Highlights and Inspiration from Startup Oakland

I had the chance to attend a fantastic event tonight called Startup Oakland, which was put on by DBL Investors. In addition to learning how many extraordinary startups were born and built in and around Oakland, I walked away with some pretty powerful insights and renewed inspiration for the amazing things passionate, driven entrepreneurs can achieve when they set out to change the world.

The central part of the evening was a panel discussion of Oakland-based company CEOs including Joe Kennedy (Pandora), Kristin Groos Richmond (Revolution Foods), John Woolard (BrightSource Energy), Jim Margraff (Livescribe) and Julie Corbett (Ecologic).  Here are some of the highlights from the evening:

Missionaries v. Mercenaries

The panel discussion kicked off with Jim Margraff from Livescribe asking the crowd of entrepreneurs to raise their hand if they were in it for their passion (most hands went up) or for the money (a very few hands went up).  The universal view of all the panelists was that you better be in it for the mission, otherwise you’re unlikely to win (and ironically, to make the money).  Joe Kennedy shared the hardship that Pandora’s team members endured in the early days, sustained exclusively by their fanatical devotion to helping discover music they love.  Employees deferred their salaries for two years (two years!) and had to scrounge together enough money to pay for the Bart ticket to get to work everyday.  Pandora nearly got evicted from their offices. “We weren’t running on fumes…  the fumes were gone too.”  By that point, he said “all the mercenaries were gone.” Joe also shared that he thinks Pandora is the company that has been rejected by VCs more than any other startup; they’ve heard ‘no’ from venture firms more than 350 times! (I probably don’t need to remind you that Pandora just completed a very successful IPO valuing the company at more than $2.4 Billion).  It’s no wonder that Pandora has been able to achieve such tremendous success, building from a stripped down team of missionaries who truly believed in Pandora’s vision and were willing to persevere through just about anything to see it through.  In Joe’s words, “entrepreneurship is about a fanatical sense of mission and purpose.”

Kristin from Revolution Foods shared that she and her team are driven by a passion for ensuring children get the nourishment they need to function to the best of their ability, and her experience building schools in Nairobi, Kenya and seeing firsthand the difference that proper nutrition made in the children’s ability to learn. Julie from Ecologic shared her frustration for the lack of choice in packaging and her vision for replacing the 3 billion cartons of milk and 1 billion cartons of orange juice sold each year with compostable, recyclable packaging.

John Woolard shared how his travel experiences drove home for him the importance of preserving species by addressing climate change, which led to his building BrightSource and building the world’s largest solar power-generating plants.  He emphasized the importance of “incubating the company’s values, pushing them through to the entire team” and hiring for values.  John shared his view that “world class companies are united by a sense of duty and purpose.”  Joe Kennedy re-emphasized the importance of clarifying values and “working harder and harder to protect the values as the company grows.”

The Best CEOs Make Themselves Irrelevant

“The best CEOs wake up everyday thinking about how to make themselves irrelevant.”
– John Woolard, BrightSource Energy

Jim Margraff from Livescribe shared his view that the hardest part of building a startup is growing your team and getting the people stuff right. “Don’t hire people like you,” he said, highlighting the importance of finding people with complementary skill sets.  Joe Kennedy shared that one of the mistakes that Pandora made early on was relying on a pure subscription model (rather than an ad-supported option) could have been avoided if they’d had someone on their team from an ad-supported media background.  The lack of diverse experience caused them to be too myopic about a business model they were familiar with and comfortable with.  Joe shared his view that your job as CEO is to find people better than you at everything that you do, and to make sure the leaders in your company see that as their job as well.  John Woolard echoed this view through his fantastic quote: “the best CEOs wake up everyday thinking about how to make themselves irrelevant.”

Ban the words “Can’t and Impossible”

Jim shared his moving story of overcoming tremendous financial challenges to make his way through MIT, even when financial counselors told him “he simply could not afford to remain enrolled in school.”  From that experience, he learned the power of believing in possibility and made it a rule that his children are not allowed to use the words “can’t” or “impossible”.  Imagine the impact of banning those words at your startup.  It’s amazing how creative and resourceful people can become when “can’t” is simply not an option.

What Kind of World Do We Want to Leave for our Children?

The most moving part of the evening was when one of the entrepreneurs in the audience asked each of the panelists what life experiences had most shaped them. John Woolard responded that in addition to his experience seeing the firsthand impact of climate change in his travels, the thing that most impacted him was the birth of his children. No longer was life about himself, but about the world that his children would grow up with.  As a relatively new father myself, this rang true for me and I found it particularly touching. Entrepreneurs in particular have an opportunity to make a better world for our children and our children’s children.  For the sake of my son Ben and all the world’s children, please ask yourself each day when you make decisions about what products to build, how to conduct yourself, and what kind of business you create: What kind of world do we want to leave for our children?

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