Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 10, 2023
I just got back from a conference with real people standing next to me, no avatars, no virtual, no Zoom. We were in person, and I traveled on a nonstop commercial airplane. (My Gulfstream was being serviced).
Now basically, I hate traveling, airplanes and conferences, but I know that you have to get out of your bubble and do the work. Zoom can only take you so far. Get on the airplane.
Everybody talks about big data, and folks are always gathering information on interesting, and sometimes obscure behaviors. Well, if you are going to schlep somewhere for business, across multiple time zones, it turns out that going nonstop is a significant key to potential innovation.
Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard professor, has done a study and he found that a “10 percent increase in nonstop flights between two locations, in different time zones, led to a 1.4 percent increase in new patents between firms in those two places.” He studied 5,015 flight patterns at every airport worldwide. That’s why it is called big data.
Choudhury showed that nonstop flights in the same time zone were not that valuable. It matters more “if the two firms’ locations are culturally or temporally far away from each other,” he writes. New patent applications increased 3.4 percent when nonstop flights increased by 10 percent. Also, benefits decrease if you have to change planes, he says. (That makes sense since you have to factor in the lost luggage premium.)
In the end, meeting face to face matters. If you want to move the ball, you need to get out of your pajamas. Try telling this to Gen Z who want to only take jobs that allow hybrid or at-home work. Deals don’t really close without pressing the flesh in person. As a mentor of mine said, “You need to do the time.” And he was not referring to prison.
I share this little story with you because it reinforces the mantra that new data can lead to actionable insights. For example, a smart city might consider this whole innovation puzzle in thinking about which nonstops should be added at their airport.
Still, the real key to innovation remains the same — avoid the middle seat.
On the last night of the conference, the dinner was a toss-up. Four different possible venues, no assigned seating, take your chances. We sat toward the back — makes it easier to escape quickly — and the guy next to me was the magic act. He had exactly what we needed, and he graciously offered it. He followed through, and then he rejected my offer to thank him with stock. It is possible he is an alien from a foreign planet. True that networking is important, but sometimes, I prefer dumb luck.
Finally, allow me a shoutout to the local iconic technology incubator/accelerator EvoNexus. Much has been written about the organization and its leaders Rory Moore and Vice Admiral Walt Davis USN (Ret.). This is San Diego’s own version of the more famous Y Combinator. But Evo is no slouch. In 2022, EvoNexus portfolio companies raised $360 million, including $110 million by the current ones in the program, with over a couple billion during its lifetime.
My reason for bringing this up is to reinforce the idea of mentorship. Barbara Bry and I recently started a little software company, my eighth time as a co-founder, and I assumed (incorrectly) that there was very little I could learn from an incubator. After all, they are designed for newbies and first-timers and young people. I am none of those.
But we applied. My team felt that we were a bit stuck and needed guidance. Humility always trumps arrogance and pride. I am often asked to give advice, and here I am seeking it. It’s like when my shrink goes to see his shrink.
And then the blind squirrel syndrome reared its ugly head, and EvoNexus accepted us. Now we are working hard with their team at scaling, business development, technology and product market fit — all the things that every startup needs. My own little story reinforces what every entrepreneur can never forget — it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you.
And Evo gave us one incredible introduction — and we didn’t have to get on an airplane.
Rule No. 755:
You can teach an old dog new tricks.