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I never thought of that...! Techies with chutzpah and how they did it

On Saturday, April 10th, the UNC student chapter of ASIS&T* and the Carolina Chapter of ASIS&T* hosted an event on innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit titled I never thought of that! Techies with chutzpah and how they did it.

The speakers for the day, who also participated in a moderated Q&A following their talks, were Henry Copeland of Twiangulate, Blogads.com, and Taghive; Stephen Fraser of Spoonflower.com; Heather Hesketh of Hesketh.com; and Michael Tiemann of Redhat.com.

Each of the speakers presented their stories on the ideas and enthusiasms that led them to start their own businesses (in some cases, multiple businesses).

Michael Tiemann talked about how opportunities for innovation are found; it is a matter of "see[ing] around the corner" he said. As Heather Hesketh later commented, it is about being "open to seeing" and "mak[ing] your own luck."

Hesketh told a story about enjoying dinner with some friends in a restaurant many years ago. Over the buzz of conversation and clinking dishes, she heard someone at a nearby table talking about email, which was a new trend at the time. Hesketh and her friends wondered, "Is this the end?" In fact, it was the beginning of a major change in the way people communicate, which coincided with major changes in the way people share information. For Hesketh this was an opportunity, sifted out of a jumble of topics being discussed in a restaurant.

Copeland observed the then-new phenomenon of blogging and saw it was affording the everyday person the opportunity to publish by overcoming traditional publishing hurdles. He asked himself, "is there a business here?" and so Blogads.com was born.

Similarly, Stephen Fraser seized an opportunity arising out of a conversation with his wife about her love of sewing. He realized that putting the tried and true idea of digital printing on demand with a seamstress desire for design and control over her own fabrics was a novel concept that would work.

Sometimes the urge to create a business is spurred by an entrepreneurs own needs. Tiemann discussed his co-creation of one of the first ISPs (Internet Service Provider) called Little Garden as a means to acquire Internet access without piggy-backing on his and his colleagues' college network.

Seeing a need and being in the right place at the right time, though perhaps a cliched notion, are essential. Copeland and Hesketh both commented that part of being an innovator is seeing a need or problem, knowing that you want to fix it, and believing you can make a difference in your own unique way. "If you can think you can do better go for it," Hesketh said, adding that passion and a personal commitment to ones own vision is necessary ingredient. For his own motto, Fraser quoted a Bob Dylan lyric, "That he not busy being born is busy dying."

At times, the entrepreneur occupies a lonely plot of ground as they work on their ideas. Going after something that no one has tried, taking these kinds of risks, may make one seem like "a raving idiot" to others, Copeland said. Copeland encouraged listeners to be tenacious. For him, strife and conflict are not things to be endured, but instead are motivational forces.

Hesketh cautioned not to take failures or seemingly bleak moments personally. The kick, according to Tiemann, is to watch the evolution of your ideas and see them grow and improve. All of the speakers agreed that riding the tides of continuous change is part of the innovator's experience. If you give up at the first or even the first few signs of setback or slow progress, maybe you don't have the heart or spirit of an innovating entrepreneur.

Copeland said an entrepreneur is hard-wired to meet the shocks. What each of these speakers had in common was a love of challenge, a desire to do new things and see them work, a desire to help and give back, a knack for seeing trends and opportunities, a sense that your perspective and what you have to offer is something rare and precious, and a passion for living the kind of life you really want in spite of difficulties that will naturally arise.

Throughout their talks and during the Q&A afterward, these innovators gave advice on how to be a successful entrepreneur.

  • Being an innovator is about "step[ping] between the raindrops" of everyday life, Tiemann explained. Be prepared for the powers that be to throw up the legality flag; but dont be discouraged.
  • Hesketh recommended trying to understand the culture of use when you introduce a new idea/product/service.
  • Part of Fraser's success had to do with a simple survey he floated on the Internet asking fabric-minded hobbyists if they would enjoy creating their own fabric designs. This simple survey spread over the Internet through the crafts community and helped to establish an active customer base before opening day of business.
  • Copeland cited the importance of social networking and of working with and meeting people face-to-face. He said to surround yourself with people who complement your abilities. If you are the "reckless dreamer," then find a pragmatist to balance you out. Also, hire people who are happy and not easily discouraged, folks who are willing to swing at a lot of balls and miss, because an entrepreneur needs that support group to get through tough times. Innovation is not easy, so Copeland suggested starting small and then building.
  • Although failure is an opportunity to learn, Hesketh reminded the audience that its also important to celebrate your successes.

Books the Speakers Recommended:

* ASIS&T = American Society for Information Science & Technology

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