#AMA with :20 Min VC
Reid Hoffman in Conversation with Harry Stebbings
You asked, Reid Hoffman and Harry Stebbings answered. The Greylock general partner and the host of The 20 Minute VC pick back up from a December 2020 episode of the popular podcast, during which Hoffman discusses his wide-ranging career and key lessons learned.
In this episode of Greymatter, Harry guest hosts and extends the conversation with Reid that covers everything from Hoffman’s early days as a “baby entrepreneur” launching SocialNet and his subsequent startup experience as an early executive at PayPal, to his view on the current investment landscape, SPACs, and how entrepreneurs should approach speaking out on political issues. To guide the conversation, Reid and Harry solicited questions from Twitter ahead of the recording. Entrepreneurs such as Figma CEO Dylan Field, fellow investors including Moxxie Ventures founder and general partner Katie Stanton, and Coatue Management partner Jamie McGurk pitched questions to the duo.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Harry Stebbings: Welcome to Greymatter. I’m your guest host Harry Stebbings. For folks in the VC world, you might recognize this terrible British accent from The 20 minute VC. If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know that Greylock general partner Reid Hoffman joined me on my show in November. And we talked about some of the key lessons readers learned over the course of his career. Before that podcast, we asked Twitter some amazing suggestions for questions for Reid. And we got some fantastic material that we couldn’t cover in that episode, so we really wanted us to do a deep dive.
And so Reid, thank you so much for agreeing to do the deep dive with me on Greymatter.
Reid Hoffman: I had so much fun the first time that I have been looking forward to this all throughout the holidays.
Harry: Let’s start the discussion on the theme of investing. We’ve got a bunch of questions on this, and the first was from [Figma CEO] Dylan Field. He said, “outside of investing in companies with proven network effects, what are some of your recent investment theses?”
Reid: It’s very entertaining that you are channeling a question from Dylan Field – Dylan is the founder of Figma, which is a Greylock investment, so Dylan and I talk to each other every so often and he is obviously a superstar entrepreneur.
So let’s see, generally speaking, obviously, I tend to orient towards things with network effects in the background. You know, SocialNet, PayPal, LinkedIn – It’s the way I think about things. Obviously it’s one of the reasons I did Airbnb and a number of my other investments such as Coda, Neeva, etc. Now in thinking about it, there are probably areas where you say maybe there’s network effects, but you don’t know. One might be autonomous vehicles, which is clearly a transformative technology. As far as investments that we’ve made at Greylock, I’ve sponsored or Aurora, Nuro, Nauto. Those companies kind of question about redefining the “brain” of the car. Now, that may end up being a logistics network, that may end up being a kind of transport network in a way that they operate. But it also could be that they’re just the next evolution of these kinds of vehicles.
And then also another investment that I’ve made through Greylock is Entrepreneur First, which is an incubator. Now, part of the thing about being contrarian and right (and it’s actually, by the way in London with also offices in Berlin and Paris and Singapore and Bangalore), part of the thing is Silicon Valley thinks that incubator networks – not accelerators, because things like Y Combinator are different – but incubators, which have been tried over the decades in Silicon Valley, have all failed. So when I came to my partners and I said, Hey, I think we should try this thing Entrepreneur First. And they’re like, well, all of these incubators all failed, why would we pick up the 70th one? And I said, well, actually in fact, because I think that our whole business is things that fail a lot, and then suddenly you have the right idea and the right thing for these markets and the right way of pulling together. And the way that Entrepreneur First is finding founders, bringing them together, matching them together, and having that sponsor B2B business ideas. Again, maybe it’ll end up being an entrepreneurial network, perhaps, but at the moment, what it is is a really great way of matching entrepreneurial talent to launching interesting companies in a number of very tech-talented areas of the world that don’t yet have recognition and are perhaps underrepresented in their tech entpreneurs.
Harry: Yeah, no, I totally got you, especially in terms of the kind of the delay network effects that aren’t obvious at the time.
Let’s think about a network of biases, one you’ve said something about before. This question is from Rajar Shim. I love this one: “You said you invested in seven deadly sins. I love this as a statement, but when describing the type of companies and products you invest in, can you explain that thinking on what seven deadly sins means to me, and how it factors into your evaluation?”
