I recently ran a mini-Lab at the Harvard Innovation Lab called Which Comes First, the Team or the Idea? In it, we explored a number of different companies to see how they were actually founded (team first or idea/need first?) and then used a number of social technologies to identify both. I first thought of crafting this question into a Lab after a conversation I had a few months ago with Riley Crane, co-founder of the hot new startup Talk To, post-Doc at the MIT Media Lab and winner of DARPA’s red balloon challenge. He and his co-founder, Stuart Levinson, intentionally got together regularly over a year to identify “a big idea” that they’d be excited enough by to drop everything and make it happen.
Q: I was impressed by the way you and your co-founder, Stuart Levinson, actively spent intentional time together over the course of a year identifying the kind of start-up you wanted to build together. Tell us more about that process.
A. It began with a coffee and a shared love for Italy. After that we began spending 1 or 2 days a week brainstorming and discussing ideas that we could build into a company. The premise for each meeting was always clear: to chase after big ideas. We’d spend hours discussing and refining (and often destroying) ideas and I remember it being one of the most creative periods of my life.
Q: Many first-time entrepreneurs struggle with whether to have an idea first or to build a team first. What’s your advice, and what have you learned?
A. I don’t think there is a good answer to this question. For us it was always a very organic process, driven by our passion to build something big…not necessarily knowing what that was from the start. Early on we brought in another team member to help us challenge our ideas as they were developing, and I think that was the right thing to do. It’s very easy to get caught up in your own ideas and fall in love with them, and it’s very important to challenge each assumption and iterate like mad until you hit something worth throwing all of your energy behind. We live in a world rich with ideas and poor in execution of those ideas. So once you refine your idea and think you are onto something big, it’s important to bring in the right people to help you build that vision.
Q: How has winning DARPA’s Red Balloon contest affected the way you think about your work?
A. I arrived at MIT focused on trying to understand how to shape behavior in social systems. For me, winning the challenge helped broaden my focus and think about solving bigger problems.
Q: The iPhone4S’s Siri technology is said to have come out of DARPA. What other things do they do around there?
A. DARPA is responsible for enabling many of the technologies that each one of us uses everyday. Their most notable creation is the internet, however they have been directly involved in the development of GPS, driverless vehicles, “Big Dog”, Roomba (the robot vacuum cleaner) and much more. It’s a department of “mad scientists” united by the mantra of creating technological disruption, and it attracts some of the most talented and visionary individuals.
Q: You and your team just launched TalkTo. What’s the most challenging part of the launch phase for your team? For you personally?
A. The most challenging part of the launch phase is juggling so many things at once. A startup is like a well-oiled machine and each of the pieces need to fire at just the right time or nothing works.
Q: TalkTo made it to the finalist round of TechCrunch. What did you learn about presenting an idea in 5 minutes? What advice do you have to other groups as they smooth out their pitches?
A. In the famous words of Mark Twain: “If I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter.” Presenting years of work in 5 minutes presents enormous challenges and forces you to find the core and essence of your work. It is one of the best experiences that a startup can go through to find their soul.
Q: What companies do you admire most, and why?
A. I’ve always been a huge fan of Google because of the power and simplicity that goes into all of their products. They try a lot of things, and most of them fail, but I love that they try. They are also driven by big ideas and I think more than any other company, they want to change the world and make it a better place.
Q: What are the other three ideas that were on the table as a start-up that you didn’t end up choosing? (Share the love, man).
A. It’s hard to answer this because it didn’t really begin like that. There was never a moment where we thought: “Okay, we’ve got these three ideas and let’s see which one is the best”. We started from a place of wanting to build something to tap into the power of the crowd. This led us to think a lot about disasters and missing children — we actually wanted to reinvent the Amber Alert system.
Q: What do you see as the biggest perils for the tech + entrepreneurial community moving forward?
A. I think the biggest peril right now is that there is a lot of talent that is chasing incremental ideas, and there are very few disruptive ideas that are being built. I’m not the first one to say this, but I think there is an environment in which the best minds are being wasted building another social network add-on, and that’s not sustainable.
Q: What’s the best idea you’ve heard about in the past few months?
A. Hands down it’s Square’s new “Card Case” product that lets you pay with your name. If they can get critical mass they will revolutionize the payment industry.
Q: How have you and your team built vision?
A. I don’t think that we’ve “built vision” as much as we’ve championed it. The team we’ve hired is composed entirely of talented engineers that have their own vision, and we try to create an environment where everyone is equal. At TalkTo, ideas are king and vision rules the day.