As the principal consultant at a firm connecting international constituents to global Innovation Hubs, Steven Reading knows startup ecosystems.
In fact, he’s been working with startups around the world for 15 years now—from co-founding his own in San Francisco to helping others generate ideas and possibilities wherever they are.
Over the years, Reading has picked up experience doing everything from strategic marketing solutions for major advertisers, like P&G and Target, to running his own kite shop.
The same year Facebook launched, he and his co-founders launched a company called Dogster (and later Catster) to connect pet owners over a mutual interest in their furry friends.
But more than animals, the concept was about creating shared experiences and building meaningful, digital communities for people—an idea that continues to inspire Reading in his consulting work today.
As Startup Week 2019 approaches in Fort Wayne, Reading is the keynote speaker at the event’s Opening Ceremonies on October 14th where he will talk about “How Open Secrets Lead to Innovative Communities.”
Input Fort Wayne sat down with Reading to learn more about his work, philosophy, and what he hopes to share with Fort Wayne’s growing startup community.
Reading, left, speaks at Startup Weeks and entrepreneurial events around the world.
IFW: You’re originally from London. Tell us about your background and what brought you to San Francisco.
SR: I grew up in West London, which is a leafy, green, park-filled place. My mom became a nurse when I was 12. That was always her dream. My father was in international trade, so he would fly into courts all around the world at a moment’s notice and settle trade disputes.
I grew up as a lot of Brits do, living on a cold, wet island with a passion for far off places with less rain. I studied politics and economics in school, and I ended up in law school at the University of London, but as all my friends were starting study for the bar exam, one of my friends was off to Sydney, Australia, to study for a year. Well, one thing led to another, and by end of the year, I was on a plane to San Francisco to study tax law.
The reason I picked the University of San Francisco at the time was actually the weather, which is a ridiculous way to pick a graduate program, but it’s true. Once I got there, I realized tax law wasn’t my thing, so I turned quite a lot of grad school education into running a kite shop.
I ran a kite shop and started wrangling kites for Hollywood. It was cool. I would hang out at the beach and test prototypes of kites. But it was not exactly the best use of my education.
That’s when I started to get my entrepreneurial kick. I realized I didn’t have to do what I was supposed to do.
IFW: That’s an important lesson for entrepreneurs. Tell us more about that realization.
SR: I was supposed to follow a path. Most people are. You grow up, go to school, specialize in something, and you don’t take risks. You work your way up the totem pole and do what you’re supposed to do. But you don’t have to do that.
My dad always said: When are you going to get a proper job? For many years, I did a lot of fun stuff. But a path can be windy, and what you do is you pick up a bunch of mad skills along the way.
It doesn’t matter where you are, your past experiences are relevant to your current situation and circumstances somehow. I’ve had fun doing what I’ve been doing this many years, and I still draw upon the skills I’ve picked up over the years in my consulting practice today.
IFW: Give us an example.
SR: Well, taking risks is part of what I do, and an early risk I took when I was a little boy was that I was a soprano in a church choir. I sounded like an angel at Christmas, so I went door-to-door singing Christmas carols to earn money so I could buy presents. The lesson I learned there was: It doesn’t matter when doors close in your face; you just go knocking on the next door, and make the next pitch.
IFW: You’ve done a lot of work building social networks and innovating in digital media. How did you get into digital work?
SR: As a partner at Random Group in 1998, I helped design and implement the Adobe Atmosphere Developers’ Community, which was an early foray into online sociality.
It was ahead of its time. Something about startups is they have to come at the right time. If it’s not the right time, you can have the best product on the planet, but you don’t have the right audience or market.
Even so, I turned my experience there into a passion for building online communities. I have a deep interest in why people follow the law. I’m into why people follow rules and norms and how you can model images around behavior, as well as how you can harness that—both commercially and for good.
I spent seven years in advertising, and what we did was help build and define early integrated brand campaigns that were pushing the boundaries of digital, combining real work experience with the digital world’s tools and my experience there.
At that time, I founded Dogster with two partners. I was the revenue guy, and I had two technical cofounders working with me. We started Dogster as a social network or community for pet owners.
IFW: While the concept of social networks is common now, you were an early adaptor at the time, launching Dogster around the same time as Facebook. Tell us more about that.
SR: I like to say we founded Dogster the same year as Facebook, and they did a lot better than we did. (Laughs.)
We were working on building a system that would support folks in their shared experiences.
Fundamentally, people have so much in common. We can all learn from the experience of others. We will all do something to help another person in need, given the right circumstances, and in the right setting, we will ask others for help.
Sharing stories and ideas has always been at the heart of the human condition. What we were trying to build with Dogster was a digital collection of the new reality of immediate access to information and resources on top of a shared human conditions. (Conditions being a dog owner or a cat owner, in this case.)
At the core of all that is trust. I still talk about the importance of not breaking the covenant of trust with large, global corporations today in my consulting work. Authenticity is the key to success, but also is understanding your customer or your audiences well.
Dogster started as building a webpage for your dog, and it ended up growing into resources for entertainment, sociality, advice, and commerce. We built a real, active, thriving community.
We founded it, funded it, and sold it, so it was a great startup journey. We sold it to a company that was starting to build premium content as part of their group. It ended up reaching 100 million pet owners per month using the tools we had at the time.
The nice, full-circle story is that Dog Fancy Magazine and Cat Fancy Magazine, which are 150-year-old publications, are now called Dogster and Catster, so that’s really cool. The project lives on.