Reid: Typically when people approach investing, I think they approach it from like what I’ve been trained as an MBA or at Wharton. You know, “I have profit loss statements and cost of customer acquisition and long-term value and cohort analysis and all of these things,” (all of which of course super important for understanding and valuing businesses appropriately), and what they’re growing to, and what the growth stage, and what is the future. However, the thing that’s frequently lost, especially in the earliest stage of these things is, “Well, what is the thing? Why does it really appeal to a mass of humanity and so forth?”
I started saying the sentence when I gave lectures at MBA schools, as I was trying to shake them up to think about this in different ways. And I was like, “Why are they called the seven deadly sins? They’re called the seven deadly sins because they are actually emotional appetites and reflexes that are very widespread across humanity; across human beings. In fact, when you look at it, you say, “Ok, well, what are the early-stage consumer internet investments?” Generally, I’m investing in something while it tends to be one or more of the seven deadly sins. (Now by the way, I’ll do an asterix. I have been thinking about doing an update to thesis in a moment). But what I was saying then is like, “Ok, you’ve got Zynga – which is sloth, because it’s playing games. I’m taking a break, I’m being lazy. I’ve got Facebook – because it’s vanity – or Twitter as I was arguing, because it’s vanity, really. And then LinkedIn – greed.”
So how do each of these seven deadly sins play out? One of the things that I realized several years after I started investing is that this is a lens to kind of shake up how people think about things. I realized I had missed qualified Twitter, because Twitter wasn’t vanity, Twitter was wrath. And we could see a bunch of that obviously in a bunch of the election chaos that has been a part of the Trump regime and everything else.
So that’s one part and that leads to the thing I’ve been thinking about writing another essay on. Which is just to say I absolutely still write about trying to get people to think about the broad engagement with humanity, but I didn’t mean glorify the seven deadly sins. I meant to sublimate them. Appeal to them in a conductivity, but transform them. For example, take LinkedIn. Of course people said they may be participating in this because what they really care about is how much they increase their salary and all the rest of that, and what is opportunity flow. But even participating in this, people are suddenly facilitating a network of knowledge. They are creating alliances such as realizing that work is a team sport, not an individual sport. And they are working with people on developing lifetime relationships as they are collaborating, as they’re going through and transforming the work world. These are all good transformations.
So, it’s the seven deadly sins as a hook, but then the transformation, which I think is the thing that is important for people to think of.
Harry: If you’re mentally plastic as you are – and as I hope I am – you could always fit any company into one of the seven deadly sins if you squint hard enough. How do you think about the ability to do that, and kind of manipulate your own evaluation to fit the model and actually not just be pure in thinking?
Reid: Again, it’s not really a formula. The question was just to say that if you’re going to create a consumer internet media property that you think is for a broad swath of humanity, you could say, “Hey, we should have a billion human beings that are active members of this, or maybe 200 million or 500 million, but a very large number.” Well, the question is, are you hooking in not just to a value proposition – because usually the ways that technology designers and inventors are used to thinking about things as scenarios and use cases and all that stuff which is very important – what is the use case? What is it, what can you do? What can you do now that you have this piece of technology, but also thinking in terms of emotional attachment? Of reflex? Of hunger? Of want? That’s part of what the seven deadly sins is about. To some degree, if you’re bringing a sophisticated sense of human nature of how human beings actually work at scale and somewhere where it doesn’t have to be exactly the seven deadly sins – for example, one of the things that I think is an unfortunate side effect of what happens in all media, including social media is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a well known psychological phenomenon, and most people fall into it. And if it actually takes a lot of work to get out of it now, so if you say, “Hey, I’ve got this really interesting idea that we’ll connect on a confirmation bias basis, we’ll get to scale because of it. And hopefully it’ll help transform people into being active truth seekers or something that’s better than simply catering the confirmation bias.” Then that could be an interesting thing that isn’t one of the seven deadly sins, but it is accurate because all it’s vanity because you’re certain of yourself. But vanity has a lot to do with how it appeared to other people, not just confirmation bias. But you could say it’s a human nature, broad, psychological reflex and appetite that is connecting people to what you’re doing.
Harry: I totally get you in terms of that appetite. You said, about the seven deadly sins, that you were and kind of forcing it as a kind of bone of contention with the MBA classes to prick their ears up, so to speak.
In particular across startups and your investing career, Daniel Lee asked, “What is something that you maybe don’t agree with your partners on a Greylock?” That’s a tough one.
