Video Of The Week: Jeff Lawson on Having Conviction

I came across this talk by Jeff Lawson, Founder/CEO of our portfolio company Twilio. It is about having conviction and not relying completely on things like A/B testing to make decisions. It’s very good (and only 18 mins long).


Comments (Archived):

  1. reggiedog

    Comment of the Week (given our Fake News phenomenon):”If you did nothing but A/B testing, every site would turn into a porn site.”

    1. fredwilson

      Yeah. That’s good. Just look at Outbrain and Taboola ads

    2. jason wright

      The Human OS is hard to hack, which is a good thing.

      1. reggiedog

        I think if anything the last few years have taught us – particularly this election – is that some people have perfected hacking the human OS.Here’s one master at it,

        1. jason wright

          Organised religion, central banks, mass media, and the clock is ticking on all three.

  2. JimHirshfield

    Great talk!

  3. Twain Twain

    Thanks for sharing, great talk. What comes across is how conviction is about our HEARTs.Jeff talks about how innovation is not about being able to write code (which obviously he can do better than most) or chasing a business opportunity. It’s about FEELING enough passion about someone else’s problems that you as a founder relate to those problems in the same way as your customer. He wasn’t an extreme sports guy, so he couldn’t feel the passion of those skateboarder kids.The problem with A/B testing is the same problem with most of technology: the reduction of things to binary, quantitative states that completely abstract away our human QUALITIES and that assumes behavior is the sum of our intelligence and internal processes. ( 0 = swipe something left, 1 = swipe it right; frequency count those inputs and make Bell curves and prediction models of that data).Founders need to remember two simple tenets:(1.) We have to invent+build technologies that solve human needs in human ways.(2.) What we make has to touch the hearts of us, our teams and our users as much as it solves the problems.Conviction is a form of intelligent intuition. We feel something needs solving. We apply some logical processes to solve it. We continuously loop and test our assumptions, to gauge whether it FEELS like it’s going in the right directions where the end objectives are open and unknown.A/B testing can’t necessarily help us with that because the [0,1] data sets and algorithms can’t feel what our users and we feel.And the machines operate according to defined objective, quantitative functions (e.g. optimizing ROI) whereas humans work by (often) mathematically undefinable reasons.No one’s ever come up with the definitive mathematical proof of love or what factors drive altruism, after all. And A/B testing certainly can’t do that!In my case, I have a conviction that we can and should build AI that’s much more like how we think and much more representative of our human experiences.If that means re-frameworking binary Cartesian logic and Bayesian probability, inherited from C17th and C18th thinking that provide us with the wrong models of the mind and limit us to looping biases in AI and being unable to program the machines to understand our language and our values, then so be it — we have to have the conviction to change those flawed frameworks.(1.) We have to invent+build technologies that solve human needs in human ways. https://uploads.disquscdn.c

  4. William Mougayar

    Exactly. A/B testing is for optimizing something, not deciding your strategy.I liked that he went to work for Amazon so he can learn big company things for when he needed them.”Investors don’t matter. Customers matter.” +10

    1. pointsnfigures

      Bingo. You start by finding a problem and then building a solution to solve it. You don’t A/B test the validity of the problem or the initial solution.

    2. PhilipSugar

      You beat me to the punch line: A/B testing is about short term. Conviction is about long term. You have to have conviction to say if I pursue this strategy over the long term it will work. I want to have the highest quality product, or the lowest cost product. That takes conviction (I believe you can only be a 5 at something if you are willing to be a 1 at something else) That takes conviction.I don’t agree that investors don’t matter. They matter but not when it comes to making your customers happy. So if that is what he means yes, they don’t matter. But if it comes to getting the capital you need they matter a ton.

      1. William Mougayar

        Agreed on both counts. Of course, the 2nd statement needs that qualifier, and I was going to add it ;)When are you coming to Toronto!

    3. Salt Shaker

      Concept or strat testing can be effective as long as there are significant and perceptible differences in what is being measured. If the concepts are marginally nuanced from one another, then those subtleties can be difficult, if not impossible, to gauge and measure. That said, there’s way too much data dependency in biz today. Not everything can be quantified. Too much reliance on data can restrict bold ideas, human insights, taste and judgment. Qualitative factors have become far too irrelevant.Biz should be aided by data, and not obsessed with its use. OTT data dependency stifles creativity.

    4. cavepainting

      Starting a company is more like drawing a painting or constructing a sculpture. It is clearly inspired more from the heart than the head.If it is all based on data, AI driven machines would do the jobs of investors and entrepreneurs and they would indeed be able to do them better. It is not so because ultimately this is a very human endeavor with all its frailties. And also its unique inspirations.If you do not like the customer and his problem, it is very hard to build a company to solve it.

      1. Twain Twain

        There are few things more creative than starting a company.And how much the customers and investors value the startup is also about heART.

