Bob Metcalfe Isn’t Leaving, Bill Warner Turns the Tables, Kiva Is Profitable, and Other Takeaways From 5×5

12/9/10Follow @gthuang

We had such a great time at our “5×5” Xconomy Forum yesterday, I just wanted to share a few thoughts from the talks and discussions. I think it was very useful and entertaining stuff, especially for entrepreneurs and investors.

First, a note of thanks to all our participants, several of whom flew into frigid Boston from warmer climes. And a very special thank you to our host and sponsors, who made this event possible. Our host, the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, was wonderful in every respect—it was a fantastic event space, and the supportive staff helped us with logistics and a lot more. Our event sponsors—Avaya, Comerica Bank, Duane Morris, and Turnstone—provided much-needed support and some really cool demos that added depth to the program and reception. We also got support from our design sponsor, Upstatement; our event partner, Mass Technology Leadership Council; and our media partner, Greentech Media. Thanks again to all of you.

Now here are my top five takeaways from a rousing set of speakers:

1. Bill Warner turned our thinking around. The entrepreneur evangelist and renowned angel investor spoke from the back of the room and made us all turn our chairs around, to emphasize his unconventional approach to startups. “I intend to help people follow their heart,” he said. “I believe people are pushed to follow their head.” Essentially, a startup’s philosophy boils down to what he calls the “negotiated invention” model—what most entrepreneurs follow by leading with their idea or technology and making compromises based on the market and egos—versus his “from the heart” approach, which involves sticking to your true beliefs and intentions and building a loyal following (and taxing them as little as possible—see Google, Facebook, Twitter).

2. CarWoo gave us tips on how to become the next Groupon. Founder and CEO Tommy McClung, from the Bay Area, talked about targeting established business models in big markets, which are “usually ripe for disruption”; riding the emerging trend of “online to offline” (like Groupon, getting merchants up and running online while also getting customers into physical stores); and balancing incentives for your customers (in CarWoo’s case, letting car dealers in for free while charging consumers a service fee).

3. Kiva Systems is profitable. The Woburn, MA-based robotics, er, warehouse automation startup, is cash-flow positive and now gets business from 10 of the top 100 retailers, including Amazon (Zappos, Diapers.com), Staples, and Gilt Groupe. CEO and founder Mick Mountz showed some nifty action videos and talked about lessons learned from dot-com disaster Webvan, All in all, not bad for a robotics company (sorry Mick, but retailers have to get with the robot revolution) that’s been quietly building its business since 2003.

4. Whether it’s the energy grid or the Web, we need situational awareness. That was the message from two of our out-of-town speakers, Joaquin Silva of On-Ramp Wireless (San Diego) and Craig Labovitz from Arbor Networks (Detroit). Silva discussed new ways to harness super-sensitive wireless sensor networks to monitor global electricity and water systems for safety and efficiency. Labovitz talked about the vulnerabilities in today’s Web and mobile systems (hint: firewalls are not secure), and how to fight back in the escalating battle between hackers and security experts. (He also stuck up for Ann Arbor as a key contributor to the modern Internet.)

5. TerraPower will change the world—if it works. Technology advisor Roger Reynolds talked about Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold’s nuclear reactor design and its many challenges. The 20-year goal: cheap, safe, and plentiful energy for everyone, and the eradication of poverty. Reynolds’s deadpan style worked well—with an idea this big, you don’t need bluster, you need expertise to make it work. (Or as Bob Metcalfe put it, “Why is this taking so long? It was very clearly explained. Just build it and ship it.”)

Speaking of whom, here’s a bonus takeaway:

Bob Metcalfe isn’t leaving, he’s expanding. The Internet tycoon’s move to Austin, TX, is part change of scenery (and weather), part new career (Professor of Innovation at UT), and part “strolling into Whole Foods and buying everything in there.” But there’s something more profound in this, too, and it’s really about the spread of ideas and influential technologists and business leaders to new clusters. “Is innovation a zero-sum game?” Metcalfe said. “I don’t think so. We want innovation to be everywhere.” To that end, Metcalfe proposed the idea of an Xconomy “6×6” conference next year—adding Austin (or perhaps another city) to our network. We shall see, Professor. We shall see.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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