The Economy. The White House. The Auto Industry. The Internet. The world is in a massive state of change right now, and I got to listen to the business people that are leading us through this change. Let’s find out what I learned.
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The quotes just kept on coming.
I was manning the WiredBiz Twitter account at their Disruptive Business Conference in New York City on June 15, 2009, and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos was being interviewed by Wired writer Steven Levy. As fast as I could type, Bezos would answer nearly each and every question with the perfect sound bite. He was the God of Quotations.
How did he make it look so easy?
Sure, fifteen years of media training will certainly make any executive a lot smoother than the average marketing manager giving a ‘How to Use Twitter’ presentation to their department’s VP. But somehow every response answered the interviewer’s question, was effortlessly weaved into a conversational format, yet stood on it’s own as a how-to guide for entrepreneurs.
Bezos was once described by CondÃ© Nast’s Portfolio.com, as “at once a happy-go-lucky mogul and a notorious micromanager … an executive who wants to know about everything from contract minutiae to how he is quoted in all Amazon press releases.” And that assertion seemed accurate.
I feel I had a unique, fly-on-the-wall perspective at this conference. I wasn’t one of the titans of industry or guest speakers, hand-picked to attend this invite-only event as someone that had made a remarkable impact – and probably a ton of cash – in my chosen field.
Nor did I need to be a laser-focused, A-game Wired staff member, making sure the show ran like clockwork, clients were entertained, and every interview question was rehearsed to perfection. And trust me, if you’ve never thought about the herculean effort it takes behind the scenes to pull off an amazing conference or event, you have no idea.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t take my job seriously, contemplating each tweet before hitting send, so that sites like Gizmodo might pick up a soundbite of our own and base an entire blog post around it. But it meant that I could pick a table at lunch at random, ending up seated next to serial entrepreneur Louise Wannier of MyShape.com (one of her earlier companies was VCR+ â€¦ remember that?).
It turns out Martha Stewart was seated at the table directly behind me (always a buzz around her). And I also met Derek Sivers, who founded CD Baby, and got to tell him that I had been quoting something he wrote for over 5 years, and that my old band used his site to sell our CD.
Turns out we have a lot in common (trips to Japan, evangelist for the 4-Hour Work Week, and living 2 blocks apart in Union Square). Although, there’s one more thing I wish we had in common.
So what did I learn from Jeff Bezos?
Let’s get to the quotes (some paraphrased from my notes).
First of all, he talked about the Kindle, saying that ‘reading is an important enough activity that it deserves a purpose-driven device.’ People have asked him, why would I want the Kindle? It only does one thing. And to that he says ‘that’s exactly why you want that deviceâ€¦ I like my Swiss Army knife, but I also have a set of steak knives too.’
I tend to agree. While we do have phones with cameras, and Treos that have keyboards, and laptops that can play movies, and printers that can also copy and scan, isn’t the device that is made to do one thing very well almost always the best choice?
For a man that sells lots of books, he had some good arguments against it, saying ‘they’re too heavy, you can only take 1-2 with you at a time when you travel, you can’t turn a page with one hand, and they always seem to close shut when you don’t want them to â€¦ they’ve had a good 500 year run.’
But it was his thoughts on running a business that really had me nodding. Steven Levy pointed out that some of the biggest players from the internet ramp-up in the mid 90s were not established companies, but rather new ones such as Amazon, Yahoo, and Priceline. These companies understood the disruptive power of the internet.
Jeff argued that change was so rapid – 2300% growth per year – that large companies had neither the culture nor the vision of long-term growth to become successful. That’s why he feels it’s so important to have a percentage of your company always working on the next new thing, even though others might question the resources being dedicated to it. To paint a visual, he said companies ‘need a culture that high fives these small areas of the company.’
As the boom took hold at the end of the 90s, around the time when he was named Time Magazine’s Person of the year, he told his employees ‘don’t feel 30% smarter because the stock is up 30%, because when it goes down, you’ll need to feel 30% dumber.’ And went down it did, just a few years later.
Why was he still optimistic?
Because while Wall Street was focusing on the battered stock price, he was still looking at the things that mattered, the business metrics. He knew he’d come out ahead because things like the number of customers coming to the site and the profit per customer kept improving.
He knew he was in a disruptive businesses, and he said ‘if you’re going to disrupt, you have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.’ Another quote that followed was ‘Don’t change your strategy because part of your audience doesn’t understand it.’
In developing products, sometimes they work ‘backwards from customer needs’ (as with the Kindle), and sometimes ‘forward from our skills’ (as with Amazon Web Services).
