5 1/2 Questions for Tom Byers

CJ Cornell
14 min readJun 19, 2022

Tom Byers

Entrepreneurship Professor, Stanford University and Faculty Director Stanford Technology Ventures Program

At Stanford University since 1995, Professor Tom Byers focuses on education regarding principled entrepreneurship and responsible technology innovation. He is the first holder of the Entrepreneurship Professorship endowed chair in the School of Engineering and a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education. He has been a faculty director since the inception of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), which serves as the entrepreneurship center for the School of Engineering including its Mayfield Fellows Program, the Stanford eCorner, and its PEAK applied ethics project. He has also been a key advisor to the Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Climate projects to better connect entrepreneurship education with national security and sustainability challenges. He hosted 50 Roundtables on Entrepreneurship Education (REE) on five continents over 15 years.

Tom is a lead author of the Technology Ventures: From Idea to Enterprise textbook from McGraw-Hill, now in its 5th edition. Tom is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the board of trustees at Menlo College.

His service on advisory boards includes Harvard Business School and Conservation International. In the past, Tom was a visiting professor at London Business School, University College London, Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology. He was a recipient of the prestigious Gordon Prize by the National Academy of Engineering in the USA and Stanford University’s Gores Award, which is their highest honor for excellence in teaching.

Tom was executive vice president and general manager of Symantec Corporation during its formation and started his career at Accenture. Tom holds a BS in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and an MBA from UC Berkeley. He also earned a PhD in Business Administration (Management Science) at UC Berkeley. Read more about Professor Byers at https://profiles.stanford.edu/thomas-byers and http://linkedin.com/in/tombyers

5 1/2 Questions for Tom Byers

1- How did you get into your current role — what was the beginning and progression?

Well the most uncomfortable question is always the first one, because I would always prefer not to talk about me. My progression is the following: I was fortunate enough to get a chance to go to University of California. Berkeley — for most of my 20s [laughs].

I started as a high school senior in Georgia and then transferred out to Berkeley to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering and eventually an MBA, and then eventually a PhD that was kind of a combination of the two schools of (business and engineering) in something called called Operations Research and Management Science. I didn’t realize at the time but it gave me credibility in the world of academia. Then I worked in Silicon Valley for a little over a decade, and had lots of success at Symantec as we got the whole industry up and running— we call it Cybersecurity now, but it was antivirus stuff at that time. I was executive vice president there.

Later, I actually started a company with a fellow who invented spreadsheets — Dan Bricklin , the inventor of the first spreadsheet program Visicalc. And that was something to work with him, as well as with a fellow who had been at Microsoft and others — we started a company called Slate, (in Scottsdale, AZ — near your home base, CJ,) and we were located in Boston and Silicon Valley simultaneously. That unfortunately didn’t work out, since it was in the early days of pen and finger computer.

That’s an interesting one to point out because that’s where I learned how to fail.

Frankly, I wish I had failed more gracefully at the time, and that’s a re-occurring theme. But, you know, things happen for a reasons. This was 30 years ago. Shortly after that I was able to get a chance to to try out being an adjunct professor at both Berkeley and Stanford for a year, and all of a sudden I had opportunities to do it full time. I chose Stanford, and I’ve been there for now officially full time for 27+ years. I’m really glad I had the academic background and credibility with the PhD, but also battle tested with 10 years of the success of Symantec being one of the great software companies of that decade, as well as the lessons learned from having a pretty spectacular failure. So that’s the way it worked out, and it and it really gave me the motivation and also the sort of street cred and body armor to give it a go in academia.