Reid: Well, actually there was recently a classic one that I think is worth repeating because it’s really important for people to know. It started because my partner David Sze had wanted to bring it up, which is Airbnb was the very first investment that I brought into Greylock to lead as a general partner. And so, you know, here I am as that baby VC. And I’m like, “Ah, I think I got one! This is really great.” I come in and David Sze, who is the most valuable board member at LinkedIn and the reason I’m at Greylock; he’s simply a superstar investor (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pandora, etc., he’s amazing. So we do the Airbnb presentation and David says to me, “Well, you know, every VC has to have a deal that they’re going to fail on. Airbnb can be yours.”
And I was like, “Well, okay, you’re super smart. Why do you think it’s going to fail?” So we went through some of the reasons and he said, “But look, if you’ve heard me and what my reasons are – which are government regulatory issues and the kind of weirdness about people renting out their own space to other strangers, you’d kind of go through those set of issues and it will never really get any traction and never really get to scale.” And I said, “Well, I actually disagree. I think that those are real risks, but it has a real chance of it. So I’d like to do it.” So we would do it. Obviously the story has been written. This is a very convenient story for me to be telling.
Now, the only reason I mentioned this is because David is the person who started telling the story, and to David’s credit, one of the things that happened six months after we did the investment is he came to me and said, “You are absolutely right. I was wrong.” And there were no numbers changing there. There wasn’t like an IPO – this amazing IPO that just happened. This was literally six months after the investment, 11 years ago. And he came in and said, “What did you see that I didn’t see? And I said, “You are absolutely right about the risks and the challenges, because that’s part of what you’re balancing with the belief in the future with the things that could blow it up and make it not work.” That’s part of what makes the investing game so interesting. And you are right about your list [of risks]. And it was a long list and it was kind of scary, but if they could figure out how to get around it (and there were some ideas about how to get around those, and ideas of how to get it going, because once it starts going, it’s huge). It was literally a new marketplace that had not existed anywhere in the world before that could suddenly be there. And it’s transformative to human beings – both the hosts who can pay for things like the mortgage or rent or other kinds of things, and the guests who get to not just go rent a hotel room, but get a kind of culture and connection. And of course in a time of pandemic, the weird things about having a network be transformative [to an industry] is the network continues for them. It’s much easier to make not just individual apartments and houses [enticing to guests], but Covid-safe and bio bubbles. They’ll transform to that because a network is adaptable anyway.
So that’s part of what makes a partnership so great because we had a really robust conversation. David is super smart. And it’s one more of the times when you look for the “Contrarian, but ‘right’.”
Harry: Are there any things you – or anyone – can try to do to encourage dissent or discussion in a partnership, rather than a crowd mentality and follow the chute thinking?
Reid: We try. For example, at Greylock, as every partner has to vote on every deal, and the votes are basically one, two, three, and four, so there’s no middle vote. Three and four are: “I want to do the deal.” And one and two are, “I don’t want to do the deal,” with one being, “I really don’t want to do the deal,” and two is like, “I don’t think it should be part of the portfolio, but look, if the rest of you think it’s kind of a good idea…fine. You know, maybe I’m wrong.” Three is, “I think it should be the portfolio,” whereas four is, “If you don’t want to do the deal, I want to do the deal.”
Now, part of the reason we do this is because you have to have an active stance. We also do it because it then becomes natural and easy to cluster on twos and threes. So if someone is making a two, a three vote has to articulate what the things are that would move them from a three to a two, or two to the three. We do this so we’re approaching it with a very active mind because that’s part of what you’re trying to get to is to say, “Hey, let’s really think this through.” Now, part of that’s being good investors, but part of that’s also being good partners with entrepreneurs. You take a collective group of very smart people, who’ve been involved in a number of investments in a number of industries, and you say look, here is what our radar says; what our spidey sense tells us about the possibilities and the threats here. That processes condenses it to, “Ok, this is what the path looks like.”
So for example, when we did the Airbnb debrief, you know, all of the things that David mentioned, I went back to Brian – who is one of the entrepreneurs that I think of as an infinite learner. And I think I’m right about that – and I said, “Look, here’s the set of things that we thought were concerns that we should watch out for and be ready for it when we need to respond to it.” And that was one of the things that helps the company go, “Oh, we’re having a crisis right now in trust because a criminal has stolen credit card and trash and apartment, and now we’re going to fix all the systems.” Well, that’s partially because they’d thought about those risks and advanced them. They had done something. And that’s part of how you stay nimble as a partnership.
Harry: I love that in terms of nimble and flexible discussions within the partnership.
Next question, credit Jamie McGurk for this: what’s the strategy for Reinvent, and the long term view of SPACs in the technology ecosystem? What do you think?
