High-Impact Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneur Showcase: Looking Beyond the Echo-Chambers

This speech was given by Chris Schroeder at last month’s Endeavor Summit in San Francisco. Schroeder is a leading entrepreneur and investor in interactive technologies and social communications, ranging from news and media, education, social networks and marketing. He currently serves as Chief Executive Officer and Board Member of HealthCentral, the highest quality collection of condition and wellness specific interactive sites. A veteran of online media, Schroeder has also served as CEO and Publisher of Washingtonpost, Newsweek Interactive and LEGI-SLATE, INC.

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Full transcript:
It is not only an honor, but electrifying to be with you all.

I find nothing more inspirational than spending time with people who have made their life mission to create that which was not there before – directly with the entrepreneurs themselves and all of you who are part of the worlds they are creating.

I especially salute our friends at Endeavor, long supporting, befriending and even building entrepreneurial environments in what we once called the “developing world” at a time when much conventional thinking suggested they were crazy – or, at least, that there were much greener pastures to claim or mow down elsewhere.

It is, in fact, conventional thinking – or a gravitational force that compounds it — that will be at the essence of my brief talk. But allow me to digress for a moment.

It is no hubris or flight of fancy to acknowledge, that we are living in historic times.

I suppose all times have their impact in history, at least in hindsight, but one need no PhD in global studies to know that we all in the earliest moments of times that will define generations to come.

Most of you are too young to conceive of your own children, but I can assure you your grandchildren will be talking about these days – and about your remarkable impact upon them.

In this spirit, allow me to share three stories of my experiences with, literally, the best experts of their fields from a different world than that which brings us all to Silicon Valley today. I think they are very instructive.

Some years ago – and as a brief break from my business activities — I worked in the Department of State during times of great uncertainty and change. At the highest levels, we were wrestling unprecedented times and how to engage with the leadership bringing this change. I sat in a briefing hosted by some of the best experts available – women and men who had lived in and studied and had close relationships in these countries. Their conclusion was that we should not be fooled by the leadership, that they were putting a new face on fundamentally similar policies. Real change, if any, may happen but likely over a decade.

Perhaps a year later, I sat in on a similar briefing, led by similar experts but on another part of the world discussing the pace of change in another crucial nation. Their conclusion: that this change, if it happened quickly, would be unprecedently bloody; that existing power would never give up power willingly. Hence change, if any, would be a decade in the making.

Play the clock forward nearly two decades. I sat at a dinner with experts from government and the private sector, representing collectively a century of experience in their country, all taking in utterly stunning and fast-paced change in their region. They concluded, “Something big is happening, but won’t happen quickly here. You don’t know how it works here.” Change, if any, may happen but likely over a decade.

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In the first story, the experts were talking about Gorbachev and describing the Soviet Union and East Germany in late October of 1989 – two weeks before the Wall fell.

The second story, the experts were talking about South Africa. Two months later, Mandela was released and power shifted joltingly, painfully, but peacefully by any standard of expectation.

The last story, of course, took place in Cairo in mid January of this year. There were two young entrepreneurs at that dinner who, when I looked at them, whispered to me, “You know, I’m not sure why it is THAT different….” And, of course, we all know and have been a part of what played in Tahrir Square a week later.

History, as Nassim Taleb argues so eloquently, is filled much more with “Black Swans” than “all things being equal” – great moments that before they happen are viewed as almost inconceivable if not impossible. One can assume that this is just the way the world is, and analyzing it does little. Who can build a life under what might happen? Who, among us, are rewarded for preventing something that never occurs? We all make mistakes. Move on.

One may further write-off my stories as typical government bureaucracy, or government inefficiency, and it has little meaning to our Endeavor worlds.

But to dismiss these stories would miss greater meaning.

Nothing is certain in this world, but one of the great builders of self deception, of the comfort that we have our worlds right, is something I also saw in these stories, and in business and entrepreneurship generally – the echo chamber at play!

Every expert I meet, in almost any walk of life, spends remarkable amount of time – physically or in writing – with other experts in their fields. They go to the same cocktail parties, gather at the same conferences, pat each other on the back for some speech given or some piece written, and nicely stab each other in the back when you are out of ear shot. Government officials and academics render a certain charming arrogance to it, but it really isn’t that different in any walk of life.

It all starts innocent enough. We all tend to flock around people who share our interests and passions. But with time, another behavior creeps in – stunningly early. We want acceptance from our flock, we want to be controversial but still part of the flock, we begin to feel other flocks are flying toward and into some naïve or foolish sun.

The echo chamber. We all have them. If we are honest with each other, we all seek them. Communities of like-minded people assessing their pieces of the world, building the tautology of conventional wisdom. We are entrepreneurs, so we value individuality. But we are human beings, so we are scared to be out – or at least too far out – of the main stream, especially if that stream is comprised of fish who are “expert” and “successful.”

