Monthly Archives: March 2019

Smart Is Not Enough: What Marc Benioff Taught Me When I Was 15 Years Old

Many years ago, I cold-emailed Salesforce founder/CEO Marc Benioff. I was 15 years old and starting a CRM software company like his. Would he meet to give me some advice? I wasn’t the only one inspired by Marc’s vision of the “end of software” at the time. But I may have been one of a smaller group who was especially inspired by the fact that Marc had started companies as a teenager back in his day.

To my surprise, he replied, we met for breakfast, and it kicked off a series of meals that we shared over several years. He eventually wrote the foreword to my first book.

At one of our early breakfasts, Marc told me something I’ve never forgotten. I remember the moment exactly. I was wearing a suit and tie, which in hindsight was kind of crazy. (“I hope you don’t normally wear a suit and tie when you go to school,” he said with a laugh.) He ordered pancakes. He had been telling me about swimming with dolphins in Hawaii, what he learned from Larry Ellison, and riffs on spirituality.

He then told me: “Ben, people in Silicon Valley are ridiculously smart. Super, super smart. You’re not going to be able to out-smart people. You have to figure out how to win in some other way.”

I was not lacking in self-regard for my own intelligence at the time. But when he said it, I knew immediately it was true. I may be generally smart but general smarts is like vanilla ice cream. Vanilla ice cream is a fine dessert but it’s not going to win a chef any culinary awards. And IQ is IQ. No amount of study would allow me to compete head-to-head in an IQ contest with the highest IQ people in the tech industry. If you regularly feel like you’re the highest IQ person in the room, you’re hanging out in the wrong rooms. The tech industry may not be as intellectually intense as academic disciplines like chemistry but there are plenty of rooms with off-the-charts IQ people in them, and those are the rooms you want to be in — even if they make you feel a bit inferior at times.

As I contemplated Marc’s comment in the months afterwards, my first plan was that I could out-work everyone in order to be successful. I may not be smarter than everyone else, but surely I could out-work them, right? Then I realized that there were people who could work harder than me, and already were. Damn those people who only need 4 hours of sleep a night!

Marc’s advice is not obvious to a lot of people. These days I still meet many super smart and super hard working people in business who, deep down, are mystified as to why they haven’t been more successful in their careers. They really believe their raw intelligence and/or their work ethic should be enough to carry the day.

Anyway, in the years after that breakfast, in my early 20’s, I came upon two deeper insights that ultimately are how I answer and incorporate Marc’s advice to me.

First, I could get good at facilitating the intelligences of other smart people. You don’t have to be smarter than someone in order to enable that person to be all they can be. Most business efforts involve teams — multiple smart people interacting with each other. If you can develop the ability to work with different kinds of smart people, to bring them together, to facilitate all the IQ points sloshing about, you can be a really high-impact player. In fact, I’d argue this is what great CEOs do well. They’re not the smartest person in the company. But they get all the other smart people to play well together. Arguably, that’s the most important job of all on a team.

Some years ago, my friend Auren Hoffman emailed me and said there had been a cancellation at an event he was hosting in New Orleans and asked if I wanted to take the open spot. I said yes. As I reviewed the list of other attendees, it was obvious that I was the B-list invite to an event filled with other A-listers. I was excited but a bit nervous. Then, a few days before the event, Auren asked me to moderate a 90 minute session with 15 accomplished people at the event. At first I thought he had sent the email to the wrong person; I think I was 17 years old at the time. The people in my session were all much smarter and more experienced than me. But I accepted the task, and I did fine. I did good, even. And it emboldened me with the confidence that I could credibly be a participant in a large meeting even if on paper I wasn’t the smartest or most experienced person.

The second insight I internalized in the years after that breakfast with Marc Benioff was that I could get good at combining multiple skills in unique combinations. Scott Adams once wrote that to be successful you need to either be the very best in one field or the top 25% of skill in multiple fields. In other words, if you’re not world class at something but you’re really good at a couple things and the combination of those two skills produces a valued offering in the market, you can be successful. Example: You can either be one of the top pianists in the world and succeed through sheer singular talent, or be a really, really good pianist (if not world-class) and also be really, really good at marketing (or some other skill), combine the two really-good skills, and success will follow.

Given my curiosity and knack for synthesis, I saw a path for me that would involve getting really good a couple things and combining them in interestingly unique ways (versus becoming solely obsessed with one skill area). I could take basic intelligence and work ethic, and layer on top of that very strong — even if not truly world-class — abilities in entrepreneurship and written / oral communication, for example, and that could produce some interesting career opportunities. (That specific skill combination helped me be a complementary partner to Reid Hoffman over the four years I worked for him.) In the years since then, I’ve continued to hone different skills that in combination in an attempt to develop a unique competitive advantage in whatever market I’m playing in.

Like a lot of important wisdom, Marc’s comment to me at breakfast in San Francisco all those years ago sounded simple. The depth of its truth took years for me to appreciate.

I’ve Been Off Instagram in 2019 (and Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport)

This past New Year’s day I was sitting in the lounge of the top floor of a very nice hotel in Taipei, looking out over the green hills. I had a lot to be grateful for, on a number of levels.

