The Global Entrepreneurship Summit was held this year on the campus of Stanford University with about 1,200 delegates from more than 170 countries, including almost 700 entrepreneurs. The dozens of presentations and conversations packed into two days ranged from Alphabet (Googlers galore including Sergey and Sundar) and Airbnb all the way to Uber and Zuckerberg with a dash or two of Obama, Kerry and Pritzker crammed in between.
Even the cast of HBO's Silicon Valley, the white-hot tech satire, stopped by to briefly entertain the crowd, although it was abundantly clear that these guys definitely need a great writers' room and strong scripts to actually have anything clever to say. Part of the problem was that there weren't enough Valley VC fanboys in the audience to fawn over their every word, hoping to be next in line for a guest cameo on the show.
Overall, GES2016 was a fact-filled feast and a FOMO frenzy where it was almost impossible to choose among the sessions and master classes given the amazing array of speakers and the very broad and diverse range of topics. It was hard to go very wrong since almost every panel and every class had several must-see speakers. And the organizers actually built in enough time for some reasonable networking. Bottom line: lots to see and lots to learn from the stages and from each other.
As I reviewed my notes on the trip home, I tried to find the five ideas/remarks that especially struck me and which hadn't already been tweeted to death. I was going for profound rather than pithy (if that's even possible in conferences like this, where everyone's going for the triumphant and tweetable turn of a phrase) and for substance rather than sound bites. I also tried to stay away from scripted statements or concepts and pronouncements that I had heard the same people say or write 47 times before. And finally, I was looking for comments that rolled several related thoughts into more overarching and general observations. Personal anecdotes are okay, but they're less broadly relevant and applicable than the accumulated experiences of the entrepreneurs who're in the trenches successfully doing the hard things right now.
Here are my top 5:
(1) Innovation is Inevitable and Unstoppable. It's a Global Race and the Rest of the World Isn't Going to Wait for You.
You can't hold back the inbound waves of innovation with a white picket fence or a million different laws. All the impediments, regulations, tariffs and other obstacles that politicians hope will postpone or entirely avoid the impending and highly disruptive changes are--at best--only temporary barriers to the coming storm. That futility wasn't the most insightful observation. Innovation isn't a bubble, it's a massive, expanding balloon and when you press against it locally or impede its progress, that action doesn't stop its forward motion, it just shifts and migrates the progress, which continues to move forward elsewhere. Other players, parties, countries and competitors will grow, gain and benefit while we fall further and further behind the curve.
(2) Get the Story Straight from the Source, and Be Shameless While You're at It.
The best entrepreneurs are quick studies and good listeners, but the vast majority of them are also arrogant lunatics (I say that lovingly) who think that they can rapidly learn to do just about anything-- but they really can't. Great programmers don't morph or grow into great salesmen over time because they read a lot of books and blogs. The smartest business builders know: (a) they are very good at some things; (b) by applying themselves they can supplement their skills and knowledge in certain other important areas; and (c) they simply suck at a bunch of tasks and roles that they shouldn't ever go near. (See How to Make Smart Hires--Even If You're the CEO .)
Apart from understanding what not to try to do at all, the next best thing is to master the art of asking the right people for help. Mentors are the key-- not manuscripts or lectures-- and getting to the top of the pile of possible mentors is essential. There are plenty of well-meaning mentors who simply aren't worth your time. (See How to Deal With Marginal Mentors.) So, as Brian Chesky said, be shameless and shoot for the stars. What's the worst that can happen? They can only say "No." And, as we like to say, it's only a "No" for now, so keep asking.
(3) As Good as We Think We Are as Bosses, Your Ideas Might Just Be Better
Year after year, Google wins honors for being a great place to work and for its people policies. That's an impressive accomplishment and the result of years of thoughtful commitment and hard work. So you would think that, as Google grew and created new entities, the company wouldn't "mess with success" or try to change the things that were working so well. But that's not how things have turned out. Rather than imposing existing HR rules and requirements on the new businesses, Google has basically told them to figure out what works best for their companies and their people. The underlying thought-- notwithstanding years of prior experience and great outcomes-- is that there's always a reasonable chance that someone's new ideas and suggestions may be improvements on the status quo. Facebook has taken a similar approach with Instagram and WhatsApp. I call it the one-way door theory-- you can ask for any upstream corporate help or resources that you need at any time-- but no one from corporate or HR will be "helping" you run your business without a specific invitation.
(4) The Grander Your Goals, the Easier It is to Avoid Wasting Time and Resources on Things that Won't Move the Needle.
Almost every decision you'll need to make becomes clearer and far more black and white when you're talking in terms of box car numbers and off-the-charts growth. If everything's a stretch, the process itself opens up a pretty clear gap between what's critical and what's not. When you set "10X" targets, there's just no time for "nice to haves" or frankly for anything in a minor key. It's all-in, all the time, and everything needs to quickly clear the "bang for the buck" bar. If the magnitude of the outcome isn't obvious, it's obviously a waste of breath to be arguing about the need to do something or the likelihood of its success. If the attempt still results in a "so what" success, it's just not worth the trip. Start small, aim high, scale quickly.
(5) The Business Dies Only When the Founder Gives Up-- Everything Else is Just Business as Usual
Everyone from Steve Case (one of his 5 P's) to President Obama talked about the value of perseverance. Building a business is brutally hard work even when most things go well and it's clearly not for the faint-hearted. But what really stuck in my mind was Adeo Ressi's simple statement that it all comes down to the mental mettle and the mindset of the entrepreneur. You're either "in it to win it" or you should get out of the game entirely. There's always another way to go-- until you give up.
New businesses can fail for any number of reasons. The top three reasons are pretty consistent across hundreds of cases: (1) there's no demand or need for your product or service; (2) you don't have any more cash; (3) you don't have the right team. There's no shame in any of that.
The only sins in the startup world are to stop caring and/or to stop trying. I'm not sure which is worse, but my money is on not caring because it diminishes your soul when you do what you no longer believe in. (See Why "Whatever" Will Sink Your Business.)
The truth is that people are rarely willing to walk over you, until you lie down.