Hi. I am currently a second-year student in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. The program is housed within the School of Foreign Service, one of the best international affairs programs and international development programs in the world. A list of alumni is at Wikipedia.
I am considering an idea to develop a start-up fund or foundation or some other type of organization within the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown that picks people, not ideas.
I have a problem with the way start-up competitions are run right now. Currently, the model is that the best ideas are supposed to win.
But what often ends up happening is that the most previously successful or most monetizable “ideas” win.
That is, some competitions choose a beauty contest format, in which those who make the best business plan win. This model is flawed, because business plans for early-stage ideas are usually full of made-up vapor numbers, and plans for later-stage companies are usually already financially successful or well on their way. So of course the latter ideas make it while the earlier ones do not. Sometimes having the best business plan just means the founder took a class in how to write a sexy, cosmetically-appealing one. Hence, “beauty pageant”.
What can also happen is that the “ideas” selected in a contest just aren’t that compelling. This comes from the obvious fact that if an idea was so brilliant, no one else would have thought of it before and probably wouldn’t understand the impact of the idea itself until it was proven. Renting movies by mail? A free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit? A street-level Indian organization that lets streetkids dial in with their problems? These things aren’t sustainable, monetizable, or realistic, right?
Wrong. Netflix, Wikipedia, Childline.
Many final-round selectees are incremental improvements on marginally interesting/useful products that were already successful. So funding these grinder ideas is not really selecting a “great idea” at all. The biggest ideas can sometimes be “ah hah, that’s so easy!” ideas, but I think more often than not, the ideas that really change things do not make sense to people until much later.
And in fact I would go a step further and say that these paradigm-shift ideas do not occur in a vacuum. They are the products of great minds. Much is made of the professor at Stanford who passed not only on Yahoo! but on Google as well. They weren’t obvious winners initially, but Brin and Page and Yang and Filo went on to do great things like Google.org. Omidyar at eBay took an idea that people thought would fail against Amazon and has gone on to do philanthropy work.
People still don’t understand Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook but he has the potential to completely control the online social world.
So it is these people who envision what the future is going to look like… It is not that they happened on an idea by luck and never innovated again.
So why do start-up competitions vote on ideas and not people?
Start-Up Competitions Judged by Start-Ups
I felt as though TechCrunch 50 was a pretty successful start-up contest. It achieved success through collaboration and openness. If I recall correctly, the top 50 ideas were voted in by the TechCrunch reader base. This introduces some serious problems such as bandwagoning and successful block voting campaigns, but it might help to reduce the chaff. It also doesn’t get rid of the “understanding bias”; a truly large idea may be misconstrued or misunderstood, or a bad idea may hide a truly gifted entrepreneur.
The top 50 ideas pitched their products live at a conference to a panel of serial entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs, and people really knowledgeable in the start-up/web space. All of this was beamed over the web, and the ideas had web pages put up with reviews of their products. The feedback was given to them by the panels and through online comments.
What’s funny is a lot of the start-up literature out there spends a lot of time talking about how good the founders of an idea are. Are those people the type that it takes to be a start-up leader? Do they have good breadth of knowledge? Inventiveness? Adaptability? Charisma? The desire to work one’s ass off for a few years before ramping their business up?
In some cases, the literature says that angels and VCs and whatnot will often fund something on the basis solely of its founder and on the idea secondarily if at all. They know that a good founder will make just about anything work.
So why does it come back to ideas and not the people behind them?
Georgetown MSFS’s Role in the Ecosystem
I think Georgetown MSFS has a unique position; it is placed in DC (a massive swirl of politicians, interns, NGO do-gooders, lobbyists, start-ups, consultants, activists, city dwellers, culture-lovers), is built into a fantastic school with an undergraduate base, has a powerful Jesuit tradition of erudition and moral value system that values diversity, and pumps out graduates who end up doing some of the craziest, most innovative, bizarre, important things you’ve never imagined.
