Encouraging Thieves and Failures
Three years ago, James Morris, then Dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and now Dean of Carnegie Mellon’s West Coast Campus, wrote an op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette titled "Pittsburgh needs more thieves, failures." It's worth re-reading. In it he points out that while universities and corporate R&D labs are often the sources of new technologies, the responsibility for commercializing them rests with entrepreneurs. He writes:
The reason some great products come out of Silicon Valley is that there is a huge community of engineers and business people contesting for success. Of course, the scientists at Stanford help stimulate the process, but they are less crucial than they would tell you. The same goes for Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
Morris speaks with some authority, having worked at Xerox PARC, the corporate R&D lab that is famous for having invented some of the key technologies that drove personal computing, but which Xerox failed to capitalize on.
As he points out:
...it might actually be harder for the originator of a technology to exploit it than it is for someone else...when someone "steals" an idea, he has some crucial advantages over someone who owns it or is given it...The technology thief has the freedom to modify the ideas since he's under no obligation to the originator. If Steve Jobs, who took the ideas for the Macintosh from Xerox PARC, had been a Xerox marketer, management might have forced him to swallow a lot of the ideas that weren't marketable at the time. Because he had complete freedom of action, he could exercise his marketing genius, picking and choosing what he needed.
What does he think is missing in Pittsburgh?
Compared with Silicon Valley, we don’t have enough risk takers – people who start or join enterprises that are long shots, people with the nerve to steal ideas. In Silicon Valley, failed entrepreneurs are treated with respect because they have learned lessons that will help them or someone else succeed. Some of the mega-wealthy there failed several times before winning.
As he points out, Andrew Carnegie and the Mellons took big risks and made big bucks, but a lot of other people, now long forgotten, took risks and failed. You can't get some winners without having a number of losers along the way, as every venture capitalist knows.
How can you encourage entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh? Come to the Entrepreneurial Mash-Up Tuesday night at the Heinz 57 Center Downtown. It’s free. You can register here.