The tech entrepreneur and Director of the Yellow Accelerator at Snap Inc., Mike Su, chatted with host Michael Redd about how his career started with a comic book company, why taking the right risks strengthens your entrepreneurial drive, and choosing “the road less traveled.”
This moment has shown the importance of when leaders rise and leaders falter, in times of crisis … When the future’s uncertain, who are the ones that are willing to have difficult conversations, to point to things that are hopeful, roll up our sleeves, and bring the people forward?” – Mike Su
Yellow is an incubator described as a launchpad for creatives and entrepreneurs, and “… an ecosystem designed to serve companies at the intersection of creativity and technology.”
The Silicon Beach tech influencer is also the former Chief Product Officer at mitú, and Head of Product at Upworthy.
If you’re a fan of the show don’t forget to Subscribe to see new episodes, and Rate or Review us wherever you tune in!
In this episode Michael and Mike talked about:
- The difference between working at a startup and a larger company
- How failure is the breeding ground of innovation
- Takeaways on the importance of diversity in tech and entrepreneurialism
- How a global pandemic is showing the way forward for leaders
- Why a startup is like being in a rowboat
- What “the process” means for Mike’s life mission
- And more!
Mike: This moment is showing the importance and showing where leaders rise and where leaders falter in times of crisis. It's easy when things are going well to say, "I'm a leader. I'm going to go give talks. I'm going to give speeches and TED talks," and whatnot. But it's in times of crisis when the future is uncertain, who are the ones who are unwilling to have difficult conversations to point to the things that are hopeful and to roll up our sleeves and bringing people forward and whether that's on a company basis or on a community basis, I think leadership really is showing up right now and being the thing that holds us together.
Michael Redd: Hey everybody, this is Michael Redd. Welcome to the Betting on Yourself podcast, where I interview successful entrepreneurs, athletes and other top performers, who rose to the top, took success into their own hands, and bet on themselves. I was introduced to Mike a couple years ago by a mutual friend, and was immediately impressed by his authenticity and passion. He and I share a lot of the same values and beliefs, including a love for serving entrepreneurs. Mike is the director of Yellow at Snap and previously served as the Chief Productive Officer at Me Too, as well as the Head of Product at Upworthy. He continues to be a major influencer in the Silicon Valley tech space and shows no sign of slowing down. I've really been looking forward to having this chance to connect and talk about his impressive career and how he bets on himself time and time again. Listen to his amazing story that started with a comic book store and learn how taking the right risks strengthened his entrepreneurial drive.
Michael Redd: I'm grateful for this particular podcast because me and you have been talking and sharing hearts for the last couple years. I couldn't wait for this podcast to, like you say, get it on wax. We share a lot of the same values and a lot of topic, across on life. Your resume is really incredible. What you've done in business, Silicon Beach area in particular, is remarkable. I believe you were at Razorfish at one point, Upworthy, and on and on and on. We met a couple years ago through a dear friend of ours, Tim Staples.
Mike: Tim Staples, yep.
Michael Redd: Shout out to Tim Staples at Shareability.
Mike: Our guy.
Michael Redd: Our guy, our guy. He immediately threw you to mind when we had conversations about meeting great people in the Silicon Beach area, tech world. We met and it was incredible from the first time we met. When did we meet? We met at one the hotels. Was it the Shutters?
Mike: Yeah, yeah. It was at Shutters. I remember that first conversation. It was immediately a lot of the same passion for serving entrepreneurs, a lot of the same values and everything else. I was like, this is cool. I like this guy. Every conversation I have with you is thought provoking, pushes me, inspires me, so always appreciate our interactions. It started with that first coffee meeting that we had with Tim at Shutters.
Michael Redd: Yeah. You've become a great brother to me man. Beyond just business, just in life. For all the listeners out there, Mike is the Director of the incubator out of SnapChat, called Yellow. We'll get to that in a moment. Again, has an incredible, impeccable reputation in the Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach area. I want to ask you a couple questions to start off our conversation. Me and you have talked about this before. Mike, what has it meant to you to bet on yourself?
Mike: It's a great question as I was thinking about coming on here. I think it's really putting aside what other people perceive of you and being willing to go out on your own. I think we grow up a lot, certainly I did. Growing up, you're taught this linear progression of how things should go. From the moment you get into school, it's like, all right I'm going from first grade to second grade to third grade. You graduate and you get a job and you move up in the job. There's progression that you go. A lot of times that first bet that you take on yourself is being willing to break from that. There's a lot of uncertainty with that, being willing to branch out on your own and take a risk that might set you back from that path, that might set you in a different direction.
Mike: For me, I started two companies in the past, One, as you know, when I was much younger, I started a comic book company actually. Then another in 2011 or 12, I started a gaming company. Both those times were kind of risky because I was moving on a good track with my career and being willing to step aside and go, I really feel like this is an opportunity to go after and go after that. Even if they don't work out, really being okay with that, trusting more in the process of doing the startup then necessarily banking on a result. In both those times, it was scary to jump out and break out from what the railroad tracks that had been set for you, and to go out on your own.
