The Oracle of Silicon Valley, Reid Hoffman (Plus: Michael McCullough)

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Reid Hoffman (right) with Ana (top) and Michael (left) McCullough, co-founders of QuestBridge.org (Photo: Will Miller)

Reid Hoffman (right) with Ana (top) and Michael (left) McCullough, co-founders of QuestBridge.org (Photo: Will Miller)

Reid Hoffman is often referred to as “The Oracle of Silicon Valley” by tech insiders, who look at his company-building and investing track record (Facebook, Airbnb, Flickr, etc.) with awe. Reid is Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, which has more than 300 million users. He was previously Executive Vice President at PayPal, which was purchased by eBay for $1.5 billion. There, he was nicknamed “firefighter-in-chief” by CEO Peter Thiel.

Noted venture capitalist David Sze says of Reid, “[he] is arguably the most successful angel investor in the past decade.” They are now both partners at Greylock Partners.

In this podcast, he is joined by Michael McCullough, MD, a close friend, co-founder of QuestBridge.org, and a successful investor with training as an ER physician. Michael is as an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSF and previously served as the on-call ER physician to the Dalai Lama. Michael is also a Rhodes Scholar, Kaufman Fellow, and Ashoka Fellow. An avid meditator, he is particularly interested in investing in technologies and companies pertaining to the mind.

We cover A LOT, including:

  • Meeting Mark Zuckerberg for the first time and deciding to invest in Facebook
  • “Fire-fighting” in startups and beyond
  • Using board games to develop strategy
  • Reid’s view of what Uber has done well and what they could improve
  • Some of Reid’s suggested philosophers for entrepreneurs
  • Non-technical founders and symbolic systems
  • Going “off algorithm” in the ER to manage life-and-death decisions
  • The 3 types of CEOs
  • What Reid has learned from his network, including the founders of Airbnb, Kiva.org, etc.

And, of course, we discuss QuestBridge, as Reid and I are both on the advisory board…

QuestBridge currently supplies more exceptional low-income talent to top universities than all other non-profits combined (more than 2,000 students a year on $500 million in financial aid). QuestBridge has created a single, standardized college application accepted by 36 top universities like Stanford, MIT, Amherst and Yale. This allows them to use innovative campaigns (e.g. laptop giveaway forms that double as college applications) to offer scholarships to kids who might otherwise not even think of college. If you want to break the cycle of poverty, QuestBridge is one of the most fascinating tools I’ve ever seen.

I’d like to invite all of my readers and listeners to pour benevolent gasoline on this fire by contributing to one of QuestBridge’s prizes in Science (STEM) or the Arts. Just click here to check them out. The “prizes” are giveaway items like laptops or internships, and when kids apply for a prize, they are simultaneously applying to college. Student applications are due September 28, so there’s still time to influence this year.

If you prefer, you can create your own prize for a group you feel strongly about, like top low-income women, top low-income students from any geographic area (e.g. your home state), or those kids interested in a particular career (e.g. engineering). In effect, you might say, “I’d like to encourage Hispanic kids in Chicago [or girls in Tuscon interested in computer science, etc.] to apply to college. I’m happy to offer three iPads,” or something like that.

It doesn’t take much, and it really works wonders. For instance, QuestBridge’s Native American prize (20 laptops total) increased the Native American applicant pool from 34 to more than 350 in <12 months.

To create your own prize, or to simply discuss support or partnership, please reach out directly to Michael [AT] QuestBridge {DOT} org.

Again, to donate to existing prizes (e.g. STEM, the Arts, Rural), please click here.  That’s a simple and fast way to make a real impact.

TF-ItunesButtonTF-StitcherButton

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Want to hear another podcast from an early stage investor? — Listen to my conversations with Chris Sacca. In this episode, we discuss unfair advantages, how Chris chooses founders and investments, stories of missed opportunities, and the styles that differentiate Wall Street from Silicon Valley investors (stream below or right-click here to download):



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QUESTION OF THE DAY: If you had the SAT scores and e-mail addresses of every high school student in the US, how would you increase the number of kids who apply to college? Let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Enjoy!

