Fearless - Ep. 41: "The Business Starter" - John Borthwick

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"The Business Starter"

John Borthwick is the founder and CEO of Betaworks, a New York based start-up studio, and a seed stage venture capital company.  Betaworks has built a diverse range of companies that sit at the intersection of media and the intersection of media and technology, including Giphy and TweetDeck. Last year, they launched of a $50 million early-stage fund called Betaworks Ventures. John and I talked about why small is beautiful when it comes to unlocking creativity and about the first time he saw the Internet.


Takeaways

  • Curiosity as a catalyst for unlocking original thinking
  • A sense of humanity that takes into account what’s in the best interest of society and culture
  • Clearly defined intentions - they provide focus and guard rails
  • Don’t get stuck in your own narrative - challenge your own view of the possibilities

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 41: "The Business Starter" John Borthwick 

“I think there are very few things that are more important than us creating a fertile environment in this country and beyond for start-ups and for creative thinking.” 

To start your own business is a statement of both self confidence and self expression. In most cases, the act of starting your own business produces a flood of dopamine hits so large that were they to come in the form of a pill, the FDA would require a doctor’s prescription.

Like all highs, chemical or natural, the initial wave of all-conquering possibility is soon replaced by all-consuming reality. Dreams and accounts payable making uncomfortable dinner partners.

But when your business’s fuel source is creativity, especially when your business’s fuel source is creativity, providing emotional balance to the roller coaster of being in business is the equivalent of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others.

The leader’s responsibility is to provide intention, focus and a sense of urgency. And not to lose those when the first obstacles show up. 

No matter how exhilarating the ride was yesterday, it’s what you do today that determines the success of tomorrow.

John Borthwick is the founder and CEO of Betaworks, a New York based business described variously as a company of builders, a start-up studio, and a seed stage venture capital company. 

Betaworks has built a diverse range of companies that sit at the intersection of media and technology, including Giphy, TweetDeck, and Dots. Last year, they announced the launch of a $50 million early-stage fund called betaworks ventures, designed to support all three of the company’s investment portfolio models - from Betaworks owned, to theme based accelerators to investment in outside companies.

John and I talked about the first time he saw the Internet, why small is beautiful when it comes to unlocking creativity, and why using technology to connect people isn’t enough.

Charles:                               

John, thank you so much for being here. Welcome to Fearless.

John Borthwick:               

It's a pleasure.

Charles:                               

My first questions is the one I ask all my guests, which is when are you first conscious of creativity showing up in your life. What's the first memory you have of something striking you as being creative?

John Borthwick:               

Gosh, that's a good question. I think from a very early age, I had a sense that the world around me and what we saw, that there was another layer or another level to that, which was editable, writable that you could create on, and so, there were other surfaces out there. I think that quite a bit of that came through my brother who's three years older than me and who was from a very early age creative and is an artist, photographer today. I think some of it, I think came from myself and some of it, being three years younger, came from seeing him.

Charles:                               

How did he express his art back then, his creativity back then?

John Borthwick:               

Sort of wildly and randomly, everything from trying to playing music to painting to making short films. We're talking about 8-millimeter films, which he still does today, millimeter. He loves analog media. So do I. I think it expressed itself in the early days in that form. And then I think as I grew up, I was lucky enough to have both parents and a brother who were all interested in creative domain and creative fields. There was just a lot of questioning when I was young. Why is that way? Why do you think somebody created that? And I think it was, I would say, questioning in respect. I think that my parents had a genuine love of art, of images, and of music. So, I think that that sort of embeds of you as a child just a sense of respect and awe for that and for what can be created.

Charles:                               

You grew up in England, I know. What did your parents do?

John Borthwick:               

My family background is interesting. My father was a meat trader. We're talking carcasses and meat, not exactly a creative industry. And yet, he had an interesting and difficult life. My parents, like a lot of people that everybody in that generation went through the way, and he had a whole set of what I would say creative outlets just to explore in a creative sense.

Then, my mom's side of the family, she had ... Her father had actually been, he had created a perfume business. She's French. He was part French, part Russian. She grew up in Paris, and he built a large perfume business. He was in nodes, if you know what that means.

Charles:                               

Yeah, absolutely.

