What Tech Entrepreneurs Should Learn From Muhammad Ali’s Rope-A-Dope

How did Ali contend with a much more powerful puncher, George Foreman? He went against the ropes and took a beating for 8 rounds. He had a secret plan called rope-a-dope.

Recently, I’ve been attending an increasing number of events created for and by tech entrepreneurs in South Florida.  I’ve been where they are now with my own business ventures, and I’ve worked with scores of early stage companies.  When I step back to observe the scene from a higher altitude, invariably my thoughts turn to Muhammad Ali’s strategy of “rope-a-dope” in his fight against George Foreman.

You don’t normally associate fear with Muhammad Ali, but fear dominated him as he prepared for the fight with George Foreman that was branded “The Rumble In The Jungle.”  And there was good reason for Ali’s concern.  Despite his friendly and gentle personality today, George Foreman was a ferocious boxer.  You couldn’t be rational and not fear him – and Ali, in addition to being bombastic, was also very rational and realistic about what he was to face in the ring.  Similar emotions are felt everyday by tech entrepreneurs: the excitement of the fight married to the fear that there are going to be a lot of punches coming hard at you from unknown directions.  

The build-up before the fight actually took much longer than expected because Foreman suffered an injury during training, and the fight had to be postponed.  The fighters had already been in Zaire for several weeks, training and promoting the fight, and they decided that rather than cancel the fight, or substitute another boxer for Foreman, they would simply push the date out a few weeks.

Ali used the delay before the fight to continue his training and to reach out to the people of Zaire, who already adored him anyway.  He encouraged them to yell “Boomiyay Ali” whenever they saw him, whether taking a training run along the roads or whenever he was visible during the day.  The chant meant “kill him.”  He had a plan: he would use the chanting of the crowd on fight night to cheer him on and, perhaps, to strike a blow to Foreman’s morale.  But he had another plan too – and it was secret: “rope-a-dope.”

In the first round, Ali disoriented Foreman by using right hand leads, which is an aberrant tactic.  It didn’t do much damage to Foreman.  But that wasn’t his “secret plan” anyhow.  That became obvious in the second round when Ali did what nobody, even his corner, expected.  He went against the ropes.  He let Foreman hit him.

Ali continued to let Foreman hit him round after round, staying against the ropes.  He effectively used his arms to defend himself from getting hurt by the punches.  At the same time, he often threw his own body against Foreman’s, making Foreman bear his weight.  On some occasions, he’d throw quick shots straight to Foreman’s face.  He’d taunt Foreman with phrases like: “Is that the best you can give me George?”  – all in the massive heat of the open stadium filled with Ali fans who would begin to chant “Boomiyay Ali” whenever Ali gave them the signal.

After 8 rounds of taking a beating, Ali finally saw his opportunity, took it, and won by KO.

Ali stayed against the ropes until the eighth round.  By that time Foreman, even though he was younger than Ali, had punched himself out.  And his face was puffed-up by the relatively few, but sharp, shots that were the result of Ali’s singular offensive tactic.  And he fell unconscious, amid a stadium filled with Ali fans yelling “Boomiyay Ali” again and again, after Ali landed a left hook that had the effect of lifting Foreman’s head so that it would be in perfect position to be smashed by Ali’s right.  The fight was over.

Sometimes Rope-A-Dope Is The Best Tactic For Entrepreneurs

What fierce opponent are you fighting?  Technological challenges?  Recruitment issues?  The need to raise money (without success)?  A new product launch?  Maybe all of the above — and even more?  It doesn’t matter.  Sometimes life for the entrepreneur means confronting a formidable and seemingly unbeatable challenge.  Then you may have to adopt a rope-a-dope tactic.  Take your beating.  Position yourself for your unique opportunity – work to make that opportunity occur.  Go against the ropes if you have to.  Call on the support of your fans.  Wait your turn.  Then land your punch when the time is right.  The reality is that as an entrepreneur you are going to get hurt — possibly, a lot.  But that doesn’t mean you are going to lose.  Hang in there.  Adapt your strategy.  The first rule of business is to survive — survive until the time is right and then you, too, can become an overnight success.

Solving Florida’s Critical Need For Investment Capital; Killing Two Birds With One Stone

As I speak to more people and attend more events, I am coming to the belief that the most critical issue challenging the growth of the tech and entrepreneur community in South Florida is the access to investment capital, especially early stage angel capital.

 It should be clear by now that “something is happening” with tech startups, bubbling up from Miami and extending at least through Palm Beach County, involving IT and life sciences, and some niches where the two overlap.  But what is that “something” that is happening?  That question can be answered in a number of ways, including trying to explain it as a cultural event, as a consequence of the region’s economy and job opportunities, as a result of programs to encourage entrepreneurialism, etc.  All are legitimate.  But add to the mix this harsh explanation of what is happening here:  There is a burst of energy for new business ideas, including many promising ideas, and most of them will not get funded because the entrepreneurs do not have – or understand how to get – access to investment capital.  Ain’t that a shame?

