Stanford alumni: Passion and perseverance key to entrepreneurial success

Panelists offered a frank discussion of the highs and lows of start-up life at the "Celebrating Founders" symposium.

Peaks and troughs. Successes and missteps. Whether you’re providing movies or fighting poverty, experiencing challenging and rewarding times is part of being an entrepreneur, and the key to getting through it all is passion and perseverance.

That was the common thread shared by some of Stanford’s brightest entrepreneurial alumni when they spoke Feb. 24 at the university’s “Celebrating Founders” symposium. The event was the second in a series of symposia marking Stanford’s 125th year.

The featured panelists represented both for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations: Reed Hastings, MS ’88, co-founder and CEO of Netflix; Jessica Jackley, MBA ’07, co-founder of Kiva; Mike Krieger, BS ’08, MS ’09, co-founder of Instagram; Tristan Walker, MBA ’10, founder of Walker & Co.; and Kiah Williams, BS ’07, MA ’07, co-founder of SIRUM.

Their innovative careers fall along a tradition dating back to Jane and Leland Stanford, the university’s founders. It is estimated that members of the Stanford community have founded more than 39,000 companies and nonprofit organizations since the 1930s, according to Stanford President John Hennessy, who delivered the symposium’s opening remarks.

“I’m often asked, ‘What does Stanford do to promote innovation?'” Hennessy said. “I tell them, ‘You create an environment where creativity flourishes, where innovation can happen and you create an incubator, a place that inspires.'”

Insights and visions

The frank discussion by the alumni panel of young and veteran entrepreneurs was the latest example. Between the personal tales of their early start-up days – of brainstorming over greasy burritos, commiserating with co-founders over drinks or trekking between venture capitalist firms while being eight-and-a-half months pregnant – the panelists offered insights on how they keep themselves or their businesses on track.

Mike Krieger, Jessica Jackley, Reed Hastings

(Left to right:) Panelists Mike Krieger, Jessica Jackley and Reed Hastings offered personal tales of start-up days and insights on how they keep themselves and their businesses on track. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“I take that rock-bottom moment and ideally turn it into an ascent,” said Walker, whose company makes health and beauty products for people of color.

“Have a strong vision to pull you forward to those things you want to create in the world,” said Jackley, who started Kiva, the world’s first peer-to-peer microlending website, in 2005. “Get good at living entrepreneurially.”

“Don’t do stuff that you don’t care about, even if it’ll look good on your resume,” said Williams, who founded SIRUM to develop a platform that redistributes unused, unexpired drugs to safety-net clinics.

Krieger, who serves as the chief technology officer of the global photo-sharing site Instagram, one of Silicon Valley’s iconic success stories, said entrepreneurs cannot be afraid of what they don’t know.

“I found myself growing the most in situations where I surprised myself,” he said.

And Hastings, a serial entrepreneur who started Netflix in 1997 as a DVD rental company and then turned it into a global video streaming service, offered this tip: “You have to be thoughtful about what avenues you explore. Tight judgment is a key thing.”

Leadership is critical

Ron Johnson, BA ’80, a member of the Stanford Board of Trustees who was the former chief of Apple’s retail division and is currently the founder of a personal commerce platform, Enjoy, moderated the conversation. Johnson and audience members asked the panelists tough questions about their motivations and overarching strategies, and how they know when to pivot or quit.

“One thing I’ve learned about being a founder CEO is that this job is a lot more unglamorous than glamorous,” said Walker, who was the newest entrepreneur on the panel, having launched his first product in 2014. “There are great peaks, but there are a lot of troughs.”

Hastings said the founder’s paranoid mentality about success still exists now for him, nearly two decades into the Netflix business. The challenges are just different.

His leadership strategy?

“I remind people all the time – we’re really good compared to five years ago but we really suck compared to what we will be five years from now,” Hastings said. “You have to lead people to see and believe how much better we can be.”

Creating and sticking to a list of what not to do is equally as important as what you plan to do, he said.

Krieger said he and his co-founder at Instagram were asked to do a three-year roadmap a few years ago, but he doubts – if he could find the plan – that few of the items ever came to fruition.

Changes happen quickly, so “keep the planning short, but the strategy really evergreen,” Krieger said. “If there’s a storm, you have to know how to steer.”

Missteps are bound to happen

Kiva has facilitated more than $800 million in microloans to those in need since its founding, but Jackley shared how she had to once make a tough decision along the way, ending a separate 3-year-old venture that had financial backers. It was a crowdfunding initiative for investment capital that was too early for its time, she explained.

Williams said the legal hurdles in the health care field are so tremendous that she second-guesses at times if her organization would be better off providing blankets instead of medications.

But what continually drives her is her passion to make a difference and help those who cannot afford medications.

“Celebrating Founders” was just one of many events planned for 2016 by the Stanford 125 initiative and other campus entities. The yearlong celebration will culminate in October, when the university officially turns 125. The initiative’s website has a calendar of future events.