Reid: I’m doing some SPACs with a venture firm called Reinvent Capital. The theory, basically, is that in technology companies, there’s a story that founders like myself, you have this initial idea (like at LinkedIn), that you write on the back of a napkin and then you execute really, really fast. And it’s the same idea you have the whole way through that you use with add-ons and things too. And actually that’s almost never the case. For example, Google was initially an enterprise search. They were going to sell search to the enterprises, and the website was the exemplar case to show people the technology and why they were doing it. That’s an example of “What we started with isn’t where we ended up, in any sense of the world.” So you will you go through these constant cycles of invention and reinvention in the technology space, and it doesn’t end with going public. That situation is like, “Hey, look, we are what we are, and we’re just going to keep doing that for the next decade.” What I think is interesting – and we’re seeing some very good possibilities with SPACs – is the question of how you essentially create new innovation in the IPO process. You say, “Let’s set this up for the new cycles of invention and reinvention when you go past the IPO process.” To do that, I think that you need to set it up with essentially a similar kind of venture capital position, because the things that help the companies – the things we do at Greylock and those Series As and the seeds and the Series Bs – is a 10-year cycle of invention and reinvention.
What happens when you’ve done the 10 years, and you need to distribute to your LPs and you need to go back to doing more series A’s, you have to ask, “What does the next 10 years of these companies look like?” I think SPACs give an interesting innovation to IPOs for setting it up that way.
Harry: I have a question that I saw from a few voices making the rounds on Twitter. Founders ask how should I feel when I can pass on the SPAC-ing? I think it was now five-plus autonomous vehicle companies that come through the SPAC process, and Bill Gurley responded that you’ve got to play the game on the field. I’m intrigued. How do you advise founders who are saying, “Hey, my competitor is SPAC-ing. How should I respond?”
Reid: Well, it’s a complicated subject, and it will be very specific depending upon the specific, you know, the specific company and their specific issues. But, you know, people are usually pretty familiar with a lot of the dynamics in which startup companies compete with each other. You compete for customers, channels and partnerships. You compete for talent. You compete for what makes the quality of technology platform that you build. You compete for the quality of investors and the network that they bring to help you build the company. But another really important one is access and deployment of capital, along with all those others strategies. So part of what you have to be thinking about is, “Ok, if my competitors are getting this form of public market capital, and that way of deploying is an essential tool by which they are going to essentially gain ground on me in some way, do I need that tool too?” That doesn’t mean everyone should do it because sometimes you go,” No, actually in fact, I don’t need that tool. My capital market works just fine, and what’s more, they’re not really ready to go public. And the next year is what demonstrates that. It might be a little bit more painful for me, but it’s not really the right thing to match in kind.” So that’s what you have to look at now. Plus, in the public market – and this is just like similarly going public – getting public capital and being able to deploy public capital helps with acquisitions, new kinds of talent.Those are things that can require a large pool of capital. Those things can really matter. On the other hand, it could be that you’re doing just fine in the private market, and what’s more, you’re not yet ready for the ups and downs of the public market.
If the longer term, 10-plus year position is steady on as you go now, and all of that fits within Gurley’s tweet to “play the field”, you have to play thee field across all these variables and competition. That’s part of what makes these things unique and hard, and why this is a difficult journey that people should do because it creates the future. But as also, you know, it’s the reason why most startup people are working, hundred-plus hour weeks.
Harry: Totally. I’m that this is why I look 84 years old, despite being much younger.
Reid, pre-SPAC or the IPO that happens, there’s the scaling process. You’ve obviously spoken and written prolifically and incredibly about the blitzscaling process. So we have a good question here from Abhinav Singhv: “Does blitzscaling still hold given Covid and the high uncertainties? Do you still believe in blitzscaling?
Reid: This is very much not a surprise, probably: with blitzscaling, the first thing to understand is that blitzscaling is a relative speed metric. The core intention of blitzscaling is prioritizing speed over efficiency in an environment of uncertainty. And what that means is the speed: The first to market is what really matters. You’re going to be inefficient, spending capital, hiring, etc over operational efficiency and other kinds of things in order to get to that scale to market, because that’s the first matter in a network-effects business or other scale-effect businesses. Environmental uncertainty is that haven’t worked out all the variables. It isn’t just like, “Oh, we worked it all out. Now, scale it up.” You might be still working out what your go to market strategy is. Maybe even what your business model is in its mature, large form. You’re doing all that and that all still applies, because in his increasingly hyper-connected world where all companies are in process of becoming technology companies, this is the process by which the next generation of technology companies will mostly be built by: essentially blitzscaling by moving very fast to establish the scale market, because that’s what matters in this hyper competitive network world. But the specifics of the playbook change, right? For instance, say you were hiring people. Before, I was hiring people by saying, “Ok, let’s try to hire someone. We’re going to send job offers the three best people, and that every person we hire comes in and we’re just going to do that.” Well, maybe we don’t do that during Covid because we don’t know how to onboard them effectively.