The issue is critical enough that it shouldn’t be considered collateral to the effort to build a tech community, but integral to that effort.  Plain and simple: the promise of the region’s tech community will not fully blossom unless there is capital to fuel it.  As I understand it, this has been a consistent complaint here for decades.  It’s time to look not only at the demand side for investment capital, but the supply side.  The region must make meeting that need a top priority.   If it can succeed at that effort, two birds can be killed by one stone.

One of those “birds” is the need for investment capital for the region’s nascent tech community, as discussed above.  The other of those “birds” is the region’s need for more Knowledge Economy jobs being created here.  If successful, the emergence of the tech industry in South Florida would add a fourth pillar to what is currently a three-pillar economy that doesn’t include Knowledge Economy businesses:  agriculture, real estate, and hospitality.  Why not add a fifth pillar – another segment of the Knowledge Economy: the investment industry?

Charlotte is second only to New York as a banking center.  That happened seemingly out of nowhere beginning in the 1970s.  How?  What can this region learn from the Charlotte experience?

As the Charlotte Business Journal’s finance editor Adam O’Daniel explained in a September 4, 2012 article, that region’s success came as the result of a small group of hard-charging CEOs who took advantage of an unique situation that existed but was ignored:  North Carolina had one of the nation’s best laws to facilitate branching and to expand into other states (interestingly, the first state to which a Charlotte bank expanded was Florida).

So:  Does Florida have any existing assets that haven’t fully been exploited that could be leveraged to allow this region to become a national (probably international) investment center?  You bet!

As the Business Development Board (BDB) of Palm Beach County recently proved, and was reported on by The New York Post, the state’s tax structure is not only attractive to investment firms, but it is similarly attractive to the executives who work for those firms.  In response, BDB President & CEO Kelly Smallridge created a special unit – bravo!  Can the tax situation be used aggressively to recruit investment firms from elsewhere?

Consider another asset: the region’s weather and lifestyle.  Can’t that be used to attract the execs from investment firms and interest them in the region?  In fact, that has been happening for years, as those execs have made solo decisions to establish a residence in South Florida, whether in a multi-million dollar condo in Miami or a multi-million dollar mansion on Palm Beach island.

What if, instead of allowing these to be assets for the region on an ad hoc basis, the tax situation and the quality of life were integrated into an aggressive focused campaign aimed at the investment industry?   Consider the money local jurisdictions have already pumped into building the tech sector and how long it will take to get a return on that investment.  When it comes to building the region into an investment center, the targets can be identified with precision, the messages can be taken to them efficiently and effectively, and the decision to make a move and start building jobs in South Florida can take months instead of years.  Plus, related issues confronted when attracting tech businesses, such as building a growing pool of young tech workers, do not need to be addressed.

So:   You know all that enthusiasm, effort and money being devoted to encouraging the growth of the tech community in South Florida?  Can similar enthusiasm and effort but less money be put into building an investment community here?    

Reactions To Start-Up: Miami. Optimism Or Pessimism. Take Your Choice.

Last week I attended much (but not all) of the Start-Up City: Miami conference for entrepreneurs.  It was sponsored by Atlantic magazine, and reported on by Nancy Dahlberg in her “Starting Gate” blog in The Miami Herald.  I left the conference with feelings of optimism and pessimism.

 REASONS FOR OPTIMISM:

The rationale for optimism can be summed-up in one word: energy.

I’ve been a serial entrepreneur myself and I’ve worked with many start-ups.  So I have a good understanding of (and appreciation for) the enthusiasm that drives people with big goals.  Get a bunch of those people together in one space and their enthusiasm is palpable.  Get 1,000+ of them in an auditorium (as was the case with Start-Up City: Miami), spend a day talking about how great it is to go for the gold, and the energy becomes viral.

Add to that, the convergence of a growing number of organizations and events, and the energy can become explosive:  The May 2014 eMerge Americas (the Tech Conference of the Americas).  The LaunchPad (a University of Miami initiative).  A variety of incubators springing up and growing in South Florida.  The growing strength of organizations such as the South Florida Technology Alliance, LST-HUB, and others.  The strong turnout for the Florida Venture Forum’s annual conference held a couple of weeks ago.  The growth of research parks such as The Research Park at FAU.  Support/information systems such as the one go-to site for all things about life sciences in South Florida (which I’m proud to say was created and is managed pro bono by Next Horizon).  Events like IT Palooza … wow!  The list can go on.  Basically, what we are seeing is the beginnings of a community of entrepreneurs and the infrastructure and culture necessary to support them.

Throw into the mix the increasing confidence on the part of the broad business community that “this time it may be different” and the potential of building a tech industry actually has a chance of becoming real.  The cynicism isn’t gone yet, but it is ebbing and that is a major and essential trend.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM:

Too much of a good thing can also be a bad thing.  There is optimism and there is cock-eyed optimism.

