We are pleased to have Terry Howerton with us today for the Business 2 Community Expert Interview Series. Terry is a managing partner of TechNexus, Chicago’s first collaborative ecosystem for tech entrepreneurs and business leaders, where more than 100 startups have grown and close to 3,000 people connect and collaborate each month. Terry is the founder and former chairman of the Illinois Technology Association, a trade association with nearly 700 member companies, and co-founder of the Chicago Tech Academy, an urban charter high school mentoring entrepreneurship and technology skills for 600 students each year. Terry is a lifelong entrepreneur and an extraordinary example of what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a “connector” – a community catalyst who brings people and ideas together.
6 Questions on Entrepreneurship with Terry Howerton
1. How did you get your start as an entrepreneur?
I did my first startup at 15 years old, shortly after the Supreme Court decided the phone company didn’t own the data that appeared in phone books. I hired my mom, aunt and about 10 other people to start retyping the phone book into a database, and programmed a data merge to a desktop publishing tool, which in 1987 was pretty challenging. I put on my dad’s suit, ran around town convincing hundreds of small businesses they should buy advertising from me, and came up with a half-dozen unique value propositions for our better phone book. Since that first business, I’ve been involved as a founder, principal, or adviser in more than a dozen startups. My brain feeds off of the give and take of creating new ideas, and I love working with other entrepreneurs as much as building business for myself.
2. What is the biggest challenge facing tech entrepreneurs today?
Access to and appreciation of collaboration and mentorship. It’s easier today than ever before to find a problem or opportunity where technology enables the solution. On-demand software and technology-enabled services can be cheap and fast to develop, and ideas are a dime a dozen. Success as an entrepreneur is 99 percent execution and 1 percent inspiration or idea. Finding a collaborative environment that makes your idea better (and mentors and partners who really invest in helping you execute on your idea) is critical. Capital is like air, but not all capital is created equal. Good advisors can be worth far more than just an investor check. Recruiting the right talent to work on the team, advise the team, and connect the team with partners and provide meaningful insight is the biggest challenge an entrepreneur can face.
3. What is the method to your success at TechNexus?
We didn’t set out to create an incubator at TechNexus. Our goal was to create a clubhouse, a place where tech entrepreneurs and engineers could mingle, collaborate and occasionally work near each other. We figured good things would come from mixing the right kinds of people and fostering a culture where ideas were shared and people were anxious to make those ideas better.
Since we opened TechNexus five years ago, more than 130 companies have already grown there, attracting close to $80 million in capital and creating (at last count) almost 450 new jobs. That’s not really a testament to TechNexus or our guidance, as much as a testament to the kinds of entrepreneurs that are attracted to this environment. People who appreciate collaboration and focus on the parts of their business that make them unique (without getting distracted with the rote and common aspects of setting up shop) have had the most success.
Now, more than 3,000 people a month flow through TechNexus for networking, meetings, roundtables and to use our co-working space. We’ve hosted representatives from more than 900 different companies in just the past three months, many not based in Chicago, and some not based in the United States. The TechNexus ecosystem includes entrepreneurs from small startups, leaders of large, mature companies, and everything in between. That diverse population is really what makes TechNexus unique, and not something that could be created artificially or overnight.
4. In your opinion, where will future tech entrepreneurs see the most success?
It’s easy for a tech entrepreneur to get caught up in the hype surrounding consumers… building a web or mobile app that attracts millions of users, and figuring out a way to make money from those eyeballs and interactions. The media like to write about those kinds of businesses, and your friends can easily understand what you’re doing. Some of these ideas can be huge, if you build a product or service that people really need or love.
But I’m most interested in tech ventures that are disruptive to existing, stodgy old industries. So many mature industries throughout the world are aging, lacking innovation, and disconnected from entrepreneurial DNA. Show me a tech entrepreneur with an idea for the manufacturing industry, or education, health care, energy, government or other sectors that are sorely lacking in innovative technology solutions. Software, Internet and technology solutions have already completely redefined much of the retail, media, and financial services industries, but there’s plenty of room for more disruption and innovation in each of those industries.
At TechNexus, we connect the innovative thinkers inside of mature corporations with the entrepreneurial zeal within our ecosystem. We want the result to be ideas that change industries.
5. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out as an entrepreneur?
Respect risk but don’t fear it. Recruit exceptional people. Fail fast, and recognize new opportunities in the wake. Build lean and scalable. Listen to people who make you and your idea better; ignore the people who don’t. Create something of value people want to buy.
I only wish I found it as easy to always follow my own advice.
6. Where can we find you on the web?
My personal blog is at www.terryhowerton.com. The TechNexus collaboration center is at www.technexus.com, the Illinois Technology Association is at www.illinoistech.org, and you can learn more about the charter high school project at www.chicagotechacademy.org.