Michael Redd: Those are the two moments that stand out the most when you were younger and started your first company and then the second company. The comic book, what was the name of the company, the comic book?
Mike: It was Sumo Comics. I grew up in Asia, reading a lot of comic books. Comic books, to me in Asia, cover every slice of life. It's as diverse as movies are. Whereas in the US, it's a lot more superhero centric. So I felt like there was an opportunity to tell a lot of stories. There was a basketball comic book, giving my love for basketball. It didn't really go anywhere, but I was young twenties and went out and tried to do that. It was a tremendous learning experience for me.
Mike: Then the second time, I started a gaming company after I was running product at Break Media. We started a gaming studio there and I just go excited about the idea of mobile games and the opportunities there. So I partnered with a friend of mine, Jeff Mazuto, who's an incredible artist. He's the producer of the Batman cartoon and really renowned comic book artist. We wanted to create stories and characters through mobile games. This was just as mobile games were taking off, so we were really excited about that space. Two of us and another friend got together, worked out of my garage, and started making games together. Raised a little bit of money and it was a tremendous experience. We did it for a couple years, ultimately ran out of money and learned a ton of things along the way. But that was just a really formative experience for me.
Michael Redd: Where did that go-getter, take a risk on life, mentality come from? I know you revere your mom and dad and you've got an incredible background of where you've moved to over the years, even as a young kid. Did that come from them, having your dad be an entrepreneur and whatnot?
Mike: Absolutely. I grew up, I was born in the states, lived in the states for seven years and then moved to Taiwan. So from second grade to eleventh grade, lived in Taiwan. Halfway through my junior year, my dad who was in the technology industry in Taiwan, decided to move us back to the states and wanted to open up his own restaurant in Philly. So he took a huge risk and opened up a restaurant in Philly, completely switching fields. I worked at that restaurant, packing take out, washing dishes and all that, learned so many lessons about entrepreneurship through him. But I think a lot of that entrepreneurial spirit comes from his willingness to take risks and bet on himself. Seeing him modeling that for me really inspired me to be able to take risks as well.
Michael Redd: You worked at the restaurant. That's interesting because what are some of the lessons you learned from that experience?
Mike: So many of the experiences that inform my journey through entrepreneurship were learned there, unbeknownst to me, just by osmosis, by being around the environment. I think one of the early things, my parents' restaurant, they wanted to make it a little bit different than the traditional Chinatown restaurant. It dictated a different cooking style which was a little bit different and controversial when there was a given formula. One of the first lessons I learned... He had hired a head chef. As we were moving towards opening, we were doing trials and whatnot, he realized that chef going back to the old playbooks instead of embracing the vision that my dad had. So just a few weeks before opening the restaurant my dad actually fired him. That was a huge risk. We're heading towards opening, all this money invested, and to part ways with the head chef was a really big move.
Mike: Number one, that lesson taught me not being afraid to make difficult decisions. Those decisions only get more painful when you delay that process. The other part of it was along the way, one of the guys that had just come to the restaurant, he didn't have as much experience, but he was hungry and he was dedicated. He showed this thirst for knowledge. My dad promoted him to become head chef. This guy busted his butt off. One of the stories that really summed it up was one night in the back of the restaurant, the plumbing had busted. So literally there was sewage spewing out in the back of the parking lot.
Michael Redd: Wow.
Mike: My dad had to go out with a shovel, and me being his son also got out with a shovel, and we were literally in the back shoveling sewage, a really glamorous life. But late at night, that chef also joined us. He didn't have to. My dad owned the restaurant. It was his restaurant, so my dad had to do it. I had to because I was my dad's son. But the chef, because my dad took a bet on him, really felt a loyalty. I really learned a lot about leadership. My dad was able to inspire that type of leadership, spotting the right talent, betting on them, and being willing to. When you do that, you build a team around you that's really willing to go with you through thick and thin.
Mike: So I think those are really important lessons for me, observing the way my dad led the business.
Michael Redd: Getting out of that story, I get something called hard work as well. How valuable is it to have hard working, hungry people around you?
Mike: Yeah, it's what pushes us. Also going through that, you realize... When you do some of those things, you realize how to appreciate sitting in front of a computer all day is not that bad. It beats shoveling poo at midnight in the back of a parking lot. I think that really always gives me an appreciation for where I came from. I went to college in Philly near where my parents' restaurant was so a lot of times on nights and weekends, I would go back, when everybody else was getting to have fun and going to parties, I was having to go back home and pack take out. I think that gave me a lot of appreciation for the privilege and the work that I get to do now. Also driving me to push harder to really maximize the opportunities that I've been blessed with.
Michael Redd: Dude, for those who don't know Mike, Mike is one of the most humble people in the world. He has his Computer Science degree from Penn, I believe.
