Why startups are weeds and how innovation is like sex
Startups are like weeds. Entrepreneurs are like fruit flies. Innovation is like ideas having sex. Greg Horowitt has a lot of colorful metaphors to describe the world of startup companies and entrepreneurship.
Horowitt is a venture capitalist and entrepreneurship mentor from southern California. He helped start the CONNECT innovation network in San Diego. He's since started the spinoff Global CONNECT and has traveled the world to help set up innovation communities.
He recently visited the campus of SUNY Oswego in central New York to help the school launch its Thrive incubator. That's where the Innovation Trail caught up with him.
We talked about his theory of innovation ecosystems being like a rainforest. The conversation picks up with Horowitt discussing why startups are like weeds.
[Ed. note: The following interview has been edited for both clarity and length.]
Greg Horowitt: In the first [economic] models, we called them plantations, they looked a lot like farms where you were trying to grow corn or wheat and you planted everything very, very nicely. But the interesting thing is that in your wheat field, you were only focuses on the wheat. If a weed grew up in your corn field, you pulled it out because it threatened and it competed.
In the knowledge economy, what we find is that the weeds often become the most important things. Those are the rainforests and why we call it the rainforest; because when you look at a rainforest, you see it as very lush and dense, but it’s not as if your eyes focus in any one place. Because when you look at the rainforest, not only do you not know, immediately, what the most important thing in the rainforest is, but very often the most important thing might be what’s actually underneath your feet, the weeds that you’re actually standing on. And those are the Googles, the Facebooks.
Innovation Trail: If I can try to continue this analogy, when you think of weeds – something that grows so easily and spreads – is there any characteristics in that sense, of this weed analogy and startups and their ability to spread or grow quickly?
GH: I guess a better analogy is: we say that entrepreneurs are kind of the fruit flies of innovation; they tend to have these very short lifespans. Innovation is all about ideas having sex. And what we’re really trying to do in the innovation economy is really trying to promote lots of promiscuity of ideas. And you needs lots of experimentation and lots of collaboration and lots of risk taking and what you find is that these companies grow and then they die and then they grow and then they die. And by default, my mindset is that startups are programmed to fail. They’re genetically programmed to fail. And somehow they overcome a set of natural enemies – hurdles – in order to become successful.
IT: If you could bullet point, I don’t know if you have a top five list, or a couple of things that make strong ecosystems for innovation.
GH: So there’s a set of rules for all places. One is to have a strong and involved private sector. The second is smart policies. So not only understand the policies that help entrepreneurs become better, but also those policies that keep them – that are already there – that probably keep them from doing what they want to do.
Strong university, industry links for the conversations. And the time for industry and universities to talk to one another is not just when they’re ready to license them a technology or when they want them to fund a project, but get them involved earlier on in the conversation. What we call ‘conversation before negotiation.’
Process of re-engagement. So when you have people in the community that have been successful, that they give back into the community.
IT: I was listening to another interview you’ve done. And you said ‘innovation is a body contact sport.’ And I think what you’re hinting at is there’s this need for interaction and entrepreneurs to work with each other and be collaborating…
GH: That’s part of it. But actually what I meant more, behind that, is that it’s kind of just Nike saying ‘Just Do It.’ That you can talk about it and you can business model and business plan everything, but eventually you just have to get out there and try. And you’re going to fail, and you’re going to try again, and you’re going to fail, and you’re going to try again. And that’s just part of life. And the more you do that, the better you get.
And it’s just that being an entrepreneur, you don’t go into it if you don’t want to take some body shots. Think of it like a boxer. If you’re going in it to win, you’re going to get hit.