Terry Cross: Michigan Needs to Break Down Its Proverbial Silos

2/25/11Follow @xconomy

It’s Oscar weekend folks! Come Sunday, we’ll know if a stammering King outshines a boozy U.S. Marshal or whether a crazy ballerina edges out a lesbian mother. God, I love the movies!

But one actor won’t be taking home any hardware because…well, he wasn’t nominated. And that’s a damn shame because he was really good, at least according to one prominent local investor.

“I’m not a big Justin Timberlake fan,” the seventy-something Terry Cross says without a trace of irony, “but he really captured the essence of the guy.”

The guy Cross was referring to is Napster founder Sean Parker, so memorably portrayed by Timberlake in The Social Network. Unless you lived in self-imposed seclusion these past few months, you would know the Oscar-nominated movie chronicles (more or less) how Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg founded the insanely popular social media website Facebook. (Zuckerberg and Parker, it should be noted, have disputed the accuracy of their characters.)

Cross is quite familiar with the real life Parker and the culture that produced him. The Michigan native spent a considerable chunk of his career in Silicon Valley, managing high-tech funds and joining an angel group that eventually backed Google and Napster.

Parker, at least as Cross recalls, was very much how Timberlake portrayed him: a brash, supremely confident kid who talked big and thought bigger.

Part entrepreneur, part anarchist, Parker delighted in disrupting industries dominated by what he called patronizing grownups whether they be music or venture capital. He didn’t particularly care about things like business models and profit projections, Cross adds, but VCs kept writing checks until the bubble burst.

In many ways, Michigan, and the Midwest in general, is the anti-Silicon Valley. While Michigan entrepreneurs are certainly smart and hardworking, they lack one crucial instinct engrained in West Coast tech culture, Cross says: collaboration.

In Silicon Valley, it’s not uncommon to see teams of engineers and developers from rival startups brainstorming ideas and working on code in coffee shops. In Michigan, entrepreneurs operate in “silos,” Cross says, and often hoard ideas like they were rare baseball cards.

In the movie, Parker learns of Facebook from a Stanford student. Intrigued, he flies across the country to talk shop with Zuckerberg, whom he never met before.

Cross didn’t exactly say this, but my sense is Michigan could use a Sean Parker or two, spontaneous and slightly crazy visionaries who seduce people with big ideas and drive investors nuts with their arrogance and disdain for traditional power structures.

Midwesterners, in my experience, are generally hardworking but cautious individuals whose outward friendliness belies an aversion to risk and confrontation. Sharing your ideas with a potential rival is certainly risky, but the results could ultimately benefit everyone.

So imagine if we could combine the hardworking pragmatism of the Midwest with the energy, creativity, and craziness of Silicon Valley. What we would we get?

A Sean Parker that might actually care about business models for one thing. But also a collaborative approach to disruptive innovation that not only tolerates risk but revels in it.

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  • Dwight

    Terry is right on the mark. For a state that has the “brotherhood” of workers in the union we become loners when it comes to working on projects and ideas. My sense is that it comes out of the engineering DNA where people look at their own hands to solve problems. They think if I can’t solve this there must be something wrong with me, when it would be better to say, who can help me solve this problem. The IT DNA of silicon valley understands this, the engineering DNA of Michigan still needs to learn it.

  • BBell

    I agree. I went to school out in Arizona. Not exactly Silicon Valley but still more open to new ideas and not afraid of failure.