers, brand managers, technologists – in mind along with the consumers they strive to reach. Someone has to create because so much marketing at the event is about copy-cat marketing that never actually does anything except annoy people. There’s plenty of me-too tradeshows and fashion week events scattered all over the country, but who’s really out there going against the grain and not looking around for tips on what to do based on other companies, but genuinely trying to establish new ways of doing business and new fashion industry trends? Not to be all self-promotional, but I believe the people I surround myself with are.
Thank God! I’d be bored to death if I was one of those fake creatives, just looking around for ideas from people willing to take risks and do something unique. OK. My gripe session is over. Thanks for your time.
If there’s one thing I’d say is true for my 2012 it’s that I haven’t blogged as much as I’d have liked to. The main culprit? My entrepreneurial endeavors have taken up my time. Now that is not to say I’m the busiest man alive or anything close to, but simply to state why I haven’t had enough mental space to have the type of stream of consciousness blogging I prefer after long periods of internal dialogue and introspection. Regardless, I figured there’s no better way to improve my blogging plight than to start blogging about the very thing that has consumed me. Entrepreneurship.
I was born with a knack for entrepreneurial thinking. At least that’s what the story of my life indicates. Since a very early age, upon reviewing the challenges and life situations of my family members, I realized that the best way for me to make something of myself was to create my own success. I couldn’t rely on a wealthy or college-educated family or the government or my public schooling. I started educating myself on entrepreneurship through action.
In the last few years alone, I’ve experienced challenges that I’ve come to learn only entrepreneurs (and maybe people with really bad drug addictions or mental health issues) experience. Namely, the fact that my life has been a series of highs, lows, ups and downs, successes, failures, and that’s before I tell you the see-sawing effect that my personal bank account has shown in the last four or so years since I moved back to Austin and decided to pursue an entrepreneurial path more directly.
At 11, I started my first business. Mowing lawns, pulling weeds, raking leaves, edging bushes and every other landscaping thing my grandfather taught me became part of my arsenal when I took market leadership in the Lora Lane / Lily Street landscaping industry (from my brother Ramiah). I netted about $1500 a summer and $1000 a fall through middle school to pay for new school clothes, field trips and other things most kids relied on their parents for.
At 12, I started my second business. I sold Bubble Yum and Bubblicious gum at school. Grossing $20 to $40 per week in seventh and eighth grade was a great way to supplement my income while getting my learn on.
At 18, I received something like $110,000 in college scholarships after sending in more than 100 applications and winning around 30% of them. And at 22, I became the first in my immediate family to graduate from college. I guess you could say I was an entrepreneur of educational attainment.
At 25, I got my first book deal on the strength of a single blog entry on this very blog.
At 26, I started Sneak Attack, a pop-up sneaker boutique. Yeah, you probably read about it in a magazine or newspaper.
That same year, I started a social media consulting practice. I advised different Austin and Memphis-based companies and organizations (FedEx, Deep Eddy, Lustre Pearl to name a few) on social media strategies and tactics. I didn’t have a regular day job from August 2009 to April 2011 living solely on this business while taking almost every dollar to put it back into my work on Sneak Attack and Style X.
No, these weren’t tech startups. That lawn mower was given to me from an angel investor, and a friends and family round (mostly my mom) was how I started the candy business. I wasn’t building computers or coding programs, but these were privately held, limited-liability enterprises bootstrapped by yours truly. I was an entrepreneur long before I met any real investors. I did a friends-and-family round for Sneak Attack, and even borrowed money from six of my former bosses, best friends and brother over the last few years to keep operations afloat. Sneak Attack is on hiatus, but I still started paying dividends back to those friends in 2012 and will continue to do so because I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today without the support and faith those early investors showed me. I’m also happy so report that every loan I’ve ever received was paid back on time with at least 10% interest. I’m not in the business of playing with people’s money because I know it’s like playing with people’s emotions as Big Worm famously said in the classic movie Friday.
But I know beyond a doubt that I was an entrepreneur even before I started a single one of those ventures, before I ever took any investments and before I got into the technology industry. Why? Because I was born in 1983 and something was instilled in me at birth, it seems.
In 1983, Thriller was the hit album and Michael Jordan was the young phenom. They would go on to revolutionize the way we think about music, sports, marketing and Blacks in America among other things. It was also the year the famous 1984 commercial was debuted by Steve Jobs and co. You could argue that those occurrences alone make the year of my birth very special and extra significant in the history of America.
But actually those events pale in comparison to something that really sets 1983 apart for me. In July 1983, Harvard Business School held a symposium on entrepreneurship that re-wrote the playbook on what it means to be an entrepreneur thank to a certain man named Howard H. Stevenson.