I have heard it argued that an echo chamber is exactly what entrepreneurs need! “How can your city duplicate things that are going on in Silicon Valley while retaining its own personality,” argues one blogger, “the answer is simple: build an echo chamber!” He calls for getting people to link to and build platforms in and around your geography; to build a lingo – even if one doesn’t know exactly what it means – but attracts people to build community around it; to build a sense that others are missing out if not well part of the echo chamber.

I think this blogger is confusing environment – or ecosystem (a vague word I kind of hate for its vagueness) – with echo chamber.

For me, one of the sharpest bloggers out there is Andrew Chen – who, with Ben Horowitz – are my must-reads as they are outstandingly well written and data filled, and they publish only when they really have something to say. They scan the worlds of entrepreneurship, technology, management, how our worlds are evolving down to the core of what drives human behavior.

Andrew pointed out two years ago something worth consideration today. Before he came to Silicon Valley, and lived in Seattle, he lamented not having a density of events, bloggers and general activity like one finds in the Bay area. Let me be clear, there is a reason why some of the most innovative and successful companies anywhere in the world have come from a 75 mile radius around the Golden Gate bridge. The talent, spirit, risk-taking, financial infrastructure, shared learning – all re-enforce the clear and remarkable results.

But Andrew goes on to point out that the echo chamber of self-congratulations can take us off a clear focus on real customers, push us to go after technology for technology sake – that, in his words, “strong peer reinforcement from fellow entrepreneurs makes it easy to focus on very short-term successes, and ignore long-term contrarian bets.” In fact, if you are so beholden to your echo chamber you risk focusing more on copycatting, perhaps with some twist, so much of whatever already exists.

I must tell you as an investor there is no word I hate more than “meet.” I know elevator pitches need to by pithy and tight, but when someone says, “my idea is kind of like Facebook meets Groupon meets LinkedIn,” I strongly wonder how thought out the idea really is.

We are an anecdotal animal, and love analogy. I get that. People have made a fortune in copycats with a twist, certainly countless businesses are being built leveraging the social and technological platforms of today. I get that.

But the bankruptcy graveyards are filled with many more victims of the echo chamber none of us hear about or focus upon.

The echo chambers of our lives are, I will suggest, on overdrive thanks to technology. For me, the most dangerous manifestation is one that surprised me – though if I were half the human behaviorist I think I am, I should never have been surprised.

Back when I ran the online sites for the Washington Post and Newsweek, I was almost giddy with all the information available to everyone. We’d all learn from each other, all hear each others’ views; we’d be a better informed society.

But then I saw a small study – Berkeley I think – of a guy who researched buying behaviors on Amazon. He wondered how many conservatives buy “liberal books” and vice versa. Putting aside that one can debate what makes for a conservative or liberal book, the findings were startling.

Well over 95% of each read only their own views.

Ours could be, is becoming, a world of self-confirming crowds and biased wisdom, echo chambers where we take comfort that in the sheer quantity of people and experiences available to us, somehow we are getting out of our safety zones. This concerns me profoundly. Ask yourself what news channels you watch on television, what perspectives you seek online, whose opinions you really consider different than yours. It may give you pause.

Twitter, which I adore, I think has compounded this. 140 characters is a great way to share what others I admire are reading at any one time, but they lend themselves to the angry, and the snide.

My goal here is not to be merely cautionary, extolling you to get out of your echo chambers. That’s fine. Do take that this caution seriously.

But here’s a little secret. If you’ve been dozing up until now, listen up!

You – great global, Endeavor entrepreneurs – are by definition apart from the greatest echo chambers on earth.

You can tell me better than anyone what is needed to enhance your lives spiritually, financially, educationally, regulatorily.

But you are free.

You have an understanding of unique opportunities within your cities, and countries and regions and cultures and faiths. You understand your customers and how to serve them – by the millions – better than anyone.

But it doesn’t stop there, of course. Outside of the great echo chambers of entrepreneurship you can ask perhaps the greatest and most difficult and most scoffed at question in any echo chamber: “why?”

And in your own answers, you will be building truly global platforms, global answers to need that is at the essence of the revolution in our midst – a revolution not of MENA alone but of societies overall.

Visit Silicon Valley, Mumbai, Sao Paolo etc — marvel at their unique achievement, learn interesting lessons, learn what not to do, raise a few bucks, cut a few business deals.

But if anyone, anywhere, asks you “what is the Silicon Valley of your country,” run – not walk – run away.

Pick your favorite stat, but one great entrepreneurial friend once pointed out to me that over 1.6 bb people on this planet have no access to electricity. Can you imagine – it is mind boggling – the innovation on its own terms pent up to unleash from every corner of the earth?

And you are all in the vanguard.

You have your own echo chambers – admit them, acknowledge them, look them in the eye.

Seek people and ideas as much as you can that disagree with your most cherished beliefs.

And, then, build.

Thank you.


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