Why I Left IBM

Posted: May 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

I was recently having a conversation with an aspiring entrepreneur and the topic of why I left IBM came up. It’s been just over a year since I left the consulting world and joined Three Screen Games full-time to lead the product team – I left May 1, 2009 – so I have a bit of perspective on the decision now.

Why did I leave IBM?

First, let me say why I didn’t leave: I didn’t leave because I hated the company, the work, or the people. Almost without exception, I loved the people that I worked with. If you want to get to know your co-workers really well, go into a high-travel consulting job where you spend each and every week with your co-workers in a strange city. Where you eat more meals with them than you eat with your family. Where you sleep in a hotel room down the hall from them. You get to know them better than pretty much anyone else. I really enjoyed the people that I was working alongside – hugely talented, driven to do the right thing. I have a great respect for IBM in its ability to amass a formidable talent pool. As for the work and the lifestyle, I loved the consulting life – seeing different companies, each with its own culture and unique challenges.

So, why did I leave? In short, I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be involved with a startup. After doing independent consulting during high school and college, I knew that I had the entrepreneurial bug. I initially went to IBM to see how the “big guys” solved all of the consulting issues that I ran into when I was working with clients independently. Finding that many of the issues were the same, just multiplied by millions of dollars, gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities.

While the people were great and I enjoyed the lifestyle, I was frightened of becoming complacent. I was afraid of getting to the point where I became used to the salary and the lifestyle. Flying around in first class, working on high profile projects, earning a nice salary, stock options, etc. – it’s all really easy to get used to. I knew that once I became used to it all, I would reach the point where I wasn’t able to take the 100% paycut to join an early stage startup. And so, I was afraid of somehow missing the ability to pursue one of my goals – helping to create a company from the ground up.

James Kwak does a really great job of describing what I was afraid of in his recent post Why Do Harvard Kids Head to Wall Street?: “…[O]nce you’re in the door, the seduction begins….Your expenses grow to match your income. As the decades pass and you realize that no, you’re not going to save the world, the money becomes a more and more important part of the justification. And when you have kids, you’re stuck; it’s much easier to deprive yourself of money (and what it buys) than to deprive your children of money.”

I think often we know what we should do, but it’s hard to actually go and do it. It certainly doesn’t get any easier with time, and in many cases, things just get harder. It wasn’t exactly an easy decision to make, to decide to leave my position last spring, with the economy still uncertain, and still getting a lot of experience and having a lot of mileage left in my career at IBM. But I knew that it was one of the few opportunities I’d ever have to take the leap, and I’m very happy that I did.

Part of this is the self-awareness that I believe is needed to be effective as an entrepreneur and wrote about earlier. In this context, do you know what you need to feel confident enough to make that kind of a jump? Is it a strong team, some validation of your concept, an early customer? Figuring that out will help you recognize when you’ve made enough progress to make the move. For me, some of that was having a business partner and a team that I was confident could hold up their end of the bargain, and having a top notch group of advisers through DreamIt Ventures. (Having people in my life that supported the decision and encouraged me was a big part of it, as well.)

Who knows where things will take me next, but I consider myself fortunate to have had the courage to take advantage of an opportunity and accomplish one of my goals for myself.


Back to the anecdote that inspired this post – the aspiring entrepreneur that I was talking with was unhappy with the ‘big company’ internship that he had for the summer. It wasn’t going to give him the experience that he was hoping for and would be essentially worthless busy work day after day. He had pretty much already made up his mind before talking to me, but perhaps some of these thoughts helped him feel less crazy for walking away from a “perfectly good job”. In my mind, as I discussed with him, if you’re not getting the experience you want, especially when you’re young, there are few reasons why you should stick it out and so many reasons why you should take the leap to follow your dreams. After all, you may not get another chance.

I have a quote from Steve Jobs on my personal home page that I think speaks really well to this point:

“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our life. We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the [executive team] could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it. And we think it is.”

This is your life. Make sure you’re getting what you want out of it.

IBM doing seed-stage acceleration the right way: IBM SmartCamp

Posted: May 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Back in April, I posted about the IBM SmartCamp initiative taking place this year. I recently connected with Eric Apse, the IBM Venture Capital Group partner for the Boston area, who is leading the program in that city, to learn more about the initiative. IBM SmartCamp will run on June 3rd in Boston. Dates for other cities are on the program’s blog.