John Borthwick:               

And, so, he created a whole set of perfume brands. So, she grew up with a sense of creativity and a respect for creativity as it related to smell, obviously. But he was also very involved with, we're talking about sort of the 1920 to the start of the second World War, so 1920, '38, '39. That was the height of his period in success. He built his company, but also his company, he worked a lot with designers, both glass designers for bottles and also for graphic designers for advertising his product.

And, so, he had a very strong sense of creativity, visual creativity. That sort of came to my mother's side of the family. She actually got deep into book binding, which is a weird niche corner of the world, so lots of different strains in my family.

Charles:                               

And very tactile, it sounds like.

John Borthwick:               

Very tactile.

Charles:                               

How did you step into the professional world? What was your first launching point coming out of college university?

John Borthwick:               

My first launching point into the professional world was into business. Undergraduate, I did Economics, but it was Development Economics, which I was fascinated by, interested by, because of the implication of how societies form and how trade happens and how it was much more from a positive framework. And then I did Art History, so I was a double major, and I accidentally had that second major, because I just did so many courses that when I got to graduation, I sort of landed with two.

I came out of college and went into the business world, and I jumped into consulting, which was both a fascinating ...] It was a fascinating training ground for myself and my mind, and it was partially a cop out, because it wasn't clear what else ... It seemed like I got a really interesting job that I really didn't know what else. I was just like, "Okay, this seems interesting. Let me go do it."

Charles:                               

What kind of consulting?

John Borthwick:               

It was management consulting, strategic management consulting. It was a very small company that broke off a larger company called Booz Allen, which is a big consultancy shop, and there was this start-up that came out of that. I joined them when there were maybe seven people there and then stayed there for about, I can't count exactly, but about four or five years. I learned a tremendous amount there. I learned, again, about a way of thinking, very structured thinking, and I learned a lot about business.

I think that when I say cop out, it had the potential to snuff the other side of what was important to me and how I think. So, there was a time when I just needed to move on from it, and I did.

Charles:                               

What did you learn about business?

John Borthwick:               

Gosh, I mean, I learned a tremendous amount about business. I think that one of the things that consulting does, particularly when you come right out of college, is you get amazing exposure to all levels of business thinking and business problems and management. I thought and learned about organizations and organizational structures, because I saw consulting gave me the opportunity to see these large organizations up and down the hierarchy. I think that normally as a graduate coming right out of college, if you just went to work in one of these large corporations, you'd just see it from the bottom up. I think when you see it up and down the hierarchy, you can see how it functions and how it doesn't. That I learned quite a bit about.

The consultancy shop I worked with, it's called Oliver Wyman, they were ... The senior team there were highly analytical and very quantitative. So, I taught myself how to, really, it was less code than script, but I did a lot of computer work there, and I learned a lot about how organizations use data and also how organizations and people can be mislead by data or just how data provides false comfort to decision making. At times, it also provides insight, but often provides false comfort, I think.

Charles:                               

And false comfort, because people are looking for validation for stories they want to tell?

John Borthwick:               

Yeah. I mean, I think that there's a few structural problems that I had with consulting, but that was clearly one. It was clear to me after a few years that leaders or entire organizations or boards would be using a consultant to validate a hypothesis or to validate some structure or validate some deal or something that was already decided upon or their intent was to do that.

I think a second thing which I learned in that experience is that, at least for myself and I think for most human beings ... I know it's true for myself is that I need a real feedback loop associated with decision making. As a consultant, you could always be right, because you were either right or the client did it wrong. So, therefore, you are always right, and I think that I yearned for a more accountable feedback loop. In other words, I wanted agency or I wanted to be participant actor. I wanted to be in the line of business, not just advising.

So, I spent, actually, my last year in consulting trying to convince my consulting firm to do a start-up, which was a network dated company that I was interested in starting. I worked with them on that and almost launched that start-up out of that, but instead, life took a different path.

Charles:                               

That's an interesting concept, actually. I did spend a lot of time consulting as well and experienced exactly what you've described and found when I moved into coaching and advisory work, actually, I'd got that feedback. If you give a piece of advice to the lead of the organization and they take it, you actually start to see whether that was good advice, because does the organization move in the direction that you're interested in or what you're trying to help them achieve, or did it not work.

