Last week a company we enthusiastically backed, uBeam, led by a very special entrepreneur, 25-year-old Meredith Perry, announced a $10 million round of financing. The press around the raise and company was fantastic, and the promise of their technology--wireless charging that works as easily as WiFi--would positively affect many of our lives. What person hasn't crouched at an airport to get 18 percent extra on one's battery before boarding an airplane?
But then one person--who happens to be a physicist--wrote a back-of-the-envelop calculation of uBeam and said it's not physically possible. I can hardly blame him for taking a guess at what uBeam does but every assumption that he used was wildly inaccurate. UBeam's tech does work, and I have safely seen it demo'd many times. Most of those that have been privileged enough to get a look at what they are actually doing have moved from skeptics to believers.
One is reminded of the famous quote often attributed Mark Twain:
"A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes."*
There is a battle between entrepreneurs who try to change the world and solve a meaningful problem and those who write take-down pieces with no apparent personal benefit other than attention. Here I make the case that entrepreneurs must stay focused on the prize, not the doubters. I make the case that optimism for new breakthroughs should be higher in the minds of those of us that watch from the sidelines rather than schadenfreude.
There are those amongst us the are willing to abandon the comforts of a job with a salary and perhaps the prestige of being able to tell family members, loved ones and friends that "I work for Google, Goldman Sachs, Apple, FedEx, Verizon or Coca Cola" and instead put ourselves out there to potentially look stupid one day.
Working at a big company is honorable, and I don't believe the narrative that all of this tech disruption is to kill off big companies.
Entrepreneurs accept that failure is a possibility but are highly motivated by not letting it happen to them. Even bigger is the desire to stick one's middle finger up at all of the people who doubted you all along. Who sat on the sidelines from the comfort of their keyboards risking nothing and criticizing everything. I'm not talking about professional journalists who have an obligation to skepticism but rather arm-chair quarterbacks questioning every pass.
Entrepreneurs are driven to pursue their passions no matter the personal costs, societal pressure, family head-scratching or financial consequences. They are driven more by the journey than they are about the destination.
I was fortunate enough recently to be invited to a private sitting with the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, along with 18 other entrepreneurs. She is trying to build a "creative economy" in South Korea and wanted to see what she could learn from some Americans. I thought I was pretty well suited to answer that question because having grown up in Northern California but lived and worked in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan over 11 years, I had seen quite a few societies and work environments.
I told her that I believed America's best asset--driven initially from software innovation mindset in the San Francisco Bay Area and media innovation driven from Los Angeles--was our willingness to accept failure. If a society shuns people for TRYING, you discourage people from creating truly breakthrough innovation out of fear of failure. The beauty of Silicon Valley and the ethos it has driven in all of us is acceptance of failure and a profound respect for those who at least try.
When I think about the people in our generation I most respect: Elon Musk, Larry Page, Richard Branson. They are optimists to a fault. They have a can-do attitude that is infectious. Who else would publicly try to launch people into space so that one day we might be able to fly people from New York to Tokyo in 90 minutes.
And in the tragic events of Virgin Galactic's crash this week Richard Branson didn't say, "Yeah, it's too risky, we were wrong." He said "Space is hard--but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together." To which the CEO added, "The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the team to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we'll do."
When Elon Musk set out to build SpaceX ,he wasn't greeted with enthusiasm from the space community not used to having a private enterprise challenge the government funded space exploration of NASA. Now they are partners. Who in the auto industry believed Tesla, a totally electric car, was a good idea? The collective wisdom of the establishment to this huge innovation? Bupkis. Who else but an extreme optimist and entrepreneur could have imagined and then publicly spoken about "The Hyperloop"--a system of transport that envisages transporting people from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Of course the naysayers are out again. I'd love even 0.5 percent of Elon's ideas to come to fruition and let him fail on the rest:
"No true innovation is ever accepted by the establishment precisely because it pushes the boundaries of what people think is possible."
It was really gratifying to read Larry Page's interview in The Financial Times this past week. As you may know Google recently restructured so that Larry could spend more time on big innovations--on "moonshots." In the article is cites:
Page estimates that only about 50 investors are chasing the real breakthrough technologies that have the potential to make a material difference to the lives of most people on earth. If there is something holding these big ideas back, it is not a shortage of money or even the barrier of insurmountable technical hurdles.
When breakthroughs of the type he has in mind are pursued, it is "not really being driven by any fundamental technical advance. It's just being driven by people working on it and being ambitious."
People. Working on it. And being ambitious. And not enough capital embracing these moonshots.
Backbencher is a term from British Parliament to represent those that are neither in government positions where they have to enact policy nor in the opposition front bench positions of having to suggest counter policy. Of course backbencher has also become a slang term for "someone who exaggerates their actual power, influence, or importance, usually for nefarious purposes."
Backbenchers never do anything. They get to sit in the back of the room, snicker, criticize and yet enjoy the benefits of our efforts. They aren't just free riders--they are negative with no personal ideas for how to make things better.