  5. Richard

    He hit points rarely discussed. Walking away from a successful venture, pre-cashout bit knowing it will likely make $ going forward, is one heck of an admirable trait!!

  6. jason wright

    Yes, never start a ‘business’. Too many people are already at that.Start a movement.

  7. LE

    So who hired the CMO that wanted focus groups? The investors presumably? With no input from the founders?

  8. LE

    This is a great video and Jeff is totally funny and a great speaker. It’s sad that the audio is such that you can’t hear the audience laughing at some of his commentary. Screwup on the part of the people who put this together.

    1. cavepainting

      Yes, that was jarring to me as well, especially for the funnier lines when you are expecting the audience response.

  9. LE

    Actually I think that they could have gotten through the investor meetings if they had simply provided evidence as to why the investor was wrong in thinking that they couldn’t sell to developers. Maybe on the first few meetings this wouldn’t have been obvious (although being prepared to sell and counter should always be job #1) however after apparently getting rejected with the same retort you need to come prepared to counter the obstacles that are presented, to convince someone that you are selling to, whether an investor or a mom, why they should consider whatever it is you are selling.

  10. LE

    Great video. But I kind of get the idea that Jeff’s lack of conviction with Stub Hub and the Extreme Sports business had more to do with his perceived non founding involvement with that (as CTO of stubhub for example) as much as anything. And I don’t think you can put all or even most entrepreneurs in the same basket of “must be convicted about what you do”. Conviction often follows success when the nub of an idea appears to be working.And obviously something like writing code in the store where there are annoying noises (I feel the pain of this) can be easily solved (find a quieter place). [1] Now there is no doubt that the need for good code in a retail store would seem to be less than it would in a true software business but that’s another story. The fact is if something works, and if you feel you are in control, it just sucks you in and you begin to feel attached and like it as a result. I passed on doing photography after college which I loved to do (and still did until fairly recently) because it didn’t seem challenging enough to me so I tried something that I had honestly no clue about or experience with and had a load of fun as soon as the money started to come in (in particular the day before opening). It became fun and I became convicted because it worked. And don’t kid yourself making money is what drives many people in business and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s fun to make money and saying it’s not important is probably like saying that having an audience for a touring musician is not important or winning games is not important for a sports team. The other things matter of course and some things are more fun inherently to some people but money (as was said in Bogey Nights) is ‘plays an important part of the process’.[1] And yes those types bother me as well. But I’d easily get over it and learn to love it if it provided other benefits to me. To that end do you think politicians like marching in boring parades? They do because to them it represents voters which they need. So they have made a connection between what some people would see as a negative (giving up a nice Saturday) and something that is of greater value to them….Can’t find the clip I wanted but here is one from Boogie Nights showing two sides of conviction.

  11. howardlindzon

    truth….conviction and initiative are very powerful

  12. Adam Sher

    Jeff uses conviction in two ways, one to describe his personal connection with what he makes and the other to define how he should develop the product. If you are solving a problem for which you feel personally invested (e.g. Twilio) then your conviction about product development is paramount.His first story about the class notes involved faltering intrinsic motivation, which is what buoys founders through the “trough of despair,” yada yada. As Fred has said, he has strong convictions that are loosely held but I bet he has high intrinsic motivation.Jeff’s motivation enabled him to put forth the effort to raise the $30k of family money to develop Twilio. His conviction enabled him to build the product based on his feedback from users, and not feedback from VCs.

  13. Adam Sher

    I loved the part where he talked about going to Amazon to learn from the big boys. This is gem of his talk. Corporate and industry experience are critically important. I felt this was true based on my experiences working with start-ups and found research from the Koffman foundation to support my anecdotal experiences. Professional networks and basic business skills are overlooked based on the amount of attention that is thrown on YC type start-ups that feature inexperienced founders.

  14. Marissa_NYx

    I watched the movie The Founder a few days ago. Michael Keaton is brilliant as Ray Kroc. Honestly I walked away feeling not so much sympathy for the McDonald brothers but in awe of the raw emotion of many of the situations portrayed in the scenes involving Ray Kroc : his fears, his persistence, the scenes where he is picking up soil, praying & /asking the universe to help him: it’s visceral. I felt every one of those emotions. As founders we live through these things. The raw energy of convuction was beautifully – and painfully – portrayed in that movie.

  15. Guy Lepage

    Great talk! I have never heard of a successful entrepreneur admitting that he kept making the same mistake over and over. I feel that this is an important lesson for entrepreneurs. Just because you make the same mistake over and over, don’t give up. One day you may change.

  16. Jean Jacques

    Thanks Fred. This video was very inspirational.

  17. David Semeria

    Great share Fred. I really enjoyed the talk.

  18. Scott Bieker

    Love this. Thank you for sharing it. I have found my career to go in and out of conviction as well. The happiest and most productive are when the stars are aligned.