The Blog of Robin P. Zander

Practical Entrepreneurship: Curiosity, Empathy, and Growth

Empathy is Superpower

I was on set recently with a Zander Media client conducting a dozen interviews, and I was reflecting on the interview process.

Zander Media got its start through my own ability to show up compassionately with people who might or might not be comfortable on camera. We recorded their answers, made sure that what they had to say was precise, accurate, and compelling, and helped them feel at ease. Of course, ZM has come a long way since then…

At the heart of our work is helping people feel comfortable on screen. Curiosity and a lack of defensiveness is very unusual in business. And when you show up with empathy and love – especially at work – the outcomes can be remarkable.

From Boy To Man: Bullying, Sensitivity, and Growth

I visited my middle school last week, which is the location of the darkest moments in my life. There were times in 6th and 7th grade when I did not think I would survive the experience.

I was a sensitive boy growing up. We didn’t have the word “bullying” back then, but that’s what it was. Basketball to the face, getting called “girl” every day, coming home from school every day in tears.

We all have demons. At least, everyone I know has demons! But while they are so big in our mind, they aren’t actually so big in real life. 

Watch this video for some stories about those times, and how those times have made me the man I am today.

Jeremy Liew, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners on Doing the Impossible and Staying Relevant at 50

My guest today is Jeremy Liew (@jeremysliew), a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

Jeremy heads up investments in consumer technology at Lightspeed, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and has invested in iconic and culturally relevant companies, including Snap, Giphy, Rothy’s, Affirm, Honest, Cheddar, and many more.

Jeremy is willing to embrace the beginner’s mind and practice things he doesn’t know how to do – even when it is uncomfortable. And as we discuss, that trait has paid dividends throughout his personal and professional life.

I know Jeremy personally through my own physical practice. We are both students of Johnny Sapinoso of San Francisco Movement Practice.

In this interview, Jeremy and I discuss his background and the various transitionary points in his personal life and professional career, how his “geeky youth” set the stage for work within the early Web 1.0 companies like AOL and Netscape, his first experience in sales in his mid-20s, and his discovery of and love for movement in recent years.

As a business operator and first time investor myself, we dive into how Jeremy recognizes consumer trends and the difference between being a business operator versus an investor.

I hope you enjoy this wide ranging conversation about startups, consumer trends, movement, and learning with my friend, Jeremy Liew.

Finding inner peace through 24 years of solitary confinement with Eldra Jackson III of Inside Circl‪e

Eldra is a TED main stage speaker and the co-executive director of Inside Circle, a non-profit which works to end cycles of incarceration and recidivism. Eldra was incarcerated for 24 years, with several years of that time spent in solitary confinement.

Eldra now spends most of his time sitting with people inside and outside the prison system, helping them uncover their own truths to find greater internal peace.

I first met Eldra through a Zander Media client, The Trium Group, where Eldra serves as a strategic advisor. I have since come to call him a friend. 

With their focus that “not all prisons have walls,” Inside Circle does transformative work to address the trauma and other wounds that create cycles of incarceration.

Any time spent with Eldra is time well spent. I’m also pleased to share that Zander Media now produces The Inside Circle Podcast with Eldra Jackson III, with guests including Byron Katie, founder of The Work, Soren Gordhamer, founder of Wisdom 2.0, and many more. I hope you enjoy this wide ranging conversation with my friend, Eldra Jackson III!

Mark Brand, Food Activism and A Better Life Foundation

I first met Mark Brand through his talk at Responsive Conference 2017. The conversation in today’s episode is broad in scope, but the central thread is Mark’s tireless effort towards improving equality for all people. In Mark’s world, that is predominantly through getting people fed. As a former restaurateur myself, I’m blown away by what Mark has accomplished, the millions and millions of people he has fed and his own personal triumphs.

He’s gone from being unhoused to being a successful serial entrepreneur and philanthropist. Anyone who wants to really have an impact on the world can learn a lot from Mark Brand’s approach and philosophies. 

Please enjoy this wide ranging conversation with my friend, Mark Brand.

A Tribute to Tony Hsieh

The months leading up to Responsive Conference 2016 were a whirlwind. Earlier that year, I had opened Robin’s Cafe, and the cafe was scheduled to cater the first annual Responsive Conference. I had never run an industry-defining business conference before and was learning the ropes on the fly – balancing cafe inventory alongside sponsorship calls with Microsoft. 