I had been off the grid for the previous 10 days. I opened up my phone and went online for the first time. I opened Instagram and began to scroll through. The first photo was someone posing in a Happy New Year’s photo from a Four Seasons in Hawaii. The next photo was someone at an epic party at a different Four Seasons in Mexico. The next was a photo of a beautiful family having a great time in the Middle East.

I put my phone down. An odd feeling swept over me. Everyone else was living these ridiculously nice lives in ridiculously fun places for New Year’s…and what was I doing? Oh yeah, I was also at a nice hotel in an exotic locale.

It seemed absurd to be prompted to feel sorry for myself — in that ever-so-slight FOMO kind of way — given the circumstances.

I haven’t really used Instagram since. Seeing a stream of everyone’s most beautiful selves in their most beautiful exotic locales — and choosing to refresh that stream 10 times a day (thanks to the product’s dopamine producing qualities) — didn’t seem like it was making my life better.

It was in this spirit that I was excited to dive into Cal Newport’s latest book, the instant New York Times bestseller: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

I’ve been talking to Cal for years about his ideas here and he pulled it all together very nicely in this book. He discusses the philosophy of minimalism applied to technology; why he’s not wildly supportive of “digital detox” routines; the value of leisure time that doesn’t involve devices; and some practical tips to manage tech use, such as deleting addictive apps from your phone (even if you still access them on your computer).

So many of my friends are so incredibly addicted to Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. It intrudes on personal happiness (Cal’s topic) and professional effectiveness (the topic of Cal’s next book). This is rather urgent topic. I’m not much better. As I tweeted recently:

I recorded a podcast with Cal the other week about the book. It’s a 45 minute conversation. You can listen to it here. Show notes pasted below.

Show Notes

Cal starts out by defining what digital minimalism is exactly. He talks about why he refrains from using social media and explains how the mechanics of social apps create something resembling an addiction.

They discuss Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy of time management as explained in Walden, and why you should “think of your phone like the closet in the Marie Kondo show.” Cal explains why a 30-day reset is necessary and how exactly to use that time to find clarity around what is most valuable to you.

Cal talks about the kinds of offline activities that new digital minimalists start to engage in, his unique definition of solitude, and why solitude is so important.

They also give a sneak peek of Cal’s next book, on digital minimalism in the workplace.

Quotes From This Episode

“Minimalism says if you really want to maximize your quality of life, find the things that are really valuable, focus on those, and miss out on the things — not that are bad — but that are good but not that good.”

“The cost of the clutter is going to overwhelm the benefits that each of these things causing the clutter actually creates.”

“You can think about your phone like the closet in the Marie Kondo show.”

“Never before in human history could we get rid of every single moment of solitude in the day.”

“Clean out the proverbial closet and rebuild your digital life from scratch, but just do it much more intentionally.”

The Wisdom of Eric Ries

I was delighted to chat with Eric Ries, world famous author of The Lean Startup, a month ago in front of some of our founders at Village Global. Eric dropped an insane amount of wisdom on the business of starting a startup, pivoting, minimal viable products, and more. Video embedded below and also available as a podcast episode on the Venture Stories podcast.

Show notes pasted here:

Over the nearly 75-minute session, Eric gave a masterclass in Lean Startup techniques, addressed questions from founders on some of the finer details of the framework, and shared what he has learned from his entrepreneurial journey in the early 2000s as well as more recently as founder of the Long Term Stock Exchange.

Eric and Ben start out by talking about uncertainty as the core of a startup and the stark contrast between planning in an early-stage company versus in a large enterprise. Eric points out that those in the startup world take for granted certain startup best practices that “would get you fired in any big company.” He talks about the need for structure around entrepreneurial exploration, including making one’s hypotheses explicit and rigorously testing them.

Eric discusses the difference between customer discovery and customer validation. He tells the story of a founder who interviewed prospective customers and was told that the product was great and that they would use it, but that when he asked those same customers to put their name to a letter recommending their bosses purchase the product, not one would do so.

“The ideas that sound big are usually not the things that end up big.”

They move on to a discussion of pivots and why Eric says that in virtually all cases, after having pivoted, founders say they wish they had done so sooner. He explains why every six weeks is an ideal cadence for a “pivot or persevere” meeting.

MVP (minimum viable product) has become household term that was popularized by Eric. He discusses how founders can get over their fear of shipping something they perceive as incomplete and why he says the ideal MVP has “way fewer features than you think it needs.” He fields questions from Village founders on MVPs and talks about how small companies should think about their MVP when targeting large companies as customers.

“Engineers always think that more features will solve any problem.”

Eric explains what he means when he says that “entrepreneurship is a process of self-discovery” and why managing yourself and your own emotions as a founder can be equally as important as managing those of your team. He also addresses some of the criticisms of the Lean Startup methodology and common misunderstandings of the framework.

“I truly believe that entrepreneurship is a process of self-discovery. I think that two people working on the exact same company, encountering the exact same evidence, and deciding on a pivot, would probably choose two different pivots if they had different values. You discover something about what you really care about.”

Along the way, they discuss some of the seminal works in entrepreneurship, like The Four Steps To The Epiphany by Steve Blank and Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.