12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012

Respect the physical world

By Philip Rosedale, Co-Founder, Coffee & Power (as told to Colleen Taylor)

Philip Rosedale is the CEO of Coffee and Power, a marketplace for small jobs. He is best known as the founder of Linden Labs, the Internet company that runs the virtual world Second Life. We wanted to know what his plans for his new company are and how he plans to stay focused in the fast-paced startup world.

I think entrepreneurs should think bigger. I think there’s too much being made out of this false dichotomy — you’re either trying to add value to the world, or you just want to make money. Mostly, of course, you want to make money. But try to make money in a way that is epic and awesome. To do that you have to think really, really really big, and way outside the box. But if you want to get funded, you have to be prepared to prove those ideas on an iterative, short-term basis.

As an entrepreneur who’s been in it for a long time, I’m surprised by how much the investment in big ideas has gone down. It’s easy to get a little funding, but it’s harder to get more. If you’re working on something really crazy like Coffee and Power, it’s really hard. Investors ask, “Who’s the customer, and what existing market are you servicing?” We said, “We don’t know, and there isn’t one.” For investors, there are so many great opportunities in companies that have answers to both those questions. But there’s so much greater opportunity to make a real impact in companies that don’t have answers to those questions.

The tools and development environments available today, and the state of the Internet itself is making everything so easy to do that we’re all gravitating to the easy — and for good reason. A lot of those companies will succeed. You could spend your whole life working on moving every desktop application or e-commerce site to mobile and do really well. Hardware manufacturers are coming out with new versions of devices that are so much more powerful than what came out just one year ago, and software engineers haven’t even come close to exploiting the earlier versions yet.

The rate of technological change is accelerating so rapidly that the belief that you’re in control is becoming more and more ridiculous. The idea of putting out a product first, seeing what people do with it and iterating based on that is talked about a lot in product development. I think we need to trust a more chaotic process in every aspect of our business — do it in marketing, in finance, in legal. There’s wisdom in letting go and trusting people. I think giving up control in ways that you find deeply uncomfortable as an entrepreneur, like giving up the concept of your brand, is a very powerful idea. The reality is you don’t have a choice — the world is about to do it for you.

Coffee and Power is, by its very nature, a people driven thing, and part of what we want to be is a platform for people to do work. An amazing thing about Second Life was that it got people to do different types of work. People would go into Second Life as an accountant and they’d come out as an architect. They’d explore this interest in Second Life and then literally go out and get their architecture degree in the real world. With Coffee and Power, we wanted to create an environment that gets people to do that same thing without having a 3D virtual world. Here, we created a physical space where people can meet people they haven’t met before and do jobs they haven’t done before. Now, 60 percent of the jobs on Coffee and Power are done virtually, but the face-to-face stuff that happens is really neat.

There’s a very real reason for doing things physically. For example, if you want someone to review your website’s user interface, sitting down with the designer makes that transaction more valuable. Because they can say, “What are you trying to build? Well, let me play with it. Oh, you’ve got to put this up there.” That’s something that has to happen face to face, and it couldn’t happen in Second Life. We’ve kind of come all the way, from pure virtual to physical.

One personal resolution is to keep meditating. I’ve been meditating for three and a half years, and it’s made a big difference. I practice every day, through a combo of sitting down, like the monks do, and also through a daily aerobic workout. We’re all going to have to learn to meditate. Technology is delivering more information per unit of time than we can handle. It’s becoming more and more obvious that we don’t multitask. We think we do, but the more we try to multitask, the less effectively we do everything.

Some people say we should shut off the machines completely, the kind of Luddite perspective. I think you should actually let that assault on your senses happen, and in fact embrace it, surrender to it. But then be very disciplined about taking time every day, or every few hours, to totally remove the stimulus, so that it has time to settle in your brain, like a snow globe.