This isn’t a blog about how we can be more like Silicon Valley. We shouldn’t be like Silicon Valley – we should be uniquely, quintessentially Athens. But, there are important lessons we can learn from studying those that have been successful. When I consider why a region like Silicon Valley is successful at encouraging entrepreneurs and compare it to a region like Northeast Georgia, significant differences stand out. One of the less obvious, but more important, is the willingness and ability of the established business community to mentor young entrepreneurs.
In a culture like Silicon Valley, successful business people recognize that some (much?) of their success is dependent not on what they know, but who they know. As the phrase goes, the size of your network determines your net worth. As a young businessman in San Francisco, I was able to call or e-mail almost anyone in the region and get 15 minutes of their time. Within a few minutes of starting the meeting, I would know clearly that (a) they thought I was an idiot or (b) we might have something to talk about, but at least I was able to get advice and lessons from almost anyone.
Contrast that to Athens. We bemoan the lack of a cohesive business community in this town, but it is like pulling teeth to get 15 minutes of time from many of the successful business people in town. There have been times when I have even been asked to PAY for meetings! That’s insane. Someone who does this, is short sighted by valuing immediate monetary gain over a potentially rewarding (both financial and otherwise) long term relationship. Stop worrying about what’s in it for you and open yourself up to a world of possibility. This mentality of immediate gain will enfeeble Athens more than many other traits. Let’s start thinking bigger as a community and stop trying to grab tiny pieces of the pie. A funny thing happens when people start opening up and sharing ideas and challenging each other – everybody is better for it.
As a corollary, don’t do this. If you think that what I am saying is stupid, tell me. Don’t smile and then write me off. I won’t learn and you are disingenuous. If we’re simply patting our fledgling business owners on the back and telling them they are awesome without challenging them, we’re never going to grow business in Athens. I think some people believe this disingenuous behavior is called Southern charm. It’s not. And it’s harming our business community.
Follow the role of Mark Suster – take 50 meetings a year and be honest (and polite!) during them. They might just change your life. And they’ll definitely make the Athens business community a more welcoming, challenging and encouraging environment.