CJ Cornell: Founder of Propel Arizona, Entrepreneur

CJ Cornell, founder of Propel Arizona, photographed at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

CJ Cornell, founder of Propel Arizona, photographed at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

CJ Cornell

The Valley is lucky to have CJ Cornell. The New York-born entrepreneur made his way from Silicon Valley to Phoenix to help build up Arizona State University‘s entrepreneurship program by helping to establish the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship. After mentoring hundreds of young entrepreneurs-in-training, he founded Propel Arizona, a local crowdfunding site for new local businesses, which helps solicit donations from locals for new ventures. Read on for what stimulates Cornell’s entrepreneurial passion, and scroll down to hear five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.

What brought you to Arizona?

ASU. They were starting an extensive entrepreneur program, and I had already had a career as a serial entrepreneur and then started teaching in the Silicon Valley area. They brought me down here to help start their now number one entrepreneurship program in the country.

What was your life like before you came to the Valley?

I was born in New York on Long Island and went to undergraduate on Long Island, then grad school in New York City and started my businesses there, then traveled around and settled in Silicon Valley and started a few companies there.

What is your first memory of having a passion for entrepreneurship?

Growing up, I had the typical paper route and also did my first business at age 11. I had little weather stations all around Long Island and sold weather data to fishermen. When I was in college, I put myself through 6 years of college doing stand-up comedy and magic. In a way, it was entrepreneurial, because there was no ecosystem, no agents. I had to market myself and make all that money myself.

What would you say are some of your biggest entrepreneurial accomplishments?

I was involved with starting a business in the mobile industry that ended up being sold for $3 billion, called Mobile Way that was a text messaging company that started in Europe and went worldwide. By the time it was sold, I was long-gone and didn’t see any of that money, so there’s a good lesson there. Others are businesses that now are the results of some of the technologies I’ve worked on. In the early 90’s, I worked on some technologies for screen phones and smartphones that didn’t exist back then. Now, they’re all ubiquitous. I’m also very proud of my entrepreneurial teaching because it’s planting a lot of seeds. It’s really wonderful to see my students and proteges get successful, and that’s really gratifying.

What interests you about technology and makes you want to be involved with it?

I grew up an engineer — that was my formal training, and then I got out of it quickly. As an engineer, you’re shielded from the people issues, these social and behavioral issues. I guess, as a reaction, I have a wonderful love for how technology intersects with how people behave, whether it influences new behavior, like how the Internet changes how we date and how we buy things, to the other way around, how people influence technology. I have a real fascination with the intersection of the two.

Do you have any predictions for technology?

I’ll say, nothing should surprise you about what people are willing to do. Every small leap in technology has been met with both disbelief and resistance. It’s not all bad. It’s just bad because it’s change. I’m always bullish about how technology improves our lives, and I’m not someone who wants it out of our lives. No exact predictions but that it will come out faster and faster and make our lives better as it always has.

What are your current roles?

I left the ASU entrepreneurship program a little more than a year ago. I’ve been a visiting professor at the New York Institute of Technology while I work on about five or six different projects in entrepreneurship and technology. I’m working on things where the seeds were planted 10, 15 years ago, and the entrepreneurs are now working on something successful and relevant, and we’re working together now.

What got you interested in crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is funding entrepreneurs with many, many people instead of two or three investors. It’s having a profound effect in jump-starting entrepreneurship in many areas, and we’re hoping to bring that to Arizona to fuel a lot of these bright, young entrepreneurs. I’m spending a lot of my time on crowdfunding right now, not only to benefit the entrepreneurs but to build the other missing link, which is getting the general population excited about entrepreneurship in Arizona. Excitement about entrepreneurship is missing in almost every other part of the country except for maybe Silicon Valley, where people inherently support entrepreneurs and know what it’s about.

How would you characterize the Valley’s entrepreneur scene?

The Valley has made some big jumps in the past 5 years in entrepreneurship, so much so that those leaps are the biggest in the country. However, as far as volume and depth of entrepreneurship, we’re not quite there yet. There are a lot of chicken or the egg things that need to happen, and with businesses like Propel Arizona, it’s also a chicken or the egg situation. We have need great entrepreneurs, great investors and great advisers all at the same time.

What are the other projects you’re involved in about?

I’ve got a handful of technology projects, a combination of academic research and commercial. One is in mobile, which is a behavioral project to give people on their cell phones an incentive to do things. To me, that’s one of the next big things, is to get people to collaborate and cooperate. Another one is a project that’s involving education that’s out of New York, that’s building links between teachers, kids and parents and giving them ways to communicate about problems and opportunities with their kids. The third is with all the digital billboards you see outside and a company that’s working to bring not only advertising but really great content in social media to these billboards that are electronic but mainly advertising. How cool is it if you were walking around Mill Avenue, and you walked by one of those screens out there, and somebody Tweets, “They’re towing cars on University”? That’s a good example of using social media and content on these billboards without having to drive and see it.

How did Propel Arizona get started?

I’m in a wonderful position to see a lot of technologies and new ideas early on, and crowdfunding looked like one of those whose time I knew would come. About 2 years ago, I started really looking into it, mainly because it’s an off-shoot of a behavioral subject called “the wisdom of the crowd” or “collective intelligence.” The convergence of ecommerce and investing is not unlike the convergence of dating and electronic media. There’s a major player out there — Kickstarter — but that’s nationally. There’s a lot of opportunity when you start to do it in a very large niche, like Arizona. But this is not a commercial venture, this is a not-for-profit. It is solely to encourage and stir up economic development and entrepreneurship in the state of Arizona.

