Interview with Michael J. Trout–founder of foundups.com

In the words of Michael:

Michael J. Trout

For 16 years, I have been working on projects to change my world. The first one was the Southern Shakespeare Festival. Thinking I wanted to be a theater producer, I went on to get an MFA in Arts Management and Theater… on hindsight, it was not what I wanted. I didn’t know, back then, that what I really was, was an entrepreneur. After graduating I went to work for a capital campaign firm and helped raise $7m for various npos. I soon lost interest and left to start my next startup Genesis Productions Worldwide, LLC.

What is at the heart of an entrepreneur? For me it’s about overcoming challenges and problem solving in order to change or improve something. When I see a problem that I don’t understand why it exists, I feel this overwhelming desire to try to fix it. I did SSF because I wanted to unite the fractured community and bring about free professional theater in Tallahassee where there were none. I couldn’t understand why there was none.  I chose Shakespeare not really because I love Shakespeare, because it was an easier sell and because it provoked an image in people’s mind. My goal was to get Alan Rickman to direct it… well that didn’t happen. But he was kind enough call me to recommend his friend and talented Russian director Irina Brown. It’s amazing what one can do when one puts their mind to it. I produced, did the marketing, wrote grants, organized the board of directors, worked with the city, dealt with UK agents, I secured over $100K in in-kind support, including free groceries for the visiting stars. I even acted as Lysander because we couldn’t find enough actors — know one thought it would happen. You see, I was just a college student with a dream and people were willing to help me achieve it. I really don’t think had I been me now that I would had been as successful. My next startup was The Digital Arena. We wanted to be the McDonald’s of gaming and IT certification programs globally and change the world by helping students find good jobs right out of high school and help corporations get affordable, young talented IT that they could mold into corporate IT marines. We built a TDA proof of concept but none saw it, because it came out during early 2001 crash. We failed because we didn’t understand the startup process, couldn’t find a micro-seed investor and relied on friends and family and debt. We caused a lot of harm to friends and family and I swore never to do that again.  Back then it was very hard to find investors let alone connect with them. TDA failed but EDUIT (Education Using Information Technology) lived on. Originally, EDUIT was to be an nonprofit to secure scholarships for TDA students so they could get affordable certification training. With TDA gone, years later, while in Japan meditating on how to fix the global education crisis. I reincarnated it with a vision to be a vehicle to help flatten global education and bring about a new education 3.0 paradigm built on autonomous learning software. Flattening global education will not be easy. Putting on a Shakespeare Festival wasn’t either. But like when I did SSF I needed a starting point for or what we call a proof of concept (PoC). In looking at the problems facing EDUIT certain realization became obvious. Text solutions are useless as a starting point, so all the web 2.0 driven education solutions are too. And neither throwing money into schools and teachers will solve the problem. The solution therefore had to be multimedia driven and in 2004 I had the Wikitube idea and in 2006 tried to get the VLC project going with little success. My vision for Wikitube is simple — A television for all and one that is so easy to use that anyone can become an educator or self syndicate being able to convert and mash up any video and convert them into any of the 6500 languages. I had a dilemma though. I had no idea about coding, writing business plans, and I didn’t want to send out what I considered a great idea and potentially loose control of it. And even if I did, I didn’t know who to send it too. And the reality is they probably couldn’t grasp the technology potential and I had no clue how they would get rich off it. So, I waited and waited and focused on branding EDUIT. That was until September 2009, when Joel Gascoigne, founder and developer of Onepage, started to talk to me about the lean startup method and how anyone can start a company and develop their ideas with just a couple of coders. Just like he was doing.  You see what use to take millions and big teams working long times was now taking little money and small teams. At first I didn’t believe him… and instead tried to sell him on building Wikitube.  He laughed and told me Onepage was his baby. But I listened and went off looking for my Joel. In December, I was interviewing Troy, the founder of Nibipedia about working together. I thought Troy was a developer like Joel and he always commented on how he loved my ideas and the EDUIT vision. It turned out Troy was a sales guy, just like me, and at that moment the paradigm holding me back shattered and within a week I had 30 developers interested in helping to build Wikitube. I had no money so I implemented an equity allocation method I had previously developed for another startup. 10 of the 30 bought into it and within 3 months we had a Wikitube first proof of concept. In fact, it was so easy that I wondered if my process could be improved by providing the tools and system and a community that allowed others to do what I had just done. I formed a LinkedIn group and I made a post “I think there is a startup in this process” and Foundup.com was born.