So, actually, I'd never thought about it through that lens, but that's actually a very valuable frame of reference. You actually need real feedback, don't you? You need verifiable evidence about whether what you're thinking is correct or not correct.

John Borthwick:               

Right.

Charles:                               

Yeah, very helpful, actually.

John Borthwick:               

I think it's also dependent upon the length of the relationship engagement, because if you're working with a client and you're in partnership with them for years, then I think you're part of that feedback and you witness their feedback loop. Or when you just go in to do these very time-bounded concise ... So, are we going forward in time? It feels like time is the axis that you are using.

Charles:                               

Yes, it is, but I was curious. At what stage of development was the internet at this point? How did the internet start to show up in your life?

John Borthwick:               

My first experience with the internet was went to graduate school down at Penn, and I had a friend of mine who was up at Harvard, teaching up there. He called me up and said, "I was over at MIT," and no, it wasn't the media lab, it was called the AI lab, I think, which is funny, because AI labs were in vogue back then. We'll talk about '93. He called me up and he said, "There's a station up here where you can get onto the world wide web." So, I drove to Boston to go see the internet.

Charles:                               

Did you know what the world wide web was when he called you [inaudible]

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, I did. I mean, it's a while ago, and my memory's a little big fuzzy, but back then, there were gopher. There were a handful of different interfaces. It's hard to ... Most people don't go back into the history books for this. In the early days of the internet is the internet's protocol, and the world wide web emerged as a visual interface on top of the internet. But in the early days in the internet, there was several different ways of working on the internet. Most all of them were text-based or programmatic.

I drove up to Boston to see the web, and this was pre-Netscape. I think the browser back then was, I think it was Spyglass or something, but it was a very, very early, rudimentary browser. Interestingly, one of the first websites that I went to was called the Web Louvre, and it was a ... This guy, Nicholas Pinochet or something, [Pinoch] had put up 20 pictures from the Louvre onto the web. And, I sat there up in Boston, and we're talking about little, almost postage stamp size images, that would take about five minutes for each image to come down. But just the idea that somebody could publish, and that I could be sitting there in the United States looking at what this guy Nicholas had published, was, I thought, was revolutionary.

And, so, anyway, I finished graduate school.

Charles:                               

Were you conscious in that moment that this was a-

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, I drove back down to ... I was conscious it was a thing, very much. On the drive back down to Philadelphia, I was, "I need to quit school now. This is gonna change the world."

I believed it would change the world. I didn't have any real sense of how profoundly it would change the world. And, so, I think my insight was more superficial that it turned out being. I mean, I remember ... I did finish grad school shortly thereafter. I was almost done. I finished it, and then I remember in, I don't know, we're talking now '94, maybe. In the spring of '94, summer of '94, Wired Magazine ran a piece. It wasn't a cover story, but it was a piece was the next revolution has begun, the world wide web. I should find out when exactly, the date, but it was sometime, spring or summer of '94. I remember reading that article with sweaty palms and thinking, "Oh my God. Now everybody knows. This thing's gonna be over in a year or two."

Charles:                               

I've missed it already.

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, no, it felt that way. There was a profound sense that something different had happened. I'd had the good fortune when I was in consulting the company that I worked for was commissioned by Reuters to do a piece of work to try and figure out what information delivery would look like in the next century. So, there was a forward looking ... A lot of the work which I did in consulting was much more analytical, much more quantitative, much more short term. This was more of typical strategy project and very forward looking.

We did quite a bit of research and talked to a lot of different people, and I remember meeting with one of the guys who ran Reuters in France. I had lunch with him, and he was an elderly gentlemen, and he was very French. He ordered wine at lunch, and at the end of the lunch, he started swirling his wine in his glass and said, "I want to be able to sell this on the network," meaning the Reuters network.

The Reuters network was ... This must have been in 1991. The Reuters network was a small, closed network that had high paying clients on both sides. It was not an open network, like the internet. But, here was somebody who was saying I want to be able to sell this. I remember thinking, looking at him and thinking, "Why is that not possible?" In France at the time, you had something called Minitel, which was a very early form of network technology. It was very French in that it was designed with ... It was not a bit peer to peer network. It was a centralized network. In order to publish on Minitel, you had to go to France Telecom and publish. The question he was asking was, "Why can't I publish on the network," instead of having to go to France Telecom and say, "I've got a great wine thing I want to sell," and then they approve it, and then they publish.

