Monday, June 18, 2007

What Young Entrepreneurs Need from Pittsburgh

The week before last, Project Olympus had an Inaugural Show and Tell at Carnegie Mellon to brief the community on its efforts. The fundamental goal of Project Olympus is to encourage talented computer science students at Carnegie Mellon to stay in Pittsburgh, ideally as entrepreneurs, or at least as employees of startup firms that are started by others. The idea is to hook these students on starting or working for startup firms in Pittsburgh before they go to other parts of the country to do so.

The opportunity is significant. Lenore Blum, Director of Project Olympus, estimated that only 20 (5%) of Carnegie Mellon's 2007 Computer Science graduates were staying in Pittsburgh. That means another 400 could potentially stay here. If Project Olympus merely doubles the current percentage of CMU's CS graduates who stay each year through entrepreneurship, it could significantly expand the number of startup companies in Pittsburgh.

What do these students want/need in order to stay? Based on a survey of students conducted by Project Olympus, three things are key:

(1) Access to angel/venture capital and other assistance through networking opportunities;

(2) A "safety net," i.e., other job opportunities if the initial one falls through; and

(3) A region that views entrepreneurship, even in failure, as a valuable learning experience.

These are not things that can be solved by a particular economic development program or delegated to a particular economic development agency to address. They are things that everyone -- every business, every civic leader, every citizen -- can and must help to address. We need more people to be willing to make angel investments in young firms. We need more people willing to "use their Rolodex" to connect a young entrepreneur with a customer, a landlord, a lawyer, an accountant, etc. who can help. We need more companies willing to hire a talented individual in between entrepreneurial ventures. We need citizens and community leaders to view entrepreneurs as a success even if their most recent venture failed, as long as they're willing to try another startup soon.

And we need to be entrepreneurial about how we support entrepreneurs. That means taking risks ourselves and accepting the fact that not every startup we support will succeed. A Silicon Valley venture capitalist with Pittsburgh roots spoke at the Project Olympus briefing, and noted that in order to attract and retain entrepreneurs, Pittsburghers need to do more than just be willing to invest in entrepreneurs, they need to "write the check quickly." While we take our time pondering an investment opportunity, asking an entrepreneur for more and more information, an investor in Boston or Silicon Valley may say "yes" right away, but with the condition that the entrepreneur move there. And he added that if we can't write a check quickly, then say "no" quickly, rather than taking the entrepreneur's valuable time pursuing support that's not likely to come through.

Project Olympus is a great way to feed more talent into the entrepreneurial pipeline in Pittsburgh. The rest of the community needs to make sure that the pipeline is wide enough all the way through to prevent entrepreneurs from hitting bottlenecks along the way, because the end of the pipeline spells success not only for the entrepreneur, but for the region as a whole.


Blogger disq said...

Your blog post regarding cultivating Pittsburgh Startups is spot on. It has been quite a fight to get my startup off the ground. I have a pretty well established network in Pittsburgh and across the nation. I also have a product ready to roll but need a beta customer in Pittsburgh before national distribution. My single biggest difficulty has been acquiring my first customer. CMU, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Duquesne University, and a few others have shown interest but haven't committed.

As a 22 year old soon to be college graduate in electrical and computer engineering I have considered moving out of Pittsburgh because I thought the entrepreneurial culture didn't exist here. Among other things, I have been quite disappointed by the University of Pittsburgh stance on student entrepreneurship and the ability to find seed funding. However, as a Pittsburgh native and university alumni, I feel responsible to my family, friends, and region to stay in Pittsburgh. I think Pittsburgh is on the brink of significant change.

8:37 PM  

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