As an Electronic Arts’ intern eight years ago, I asked Bing Gordon then the chief creative officer and the only remaining early founding team member, a question about vision. “How can I know where the puck is going to be?” While he delivered a satisfactory response, two weeks later I received an email from Bing saying, “I answered that question poorly a few weeks and I wanted to try again.” A few weeks ago Bing joined me at Startup Grind in Silicon Valley where he delivered some great advice that has become one of his trademarks.
In 2010 Mark Pincus called KPCB general partner Bing Gordon (look for a bald guy on the front row) one of the world’s “great CEO coaches” supporting founders on the boards of companies like Amazon, Zynga, Klout, and Zazzle. Here are some excepts from our recent interview.
Derek: Tell us about your family and where you grew up?
BING: So I grew up in a suburb of Detroit. My dad was a first generation Scotsman and his dad was a janitor. And he was somebody that believed the grass was always greener and didn’t have, kind of, context or resources. Thanks, Dad! We were the first to move in to a subdivision built out of farmlands surrounding Detroit, so I grew up kind of in the creek. Playing sports with my brother who remembers growing up in the House of Pain. So I had a good Midwestern upbringing. I didn’t work in an office before going to Stanford business school, but I did think I was a pretty damn good teenage caddy. I played hockey and lacrosse at the university level and played both, kind of, for most of my adult life.
Derek: What was your plan heading to college?
BING: Well I went to Yale thinking I was going to be a math major and a writer, and I got there and Yale was lousy at math and it seemed socially irrelevant, so I kind of became an athlete-near-college-dropout. I realized I was flunking a third of my classes going into the final. My proud accomplishments in college other than sports achievements was I wrote poetry. Kind of light verse, in a coffee shop, and Peter Faulk when he was doing Columbo came, and liked it so much he took me out drinking that night. That was kind of fun. And my other one is I hitchhiked to 49 states in the U.S. while a college student. I wasn’t able to hitchhike to Hawaii.
Derek: What did you do coming out of college?
BING: I was an actor in New York City. And at the same time I was a busboy at Max’s Kansas City, kind of the first glitter bar in New York where Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls played…I did that for a year and I realized that professional theater kind of sucks because you don’t get to work when you want, and you make your name in bad plays. After that I kind of always wanted to be a writer. I still think that book-writing is the most honorable avocation. I think it’s a pretty shitty business. And even though fewer people want to read all the time, I still think that is the product that carries the most honor, in my mind. So I started doing various odd jobs trying to make enough money that I could afford to write. After a couple years commercial fishing and tree planting, I got enough money, I had a ’56 pink Pontiac Chieftain and an electric typewriter, and I sat down to write and I realized, I hate writing. I only did it because teachers needed it for school. It’s better than doing other stuff in school, but any of you who are writers know it’s like ripping your heart out one word at a time.
How did you meet Trip Hawkins and how was Electronic Arts founded?
BING: I’m at Stanford Business School, and I went there because I was good with math, and otherwise I was going to be dead-ended. And Peter Keane, a decision science professor, asked, “Okay, you Stanford MBAs, let’s have a real decision: If money were no object, what would you do?” And I said, “You know that movie Westworld? I would like to create, inside computers, an adult Disneyland where you play out real stories.” The room went silent, and the MBAs kind of were embarrassed. The professor comes up to me later and says, “There’s somebody with an answer that sounded like that in one of my other classes, and you should see him.” That was Trip Hawkins. I played on the university champion touch football team with him, but I’d never talked with him because he placed out of all the classes I’m in. He was not the 100 SAT point-deficient MBA. So we went and talked at Stanford. We ended up living together, played a lot of games together on our free Channel F, and I made so much money fishing that I bought a hot tub, so we had a hot tub and a Channel F. Let me tell you, we were party central for Stanford Business School!
Derek: What did your family think when you joined a videogame company?
