Curiosity may be dangerous for cats and monkeys but it has steered media and digital startup pioneer Mike Edelhart straight to the top of his profession.
Make that professions plural: As the original Executive Editor of PC Magazine, Edelhart was a tech legend even before his current incarnations as the lead partner of Social Starts, an early-stage venture capital firm and CEO of The Tomorrow Project, which produces the annual Pivot Conference.
A Born Communicator
It all started with boundless curiosity, a passion for science and a Journalism degree. Twenty-two books, 13 years at renowned hobbyist publisher Ziff Davis, and countless consulting engagements later, Edelhart is living proof that reporting, research and storytelling skills will always be cutting-edge.
As this year’s PivotCon got underway, Mike Edelhart took a breather to chat with us about global entrepreneurship, disruptive technology and how he brings a social conscience to angel investing.
Sobel: You graduated with a BS in Journalism from the University of Northern Colorado and spent your early career writing books on topics ranging from a social history of Virginia to how to set up network infrastructure software. Today you’re a venture capitalist and producer of the annual Pivot Conference. Can you share a bit of your journey?
Edelhart: I started out as a journalist and did what journalists do ― wrote articles, wrote books and worked at magazines. But I was always deeply interested in science and had studied physics in school.
So along with writing about many other things, I wrote a great deal about computing and technical issues which eventually led to my position as the founding Executive Editor of PC Magazine. From there, I helped found and lead many Ziff computer magazines, followed by whole divisions of the company. I discovered I liked business and wound up as the EVP at Ziff.
Sobel: In the context of talking about the PC revolution led by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, you suggested to companies back in 2012 that their management teams should learn from past innovators and apply the lessons of what worked to the social media revolution happening today. Has that advice stood the test of time?
Edelhart: I’d definitely say yes. Tech revolutions seem to have common developmental characteristics and I believe that each generation can benefit from recognizing what those are. In my experience, first comes a period of market indifference, followed by an explosion of creativity, investment and optimism. Then there is inevitably a period of retrenchment, disillusionment and apparent retreat.
But it’s the process of surviving the entire business cycle ― especially that long winter ― that ultimately gives birth to the companies with the greatest long-term value. This is my third tech revolution and all of them have followed that pattern.
Sobel: Innovation means different things to different people. This past spring you spoke at the PODIM Conference in Slovenia that focused on collaboration between startups and established companies. Can you share a bit of your presentation?
Edelhart: I went there to encourage hopeful entrepreneurs because starting a company in a place like Slovenia is uniquely challenging. Twenty years ago it was still a communist country so this is the first generation to grow up in an actual economy.
But students are still raised not to question their teachers or lessons so ironically, the biggest supporter of innovation is now the government itself. The good news of that is that Slovenian entrepreneurs learn how to interact with big organizations as a matter of course. The downside is that they can become overconfident and underestimate the challenges of partnering with big companies in Eastern Europe.
My presentation reminded start-ups to focus on solving problems close to home before they set their sights on entering more complex world markets.
Sobel: You are the Managing Partner of Social Starts, a $20 million family of venture funds that invests in companies helping to build what you call the Social Construct. You define that as the “change in human behavior [that is] generated by social and/or mobile technology.” Can you talk a bit about how you put that investing philosophy into practice?
Edelhart: We have two different kinds of funds: Our Moment of Inception funds invest in the creation of disruptive businesses in media, marketing analytics, social platforms, mobile commerce and IoT. Our A Round funds target early stage investments that have achieved market momentum by demonstrating that they fulfill key human needs. It is a pure joy, at this point in my career, to be able to spend days with vibrant young start-up teams.
Sobel: You are also CEO of The Tomorrow Project, the producer of the Pivot Conference taking place in New York City today. What is the focus of this year’s PivotCon?
Edelhart: Pivot focuses on big brands and how they are dealing with the challenges of the Social Construct such as shifts in how customers are interacting with brands, their messages and their business processes.
This year’s PivotCon is hosted by data scientist and investor Jon Gosier and will include topics as diverse as inter-generational marketing, the shifting kaleidoscope of social strategy and deciphering deep corporate disruption.