Selected Links from the Episode

NYTimes | WSJ

Show Notes

  • How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”  [7:33]
  • The circumstances of Michael McCullough’s birth [9:08]
  • Lessons learned from Reid Hoffman’s unconventional high school [10:03]
  • How Reid Hoffman evaluates the importance of a founder’s technical skills [11:33]
  • The philosophy of Reid Hoffman [12:58]
  • What it means to Michael McCullough to go off algorithm [17:08]
  • What it’s like to watch a person’s eyes as they pass from alive to not-alive [20:58]
  • What separates a good ER physician from a great ER physician [21:53]
  • What makes a good “entrepreneurial firefighter” and how to work with bureaucracies [24:03]
  • Recommendations for developing strategic thinking [30:13]
  • What Uber has done well and what could have been executed more effectively/strategically [33:08]
  • On meeting Mark Zuckerberg and investing in Facebook [35:28]
  • Mark Pincus’s role in Facebook when Reid Hoffman decided to invest [38:23]
  • On deciding not to take the role of CEO [39:53]
  • What founders should think about when deciding to hire a CEO [42:43]
  • Michael McCullough’s first 60-90 minutes, meditation, and neurofeedback [47:38]
  • Reid Hoffman’s morning rituals and how he works through creative problems [49:53]
  • The first thing that comes to mind when mentioning specific people in Reid Hoffman’s network [54:23]
  • Most gifted book [1:04:28]
  • Questbridge – What it is and what it does [1:26:53]
  • If you could have one billboard anywhere, where would it be and what would it say? [1:19:53]
  • Asks or requests for the listeners [1:20:48]

People Mentioned

Posted on: August 31, 2015.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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31 comments on “The Oracle of Silicon Valley, Reid Hoffman (Plus: Michael McCullough)

  1. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but I’m confused by something in the description. “more than 2,000 students a year on $500 million in financial aid”. This averages out to 250k/student/year. Is this a typo, or am I misunderstanding how QuestBridge works.

    Like

    • QuestBridge provides a full-ride to their selected recipients, which would probably be in the range of $60-80K/yr depending on the university. They also broker a number of partial scholarships that may not be included in the 2,000 students/yr total.

      Like

  2. I love that Reid remembers the small details of everything he’s learned from different people in his network. Why did Reid pick Ben Casnocha to co-author Start-up of You?

    Always in permanent beta,

    Michael

    Like

  3. Very inspirational interview and feel very privileged to have listened in!

    Was hoping to hear Michael’s “Ask” at the end but can imagine time was tight.

    QOTD – I think the important thing concerning SAT scores would be to let kids in on the fact that your score does not determine your potential in the world.

    Like

  4. Great interview with Reid Hoffman and Michael McCullough, of QuestBridge. I Pintrested, Tweeted and LinkedIn about QustBridge as soon as I heard this podcast to all my friends. I volunteer at a non profit for struggling Moms and underprivileged kids. ( the instructions say not to mention companies, but it’s not my business, I just volunteer there so I hope it is OK to mention them) It’s called Beyond Fear to Freedom (BFF). So I hope they will all connect with your organization. Thank you so much for creating QustBridge.

    My point today, comes from something in this podcast mentioned in passing, on how language works, and Tim said something like; “How can you even have a conversation about God for example, without first understanding what God means to each person in the conversation”? That got me thinking. Tim, you talk a bit about meditation. Can you do a podcast sometime on your thoughts on God? and Prayer as compared to meditation and the benefits thereof from both? But before you do, I know you enjoy films. Will you see this film? “The War Room” It is one of those “Christian Films” but don’t count it out – because it is NOT one of those lame C grade under-budgeted films with poor acting. It was really good! I’ve been thinking about it for two days since seeing it. And I wondered what you might think of it, and what you think about this trend I am noticing and even Hollywood is getting into making these “God Movies”? I know your show is all about deconstructing the lives of successful people. Maybe interviewing Jesus might be out of your scope, but I would love to here you interview the makers of this particular film. Alex and Steven Kendrick. I’ll bet you have a lot of listeners who would also enjoy that conversation. Better yet, do it on your new TV show – the Experiment. Now THAT would be cool!

    Like

  5. If I were to email all the high school students- I would show them averages and ranges of current college student as well as of “successful” role models.
    This would show that your SAT score does not define your potential, but is a means to gain admittance into school. Also, a lower score may not be a deterrent from getting in. Often times public schools give so much weight agents this score that it becomes the “be all end all”

    Like

  6. I grew up in the Midwest with little to no vision of a life outside the Dakotas. Through a roll of luck, I was selected to be a Questbridge Fellow at Emory from 2008-2012. Having graduated with a degree in Anthropology, I now live in Washington, DC and work at the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization – Communities In Schools. I have plans in the next year to apply to medical school to become either a neurologist or psychiatrist with a focus on childhood stress and brain development. Having been helped so much along the way, I’m looking to serve those at-risk youth and families that need a voice.

    Bottom line: QuestBridge works. It creates dreams and then gives you the steps to get there. There’s no other program that comes close to what they do, both in terms of quality and scale. Tim, thank you for giving this program a stage. QuestBridge has such a significant impact on so many lives every year. More people need to know their story and how they can help.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Heya Tim! Playing Avalon Hill games is mentioned in this podcast as a great way of developing strategy skills. But there was no follow up question on which games. The game “Diplomacy” loved by JFK springs to mind but it would’ve been good to know.

    Like

  8. If you had the SAT scores and e-mail addresses of every high school student in the US, how would you increase the number of kids who apply to college?

    I would tell them that college has two great benefits that most other “enterprises” don’t – first, college has the availability of such a wide swath of disciplines, it allows students to major in whatever passion they have – whether it is to be a chemist that discovers the next great chemical reaction, or the painter, who revolutionizes art. Second, and tied to the first, they should minor or get a certificate in entrepreneurship, so that they understand risk and that they can create their own job.

    Too often in higher ed, students are nudged towards those disciplines that are “trending in the workforce” or “that’s where the money is”. In this disruptive economy, no one can say for sure what the next big job will be, so you may as well do what you love. Works for Tim.

    Like

    • Actually Tim a much better answer popped into my head after a good sparring session.

      CONCEPT – Show the students their score compared to successful inspirational people.

      GOAL – The emotional reaction of “WOW! I got scores as good as him/her!”

      METHOD – You have a program written that takes the individuals’ SAT scores and then looks into a database provided by the various universities, companies and any other stakeholders Questridge has access to.

      The programme then produces a nice email that shows the student their own SAT score and a range of successful individuals who in the past got the same score. And not just something like YOU – 945, Bill Gates – 943, Barack Obama 951, etc, actually have really nice photos and a good narrative driven testimonial thing where each person talks a bit about how their score and going to university changed their life. It might also be useful to include career peaks like companies founded, no. of people helped, all the good listopedia type stuff that people love nowadays.

      It may also be useful to us other demographic and geographic data to tailor the case study comparisons, but we need to be careful not to get too stereotypical or patronising.

      ADDED VALUE – In an ideal world, I would like to get as many of the rich and famous, and regular people too to record their own little videos , just 12 seconds long or something. Lots of people will really enjoy this kind of donating their time to questbridge because it costs them very little and helps so many youngsters.

      ANOTHER LEVEL – Another aspect would be to tie in little meet and greet events at the nearest participating university for people of a given range of SAT scores. This would be harder to organise but again, this is the kind of project where a lot of people will be willing to volunteer their time because it is such a good cause.

      SUMMARY – The basic concept is to build a “database of excellence”, and show the students exactly where the fall in it with a clear and impressive ranking chart – telling them “Look! THESE are your peers!”.

      Enhance this email with solid narrative driven details and beautiful videos and photos. And meet-up events. Voila!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tim, very insightful episode once again. Really benefited from listening to this episode a second time to appreciate the different insights Reid gleans from his network. Very useful takeaways regarding the use of incentives in strategy.

    Regarding your question about increasing college applications, an interesting initial question could be, if college is actually the most useful default option? I don’t know much about the American apprenticeship system but from my personal experience in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, practical apprenticeships in engineering, technology, social work or in the arts can be a very fulfilling alternative for many high-school students. Oftentimes, mastering the practical aspect of a field will whet an appetite to study the perhaps more theoretical side of a vocation in a university course. Perhaps it is possible to use SAT scores and results from a personality/skills/interests questionnaire (which could be part of an iPad giveaway) to match an open apprenticeship position with a high school student.

    In either case, I believe that the problem ultimately boils down to setting up the right incentives. For most “privileged” high-school students college is the default option because your parents, school and society around you almost expects you to do so (it is culturally believed to be the safest and most profitable option), and most of your friends in high school will most likely go as well. Thus, there is a unique combination between social proof and a fear of missing out.

    Perhaps it is possible to use the SAT data to incentivize groups of friends to apply to the same school or colleges in the same area. One possibility may be to use the “refer-a-friend-and-double-your-chances” technique in an iPad/Phone/etc. giveaway. So something along the lines that Tim used in the Huckberry ZeroG flight giveaway.

    In either case, I checked out QuestBridge and they seem like an amazing organization. Great example of what Reid said regarding an ecosystem that helps humanity achieve greater things.

    Cheers,
    Rainer

    Like

  10. It’s a good thing that they created this QuestBridge so that they may able to help those kids that doesn’t have the privilege to be part of any Universities or not interested to proceed in college.

    Like

  11. Hi Tim, I enjoy your podcast and am just listening to “The Oracle of Sillicon Valley”. Something that I found unhelpful was the separation of philosophy from religion, as if religion were irrelevant.
    Also the idea that somehow separating meditation from religion is beneficial. Why is this?
    It seems to me that the separation of science and religion is a mistake and negatively impacts our approach to understanding who we are.

    Like

  12. Hey Tim!

    I’m reading your four hour body book and all the info is really cool man thanks for writing it and talking to all the experts. I was wondering why didn’t you put a chapter there on breathing like yogic breathing and different techniques that increase oxygen and remove toxins , I’ve barely studied that area but if you did and learned from the best out there I think you’d find some really cool things to experiment with and to a to benefit from ! I’m literally trying all the muscle speed and test levels and sleep stuff in your book !! Lol

    Like

  13. Questbridge needs to reach out to LeBron James. LeBron just partnered with the University of Akron, pledging $41 million to send up to 2,000 at-risk Akron kids to college. LeBron tweeting about Questbridge would be a win-win as it is a community he wants to help. Great publicity for both Questbridge and LeBron on top of it.

    Like

  14. I find it odd that when you offer a laptop suddenly the number of applicants jump. Shouldn’t the promise of a good education be enough for the high school students? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the 34 that applied without the promise of a laptop than the rest that needed something other than a college education to inspire them? I would take the quality of 34 driven students than the quantity of those just looking for a handout. Success at a quality school goes well beyond test scores, there is something to be said for drive.

    Like

  15. Tim – you should read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein argues that philosophers should actually do the exact opposite of what you suggest in the podcast, which is to focus on defining terms and instead engage in thought exercises called language games. It’s dense stuff and not well written, but if you give it a chance it might shift the way you think.

    Like

  16. Live-long learning in global communities was a vision Tim put forth in your conversation with Reid Hoffmann and Michael McCullough in August or September 2015.
    The Oracle of Silicon Valley, Reid Hoffman (Plus: Michael McCullough)

    Why your call for action rang with me?
    This vision and „virtual call for action“ lit a spark inside myself. As a father of three pre-pubertarian girls, who are in school and as a consultant, continuous learning is one of my core building blocks which keeps me going. It is, however, an ongoing struggle for myself and as a father and as a professional to give learning the room needed.

    I have been a reader of your books and delighted listener to your podcast and I appreciate that the quest for learning the right things efficiently is one of the quests in your life.

    As a baby-boomer from the early 1960s, I have come to see learning develop from the classical „family tribal“ learning I received from my great-grandmother at the age of five on the sofa while she was telling me stories and tales while peppering them with her commentary based on her experience as a woman in her 80s, to today’s pay and learn as you go through virtualized educational flat-rate service like http://www.udemy.com offering individualized learning content and nano-degrees. Not to mention the deluge of information and learning content now available in libraries and the internet. There are fantastic offerings ranging from TED talks to private sector initiatives such as Singularity University, Khan Academy or Alain DeBotton’s School of Life.

    But is having all the information and learning content at our fingertips enough? Do we learn more today than we used to in the past? No, in mind!

    How could the topic of enhanced learning be „propagated“ practically? Some thesis and some assumptions

    – Having a huge supply of learning content is not enough, applying the right meta skills to bring about action and true experiental learning are keys to deep learning.
    – There are several ingredients for learning:
    – Learn the right stuff:
    – Prerequisite – explore what is important to the learner
    – Our classic school curriculum is not sufficient to cover a comprehensive learning experience
    – Amend our school curriculum with multi-facetted world learning curriculum
    – Include philosophy, nature, arts and physical and psychological experiences (e.g. flow, extreme sports, outings in nature, etc.)
    – Include manual crafts
    – Include people-learning (such as from my great-grandmother)
    – Learn how we learn (methods and approach, resources, skills)
    – Make learning something that takes place in the interaction with other folks (be a mensch, meet other menschen)
    – Add virtual or analog non-personal material as an add-on
    – Develop a core curriculum of learning skills
    – Your „FourHourChef“ meta skills explained in a straight-forward way
    – Dealing with digital noise and the toxic fall-out from our digital lifestyle
    – Other core meta skills such as habits and routines, working with mentors, working as teachers, summarizing learning content, moving to action, accessing flow, as well as „teacher skills“ such as story telling, structuring, synthesizing, etc.

