When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?

When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?“ Books and Business Model Generation for Stanford Entrepreneurship

This was the question Professor Campbell, one of Lantana’s resident fellows asked myself and a couple students during a serendipitous encounter at brunch this weekend on Stanford’s campus. Professor Campbell serves on a committee that surveys seniors on their experiences at the university. One of the questions he wanted to ask that did not make it into the recent survey was to ask graduating students how many times during their Stanford careers they had sat down and read a book uninterrupted for two hours or more.

He bets the median in their four years here would be zero.

Delving into my own experience so far at school, I frighteningly might have to agree with him. College is a fast paced place where we are always rushing to learn and do as much as we can. Our current generation takes a constant bombardment of information. Despite the many experts and studies that admonish it, multitasking is a way of life. Even after having locked myself out of Facebook for the last eight months, it is still all too easy to be distracted by “productive”  tasks. There are assignments to be done, emails to be attended to, friends who want to catch up, extra curricular meetings to attend, and errands that I remember, not to mention the buzz of Silicon Valley! How would I have two hours to read without a specific goal of cramming material, if I usually don’t have enough time to sleep?

Professor Campbell continued saying that students surfing the web in a lecture are about as cognizant of the material as they would be if they were stoned. Many educators of his generation, he explained, believe that a collegiate education is going to the library, sitting down with Tolstoy or Marx, and losing oneself in the material. ”We need to accept that your generation learns differently,” he told us.

Our residential fellow has a very forward thinking mindset wised by the retrospective depth of a history scholar. He concluded that the multitasking we do at Stanford might actually prepare us better for the kind of high achieving, ADD lifestyles that many of us will pursue in our later careers.  Teachers need to learn to adapt to the new way that students learn. However, we both agreed that we lose something inherently valuable in our education when we cannot recall the last time we have so wholly lost ourselves in a some material.

I started this week with an experiment. I finished all the commitments on my mind, cleared my schedule, put my phone on airplane mode, zipped my computer into my backpack, found a quiet dorm lounge, took out Alexander Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation, and read. I was in my own world. When my alarm rang me out of my trance two hours and five minutes later, I didn’t want to stop.

I had an appointment with a friend scheduled right after, and I couldn’t wait to tell him how rewarding it had been to take the time to immerse myself in Osterwalder’s material. I look up to him as one of the most poignantly divergent thinkers I know in the Valley. I knew he had taken Professor Steve Blank‘s Lean LaunchPad class where the book in required reading.

But while I was bubbling with connections to various material, he stopped me: “I’ve never had the chance to actually read it,” he told me. He had only skimmed it! My mind was abuzz with all of the information he was missing that I wanted to share. I took a certain glee in the little depth I had gained in my short reading session. During the school year I sometimes forget how much I love the kind of unrestricted reading I only have the time to do during the summers – and sometimes not even then. I had just rediscovered it.

Two hours isn’t that long.

In the Valley, I am constantly coding, problem solving, and executing, but I think I owe it to myself to rekindle my relationship with paper and print. At heart, I am a technocrat with a conflicting nostalgia for the pre-information age.

When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?

Find a Problem to Find Happiness

Ernest Shackleton's Ship "The Quest" leaving under the Tower Bridge

Ernest Shackleton's ship "The Quest" leaving under the Tower Bridge

Since my last post, I have acquired a certain nostalgia for polar explorers of the early 20th century. These men saw a problem in the gap of human knowledge of the farthest reaches of the earth. In the most romantic sense possible they sailed off to fill that gap. Expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s (above) met with some of the most trying conditions on earth. The realities of the expeditions were quite the opposite of romantic. Shackleton died before the completion of the case of the Quest Expedition. However, there is a reason that the same expedition is called the last of the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.”

Polar explorers were problem solvers.

Those are exactly the type of people that Oliver Segovia recently wrote about in his blog post To Find Happiness, Forget About Passion in the Harvard Business Review. In his article, he writes about how the “jobless generation” is finding out that the lesson they have been taught of “following one’s passion” does not always lead to happiness.  Instead of worry about what makes us happy, he says, we should find large problems.

Working on large problems like those that Shackleton and his peers tackled places your focus outside yourself to others. Segovia says that solving large problems is more rewarding both financially and intangibly.

