This article originally appeared in the San Luis Obispo Economic Vitality Corporation’s May 2015 Newsletter and is reprinted here as a guest post.
This interview series focuses on business leaders and innovators who are directly impacting our economy and their industry. This month Mike Manchak, CEO of the San Luis Obispo Economic Vitality Corporation (EVC) interviewed Mark Sylvester, CEO of introNetworks, a technology firm based on the central coast. With the EVC, Mark developed a great, new resource to help the local business community connect called 805connect.
Mike Manchak: Mark, congratulations on the continued success of introNetworks and the launch one year ago of 805connect. Also, a very special congratulation for being selected as the 2015 SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR. I understand you’ll be going to Sacramento in June to receive the award as a part of California Small Business Day.
You are known in the tri-counties as having founded one of the most successful technology companies called Alias|Wavefront – an animation and design software company based in Santa Barbara that provided tools to be used on feature films such as Lord of the Rings and others. You are considered a pioneer in the field. How would you describe your pioneering role in your last company and your current success, IntroNetworks?
Mark Sylvester: Mike, thanks. We are deeply appreciative of Senator Jackson and her acknowledgment of the work that we have done over the past year to bring 805connect to life. It’s been a year for building and growing awareness of the effort. This accolade comes at a perfect time for us as we begin our second year in the community.
The work we did at Alias|Wavefront changed how motion pictures are made, new products are designed and brought to market and how entire worlds can be created in realtime video games. That’s quite a legacy to be sure. It was a fun ride, starting in 1984 here in Santa Barbara.
I recently donated my entire Wavefront collection, including signed movie posters, original artwork, and videos from a generation of early computer animation and hundreds of articles and memorabilia, to the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota. The collection is on display now and will serve as a cornerstone for researchers who will be studying the impact computer graphics on society. I’m proud to have Wavefront and the work of hundreds of programmers and clients included and preserved for posterity.
For the past 13 years, since TED2003, I have been fascinated with the ability to use my background in visualization to solve another interesting problem; how to make meaningful, relevant connections with people that we work with. I have been helping people make connections my entire professional life. With introNetworks, we created a platform called the Visual Matching Engine that makes it easy to make informed decisions about people you may wish to do business with. It turns out that everyone wants to make better connections and there’s an opportunity to make the connections based on things that have deeper meaning to us, such as our aspirations, goals, passions and how we can help others around us.
We have been fortunate to help clients around the world make these connections to their audiences of employees, members, and clients or to initiatives that make a difference. Currently we help the Department of Education’s Connected Educators project in their effort to connect teachers to peers and support their professional development. We do the same thing with NASA, with the focus on STEM Education. The Southern California Metropolitan Water District uses us as the foundation for a global effort to connect innovators in water technology and processes to funding sources to bring these technologies to market.
Mike: Your latest project that has come out of IntroNetworks is called 805connect that the EVC is a proud partner of. Describe 805connect?
Mark: 805connect is the outcome of a series of conversations back in 2013 that focused on how could the community realize a more vibrant economic future by having a broader, regional view of the challenge. At one of these meetings I suggested that we employ the Visual Matching Engine as a platform to help connect the people behind the businesses along the 101 corridor. In a conversation with you in 2013 you explained exactly what the challenge was to growth in SLO, especially as businesses in the region and students graduating from Cal Poly look around for opportunities.
805connect exists to connect businesses in a way that didn’t exist before the project. It connects businesses to the public and private sector, including the educational and entrepreneurial-based startup communities.
Think of 805connect as the connective tissue that brings together hundreds of individuals that are contributing to the economy in some way. These connections are helping them grow their businesses locally and are making them more discoverable by local organizations that can take advantage of their services.
There’s a lot still to do to grow awareness of the platform and build the audience. We appreciate the partnership and advocacy of the EVC and look to having a long relationship with the northernmost outpost of the 805.
Mike: I think of you as someone who is the ultimate connector of people. You seem to take networking to a whole new level, particularly through the use of technology. The business community has embraced social media, although how would you describe the past, current, and future use of technology (or not) to stay connected. There is a school of thought that describes social media, texting, and tweeting as degrading our ability to communicate, particularly with young people. What’s your philosophy on all of this? And where do you see modern communications and connections evolving?
Mark: Great questions Mike. Ironically as connected, as we all seem to think we are, my experience in the past year has been the opposite. Yes, we can find anything on Google and almost anyone on LinkedIn – if you know exactly what you’re looking for or know their name. However, what if you are looking for someone who could help you in building a board of directors or an advisor on how to optimize the way you build stronger connections in your local town? That’s incredibly more difficult. That’s the problem we set out to solve with 805connect.
I am very aware of a condition that’s called, Continuous Partial Attention. It’s rampant and not going away. This new reality affects all of us in different ways. In business and in relationships we are constantly trying to communicate a message, incite a call to action or influence a decision. Knowing that you have to cut through thousands of tweets, posts, emails, marketing messages and overall distractions makes it nearly impossible to make any impactful connections.
