Last night, Aneel Bhusri, Jeff Weiner and I got to introduce Reid Hoffman for an award called the Innovation Catalyst Award here in Silicon Valley. We each spent about 10 minutes talking about our experiences with Reid over the years — always a fun thing to talk about, since he’s such an interesting, smart & good-hearted person. Was interesting, too, that even thought the 3 of us hadn’t coordinated at all in preparing our talks, they all came back to the same themes of his humanity, intelligence, and great desire to help good people be better. Reid is just a very consistent guy — he brings it every day.
Best line of the night was Aneel’s: “Reid is kind of like the Kevin Bacon of Silicon Valley.” Good stuff.
Here are the remarks that I prepared:
It’s a funny task for me to introduce Reid to all of you since he’s so well known. In fact, I’d wager that not only does everyone here know all about Reid already, but you’ve already had a lunch or a coffee with him at some point.
I was thinking maybe it’d be easier if I just grabbed the 2 of you in the room that haven’t already met him or worked with him and give you the background one-on-one.
His public accomplishments over the last decade are extremely well chronicled — I don’t think I need to mention the fact that he changed the world at PayPal. Or started LinkedIn, changing the way we all do work in fundamental ways. Or that he was an early angel in Flickr, Zynga, Facebook and virtually every other massively successful company that’s come out of Silicon Valley over the last 10 years.
But most of that stuff is well known by everyone here, so instead tonight I’m going to focus on the human scale, and some of the ways that Reid has powerfully and meaningfully changed my life and the lives of so many people around him — I think that might work better to give everyone a sense of how he thinks, and why it’s so important.
The thread that will tie all of this together is that 2 questions dominate the way that Reid thinks and interacts.
The first one is this: “How can I change the world?” But really, every good entrepreneur asks that question all the time. Reid is unusually good at answering this particular question in a variety of different ways, but if that was the only thing he focused on, he’d be a great entrepreneur, but something less than he’s actually become.
The second question that I’ve heard Reid ask over and over and over is very simple: “How can I help?”
I’ve heard him ask it in board meetings, in pitch meetings, at the airport, over drinks — everywhere you can imagine. And in my mind, it’s the pervasiveness of that simple question — “How can I help?” — that sets Reid apart, and I’ll expand a little on that now.
My own working relationship with Reid started off innocently enough while he was still at PayPal. I got an e-mail from an old friend Sean White who I literally hadn’t heard from in 10 years. The mail went something like this: “Reid, John: I think you guys might like each other; hope you can connect; I think it’ll be worth your time.” It’s maybe a measure of my cluelessness at the time, or of just how incredible a decade Reid has had since, but I didn’t know who he was, and he seemed only semi-relevant — a finance guy! from PayPal! but I trusted my friend Sean, so gave it a try.
Sean was right, of course; Reid and I hit it off immediately, starting with a breakfast at Hobee’s that would begin a strong pattern for us. He was at PayPal, I was at my own startup Reactivity then; we just got together and, predictably enough, started talking about who we knew in common. We spent a lot of time in those pre-LinkedIn days — like we still do, really, asking questions of each other like “Have you met X? What do you think?” Or “do you know about company Y? Important?” And: “Who else do you think I should get to know?” That’s Reid, always, always, always building networks, always trying to put people together, see if they might fit.
Over time we started working on various projects together, including Mozilla, and we’d each have lists of things to talk about going into each breakfast. The really remarkable thing about these interactions is that no matter how long we talked, no matter how much of our lists we would work through, we invariably left the meal with longer lists than we entered with — with more things to talk about, covering more shared areas of interst. And really it’s gone on like that since — another Reid characteristic for you: he’s always looking for more ways to help.
The other thing that was obvious about Reid at that point is that he always had a plan, and he pretty much did what he said he was going to do. He was really clear when the PayPal acquisition happened that he would be on to his next thing, whatever it was, soon. I figured he would take a bit of time off, catch his breath. I didn’t know Reid well enough then, obviously — he quickly moved on, figured out that helping other people build work networks was what he wanted his attention to be on. So he got started.
The conversation around LinkedIn was funny — obviously LinkedIn was the ideal startup for someone who thinks in terms of people networks like Reid does — in a lot of ways it’s the exact manifestation of his brain.
I was a little skeptical at the time — I told him, well, this might be good for “B listers with B list networks.” Obviously, folks with A list networks like mine wouldn’t want to participate. Reid gleefully reminds me of that interaction at the most inopportune times. They seem to be doing well enough so far.
But he was off to the races with LinkedIn, and around the same time I was trying to figure out what to do myself, having left my own startup a few months previously. And like he’s helped so many others figure out their path, he was extrordinarily helpful with figuring out mine. In 2005 I had sort of stumbled onto an unusual organization — a non-profit, and open source project — called Mozilla — it was just15 or so employees, but they had just released Firefox a few months before, and it held great promise — it was really starting to catch on. Reid & I both saw the promise right away, but as I thought about joining it, I was on the fence.
