Balancing Act: The Founder of a 'Venture Generator' Shares How He Deals With Focus and Scale

The organization 10.10.10 set out to help entrepreneurs find problems to solve, but its founder learned that his venture will be most successful if it focuses on one sector at a time.
Balancing Act: The Founder of a 'Venture Generator' Shares How He Deals With Focus and Scale
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Large, bureaucratic organizations aren’t always equipped to innovate. Startups, on the other hand, are much more nimble when it comes to identifying problems and solving them. However, not all entrepreneurs are attuned to the problems that most need solving. Larger institutions often have a better sense of them, they just don’t have the ability to tackle them.

That’s why Denver-based entrepreneur, investor and startup advisor Tom Higley, who has founded and run seven companies throughout his career, founded the nonprofit 10.10.10. Calling it a “venture generator” and a “problem-solving machine, Higley and his team organize 10-day events during which they bring together 10 individuals who know they want to start a company that fulfills a need in society, but just aren’t sure which problem to take on. Partners pitch 10 “wicked” or highly complex problems to, in most cases, serial entrepreneurs, and encourage them to build a solution. Higley says it takes “a kind of Elon Musk” to go after problems like these.

At first, when he was looking to address these big challenges, Higley set out to solve all the big problems of the world. But what he learned quickly is it is better to start by focusing on one concrete problem area, rather than try to generate ventures devoted to everything from security to climate to health from the get-go. A colleague advised him that health would be a prime place to start. It’s an area that affects everyone’s lives but is plagued by inefficiency. While Higley, who had never worked in the health space, says he was worried this focus would be too much of a learning curve for him, today, 10.10.10 is gearing up for its third annual health event, planned this summer. And later this year, it will finally expand its focus to smart cities.

The serial entrepreneur and 10.10.10 founder spoke with Entrepreneur about the “tension between focus and scale” that the organization has had to balance.

This conversation has been edited.

What have you learned about growth while doing good?
Our vision is about addressing wicked problems in health, water, food, energy, learning, infrastructure, waste, security and climate change, but tackling all of those things at the same time is a bit like deciding you’ll colonize Mars next week. Beginning with a focus on problems in health really helped people understand the nuts and bolts of what we do. But that kind of focus can allow people to lose sight of the fact that you want to colonize Mars. So creating our cities program has been the answer to helping people understand the power and importance of scale.

What have you learned about culture while doing good?
We talk about what we do as creating a wormhole that connects two really disparate cultures. On one hand, you have the collection of folks who operate in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. On the other hand, you have large organizations and institutions. And these cultures are so radically different. They have a different vocabulary. They have a different dress code. They have very different notions about success. So, part of what we do is actually about learning, so that entrepreneurs and large organizations and institutions can interact and deliver value.

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to do good?
You can do this, and the world needs more of you. So as you seek to do good, my profound hope for you is that you think about ways to encourage others to join you in this, to increase the size of the pool of entrepreneurs who are playing that game. It’s not just about you. You hear the expression, ‘It takes a village.’ We actually say, ‘It takes a village of villages.’

If you’re really seeking to do good, and do good in a business context, think very hard about what you are investing your life in and whether it is worth that investment. There’s a problem of entrepreneurs who haven’t understood that their investment of their time, energy, effort and sometimes even their money is a bigger investment than any venture firm puts into a company they will operate or create. And you can know more about that than you think you can -- before you ever get started.

Edition: June 2017

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