Three Things I Learned on Commencement Day

In the last five years I’ve been at Commencement Day at universities around the world – a few times to receive awards and three times as the commencement speaker. But attending both my daughters’ college graduations this year helped me to see how things look from the other side of the podium.

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CommencementFirst, college graduations fall in the category of “life cycle” events. At some major events– your birth and death for example, while you may be the center of attention, the events are managed by others and are more important to the people around you. Other events, like coming of age celebrations, getting your driver’s license, getting married, the birth of your children – are more important to you, and those attending are the celebrants at your event.

While our daughters’ graduations felt important to us, on top of mind was that this day was about honoring their accomplishments not ours. We were there to celebrate with and for them. And we were incredibly proud of what they achieved – through their years as college students, they grew smarter, wiser and more prepared for the world in front of them.

Second, for most students, our kids included, college was a halfway house to independence. The morning they stepped onto campus as freshman it was the first day of their own life –they were no longer just a child of their parents. College was the first place they could taste the freedom of making their own independent decisions – and in some of those “mornings-after” – learn the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

At school they had their first years of taking responsibility for themselves. While it may not be obvious to them yet, their college years were a transition from having their parents make decisions for them to making decisions for themselves. Through those years, we lived through a few crises, tried hard not to be helicopter parents and helped when we were needed.

But as independent as our kids and their classmates felt, going to college is still a known path for 21 million U.S. college students. Commencement Day has a sobering finality in that it’s the end of the prescribed path. From that day forward each of these 21 million students now has to search for his or her own path through life

That brings up my third and final observation. At the commencements I attended, graduates were classified by their academic rankings. Outstanding academic performance was noted in the programs and awarded with special honors. Schools reward their students for a combination of intelligence, perseverance and hard work, in the classroom and on the playing fields. But these metrics don’t help kids understand that great grades are not a pass for a great life.

How many of those “A” students will find that after their first job, few employers care about grades and customers don’t ask for your transcript? In fact, in a decade or two, a good number of those “A” students may well be working for those supposed losers who barely graduated.

It’s at the back of the hall where there were a few who see things differently. Who have no fondness for rules or respect for the status quo—these are the kids who are more likely to grow up to create new companies and new industries and push the envelope in directions not visible to those who follow a more conventional path. Successful founders and technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation with great grades.

Colleges may not reward resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity. But as an entrepreneur, they matter a whole lot more than following directions, playing by the rules and getting top grades.

Congratulations to those in both the front and back of the room. Your lives are going to be interesting – through very different paths.

Lessons Learned

  • Graduation was their day. We were there to help them celebrate
  • Commencement Day is the end of the prescribed path. Now they have to find their own
  • Great grades are not a pass for a great life
  • After their first job, few employers care about grades and customers don’t ask for your transcript
  • Successful founders and technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation with great grades


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ESADE Business School Commencement Speech

President Bieto, Dean Sauquet, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen….Thank you for the kind introduction. I’m honored to be at a university noted for knowledge, and in a city with 2000 years of history –  home of Gaudí one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators.ESADE quote

I’d like to start with a request.

Everyone, hold your phone up in the air like this.

Now look around.  In this sea of phones do you see any Blackberries? How about any Nokia phones?

Ok you can put your phones down now but let’s keep exploring this a bit. Raise your hand if you rented a VHS tape last night? Or if you used a paper map to find your way here?

These questions and your answers lie at the heart of what I’d like to talk about with you today: the changing face of innovation and your role in it.

Let’s start with Joseph Schumpeter. I’m sure many of you have heard his name. Schumpeter was an economist who taught at Harvard in the 1930’s and 40’s.  I like the guy because he’s credited with coining the word entrepreneur. But you probably remember him as the one who proposed the theory of creative destruction.  According to Schumpeter, capitalism is an evolutionary process where new industries and new companies continually emerge to knock out the old.

Fifty years later another Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen, developed his theory of disruptive innovation, which actually described how creative destruction worked.

Disruptive innovation leads to the creative destruction of businesses that once seemed pre-eminent and secure.

Which brings me back to your mobile phones.

Think about this; 7 years ago Nokia owned 50% of the handset market. Apple owned 0%.  In fact, it was only 7 years ago that Apple shipped its first iPhone and Google introduced its Android operating system.

