Astro Teller: Getting started on a big idea

August 30, 2012
5 min

Astro Teller is currently Director of New Projects for Google, also an entrepreneur, scientist and author. He gave the following talk at the Singularity University in May 2012.

You can read the outline of the talk here.

Booom! You’ve been inspired. You’ve a big idea. Yeah? Now what?

What does it take to start something?

Astro Teller shares a few of his mantras that help him to make through challenging times.

Go big or go home. If you play it safe, if you won’t scare yourself, it is not going to work. The bigger you go, the more inspired you will be personally, and the more people you are able to convince to join you.

Swim out of your element. You won’t be smarter, work harder or be better funded than anybody else, choosing the safe known won’t give you specific advantages. By exploring new things, you can transplant your expertise to another domain, and with the new combinations, you are likely to achieve meaningful remake. Not knowing something is not a handicap or an excuse, it is a potential advantage.

Don’t fear to do things you are hopelessly unqualified in, and do them on purpose.

No Excuses. You don’t need victim mentality: the world owes you nothing, it is not likely it will bring you any help. You are right to be scared. On the other hand: you have nothing to lose.

No Jerks Policy. You are not hiring people, you are building an army: you are going to succeed because of their attitude and not because of their experience. Hiring, management and leadership matters from the beginning.

Fail fast if you can. Everybody’s idea is wrong in the beginning. The process and the team that evaluates the idea is way more important, than the original idea itself. The ultimate failure is if you are doing mediocre things that you are unable to stop or kill. You need to do this evaluation as fast as possible, and use early failure as an opportunity to get the next thing right.

It is a 6-gun shootout.

The entrepreneur is someone who goes into the 6-gun shootout without bullets and gun, comes out alive and shoots a couple of people.

Startups have massive disadvantages, and they must figure out their way as they go. It is easy if you have the bullets, but it is possible that there are companies already doing that business.

If you want to know what you are capable of, look backwards, not forwards. Imagine telling all the stuff you have done to your younger self: it will be black magic to them. You didn’t know about everything, you have figured out as you have went.

As you have never done this, of course you don’t know how to do this.

Trick yourself. A magic trick to play on ourselves: if you convince yourself that you can not give up, you will focus more on the implementation.

Leave nothing on the field. We usually grade on the outcome, but we can’t control most of the world, the outcome might be out of our reach. The definition of success: leaving nothing on the field. If you commit, you do all your best, you shall have no regrets even if you don’t succeed.

What prevents us from actually doing it?

In the second part, Astro Teller answered the questions and talked about further thoughts.

How do I find good mentors? Their time is hard to get, but you will get plenty if you do it right. Don’t go unprepared, commit full attention, do follow-ups. Being in a mentee mode doesn’t mean you need to do everything the mentor says.

How do I measure that my idea is good? Talk about it. Some people will like it, some just discard it. If too many like it: old news; if nobody likes it: strong warning sign. Sweet spot: if 3-5% of people are saying that you are not crazy, it might be a good idea to pursue.

How can we manage time?

Making 10 great decisions a week is more important than increasing the number of hours you work.

How do we hire people or co-founders? You don’t really know people until you were in the foxhole with them. It is not going to be easy, and in those moments, it is critical to have those good people around you. In the beginning, employ them as consultants, and see how they really work. See and check what they do in an artificially wrong situation.

Your people should be busy to understand how the world works. They need to be excited to learn from their mistakes, and shouldn’t be embarrassed about them.

When do we call failure? Adding features is not failing fast, choosing to remove one is much better way to evaluate something. Don’t make it a process or personal decision. Do A/B testing, experimenting.

Have a regular phase on which you change things, e.g. once a month. That makes it easy to do non-trivial changes on a regular basis.

Last updated: August 29, 2014
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