11 April 2010

This is less a post about education and more about my thoughts on starting a business. I've wanted to do this for a long time, probably since 2003 or 2004, when a smart friend of mine (thanks, Joe G.!) asked me what I had learned after teaching and running education programs for more than 10 years.

I imagined a community of support encompassing a public school or schools, providing families with all the things they needed and asked teachers for, but which school staff were unprepared or untrained to provide. I imagined a school connected with counseling services, tax advice, immigration and other legal help, nutrition training and cooking classes, music and art programs, a medical clinic, drug and alcohol treatment, and a bank that offered free checking accounts and financial support. In its first iteration, this was just a toll-free number given to all parents, staffed by multilingual agents who referred people to pre-existing services in the vicinity. It would be affiliated with the school and therefore be non-threatening and ultimately supporting the academic advancement of the students, a common emotional thread that every parent and politician could get behind.

But I never got much further than that. I read that Santa Clara County or somewhere in the Bay Area had already done it, and so I figured I could either improve on the idea or come up with something else. And then the reality of needing income soon overwhelmed me and I started consulting at a few schools and working several part-time jobs. That led to one soul-sucking full time job and a loss of confidence in my actual skills (what were they?) and general risk aversion. I tried blindly applying for graduate school, very competitive MA and PhD programs in Education and Business Administration, and was not accepted. I didn't know what I was doing. I was in way over my head, and not surprisingly, no one wanted to let me into their club.

And though this ongoing lack of official pedigree, an advanced degree, has stymied me, probably more symbolically than in actuality (thanks again, Joe!), I have not forgotten my desire to start a business, create something, innovate on a pre-existing idea, build a program from nothing to something. And so I read and watch and talk to people, looking for a spark, waiting for inspiration, struggling to overcome my low confidence, convincing myself that I am just as able, if not more so, than others who have done this, and I'm the only one stopping me. Well, that and an actual idea.

Two recent experiences fueling my thoughts at the moment:

1) Lunch with friend Seth Familian, where I prompted him to talk about his experiences at Haas Business School and following the path to his current creation, a web design company targeting a specific market (cooperative art galleries). He stumbled upon it coincidentally, though he had societal approval and one good failure under his belt already.

2) Watching friend Peter Acworth on the panel of The Economist's Innovation Summit at Berkeley, called Fresh Thinking for the Ideas Economy. They specifically talked about failure, and how that leads to success. Setting aside the need to define both of those terms, I was particularly interested in Judy Estrin's differentiation between failure based on mistakes, and failure due to incompetence or fraud, basically acceptable and unacceptable failure, or intelligent failure (Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor). She also talked about taking failure seriously but not personally. Judy and Kris Halvorsen (Intuit Chief Innovation Officer) encouraged the examination of failure to learn from it and to use this information to adapt, not shut down or give up. I want to file this all, refer back to it when I'm ready to launch.

So here's what I'm considering right now: researching and trying out friend Kelley Buhles' idea to start a time-bank program in San Francisco. I don't know very much about it, but it has worked in other places and we already have a big network between the two of us. I heard a speaker at the last Green Festival (Woody Tasch, Slow Money) that got me interested in the "meta-economic vision" and approaching money in a different way. Since I don't have much of it (money) but feel rich in life, I'm open to exploring that and introducing others to alternatives. Anyway, I should be more articulate about it all soon. Excited!