Supporting Startup Communities: Some Reflections on ‘Brant’s Rant’

4/22/13

I’ve had the pleasure of being part of San Diego’s entrepreneurial tech community since the ‘70s when, armed with my fresh Harvard doctorate, I joined a little company called Linkabit (the practice run for Qualcomm). I quickly learned what a start-up company was from San Diego’s finest entrepreneur, Irwin Jacobs. Since entrepreneurship is infectious, like many other Linkabit graduates, I followed suit and started a couple of successful companies myself—PCSI and Waveware. It wasn’t as easy as Irwin made it look, but, by this time San Diego was becoming a showplace of entrepreneurial support, and I benefitted tremendously from people like Connect founder Bill Otterson, who literally took me by the scruff of the neck and planted me in front of some tough looking stranger, saying “Martha, you have to tell this VC about your company— he’ll love it!”

Needless to say, by the time I got done founding companies and had joined Windward Ventures, I felt deep gratitude to the institutions in town that mentored me, educated me, networked me, helped fund me, and made me feel like I had a shot at being a successful entrepreneur. I am talking about institutions like Connect, CommNexus, San Diego Venture Group, Tech Coast Angels, the MIT Enterprise Forum, and others. Each has a different focus, but each added to the great mix of entrepreneurial lessons and connections available in San Diego.

Recently I was sent a link to a blog post by an author named Brant Cooper who grew up in San Diego, moved to the Bay Area in his early 20s and returned after 18 years. You can find his post here. Some people are referring to it as “Brant’s Rant.” He has positioned himself as an educator and networking organizer for San Diego’s young entrepreneurs, and he has written a couple of books. Although as far as I can determine he has never been a founder himself, he’s a bright, energetic, and charismatic leader for this group, so, I was eager to read what he had to say in his blog.

To his credit, the blog is chock full of references to organizations, thought leaders, and concepts on the cutting edge of building entrepreneurial support communities. It serves as a source for disseminating the newest lingua franca in startup methodology and models familiarizing us with terms like “lean startup”, Y-Combinator, and TechStars. Of course any organization or individual worthy of supporting entrepreneurs is hungry for these new ideas. Our local support organizations for the most part crave awareness of innovations in entrepreneurial support along with up-to-date knowledge of shifting economic assumptions and changing markets. In order to stay relevant, these entities are always evolving in order to improve their effectiveness in supporting San Diego entrepreneurs—it’s part of their DNA! So, in this respect, the blog is very useful.

However, where this post seriously fails is stepping over the boundary from factual information into the realm of uninformed editorializing that goes well beyond the author’s knowledge base. In a nutshell, his post simply spends most of its words taking a hatchet to many of San Diego’s well-established and highly respected organizations that provide startup support in this city. The writing is acerbic and adolescent, a “you-can’t-trust-anyone-over-30″ attitude about San Diego’s rich system for supporting entrepreneurs. It even includes an accusation (conveniently attributed to another author) that it is peopled by “old white guys” from big companies. It systematically attacks every established organization in town supporting entrepreneurs.

Such writing is shockingly divisive and—worst of all—incredibly damaging to our city’s population of young entrepreneurs who are its major audience. As a detractor of EVERYTHING, the blog leaves them nowhere to turn for support. Bill Otterson would turn over in his grave to hear the blog’s description of our town’s entrepreneurial support failures. And iconic entrepreneurs and leaders like Irwin Jacobs and Dick Atkinson, who heavily supported Bill’s internationally recognized organization to “connect entrepreneurs with funding,” wouldn’t recognize this rewrite of San Diego history.

It’s not clear why the blog needs to be so destructive in such a wanton manner. It makes assertions that are later retracted and replaced with other misleading and unsubstantiated statements. Maybe it’s simply a publicity stunt to promote the author’s own activities and books.

To create a “them” and an “us” may sell books or get young entrepreneurs to meet-ups, but at what cost to our local community? There are enough other predators trying to take business from San Diego. Our town can’t afford this. If one only destructively criticizes and creates misunderstanding of our existing local support organizations, rather than working with them to improve, how WILL they improve? If one only teaches the folks new to this ecosystem that they shouldn’t trust the existing support system, and that they shouldn’t turn to it for help, where can they turn?

