Entrepreneurial alumni share tales of passion and perseverance
Peaks and troughs. Successes and missteps. Whether you’re providing movies or fighting poverty, experiencing challenging and rewarding times is part of being an entrepreneur, and the key to getting through it all is passion and perseverance.
Some of Stanford’s brightest entrepreneurial alumni shared these lessons Feb. 24 at the university’s “Celebrating Founders” symposium, second in a series of symposia marking Stanford’s 125th year.
“Have a strong vision to pull you forward to those things you want to create in the world,” said Jessica Jackley, MBA ’07, who co-founded Kiva, the world’s first peer-to-peer microlending website, in 2005. “Get good at living entrepreneurially.”
Other panelists included Reed Hastings, MS ’88, co-founder and CEO of Netflix; Mike Krieger, ’08, co-founder of Instagram; Tristan Walker, MBA ’10, founder of Walker & Co.; and Kiah Williams, ’07, MA ’07, co-founder of SIRUM.
Their innovative careers continue a tradition dating back to university founders Jane and Leland Stanford. Stanford affiliates and alumni have founded more than 39,000 companies and nonprofit organizations since the 1930s, according to Stanford President John Hennessy, who delivered the symposium’s opening remarks.
“I’m often asked, ‘What does Stanford do to promote innovation?'” Hennessy said. “I tell them, ‘You create an environment where creativity flourishes, where innovation can happen and you create an incubator, a place that inspires.'”
Between the personal tales of their early start-up days – of brainstorming over greasy burritos, commiserating with co-founders over drinks or trekking between venture capital firms while being eight-and-a-half months pregnant – the panelists shared how they keep themselves or their businesses on track.
“I take that rock-bottom moment and ideally turn it into an ascent,” said Walker, whose company makes health and beauty products for people of color.
“Don’t do stuff that you don’t care about, even if it’ll look good on your resume,” said Williams, who co-founded SIRUM to develop a platform that redistributes unused, unexpired drugs to safety-net clinics.
Hastings, a serial entrepreneur who started Netflix in 1997 as a DVD rental company and then turned it into a global video streaming service, offered this tip: “You have to be thoughtful about what avenues you explore. Tight judgment is a key thing.”
The conversation was moderated by Ron Johnson, ’80, a member of the Stanford Board of Trustees, former chief of Apple’s retail division and now founder of a personal commerce platform, Enjoy. Johnson and audience members asked the panelists tough questions about their motivations and overarching strategies, and how they know when to pivot or quit.
Krieger, the chief technology officer of the global photo-sharing site Instagram, one of Silicon Valley’s iconic success stories, said he and his co-founder were asked to do a three-year roadmap a few years ago, but he doubts – even if he could find the plan – that many of the items ever came to fruition. Changes happen quickly, so “keep the planning short, but the strategy really evergreen,” Krieger said. “If there’s a storm, you have to know how to steer.”
Hastings said the founder’s paranoid mentality about success still exists now for him, nearly two decades into the Netflix business. The challenges are just different.
“I remind people all the time – we’re really good compared to five years ago but we really suck compared to what we will be five years from now,” Hastings said. “You have to lead people to see and believe how much better we can be.”