This afternoon I was over at Greylock Ventures where they had pulled 4 food trucks into the parking lot and invited their friends (thanks Brendan Baker!). As I ate Josh Elman’s lobster roll (take that for going to London!) I got to talk to a bunch of entrepreneurs, investors and the like.
I was excited to hear how many of them had read my post on the essence of the entrepreneur and wanted to chat about it. Not surprisingly, the topic of how to discover an entrepreneur is a hot one. VCs are constantly trying to pattern match against what a “great” entrepreneur is, and founders, regardless of how much they view being a CEO as skipping through the daises, are constantly asking themselves if they are true entrepreneurs. (Yes, I know “you,” White Whale, are the one founder than never questions your ability as an entrepreneur.)
As the conversation grew and morphed around the key characteristics of an entrepreneur, it seemed that we kept coming back to a common topic:
If there is an opportunity to cheat, an entrepreneur will take it.
Now hold on. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. While the assumption is that the cheater is someone who does it for personal gain, it was clear that in the case of an entrepreneur, the idea is the beneficiary.
It is clear that a true entrepreneur looks at a situation with a set of rules, and asks himself “how can I break these rules?” And then proceeds to do just that. Rules are there to provide guidance, not to provide control.
So we cheat. And we cheat always. And because cheating has a negative connotation, we call it hacking. And, boy, do we hack. Everything.
Sounds simple, but its an unique mindset to assume that there is always a better way, and that the powers that be haven’t thought of it yet. That its the responsibility of the entrepreneur to determine the best outcome, and ensure that it is achieved.
And what happens if you get caught? No big deal, hack the consequence.
About six years ago or so, I “got sober.” I hate describing it that way, feels like I landed somewhere between “got milk,” and “got crabs.” Mostly, I just stopped doing drugs and drinking. I even, pretty much, stopped smoking.
When I realized it was time to clean up my act I knew that I also had to live differently. Primarily, I had to change the mental dynamic that I was mired in immediately. I knew that there was something wrong in my brain, but like most of what I had done to that point, I figured I would just power past it.
I was wrong. This was something that was bigger than me, something that couldn’t be solved with a mix of ego and elbow grease. I had to come up with a few rules. Two to be specific.
1) Always Be Honest.
2) Always Do the Right Thing.
My first rule has had a bigger impact on my life than anything I have ever done.
Honesty is not easy. Josh Breinlinger’s post VCs are liars. And so am I. is a great example of how it seems honesty should work, but that in practice, it appears to be more humane, more appropriate to lie.
But what happens if you don’t have that choice?
Honesty becomes brutal. Not only can you no longer tell lies with the intent to not harm others, you cannot lie to yourself.
Think about that for a second. You cannot lie to anyone, including yourself.
During any given day, we lie to ourselves perhaps hundreds of times. Be it about our clothing or style, if its how we dealt with someone, or how much money we spent. We lie constantly to ourselves.
And we love it.
Take that away, and everything gets called into question. There is no longer the ability accept anything as absolute truth. You have to think through every action to ensure that its an act of truth, that you are doing it because its the right thing to do, that what you are doing matters.
Your relationships suffer.
I warn people when they ask me questions if they want me to respond. I explain my belief in brutal, complete honesty – without judgement or emotion – and that I will provide it without omission.
Its hard. I am not mean. I am extremely direct. I expect to have the same in return, and I ask for complete honesty.
External reaction has been interesting. I have been called a dick (easy one), emotionless (surprising one), intense (don’t get that one), refreshing (still think it’s too bad that honesty is refreshing), and most often, raw (like sushi, baby!)
It has changed how I view myself. I see all the inconsistencies, short comings and errors in my choices and even in my physical being (I tend to lean to the left, my eyes are droopy, and my right hand tends to get dark around the knuckles).
It has released me.
Truth drives everything. It reduces the time spent on anything else. Conversations become shorter (well, they would if I wasn’t so verbose), clearer and direct.
I am able to spend more effective time contemplating because there are less things to think about.
Mostly, being completely honest makes me feel better about me. I know who I am, and I know what matters.
What I learned by always being honest, is that I am no longer scared of the truth, because I have faced it. And won.
