How many times do you get a chance to ask spectacularly successful tech entrepreneurs anything you want?
Janine & I just completed two days of intense sessions with some of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs at creativeLIVE’s “Secrets of Silicon Valley” sessions. And yes, that was really alliterative. Sorry. Bear with me. Everyone talked in such catchy bullet-point laden phrases that it leaked over into my speech patterns.
If nothing else, these two days were proof that above all else, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have mastered the talent of giving really beautifully designed and stripped-down PowerPoint presentations.
Seriously folks, if you’ve ever suffered through a “Death By PowerPointless” presentation where you were assaulted with dense bullet-point slides with hundreds of words on them … slide after slide after slide, none of them memorable, that made you fantasize about massive natural disasters, zombie apocalypse or alien invasions … these two days were not that.
Here’s what was so special about the “Secrets of Silicon Valley” speakers, who are entitled to have more than their share of ego and self-satisfaction: they didn’t just brag. Nor did they ramble on in thinly disguised sales brochures for their companies.
The most compelling speakers hardly mentioned their companies. Instead, their focus was on us, the audience. On what we needed to know.
The speakers knew what they were going to say, and they said it with humor, efficiency and – most unexpectedly, from a group of uber-nerds – humanity.
If you get a chance, check out the speech by Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, where he talks about the lesson he learned the day he totaled his car, bribed a thief with a van full of stolen bikes, proceeded to vandalize his own car with a crowbar (much to the amusement of watching taxi drivers), and collapse in despair, thinking that he had just blown an interview that meant life or death for his company. (Don’t worry – he salvaged the NY Times interview by telling the entire saga to the reporter, who laughed, and rewarded his openness with a key mention.)
A recurring theme was that being honest and open about failings is a key ingredient to success. So many entrepreneurs think they have to hide the truth. But multiple speakers said it’s a must for entrepreneurs to admit to having problems, saying essentially, “If you claim everything is always fine, I know you’re lying. Show me how you’ll solve the problems.”
One of the more touching moments came when an audience of aggressive, hardened entrepreneurs teared up at the unexpected message in an video ad for Zillow, which I’ve embedded below:
Spencer Raskoff of Zillow gleefully read comments from the Twitterstream about this ad, mostly from people who were bawling like babies. Me? Naw. I had something in my eye.
Contacts were drying out or something.
BTW – what is it with these real-estate guys being total charmers, some of the best damn storytellers I’ve ever run across? If you share my belief that someone should disrupt the real-estate industry, check out the presentations from all three real estate-related companies, Zillow, RedFin, and NextDoor. What their founders all have in common is that they are changing the way people “find their way home.”
Guy Kawasaki introduced himself as Apple’s first product evangelist, back when they were pretty much inventing the whole concept of what a product evangelist was supposed to do. Not surprisingly, Guy has a grizzled Tech O.G.’s perspective:
“If not for PageMaker, we’d all have phones with physical keyboards. With batteries that last more than a day. And maps that don’t take you to Marin when you’re trying to make it to Potrero.”
As a rah-rah guy for tech for the past 30 years, it wasn’t surprising that Guy lit up when he talked about how technology not only got him the hot-rod of his dreams, but also allowed him to make sure his sons can’t drive it over 55 mph after they drop him off at the airport. Apparently, his Mustang GT500 has a special “MyKey” that he can program to save his toy from his teenagers.
Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, who co-wrote The Startup of You, talked about how best to build the kind of team at a startup that will allow you to go forth and conquer the world, even when the road to fortune and glory is impossible, impassible and utterly invisible to every eye but your own.
The key seems to be finding compatibility; one of the techniques they have ripped off from dating sites like eHarmony is finding out, “Do you laugh at the same stuff?” If team members share a similar sense of humor with your team/support network, that can be key to getting through the rough times ahead.
Reid also talked about the value of “getting cheap shots on goal” early on in the process. That is, to roll out quick updates and features in your product set to get feedback, and a sense of just how valuable your product is with your core userbase.
Reid and Ben were the big draw among several big names (you can tell by the prominence they were given in the creativeLIVE marketing materials). Their session is helpful if you are at a somewhat more advanced level, not just a “backyard mad scientist working out of his garage.”
The entire collection of speakers were great, and my assessment of the Secrets of Silicon Valley sessions was that they provided opportunities for people who are harboring dreams to do a bit of rational soul-searching. It seems that after the past almost-decade of economic stagnation and frustration, there are a lot of people who are considering their futures, and challenging themselves to stretch beyond where they are.
My travels around the world, teaching classes of eager young wanna-bes, has demonstrated to me that at this moment in time, the world is full of people who are changing their life focus. They are saying to me,
“I need to find something to do with my life that makes me truly happy – not just something that makes me money. Although that would be nice.”
The session with Nirav Tolia and Sarah Leary, the Co-Founders of NextDoor was a particular milestone in this emerging way of thinking. These serial entrepreneurs challenged the audience to start to think of the traits that they wanted in themselves, and in the companies they are trying to build.
They couched it in terms of Mercenaries v. Missionaries, because the greatest successes we see in the long term, are those of people (and companies) that are strategic, not just opportunistic. They broke it down this way:
Traits of mercenaries
Traits of missionaries
|Sprint(they have short-term thinking; want to make a quick hit, make a fast buck, and move on )||Marathon(want to build a company that grows and retains value, and keep doing what they love)|
|Obsess on competition (want to prove something by beating up on someone else)||Obsess on customers (want to prove to customers that they care about them & want the best for them)|
|Aristocracy of founders (everyone else is an employee and gets treated like an insignificant wage serf)||Meritocracy of founders (want the people they hire to learn from them, and go out and create amazing things on their own)|
|Financial statement (they put a huge premium on the numbers on the spreadsheets)||Value statement (they pay attention to the promises and commitments they make in their corporate philosophy)|
|Bosses or wolf packs (the guys in charge whip their underlings until they turn on each other and rip each other up in Darwinistic bloodbath to get promotions)||Mentors, coaches, teams (the guys in charge care for, support and teach employees and each other so that everyone makes progress and works together harmoniously)|
|“Deferred life” plan (everyone involved is just in it for the money; nobody really loves this, they’re just marking time until they get to do what they really want to do; so they work as little as they possibly have in order to get by)||“Whole life” plan (everyone is doing what they love, and the challenge is to get them to balance their lives by taking time off to explore side projects and hobbies, rather than working all the time)|
|Goal is making a giant stack of money||Goal is building something that means something to yourself and your customers|
|The ultimate payoff is to have all the trappings of success (and to be thereby trapped by all the things that you have taken)||The ultimate payoff is to do something of significance with your life (and to be freed by that lifelong act of giving)|
(Please click here and check out the NextDoor session and order the video if you want to learn more)
See what I mean about the strong emotional and spiritual undercurrents that start to surface when we talk about this stuff?
I leaned over to Janine in the middle of one of these sessions, and she whispered to me,
“You can’t learn this in graduate school. When I first got interested in the Internet, I thought about going back to graduate school, but nobody was teaching what I wanted to learn yet. These speakers, who are creating completely new ways of doing business are sharing their latest experiences at creativeLIVE. You can’t learn anywhere else, and it doesn’t cost $100,000 in student loans.”
Rather than continue to toot the horns of all the people I saw, just go there yourself and check it out while you can. And maybe even pay a few shekels for these sessions. If you’re about to start your own business, or if you have already started your biz and are feeling freaked out and lost – this is about the best investment you can make. (Order the 2-day seminar video at http://www.creativelive.com/courses/secrets-silicon-valley)