Mark Randolph’s Commencement Address
Thank you, David. And good morning to our esteemed faculty and staff; proud parents; devoted friends and families …
Congratulations to all of you, but especially to the Hamilton graduating classes of 2020.
It’s great being back, isn’t it?
This is an especially poignant moment for me. You see, the last time I crossed this stage was 41 years ago – and I was really hungover. This is soooo much better.
But I’m a different man now. I’ve learned a lot ...and I’m still learning. In fact, my son gave me some advice a few months ago that has proven to be remarkably useful. I rely on it now, every time I take on something new or challenging. And it is such a simple message: Pix or it didn’t happen.
Today you are back on campus, but it’s been two years, and I know you’ve moved on with your lives. Some of you are working on higher degrees. Many of you have entered the business world. And my friends at Netflix have told me that you – right there – third row - have spent the last two years bingeing all 18 seasons of Gray’s Anatomy. (Hey, no judgement from me).
But now that you’re all out in the real world, I’m wondering how many of you have encountered that particularly hellish form of meeting called the “Brainstorming Session”.
Well, if you haven’t had the pleasure yet, let me tell you how it goes. You gather in a small room. There are usually bad snacks. And then the moderator helpfully begins, “let’s lay down a few ground rules? First, There’s no such thing as a bad idea”.
Well, I call bullshit.
There are plenty of bad ideas.
And I’ll go out on a limb here and tell you that based on my four decades as an entrepreneur, there’s no such thing as a good idea.
Every idea is flawed – and if you think you have a good idea? Well, that’s just because you haven’t yet figured out why it’s bad.
But that’s OK. Because every amazing thing that’s changed the world – whether it’s penicillin, the steam engine, sliced bread, and yes, even TikTok, started out as a bad idea.
When I told my wife the idea that eventually became Netflix? She thought it was the stupidest idea she had ever heard.
But we’ve all had that experience, haven’t we?
You wake up one morning with an amazing idea, and you immediately tell your friends. Or you rush to work to tell your boss. Or call home to tell your parents. And they all tell you the same thing: “that will never work”.
And tragically, for most people it ends there.
But it doesn’t have to.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had a hand in starting 7 companies. I’ve mentored hundreds of other early-stage entrepreneurs, worked with scores of startups, and heard countless pitches. I’m deeply familiar with the strategies and tactics that Silicon Valley uses to convert crazy ideas into real businesses.
But I’ve come to realize that these strategies and tactics are the exact same ones that anyone can use to make their dreams come true.
So, if you have an idea... If you have a dream . . . I would love to share with you three concrete steps that you can take to turn your ideas into realities.
And the first step is simple. You just need to start.
Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, once said, “Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes the difference.
It’s so true. Success has almost nothing to do with how good your ideas are. As they say, “ideas are a dime a dozen”. Instead, the likelihood of success is directly proportional to how many of those ideas you actually try.
And the only way to do that is to stop thinking and start doing. You have to build something, test something, try something, make something. You’re going to learn more in 10 minutes of doing it than you will in 10 months of “thinking about it”. The important thing is just to do it, not to do it perfectly.
By way of example, I love languages, and I’m proud to say that I suck in 6 different languages. I suck in Latin, I suck in Russian, I suck in French, I suck in Italian, I suck in Spanish, and I suck in English. Well, actually, I’m pretty good in English.
But the point is, that in the process of learning all those languages, I learned something even more important than the languages themselves.
I figured out that the key to learning a language was not studying vocabulary, learning how to conjugate verbs, and memorizing the rules of grammar. No, the key to learning a language is having the courage to be a grown-ass man, walk into a coffee shop in a different country, go up to the counter, open your mouth, and say something that sounds like you’re 4 years old. The key is to be bold instead of perfect.
And once you’ve screwed up the courage to try your idea? And it doesn’t work? Well then you have to be willing to try something else. Because the second step toward making your dreams come true is to never fall in love with your ideas.
Almost exactly 40 years ago, back when I was your age and living on this very campus, a friend of mine was a sculptor.
She was taking a J-Term class with some famous visiting artist, the kind of guy who walks around in paint-spattered jeans and a beret, and every other day, he would come to her studio to critique her work.
At the time, she was making these giant fractals out of clay. Each one was two or three feet tall. They took her weeks to finish.
The first time the visiting artist came to my friend’s studio, she had just started a new one. In maybe six or seven hours of work she had basically just done the stalk.
“This is alright,” he said, “I like where you’re headed with this.”
Then he put his hand on top of the piece and pressed the whole thing into a hockey puck.
“Now do it again”.
My friend was furious. She had spent all day on that work! But he just shrugged.
“If you want to spend the entire semester on a single idea, be my guest,” he said. “But you already know where that one was going. If it was good, then you’ve got a good head start on the direction you’ll go tomorrow. If it was bad, then you’ll try another direction.
This is good advice for anyone, because if you fall in love with your idea, it will only break your heart! You’ll cradle that precious thing in your arms, dreaming that you’re holding a future valedictorian or Heisman trophy winner, but I promise you... it’s just as likely to end up doing crack behind the 7-11.
