On January 19, 2016, Kevin spoke at the Co-Founder Meet-Up hosted at the Capitol Factory in downtown Austin, TX. You can see a video of the presentation on Kevin’s YouTube channel or read an edited version here.
“My name is Kevin Koym. I’m the founder of Tech Ranch. I like to have a really interactive style. We only have a few minutes to talk, so I’m going to try to be brief, but I want to challenge you to a couple different ideas.
First, I’d really like to ask, for the entrepreneurs in the room, what’s driving your startup? Let’s hear from a couple of different people. What’s the key thing that’s driving you to do what you’re up to?”
From the front row, a male voice replies, “It’s what I’m interested in.”
Kevin asks, “What you’re interested in?”
The man sheepishly responds, “And I want to make more money.”
“Making money, that’s a good start,” says Kevin.
Another voice chimes in, “I’m also interested in that.”
“Perfect,” replies Kevin.
Someone else speaks up and says, “Saving lives and improving the quality of them.”
“Saving lives, improving the quality of life,” says Kevin. “Definitely close to my heart. Yes sir?”
A quiet voice simply says, “Autisim.”
“Autisim. Yeah, very specific set of issues that we’re up against right now,” Kevin replies. “In the back? Yeah?”
A voice from the back says, “ ‘Look what I can do!’ ”
Kevin smiles and says. “ “Look what I can do!’ , got it!”
“I want to talk about this idea of being a pioneer. I’ve been a pioneer through everything that I’ve done. The key thing that I actually like to focus on right now is that we live in a world that has a lot of different challenges. , People haven’t discovered what the business model is behind a lot of these challenges, but I’m convinced that part of what we can do, as entrepreneurs, is find a business model that actually really works to solve some of the world’s problems.”
“In fact, I actually would like to echo in what Peter Diamandis is saying, that within the next two decades, we could actually solve all the world’s problems. It’s actually kind of heady to think that we live in that age. That’s actually part of reason I started the Tech Ranch.”
“You might ask, ‘Okay, who’s speaking?’ Well, my background is I’ve disrupted six different markets, I’ve started startups in three different countries. I’m the guy that my startup sold the first two billion dollars of computer sold at Dell.com. I built that piece of software in my living room years ago, and then deployed that. It got my face on the cover of ComputerWorld Magazine, and I got to work for this guy, Steve Jobs, early in my career. Leaving college and getting to work for Steve Jobs kind of totally warped my sense of what’s possible. It’s interesting because I really believe that we’re at this point in our lives that we – people that are living right now in this room – can actually change the world for the better, and actually make it a good business. Do well and do good at the same time. That’s the whole idea.”
“I want to challenge you, from one pioneer to another pioneer, or to pioneers, to say, you’ve got to think like that to be like that. I want to challenge you to look beyond just building the next app to help find your friends in a bar. I get asked to be a start up judge all over the world, and there’s nothing wrong with helping find your friends in a bar- it’s an important thing, but it’s limited, because you realize how there are 20 or more teams that are doing it, and maybe two of them are going to win, but there’s all these other business issues out in the world. Maybe they look slightly different. There’s all these other issues. There’s a business model that will figure it out. That’s what we’ve been doing at Tech Ranch, and that’s what I actually want to challenge you to do. Now, you might be working on an app that’s got social media or something like that, but I’m convinced even for you that you actually might be building the find your friends in a bar kind of app. You can find a deeper soul in it, and that’s what I’m here to advocate for.”
“Okay, so three ideas. Three ideas of how to go further as a pioneer. I’ve made money, I’ve created wealth, destroyed wealth, created wealth again, destroyed wealth again, tried it again, pushed myself out on the skinny branches, and a lot of it is because I see guys like Jobs doing that, and it was really inspirational to me. But there’s three things I would like to share as an idea of what you might look at, to how do you transverse this path. The first one is do something worthy of your life. Make it worthy of the risk. The question is not necessarily what do you want to do, or what do you want to accomplish, but what are you willing to feel pain for?”
“In my case, what happened is I had a normal startup founder history. Start six different companies, get them to half a million dollars revenue. Two of them I got to a million dollars with the revenue before I handed them over to someone else and said, ‘Hey, it’s your turn to run this because I’ve got to go and start the next thing.’ And then I had a friend who took her own life in 2003, and it challenged me to say, ‘I’ve got to go beyond that.’ That was kind of the wake up moment for me.”