Seeing the internet, I think, up at MIT was that the dots connected for me for that sense of okay, here's a way, and both a network medium, and also an open writable platform that is now available, and that was the thing which clicked.

Charles:                               

This notion of seeing the future and all of its possibilities is obviously such a powerful and essential part of unlocking creativity in the business environment. When somebody who is drinking a glass of wine and says, "I want to sell this on the network," and your response is, "Why is that not possible?" What are you bringing to the table that allows that to be the right question? How do you see the world through that lens?

John Borthwick:               

I mean, I think the things that which in myself and that I look for in others who I'm working with in no particular order, I would say is that those profound sense of curiosity or about the world. And that sense of curiosity extends to a really base level of belief that you don't actually know, and that's what drives the curiosity. I think curiosity is one of the most wonderful traits that makes us human, and it's one of these essential things that you have to keep alive and continue to feed in your life. I think success is often a great killer of curiosity, because it gives you the illusion that you think you know, and that's your downfall.

Your ability to ask questions becomes severely limited once you assume that you know, once you think that you have the illusion that you know. I think that a profound sense of curiosity about the world, I think that being a practitioner, and goes back to some of what we were talking about in consulting, but is really being a user, being a practitioner. I don't want to hear people's, their ideas and their theories about virtual reality or even a cup of tea, unless they've actually experienced it themselves. Have you actually experienced it? Have you actually tried that, right?

And, very much, the culture I've built at Betaworks propagates how we do what we do. We are all users, practitioners of technology. We love using it. We love playing with it. We're tinkerers. I think the way that ... I mean, even in naming my company, Betaworks, I think about betas as being purposeful experimentation. And when I say purposeful, I mean almost like scientific method where you basically define your hypothesis. There's purpose. There's intent. You're saying, "I want to test this. I want to find if other people will experience this the way I am experiencing this."

It's that very much of being the sense of a practitioner or a user. I could go on. I'm sure there's quite a few others, but I would say that curiosity and that being very much a user of the technology that we're making are two essential cornerstones.

Charles:                               

Do you think those characteristics can be taught? Do you think that they are endemic to people and say when you're hiring or associating with people, are you looking for those characteristics? Do you feel they bring some of it, and we can help them enhance that? Or do you think that they have to show up with those kinds of characteristics fully formed already?

John Borthwick:               

No, I think that they can be taught. I mean, I do think that if somebody who's spent a lot of time inside of an organization that is profoundly incurious, or inside of an organization that assumes that you can know and talk intelligently about the world without experiencing the world, then it becomes harder. Just because they've just become ingrained in that. I also think that there's certain kinds of characters. I mean, I would say that as a character trait, I think that with entrepreneurs and with myself, I think that I look for there's a sense of vision, ambition, but there's also some, and maybe it's hidden a long time, but some sense insecurity about not knowing. I think that that can drive a hunger for curiosity, so that can be a healthy thing.

I think that all these things can be taught, but I think that all to often organizations wring them out of people.

Charles:                               

Because they're afraid?

John Borthwick:               

Because the organizations are afraid. The organizations, organizational entities, and bodies of people are constructed at some very base level to preserve and to mitigate risk and preserve a current structure. I don't care if that's a company or a church or a ... It's just organizations do that. I think that we're living through a time of profound change and that organizations need to be far more adaptable than has been historically the case.

Charles:                               

Can you institutionalize that kind of curiosity at the organizational level so that it fosters that within the individual?

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, I absolutely believe you can. I think it's very hard. I think that one way that the easiest path is through leadership and having a organizational leader where he or she is actually also a creator. So, I think you can see in today's landscape, particularly with technology companies, some of many of them are successful technology companies out there have technology's leaders and founders as leaders. Those people have continued to embed in their organization that sense of adaptability and of change, because that's what they really started with.

On the flip side is that many organizations, most organizations, are managed for preservation and risk aversion. It is profoundly hard to change those organizations. I think that there are ways to do it, but I also think many of those organizations will just have to die and be reinvented.

