On the unpredictable road of entrepreneurship, it can be immensely helpful to receive guidance and advice from those who have traveled those roads already.
Their experiences, distilled into teachable information, can help the rest of us avoid common pitfalls. Although their advice should be treated as a source of inspiration and not prescription, you can avoid a lot of useless theory by listening to those who are doers, not simply dreamers.
I enjoy finding hidden gems of this sort of information, and one source I uncovered recently is Stanford Business School’s YouTube channel. With world-renowned business leaders doling out straightforward, honest advice, you’d think the channel would be immensely popular, but alas, many great videos sit on the channel with a paltry amount of views.
I thought I’d do my part by narrowing down my ten favorite videos in a concise showcase. Nearly every entrepreneur I know can benefit from watching.
Note that many of these are deep dives, not 3-minute TED talks. Start with #1 on the list if you’re strapped for time, read the excerpts I’ve provided below, and feel free to bookmark and return later.
In his book Essentialism, McKeown discusses what he believes stops entrepreneurs with initial traction from reaching the next level: the opportunities afforded by their initial success. My personal take on this is “George Lucas Syndrome,” in that restrictions often force or guide early creations, organizations, and business ventures to be successful through strict focus.
However, when resources become abundant, focus can be divided and the entire direction of the operation becomes nebulous.
McKeown argues, “We shouldn’t ask, ‘How much do I value this opportunity?’ but ‘If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?’”
What is it that holds capable, driven people from breaking through to the next level? The answer to that question, to my great surprise, is success. I first observed this working with executive teams in Silicon Valley where I noticed that when they were focused on a few things, it lead to success, but success breed[s] so many opportunities and options that diffused the very focus that lead to success in the first place.
And so, exaggerating the point in order to make it, I found success becomes a catalyst for failure because it leads to what Jim Collins called the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” The antidote to that problem is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better. That means exploring the very critical things you want to pursue and being willing to eliminate the rest.
It seems that very few entrepreneurs are able to avoid the heavy burden of “imposter syndrome”—a mindset that afflicts even the most talented individuals. Drew Houston, founder of the now multi-billion dollar company Dropbox, reminds the audience at Stanford that entrepreneurship will always remain a learn-as-you-go experience.
One thing about this world is there are a bunch of different paths to success, but empirically it’s sort of surprising that so many of the companies that you’d think about in the “hall of fame” were started by people who basically had no idea what the hell they were doing either.
If you have that feeling, it should be of some comfort that Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, all of these things were started by first or second time entrepreneurs who were really figuring it out along the way, too.
In what has to be one of the funniest introductions on the entire Stanford channel, Tony Hsieh from Zappos details a story of an executive who came to visit him at Zappos HQ, only to sit down with a Zappos loyalty rep and find out that his wife had spent $62,000 with the company!
Hsieh continues the rest of this great talk outlining why, for him, building a brand people care about is one of the most exciting things in business, as well as the key decisions he made at Zappos that helped him do just that.
One of the most interesting pieces to me was the objective of their call center. Hsieh argues that they encouraged customers to call them, even though most calls did not result in sales. The reason? Spending five minutes with a customer allowed them to deliver “frugal wows” that built more goodwill than random, spray-and-pray advertising.
So our whole philosophy is let’s take most of the money that we would have spent on paid advertising or paid marketing, and rather than “buy” our exposure, instead, let’s invest it into our customer service and the customer experience—and let our customers do our marketing for us, through word of mouth.
On any given day about 75% of our orders are from repeat customers, and we basically grew from no sales in 1999 to, in 2008, which was the first year where we hit a billion dollars in gross merchandise sales.
Andreessen, co-author of the Mosaic browser and cofounder of venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, gives a stirring talk on “true grit”—the defining difference between those with talent who aren’t able to go the distance and those who do.
We (VCs) spend a lot of time talking about markets and technology, and we have a lot of opinions and I’m not sure all of those opinions are all that relevant all that often. I think probably the decision is and ultimately should be around people as like 90% of the decision.
The two things we really zero in on in people—they sound simple and they end up being very difficult—are courage and genius. Courage, which is to say not giving up in the face of adversity. You know, courage without genius might not get you where you need to go, but genius without courage almost certainly won’t.
Marketing is enthusiasm transferred to the customer. Putting aside industries, the features vs. benefits debate, and everything else, it’s hard (if not impossible) for entrepreneurs to succeed if they don’t hone their ability to transfer their excitement and passion to the customer.
Jobs himself once said, “To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world. It’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. And so, we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us. And what we’re about isn’t makin’ boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. We do that better than almost anybody, in some cases. But Apple is about something more than that. Apple at the core, its core value, is that, we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe…”
Passion is contagious. When I interviewed Suze Orman, one of the world’s great financial planners, I asked her point blank: “What makes you such an extraordinary communicator?” She said, “Because I’ve learned to appeal to somebody’s heart before their brain.”
You need to make emotional connections with people, you need to share what you’re passionate about. [Orman] is not passionate about mutual funds! She’s passionate about avoiding the crushing financial debt that caused so much pain for her and her family when she was growing up.
