For a disciplined U.S. Naval Academy graduate who helped run nuclear-powered ships, Jason Hardebeck likes to move fast and break things.
The 46-year-old entrepreneur, who grew up in Montana and Nevada, came to the East Coast to attend the academy in Annapolis. His career has spanned startups in Boston, Black & Decker in Towson and his own Baltimore-based startup, WhoGlue, which he started at the peak of the dot-com boom over a decade ago.
He closed a chapter last fall by selling WhoGlue, an online network for private communities, to Facebook for an undisclosed amount. But in December, instead of kicking back and counting his cash, Hardebeck dived headlong into another intense experience: taking charge of the Greater Baltimore Tech Council, the region's main association representing the technology industry.
In just a few months, Hardebeck has "broken" the way the council used to operate, sending it down a new path. He shut the organization's main office in Canton and encouraged his staff to interact daily with association members — at their offices. He gutted and revamped the GBTC's website. He is organizing new, attention-getting events, such as FailCon in April, which will focus on helping entrepreneurs and others understand failure.
In addition to leading the GBTC, Hardebeck is also wading into the Baltimore technology ecosystem as an angel investor — someone who funds the early stages of an entrepreneur's project. Hardebeck, like a handful of other emerging angel investors and entrepreneurs in Baltimore who have had recent big wins in their own business ventures, sees the necessity of funding the next group of young entrepreneurs with mentorship and investment.
You've been an independent businessman for years who's worked in the fast-moving world of startups and technology. What made you decide to lead an industry trade association? What shift in your thinking occurred?
I was a couple weeks from closing the deal with Facebook [last fall]. I was expecting to take six months off and figure out what to do next. I started incubating three projects, all three potential companies, including one with my son. When they originally approached me about GBTC, I dismissed it out of hand. But the more I realized it — the GBTC had been so instrumental to WhoGlue, and the community as a whole — I started viewing the GBTC as an investment, not a job. It's an opportunity to reinvest and to give back to a community that's done so much for me. I embrace that.
You've taken some pretty radical steps in your first few months of leadership at the GBTC. You've jettisoned the main office in Canton. You've revamped the website. You're organizing new events. Why this flurry of activity? What's the rush?
I don't let grass grow under my feet. Nothing gets better by delaying the inevitable. It's pretty clear to me the time for discussion is past, and we need to take action. That said, I think it's really important to get ahead of what the cool kids are doing. You've got to show that you get it. Having an office in the ETC [Emerging Technology Center] delivered no value to our members.
One of the things you and your staff are doing now is co-working, working together or apart in different locations around Baltimore. Do you and your staff work out of companies that are members of the GBTC? Why choose to be officeless? Is it useful?
It's been absolutely phenomenal for a couple reasons. It wasn't about saving the rent check. It was about getting ourselves out into the field and talking to members and customers. We are doing your job. We are embedded reporters. We're doing interviews, blog posts, recording video. ... We push it all up on our website. We're giving them press.
So what's a typical day for you and your staff?
There is no such thing. We get together as a group on Mondays and Thursdays for four hours; we co-work together. We're constantly connected throughout the day: email, Skype, [instant message], text. We are, most days, in someone else's office, or meeting somebody. We're talking to the members of the community, understanding their needs and how we can help. I have an average of probably four or five meetings a day with various people. I've been as accessible as I can be to people, with a lot of behind-the-scenes strategizing.
You and some other experienced people in Baltimore's tech community talk about the importance of failure. The GBTC, in fact, is organizing a conference in April that focuses on the importance of failure in entrepreneurship. Why focus on failure?
Because I only succeeded because I failed so many times in the process. We're trying to change the perception of failure. Failure is only a bad thing if you don't fail quickly or cheaply enough, or if you don't learn from your failure. Innovation requires failure to happen. Failure is what happens when you don't get what you expect. That's called learning. One of the dynamics that's different about the West Coast is that failure is accepted. You can't get funded [as a startup] unless you've lost someone else's money first. We're very risk-averse in Baltimore. We don't dare, we don't risk. When you fail in Baltimore, people remember forever.
How did you get the idea for WhoGlue, the company you sold to Facebook last year?
I've always been fascinated with the "small world" phenomenon, that you can discover connections to people you run into. I saw the potential for the Internet to really make very efficient transactions in communications happen. In real life, it's really hard work to network. You have Rolodexes and address books and phones, and it's kind of formal. I saw that the Internet could streamline and make the discovery process more efficient. My original idea was to create this network with people who connected with shared, trusted relationships. By joining forces [with a similar effort started by Siemens in California a decade ago], we'd be a lot better off. WhoGlue acquired the IP, software product and employees and a patent application. That formed the basis of how we evolved our product.
You were involved on and off as a member with the GBTC for years. But now you're leading it, and you're probably talking to everyone out there in the tech industry. What's the mood like? What's the vibe?
There is just so much going on. On the one hand, it's exciting, but it's also scary, because there's this fear that it's not sustainable. My thought is any action is better than no action. … We really are at an inflection point in our community where people are realizing there's an opportunity to do stuff and move that needle. The other thing I hear is there's not enough talent. That's the No. 1 issue: talent.
I recently wrote about local startups courting investors in California, because they have a hard time finding some here. What's your sense of the venture capital scene in the Baltimore and Mid-Atlantic region? How far do we still need to go to be supporting our home-grown companies?
A lot of this advice to leave Baltimore and go to New York or California comes because they want to suck talent out of Baltimore. It's really an effort to suck talent out of our region. … We have some very naive early-stage entrepreneurs. They are really wet behind the ears. Even if they know how to build a cool-looking app, they don't have the experience, they don't have the business model.