Charles:                               

When the leader is the author and the craftsperson, there is a risk, I think. It's certainly my experience that their particular view of the world becomes too strident and too certain, partly because they're actually afraid, and so they lean more and more into their own point of view in order to reassure themselves. How do you combat that, because, obviously, you work with an incredible variety of different kinds of leaders and businesses. As you're looking for the people who are the most successful, what are the characteristics that they bring?

John Borthwick:               

I mean, I think that that is very much part of the conversation what we were talking about 5, 10 minutes ago about ambition, insecurity. I mean, I was thinking as you were asking the question, I was thinking about Microsoft in the early years. You have Bill Gates who's a brilliant technologist, but somebody who was so obsessed with preserving the status quo that he had created, and yet had the insight to see that there was an entirely new platform emerging, namely the internet. And Microsoft was one of the first large tech companies, and Gates authored several internal white papers, memos, saying this is gonna change the world, and, yet, entirely failed to change his organization.

And I think that when you think of the personal characteristics, it's that sense of ambition and that sense that there are people who have been profoundly right. Bill Gates was about establishing Microsoft's position in the market as it related to software companies, to Intel, and to hardware manufacturers, which was just brilliant. Windows captured just an amazing piece of the evolution of the computer. And yet, he became so fixated with that that he saw the internet was coming. I think he saw what was coming with Apple and what was happening there, but he wasn't capable of actually changing the organizing or changing himself.

So, I think that those examples are particularly interesting. There's many examples of people just not seeing, right? Part of my career, I spent at Time Warner, and I got to know several media companies pretty well. I think that media companies who have just DNA that is so orthogonal to technology and to the DNA of technology companies have missed many of the opportunities to reinvent their business and to bring their businesses into the digital world, because the DNA has been wrong there, both in the company and in the leadership.

I think Microsoft is a particularly interesting example, because they kind of saw it, but they totally missed it.

Charles:                               

What do you think stops him reorganizing his business? Was there nobody around him brave enough to tell him that he was focused on other things that were ultimately, I mean, obviously important, but to a point, his inability to change Microsoft created massive issues for the business, didn't it, years later, which you could argue in some respects they're still struggling with?

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, I think it's a combination of, and I would really like to ask him, because I'm just observing from the outside, but I think it's a combination of a few things. A few big things were happening simultaneously. There was this massive shift in their business. Secondly is that their business was actually not being impacted. It had a very long tail associated with it, and so the impact of their core business was not immediately evident.

Charles:                               

So, the urgency wasn't there for them?

John Borthwick:               

So, the urgency wasn't there. Certainly, I would say that their core business relied on and was predicated on a whole set of both organizational, sales, contracts, relationships with developers, that were profoundly hard to change. When you think about the media industry, there's some parallels there, because they have a whole set of relationships with creators and intermediaries in the creative businesses. There are rights associated and they are hard to change, and people think, "Oh, the media companies can just flip a switch."

Charles:                               

Yeah, the bureaucracy is staggering.

John Borthwick:               

It's not only the bureaucracy, it's the contracts. They often don't have the rights to do what people think they do. They claim that they own a piece of media, and they only own usage for sudden distribution of a piece of media, so it much, much more nuanced than people think.

I think the organizational structure, you had that massive organization of Microsoft, very hard to change that. Again, that lack of urgency from the immediate seeing the numbers shift wasn't there.

And then I would say something that was both orthogonal, but I think had a profound impact on that organization is, I think that the antitrust work, which I was involved with for a period of time, but the antitrust work that the U.S. government and the Europeans and all the regulation ... Actually, one of the things it did was it made Microsoft into ... Microsoft's legal department probably went up 10X in size over the space of three or four years, and I think that there was a lot more ... That makes an organization, it changes the nature of an organization when suddenly everything needs to be put through the filter of what is the impact and the potential impact of that as it relates to regulation. Placing a legal structure or a legal filter over decision making is often deadly, because a lawyer's job is preserve a structure and not to think about strategy or change.

Charles:                               

You've used the word "urgency" a couple of times, and I think urgency is powerful catalyst for creativity in most environments. How do you bring urgency into a situation where you are creating the unknown, the uncertain?