About a month ago, I was thinking, really contemplating, something. Don’t really remember what it was, but I do remember pausing in the middle of the contemplation and thinking to myself:
Why do you think so much?
I started to wonder if the act of contemplation was common among entrepreneurs. After all, if at this point it is not clear that I am obsessed with distilling entrepreneurship (in the greater sense, not the tech startup sense) to its core, then you haven’t spent 5 minutes speaking to me.
The question that is currently burning a hole through my brain is “What is the essence of entrepreneurship?” Are there key characteristics in entrepreneurs that one can see at birth? at 9 years old? In high school? Beyond?
Can a test be developed to determine the “entrepreneurial potential” of an individual that can be administered long before the person does any entrepreneurial action. (In this case, defined as “something business-y.”)
As the past couple of months have passed, I have started to spend more time watching how entrepreneurs engage with the world. Instead of always giving concrete advice, I provided concepts and watched them go.
It is no surprise that in talking with an entrepreneur, who is obsessed with making systemic change, that much of the conversion is of a contemplative nature. In fact, I would hazard to guess that the most successful entrepreneurs (from Tesla to Zuckerberg) spend a significant portion of their daily brain power contemplating.
What are they contemplating? Everything. That is the magic.
With a mix of intensity, intelligence and curiosity, a true entrepreneur sees every system, every business, even life itself as hackable. The genius of the 20% time at Google wasn’t that projects were developed that Google could exploit (although that was clearly an outcome), it was that it forced its engineers to stretch their entrepreneurial foundation by championing curiosity and contemplation. Entrepreneurism has to be practiced, and by allowing the time for hacking and thought, Google allowed its engineers to take that newly stretched entrepreneur muscle, and apply it to their day jobs. Frankly, it is no surprise that innovation at Google started to slip once the 20% rule was discontinued generally.
But what about execution? Certainly, the mark of a great entrepreneur is their ability to execute? Not really. The mark of a great entrepreneur is relentless resourcefulness which includes surrounding himself with a top team that is focused on execution. Does the entrepreneur “do” stuff or just think all day? Of course, they execute at some level, but it might not be writing every line of code, or selling every widget. But that is not their value. Their value is seeing the world as it should be.
I continue to explore the essence of the entrepreneur, and am slowing building a corpus of knowledge around the most evident characteristics. Perhaps one day, I will find someone to help me build Professor X’s Cerebo to find entrepreneurs (although mutants would be fun) or create a game that allows entrepreneurs to self-select like The Last Starfighter.
Entrepreneurs are hopelessly hopeful. Given the disposition to always see the world as it could be, its impossible for an entrepreneur to be anything less than hopeful.
Mix that with never-ending optimism, and you have someone who can change the world and motivate the people around them to join them in that battle.
And, given that entrepreneurs are often taught to solve problems that they have, its not surprising to hear creation myths that include some roadblock that the entrepreneur experienced and which inspired him to start a company to build a product to solve a problem.
But here is the part we all miss: The people we are building for are inherently hopeless.
Before you stop reading and curse me under your breath, follow my reasoning.
Most people chase the American Dream. the American Dream is a happy marriage, with kids. Its owning a nice house, in a good neighborhood with solid schools. Its having a great job, and being able to take a vacation every year. Oh, and how could I forget the dog.
To achieve that dream, you must first give up hope. You must stop looking at the world as it can be, and accepting it for what it is. You have to realize that the path to achieving that dream is straight, and while may have its challenges, has been traveled so much, that the path itself is worn clear, and the majority of the difficulties have been removed.
To achieve the American Dream, you have to remove hope and replace it with acceptance. You take away malleability and replace it with a plan.
And, for most people, that’s an awesome outcome.
So why, when we develop products, we think about adoption in two stages: the early adopters and then the ‘normals’? Aren’t they, by definition, two completely different types of people with two completely different sets of needs and desires?
Early adopters, which tend to have entrepreneurial tendencies, want to accept that the world could be different. They may not be able to see it themselves, so they hold entrepreneurs, folks like Steve Jobs, in high esteem, so they can see the world through their eyes. They love products that are new and different and exciting. Products that redefine categories. Products that they can show their early usage with pride.
But the normals are different. They are folks that are chasing the American Dream. They only want to use or spend money on something that helps them achieve that dream.
