The Stephen Colbert of tech

Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report"

“I don’t see race.”

That’s Michael Arrington’s response to the CNN Money post regarding his statement that he doesn’t know a “single black entrepreneur” in the upcoming Black in America 4 special.

In all seriousness, though, I agree with him that Soledad O’Brien’s question “Who would you say is the #1 black entrepreneur?” was a gotcha. I’m not a big fan of the Black in America series on CNN, and this dust-up is exactly why. Sensationalism wins out over providing any real insight.

That said, I’ve recently heard/read a pair of anecdotes about TechCrunch summarily dismissing pitches regarding black entrepreneurs. (One of them, regarding NewME Accelerator, the subject of the BIA special, is here.) So I’m not 100 percent convinced that TechCrunch and Arrington just aren’t hearing from any black folks.

However, in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t matter all that much. I’ll have to co-sign NewME Accelerator co-founder Angela Benton: ignore the drama. Better yet, come up with ways to encourage black people to get into tech, wherever they are. Hint: most of them won’t be in Silicon Valley.

Do what you love, especially if you’re launching a startup

Father and sons at children's computer

This morning, thanks to Matt Mireles of SpeakerText, I came across this post on why a journalism start-up called NewsLabs folded only two months after its site, NewsTilt, launched. It was a compelling read. I was struck particularly by this admission:

But we didn’t really care about journalism, and weren’t even avid news readers. If the first thing we did every day was go to, we should have been making this product. But even when we had NewsTilt, it wasn’t my go-to place to be entertained, that was still Hacker News and Reddit. And how could we build a product that we were only interested in from a business perspective.

What? Why would you build a product you wouldn’t use? As so many of Inc.’s stories attest, starting a company basically takes over your life, so if you’re launching a venture, it better be something you care an awfully lot about. (Even Paul Graham of Y Combinator, which funded NewsLabs, has said, “It sucks to run a start-up.”)

There are tons of strong points about business and technical issues made in the post, but the personal ones really jumped out at me. The author, NewsTilt co-founder Paul Biggar, was working on his PhD thesis and planning a wedding, all while trying to get a company off the ground. That’s already insane, but then again, many entrepreneurs love extreme multi-tasking. (I’m reminded of one CEO I profiled who started a non-profit to collect war veterans’ oral histories at the same time he launched his management consulting firm.) But, if you’re not all that into your day job, it’s probably near impossible to pull off the juggling act.

Biggar also makes a personal aside that ties into policy: namely, the startup visa that several politicians and figures in the entrepreneurial community have proposed. As he points out,

If you support the Startup visa take note: if the startup visa does not allow a founder’s significant other to work, then many founders won’t move. I can support my wife on a H1B because it comes with a high salary, but good luck on a founder’s salary, no matter how good the funding is.

I think that’s an important observation, and it raises (yet again) questions about where families fit into startup life.

Do black entrepreneurs just need better ideas?

Man and woman looking at laptop in office

This Huffington Post story on black entrepreneurs and angel investment caught my eye a couple of days ago. I was particularly struck by the interview at the end with Lauran Bonaparte of Lauton Capital Group. In her response to the last question, she made a couple of statements that contradict what I’ve heard from many investors I’ve interviewed (primarily for Inc.’s Elevator Pitch column):

Q: If an entrepreneur stems from a background of poverty, poor education and the relational family is similarly situated, what steps can they take to overcome those types of challenges in getting their idea to a level of funding?

A: Wow. That’s a great question. I believe, in my experience, it’s all about the idea that you have. If you have a great idea and a great concept, you can overcome poor management in a myriad of ways. […]

While Bonaparte’s contention is that good ideas generally prevail, most investors I’ve spoken to and read have been quick to point out that they invest in promising people more so than even promising businesses. And how do they determine who is promising? By looking at who’s in their inner circle. Therein lies the rub for black entrepreneurs—most are nowhere in these investors’ social networks, so they have to work much harder to convince them to take a leap of faith. Women entrepreneurs face a similar (though perhaps not as stiff) dilemma, which has been discussed in many columns and conferences.

I also find curious the notion that good ideas outweigh poor management, given that there are several companies (e.g., eBay, Yahoo) that have lost their luster due to leadership woes. One prominent example is a little site that predated the likes of MySpace and Facebook but now is pretty much forgotten, at least in the U.S. (Otherwise known as Friendster.)

Often it seems to me that blacks in the entrepreneurial field are reluctant to bring up mentions of any barriers to success, for fear of sounding like whiners. I totally understand this concern. But it often ends up with them dismissing obvious points, such as those above, or worse, throwing out stereotypes about black people’s laziness. Thankfully, Bonaparte does not do the latter, but I’ve seen egregious examples along those lines. One horrendous guest post on The Black Snob, a blog that I otherwise enjoy, comes to mind. Many years ago, Inc. committed a similar sin—and it was rightfully lambasted by Earl Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, for doing so.