ON FEBRUARY 4TH 2015, Shishir Mehrotra spoke to the class of ME 410B about his past experiences on two topics: (1) “A World Without Gatekeepers” and (2) “Finding your place in it”. Shishir spent the past six years at Google as the head of product and engineering for YouTube, and used many examples from that experience throughout his talk.
A WORLD WITHOUT GATEKEEPERS
Using a series of YouTube examples, Shishir described how the world is shifting to one where traditional gatekeepers and barriers no longer exist. Instead people can share content without hesitation and boundaries. He went through many interesting examples - everyone from educators like Sal Khan, to athletes, to musicians - who became successful by showing off their craft to a global audience. They could take paths that were non-conventional, and bypass many of the obstacles that existed prior to the conception of YouTube.
He also explained that, in his opinion, YouTube had emerged as the most important advancement in communication since the telephone, since it allows people to connect with others globally, providing a communication vehicle that is substantially different from those in the past. So much so, that "it has the potential to stand-alone as a new form of government" according to Mehrotra. This privilege comes with an enormous responsibility - as was reflected in a number of stories about how YouTube operated in the midst of the Arab Spring.
HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD, AND THINK ABOUT WHICH PROBLEMS TO TACKLE?
Mehrotra shared 3 key points:
1. Find a tailwind
Mehrotra has worked on projects that have been backed by tailwinds, and ones that haven’t. A tailwind is when a natural industry momentum is heading a particular direction and one can align themselves with it. He’s learned from experience that aligning with a tailwind is a far more effective use of time. He explained that when you find a tailwind “everything you do begins to work and compound. The tailwind covers an enormous amount of mistakes. Products that are created on tailwinds can be deeply flawed…but the demand is incredibly deep, and the trend is so clear that everything just seems to fall into place.”
2. Identify your unique thesis
Mehrotra encourages everyone to find an important truth that they uniquely believe in. It’s different from an idea that’s obvious and has been thought of by many people. Identify a unique truth, even if that means you’ll have to go against the grain.
He urges that sharing ideas never hurts either. “You never know when someone’s going to hand you an opportunity to work on an idea, in a way you never thought possible.” said Mehrotra.
3. Focus on your marginal utility
Shishir relayed advice he received from an old mentor when he was debating leaving YouTube a few years back. His mentor asked him to make 3 lists:
List 1: What you hope to accomplish in the next twelve months.
List 2: Find the subset of List 1 where you are quite confident if you left, it wouldn’t happen.
List 3: Now look at List 2. Write down everything from that list where if it didn’t happen, you would kick yourself for years after.
He said, when the third list is empty, you should leave. He refers to this as your marginal utility. Mehrotra said to “go find something else that maximizes your marginal utility.”
When you put these three things together and “when you see those things align you should jump in”.
IS YOUTUBE THE NEXT NOISE BOX, JUST AS TV WAS?
One of the class members posed this question to Shishir. He quickly reframed this as the "nutritious vs. delicious" question. He explained that it is easier to create a “delicious product”, as almost every tool has a value that is tantalizing. Optimizing for the “nutritious” value of a product or tool is where the challenge lies - a problem that many companies face. Finding a balance between the "nutritious value" and a "delicious value" in a product can be incredibly difficult.
It’s good to break this down into two things:
1. Decide if being "nutritious" is good for business?
Mehrotra explained that "for some businesses it is absolutely bad... whereas for YouTube, being nutritious is very good." He then added that “people will invest a certain amount of time if a product is delicious, but a completely different amount of time, if a product is nutritious.” If being nutritious fits into the framework and mission of the company, then that is an important starting point.
2. How do you impact it?
Mehrotra’s answer: Measure it. As with anything, the best way to affect change is to measure it. For YouTube this was challenging but they worked on it - for example by trying to ask users “which is a better use of an hour of your time: exercise, television, reading a book or watching YouTube” and then measuring the change in that metric over time.
WHEN SHOULD YOU START A COMPANY?
Another audience question. Mehrotra urges people to ask themselves two questions:
1. Do you have an idea that you can’t imagine not working on?
2. Do you have a person that you can't imagine not working with?
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you must start your company. If not, then don't waste your time addressing a problem that you are ill-equipped to take on.
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS TO IDENTIFY PROBLEMS WORTH TACKLING, AND WHAT ARE SOME TAILWINDS?
Mehrotra explained that when you have your thesis, you should be willing to share it, so you don’t keep yourself from the input that you want. He recommends compiling a list titled: “Things I would like to see different in the world” and using it as a springboard. This way, identifying problems that are important to you, and riding along the tailwind will fall in place naturally. As far as tailwinds are concerned Mehrotra identified a few for us including: advertising and subscriptions, the quantified self, and the internet of things. He recently left YouTube to start a new company though was coy in describing which tailwind he chose to follow himself...