Michael Redd: You go from that to shoveling poo. That's an incredible process. I think a lot of people see where you are now and see where people who have achieved great heights in their life and careers and don't understand the process to get to that point. Talk about that process.
Mike: You say the word process and not just because I'm a Sixer fan, but I trust the process. That is a word that really lives with me more and more, especially the older I get. I think, along the way, you realize a lot of things in life, while being smart, being talented, and being driven is really important, there's also a lot of things that are completely outside of your control. A lot of times we focus so much on the outcomes, but we're really not as in control, to me, of our outcomes, as we'd like to think we are. A lot of times we hang it all on this outcome that may not happen. To me, it's a lot more focusing on the process along the way. Am I doing things that I think are valuable. Am I doing things that I think are positive and beneficial? Am I making the right decisions according to my values? I think I've learned along the way, the more I focus on those things, all along the way, I'm having a very fulfilled career and experience, whether or not I get to the exact outcome I was shooting for in the first place.
Michael Redd: Although you know tech, I would quantify you as a creative. Is that a fair assessment?
Mike: Yeah. It's funny because growing up, I was always drawing. I loved drawing. I was always making videos with my friends growing up. We would take our GI Joe's and make stop motion videos with our cameras. But I felt like when I was going to college, my dad encouraged me to find a practical career. Especially for an Asian American growing up, arts and creativity are not exactly practical careers. So I moved much more towards computer science, because that was also something I loved. At that time, never realizing that those two could intersect. A decade later, online video was becoming a thing, unbeknownst to the 21 year old me, these two passions would be able to intersect later on in my career in ways that simply didn't exist when I was coming out of college.
Michael Redd: How did you wind up getting into the Silicon Valley beach area, LA area, from Philly?
Mike: Originally I kept thinking I would end up in Silicon Valley. That's where all the tech opportunities were. But I had a chance to join a company called Semantech. I moved out here in 2003. It was an enterprise security company, so not creative at all. But that's what brought me out to LA. At that time the tech scene was completely different. There were only a couple big tech companies, like Semantech and EarthLink, and not much startup activity. From there, I transitioned to a role leading product at a company called Break Media, which then became Defy Media. That brought me into much more of the startup tech scene here in LA.
Michael Redd: And it's grown since you first moved there right? It's booming.
Mike: Yeah, it's been really incredible to see the tech scene evolve. I think really, initially, as with many evolving cities, we saw the success with Silicon Valley and we want to replicate that. There's so many strengths and diversities of industries here in LA. We have all the worlds' greatest storytellers here in Hollywood. We have the worlds' greatest fashion designers. We have jet propulsion lab and aerospace. We have such a diversity of industries, that I think that as technology has evolved, not just the building of technology but the application of it, where LA has really found a footing is being able to take technology and tap into all of this domain expertise that lives here in the different parts of LA.
Michael Redd: Having worked in both big corporations, big companies, and startups, talk about those dynamics, those two different dynamics.
Mike: It's a great question and something I've definitely I've observed firsthand. The big difference is, I think the exciting thing about a startup is there are a lot of things in your control, especially having that, we're building this from the ground up feeling. We're taking on the world. You can move quickly. At a bigger company, like at Semantech, when I joined there was 2,000 people. When I left there was 20,000 people. There are a lot more political dynamics at play, but at the same time, there are also more resources to move and have big impact more quickly. The same decision you make in the early stage of your startup, you might change it from 10,000 users to 20,000 user, which is incredibly exciting at that startup phase. But a lot of times, for example, if you're at Snap, at a platform, we have 230 plus million daily active users. Every decision we make can impact culture, can impact a huge user base. I think there are pros and cons to each one. But for me, I've been very fortunate to be in both environments and get to appreciate both of those pros and cons.
Michael Redd: Wow, it's almost like the pulse can be felt more or is more tangible with the startup.
Mike: Yeah. That's a great way. One of the theories I have, actually, about why things become political inevitably at a growing organization, is your feedback loops are longer. When you're at a startup and it's just you, me and a couple other guys and girls, every decision I make I see the impact and I get the feedback, whether that was good, whether that was bad, whether that was impactful or not. As you grow as an organization and everybody gets more specialized, and you're a little bit further from seeing the direct impact that you have. The feedback, I think people aren't inherently political by nature, but because the feedback that you get... You get more immediate feedback based on, oh I was able to get more headcount this year, therefore that's the thing that feels more rewarding and I want to progress and therefore I was able to grow my organization. My budget grew. People tend to optimize towards things that they get positive feedback in. In a growing organization you feel much more of the feedback in the tangential things rather than the overall goal. I think that's how politics begins to breed within an organization.
Michael Redd: Even with in Snap, you've gravitated back to the startup world, the incubator. We'll get to that in a moment. You mentioned there was a company you had that ran out of money. Talk about your perspective on how to handle adversity. I'm sure you've faced that throughout your life.