Many people tell me to follow my passions.  Even more people tell me to do what makes me happy. For the last year I have engaged in some deep introspection to find out exactly what that means to me.  While I agree with Segovia’s weight on developing situational awareness, I think internal awareness is an equally valuable asset.

However, an experience this past week reminded me of Segovia’s article. I had one of those weeks when you can’t sleep, you try to work, but everything seems to drag no matter how hard you grind. On top of it, I was trying to get a Linux operating system installed on a homebrewed computer for the first time. Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

On Thursday night, after laying in bed for three hours straight I had had enough. I got out of bed, sat down, and started working. The Linux system had been eating at my mind. I just had to fix the problems with it. I started at 2:30am and by 6:40am, I had a fully functioning system. But why stop with one problem? I had some web coding that I needed to wrap my head around; in twenty minutes I whipped through 100 pages of an O’Reilly manual. I was on a roll! And I didn’t stop until 8pm that night.

I could barely walk straight, but in a single night I finished more work than I had completed in the entire week, and all I could think about was Oliver Segovia’s article. Fixing a Linux system and wrapping my head around Ruby code might not be problems that will save the world, but they are stepping stones. They are problems that when solved lead to the ability to solve larger things. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, one’s accomplishments grow and build upon each until they build large enough to topple any wall that stands in their way.

Finding something that one is truly passionate about is no trivial task. Neither is finding happiness, but if those two aspects of my life are driven by solving problems maybe I am in luck.

Amid my introspection, I am going to start looking for more problems.

Keeping a Dynamic Perspective

Roald Amundsen and his team viewing their flag planted at the South Pole in 1911

I recently read an article by Professor Morten T. Hansen (a pedagoge from that rival school up north!) published in the Harvard Business Review about the rivalry of the polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott.  The former Norwegian explorer became the first person to conquer the South Pole.  The latter arrived at the South Pole only to see his rival’s flag and to die eleven miles from a supply depot on his return journey.

The article provides a number of interesting explanations for Amundsen’s triumph and Scott’s contrasting failure as they relate to business.  However, Professor Hansen’s most poignant gem seems to be added as barely as side note in his conclusion:

Like the best business leaders we studied, Amundsen “zoomed out” (what’s the new situation?), then “zoomed in” (redirect to the South). When a big change or opportunity came along, they took a step back, assessed the new situation, asked whether it called for a change, and if it did, then made the change and zoomed in to execute brilliantly.

In 1980, IBM managers visited a company called Digital Research to use its CP/M operating system for the new personal computer. But that meeting didn’t go well, and the IBMers turned to Microsoft in frustration, but Microsoft was not in that business. In that moment, Bill Gates zoomed out, recognized the opportunity, then zoomed in to deliver an operating system — which became Windows. Great leaders zoom out, then zoom in to confront disruption and change.

Amundsen conquered the South Pole and lived. Scott lost the race and died. Are you — and the leaders around you — an Amundsen or a Scott?

The best leaders, he says zoom out to see the big picture and then zoom in to execute upon it. The example he provides about Microsoft is especially illustrative.

In Silicon Valley, I meet a lot of people who wow me by drawing the most insightful observations from current events and society.  I meet others that can lock down in a little room and code something that might take me years in a matter of minutes. But it is the people who can do both or build teams that can do both who are the ones I see in the tech news.

##

Thanks to Kyle Wong for the article.

David Friedberg at Stanford’s ETL Series: What is a Founder?

The below post was written on Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Lecture Series and was posted on the Stanford Technology Ventures Program Blog on December 5th.

It is raining on the first day of Stanford’s DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar series, and it couldn’t be more fitting for today’s speaker.  David Friedberg is the CEO of The Climate Corporation (formerly WeatherBill), a weather insurance company. In fact, David came up with his original idea for WeatherBill on a rainy day in San Francisco.

“Founder isn’t really a role.  It’s really not a role that I like.”On his daily commute through San Francisco, Friedberg noticed that rain regularly closed down a bicycle shop that caters to tourists.  Soon after, Friedberg would go on to found The Climate Corporation on the observation that so many businesses are affected by the weather. But David Friedberg hates being called a founder.  In fact, he says that when his venture capitalists introduce him as the “founder” of The Climate Corporation, he tells people, “Founder isn’t really a role.  It’s really not a role that I like.”

