Ron Weissman is an imposing figure.
With over 25 years experience in the tech world, he has worked side by side with the legendary Steve Jobs, taken companies such as Verity to new heights of profitability and invested in numerous others as a venture capitalist with Apax Partners and as angel. He currently sits on the boards of several tech companies including Host Analytics and Chiliad, as well as on the board of VC Taskforce, an organization which brings investors and startups together. He is also well known for his role as a member of the Band of Angels, Silicon Valley’s oldest angel investor group.
I was lucky to have a front stage seat a few months ago on January 30th when Mr. Weissman addressed our graduating cohort of “Lifographers” who are helping to build out the core foundation of Lifograph; a startup focused on mapping out the who’s who of Silicon Valley.
Founder Dea Wilson’s ambitious company Lifograph aims to become the go-to destination when researching the people and companies interwoven into the vibrant, multifaceted innovation Bay Area ecosystem that has become the world’s mecca of high technology. With a few clicks users will be able to instantly visualize detailed connections and an interactive timeline of tech movers and shakers from Novato to Santa Clara and beyond.
As an historian and academician, Ron opened his speech by recognizing the graduating Lifographer cohort and the enormous scope of the project they are undertaking. He acknowledged the challenge we are faced with; filtering massive amounts of data in the noisy news environment of today’s internet age. It was also illuminating to find out that before there was the “Angel of the Apocalypse”, as Ron is sometimes known in the VC world, that he was an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and that he also ran academic computing at Brown University before he was tapped by Steve Jobs to evangelize NeXT Computer around the world.
Hearing about Ron’s experiences working first hand with the legendary Steve Jobs was quite fascinating He summarized what he learned from the late Mr. Jobs into four main areas:
As a highly successful college dropout, Steve was skeptical about brand names in the world of education. He was more interested in what prospective hires had accomplished at their previous positions rather than the number of acronyms behind their names or the pedigree of their college credentials. To wit, this is why he recruited the studious Ron Weissman from the ivory towers of academia even though his background was not primarily entrenched in technology.
We also heard a story about how Steve hired former Flying Karamazov Brothers (FKB) juggler Randy Nelson who ended up becoming a world-class corporate trainer at Pixar. Steve’s ability to spot and recruit talent from uncanny places was especially valuable for Apple as these ‘outsiders’ are the types of people who can bring a creative and fresh outlook to problems which might not be as adeptly addressed by those ‘within the Matrix’, so to speak.
We all chuckled as Ron described how Steve was notorious for sneaking up on clueless employees and asking them difficult questions about their current projects at any given moment. In a culture where “micromanaging” is somewhat denigrated, Ron is of the opinion that Steve’s ubiquitous presence around the Apple campus and his tendency to deeply engage and even challenge everyone he encountered fostered a heightened level of accountability.
This brand of ‘imposed conscientiousness’ probably led to above average performance across the board. Even though the engineers and artists at Apple dreaded having to defend their ideas under duress, it meant that they had to think through their work product just a bit more than they usually would. Again, this probably resulted in the high quality products that the Apple brand is now synonymous with.
Ron passionately repeated these words while looking each one of us in the eye. Amongst Mr. Jobs’ myriad abilities, one of the principal reasons why Apple was and still is outrageously successful was most likely Steve’s uncompromising commitment to simplicity and esthetics in the design values around all the company’s products.
This single-minded, focused approach meant a very disciplined pursuit of less and saying no to a whole lot of opportunities. However, on the other hand, the ability to select a specific target market and to build niche, dominant products ultimately proved to be Apple’s ticket to MVC (Most Valuable Company) glory.
When something wasn’t working at Apple, Steve was a big proponent of rebuilding an existing product from the ground up. This flexibility and willingness to quickly accept defeat and move ahead with a completely clean slate set the stage for Apple’s agility and was the reason it thrived in a rapidly evolving marketplace.
Previously renowned household-brand companies such as DEC which were too slow to restructure their original product road-maps and quickly abandon sinking ships did not survive the rise of the microcomputer.
For Jobs, it wasn’t enough to just be better than the competition, his focus was on building products that were orders of magnitude more competitive. This is the approach which led to Apple’s revolutionary smartphone and tablet which have literally transformed computing and the transition from the desktop into the pocket.
Towards the end of his presentation, Ron had us nonplussed when he announced that he only invests in dumb companies. After enjoying the bewildered look on our faces, he elaborated on what he meant by ‘dumb’:
1. Dominate: Companies that aim to completely own their market segment or industry.
2. Unusual: The types of startups which have products that are not just better but TEN times better than the competition.
3 Metrics: Founders who can back up their hypotheses with factual, verifiable data.
4. Business: Entrepreneurs who are excited about the financial aspects of their idea not just the technology side.
After the explanation we all heaved a massive, collective sigh of relief. Ron still hasn’t lost it after all these years in the capricious ‘Game of Thrones’ that the Valley can be at times.
With his true to life examples and charming wit, Ron blessed all those in attendance with a wealth of enduring knowledge and wisdom that has been distilled over a series of technological boom and bust cycles dating back a quarter century.
We all left inspired to think independently and achieve more by focusing on less, just like the late Mr Jobs.