In terms of its competition, MSFS doesn’t have many peers in terms of having fascinating people doing politics. Johns Hopkins SAIS is closer to downtown but seems to be more applied economics. Where do SAIS grads show up? I don’t know…I don’t read about them often except that Tim Geithner just got nominated for Treasury. George Washington, American, and George Mason are also fine schools but don’t dominate politics quite the same way Georgetown does. As a caveat I should add that I’m amazed that the calibre of people who move out of these schools — DC truly is a place where anyone you meet on the street ends up being just the most fascinating person.
Schools outside DC (Columbia, Harvard, Yale, etc.) are also extremely good — don’t think I’m taking anything away from them — but they’re not as positioned for what I propose.
A Start-Up Fund for People
So Georgetown, which has a long tradition of truly singular models of virtue, ingenuity, and innovation, could build into its School of Foreign Service an organization that identifies the future possible leaders and issues them a challenge: start up a company or organization that has the potential to help lots of people. Instead of funding an idea, you fund a person. The scope could be limited to social entrepreneurship, and/or to a “social business” model which does not pay out to shareholders but instead reinvests profits into helping more people. This may be optional; while ideas shouldn’t be limited, you don’t want some SNAFU like this one guy I listened to on a panel once who, in response to “What do you want to do with your life?” answered “I want to create a new financial derivative.” That was back in 2007 before the financial crisis began.
The fund would support the person enough to live for a certain duration of time, with further money allotted for a company space and, depending, money to hire outside help (like a programmer or two) if it can’t be crowdcoded.
The person could of course recruit other people from the campus or partner with other people chosen by the fund. People wouldn’t have to apply to be selected — they could be nominated by others. Any barriers to entry such as long admission applications would be minimal, so that those who are discouraged by doing yet more stupid paperwork for something they may not even have a chance for won’t be discouraged.
Heck, encourage an online standardization: use LinkedIn for online résumé collection.
This would be a common area with laptops, large meeting tables, whiteboards, projectors, office supplies, everyone you need to bring a team together and brainstorm and code and do business, fit with phones, business address, full facilities and services. Any empty office space can be rented for this purpose. It doesn’t have to be much — just a place where a founding team can work together in an open area…and even collaborate with other teams.
The Final Piece: Leveraging Politics
In the same way that Stanford seems to be the nexus for new web start-ups and Harvard/MIT seem to be the braintrusts for a lot of new start-ups and academic projects and research, Georgetown could become the hotspot for political start-ups. There’s been much talk of Government 2.0, or bringing the US government into the Web 2.0 world of online collaboration. There’s no greater concentration of activists, lobbyists, NGOs, NFPs, etc. than DC (Geneva?). Not only is there a massive network of inspired minds here in DC, but they are also somewhat idealistic, risk averse, and willing to do something bold in order to effect change.
Sounds like the perfect place for start-up culture to me. Combine this with a vibrant Georgetown political life — not the cocktail-drinking elite as John McCain thumbed his nose down upon — but hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial Georgetown figures and personalities. You have tons of personalities to choose from to help found this new start-up fund.
What Do We Get?
The end result is a closer approximation to how great ideas actually are made successful. Choose great people: you know from your circles of people which ones are always thinking of solutions to problems. They may be the kinds who just have the energy and risk adversity to go out and start a new company. They may just be really efficient at small projects. At any rate, I don’t think these people are that secret. Some people are start-up people, others aren’t. Give them time to develop a project and maybe they will come up with a better idea than pure beauty-contest-business-plan start-up competitions can.
Certainly other organizations do something similar to this: Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, Omidyar. But an MSFS fund could focus on its core strengths:
- Utilizing the Georgetown campus, network, and Washington, DC political social sphere
- Building a core around awesomely diverse, eccentric, and productive students, alumni, and faculty
- Funding key people, not necessarily ideas
- Focusing on solving social problems in keeping with Georgetown/Jesuit tradition
- Incorporating Georgetown’s unparalleled insight into international affairs, policy issues, international development, and interdisciplinary research.
Who else can compete with us there?
I don’t know. I just think this way makes a lot more sense to how humans innovate. And I think Georgetown’s atmosphere is one of the few places where that energy could really be supported flourish as part of the community.
[Extra reading: entrepreneur hotels]