“Failing Gracefully” comes from a term that [Author and Harvard Professor] Tom Eisenmann uses — which is really fantastic, from his new book Why Startups Fail. Wow. He had studied all these hundreds of Harvard graduates that had started companies that did not make it, and he boiled it down to sort of six behaviors. He said: No matter what the reason was that something failed, as long as you do it with dignity — and it’s hard to do when everything you’ve dreamed about is coming apart. So, you know, there are some things I’m not terribly proud of that happened as we were winding down the company. I didn’t do anything unethical .. no laws were broken! [chuckles], but for my own standards. I was young and I look back and I was thinking I could have handled it could have been a little bit more classy as things were going off the rails. I was so burned out, and so disappointed. Yes, lots of excuses, but no excuses And it’s taken me about — my goodness it’s about 30 years at this point — to appreciate that term he uses. If you going to fail, fine, but fail gracefully. That’s the lesson.

If you going to fail, fine, but fail gracefully. That’s the lesson.

We did an interview with [Professor Eisenmann] on the Stanford eCorner podcast series, where he goes off for about seven minutes on this very topic of failing gracefully it’s just beautiful. [here’s a link to the eCorner “Why Startups Fail” interview].

2- Who is your favorite business writer — why?

Thank you for that … I love these questions and this one in particular because there are some I do not know personally — and so there’s that bucket — but I decided I’m going to share the ones I know personally. And it’s not self serving, because I’m generally blown away by what they have written. So they became my favorites. And they happen to be folks that I’ve worked with for a while.

Within that there’s two segments : One is scholarly writing, you know refereed journal articles, stuff like that isn’t maybe so widespread, but is certainly part of that whole world about academic scholarly research — and her name is Kathy Eisenhardt. She has about as many citations as any business strategy Professor ever — and that includes some pretty big names, you know, like Michael Porter or Clay Christensen.

You’ll be blown away — just to go to Google Scholar and read her stuff. I mean it’s amazing that for decades she’s been putting out this incredibly groundbreaking material with her PhD students on strategy entrepreneurship, technology, organizations, it’s amazing. She might be the most cited strategy professor ever.

But then there are two other colleagues — I know we’re tooting our own horn — but I gotta tell you I love everything they’ve ever written. They’ve written a bunch of trade books both of them.

One of them is Tina Seelig who wrote this book that is quite famous: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, as well as well as some additional books. They don’t use the word entrepreneurship, but they’re all about entrepreneurship. The other book is Creativity Rules. And so, I was lucky to work side by side with her for last 20 years. She’s off running another part of Stanford right now, but she was my operating partner, if you will, at our center between 2000–2020, and I got to be with her as she was writing all these amazing trade books.

So you’ve got on one side Kathy Eisenhardt and deep research, and then Tina Seelig who (is also research based) but also authentic, credible [and writing books more accessible by the general public]. And then there’s Bob Sutton — who has done an amazing job in between — his books are remarkable from — and I shouldn’t say this title while being recorded — but he wrote the very famous book The No Asshole Rule — and he has another, Scaling up Excellence, which is amazing as well. So those are my favorite writers I just happened to still work with.

And so, again, sorry about being self serving but they’re that good — and makes me proud about our center.

3- Who would you recommend new entrepreneurs look to, as a role model, of how to act?

Well, I also like this question because I had two choices to make: One was recommend somebody I don’t know — that means I only know them by some sort of network connection or from reading about them — their celebrity or publicity. So instead, I’ll choose two people I do know, because down to their core they’re authentic, and they believe n the same themes that I do, and those that our center is emphasizing now — and that is to be driven by values.

The first is is Heidi Roizen — who you interviewed, CJ. I’ve known Heidi since the software industry was young, when I was doing Symantec she was doing T/Maker. The business software industry and personal computing in that decade was very small, so everybody knew each other. We became fast friends and we’ve now known each other 35 years. I asked her to join our teaching team about 10–15 years ago, and she’s still teaching — so as an executive, VC, entrepreneur, or teacher — I mean she’s incredible. And she’s also really been responsible along with several other core women of that era, of starting to put a put a dent on this glass ceiling stuff. And she’s still [having this impact] to this day. And as you witnessed in your interview, she’s something very special. So I’m glad our students get a chance to see that live. And so, as a role model, Heidi is perfect for the generation that includes me — a sort of this later generation, late stage — entrepreneurs. Or just call us “contributors.”

