A Start Up Trek – Turning Strangers Into Friends

Geek Culture

Wineglasses – Creative Commons license by Dinner Glasses

I am starting a new public accessible prototyping lab in Huntsville, Alabama, called MindGear Labs based on the fab lab model. I’ve dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and have done a fair amount of research on the topic. But this is my first attempt at starting a business. Here is where I document weekly my mistakes and successes in creating a business from the ground up.

I’ve visited a number of business groups in the last couple of weeks. I’m rather proud of that fact. Frankly, I’m not the most gregarious person in the world – therefore attending these meetings requires considerable effort on my part. At every one of these meetings I’ve wavered in the parking lot before I actually made myself go in. At one event a lady fussed at me for not having business cards and I replied, “Hey, I’m an engineer. I did well just to be here.” Given that 1 out of 11 people (all people, not just those of working age) is an engineer here in Huntsville, everyone is familiar with the engineer mindset.

Most people who know me at my day job would be surprised to know that I’m really an introvert. My day job requires me to interact with other engineers/scientists. Most of my work involves leading projects so I have to integrate the efforts of a number of people. That means running meetings, making decisions about who does what and when, resolving conflicts between team members, etc. I don’t mind the interpersonal aspect, even enjoy it at times, but have also found myself wishing I could just be an analyst.

I’m pretty comfortable talking in front of a group of engineers: I’ve done it hundreds of times in giving papers/presentations, speeches, and leading meetings. And yet walking into a room of businessmen and women who make a living from their people skills makes me quite uneasy. But I made myself do it and I’m a better person for it.

The recently published non-fiction book Quiet discusses what its like to be an introvert in an extrovert’s world. I’ve only had a chance to thumb through it, but I’ve bought it and it’s on the top of my reading stack. I’ll give it to the extroverts, though, they know how to make people feel at home. One meeting had everyone’s name tag numbered 1 to 4, and every 10 minutes or so we had to get up and find a new table and each table had to have a 1, 2, 3, and 4. Sort of a business equivalent to speed dating. My 30-second pitch on this business got a lot of refinement that day. That speed format was very useful though; I met more people than if I had stayed with my usual strategy of standing against a wall, and the time at each table was just enough to give everyone a chance to talk while preventing long silences or stale conversation. At another meeting a very nice real estate agent (the aforementioned lady that fussed at me about business cards) adopted me and brought a half dozen people to meet me during the hour’s time. I now have another banker to talk to, folks from the chamber of commerce offering help with my marketing efforts, and a number of new contacts for various services I’ll need. And I got an invitation to a technology focused luncheon on Tuesday.

Clearly pushing myself past my boundaries is necessary to get MindGear off the ground. Getting out there and talking to the folks that like to talk to strangers is part of the job description for an entrepreneur. And while this isn’t my strong suit it has to be done. Once I have the business up and running I expect that I’ll be working with individuals or small teams, helping them make their cool project a reality. Another book, the E-myth Revisited, suggests that most small businesses fail because the owner is very good at the product or service he offers, but hasn’t learned enough about accounting and financial practices, managing employees, marketing methods, and other business practices.

If you’ve been reading this series regularly you’ll know that my nine-year-old son is very excited about MindGear, and also does not suffer any difficulty meeting new people. I joke that he’s my junior executive vice-president, and that he never meets a stranger. Penelope Trunk, a noted entrepreneur and blogger, discusses the need to have a great partner when starting a business, and has talked about her and her son’s goat cheese business concept. (Some of her posts are very family-friendly, but others you may want to read before allowing your kids to see them.) I haven’t yet mentioned the significant other in my life but she too has been a great partner in working out this concept. Networking is great to work out the details of my business plan, but my two partners are critical to my success and I’m glad I have them around. I’m tempted to bring my nine-year-old to the next networking event – I can send him out to meet people and he can bring them to my corner. That’s ok, isn’t it?


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