The Independent spoke with entrepreneur and philanthropist Henk Rogers to discuss his new project: accelerating the creation of a new cadre of Hawaii tech companies via his new organization, Blue Startups. The accelerator provides mentorship and seed funding for teams over a three-month process, at the end of which is a business that can seek greater funding.
What’s your vision?
A tech center, like San Francisco. That’s how Hawaii should be.
SF has major universities around it and some very large tech companies that help to capitalize that scene. How do you see it playing out here?
It didn’t start out that way. You go back in time, it started with nothing. Little by little it built up. You have to start someplace.
So Portland, Boulder, a bunch of places, started out as nothing, and they’re starting to become tech centers. It’s a decision we need to make as a state, that we want Hawaii to become a tech center. And if we all say yes, this is what we’re going to do, then that’s what happens.
Ten years ago there was a conversation about high-tech, but it was predicated on dual-use, i.e. selling goods to the military as well as to the community. Do you still see it that way?
I’m not looking for any earmarks or government spending on this. If the government wants to promote new companies, fine; I understand Korea is putting a lot of money into startups. That’s probably a good idea. Basically this will work with or without their money. If we get government money that might speed up some part of it, but the danger is like Act 221 – it causes money to flow out into area that don’t benefit us at all.
You know, someone’s boondoggle. Someone gets a boat to do research. And you know, “well I did use the boat to do some research while I was going to Tahiti or whatever,” but basically he got a boat out of it. That’s not what we want to see. We don’t want to just give money to people who don’t really need it.
Act 221 also created a situation in which investors didn’t feel the risk because they were getting a tax write-off. Does investment work better when there’s skin in the game?
Yeah because what happens is if you as the creator of intellectual property in a company, have to have people who are 100% there, because they believe in your product, and they’re not there because they just want you to be there five years, so they can get their tax write-off.
The kind of investor that they have in Silicon Valley or in Boston, they’re smart investors – so their money will go to the smartest people. And those companies make it. That’s what we need to have here. I don’t mind competition.
Competition is good.
Some folks online have talked about the pitfalls of VC funding. They say that tech companies should bootstrap their companies. What do you think about that?
Well I bootstrapped my first game. I had zero. I lived with my in laws and ate for free for three months. I didn’t go out, I didn’t do anything. And at the end of the day, that turned into being the school of hard knocks. I worked my butt off for 9 months, and I ended up with a company. And to this day, I feel like I deserved what I got, because I really worked hard for it. I never worked harder on anything in my life. Basically I ate, I slept, and I worked. That was it.
And I have three kids and a wife, who I pretty much ignored through this entire time. And they forgive me for it. So that’s the kind of passion and commitment … it’s sort of a like a chick breaking through its eggshell and becoming a chicken. If you break the eggshell and help it out, it won’t survive. It has to fight.
Struggle is important.
Yes, struggle is important. That’s part of the learning curve. The concept of doing it for three months, and at the end of the day having something that you’re gonna show somebody and get money for it, that is the essence of how it should work, of how a startup should work. Struggle. Work day and night. If I see you in a club, you’re out, because I didn’t get to do anything else.