Somewhere along the way, I met Rachel Murch, who headed up organizational design and transformation at Zappos. Rachel gave me a tour around Zappos’ campus, and I remember her specifically pointing out Tony Hsieh’s desk and commenting “though he’s never there”. 

I invited Tony to speak at that very first conference, but he declined. Then, at the beginning of the first day of the 2016 conference, just as Adam Pisoni was about to go on stage to give the opening keynote, I got a call from the volunteers at the front desk. The volunteer told me that there was “somebody named Tony” at the front door with an entourage – or as I came to know them – a group of his closest friends. I dashed up to the front entrance and met Tony Hsieh for the first time before running back to the mainstage in time to introduce our first speaker.

Throughout Responsive Conference 2016, Tony, Rachel and about half a dozen other Zappos employees sat in the very back of the amphitheatre and took notes. At the very end of the event, Tony summoned me up to where they were all sitting and complimented me on a successful first year conference. He then insisted that I return the favor and visit him at the Life is Beautiful Festival in Downtown Las Vegas, which was taking place the following weekend.

I do not actually like music festivals, and I had not spent much time in Downtown Las Vegas, but my incredible hosts, most notably Rachel, made me feel extremely welcome. I will never forget Tony inviting me to sit down with him at the bar and starting a conversation with someone over my shoulder, only to find out later that my fellow barmate was Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress and Automattic. 

As so many have, I was particularly struck by Tony’s Downtown Las Vegas Airstream Trailer Park, known as Ferguson’s, and the community he built. I began to wonder if there might not be potential for a future collaboration with Zappos.

There was a brief moment when someone on Tony’s team learned that I ran a successful restaurant and suggested that I open up a second location for Robin’s Cafe in Las Vegas. We even toured several abandoned buildings together as potential venues!

For the next several years, one or two members of Tony’s team attended Responsive Conference. Then, halfway through the 2018 conference, as I was sitting at the hotel with Zapponian, John Bunch, the conversation came up as to where I should host Responsive Conference 2019. John and I together thought of Zappos HQ and Downtown Las Vegas. John sent a quick text to Tony, and just like that, we were confirmed. The very next day, John and I made the announcement in front of 350 attendees that the 2019 conference would be hosted at Zappos. Having had a Zappos culture book in my library since 2009, this was a big moment for Responsive Conference.

Throughout 2019, my team and I toured Zappos and Downtown Las Vegas, and made plans for a variety of different ways we could design delight for our conference attendees. We were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Downtown Project, as well as the nuts and bolts of running a conference in the Zappos mainstage theatre space. This being a new offering for Zappos and their team, we were struck by Tony’s team’s enthusiasm to collaborate and create the best possible experience for us and our attendees.

I knew Tony Hsieh as a friend and an extraordinary, quirky creator. Though we only spent a handfuls of hours together over several years, I was a very real recipient of his impact and legacy.

I will never forget arriving at Ferguson’s, where Tony was putting up the Responsive Conference team, and being offered Fernet. Or coming ‘home’ to my airstream at Ferguson’s from a very full day on stage at Zappos to find Tony sitting in the hot tub amidst a raging party. Tony asked if I was enjoying the party, if I would like to join them in the hot tub, or if I wanted a drink or some food. Having just given a keynote, and amidst the party going on around him, his desire for me to feel welcome and included in his home and community was palpable.

Responsive Conference 2019 culminated in this fireside chat on stage.

Some people have an outsized impact. Tony, for his curiosity, odd brilliance, and willingness to bet on people and new ways of working, was one.

RIP Tony Hsieh. Thank you.

Jude Gomila: Golden and Mapping Human Knowledge

Welcome back to the Robin Zander Show! 

For today’s episode, I sat down with Jude Gomila to talk about his journey as an entrepreneur and his start-up Golden.

I first met Jude, and learned about Golden, when Zander Media was hired to create an explainer video about the company. We had 10 days to get up to speed on this company, craft a script, and put together this short video:

I was really looking forward to a more leisurely interview with Jude, but this conversation dramatically exceeded my expectations. 