Fast-forward to today—Apple is the most profitable Smartphone company in the world and in Spain Android commands a market share of more than 90%.  And Nokia?  Its worldwide market share of Smartphones has dwindled to 5%.

You’re witnessing creative destruction and disruptive innovation at work. It’s the paradox of progress in a capitalist economy.

So congratulations graduates – as you move forward in your careers, you’ll be face to face with innovation that’s relentless.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about today—how innovation will shape the business world of the next 50 years—and what it means for you.

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The Perfect Storm
Your time at ESADE has trained you to become a global business leader.

But the world you lead will be much different from the one your professors knew or your predecessors managed.

Just look at the disruptive challenges that businesses face today– globalization, China as a manufacturer, China as a consumer, the Internet, and a steady stream of new startups. Today’s workforce has radically different expectations, brands are losing their power, physical channels are being destroyed by virtual ones, market share is less important than market creation, and software is eating world.

Industries that we all grew up with, industries that enjoyed decades of market dominance – like newspapers, bookstores, video rentals, personal computers — are being swept away.

The convergence of digital trends along with the rise of China and globalization has upended the rules for almost every business in every corner of the globe. It’s worth noting that everything from the Internet, to electric cars, genomic sequencing, mobile apps, and social media — were pioneered by startups, not existing companies.

Perhaps that’s because where established companies might see risks or threats, startups see opportunity. As the venture capital business has come roaring back in the last 5 years, startups are awash in available capital. As a consequence, existing companies confront a tidal wave of competitors 100 times what they saw 25 years ago.

Efficiency over innovation
Yet in the face of all this change, traditional firms continue to embrace a management ethos that values efficiency over innovation. Companies horde cash and squeeze the most revenue and margin from the money they use. Instead of measuring success in dollars of profit, …firms focus on measuring capital efficiency. Metrics like Return on Net Assets, Return on Capital and Internal Rate of Return are the guiding stars of the board and CEO.

Cheered on by finance professors, Wall Street analysts, investors and hedge funds, companies have learned how to make metrics like Internal Rate of Return look great by one; outsourcing everything, two, getting assets off their balance sheet, and three only investing in things that pay off fast.

As Harvard professor Clayton Christensen noted, these efficiency metrics provided wise guidance for times when capital was scarce and raising money was hard. But they have also stacked the deck against investment in long-term innovation.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, policy makers have kept interest rates at near zero, flooding the market with cheap money in an attempt to restart growth. In spite of this, private equity funds have used the rallying cry of efficiency to hijack corporate strategy and loot the profits that historically would have been reinvested into research and development and new products. We legalized robbing the corporate treasury. Today billions of dollars that companies could have invested in innovation are sitting in the hands of private equity funds.

Unfortunately as we’ve learned from recent experience, using Return on Net Assets and IRR as proxies for efficiency and execution won’t save a company when their industry encounters creative disruption. Ask Sony about Samsung, ask any retailer about Amazon, any car company about Tesla, and any newspaper company about the web.

The stock market clearly values companies that can deliver disruptive innovation. Look at the valuations of companies like Tesla, Illumina, and Twitter.

In fact, I predict that over the next few decades, we will see two classes of public companies. The first will be commodity businesses that are valued for their ability to execute their current business model. Their lifetime as a market leader will be measured in years. The second class will be firms with a demonstrated ability to continually innovate and reinvent their business models. The companies that can show “startup-like” growth rates of 50% plus per year will get stratospheric market valuations.

So I hope you are thinking—“hey how can I lead a business with startup growth?” At least I hope you’re thinking that, rather than “oops I joined the wrong company.”The question for all of you is … “What will it take to inspire and manage this kind of innovation?”

Innovation
Before I answer that question, let’s take a minute to establish a common definition of innovation. At its most basic, innovation means to introduce something new. But in a business context, the meaning gets more nuanced. I’d like to describe the four types of innovation you can build inside a corporation:

The first type of corporate innovation is individual initiative. It’s exactly as it sounds – you build a corporate culture where anyone can suggest an idea and start a project. Some companies use a suggestion box, others like Google give employees 20% of their time to work on their own projects.