In short, it’s one of the most innovative efforts that I’ve heard of to align startups with a larger enterprise. IBM has really thought this one through. While there’s certainly a lot of potential upside to IBM if it helps accelerate high potential startups through this program, the success of the program is also being measured from the participating startups’ perspectives, so IBM has their priorities in order.

Eric provided some details on how the program will work. SmartCamp is being run in select cities with strong entrepreneurial communities. In each city, there is a one-day program, bringing the selected startups together with a number of mentors and advisors. The program is structured interaction with the 25 mentors – 45 minute rotations with 5 mentors per rotation. Then at 3pm, the companies will present in a competition format. (The company that wins from each city will be invited to Dublin, Ireland, for a global competition in November – the winner there is deemed the world’s ‘smartest startup’.) Then following each of the city program days, the companies get 12 weeks of mentoring through IBM – TechStars will be helping to offer mentoring in Boston, Seedcamp in Europe.

During the mentoring, IBM places the startups in contact with internal connections that are aligned with the companies. The goal of these interactions is focused on helping the startups figure out the right go-to-market strategy. Internally, IBM is also putting together a cross-discipline board of Smarter Planet stakeholders to review the ventures and make decisions on which startups align with IBM’s initiatives and thus further partnerships should be made.

I asked Eric about how SmartCamp is being measured by IBM. After all, most business initiatives are measured by specific metrics and I was curious what IBM would be using to determine whether SmartCamp had been an effective investment. Eric explained that there were no specific metrics for SmartCamp’s success. Instead, IBM is more focused on what kinds of success IBM can drive from the program, whether that success is funding for a participating company, a partnership with IBM, or another kind of success for a participating venture. Certainly IBM is keeping a close eye on the ventures to figure out which would be best for IBM to partner with or acquire, but they’re taking a very long-term view on the success of the initiative, more around on how IBM can access these markets through startup partners over the long term.

Eric said that this is very similar to how IBM’s Venture Capital initiative has been running for over 10 years, taking a milestone-based approach towards measuring its success.

On the whole, I was extremely impressed by what I learned about IBM’s SmartCamp initiative. The relationships with the mentoring programs (i.e. TechStars, Seedcamp), give the participating ventures important opportunities to get advice and feedback, in addition to powerful networks. And the internal connections to Smarter Planet stakeholders will be important for the participating companies, as well. But, I think the most telling aspect of the program is how it is being measured by IBM.

Instead of the typical corporate world, quarterly management dashboard, IBM is taking the right view on the program. Seed-stage acceleration isn’t something that works on Wall Street’s calendar – it takes time, and there are many twists and turns in the road, as I’ve learned first-hand. But, over the long term, you can build a program that helps convert ideas into sustainable ventures and transformative products with the right mentors, connections, and process. It appears that IBM has put a lot of thought into what kind of process would be most effective – not only for Big Blue, but also for the participating companies. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs are going to find that hugely valuable for their ventures.

Create Opportunities for Yourself – a story of Excel and startups

Posted: May 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

As a consultant at IBM, there was one particular project where we needed to validate the financial calculations in a huge data set. The end result was a detailed Excel workbook with a number of financial calculations, all extracted from an extensive series of pivot tables. The data was being generated by an automated process and we needed to compare the output against a model. The process proved to be fairly laborious. About 15 data files were generated per test run and each data files took quite a while to prep and validate. To illustrate this a bit more clearly, in order for the process to work, the formats needed to be brought into Excel, data types converted, a pivot table generated, and then the pivot tables compared. This had to be completed essentially twice, once for the model set and once for the output set we were testing. Each run of the process took hours – needless to say, it was fairly tedious.

Looking for an opportunity to help, I took ownership of this process and, after realizing the tedious process wasn’t going away, started looking for an easier way to get what we needed. I had used Excel quite a lot beforehand (for various financial spreadsheets and projections, etc.), but had never used it as a development platform, to handle complex data analysis. Still, Visual Basic for Applications didn’t seem too bad. I started to automate the process – step by step. The first part that I automated was the generation of the pivot tables. That was easy enough to do with the Excel macro recorder (otherwise, the VBA code for pivot tables generation can be a bit hairy). That helped speed things up, but I thought, why not go further. So I automated the conversion processes. And then the data import processes. And finally, the process to compare the data sets and generate the workbook deliverable.

