Matthew: If you could, talk about a couple of mentors. I know that you’re a big mentor to a lot of people.
Steve: First heuristic. Even though it’s the 21st century, if you want to have an old guy like me as your mentor, never ask them to be your mentor. The second heuristic is one I implicitly followed but never understood until somebody said, “How can you become my inventor?”
Somebody asked this at South by Southwest when Eric Ries and I were at the same stage. They said, “Oh, Steve, you’ve become Eric’s mentor,” and we both cringed because of the following. I’ve learned more from Eric Ries than he’s probably learned from me, or at best it’s a mutually shared learning experience.
I do mentor another 18-year-old who’s part of the Sandbox Network. Every time I sit down with him, oh, man, my head spins around, because he just told me stuff I’m either out of contact with or didn’t understand.
I teach in my classes, but a mentorship is actually a dialogue back and forth. If you can’t add any value to a conversation, don’t “ask for a mentor”. Go take a class. To me a mentorship is a much higher-level conversation where I’m bringing my experience, but you’re bringing some agile insights about things I don’t do anymore or can’t see. And then together we can spin that up into something interesting. That’s a mentorship.
In thinking back on my career, that’s why some people, I guess, kind of adopted me when I was just the world’s largest pain in the ass. I think I was always bringing up something interesting that broke their patterns, but they were able to morph with their experience, and we’d always come up with something interesting. Does that make sense?
Matthew: That was great. I think our audience is going to appreciate that. If you could distill it into key elements, what do you think are the most important elements for founders who want to start a company?
Steve: There are a couple of things. I came out to Silicon Valley in 1978. We’re now in the 21st century so that looks downright primitive. The most interesting distinction, which takes a couple of decades of time to realize, is that when I came, out information about being a founder and startups were anecdotal and sparse. There was no information. VCs were walled-off. They wore boating shoes and khakis and a blue shirt. They still do that today, don’t they? That was the beginning of the uniform.
I think today founders have a much different problem to start with. There’s an information overload. You could go on 400 websites and get 500 different pieces of advice. The nice thing is that there are even past mutually exclusive. They are in 14 different dimensions of being mutually exclusive.
One of the biggest problems I see about the students and new entrepreneurs is that you need to pick a profound belief for yourself first. Read through all that stuff, but understand that you can’t do all of it because you’ll be doing one of these. Get enough data, but stop. Take a weekend off, walk around the block, talk to someone else, and pick one of those paths. And I don’t mean that you can’t change your mind, but understand how you’re going to filter that data.
I don’t care if it’s my advice or someone else’s advice. There are some great people with some awesome content. The best ones are VCs who get entrepreneurs. Mark Shuster, Fred Wilson, the True Ventures guys, Mike Maples, Dave McClure; those people understand entrepreneurs even though they might be venture capitalists. Regardless of whose advice you follow, try to pick data that is consistent. That’s number one.
Number two, there seems to be a notion today that entrepreneurship is cool, which makes me laugh because entrepreneurship was done by bizarre people who were fundamentally crazy in 1978. I will contend that that’s still who should be doing that today. Founders in particular should understand that even though they might be engineers or MBAs, they’re not. Founders are artists in the true sense of the word; artists like Michelangelo and Picasso and Beethoven.
Michelangelo started with a block of marble. When you and I looked at it, it was a block of marble. When anybody else looked at it, it was a block of marble. Michelangelo saw the Pieta. In fact, when asked, “How did you do that?” he said, “I saw the statue inside. All I did was remove the stone around it.” Beethoven was deaf by the time he composed his most famous symphonies. How could he do that? How did he hear something? When we see a blank sheet of paper we don’t hear music. When Van Gogh painted Starry Night . . . where do these things come from? They’re visions.
Founders do the exact same thing. It’s not about code. It’s not even about customers. It’s about a vision of what could be. And much like a great composer putting together a symphony, founders are different than the early employees. The founders see the vision, but then they manage to attract a set of world-class performers. Think of early employees who maybe could not come up with the vision, but when the founder is describing that symphony or that canvas, they said, “Yeah, yeah. I get that. I want to be part of that.”
It’s the founder and the early employees, the composers and the performers, who put together the symphony. I think the analogy is closest to art and how we do that. The sad part is that after thousands of years of teaching art, music, painting, sculpture, etc., we still don’t know how to make composers. We can teach performers, but we don’t know whether it’s practice, the person, their gender, the culture, the tools. We don’t know. There are lots of opinions. We can maybe make a cadre of better and better performers and more of them, but the founders, it’s still mysterious.