The second type of business innovation is called process improvement. This is the kind most of us are familiar with. Car companies introduce new models each year, running shoes grow ever lighter and more flexible, Coca-Cola offers a new version of Coke. Smart companies are always looking to make their current products better – and there are many ways to do this. For example they can reduce component cost, introduce a line extension or create new versions of the existing product. These innovations do not require change in a company’s existing business model.

This is what companies typically do to secure and defend their core business.

The third type of business innovation – continuous innovation – is much harder. Continuous innovation builds on a strength of the company’s current business model but requires that new elements be created. For example, Coke added snack foods, which could be distributed through its existing distribution channels. The Amazon Kindle played on Amazon’s strengths as a distributor of content but required developing expertise in electronics and manufacturing.

Fourth and finally is disruptive innovation – this is the innovation we associate with startups. This type of innovation creates new products or new services that did not exist before. It’s the automobile in the 1910’s, radio in the 1920’s, television in the 1950’s, the integrated circuit in the 1960’s, the fax machine in the 1970’s, personal computers in the 1980’s, the Internet in the 1990’s, and the Smartphone, human genome sequencing, and even fracking in this decade. These innovations are exactly what Schumpeter and Christensen were talking about. They create new industries and destroy existing ones. And interestingly, in spite of all their resources, large companies are responsible for very, very few disruptive innovations.

The first two types of innovation—individual and process innovation– are what good companies do well.  The third type—continuous innovation—is a hallmark of great companies like GE and Procter and Gamble.  But the fourth type of innovation – creating disruptive innovation– and doing it on a repeatable basis– is what extraordinary companies do. Apple with the iPod, iPhone and iPad; Amazon with Amazon Web Services and Kindle; Toyota with the Prius… these companies are extraordinary because, like startups, they create entirely new products and services.

ESADE and other great business schools have provided decades of advice and strategy for the first three types of innovation. But leading an existing firm to innovate like a startup is not business as usual.

Building Innovation Internally is Hard
Paradoxically, in spite of the seemingly endless resources, innovation inside of an existing company is much harder than inside a startup.  That’s because existing companies face a conundrum: Every policy and procedure that makes them efficient execution machines stifles innovation.

Think about this.  When it comes to innovation, public companies have two strikes against them.  First the markets favor capital efficiency over R&D.  And secondly, their sole purpose is to focus resources on the execution of their business model.

As a consequence, companies are optimized for execution over innovation. And to keep executing large organizations hire employees with a range of skills and competencies. To manage these employees companies create metrics to control, measure and reward execution.  But remember—in public companies financial metrics take precedence. As a result, staff functions and business units develop their own performance indicators and processes to ensure that every part of the organization marches in lock step to the corporate numbers.

These Key Performance Indicators and processes are what make a company efficient —but they are also the root cause of its inability to be agile and innovative. Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more.

Act Like a Startup
So how does a company act like a startup in search of new business models while still continuing to successfully execute?

First, management must understand that innovation happens not by exception but is integral to all parts of the firm. If they don’t, then the management team has simply become caretakers of the founders’ legacy. This never ends well.

Second and maybe the most difficult is the recognition that innovation is chaotic, messy and uncertain. Not everything will work out, but failure in innovation is not cause for firing but for learning. Managers need radically different tools to control and measure innovation. A company needs innovation policies, innovation processes and innovation incentives to match those it already has for execution. These will enable firms to embrace innovation by design not by exception.

Third, smart companies manage an innovation portfolio where they can pursue potential disruption in a variety of ways. To build innovation internally companies can adopt the practices of startups and accelerators.  To buy innovation companies can buy intellectual property, acquire great teams, buy-out another company’s product line or even buy entire companies. And if they’re particularly challenged in a market they can acquire and integrate disruptive innovation.  My favorite example is Exxon’s $35 billion purchase of XTO Energy in large part to get their fracking expertise.

Other smart companies are learning how to use Open Innovation pioneered by Henry Chesbrough who teaches here at ESADE. They can partner with suppliers, co-create with consumers, open-source key technologies, open their application programming interfaces, or run open incubators for customer ideas.

Everything I’ve been talking about smart companies have already figured out.  Many firms are creating the new role of Chief Innovation Officer to lead and manage these innovation activities. Ultimately this is not just another staff function. The Chief Innovation Officer is a c-level executive who runs the company’s entire innovation portfolio and oversees the integration of innovation metrics and initiatives across the entire organization.