Typically, he thought we should discuss it more with someone he knew — in this case Joi Ito, now Director of MIT’s Media Lab. He said “Joi’s going to be in town for about 90 minutes, so we need to meet him at SFO.” I made fun of him a lot for having airport meetings — now of course, the joke is on me, since I schedule them, too.
So we met at SFO and had a conversation that, again, was typical of Reid & Joi, and went something like this: “do you think Mozilla is a place from which we can change the world a bunch for the better?” “Seems like it.” “Well, seems like we should all lean in then!” That’s another very Reid phrase: “lean in” — it means we should figure out how to do something meaningful.
Reid likes to think about Archimedian levers — how to change the world the most with the most efficiency — and when he finds good spots to put the lever, he’s generally all in.
So from that meeting, we each leaned in — Joi would eventually join the Foundation’s board of directors, Reid would join the Corporation’s board of directors, and I joined in an operating capacity.
So for me, and for Mozilla, Reid’s orientation around finding ways to change the world, and to help others do the same, whether as entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs or any other way — well, his point of view changed everything for us.
And then I got to know Reid over the next several years as a board member, which is another great privilege, although a bit of a quirky one. Reid has a tendency to be extra outfitted in terms of his information technology. He’ll typically carry around 2 laptops and somewhere between 3 and 5 smart phones. So when he would come for a board meeting, lots of times he would bring out various of his devices and work away — enough so that you might start to think he wasn’t paying attention. But he is. Invariably during our board meetings, we’d be cruising along, Reid would be typing something or other then he’d pause, look up, and say something like “Really? That doesn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t it really be more like this other way?” He had a funny way of completely changing the flow of the meeting, of causing us to re-focus on the most strategic items again and again — as usual with Reid, it was him searching for the best leverage possible.
The funniest things were always when you talked about recruiting in a board meeting, though — every time I got back to my desk after discussing an open position at Mozilla, I’d have between 10 and 20 LinkedIn profiles waiting in my e-mail, suggestions from Reid on who to talk with next. His output is amazing that way. Even when dealing with a million other competing priorities, he’s as productive as anyone I’ve ever met.
I talk about these very personal experiences because they’re the ones that I know the best, but, really, you could ask just about any current entrepreneur in Silicon Valley how Reid’s helped — he’s always got suggestions, connections, questions, tweaks to your thinking.
Everyone’s got a “Reid story”, everyone knows his aphorism “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product you’ve released too late!” (Although now that I’m an investor myself, I probably could stand hearing that from a few less startups who actually did release too early!)
Here are a few insights from folks who know Reid well:
Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org (where Reid’s a board member), said this: “In a world where engineers have been the biggest winners over the last ten years, how did a philosopher become top shelf? It’s kind of an awesome winning forumla: the guy loves people. It’s not a mush, emotional thing. He’s actually extraordinarily logical — and to him, figuring out how people can become better is like solving a puzzle.”
Or DJ Patil, Greylock’s Data Scientist in Residence, who previously built the LinkedIn data team tells the story about how he went to introduce himself to Reid in a parking lot at UC Santa Cruz, whereupon Reid responded “Yes, I know who you are, we need to have lunch.” Their first lunch after that was 3 hours long.
And my own most recent example — I saw a pretty early, pretty raw startup this summer for a first meeting, which went well enough. I gave them some candid feedback and made some suggestions on how they might improve their product, at the end of which they said, “Okay, got it. But what do you think Reid Hoffman would think of our pitch?” Hilarious.
Overall though, here’s the thing: I haven’t met a single person in more than 20 years in Silicon Valley who’s more generous with their contacts or time, who’s more willing to listen and learn and brainstorm, or who genuinely wants everyone he meets to become as good an entrepreneur (in their work and in their own lives) as they can possibly be.
His fingerprints are all over today’s business and technology landscape, and increasingly our social landscape.
He’s got some of the flashiest credentials of anyone in the industry, but it’s hard for me to think of a more honest, self-effacing person to meet with.
He’s busier than anyone I’ve ever met, but he will always make time to meet with young entrepreneurs.
He’s smarter and more knowledgable about how the consumer Internet works than just about anyone, but leaves every meeting thinking about what he’s learned that’s new, where his old models don’t fit.
And the guy barely has time to read a book, let alone write one, but that’s exactly what he’s done this year. The focus? Helping everyone become an entrepreneur in their own life, naturally.
So in a lot of ways he’s a bundle of competing priorities and tensions.
But in the ways that matter, he’s a pretty simple guy, always asking “How can we change the world?” and “How can we help?”
As Nancy Lublin puts it, “He’s the best example I know of good guys finishing first,” and so I’m very humbled to be introducing my partner and my friend Reid Hoffman tonight.