Don't Call Us, We'll Call You, Once You're Owned By Someone We Already Call

It's bad enough when I hear my daughter and her friends wondering if they can be the next Taylor Swift. When I hear a variation of that from grownups, I want to slap someone. It brings me back to the late ‘90s. I'm not talking about grownups thinking they want to be Taylor Swift. It's grownups thinking they can be Howard Roark. 

Of course, they can. Anyone with a couple of million bucks, an idea, and a neologism can rule the world. Or, if you're Elon Musk, who makes tangible things, the known world and space above it.  

Anything’s possible if you’ve got the CS degree from Stanford, the EE degree from CalTech, and the Tesla S from the dealership on Sand Hill Road. And you have read Atlas Shrugged more times this year than Ted Cruz. And you deserve it, you want it, and you're going to get it. Your startup is going to be the next Amazon. I mean, the next thing Amazon buys, if you’re lucky. If Joan Didion were 22 years old today, she'd be writing about you in Slouching Toward Mountain View.  

But wait. This is about cars. And a lot of people from outside the business want a piece of that mad money, for sure. If you do, you can talk to me. I can drop a name or two. Actually, I just took a call from someone I knew back when Richard Nixon was president — a person I knew in elementary school, thank you, Facebook. Seems his new company is making a play for the security side of the OEM telematics business. I won't get into names or particulars, for obvious reasons. But he, having known a little about my job, wondered casually if I might be a conduit to a CTO with a certain import auto brand. Just an introduction. 

“Sure,” I said, stupidly. And then I found myself on the business end of a WebEx presentation on the nascent vendor's product. Which brought me back to the late ‘90s when anyone with gym bag of VC money and a cute name ending in ".com"  was leaving messages on my phone because I was writing about Internet marketing technology at the time. Back then, earned media was worth its weight in paper (print was still king, remember.) Ninety-five percent of those businesses are long gone, and most were gone within a week or two after the phone call. Today, with the booming, and still largely pre-natal, autonomous car and telematics world the (smart) phone is ringing again. Unless things have changed a lot from the late ‘90s, a startup with no name, no name backing it, and no track record stands almost no chance of making it as a legacy car-brand partner. That is especially true in the data security side of the business, where the risks are so much greater. 

Make a deal with someone claiming to provide a hack-proof data-security lockbox? That’s a serious stretch to ask of an automaker's technology officer, someone with no time on his or her calendar, no love for gambling on the job, and no incentive for throwing a conservative company's cash and reputation at a startup that isn't even in the solar system of its established vendor relationships. Especially when the startup has “patent pending” in its précis. No wonder I’m supposed to make the intro.

There's taking a measured risk, and there's walking off the end of a wing without a chute. The best idea for a founder of a startup solution is probably to court a buyer, not a partner. But go to court first, the real kind, and get that “pending” removed from the patent. Then sell that sucker. You probably aren't Howard Roark, unless you're Elon Musk. Or Taylor Swift, if you have the singing voice. But you can at least get that Tesla.

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