Lessons from Astro Teller

Lessons from Astro Teller

I recently had the good fortune to be at an event where Astro Teller was interviewed. No relation to Penn and Teller (but the grandson of Edward Teller, the physicist), he’s the leader of Google X – the division where Google does all the *really* crazy stuff, like the self-driving car. (Also the employment home of Cornellian, eLab alum and author Jeremy Blum – who, while I’m on the topic, is co-founder of Sunn, who just launched a Kickstarter campaign. End of plug!)

Astro was full of wisdom applicable to startups, entrepreneurs, and beyond. Here are some highlights that I took away from the event:

“Smart people can go for years without ever getting to ‘so what'”.

This is consistent with our fundamental philosophy of entrepreneurship: inventions are great, but what really matters is making products that customers feel compelled to buy. The roadsides are littered with great inventions that don’t pass the “so what” test. To paraphrase Techstars, we encourage entrepreneurs to talk to their customers, and then talk to them some more – or else they won’t have any.

“Advisors are like the Oracle at Delphi. If you do what they say, taking it directly at face value, the results will be horrible. But when you look back, you see the truth in what they said.”

Our job at Rev is to advise entrepreneurs. We also connect entrepreneurs to other advisors and mentors all the time. Individually, each of us have a lot of really valuable experience – but we also recognize that we’re often wrong on individual issues or items. What we have to bring to bear is a process. We encourage entrepreneurs to seek out different perspectives, embrace that they will sometimes appear to conflict, and to take away from it key areas of consensus and a better understanding of the process of evaluating and making good decisions.

“It doesn’t count if you make a prototype. It doesn’t count if you file a patent. It counts if you stop 2 million people a year dying in car accidents.”

It’s important to take a moment to take a breath and celebrate successes when they come. The problem is, particularly in the kind of heady environment that we have these days,  progress milestones sometimes get confused for the end in and of itself. You got accepted to an accelerator? Raised seed funding? Signed a marketing partner? Mazel tov! But don’t make the mistake of thinking that any of these events are bigger than they are. Investor capital isn’t revenue – it’s a new set of expectations that the founders and leaders of the company now need to turn into reality.

“Get over it, progress is coming” is not a good way to engage society.”

My undergraduate degree is in History and Government, and I spent most of my time when I was getting my MBA taking accounting and finance. I am a Chartered Financial Analyst and consider myself a numbers guy through and through. That’s why it took my by surprise to realize that the most important thing I do in my current job is marketing and communications. The same is true of startup founders and leaders. Successful entrepreneurs do a great job of explaining why their new, disruptive way of looking at the world has value – and how it fits into the daily lives of their users. Some companies have been able to succeed by bull-rushing through, but that’s rare – and often they receive painful comeuppances along the way (e.g. Uber). You’ve got to sell your vision – a great place to start in thinking about this is Simon Sinek’s Start With Why (TED talk here).

“Start by creating the value. Eventually, you will get paid. If you want to make the most money, focus on creating value for [a lot of] other people – that will create value for you.”

This statement was the one that really knocked me over. It crystalizes so many things – not just bringing new products or services to market, but also about employment and career development. I was recently on a panel discussing town / gown relations and was asked what processes or structures might help enable students to become more involved with the community, particularly the nonprofit sector in Ithaca. My answer was that waiting for someone else to involve you is the wrong approach: identify what it is that you can do, or want to do, and offer it up. Do you want experience designing websites? Contact a few nonprofits and offer to do that as a volunteer. They get a new website, and, just as important, you get great experience.

The same principle is true of startups bringing new products or services to market. As a numbers guy, I typically push entrepreneurs hard on their revenue and cost models. That said, it’s also clear that Google, Facebook, and Twitter went for a long time without monetizing. What they didn’t do, however, was go a long time without creating a lot of value. Astro did a good job of reminding me – it’s ok to have vagueness about your revenue model starting out. It’s not ok to have vagueness about how you create value, because you need to do that to ultimately get paid.