I’m a big believer in optimism.  In fact, I’ve even written about it as a necessary ingredient for the success of the South Florida tech community.  But for optimism to be a real asset, it must reside within a realistic framework, and I’m not certain that exists quite yet to the degree necessary in South Florida.

It was striking to me how most of the speakers at the Start-Up Miami conference thought that everything that existed in this nascent ecosystem is a good thing.  One speaker, for example, noted that Miami doesn’t have much of a business “establishment,” citing that as a good thing because an “establishment” holds back innovation.  That may be the case, but I think if we took a sober look at the success of other tech regions throughout the world a strong and supportive establishment is vital for the success of the entrepreneurial community.  That’s where role models, mentors and checks come from – those are all positive and vital.

I’m afraid that over-optimism in South Florida will mask a realistic view of just how far the region has to go to become a really important tech center.  Take a look at the speakers at Start-Up City: Miami.  There is a dearth of local role models of successful entrepreneurs.  In fact, of all the speakers who took the stage at the event, only two, Manny Medina (who succeeded with Terremark) and Juan Diego Calle (CEO of .Co Internet SAS) were home-grown role models for South Florida entrepreneurs.  Others who could talk about their business experiences were from out of the area.  While there were other speakers from South Florida, they were from government, journalism, professional services and academia.  We can’t really be optimistic until such a conference has an abundance of people who founded their own company, raised capital to grow it, networked with others in the community for support, and achieved major success.  Those are the people who become even more than role models: they also become mentors and investors.  We also have to see the broad business community throw the support of their organizations (and money) behind building the region’s entrepreneurial community.  Somewhere along the line, for example, local homebuilders need to become convinced that their support for the growth of the region’s tech industry will translate into growth of a population that will buy their houses.

Finally, when the audience was asked to raise their hands if they were in the hunt for money, a shocking number of hands went up.  The ratio between local seekers of capital and local providers of capital is much too low.

THE REALISTIC PROSPECTS:

The entrepreneurial energy level is increasing.  The convergence of important events and organizations is accelerating.  As local entrepreneurs get walloped with the harsh reality of lots of rights-to-the-jaw that is integral to being involved with a start-up, they are (and will be) getting more realistic.  Some local entrepreneurs are going to be successful; a few may even be dramatically successful and the region will grow local role models, mentors, and investors.  As that happens, other businesses will see the prospects of a rising tide lifting all ships (including theirs) and the support will grow.  So, net-net there is cause of optimism: the growth of South Florida’s entrepreneurial community is basically an issue of when it will happen and how potent it will become.

At this point, the most critical issue is the lack of start-up and growth capital.  But I think that can be remedied, which will be the topic of a forthcoming post.

The Need For A “Florida Model” To Build The State’s Tech Community

I attended the Florida Venture Forum Capital Conference, which is an annual event held this year at the Sawgrass Marriott near Jacksonville.  At the closing lunch, there was a panel discussion that expanded its scheduled focus on Life Sciences and Biotech in the state to include a discussion of what is needed for Florida to build its tech industry.  I decided to write an article about that discussion because there was broad recognition among the panelists that Florida now needed to create “its own model” because the model that Silicon Valley, Boston and the other well-known tech clusters is out-of-date for Florida and Florida isn’t well-positioned to follow that model at any rate.

 My article was published in The Starting Gate blog of the Miami Herald, managed by Nancy Dahlberg, a Herald business reporter.  Here is a link to the article as published, or it may be easier just to read it posted below:

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Panelists at the Friday, February 1, closing lunch session of the annual Florida Venture Forum Capital Conference agreed on one basic premise:  Florida should forget about emulating the growth model of Silicon Valley, Boston, or any other of the well-known centers of technology.  I think that was a significant acknowledgement, and an encouraging sign because you can’t fix something unless you understand it realistically to begin with.  The panelists basically all said that it’s too late to succeed using that model, and that Florida isn’t positioned to compete well using that model in any case.  Their conclusion:  Florida needs to explore and create its own model of how to become a tech center, leveraging its own unique assets.

The panel, which was sponsored by Enterprise Florida, was primarily focused on the Life and BioScience industries in the state, but the comments apply equally to the Information Technology sector, as well.  Panelists were: Bard Geesaman, Managing Director, MPM Capital;  Bernadette Cusack, Office of Intellectual Property Mayo Clinic – Florida;  Les McPhearson,  Senior Director- Business innovation, Florida Blue;  John Tullis, Managing Director, Tullis Health Investors; and Dr. Daniel Wilson, Dean, UF/Shands College of Medicine.

