New Year’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from the prior year. So last week I asked members of the business community the biggest lesson last year had taught them.
For many, the biggest lesson involved politics in some way. Some saw this as a positive thing, pointing out that bringing people together to achieve a goal, a behavior characteristic of successful entrepreneurs, had become a part of politics. Fran Craig, chief executive of Unanet, a software product business, pointed out this similarity: “Everyone can contribute so all can win. This was true in getting out the vote and [in] moving a technology business forward.” This sentiment was shared by Shekar Narasimhan, founder of the real estate investment firm Beekman Advisors, adding that taking an entrepreneurial approach to political action means that “business people can engage in the political arena without fear and can make a difference.”
There were limits to this view, though. A number of respondents thought the polarization of our political discourse meant that business people should be careful to separate what they did personally from their business operations. Chris McAuliffe, CEO of Theragen, a medical device startup, raised the concern that if a business itself became politically active in the current political environment, it risked alienating a significant portion of its market. He advises businesses to “remain politically agnostic in favor of delivering value to your customers.”
Another theme that surfaced was the importance of continued progress in regional coordination. Bob Sweeney, managing director of the Global Cities Initiative, and an expert on our region’s economic development activities, pointed to how greater Washington region’s pursuit of Amazon’s second headquarters highlighted our region’s ability to collaborate. Sweeney worked with representatives of eight different jurisdictions to promote our region to Amazon, and he was pleased with their ability to find commonality in how they described our region’s assets, providing what he described as a “fantastic regional story.”
Bob Buchanan, chair of the 2030 Group, a regional advocacy group, echoed the lesson learned from the Amazon bid. However, the bigger question for him was whether our region’s political leaders truly listen to the business community or just give the appearance of engagement. His concern is that the “business community does not carry much weight” with our political leaders when it comes to addressing the region’s significant transportation and housing challenges.
Some respondents focused more narrowly on their own experiences and shared lessons for other entrepreneurs. Tien Wong, chairman and CEO of Opus 8, a technology investment firm, shared that his most important lesson of the year was to “always see the positive in every situation, even when it seems to be bad,” because doing so allows more creativity in responding to challenges. Ben Foster, a serial software product entrepreneur, pointed out that even as technology allows businesses to be buried in data about customer behavior, there is still no substitute for actually talking with customers if you wanted to understand them. Jamey Harvey, CEO of Courage, a software services business, added that it was essential to “never take the most important partners in your life for granted.”
What I learned from these responses is that the unique tapestry of our region – the proximity to the federal government, an economy that stretches across multiple political jurisdictions and a diverse range of entrepreneurial opportunities – draws to it many interesting and thoughtful people who get up every morning and make great things happen. It’s why I am happy to live here and why believe that our region is one of the leading entrepreneurial communities in the world.
Happy New Year, everyone. Let’s make 2018 a year to remember for good things.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of TandemNSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.