Patrick O’Shaughnessey interviewed David Senra, the host of the outstanding Founders Podcast. I love David’s passion and storytelling. This interview was the best one I listened to this year. I listened to it several times and it was the first time I asked my son (now 9) to listen to an interview with me. It felt like one of those chats that could inspire an impressionable mind.
They discuss the premise, motivation, and lessons from David’s podcast. The premise of Founders is David studies famous entrepreneurs, scientists, artists or really any creatives that made a large impact and distills pitfalls and lessons from their stories. It doesn’t sound novel, except David’s personality and enthusiasm make you feel like you are hanging out listening to a friend tell a crazy about another friend (except that last “friend” is a historical figure)
The following notes are what stood out to me.
My son Zak also took notes (we made this an exercise because in 4th grade this year he’s learning to take notes). It was fascinating to discover where he wanted to pause the interview to jot something down that stood out to him. One of the reasons the episode might have been especially fun for him is we just finished watching The Men Who Made America series on the History Channel and Senra discusses many of the “captains of industry” or “robber barons” featured on the TV series.
Books as mentors
Senra came from a challenged family. He wasn’t only the first male to graduate HS, he was the first to not go to jail! When he studied Warren Buffet, he recalled that Buffet said, “One of the best things ever happened to me is I picked the right heroes.” I think that is extremely important. So that is the role that books play for me. I don’t have access to these people, I didn’t have mentors. I didn’t have anybody.
Senra’s career is the embodiment of what I described as The Engine Model
- There are four passions in my life, entrepreneurship, reading history and podcasts, so Founders sits in the middle of that.
- People say “Founders is podcast, Founders is business.” Yeah, but it’s an obsession first. It’s an obsession disguised as a podcast in a business.
- The reason I’m so obsessed with just studying people that got to the top of their profession is because one third of your life is going to be spent working. Half of your conscious life, half of the time you’re not asleep, is going to be spent working. For a certain personality type, to not excel at that, to not be really good at that means that life is not going to be an enjoyable experience for me. If I had to guess, which comes up a lot, I think there’s some kind of deep-rooted fight against a sense of inferiority that is underneath it.
- It’s interesting, this comes up a lot, there’s a line in the Francis Ford Coppola biography that I read, because I really love reading biographies of filmmakers, that’s the closest analogy to what I’m trying to do at podcasting. I read their words and I’m like, “That’s how I think about podcasting. That’s fascinating.” And there’s a line in the Francis Ford Coppola biography where, embedded in the story of the son is the story of the father. And his dad was this guy, he wanted to be a musician. He never made it, was super bitter. So he raised Francis Ford Coppola and they would just talk shit, his dad would just talk about anybody that was successful. And Francis is like, “Well, I don’t want to be the person criticizing the successful person, I want to be the successful person.”
- And I think a lot of that came from how we started the conversation, some people have to say, “Hey, I want to be like that guy.” Other people have, “I don’t want to be like that guy.” And those are equally powerful motivators.
[This reminds me of Ambition As An Anxiety Disorder]
Originality and ego
- To be an investor, to be an entrepreneur, it doesn’t work if you can’t trust your own judgment. So what kind of person who’s willing to take that risk? I know a ton of entrepreneurs that could even make more money, if they went to go work for Google or something like that. They’d rather make less money in their own business, than work for somebody else. But there is something bizarre that I don’t think you can explain. All you can do is notice it in other people, and then seek those people out like, “Oh, I’m not weird. There’s a ton of people just like me.”
- But Edwin Land said that there’s no such thing as group originality or group creativity. He goes, “I do believe wholeheartedly in the individual capacity for greatness.” And he says, “Originality are attributes of a single mind, not a group.”
- I actually don’t think that you build a great company without a giant ego. I don’t think that exists. Sam Walton has a good idea about that. He’s like, “Listen, your ego should use to drive you, but you should not be on public display.” And he’s like, “I hire people at Walmart with big egos, that know how to hide it, because there is some weird thing where it drives you.”
Confusing people liking the work for liking you
We talked a little bit about ego before we started recording, where it’s very prone to let your ego get the best of you. People admire you because the work. What happens is, you usually isolate yourself. You’ll work really hard. You’ll do a lot of work. That work draws the attention of other people because it adds value to their life. And then suddenly, over time, you confuse us. It’s like, “Oh, they don’t like the work. They like me. And then I could just show up without having to do the work and everything will be fine.”
