How to Turn Nationalistic Anger into Results

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 12, 2012

From The News Desk

Seventy-two comments, with most calling for his head? I'd say Trevor Gilbert has officially joined the big leagues of blogging.

Some of the calmer detractors have said if only he'd made his argument about why he doesn't see a small town in Northern Ireland becoming a startup hub, without making jokes about sheep that people would have taken his point more seriously. As someone who has been on the other side of many a nationalistic blog-feeding-frenzy, I totally disagree.

When I wrote a very statistics-based post on Israel's un-arguable decline in returns over the last decade, I had hundreds of commenters and Tweets calling me an anti-semite. Never mind, I'd traveled to Israel more than most of the people commenting. When I called out the Brazilian consulate's faulty computer "upgrade" that failed to deliver dozens of approved Visas by promised dates, I got death threats. I was told I'd be raped if I set one foot on Brazilian soil. When I did a photo-essay on the street in Nigeria where the locals I met buy their gadgets, I was called racist.

And just last week when I sought to shed light on why Twitter adoption and use was relatively low in India compared to other emerging markets, and based the story on statistics from the World Bank and two years of my own reporting in the country, people hopelessly twisted my words and then demanded I respond to arguments against things I never wrote to begin with.

I didn't respond, because I never respond to nationalistic furors. The biggest reason is there's simply no point. If someone is angry with facts-- with actual numbers and statistics by accredited third party groups like the World Bank or Dow Jones-- they aren't arguing with me. They are arguing with a reality they don't want to accept. That's between them and reality. I'm simply the messenger.

But more to the point, I find these knee-jerk reactions increasingly frustrating. Few Valley-based reporters have spent more time writing about and advocating on behalf of International entrepreneurs than I have.

I quit a highly-paid, cushy on-camera job in San Francisco to invest most of my life savings traveling the world for two years, fueled by a belief that Silicon Valley didn't have a lock on innovation. It was two of the best years I've ever spent as a reporter, I made close friends around the world and it permanently changed my world view. And I'm proud to say, many of the entrepreneurs I found got funding as a result of the exposure I gave them.

But just because I believe that innovation can come from anywhere, there seems to be an expectation from readers that I must believe the inverse: That innovation will necessarily come from everywhere. It won't.

And just announcing a place will be a startup hub is the wrong way to create it-- particularly in a time when every place on earth is putting out press releases and opinion pieces saying they're the next Silicon Valley. As I told my own hometown during my book tour last year, you need to stop talking and actually do stuff. Then dollars will flow, jobs will be created and people will pay attention. But just talking about it does nothing.

Trevor's point wasn't too different from the reasons I called out Arnon Kohavi a few weeks ago. My issue with Kohavi wasn't that he said Chile didn't have a sophisticated startup ecosystem yet. My issue was that he came into the country months earlier promising if the elites gave him money, he could somehow magically create it. That was a promise and an expectation no one should have had.

Simply put: I have enough reverence for the hard work of great entrepreneurs that it makes me angry when someone glibly promises a slogan, a fund or a press release can suddenly unlock the floodgates of local Mark Zuckerbergs and expects us all to smile, give them the thumbs up and nod along.

It's not that I don't get the emotional gut reaction. I am from Memphis, Tennessee-- a part of the South where people make jokes about poor hygiene and making out with cousins. I am fiercely defensive of my hometown. Just try to argue Kansas City has better BBQ. I'll knife you. My friend Peter LaMotte once dared to tell Paul Carr that Nashville was better than Memphis, and I dragged the two of them on a four-day trip between the two cities so Paul could judge for himself. (I'm happy to say Memphis won....duh.)

But there's a time and place for nationalistic arguments. They probably aren't going to work on people outside your city or country. Worse: Your intensity may turn off people who were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. But nationalistic arguments can be a powerful call-to-action for people inside your country or city to create change and prove the outsider wrong.

I've recently started advising an amazing group called LaunchMemphis. My first piece of advice was to stop telling Memphians they should invest in Memphis entrepreneurs for purely financial reasons. I saw many a consultant and marketing person make strained and contorted arguments about why investing in Memphis was financially the most sound thing to do. It isn't. That's just reality.

The reason Memphians who have made it should invest in entrepreneurs in Memphis is out of civic pride, or as Yossi Vardi calls it "profitable patriotism." It's not to make money; it's from the same motivation that causes people to rally together to make sure the Opera doesn't go under or fight to bring a big league sports team to town.

A moderately successful entrepreneur -- say someone who builds a $100 million company-- will have a bigger civic impact on Memphis than the same entrepreneur would have on Silicon Valley, even though the sheer financial return may be the same. That Memphis entrepreneur will not only create jobs and local wealth, but inspire other local entrepreneurs to start companies too. Talented young people may stay, instead of leaving for New York or San Francisco.

It may take fifty years for that to germinate into a real startup ecosystem, but eventually, if people keep investing in local talent, it will happen. But it's not going to be the best way to make a buck for a long time, and people making that argument won't get the attention of real professionals.

But guess what? That's really no different than the Valley. The best angel investors I know invest because they believe in someone and they want an idea to exist. If they make money, great. And frequently they do. But that's rarely the primary motivation.

So, if you read Trevor's post and it pissed you off, I can understand your feelings. But rather than channel that into an angry comment here, go show the post he wrote to the local mogul as a reason why Newry-- or any other place-- needs to put their money and mentorship where they're anger is. Pissed off? Then prove Trevor wrong.

If you do; we'll write about it. That's a promise. And I hope it does happen, because that'd be a great story. The lesson from Israel's great entrepreneurial run of the late 1990s is that any place can become a startup hub with enough talent, smart policy, determination and global market timing.

But it's actions-- not desires and hundreds of angry comments-- that will sway outsiders.