Our backyard is New Haven. This was familiar territory for us when the Startup Roadshow was in the Elm City back in June. Also familiar to New Haven entrepreneurs (and beyond) is Miles Lasater.
For those in the New Haven startup world, Miles is a “grandfather” of sorts, providing many of the essential ingredients that has cultivated a mindset and the fertile ground necessary for today’s emerging entrepreneurs to take root. These essential ingredients include Higher One, once a Yale startup that now serves 13 million customers, the formation of Yale Entrepreneurial Society (YES), the birth of SeeClickFix, angel investment and more. A tireless supporter of entrepreneurship, he once received the Elm-Ivy Award for strengthening partnerships among the New Haven and Yale communities.
It’s this part about Miles that intrigues me the most – the idea of the successful entrepreneur who also intentionally invests in the community that he wants to see himself in, allowing others to thrive alongside him.
He, of course, willingly agreed to sit down and talk. Like me, I hope you learn something new from a familiar face that can benefit your startup culture, be it in New Haven or wherever you are.
This question may be overly simplistic, but I’m curious . . . Why do you work for yourself?
I like seeing dreams turn into reality. There are so many things that can be done better in the world. When someone is dreaming, they’re saying, “I see a better world.”
There are plenty of people who will tell you why dreams can’t come true and give you lots of explanations for why something hasn’t been done before. When you’re starting something yourself, you can choose which people to listen to.
Ultimately, I like solving problems, building things, having an impact on the world and I love learning. As an entrepreneur, things are always changing. You have to learn about a lot different disciplines and, even if you’re not a master in them you’re required to make different decisions in a bunch of different domains.
Moving from something that is just an idea that not only works once but works at scale is a real challenge and one of the thrills I enjoy.
As far as New Haven goes, you are looked to as one of the “grandfathers” of startups. What was it like starting something five-plus years ago versus today?
The excitement about startups in New Haven and Yale has grown steadily since I’ve been here. It’s been fun to be a part of it all. The advantage of starting Higher One after the dotcom had burst, was that we were not the typical startup. We were forced to be extremely frugal. Capital was not readily available. And we were not in a major startup center, so we didn’t have a lot of the distractions you do in bustling startup cultures, such as trying to impress your friends.
On the flip side, it’s very exciting that there is more activity and interest. There is a different feeling now that is built around being more helpful. There are more people around who can plug in and help startups grow their business.
The community is still building and people recognize that. How you plug in all depends on how long you’ve been a part of the New Haven startup scene. We keep putting in place different parts of the ecosystem but there is more building to do.
Moving forward, how would you like to see the community grow?
There are the basics that need to happen more, such as aggregating information and sharing the kinds of things you’re working on. Another, is making sure the right events happen. I often feel as if we are overscheduled and overprogrammed. If an event is being scheduled, is it the right event? Should it happen at all?
Also, there is too much of a gap between Yale and outside of Yale. Bringing that closer together in some way could build a stronger community.
There is still more to do around angel funding. Strides are being made but there is more to do to get VCs comfortable in New Haven. SeeClickFix raised money from the West Coast. We now have San Francisco VCs flying to New Haven multiple times per year for board meetings. I believe other startups should take advantage of opportunities like this even more.
What can entrepreneurs do to build the community?
The best startup ecosystems are led by entrepreneurs. This doesn’t mean that every entrepreneur will be ready at every part of their life cycle to give back to the community, but making sure the right types of things are happening so that the opportunities exist is important.
I am a big believer in the power of getting people together, and sometimes the less the agenda the better. Sometimes social collisions where people find each other are more valuable than programmed events.
Tony Hsieh (of Zappos), is serious about setting goals and metrics around collisions per square foot. His Downtown Project is making huge waves in Las Vegas (aside from the $350 million investment).There is an economic development theory with some weight to it that claims density creates a certain type of feel socially and builds a stronger community.
But just being there doesn’t lead to innovation. If you’re not talking with anyone and meeting people, things will remain in status quo. If you’re going for innovation, think about constructing your space in a way that encourages more interaction.
For instance, at Higher One, we deemphasized break rooms on each floor and put common areas in central locations so that people would casually bump into each other. This allows people who otherwise don’t work together to interact and get to know each other.
What is occupying your curiosity and exploration these days?
I’m learning about genetics. [Which he proves by holding up Genetics for Dummies]. Overall, I’m following the big tech trends to better understand how it changes people’s lives. I’m discovering how medicine, IT, new manufacturing techniques, or the continued adoption of mobile technology can identify and solve problems, and generate more opportunities to improve the world.
I’m fascinated about people from all over the world who are striving to move into the modern economy and reach for middle class. Developing strategies that changes the cost structure of goods and services – although unsexy in the U.S. – when done in an environmental and sustainable way can affect millions of lives.
For instance, take lighting. This is something we take for granted. But how do you get lighting to billions of folks who don’t have it?
In the telecomm industry, there was this leapfrog effect where some countries went straight to mobile phones, skipping the landline stage. Mobile is considered more advanced and can be adopted. LED and solar techniques might be a similar leapfrog. Preparing and building for that leap frog stage through innovation is the critical question.
When it comes to the future, I wonder how and where to develop those things. You can start those companies from the U.S. because you have the technology and manufacturing techniques here, but you could be disconnected from the customers. I’m sure this is something others are grappling with as well.
There’s a lot of comparison of New Haven to other startup communities. Do you think we should be compared or should we just focus on our own mojo?
You always want to be aware of your competition and the alternatives your customers have, but continually comparing yourself to others prevents you from building truly unique communities. If you’re overly focused on the competition, you’re not focused on building. You have to know about the existence of other competing communities but not obsess about it.
Why do you support other entrepreneurs and how would you like to see others do the same?
Interacting with other entrepreneurs keeps you sharp. It’s fun to hear about the future from them.
I’m always excited when I can have a small hand in helping other people’s dreams come true! When I was coming up, people helped me. I worked hard, was lucky, and received a lot of help. I want to make sure I do my part and help others at an early stage.
Your best advice for new startups on the scene?
Don’t forget to have fun!