John Borthwick:               

Well, I think that often in the things which I've been involved with or created in my life, I would say I've operated on a more surface level canvas, in other words, creating a sense of urgency and a sense of change or a sense of opportunity. I think that doing that, if you're particularly obsessed with the end experience, which I am, then you're gonna be obsessed with being about to both shape and create the kind of things that you want to exist in the world, but really aren't that end user experience.

The thing which I haven't done in my life that I'm fascinated by is people who are several layers down in the stack. If you think about people who have created, let's say, protocols that have fundamentally changed that we use technology, but they're not visible or they're not visible in that surface. The results of them are visible, but I think that that's a very different kind of thinking.

So, my sense of urgency is since the surface area that I'm working with is usually the visual surface, what you experience, what you touch, I think that that urgency is a combination of vision, passion, fear, greed, opportunity, hope. All of those things come together in a sense of what if we could create something that did this.

Charles:                               

I've heard you talk in the past about thesis-based investing, thesis-based support for businesses, and thesis-based and focus in your interests. What does your thesis look like? How often do you challenge the assumptions the behind it?

John Borthwick:               

It's a good question. Many people who are, particularly investors, who are out there in the world will be very focused on individuals versus thesis. And, yet, I think that Betaworks has, since it's inception, we've been builders and creators and also investors and also catalyzers of new companies. Maybe it was accelerator programs and the like. That's the point when I think about catalyzers.

Since we are builders at the core, we inevitably have entrepreneurs ourselves. We inevitably have a thesis. We have a view of the world. I would say that the thesis that we've had around the world on the margin have been they adapt into or they grow into the next hypothesis or thesis. So, they evolve. They evolve very much out of the process of using stuff, of experiencing things.

Just to give you two concrete examples, because feels very theoretical, early days of Betaworks, we believe, and now in hindsight, it seems obvious, but we believed that social tools, social platforms would become a new axis of navigation for your online experiences. This is something we were thinking hard about, about ten years ago. On one hand, you could say that that was already somewhat obvious, because I had the good fortune of seeing some of the online services, AOL, CompuServe, in the early days, working at AOL and having that very much a belief that the media-driven experiences that we were seeing on the internet as the internet started, people started to publish on the internet, were really only ... They were manifestations of what people wanted to see, but the social experience of the internet and the experience of connecting people was the more profound impact that the technology was having on the world, its ability to connect people peer to peer across the world.

The thesis that social would change navigation, the seeds of it were already there, but I think that 10 years ago, navigation was absolutely dominated by such. It was really not clear how a platform, whether it's a, even back then, Facebook that was just emerging, or Twitter was just starting, or Tumbler, or even a social comment sight, like a Kickstarter, any of those companies could redefine how people were going to engage and find things.

That's where we started, and then fast forward to today. I think today, for the last few years, we've been thinking very hard about how does the mobile experience develop and what comes after mobile? That's where our thesis sit today. Now, if you want to draw a thread to all of that and put it into a category, I would say that we're obsessed with the evolution of interfaces. What is the surface area that you're using to navigate technology?

Today, as you begin to think about post-mobile phone world, you can start to see the voice, for example, is a new interface, which is beginning to let you navigate the network and experience network, experience media. Whether that's through an Alexa or Google Home interface or Siri interface, you can see how that is starting to emerge. It's very much that sense of what are the new interfaces? What is new surface area that you experience to let you navigate the network?

Charles:                               

How far forward do you roll in your imagination? Are you looking three years out, five years out, 10 years out? Where does your head play? Are you imagining what interface looks like in 2040, 2050, or is it more-

John Borthwick:               

I have no idea. I think that the insights that I form and that I have are very much generated out of my sense of curiosity and how I'm thinking about and trying to experience and shape and reshape the world that I'm experiencing, and it's on the edges of today. So, yes, I spend some time dreamy about what it could look like, because I like to.

One of the things that I think that I have a different point of view about today than I did 10 years ago, 15 years go is that I think 15 years ago, 10 years ago, I thought it was enough to think about and to try and intuit that next new interface. Today, I'm thinking a lot more about how we can shape that next new interface, because I think that the inevitability or the techno-utopianism that has grounded much of the work which we've done and other people have done over the last 20 years, I think that today it's evident that just because it's made of technology and it's shiny and new, it doesn't mean it's inevitably good. I think that understanding, having a qualitative sense of the experience and how we can make experiences more grounded in our culture and use technology to expose and make us, in a sense, more human is what I'm particularly interested. Now, there's sort of a meta-filter that I'm placing over those new interfaces.