Looking forward, all of you will play a role in the future of business innovation, whether you help to accelerate it or discourage it.
How can you kill innovation? Some companies have so lost the DNA for innovation they become “rent seekers”. Rent seekers fight to keep the status quo. Instead of offering better products or superior service, rent seekers hire lawyers and lobbyists to influence politicians to pass laws that block competition. The bad news here is that countries where bribes and corruption are the cost of doing business or that are dominated by organized interest groups, tend to be the economic losers. And as rent-seeking becomes more attractive than innovation, the economy falls into decline.

I know that’s not the path most of you want to take. Instead I think you want to be part of the innovation team.  And if you do you are in luck. Companies need your help.

They need your help in creating new metrics to manage measure disruptive innovation.  They need your help in creating new innovation incentive systems that reward creative innovation.

And they need your help as leaders who can run companies that can both execute and innovate.

Finally, remember Innovation won’t come from plans or people outside your company  – it will be found in the people you already have inside who understand your company’s strengths and its vulnerabilities.

So in closing, let me leave you with this final thought:

A pessimist sees danger in every opportunity but an optimist.. an optimist sees opportunity in every danger.

In the last 150 years only a few generations have had the opportunity to reshape the nature of business.

Be an optimist.

Congratulations class of 2014:

Embrace change and lead the way.

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Listen to someone else read my speech here

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University of Minnesota Commencement speech – May 10th 2013

Steve at PodiumI am honored to be with you as we gather to celebrate your graduation.

This school has a distinguished roster of graduates… Earl Bakken, the founder of Medtronic, was an Electrical Engineering grad, and Bob Gore of Gortex, and your current president are both alums of your Chemical Engineering program.

In fact, I feel very connected to another one your grads. I’m sure you’ve heard of Seymour Cray, he built a supercomputer company in Chippewa Falls that made the fastest computers in the world. These were very expensive supercomputers. They cost 10’s of millions of dollars and filled two tractor-trailers worth of space.

Back in Silicon Valley I co-founded a company that built desktop workstations powerful enough to compete against Cray. We bid against them in a sale to the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center… and lost. I never forgot that loss because instead of buying hundreds of our small computers they spent $35 Million on that Cray. My startup never recovered and soon after went out of business.

Fast-forward 15 years, Now retired I noticed that the Pittsburg Supercomputer Center had put their Cray for sale on Ebay.  Yep – the $35 Million machine was now for sale for $35,000 dollars.

I bought that Cray, … Honest… you can Google “Cray on eBay” and there I am… I had it shipped to my ranch and kept it in the barn next to the cows and manure.

It was closure.

But the story about Cray is also a story about success and failure.  If I can keep you awake, I’m going to tell you why – while you may have thought today was the end of your education – it’s really only the beginning. And while you might be moaning about that thought, pay attention because what I’m about to share could make a few of you very, very successful.

First day of your life
For most of you, college was the first day of your own life – the morning you stepped onto campus you were no longer just a child of your parents – college was the first place you could taste the freedom of making your own decisions – and in some of those mornings-after – learn the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

Here at school you had your first years of taking responsibility for yourself. While it may not be obvious to you yet, your college years were a transition from having your parents make decisions for you to making decisions for yourself.  But now you face a new chapter that -– if you’re not careful – could result in having companies make decisions for you.

UofM Commencement

Career Choices
It might turn out that graduating from college and getting a job may be just an illusion of independence. If you’re not careful you’ll simply end up having others tell you what to work on, how to spend your time, when to show up and when to go home.  In fact, working in a company could be the adult version of listening to your parents tell you what to do… Only the pay is usually a whole lot better than your allowance.

For some of you, that may be exactly what you are looking for. Many of you are going to take what you learned here, get a good job, get married, buy a house, have a family, be a great parent, serve your community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And that’s great. Minnesota is a wonderful place to hunt, fish, canoe, raise kids, and pursue lots of interests other than just your job.

All of you will ultimately make a choice… a choice about whether you “work to live” or you “live to work.” This should be a conscious choice. Don’t get trapped into the daily routine of showing up and just getting by.

Diverging Interests
While you’re excited about your first “real” job, recognize that your interests and those of your employer are probably not the same. Having your employer tell you what a great job you’re doing and rewarding you for it is not the same as discovering your passion, and figuring out who you are, and what’s rewarding for you.

