Connect with us

Entrepreneurship

The Philosopher Kings of Silicon Valley

Published

on

In startup land, getting out of the building and moving fast are prerequisites for finding a repeatable and scalable business model before the money runs out. Philosophy — oft maligned as self-indulgent and impractical — has no place in the world of startups, right? The philosopher kings of Silicon Valley may beg to differ.

These days Paul Graham is famed for conceiving the idea of startup accelerators and then launching the world’s first, Y Combinator. Graham came to prominence as the co-founder of Viaweb, arguably the first ever web-based application, which he and his co-founder Robert Morris (yes, that Robert Morris) sold to Yahoo! for $49 million in 1998. He’s also known for his work on the Lisp programming language (and his own dialect of it). Terman became aware of Graham in 2005, soon after the publication of his book, Hackers & Painters. A computer scientist friend, who was pursuing a somewhat esoteric Ph.D. topic at the time, introduced me to one of Graham’s eloquent, thoughtful essays, which span a number of topics from startups to how to argue, to practical philosophy. Yes, philosophy. Graham was a philosophy major at Cornell, prior to undertaking his Ph.D. in computer science at Harvard.

And he’s not the only member of the Valley elite with a philosophy degree. Reid Hoffman — LinkedIn founder, member of the PayPal mafia, partner at Greylock and perhaps the world’s foremost angel investor — gained a Masters degree in philosophy from Oxford. His good friend and fellow PayPal mafioso, Peter Thiel, obtained his philosophy degree from Stanford.

Here are a couple of videos from Forbes that show Hoffman and Thiel reminiscing about their time together at Stanford. They describe meeting each other for the first time in a philosophy class, then spending hours on the quadrangle debating “life, the universe and everything”, and seeking “truth”. The videos also show that, far from spurning “public intellectuals” as might happen in certain other entrepreneurial circles, these two billionaires want to foster a culture of intellectualism to help guide the future of their country and the world.

That video provides a taste of Thiel’s and Hoffman’s motivations. But they were only just getting started. The next video touches on Shakespeare, PayPal, Hoffman’s early social media startup, the importance of hiring fast learners, and the importance of novelty in tech startups.

Next time you’re struggling to figure out how to make a big dent in the universe with your own startup, maybe the answer is to take time out to “read the Tempest and talk about its implication in life”. While such discussions obviously didn’t lead Thiel and Hoffman directly to their billions, it is reasonable to suggest that it was practice for thinking about the possible implications their own ideas would have on the world. One gets the distinct sense from watching the videos that these guys wrap the usual nuts-and-bolts business thinking in a meta layer of thought that asks not merely how to achieve product/market fit, but what would a particular idea mean for the world if brought to fruition? The dollars made are a side-effect of having created something that moves the world in a positive direction.

Graham, Thiel and Hoffman are intellectual doers. For them, it seems, there is no contradiction between deep, contemplative, intellectual thought and getting stuff done. In fact, creating game-changing businesses like PayPal, Y Combinator and LinkedIn may demand this sort of thinking. Why? One reason might be that philosophy teaches its students useful ways of thinking, how to look at existing concepts from all angles to see their relation to other concepts, and how to treat fragile new ideas with the necessary patience and care so as to give them the opportunity to bloom. These are soft but important skills in the business of creating things that change the world for the better. Philosophy doesn’t have a monopoly over this kind of thinking; really, we’re using the specific to make a point about the general. But philosophy is somewhat unique in that it typically plays out almost entirely in the mind, which could explain why it is often maligned for its perceived impracticality.

Despite having no formal training in philosophy, many other Silicon Valley heavyweights exhibit similar traits: a desire to understand the world and human nature, a willingness to explore ideas fully before casting them off to one side, an appreciation of the indirect route, and a propensity to question the status quo.

Ev Williams, founder of Twitter, Blogger and Medium, spoke with Kevin Rose recently about, among other things, how to have big ideas. While not explicitly framed in philosophical terms, Williams seems to personify this sort of thinking. Here’s what Williams says in the interview at around the 46th minute:

Any big idea is going to take a while to get there. By definition, if it’s big, and no one has done it before, it’s not going to be 1-2-3, ‘We got it!’ There is going to be a dark period in there, because you don’t know what the key to getting there is. You have to be willing to be in some murky territory, and be prepared to invest, if you really want to do something different.

This is a sentiment echoed by Sir Jony Ive in his Steve Jobs eulogy:

I think [Steve], better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.

Jobs, inherently philosophical in practically everything he did, was probably the ultimate philosopher king.

Anecdotally, many of those attracted to the study of philosophy possess a contrarian streak: they zig where others zag. Or, as Apple would have it, they Think Different. It is no coincidence, however: doubt and suspicion of the accepted wisdom lie at the heart of the philosophical method. Paul Graham relates that he chose to study philosophy in the first place partly because of the shock value; it was the “most impressively impractical thing to do,” a bit like “slashing holes in your clothes or putting safety pins through your ear”. Thiel, for his part, founded a campus newspaper that challenged some embedded aspects of Stanford University culture. He also created the Thiel Fellowship, which grants $100,000 to around 20 students each year if they quit university to pursue a startup, social enterprise or scientific research. Interestingly, though, he teaches the occasional course at Stanford University! Holding two or more apparently oppositional viewpoints simultaneously is another hallmark of the philosopher. Thiel is well known to live with a few perceived internal conflicts.

Is this post really about studying philosophy? No, it’s about having a philosophy. But it does seem that the general skills one picks up as a result of studying it provide a framework within which to ask interesting questions, play with left-field ideas, and grow them to the point where they’re concrete enough to test with the usual lean startup toolkit. A philosophical approach may just help you bootstrap your thinking into another plane, endow you with the courage to try something different, and give you the patience to persevere where others would pivot.

Just remember, though, that a billion dollar idea in your head isn’t worth anything to anyone. You still need to bring it to reality. Time to hustle.

___________________________________________________

About the Author

This article was produced by The Tech Street Journal. The Tech Street Journal is a digital publication that aims to shine a light on everything related to tech creation in Brisbane and the surrounding region. It aims to deliver a steady stream of original local tech news, which will be augmented by opinion and thought leadership from tech luminaries. see more.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings

Published

on

Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@malcolmABM

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

Continue Reading

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs

Published

on

(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

Continue Reading

Trending