Mike: You're giving me PTSD here, but I can still remember the day, looking at the bank account and going, "Oh shoot, now I can count on one hand how much time we have left." It was the first time in my life that I felt emotionally felt that bile come into my mouth. My stomach felt queasy. There was actually this survey by this pastor, Francis Chan, who was talking about movements. He talked about going surfing with his friend. He said, "When I go surfing with my buddy in the morning, and there's not any waves out there, we just go and grab a breakfast burrito. I don't tell my buddy to go out there. Why don't you swim 50 yards out Mike and just flap really hard. If you flap really hard maybe I can surf on that wave." He's like, "That would look pretty ridiculous." A lot of times, even the smart people, Steve Jobs, on and on and on, had their failings. Did that mean that he was more or less of an entrepreneur? He's still the same person right? A lot of times these waves, sometimes are outside of our control. When there's a wave, it's on us to use every ounce of skill that we have to ride that wave.
Mike: A lot of times, we as entrepreneurs, we have also bought into this mythology that we can bend the will of the universe if we just think hard enough. But the reality is, I think it's very humbling when you step back and think about all of our circumstances, the timing we were born into, the families we were born into that create the opportunities that we have. Realizing that sometimes when the wave is not there, it's not just, I got to try harder, I got to sacrifice more to get there. It's looking for the right opportunities and riding those waves when they are there. That certainly helped me gain perspective on failure and on the tough times, and certainly shifted the way I look at my work itself and how I go about my day to day, whether at a startup or at a company like Snap.
Michael Redd: Those experiences have shaped how you've mentored companies, I'm sure.
Mike: Absolutely, yeah. There's nothing more convincing when you're able to tell somebody else, "I did that. Don't do that. Speaking from experience, I know how that story ends."
Michael Redd: Yes.
Mike: Those experiences I've had have certainly given me... In those moments, those failures, those are painful and you're like, why is this happening. Why am I going through this. Only in hindsight, can you go, oh wow, all those experiences have informed and given me perspective that I can offer and be a better mentor and be a better investor in these companies.
Michael Redd: 100%. I think failure is the breeding ground for innovation.
Mike: Absolutely, absolutely.
Michael Redd: Me and you both have learned from some failures and some risks that we've taken and people in companies and it's made us better for it.
Michael Redd: I commend you, man, on your bounce back and your drive from the time I've known you. You find yourself at Me Too. You can talk about Me Too for a minute and then that transition to Snap.
Mike: I was at Upworthy at the time leading product. A friend of mine, Mark Sister, had invested in this company called Me Too, which is a Latino focused digital media company. Initially, they had built some traction as what was at the time called MCN's, Multi-Channel Networks, that managed YouTube influencers. They wanted to pivot more towards building a digital brand. Mark had approached me about an opportunity to lead product there. I looked across the landscape and just felt like, wow this is a huge opportunity. The demographics of America have rapidly shifted yet nobody is really moved into the digital space in a meaningful way. I felt like also, from a mission perspective, having come out of my startup, one of the other things I realized was, hey I still survived and I want to do things that are meaningful. I want to do things that I feel like are impactful in the world. I realized the importance in representation in media. Growing up in Taiwan for example, my experience of American culture was purely through what I saw on TV, watching the A Team, listening to hip hop music, watching NBA basketball. That was my experience with these cultures. So those shape, in good ways and in bad, how I perceive people. So there's incredible power in media.
Mike: I felt like the opportunity at Me Too was the opportunity to tell more three dimensional stories, to control the narrative, to empower Latinos to tell their own stories rather than it being filtered through mainstream media. So that felt incredibly exciting for me as a mission as well.
Michael Redd: Wow, we do need more representation in media and obviously in venture. Are you seeing that growing? Are we progressing in that? As you know, a good friend of ours, a dear friend of ours, Amay Watt was on the podcast a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about that sentiment. What's your thoughts on today's climate when it comes to representation, diversity?
Mike: I wake up some mornings incredibly optimistic and some mornings incredibly stressed and depressed. There's a long way to go. We have a lot of work ahead of us. I do think the good news... As an entrepreneur you also try to hang on to optimism and find the things that are the positive things that you can build on. I do think in this moment there's a collective awareness now, not only from a moral standpoint, but just from a business standpoint. Look, these are the things at Me Too we were always talking about as well. America, my kids, your kids, are growing up and are already in a majority minority demographic. The younger you go, the more diverse America is. This demographic shift is already happening. For companies, and venture and investors, it's incumbent on them to understand, if they want to serve these important demographics, they have to have people who understand. They have to have people who are in touch with the culture. They have to have people who are building businesses for that, for the reality of what the demographic is. So a lot of times we're behind.
