It was kind of fitting that on a night that the St. Louis Cardinals won game six of the World Series with a dramatic walk-off home run, that Seattle entrepreneur Rich Barton used a baseball metaphor to explain his startup ethos.
The featured speaker at the GeekWire Meetup in downtown Seattle, Barton — who’s hit home runs with Expedia and Zillow — said entrepreneurs need to take full advantage of the limited swings they get at the plate. In his view, you might as well go for the home run.
In a wide-ranging talk, Barton discussed everything from startups to Silicon Valley to why it’s important to surround yourself with superstars. He also offered a rallying cry for the Seattle community to support home-grown technologies.
Here are excerpts from the chat. We’ll post the entire video of the discussion later this morning.
With startup companies, you said it is just as easy to bunt as it is to swing for the fences. What did you mean by that? “Look, you have an at bat, and it takes just as much energy to swing for the fences as it does to bunt. OK. So, why bunt? Why bunt? Why not swing for the fences? I would argue that it is just as likely that you will succeed if you swing for the fences as if you bunt, and the outcome will be much more magical. And, I have to say, being a part of something that you are swinging for the fences and you are trying to change the world, is an excitement that you just don’t get from bunting.”
On the psychology of thinking big: “I also have this other belief, that people arise — or stoop actually — to meet the expectations that others have of them. It is a well known psychological effect, called the Pygmalion effect – we can go into that if you want – but trust me, it is Jim Collins’ BHAG, the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It turns out if you set your sights really high — put a man on the moon in 10 years and return him safely to Earth, a computer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software, becoming the largest seller of travel in the world — it turns out …. people end up surprising you and surprising themselves by rising to those goals. And something I’d love to see more of out of the Seattle entrepreneurial community is this kind of thinking. I spend a lot of time down in (Silicon) Valley, and I see it all of the time down in the Valley. I really do. I don’t see it enough here.”
This has been a big debate on GeekWire over the past few weeks, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, but why do you think that mentality isn’t here as much? “We are too close to Canada. (Laughs) We are modest. We are polite. We wear plaid. I think it is kind of rude to think big in a certain way. You know, it is just me and I am just a regular person. Thank you.” (Laughs).
You’ve gotten criticism throughout your career when you came out and talked about doing Zillow, so it is not easy to come up and state that. So, as a guy who comes up to the plate and says: ‘I’m a home run hitter.’ How do deal with that pressure? Or do you not think about it? Do you not care? “My point is, interestingly, that I don’t think it puts more pressure on you as an entrepreneur. All of the pressure in the world is on you, despite the size….. You kind of feel that anyway. You are still doing wireframes. We were talking with Kelly Smith (of Zapd) … who was saying: ‘You know what. It’s all of the same shit. Right? It’s all the same shit.’ Why not do it against a big hairy audacious goal? Why not?”
On the importance of making information free to the masses: “Transparent markets are fair. Opaque, black box markets — where there are people in suits driving fancy cars protecting data and protecting access to marketplaces — they are not fair.
In the age of the connected computer, the connected smartphone, the connected device, we all ought to be able to plug in to these privileged databases, tear down the walls, access the information for ourselves and take control. That’s what we want to do. We want to book our own travel. We want to find our own house and our own mortgage. We want to research, in private, what it’s like to get a boob job on RealSelf. Right? We want to know what a first year engineer out of college makes at Microsoft, and that’s Glassdoor. We want to know these things. And we feel empowered by these things. People want to be part of the revolution, and they want to take control of that.
So, for whatever reason, this concept gets me extremely excited. I am glad I wasn’t raised in a time or place where physical revolution was an option, although we are seeing a little bit of this with the Occupy Wall Street, which I am a big supporter of. It is fantastic. I guess I am a bit of a closet revolutionary, and I think all of us are. We all want to take control. We all want it to be fair.”
On Microsoft’s think-big culture: “The great thing about Microsoft then, and now, is that it encouraged dreamers and people like me and people like us to take big swings. And, if you missed, not actually fire you and punish you for it. That’s rare in big corporate America. Carry that with you. Whatever organization you are a part of — if you are not part of an organization that allows you to think big and take big swings — you are in the wrong spot.”
What lessons have you learned from Zillow? “Surrond yourself with superstars. And not just the people you choose to work with. That’s really important. But the people you raise money from as well. Surround yourself with superstars, and everything else takes care of itself. Whenever in my career I’ve compromised because I’ve had a short-term itch I needed to scratch — and I just had to hire somebody – it’s been a mistake. And I’ve regretted it. It’s really hard to get rid of the (poor) performers. Surround yourself with superstars. They hire superstars.”
On supporting Seattle startups: “I am going to do another Seattle rant before I answer your question. I hate the fact that the Valley has this like high RPM spin-cycle machine where if some new startup — anything, as stupid as this startup Color, have you heard of Color? Of course you’ve heard of Color because it’s been covered on TechCrunch and we all read TechCrunch and we all try everything that TechCrunch tells us to do. No offense. We are trying to be the TechCrunch of Seattle, bigger. But what bugs me is any old thing down there, especially something that includes a viral component, everything gets a shake. Like a real shake. Like a ton of people actually try it because it enters this Y Combinator, TechCrunch, Benchmark, Sequoia spin cycle and it gets going. And, it may fail. But at least it gets a shot. We don’t do that here. We don’t do that. Why not? Why don’t we rally around our own stuff, you know?”
We have a special guest here tonight and I want to make a call out to him in the audience today, a big fan of the Zillow app. I want everyone to give a big GeekWire welcome to our Geek of the Week, 96-year-old Bill Sleeper. If you have not read our profile of Mr. Sleeper, go to GeekWire, I think it is one of the best things we’ve had on the site. Mr. Sleeper is a huge fan, a huge fan of the Zillow app, so I want you tell him what’s coming up with mobile with Zillow? “I read the interview and I saw the videos and it was great. I am glad you love Zillow. And you know what, when we were building Zillow … I knew that my parents and their generation would love this app…. In chatting with my mom and her contemporaries and people who are older than my mom, it turns out that real estate is this unbelievable passion that they have, and we all have, but they especially have. And I saw this as an application that could be …. a killer app for my mom’s generation. And it has turned out to be that. There are people that are using the Web or using an iPhone because of Zillow in that generation, which is absolutely fantastic.”
On Zillow’s growth path: “What I will say is: Zillow has been growing. It is on an unbelievable tear. The company has been doing so well. We had something like 25 million unique users last month, up triple digits I think from the year before driven by all sorts of great new features that have been released. But, most especially, because of mobile. (Zillow) is a better experience — mobile in my opinion — than it is on the Web. It really is. Twenty eight homes a second are viewed on Zillow mobile alone. Every second. It is an unbelievable thing….”