“I just want to encourage you, don’t wait for that wake up moment as you’re taking these risks. What are you willing to feel pain for? Part of your venture should be scratching that itch. That’s part of what I’d like to challenge you to do. In my case, after that death happened, I said, ‘Hey, you know what? I can’t get to this full list of things.’ There’s ten different technologies in my career, I never stayed in one space. I didn’t just do one e-commerce startup, followed by the next e-commerce startup, followed by the next. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to go this direction, then I’m going to go that direction.’ “
“The software I built – one is managing Uranium Hexaflouride, which is important to kind of keep tabs on, and as well as the very first Internet banking application. The key idea is I can’t get to that whole list, so part of my thing is now to enable you all to actually figure out how you can actually take on all these different issues. This was the piece of paper that I wrote down in 2005 to say, ‘Okay, here’s ten different issues I want to take on.’ “
“ Now, the cool thing that’s happening to the Tech Ranch, and the work we’ve done in the seven different countries around the world, is we’ve gone way beyond this, and the list is now in the thousand or over a thousand. It’s all about changing the role. In my case, if I had more time, I’d tell you the story about what took me to Chili in 2003 to work with the first thousand entrepreneurs. Many of those entrepreneurs are now the essentially godfathers of the Chilean entrepreneurial marketplace. “
“There’s a startup guy here in Austin, Texas, and was like, ‘I got to go figure out how I can go out in the big stage,’ and that’s what happened. Now, roughly a thousand people were touched by that, and then those entrepreneurs had now gone off and changed that country. If you actually look at what happened to the country over the last 15 years, it’s pretty freaking amazing. I was part of that. It was something I was willing to feel pain for. The idea is to go beyond just working on a salary in something that’s kind of interesting. What this says for those of you all in the back is this is salary, this is sanity. We started a job. For me, I was the stock boy in one of those stores that you probably shopped into in the past. I got my degree, and now I got lucky, because I got to work for this guy named Steve Jobs coming out of college.”
“That was still my career, and then it turned into my entrepreneurial process when I was an entrepreneur building all these different things that I told you about. Still, that was just my career. Then, the event happened and I went off to go on my mission. Mission implies that it was absolutely no money but the idea behind it was then to get to your calling. That’s the key idea about what to do here. Do something that’s worthy of taking a risk, something that you’re willing to actually feel pain for.”
“The next thing is go together. Now this group of people that are going west in this photo, most people don’t know the history of this photo. I don’t mean just this one photo, but I mean all the different people that went and kind of stood the wagons to the west. I mean going to the west as a metaphor for forging into new lands that we have never seen before. This guy has taken an existential risk. None of us in this room, for the most part, maybe 1%, is going to be taking an existential risk with regards to the startups that you’re starting. The story behind the picture is, these different families who have their different wagons, and they would actually pull up to a trailhead and wait for usually up to about a week before they went west. The worst part about it is– the best and worst part is, all the other people, they didn’t know before that moment that they went west. They didn’t know. So here we’re about to take an existential risk, us group of people right here. We don’t know each other, but we’re going to go put our lives in other peoples’ hands.”
“The challenge is, right now, there’s a detriment happening in the startup market out in the Bay Area, which I have lived in twice during my career, and also in Austin. In the Bay Area, in Silicon Valley, part of the problem is that I’m in social media technology and you’re in water technology – two totally different things. But the issue at hand is you and I are at each others throats, just trying to choke each other out. Something happened in the Bay Area as it developed in the startup market that it is, and it’s a great place to start something, but on this the downside is, all of a sudden, it’s now– you and I aren’t competitors. You’re in social media, I’m in water technology, but why would we be trying to choke each other out?”
“For me, I’m not against competition, but if you have a Dell laptop and I have an HP laptop, and that’s what we’re selling, okay, we’re competing, let’s go full out. But other than that, we have got to drop that. Part of the strength that’s made Austin so powerful in 20 years – I started my first company here in ’94 – part of what’s made it so powerful is we always had each others backs. You could call up someone else and say, ‘Hey, will you help me with this?’ The history of the Bay Area is the same thing. There’s stories of the different semi-conductor companies working side by side saying, ‘You know, hey, we can’t figure out this process. We can’t figure out…’ and we actually would get into the car, go over to the other place, help your competitor out.”
“That’s actually why that part of the world did so well. Why is this important? It’s important to remember that the technology capital of the world, 60 years ago, was Detroit. Look where Detroit is today, and look at some of the the negative stuff that’s happening the Bay Area. Part of what I want to challenge you guys, all Austinites, to do is we actually need to go beyond letting that Austin ‘I’m-going-tohelp-you-you’re-going-to-help-me’ thing go. We really have to fight for it. And this part of us that might have you and I up against each other because we’re full of testosterone and want to compete with each other? Well, if you’ve got a Dell laptop and I’ve got a HP laptop, that makes sense. But if you’re in social tech and I’m in water tech, it doesn’t make sense at all, because this is the enemy. The enemy is getting across the venture valley of death, especially at the early stages. All of you are up against this first and foremost, and this is what we need to target. We need to continue to do this as a community.”
