On April Fools’ Day 1976, Apple Computer was founded, making the company 40 years old this year. Like many early technology startups, the company was founded in the Jobs family garage by entrepreneurs Steven Jobs, Steven Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne. Most people are only aware of Jobs and Wozniak as the founders since history indicates that Wayne sold his 10-percent share in the company just a couple of weeks after it was started. Accounts indicate he sold his share for somewhere between $500 and $800. I wonder how he feels about that decision now!
Although Apple is probably the most well known tech startup story, it is not that much different than the beginnings of many of today’s largest companies in our industry. Entrepreneurship has been a defining factor in the history of the AV/IT industry. A great example is the origin of InfoComm International, which has grown out of the 1939 founding of the National Association of Visual Education Dealers (NAVED) by a group of eight entrepreneurial-led audiovisual dealers.
The contribution of entrepreneurs to our industry cannot be overstated, and going forward, it is critical that, as an industry, we come together to support and advance entrepreneurs for the future.
So why are entrepreneurs important to our industry? Well, the classic reasons include the creation of new products or services that turns into a business, which in turn creates more job opportunities that goes on to strengthen the economy. To better understand how to nurture entrepreneurs, we need to understand a few of the different types of entrepreneurs.
One of the most common types is the innovative or visionary entrepreneur. The innovator identifies a need and creates something to solve it. Sometimes it may be that they create a completely new product and sometimes they create a new category. Steve Jobs may be one of the most notable innovators in recent history that created new categories with iTunes, the iPod, and the iPhone.
Another common type of entrepreneur is the opportunist. The opportunist enters existing markets with unique selling propositions for existing products. They typically have good business skills, enjoy marketing and selling, and are good at identifying moneymaking opportunities. A classic example of an opportunist entrepreneur is JP Morgan, who made millions taking over failing businesses and repositioning them for great profit returns at a time when the U.S. economy was at its worst.
So, as an industry, how should we go about fostering entrepreneurs? One excellent example comes from a company founded by another great innovative entrepreneur—Bill Gates. In 2002 Microsoft founded the Microsoft Innovation Centers or MICs. The MICs are technology facilities that provide resources and support for entrepreneurs and startups. Microsoft partners with local government organizations, software and hardware vendors, universities, and industry organizations, and currently has 115 MIC locations globally. Each MIC provides similar content and services but tailors its programs to local needs.
Key accelerator programs and services include “Skills and Intellectual Capital,” where they focus on intellectual capital and people enablement including business management and software development training, as well as employment programs for students; “Business and Industry Partnerships,” which focuses on connecting people and organizations in the innovation ecosystem; and “Solutions and Innovation,” which utilizes hands-on activities and labs for startups, students, and entrepreneurs.
Another great example hails from Nashville, TN. Nashville is nicknamed Music City due to the importance of music to the economy, which includes live music, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and multiple businesses related to music. It is also home of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, which began in 2010 and is a partnership of local and state government and the Nashville business community. The center’s vision statement says it all “to become the best place in America for entrepreneurs” and their mission “to connect entrepreneurs with critical resources to create, launch, and grow businesses” clearly defines their plan. The center has four key focus areas—technology, music tech, publishing, and healthcare and has some impressive stats for what they have done so far.
Project Music is their leading program to support innovation in the music industry, bringing music, technology, and business leaders together to nurture entrepreneurs and startups. The program is built around targeted curriculum, mentoring from music industry executives, and access to funding for startups in exchange for equity.
These are just two examples where business, local government, universities, and associations have come together to foster entrepreneurs for the betterment of all. Imagine the impact that an initiative using some of the fundamental ideas laid out in these programs could have on the AV/IT industry. Perhaps it’s time that we follow Steve Jobs’ advice to a Disney exec that asked him for advice on how to revitalize the Disney Store: “Dream bigger.”
Randy Riebe is a senior channel sales management executive with 18-plus years of experience building teams for global technology providers within the unified communications, audio/video, and control and automation industries.