So, the relative speed of doing that kind of hiring doesn’t actually impact work now, but maybe there’s a different way because it’s a relative foot race. And so I suspect the part of what’s been happening over the last year in the pandemic is people have been working out alternatives – how do I have differential speed? And then the second variable of course, is that during times of high volatility, capital uncertainty, and everything else, there’s a little bit more of not spending all your reserves. You have to preserve some of your reserves for uncertainty and flexibility. And so there’s some of that.
Harry: I totally get you. You said before that when when money’s on the table, we’ll take it. When Covid happens, a lot of people and companies pull back, and cash preservation is key. I’m intrigued. How did you advise founders when money is on the table, or how to raise it with Covid hitting? How do you advise founders on capital deployment with the uncertainty of the pandemic ahead?
Reid: There’s a typical thing to go, “Oh my God, we should preserve everything. The world’s coming to an end and so forth.” And what you want to do is you want to say, “Look, let’s presume that the world’s coming to an end, and either the world comes to an end or we all sort it out together.” So don’t, don’t plan on the world coming to an end unless in your specific industry the world’s coming to an end. So if you’re like, “Oh hey, I’m in the commercial planes business. I’m flying consumers around in United Airlines, etc.” Well, ok…that’s world is coming to an end for a while. You need as much help as you can get. The sky is falling.
However, in the other cases, you’d say, “Well, look, we have a lot of uncertainty. We have uncertainty about our supply chain. Even though we’re not catering to restaurants or hotels or other people who are clearly going to be massively hit by the pandemic. We don’t really know what it looks like.” Then the answer is to presume turbulence in the business and presume uncertainty, but don’t presume that it’s all going to zero. So what that means is you buffer in some reserves, you still plan on the fact that your customers are still going to be customers and they will still be operational, but you monitor on a weekly and monthly basis to make sure that your theory of this [is true]. You get as early a signal as possible of “Oh wait whoa – maybe this part is catastrophic.” Or, “Hey, that this part is really working.” Which probably came as quite the surprise to most people in the technology industry – how so much of the technology industry got accelerated because everyone needed not only to do everything from a Zoom setting, but also deliveries and home entertainment and home productivity software and all the rest of that. And so a bunch of businesses were elevated, because what was actually in fact happening was that they were already kind of viewing it from the lens of this is going to be something that’s essential 10 years out. And what happened is the pandemic and the whole market accelerated.
Harry: Yeah. This question will be the last one on the pandemic, as it’s simply the big question on investing now: Is the acceleration sustainable and enduring, or is it purely caused by the pandemic because of the (mostly consumer) shifts in terms of behavior? How do you think about this one when investing and working with founders today?
Reid: This in an entertaining one because of the way it comes back to the human nature question and the seven deadly sins question from earlier. You’ve got to presume that human beings are still the same. Some of the accelerations that happened, we’ll maintain, are ones people had resistance to [before]. For example, people were resistant to doing telemedicine, because they were like, “Well, I’m really familiar with, and I trust the fact that I go into my doctor.” Then all of a sudden it’s like, “Well, look, the thing works pretty well. I get it very quickly. I can hold up my hand on the screen and say, Hey, this skin lesion – what is it? Plus a bunch of other things. I think those things will continue to play out in human nature, because they’ll go, “Well, now I’m familiar with it. And now that I trust it, it’s much more convenient. It’s easy.” That’s an important part of world change. I think sometimes it’ll be like, “Hey, we’ll have a work-from-home day,” and other kinds of things as part of doing it. Now, that flips to the other side to a situation in which people say, “Wow, now a bunch of us are all eally used to working remotely and distributed and everything else.” But, in fact, you know we’re social animals. As Aristotle said, we’re citizens of the Polis. There’s this narrative like, “Oh, people aren’t gonna come back to the office.” But actually, I think people are gonna come back to the office with a fair intense ferocity and civility – just as you see people making unwise decisions about going to restaurants today, because they are so desperate for getting out and getting social, even when we’re saying, “No,no,no! Wait another few months, the vaccines are just about here!” Like, wait a little bit longer before breaking quarantine. I think you’ll see, similarly, a lot of demand for getting back together in person, including demand to go and experience other new things. Now it doesn’t mean that jumps back immediately to pre-Covid levels, but I think people will be surprised because it still goes down to what the fundamental human nature, human desires, and human appetites play into. And I think that’s guide is to which things that were accelerated by Covid stay accelerated, and which things go, “Ok, that’s nice, and now it’s another nice thing in the mix,” but the acceleration backs way off and things come back with a big roar.
