Josh Linkner is a go-getting, business-starting, book-writing, tech-investing lover of Detroit. He grew up in Motown and began working as a professional jazz musician when he was just a teenager, but then turned to entrepreneurship at age 20.
In 1999, he founded ePrize, an internet promotions company, and worked there as CEO for 11 years, during which time he wrote the bestselling book Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity. Upon seeing an uptick of tech business activity in his hometown around 2010, he launched Detroit Venture Partners, and, at press time, says his company is the most active VC fund in the state.
I caught up with Linkner to chat about serial entrepreneurship, Detroit’s technology scene and myths surrounding starting a business.
OPEN Forum: What are some of the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs today?
Josh Linkner: We live in a world of dizzying speed, the markets have become inefficient and we are not able to control information. But beyond that, I really think this is one of the best times in history to become an entrepreneur. The cost to launch a technology company is really low, access to capital is readily available and there is a general willingness to launch new endeavors.
OF: How can you say capital is available when many entrepreneurs are having a hard time accessing funding?
JL: Just because capital is available doesn’t mean it is easy. There are thousands of businesses launching every day. If you are not able to seize capital, you may need to change your approach. It’s possible that you are not telling your story in an interesting enough way.
OF: How did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
JL: I was a teenager and had an idea for a tech company, so I saved $1,000 from playing jazz gigs and figured it out. I was scrappy, which is something I think every entrepreneur needs to be. I also broke the myth that says entrepreneurship is only for an elite group of people who went to Harvard and know a secret handshake. I was a kid from Detroit who didn’t know any of those things and I made it work.
I think anyone can be an entrepreneur if they are willing to take personal responsibility and have the grit and scrappiness to materialize ideas.
OF: How did you get the idea for ePrize?
JL: ePrize was my fourth company. Back in 1999, everyone was focused on advertising, banner ads, etc., but no one was thinking about internet promotions like response related games and loyalty programs.
We wanted to change the world of marketing and it worked. Just last week we sold the company to a private equity firm. It is the largest internet purchase in Michigan’s history. [Linkner declined to release purchase numbers.]
OF: Why are you so passionate about rebuilding Detroit?
JL: I’m passionate about entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs change the world; they create jobs and drive economies. I’m from Detroit and want to help fix a broken city.
OF: How is the tech scene in Detroit right now?
JL: It is going really well. There is so much excitement. We are hiring people left and right.
OF: Isn’t it hard to recruit people to Detroit?
JL: Not at all. Actually, it’s the opposite. We are getting calls from people in Boston, San Francisco and Seattle on a regular basis. I think being in Detroit is making the ultimate entrepreneurial statement. You see what it can be, not just what it is, which I think is attractive to entrepreneurs.
OF: As a venture capitalist, what makes a pitch stand out to you?
JL: Not being a me-too player. If I see another Groupon copycat company, I’m going to jump out the window. We look for market opportunities that are large enough.
Pitching mistakes include not answering a question directly, trying to oversell by saying the same thing several times and not telling the truth in a VC meeting.
OF: What advice can you give budding entrepreneurs?
JL: Know how hard it will be. Another myth about entrepreneurship is that it is a smooth ride to the top. The act of entrepreneurship is to shake things up. More often than not you are getting kicked down. You need the persistence and fortitude to fight through. People fail because they don’t have the stomach for it.
My biggest piece of advice is not to get devastated by setbacks. Keep on pushing.
Photo courtesy of Detroit Venture Partners.