We are building products that get a lot attention by our peers, mostly early adopters. We care what the tech press (which is basically the Early Adopter News) thinks and chase the latest thing, and the products reflect that.
If the mainstream are chasing the American Dream, what benefits are we building into our products that help the hopeless achieve that dream?
We don’t. We assume we can convert the hopeless to care less about the American Dream and more about a changing world. We build apps and services that inject hope into a psychological/sociological system that demands that hope gets removed. You cannot focus on changing the world if you want to achieve the American Dream, as the American Dream exists only in this world.
Products and services are easy to build, and as such, we spend less time thinking through them. We believe that marketing — viral or otherwise – will overcome any product shortcomings, and that downloads or users are the real success metric, when the truth is that we should only be measuring if our products are making it easier to achieve the Dream.
Yes, I know. There is a lot of money to be made in advertising.
Of course, Twitter is a huge platform and Facebook reaches a billion people.
And when people like Michael Lazerow – who’s very personal video is heart warming (pun intended), and shows why so many people I respect respect him – exit large, it makes me happy.
Happy that good people have good outcomes.
That being said, your startup makes me die inside.
I understand that having yet another place for brands to advertise in yet another unique and innovative way is awesome. I love that you are respecting the sanctity of my online experience by integrating the brand experience into my web experience. I do. Really I do.
But, the complete lack of adding to the beauty of the world, beyond the optimization of monetization, just makes me sad.
I spent part of this past weekend looking at art. I love art. I collect it, and have close to 100 pieces in my house. I read novels and poetry and listen to smart people drop knowledge on philosophies that actually make the world a better place.
Each time I spend time seeing the world through a paint brush or typography selection, I realize that everything I wish I could be lives inside a skill set that I will never master.
I get that we are building businesses, after all I have built/helped build seven of them. And yes, we can’t pay our employees with pretty pictures or hugs, or even with a deep belief in their ability to lead the charge in changing the world. But, we can build things that make the world better. We can find ways to match monetization with improvement.
I’m not talking about social good or entrepreneurship. I get that stuff, and it matters. Lord knows that the world’s infrastructure needs support. What I am talking about is the beauty of image and story being shared. The amazing ability for emotion and meaning to cross cultural barriers with a simple brush stroke or turn of a phrase.
This morning I watched Simon Sinek’s How Great Leaders Inspire Action, and his premise is that they focus on the why first, then the what and how. Watch it, great video.
Why? How? What?
The three most important questions an entrepreneur needs to answer. Why does your company matter? How does it make the world a better place? What are you doing to achieve that?
I get that you are making it easier for brands to connect to their customers. I understand that you are reducing friction between the buyer and the sale.
But why do you matter? How are you making the world a better place?
Our parents spent their time figuring out how to monetize the world, and made money a scoreboard, which has somehow translated into value.
We, as the harbingers of change, have a duty to leave this world better for the generation that travels behind us (even though they are moving at a much faster rate than we can even begin to fathom).
We need to spend our time on how to make it beautiful once again.
I spend the majority of my day with creators, authors and publishers. The ability of storytellers to see a world that could exist and share it with words and pictures is amazing.
When I am not chatting with storytellers, I am talking about how to distribute their stories digitally.
Easy right? Just put it on iBooks or Kindle or NOOK. Done.
Turns out its not that easy, but thats a story for another day (or just go check out Graphicly, its what we do thousands of times a day).
What is fascinating is that creators are beginning to take into account the delivery mechanism of their stories.
That’s right. Tablets are fundamentally changing storytelling.
Think about it. A paper book is a self-contained item. Its the text, pictures, and cover. There is nothing within the delivery mechanism that takes away from its primary purpose – delivering the story.
But tablets are different. Their primary purpose is not delivering stories. Their primary purpose is to provide distraction.
Every app on your tablet is screaming for attention. Bing! email. Ding! Someone posted a picture. Zing! Meeting. There is nothing about a tablet that is built on the concept of focus.
We accept it because we live in a world where distraction has become the norm, and we spend more time chasing shiny objects than on completion.
Multi-tasking arises out of distraction itself.
