Compared to the college-age entrepreneurs he now mentors, Dan Weeks got a late start in start-ups. He worked at Hewlett Packard for 25 years before striking out on his own.
But he quickly made up for lost time, successfully launching two ventures: BrightScope, an endeavor to make sense of 401k plans that’s now the leader in the industry, and DMScore, which began as an attempt to determine if digital marketing efforts were working.
And now, in addition to serving as Entrepreneur in Residence at the SLO HotHouse, the former computer science major is working doggedly with SLO Partners on an ambitious goal: the creation of 1,000 new programming jobs in San Luis Obispo before Diablo Canyon closes.
We sat down with the man the New York Times once described as “way out on the jolly spectrum” to talk pink bunnies, too much coffee and the possibilities — and limits — of technology.
App you can’t live without
Excel. That tells you a lot about me.
Favorite off-line pastime
Running and walking. I do about 50 miles a week. I did my first marathon at age 50, and my goal was to finish and want to do another.
Too much coffee.
Fictional character you most identify with
The Energizer Bunny. That’s what my wife called me all the time.
Power you wish technology could give you
Real-time prioritization of tasks.
Favorite thing about working with startups
Helping teams know this is supposed to be hard.
Craziest ideas you’ve been pitched
The ones that violate the laws of physics.
What’s the biggest misconception about the power of technology?
The biggest misconception is the rate at which adoption will occur. It will be much faster than most people assume. We can’t even anticipate what things will be like two years from now. Change will be relentless, and you don’t really get a choice whether you’re going to participate in it.
Adoption of new technologies tied to automation of tasks currently performed by humans is going to be extremely disruptive. That’s why we emphasize an “entrepreneurial mindset” to be open to and curious about careers of the future.
Consider kids in elementary school: the majority of the jobs they’ll have in 20 years don’t even exist yet, and we don’t know what those jobs will be. With an entrepreneurial mindset, kids can perceive things like coding and automation as something they can learn, not impossible obstacles. They have the outlook of “I’m going to figure it out” and embrace being a lifelong learner.
Why do entrepreneurs often laud the importance of failure?
Entrepreneurs need to fail often but fail early. That’s because before they invest a lot of money, they need to know if paying customers will think their idea is a good one. Founders often have a distorted view of the world—they think their idea is great, and their friends are often too afraid to tell them it’s not. Many times, founders’ key assumptions are not facts, but opinions that have not yet been verified.
In our summer HotHouse program, which is for the top Cal Poly teams wanting to become companies, many teams—after just a few key customer interviews—are seriously questioning their business model because they now have a much clearer picture of reality. We teach them not to ask leading questions in their interviews, not to sell their idea, but instead to ask customers about their problems (their “pains”) and what they would like to see in a product (the potential “gains”). It’s all about the pains and the gains.
What skills are most important for the aspiring entrepreneur?
The number one skill is courage. It’s not just perseverance, because that can mean blind devotion to a bad idea. We have a saying here at the HotHouse that’s my current favorite: “Expect problems and eat them for breakfast.” The highest highs and the lowest lows often come on the same day, and you need the courage to do it day after day.
Employees are looking to their next paycheck, but for the entrepreneur, the much bigger paycheck may be five years or longer from now when the company sells. Entrepreneurs have to be willing to accept deferred and not immediate gratification.