As a successful veteran of San Diego’s entrepreneurial support system, and now one of many heavy duty volunteers who spends several hours each week for this purpose, I cordially invite the author to dialogue openly with the current leadership of these organizations, to share his ideas with them and to work towards uniting our whole entrepreneurial ecosystem rather than dividing it. We need his input in a constructive way because—after all—we all want San Diego to win!

Martha Dennis is a principal at Gordian Knot, an advisory firm to emerging technology businesses in San Diego. She was previously a venture partner at San Diego's Windward Ventures. Before that, she was the CEO and co-founder of San Diego’s Waveware Communications, a co-founder and vice-president of engineering at Pacific Communication Sciences Inc. (PCSI), and assistant vice president of software engineering at Linkabit. Follow @

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  • Tyler Orion

    Martha- Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think that both you and Rick Valencia have made some of the most potent rebuttals to Brant’s “Rant,” and both of you have the entrepreneurial credentials (and the huge volunteer track records) to support some pointed feedback. Well done!

  • http://embarke.com/ ALBsharah

    Hey Martha, great article and view on the polarizing topic that’s been the talk of San Diego the past few weeks. I’d like to focus on the last part of my last sentence. “The talk of San Diego the past few weeks”.

    We haven’t had that in our community for a little while. At least, not enough of it.

    I’m very active in the SD startup community, have my own startup, and have leveraged many of the resouces this town offers. I meet with 1-2 local people every single day (entrepreneurs, mentors, advisors, investors) in varying forms of giving-and-getting.

    There is a shift that’s happened in these daily meetings I’m having.

    Prior to the “rant”, many folks would talk about what’s wrong with San Diego. Most of what Brant wrote has been discussed behind closed doors for quite some time, even with folks involved in said institutions.

    But that’s not what’s interesting.

    What’s important is that the conversations have fundamentally shifted. Completely. People are discussing what can be done better, and are asking how they can help make a difference…even those involved in said institutions.

    Whether you believe in the method or voice Brant used to share his opinions, it’s clear to me that it’s managed to get people talking about the right things and asking how they can make things better.

    And that is, truly, all that matters.

    No one here is perfect, we’ve all got flaws. Our community will continue to have them as we grow. We will continue to have clashing opinions on what methods work and which ones don’t.

    My recommendation to anyone that cares about San Diego and it’s startup ecosystem: Take this influx of passion and interest in wanting to make San Diego better, get on board, and ride the wave!

    Better yet, make your own waves for others to ride.

    We all have the same goals, and I’m happy to see that even those with opposing opinions are willing to discuss this in public light.

    Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/Adriana_Herrera Adriana Herrera

    Hi Martha,

    It’s great to see Brant invited to connect with the leadership of the organizations mentioned in the post. It’s also a little disappointing because as you noted he is not a startup founder. Rather I believe energy needs to be focused on facilitating a dialogue between the entrepreneurs and the leaders of the organizations mentioned in Brant’s post.

    Fashioning Change has been straddling multiple cities. You can read my blog post about our experiences in The New York Times here: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/torn-between-two-start-up-communities. We spend time in San Diego, Santa Monica, and the Bay. We spend time in other cities because San Diego IS getting left-behind and it’s not because there isn’t talent here or great startups it’s because the ecosystem can’t get it together to work together and meet the needs of the startups. Since “Brants Rant” a number of founders/ startups have taken action to create new meetups, to create new collaborative work spaces, to create open mentor hours, and more. Enough has been discussed in this community about what isn’t working. I encourage the organizations in “Brants Rant” to follow the entrepreneur’s lead and take action…more discussions won’t fix the problems.

    I grew-up in San Diego. I want to grow my company in San Diego. Despite our decision to leave EvoNexus we are supportive of the organization’s intention. The Fashioning Change team is happy to provide support to any organization in San Diego that wants to take steps to ensure that San Diego does not get left-behind and that the startups have the resources needed to remain relevant and competitive.

