As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Something I never heard from a CEO before, and other miscellany from SEED

37 Signals hosted the third annual SEED Conference last Friday in Chicago: it lived up to its commitment of being all about design, entrepreneurship and inspiration.

Some visual snippets:

  • Attendees. A groovy bunch of guys between the ages of 24 and 32, whose parents gave them solid but sensitive names like Brandon, Jason, Jonathan, Nathan and Adam. Dark hair (where were the Midwestern blonds?), interesting piercings, elaborate tattoos, sallow or pale complexions, designer/developer lumbar slumps, asymmetrical hairdos, dull colored T-shirts with ironic art, dark unstudied jeans, fashion sneakers that they would describe as, “Oh these? I don’t know where they came from. Someone gave them to me.”
  • Setting. Awe-inspiring, amazingly proportioned, acoustically perfect Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe. Crown Hall sounds like a gilt-covered Rococco confection to me. Think the opposite. Flat roof, Modernist glass curtain walls, terrazzo floors, all one big room, with a blur between inside and out. If you had to be inside all day on a sunny breezy day, this was the place.
  • Location. On the beautiful and serene–at least in summer– Illinois Institute of Technology campus, juxtaposed right next to some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago. After the conference, I strolled about in the early evening light, searching out a newish Rem Koolhaas building. I then casually tried to flag one of the passing cabs speeding through the campus, apparently having just dropped customers at the nearby White Sox game. They looked like they were trying to get out of Dodge, and I soon learned why. A black late model Ford car stopped, and a man named Pedro gave me his car service card and offered a lift. My big city alarm bells went off: “I sure as hell won’t be getting in this car”. But Pedro convinced me that he had only stopped because he was in from Indiana, had just dropped off some visiting swells for dinner, and he was shook up by his accidental tour of the nearby “Night of the Zombies” neighborhood. He was wondering what a nice looking girl like me was doing in a place like this. (He didn’t really say that, I just learned it later.) Pedro got on his radio to his dispatcher and asked if he could take me to my destination (Second City), saying, “She’s a nice lady, she has money, and I really think she ought to get out of this neighborhood.” So we negotiated price, and I was off, helping Pedro spot Polish sausage joints along the way (he needed dinner, and he craved Polish). I made it to Second City with time to spare, and gratitude to nice guy Pedro.

The speakers were all founders of design firms or web based ventures. The only unifying theme of their talks was an emphasis on “backing into and stumbling on” their businesses. A little too much so, for my taste. Somebody, somewhere had to have an idea–not just an accident.

The wild man of wine, Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV was the exception. His goal in life is to buy the New York Jets and he walked away from his family’s $40m wine retail business to become the Internet God of Wine. Gary Vee admitted that he has an extreme vision of becoming a personal brand in his area of passion, and that his burgeoning success requires sheer hard work, relentless focus, and endless patience. He’s well on his way, having secured representation by CA, and a recent avalanche of press. Plus 80,000 daily viewers of his video casts.

Some speaker snippets:

  • Jason Fried of 37Signals, on pricing Basecamp and their other products: “Oh mainly it is just gut. We think, would I pay that? Is this a natural price point? Is it less than the value we are delivering?”
  • Jim Coudal, designer, when asked “What’s your biggest failure?” “I always answer, we’re working on it right now.”
  • Jeffrey Kalmikoff, CCO of t-shirt company Threadless, when discussing how they assess opportunities and try to stay true to their community. “We were getting a lot of pressure to do Totebags. People kept pointing out how brilliant this would be. Same manufacturing processes, same designs, high margins. A sure bet. But the problem is, we just hate Totebags. Can’t stand them. Why does the world need more Totebags? So we didn’t do it because we didn’t think it would be fun. And it would have been a lot of work and if it failed it would be all the worse because it wouldn’t have been any fun. Did I mention that I hate Totebags?”
  • Jake Nikell, Founder of Threadless, in deconstructing the success of the company. He said it had nothing to do with thinking up a business and going for it. “I hate business. But I love websites, design, online community, motivating people, and learning new things. That’s what I do. I do what I love. I don’t think of it as business.” Sounds disingenuous, but he came across as meaning exactly what he said.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk, of Wine Library TV, when talking about his obsession with answering all his community emails, “I even take the lap top in the bathroom. I love it. I must have answered 1 million emails while pooping. The battery on the computer gets hot, though.”

Pretty sure I’ll never hear that answer from a CEO again. That’s exactly why Gary will succeed; he’s 100% himself all the time.

4 Responses to “Something I never heard from a CEO before, and other miscellany from SEED”

  1. julespieri

    I do too Gary. And I would like to meet the woman you described as a “camel.” She must be something else.

  2. My Three Life Goals | Jules Pieri

    […] I saw a post on LinkedIn today that made me happy. In the earliest starvation days of Grommet I bought a plane ticket to go to Chicago and hear Gary Vanynerchuk speak. I knew he was a visionary.  Ten+  years later, seeing my name […]


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