America loves entrepreneurs. Their maverick spirit. Their big dreams. Their dogged determination.
But, as any VC in California will tell you (after two or three cocktails), Silicon Valley doesn’t have a lock on them, anymore.
Where will our next wave of entrepreneurs wash up? Based on our work measuring the intersection of talent and great places to live, we don’t think they’ll appear in a single sector, nor will they materialize in a few chosen zip codes.
If geography and sector aren’t defining America’s next-gen entrepreneurs, what is?
We’ve worked with entrepreneurs at big startups like Groupon and small maker shops like Sector 67. And what we’ve noticed are some unifying characteristics that make them a different breed. A needed breed. We call them “Craft” entrepreneurs. Craft is an acronym. Here’s how we define it:
C - Creative
Entrepreneurs have always been creative; they just think differently. But Craft entrepreneurs aren’t just launching the next big thing. They’re exploiting the spaces between the big inventions, and the margins between the top and bottom lines. They’re solving timeless problems in new ways, or applying timeless principles to new problems.
Let’s say you and your love chop are trying to decide on what kind of tile to put behind your kitchen sink. (This is not hypothetical for me; Marti and I have spent two years trying to figure this out.) Jim gave me a business card for the guy who installed his tile. I took a photo of the business card. Marti saw something on HGTV that she liked; she clipped the website link. I took a photo of a really cool bathroom tile I saw in an Austin coffee shop. You get the idea: we’re using our phones, computers, and friends to gather a shit-ton of ideas. With Evernote, we have a shared notebook where we keep all these digital artifacts together. It’s brilliant. And no matter if I take a photo with my phone, or if Marti takes a screen shot from her laptop, the Evernote notebook keeps everything all synced up on all of our devices.
But this isn’t a commercial for Evernote. (Although over 23M of you use the service!) This is an example of how Craft entrepreneurs are doing a 21st century mashup of new tech X timeless hassles. Smart phones and computers are great inventions to help Marti and I brainstorm how our kitchen will look, but it takes a multi-platform tool like Evernote to bring everything together.
This, of course, is what entrepreneurs often do. But Craft entrepreneurs are also using their resources differently. They’re not blowing through money like their elders (my generation, X, did); they’re eating Ramen, living with their parents, and working off trades, used equipment, and volunteers/friends who are willing to hustle with them. That’s what Chris Meyer did at Sector 67: he stockpiled his winnings from business plan competitions, bought used equipment, and created a nifty hackerspace in Madison, WI.
R - Regional
Craft entrepreneurs are true to the spirit of their place. Apple’s design language (its typography, packaging, etc.) was inspired by its location in California. In fact, if you look closely you’ll see “Designed by Apple in California” on all of its packaging. (Jason Fried, himself a Craft entrepreneur from Chicago, riffs on the genius of Apple’s tagline in this post.)
South By Southwest (SXSW) is a regional phenomenon. Although it has global attendance, it has that rockabilly, Austin sensibility.
And Stormy Kromer, the mercantile that’s been building and selling iconic wool hats since the early 1900s, has an unmistakeable upper midwestern sensibility. Ya der hey.
But it’s not just the design language or brand voice that’s regional. Craft organizations are regionally rooted. Stormy Kromer isn’t going to leave Michigan. Chez Panisse isn’t going to open restaurants in Vegas and NYC. These entrepreneurs are invested in their local economies, creating jobs and prosperity for their neighbors and friends.
What’s ironic is that many of these Craft businesses are under the radar of the organizations whose purpose it is to serve them. In most communities, it’s still large employers who get all the headlines, tax breaks, and attention. Even thought it’s second stage entrepreneurs (with 10-99 employees) who generate the jobs and the prosperity.
A - Artisanal
Do you remember the first home you bought? Mine was a 1930s craftsman style on the East side of Des Moines. It was incredibly well-built; it had plaster walls, gorgeous wood trim, an arched doorway between the living and dining room, and a sun room that was the perfect size. From the moment I walked in, I could feel the care that went into building that home.
Like many things built in its time, it was much better made than the things that came after it.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, artisans were the dominant producers of consumer products. They were skilled workers who made things that would last. As mass commercialization took hold, and consumers could buy cheaper products, they did. And artisans became scarce.
But they’re making a comeback. Today’s artisans aren’t limited to craftsmen and women. They also build beautiful lines of code and helpful apps. They bandage handmade cheeses. They run small organic farms. They bake delicious breads, design gorgeous reports and manufacture delightful gadgets.
Artisans are people who take pride in their work. They are not motivated by how much they can make; they take pride in how well things are made.
A lot of the excitement in communities today - from Timbuktu bags to Made in NYC - is coming from a new generation of artisans who are giving the finger to mass-markets and embracing small batches.
F - Future-minded
Next generation entrepreneurs know they’re inheriting a world in crisis. We are in Winter. So they’re hyper-focused on sustainability, making sure there’s a planet left for them to leave to their kids and grandkids.
Building for the long haul. This is heretical in the tech world, where fast, VC money chases short term gain.
Phil Libin, Evernote’s CEO, talks about their commitment to being a long-haul company in an interview last July:
“Remember that scene in The Social Network when Sean Parker says, ‘A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? A billion dollars.’?
“Well, we don’t think a billion dollars is all that cool either. You know what’s really cool? Making a hundred year company. That’s a pretty big deal; not many companies make it anywhere close, but we sort of signed up for the task when we started talking about earning your lifetime trust. You plan on living a long time, right?
“So when we make any big decision, whether in fund-raising, or product design, or partnership strategy, we ask, ‘Would this make it more or less likely that we’ll be around in a hundred years?’, and if the answer is less we don’t do it.”
T - Talent-centric
And all of these Craft entrepreneurs are doing more than just building good products and delivering nifty services. They’re mindful that it’s talent that makes it all work. Take Tom Preston-Werner from GitHub. He wants to optimize his company for - wait for it - employee happiness.
“There are other really great things you can do when you optimize for happiness. You can throw away things like financial projections, hard deadlines, ineffective executives that make investors feel safe, and everything that hinders your employees from building amazing products.
“At GitHub we don't have meetings. We don't have set work hours or even work days. We don't keep track of vacation or sick days. We don't have managers or an org chart. We don't have a dress code. We don't have expense account audits or an HR department.
“We pay our employees well and give them the tools they need to do their jobs as efficiently as possible. We let them decide what they want to work on and what features are best for the customers. We pay for them to attend any conference at which they've gotten a speaking slot. If it's in a foreign country, we pay for another employee to accompany them because traveling alone sucks. We show them the profit and loss statements every month. We expect them to be responsible.
“We make decisions based on the merits of the arguments, not on who is making them. We strive every day to be better than we were the day before.
“We hold our board meetings in bars.
“We do all this because we're optimizing for happiness, and because there's nobody to tell us that we can't.”
Where are the Craft entrepreneurs in your community? And how can we develop more of them?