What are your goals with it?

Mainly to get a lot of great companies funded and also show support from the community. There are some undersold and under-appreciated facets of entrepreneurship. A lot of companies raise money, but if they don’t have the “ra, ra” support of their physical or industry community, they’re not going to succeed for very long. Similarly, here, if people have the local support of the community, that alone can help them become successful.

Why should entrepreneurs in the Valley use Propel Arizona over Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is very big, and Kickstarter is trending right now towards creative projects, like film projects. Kickstarter is a national thing, so the number of people who get passionate about a Phoenix entrepreneur on a national site is very low, whereas what we’re building is in Arizona for Arizona people. Also, when you go to Propel Arizona, unlike any other site, you can search for ventures associated with local organizations, such as Gangplank Chandler or ASU, and see the list and put money in their company. You can actually meet them and actually follow their success. With Kickstarter, there’s more of a chance you’ll put money in and never hear from them again.

What makes a great entrepreneur?

Always energy and passion. They need to be good at something. I think there are a lot of generalists who try to get in the field, but it really helps to have good knowledge of one thing. Another important thing is to be flexible, open to help. One of the greatest qualities of entrepreneurs is being stubborn and plugging away, but being flexible means being able to work with others, including employees, mentors, advisers, investors. Also, you need to really, really do a great job of finding out history of your industry, especially if you’re young, because when you’re young, everything is new to you, and you don’t realize what others have tried. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go forward, but you save a lot of time when you understand how others have failed and what others have done. Those are some qualities that a lot of young, first-time entrepreneurs overlook.

How can entrepreneurs cultivate passion?

You’re going to get a lot of advice, but entrepreneurship is not about owning or operating a business. I know that’s where you want to get to, but it’s not all about that. Entrepreneurship happens from the time of the concept to the time it becomes a business. Therefore, spending a lot of time on the operational aspects and learning the operational aspects are not going to get you there any quicker. When you spend more time on legal and accounting than you do on your product or the industry or the customer, you’re wasting time. There are always people to help you with that. There are far more people who are operational than there are entrepreneurial.

Is there a certain type of business you see as having a lot of potential in the next 5 years?

I think every industry is ripe for disruption, and it’s really interesting because there’s so much entrepreneurship going on in tech and Internet. Even though it may seem a little crowded, it’s just growing so fast, and there’s so much opportunity. Even the older industries, like coupons — who would have thought they would have been the next big thing? Yearbooks and college facebooks, who would have thought things like that would get disrupted in such a big way? I think the genius of the entrepreneur is to find an industry that’s overlooked or one that nobody thought could be disrupted and go do it.

What effect do you think technology has on entrepreneurship?

It’s huge. It makes creating a product and prototyping it a lot quicker and easier. Years ago, it might have taken years to create something with the same effect that you can create in a week for free. Entrepreneurs are also connected to other entrepreneurs and resources. When I was starting out, to find examples of a business plan or learn from the pitfalls of other entrepreneurs was really difficult because there weren’t any broad social networks, and people weren’t sharing as much. Today, entrepreneurs are in control because there are no more secrets anymore, so once one entrepreneur learns it, they all learn it. It has a very positive effect.

What will make the Valley’s entrepreneurial landscape stronger?

Part of it is making sure people are able to interact with successful entrepreneurs, even if they’re in other cities. Funding is part of it. Education is part of it, and I think the universities here have done a great job of it in an incredibly short amount of time. I think the last piece that’s missing is getting the general public involved. Getting the public engaged helps with giving negative feedback, and it helps with encouraging an entrepreneur.

Besides programs such as Propel Arizona, how do we get people engaged?

It’s sort of a circular thing, because when there are a few more successes and programs, the public gets more engaged. Now what we’re seeing is not a broadening of the engagement, but a deepening of the engagement. The folks that are involved with the entrepreneurial ecosystem right now are certainly getting engaged in a level and depth they haven’t 2 or 3 years ago, but that’s going deep and not wide. I’m helping the wide part.

Your personal website is called Metapreneurship. How would you define “metapreneurship”?

Metapreneurship is the title of a book I’m working on that will come out this spring on entrepreneurship. The concept of metapreneurship is the definition of the new wave of entrepreneur, usually young, but not always. It’s the entrepreneur that’s working on something “meta,” much bigger than themselves. It’s less about the next Steve Jobs and more about the entrepreneur that’s starting a movement, like the next Twitter. The younger entrepreneurs are more used to this. They’re not working on one company, they’re working on six companies at the same time. Younger entrepreneurs are working collaboratively and are not about keeping their idea, they’re about sharing it. My site is a prelude to launching that book.

What makes a successful crowdfunding campaign?

The most interesting thing about a successful crowdfunding campaign is how different it is from any other kind of campaign. When an entrepreneur seeks funding, unlike any other funding campaign, crowdfunding is inherently social and public. Most funding is about how good your company is and the return on investment. Crowdfunding is the complete opposite. It’s all about engaging your audience and your funders and making them happy so they can be a part of your company, and that’s actually more important than your success and the success of the company. Since their money is not being invested, they have to get something even more interesting, which is that emotional bond and that return on engagement and emotion. With normal funding, all your pitches and explanations have to go toward how you’re going to dominate the market and going to make a ton of money. That still is true, but your pitch is not about that — your pitch is about a great story and how you’re going to make an impact on the world.

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