What I am saying is, “Don’t let a career just happen to you.”  And as much you love, respect and honor your parents, don’t live their lives. Your obligations to meet their expectations ended the day you became an adult.

At the end of the day, you can decide whether you want to be an employee with a great attendance record, getting promoted to ever better titles and working on interesting projects – or whether you want to attempt to do something spectacular – this be or do should be a question you never stop asking yourself — for the next 20 years, and beyond. Be? or Do?

Let me share with you the day I faced the Be or Do question.

Big Company versus Startup
Out of the military, my first job in Silicon Valley was with one of the most exciting companies you never heard of. By the time I joined it was a decade old, and no longer a startup. Our customers were the CIA, NSA, and National Reconnaissance Office. Our CEO, Bill Perry eventually became the Secretary of Defense.

In the 1970’s and ‘80’s the U.S. military realized that our advantage over the Soviet Union was in silicon, software and systems. These technologies allowed the U.S. to build weapons previously thought impossible or impractical.  The technology was amazing, and somehow in my 20’s I found myself in the middle of all of it.

Building these systems required resources way beyond the scope of a single company. A complete system had spacecraft and rockets and the resources of ten’s of thousands of people from multiple companies.

If you love technology, these projects are hard to walk away from. It was geek heaven.

While I worked on these incredibly interesting intelligence systems, my friends in startups worked on new things called microprocessors.  They’d run around saying, “Hey look, I can program this chip to make this speaker go beep.” I’d roll my eyes, comparing the toy-like microprocessors to what I was working on – which was so advanced you would have thought we acquired it from aliens.

But before long I realized that at my company, I was just a cog in a very big wheel. A small team had already figured out how to solve the problem and ten’s of thousands of us worked to build the solution. Given where I was in the hierarchy, I calculated that the odds of me being in on those decisions didn’t look so hot.

In contrast, my friends at startups were living in their garages fueled with an energy and passion to use their talents to pursue their own ideas, however unexpected or crazy they sounded. “Really, you’re building a computer I can have in my house?”

For me, the light bulb went off when I realized that punching a time clock is not the way to change the world. I chose the path of entrepreneurship and never looked back.

Engineers Run the World
Engineers used to be the people who made other peoples ideas work. Today, they change the world.  We live in a time where scientists and engineers are synonymous with continuous innovation. We don’t think twice as our phones shrink, our computers fit in our pockets, our cars run on batteries, and our lives are extended as new medical devices are implanted in our bodies. Scientists and engineers no longer work anonymously in backrooms. Today we celebrate them for improving the quality of peoples’ lives.

George Bernard Shaw once said, Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” Engineers like you have the capacity to move the world forward by continually asking “why not?” It’s your special “doing” gene that empowers us to do better.

You invent. You imagine. You see things that others don’t. Where others see blank canvases, you’ll see finished paintings. You hear the music that’s not written, you see the bridges that have yet to be built.  You envision the products and companies that don’t exist yet.

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Only In America
University of Minnesota Science and Engineering alumni have founded more than 4,000 active companies, employing over ½ million people and generating annual revenues of $90 billion. These alums chose not to take the safe road but instead to push beyond their boundaries and DO.

At some time you might decide that you want to become the master of your own destiny – that you want to take an idea – and start your own company. And all of you sitting here just earned a degree that gives you choices that very few other professions have.

Entrepreneurship is not something foreign – it’s built into the DNA of this country. America was built by those who left the old behind. Not too many generations ago your family packed up what they had, got on boat and came to America. They struck out across the country and ended up here in Minnesota.

And what’s great about the United States… No other country embraces innovation and entrepreneurship quite like we do. You don’t have to stay in one job, and it’s really, really hard to starve to death.

Passion
I predict that 78% of all commencement speeches this year will have advice about “pursuing your passion and doing stuff you love.” But they don’t tell you why.  Well here’s the secret – if you’re going to spend your career in a company, doing stuff you enjoy will help you keep showing up..

But if you want to do something, something entrepreneurial, just loving what you do is isn’t enough. You’re pursuing ideas you can’t get out of your head. Ideas that you obsess about. That you work on in your spare time.

