More on HELP

Gary Rosensteel has a short post up that describes the HELP meeting that I spoke at on Tuesday evening. Thanks again, Gary, for inviting me to meet HELP members.

I do want to expand on a couple of themes that came up at the meeting.

One is the role of lawyers in the entrepreneurial/technology economy. Lawyers can act as hubs for assembling teams of research, capital, and management. To do that, though, lawyers have to step out of the conventional boxes and business models that they inhabit, and they have to act entrepreneurially themselves. That's something that Pittsburgh lawyers don't excel at, as a rule. The HELP group wanted to know: Where do I find lawyers who will act this way? I said: Demand it of your current lawyer, and if you're not getting service that includes bringing new ideas to you, then look for a better lawyer. And don't be afraid to look outside Pittsburgh -- there are plenty of wonderful lawyers in other parts of the state and other parts of the country. For a lot of purposes, you don't need a local lawyer.

Two is something that I heard at the meeting for the first time, but that makes a lot of sense to me. On the whole, the Pittsburgh community isn't characterized by the kind of appetite for entrepreneurship that you see on the two coasts. Why not? The hypothesis that was floated was that Pittsburgh is a community of engineers. Think: Westinghouse. For decades, Pittsburgh was the home of major industrial companies that had huge research operations here and that specialized in cutting edge engineering.

Now engineers can be brilliant people, and they can be amazing innovators. But as a rule, engineers are not taught to be risk-takers. And an entrepreneurial/technology economy is all about risk. So? If the hypothesis is right -- and I'll leave it to the comments to flesh this out -- then one thing that limits Pittsburgh's economic upside is its engineering history. We're a culture that thrives on a robust and finely tuned infrastructure, not on innovating something that may fail three times out of four -- but where the one success really hits big.

On the other hand, if searching for Pittsburgh's new "identity" is your thing, then our engineering legacy may be just the kind of historical continuity that you're (and we're) looking for. There's a lot of upside to being known as America's Engineering Center. Pittsburgh is Rebuilding the World. Can't say that it's necessarily true, but maybe there's a credible way to pull this together. Thoughts, everyone?


3 Responses to "More on HELP"

Anonymous said... 2/24/2006 3:53 PM

Agree on the engineering culture point. In addition to your point on not being able to find good legal help, there is a dearth of good business talent. How many local companies actively recruit from top-10 MBA programs? I'd guess 0. So there is very little outside business talent coming. You need some reason for the talent to come to Pittsburgh before they can start a company. Graduates of Harvard/Wharton/Stanford/Kellogg, etc. aren't going to come to Pittsburgh to start a company from scratch. You need a company to bring them here first, then later some of them will go on to start new things.

I realize this is a chicken-egg scenario, so it would be interesting to hear others ideas on how to break this situation open. Ideally one company blossoms, attracts talent, and the cycle is broken - e.g. Microsoft in Seattle.

Harold D. Miller said... 2/24/2006 5:11 PM

I think that the lack of appetite for entrepreneurship is indeed a "Westinghouse" phenomenon, but not for the reason you cite. It's because at the big corporations, somebody else was responsible for commercializing the idea, and engineers and researchers were discouraged from pursuing entrepreneurship, not only by the company, but by their families. Many entrepreneurs in southwestern Pennsylvania have told the story about their families asking them why they don't get a "real job" with a big company.

Our engineering culture here should be a strong foundation to build on. There is at least some hope of fixing a company that has a good product and a bad business model or bad management, but the best business model or management won't fix a product that won't work.

We need to find more and better ways to link management talent with engineering talent. The executive-in-residence programs at the Technology Collaborative and the Life Sciences Greenhouse are one good way to do that.

rustbelter said... 3/02/2006 11:16 AM

As the old story goes, one businessman asks another how much is enough. Just a little more sir, was the reply.

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