This past summer, a rather interesting post popped up on my Facebook newsfeed – “Web Summit – Be 1 of 100 MBA’s to win a scholarship to attend Europe’s hottest tech conference –APPLY NOW.” I applied, never in a million years expecting to be selected given my remarkably limited (practically non-existent) technical background, but figured it was worth a shot and thought maybe my entrepreneurial background would help my cause. In hindsight, it was likely one of the best long-shot chances I’ve ever taken, namely because it led me to be able to experience something I might otherwise have never known even existed. One of the best things about being at Oxford is that it affords one the opportunity to take advantage of rare opportunities, such as attending this Summit.
To begin with, Dublin is an absolutely spectacular city. If you haven’t been yet, I would highly recommend going. The amount of novel knowledge I managed to acquire in three days at Web Summit far exceeded that which I could have ever imagined, and potentially that which I have acquired in the past three years, combined. Talk about gaining perspective. From curing cancer, to flying cars, to Ivy-league dropouts turned billionaires – the speakers I heard and the people I met were nothing short of extraordinary. In the following blogs, I will attempt to relay as much of this incredible experience as I can.
Day 1, Part 1:
The underlying theme of Day 1 was essentially that there are teenage geniuses who start companies that turn out to be wildly successful simply because the founder wanted a product or service that no one had invented yet. Thus, they just invented it, and if there wasn’t a way to invent it using existing technology, they invented that as well. Take for instance, John Collison, CEO of Stripe and a 24 year old billionaire. Yes, that’s a billion with a B. Collison, a Harvard dropout, and his brother, an MIT dropout, founded Stripe because they felt nobody else understood what they were trying to build and figured they might as well build it themselves. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been programming from an unbelievably young age and you’re so smart nobody else can understand what you’re talking about. Now one of the primary platforms behind paying for just about anything online, Stripe is worth over $1 Billion. The general consensus regarding the premise for successful entrepreneurship, as detailed by Collison and a number of other speakers, was that if there is something you wish existed, chances are there are millions of other people who also wish it existed, so invent it and the customers will come.
Next up was Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, who explained that the entire philosophy behind his company was to “Make work suck less.” Who doesn’t want work to suck less? Nobody, which is likely why this guy is worth a small fortune – he apparently figured out how to make it happen. Libin’s take on ‘product market fit’ is that it is essentially what he called, ‘a bullshit concept’. He believes that your only competitive advantage is “to make something epically great, otherwise, don’t bother because we live in a world that is now a geek meritocracy.”
Onto the next, titled “How to be a Hacker”, great title and even better presentation – this was one of my favorites for the Summit. The speaker: Pablos Holman, a mastermind who once managed to hack the FBI and now channels those remarkable abilities to benefit the greater good. Prior to explaining how his once devious tactics got routed into making the world a better place, Holman gave a few examples of what hackers are capable of, including:
1. Making all the roads on one’s journey to look congested on Google Maps so that they are clear for the hacker to drive on
2. Manipulating remote keys so that when driving past a lot of cars, it unlocks all of them, simultaneously
3. Rigging ATM’s to get them dump cash
4. Purchasing credit card swiping machines and reprograming them to steal credit card numbers wirelessly
5. Designing hacking on wheels which rolls around neighborhoods stealing everyone’s wi-fi passwords, via remote control
While all of these are ever so reassuring to those of us who have no defense against it and while those who have developed the aforementioned may or may not have gone to jail….there is something good that comes out of this in the end.
Holman, in partnership with Bill Gates, founded Intellectual Ventures Lab. Holman and Gates gathered every imaginable tool, one of every type of scientist, and proceeded to couple all of those resources with a team of hackers. Why hackers? In Holman’s words, “because they possess an ingenious mind, try everything, and never read the directions. Most importantly a hacker is one who tries to break everything and that with every new idea, questions whether it will change everything we’ve ever known.”
Now, instead of breaking bank systems and websites, these hackers are working on curing malaria and developing nuclear reactors that can be powered by nuclear waste rather than Uranium. Although the cure for malaria is still in the works, they have successfully developed a ‘super thermos’ that stays cold for six months, thus saving the lives of 250,000 children a year who would otherwise die from vaccines that had gone bad in transit due to lack of refrigeration.
In his closing remarks, Holman took Collison’s philosophy to the next level. The essence of it was: Regarding income – the bottom 99% of the American population is the top 14% globally, and that one iPhone is equal to the global median income for an entire family. Thus, the message was, yes there is the philosophy of find a problem and solve it, but do so in a way that goes beyond the 14% peak of the global income triangle.
Day 1: Part 2 to follow shortly.Back to top of article