The end result was a process that took at least 8 hours on a good day was cut, step by step, all the way down to about 13 seconds with a series of macros that I developed and then integrated. The process also went from being something that needed extensive step-by-step instructions to something that could be run with a click of a button. I also changed a workstream that was mind-numbingly tedious into an opportunity to broaden my experience with using Excel for complex analysis tasks.

So, not only did I gain a ton of experience building complex, automated models in Excel, I produced a deliverable that could be reused on future IBM projects, as well as a tool that the client was able to make use of going forward, as well. Not bad for something that the team didn’t realize they needed originally and that I was able to assemble piece by piece. (It also established me as the Excel guru on my team, so I was quickly given another financial analysis process to implement in Excel.)

There is another story that further illustrates the topic. When we were starting out with FanGamb, I joined the team to build and run the product development team, but I was also very interested in using the FanGamb / DreamIt opportunity to expand my own experience. I knew the product areas well, but wanted to get more exposure to some of the business operations. I had some experience from running the business operations of my consulting firm in high school/college, but wanted to dig deeper. Fortunately, there was an endless amount of work that had to be done. I took ownership of many of our financial operation tasks – maintaining Quickbooks, working with the accountants, setting up payroll, working with my co-founder on the financial projections… Sure, it added some work to my plate, but it also really broadened my experience from just being the tech guy to someone who has a better handle on the full operations of the business.

Startups are particularly good opportunities to take on tasks that might not be your core area of focus, but give you enormous experience. Not only is there’s an awful lot of work to be done, but unlike in the corporate world where you need to be essentially given permission to work on a task, startups reward taking initiative and ownership. So, you get to create opportunities for yourself to gain experience in the areas that you’re interested in. This is a key reason why startups are such a fantastic opportunity for new grads.

The lessons that I took away from all of this? First, figure out what areas you want to grow into – what additional experience will complement your existing skillsets? Are you a tech guy looking to gain more exposure to the business side? Is your past experience mainly in one area and you’re looking to have a broader base from which to run your own startup one day? Set some goals for yourself.

Then, set some expectations for yourself. You’re looking to pick up some additional experience, not become an expert overnight. You’ll have the temptation to want to tackle everything at once. The IBM Excel task, for instance, was so tedious that it would have been easy to want to build out the entire macro set at once. Instead, I took it slowly, building out the pieces iteratively and integrating it as I went. I think this is the right way to go, lest you become hung up on an issue or get discouraged.

Finally, be open to opportunities that come your way (or that you trip over in the dark). You may come across different things that if pursued turn into significant opportunities for you. An opportunity to create a web site for my Boy Scout troop and another local client opened the door for a hobby in web design to shift and become a consulting business. Building web pages for clients then shifted again and became an opportunity to work with international subcontractors. A big part of creating opportunities for yourself is leaving yourself open to them and running with different leads to see what works out.

IBM’s startup accelerator: IBM Smartcamp

Posted: April 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

As a former IBMer, I’m always interested in the latest news on what Big Blue is working on. When the press release discusses ways to inspire innovation, I always make it a priority to read through it. Recently, one of my Google Alerts dug up a new article on a new global program to encourage entrepreneurship that IBM is launching…

IBM is getting into the accelerator space with IBM Smartcamp, part of the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program – they’re looking to provide mentoring to startups that have less than $1m in revenue and align with their “smarter planet” initiative. This is a global program that will be run in 7 cities, with one company selected from each city to travel to Dublin in November. (The list of companies selected in 2009 is on the program’s Ireland blog.)

While IBM isn’t providing funding at this time, the fact that they will connect the startups with mentors inside the company could be pivotal for the right venture.  Further coverage here in the Boston Business Journal and in the NY Times.

It’s good to see Big Blue acknowledging that accelerators are an effective way of supporting innovation in focused areas of interest.  With the profile that IBM is giving to this initiative and the applications that this should attract, I expect the program to be transformative for the startups selected to participate.

Apply via the SeedCamp site: http://smartcamp.seedcamp.com/