This past weekend, almost 1,000 people converged on the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, D.C. for the Collaborate conference hosted by Fosterly. I was fortunate enough to attend, and after two days left with the standard conference package: a stack of business cards; pages of notes from panels, keynotes and workshops; and ambitious plans for new initiatives with the people I met. A lingering question remained that I had avoided answering until the conference had closed down, but had been searching for an answer to ever since I arrived. What was the true value of this particular conference? What separated Collaborate from all the other networking events in DC and around the world?
The Tesla Model S sitting in the main atrium was a minor differentiator, but clearly a statement by Fosterly that they wanted this weekend to stand out. More importantly, the conference emphasized the intersection between government and entrepreneurship, providing a safe space for the two sides to share ideas for collaboration. The conference environment broke down any barriers that might exist - literally or figuratively - between government and the private sector. This rarely-seen openness revealed just how much more we can do to innovate and improve people’s lives by fusing the power (and budget) of government authority with the innovation and growth of the private sector.
Collaborate was peppered with rich content, leaving me wishing on several occasions that I could be in multiple places at once. Here are some highlights from what I did see:
Entrepreneurs know that in order to have a successful business, perhaps the most important skill you need is the ability to communicate the business’ value to your customers. The same can be said when seeking an opportunity to collaborate, especially with government, where regulations and red tape can slow you down. Powerful communication is essential, and that’s why I loved Eli Murphy’s engaging and memorable workshop on advanced communications strategies. Eli is the SVP at Oratium, an international communications firm. Eli’s presentation focused on the process of conveying your message so that it is absorbed by your audience. The key, Eli explained, is starting with the audience’s problem, rather than about your own need. Here are the questions to ask when giving a presentation (in this order) taken from Oratium’s model:
“As a result of this presentation, what do I want my audience to DO?”
“In order to make a decision to do this, what does my audience need to BELIEVE?”
“To believe these things, what does my audience need to KNOW?”
This cycle of “Know → Believe → Do” will help shape every presentation you make into a powerful message that inspires action from your customers.
Tom Chi, the co-founder of Google(x) and the co-creator of Google Glass, delivered a motivating and humor-filled keynote on Friday evening about rethinking innovation. Tom provided examples from his own work, including creating the first Google Glass “prototype” a mere three hours after coming up with the idea (they used a clear sheet protector, a wire hanger, and a netbook). The importance of iteration and rapid learning is often misconstrued as part of the misunderstood concept of “failing fast”. Tom emphasized that guessing and failing are only positive if you learn something significant during the process. As he said, “thinking is a terrible way to think.” Instead, doing is the best kind of thinking, because it is impossible to consider all the possibilities and factors in a decision by merely thinking about it. Tom asserted that merely thinking about a problem will yield an 80% solution to only 25% of the problem. There are things we simply will never consider unless we take action. Through various strategies like mandatory customer feedback, ambitious thinking and rapid prototyping, Tom closed by encouraging the audience to “maximize the rate of learning by minimizing the time to try things."
Saturday morning opened with, in my opinion, the most honest and hard-hitting content of the weekend. Shawn Nelson (Founder/Chairman of Lovesac), D.P. Venkatesh (CEO at mPortal), and Tien Wong (Serial CEO and angel investor) sat down to discuss the toils of entrepreneurship. Although it was simply an informal discussion, all three leaders shared valuable insights on the true hardships of building a business. Shawn Nelson observed that “there has never been an article published that truly captures how difficult entrepreneurship really is.” He also mentioned that “the secret to success is self-awareness.” Preaching mental preparation, routine, and a healthy lifestyle, the panel was sure to leave a few founders in the audience second-guessing their decision to pursue entrepreneurship.
The last session I attended was a strong example of the benefits of providing an open space for collaboration. Shana Glezer, VP of Social Marketing at SocialRadar, and Jenna Gavin Kelly, CEO of Peerdash, led a roundtable discussion about women in entrepreneurship. I was one of four men, among 20 women, and it was enlightening to hear the variety of perspectives on how women can prosper and grow as entrepreneurs. Most agreed that women are held to a higher standard, and that it is much more difficult to get funding as a female founder. However, there was much more variance in opinion when brainstorming potential solutions. The lack of more women in entrepreneurship is a problem, but crowdfunding may offer one solution: women are receiving more total funding on crowdfunding platforms than men. I am grateful to work with a female co-founder at Onevest, Tanya Privé, who has given me a firsthand perspective on the challenges faced by a female founder and how she is facing them head on.
Springboard Enterprises held two “Dolphin Tank” sessions, playing off the ABC hit show “Shark Tank”, but with a bigger focus on feedback and making introductions than on actual investments. Springboard president Amy Millman brought on a few other ensured that pitching entrepreneurs had a safe environment to share their ideas and receive constructive feedback.
The team at Fosterly and all the volunteers did a wonderful job in making sure everyone was engaged, and reinforced the innate value of these types of events - bringing like-minded people together to share ideas. An important realization is that everyone always needs help with something, and at an event like Collaborate, chances are you might find the person who can help.