Despite agreement on the need for Florida to create its own model for how to become a tech center, there was no real agreement on how to do that or what that model would look like.  I have been involved in similar efforts during my career, so here are some ideas I think could jump-start the creation of a “Florida model”:

  1. Coalesce the players.  There was a lot of talk about the need to collaborate.  But you can’t collaborate without collaborators – the more the better.  If Florida is really going to create its own model, this is an a priori truth:  community comes first, and collaboration follows.  The people and organizations that are going to be instrumental in building Florida into a global tech center need to meet each other, build relationships, do business with each other and refer business to each other.  Build the community and collaboration will come naturally.  Without the community, collaboration is a nice dream.  Once the community comes together, the spirit of collaboration should distinguish the Florida community.
  1. Actually do something about the geographical reality.  More than one speaker noted that Florida lacks the “density” of Silicon Valley, Boston and the other tech centers where relationships are built when people see each other often.   Can that be overcome?  There have been some very big, powerful and coalesced communities created on the web.  What about conducting a competition to solicit proposals on how the web can be used to at least partially offset the geographical situation and build the tech community?  Make the competition highly visible and offer a decent prize, and great solutions will be submitted.  If one or more is successfully implemented, Florida will not only overcome its geographical dilemma, it will also tie innovative thinking and online solutions with Florida’s tech community, especially IT.  It could also set a precedent for turning to public competitions more than just once to help build the tech community – sort of like an American Idol for innovators.
  1. Accept that Florida is one state.  There are distinct segments within the state, and segments within the segments.  That’s reality and it’s not going away.  But the fact that Florida is one state is also reality.  Parochialism can sometimes be an asset, but it’s a distinct liability right now for Florida because it hampers the formation of the broad-based community that is needed to build a tech industry for the state.  While there is sensitivity from region to region not to compete, there is no real movement to see just how powerful collaboration can be.  That should change.
  1. Change how success is measured.  Governor Scott has set 700,000 new jobs as the goal of economic development efforts.  That’s an admirable goal: good for the state, for the people who get the new jobs, and for political goals.  But it is inadequate if Florida is going to be serious about building a tech industry.  New jobs will be an outcome for sure, but other goals need to be achieved to grow less-cyclical, high paying, wealth-creating jobs over a long period of time.  Basically, this will be an effort to transition Florida from an agriculture, real estate and hospitality economy to a knowledge economy.  That requires a shift in culture in order to make the state attractive to young tech workers, support basic research, understand the need to keep improving infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurialism, establish a local investment community, and more.  Because that is going to take years to build, focusing on job creation alone will mask the importance of achieving these long-term cultural shifts.  A new index is needed that measures multiple critical trends in order to see the pace and breadth of progress to a new future.
  1. Position Miami as theemerging most important international city of the Western Hemisphere.  Miami is generally acknowledged to be “the capital of Latin America.”  That description should encompass a status as the hemisphere’s center of gravity for the technology industry.  The primary Internet hub for all Latin America is located in Miami, and the May 2014 Tech Conference of the Americas, being initiated by Manny Medina, will be another major event in establishing Miami’s prominence in IT.  And in biomedicine and biotech, Latin American venues are increasingly being used for clinical trials for Florida-based companies.  But Miami has also become a magnet for Europeans, Russians and Asians – just ask the people selling high-end real estate in Miami.  With its diverse population, the premier status of its ports, the obvious attraction of its climate and environment, and favorable tax policy, Miami can become increasingly important as a true international city in today’s “flat” world.  Imagine Miami positioned as the Dubai of the Western Hemisphere, with the added benefit of the political stability of the US.  That would bring investment capital, global commerce, a more vibrant culture, and an environment where global tech companies from startups to multinationals can prosper.  It’s an issue of branding, and it will require the support of the coalesced business community to make that happen.
  1. Craft a uniquely Florida vision of the future.  People pursue visions and understand progress within the context of that vision.  An image of what Florida would look like with a vibrant tech community needs to be crafted, promoted, and shared.  This goes beyond “the right climate for business” campaign being launched by the state (which I personally think is a memorable ad line for a much-needed campaign).  The vision that is needed is aspirational and bold: what the future could look like for Florida with a vigorous tech community.  Such a widely accepted and shared image of the future is a vital component in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These six steps hardly comprise the totality of what it will take for Florida to create its own role model.  But, in the spirit of the challenge defined by the panelists at the Florida Venture Forum, they are uniquely “Florida.”  Most importantly, they are doable first steps in the pursuit of an effort widely agreed to be needed.  We need to get going.

 

 

 

A VIBRANT TECHNOLOGY COMMUNITY IN SOUTH FLORIDA: HIGH HOPES? NOT YET, BUT JUST MAYBE …

Can an ant move a rubber tree plant? According to the song, it sure can if it has “high hopes.” Other communities that grew their tech industry also had high hopes to make that vision happen. But, as of now, that crazy optimism is missing in South Florida.

