Google X head Astro Teller recalls when he was a young entrepreneur looking to establish a board of directors for his second business.
Teller managed to secure an “avuncular” guy “who’s since become a good friend and mentor, but he can also be very bloody-minded about business”.
“He had built some of the largest companies in the world so I was a little bit scared of him at first,” Teller said during a presentation at the Sydney co-working space Fishburners.
Teller would go to the director’s offices about once a month. On one occasion, Teller recalls, he “whined at him for kind of a long time about how hard it was and why it was so unfair, this and that.”
“And he let me wear myself out and once I had finished he said, ‘Do you know you how become experienced, Astro?’ and I said, ‘No, Joe, how do you become experienced?
“And he said, ‘You have experiences’. And I thought that was just a smackdown and I probably deserved the smackdown, but I’ve come to see that it was a lot more than that.”
It’s a simple but effective ethos that Teller uses at Google X – the web giant’s famed offshoot famed for taking on crazy ideas and running with them.
It calls these projects moonshots and some of them include the Loon balloon internet network, self-driving cars and the Google Glass wearable.
Like other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Teller advocates the way to get experience is to get product out into the market quickly and to learn from the mistakes you make.
He bases this on an assumption that “whenever you’re working on something, it’s probably wrong.”
“There’s probably truth in there somewhere but the way you’ve currently conceived of it is not right yet,” he said.
“I’m telling you that because almost everything I’ve ever thought of and everything anyone I’ve ever talked to has ever thought of ends up in that same category.”
There was nothing inherently wrong with that, but the trick is in how you as an entrepreneur deal with it.
“If you want to lose just keep your head down , stay in a conference room that has a whiteboard, order a lot of pizza and believe that you can simulate the world well enough that if you just kind of navel gaze for long enough your design will eventually reach perfection,” he said.
“If you want to win, make it bad, make it quickly and get out into the world. It won’t work, but you will learn something interesting when it doesn’t work. That’s the secret - go and have experiences.”
One of the questions Teller is most asked is how long you should work on a project before pushing it out into the world.
“People at X often say, ‘So you don’t want us to work on it for five years and then take it out into the world but you can’t want us to work on it for five minutes and then take it out into the world because then it just won’t work at all and we won’t learn anything from that’.
“’How long do you want me to work on it, Astro?”
Teller’s answer is always the same.
“Imagine starting at five years and compressing the time frame – it’s four years, three years – and every time you imagine compressing the time frame that we’re going to build something before we take it out and test it, imagine the corners you’re going to have to cut.
“Eventually if we squeeze this down tight enough you’re going to become confident it’s now squeezed so tightly and so full of hacks and bandaids that the only thing we’re going to learn is that it’s full of hacks and bandaids.
“When you get to that point, add 20 percent back on and take it out into the world. That’s how long you should spend on it.”
Teller said that even with that 20 percent buffer, the things you think you might learn are probably unlikely to eventuate.
“The world’s going to surprise you,” he said.
“The thing you were positive would break first, if you’re lucky has a 20 percent chance of being the thing that actually breaks first.
“Our experience at X over and over again has been that’s how to learn.”