At Project Literacy Lab, we had a chance to catch up with Jeff Hoffman. As a serial entrepreneur who has spoken at conferences in over 40 countries around the world, Jeff advises USAID, the State Department, and even the White House on topics related to entrepreneurship. With experience starting and building companies from e-commerce to entertainment, Jeff can speak to what plagues and propels entrepreneurs to continue solving problems.
What is your philosophy on failure?
One of the things that drives me nuts is that Silicon Valley has created this culture of celebrating failure, which I think is absurd. There are literally parties you can only go to if you’ve failed. It makes it feel like people are proud to fail, or they deliberately tried to fail.
I always give the analogy that it’s like saying you have Brazil in the World Cup, it’s the final game, and everyone is in the locker room saying, “You know, I really hope I lose because it will make us better people.” That’s just a load of crap. Nobody goes out to lose.
Failure is not something to be celebrated, but rather something to be completely accepted and tolerated. Tweet This Quote
Failure is not something to be celebrated, but it’s something to be completely accepted and tolerated. If you’re not ever failing, you’re not pushing hard enough. People who push the envelope fail. It’s part of the process. You learn from it, shake it off, and move on. You don’t celebrate it because we’re not trying to fail. I tell my teams when we fail at something, “OK, you have one day to cry if you want, but then get back here in the morning because we’re going to start something else.” You have to get over it and move on.
Throughout your work, have you ever been tempted to give up?
Some people give the advice, “Never ever give up.” That is insane if you’re going down a path that’s clearly not working. Sometimes, people say, “Jeff, you’ve done a lot of stuff in your life.” Well, it’s because I never waste time. If I can see the thing that I thought was the greatest idea ever isn’t anymore, I’m willing to move on.
If the whole world is telling me, this isn’t working, no one wants it, and no one paying for it, then the problem is typically ego. You have to listen to the data and customers. If they don’t want to admit it, it’s because an entrepreneur told everyone they know, “This is going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread!” Then, they find out they’re wrong. A lot of entrepreneurs stay too long because they have been told not to give up, and they told people about this great idea.
Giving up is a data-driven decision. When data tells you it isn’t working, you have to let ego go. Tweet This Quote
The truth is, you have to pay attention to the world and to the data. If no paying customer agrees with you, move on. Do something else. Giving up is a data-driven decision. When data tells you it isn’t working, you have to let ego go.
That means you will get laughed at. Your friends will say, “How’d your greatest idea in the world work out?” You have to say, “You know, I was wrong, and I’m on to something else now.” If you don’t have thick enough skin to take that, then entrepreneurship is not the right career for you.
How do you navigate moments of uncertainty when making tough decisions?
The way to work through uncertainty is to use your team. I’ve been a CEO since I was 24, but I’ve always approached management from consensus. I collect input from every level and as much data as I can before making a decision. One of the biggest things people do wrong is they get to the end of the year, and investors and entrepreneurs have completely different views of what happened. Everyone gets together and asks, “How did the year go? How are we doing?” and you as the entrepreneur says, “Great!” and the investor says “Horrible.”
No decision should be that confusing or uncertain if you define in advance what failure and success mean. Tweet This Quote
Wait, this was the same year and the same company, how can you have such different opinions? Well, the investor was expecting you to do more, and the entrepreneur is thinking they can’t believe how much they got done.
You know what problem that highlights? The fact that too many people don’t define at the beginning the list of things they need to get done by December 31. If the team doesn’t accomplish these things, then we fail. Everyone agrees to it. It should never be that confusing or uncertain if you define in advance what failure and success mean.
How do you know when you’re climbing the right mountain? In other words, how do you measure success?
Everybody’s mountain is different, and everyone has their own definition of success. You have to figure out what mountain you set out to climb.
Sometimes, you see people who start a company, and they get an offer from someone who wants to buy it. They’re not sure if they should take it. My question is always, what was your goal? Why are you doing this, why are you starting this company, and what’s driving you to do this? Some people say, “What I wanted was freedom. I never cared about the money. What I cared about was taking care of myself.” That doesn’t require making zillions of dollars. You design your own lifestyle.
If you want to make the world a better place, then unleash armies of entrepreneurs. Tweet This Quote
Everyone’s goal is different. Not every company has to last forever if that’s not where you are in your life. Everyone in the company should know why you’re building this company and what’s the end game. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it does matter that it makes you happy. Everyone doesn’t have to build the next Facebook nor become the next Mark Zuckerberg. He had his mountain, and you have yours. Focus on that.
Lastly, be really transparent about what you say you’re doing. I sold one of my companies early on, and my employees treated me like I was murdering their children. They were upset and saying, “You sold us.” I thought that was the goal all along. I was never going to hold on to it for 20 years. What I realized, though, was I had never told anybody that. My team felt betrayal and anger. You have to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Why is entrepreneurship the way to solve problems?
My fundamental belief is if you want to make the world a better place, then you unleash armies of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are the world’s problem solvers. If there were more armies of entrepreneurs than armies of soldiers, imagine what the world would be like.
Entrepreneurs are efficient, resourceful, and they don’t need big budgets. They have to do things in creative, clever ways. They find shortcuts and do the maximum with minimum resources. That creates amazing solutions that big fat rich companies won’t innovate to that degree.
There is no they. It’s us; it’s now. We have to solve problems. Tweet This Quote
Another reason is that entrepreneurs live in the problem. When someone is living in the middle of a problem, no one can solve it better than that person who lives it every day. One time, I literally asked the Prime Minister of a country, “You ever leave the palace? Do you have any idea how your people live? What their houses or their days are like?” He replied, “You know honestly, I don’t.” It’s not that governments don’t work toward solutions, but entrepreneurs are frequently hungrier, and the problem matters to them more because it’s real.
What are some of your best pieces of advice for entrepreneurs?
One of my fundamental tenets of living is this: There is no they. There are problems all over the world, and too often people think, “Man, they should do something about that.” Most people go home and complain. But, the truth is, there is no they. It’s us; it’s now.
The important thing is that if you don’t make change, then nobody does. The work that entrepreneurs do is important, will impact lives, and could create the conditions for a little girl somewhere in the world to be the next Nobel Prize winner or president of a country. She might never have that chance if we don’t finish the job.
The important thing is that if you don’t make change, then nobody does. Tweet This Quote
This is the most important thing to pass on—we have to complete these missions. Every single person we touch has the potential to change millions of lives. That’s a really cool opportunity.