David Friedberg Stanford ETL

David Friedberg speaking at Stanford ETL

Friedberg is a person focused on solving problems.  He describes this as “revealing truth and fact,” and he doesn’t hang on to the founder title like others do.  Instead, he is practical.  He takes the executive position bluntly stating that “I’m the CEO of the company today, and I might not be the best CEO tomorrow.”  He is blissfully truthful about his no nonsense role in the company.

He has built a multimillion dollar funded company in a short while, pulled everything together, and readily admits he would be ready to remove himself if/when he is no longer the right person for the job. That is a really intimidating statement to hear, especially coming from someone as obviously talented as Friedberg.

Listening to Friedberg, I sheepishly think of my own LinkedIn profile, where the title of  “Founder” is plastered in at least one or two places in connection with some of my previous side projects.  I am tempted to skirt over to my profile for some quick resume tidying, but then a question comes to mind:  What is a founder?

Continuing with his lecture, Friedberg projects two pictures on screen for the audience. One of the pictures is of a “rock star” founder, just having made his exit – an image commonly featured by Fast Company and Forbes.  The other picture is of the archetypal “real” founder, sleep deprived, running on caffeine, and near the end of his rope.

Seasoned entrepreneurs, CEOs, professors and founders alike tell us that the “rock star” picture is a fantasy.The former image is a Silicon Valley dream boy, a ubiquitous legend not only in the Valley, but also in pop culture.  It is simultaneously the joke of Silicon Valley, while inadvertently being a false representation of the Valley and the entrepreneurial community at Stanford.  Seasoned entrepreneurs, CEOs, professors and founders alike tell us that the “rock star” picture is a fantasy.

The second of David Friedberg’s pictures looks more like a Stanford computer science student scraping away at the last bugs in a systems assignment, or in Friedberg’s case, a startup.  In fact the difference between the two might be minuscule.  Students straining on Redbull aren’t much different than those founders pulling late nights on Starbucks. This latter image is a dose of reality, and Friedberg has some statistics to further the point.

According to Friedberg, the odds of starting a company and having it be worth $1 billion dollars in 49 months after founding are about 0.0006%.  After accounting for average dilution, this is the equivalent of earning a $73,000 annual salary. But you also have a 67% chance of making absolutely nothing at all. The audience laughs at this, but are we convinced?

It seems there are more people in my Stanford class who are going to be “founders” than employees.  I have more Silicon Valley business cards with “founder” on them than anything else.  And how often do you hear the phrase “YC Founder” from Y-Combinator, Paul Graham’s premier accelerator? Sometimes I wonder how we have anything but single person LLCs in Silicon Valley. Stanford and Silicon Valley rightly lionize the act of taking initiative, but where is the line between taking initiative to solve real problems and taking initiative for initiative’s sake?

A trend of some of the friends/entrepreneurs I look up to most is to label themselves “janitor at Stealth Startup” on their LinkedIn profiles.  It’s a humorous, self- deprecating poke at their predicament.  Janitors clean up messes.  It isn’t a frilly job, but a janitor’s role is indispensable.  To put it simply, janitors solve problems.

“I don’t want to say be entrepreneurial,” says David Friedberg.  “I want everyone in this room to walk away from this discussion today, reflective about what it is you want out of life and then make a choice that is based on some of the things that I am trying to tell you about today.”

As the lecture ends, the rain gives the crowd a break as they trickle from NVIDIA Auditorium on the Stanford campus. The crisp California evening air brings clarity, and I am reflecting on Friedberg’s advice.

And weighing a career in janitorial work.

John YS

My English Teachers Were All Right, They Were Just Teaching Me All Wrong (What Everyone Should Know About English Class)

My English teachers were all right, they were just teaching me all wrong…

Education + code + writing = a deadly combination


Wisdom from Stackoverflow

I wish I had read this post by Jeff Atwood of Stackoverflow when I was in middle school. In it, he stresses the importance of written communication for coders, but from my perspective his argument holds for achieving just about any significant task that includes more than a single person. One of humanity’s fundamental assets is our ability to work together, but part of efficient collaboration is having the ability to clearly communicate our ideas to other people.