Mike: There's a moral imperative, but I think just as importantly, as you see Hollywood, a lot of people claim it is a slow moving dinosaur but you see, in things like Fast and Furious, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, when you tell multi-dimensional, multi-cultural stories, huge audiences show up because there's incredible thirst for that. That's a reality that the younger generation is living in. There's an incredible sense of urgency for us to get there. So now I think people are beginning to realize the hard work that needs to be put in to get us from here to there.
Michael Redd: 100%. It's educational too Mike, to people who don't know. So me and you have had numerous conversations about this topic. How have you handled and how has Snap handled this quarantine time and also this time of social unrest?
Mike: On the personal front, and you and I have talked about it, it does feel different. I am encouraged. As I mentioned, I moved from Taiwan. Again, the negative parts of me being in Taiwan is all I experienced through culture is what I understood through media. Growing up in Taiwan I felt like I actually related to black culture more than I did necessarily to white culture. But moving here, actually a lot of the initial... I moved here in the early 90's, a lot of the most tense racial experiences I had were between Black and Asian communities. Certainly then was the LA riots. At that time, in Philly, there was a lot of tension between the Black and Asian communities. I think a lot of that is bi-product of communities being put in close proximity with one another, fighting for the same scraps.
Mike: What I'm encouraged by this time around, is seeing the solidarity. I think initially seeing when coronavirus hit, and there was a lot of racism towards Asian people. Seeing the black community online, calling that racism out, the Black Lives movement surging. Just seeing the Asian American community stand up and realizing, hey just because it's not us doesn't mean we shouldn't be standing up with a voice here. Being able to see these rallies where Asian Americans are organizing to stand up for our black brothers and sisters as well, I think we've realized that... I think there's been a narrative, particularly within the Asian American community around this idea of model minority, and hey I came to this country on my own and boot strapped myself. I didn't own any slaves. My parents came here in the 70's. This is not my problem. But I think there is growing recognition that we've certainly benefited from it. This nation is built on an economy that was built on slavery, that was built on the backs of black people enslaved. So all the economic progress to date is founded, you can't wash away that fact.
Mike: I think the Asian American community, thankfully, is also realizing just because we didn't participate in it doesn't mean we didn't benefit from it. So we have a responsibility to speak up for one another. I'm hearing more and more people site... I don't know if you're aware of this. I just recently learned that when the Chinese Exclusion Act was happening, Frederick Douglass was actually one of the people who spoke out vehemently against it. So there's a long history of solidarity there, but a lot of times that history isn't told. I am encouraged, despite this being 2020 and coronavirus and all of the depressing headlines, the conversations that you and I have, the conversations that I'm seeing happening here in LA where it's a melting pot, and the different communities coming together for one another, I think that's encouraging to me.
Michael Redd: Yeah it's interesting to me that for so long, reconciliation has been the goal and it's not a goal. It's a fact. We are one. There's not separations. Different backgrounds but we're one race. I think our relationship needed to be public and known. I think it's a powerful reminder that we are one.
Michael Redd: With that being said, I think there's been incredible pressure to lead in this moment. I know you work with a lot of leaders, CEO's, with the incubator and whatnot. They have to be applauded for their ability to adjust in this time and this climate. How important is it to you that leadership is valuable?
Mike: In times of crisis, most of us react to the circumstances. I think it's fair to be daunted by the circumstances that we're presented with. Unprecedented global pandemic, the revelation of continued centuries of racial injustice, coming to grip with these things are big problems. I think there's very naturally, a natural instinct to be daunted by those things. Naturally I think, as human beings, we look to the courage of leaders who are willing to stand up and point a direction forward for us. This moment has shown the importance and shown where leaders arise and where leaders falter in times of crisis. It's easy when times are going well to say, "I'm a leader. I'm going to go give talks. I'm going to go give speeches and TED talks and whatnot. But it's in times of crisis when the future is uncertain, who are the ones that are willing to have difficult conversations, to point to the things that are hopeful, and to roll up our sleeves and bring people forward, whether that's on a company basis or on a community basis, I think leadership really is showing up right now and being the thing that holds us together.
Michael Redd: I've watched you interact with companies, startups, leaders, CEO's, and you absolutely love it. You have a passion for it. When this idea of having an incubator at Snap was germinating, I know you couldn't wait to probably be a part of this in some capacity.
Mike: Absolutely. I call it a dream job in many ways. By being able to support entrepreneurs, I'm staying close to that entrepreneurial spirit and that early ideation phase that I love so much. But being able to have the resources and the learnings and the networks that we have at Snap, and being able to bring those to bear to our founders is so exciting to me. These are all resources, certainly when I was doing my company, I wish I had access to. So as the idea started taking shape, I couldn't wait to be involved. It's really being able to leverage the resources, leverage all the smarts that we have within the building of Snap, as well as other mentors like yourself, and being able to come speak and pour into these entrepreneurs, is really... I wake up every day excited.
Michael Redd: Man, I've been honored to be a part for the last two and a half years and to see what that program is all about, the lives it impacts, the companies it impacts, it's just remarkable. I know one of the themes of this probably last six months has been focus for you. How important has that been for these startups and these companies and these leaders to keep a focus in the midst of all that's going on around them?