As noted in my last posting, several months ago, after completing the non-compete terms associated with the sale of my interests in my former business, I began a journey to discover the vitality of the tech community in South Florida.  I was driven by the sense that this region might be able to replicate the success that I experienced in Northern Virginia starting in the mid-1980s.  At that time, some “green shoots” started to appear indicating that maybe Northern Virginia could become a serious player as a global center for technology businesses.  Indeed it did — very successfully.  I was a direct beneficiary of that growth as it fueled my one-person investor relations firm to become the largest independently owned fully integrated communications firm based in Washington, DC, and one of the largest in the nation.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet over the past few months with many leaders of the business community from Miami to St. Lucie County, and although there are more meetings on my calendar over the next several weeks, I have been struck by a virtually universal theme that I hear from business leaders time and time again when I ask them whether they think South Florida really has a chance to grow a serious tech community:  “Maybe,” they say.  And then, they ask:  “What makes it different this time?”  They have either seen or heard about other false starts in building a tech community in South Florida.

I keep thinking of the 1959 Oscar-winning song “High Hopes,” sung by Frank Sinatra in the film “A Hole in the Head.”  It became the theme song of the JFK campaign for the presidency:  a celebration of what can be achieved by those with few assets except a true passion and commitment to do something great.  Here are some of the lyrics:

“Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time you’re gettin low
Stead of lettin go
Just remember that ant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant”

“High hopes” did characterize the Northern Virginia growth phenomenon, and became more vigorous as the vision began to be transformed into a new reality.  But “high hopes” do not characterize South Florida at this time.

The business leaders of South Florida are realists who know that a great theory about what is possible cannot turn into reality without the convergence, sometimes planned and sometimes fortuitous, of many factors.  They think it’s going to take more than a handful of enthusiastic tech entrepreneurs working in small and uncoordinated groups to make it happen.  They think it’s going to require more than South Florida’s current limited number of investors at all categories to make it happen.  They firmly believe it is going to take much more than well-intentioned but under-resourced and overly-bureaucratic public and public-private partnerships to make it happen.  They believe it is going to take a cultural change to recruit the future employees of tech companies to live and build their careers here.  They believe it is going to take substantial enhancement of the physical infrastructure to support the tech companies of the future.  They believe it is going to take coordinated promotional efforts and the blowing up of regional and organizational competitiveness in favor of coordination and cooperation.  The list can continue.

When I chat with these leaders about the prospects for South Florida, the initial reaction is that there is not enough indications to believe that the large agenda that has to be achieved will be achieved.  Then, as the discussion continues, and as we walk through some of the reasons why “this time may be different” their cynicism gives way to another, contradictory, reaction.  It too is also universal:  “It would be great if it did happen for real this time, and if it does, I’d support it and be a part of it.”

In other words, the support that is necessary from the leaders of the broad business community is on the sidelines, waiting to join the game once they believe that the game is on for real.  For right now, however, the mood is far from the spirit evidenced in “High Hopes.”  When that sort of optimism starts to become palpable, the effort to build a great tech community in South Florida will start in earnest.  Right now, however, more crazy optimists are required.

Florida’s Challenge & Opportunity: Being On The Verge Of Being On The Verge Of An Economic Boom: Will The Opportunity Be Realized?

I originally posted this at a web site that is no longer active in April 2012.  Today (Jan 3, 2013) The Miami Herald’s “Starting Gate” blog, run by Nancy Dahlberg, posted some more recent thoughts I’ve had regarding South Florida’s challenge and opportunity to become a tech center.  In today’s article, I propose that the first step for South Florida to become a tech center is for the broad business community to coalesce behind an aspirational shared vision and then collaborate to help transform that vision to reality.  That led to some discussion about this original post, which is here without any edits at all.  In my next post, I will provide my current thinking based on some very good conversations with a number of senior people in various positions throughout South Florida.

My 40+ year career in communications has been anchored in the Washington, DC, region, and more specifically in Northern Virginia.  About four years ago, I began spending winters in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.  What began as a three-month stint in Florida to escape winter has gradually evolved into a full-time love affair not only with the weather, but the lifestyle here.  Recently, upon the conclusion of my non-compete agreement with the DC-based communications firm I co-founded and in which I sold my interests, I began to take a look at this area with a more business orientation.  What I discovered surprised me.  

Florida (particularly South Florida including Palm Beach and Broward Counties) today is not on the verge of an economic development boom.  But it is on the verge of being on the verge of a boom.  There is an important distinction.  When you are on the verge of a boom things start moving like a ball rolling downhill and all you have to do is manage its direction and pace and otherwise get out of the way.  On the other hand, when you are at the verge of being on the verge of a boom, it’s more akin to pushing the ball uphill to get to the point where everything can happen on its own momentum.  That’s no easy chore, nor a sure-to-happen goal.

I saw the same situation about three-decades or so ago when Northern Virginia was transformed from being a Washington, DC, bedroom community, where the vast percentage of people commuted across the Potomac to the Federal Triangle to work for the US government, to become one of the global centers of gravity for the IT industry, where more people now drive to Northern Virginia locations for their jobs than commute out of it.  Despite the failure of the various local governments to develop regional infrastructure solutions to an almost intolerable traffic situation, the growth of the business community created jobs, wealth, great schools, cultural opportunities, a strong economy and a great quality of life.

The heart of Northern Virginia’s growth, Fairfax County, currently enjoys a four percent unemployment rate.  Florida residents would probably be glad to deal with some of the downsides of growth if they could reach that level of employment.