Harry: Absolutely. I totally will be doing many things for the first time and appreciating new experiences for sure. [Question from] Avichal Garg on Twitter: with the future in mind, what is one company that you wish existed that doesn’t currently exist today?
Reid: That’s a classically great question from Avichal. Both an entrepreneur and an investor, I do think about what are those things. Thinking about investing in companies now (I’m not quite sure that Greymatter is the right place to say this, because sometimes I go find the entrepreneur and I invest in them, and you don’t want to be exciting competition for it). One of the things we do is we actually incubate ideas – for example, Palo Alto Networks was incubated with us, Workday was incubated with us. It happens a little bit more on the enterprise side. So I think the answer is that I have some things that I think should be companies, but I don’t think I should say them even on the Greymatter podcast.
But I will say that the kinds of things that I would like to see more of, and I’ve been thinking about this more in a philanthropic method than Greylock, is how do we reinvent the truth function of media? We used to have the truth function with newspapers. We used to have the truth function with broadcast television. But how do we get that? Because I think it’s one of the problems that we have. I think in order for a society to be coherent, it needs to have a media by which we all get collectively more truth shared and more knowledge justified. We need a true belief of what philosophers call knowledge. And I think we need to have more of that.
Harry: And so how do we get there? We have these centralized news organizations, these monoliths that now we distrust so much. Do you think the future is decentralization of news outlets and content creation to its purest form? Do you think that’s the future truth of the media?
Reid: Well, look: decentralization is not necessarily a function of truth. So a mob is decentralized, and a mob is usually a very bad function for a truth function. So what you’re looking for is where do you get the mechanisms that bring truth together. Now let’s take one out there that I think is really great, but is limited as only one thing: Wikipedia. Wikipedia, in some senses is decentralized. It’s run by a culture that has a central group of editors who are the CIS admins, but they do it as a collective function. Now, one of the things you end up with is an encyclopedia that’s essentially generated by a set of well-meaning, quasi-journalists or amateur journalists in terms of what they’re doing, and they rely a lot on journalistic media and other kinds of stuff that’s out there to source and to determine what’s actually truth or not truth in it. And they do so on a wide variety of topics, which is very good. Now, on some topics – say, political topics – it tends to be very bad, because when the truth gets in the contention, it’s not very well done in terms of getting in that other point of contention, because they try to go with a neutral point of view and facts and all the rest of the stuff. So they’ve had to do specific interventions, like essentially freezing a page, because they don’t want to have, say, the Donald Trump page replaced by a big patriotic picture of like, Satan or something else, or a clown, as a way of of saying, “Hey, you know, this is the political commentary.” But Wikipedia is an example of where you actually have a network that generates information, but not all truth functions perfectly. No one truth function is good for everything, but generally it’s a free function question. How do we get more of those kinds of the things where you say, okay, we have some kind of truth function here, that doesn’t mean you can absolutely believe it no matter what, but you can say that’s a credible source, because usually with truth, you run a good process. For example, journalists made a bunch of calls including to the people who disagree with us and and the people who are experts. Then you integrate that all and you go through an editorial board and that laborious board process has happened. That’s historically part of why journalists in other incentive environments have been an important carrier of truth function. And, by the way, I think the truth function was breaking well before the internet. The internet may have amplified it in some way as it got to scale. But you know, there’s talk radio, there’s cable news, there’s a bunch of other stuff that has been challenging this.
