This week, Joi Ito was in Nairobi as part of a team from the MIT Media Lab where he is a Director. While here, he gave a chat on his time as an academic and an entrepreneur in the technology sector.
(Wikipedia excerpt about him: Ito is a venture capitalist and angel investor and was an early stage investor in Kickstarter, Twitter, Six Apart, Technorati, Flickr, SocialText, Dopplr, Last.FM, Rupture, Kongregate, Fotopedia, Diffbot, and other Internet companies).
Some points from his talk
There’s a bit of luck in life: He is here because he survived,and because he is lucky. What’s worked for him may not work for anyone else, and while some successful people think they have a magic touch, it’s a bit of luck they have had in their lives.
Advice for young people: 1. Question authority 2. Think for yourself – don’t look for an answer, look for your own provocation, as there’s no single answer for anything
His Learning Process: Some people learn in universities, or apprenticeships, but he learns best when in conversation with other people, not when he is reading. E.g. he apprenticed in a pet store, and on a movie production set. His well-educated sister realized that her uneducated brother (Joi) was doing o.k. – so she studied him and found that the social context is an important reason for learning – and she published these as Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out
He said the reason women don’t code, is because there is no fun for them, while guys teach other code in a context they enjoy, but which girls’ don’t find to be fun and that has to change for. Earlier he commended the AkiraChix for what they’ve done in inspiring and enabling young girls to learn to code, and said they were far ahead of some US institutions that were still made dominated and had not made strides in inspiring girls.
His Mission in Life: This he found was to build community whether at Mozilla while running community commons, or working in a nightclub as a DJ (something he described as harnessing the flow, of the room, all without leading).
He found that street gangs in Chicago had more compassion and willingness to help people in their community than kids who were competing and studying hard in his physics class at. university – and that he learned more about community and human values on the street than in a class.
Choosing the Right Partners: There’s an alchemy involved when creating a community – and he’s always failed when he picked a person for their skill over their personality. He said investors have ruined more companies than founders – so be very careful who you invest with…he also noted that you may inherit some members of a team /organization like founders who you can’t get rid of.
Agility over Planning Trends are o.k., but trying to predict when something will happen is foolish, as there is so much complexity. Just be aware of what is happening (use a compass, not a road map), understand what you have, and what’s going on around you and figure out your next move – and if the code/plan is not working, dump it .. E.g. Youtube has gone through many iterations from 2005 when it was a dating site with video, then Flickr with video .. but they always want to be the biggest video site..
Joi Ito once sought $600,000 from a company to set up an ISP in Japan. And that company then spent $3 million on a study to tell them that they would not invest in an ISP (the cost of mapping is expensive, and don’t wait for all the info before making a decision).
Take Risk Early He was $200,000 in debt when he was 18, as his mum was sick, but he was working in a tough job at a Japanese company, and was eventually able to pay it back. He’s since taken lot’s of risks, and created a lot of companies that have failed and it’s better to do this early in your career. He was into video games as a kid, learned to code, run bulletin board systems and computer networking (which never made money). But when TCP/IP came out he realized that was the future and he went on to build an ISP, a search engine, then an app company…
Also, the cost of trying things is going down (Facebook and Yahoo grew out of dorm rooms, not out of big capitalized companies ) – and likewise the cost of failure is now cheaper so you can take more risks. What’s important is not to get rid of risk, but to take it well.
World Opportunity: Joi Ito said he’s a bit negative about Japan which is becoming less relevant with an aging population, worse education system, and conservative politics – but then he’s on the board of Sony because he wants to save the company that’s going through a tough time
Kenya/Africa have young populations and growing consumers, and while there are issues (like incumbent Telco’s) there are also opportunities. He compared that that to Silicon Valley which is saturated with 100 companies chasing an idea, each with $10m funding. He said it’s possible to connect the networks and thanks to easier communications companies here can find partners in China to enable them to overcome some obstacles.
Bio-Engineering the Future: One big future trend will be bio-engineering. There are now gene hacks being done by school kids, and the cost of hacking genes going down six times faster than Moore’s law. While Monsanto used to spend billions on genetic engineering, the future is not going to be about such big companies..the solution to malaria will not be from a rich guy at Harvard, but it may be from kids hacking solutions in Africa.