Finding your why

Ken Malone is co-Executive Officer of Early Charm. He has more than 25 years of experience building and leading companies, and is actively committed to bolstering Baltimore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. We think Tech on Deck readers could benefit from the insights and wisdom he has accumulated over the years. He will be contributing blogs that offer advice, impart stories of his own experiences in the startup space, and share some of what he’s learned leading a venture studio in Charm City.

I mentor dozens of entrepreneurs every year. While I spend hours with each of them, they can really get the only universally useful piece of advice I have in a few seconds. It applies to everyone, business owner or not.

“Write down on a scrap of paper ‘your why’. Not what you do, but why it matters to you.

Over your lifetime, you will receive advice and opportunities from friends, customers, mentors, investors, partners, employees, board members, authors, suppliers, family, and so many more. Most of that will be for ‘their why,’ not ‘your why.’  Listen, ask questions, learn, and then look at that scrap of paper. Does it fit ‘your why?’ If so, congrats. If not, throw the opportunity (politely) away.

It’s ‘YOUR why.’ You are allowed to question ‘your why’ and to change ‘your why’ whenever you want, but no one else is allowed to do that.”

Like most advice givers, I’m not great (or even OK) at following my own advice. So, when I pulled out my decade-old scrap of paper, I was pleased to discover that I’d stayed true to my ‘why did I start Early Charm:’

I believe that most scientific discoveries can lead directly to new products and services that will improve human life. Most of these discoveries sit on a shelf because of the false belief in a Valley of Death that must be crossed using venture capital. The Valley of Death is a myth and venture capital is a distraction. Early Charm will take a radically different approach to commercializing scientific discoveries. By creating, owning, and operating businesses that are centered around those discoveries that are not interesting to venture capital, we will provide a greater benefit to people.

Over the years, I’d turned down many opportunities to stray from ‘my why.’ The few times I strayed all ended badly. Those are funny (now) stories for a future blog.

Reviewing that scrap of paper made me realize that while I stayed true to ‘my why,’ I had not challenged whether that why was still true. So, I took an existential journey into ‘my why.’ I discovered that success makes loving ‘my why’ much easier. But I also discovered that I left something out of ‘my why’ a decade ago because I didn’t know better.

It was a mistake to leave it out, but it’ll take a little origin story to explain.

We made a very intentional decision to move to Baltimore a decade ago. It was an all-in decision that it was the right place not just for our business, but for our family. The culture, diversity, grit, and, yes, charm of Baltimore was ‘our why’ for coming here.

However, my time in economic development taught me that left to its own, the growth of cities like Baltimore occurs through gentrification. Gentrification’s wealth divide crushes culture, diversity, grit, and charm. I have no intention of letting that happen – so ‘my why’ for Early Charm also includes driving equitable growth in Baltimore.

I recently tried to rewrite ‘my why’ into a single statement, but quickly discovered that I had to use all sorts of academic jargon like Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” Porter’s “power leads to profit,” and Drucker’s “entrepreneurial opportunities” to explain it.

So, for pragmatic purposes, I provide two equally important ‘whys:’

  • To forge a radically new commercial path for the majority of scientific discoveries, that avoids the Valley of Death and the need for venture capital.
  • To drive equitable growth in Baltimore.

I think of them as one, but I welcome working with all who care about either.

Perhaps next month, Kelli (my co-founder and wife) can add ‘her why.’ It is different than mine but, like all good partnerships, complementary.

Author: Ken Malone
Bio: As co-Executive Officer of Early Charm, Ken Malone leads the business development efforts behind the venture studio's more than 30 portfolio firms. He has more than 25 years of experience building and leading tech-based companies, and is actively committed to bolstering Baltimore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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