I had a college professor who loved to use the saying “may you live in interesting times.”
It’s a phrase that’s been top of mind a lot lately, for while there is an incredible amount of uncertainty in the world, it’s not lost on me that these “interesting times” are currently presenting a number of interesting problems.
This isn’t the first time Northeast Ohio has found itself in economically uncertain times. Some would argue that since the manufacturing heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s been one hit after another for the region. People point to innovation happening in other areas of the country, with companies like Apple, Airbnb and Uber redefining technology and regionalized growth. While there is something to be said for pockets of specialized innovation, it marginalizes the reality that problems exist everywhere, and there is no unique regional claim to people being able to solve a problem.
That’s the great thing about this fast-moving, technology-enabled world that we live in. Making the leap from problem identification to solution and building a scrappy MVP (minimum viable product) is realistic and happening every day. With very little capital, an entrepreneur can quickly spin something up, prove it works, refine functionality and go to market. While the process is more efficient thanks to faster, cheaper access to technology, the approach isn’t fundamentally different than other technologies born during an economic downturn.
Innovative entrepreneurs who have disrupted major industries are scattered across the U.S., but we have a few closer to home, too: Progressive Insurance, Hyland Software, and even J.M Smucker were also formed during “uncertain times.” Decades (or a century) after their launches, these companies continue to innovate and grow, illustrating that unique mix of intelligence, creativity and — at the risk of sounding clichéd — good old Midwestern entrepreneurial grit. They reflect the nuance of problem-solving during tough times, and the impact that can be made when you find a thoughtful solution to a customer’s problem or need.
As we continue to navigate this unusual economic crisis, it’s clear there are people stepping up to the challenge. Ohio has experienced two record-setting months of corporate registrations, with June topping out at 16,000 new corporate entities logged with the state. Nationally, applications for Employer Identification Numbers (EINs) has doubled in recent weeks compared to the same period last year. Whether forced out of work or taking a leap of faith, more and more entrepreneurs are deciding it’s time to start their own ventures. They clearly see the opportunity to address those pressing problems that require solutions.
If we truly believe that — to use another turn of phrase — necessity is the mother of invention, then we should see a flood of innovative technical solutions coming to market thanks to lower cost solutions, low-code or no-code development platforms, cloud computing, and social networking to build demand channels. Having an extensive computer science background is no longer a barrier to entry. Staying anchored to a problem statement and building a product and business model that provides a solution can be accessible to anyone who is willing to take the time, understand the need, and execute based on demand. For those who are afraid of taking the leap into “technical entrepreneurship” without a background should feel comfortable knowing there are a wealth of resources across the region who are ready and able to help. Experts, coaches, mentors, peers, cheerleaders — there are a host of us ready and waiting to support you and look forward to watching you fly.
These are interesting times. This region has a wealth of ingenuity, intellectual curiosity, and the necessary grit to dig in and solve the big problems. We can look to the past for examples while also thinking ahead to what is yet to be. I, for one, am excited to see what innovative companies grow out of this time and look forward to saying. “I not only lived in interesting times, but I saw amazing things come out of them, too.”
Hall is entrepreneur-in-residence at JumpStart in Cleveland.