BING: You know, it wasn’t any worse than what I was already doing. I left Stanford Business School…I worked half-time at Intel while I was in business school…and the other half of my time I drove to Moor End to date the woman who’s been my wife ever since. My avowed goal was, in five years to start a consumer tech ad agency to replace Regis McKenna. Regis McKenna was a great PR guy. But I thought, okay, whatever, get a couple years of experience and eat their lunch, because they do everything wrong. And then Trip said, “I’m going to start a software company in five years.” Well, I actually did start an ad agency six years later – it’s called Goodby-Silverstein, it’s in San Francisco – and I pulled them out of their work and joined them for one day, and then I realized that grown-up businesspeople in advertising give up their self-respect about age 40, and I intended to live past then. But the game business in the ‘80s was pretty low-creative. I realized early on that I like being with world-class creative people, and they were not in the video game business in the ‘80s.
Derek: At what point did you realize you were onto something big?
BING: We did a million-unit seller, and the first time I realized it was different I was getting in a cab in New York. This is a little later, but it was a cab in New York with an EA sports logo, and the guy turns to me and goes, “EA Sports. It’s in the game!” And here I am sheepishly counting the quarters to make sure I’ve got enough to tip the dude – I don’t know if 15% is enough in New York – and he turns to me and loves the logo; kind of gives me an emotional bear hug. So that was when a million seemed like ubiquity. Even five years ago when I started a venture – venture capitalists, if you had 500,000 people coming to a web site, that seemed like a tipping point. The bad news is, the new tipping point’s ten million. Back then one million was an unheard-of number. There was so much friction in distribution.
Derek: How did the team have such foresight to see 30-years ahead of your time?
BING: I talked to you about the kind of blind confidence. We believed in interactivity, and we believed in learning by doing, as opposed to learning by listening and sitting there. And we thought there would be this crossover from the magic of movies to games. And the games had interactivity. We didn’t know exactly how. We thought it was going to be based more on visual fidelity and audio fidelity and maybe stories. But where that started from was that games are going to be a new art form. You can start with a big vision that electrifies people and let other people around you help invent it, then check in. If you’ve got a vision, you have to check in: Are you delivering it in new ways? Are you still focused on it? Are you still taking risks to try to get there?
Derek: Why does a founder need “animal energy?”
BING: You need charisma and animal energy. Way more important than intellectual savvy and great memory. Animal energy is the ability to bend the will of other people while standing up. I think Steve Balmer’s got it. A lot of leadership is kind of like a tuning fork – getting everybody on the same wavelength. There’s just no substitute for the ability to work hard and be in a good mood. So when I see somebody in a workplace that can’t help but smile and compliment people, I just tell them, “Don’t ever lose that.” Startups and the creative process is so hard. You don’t want Nervous Nellies and Snarky Sams. Somebody who is uplifting – that’s worth 20 IQ points. And if you’ve got the 20 IQ points, you owe it to yourself to be really happy, because then you get 20 more. I work with John Doer, over at KPCB who kind of runs up and down the Grand Canyon. Sounds kind of crazy. I work with Mark Pinkas who surfs every weekend. Most people that I work with around here who are leaders have extraordinary energy.
Derek: You’re one of the best CEO coaches in the world. Lay your best advice on us.
BING: Most of business can get explained by high school. If you were a fan of how things worked in high school, whether you were in the middle of how things worked or not, the same kind of, you know, nervousness and vying for attention and having trouble getting your needs met, and being overworked and over social – it’s still what’s driving the people you’re doing business with. So anytime you run into a complicated situation, imagine it’s Glee and it will all be explainable. The next thing is – the most important thing for people in their 20s – my experience is everyone in their twenties wastes a year. You do it from bad choices. Kind of working in local maxima. Everyone in their twenties should have a mentor who – all they’ll want from you is thanks and feedback for when it’s working, and they have to believe they have your best interests at heart. It’s hard to get that from an investor. It’s hard to believe or even test that an investor will put your needs ahead of theirs. Most won’t. Money is very corrupting. So get a mentor. Next thing is, I believe that there are a lot of pathways to success. And the people who succeed have a higher likelihood if they’re doing something they’re passionate about. In almost all walks of life, opportunities are created. People who are doing something they like will just pay more attention. So if you do something – this is kind of a negative for enterprise software – but if you’re doing something that matches a hobby, you’re going to have redoubled time and attention.