East Coast Education

My East Coast education always stressed the importance of writing. In elementary and middle school, English teachers were equivalent of the clergy during the Catholic Church’s political dominance in medieval Europe wielding (what I believed at the time) to be a vastly unreasonably large influence. I preferred the far more interesting and “productive” activities available such as programming calculator games in Math class and hustling trading cards during recess and later the hard sciences where I could (a bite often more challengingly) gauge my progress in objective test scores rather than the subjective grades of my humanities teachers. Yet, like any good East Coast overachiever I listened to my elders, sucked it up, and to quote Martin Hu of Tezzit shoved my healthy dose of writing down my throat “like vitamins.” (Outside of subjective standards) writing wasn’t that bad, my teachers just never presented it as being applicable outside itself.

Whereas I was taught to change compounds in chemistry, chart trajectories in math, and (attempt to) predict the future in history, no one ever showed me how do anything with my writing in English class other than “write.” You could write an article. You could write a book. You could write a paper. But the option of doing something with the writing was never explicitly conveyed.

You’ll Never Regret Those Vitamins (no matter how much you hate them)

When I left the East Coast, I had some delusion that I would somehow outrun writing. The last thing I expected was to voluntarily work at it like my life depends on it. Why?

1) I want to bring people together to get things done. It is unbelievable how important and sometimes challenging effective communication can be. You need to be able to communicate ideas to your teammates, your advisors, your investors, and most importantly your customers.

2) I’ve realized that some of the most amazing people I know can not only code like heck, but are also avid writers. To name a few:

  • Professor Eric Roberts – Legendary CS faculty at Stanford and twice my professor (for the humanities AND computer science).
  • Anthony Mainero – One hour talking to my classmate and you know you have met a genuine polymath in the making.
  • Andrew Brown – The reason I can’t stop talking about Missouri while in California.

3) Exposure to advice like Jeff Atwood’s post or Jack Dorsey’s ETL talk has shown me the real life applicability of writing outside the classroom. Effective writing and communication can reign in a startup team going in 100 directions onto a single, focused path; a masterful narrative can win over a customer or investor; and (I like to dream) one day eloquent prose may win the heart of a special someone.

The last reason is one which I wish I believe EVERYONE who has ever taken a pen and paper to the written English language (or any language for that matter) should internalize as early as they can in their life. It’s something that my English teachers never taught me. Truly understanding the applicability of their field would have been a whole new level of motivation to learn their art. Perhaps it is unusual for me to have this a personal “ah ha moment” after almost two decades of education, but I am so glad I did.

So to My English Teachers:

Yes, you were teaching me it all the wrong way.

Yes, I admit English is useful after all.

Yes, you will have the last laugh reading this post, but I am eternally grateful you taught me, and thank you 100 fold for giving me those tough tasting vitamins!

Going Up the Mountain to See a Guru: A Visit to Professor Steve Blank’s Ranch

Steve Blank, mountain, ranch, bus, stanford, John

I can only describe my visit to Professor Steve Blank’s ranch today as spiritual.

A couple dozen scrappy and hopeful entrepreneurs bussed from the speed of Silicon Valley out into a hidden section of California countryside sheltered (as with many bubbles around Stanford) like a bubble within a bubble. The rolling green curves up along the gentle mountainside that we traversed were like surreal scenes from another world that only hours ago had been the power projecting stones that made up the offices of Sand Hill Road.

We were greeted at the door of a pristine white compound by the professor, himself, flanked by Highland Capital’s Dan Rosen and Robert Greenglass asking us to shed our shoes as we entered the house, just as we had let go of our cell phone service venturing out into the bucolic landscape.

Standing in the main foyer of the Blank compound, I could not help but be struck by the space’s beautiful simplicity.

Steve Blank’s ranch is a quintessential Silicon Valley landmark.  It is a kind of modern monument to the larger than life legend of a living man who is too big to believe exists, and yet teachers only one room down from your math lecture hall.  Secluded from the bustle of Silicon Valley and perched among the clouds, it’s white walls and wooden inner roof remind me of a modern Mount Olympus or contemporary hall of Norse gods complete with a carefully camouflaged sound system and state of the art T1 cable connectivity.