Mike: Yeah, it's funny you bring that up because that's literally, every time we start a class, that's the first talk I give, is around this idea of focus. When you're starting something out, you are looking at, how do I build this to eventually be the next Snap, the next Google, the next Apple, the next IBM or whatnot. So you have these huge ambitions of what everything can look like. But at the same time there's two or three of you, so you can't build that. The metaphor that I always use is the analogy of being in a boat. Eventually your vision is, I want to build that Carnival cruise line with the basketball court on it and the zipline and the swimming pool and tight rope set. But right now you're in a tiny little rowboat.
Mike: To me, being at a startup is like being in that rowboat. It's leaking holes everywhere. You're taking on water the whole time. What happens is, your job is to get from this really crappy boat to a slightly less crappy boat that's slightly less leaky, and eventually get to the cruise line. But what happens is, you get on this boat and you bring a couple of other people on the boat, and they're like, "He man, look, that boat is leaking. Do you see the water coming in? How are we supposed to row this boat if there's water coming in? This boat only has one job." It's really easy to get distracted and say, "Oh you're right. Let's put our oars down and let's start patching these holes." What happens is, at a startup, you start patching these holes and all the sudden before you know it, you're standing in place and you're just taking on more water. You're never going to be able to patch fast enough.
Mike: So to me, the job at a startup is to grow. Find out what that one thing you can do really well and row as fast as you can to get to the next boat. Because it doesn't matter how big and grand your vision is, if you can't get to that next milestone and that next piece of meaningful progress, you're toast. What happens a lot of times, is well meaning people start pointing out all these things and you have to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos, a certain amount of water leakage. I think the most important job for the CEO is to determine very quickly, this hole in the boat, is it going to sink the boat right now or not? If it's not, you go, "Okay I acknowledge the leak but we're going to be okay with that and we're going to swim harder towards this direction."
Michael Redd: Wow, that's a great analogy man. It's really challenging to avoid comparison.
Mike: Yeah, and you look and you go, "We want to build a cruise line. Everybody has a cruise line. Why don't we have a cruise line? How are we ever going to make it?" But for a startup, you realize these are billion dollar cruise ships. If you're trying to compete with them head to head at what they are best at and what they have most resources towards, you're never going to win. You have to find out what you can do differently and swim as hard as you can and make as much progress as you can to stand out. Once you make progress in those things, only then do you earn the right and you have the leverage to branch out into other things.
Michael Redd: Wow, wow. This is why I hang out with you. You drop these bombs on me, these nuggets man, that are so applicable to life, beyond even the startup world. What I've enjoyed is I've enjoyed really, really seeing the transformation of a person and the health of a person, which makes the company healthy and the product healthy. I've enjoyed that process working with you over the years, doing that. Let me ask you a question. With all of this business that you have and obviously you're a Penn grad and all of that, who are some of your mentors outside of your mother and father, in the LA area along the way on the journey?
Mike: Obviously my parents, I spoke earlier about the way I learned from my dad. I think from my mom, she had an incredible way with people and high EQ and perception on who people are. I think, being around her, maybe genetics, maybe just observation, really picking a lot of that up.
Mike: But I think professionally also, the first job I was at, IQ which then merged with Razorfish, I was interviewed by the CFO, Larry Begley. I was like, "What are you doing interviewing a fresh out of college pimple faced engineer?" He was just so excited about the company, he wanted to be part of the recruiting process. So I hit it off really well with him, despite him being a Celtics and me being a Sixer fan. He was always really generous with advice. Even post my time working there, he was always somebody I could go to, to get career advice. As we've drifted on different coasts, we haven't been able to talk as much, but he's always been someone I know is there.
Mike: I think as I've gotten older, a lot more of it has been surrounding myself with peers and folks that I know can be good sounding boards and accountability and inspiration for me through conversation. Certainly our conversations are always all of those things. A friend of mine, Eugene Way, he's a guy I can talk to about product and he's keeping his finger on the pulse of the internet. He's always dropping dimes as well and challenges the way I think. Mark Sister, VC here in LA, who invested in me too. He's always been somebody I know doesn't take any BS from anybody so I know will always give it to me straight. I can always go to and trust for good conversations.
Mike: Also on the person side it's also just as important to surround yourself with friends, family, a spouse, outside of the industry that can call your BS, that keep you grounded. I think that's such an important part. Because in industry, a lot of times, people are friendly, people are encouraging, because also everybody has to do business together. But it's important to have people around you in your life that can hold you accountable, that can call you out when you're drifting, when you're doing this perhaps out of character.
Michael Redd: So good. It's so important. I know knowing you for the last two and a half years, how important family and faith is to you. That's how you roll. Talk about that for a moment and the importance of that to you.