Many people are under the impression that being an entrepreneur is all about a desire to become rich. Just as becoming an actor is all about a desire to become a star. I am sure many enter into both for these reasons, but we all know they wont last long if that is their only driving force. Being an actor and entrepreneur both require tremendous passion, unyielding determination and some madness, because in all likelihood the outcome will be a devastating failure. But we do it anyway. Being an entrepreneur is tough, extremely tough. My goal with Foundup innovation imperative is simply to remove some of the pain and establish every college in the world as a melting pot of startup ideas. I see a massive problem and it is in the void that exists from the idea to proof of concept startups development cycle. I call this the “foundup stage.” It is where most startups fail and if we can establish a structure for this critical development stage and a community of mentors, developers, experts, investors that can aid in the development process we might be able to make a difference. If I could go back in time, at what point would I like to have this training? I would want it either as a college senior or possibly even as a high school senior. Personally, I think of entrepreneurs as potentially being like Plato’s philosopher kings for human society — the individuals that stand above all others in their vision and goals to do good for all. They brought about the industrial revolution, the computer, the internet, the computer, the cell phone, a free global encyclopedia, and much more. And in the years to come they will make all learning free and accessible to all, they will eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels and much more. And, I wonder, what would happen if we could bring about an army of them as a result of the Foundup Initiative Imperative. Running the initiative in a 100 region with only 0.25% success rate would translate into a $750m ROI potential for local communities. American Foundups! nationally televised showcase of America’s top foundups could explode the initiative in 1000 regions in a very short time! The upside to foundups is massive the cost to run a pilot in four venues just $100,000 for one year to test assumptions. I think the world could become a better place for us all if we did. I think it’s worth giving it a shot, and who knows, I just might be right; but the odds are I am not.

We had an email interview with Michael.

Q1. Tell us something about your early life. How you grew up as an entrepreneur?

I grew up in Spain, UK, and the US. And for the last 5 years, I have been in Japan. For 16 years I have been working on projects to change my world. My first, was the Southern Shakespeare Festival. I have no experience producing, fundraising, marketing, nonprofit management and a host of other skills I learned on the job. To be honest, I really should not have succeeded. But we did and over 30,000 folks enjoyed SSF and it brought joy, united a divided community, ultimately it changed my life as well as Tallahassee’s forever. I was hooked, and from then on I wanted to do more. I didn’t know at that time what it was I wanted to do. Except I loved the process of overcoming insurmountable odds and obstacles to achieve a vision.

Q2. What is it that you like in entrepreneurship rather than going for a job?

Definitely not the money. Only a few entrepreneurs actually make any. The rest of us love the process and opportunity to make a difference. We see a opportunities and want bring them about. As an entrepreneur there is no such thing as a 9-5 job. It’s a 24/7 job that interferes with everything we do, but most entrepreneurs hold down 9-5 jobs while working on their startups.

Q3. Working in education sector and being around students, do you feel there is a increased hunger for entrepreneurship among the students?

The big debate is whether entrepreneurs are made or born. Students have a media depicted image what an entrepreneurs is. It’s completely wrong. Just as acting students have a iconic image of life as an actor which is equally false. There is an increased hunger because the entry barriers are being removed and will continue to fall. What took large teams and big money is now being done by small teams with little to no budgets. Eric Reis lean startup movement is fueling what a few insiders are calling the Internet Revolution Act 2.

Q4. Talking about your ventures, how have they helped you grow as a person and as an entrepreneur?