Every time a friend goes to the vet, they say, “Hey, I saw Dogster magazine.”
Reading's work involves fostering innovative communities both in person and online.
IFW: It sounds like the overarching goal of your work is finding ways to better understand people and bring people together. Tell us more about that.
SR: I’m into building communities. For many years now, I’ve been working in an open innovation methodology that collides startups with corporations, academic agencies, and government agencies with a human-centered design approach to product development. The similarities of why people organize, how you can support groups as they organize, and how communities can connect to one another based on shared experiences—even though they share little else in common—are all part of the human condition, not just part of the digital condition.
We can all learn from the experiences of others. I don’t have all the answers. You don’t have all the answers, and particularly, as you look to innovation, it’s essential to support both internal innovation processes and external innovation processes.
For instance, the smartest person is not in the room with you. It’s just always the case. You must be constantly looking to learn from others—sharing ideas, sharing processes, and having an openness toward the notion you shouldn’t exclusively take things as being proprietary. That helps you understand your true opportunity.
IFW: What keeps you inspired as an entrepreneur and innovator?
SR: I have an on-tap curiosity for what’s next in technology and how we can harness those technologies for good and not just for profit. I’ve been working on this notion of the open innovation platform that looks for collaboration at its core.
My father-in-law, Richard Rothstein, recently wrote a book called the Color of Law that represents his life work as an economist facing truths of de facto segregation head-on. He’s challenged me to do more and amplify my background for good. I can do this by helping others build and scale their opportunities in communities with less capital and less tolerance for risk. The lessons I’ve learned in my life and work should be shared lessons because the framework for a startup is the same wherever you are.
IFW: Speaking of startups and what people can learn from one another, tell us about the importance of Startup Weeks in cities.
SR: Startup Weeks are about building up local startup ecosystems, and that’s important. If you don’t support your local entrepreneurs, then it doesn’t matter if you attract a large tech company to your community. Who’s going to work there? That tech company is going to want to innovate both internally and externally because, again, they don’t have all the answers. So it’s essential that you support your local startup ecosystem because that’s the place where the next great ideas are going to come from.
As it relates to cities backing Startup Weeks, the response most government organizations make is that change is hard and slow—even in San Francisco. But we need to challenge that conventional thinking.
Supporting startups within the community, in partnership with academics, government agencies, and support agencies, will push and challenge your conventional thinking.
Startup Weeks foster a community of support around entrepreneurs and innovation.
IFW: You mentioned that making changes in systems like government can be difficult. How do you innovate within heavily regulated systems?
SR: I do a lot of work with heavily regulated industries: Banking, insurance, health tech, healthcare, and local government. They all share very similar journies and problem sets, and they can all learn from one another.
When they say something can’t be done, don’t stop. You must be persistent in your assurance that you must be open to innovation.
Yes, there are regulatory safeguards in place; you must understand those. But you can still build processes that create efficiencies around those systems. You can still reimagine what it is to even do business with those organizations.
I recently did a workshop with a group of global bank CEOs, and I basically told them, “Out of the 600 banks represented in this room, two of you will be out of business in the next 10 years.”
They looked at me like, “What do you mean? We’ve been around for 200 years.”
But it’s not about longevity anymore. Your competition doesn’t come from other banks now; it comes from others offering same services as you, and who can do it better, faster, and cheaper than you.
So just being open to the notion of innovation and change is essential. You don’t have to jump at new ideas and technology, but you’ve got to listen and pay attention. You have to challenge your very notion of being around.
IFW: You’re based in San Francisco, one of the national meccas for startup activity. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see in places like Fort Wayne, which have less developed startup ecosystems?
SR: San Francisco is one of nation’s startup meccas because there’s a critical mass of money, capital, talent, ideas, and motivation here. In places like Fort Wayne, overcoming the notion that you don’t have enough people to start building a startup community is important because you do. Along with that, building bridges to other cities and groups is easy.
For example, I hosted a global meetup that I started called Beer and Bagels. It was between San Francisco and Switzerland. It was beer-o’clock in San Francisco and bagel-o’clock in Switzerland. The Vice President of JP Morgan Chase and I moderated a meetup. We had 30 people in San Francisco watching a keynote from the Crypto Valley in Zug, Switzerland. We had a panel discussion in Bern, the capital, and we talked with a bunch of startups in Zurich. And we did it all over a Zoom Channel designed for four people.
That is a model you can apply to anything. Part of what I’m going to talk about at Startup Week in Fort Wayne is how you start these groups and how you seed these shared experiences.
Building startup communities is a shared activity; it’s a shared experience. It happens all over the world and all over the country, and I’m going to challenge folks to take that first step to find others who share their passion and who share their needs.
I would hope that there are champions who will arise from this Startup Week and will go a little bit further to take that extra step to help others. Then, it’s up to the community to support those champions and the new champions who come along with them.
IFW: Have you seen an example of this happening in another city that you can tell us about?
SR: Globally, Zurich is a really good example of this in Switzerland. They were very risk-averse. It was almost like they were the opposite of startup land.
Then, over a seven-year period, Zurich has gone from a risk-adverse, startup-unfriendly environment to a thriving center for technology and innovation. They did it by plugging into the global startup community—by being willing to share their ideas with others, by collaborating deeply, consistently, and constantly with partners with the innovation landscape.
They did it by collaborating with other startups, with corporates, with academics, and with government.
It’s all about understanding that there are plenty of other people working on the same problem sets as you, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.