Carlos Brito, CEO of InBev embraces a common metaphor among those leading professional teams: that they would be wise to embrace lessons learned in leading athletic teams.
Athletic teams promote a performance culture, and Brito argues that in some corporate environments, this culture can help to spur on the highest performers, who are often the people who have the most to contribute to the team’s success.
In addition to the video, there is great coverage from the Stanford Business School website on Brito’s interview:
“Great companies are formed by great people. . . .What distinguishes you from an average company is the kind of people you can attract, retain, develop, train, promote. That's why it's important to hire people better than you," Brito said. "They push you to be better.”
“Talented people will ask you every day, ‘What about my future? Am I doing okay? I have an idea,’ said Brito, who calls these employees ‘high maintenance.’ But they’re still more desirable than ‘employees who don’t want to talk to you and when you talk to them, they have no ideas.’”
“The best employees themselves influence the corporate culture. For instance, talented managers are, in turn, likely to attract other top talent to the company, Brito said. And they appreciate and will demand that a company values meritocracy. They'll bail if they see the company promoting someone based only on his or her tenure, he said. "If you can't please everyone, please the most talented ones…"
McChrystal has an early quip in his speech that points out although the world may not be flat, it has gotten flatter as we’ve become more connected.
Connectedness, he believes, is a key part of leading a successful team. Individuals have individual goals to pursue, but everybody in the organization needs to know and embrace the ultimate destination that the group is heading towards.
[What is a shared consciousness and purpose?] What I think it is, is everybody understanding everything. Obviously that’s an unattainable standard, but everybody having all the same information. Not to draw the same conclusions, but so that everybody has all of the pieces of the puzzle and the combined wisdom.
It gives you the opportunity not to be dependent on a single person to direct this organization. And the second part of it is that all of these people across the organization feel like they own the mission. If you ask people what their mission is, it’s not, “Hey, I’m here cutting this stone,” it is, “I’m part of the team building this cathedral.”
This echoes the sentiments of leaders like Walt Disney, who always encouraged his staff to view themselves as part of a cohesive whole—talented performers who were all responsible for putting on the “best show possible” for children and their families.
You do need to be careful that a “mission statement” like this doesn’t become an eye-rolling affair. The team has to be able to see a positive, logical destination. If I were to evaluate Help Scout, I’d like to believe the mission is: “Help small businesses provide outstanding support for their customers.” That’s something I can get behind without cringing.
This belief helps eliminate “That’s not my job” syndrome. Employees must be able to focus and thrive within their specific skill set, but most teams are more willing to engage in Whole Company Support, or will step in to handle tasks outside of their responsibilities, when they know where the company (and the team) as a whole is heading.
In a beautifully written piece on TheAtlantic, James Hamblin posits, “Creativity is contingent on willingness to be judged.”
Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, describes in his talk below why he believes a culture that focuses on being “necessarily honest” is integral to creating the best work possible.
At that time [while working on Toy Story], we got a few things right. We did have a culture where the artists and the technical people were peers with each other. The other thing we had was something which we called “The Brain Trust.”
We had a certain group of people who were very remarkable at telling stories. And part of being remarkable. . .[was] that they had complete trust in each other. And they were very often what you might call “brutally honest,” except for them they thought of it as “necessarily honest,” and it was always taken that way. It was never a matter of ego or about putting somebody down; it was always about the story.
And therefore you could say something hard and it was taken in the right spirit. Getting that kind of camaraderie in a key group of people is just gold.
Expounding on the idea that what often drags talented teams down is simply a lack of straightforward conversation, Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001, describes how “candor in the workplace” keeps great teams great, and why growing organizations should seek to keep the honesty that is often present in small startups.
At the beginning the interview, Welch makes a brilliant point about how straightforward talk grows in a company’s culture by being rewarded. He is asked by the interviewer, “You say, ‘Let me tell you about the biggest, dirty little secret in business.’ That in every culture, every country, in every society and social class there is this lack of candor. Why is that so important, why is it so hard, and how do you change that?” Welch’s response:
It’s quite good in a small startup, where people are all comfortable with each other, they know what the mission is, they understand the values, they reward the values and they go after it with a passion. In a bureaucracy it tends to get more and more subjected to pressures from the side, from the top, from underneath.
People are afraid to speak out. And what it does, it slows you down. It really doesn’t improve the workplace...This morning I was in San Jose with about 500 executives from startup companies, and tech companies (Intel and others), and I asked...how many people thought they had straightforward relationships in their company—with their peers and with their associates.
I didn’t get four hands. It’s sort of frightening that people are sitting in an organization and don’t feel that people are laying it on straight, and telling it like it is. In the end, you get the behaviors you reward. If you reward candor, if you reward straightforward talk, you will get it.
In our final video, a panel of entrepreneurs and product managers discuss the dos and don’ts of getting ahead in product marketing and product management. It’s quite a talented set of speakers, featuring executives from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, PeopleSoft, and Sybase. Unfortunately, this is the one video that suffers from less-than-stellar audio quality.
Every time that I’ve seen a product marketing or management person worry about the product before the customer, I think they’ve failed.
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