Jude is a quirky, charismatic leader, who has invested in over 200 startups and is out to build the world’s first self-constructing knowledge database. Learn more about Golden at golden.com.

Jude is a fellow circus performer and a polymath with interests ranging from robotics, space, and the learning process. He, and his company Golden, are on a quest to map all of human knowledge. 

I hope you enjoy this interview!

Achieving Radical Alignment with Alex Jamieson & Bob Gower

Welcome back to another episode of the Robin Zander Show!

My guests today are Alex Jamieson and Bob Gower, co-authors of the new book, Radical Alignment. This book is designed to help people achieve more joy and less drama – at work and in daily life.

Bob Gower is an organizational design consultant. He supported my curation leading up to the first Responsive Conference, where he gave a talk on “How Not To Join a Cult.”

Alex Jamieson was the co-producer and co-star of the academy award nominated documentary, Super Size Me. She is a leadership coach, radio show host, and nutrition consultant.

Together, Bob and Alex gave a talk at Responsive Conference 2018 on “Getting to Hell Yes.”

In their new book, Radical Alignment, they teach a simple process for individuals and teams to establish clear boundaries with less drama and more joy.

I hope you enjoy this conversation!

We’re All In Different Boats

When the pandemic hit in early March, everyone had to make changes. In addition to observing my own responses, it was interesting to see how other people reacted, as well. Everybody I’ve talked to this year has been impacted, but nobody has been impacted in quite the same way.

I first heard the metaphor that strikes me best to describe this scenario from Katelin Holloway at Responsive Conference 2019: “We are all in the same storm, but we are weathering it in different boats.”

This was true of parenthood and work, which was the theme of Katelin’s talk last year, but it is even more true now across all of our lives.

For me, as the leader of a company, as well as a colleague, friend, brother, and son, recognizing the reality of this metaphor has been an exercise in humility. We never truly know what someone else is going through. And acknowledging this has never been more true than during the current crisis. 

On a day that I might be feeling hopeful, energetic, and ready to get work done, it’s necessary to remember that another member of my team may be in a completely different state. And whereas they might have been able to communicate that clearly to me in the pre-pandemic era, even the expectation that people are able to describe their experience or ask for help, needs to be adjusted in the current times.

The global recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement has increased many people’s awareness that the daily experience of a black person is fundamentally different than that of a white person. So, too, the day-to-day experience of someone who has children at home is completely different than another person without kids. This is true of a wide variety of situations and circumstances: mental health, living situations, physical wellbeing, and more.

There is no simple solution to this challenge. Throughout this year, I’ve had to remind myself that I, too, have never lived through a global pandemic and am figuring things out as I go along. The best that any of us can do is recognize that our experiences do not necessarily echo another person’s, and we must continually update our awareness.

We are all in different boats. We don’t know what someone else is experiencing. The only recourse is to show up with greater empathy.

Love, Guide & Let Go

One of the premises of Responsive.org is that the rate of change is accelerating. Over the six years that I have run events about the Future of Work, we have seen that the ways we work and organize are changing ever faster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited this rate of change and fast-forwarded the Future of Work into “now.” All of the trends that define what we were calling the Future of Work are now abruptly commonplace: distributed work, digital collaboration, rapid adaptability.

But one of the most important, and under-valued, aspects of this sudden shift is the increasing emphasis it places on leadership and our people.

My philosophy on leadership is “love, guide, let go.”

  • Love – Support your people with empathy and understanding.
  • Guide – Guide people towards desired outcomes and objectives.
  • Let go – Let go of what you cannot control, and hold people accountable for their actions.

By placing people first, supporting them where they are, and recognizing that we are not ultimately able to control others, we are able to build more successful organizations. 

There are lots of tactics for treating people more kindly. At Zander Media, we begin every meeting with a Check-In Round, which is a chance to connect personally before discussing business. Check-In Rounds consist of a simple question like “what is a book or movie you are enjoying?” to something much more vulnerable like “what is something about the current crisis that you are scared about?” These questions provide an opportunity to get to know your people, while safely developing the habit of vulnerability across a team.

Ultimately, though, tactics are much less important. When we show up as humans first, and only secondarily prioritize business performance, we are able to build companies that can not only keep up with the current times, but flourish.