Wednesday, June 4, 2008

But who will help the geeks?

Entrepreneurs, take note: your chances at success just hitched up a notch. Versatile businessman Saeed Amidi has opened another Plug and Play Tech Center for promising start-up companies in Palo Alto.

Plug and Play centers are an alternative to traditional start-up incubators in venture capital firms, according to Amidi, the Plug and Play CEO. Instead of tying their fortunes to any one funder, young companies are housed in a sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem until they are ready to spread their wings -- and let the money come rolling in. Amidi is quick to point out that Google sparked a bidding war while housed at one of his properties years ago.
The centers' model is to cluster start-ups in a sort of beehive of brilliance. As they draw on each others' energy and creativity, they are also given access to a formidable line-up of connections.
There are regularly scheduled visits from angel investors and venture capital firms such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson. There are monthly Web 2.0 events.
There are even semiannual expos, whereby a feeding frenzy of media and funders descend to hear an exhausting roster of business pitches. And Amidi’s own fund, Amidzad, may choose to kick in some dough for the best ideas.
Lucky entrepreneurs, indeed.
Amidi’s latest Plug and Play Center is on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. It opened in early May. With space for about 15 companies to work side by side, it may not reach the fevered pitch of the Sunnyvale site, which has 129 start-ups, he said. But it’s got the nearby businesses of downtown, including Accel and Norwest Venture Partners, he said.
To read more about the Plug and Play concept and hear Tim Draper's thoughts on it, check out the article I wrote for today’s Palo Alto Weekly.
Meanwhile, reporting on Plug and Play got me wondering – what about the geeks?
To rent space in a Plug and Play center, start-ups must demonstrate their potential, according to to Shobeir Shobeiri, a Plug and Play business manager. Applicants are screened not only for the strength of their ideas but also for the quality of their team, he said. That could mean an upper hand for communicative folks skilled at the sort of networking Plug and Play arranges. It could mean an advantage for the Stanford computer-science-majors-turned-start-up-founders I’m working with for an article series now (more on that later). Far from the stereotype of shy computer nerd, they seem immensely aware of how to meet-and-greet and pitch ideas. Their handshakes are firmer than most adults'.

So are the introvert genius-geeks just left in the dust? In the era of the elevator pitch, what about the nerds mumbling at their shoes? Think of the cliché of nerdy, adolescent Bill Gates. Or any stereotype about engineers or programmers, for that matter. Are the terminally shy worker bees still starting companies, and if so, how much does charisma matter?

A lot, apparently. Just visit Stanford’s School of Engineering, home to many of its entrepreneur-grooming programs, and you’ll see fliers for overcoming fear of public speaking plastered in the halls. Social know-how is not quite the reigning jewel of innovation -- yet.
Or maybe it is. Maybe those fliers are targetted at the small, stuttering minority. Perhaps the brilliant introvert truly has gotten a bit more savvy about wooing venture capital, now that such practices are Valley mainstays.
The rise of the Cool Geek to replace the Awkward Nerd was recently chronicled in a New York Times Op-Ed piece by David Brooks. And in fact, he credited some of Silicon Valley’s biggest legends with the transition:

“The future historians of the nerd ascendancy will likely note that the great empowerment phase began in the 1980s with the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy. Nerds began making large amounts of money and acquired economic credibility, the seedbed of social prestige. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls — Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and so on.”

The jury is out, however, on whether this transformation has happened to nerds or just alongside them. Does society like nerds more, or are they genuinely more likeable? If only someone could build a Facebook application capable of riddling me that.

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