But fall in love with a problem... it will never abandon you. And the more you get to know it, the richer, deeper, and more meaningful that relationship will become.
Looking back - It’s not like I was particularly interested in movies, or dog food, or shampoo, or vitamins, or any of the other business ideas I pitched to my business partner Reed Hastings back in 1997. The common denominator was that these were all things begging to be done differently. They came from me seeing the world as an imperfect place and wanting to fix it. It was the challenge of solving an interesting problem.
The economist John Maynard Keynes once purchased a collection of Isaac Newton’s original papers at auction. Most of them had never been seen before. Now Newton is arguably one of the smartest men to have ever walked the earth, but as Keynes read page after page, he was amazed to discover that much of Newton’s work was devoted to alchemy, and sorcery, and trying to find a potion for eternal life. Evidently Newton devoted years of his life to magic.
But it makes you wonder doesn’t it... Was Newton a genius despite believing in magic? Or was being curious about things that seemed impossible part of what made him so successful?
OK: Get started. Don’t Fall in Love with your ideas. Oh... but I said three things, didn’t I. And the third one is a little harder.
You see, I set it up that it would be your friends, your boss, and your parents who would be saying “that will never work.” But of course, there will be another voice – an even more persuasive one – that you’re going to have to learn to ignore. And that’s your own.
I can’t. I’m scared. I don’t want to fail...
It’s OK. None of us want to be unsuccessful. We don’t want to be embarrassed. It’s scary to start down a path when you don’t where it’s going to lead.
So you need to take the most powerful step of all: You need to believe.
Want to know the secret to my success? Well, that’s it. I’m an optimist. Whether it was Netflix, or any of my 7 startups, even when things were at their darkest and most uncertain, I always believed.
I do a fair amount of angel investing, and I’ll let you in on a little secret - I’m a terrible angel investor.
And I shouldn’t be. I have great deal flow. I have the experience to recognize whether the team is strong, the tech is good, whether they are adequately capitalized.
But I have a character flaw. I’ll sit there listening to the pitch, shaking my head, thinking this idea is doomed, but before I know it, I’ve leapt up, grabbed a marker and I’m up at the white board... “This! This is how we can make it work”.
My character flaw is that I like every idea that I hear.
But I’ve learned that this Optimism is an incredibly powerful force. Because you’re going to hear versions of “that will never work” hundreds of times in your life:
- You’re underqualified
- You’re too young
- You don’t have the experience
- You lack the skills
But you know what I say to that? So what!
And I’ll share a secret with you. When you do wake up one morning with that amazing idea, and you rush to tell your friends. Or hurry in to work to tell your boss. Or call home to tell your parents. And they all tell you “That will never work”? Well, the reality is that most of the time they are going to be right.
But not always... and that crazy idea that everyone says will never work... well, I’m living proof... sometimes it does.
OK . . .you’ve got some hat-throwing to get to . . . but before I wrap this up, this wouldn’t be advice from the Netflix guy if I didn’t give you the most Netflix advice of all: Chill
I didn’t start working in tech until I was 32. I didn’t even move to California until I was 30. In college I was a geology major, with a 2.7 GPA. I failed one of my English lit courses and got two Ds in Economics: Micro and Macro. And after graduating I worked in a ski shop in Memphis, I managed a bar in Colorado, I was the worst realtor in the state of New York, and I was a gofer for the CEO of a sheet music company.
Oh yeah... and then I started 7 companies.
Whatever it is you want to do, you’ve got time. Don’t worry if you don’t yet know what you want to do with your life. Don’t worry about your career following a straight line. I promise: the happiest, most successful people I know do what they do because they followed a passion, not because they had a plan. The best journeys rarely proceed linearly. Find something that strikes your interest. And don’t be afraid to start down a path just because you don’t know where it will lead.
You and I are not that different: Like you, I spent four years exploring big ideas, reading great books, taking amazing classes.
Like you, I know what it is like to be inspired by a professor, to be challenged by a peer.
And like you, I know what it’s like to have big Ideas that you hope are going to change the world.
But I also know what it’s like when you get that first rejection letter. Or that dream job turns out to be not quite so dreamy. Or when you learn that 3 people sharing a one-bedroom 5th floor walk-up isn’t quite as fun as you expected.
And that’s the moment when that quiet voice wakes you in middle of the night to whisper. . . “That Will Never Work.” and your great Idea? Poof.
But remember: it’s impossible to know if it’s a good idea without trying it,
Remember: don’t fall in love with the idea, fall in love with the problem,
Remember: the most powerful force in the world is belief. You’ve got this.
And most importantly, remember: you’ve got time. Explore. Experiment. Take chances.
So the next time you have an amazing idea, I want you to try something a little different. I want you to get out of the shower, dry off and do something about it. I want you to stop thinking and start doing. I want you to make something. Build something. Sell something. Test something.
And when you tell your friends... Or your boss… Or your parents? And they all tell you “That will never work”?
Well, you can always call me... because you know, I love every idea that I hear.
Thanks for your time today. And best of luck with everything. And never stop believing.