“This is the end of the journey [of entrepreneurship],” Professor Blank jocularly announced to us while gesturing to his abode – and what an end it is!

The twenty or so of us young souls who had gathered to seek wisdom from this guru of entrepreneurship shuffled about to find our prepackaged lunches (the last visages of civilization imported into this foreign realm) and took our seats looking out the crystal clear windows into the rolling green grass, the brilliant blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and the man in front of it all about to tell us some of the war stories through which he came into such things.

Professor Blank’s presentation was nothing short of genius.  I have heard him speak a number of times before, but whether it was the setting or the day – I have never listened to him quite like this.  Among his famous concepts of the lean startup, he wove metaphors of bold Renaissance artists (Michelangelo), deaf composers (Beethoven), practicality, profanity, and politeness.  The clear sky and rolling clouds flowed behind him as if within his property he had nature itself at his disposal.

After what seemed like as soon as we had sat, but in which time we had gleaned a generously offered condensation of his lifetime of knowledge and experience, Professor Blank sent us on our way “like Greeks going off to war” with the experienced sage left behind in his venerable other-earthly seat of war spoils.

But before we left his mountain amid the clouds, the wise guru of startups imparted his one last, most important piece of wisdom:

“Whether you succeed or fail, it is your responsibility to pass your knowledge onto the next generation…Pay it forward.”

***

“Going off to war,” not battle.  Better said – as we descended the mountain – that we had climbed Mount Olympus to escape from struggle to seek war lore from a demigod who had graduated from it.  Now, our shoelaces retied and seats back in the bus, we descended once again into the fray.

The route back to Sand Hill was especially windy.  Our assembly had to pull over part way through to quell the turning in most everyone’s stomachs – a fitting physical metaphor for returning to our earthly domain in Silicon Valley’s trenches.

“Pay it forward.”

The words echo with me like an unfulfilled creed.  Will I ever reach a point many years from now that I might come close to fulfilling such a tall request that I might say I repaid the debt I have to Professor Blank and others who have imparted their wisdom upon me only in my very short time in the Valley?

Sometimes I feel like I am standing on the edge of a cliff ready to jump off and build my plane, then I realize that I am actually standing on the last one I built, so I jump off and try to make a better one.

Every one that fails puts me one more closer to succeeding.  I thrive on building that next plane in the jump.  I have been lucky enough to meet the guru on the mountain, and it makes me burn with passion inside that much more.

Game Layers and Gamifications

A great talk by Seth Priebatsch:

A seed for this post has been sitting in my drafts for the longest time. I originally titled it “Seth Priebatsch’s ‘Game Layer:’ The Next Step in Social,” but I feel that since then, gameificiation has just become another Silicon Valley buzzword.  I figure that it is better to write a short post than never have one at all.  The “game layer” that Seth Priebatsch talks about is truly seeping into everything (not just SCVNGR) from credit cards and Foursquare to Facebook “engagement.”

The crossover between “real” and “game” becomes especially interesting when you also see Jane McGonigal‘s Ted talk on a more altruistic application of similar principles:


Seth Priebatch’s gets my business mind going faster than anything else, but while I think some of the examples in Jane McGonigal’s are weaker than I would hope, I believe the ideas she has in it are some of the most powerful and intuitively innovative I have thrown around in my head recently.  At some point in the near future, I would be thrilled to have a chance to cross paths with these two visionaries and delve deeper into their thought processes.

When Life Moves (Almost) Too Fast to Write About It

SVI Hackspace at Huang Engineering Center

Moonlighting at the SVI Hackspace in Huang Engineering Center at Stanford.

I think I might be busier during the summer than the school year. In just under a week, SVI Hackspace has launched, a few apps look like they will be hitting Apple’s store in the coming weeks, we just developed some software that will aid in reshaping Egypt and possibly Kenya’s constitutions among other things with Stanford’s Liberation Technologies department, I met a diplomat just back from service in Afghanistan, reconnected with many old friends, helped too many new friends move out into summer residences, and have cranked in research and writing on electronic medical records.