– Marilyn vos Savant (Guinness Record Holder for Highest IQ)
But productivity isn’t the only thing that is hurt by multitasking. Reading is as well.
At Graphicly, we collect analytics on the reading behavior of folks reading digitally, and we found some really interesting things.
People read more often digitally. Perhaps its less of a commitment. Perhaps its easier to carry around a multi-purpose tablet than a book. People will read multiple sessions daily. Makes sense. Two directions on the commute and before bed.
Coupled with reading more often, people read less per session. Seems to average about 6-8 pages per session.
Also, lets not forget the impact of the socialization of reading. We have found that people who like, comment, etc on books via Facebook generate about 2,000 impressions per action. Books seem, on some level, to be naturally viral. Goodreads, with more than 5 million members, is built on the premise that books are inherently social, and with its top 1,000 Alexa ranking seems to be right.
Digitally, it seems that people are reading 6-8 pages per session, with each session lasting 15-20 minutes, and multiple sessions occurring daily.
If thats the case. That instead of longer reading sessions that occur more infrequently (paper books tend to be read in a single long session per day) how should creators adapt? Should authors write differently?
Well, in the early 1800’s a young writer named Charles Dickens figured out how to give his readers the ability to manage the distractions around them.
He pioneered serialized writing. By putting out chapters monthly, he wrote in a style that allowed each chapter to stand on its own, but as a completed collected work became a masterpiece.
This style also allowed for Dickens to take advantage of reader feedback immediately. He may have been the first lean startup.
As I speak to creators we chat about the idea of releasing short “bursts” of story – 6 to 8 pages that while it can stand on its own, naturally leads into the next 6 to 8 pages. It creates two realities, one: the author loses less readers as they move from story to story in their short daily reading sessions, and two gives the author a greater chance to build a fanbase. In the blogging world, for example, there is a known correlation between daily posting and increased page views. Fans grow out of exposure and consistency.
In many ways digital books have been a boon to publishers. They can create and distribute stories more cost-effectively from more authors than ever before. For self-publishing authors, there is a greater chance that their story will catch on and drive significant sales.
But as readers change their reading habits so should authors change their writing habits.
The presentation layer of books must adapt to digital.
Authors and creators must take advantage of the shiny objects, not by adding bells and whistles to their stories, but by providing stories that lend themselves to the changing reading habits of their fans.
eBooks are just getting started, and the next Charles Dickens is out there.
Then B.I. said, “Hov' remind yourself
nobody built like you, you’ve designed yourself”
I agree I said, my one of a kind self
Get stoned every day like Jesus did
What he said, I said, has been said before
“Just keep doing your thing,” he said, say no more.
– Jay-Z, A Dream
These are the words I live by. Puts me in an interesting conundrum, similarity breeds acceptance, but challenging social norms changes the world. I would rather have a lasting positive effect on that world, than be accepted by it.
I got to thinking about this the other day. After months of growing my hair and having fun taking photos, I shaved it all off. I never stopped in the middle and got it styled. (I would argue it had a style all its own.)
There was never a minute where I wanted to have a [insert style here] haircut. I never cared if my choice of hair or hairlessness made it easier (or harder) for me to be easily accepted into the mainstream.
I’m probably extreme in my desire to be different, but I consider my definition is my focus on helping to see products developed that truly change how people interact with each other and the world. (Notice I didn’t say money. I lost my interest in money as soon as I learned how little a lot of money mattered. In fact, I am happy in the reality that I will never be rich. Being rich carries a pile of problems that I would rather not add to the pile I am currently dealing with.)
I guess it all kinda hit home the other day when I was chatting with someone much smarter (and well-regarded) than me. We were chatting about the education of the entrepreneur, and whether its possible to identify “the next Zuckerberg” when they are 10 years old and he said to me:
“The commonality I am seeing in the greats: Zuck, Hoffman, Gates, Jobs, etc. is that they understand how the world should be and how they want to get there. But, most importantly, they are right.”
I am not a “great,” but I know how the world should be in terms of how people should interact with each other. Not the Golden Rule bullshit, but the importance of the free flow of information and speed of communication has on the development and improvement of community. Its why Graphicly is so important. Stories are the rawest form of communication and sharing of information. There is nothing more universal than story. (Post on that later.)
