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Where Silicon Valley Is Wrong on Innovation

Silicon Valley exemplifies the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Very little has changed over the past decade, with the Valley still mired in myth and stale stereotype. Ask any older entrepreneurs or women who have tried to get financing; they will tell you of the walls they keep hitting. Speak to VCs, and you will realize they still consider themselves kings and kingmakers.

With China’s innovation centers nipping at the Valley’s heels, and with the innovation centers that Steve Case calls “the rest” on the rise, it is time to dispel some of Silicon Valley’s myths.

Myth 1: Only the young can innovate

The words of one Silicon Valley VC will stay with me always. He said: “People under 35 are the people who make change happen, and those over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.” VCs are still looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg.

The bias persists despite clear evidence that the stereotype is wrong. My research in 2008 documented that the average and median age of successful technology company founders in the U.S. is 40. And several subsequent studies have made the same findings. Twice as many of these founders are older than 50 as are younger than 25; twice as many are over 60 as are under 20. The older, experienced entrepreneurs have the greatest chances of success.

Don’t forget that Marc Benioff was 35 when he founded Salesforce.com; Reid Hoffman 36 when he founded LinkedIn. Steve Jobs’s most significant innovations at Apple — the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad — came after he was 45. Qualcomm was founded by Irwin Jacobs when he was 52 and by Andrew Viterbi when he was 50. The greatest entrepreneur today, transforming industries including transportation, energy and space, is Elon Musk; he is 47.

See also: Innovation: ‘Where Do We Start?’  

Myth 2: Entrepreneurs are born, not made

There is a perennial debate about who can be an entrepreneur. Jason Calacanis proudly proclaimed that successful entrepreneurs come from entrepreneurial families and start off running lemonade stands as kids. Fred Wilson blogged about being shocked when a professor told him you could teach people to be entrepreneurs. “I’ve been working with entrepreneurs for almost 25 years now,” he wrote, “and it is ingrained in my mind that someone is either born an entrepreneur or is not.”

Yet my teams at Duke and Harvard had documented that the majority, 52%, of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were the first in their immediate families to start a business. Only a quarter of the sample we surveyed had caught the entrepreneurial bug when in college. Half hadn’t even thought about entrepreneurship even then.

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jan Koum didn’t come from entrepreneurial families. Their parents were dentists, academics, lawyers, factory workers or priests.

Anyone can be an entrepreneur, especially in this era of exponentially advancing technologies, in which a knowledge of diverse technologies is the greatest asset.

Myth 3: Higher education provides no advantage

Thiel made headlines in 2011 with his announcement that he would pay teenagers $100,000 to quit college and start businesses. He made big claims about how these dropouts would solve the problems of the world. Yet his foundation failed in that mission and quietly refocused its efforts and objectives to providing education and networking. As Wired reported, “Most (Thiel fellows) are now older than 20, and some have even graduated college. Instead of supplying bright young minds with the space and tools to think for themselves, as Thiel had originally envisioned, the fellowship ended up providing something potentially more valuable. It has given its recipients the one thing they most lacked at their tender ages: a network.”

This came as no surprise. Education and connections are essential to success. As our research at Duke and Harvard had shown, companies founded by college graduates have twice the sales and twice the employment of companies founded by others. What matters is that the entrepreneur complete a baseline of education; the field of education and ranking of the college don’t play a significant role in entrepreneurial success. Founder education reduces business-failure rates and increases profits, sales and employment.

Myth 4: Women can’t succeed in tech

Women-founded firms receive hardly any venture-capital investments, and women still face blatant discrimination in the technology field. Tech companies have promised to narrow the gap, but there has been insignificant progress.

This is despite the fact that, according to 2017 Census Bureau data, women earn more than two-thirds of all master’s degrees, three-quarters of professional degrees and 80% of doctoral degrees. Not only do girls surpass boys on reading and writing in almost every U.S. school district, they often outdo boys in math — particularly in racially diverse districts.

Earlier research by my team revealed there are also no real differences in success factors between men and women company founders: both sexes have exactly the same motivations, are of the same age when founding their startups, have similar levels of experience and equally enjoy the startup culture.

Other research has shown that women actually have the advantage: that women-led companies are more capital-efficient, and venture-backed companies run by a woman have 12% higher revenues, than others. First Round Capital found that companies in its portfolio with a woman founder performed 63% better than did companies with entirely male founding teams.

See also: Innovation — or Just Innovative Thinking?  

Myth 5: Venture capital is a prerequisite for innovation

Many would-be entrepreneurs believe they can’t start a company without VC funding. That reflected reality a few years ago, when capital costs for technology were in the millions of dollars. But it is no longer the case.