According to the most recent jobs data (3/13/12), unemployment statewide in Florida was 9.6 percent in January 2012; in Broward County it was 8.3 percent; in Miami-Dade it was 10.3 percent.

Stephen Fuller, Ph.D., of George Mason University, has studied the growth of the Northern Virginia area, which can be reviewed in this report updated in November 2011, which includes the following information:

Over  the 1980-2010 period, Northern Virginia’s population (and households) more than    doubled and its employment base increased by 162.3 percent….

 

From 1980 to 2010, the value of    goods and  services produced in Northern Virginia, its GRP, grew from $41.8 billion to $188.6 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars for a real gain of 351 percent.    

How did Northern Virginia transition from being on the verge of being on the verge of a boom to actually booming?  And are there any lessons for Florida?

There were a number of assets that Northern Virginia used quite consciously to manage that transition.  I do not think any was a magic bullet by itself.  However, here are five components that proved to be absolutely essential, and in italics are my observations about how they compare to what I have thus far observed in Florida at this time:

  • The success of George Mason University was central to the growth of the region, just as the success of the region was central to the growth of GMU.  Most importantly, both the administration of the university and the leaders of the business community invested their time and money consistent with a strong unwavering commitment to maximize that synergy.  There is no single college or university that appears to have captured the imagination and support of the state’s (or even a region’s) business community.  Could there be some sort of consortium that would coalesce supporters from around the state to support programs in a rationally coordinated way, eliminating duplications of efforts when it comes to raising money and maximizing clout to lobby on political policy issues (e.g., budget cuts and tuition policies)? 
  • An infrastructure of support systems started to emerge.  This included organizations such as The Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC), which offered a forum for tech companies to form into a community, and Mid-Atlantic Venture Association (MAVA), which promoted entrepreneurialism and helped build capital availability, and the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) which took a very aggressive role in economic development efforts.  In Florida, BioFlorida is playing a similar role with biotech and biomedicine companies as NVTC did with IT companies; Florida Venture Forum is aggressively supporting the financial community necessary to invest in local entrepreneurs, assuming a role similar to MAVA; and The Business Development Board (BDB) of Palm Beach County, is playing a role similar to the FCEDA, as for example its recent multi-day tour for site selection experts who help organizations decide where to relocate or expand.  There are more comparisons.  Of course, the current budgets of the Florida organizations are far less than those of their Northern Virginia equivalents, but all organizations start out under-capitalized and under-resourced.  Florida can learn a lesson from Northern Virginia by observing how they made events assume greater importance and produce greater consequences: the key to success was that there was no pride of authorship or “ownership.”  For example, the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology was held at GMU, but it was supported by numerous organizations that “competed” with each other for membership, money and power.  The basic premise was a no-brainer: a rising tide lifts all ships.  On the other hand, The World Stem Cell Summit will be held in West Palm Beach in December 2012 – it will be an incredible time for all sorts of organizations to collaborate on maximizing that conference for all their shared vested interests.  Will that happen?  Similarly, on April 16-17, 2012, the International Economic Forum of the Americas will be conducting their Palm Beach Strategic Forum – what a great audience of influence shapers that will be!  What a great opportunity for numerous organizations to overcome their budget and resource limitations by working together to exploit that opportunity!  Will it happen?
  • Northern Virginia was able to articulate and promote a single “story” – an aspirational vision of what could be.  It was simple to articulate and understand: “we can become the global center of the IT industry.”  That vision of a clean and growing industry was presented and shared and bought-into by the business community, academia, politicians and activists of all types.  There was no cross-messaging.  Everyone could “stay on point” because everyone knew what “point” was.  Florida has numerous stories.  The various geographical segments of Florida seem to have their own set of messages.  But nowhere do I see a strong, exciting vision that is easy to understand and that mobilizes people.  In the Palm Beach area, the prospect for emerging as an important biotech/biomedicine center is close to attaining that critical mass of believability and support. 
  • Northern Virginia exploited the presence of the US government and the benefits of being close to it.  The first really major salvo for the Fairfax County Economic Development marketing campaign was a full-page ad in the NY Times that showed the Capitol of the US and a headline that said, “we are close to that.”  Florida does not have the US Capitol, but it does have a unique quality of life, as I have observed personally both in weather and lifestyle.  I am reminded of when I used to host investment analysts who visited Planning Research Corp., a NYSE IT company where I worked.  At the end of the day, when walking the analyst out of the building, through our large atrium lobby and massive revolving doors, the analyst would invariably say: “So this is the door your assets walk out every day.”  They understood that in a Knowledge Industry business, human assets rather than fixed assets (property, plant and equipment) are most important.  Florida promotes the weather and lifestyle to attract tourists.  Duh!  It should also be used – big time – to attract companies whose employees would love to live here (especially combined with the opportunity to use the numerous universities here to further their own education).
  • A group of leaders emerged in the Northern Virginia area that would always step-up to support efforts that would lift the tide that would lift all ships.  There wasn’t one leader from each segment (not just one home-builder, or one tech company, or one law firm, etc.), but day-to-day competitors who worked cooperatively in pursuit of regional growth.  And they didn’t merely talk-the-talk.  They were there when the rubber met the road: when it was time to write a check, lend an employee to make an event happen, call a politician, etc.  I still have a lot of people to meet and a lot to learn, but at first blush, there aren’t one, two, three names that always pop-up as the people who make things happen in Florida.  In Northern Virginia, you could present a bold idea to the right people at breakfast and by the end of the day that idea would be moving towards execution.  Without similar leadership, Florida (and regions of Florida) will continue to push the ball up the hill and will never get past being on the verge of being on the verge.