“ This is one of the most exotic examples I’ll give you out of what’s come out of the Tech Ranch, but a good example. The chief scientist of this biosciences company – a lot of people told him, ‘Wait, there’s no way you’re going to be able to 3D print skin,’ for years. They said, ‘You’re not going to be able to 3D print skin.’ Long term, this 3D skin will be used for burn victims, and right now, after a woman has breast reconstructive surgery after having cancer removed, they actually can reprint part of the skin for that application. It’s pretty important stuff, especially if you think about long term, about all the different needs that you might have for burn victims. But the crazy thing about this is there are a lot of people who wouldn’t give them the time of day. From a standpoint of a pioneer, the thing that supports entrepreneurs like this is to have a supportive community, and to get rid of this bullshit we’re talking about earlier about, ‘I’m going to take you out.’ Because if everyone’s trying to protect themselves and say, ‘Well, I’m not going help this guy, even though he’s not really my competitor. This guy over here is in water technology, I want to see him fail.’ “
“That is one of the things that, if you’ve actually listened close enough in the Bay Area, is actually happening right now. It’s kind of weird. We’re not going to have companies like this take off. I’m quite proud of this company, actually, of where they’ve gone. They just got a NHI grant. I don’t know if it’s been announced yet, but it’s pretty exciting stuff, because long term, that’s going to actually take care of some of us and some of our families.”
“The takeaway thought on this point is if you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together. Pioneers want to go far. A lot of times, you’re not going to have financial capital at the beginning of your startup, and for the longest time, you’re going to need to use social capital versus financial capital. That’s the key thing I want to say about that. Because if we actually leverage each other much more, we can go much farther and have true pioneering startups.”
“The third thing is look beyond. You have to know some vocational stuff to build a startup. You need to know a little bit about lean startup. You need to know a little bit about developing code, you need to know a little few other things, but a lot of people forget that to be an entrepreneur is to be alive and living, and you have to go beyond.”
“In my case, what happened was I lost use of my right arm in 2014. I was in the process of launching Tech Ranch, and actually taking a couple of things on. I’m very, very active and think of myself as able to get a lot of stuff done, and then my arm is taken away. This was during the period of time where I was in the process of selling my house, I’d already put it on the market, and an offer had already been accepted. I was actually moving the Tech Ranch from the little place that we were in to the much larger place that we’re in now. It was an exceptionally hard time to lose the use of my arm, and all of the different things that that implied. I could not carry two and a half pounds with this arm just because of what happened. It was a martial arts accident, totally freak accident, but, oh, well. I was pretty down, and I learned that you have to look beyond, because while it’s important to learn about lean startup and stuff like that, you need to put yourself in a position where you actually can take on more than just okay. What do I do? What type of interview are we doing this week? How much code do we have to write?”
“In my case, one of the things that I actually want to share with you, to show you an example of looking beyond is actually a piece of poetry. Some of you may have heard of a place called Burning Man. It has a lot of high tech guys like me, and you all like to go to this. I just randomly had this one photo that I took when I was there. I was really pissed off one day about not having the hand, not able to write emails back to all the different people I need to, and thankfully, this was offered. Part of what I want to say is it’s not always about how hard you’re working. A lot of people are like, ‘Well, you know, I work 16 hours a day.’ I don’t necessarily think that that’s the essence of the people who really figure out startups, by comparing how many hours you worked the like. Because sometimes, you actually have to be more yin, not so yang, about life. You have to figure out the more elegant approach forward than just fighting it. “
Kevin then read the poem The Guest House, by Rumi, to the audience.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
“All right, so why would I read Rumi to you? It’s because most of you, if you’re going to be on the path of being an entrepreneur long enough, you’re going to be trying to figure out Thursday night how you’re going to pay your employees Friday morning. There’s going to be that moment. It might not be that exact scenario, but in 22 years of being an entrepreneur, I can tell you that it’s presented all the freaking time. And actually, you take the risk that I took when I moved Tech Ranch from one place to another place, when we did the work in Mexico and the work that happened in Germany – in Bavaria, specifically, each one is the risk you take to go to the next level. It’s stuff like this, or whatever it is for you, that you really need to have. Everyone gets broken in this game. Some people know how to stand back up after that happens.”
