During the last 20 years, I have attend well over 100 energy and 50 Internet/broadband conferences.
This piece by Andy Kessler describes my evolving approach to being an activist who participates in each conference. In retrospect, I would add that conference attendees have a chance to talk to a great many people who aren’t accessible anywhere else. Thanks to Andy for articulating the need for personal contact, with a little Shakespeare thrown in. Steve
The Future Is Dodgeball
To understand what’s coming, let some of those balls whizzing by start to hit you.
The past may be a Shakespearean prologue, but the future is dodgeball.
Ben Rosen, chairman of Compaq Computer Corp. and an early investor in Lotus Development, was the semiconductor analyst atMorgan Stanley eight years before me. In the late ’80s an embarrassingly lame online service named Prodigy was state-of-the-art, but I had visions of a multimedia world with text, pictures and eventually videos delivered through vast networks. Crazy, right? I asked Morgan Stanley’s uber-strategist, Barton Biggs, for advice, and he suggested we have lunch with Ben Rosen.
I was all of 30 and way out of my league, but we still trucked over to the Pan Am Building for a New York power lunch. I explained this multimedia thing. Mr. Rosen waved his hand and said in the nicest way, “I really don’t know anything about that.” I looked at Biggs, gulped, and asked Mr. Rosen for advice in general. He told me about building his venture-capital firm and running into investors on Sixth Avenue.
Then he rambled on about getting in the middle of things at events, conferences and seminars. He said that at first nothing will make sense and all these balls will be flying across the room out of your reach. But eventually you’ll find yourself in the middle of the room and balls will start hitting you. Then you’ll know you’re inside. As we walked out the door, I remember thinking, “That’s it? Gee, thanks for nothing.” Biggs agreed it was a waste of time. Turns out it was the best advice I would ever receive.
The thing about the future is that, as William Goldman wrote about screenwriting, “Nobody knows anything.” Everyone is an outsider, and it’s all up for grabs. Someone might have an opinion, but there are few facts. What you need are your own opinions about where the world is headed in any given industry: artificial intelligence, gene editing, autonomous trucks, marine salvage—whatever.
You need to go to places where the future is discussed. Every industry has these events. Make the time to go. And not only to hear keynoters billow hot air, but for the panel discussions where people disagree. The conversation spills out into the hallways between talks. There will be all sorts. The smug ponytailed guy who talks about his Phish tribute band and insists he knows everything. The woman you see at every event but only in the hallways chatting and who never makes eye contact to let you into a conversation. Barge in anyway. Remember, there are no facts, only opinions.
Walk up and talk to people. Ask what they do. They’re there because they want to learn something too. They will all ask you what you think. Come up with something fast, but don’t be too stubborn to change what you think as you learn more. During the personal-computer era I saw a guy, whom Bill Gates had just introduced, standing by himself after showcasing the first truly high-resolution videogame. I chatted him up and he has been a friend for life, showing me not only where technology is headed but the path it takes.
It’s not classic networking but a network of ideas. The goal is finding a new way to think, to filter news over time as the future takes shape in fits and starts. It never happens in a straight line. Hydraulic fracturing has been around and argued about since 1947. Anyone had a chance to study this future of unlocking natural gas and make a fortune. Same for artificial intelligence in 1956, e-commerce in 1979 and quantum computing in 1982.
The future doesn’t happen overnight. You just need to get inside it and let some of those balls whizzing by start to hit you. And you’ve got to do this in person. Most issues don’t show up online, let alone on Facebook or Twitter . It’s tough as a writer to admit that subtle nuances sometimes require face-to-face conversation.
It doesn’t matter if you’re 25, 45 or 65. The industry you pick to work in has more of a say in your success than your job description. Same for giving money away. If you want to fund Alzheimer’s research, you better find yourself at wonky conferences going toe-to-toe with doctors. Eventually, you’ll know more.
I met Jeff Bezos at a tech conference about a decade ago and mentioned that I had just self-published a book and used his Amazon Advantage program to sell it. He proceeded to grill me like a steak, asking what was wrong with it and what features he should add. I’m convinced he keeps winning because he enjoys being hit with dodgeballs. He famously left New York a retailing outsider with an idea to sell books. Balls whizzed by until they hit. He now has the ultimate inside view.