My naiveté about this region may well be showing through in what I have written and what I have observed thus far.  If so, I am very anxious to be corrected.

THE NRA IS RIGHT: THE NEWS MEDIA DESERVES SOME BLAME FOR NEWTOWN. There Has Been An Absence Of Truthful Reporting About The Power Of The Bushmaster

[Click on the photo to get a better look -- if you can stand it].  This is an example of a wound from an M16, which is the military name for the Bushwaker used in the Newtown shootings). The bullet entered from the inner thigh and exited, with a much larger wound, from the outer thigh. Now imagine what that might have done to the Newtown victims, some of which were ht by as many as 11 bullets. There has been scant, if any, reporting done about the damage this assault weapon does.

I am writing this just a few minutes after the NRA ‘s press conference about the Newtown shootings.  This is a follow-up to my post the other dayabout how the NRA might adhere to their decades long simple and limited messaging (as they did at the conference).

At the conference today, the NRA asserted that the media has to bear some of the blame for Newtown (make that “much of the blame” in the opinion of the NRA) because of the failure to give visibility to violent video games.  If more people were aware of violent video games, according to the NRA’s logic, somehow the shootings at Newtown and the other incidents of mass murders would not have occurred.

I believe the media should bear a big burden in this instance.  But it’s not because they failed to report adequately about violent video games.  Rather, there has been no coverage of what a bullet from a Bushmaster does once it hits its victims.  This has probably been out of respect for the children and their grieving loved ones, or perhaps just some sensitivity to how much horror the people of this country can stomach.

This is from an article about why the M-16 (a Bushmaster by its military name) is a favorite weapon of the Israeli army:  “The M16 ammunition often breaks into tiny pieces after penetration, ripping up muscle and nerve and causing multiple internal injuries, much like those of the internationally banned dumdum bullets.”  According to some reports, the exit wound from an M16 is 200 times as large as the entry wound.

The problem the NRA faces is that more reporting about what an M16 bullet does would likely translate into an American public even more outraged that such weapons and bullets are not banned.  So maybe the NRA is right.  Maybe there should be more accurate reporting – not just about violent video games, but about the actual damage inflicted by such an assault weapon that hit the Newtown victims as many as 11 times, as has been reported.  The NRA better hope that the news media continue to evidence such incomplete reporting.

 

Did The Newtown Shooter Kill NRA’s Great P.R. Campaign? A Change In Messaging Will Be The Leading Indicator

The NRA has had a fantastic PR campaign.  Whatever you may think of the goals and principles of the organization, its obvious political clout and its 4 million members are testimony to its ability to rally its supporters through a powerful communications strategy that has consistently been well executed.  But the question of the moment is:  will the NRA be able to sustain their great P.R. campaign subsequent to the shootings in Newtown, and, more significantly, the nation’s disgust with what happened there?

I do not know the answer, but I believe there will be a leading indicator to give us a signal to whether the PR effort will strengthen, stay the same or ebb:  the organization’s key messages.

For decades, the NRA has provided a case history on how to stay on point and the benefits of doing so.  That’s because they have never waivered from just a few key messages that have allowed them to simplify and define the debate in their terms – and, of course, those who define the debate usually win the debate:

  • Guns aren’t to blame for deaths, whether of one person or masses – it’s the people who use the guns who are evil and you cannot legislate the end of evil.
  • Maybe some laws are needed, and we already have those laws – all that’s needed is for the existing laws to be enforced.
  • There is no research that shows any connection between a decrease in shootings and tighter gun control laws.
  • Possessing guns is a right of all Americans secured forever by the framers of the Constitution.

Just because those are the NRA’s core messages does not mean that they are accurate.  Nevertheless, while the wording may change and factoids may be added to support those messages, those key messages have comprised the core of the NRA positioning for years.

The Newtown slayings happened on Friday, December 14, but the NRA did not make any statement until Tuesday, the 18th, and then it said basically nothing except that it would have a news conference on Friday, the 21st, one full week from the date of the murders.  It is likely that at that conference the NRA will say some new procedural ideas, such as “we want to join the debate,” but that will only relate to the manner of the debate, and will indicate no change in their core messages.   Ignore such comments.  On the other hand, if the NRA rolls-out any message that is new – that is, anything other than the four key messages listed above – we will know that they feel that the PR campaign that has served them for so long is no longer adequate.  And that may be the first leading indicator that “this time” may truly be different.