“You can read about Tech Ranch at our website, but there’s also programs that we have that I’d like you to know about. I’m not here to actually give you a commercial, but what I’d like you to think about, if you’re on the journey, is that we’re here to help you take the next step. Each one of you, the next step represents a new domain that you actually have to learn about, and figure out how you can actually tap in to the different community of people, and how you can actually have a bunch of people behind you to cover your back. That’s what it’s all about. Something I’m really proud of – and this hasn’t been announced publicly – but I want to really call out to the people who are actually here to change the world. Tech Ranch was selected by UBI Global in the top three social impact incubators in the United States. It’ll be announced soon.”
“There’s something powerful about when there’s a little bit of religious zealotry in your startup, and I hope that you find that – and I don’t mean religion. I mean finding the soul of your business, and the drive to be a pioneer. Find something that’s worthy of the risk, find something that’s going to have you go beyond and go together, and then look beyond what the normal knowledge is, and look for the deeper things that are actually going to carry you forward.”
Kevin then took some questions from the audience.
A young man asked, “What’s an important issue that needs solving right now?”
Kevin replied. “Let’s turn it around to you. What’s important to you in the world? Name an issue. Right now is an example. If you want to change, you could actually build an education technology startup. One of our startups is actually based out of India, and is actually right now entering the Chilean market and the Latin American market. The poorest of the poor on learning even the most basic subjects. Now with a kiosk and some training, and either some small amount of governmental support, and in this case, they’re actually paying just a few rupees per interaction, which gives them the dignity to actually buy that. That’s actually something.”
“There’s a book called The 86 Percent Solution that you might look at if you want to look at this type of stuff. I’m not saying you have to go work in poverty or anything like that, but one of the things that’s interesting to think about is called the 86 percent solution – saying that 14% of the world’s market is like us. We’re not in a growth market. The US market is actually declining in population. At some level all over the world, the affluent societies are declining, but the poor that are actually at this poverty level, are taking that first step out of poverty. There’s quite a large market out there. That’s the 80% part of the pyramid, so it could be something as simple as education technology. IOT is going to change things.”
“A bunch of different examples as you can see about how even just getting light, the most basic light, in a hut, in a village in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa. That being said, I would challenge you to really find out what’s important to you, because there’s a business opportunity in it. Since I’ve seen quite literally thousands of different deals, I can rattle off a bunch of different ones. I would actually say go deeper on what’s important to you, and you could find something. It might be something randomly you thought about as a seven year old.”
Another audience member spoke up, “I’d like to hear about your latest passion.”
Kevin replies, “My latest passion is what I’m doing. It hasn’t changed in 12 years. It’s gotten more refined. My main challenge right now is that I’ve taken a lot of risk with my own wealth to say, if I really believe in this, I’m going to go even farther. I’ve fallen down, because I actually really believed this. I really believe that it’s possible to take it to another level. I built a bunch of different apps, I built the first Internet banking app in the world. I built a trading system to put all the investments.”
“You’re building a community, basically.” said the audience member.
“Yeah, well, building a community is part of the secret – well, there’s no secret about it. It’s actually about helping each other. If we can actually really present that idea of what made Austin strong, and then take it to scale across the world, something really interesting could happen. It’s a challenge but it’s something.”
Another audience member asked: If you were to give one piece of advice to an entrepreneur, what will it be?”
“The main thing is get to customers as fast as possible. I built 12 different skunk works during my career. Skunk work is where you do a disruptive result, like you don’t just do something kind of relevant, but you do a disruptive result. In my case, I have a real ability to find early adopters. I think a lot of times, investors are seeing individuals that haven’t figured out who their early adopters are. And a lot of times, entrepreneurs, especially if they’re on their first rodeo, the very first time they’re in the game, they confuse early majority customers with the early adopters. Early adopters are the customers that actually love you, and even though your product only works 60% of the time, they love you. They actually stand in line for three days so they can get one of these. The first time that Steve did this, and then all of a sudden– even though the iPhone 1 sucked, they had a lot of people that actually really bought into it. Really focusing on identifying that early adopter thing before you go to the investor. If an entrepreneur comes to me and says, ‘I’m going need to invest.’ If they come to me and actually talk to me about their startup, my questions are all around, ‘Okay, tell me who your early adopter is.’ You take a step back if there’s confusion between an early majority customer – the customer that actually wants your product to work 100% of the time – versus the early adopter.”
Kevin ended the talk by saying, “I thank you all for today. If you have questions for me, email is the best way to follow up. Check out one of our events as well. We have a bunch of them, and a good number of them are free. Love to have you involved in our community. Here’s to the challenges you guys are taking on. Thank you.”