[Reminds me of the Asimov line: Past glories are poor feeding]
On constant learning
The reason I say that Jordan’s biography changed my life is this idea of practice. How many people want to get to the NBA? A ton, millions. How many get? 400 maybe. How many people get to the Dream Team in Barcelona in ’92, which might be the greatest basketball team of all time? 15 people. A subset of a subset of a subset. Michael’s tired. He’d been playing nonstop, back-to-back. He’s like, “Man, I really want to take some time off. I don’t want to spend my summer for the Olympics, but I’m going to go.” He goes, “I want to see their practice habits. We’re all the best of the best, what am I doing that’s different than what they’re doing?” What happened was he goes, he watched the way they practiced compared to the way he practiced. The main theme of Jordan’s book is I believe in practice. I would rather miss a game than miss practice. That’s insane. He said something that gives me chills to this day. He goes, “I watched their practice habits,” and he goes, “they’re deceiving themself about what the game requires.”
Obsession and endurance
“If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess” – Edwin Land, Inventor
- On my phone, my lock screen, is a picture of Ernest Shackleton, the famous polar explorer, who looks like hell. He’s got a huge beard covered in ice. He looks like he’s about to die. And his family motto was, “By endurance, we conquer.” Which is why I told you earlier, I’m only interested in people who do things for a long time. Because at every single step, these people are presented with opportunities to quit and they don’t. So he’s like, I don’t have to be the smartest. I don’t have to be the best. I don’t have to be the talented. This is what I believe in myself. I don’t have to be the best. I don’t have be the smartest. I don’t to be the most talented…if you do something for three or four or five hours every day that most people don’t do, you’re going to develop a value for other people in the world, and that’s all a business is. The best description of a business I ever heard came from Richard Branson. He’s like, “All businesses, it’s an idea or service that make somebody else’s life better. If you make other people’s life better, you’ll capture that value in return.”
- I’m not a fan of moderation. I’m attracted to extremes. What do you want your life experience to be? Do you want to be exceptional? Do you want to push the boundaries of your capabilities? Do you want to walk around in a fog butting up against your potential but never actually realizing it? Then knock yourself out. Be moderate. I’m not interested in that. (Zak loved this!)
Understanding what you want — the soul of a business
I read this great book called Masters of Doom, which is obviously about the video game Doom. There’s John Romero and John Carmack, and John Carmack said something in what causes the rift of their partnership. He’s like, “Romero wants an empire. I just want to make great games.”
Senra relates to Carmack:
Founders is like a handmade product. And I was like, thank you because that’s what I think about. It’s a handmade product at scale because of the miracle of podcasting. I can do everything myself. I don’t have anybody helping me…role of the founder is the guardian of the company’s soul. There’s a cult around In-N-Out because the expression of the founder’s soul is manifest in the product. People have In-N-Out tattoos. Who are your entrepreneurial heroes? Everybody copies somebody, dude. You’re a human. I always have a maxim by saying in my podcast that the mind is a powerful place. What you feed it affects you in a powerful way.
The culture of a company as a reflection of the founder
The quote that comes to mind when I think of the founder as the guardian of the company’s soul is actually a quote about Steve Jobs. It’s in one of the books I read about him and he says he made and remade Apple in his own image. Apple is Steve Jobs with 10,000 lives. That gives me goosebumps because that’s exactly what a founder should be doing. It’s impossible to build a company, to spend all your life energy on it, and not have it imbibed with your personality, with your ethics. Everything that you think about your business and your life is going to seep into it. The good and the bad parts.
Patrick: It reminds me of a conversation I had with Tony Xu who started DoorDash. Tony’s a very mild-mannered, very humble, almost quiet person, which is why this quote from him stands out in my memory so strongly, which is I asked him something about culture. How do you think about constructing the culture of a company? His answer is basically, “I think a culture of a company should be like 80 or 90% just the personality of the founder. That’s it. It should be the extreme characteristics of the personality of the founder. Because if you try to make it generic, nothing stands out and there’s no progress and inertia dominates.“
Process as art (and marketing)
Patrick: It sounds like a common theme in all these stories, is process as art by revealing the process behind the product, because they’re so obsessed with that. That is a common marketing story. Do you see that over and over?
There’s no such thing as a business that is boring. Listen, it’s boring to you because you do it every day. If you explain to the customer the process, they’ll find it interesting. If there’s any part of your product that seems banal or ordinary to you, I promise you, no one is thinking about your business as much as you. The favorite business of mine in the world, you think about it less than probably five minutes a week. Nobody is thinking about it. You have shit in your brain that is interesting to customers, and then you could package that up and use that as marketing to get more customers.