Just three months after my birth, Stevenson’s name started to ring out in more and more academic and business circles when he laid out key elements of his then-upcoming work titled, “A New Paradigm for Entrepreneurial Management” (1984, Harvard Business School). In essence, Stevenson stated that great entrepreneurs create or seize an opportunity and pursue it regardless of the resources currently controlled therefore constituting an entrepreneur as anyone in the pursuit of resources which they don’t currently control.
Nowhere in that definition do you see the word business. Nowhere do you see the word technology or product either. Stevenson’s broad definition has proven far more adequate for what entrepreneurship truly is than any other, especially The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition for an entrepreneur as "a person who organizes, operates, and assumes the risk for business ventures.” That dictionary does not understand the differences between a business executive or manager and an investor because it does not demonstrate the value of resources only risk.
Others whom have defined entrepreneurship have also missed the mark, in my opinion. Even such legendary business minds and luminaries as Peter Drucker, author of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who once said anybody from any organization can learn how to be an entrepreneur because it is "systematic work.” Other academics have since corrected Drucker; Morton Kamien, an entrepreneurship professor at Northwestern University, said "When a person earns a degree in physics, he becomes a physicist, but if you were to earn a degree in entrepreneurship, that wouldn't make you an entrepreneur.” Affirmative. Systematic work will not suffice.
Stevenson’s 1983 words must have been whispered into my ear while I rocked in the crib because ever since I’ve had an intense and intimate understanding of the resources that fuel an entrepreneur’s path to success. Existing business (e.g. clients) and people (e.g. co-founders), especially creatives and creative thinkers in traditional roles such as law and accounting, along with physical (e.g. real estate), financial (e.g. investors) and intellectual (e.g. IP) assets, and, the hardest to measure resource: industry network understanding.
Stevenson said that great entrepreneurs interpret the need for and control of these resources in the pursuit of opportunities differently from the way a large organization’s managers or business executives perceive them. He said that an entrepreneur’s duty is to decide what resources are needed, when they are needed, and how to acquire control rather than simply ownership of them through dynamic strategies while keeping a keen focus on deploying the absolute smallest amount of these controlled resources to seize opportunities. Apple may not sell all of the world’s computers or mobile phones, but they control the industries. Google doesn’t own the Internet, but it controls a major passageway. Facebook’s valuation is attached to its ability to control social experiences for something like a billion people around the world. Technology companies, unlike say consumer product goods companies, are able to attain high valuations because they can control resources like data without actually having to own them the way Pepsi has to sell cans of soft drinks to prove its value.
So what got me thinking about all this? Well, entrepreneurship is something I’ve thought about for years and years, and part of the reason why I worked for Bazaarvoice. I wanted to get closer to guys like its founder, Brett Hurt, whom have established themselves as savvy entrepreneurs, especially in Austin. Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of people who are highly successful in what they do for a living and many of them own their own businesses like agencies, bars and law firms. But true business entrepreneurs? Maybe a dozen in Austin, maybe a few more if I add my New York and West Coast networks.
Many people whom I have considered entrepreneurs have actually proven to me over the years that they are more akin to savvy business executives and leaders than entrepreneurs. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s not easy to be the president or CEO of a company, especially a successful one. And leading companies or organizations of dozens or hundreds of people has to be very challenging. Being a business leader like Tim Cook or Eric Schmidt is impressive.
But I guess I’m more interested in guys like Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin. Maybe there isn’t as much of a difference as I’m making it out to be, but whatever difference there is however slight is something I care to pursue.
Tufts University professor and author Peter Levine explained it like this in a blog:
If you decide how to allocate a budget, personnel, or other resources that you have in hand, you are administering. If you make those allocations collaboratively, you are negotiating or deliberating. If you plan a ten-million-dollar house in your mind, without having any way to get the $10 million, you are daydreaming. If you have the capacity to seize someone else’s resources, you are stealing. But if you come up with a plausible plan to raise $10 million in voluntary investment capital, you are an entrepreneur. You can be an entrepreneur (as opposed to a mere administrator) inside business, government, academia, or the nonprofit sector. Wherever you work, you must make plans that involve resources that you can get but don’t yet have.
What I’ve learned while raising money for AvecMode these last few months is that even people whom self-describe as entrepreneurs have trouble taking off their managerial (administrator) hat once they become successful. They forget how to think like an entrepreneur and focus on the resources needed and the pursuit of them rather than spending too much time focusing on the resources currently controlled and managing them. Perhaps this is sound logic because they have fiduciary responsibilities to be mindful of. Perhaps this is logical because it’s in their best interest to maintain their current resources rather than pursue new ones, especially if the new resources compete with their current businesses or take them further away from the resources they currently control.