Because that fearless vision and relentless passion are what it takes to sustain an entrepreneur through the inevitable bad times - the times your co-founder quits, or when no one buys, or the product doesn’t work. The time when everyone you know thinks that what your doing is wrong and a waste of time. The time when people tell you that you ought to get a “real” job.

By the way, every year I remind my students that great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation – and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative. There’s a big difference between being an employee at a great company and having the guts to start one.

You don’t get grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity.

You just get successful.

Failure
The downside of starting something new is that’s it’s tough, because unlike the movies – you fail a lot. For every Facebook and Google, thousands never make it.

Like Rocket Science Games, which was my biggest failure. 90 days after showing up on the cover of Wired Magazine I knew the game company where I raised 35 million dollars was headed for disaster.

We’d believed our own press, inhaled our own fumes and built lousy games. Customers voted with their wallets and didn’t buy our products. The company went out of business. Given the press we had garnered, it was a very public failure.

We let our customers, our investors, and our employees down. I thought my career and my life were over. But I learned that in Silicon Valley, honest failure is a badge of experience.

All of you will fail at some time in your career…or in love, or in life.

No one ever sets out to fail.

But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.  Playing it safe will get you nowhere.

As it turned out, rather than run me out of town, the two venture capital firms that had lost $12 million in my failed startup actually asked me to work with them again.

During the next couple years…and much humbler… I raised more money and started another company that we were ultimately able to take public, and those patient investors more than made up for their earlier loss – many times over.

Hypothesis Testing
As scientists and engineers, you know about failure. You know that virtually no experiment works the first time.  And in a new company all you have is a series of untested hypotheses. You learned something vital in school — to test your hypotheses by designing experiments, getting accurate data, analyzing the results, and then modifying your initial hypotheses based on those results. This is the scientific method, and surprisingly we found the exact same method works for startups.

Because failure is a part of the startup process. In Silicon Valley, we have a special word for a failed entrepreneur – it’s called experiencedOur country and our entrepreneurial culture is one of second and third chances. It’s what makes us great. You don’t have to change your name or leave town. Entrepreneurs in America know that they get multiple shots at the goal.

Be or Do
Someday several of you in this graduating class will be worth a $100 million dollars. And a few of you might change the way the world works.

I want you to look around you.  …Go ahead.  Take a few seconds and give it a look…

While most of you were looking around wondering who this was going to be, I hope a few of you were feeling sorry for the rest of your classmates, knowing that the most successful person in the audience is going to be you.

These days I write a blog about entrepreneurship.  At the end of each post, I conclude with “lessons learned”—a kind of Cliff Notes of my key takeaways.  So that’s how I’ll finish up today.

Here are the two lessons that I’d like to pass on to you

Your science or engineering degree gives you tremendous choices – you, and no one else gets to decide two things:

  • whether you choose to be or you choose to do
  • whether you “work to live” or whether you “live to work”

Remember… live your life with no regrets. There’s no undo button.

And Congratulations  — you’ve earned it!

Thank you very much.

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Philadelphia University Commencement Speech – May 15th 2011

I am honored to be with you as we gather to celebrate your graduation from Philadelphia University.

While I teach at Stanford and Berkeley, to be honest… this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.

I realize that my 15 minutes up here is all that’s between you and the rest or your life, so if I can keep you awake, I’m going to share 4 short stories from my life.

My first story is about finding your passion.
My parents were immigrants…  Neither of them had been to college—my mother graduated from high school but my father left school after the 7th grade.  Still, like many immigrants, they dreamed that someday their children would go to college…  Unfortunately that was their dream—but it wasn’t mine.

I ended up at Michigan State because I got a scholarship…Once I got there, I was lost…unfocused…and had no idea of who I was and why I was in school. I hated school.

One day my girlfriend said, “You know some of us are working hard to stay here. But you don’t seem to care.Why don’t you find out what you really want to do?”

That was the moment I realized I, …not anyone else…was in charge of my life.

I took her advice. I dropped out of Michigan State University after the first semester.

In the middle of a Michigan winter, I stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked to Miami, the warmest place I could think of.

I had no idea what would be at the end of the highway. But that day I began a pattern that I still follow—stick out your thumb and see where the road takes you.

I managed to find a job at the Miami International Airport loading racehorses onto cargo planes. I didn’t like the horses, but the airplanes caught my interest.