So how do we get more of those kind of truth functions? I think one of the events that rubs this in the world, is media is essentially accelerating, and truth is essentially slow. Even in a decentralized way, how do we get that consideration and slow something down that is an important part of how we understand things? Also, generally speaking, you don’t I want to overly empower censors. This is one of the reasons why the freedom of speech mantra is so large, because censors historically are the way that autocratic governments or institutions try to try to enforce their power. I am always entertained, when I think of this, by the historical Soviet Union’s Pravda. It was the magazine and newspaper, and it is literally the Russian word for “truth,” – but it isn’t. It is entirely the state-run apparatus. Like, perhaps “Untruth” would’ve been a better term. So, anyway, that’s the problem that’s in front of us and that I think is going to need a set of new entities, not just one, but a set of new entities in order to get to us, and that may be a little bit of a distribution question. To get us to something where we are getting to a more coherent understandings of truth, where most people (as per the earlier confirmation bias), don’t really understand how to really dig to get to a point of truth for themselves, as much as I hoped that everyone would, can. We’ll get there
Harry: In terms of inserting truth function into to news media content, this makes me think of the political landscape. And we have a brilliant question here from Katie Stanton: The incoming Biden administration will inherit a ton of problems, from the raging pandemic to the economy struggling to the overheating planet and the fragile democracy. All these different, very, very big challenging problems. What can the tech community do to help?
Reid: Well, Katie herself has been an awesome volunteer across a wide variety of fronts of trying to do public service, so she is one of the people who has definitely personally earned the right to to ask that question. What I would say is, generally speaking, tech is more and more the leverage scale point of the future. And so all of us as technologists have to think, not just how do I build my own company, jobs, new products, and new services as a way to contribute to the future, but also, how do I take my understanding of technology and help society with that? And that can range across a wide variety of things. You can say, hey, should I really try to get things things going? Whether it’s Code for America, or Kiva, or other kinds of things kind of going in strong ways. Those just happened to be ones that I’m involved with, so they come immediately to mind. Another thing could be the U.S. Digital Service – serving in government to help government with technology. It could also be questions around what are the ways that we can take all aspects of human life and help technology get there better? For example, one of the reasons I was mentioning Code for America is because they are thinking of things like, why don’t we help people do things like process food stamps when they’re desperate, when they need food. Let’s make that easy to do. Let’s have technology that enables that.
But I think that concept goes the whole way up. It was part of the reason why I’ve been thinking about truth in media, because obviously technology is a huge part of that. But it could also be, for example, one other thing that I did was serve on the Department of Defense innovation board to try to figure out what innovations cause the Department of Defense mission actually has to prevent war, to keep peace. Like that’s actually a good thing, right? So how do you help with that as part of what you’re doing as a technologist. Tthose are the kinds of things I think that technologists should broadly do. And inclusive of that even though politics [in tech] can be, you know, Democrat, I think to some degree, democracies are always a bit of a mudslinging exercise, but you have to take your responsibilities as citizens seriously. And so you have to step in, even though some mud will be thrown at you. For example, take my own efforts in the last few years. I basically viewed Trump to be a terrible catastrophe, which I think in the last few days is even being exemplified and called out by a bunch of Republicans. I think that question is to say “Step forward, get into it.” Because I’ve probably had more mud thrown at me for the last four years for doing that by trying to be a responsible citizen, but it’s still worth doing. So stand for it and get into it.
Harry: And then we have a lot of other people who are very pronounced in saying that companies are sheep, they’re not democracies. And you have some leaders coming out and saying, actually, that political views have a place, and it’s not in the company. How do you feel about that? This question is from Katherine Harrison: Should start ups leave room for political views in their culture, and how embracing (or not) should they be?
Reid: Generally speaking, the goal of your company should be truly of diversity and inclusion. And that’s not just gender, that’s not just race – which of course is super important and usually lacking in the tech industry – but a little bit more broadly. You generally don’t want to have a narrow view where you say, you know, “We’re just Democrats, or we’re just Republicans,” because that’s in the 40% here, 40% there. You want to be probably a little bit broader than that. Now you could say, “We’re a progressive company. Our company really believes in climate change and climate science, and that’s going to be really important to us.” And maybe that means that’s all Democrat. That would be a sad thing if true, but that kind of thing can be important. What is important is to inculcate that we are citizens. We have political responsibility and I am part of it. Our political responsibility is to act up and call for it on a societal basis. For example, part of what I’ve been encouraging a bunch of business leaders to do is say, “Look, it’s okay to speak up on rule of law. It’s okay to speak up and say, Hey, we’ve got election integrity. We are following the constitution, and we want a peaceful society for that.” The forces that want to provoke a cultural kind of civil war by disinformation and everything else that’s going around by saying, “Hey, the election didn’t have integrity.” We should stand up against that as business people. That’s a lot of aligning on some specific missions, which may look a little bit more Democrat, may sometimes look little bit more Republican, and that’s okay. It aligns with the mission of what the business should be. And then some things that should more about that we are all citizens together, and that everyone should be on this board. In fact, this shouldn’t actually be a partisan issue. This should actually impact the stability of society. We go into the future together, and those issues are things that business leaders sshould speak up on. And when other people say, “Hey, you shouldn’t be talking politics.” Then say, “Look, I’m talking about the rule of law. You know, you shouldn’t be talking about anarchy and destruction of society.”
