The Transformation of Gary

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.
In practice there is.
Yogi Berra

Gary is the work-study kid that works in my office. Gary looks wholesome, sports a crew-cut, is remarkably good-natured, affable and earnest. He looks 14 although he is a sophomore in the business program – so he is probably 18 or 19. And like all sophomores, I figured he would plug along, wind his way through his remaining coursework– take a job, and go on with his life. Frankly, from where I stood, interacting with him daily, if I had even given it any thought, he would surely have been indistinguishable from the hundreds of other students I see every day.
But the Gary I saw at the New Tech Haven competition a couple of nights ago was another person altogether. He stood in front of 15 judges (I was one of them); he stood poised, perfect diction, cool-as-cucumber, fielded questions on finance, marketing, operations all related to the business he was pitching vying for the $5000 seed-money award that New Tech Haven had promised to the winner of the evening. He displayed skills that grown professionals would kill for. Guy Kawasaki: Gary’s in the house.

Gary’s project was an app. Betraying keen insight and ingenuity, Gary’s app was a regional variant of the E-Bay juggernaut model. Gary’s conceit was that he understood the apprehension of millions of E-Bay users that had been burned by unethical counterparties – the bane of online bid markets – and a continuous problem despite great efforts by the industry to expunge them. Gary understood the principles of what are known as two-sided markets, where platform developers (an app is a platform) must appeal to two different sets of customers. In his case – he understood how he had to individually appeal to those who would be inclined to use his app to sell and those who would use his app to purchase. And that both sides of the market will come to the app – the platform – if they are confident that there are users on the other side. He understood the limits of what E-Bay could promise, he understood the idiosyncracies of the local New Haven and regional Connecticut market. He talked about economies of scale, and forecasts and burn-rate and the particulars of the underlying programming code. The judges razzed him hard – and he hardly broke a sweat.

Gary got selected, he got to present, he got to pitch, because he had a good idea – naturally. But he GOT there because of Larry Flanagan, and John Rosen and Mike Driskoll and Murat Akgun. Flanagan is the founder of New Tech Haven – the UNH incubator that invites students at the beginning of the school year to propose their ideas, encouraging hundreds of budding entrepreneurs and innovators by promising them an audience. They select the most promising. And then they select the best among those. They run them through their training program. And then they call in the judges.

The team that Flanagan has assembled is a veritable dream team of advisors ANY real-world business would pay considerable fees to retain. Rosen is a proto-genius marketing expert who owns his own, highly successful marketing company MCA Works – with a bunch of Fortune 500 clients. Driscoll is a retired CEO of Winchester Electronics a successful manufacturing Connecticut multinational – a man who in his life-time raised operations to an art-form. Murat Akgun is a former Wall Street trader – who eats finance for breakfast. All these guys are there for the love of the game – for the kids, for UNH. And ‘twas this dream team that took a bubbly, bumbling kid with a gleam in his eye and transformed him into a bona fide professional, versed in all matters of import for prospective venture capitalists. Gary will never be the same; Gary would never have gotten that boost, that experience, that learning in a traditional business program.

It’s only a matter of time – before one of these young entrepreneurs makes it to the show. But the true, true value of what New Tech Haven is doing goes far beyond what they taught Gary and those other lucky ones selected and nurtured. Their true value is in creating the immensely valuable opportunity for those who will come next. Their true value is that New Tech Haven exists. Other UNH students, incipient innovators will know that there is a place where experienced businessmen will carefully appraise their business concept and train them, and mentor them; a venue where they can benefit from the considerable networking resources that the dream team assembled. The judges that gathered evening – were all bona fide local and regional business leaders gathered there beckoned by Larry Flanagan’s charm and cajoling. If anyone was going to move, finance, and encourage innovation and entrepeneurship around these parts – it’s this group. Check it out: Allison Schieffelin Walker, Anthony Rescigno, Elena Cahill, George Heudorfer, Gino Pereira, Ron Harichandran, James H. Gatling, Kate Harrison, Lee Tiernan, Mark Klein, Pete Peterson, Rick Tuchman, Rick Flath, Paul Sessions, Stephen Tagliatela and Sukh Grewal. I know I’m not worthy of being with that crowd that’s for sure – but Larry said he needed me so he could tell others that Arod was going to be among the judges (he didn’t give them any details). Next year, wanna-be judges will be tripping over themselves to get in even without having to serve the hot tamales they served up in the post-event celebration.

Gary Crawford came in second that night – although had me from the git-go. The winner was James Comeau – who had created another variant of a two-sided matching market. James devised an app that cleverly matches what I now understand is a keen demand for individualized soccer instruction with carefully selected soccer coaches in the area. As an interesting aside – the Nobel Prize in Economics this year was awarded to Alvin Roth (jointly with Lloyd Shapely) for establishing the foundations in the game theory field of matching markets. The third proposal – by John-Paul DiTomasso – was an ingenuous additive to artificial-turf, a product that would reduce the buildup of staphylococcus aureus bacteria and other bacterium that affict sportsfolks. All worthy, all real cool.

Gary now sports a new found confidence in his walk, his demeanor oozes pride of accomplishment – for he went to the brink and he prevailed. But Gary was not the only one transformed that day. I’m pretty sure that the experience of the other competitors was singular – that they will never again approach life’s challenges in the same way. And I know the judges had to walk home thrilled to have been a part of a successful and unique experiment in pedagogy: experiential-learning-cum-unadulterated, raw venture capitalism.

And I; I was transformed. No longer will I have to waffle and haw whenever a student comes up to me for entrepreneurial advice, with a business project or idea. I know I will send them to New Tech Haven – the UNH incubator – where they will have – truly – the best experience of their life.

Cheers to you: Larry, Mike, John & Murat. Lord knows that among-the-last-in-the-nation-in-job-creation Connecticut needs sparks and innovators and creative thinking. Perhaps with you guys around our little state will perish neither from the lack of wonder nor the lack of wonderment.

arod

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