Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.
Meet radical Ally Daniel Epstein.
Jan 8, 2019
Daniel’s life has been shaped by a fundamental belief that entrepreneurship is the answer to nearly all the issues we face today. By the time he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy, he’d already started three companies. In 2012 he was recognized by Inc. Magazine as a “30 under 30 entrepreneur” and by Forbes as one of the “top 30 most impactful entrepreneurs” of the year. In 2013, he received the prestigious “Entrepreneur of the World” award along with Richard Branson & the President of Liberia at the Global Entrepreneurship Forum.
Daniel believes in militant transparency and truthfulness in his everyday life and in all of the projects he is part of. He also has an overt love for his hometown of Boulder Colorado and for his dog, Kaya.
➜ Daniel, you are a catalyst when it comes to progress for social change. You see a vast amount of human potential and innovation in your work. How do you describe your work to others, and how is your work currently affecting change?
Daniel: Our ambition at Unreasonable is to drive resources into and break down barriers for entrepreneurs solving BFPs (i.e. “Big F***king Problems”). We are a values-driven organization and the entrepreneurs we support are the center of our universe. In fact, though we live by the values set in our manifesto, we have only one rule and that is “entrepreneur-centricity.” Ultimately, our hope is to align with wielding profoundly effective solutions to our toughest challenges and to fortify them with a network of support and access to resources that will allow them to scale what works (i.e. measurably effective and profitable solutions to BFPs). We rest on a belief that in the not-so-distant future, the world’s most valuable and influential companies will be those solving society’s most pressing challenges. Though we are entrepreneur-centric to our core, it’s also important to highlight that we are also seeking to shift the trajectory of some of the world’s largest companies towards sustainability by giving them proximity to the breakthrough technologies and business models led by the entrepreneurs we support.
In terms of how effective we are… I think we have scratched maybe 5% of our potential. The truth is that we are just getting started. I have spent the better half of a decade focused on ensuring our foundation, economics, and most importantly that our values and culture are grounded. That said, we need to ultimately unlock hundreds of billions of dollars into the entrepreneurs we support, and we need to truly fortify them with a community of support that can’t be replicated anywhere else. We need to create a culture across the Unreasonable network that bonds our entrepreneurs for life and helps them unlock the potential of each other. We are VERY far from having succeeded at the task at hand, and I do believe we almost have the foundation set upon which we will be able to much more effectively and efficiently become the resource and community we know our entrepreneurs need and deserve.
➜ What’s the single best piece of radical advice you received in your life (so far)?
Some of the best advice I received in regards to my time as an entrepreneur is around creating a values-centered culture. Because of the advice I’ve received by so many people I admire, culture is something we now obsess over at Unreasonable. A friend of mine once told me that no matter what, every organization has their own culture. I’d also mention that whether intentional or not, whether healthy or stifling, your organization has one.
The person who inspired me most on this journey in terms of spoken and modeled advice has been George Kembel — co-founder of Stanford’s d.school. What George showed me was that yes, values are important but if we stop there, we haven’t done anything. Putting your company values on your wall at the office may feel like an accomplishment but this is only the first step in creating a culture worth caring about. What matters most is not what you say, it’s what you do. If you are listing out your company’s values, I’m much more concerned with what the policies, traditions, and habits are around actualizing them.
It’s all about small behaviors at the individual level. I learned this from George when I had the privilege of running Unreasonable@Sea with him. He taught me the lesson of scaling culture with the analogy of a school of fish. His perspective was arguably the best advice I’ve received on my entrepreneurial journey. Let me explain.
From the outside, a school of fish is insanely complicated and beautiful to watch—thousands of fish somehow follow each other in perfect formation. Is there one fish boss telling all of the others what to do? No. Can you imagine a big company with a CEO who is able to get 1,000 people to do the exact same thing at the same time in a beautiful way? Don’t think so. If you try to manage culture from the top-down, just as it wouldn’t work for the school of fish, it won’t work for your company. You need to remove our traditional concept of leadership to be successful at this.
