I used to think Mark was an idiot. He was a former managing director at CS First Boston and then we were partners at venture capital fund from 2000-2001. We were horrible, maybe the worst investors in history. I can’t blame it on market conditions (the Internet Bubble collapsed) although I often do. I’m going to stop doing that. I know now it’s when times are most difficult that the most opportunities exist. But I didn’t know that then. Instead I thought I was just simply a genius then. Which I wasn’t.
Why did I think Mark was an idiot? Columbia business school. Rose through the ranks of the top tech investment bank. Then raised us $125 million for our fund. That seems pretty smart.
I used to think he was an idiot because he asked lots of questions. Lots of stupid questions. I really thought he was the lowest IQ guy in every meeting we went to together and afterwards I would make fun of him. And in the meeting, in my head, I would make fun of him. “What an idiot,” I would think.
Now, ten years later, I copy his technique in almost every meeting.
A company might be presenting to us and he would hold up his hands, mid-sentence, and say, “whoah, whoah, whoah, hold up a second.” He’d gradually lower his hands while everyone started looking at him. Oh no, I’d be thinking. This meeting was boring enough as it is. What’s he going to do now?
“Please just back it up.” And he’d smile. He wasn’t aggressive. “For the heck of it, assume I am completely ignorant of every aspect of the business and that I have the knowledge of a four year old.” (This will be easy, I would be thinking). “Just start from the beginning and explain to me what you do the way you explain to a four year old.” And then he would listen.
Not a single word would go by that he didn’t understand. And if he didn’t understand something he’d back off and ask again. He was never rude. Always polite and eager to hear. But he would have to understand everything.
The company would laugh. They would be caught off guard. But they liked it. Mark would be smiling. They wouldn’t be insulted at all. He actually WANTED TO LISTEN to them. They were happy to keep talking and to break it down step by step.
They’d start explaining. Almost every time they used any jargon at all, or any abbreviation that might’ve been common to their industry, or anytime they skipped a step in the process of what they would do, he would stop them. Sometimes he’d draw on a napkin to try to understand the supply chain they were describing or the technology they were implementing and he’d show them the napkin and get them to agree whether that was what they were describing or not.
My problem? I would get bored. I would get annoyed. I’d want to leave the meeting. I’d stop listening. The result? I never understood what anyone did. I was never qualified to make an investment decision on the company. I wasted hundreds of hours of time. And ultimately, I proved to be a very poor investor. All because I was poor at listening.
I’d listen without understanding anything.
Yesterday I was in a meeting. I’m on the board of a company in the temp-staffing business. They provide temp staffing in almost every industry. I’m a big believer that we are moving towards an employee-less society and everyone will begin either outsourcing or hiring temps rather than deal with all the regulatory issues of hiring people.
I found myself stopping the meeting several times to understand exactly what they do, what industries they are in, what services they provide those industries and how that differed from how they publicly define themselves. And what services they provide the temp employees they bring on. Then someone was pitching some services to them in the meeting. I didn’t understand at all. I kept stopping the person to try and understand. In other words, I was the dumbest person in the room.
But then I learned what they did. And I understood what was being offered. I hope. I still have more questions. In other words, I was directly copying Mark. I always copy the people I learn the most from. Before I give a talk, for instance, I watch videos of either standup comedians or other people giving talks. And then often during the talk I might even directly use a joke used by the comedian or make a motion similar to what was successfully used in a video of Steve Jobs giving a talk or whatever. I would steal.
From Mark I learned to listen. I find in most meetings (or on dates) people sit around and nod their heads. They don’t say anything. People talk and use jargon. We all have our own dictionaries we bring to the meeting. The intersection of those dictionaries is basic English. But most of the meeting is conducted in language using the fringe words in each person’s dictionary.
A meeting is a Tower of Babel where nobody ends up understanding anyone else and eventually we’re all dispersed without any clue what is happening so another meeting is scheduled to understand further.
Nobody listens to each other. So then people don’t like each other. So then time is wasted. And money is lost. I don’t like wasting time in meetings anymore. So I don’t leave until I understand everything. The less you talk, the more things you will eventually be able to say.
The last time I saw Mark was in mid-2001. He was playing the Defender machine in my office. My favorite arcade game. The Internet was crashing. His stocks were crashing. He hated me because as he finally put it, “this Internet thing is a scam” and he blamed me for dragging him into the fund business. So he quit the fund business and went back into leverage finance at Bank of America. but this was his last day and he wanted to finish it off by playing Defender. His game was going horribly, just like everything else in his life seemed to be. Finally, he lost. He said, “Fuck!” and he hit the machine and cracked the screen, which I never got fixed.
He turned to me and said, “Have a nice life” and walked out of our office. He was tired of listening to my bullshit. I never saw him again.