Blog: Zach Lipson


Zach Lipson is the founder of Leftos.com (LEssons From The Opposite Sex), a user-generated site designed to break down the communication barriers between men and women, which he launched in April of 2009.

He is also a founding organizer of TechNow09, a charitable event held to celebrate the transition of Michigan into a knowledge-based economy by focusing on technology startups and entrepreneurship in the state. TechNow09 was attended by 750 people and raised $25,000, with all proceeds benefiting the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Zach graduated from Michigan State University in 2007 with a degree in marketing from the Eli Broad School of Business.

Zach Lipson - Most Recent Posts:

Zach Lipson - Post 2: Tech Can't Thrive in Silos

My last blog post was an overview of my experiences with TechNow09, an event I organized along with two other entrepreneurs to focus on the startup scene in Michigan. My journey in organizing the event gave me somewhat of a unique perspective on the current state of the Michigan economy. Day in and day out, we were meeting with companies and organizations seeking out partnerships, sponsorships, and even just their support for our initiative. Through these meetings, I came to a few conclusions about the changes that we need to make in order to push our economy forward.

Hyper-local communities

Probably the most notable take-away from TechNow09 was the strong sense of hyper-local technology communities that we have here in the state of Michigan. I view this as one of the larger problems that the technology industry here faces. We have these areas that are working hard to foster their own individual tech communities, which is great. The problem is when these regions become silos. They're so intent on building their own communities and reputation that they become opposed to helping organizations outside of their borders.

I chose the word "silos" carefully, as it is a principle commonly taught in business schools, sometimes referred to as "functional silos". A common example is cited:  A company has multiple departments within it, including Accounting, R&D, Production Marketing, HR, etc. Each of these departments may excel in their respective roles, but this company will nevertheless run in to problems if these departments operate independently of each other.

Take this example and replace the components. The company is the state of Michigan and the departments are these individual technology communities. The situation is very similar—the tech communities may thrive on their own but overall the state will see problems or never realize its potential.

So what is the solution? It's simple. It's one word: Synergy.

These silos need to work together to strengthen the foundations they are building throughout the state. Statewide initiatives involving cooperation among these regions need to be brought forward. Barriers and borders should be broken and these silos should come together to work in unity. Strong efforts can come from within these communities and organizations to reach out to others in the state to leverage their power and influence. Remember, while you may be part of Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids, or any other tech community, you are above all a part of the state of Michigan. We need to work together.

Incubating technology

While I saw a bit too much of this "hyper-local" mentality, one thing that I didn't see enough of was technology incubators. They are generally sponsored by the state, organizations, companies, or sometimes individuals, and give startups access to certain amenities such as office space, accounting or legal services, mentorship, and other valuable assets. They can be not-for-profit, leased, or in exchange for other forms of compensation such as equity. Regardless, WE NEED MORE OF THEM.

Yes, we need more technology incubators in the state. The benefits of these incubators are tremendous. They foster innovation, encourage entrepreneurship, provide guidance and other assets to entrepreneurs in need, create jobs, and overall help to build sustainable companies that will carry the Michigan economy into the future.

I believe this is something that organizations throughout the state are beginning to realize. I saw positive signs in such places as Ann Arbor and Detroit, and more recently in Troy.

Local governments and businesses should take notice of these incubators as a great way to foster economic development for their cities and the state. What could be of little consequence to them is of great value to a startup entrepreneur in getting a business off the ground.

Overall though, I think it's really about taking initiative. That's the one overarching lesson that I've learned. We can spend all day pointing out the problems, but we're only wasting our time if we don't do something about it.


Zach Lipson - Post 1: The Genesis of TechNow09

Six  months ago, I was nothing more than your typical internet entrepreneur pushing towards the launch of his startup. I was focused; I had goals, objectives, and a clear route. Last month, I introduced Leftos.com (Lessons For The Opposite Sex), a website designed to allow men and women to anonymously discuss issues and ask questions related to being single, dating, sex, relationships, marriage and divorce. In other words, Leftos is a place where you can better understand the opposite sex.

The story of the past six months is anything but typical, and it begins with an office. An office in downtown Royal Oak, where myself and two friends who also had technology businesses came to begin planning what was eventually to become TechNow09. As we sat around a table, verbally brainstorming ideas, one thing was clear: We knew that there were great things happening in the field of technology here in Michigan. The problem was that it seemed like no one else did. When Michigan is mentioned, people think automotive. And right now, that isn't exactly the immediate association we want.

