Zappos Chairman Alfred Lin Asks HBS MBAs to Think Big, Follow Their Passion, and Pay Attention to Details

Alfred Lin, Chairman of Zappos
Alfred Lin, Chairman of Zappos

The Zappos story is one of the first cases  that students read at HBS to gain exposure to Entrepreneurship. Thus, it was fitting that Alfred Lin, former Chairman and COO of Zappos and a Partner at Sequoia Capital, was the morning keynote speaker at the 9th Annual HBS Entrepreneurship Conference on Saturday.

Lin’s message was:  think big, follow your passion, and pay attention to the details.  Though MBAs generally embrace the 80/20 rule, a startup will only succeed if it’s an “order of magnitude” better than the competition.  As Lin described, “Entrepreneurs are paid to get to the 99th percentile,” and the 80th percentile just doesn’t cut it.

Q: There have been a lot of changes to the HBS curriculum and campus this year, including FIELD 3, that are intended to encourage entrepreneurial activity. What do you think is the role of business schools in entrepreneurship replica watches?

I’ve never gone to business school, but I think what business school does well is allow people to explore different industries and fields they can possibly go into, and I think that’s a great thing and that entrepreneurship should be one of those fields you explore.  But if you’re truly an entrepreneur, you probably are inspired at a very young age to start companies.  As a kid, I started a lawn mowing business to make some money during the summers.  And I decided I didn’t like mowing the lawn, so I just got the contracts and got my friends to go door to door and mow the lawn.  At the age you go to HBS, it might be too late to have those types of experiences, but I still think it’s great for the people who are getting a later start.

The other thing that’s hard is that most interesting companies that are going to be built in next ten years are coming from fields of science and engineering, so business school is not necessarily the place to find your co-founders. So maybe instead of 6 business school students coming together [for FIELD 3], it should be about getting the University together.

I also wonder if the school is going to be ok if students start skipping class.  I went to less than 20% of my undergrad classes.

Q: What are the major stereotypes about HBS students in Silicon Valley and how can we position ourselves to overcome them? //

It’s probably that business school students have too much conventional wisdom thinking, don’t push boundaries enough, and that they make better managers than entrepreneurs.  There’s also too much focus on the data today versus dreaming about the future. You need a balance of those things.

The question you need to ask yourself (and this is not just for HBS students, but for anyone who’s not building the product or service), is what’s your value add?  Because startups need to be very lean and establish product/market fit, and if you’re not the product person, then you’re at an inherent disadvantage. Try to talk about how you can make the product better or the engineering process more efficient.  Demonstrate that you’re a collaborative rather command and control type.

Q: Speaking of lean…Lean methodology is very popular right now, and it’s the basis of our TEM and FIELD 3 curriculums.  Do you see a risk to people having a defined process for a space that’s inherently about doing something new?

There’s always a risk to any process that confines your way of thinking.  But there are also rules of business, just like there are rules of physics.  There’s only so much money you have in the bank and you have to make the most of it.  I think Lean was intended to help you maximize what you can do in that short period of time before you go raise more money.  It’s clever in certain ways, but it’s not going to work for a lot of startups that are more capital intensive or R&D-focused products.  Lean may work for a product or service that you know can be solved, but it won’t work for moonshot ideas where you don’t know whether it can be solved.

Q: You quoted Steve Jobs a lot in your presentation – in particular referencing his “Think Different” campaign.  With Jobs gone, which CEO today do you think best encapsulates the “Think Different” mindset?

We have the benefit of looking in hindsight and recognizing that Steve Jobs was crazy and not crazy at the same time; he had the right balance of visionary and operator.  And we give him a lot of credit, but his team also should be given a lot of credit.

There’s always up and comers – before Steve Jobs was Bill Gates and before him was Larry Ellison. These are the titans and icons.  But I think there are more interesting people to talk about who are really changing an industry like the founders of AirBnb or DropBox or Facebook.  The way that Zuckerberg and Sheryl work together – maybe it’s not one person who encompasses all the traits anymore.  It’s a balance between a visionary and an operator who work together.  If you focus on one genius person, it limits the amount of companies that can be created.  And don’t forget, Apple started with 2 Steves, not one Steve.  Starting a company is very hard if you don’t have a team – the team might not last and someone may emerge as the clear leader eventually, but it helps.

Q: You mentioned in your presentation that you’re not really an entrepreneur; you’re more of an employee number 4 type of guy. What are the right questions we should be asking ourselves to figure out if each of us is a founder or an employee number 4?

If you’re passionate about the product or service or the customer, then you could probably start a company. But if you’re more about getting the company up and running, bringing it to scale, thinking about how to get the word out or raise more money, then you’re better off being the 3rd or 4th employee.

Q: As a Partner at Sequoia Capital, what’s the most common mistake you’ve seen entrepreneurs make in their pitches to you?

What’s missing a lot is clarity of purpose – why should your company exist and why should anybody care.  To be able to draw someone in during the first few minutes is an interesting problem; it’s not about being a great presenter, its back to the clarity of purpose. And I think people don’t realize how hard that is, so they start writing their company description and it’s paragraphs long.

Also, people are not in touch with the numbers – they tell me they’ve launched and it’s gone viral, but they only have 10,000 or 20,000 users.  That’s not very much when you consider how many people are in your friend network, and then one layer away.  It annoys us when we hear about companies that are “buzz compatible”, where it’s all buzz but there’s not a lot of content.