Airplanes were the most complicated things I had ever seen. Unlike other kids who were fans of the pilots, I was in awe of the electronics technicians in charge of the planes’ instruments. I would hang around the repair shop just helping out wherever I could. I didn’t know anything, so I didn’t get paid…

But soon some technician took me under his wing and gave me my first tutorial on electronics, radar and navigation. I was hooked. I started taking home all the equipment manuals and would read them late into the night.

For the first time in my life, I found something I was passionate about.

And the irony is that if I hadn’t dropped out, I would never have found this passion…the one that began my career. If I hadn’t discovered something I truly loved to do, I might be driving a cab at the Miami airport.

My life continued to follow this same pattern…I’d pursue my curiosity, volunteer to help, and show up a lot. Again and again, the same thing would happen… people would notice that I cared…and I’d get a chance to learn something new.

Now that you paid for your degree…I’m going to let you in on a secret. It’s your curiosity and enthusiasm that will get you noticed and make your life interesting—not your grade point average.

But at the time…as excited as I was…I couldn’t see how my passion for airplanes and avionics could ever get me anywhere.  Without money, or a formal education, how could I learn about them?

The answer turned out to be a war.

My second story is about Volunteering and Showing Up.
In the early 1970’s, as some of you might remember, our country was in the middle of the Vietnam War—-and the Air Force was happy to have me.

I enlisted to learn how to repair electronics. The Air Force sent me to a year of military electronics school. While college had been someone else’s dream, learning electronics had become mine.

After electronics school, when most everyone else was being sent overseas to a war-zone, I was assigned to one of the cushiest bases in the Air Force, right outside of Miami.

My first week on the base… our shop chief announced: “We’re looking for some volunteers to go to Thailand.” I still remember the laughter and comments from my fellow airmen. “You got to be kidding… leave Miami for a war in Southeast Asia?”

Others wisely remembered the first rule in the military: never volunteer for anything. Listening to them, I realized they were right. Not volunteering was the sane path of safety, certainty and comfort.

So I stepped forward, raised my hand—and I said, “I’ll go.”

Once again, I was going to see where the road would take me. Volunteering for the unknownwhich meant leaving the security of what I knew…would continually change my life.

Two weeks later I was lugging heavy boxes across the runway under the broiling Thailand sun. My job was to replace failed electronic warfare equipment in fighter planes as they returned from bombing missions over North Vietnam.

As I faced yet another 110-degree day, I did consider that perhaps my decision to leave Miami might have been a bit hasty. Yet every day I would ask, “Where does our equipment come from… and how do we know it’s protecting our airplanes?”

The answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep doing what you’re told.”

Still I was forever curious. At times continually asking questions got me in trouble…

once it almost sent me to jail

but mostly it made me smarter.

I wanted to know more.  I had found something I loved to do.. …and I wanted to get better at it.

When my shift on the flightline was over, my friends would go downtown drinking. Instead, I’d often head into the shop and volunteer to help repair broken jammers and receivers. Eventually, the shop chief who ran this 150-person shop approached me and asked, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?” He listened to me babble for a while, and then walked me to a stack of broken electronic equipment and challenged me troubleshoot and fix them.

Hours later when I was finished, he looked at my work and told me, “We need another pair of hands repairing this equipment. As of tomorrow you no longer work on the flightline.” He had just given me a small part of the electronic warfare shop to run.

People talk about getting lucky breaks in their careers. I’m living proof that the “lucky breaks” theory is simply wrong. You get to make your own luck. 80% of success in your career will come from just showing upThe world is run by those who show up…not those who wait to be asked.

Eighteen months after arriving in Thailand, I was managing a group of 15 electronics technicians.

I had just turned 20 years old.

My third story is about Failure and Redemption
After I left the military, I ended up in Palo Alto, a town south of San Francisco. Years later this area would become known as Silicon Valley.

For a guy who loved technology, I was certainly in the right place. Endlessly curious, I went from startups in military intelligence to microprocessors to supercomputers to video games.

I was always learning. There were times I worried that my boss might find out how much I loved my job…and if he did, he might make me pay to work there. To be honest, I would have gladly done so.  While I earned a good salary, I got up and went to work every day not because of the pay, but because I loved what I did.

