Advice from startup vet Oren Etzioni: Take intellectual risks

oren12

Startup vet Oren Etzioni (left) shared stories and advice with Michael Grabham and the Startup Grind crowd Wednesday evening.

Oren Etzioni hates taking risks. His first car was a Volvo, for example, and he’d just rather play it safe more often than not.

But that risk is defined in terms of our physical well-being. The other kind of risk? Well, that’s a different story.

Geek of the Year award winners Oren Etzioni of the University of Washington and Dr. Rebecca Gardner of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, with category sponsors Ali Kramer, right, and Kersa Leichner, left, of Barokas PR.

Oren Etzioni shared the 2012 GeekWire Award for Geek of the Year along with Rebecca Gardner (second from right) of Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“The only rollercoasters I get on are startups,” he says.

Etzioni, our 2012 GeekWire Awards Geek of the Year, was the speaker at Seattle’s monthly Startup Grind meetup on Wednesday evening. During a fireside chat at Pier 70 — which was actually once home to one of Etzioni’s past startups, Go2Net — Etzioni shared some great advice for anyone in the startup world.

He made clear that there are two types of risk: physical and intellectual, the latter of which he’s a big supporter of. Etzioni, who works as a University of Washington computer science professor on top of his day job as CTO at Decide.com and a Madrona Venture Group venture partner, said he encourages his students to take more intellectual risks.

“It’s surprising to me how conservative they are,” he said of his students. “To take intellectual risks is to think about something that can’t be done, that doesn’t make any sense, and go for it responsibly.”

Sure, if you can’t make progress after a few months and the evidence isn’t there, maybe it makes sense to cut your losses and do something else, he said. But Etzioni said the only risk in startups is not to do them.

“Life is short,” he said. “Don’t do the same thing everyone else is doing — that’s such a herd mentality. And don’t do something that’s two percent better than the other person. Do something that changes the world.”

Etzioni also had some interesting thoughts on what he calls a balancing act between listening to yourself versus listening to wisdom from others. He was asked by Startup Grind organizer Michael Grabham what the best advice he could give to someone doing their first startup.

“Go immediately to your second startup — you learn so much the first time,” Etzioni joked.

But then he got serious and described that balancing act. When Etzioni was in the early days as the founder at Farecast, an airfare predictor that was eventually swooped up by Microsoft Bing in 2008, there were a lot of established veterans telling him his idea was not going to work.

Oren Etzioni, Decide.com and University of Washington

Oren Etzioni is the CTO at Decide.com and teaches computer science at the University of Washington.

Etzioni eventually proved the doubters wrong.

“On one hand, you can’t listen to that stuff,” he said. “But on the other hand, I’ve seen so many young founders just be in complete denial of the evidence from people who are more seasoned telling them that if they built their idea up, no one would use it.”

Etzioni said he now tries to “talk to everybody, not get discouraged and take in the lessons from what others are saying to me.” He also said that in terms of what he’s learned most about during the past couple decades in the startup world, is that it’s all about the people.

“Even though I’m in a technical field with all this intellectual stuff, it’s really just about the people,” he said. “Over time, what I’ve tried very hard not to work with people I don’t like, and work with people who are talented that I do like. My highlights have been the relationships I’ve been able to build with people that I’ve worked with.”

Finally, he encouraged everyone — not just natural entrepreneurs — do dip their toes into the startup waters.

“Everybody should do at least one startup sometime in life,” he said. “It’s such an amazing ride. In this country and in this city, it’s one system that still works really well. You’ve got the building blocks: the capital, the organizations, the training programs. There are so many opportunities here and so many people to talk to. I really encourage you to do that.”

Learn more about Etzioni with our Geek of the Week feature on the startup vet. We’ve got another story coming soon from Etzioni’s talk with his thoughts on Bing and the future of search. 

 

  • Dan Levitan

    Nice piece on Oren. He is a rare bird in the start-up ecosystem. I’ve now been on a board with him for 2 1/2 years. I expected him to be super strong technically and product wise – which he obviously is. But his thoughtful insights on people, marketing strategy and financial risk/reward have been very significant. He has a great balance of intellect and heart. Any entrepreneur would be very fortunate to engage with him.

  • Patti

    This was a great event… I have gone to several… Micheal Grabham the host makes the guest feel at ease so the audience has the opportunity to get to know the REAL speaker.

  • Jeremy Senseng

    “Intellectual risk” – Great perspective. The article reminds me of what Steve Jobs said: