Disruption by Innovation – Fireside chat with Vinod Khosla

First posted on my personal blog Quixotic Semiotic

Let me just start by saying how grateful I am to be located in a place like Bangalore where there is absolutely no dearth of opportunities to pick the brains of the best and brightest individuals in the world. The ex-CTO of my company mentioned to me in passing that he had an invite to a fireside chat being hosted by Vinod Khosla, and I squealed in excitement. This man is an absolute legend, but I was still a little wary considering what a huge disappointment the GMIC was. I just returned from the event, and I’m happy to say, it was worth it.

My first impression of Mr. Khosla was that he was older than his pictures seemed to suggest! I was under the impression that he was in his late 40’s, but he turned 60 this year. Who knew?! But I think with age and experience comes wisdom and this man has it in bucketloads. He spoke for about an hour and a half, and although most of what he said wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, it was so deeply insightful that I was immediately enraptured. I’d be ready to take his words as gospel, as unwise as that might be, simply because of how strong his convictions seemed. When asked about what entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk and Larry Page all had in common, Mr. Khosla said it was their internal belief system. Believing in an idea that goes against all societally accepted norms, and more importantly sticking to that idea despite the possibility of imminent failure – that made all the difference. There were two specific quotes that he shared that I am going to write down here for posterity.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Martin Luther King

The gist of is that to conform is to fail as an entrepreneur. If you’re happy with conformity and you’re happy climbing the ladder at a giant multinational, then more power to you. But if you’re looking to innovate, then that need of living up to the expectations of the people around you can be a killer. It’s something that scares me personally because I’ve always had this notion of being an entrepreneur, but I’ve also noticed that the truly bright people I’ve met always have something off about them. Either they’re eccentric or just flat out weird. I am a little bit of a weirdo, but for the most part, I’m a well-adjusted part of society. Have I done anything that’s nonconformal? I’m not sure to be honest. There have been times when I have wanted to make radical career decisions because I was unhappy, but I chose to wait because it was the “safe” thing to do. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt over the past year, and Mr. Khosla’s talk just reminded of it, it’s this: if you have faith in your abilities and a quiet confidence (or even arrogance as he called it), then no matter what happens, you’re going to be able to bounce back from whatever situation you find yourself in. You’ve gotta take risks.

Another question that I’ve always had and that Mr. Khosla answered today was “Are we really in this tech bubble that’s bound to burst?” It might also be worth noting that this question was asked in an Indian context. His answer or at least my interpretation of it was yes and no. Investors have become so afraid of missing the “next big thing” that they’re throwing money in every direction, hoping that something, somewhere sticks. The result of this is of course, many companies that don’t even have a viable business model get funded and in most cases overvalued. To put it bluntly though, as an entrepreneur, if an investor is throwing money at you, why the hell wouldn’t you take it? If you’re smart about it, you will identify the flaws in your own value proposition, and you will plug in all the holes in your product before you sink in the market. But if you don’t, then really, whose fault is it? In the form of numbers, Mr. Khosla said about 85% of the companies that exist today (in India) may not exist in the next decade. When or how the bubble bursts, well I guess only time will tell.

As far as his thoughts about where the future of technology is headed, to put it briefly: innovation in sectors outside of traditional internet, SaaS and e-commerce companies. These include banking and financial services, food and education. Also, note to self: machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to take over the world. The implications of this are going to be massive in the next 15-20 years, which I guess is a known fact, but seeing how much progress is already being made in these areas makes me incredibly optimistic about the world we’re going to be living in.

And finally, Mr. Khosla said that one of the things that worry him the most about India is the fact that certain segments of society are being left behind during this rapid growth. While he specifically mentioned Muslims, I think it also applies to people belonging to low-income families and backward castes. I think this is such a significant, valid point that we need to come to terms with. Having a role model to look up to can have a tremendous impact on inspiring millions of others. When you think about it, how many Muslim CEOs or founders can you name off the top of your head? It’s almost a kind of circle jerk. There are no successful Muslim entrepreneurs, hence no one from the community is even going to try. I don’t profess to know too much about this, but I do know that if we are to grow as a country, innovation can’t be driven by and limited to a certain section of the population. It has to be inclusive for growth of any kind to be sustainable.

This man has given me so much to think (and write) about and for that, I am truly grateful. If you have any thoughts about any of this or innovation in India in general, do share! Many interesting conversations were my motivation for writing this and really, a conversation is the first step to creating change.

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