We are the sum of our parts; of our experiences. And over the years, I have realized that my whole is one that has been designed by me to be not part of the popular, to be outside of acceptance. It is impossible to truly effect positive change on the world if you spend too much time trying to belong to that in which you are trying to change.
My friend Francisco Dao runs a group called 50Kings. Its easy to compare it to The Lobby, or Summit Series or TED, or many other membership(ish) driven organizations that tout a high quality group of folk. What I like about 50Kings is that its limited to no more than 50 people, and the folks selected to attend are selected because of their diverse value and backgrounds. Basically, most of us that attend are people you never have heard of, but by the end of the event are thankful to know.
Back to Moab. This event, after having a cattle drive somewhere cattle-ly and a pirate war in the British Virgin Islands, this was focused on doing several things like downhill mountain biking, off-roading, white water rafting, and the coup de grais, swinging from an arch at speeds in excess of 60 mph.
Of course, there were wonderful dinners, nights filled with Werewolves and a few things that will always stay among us Wampires.
And in what seems like a counterintuitive move, I skipped it all (well, except Werewolf). Why would I spent the money and time to travel a few states over to just skip the majority of activities?
Because I wanted to challenge myself.
Its thrilling and exciting to jump from a mountain or hurl yourself down one on a bike, and you learn a lot about your level of bravery and ability to face fear, but I know my limitations there. I have done enough to know where that line is in the sand. What I didn’t know was if I could spend time with myself for days on end with minimal distraction and noise (both internally and externally).
Cell phones didn’t work, internet was spotty, so my time on Twitter and Facebook and, more importantly, email, was limited. After a day or two I realized that the social network noise so many of us complain about wasn’t coming from the output of my connections, but from my desire to not miss a thing.
Its not the number of connections I have to the people around me, regardless of the depth of our relationship. Its my desire to listen.
Take that and couple it with the thoughts going through my brain about our business, other businesses, new ideas, my life, my faults, my negatives, my positives, my family, my, well everything, and its no surprise that I throw my hands up and yell, “enough!”
We, as technical beings, lean on technology to solve this issue. Companies like Radiant6 and HootSuite are sold for, or raise boatloads of cash to solve this problem – but technology is not the solution.
Each day I woke up, and went outside and sat by the river. I closed my eyes and listened to the river flow by, the wind power through the trees, and whatever natural sound was around me. I used my ears to listen – not my eyes, which is what social media forces us to do – to take what should be auditory stimulus and makes it visual – and, while it was really hard to sit still for just five minutes, I started to note a change in myself.
First, after about two minutes, I started to feel my shoulders and back relax. The thoughts that were running around my head at mach 10, slowed to mach 2. I could parse them more easily, which led me to dump the unimportant ones quickly.
By minute three to three and a half, my thoughts had slowed almost to a stop. I could pull out the one or two that I wanted to spend time with. Instead of getting spun up on that idea immediately, I marked it for “thought later” and set it aside. And, strangely, the stress and worry that sat in my heart started to abate.
At minute five, I opened my eyes, and found that the sounds I heard continued, my thoughts stayed at a manageable pace, and more importantly, I was ok. Okay to just be.
As the day progressed, I found that I was able to deal with the thoughts I set aside more logically and clearly. Things didn’t seem to fire me up as quickly. I was more relaxed and focused.
I did this for four days, and have continued to do the same since returning to California, and the feeling and focus has continued. I cycle through ideas more quickly, make decisions more emphatically, and more importantly, am willing to stand in the firehose of social media and let the majority of it pass me by.
By doing what has always been impossible for me – taking five minutes for myself to be completely silent internally and externally – I learned an amazing lesson:
Anger and hate against one we love steels our hearts, but contempt or pity leaves us silent and ashamed. – Edgar Rice Burroughs
Every Mother’s Day, I think about the post I should write about how awesome my mom is, but I always hesitate because I don’t want her to get a big head.
But yesterday I was at brunch with some friends, and something my mom used to tell me kept running through my head as I sat there talking to Nyla Rodgers of Mama Hope.
“Don’t play on pity.”
If you haven’t met Nyla, find a way to spend a few minutes with her. Not because her non-profit, Mama Hope is amazing. Nor because she has spent the majority of her life in service to others. There are a dozens and dozens of people that do amazing things and live a life of service.