(Did I mentioned I am working on a major paradigm shift to improve efficiency in my daily workflow?)

It’s 2:51 a.m. in the hackspace, and I am riding the startup roller coaster that is life.

Let’s go!

John YS

Back At It (A Personal Post)

Getting back at it is a tough, nasty, and dirty business.  Sometimes you just need to do something (or write something) raw to get back on your feet.  This post is personal. unpolished, and inconsequential, but perhaps that’s just what is needed.

[Worthwhile writing will resume next week]

Back at it

Where Have I Been?

It’s been almost an entire season since I last blogged.  Where have I been?  I would say that the best answer to that question would be building relationships, diving into “fuzziness,” and doing more soul searching.  Here is a post to seed may other posts in the coming months consisting of various bits and pieces since.

A lot can happen in two months.

Relationships

In the winter I caught a tweet with that hashtag #relationshipsmatter.  It was a poignant moment that I only recognized recently.  Silicon Valley is full of connections, social networks, “friends,” and “followers,” but at the end of the day, you often find that the people you can truly count on for anything fit on a single hand.  I read somewhere recently that a survey determined the average American’s “friends” were increasing in number, but their confidants summed up to zero.  That is a startling, but telling fact.

I do not want to be the average American.

I took time this term to pledge a business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, and spent more time talking to people, inside and outside the fraternity.  I took time to let myself be heartbroken too.  For the first time in a long time, I remembered what it means to stay up late talking with true confidants about completely trivial topics.  Startups, academics, and the stock market might make fortunes, but love, relationships, and heartbreak make the world go round – I don’t think I wanted to admit it until now.  The strongest bonds can be built out of the inconsequential.

Can one re-learn to have a heart? I am going to keep trying.

“Fuzziness”

I have probably said it before – and will probably say it again – I came to the Valley for tech, yet I’ve realized the more I am surrounded by quantitativeness, the more I lean towards exploring the power of subjectivity and “fuzziness” (relating to Stanford’s “Techie” and “Fuzzy” divide).  I used to believe that the best and the brightest would be as dependable and logical as they were genius.  Yet the further I dig in my network of relationships and aspirations, I realize that the most volatile variable in an venture (business, academic, romantic, or otherwise) is the human element.  It’s the nuances, the feelings, and the connections that bond, snap, and make or break everything.

Integrators

Bill Gross had an excellent lecture at ETL (which I am overdue in posting) about how crucial the “integrator” the person concerned with relationships within a company is to the long term success of any venture that aims to grow beyond the norm.  It is all too easy to ignore or discount the integrator.  I have – and still continue to – undervalue the importance of such a person in any situation, but the more I do and the more I experience, the more value I place on the ability of those with a high emotional intelligence to syndicate among and appropriately act towards others.

Integrators are good leaders.

Creation

As much as I value bringing people together to accomplish larger tasks, I forgot until recently how much simple pleasure I take in the individual creation of something tangible and wholesomely valuable in its own right.  This summer, whether coding, writing, or drawing, I need to remember to create more.

Communication

Having good ideas is great.  Articulating and conveying them is a whole other challenge.  I am working to become a better speaker and writer.  Those skills truly are timeless.

Decisions and Mentors

Good decisions are hard to make.  Good mentors are even harder to find.  I need to streamline my thought process to become more efficient for the first (and not afraid to make some less than perfect ones) and keep searching for second.

Adoption and Curiosity

I need to push myself to be a more thorough early adopter.

Why?

As my thoughts diverge into bullets, I keep finding myself returning to a single question: “Why am I doing any of it?”  What is the motivating factor that drives me to work late nights, to care so much about what I do, to blog in the first place?

“Why?” is a big question that I think everyone needs to ask themselves once in a while, and I realize that resurfacing in my writing feels as refreshing as coming up for air from a swim underwater because it is one of the ways I try to tackle that question.  I am putting my thoughts before the entire world (or at least the couple readers that might happen upon this article) because for some abstract, fuzzy reason, I feel like it will help me come closer to answer that question.

In the Valley

This summer I will be in the Valley working in a new space on Stanford campus that I have been working quite literally night and day to set up before the end of the year.  I’ll be working to answer that question: “why?”

For now…because I am back at it.