Thursday, November 15, 2012

Talking Innovation with Dailybreak’s Ryan Durkin

Enthusiasm radiates from Ryan Durkin, Operations VP at Dailybreak. That much is clear even to strangers. Ryan loves people – watching them develop their potential, watching them learn, and watching them tackle exciting, intimidating projects. Ryan returns to the unConference this year as the Connectors co-chair.

What makes Boston an innovation hub? 

Several elements constitute Boston’s unique innovation epicenter. First, we have entrepreneurs with an overwhelming desire to build and create. Plus, we have young people graduating from school systems that are nationally recognized as being from one of the best states in the U.S.

We have an unusual amount of experienced entrepreneurs, inventors, builders and mentors willing to dedicate time to young people. And finally, the weather: we have a lot of available time to spend indoors during snowstorms and Frankenstorms to think about problems people have and problems we can solve. I'm happy we have the climate we do.

How is innovation evolving in Boston? Where is it heading next?

It’s important to me to keep a pulse on the budding entrepreneurial scene here – those that are 18-22 year olds on greater Boston campuses. From these conversations, I think two things are going to happen:

1. People feel the need to start diving DEEP into research and becoming experts in their respective industries sooner in the life cycle of the business. Look at what the team at LEAP Motion (computer control with natural movements) and imagine the research and development + focus their team must have had to create what they've created. And at the same time

2. A rise in unsexy businesses. After speaking at a number of campuses in Boston over the past six months, I’ve seen a reduction in the "startup hype" we saw over the last two. Entrepreneurs are becoming more grounded. Young people realize that they can solve core problems and make a lot of money, in a way that does not require swinging for the fences with a $100+MM exit every time.

Are there elements we are lacking that would make our ecosystem thrive even more?
There’s one area I feel strongly about:  all the talk about the Boston "brain drain" of talent. This idea that students come to colleges in Boston, get their education, and then leave to pursue other opportunities. Meanwhile, at my alma mater, UMass Amherst, 90% of the people I met grew up here and ended up STAYING in Massachusetts.

UMass has a very large local student base (74% Massachusetts' natives). If I were building a business that focused on recruiting talent (which I am), I would immediately focus on people I know WANT to stay in Massachusetts. The last time I spoke at Boston University, there were three people in a room of 25 who grew up here, likewise at Boston College, where five people in a room of 25 grew up in Massachusetts. But the last time I spoke at UMass Amherst, 22 people out of 25 people grew up in Massachusetts.

If the question is whether or not UMass Amherst students are talented enough to be recruited and hired by tech / innovation companies, I’d suggest you ask Nikhil Thorat (UMass Amherst '12 alum) hired by Google as an Engineer, or Tom Petr (UMass Amherst '10) alum hired by Microsoft in 2010 and Hubspot in 2011 as an engineer, or Mike Miklavic (UMass Amherst '09) hired by Dailybreak as an engineer, who then Founded his own company Clearview Digital, or Sam Erb (UMass Amherst '11 alum) hired by Cisco as an engineer, or Brad Durkin, Jesse Morgan, Chris Ziomek, Jack DeManche, Colby Marques, Matt Holmes, John Federman, Jared Stenquist, Boris Revsin. A small sample of UMass alums who grew up, pursued higher education and stayed in Massachusetts.

My suggestion: bring the big behometh of UMass Amherst into discussions more. Its students will rise to the challenge. They simply need more help seeing all that exists in Boston. After all,  "You don't know what you don't know."

What draws you back to the MassTLC unConference each year?
I’ve met and stayed friends with about two-dozen new people at the unConference. I’m drawn to the strong quality of people and stories / experiences you hear about. I also like the "mentor-mentee" format to the event. It encourages "young people" to meet "older people" with the right war stories and experience. It also allows seasoned vets to meet the future leaders of their city. 

What do you enjoy most about mentoring up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
In one word? Potential. I love the idea of finding students who will do anything they can to "get the deal done." I like meeting people who pride themselves on becoming Renaissance Men and Women; those who excel academically, athletically, musically, professionally, etc. I like people who value productivity and happiness, and I like seeing young people who are working towards both. I feel like I always get far more out of my conversations learning about young adults and their focus on their own visions, than I am able to give them in return.
How can entrepreneurs make the most of this year’s unConference?
Map out on paper who you want to meet with and one line about why. Then, when you get there, find that person and tell them your one line: "Hi Dave. I want to meet you because I'm really interested in the company X you invested in. Could we talk about it?" If you don't have a plan for the day, the day is going to come and go. You'll miss out. You'll end the day saying: "That was a lot of fun." BUT, I think the real value in this event lies in the opportunities to meet a bunch of people you've wanted to meet all year. They're all in one place after all.

What advice would you give to students or young entrepreneurs who are just starting their journey?
Read. Read. Read. Read and read some more. Ask everyone who impresses you about their favorite book and then go read it. And then ask them what their second favorite book is. And then go read that one. Read alllllll the time.

As for Ryan’s favorite books, he’d recommend Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

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