Spend time with Nyla because she embodies not playing on pity. She understands that pity-based philanthropy is ultimately not the positive experience that the world needs.
You see, Nyla, and Mama Hope, believe that we should look at the world, and the problems its faces, not with pity but with hope.
Why Stop the Pity?
Because when pity is gone, the following take place: dignity. opportunity. support. connection. capacity. creativity. perseverance. community. meaning. contribution. joy. potential. triumph. love. belief. collaboration. partnership. empathy. change. hope.
Think about it. Think about all the contributions you have donated – be it money or time – how many times did you do it because you felt pity? It’s easy to give money or time to feel better about your part in the world, but its amazingly hard to look at someone who is struggling and find a way to help them unlock their potential.
Does that mean we shouldn’t give money to help feed the hungry? Of course not.
But we should demand that the organizations that we contribute to work to expose the communities we are helping as people who share the same traits as us–happiness, joy, hope, sadness, excitement, entrepreneurship–rather than the pitiful people we see in non-profit advertising today.
We talked about ways to disrupt the non-profit space. Think of the current cycle: small, poor company begs rich people and companies for money so they can provide money and aid to super poor, small countries.
What’s better marketing? Leaning on the pity bone of the rich folk or showing how the injection of entrepreneurial ideas and support can accelerate the ability of villages and town to become fully self-sustaining?
Nyla and I spoke for awhile yesterday about her vision of seeing philanthropy move away from pity based marketing and fundraising to one based on hope. Stop showing flies on children, and instead show the similarities between communities. Make the support provided communities come from an understanding of sameness, rather than a desire to be benevolent.
Nyla and her team at Mama Hope, are working to change that, and the work they have done to date is amazing. 100% success rate with their projects. Projects that are identified by the community. Projects that are completed using locally supplied materials and labor. Projects that connect communities across the globe. Projects that are devoid of pity and full of hope.
Best way to be happy professionally, is to find what you love get paid for it.
As soon as I get paid for what I love, it becomes a job. Work. And I hate work.
Man, things are just screaming at my startup. We’re kill-ing it. I just love my startup.
You don’t love your startup. You love the success you are having.
It’s that fundamental truth that causes so many startups to fail.
When you decide that you want to become a startup founder (I’m assuming you are already an entrepreneur, because that is something you are, not something you become) you do it most often for two reasons:
There is a problem you want to solve; and/or
Working for The Man sucks balls.
Lets start with #2. Working for The Man can, and most often, does suck balls. There is a lack of control around your choices of what to work on. You may think differently than The Man as to what has the potential to be successful, but you only get to voice your opinion, not put your plan into action. Therefore, more often than not, you believe that The Man is an idiot, and see your friends at startups and think to yourself, “Working for The Man sucks balls.” and fantasize about working for your own company.
The reason for your hatred of your job is The Man, and the removal of The Man makes it possible to love your job, but you know that The Man is not leaving, so instead, the only answer is that you leave.
Cool. Got it? Still here? Cool. Lets stop talking about sucking balls, and continue on to #1. There is a problem you want to solve.
Most problems exist because the solutions are either extremely hard, or more likely, impossible.
Therefore, you will fail. Or maybe not. But probably.
And, its going to be really, fucking hard. The hardest thing you have ever done. Think Sisyphus hard. You will fail more often than you succeed.
Want to know a secret?
Love the success. Don’t love the company, the product, the job, the press, the false positives, the co-founder or even the investors. Just love the success.
How do you know something is successful? Not if your friends, investors or even early adopters tell you it is.
Only metrics will tell you. And, you should no more than 2-3 metrics that you actually care about, because they actually tell you if you are actually be successful.
One metric should be whatever you think you can monetize, even if you are not focused on revenue early.
Personally, I don’t care if you focus on revenue early or not, but have a goddamn plan. Think through how you are going to make money. Or test how you are going to make money, and be able to articulate it. There will come a time when you have to turn it on. Don’t be caught out of money and out of time.
Focus on what makes you successful and on nothing else.
Shut up. You don’t love your startup.
You love success.
And if you don’t, then go back to working for The Man.