But I happen to think this behavior is akin to what conservative Republicans who are against any type of tax increase for wealthy Americans are doing and saying despite the obvious need for increased revenues to offset the deficit. You can’t say you’re for decreasing the deficit on one side of your mouth and then say you’re against tax increases of any sort.
Investors shouldn’t consider themselves entrepreneurs simply because they invest in various ventures unless they are thinking like entrepreneurs when they make those investments. If they’re not thinking like entrepreneurs under Stevenson’s definition, then they should truthfully just refer to themselves as bankers with entrepreneurial experience. It’s two completely different things.
I've been most impressed with a handful of investors who think like entrepreneurs. Along with Brett who is now at Austin Ventures, I've been appreciative of guys like Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital and Thrillist founder Ben Lerer who approached me as investors who thought like entrepreneurs rather than as bankers.
Regardless, I don’t share this because my experience raising capital for AvecMode has been negative or has led me to think unfavorably of entrepreneurship. To the contrary, I'm in New York right now for something like the 12th time this year and I think this may have been my favorite trip up here in the last two years. Meeting with guys like Eddie Mullon, founder of Fashion GPS, Ari Goldberg, founder of StyleCaster, Meghan Stabile, founder of Revive Music Group, and other friends and acquaintances both new and old has only revitalized and re-affirmed my childhood and ongoing obsession with learning about savvy entrepreneurs and the way they think about the world and approach problems. I couldn't even dream about approaching business the right way if I didn't approach the world with a good attitude, a knack for learning from others, and a belief that I'm on the right path regardless of hurdles.
Entrepreneurs aren’t only in business, though. I happen to know dozens of people who reflect the spirit of Stevenson’s 1983 words more than many business owners and investors I know. They are creatives, educators, government or nonprofit aides and, yes, technologists. They are innovating, tinkering and attacking problems both large and small in new and groundbreaking ways. They aren’t just sitting in their chairs and protecting the resources they’ve amassed over the years. They’re out there every day fighting for new resources in new ways. It’s truly inspiring how many amazing people I’ve come to know over my lifetime who live this way.
One of the reasons I moved back to Austin was because I believe it is a world-leading city and place for entrepreneurial activity, and not just investments in software companies because the founders have all the right degrees and their presentations have all the right buzzwords like Big Data, SaaS, Cloud and scale. I would love to know what kind of investor Stevenson is. I have to meet him.
Stevenson has published several more volumes of wisdom on entrepreneurship, but my personal favorite of his is titled, “Why Entrepreneurship Has Won!” (2000, Coleman White Paper), which states the following:
1. Entrepreneurship flourishes in communities where resources are mobile.
Entrepreneurship is greater when successful members of a community reinvest
excess capital in the projects of other community members.
3. Entrepreneurship flourishes in communities in which success of other community members is celebrated rather than derided.
4. Entrepreneurship is greater in communities that see change as positive rather than negative.
No claim is being made that the 1983 paper drove the academic agenda. Rather the observation is that the arena of entrepreneurship involves many fascinating and important problems that have come to the attention of mainstream scholars. Entrepreneurship, properly conceived, is an intellectual domain of hard and important problems that can be attacked with the best possible scholarship. The progress of the field has been substantially enhanced as it attaches its problems to discipline tested tools.
The caveat must be given, however, that
entrepreneurship is more than the sum of its parts. Successful entrepreneurship
is a study of the dynamic fit between a set of people; an opportunity derived
from a particular context and the deal that unites them. The nature of the fit
requires constant vigilance. There is no such thing as an opportunity forever.
Context changes and the opportunity becomes a trap. Deals need to be robust,
but the best deals are subject to strategic behavior when their consequences
are fully understood. People change too. Assuming the premises of rational,
evaluating maximizing individuals cannot begin to fully account for the
instances of creative genius, self-sacrificing loyalty and charismatic
The last two decades have shown the importance and the relevance of the field of entrepreneurship. It is not important in isolation. Its importance is part of the global change that is affecting the way we live and work.
So to his point, I’ve picked a community (Austin) that fosters entrepreneurship. I strive to support and celebrate other entrepreneurs to further support this community. I embrace change. I seek out people and opportunities that are both dynamic and meaningful. And I fight like hell to be the type of entrepreneur that reflects the level of creativity, self-sacrifice and charisma worthy of the confidence of my investors be they family members, friends or bankers with entrepreneurial experience.
Wish me luck. It’s real out here on these entrepreneurial streets.