The most recurring theme in Founders stories
- We may or may not have talked about the most important, and that’s the best maxim in the history of entrepreneurship was said by the founder of Four Seasons, that “excellence is the capacity to take pain.”…Anybody that’s ever done anything difficult, whether it’s a company, anything, knows the euphoria and terror. It’s the entrepreneurial emotional rollercoaster. The reason that I think it’s so important to talk about is because it is supposed to be hard. There’s not a book you’re going to pick up where the guy or woman’s like, “Hey, I had this idea. I started it. Everything went great,” and the end of the book. It doesn’t happen.
- James Dyson. It’s hard to find, but if you can get a copy, order it. He says, “Listen, it’s easy for me to celebrate my doggedness now. I made $300 million last year, but I’d be lying to you if there wasn’t times where I went inside my house, had my wife look at me in the face like I’m a failure and I’d cry myself to sleep, and I got up and did it again anyways.” [Dyson made over 5,000 prototypes in 14 years before landing on the bagless vacuum that made him a household name]
Because excellence is the capacity to take pain:
- I apply this to like, “I don’t really feel like working out right now. I don’t feel like doing cardio.” I don’t give a shit, David, how you feel. How you feel is irrelevant. That’s an idea I got from Henry Ford. You read his autobiography, he goes, “I feel sorry for these soft and flabby men that can only do great work when they feel like it.” Essentially, Henry Ford is saying “fuck your feelings.” Henry Ford’s point was a business exists to serve other people. There are going to be days when you get out of bed and you cannot wait to get to work, and that’s great. There are going to be days when you don’t want to go to work, and that is irrelevant because the business is not about you. The business does not exist for your pleasure. The business exists to serve other people. [Kris: this is why you should probably care about the customers]
The kindest thing anyone has ever done for David
The kindest thing anybody’s ever done for me happened a few decades before I was born. My grandfather on my dad’s side was living in Cuba. He was just 38 years old. He had a wife and a newborn baby when the Cuban Revolution happened and Castro took power. He didn’t understand the language, had no money and no education, and yet took the gigantic risk … and the complete correct choice at that time in his life … to flee Cuba to go to America, to give his family a better chance and a better opportunity. That one decision changed the entire trajectory of my life. None of my interests that I happen to be naturally born into, the passions that chose me, that I did not choose, would make a lick of difference if I grew up in Castro’s Cuba as opposed to America. As somebody that studies dead people for a living, it really resonates how our decisions not only affect our loved ones now and our family now and our friends now, but they reverberate through the generations. If you think about it not in the context of what’s going to happen in your life this year or next year, but how the decisions you’re making will affect people that aren’t even born yet, you’ll make your decisions differently.
My 9-year-old Son’s Takeaways
- David only had books as a kid. NOTHING ELSE
- David’s extended family is all EVIL
- “Many people can run a company but not many can create one”
- In every one of Rockefeller’s biographies, J. Gould always pops up.
- Jordan joined the Dream Team just to see how other countries practice.
- ” I’m not a fan of moderation. I’m attracted to extremes. What do you want your life experience to be? Do you want to be exceptional? Do you want to push the boundaries of your capabilities? Do you want to walk around in a fog butting up against your potential but never actually realizing it? Then knock yourself out. Be moderate. I’m not interested in that.”
- “Nobody can think clearer than Steve Jobs”
- “Hey, those are good ideas. Human nature doesn’t change. Let’s use them.”
- David reads his highlights 5 times.
- What I like about podcasting is it is completely permissionless.
- Dyson: “Listen, it’s easy for me to celebrate my doggedness now. I made $300 million last year, but I’d be lying to you if there wasn’t times where I went inside my house, had my wife look at me in the face like I’m a failure and I’d cry myself to sleep, and I got up and did it again anyways.” Excellence is the capacity to take pain. I apply this to like, “I don’t really feel like working out right now. I don’t feel like doing cardio.” I don’t give a shit, David, how you feel. How you feel is irrelevant. That’s an idea I got from Henry Ford. You read his autobiography, he goes, “I feel sorry for these soft and flabby men that can only do great work when they feel like it.” Essentially, Henry Ford is saying “fuck your feelings.” Henry Ford’s point was a business exists to serve other people. There are going to be days when you get out of bed and you cannot wait to get to work, and that’s great. There are going to be days when you don’t want to go to work, and that is irrelevant because the business is not about you. The business does not exist for your pleasure. The business exists to serve other people.
- In every episode, Patrick asks “what is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?” [I told Zak that fact, I guess he thought it was worth writing down]