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Tech Council's Jason Hardebeck Says Baltimore Needs to Fail

Jason Hardebeck, GBTC's new Executive Director. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Jason Hardebeck, GBTC's new Executive Director. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Jason Hardebeck sold his company WhoGlue last year to Facebook -- yeah that firm that made $1 billion in 2011, had a starring role in a movie with Justin Timberlake and ate up your lunch time today. Though he ultimately succeeded as an entrepreneur, the executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council says he has failed along the way. 

And he says that’s a good thing.

“Innovation is about trying stuff that doesn’t work until you find something that does,” Hardebeck says. “Failure is a bad thing only if it takes too long or costs too much. Or you don’t learn from it.”

One of Hardebeck’s first initiatives as GBTC’s leader is holding a conference in Baltimore that embraces failure. Showcasing successful people who have made mistakes will hopefully inspire entrepreneurs who fear going for broke. The April conference is modeled somewhat on Silicon Valley’s FailCon.

The GBTC board appointed Hardebeck in December, soon after he sold WhoGlue. He replaced Sharon Webb, who declined to comment. With Webb in the post for less than a year, the abrupt change in leadership took many in Baltimore’s tech community by surprise. GBTC had already been under fire for losing some of its relevance. 

“As a networking organization, [GBTC] wasn’t needed anymore,” GBTC member Mike Subelsky says. Like some other GBTC members, the organizer of Ignite Baltimore says that social media has made it easier for innovators to connect with one another. 

Doing away with membership dues, giving members more say in how GBTC spends their money and starting a leadership class to foster budding entrepreneurs are some ideas Hardebeck says could help the nonprofit regain its momentum.

The GBTC could help startups get to market more quickly by providing hands-on mentoring to a select group of entrepreneurs. This idea is similar to the Greater Baltimore Committee's Leadership program, whose alumni include UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and DLA Piper Co-chairman Frank Burch. Holding this sort of class would allow the GBTC to feed talent to incubators and angel groups, Hardebeck says.

GBTC membership has dropped from around 300 in 2007 to 250 today, Board Chairman Jason Pappas says.

"Our membership was not drastically declining, but it was not growing the way we wanted it to," says Pappas, principal of Hannix Consulting Inc. Like a boiling frog who feels the heat turned up, Pappas says the GBTC was "starting to get cooked."

That's why it is looking at ways it can fundamentally change its membership model to get more companies involved. It might do away with membership dues in favor of a pay-as-you-go model. Under the proposal, member companies will become quasi investors. And they will have more say in where their money will go.

“Donors have been more demanding,” Hardebeck says. "They want to know where their dollars are going. “

Companies would underwrite specific events and programs that they want to see happen -- rather than just write a check to the GBTC.  

For instance, one of its largest corporate members, Advertising.com, wants to see more women and minorities in the industry. So it has invested in a March event called InSquared that addresses just that.

GBTC member Yair Flicker says he certainly likes the idea of doing away with membership dues. But Flicker, a principal at Baltimore's SmartLogic Solutions, says he hopes the GBTC can pull in enough income to cover expenses.

The GBTC brought in $620,771 in revenue and spent $762,665 in 2009, according to its most recent publicly available tax return. Revenue declined from $719,139 the previous year. 

Pappas says the group has tapped its cash reserves in recent years to cover expenses. Spending grew as the organization invested in research and programming to meet members’ needs, he says. Pappas says in its next fiscal year, which begins in July, the GBTC will hopefully bring in revenue that matches or exceeds expenses. 

"We're not trying to turn around a $10 million organization," Pappas says. "We're fairly lean."

Another way the group is getting more involved with its members is by moving out of the Emerging Technology Center in Canton. Instead, its four-person staff work at members’ offices. Flicker calls the move “genius marketing"  because it forces the GBTC to interact constantly with local companies.

“There’s so much happening in the innovation and entrepreneurship community,” says Gregory Simmons, a GBTC board member and vice president of institutional advancement at UMBC. “Now is the time when we can add value to that community.”

Bmore Media Managing Editor Julekha Dash is a former staff writer for the Baltimore Business Journal, Computerworld and Software Magazine. She can be reached at julekha@bmoremedia.com.

 
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