"I don't let grass grow under my feet. Nothing gets… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
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?