Charles:                               

Are you thinking about the human experience on the other side of that, the human need on the other side of that?

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, the human need and the human experience, but not just the need in terms of just scratching the immediate edge, because I think that we have enough like buttons in our lives, right? And, yes, we've demonstrated that we can tap into like buttons and other now tried and true methodologies. We can tap into the parts of the human brain that make you want to sit there and just scroll through a feed and like a bunch of stuff, but what is that actually? What is that actually doing?

Charles:                               

Most of that stuff is fine from a human standpoint.

John Borthwick:               

And from a cultural standpoint. I know it's satisfying like successive hits of dopamine. This can feel satisfying, but what is it actually accomplishing and is this something more satisfying that we can strive for from a cultural perspective? Because, I think that we have, in many cases, massively oversold technology and only connect has been the mantra reinforced. It's been the mantra of the last 25 years, "If only we can connect, it will be better," and I think "only connect" has not been enough, right? Just connecting people on network has not actually ... There's amazing things that have come out of that, but just the assumption that that is enough has provided to be thin.

Charles:                               

As you look forward at companies that are best able to unlock people's original thinking, I describe it as creativity ... That might be a lot of different ways to describe it, but original thinking. What do you think the characteristics of those companies will be from here forward? What kind of characteristics and practices do you think they need to be built on to unlock creativity in their original thought?

John Borthwick:               

It's a fascinating question in the context of both organization, but it's also a really fascinating context in the context of the discussion we were just having about the need to humanize or bring to digital experiences, and build digital experiences that enhance the humanness or human characteristics. I think that so much of the culture of entrepreneurship drives us toward a certainty of highly structured quantitative thinking and the certainty about the world that wrings a lot of that creativity out. I think there are very few things that are more important than us creating a fertile environment in this country and beyond for start-ups and for creative thinking. I think there's a profound need for that, because that's the domain. When you think about the impact that machine learning, artificial intelligence is going to have in the next 10, 20 years, I think we have to, from our schools on forward, we have to learn how to and encourage all of that domain that is uniquely human, because the machine's gonna do a much better job of so much of the rest.

Your question was how do you do that?

Charles:                               

What are the characteristics that you think businesses need to be built around in order to unlock that?

John Borthwick:               

I think small is better, and small doesn't mean necessarily that you have to do a start-up, although that's a perfectly valid way of doing it, of just starting from fresh. Small can also mean that you take some big and break it into smaller pieces, so organization in smaller pieces. I think that small pieces are much more prone to unlocking people's ability to feel like that they can impact an organization, a strategy, a product, right? We're constantly ... We often talk about at Betaworks, how we're fractulizing problems, but we're trying to break things apart in order to give somebody the opportunity to work on new surface area that is small and is well defined so that they can have the maximum amount of impact to be able create there.

I think the giving, the culturally embedding into an organization a ... Over the last 10 years, the technology business and the world of entrepreneurship has been profoundly defined by the process of agile computing and agile development and rapid fire development. At Betaworks, we thought about that, and we do it a little bit differently. I think that working ... Betaworks, I named it that because we believe that betas do work, and that that process I described earlier of purposeful experimentation is really at the core about how we think about creativity and how we think about the ability to be able to edit and create new things and new surface area.

I think it's about having the culture, which promotes that kind of rapid testing, trialing, putting into market, getting feedback from customers, because beta is not the new form of R&D. They don't require marketing. They require you having a profound feedback loop with your customers so that you understand how they are using a product or how they want to use a product.

And then, also, understanding through that process how emergent, unexpected things come out of that, right? Many of the things that we've created at Betaworks had been mistakes. They've been things that were meant to go on the cutting room floor and that we've managed to hash it before it hits the floor and say, "Wait, that seems interesting. Can we take that and adapt that and build that into an actual product?"