So what do we do? We try lots of different ways to reach our audiences. Everything has changed in the past 7 years (measured in my mind since the iPhone was introduced). While we were all promised that technology would give us more free time, it has filled that free time with endless distractions to the point that we are more disconnected now than ever before.
The good news is that I am seeing an uptick in people getting together in person and having actual conversations. There’s an explosion of interest in meeting in the real world as evidenced by apps like MeetUp and others locally focused event-centric activities.
My take on this, especially here regionally, is that we are an area comprised of 21 small towns. We’re not LA, SF or NYC. We should take advantage of our weather, our proximity to each other and go out of our way to meet someone new, invest in existing relationships and build bonds with the people that are right within our reach. That next coffee conversation might change the direction of your life.
Mike: What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business?
Mark: Start today.
I started my first business when I was 12, selling Amway to my neighbors. Then I had a window painting business to make Christmas money and sold tie-dyed clothes at high school during the sixties. I am strongly attracted to people who want to go out and realize their dream.
There are many resources available to people today. Take a look at 805connect’s recent report on the Entrepreneurial Explosion. (http://805connect.com/entrepreneur-explosion/). Couple that with the online resources that help walk you through a business plan or entire websites dedicated to helping get your idea into the market. I can write for days about this, and would encourage people to just DO IT. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. We don’t take no for an answer if we believe that we have something that people need and are willing to pay for it. If you think you have a better idea for a new product or service, take a look at that post and find one of the resources in your town. Then do it.
Mike: What is the next big thing that you believe will come forward for connecting people for businesses?
Mark: More passive ways to connect. Think about the technology you are carrying with you (phones, watches now) and with push notifications, you could have instant, meaningful access to people who you could help, or could help you. Without invading our privacy and adding to the noise, there’s an opportunity to provide trusted advice and information based on expert systems that know about us. Currently this technology is used to sell us things. I look forward to when we can think about how connections can more seamlessly help us in all areas of our lives.
Mike: Where do you see 805connect in the next 5 years?
Mark: As a non-profit community resource that has a legacy of helping thousands of businesses become globally successful as a result of connections that were made possible by the platform.
Mike: What are some of your most important business and life lessons to date?
Mark: Let’s save this for another conversation. I’ll leave your readers with a suggestion to go buy a copy of Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Mike: How do you blow steam off?
Mark: First off, I don’t get steamed. That’s my martial arts training I suppose. If I do get to a point where I can’t dissipate that energy, I take a series of deep breaths, center myself, close my eyes and reflect on how amazing it is that I get to live where I live, be surrounded by family and friends. When I open my eyes I have successfully flipped-my-focus and self corrected my energy so that I can keep moving forward.
Mike: What inspires you?
Mark: Passionate people who are creative and self motivated. What inspires any of us is what we are going to focus a series of salons on this year. Called 805live, this exact question is something that I’ve been studying for a while. We’re going to bring people together and ask this question to discover how we are inspired, what influences us and how they combine to get us to act and make an impact.
introNetworks Company Background
Since 2003, when the company deployed a social network for the world famous TED Conference, the company has successfully created hundreds of introNetwork Communities across a customer base that includes global organizations that want to make a cultural change in how they connect with their various audiences. Mark has been on the leading edge of software development for more than twenty years. As a co-founder of Santa Barbara based Wavefront Technologies, Mark and his team developed software that completely revolutionized the way the world is entertained. He co-designed Wavefront’s flagship product, Advanced Visualizer, which was the first commercial 3D modeling and animation system. Working directly with major Hollywood studios, the company introduced the world to computer-generated animation and received many accolades – including several Sci-Tech awards and an Oscar for Technical Achievement. As a TEDster, Mark is constantly looking for ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ and believes that helping people make smarter connections is definitely one of those ideas. He and his partner, Kymberlee Weil co-produced three TEDx events, most recently, TEDxSantaBarbaraLive.
805connect is a comprehensive database created to provide an official directory and networking platform to connect all of the businesses in the 805 area code, because connections are good for business.
The project is overseen by a partnership with the Economic Vitality Corporation of San Luis Obispo County, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, the Ventura Economic Development Collaborative and operated by introNetworks. More than a simple business directory, 805connect provides a single place for public entities, private organizations, businesses, entrepreneurs and non-profits, as well as educational institutions to have visibility and connect within the regional business community. It is designed to give you insight into the people behind the businesses in the region. The network is built using the introNetworks Visual Matching Engine that has been used by TED, NASA and various Fortune 500 companies. The technology uses deep profile information to connect members to each other and provide ways to visualize those connections and information.
(Reprinted from the San Luis Obispo Economic Vitality Corporation’s May Newsletter)