If there’s one thing that entrepreneurs will always tell you, it’s don’t be afraid to fail, and if you’re going to fail, fail fast, learn, and move on. Jeff explained this by saying that most people focus on errors of commission. In other words, things that companies tried that didn’t work. However, he argued that ‘people over-dramatize how expensive failure is going to beâ€¦ failure is not that expensive.’
In fact, ‘If you’re in the investment phase, and you stop doing it, the only thing that can happen is that profits will go up. What doesn’t happen enough is companies being criticized for NOT trying something.’
Let me give you a personal example.
Prior to Wired, I spent the last 9 months of an 8-year career run at ESPN at a startup division within the company, Mobile ESPN. By many measures, the attempt by ESPN to basically become their own cell phone carrier, known as an MVNO, could be viewed as an enormous risk and subsequent failure. They eventually partnered with Verizon, and integrated their amazing mobile sports software into Verizon’s system. Many argued that they should have done that in the first place.
But here’s the point. They took the risk because if it worked, the payoff would have been enormous. Did people have enough passion for the ESPN brand that they might buy an ESPN-branded phone? Why not? Couples were naming their kids “Espin”!!! They tried it, it didn’t work, they learned quickly, and moved on.
Bezos says, “Why not? is a question that doesn’t get asked enough inside companies.’
The key, he stressed, for entrepreneurs, ‘Be stubborn on the big things, and flexible on the details.’
Tips I learned from other speakers:
Shai Agassi, Better Place and Elon Musk, Tesla Motors
As a ‘car guy,’ it was awesome to hear from these pioneers. I took away two main things from their presentations.
The first is that electric cars will overtake hybrid cars as the transportation of the future.
Much like Bezos’ analogy that you can’t perfect two things at once, Agassi and Wired senior writer Daniel Roth discussed why it was important to go all-electric, by comparing hybrid cars to a mermaid. “You want a woman you get a fish, you want a fish you get a woman.”
While owning a Toyota Prius can be seen as a lifestyle statement – there is a long wait for the 3rd generation model that was just announced – they noted that emissions are reduced 25% in a Prius, but in electric cars, it’s 500%.
You might be wondering, can the current electric grid handle electric cars? Agassi quoted that 72% of cars could run off the grid right now and no one would knowâ€¦ it would be the equivalent of 3 light bulbs per person.
After detailing how government incentives are working, the raw costs to build a car at scale, and accounting for distribution and profit, Agassi said, “A sub $10,000, zero-emissions car, is the most desirable consumer electronics product you’ve ever seen.” I’m starting to envision how this could come to be. Can you?
The second major thing I took from this was that China was a massive player in this space. To put it bluntly, Agassi said ‘Once China goes, everyone has to go.’ GE’s Jeff Immelt brought up China prominently in his interview as well, which made my mind start to wander how expensive it would be to get a translator TheHopkinsonReport.
Jeff Immelt, GE; Scott Thompson, Paypal; Vivek Kundra, CIO
Quick hitsâ€¦ Jeff Immelt was the least brash of the thought-leaders, a confident get-it-done veteran who could see trends 20 years out, while drilling down to the profit center instantly. There was much discussion of how GE basically sabotaged their own massive business of normal incandescent light bulbs in order to further the adoption of compact fluorescents. A nice sound bit from him was ‘Hanging on to a dumb customer turns out to be a bad strategy.’
The thing that instantly perked my ears up with Paypal founder Scott Thompson was his wicked Boston accent. As a Bostonian myself, it was fantastic to hear him say ‘credit card’ and ‘debit card,’ and while I found it fascinating that Paypal has disrupted the banking business so much that countries are writing new regulations, he also couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Yankees during his time on stage. Classic Boston.
Finally, among my notes on Vivek Kundra is simply ‘wow, this guy seems really, really smart.’ Mr. Kundra is the Chief Information Officer for the US Government, and talked about data.gov, a project to bring thousands of pieces of public information online and transparent to the people.
Oozing an identical confidence and optimism as his boss Barack Obama – he did use the word ‘change’ at one point – he pointed out that this could alter the way participatory democracy functions, that they want to announce that the government does not have a monopoly on the best ideas, and that they can truly return the government to ‘we the people.’
I found myself holding back my enthusiasm just a bit, thinking, this is such a good idea, this is so much what we need right now, please, please, let this get done.
I felt a twinge of hesitation inside, cynicism mixed with fear for what changes could actually be accomplished in the future. And I realized, that is exactly the emotion that this conference intended to evoke, and overcome.