Delivered at the Computer History Museum, September 19, 2013, on the occasion of the IBM SmartCamp startup competition
This is the vamp until ready part of today’s program. My role here is to speak to you while the esteemed judges debate and determine which among you will be the winner of this competition.
If this were a middle school soccer league, I would tell you that you are all winners. Sadly, this is not the case. You are entrepreneurs. Your companies are virtually new. The finish line, whatever that may be for your business, and the one that will determine if you “win,” is likely years away. You are just starting this race.
And it is a long one. Not even a marathon. A marathon is a sissy distance for a startup entrepreneur. This is a marathon inside a triathlon inside a decathlon. No amount of training will prepare you fully for this event. I am sorry. That’s just the way it is.
I’m sorrier still that the odds aren’t in your favor. The venture investors in this room will tell you that odds are only one in ten that you’ll have an out-sized success. And that’s if they invest in your business. In a typical venture portfolio, one in ten companies is a winner. A few investments will do okay. Most will be relegated to the margins of portfolio. Some will be written off all together.
Funny business that. One is ten is considered normal. Get two – or better three – in ten and you’re a god among investors.
In any other business, that kind of track record would not sit well. Imagine a surgeon offering those odds. “One in ten of my patients thrive after surgery!” The other nine? “Long tail. But look at that one guy; he’s doing really, really well.”
But this talk isn’t about investors. And it’s not even about winning, whatever that means. It’s about you, the entrepreneurs who have jumped into this race, without a map, without a clear finish line. Running like crazy.
When Deborah Magid asked me to speak to you today, she described this program as a “commencement” of sorts. As much as I am supposed to fill the time while the judges deliberate, I am to encourage and maybe even inspire you as you conclude this experience and head out into the world to build your companies.
Commencement speeches are tricking things. There are thousands of colleges, universities, high schools in America and each spring somebody is called upon to make a speech at each and every one of their graduation ceremonies. It’s a kind of vamping until ready, filling the space between the student that was and the next stage that lies ahead. It seems the hit rate of great commencement speeches is even more sketchy than that of venture investments. Only a handful get notice beyond the restless students and families who just want to get to the damn diploma and move on to the party. Most of those really great speeches are given by really famous people who have had amazing life experience and even more amazing speech writers.
I’m pretty sure I don’t quite measure up to that standard. So I decided instead to look back to some of the great commencement speeches to see what they might have to say to entrepreneurs embarking on the building stage of their young businesses. Perhaps the words of wisdom imparted to eager graduates heading out into the “real world” might shed some light on how we, as entrepreneurs, might make better, more enduring businesses.
Now, I skipped over the talks that implore you to dream big, follow your passion, work hard, and save America. You don’t need to hear that because you’re already doing it. You are entrepreneurs. That’s what you do.
I found the first good bit of advice in journalist Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement address at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism: Krulwish questioned the passivity of graduates who wait for someone else to act, someone to offer them a job, or to respond to their questions. But, he says:
“There are some people, who don’t wait.
“I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this … hunger. It’s almost like an ache. Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked. I just have to jump in and do it.
“… Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about making something that makes sense to you … that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.”
You can’t afford to wait for someone else to tell you what to do, how to build your business, what decisions to make. Sure, dozens of people will have opinions. That’s one of the wonderful – and sometimes frustrating – things about Silicon Valley. Mentors, advisors, accelerators, customers, investors: They are everywhere and they all have advice about how you should run your business.
You don’t have time to consider all that advice, nor do you have the luxury of allowing someone else to tell you want to do. Most often, you will have only your best instincts to help you make “something that makes sense to you.” Rely on those instincts. Make tough decisions. Don’t wait. Do something – anything – to move your business ahead, day by day.
The actor Bradley Whitford, in his address to the University of Wisconsin graduates of 2004, put it succinctly: speech to University of Wisconsin – Madison:
“Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.”
You will stumble. Count on it.
And here, we can turn to that late night sage Conan O’Brien. I will paraphrase to make his comments to Harvard’s Class of 2000 more relevant to you:
“[As entrepreneurs], your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.
“And yet every [one of my] failure[s] was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
“So that’s what I wish for all of you—the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over…I will go now to make bigger mistakes and to embarrass this fine institution even more.”
