Project Athene; From geeks to Gods #projectathene

An off the cuff response to Mark Nagurski following a comment he had made on my recent post “Invented here syndrome; Demand attention” led me to waking up one morning at 5 am with a crazy plan.  I have spent the last number of days formulating and developing that plan further.  So here goes.

The discussion was quite simply this:

Mark Nagurski

I agree completely David … but … I also think we (ie. people involved in startups and tech) need to get better at promoting ourselves too. Events like Showcase only work if people are willing to stand up and say, “hey, look at us, look at the great stuff we’re doing” and we’re often not the best at doing that.

David Crozier

Good point Mark. Maybe the NI tech community needs its very own Gok Wan for a “Geeks to Gods” makeover.

I guess this post is about how the startup and tech community can do just that.  Go mainstream, breakout, bring that geekery out of the bedrooms, incubators, rented office space and university labs of Northern Ireland to the attention of the wider world.

Why Project Athene?

All great innovation projects need a snappy name right?  Names like Project Apollo, the Manhattan Project, The X Prize and Project Kelvin (OK, maybe not that one).

Like any self respecting blogger with a degree in Computing instead of English or the Classics I checked out Wikipedia for a list of Greek Gods to see if something would fit.

I had considered Project Ananke after the Goddess of inevitability, compulsion and necessity. After all necessity is the mother of all invention.  She just didn’t fit the bill however.  This project had to be about ambition too and she just wasn’t high enough up the Greek God league table to justify naming this particular project after her.

After what seemed like 15 minutes, though it might have been 20, I settled on Project Athene (Athena).  Athene is the goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, crafts, justice and skill. Though Athene was a goddess of war strategy, she disliked fighting without a purpose and preferred using wisdom to settle predicaments – something that could be said of many geeks in my view.  Why not Athena?  Those smarty pants at MIT, Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM had already snaffled Project Athena so I chose the Athene variant of the name instead.

Why do we need Project Athene?

I deal with startups and SMEs everyday.  I must admit that tech, web and mobile startups are a personal favourite of mine coming from a tech background myself.  The number one thing I hear from most of them is that funding is a big issue.  Two is the tendency in the media to focus on Silicon Valley startups rather than indigenous ones.  Three is probably gaining traction in the market place which is brought about by issue two and issue one.

So how do we solve those issues?

Media
No offence to local business reporters (are there any tech knowledgable ones outside of James Scott’s excellent SyncNI?), they are great at regurgitating press releases and puff pieces, telling us if the Footsie is up or down and how many Euros we get to the pound.  Heck they’ll even let us know when companies are making huge redundancies or when a large utility falls foul of the regulator.  All pretty regular stuff but when was the last time they got down and dirty with some tech startups?

Many kids have to listen to Radio Ulster every morning on their way to work.  If they aren’t hearing inspiring business stories in that 7:45 business slot how can we ever expect them to aspire to be entrepreneurs when they grow up?

Write to your favourite media outlet.  I don’t mean tweeting or emailing them neither.  Actually put pen to paper and write to them demanding more coverage of Northern Irish tech startups instead of the steady stream of Apple stories.  Demand that Paul Clark off UTV interviews some local entrepreneurs instead of the arts, music and cinema reviews that currently pass for news on his late show.  Demand that Jamie Delargy blog about them on the UTV website.  Get the Bel Tel to do some legwork and feature them rather than those puff pieces placed by PR companies.  You get the message.

Traction

We should sign up to as many local tech startup’s beta programmes, play with their stuff if only to tell them directly and constructively how it should be improved.  When we have played with it we should tweet about it, blog about it, tell people about it, show those outside of the community even if they aren’t necessarily interested.  You never know when they might tell someone else or it might crop up at dinner as a conversation piece.  All of us are connected to people all over the world.  Tell them, tell them to tell their friends.

Remember to judge applications fairly.  For example it may not look as polished as an app developed by Apple or Facebook but then they have a gazillion developers.  If it does what it says on the tin and has been produced on a shoe string try to look for the positives.  Encouragement means a lot.  I’m not suggesting for one minute that we should give false praise to crap apps.  You can’t polish a turd.  Just be considered in your support and criticism in equal measure.  When its good enough we should buy it with our own hard cash.

Update: As Laura Parkhill from @MATRIX_NI has rightly pointed out tonight collaboration is an excellent way of gaining traction and critical mass.  Two heads are better than one, and ten heads are better than two (except maybe in a committee).  Starting up can be a pretty lonely experience.  Working with others certainly mean the outcomes are greater than the sum of all parts.

Funding

Good projects + Lots of buzz  =  raised media profile + users + traction + attention from business angels and VCs = funding.

What would Project Athene entail?

We have to start promoting some of our geeks to rock star status. Not my idea, but something I picked up from David Kirk at dinner one night. I’m sure he’ll not mind me stealing that particular one.   Now I’m not talking about some cult of hero worship here but I am suggesting that we have to elevate some to a higher plain in the public consciousness.

More launch parties; more Ferraris

When my now wife and I lived in Dublin back in the heyday of the dot com era everyone knew about tech startups from their launch parties.  They were the hottest ticket in town.  The founders of the firm Fiona worked for all bought matching Black AMG Mercedes when they closed their first big funding round.  Now I’m not suggesting the same level of extravagance that resulted in the bonfire of VC money back then but there has got to be a happy medium.

If you are part of the NI technology establishment who has recently had a successful exit where you made a shit load of money then buy a Ferrari, or better still something more refined like an Aston Martin Vanquish and drive it around the colleges and universities of Northern Ireland to talk to students about how you made the money to buy it.  If you are feeling generous I wouldn’t say no to a Jaguar XK. I’m not greedy.

Local golfer Rory McIlroy has recently bought himself a white Lamborghini with his winnings and he’s only 21.  This is probably why my brother-in-law has just bought his two and a half year old son a set of his very own clubs instead of a laptop.  A few tech car nuts could have the same effect.

Simple?  Maybe.  We should try it to find out.

If you found this article constructive please comment below and retweet using the #projectathene hashtag.

David Crozier