Reflections of an innovator: an audience with Randy Komisar
“My career only makes sense in a rearview mirror.”
Entrepreneur, mentor, teacher, writer and investor, Randy Komisar is currently visiting New Zealand and our Master’s candidates were treated to an exclusive audience.
Randy grew up in America in the 1960s and began his unconventional career in the mid-70s against a backdrop of enormous social upheaval, casting off the old ways and pioneering the new. His first foray was suiting up in the morning to work in local Community Development Office, ditching the coat and tie to teach economics in the evening, and stepping out of the box completely to promote concerts in clubs at night.
“I was having so much fun that I could not conceive it to be possible to make this a career, so I entered Law School,” he says.
Early Valley years
Seeing a photo of two hippies on the cover of Time magazine (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) prompted him to move to Palo Alto and practise Tech Law. He represented Lucasfilm (yes, that one) in the sale of Pixar to Disney. He joined Apple, where he met Bill Campbell who remained his close friend, mentor and business partner until his death; setting the example for Randy’s ethical framework.
In 1995 Randy realised that he loved the creativity and the energy involved in building teams but that the humdrum machinations of everyday business sucked the enjoyment out of it all. So he focused on the first part and created the role of Virtual CEO, partnering with entrepreneurs to develop their ideas and talents. His office was his local coffee shop where he “...interviewed and spoke with lunatics who hallucinated about of a world that did not yet exist.” It is his privilege to choose which lunatics to partner with.
He is open about his different way of thinking about leadership and management in companies and vocal about nurturing and recognising talent in businesses.
The Buddhist businessman
Randy is a practising Buddhist and was asked to write a book. He initially said no but then, in true Komisar style, wondered when he would ever again be given the opportunity. “It wasn’t really about anything epic, just my ruminations about the excessive greed that took over Silicon Valley in the late 1990s - greed wasn’t what had made the Valley special.”
Friends and colleagues warned that he was writing himself out of Silicon Valley but by some synchronous twist of fate, his book launched in March 2000 - the same time as the dotcom crash began. The Monk and the Riddle, Randy’s Buddhist allegory about the heart and soul of innovation was hailed as an answer as to why the crash occurred, and it became a bestseller.
Keys to success
In hindsight, Randy attributes his success to:
having a dynamically evolving career in a very linear time;
having no planned direction or goal, but a rudder that was a way of evaluating opportunities;
being consistent in what he cared about and valued; and
asking always “Do I want to spend this moment doing this?”
In his own words
Randy’s thoughts on questions from our Master’s candidates.
On dealing with and learning from failure
“I was in a highly visible company in the Valley. We had the most talented team. We knew the project was crashing and we knew the failure was going to be visible. Bill [Campbell] created and curated the most incredible esprit-de-coeur that I have ever seen: no-one jumped ship. We knew we were crashing and every single person made sure that it landed on its belly.
“So that was a failure but it was a good failure. It changed my notion of failure. Failure to me now is not living up to my values...not having the impact that my life should have.”
On the value of indigenous voices adding to a technological future
“I don’t see that happening in Silicon Valley yet. There are virtually no people of colour in positions of power in Silicon Valley. And that is critical, not just because it is unfair but in the context of representing the vision and values of everyone the products and services that are impacting the entire world. Only with fair representation can we honestly reach our full potential. We’re trying to solve it the wrong way. We’re trying to solve it with numbers. Inclusion is about valuing different people, not simply counting them. There is inherent value in diversity. And it must be championed by leadership.
“Most tech invented in Silicon Valley has the feel of a young, white, rich male. I’m hopeful but not optimistic about meaningful change in that direction in Silicon Valley. BUT in New Zealand, that’s different. That’s why I’m here. The rest of the world is attracted to the values and decency of Kiwi business. The rest of the world is looking here for innovation and creativity AND for the guardianship, which is a value of your indigenous people. It would be great if all that potential was reflected in your economy. That must be our work.
“You don’t have to break the existing framework. You don’t have to be innovatively disruptive to demonstrate the value of an indigenous voice. You could just build your version of a successful product but with a diverse and inclusive team. Guaranteed, your product would be different, more interesting, more sustainable and probably better.
“Business wants some of that or needs some of that. Either way, it has to change.”
