Monday, November 2, 2009

Building an Entrepreneurial Culture

I just returned from an Entrepreneurship Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, organized by my friend Allan R. Johnston, to improve collaboration and initiate more activities there. I had assumed that Alaska would be a haven for entrepreneurs, due to the history of independence and environmental adversity. Yet, I didn’t see as much of that entrepreneurial culture as I expected.

A couple of years ago, I helped set up a software business in Vietnam, where it was evident that everyone was an entrepreneur, from little kids on the street shining shoes, to new businesses for the world market springing up by the hundreds. The entrepreneurial culture was everywhere.

What I saw in Alaska was a small group of good people fighting to start a movement, to overcome the gaps to funding and education, in a state filled with sometimes complacent “employees” of the big oil companies, government surpluses, and Natives with cross cultural and generational challenges.

The difference between the two parts of the world certainly made me think about what drives an entrepreneurial culture. Some thoughts that come to mind include the following:
  1. The pain level must be high enough. In Vietnam, the issue is survival, with an average income of less than $10,000 US per year. Maybe Alaskans are a bit comfortable, even in the harsh environment, with good jobs from outside employers, and a fat state treasury. Real change doesn’t happen until the pain level is high enough.

  2. An education system tuned to support entrepreneurs. I heard much discussion at the conference from local academics realizing they need to do more, and getting more involved. Universities that set up incubators, groups to commercialize research, and real entrepreneurial courses can make a big difference. Financial literacy training needs to start as early as kindergarten, and be pervasive.

  3. Innovative opportunities readily available. Alaska has huge opportunities in their natural resources, and many other areas. They should be generating sustainable energy solutions from the tides, sun, wind, water, and geothermal sources. The glaciers and mountain streams are a great source of clear clean water. The possibilities are endless.

  4. Financial infrastructure robust and local. I’m not talking here about government subsidies; I’m talking about financial institutions willing to lend, venture capital organizations, angel groups, and private equity. Alaska needs more strength in these areas, less reliance on outside big companies, and some “give back” from the people who have succeeded there, as they retire to Arizona.

  5. People willing to help people. At the conference in Alaska, my talk was on mentoring, which I believe is required in all environments. People willing to help means active angel investors, experienced entrepreneurs judging business plans at universities, teaching classes, and pulling people together for collaborative efforts, as Allan has done.

  6. Work is a lifestyle, rather than a job. True entrepreneurs do what they love, and love what they do. Successful people doing what they love are the best inspiration to others, which is how new cultures are born.
I’m always impressed with the bright spots. A great sign in Alaska is my new friends, Tyler Arnold, a real software outsourcing entrepreneur at age 17, and Austin Johnson, age 18 (pictured here), with great plans. They are blessed with financial and mentoring support from friends, and I’m counting on continued leadership from their generation.

So my challenge to the rest of you is to measure the entrepreneurial culture in your area against these key drivers, and your own personal drive. Are you a driver or a damper on the culture? What more can you do, and what are additional important considerations? I’m sure I’ve missed a few key points, so let me know what you think.

Marty Zwilling



  1. Thanks for the mention, and the kind words!

    Hope to have you back up here again soon.

  2. Thanks for showing me the real Alaska, both the scenery and the people. Keep in touch.

  3. I believe that the points you sum up are defintively true. It is true that there has to be culture that supports entrepreneurship. In order to have a broad base of people willing to take on a new venture there has to be supportive people around them. Sadly making mistakes is something that people judge incorrectly. Making mistakes is what entrepreneurship is all about. First jump off a cliff and build your wings on the way down.