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I’ve spent many of my commuting hours over the last year listening to podcasts from Stanford University’s DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture series. These lectures have taken place every Wednesday for the last ~9 years, so there are hundreds at this point.
I started with the lectures in ’05 and have been working backwards. Below are some of my favorite presenters from ’05 and ’06. I’ve included select quotes, but each of these has dozens of quotes that are equally insightful. Despite being nearly a decade old, the advice and themes presented in these lectures are timeless.
Stay tuned – I’ll release the rest of the 2006 speakers in my next installment.
Mark Zuckerberg in ’05 (Facebook) – From Harvard to the Facebook
Starting at 49:40
“As organizations grow, a lot of the issues and structure that’s put in place is put there because a comfort level breaks down in people communicating freely, in a way that they can when they’re friends… If you’re working with your friend, you can tell him or her whatever you’re thinking and it’s not going to offend him or her and they’ll probably comprehend it similarly to how you imagined it… A lot of the stuff, like saying take 20% of your time to go put it into action an idea that you might have is necessary in a large organization where people can’t necessarily speak the same language or where ideas can’t get out freely…
One of the things that I do focus on at Facebook is making sure that the culture is very friendly in that people hang out. Instead of having 20% of people’s time spent working on their own projects, I make people hang out with each other… I can’t force people to hang out outside of work, but I can make it so that people are more comfortable with each other and can communicate more freely… By doing this, we create a culture where people just talk to each other about stuff and get what each other is thinking more clearly than they would if the organization was more bureaucratic or if people wouldn’t be heard. Since people are always talking, ideas get bounced off each other and then eventually someone starts making something and then, we’re done.”
Joe Liemandt in ’05 (Trilogy) – The Passion and Perseverance Behind a Start-up
At 23:20 “When you’re doing your startup, it is so much better to be lucky than right.”
At 27:00 “Fortune 500s don’t want to buy from startups, but if you’re the only one that have it and they want it, the corollary is that they are price insensitive because they are only buying it from you because they have no other choice.”
Tom Byers in ’06 (Stanford) – Ten Enduring Success Factors for High Technology Entrepreneurship
9:06 “I’d love to be ready to have another 50 year career because stuff, whether it’s in IT or nano or bio or my favorite one here, the environment and energy. It’s really the intersections of these (that’s most exciting).”
15:00 “Great leaders have a this wonderful ability of keeping this in mind: vision drives strategy, which drives execution. CEOs and founders have to evolve as people. It’s really interesting to watch and track that.”
Janice Fraser in ’06 (Adaptive Path) – Entrepreneurial Leadership Qualities
5:52 “You have to chose your partners based on who you want to go through the rough times with. Every single entrepreneurial venture, whether it’s very successful or a dismal failure, will go through rough times. You’re going to have to make really difficult decisions. Every day, you’re going to have to wake up and decide what to spend money on or more importantly, what not to spend money on. You’re going to have to decide which of the ten ideas you have is the one you’re going to do. And you’re going to argue about that, at least if it’s good. If there’s potential, you’re you’re going to have really hardcore meaningful arguments every day. So the most important foundation piece for any business that you want to start is having a solid partnership.”
16:50 “You need to create meaning not just in the world, you also have to create meaning for the people who are making this entrepreneurial venture go. It takes tremendous effort to get a new venture off the ground. You have to be 100% passionate about it. You have to keep your feet on the ground and be rational, but at the same time you have to live this dual life where you are just zealously pursuing this opportunity.”
Marissa Mayer in ’06 (Google) – Nine Lessons Learned about Creativity at Google
11:40 “It turns out when we were small we launched really rough things that weren’t very good all the time. But the key is iteration. When you launch something, can you learn enough about the mistakes that you made and learn enough from your users that you ultimately iterate really quickly? We make mistakes every time, every day, thousands of things wrong with Google and this product that we know we could fix, but if you launch things and iterate really quickly, people forget about those mistakes and they have a lot of respect for how quickly you build the product up and make it better.”
