I grew up during a time when big business dominated. The ideal career was to get a job with an established company, climb the corporate ladder, then retire to a warmer climate and play golf. So when I got hired by Bell Labs, I was on the right track because the Bell System was known as one of the best companies providing lifetime employment. I had to make some sacrifices, like moving to New Jersey. Those of us from the midwest joked about needing a visa to get into the state. But then with the antitrust suit brought against AT&T in the 70s, that began to unravel. With the modified consent decree, the Bell System was broken into many pieces. I wound up at Bellcore, the “new” R&D company owned by the seven regional Bell Companies. At the time we called it a billion dollar startup. But it was really a spin off—we carried a lot of administrative baggage from Bell Labs. I remember embracing my new assignment—I was given a choice: your job is with the new entity, you go there Monday morning, or find another job—because I saw the opportunity to “rewrite” some of the rules we operated by. What I quickly discovered was that many of my colleagues had the same idea, but wanted to write different rules. So it really was no change from the entrenched corporate environment.
My first real exposure to a startup came years later after I left U S WEST in a fit of corporate anorexia and worked for 3Com for a while. 3Com at the time was still considered a startup by some, although it was definitely in the established growth mode. And when I saw the pending retrenchment coming, I bailed out. I had been through the downsizing exercises at U S WEST, I decided that I didn’t need to learn that lesson again. And that is when I found the opportunity to join a real startup.
I started working for a startup which provided wireless Internet access in Summit County, Colorado. The big players, U S WEST for DSL and Comcast for Cable Modem, did not consider the market big enough to be attractive. We used a variation of wifi with a high gain antenna which allowed us to connect customers up to several miles away from the radio tower above the Dillon dam on which we rented space. I had met the founder of the company and helped with a few technical issues as a customer who wanted reliable service. He asked me to come work for him and made it an offer I couldn’t refuse by asking what my ideal job would be, then helping me to design it in his small company. That was certainly different than any of the big companies I had experienced. My job description was to provide training, to company personnel in the technologies we used and how to market them, to customers on how to derive value for their business with Internet access, and to our management team on how to create and execute a successful strategy. What that turned out to mean was jump on the next issue that came up. So everyday the challenges presented were different, sometimes progress was clearly visible, sometime halting, but never dull. But of course the company collapsed when the Internet bubble burst.
That was when I moved to teaching full time. But the allure of the startup never died. I think what made it so attractive was that it was generally easy to see, certainly easier than in a corporate structure, how what I was doing contributed not only to the company’s goals but to customers’ as well. How much our work contributed to our bottom line as well as that of our customers was very visible. One company which we put online, for example, sold sports vehicles, snow mobiles in winter and all terrain vehicles in summer. The owner was a young man just out of the military with a high school education and training as a mechanic. After getting him online, he became intrigued by search engine optimization to make his business more visible when SEO was really just beginning. Within a few weeks, he had taught himself enough about the workings of the Internet and the Google search engine that if one combined the terms sports vehicles and Summit County, his website popped up at the top of the list. I knew specialists working for big companies who weren’t able to replicate that kind of result.
Shortly after going to the college faculty, I was asked to participate in a committee addressing innovation and entrepreneurship in the curriculum. The chair of the committee was a serial entrepreneur then teaching in the marketing department. The committee finished its work in just two short months, something unprecedented in academia, and made the recommendation that instead of creating a separate program, we should weave these topics throughout the curriculum. Our assessment was that even if one planned to work for a large company, understanding the principles of how to start something new would serve them well. Then the head banging on the brick wall began trying to get any of this work implemented.
It took several years, but we did succeed in interesting a group of about eight faculty who put together a formal proposal for a new school wide center on Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship, ICE. That collapsed at the last minute and the faculty returned to their prior roles very disgruntled. I volunteered to take over the existing MBA concentration and kept it alive until turning it over to a new faculty member hired in the Koch Chair of Entrepreneurship many years later.
Besides the challenges which require creative thinking and often quick action, what I liked about the startup environment was that it tended to support and value individuals and their goals more. We were not just cogs in a big machine, but could see that we actually made a difference. I think that is important to nurture if work is going to be more than just a way to earn a living.