So you want to start a company. If you’re like tens of thousands of others in the U.S., you won’t be building a store out of bricks and mortar. You’ll be designing it in the cloud. Enterprise software spending is expected to grow 6.8 percent this year, according to industry analyst Gartner.
Elizabeth Chabe is one facilitator of that growth. As the CEO of High Touch Group, a Bangor-based agency that helps companies find funding and formulate their digital strategy, she also has started an Orono summer technology camp called High Touch Courses. Her goal is to foster the startup economy in Maine by teaching people the skills they’ll need for software development, hardware architecture and Web design.
The products and companies of the future will largely be software based. Instead of Borders bookstore, we now have Amazon. Instead of Blockbuster, we have Netflix. Is Maine ready to contribute to the transformation of business?
Our conversation is paraphrased and edited for clarity and length.
Netscape creator Marc Andreessen, in a 2011 essay in the Wall Street Journal, said the world is “in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swaths of the economy.” What software companies is he referencing, and how are they taking over?
Since Andreessen’s article was published, the ride-sharing service Uber has revolutionized transportation. Now, in some cities, we can download an app, register our credit card and request black sport utility vehicles that are stylish and comfortable. It’s easier than calling and waiting for a taxi, and it’s about the same price.
Instacart has revolutionized how we buy groceries. You download an app on your phone, order groceries, and they come to your door. How do we make restaurant reservations these days? We use the app OpenTable.
Everything, from office tasks to daily life, is being dramatically changed by software companies. They’ve only been around for a few years and are mostly run by people under 30. It’s unlike other economic revolutions we’ve seen.
You’ve said that the Internet doesn’t care how old you are. Why is waiting until college too late to teach people how to become technology entrepreneurs?
There are 1.2 million open information technology jobs right now in the U.S., and getting them requires demonstration of your skillset, specifically a deep knowledge of certain programming languages. A lot of that is experience-based. It’s tough to teach what you need in a four-year degree.
Starting at a young age, you develop an affinity for learning programming languages. Just like anything, the longer you do it, the better you’re going to be.
Also important, the math skills you need — like algorithmic thinking — are very difficult to learn, if you’ve been taught math one way for 13 years and you’re suddenly in college and you have to think about problems in a completely different way.
You’ve started several companies — the first when you were 9 years old. Now you’re 29, and you’ve launched High Touch Courses, which, this July, offered a Summer Technology Camp in Orono to teach middle school and high school students skills to start software companies. What ideas did your students have?
Those kids were amazing. We had kids from all over the country come spend four weeks.
One kid was in middle school, and he had developed an algorithm before he came to camp to compress streaming videos, so when you watch them on a dial-up connection they buffer faster, so you don’t have as many interruptions. It was clear by the end of the first day that this 12-year-old was one of the most advanced students there.
There are all these kids in Maine, and they’re programming in their bedrooms or they’re building something in their garages. What are we doing to support them? That’s what High Touch Courses wants to do.
You’ve said you want to create a startup-driven economy in Maine. Part of doing that, it would seem, involves education, as you are also launching online courses this fall and developing plans for a private boarding school.
Education is key. In schools, the robotics classes, science fairs and inventions programs are great. But the democratization of education that we’re seeing with online courses is amazing and could completely change how kids learn.
Since January, I’ve taken 67 online courses. Right now I’m taking three — from Peking University in Beijing, MIT and Harvard. They’re all free.
High Touch Courses is currently developing online classes and plans to have a limited launch in November. The final launch will be next spring. The goal is to help mostly high school- and college-age kids develop their programming skills, their algorithmic thinking and have a chance to network with others.
Did you really skip more than 70 days of middle school to take notes for college kids?
I was going to a parochial school. I would watch my mother leave and then walk down to the University of Maine at Machias and audit the classes.
I started taking notes for students there, charging them $20. The university eventually realized I was there — I had missed 80 days of private school — and it started a scholarship to let me take the classes for half off. I don’t recommend truancy; my punishment was copying out Bible verses. I ended up leaving high school at age 16, got my GED and pursued my business ideas.
Later, I transferred to the University of Maine and got a bachelor’s degree in international affairs. Then I got an MBA and a master’s degree in organizational leadership.
You’ve grown up thinking about starting companies, but is there anything in particular that has helped you?
I know this is everyone’s answer, but my mom. I don’t know if I understood just how incredibly patient she was until I had stepkids. She once got a bill for $500 because I was calling California to get price quotes at age 9. I had a pallet of phone books delivered to our house. I missed all that school. She was a social worker and a single mom, so she must have been wondering what was going to happen to me if I didn’t get a good education.
I think kids are naturally curious. And if learning wasn’t so much about completing worksheets and it was more about experimenting and learning from your mistakes, I think, yeah, we would see way more kids being passionate learners, which is the first step to doing anything well, including starting a company.
This year, you were selected to attend the Y Combinator Startup School in New York, which is a one-day conference where entrepreneurs get advice from investors and other founders. You’ve said people were interested in getting involved in High Touch Courses. How can they get involved?
We are doing a lot of networking with technology companies because we want to teach skills needed for the next five to 10 years. We want to know what they need so we can teach it. So if you’re at a technology company and you get a phone call from me, talk with me.
By the end of 2015, we’d like to have 35,000 users on our online course system — most will be ages 16 to 35. The online courses are similar to playing a video game. Instead of students watching someone talk on their screen, the interface is a video game. They create their own avatar, earn badges and titles and gear, and compete with other users in the system.
Other online course platforms have high attrition rates. Our goal is to lower that attrition rate by making the courses not just informative and practical but fun to use.
The courses will be useful for, say, college students who want to know how to develop websites, people starting companies, young professionals looking for a career pivot or high school students studying for the computer science AP test. Students will learn about network security, specific programming languages needed by large employers and app development.
Why Maine? How can the state grow software companies?
Maine is the place to do this. I wouldn’t want to code if it were 75 degrees and beautiful outside; I would want to be at the beach. I would want to code if it’s below zero outside and dark.
There is a need in Maine for a more tech-savvy workforce. Our technology companies spend a lot of money trying to recruit.
Part of programming education has to be entrepreneurial education, and when I say entrepreneurial I mean startup entrepreneurial. You don’t think about a startup company the same way you would think of starting a store or a restaurant. It’s a different type of company with its own special needs, so startup education is important.
I also think we have to think bigger as startups than “how can I deliver groceries?” or “how can I make taxis more efficient?” Yes, you’re solving a problem, and you can monetize it. But after making $1 million, I would wake up and say I’ve spent 10 years doing this and made some money, but what have I done to really change anything?
There are so many issues that I think startups could solve, but we’re not focusing on them right now. That’s an opportunity for Maine. You don’t need to be Silicon Valley 2.0, making grocery store apps. You could also change the world.