We decided that we wanted to create an event that would, maybe for a just a moment, take the spotlight off the negativity surrounding the current economic landscape and the automotive sector. We wanted to get behind that spotlight, swivel it over, and shine its light on people who are building innovative and exciting technology startups right here. A one-night event to support the transition of Michigan into a knowledge-based economy, complete with presentations from five creative new tech startups, and a discussion panel with five current business leaders. We also decided that we would not try to profit from this event and would instead donate all of the proceeds to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

We felt we had a great idea and a noble cause that people and businesses in Michigan would quickly stand behind to support. So we dove head first into the world of event planning. It was a place that none of us had any experience but our ambitions outweighed our sense of realism—a feeling most entrepreneurs can relate to.  That sense of realism began to quickly gain weight as we fronted the money for our chosen venue, The Royal Oak Music Theatre, and started off this event being thousands of dollars in the hole.

Pitching TechNow

Over the next five months we pitched our event to nearly every organization and business in the Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor area—at least the ones that we were able to get in touch with. We hit what seemed like a thousand different roadblocks and met with a number of individuals who simply didn’t "get" what we were trying to do. But every so often we would find someone who did "get it" and it was these people and organizations that kept us going (and would eventually become our sponsors).  Selling sponsorships was a difficult road to travel, especially with the state of the economy and the fact that we were a first time event, but we made it through and actually raised a somewhat significant amount.

We quickly realized that sponsorships were only the beginning. Over the next ten weeks we focused our sights on marketing the event and actually planning it. We spent countless hours, nights, and weekends working on spreading our message about TechNow09 to the people here in Michigan, all the while taking much needed time away from our own businesses. But the hard work began to pay off. We started creating a small buzz around town and the press caught wind.

What started with a small piece in Detroit Make It Here was followed by articles in the Great Lakes IT Report, Crains Detroit Business, The Detroit Free Press, The Jewish News (a cover story), The Oakland Press, and a segment with Bill Spencer on the Channel 7 News.

Needless to say, marketing was going well and we were selling tickets quickly. By the time we closed online ticket sales the day before the event, we had already sold close to 800 tickets (our expected attendance and floor plan was for 600 people).  Some might think of this as a problem, but to us this was a good problem to have.

Event night kicked off with a strong opening presentation by Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner, followed by five interactive presentations by Michigan based startups. Our theme: TechNow09 was "Not Your Ordinary Business Event" and the presentations certainly portrayed this. Interactive trivia games, 3-D video demonstrations, and a story walking the audience through the various stages of a relationship (including sex), helped make the event a night to remember.

The five business leaders on the panel engaged the audience immediately by adding their expertise and wisdom. The sponsors and the attendees reaped the networking benefits, and business cards were exchanged left and right. I spoke to a few attendees who had managed to secure job interviews at the event.

The event was a huge success. We looked out onto the large crowd of people and we knew that we had created something special.  What we built was more than an event – it was a grassroots campaign that almost 800 people attended, but that reached thousands more.  In total, we were able to raise over $25,000, which easily covered our event costs and allowed us to make a sizeable donation to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Furthermore, we were instilled with a sense of accomplishment knowing that we may have changed a few minds; that we may have shown even just a few people that Michigan still has some life left in it. That despite all the darkness, there are those out there who are working towards a brighter future.

Afterthoughts

With the event behind us, myself and the two other organizers (Jordan Wolfe -the founder of uwemp.com, an online media company, and Mason Levey- the founder of bablur, a Detroit-based mobile marketing firm), can now turn our own spotlights back on our companies.

My personal experience was a bit different from that of Jordan and Mason’s. While I was organizing TechNow09 (selling sponsorships, designing materials, and marketing) I was also attempting to launch my company, Leftos.com, at the event. Needless to say, this made my days a bit chaotic and stressful but somehow it all managed to work its way out. On April 23rd, 2009, at TechNow09, I officially launched Leftos.com.

We’ve been in the trenches and we've seen firsthand how these troubling times are affecting the businesses in Michigan. Truth be told, some of our experiences were disheartening, to say the least.  But one lesson that we’ve learned is that to give up in the face of hardship only makes you a part of the problem. Instead, be the solution. With a little ambition and drive, you can make a difference.

I can't help but be reminded of a quote that's probably been beaten to death over and over, but I’m gonna use it anyways. "Be the change you wish to see in the world". Maybe it’s just me, but I think that Gandhi fella was onto something.

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