Backbenchers love to criticize. It reminds me of Glum from Gulliver's Travels (60-second video clip), "It will never work." "We're doomed." "We'll never make it."
I wasn't shocked this week after we announced we funded uBeam, a company that seeks to transfer electricity wirelessly to have some public Glums question its viability. In fact, the headline of one read, "How Putting $10m into uBeam illustrates everything that is wrong with tech investing today."
Juxtapose this: Larry Page telling us we need more ambitious projects and one person with a blog writing a very negative take-down piece on a company that is truly innovative and trying to change an industry and free us from having to crouch in airport corners to get 18 percent more juice on our phones before catching out flights. Or trying to save old people from having to constantly change the batteries on their hearing aides.
In his post this blogger imagines the math of how uBeam works and says, "I'm no physicist--oh, wait, I am"--a cheap, funny line to establish authority. Except that each of his calculations and assumptions about how uBeam works is totally wrong.
Here's what you need to know for now:
- It does work. I have witnessed it working. So anybody telling you the physics is impossible is simply wrong.
- I did not lose my hearing. I was not fried. I was not scared. I was not scarred. It is safe.
- We hired outside experts. We kept our skepticism and like many who initially doubted we were convinced.
- We checked patents. We checked regulatory rules. We checked efficiency calculations. We checked safety. We checked charge times.
- Will it work at scale? Are we right in all of our assumptions and diligence? Time will tell.
But a blog post saying "This is what is wrong with tech investing today?" Give me a flipping break. If anything I'd like to fund five more teams and projects this ambitious. And if one of them succeeds it would have been worth doing. But my chips are in on uBeam, and I'm not afraid to put my reputation on the line the same way entrepreneurs must each day.
Some people have publicly or privately asked me to define exactly what uBeam IS doing and why this backbencher is wrong. We will do that. Of course. When we ship product. And then feel free to judge the team's accomplishments or failures. I, of course, am betting on the former and am not at all swayed by the doubters. If you have no doubters, trust me you aren't pushing the boundaries far enough.
But would you expect Apple to reveal its product details before launching? Would you expect Tesla to pre-announce what battery innovations they are working on? Of course not. And that's why uBeam is rightly focused on perfecting their product, innovating, hiring and building for the future not on responding to every criticism from those without details of what we're actually doing.
Has any truly novel innovation ever been greeted with universal approbation before its ultimate success?
Heads down, entrepreneurs. Carry on, optimists.
"A feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people."
Schadenfreude is not an emotion I possess. What surprised me most about the post launch snipes at uBeam is not the doubting Thomas. Ninety-nine percent of the articles about the company were positive. The overwhelming public reaction was "Hell, yeah, I'd love to be able to ditch the wires." Yet some entrepreneurs and investors felt the need to quote this one blogger through authority of saying "See! Physicists say this isn't possible!"
Do they REALLY know what uBeam's plans are? Are they really so sure it can't work? Do you really believe one blogger who uses wild assumptions over a company that has committed itself to innovation in this field?
What makes America great, as I told the president of South Korea, is our willingness to accept failure. To root for failure is not what our industry does. It's not what we're made of. I know many people with physics backgrounds question how uBeam will work.
Time will tell. And I can't wait to engage with all of you when we ship product. And I hope the skeptics will join in from a perspective of "How can we help?" vs. "How can we tear you down."
I'm betting on success. If I'm wrong? I stand by my decision 100 percent and will both look for equally ambitious future projects as well as be first in line to ask Meredith and Marc what they want to do next.
But to Larry's broader point, "Breakthroughs ... are being driven by people working on it and being ambitious."
Meredith Perry is 25. She has withstood more than years of backbenchers questioning what she's working on. My experiences with her have been amazing. She never lost enthusiasm for her pursuit. She never lost confidence in the team's ability to innovate and execute. She never got distracted from her core mission. She has never given up despite setbacks. The determination, grit and pluck are inspirational. I wish I had 20 percent of her confidence, focus and leadership skills at 25. The world needs more Meredith Perry's, not fewer. Could you withstand the public scrutiny every day of being a young tech founder and show up every morning filled with enthusiasm?
Marc Berte, the CTO, and a masters from MIT, is exceptionally gifted. Of course we threw at him every skepticism of the market that we had heard or thought. What about loss of efficiency? What about battery charge times? What about safety concerns? What about competing patents. Of course we brought in outside experts. At each stage Marc and the team gave us confidence they really did have a novel approach and that it would work safely and efficiently.
Let's embrace those trying to push the boundaries while acknowledging that many of them in the end will fall short. We're an industry filled with naive optimists, with can-do attitudes and a desire to change the world no matter how many back benchers want to ridicule us for trying. Don't join that chorus - even when companies do fail. Schadenfreude is such a terrible sentiment.
And for entrepreneurs waking up everyday to backbenchers public and private?
*While this quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, the great irony is that it appears that Mark Twain wasn't the person who coined the phrase.
This article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table.