If instead, you offer individual policies that direct action, it can shape the behavior of an entire group. In George’s analogy, rather than having a CEO-fish, let’s imagine that instead, each individual fish follows these two rules: 1) Always swim close to your neighbor; 2) If you see something scary, swim away. Immediately, if every fish abides by these two simple policies, they are empowered to always swim as a collective. Quite simply, that is how you scale culture. It comes down to the individual behaviors of you and your teammates. Whether it’s a startup team of 4 or a multinational with 100,000 employees, it’s all about the individual.
During this seafaring experiment that was Unreasonable@Sea, we talked about the culture we wanted to create for our team on the ship. But in all honesty, I failed as a leader because I stopped there. Working 20-hour days to run an accelerator program and teach a class with hundreds of students while sailing around the world quickly inundated our small team. Afterward, I sat down with our then very small team and for five months we tried to figure out what policies and traditions we could bake into our company DNA that actually reflect each of our core values. What traditions would we adopt at the individual level that could scale with Unreasonable as we grow… just like the school of fish. I’ve been on that journey ever since.
➜ If you had $10M (or $100M, or $1BN) of your wealth to bet/invest in one future technology, what would it be and why?
I wouldn’t. I’d invest into entrepreneurs who I believed in as individuals and who have the confidence to go after solving the world’s most pressing societal/environmental challenges alongside the humility to know that they will never succeed on their own.
➜ In your opinion what does it mean to be a radical leader and how does one get better at being one?
Back in 2013 I was lucky enough to catch up with one of our Unreasonable mentors, Kamran Elahian. Almost five years later, that one conversation has helped me immensely, and it forever redefined my posture toward being both an entrepreneur and a CEO. Our conversation caused me to pivot and realize that leading vs. managing is the key to becoming a great company.
For context, Kamran is a serial entrepreneur who has co-founded three companies that were each, at one time or another, valued at over a billion dollars. In short, his wisdom comes not from books or conversations, but experience. When I asked him what the secret was to his incredible success, he turned to an analogy.
Most entrepreneurs, he said, think the ultimate goal – to use an American football analogy – is to be the quarterback of the team that wins the Super Bowl. As the quarterback, nothing happens until you snap the ball. You call all the plays, and you are on the field and in the game, day in and day out with your teammates. As a quarterback, your goal is to simply be the best quarterback in the world.
This may be true in a startup environment when you have a team of 1-5 people. But Kamran believes (and I agree) that you can never scale this posture of leadership. The entire team, or in this case the whole company, remains bottlenecked by your need to call the plays and snap the ball. Nothing happens until you do.
Kamran went on to describe that the real goal of world-changing entrepreneurs is not to be the quarterback, but rather the coach of the team that wins the Super Bowl. As a coach, you have the following three jobs:
Recruit the best possible players you can afford, and put them into the positions they are best at.
Create a culture upon which the individuals achieve things they never thought were possible.
Most notably, create a culture where the whole of the individuals on the team is far greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, your goal is to be a CEO that creates a culture that rivals that of the Mighty Ducks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VJeKT24vVs).
As the coach, you should strive to have a team in which every player on the field is better at their particular position than you are. From there, your job is to ensure they are supported, inspired, and unified around a shared vision and strategy.
This simple analogy, on the spot, changed my posture towards entrepreneuring and leadership. As entrepreneurs, our goal is not to be the quarterback of the football team that wins the Super Bowl. Instead, it is to become the best coach in the league for the team that you serve. A beautiful analogy for what I believe true leadership should strive for.
➜ What is the most enlightening book you have read?
So the embarrassing truth is that I don’t read many books. That said, one of my favorites is Vaclav Havel’s Summer Meditations. I think it’s one of the best books ever written on leadership. I’m also a huge fan of Yvon Chouinard’s book on founding Patagonia. Both these individuals made decisions based off of their values rather than short-term gains. They helped give me the courage to do the same and they continue to inspire to this very day.
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