Geekwire Awards Keynote: Turtles + Flywheels

The crew at GeekWire — Seattle’s leading tech media + events platform — invited me to keynote this year’s Seattle Startup Awards. My notes for the speech are reproduced below (the picture is by Adam Loving) — the same content, plus a video of the speech, can be found on GeekWire:

I want to talk to you tonight about two things:
  • Turtles
  • And flywheels
Some of you may have heard the story about the Hindu wise man who explained to a child that the earth rested on the back of an elephant.
“But,” the child asked him, “what does the elephant stand on?“
“A tortoise” replied the wise man.
“And what does the tortoise stand on?” the child asked again
“Another tortoise” replied the wise man
This went on for some time until finally the wise man finally got frustrated and said: “Stop asking child, it’s turtles all the way down!”
To me, this is the perfect metaphor for a startup ecosystem.
When I was right out of college and trying to figure out what to do with my life, I thought I was supposed to get a job at some big company. And somehow I found myself living in Florida and working for AT&T, which had something like 350,000 employees at the time. And my part of the company was basically a credit card business, which is really a pretty sleazy business.
And I hated everything about it.
And I thought to myself, I’m clearly doing this wrong.
So I quit.
And I moved back to Seattle to work on a startup of Craig McCaw’s and it was like Alice in Wonderland when she goes down the rabbit hole. There were all these young guys running around just making it up as they went along, raising all kinds of money from the junk debt market and trying all kinds of crazy ideas.
And this was also about the time that the time the Mosaic browser came out — and I remember subscribing to Wired magazine right when it first started and my brain was just exploding.
Because what I had discovered was that a company wasn’t some static, permanent thing that you had to fit yourself into, but a thing that anyone could make, and could change — even I could change it.
And I spent the next 15 years of my life learning how to start businesses.
Sometimes I did it inside existing companies, and sometimes from scratch. Sometimes my partners and I financed them with credit cards and sometimes with venture money. And sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t.
But no matter how they turned out, I loved the work. I loved the people and the culture. And I knew I was wrecked forever as an employee and I’d never be able to do anything else but be an entrepreneur.
Then, about five years ago my business partner Andy Sack and I figured out that instead of doing one startup at a time we could actually build a startup that built startups, and we created Founders Co-op do do exactly that.
In the last five years we’ve invested in over 40 companies in the region. Those companies have gone on to raise more than $140 million in additional VC money.
But as I’ve learned what it means to be a startup investor, I’ve also realized that a startup to build startups can’t really be successful if the broader community it operates in isn’t also growing and developing.
So — in addition to my day job at Founders Co-op — I’ve tried to figure out how to help make that happen, and it’s led me to all kinds of places I never expected to go. The announcement today about the City of Seattle’s “Startup Seattle” initiative is just one example of what that looks like, and I’m proud to have played a small part in that story.
You see where this is going, right?
The startup community is just like that story about the elephant — it’s turtles all the way down. 
Whether you’re making your first leap from a corporate job to a startup job; or starting your first company as a founder; or you’re a serial entrepreneur who’s mentoring and investing in other people; or you’re Jeff Bezos, who’s in the process of reshaping huge chunks of the global economy; or you’re Bill Gates, who did the same thing and then took everything he learned as an entrepreneur — and most of the money he made — and is now trying to make the whole world a better place.
If you’re here tonight, you’re part of an extended community of people who weren’t content to take the world as they found it, but stepped outside the system to try their hand at making it better, or different — more interesting, or more fun.
The startup community is the most welcoming and positive community I’ve ever been a part of. And once you’re in it, even as your role changes over time you just keep finding new ways to do work that matters to you, and to make the change you want to see in the world.
We’re all so busy that don’t often take time to think about how our work relates to the work of others in the community. Which brings me to my second topic… Flywheels
A flywheel is a store of energy — the more energy you put into it, the more power it has. And the more massive it is, the more energy it can store, and the harder it is to stop.
For any one of us, on any given day, it can sometimes be hard to see how our individual effort amounts to anything. But when you start to string days together into years, and you look back, you can see how far you’ve come, and how much you’ve accomplished.
The truth is, it takes time to build anything of lasting value:
  • Our identities as people
  • Our role in the world
  • Our companies
  • The communities we live in and contribute to

The better something is — the more powerful and lasting — the longer it takes to build.
I grew up in Seattle in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I remember what it was like before Microsoft, before Amazon. I graduated from high school in 1986 — the year Microsoft went public — and I left for the East Coast, and then the Bay Area, and then Florida.I came back in the early ‘90s to work at McCaw until AT&T bought us, and then went back to California. And then I finally came back for good about a dozen years ago, and have been hammering away at my little corner of the local startup ecosystem ever since.

We often wring our hands about all the ways in which our community is less than other places — fewer startups, less money, fewer big wins to our credit. I do this too.
But when I zoom out — with the perspective of those 25 years, and having lived and worked in some of those other cities we compare ourselves to — I can tell you with absolute certainty that we have built a flywheel of incredible mass, and that flywheel is spinning faster and faster.
Every single one of you in this room makes up some portion of that mass. And the energy that you expend each day — on your own growth, on the work of your companies, and as a participant in our broader community — makes that wheel spin just a little bit faster.
We are all of us, together, the co-founders of the Pacific Northwest’s startup community — from Portland down south, right through up to Vancouver. And the thing we’re building together is already one of the massive flywheels of the global economy. And we’re just getting started
I want to thank Geekwire for being the convener + storyteller of our community and bringing us all together tonight to celebrate that work.
And I want to thank each of you for the work you do — every day — to build + spin that wheel
Thank you, and on with the show!