So, it's building the culture that actually can preserve and capture those things. I think small. I think a culture of test and trial and that sort of purposeful experimentation. I think a direct feedback of people to [inaudible] systems. In our business, everybody is an owner. In the businesses we work with, everybody is an owner, and I think being an owner is part of being a builder. It's part of the culture of today, and I think that that gives you a sense, sure there's a monetary component to it, but it has a profound sense of this is actually partially mine. I feel I have ownership over this in a real way. I think that, so those are some things that come to mind.

Charles:                               

Two final questions for you. What would people be surprised to know about you that they don't already know?

John Borthwick:               

Be surprised to know about me.

I don't really think what other people are thinking about me, so I'm having to [inaudible].

How important family is to me is probably something that people would be surprised by, because I never talk about it, and I don't want to talk about it with you or with anybody else, because I'm very private about my family. It's something I never talk about. I've been active on social media from the very early days, but I keep the boundaries very tight as it associates with my family, which is challenging, because I think that so much of what people connect with on social media are personal, authentic experiences, and a lot of that relates to your life and your family. That's not something I want to bring into that domain.

Charles:                               

Yeah, I think it's important to draw those lines, actually. I do something similar on a personal basis. 

Last question for you. What are you afraid of?

John Borthwick:               

Thinking that I know or that sense of ... It's not certainty, because I have a sense of conviction about things, but that sort of sense that ... I won't often say no to podcasts like this, because I think that they are ... I think it was Jean Paul Sartre who turned down the Nobel literary prize, because he said, "Everybody who has one of these is dead, and, so, if I accept it, I will die."

That's sort of the way that I think about that sense of certainty. I think that I want to ... I think it is so important today, even more important than when I started in this field. I have a profound sense of urgency about things we need to change and what we need to create. On one hand, I think you can look at the internet and desktop PC and mobile phone and think that a lot of stuff is baked. I think that the technology that is coming, that we're gonna see in the next three to five to 10 years is gonna profoundly reshape the world.

I think that to date, most of these experiences, pretty much all our experiences of technologies have been within the confines of a frame, the frame of a phone or the frame a TV screen or monitor. Now, that technology is now bleeding into every corner of the world. I think that I have a real sense of urgency about how need to create and what we should create and what we shouldn't create. I think that there's things that I know there. There's a lot which I don't know, but is creating around that and keeping that is what drives me and having that false sense of certainty about it would be a big fear.

Charles:                               

I wrap every show with three things that I've heard from our conversation. I'll through these at you. First, you mentioned it a number of times is your curiosity, and clearly that's a catalyst for unlocking original thinking, creativity, building a different future. What strikes me is that you combine that with a real sense of humanity, not just as you said, not just to satisfy the check the box, dopamine hit of what people are looking for. There is almost implicit within some of the says you've described this, I would say almost kind of a moral consciousness or a though process around what is in the best interest of society and culture. I'm struck by that. That resonates with me.

The third theme that I've heard is the importance of real intention, to drive these things forward, to create guardrails and to provide focus. But I would also say that, actually, there's a fourth theme, which is your determination, I think, to make sure that you are not so stuck in your own narrative and your intention that the possibilities that might also exist become blocked off to you.

Do those four resonate with you?

John Borthwick:               

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think that one of the things that I was just thinking about while I was listening to you, half listening to you. I was just looking at the floor and the walls here, and you asked me in the early days, how did I know my sense of creativity. I think that seeing patterns in the world ... I remember as a child staring at surfaces that were either manmade, man created, crafted, like a canvas. When I say manmade, I made industrial, like the floors and the walls here or a canvas or in nature, and seeing patterns and understanding that we create these surfaces and these patterns exists. Then it becomes embedded in our lives that we assume that they are and they should always be that way. And, yet, those patterns have been, they've either, in nature they've merged or they've been created by somebody if they're made by humans. And, so, that sense of ... I've always loved and I find myself just staring at patterns, and I even do it with work sometimes, but just like seeing patterns in things.

And I think that it's maybe it's still a non-answer to your last question, because I think the answer to that was just yes, but I think that seems to be a thread that I draw through a lot of this. But, then trying to find intentionality in that and trying to step back and say, "Okay, what are the impacts of that technology and how can we make that in a way actually helps create the experiences and the culture and the society that we want to, that I want to live in?"

Charles:                               

A very good way to wrap.