Silicon Valley, I have come to believe, has an obsession with failure. A sort of love affair for getting it wrong. But the perennial advice to “fail fast” is not an invitation to sweep mistakes under the rug. When you trip – and you will trip; it’s just the nature of the beast – you will feel every impulse be to stand up quickly, shake off the dirt, and walk quickly away as if nothing had happened.
Resist the urge.
Failing fast means stop doing what’s not working. Figure out what went wrong. Try something different. Don’t make the same mistake for the same reason a second time. The Examined Failure is the Greatest Teacher.
It will teach you how to eat cookies.
In his commencement address at Princeton in 2012, the author Michael Lewis shared a story about an experiment in which three students are placed in a room and asked to solve an arbitrary problem. At the start of the experiment, one of the students is appointed the leader by no particular process or merit. The researcher just picks one student to be the leader.
After 30 minutes, the researcher brings the student-problem solvers a plate of four cookies. Without fail, the randomly appointed leader ate the extra cookie. He was the leader. He deserved it.
And you, you’re entrepreneurs. You’re entitled . . . to something. Maybe. Maybe not.
Lewis told his audience of graduates:
“All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”
You are building your business in an age of abundance. You have tremendous resources available to you. Every day, meetups and pitch events give you a platform to promote your business. Hundreds of incubators, accelerators, startup competitions, and investor forums seek out smart companies to fill their programs. Entrepreneurs are the engine of the economy. You are, our politicians tell us, heroes of job creation and stable communities. We even have television programs that showcase and celebrate entrepreneurs.
In other words: There are lots of cookies.
And you should enjoy the ones you earn. You are not a rock star because you filed a business license and started a company. You will become a rock star by what you build, by the people you hire and customers you serve, and the example you set that by building something of enduring value, reward will come. Not before.
In his commencement address to the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2004 commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania: , Bono told the graduates that their degrees were “blunt instruments.”
“So,” Bono added, “Go forth and build something with it.”
Entrepreneurship is a blunt instrument, and with it you can put a dent in the universe.
Don’t settle for the easy things because even the easy things are going to be hard. Take a running start and pound on whatever it is you choose to do, and pound on it with all your might. Make a difference.
And when it gets hard – and it will, remember the advice of Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a Class Day address at Yale:
“Real courage is holding on to a still voice in your head that says, ‘I must keep going.’ It’s that voice that says nothing is a failure if it is not final. That voice that says to you, ‘Get out of bed. Keep going. I will not quit.'”
It is not enough to just go, however. You are leaders. Of your companies. Your young teams. Often of your customers and partners. Even leaders among your peers and within your communities. And there is, I’m afraid, only one real way to lead, as Ellen Degeneres reminded the graduates of Tulane in 2009.
“For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. “
And while Ellen goes on to make an elaborate joke that I will not attempt, I will simply add this: Don’t wait to do good.
So many entrepreneurs tell me that they are eager to be a success, by which they mean sell their companies for a lot of money. Then, when they are rich, they will become philanthropists and do good in the world. To them: I say, be good now.
Be good in the way you do business. Be good in the company culture you create. Be good in the way you treat your employees, negotiate deals, serve your customers. Be good in the communities in which you do business. Don’t wait for some far off success to make your difference in the world. Make a difference now, with the company you have now, with the opportunity before you now. Be good now.
Because, as Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told the graduates of the University of Michigan this spring:
“Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it when you’re having it.”
So it is best, I think, to lean toward good in every part of what you do. It ups the odds of having impact.
And with that, I believe I have vamped, and we are now ready. If the advice I’ve offered to you today helps you just a little bit to build a better, more enduring, more impactful company, then maybe we can be like middle-school soccer players: we can all be winners.
So I’ll leave you with one final commencement speech nugget. It was, without question, the most inspiring – and, at less than 70 seconds, the briefest – of the speeches I found for you. This, from former US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to the graduates of Bard College in May of this year:
“Your future shines bright. Find your purpose and go for it. Starting tomorrow you can change the world. The nation is counting on you . . . to create to lead, to innovate. But today we celebrate you. Be bold. Be courageous, Be your best.”