A $500 laptop has more computing power today than a Cray 2 supercomputer, costing $17.5 million, did in 1985. For storage, back then, you needed server farms and racks of hard disks, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and required air-conditioned data centers. Today, one can use cloud computing and cloud storage, costing practically nothing.

With the advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, the technologies are becoming cheaper, no longer requiring major capital outlays for their development. And if entrepreneurs develop new technologies that customers need or love, money will come to them, because venture capital always follows innovation.

Venture capital has become less relevant than ever to startup founders.

The Need for Clarity and Realignment

At the 11th Annual Novarica Insurance Technology Research Council meeting, two keynotes laid out some fundamental issues for the industry to address.

Novarica Keynote: Key Insurance and Technology Trends for 2018 and Beyond

If I had to pick out a single dominant theme of my presentation on Novarica’s recent research and guidance to clients, it would be realignment. Rapid changes in technology capabilities are opening the door to realignment of the insurance value chain and product itself, as well as insurers’ technology stacks, and the management of technology organizations within insurers.

Realignment of the Value Chain and Product. We’ve been talking for the past few years about how advances in information technology make it easier than ever to analyze, package and transfer risk. Each of the traditional participants in the value chain between individuals or companies and the capital markets (i.e., distributors, primaries and reinsurers) is under immense pressure to prove added value and avoid disintermediation. We’re also seeing insurers start to leverage their risk management knowledge into products beyond loss reimbursement, with companies like Allstate commercializing their telematics capabilities and even selling their roadside assistance capabilities on a fee basis through partnerships.

See also: 9 Key Questions for Insurer IT Leaders  

Realignment of the Technology Stack. While insurers continue to strive for advantage in data and digital, and to build a solid foundation for agility and evolution by replacing legacy core systems, we’re starting to see two major changes. The first, which is more pronounced, is the incredible growth of cloud computing. Our research has shown a major shift in acceptance and embrace of cloud, and several meeting participants told us they plan to be 100% cloud-based within two years. The second, which is still at an earlier stage, is the embrace of microservices architectures, and the adoption of a capabilities-level architecture rather than an application-level architecture. This is something we’ll be watching closely in the next few years.

Realignment of the Technology Organization. All business units are more dependent on technology than ever before, and the widespread adoption of agile is helping to improve communications, relationships and collaboration between IT and other business units in many ways. But there’s still a fundamental disconnect in many companies between the way that IT evaluates its own performance and the way that other business units evaluate IT’s contribution to achieving the company’s goals. We published research this year on the benefits of using business KPIs and IT value metrics, to ensure shared understanding and the feeling of shared values between IT and other business units.

I closed with our nine questions for insurer IT leaders, all of which encourage re-evaluation of current practices and attitudes from an outside perspective. For example, instead of asking how to manage the threat of insurtech, ask what can be learned from these new entrants that are approaching the industry with a fresh point of view. Instead of asking how to win the war for talent, ask what is the value of working at your company? And instead of asking how to justify an IT investment, ask, how does the IT capability drive business results?

Guest Keynote: Scaling and Growing High-Performance Organizations

Chris Yeh has founded, invested in or advised more than 50 high-tech startups. He is the co-author, with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age and the forthcoming Blitzscaling, based on a class he team-taught with Hoffman and others at Stanford. His presentation covered material from both works. If I had to pick out a single theme from his keynote, it would be clarity.

Blitzscaling, the ability to grow an enterprise quickly, requires a clear understanding of the goals and risks. It’s defined as: “The pursuit of rapid growth by prioritizing speed over efficiency in the face of uncertainty.” This is a conscious choice to do things in a particular way that might be viewed as “wrong” by other frameworks but makes perfect sense when viewed against the Blitzscaling opportunity.

The clarity of the strategic decision cuts through the noise of demands for efficiency. While insurers may not have many opportunities to Blitzscale, having this same level of clarity around goals to insulate them from traditional operational demands is critical to the ability to drive innovation.

See also: How Technology Drives a ‘New Normal’  

The Alliance framework for talent acquisition and management has a similar level of clarity to it. Companies and the people they need each have diverse objectives, some of which align and some of which do not. However, most talent strategies don’t acknowledge this, and are built on a level of disingenuity on both sides. By starting from a clear-eyed assumption that the employee is building a career that may involve leaving the company at some point, both parties can focus on creating mutual value and growth during the period of their alliance.

As one CIO commented to me later, “Chris talking about looking at your employees as having ‘tours of duty’ and how we as leaders need to look at how we help them ‘level up’ was very relevant to some actual personnel situations I’m dealing with.”