And then the other person, who is more mid career: His name is Josh Reeves, and he is the CEO of Gusto. Remarkable!

In fact, he’s got a, a tagline — he wouldn’t put it like that — but he’s positioned in it, but lot of people often call him the Value CEO. From the get-go from starting that company 10 years ago — he focused his time on the values of what Gusto was going to be all about.

On paper sounds like a really dry company- payroll, HR benefits systems — but I dare anybody go read about the company, or better yet just go watch, Josh — any clips you can find on the web, talking about what it means to be a humanistic. I mean, this is my term — I’ll call him a “humanistic entrepreneur.” A values-driven CEO. It’s remarkable how the company has grown from just the three who started it to, I don’t know, 2,000–3,000 people, multiple offices. Great valuation. Great Investors. 200,000 businesses use their stuff. Josh has done this with a emphasis on principles, values, ethical entrepreneurship, that I think he’s a perfect role model. So between the two of them [Heidi and Josh] — one sort of later-career stage and the other mid-career. I think they’re perfect. And I know them both well and I know how authentic they are.

It’s too bad we don’t hear more about people like that, you know, especially when we were seeing — and even Hollywood’s putting out all these amazing short series entertainment pieces about the entrepreneurs that were not role models. I won’t mention the names because, while it makes for great entertainment and their stories are told to dramatize it, but it’s it misses the fact that there’s so many people like Heidi Roizen, and Josh Reeves, that are positive role models.

4- What major success story did you simply not see coming at all?

Well I could talk about an industry or business and tech, which I’ve lived in now for 40 years. That would be fun, but I decided to think, well, you know, you have people much more qualified to talk about things like that, because I don’t pay that much attention to what company is hot what’s not. I’ll just stay in academia — and I’m going to tell a story that I know really well because again it’s authentic:

So when Steve Blank was introduced to me. He was teaching class at Berkeley, and we put him a team that was teaching a sort of business planning class at Stanford, but as I got to know him he says “I got this method I’m developing,” which of course grew into Customer Development, and the Lean Startup method.

Now, I’ll have to say: I like our lab — I mean our centers always acted like a lab, the Entrepreneurship Center — that I’ve helped grow and nurture over the last 25 years. How was I to know that his method was going to take off and be what it is today?

So for Steve and all the people associated ( Alex Osterwalder of Business Model Canvas, Eric Ries with the Lean Startup ) — I got a front row seat to it all, because it was Steve’s class — sponsored by our center — that rolled it into a package that could be adopted by NSF or iCorp — and all these other ways that it’s gone supernova over the last 10 years, including you know its derivatives that now focus on hacking for defense hacking, for climate — we sponsor those courses too, at Stanford. All of a sudden he was the goose that laid the golden egg, and our center would be the platform, or you know, ‘the source code’ that was being tweaked all through the last decade.

And I just didn’t see just that coming — but we’ve enjoyed every second of it being the home of the original the original methods. Who would have thought the word “Pivot” — that we thought was a basketball term — that “Pivot” would become part of the lexicon of just ordinary life? Politicians use it for crying out loud! And who would have thought MVP would be something that wasn’t just Most Valuable Player?

So it’s just incredible. And I didn’t see the impact coming. And now it’s the core of tech entrepreneurship. Maybe some people don’t use the method per se — although it’s crazy not to do scientific method when trying to find a business model. They may not say they are a Lean Startup, but they certainly use the language. If nothing else, they use the terms.

[re: Steve Blank] — I think the real secret of him is the community he’s built in Washington — with people. You just can’t get government to buy onto this stuff. He’s done a great job there. He’s got educators believing in it and he’s got business believing and everybody. There’s lots of skeptics and they’re ‘like oh it’s not much … it’s just common sense.’ Well, you know what? That’s the best stuff possible [methods so clear that they seem like common sense] — But I think his community building and connecting has been just as fabulous as the actual method.