Mike: For sure, my wife Christine, everybody talks about ride or die. But she's been with me through thick and thin. We met early, we got married when I was 26 and she was 23. We met in college. She's definitely been that person who will call BS and hold me accountable for everything. When you talk about your wife, it's the same way.
Michael Redd: Yes.
Mike: I think we have a lot of that in common. I think the faith journey and the work journey, those are things that have been ups and downs. We talk a lot about work ethic and I think it's really important. Even in my startup phase, I got caught up thinking, buying into that mythology, the founder mythology. I'm just going to work like a maniac. Nobody is going to work harder than me. I sacrificed a lot of things along the way. I was working until 3:00 in the morning, here in my garage. Then I'd get up at 7:00, take the kids to school and roll right back to the garage. Even though I was around because I was in the garage, I was not spending a lot quality time with my family. I was justifying it, telling myself I was doing these things, ultimately for our family. But I think on the other end of that, realizing if my final thing is for my family, what are the things I'm sacrificing along the way. I think a lot of times we forget to ask those first principles of the why. So many of us get caught up on chasing the success and forgetting about the thing that we wanted to be successful for in the first place.
Michael Redd: That's right.
Mike: We lose those relationships that we wanted to do this for. We get caught chasing these outcomes, and again, this goes back to the process versus the outcomes. Sometimes those outcomes don't work out. If along the way, you've sacrificed these things, you've lost those things, that's the double whammy. Not only have you not achieved the outcome, but you've also lost the things you care about most along the way. So for me, those experiences have also been formative in how I look work life balance, how I look in investing in time with my family. Also for me, coming out of the family, realizing from a faith perspective, really grounding myself what my purpose is, and focusing on those things rather than wanting to a certain rung in the ladder and achieve a certain amount of success. It's about, am I faithful to my calling? Am I going after the things that I feel like I'm put here to do?
Mike: The last thing in terms of faith, recently a pastor came to speak at our church, Tammy King, she spoke about this idea that's really informed a lot how my faith and work intersect, she spoke about Jesus being the original OG woke person, in the sense that... and this applies whether you share the faith or not. He was a person of some privilege. He was a man in a patriarchal society. He was a rabbi, certainly a charismatic speaker. If you look through the Bible and all the people he spoke through and he asked to carry his message out, were always the underrepresented, were always those without a voice. He always sent the cripple, the leper, to heal them. Those were the people who would carry his message. Now if you were a political strategist and Jesus would have came to you and said, "Hey how are we going to get this word out?" You'd be like, "Let's find the most influential rabbis and work through them. Who's in power? Those are the people who can influence everything." But he took a completely different strategy and a very startup strategy. He's like, "I'm going to go counter to that. I'm going to go through those who don't have a platform and I'm going to give my platform to those people."
Mike: When I heard that, that also helped me re-anchor how I reconcile the faith aspects in my professional life, is really, what are the platforms and what are the privileges that I've been given. To me reorienting my career around using those towards helping other people, whether that's founders, whether that's you and I talk a lot about helping folks, the incarcerated population and the issues around mass incarceration, all these things are, how do we use what's given to us towards pouring it to other people?
Michael Redd: How much do you weigh someone who has an MBA versus the one who has the traits, the work ethic, the characteristics, beyond the MBA?
Mike: Definitely the longer I'm in my career, the longer I believe in the latter. I think an MBA helps to establish a baseline, a floor. Hey somebody has gone through this rigor. At worst, they're at this level. But I think the longer I'm around entrepreneurs, the longer I realize, entrepreneurship can come from all different places.
Mike: I was recently having a conversation with a good friend of mine, a former colleague on Me Too, Yuriana. She was recounting to me a story. She went to lunch with her boyfriend and her mom. Her boyfriend was also a tech entrepreneur, doing this market research, talking to her mom. Because her mom ran this cleaning business. He was trying to understand how small, medium businesses were working. Her mom would talk about how she led these cleaners, and how she served these cleaners and how she optimized their routes and how she figured out which clients to work with and how to optimize her time. Yuriana shared with me that she began to cry as she was listening to her mom because for the longest time, she didn't think of her mom as an entrepreneur. Because her mom didn't speak the language of an MBA. She didn't speak the language of AB testing and user acquisition funnel. But as she was listening to her mom speak, she was like, oh my gosh, she is an entrepreneur by every definition except she doesn't speak the exact language and lingo that we've come to accept as professional entrepreneur.
Mike: I've certainly seen that. For example, one of the founders that you and I both know well, Coss Marte, the founder of ConBody. He started selling drugs from a milk crate when he was 13 years old, but turned his life around and now opens this fitness gym called ConBody. This is a guy who, his whole life, has been an entrepreneur. He's been looking at market opportunity. He stopped selling in the hood and started selling at Wall Street because he realized the margins were higher and risks were lower. This is a guy who shows as much grit, hustle, understanding of market, understanding of leadership, all of those traits that you want to see in an entrepreneur. But he just didn't go to a Stanford or Harvard. He went to the school of hard knocks. But I would put him up against any other entrepreneur that I've come across.
