Graduation Speech at the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC)

I had the tremendous privilege today to give a short commencement speech  (of sorts) for the five companies “graduating” from the ATDC. The ATDC is arguably the oldest and one of the most successful start up incubators in the country and they have created billions dollars of  value  over the years. Today’s graduating companies included BrightWhistle (run  by my lifelong friend, Greg Foster), PatientCo, Accelereyes, KontrolFreak, and Urjanet (run by another old friend, Sanjoy Malik).

Here’s what I said…

I want to start off by sharing the best advice ever given from the most famous graduation speech of all time. This speech was attributed to the author, Kurt Vonnegut, addressing MIT’s 1997 graduating class. It starts off…

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now

Of course, if you know this story, you know it is an urban legend. Vonnegut never said these things and he wasn’t even present at MIT in 1997. The speech actually came from a Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich.

The beauty of this story is that facts and data can often get in the way of an otherwise incredibly compelling idea. And, for all of the graduating companies today, you are proof of this. I have no doubt that every one of you were faced with critics and naysayers that presented logic, data and experienced perspectives telling you that your idea wouldn’t succeed. Despite this, you went ahead and believed and you proved every one of those people wrong. Congratulations. You have done one of the most worthy things a group of people can do – you have created something from nothing.

Or, as I like to say, you have made a dent in the universe.  

Like Mrs. Schmich promised in her column, I am going to tell share a few things I’ve learned. These three little nuggets of advice are offered to all of you but primarily to the executives of today’s five graduators. And the only thing I can promise is that my advice today is worth exactly what paid for it.

Advice #1: Manage to the Dunbar Number

In 1992, anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the part of the brain the governed social interactions in primates would vary in mass relative to the average size of their groups. Dunbar measured the neocortex of 38 kinds of primates and correlated it with the average size of their groupings. Low and behold, there was a straight line. And, when he extrapolated it to humans, the number came in just about 150.

For entrepreneurs, leaders or people developing social networking software, Dunbar’s number tells you that the relationships between people will evolve consistently until you cross about 150. At that point, everything changes.

Trust is no longer automatic among employees and leaders. Information will no longer flow organically and naturally. And, the culture tends to shift from a tight community to more of a hierarchical organizational feel. Some people describe it as a company losing its soul.

Like children growing up and moving out, this is a painful but entirely natural phenomenon. It is not good nor is it bad.

As long as you get ready for it and you know it’s coming, you’ll be fine.

Advice #2: Get out of the office a few days a month.

As you scale your companies, one of the few things you can be sure of is that some of your original assumptions will be wrong. You can also be sure that there are likely to be game-changing ideas that will improve your business that remain undiscovered.

Back when I was at iXL, a board member gave me this advice. He said, block off chunks of time on your calendar to get away from the daily grind and think about the business.

It took me a few years to really understand what he meant but I now make it a top priority. While it can easily seem indulgent, it may be the most important thing I do. Every month or two, I take a day, or two when I can squeeze it in, and get away.

You see, operations will become entirely consuming. It’ll take everything you have just to keep your head above water. But most people don’t step away. Most people have no idea they should even consider it. Don’t make that mistake.

Try getting away by yourself sometimes. Other times, bring along the team and maybe a customer. Focus on the big business questions but don’t be afraid to have some fun and to relax.

I can say, without a doubt, that many of the very best ideas for my company have emerged from the out-of-the-office days I schedule.

Advice #3: There is only one way to be a successful executive

After decades of running companies, I have finally discovered the secret to being a great executive. If I could go back and tell one thing to my 25 year old self, it would be this.

The secret to being a great executive is to be whatever it is you already are with relentless, unapologetic passion. I am talking bat crap, crazy passionate.

You think you got a lot of push back on your ideas while you got to this stage. Just wait till you grow to $50m and $200m.

You are no longer expected to be a rebel and you will now face the greatest challenge of all: dogma.

I have watched hundreds of companies – most of have failed or gone “horizontal” – the few that continued to sky rocket all had something in common – they all had deep seated, almost irrational belief in what they were doing and why they were doing it.

My basic theory is that if critics and analysts and even venture capitalists knew the answers all the time, they’d be doing what you all are doing – building amazing businesses, driving huge value for customers and, hopefully, creating some meaningful wealth for themselves.

They may tell you they have all the answers. But the fact is there are no universal answers. There are no absolute truths. All I can tell you for sure is that the closest thing to your truth is that thing you are most passionate about. Listen to your critics but, in the end, go with your passions.

Summary

Each one of your companies today is part of one of the greatest and longest running traditions in the startup world, ATDC. And, among the hundreds of companies that have come through here, you all are the best of the best.

I have had the privilege of working closely with two of today’s graduating CEOs, Greg Foster and Sanjoy Malik. I could not be prouder of their success and the success of the executives at all five companies. I want to congratulate all of you for defying the odds, living the dream and making a dent in the universe. I wish you all incredible good fortune as you write the next chapters in each of your stories.

Thank you. And remember, always wear sunscreen.

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