The Tea Party Movement Has A Significant Branding Problem — A Lesson For Creating Great PR

The Tea Party was a phenomenon in 2010. But was it the beginning of something big or an aberrant movement for a brief moment in time that has been misinterpreted?

In my last post, I made the case that great PR, even for a great cause, is not always a great thing.  In particular, I cited the image for the “pink” movement and its leading participant, the Komen Race for the Cure, to indicate how sometimes harsh realities can be out of sync with the beneficial image.  Now, I want to make the case that the brand and image created by and for the Tea Party proved to be not so great for Mitt Romney’s lost bid for the presidency and the inability of the GOP to regain control of the Senate, as was their goal.

I believe that one of the fundamental mistakes the Republicans and Romney made was to overreact to the PR the Tea Party built for itself, with the help of right-wing media, for the 2010 mid-term elections.  The Tea Party presented that election as a fundamental turning point in American politics and as the start of a new movement that subscribed to the principles of the Tea Party.  That story line was embraced fairly widely, even by those who dislike the Tea Party, and was evidenced most poignantly in the 2012 Republican primaries when virtually all the candidates associated themselves with Tea Party rhetoric and Romney (who I believe was and is basically a moderate pragmatist) felt obliged to identify himself as “severely conservative” in order to win his party’s nomination.  In fact, when you take a look at the field of candidates, the Tea Party’s image of strength and dominance must also have been strong enough to deter anyone who wasn’t “severely conservative” from running in the first place, except for Jon Huntsman, who only lasted several rather insignificant weeks on the campaign trail.

What I think happened was that the Tea Party PR was great in image but fatally wrong in fact.  Rather than being the beginning of a new trend in American politics, it is more likely that the 2010 mid-term elections was an aberration that was more reflective of the public’s angst from being in the midst of significant and fundamental changes so jarring that a simplistic approach to both defining the problem and defining the solution became very compelling.  But that couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t, obviously.  It did last long enough and deep enough to exert an unjustifiably strong acceptance of the Tea Party’s image and its presumed clout.  In other words, the Tea Party’s great PR wasn’t such a great thing – just ask Mitt Romney who might have won if he moved earlier in the campaign to the more moderate tone he adopted in the waning hours of the contest.

Lesson:  great PR is usually a great thing – except when the image is accepted without a full appreciation of the reality.

When Great PR for a Great Cause Isn’t Such a Great Thing

What if only 95% of what happened in the name of “pink” was good, meaning that 5% was not so good? What if the percentages were even worse? That’s how you determine that great PR for a great cause may not be such a great thing.

When creating and promoting a brand, the greatest success happens when the brand becomes institutionalized, universally well known and well respected.  It’s hard to think of anything that has achieved that status quite like “pink ribbons.”  From out of nowhere, the pink ribbon, and in fact the very color pink, have become synonymous with the fight against cancer, most particularly breast cancer.  It has become so well known, in fact, that all sorts of organizations and events rush to associate themselves with the image.  They have done this sometimes in concert and coordination with one or more of the groups, particularly the Komen Race for the Cure, that has led the creation and growth of the “pink” brand.  But in the rush to associate with that great brand, and in the rush of organizations such as Komen to accept the support of the organizations that want to associate themselves with it, there is a very serious downside.

As the documentary film, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” dramatically depicts, there is a great deal of not-so-good reality that is out of sync with the image.  Wikipedia notes, for example, that there is considerable “pinkwashing” to improve the public image of supporters of the movement even while they manufacture products that may be carcinogenic.  Avon and Revlon are two cosmetic businesses that have wrapped themselves in pink, gaining the benefits of being supporters of all women in the fight against cancer.  However, as The Breast Cancer fund reports, cosmetics manufacturers are knowingly using carcinogenic ingredients in their products that women use on their skin and eventually get absorbed into their bodies.  Included among these toxic components is mercury in face cream, lead in lipstick, and formaldehyde in hair-straighteners and baby products.  Similarly, KFC bannered the pink ribbon when they launched a “pink buckets” campaign to promote their roasted chicken as a healthy alternative to their fried chicken.  The campaign did, in fact, raise several million dollars for Komen, which was a good thing.  On the other hand, at the same time KFC was running that campaign, the chickens they sold, whether fried or roasted, according to “Think Before You Pink,” evidenced “high levels of PhIP, a byproduct of the grilling process listed on the state of California’s list of carcinogens.”

Devote 90 minutes to viewing the “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” documentary and you will see many more examples of when a great image clashes with the not-so-great reality.  It’s a reminder that great PR for a great cause isn’t always a great thing.  In my next post, I will relate that same lesson to the image of the Tea Party and how it contributed to Mitt Romney’s lost presidential bid and the erosion of Republican senate seats.