My ideas are massive. And implementing them has more to do with moving cultural paradigms than anything else. My personal motto is “Be Good” and is the name of my blog at mtrout.com. Being an entrepreneur has taught me to focus more on what I can control and less on what I can’t. I think that is a very important concept to understand as a entrepreneur, because it’s easy to loose hope when you become overly reliant on others.

Q5. Taking clue from a changing global economy, what are the important areas for a startup?

There is so much opportunity and it will just be getting bigger. Asia, Asia, Asia… did I say Asia. 98% of China is connected. 4G will be rolled out their anytime created a 10 mb broadband wireless connection accessible via any cellphone. There will be two massive markets that need innovation for… education and gaming and both will be for illiterate users. Applications will need to be simple and easy to use and not complicated and feature full. This mean that in five years the next Facebook could be a simple high school app.

Q6. Do you feel incubators are working up to their capacity or efficiency? What could be the solution to increase the effectiveness?

No, I don’t. The incubator model is based on a model developed over 10 years ago. It’s quickly becoming obsolete and the opportunity is to innovate a better solution. Anytime you apply for something you are loosing control and putting control in someone else’s hands. Also, incubator are looking for candidates at a certain level of development. Generally they are looking for startups with strong IP in-hand, a solid management team, and some customers — “the packaging”. From the idea to “the packaging” is a massive void where most ideas fail to mature. Can we develop a pre-incubator social entrepreneur community that can aid in helping get ideas to “the packaging” stage where seed investors step in? I call this void the foundup stage. A foundup ™ is an founder with an idea for a startup building a proof of concept. My foundup Foundups.com aims to help do just that.

Q7. What is the reason most startup end up in the dust within a short period of time? How do you feel a debacle can be avoided?

I think most new entrepreneur are ignorant on the funding stages… FFF > Seed > VC. they have no idea when to approach a VC or Seed (Angel) and they end up wasting tons of energy doing it and become burnt out and give up. They have no idea where to find them and inundate them with business plans they don’t read. The other option promoted and available to them is to go into debt or ruin someone else’s credit to get their startup going. A big mistake unless you have a solid customer base in place. You have better luck winning the lotto than finding funding for your idea. So many revert to “FFF” – Friends, Family and Fools funding. If we agree that in all likelihood your startup has over a 90% failure change. Why in the world would you risk FFF investments in it? It’s insane. It’s wrong and immoral in my opinion. But the current system says that’s your only option. I have a solution…change the fool into a calculated, educated risk-taker. Ones that can see the benefit in investing in their community businesses and become what I am calling micro-seed investors that treats a foundup as a R&D project and invest in just providing “the packaging” in order to move it to the seed investor level. I think we can create this new kind of investor. And we will explore the idea with entrepreneur social communityfoundups.com.

Q8. What are the possible opportunities in education sector? How globalization has opened new vistas?

The opportunities are massive! Education in Asia has to move to an autonomous learning vehicle (AI device driven learning) where school and teachers becomes accessories and not requirements for learning. I call this education 3.0 and EDUIT.org is looking to use a prize to bring it about by establishing a global prize to reward the development for autonomous learning software solutions. The autonomous learning app market will open up a whole new opportunity for education. In order to facility this we are setting up the Autonomous Learning Institute to help open up new educational vistas in Asia.

Q9. If given a chance, what areas you would like to work upon as an entrepreneur?

I am already doing it. All my projects are somehow related to or focused on flattening global education within the the next 10 years and making is free and accessible to all. I think education should be a natural right for all. Wikitube.TV will be how two billion people will learn and interact in illiterate communities. EDUIT.org goal is to being about the autonomous learning software and Foundups.com is about bringing about the innovators to help in all the above and more.

Q10. A general advice on life as an entrepreneur for our readers.

Being an entrepreneur is having an unhealthy persistence, belief and determination in what are trying to bring about. Unhealthy because people will consider you mad and keep telling you why can’t you just get a job like everyone else! It’s okay they just don’t understand and they never will.

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