    Thanks for supporting San Diego startups, your contributions, and your post.

    Kind Regards,
    Adriana

  • FastMikie

    Nailed it!

  • TheHuddledMasses

    Wow. First thing that pops into my mind is Ross Perot and his ‘you people’ speech. Newsflash: There already is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ problem. Brant didn’t just create it – it’s been around for a while. As a first time entrepreneur in San Diego, this has been crystal clear to me and many entrepreneurs in my network.

    I’ve met Brant Cooper a couple of times – I’m neither a supporter nor a detractor of his. And I believe you’re completely justified in spending as much time as you do, highlighting the tone of his comments. His comments were delivered tactlessly, unfortunately detracting from the meat of his message.

    That said, I have to agree with the points he made. Why? Because this has been my exact experience as an early-stage entrepreneur in San Diego.

    I thank you and other successful entrepreneurs who are actively working with and advising startups, and giving back to the community. But please understand that tech entrepreneurship has changed – a lot. “Lean Startup” is no longer cutting edge – it’s mainstream. http://hbr.org/2013/05/why-the-lean-start-up-changes-everything/

    In fact, my suggestion for the organizations that you represent is to apply Lean Startup to your business models and see how they can be improved and how you can serve your customers together. That means reaching out to the entrepreneurs (and other ‘customers’) in the community, not just those you’re already working with, and get direct feedback from them. Don’t use Brant or anyone else as your proxy – actually get face-to-face with the people you’re aiming to serve.

    Looking forward to a growing and strong entrepreneurial ecosystem.

  • Parand Tony Darugar

    Great to see a discussion around this topic.

    Brant has paid his dues when it comes to making comments on San Diego’s tech scene – he’s organized many of the best events via his San Diego Tech Founders meetup, bringing Brad Feld, Paul Kedrosky, Steve Blank, David Cohen, Mark Suster, and many others to town. He’s also easily found every week at the Tech Coffee meetup – it’s hard not to run into him if you’re doing a startup in San Diego. I’d suggest that he has indeed started a company – if you’ve followed his approach to his business and book launch you’ll see he’s putting the methods he espouses to use everyday.

    For what it’s worth I’ve founded 3 startups in San Diego and am over 30, and I’m taking Brant’s feedback very seriously. I’m hoping we can get past the tone and ad hominems and get into the meat of the message.

  • http://twitter.com/chriswaldron Chris Waldron

    I would agree that I’ve noticed an uptick in the activity of startups and the engagement within the #sdtech community post “Brant rant” and didn’t have a problem with the content because it was true. I appreciate when a VC or advisor can cut through the BS and be straightforward.

    To say that Brant is “trying to sell books” is disrespectful and a clear example of someone who is not aware of reality and the impact Brant has on the SD community. And not to pick on the author but she is asking for dialogue but not engaging where the conversations are happening (e.g. this blog post, SD based FB groups, local tech meetups, Twitter or coffee shops).

    • http://www.facebook.com/blair.giesen Blair Giesen

      Great point Chris. Where is Martha Dennis’ reply? She will probably never see these. Let’s do it on our own like Brant & Brad are saying.

  • http://www.facebook.com/blair.giesen Blair Giesen

    Brant nailed it. San Diego has a long way to go. The tech community needs to be led by entrepreneurs & founders. Companies need to work together to form strong business partnerships that benefit each other and the tech growth.

    We have a good foundation but a long way to go. Connect & Commnexus have created a great foundation but they need to evolve. That is what
    Brant & Brad are advocating.

    I was one of the first companies at the Downtown Evonexus. Great start. Now they need to add another layer. Instead of being ALL about the Sponsors and not knowing much about the start-ups, bring in a Brant Cooper type to run it. As a company at Evonexus I saw first hand. There was an amazing ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening with the Mayor & other dignitaries. However, when my company left (Graduated) there was NO exit interview to get feedback. They are missing so much and the answers are right in front of them in the entrepreneurs themselves and in the start up community. Evo, feel free to contact me to brainstorm solutions. -Blair

    didn’t get much from
    the Evonexus. Check us out at http://www.intercom.fm/.