On getting people in New Zealand to embrace diversity
“That’s all down to great leadership. Diverse groups create friction. Bill [Campbell] was a master at orchestrating friction; using the spark of creativity to become the fire of innovation instead of burning itself out in disagreement.
“I wrote an article about Minimally Invasive Management. It’s about people no longer being a means of production but a means of creation. Great leadership is about getting more from people than they think they can give.
“Leaders should be enablers, not simply the ‘boss’.”
On working with people half your age; feeling stale and wise simultaneously
“I definitely feel the gap between me and youth. It’s a big gap because there is a huge generational difference. I have learned to sit back and listen. I have learned that this generation does not respect age or seniority for the sake of age or seniority, so I have to earn my value. That’s ok because I have value to offer. You may not like it but remember what you were like at that age. It’s not that different today.
“Add value and they will value you.”
On staying cutting edge.
“I don’t think about staying cutting edge. I think “Where’s my curiosity?” not “What’s everyone else doing? Innovation is about not doing what others are doing.”
“I have the privilege of having the means not to worry too much about what others are doing. Money was never why I did anything but it is not irrelevant. Money is the first derivative of doing good and meaningful work. You need money to invest more, to fuel your creativity.”
“I begin as an apprentice by figuring out the rules, learning about what I need to know. I act, I do.
I become a journeyman - I perfect the rules, internalise them.
I become a master - I throw out the rules.”
“I make people-centric investment decisions. I invest in people and ask myself how will they make constructive change? How will they make a difference? Will they pay it forward?
I think that MBAs generally make terrible entrepreneurs because everything becomes a balance sheet. Engineers and designers make great entrepreneurs. They don’t know what a spreadsheet looks like - they just do it, they act.
“I then make sure that they are solving a real problem. I see many people with great ideas who fail to solve a meaningful problem. There needs to be a reason. You need to create value. Is the person receiving the product willing to give up something for it?”
On the future
“Let me remind you about being hopeful and being optimistic. Optimism is knowing the reality and still being positive; it denotes a possibility of success. I am always hopeful but cautiously optimistic.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that whatever happens, we’ll get through it. What concerns me is that whatever we have overcome before, it’s nothing compared to climate change. Our problems are now global, not national and we should be united globally. Instead, we are all at odds with each other.
“I know that these polarising, divergent ideas are a direct result of social media. I find it incongruous that in US television is regulated, the press is regulated but social media has unfettered reign. The problem is that it is free and that the platform is not the product: YOU are the product. The aim is to keep you distracted and constantly hitting ‘Like’ buttons. And the most effective way to distract the largest number of people is with the most radical and shocking news.
“In the 60s the existential crisis was nuclear war. In the 20s it’ll be climate change. It will again be a bunch of young people changing the world. It may not be pretty, clean or efficient but things will change. Look at what Greta Thunberg is doing. What happens after this change will be interesting. In my generation, we changed the intolerable status quo only to create the problems the younger generation is confronting today. My generation is most guilty of allowing its greed and ego to consume the world’s resources meant for a future generation. I am astounded by that, especially because no parent would steal the future from their child and yet we are all parents of the future!”
On being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a project
“I focus on one thing. I do baby steps, whatever it is. If I can’t change a lot, I make sure I change one small thing a day. I also know that I don’t know everything. I can know 80% of a lot and I leave 20% to others. It really depends on you, what kind of person you are. But be careful not to be so risk averse that there is nothing left for you to work on.”
On the trade-off of hard work and success
“I know there is one. But it doesn’t feel like that to me in part because I have not had to make the tradeoffs of raising children. I do have a wonderful, successful wife.”
“I have become fascinated by all of those people who did not succeed but who are just as extraordinary as those who did. I think it’s luck. Education should teach luck. I have never seen success happen without something occurring outside of one’s area of control. We need to be able to identify those critical opportunities when they happen and to have a framework to act on them.
“Steve Jobs was unsuccessful with Apple first time round. Steve Jobs was unsuccessful with Pixar as a big computer-rendering business. He was unsuccessful with Pixar as a mini computer-rendering business. He was unsuccessful trying to sell Pixar. But when Disney offered Pixar the chance to make motion pictures he jumped at it. The genius of Steve Jobs is that when he saw an opportunity, he knew what it was and how to capitalise on it.
“Imagination prepares you for luck.”