As time went on, I was a co-founder or member of the starting team for six high-tech startups…

With every startup came increasing responsibility. I reached what I then thought was the pinnacle of my career when I raised tens of millions of dollars and became CEO of my seventh startup… a hot new video game company. My picture was in all the business magazines, and made it onto the cover of Wired magazine. Life was perfect.

And then one day it wasn’t.

It all came tumbling down. We had believed our own press, inhaled our own fumes and built lousy games. Customers voted with their wallets and didn’t buy our products. The company went out of business. Given the press we had garnered, it was a pretty public failure.

We let our customers, our investors, and our employees down. While it was easy to blame it on others…and trust me at first I tried… in the end it was mostly a result of my own hubris—the evil twin of entrepreneurial passion and drive.

I thought my career and my life were over. But I learned that in Silicon Valley, honest failure is a badge of experience.

In fact, unlike in the movies, most startups actually fail. For every Facebook and Zynga that make the press, thousands just never make it at all.

All of you will fail at some time in your career…or in love, or in life.

No one ever sets out to fail. But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.  Playing it safe will get you nowhere.

As it turned out, rather than run me out of town on a rail, the two venture capital firms that had lost $12 million in my failed startup actually asked me to work with them.

During the next couple years…and much humbler… I raised more money and started another company, one that was lucky enough to go public in the dot.com bubble.

In 1999… with the company’s revenue north of $100 million…I handed the keys to a new CEO and left. I had married a wonderful woman and together we had two young daughters.

I decided that after 20 years of working 24/7 in eight startups, I wanted to go home and watch my kids grow up.

Which brings me to my last story—There’s a Pattern Here.
When I retired I found myself with lots of time to think.

I began to reflect about my career and what had happened in my 21 years with startups in Silicon Valley.

I was all alone in a ski cabin with the snow falling outside…with my wife and daughters out on the slopes all day… I started to collect my thoughts by writing what I had hoped would become my memoirs.

Eighty pages later, I realized that I had some great stories as an entrepreneur and a failed CEO. But while writing them was a great catharsis, it was quickly becoming clear that I’d even have to pay my wife and kids to read the stories.

But the more I thought about what I had done, and what other entrepreneurs had tried, I realized something absurdly simple was staring at me.  I saw a repeatable pattern that no else had ever noticed.

Business schools and investors were treating new companies like they were just small versions of large companies. But it struck me that startups were actually something totally different. Startups were actually like explorers—searching for a new world, where everything—customers, markets, prices—were unknown and new.

These startups needed to be inventive as they explore, trying new and different things daily. In contrast, existing companies, the Wal-Mart’s and McDonalds, already had road maps, guide books and playbooks—they already know their customers, markets, and prices. To succeed they just need to do the same thing every day.

Now it would have been easy to say, “Nah, this can’t be right—every smart professor at Harvard and Wharton and Stanford believes something different.”

In fact, in your lives this will happen to you.

You will have a new idea, and people will tell you, “That can’t be right because we’ve always done it this way.”

Ignore them…..  Be persistent… Never give up. Innovation comes from those who see things that other don’t.

As a retired CEO, I had a lot of free time.  So I was often invited to be a guest lecturer at the business school at Berkeley. They thought I could tell stories about what it was like to start a company. I was generous with my time…and I showed up a lot.

But I began to nag the head of the department about this new idea I had…one that basically said that everything you learn about starting new companies in business schools was wrong. I thought that there was a better a way to teach and manage startups than the conventional wisdom of the last 40 years. And to their credit…Berkeley’s Business School and then Stanford’s Engineering School let me write and teach a new course based on my ideas.

Now…a decade later… that course called Customer Development is the basis of an entirely new way to start companies.

If you’re in a technology company or build a web or mobile application, it’s probably the only way to start a company.

How did this happen?  By showing up a lot and questioning the status quo.

These days I write a weekly blog about entrepreneurship.  At the end of each post, I conclude with lessons learned—a kind of Cliff Notes of my key takeaways.  So in case you haven’t been listening, that’s how I’ll finish up today.

Be forever curious.
Volunteer for everything.
Show up a lot.
Treat failure as a learning experience.

Live life with no regrets.
Remembering…There is no undo button.

Congratulations again to you all…and thank you very much.

Listen to the speech here: Download the Podcast here

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