Michael Redd: So powerful man. There's people that live under a bridge that are smarter than us. If they have a platform and given access, to your point.
Mike: Yeah, and you realize that these systems are created in some ways, in good faith. They want to create shorthand so that we can quickly perceive... In our world, as humans, we try to find shorthand to perceive how we should categorize someone. Oh that person drives a nice car. They must be rich and they must be successful to be able to be that rich and successful, but that isn't always the case. We tend to over-rely on these shorthands. Similarly, this person has a diploma and worked at Google and Snap and whatever, so this must be this, that and the other. It's shorthand for us to understand and more quickly categorize someone but that often short changes the beauty that comes with the complexity of actually knowing someone and being able to see their true talents. My visits to prison, and I know you've gone to prison before, you just see all this ingenuity happen outside what we've classically defined as places where innovation happens.
Michael Redd: Some of the greatest potentials and gifts are found in prisons and in the grave.
Michael Redd: When I took the visit with Scott Budnick and Chris Sacca a couple of years ago, saw worlds of potential and talent that just need to be given access and opportunities.
Mike: 100%, 100%.
Michael Redd: Yeah. Me and you are aligned, as always. If you had to go back to sharing some advice to your 16 year old self, what would you say to yourself?
Mike: I think going back to 16 years old was right when I had moved from Asia, from Taiwan to the states. So that was a huge adjustment for me. I think a lot of that was in search of identity as well. I think the younger version myself was often reacting to other people's definitions or expectations. A lot of us use that for motivation, oh you think because I'm an Asian, I'm only good at these things. I'm going to prove to you that I'm good at that thing. We always react to those sorts of slights and those categorizations of us to try to define ourselves elsewhere.
Mike: Instead I would really encourage the 16 year old self is to embrace who you are and lean into that and focus on the craft of who you are, rather than proving this person or that person wrong. Those are all hitchhikers along the way, but they're not who you are. Really being able to find a sense of self and pursuing that excellence, rather than pursuing a definition somebody might or might not impose on you. I'm sure that happens for you in your sports career as well right? Michael, he's just this. He can't do this. He can't do that. You can really easily get caught up reacting to what reporters are saying so I think just working on your own game and working on who you are. I don't know if that resonates with you or not, but that's certainly for me, a journey I've been on.
Michael Redd: I think you've got a grip on it man. I think identity is everything. Knowing who you are is so critical because what you do is not who you are. When you know who you are, it allows you to be diverse and versatile, and to jump any space. You've done an incredible job throughout your life and your career. You've been able to relate to so many different spaces because a sense of identity. It's been something that I've seen for the last two and a half years, knowing you, being around you, that I so appreciate about you. You want to add anything to that brother?
Mike: It's really truly right back at you because one of the things that really struck me in our first conversation was... and I've heard you talk about this with the other athletes on the humility that you came to the tech world with. There's a difference, I think, between being intimidated, but you had a self confident sense of humility. Those are two concepts that often don't go with one another, but I think it came from a place where you knew that what you needed to do to dominate the game was to get the information. So that was a confidence that allowed you to be humble in the first place. Knowing that hey, I know eventually when I get to the right place, when I get the right information, I'm going to be incredible at this, so I don't mind taking a step back and asking the questions because I know this is going to lead me to a higher place. I don't mind asking the simple questions.
Mike: I think that's a humility we all need to carry and comes from a place of self confidence and identity. It's sort of a paradox there, but I think it takes a certain amount of confidence to be able to say, "I'm the dumb guy. I don't know. You tell me." I think that's something we all need to carry with us. At the same time in those conversations, I can also under there, there's still that hyper-competitive Olympian all star, wanting to dominate, wanting to win, but also has the humility. I think that's something that I've always admired about you and also strive to bring. Every time I talk to you, I strive to incorporate more into how I carry myself as well.
Michael Redd: This is why you're my brother. This was about you Mike, today, but thank you for those words man. I honor our friendship man, and there's a love and brotherhood we have beyond business. Me personally, I've been so privileged to be a part of Snap, and looking forward to being a part in the future, of any endeavor that you're part of, and obviously Snap. Man, it's been great having you on here buddy. I really appreciate you being here man.
Mike: My pleasure. It's an honor and love talking to you as always.
Michael Redd: Absolutely man. This is Mike Su, Bettering Yourself.
Michael Redd: It's easy to see why Mike is such a likable and inspiring guy. His journey is proof that it's not so much about banking on the result, as it is trusting in the process and being willing to take the road less traveled with faith and assurance. Thanks for listening to today's episode. To read the show's notes, learn more about my work, or connect with me, visit michaelredd.com. New episodes released every week on Monday, so make sure to subscribe if you want to stay up to date. Until next time, I'm Michael Redd, and remember, you are the secret to your success.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.