Kathy Eisenhardt in ’06 (Stanford) – Research Lens on Understanding Entrepreneurial Firms
Starting at 36:40
“If there are a lot of opportunities around a space that’s a really good place to be. On the other hand, there are some really bad places to be and that’s in complicated markets. That’s a market where you have to get a lot of things right to be successful. Biotech is a classic example of a complicated market where you have to get FDA right and you got to get a whole bunch of things right to be successful. You want low complexity, high velocity.
If you’re in a highly ambiguous market (unclear business plan, don’t know who customers are), it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. You can just do a bunch of stuff and it’s mostly about luck. In contract, a low ambiguity market is all about skill and about being at the right structure. If you’re in a really ambiguous new market, you want to structure it. If you’re a skilled person you want to get rid of that ambiguity by structuring it. If you’re not so skilled and you want to learn it then don’t want it to structure.
If it’s an unstable, uncertain market, then what you really are trying to do is find the optimal structure. As you go in an uncertain market, what you typically want is less structure and you typically want to manage the amount that you have. What makes uncertain markets so hard for big companies is they’re coming from markets where it didn’t matter how much structure you had and they’re going to a market where it does matter. The risk for young companies is they don’t get structured enough. In my experience most of the best entrepreneurial companies have more structure than their peers.”
A lot of people have been asking me why I am leaving the venture capital world to begin a difficult and uncertain life as an entrepreneur. It’s simple – I want to make awesome stuff. I taught myself the basics of coding and was accepted into Hack Reactor, a coding bootcamp that runs 6 days per week and ~12 hours per day.
I want to point out that Venture Capitalists are an essential component of the startup ecosystem and my departure from VC is due to the fact that I want to be a builder. Without Venture Capitalists, early stage founders would have a much more difficult time raising funds, exits would be far fewer, and many of the most interesting tech companies would likely never have existed.
This blogpost from Shopify gets me super fired up. It’s an aggregation of TED Talks that have direct relevance for entrepreneurs and startups. TED, for those that don’t know, is an annual conference that brings together the world’s most interesting minds and challenges them to give the talk of their lives in under 18 minutes.
Over 900 of these talks and performance are available for free to the general public on TED.com and many are relevant for entrepreneurs. Mark Hayes at Shopify pulled together 12 of the ones he felt were most directly relevant for internet startups.
One of my favorites is a speech given by Simon Sinek about why people make purchasing decisions and how to lead effectively.
Memorable quotes include:
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
“If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.”
“What you do proves what you believe and people will do the things that prove what they believe.”
Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action
If you learn to program you’ll have a superior sense of the true cost of software development and will be a much more successful non-technical cofounder. The most precious resource is time and many non-technical cofounders get tripped up by a false sense of how long things should take to implement. Learning to code has never been easier and you can check out my earlier post on how to get started.
Business cofounders shouldn’t get lured into thinking that they don’t need technical skills when looking at the CEOs of multi-billion dollar tech companies. Guys like Zuckerberg, Bezos, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates all started out with a solid foundation of technical knowledge, which contributed to development efficiency.
This article from Rob Spectre over at Fast Company points out that Donald Trump’s success is the result of his knowing the costs associated with real estate development better than any of his competitors. In the end, running a successful startup is about out competing your competition in the pursuit of limited resources: funding, advice, talented engineers, time, etc. Having a basic understanding of coding makes entrepreneurs better competitors.
Jack Groetzinger, the founder of SeatGeek wrote an article today that puts a unique spin on the cost-cutting focus of many startups. Many founders focused on running a lean startup are focused on minimizing what they view as excess expenditures and, as a result, effectively value their time at $0 / per hour.
For example, if it takes me an hour to get somewhere by bus for $5 and 30 minutes to get somewhere by train for $10, I only save $5 in that half hour by choosing the bus. If my time is worth more than $10 / hour to me (which it is), I maximize my value to my startup by taking the train.
However, it is tough to put a dollar amount on intangibles associated with this decision. For instance, I may choose the bus if the bus better exposes me to other entrepreneurs traveling from Palo Alto to San Francisco that might help my business.
A smart entrepreneur will estimate what their time is worth and the non-dollar impact of their choices and make decisions that maximize their value.