    Here are my thoughts on how this topic could be developed further:

    – The topics or learning curriculum and general learning content are very broad, so the recommendation is to focus on meta skills first and to let curriculum and general and specific learning content follow (potentially in associated networks).
    – Creating an „boot-camp-based“ academy for modern learning meta skills focussing on experiencing these skills and applying them in use cases on small content nuggets with a strong focus on learning-by-doing.
    – The format could be one-day or one-weekend boot-camps geared toward two or three age-groups or, potentially better yet target groups such as „learning skills for the family (kids and parents)“, „learning skills for the high-school graduate“, „learning skills for the (young) professional“, etc.
    – From teaching, learning and applying the meta-skills, through feedback loops, improvements on meta-skill content is provided and enhances the academy from within
    – Another principle of the academy should be reaching out and networking with other learning-focused organizations to drive learning by
    – Those participating in the boot-camps start to form a community which will grow globally by networking
    – Commercially, this endeavor could be linked to incubators such as startupbootcamp or Y-combinator to create a pool of well-rounded „professional“ learners or it could be sponsored by private-sector entities or academic institutions
    – …

    Thanks for raising this essential topic. I’d enjoy discussing it with you further.

    Like

  17. Live-long learning in global communities was a vision you put forth in your conversation with Reid Hoffmann and Michael McCullough in August or September 2015.
    The Oracle of Silicon Valley, Reid Hoffman (Plus: Michael McCullough)

    Why your call for action rang with me?
    This vision and „virtual call for action“ lit a spark inside myself. As a father of three pre-pubertarian girls, who are in school and as a consultant, continuous learning is one of my core building blocks which keeps me going. It is, however, an ongoing struggle for myself and as a father and as a professional to give learning the room needed.

    I have been a reader of your books and delighted listener to your podcast and I appreciate that the quest for learning the right things efficiently is one of the quests in your life.

    As a baby-boomer from the early 1960s, I have come to see learning develop from the classical „family tribal“ learning I received from my great-grandmother at the age of five on the sofa while she was telling me stories and tales while peppering them with her commentary based on her experience as a woman in her 80s, to today’s pay and learn as you go through virtualized educational flat-rate service like http://www.udemy.com offering individualized learning content and nano-degrees. Not to mention the deluge of information and learning content now available in libraries and the internet. There are fantastic offerings ranging from TED talks to private sector initiatives such as Singularity University, Khan Academy or Alain DeBotton’s School of Life.

    But is having all the information and learning content at our fingertips enough? Do we learn more today than we used to in the past? No, in mind!

    How could the topic of enhanced learning be „propagated“ practically? Some thesis and some assumptions

    – Having a huge supply of learning content is not enough, applying the right meta skills to bring about action and true experiental learning are keys to deep learning.
    – There are several ingredients for learning:
    – Learn the right stuff:
    – Prerequisite – explore what is important to the learner
    – Our classic school curriculum is not sufficient to cover a comprehensive learning experience
    – Amend our school curriculum with multi-facetted world learning curriculum
    – Include philosophy, nature, arts and physical and psychological experiences (e.g. flow, extreme sports, outings in nature, etc.)
    – Include manual crafts
    – Include people-learning (such as from my great-grandmother)
    – Learn how we learn (methods and approach, resources, skills)
    – Make learning something that takes place in the interaction with other folks (be a mensch, meet other menschen)
    – Add virtual or analog non-personal material as an add-on
    – Develop a core curriculum of learning skills
    – Your „FourHourChef“ meta skills explained in a straight-forward way
    – Dealing with digital noise and the toxic fall-out from our digital lifestyle
    – Other core meta skills such as habits and routines, working with mentors, working as teachers, summarizing learning content, moving to action, accessing flow, as well as „teacher skills“ such as story telling, structuring, synthesizing, etc.

    Here are my thoughts on how this topic could be developed further:

    – The topics or learning curriculum and general learning content are very broad, so the recommendation is to focus on meta skills first and to let curriculum and general and specific learning content follow (potentially in associated networks).
    – Creating an „boot-camp-based“ academy for modern learning meta skills focussing on experiencing these skills and applying them in use cases on small content nuggets with a strong focus on learning-by-doing.
    – The format could be one-day or one-weekend boot-camps geared toward two or three age-groups or, potentially better yet target groups such as „learning skills for the family (kids and parents)“, „learning skills for the high-school graduate“, „learning skills for the (young) professional“, etc.
    – From teaching, learning and applying the meta-skills, through feedback loops, improvements on meta-skill content is provided and enhances the academy from within
    – Another principle of the academy should be reaching out and networking with other learning-focused organizations to drive learning by
    – Those participating in the boot-camps start to form a community which will grow globally by networking
    – Commercially, this endeavor could be linked to incubators such as startupbootcamp or Y-combinator to create a pool of well-rounded „professional“ learners or it could be sponsored by private-sector entities or academic institutions

    Thanks for raising this essential topic. I’d enjoy discussing it with you further.

    I will be in the Bay area from 12/07 – 12/12.2015. to attend a conference and for additional meetings. If you are interested, I would enjoy discussing this idea over a cup of coffee.

    Best

    Johannes Vogel

    Like