Harry: Yeah. I agree with you, and you mentioned you were spending a lot of time on the political landscape.
Nikhil Basu Trivedi asked a question today, and it’s one that I’m just fascinated by, reading it: How do you prioritize your time? Given, obviously, your relationship with LinkedIn, your relationship with Greylock, your relationship with Reinvent, the political efforts…how do you have time in the day, Reid?
Reid: I basically work through great entrepreneurs, great CEOs, and great organizations. So everything is a part of what allows me to do a lot of the different things that I’m working on. I’m working with great organizations in my partners at Greylock for tech and Series A and Series B investing etc.; when I’m working on political issues, I stood up a new political org for that work; when I’m working on philanthropic issues, I might be on the board of Kiva or the board of Endeavor. And so those organizations are essentially the ways that I make all this happen. And that’s part of the reason why, for example, when I write books, I write it with co-authors because it’s like a little mini organization working on the book. And of course, Masters of Scale is brought to you through an entire startup production company.
Harry: Absolutely. So, we can look at a lot of things – and I’ve seen a lot of tweets today about this – that say it’s like December the 37th, 2020. And my question to you is we need a way forward, so what are you most optimistic about, and what gives you a source of hope, joy, and inspiration looking forward, instead of maybe a more pessimistic look back in 2020?
Reid: I mean, for a lot of [what happened in] 2020, we’re going to still be feeling the pain of a catastrophic mismanage of this for awhile. We’ll certainly [feel] within the U.S. and also other countries the pain of hundreds of thousands of life losses, deaths, millions of job losses. you trillions of debt that will ultimately of course, need to be repaid all because of catastrophic mismanagement primarily on the federal level. There are millions of people suffering, and we’re all going to have to try to help each other to get out of this mess together. Now on the optimistic side, I continue to think that better to be optimistic. It’s better to be hopeful because we can actually, in fact build our way up. We can build new companies, we can build new technologies, you can build new economies. There isn’t anything so disastrous that we can’t find our way out of. For example, the story of how, previously, we invented vaccines in years. This invention of vaccines went down two months, and that’s part of the story of what we can do when we work together as part of a globalized world. These are vaccines from around the world. These are efforts to combine teams and testing and data from lots of different areas of the world. And that kind of thing shows that when we work together, we can accomplish amazing futures. And it’s obviously one of the reasons why many of us get into entrepreneurship and building new companies and building technology, because that building of the future can be so much better than we are now. And I think that’s just as possible today, even with all of the train wrecks of 2020 as it was before. And by the way, when you have market dislocations, for entrepreneurs sometimes that almost certainly means much more interesting opportunities.
Harry: For sure. One final question (and I do have to ask this one in the context of not having hindsight). When you think about the opportunities ahead, what would you give a much younger version of yourself, self starting out, in a graph? What advice, with all the experience lessons that you have, would you give yourself?
Reid: Well, the fortunate thing for anyone who’s still listening to this podcast is actually, that was my first book, The Start-up of You. And the precise reason I wrote that book was because I gave the commencement speech to my high school, the Putney School, and I was like, what do I have to say to a bunch of now-high school graduates? What in my own weird career would I have to say to them? And the short answer is to think about yourself as the entrepreneur of yourself. There’s a set of specific tools that are within the book, like life is a team sport, not an individual sport. How do you help build the team around you? What are the ways that you choose an industry? Don’t just choose a local job listing. Find out which industry is going that you want to be in, and then be in the network to get into that industry. Be willing to spend years doing the work that builds your network, because the network is what enables you. I mean, this is not surprising from a person who is one of the co-founders of LinkedIn. All of that stuff are the positive things that I would do more of, when I stumbled my way into them post graduating from college. Those are the kind of things that are the advice that I would give my younger self.
Harry: I absolutely loved the Start-Up of You, was that one of my favorites.
Reid, this has been so much fun hosting Greymatter. Thank you so much for letting me host. It’s been fantastic, and a real pleasure.
Reid: A pleasure as always, thank you so much.