5 — If you could start a new venture tomorrow, what industry or technology would it be?

I struggled with this, because I’d have to pick one, I know, but there would be one of two choices:

One is a field I don’t know that much about, but where my older brother [Brook Byers] is very famous that field, bless his heart — and that’s Biotech. So I’d probably ask to start something with him because he has been super successful in biotech investing for decades. But it’d be [specifically] around this thing that everybody tells me about: That CRISPR — and I love this quote by one particular biotech CEO — CRISPR “Is the Kitty Hawk moment in biotech.”

Now, lots of happened the last 40 years. With the mapping in the genome — and we’re going way back to Genentech being founded (at which my brother was part) — and recombinant DNA. But let’s just fast forward. When I hear things like CRISPR is the Kitty Hawk moment I think ‘oh wow Here comes a platform shift.’

I don’t know anything more about the science but when you smell something like that, you just know it’s really really interesting. So that’s sort of a technology push one. That’s my one choice technology push.

I think the other one where there’s absolutely is a market pull — and that’s in climate and sustainability. I mean, the clock is ticking.

These are gigantic markets [climate change]. I know we heard all that 10–15–20 years ago, people lost their shirt on green tech. But now it just seems like these technologies are cost competitive now. Whether you factor in the, what economists call ‘externalities’, or not. You put a price on carbon or not, everything seems to be getting so cost competitive, that there is this moment right now I’d say okay, that’s such a gigantic market — it’d be fun to start something there.

5–1/2: …. And … the bonus question:

If you could secretly be any superhero — which one would you be, and why?

I was going to beg you to not make me answer that! So then, here’s what I’ve come up with — I’m going to break the rules — so please, don’t throw me under the rule bus.

If it had to be me — I’d be Superman — just because I grew up watching, whatever the incarnation of him was on television at the time. Or maybe I would say “Super-Person” at this point — because I’d want to be a mix between Superman and Wonder Woman. A superhero that is fighting crime and, you know — modern day there’s lots of injustice out there — so I’d like I wish I could go after the injustice that continues to pervade our societies.

But my real superhero was a live person who just died way too early — when I was in college — and that’s our mother, who did not have a chance to go to college. She was born in 1914, in New York City, and was just this incredible advocate for education. So my three brothers and I — we have something like I don’t know 9, 10 or 11 degrees between us — and they’ve been very successful in business and I’v done okay in education. She was our superhero, who advocated education when we were just middle class in Atlanta. She was just an incredible superhero — Mom.

For more 5–1/2 Questions Interviews, see:

5–1/2 Questions” from CJ Cornell is a new series of mini-interviews with leaders in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem around the world. In less than a half-dozen short questions, we’ll try to learn more about each leader, and what makes them successful and unique.

The questions are designed a little like a “Magic Eight Ball” (my GenX colleagues know what this is): A set of questions, posed at random. Plus, at least one question, or half-question, is designed to find out something about their personality that most people might never suspect (I mean expect).

CJ Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, investor, advisor, mentor, author, speaker, and educator. As an entrepreneur, CJ Cornell was a founder of more than a dozen successful startup ventures that collectively attracted over $250 million in private funding; created nearly a thousand new jobs; and launched dozens of innovative consumer, media, and communications products — that have exceeded $3 billion in revenues.

He is the author of the bestsellingThe Age of Metapreneurship — A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship.”

And the upcoming “The Startup Brain Trust — A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Mentors that Help them Become Great.”

Follow him @cjcornell or visit: www.cjcornell.com

CJ Cornell

Professor of #Entrepreneurship & Digital Media. Serial/Parallel Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, Mentor, Angel Investor, #VC. Crowdfunding & #Startups Evangelist