Radical Innovation, Breaking The Routine And Accelerating Success With Steve Hoffman

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Some exceptional people take different paths on their journey. For them, breaking the routine is part of the spice of their lives. Tony Martignetti teams up with visionary and Founders Space CEO Steve Hoffman as they discuss how to incubate and speed up your dream. Steve shares his experiences as a reader, head of development for a Hollywood TV producer, game designer and entrepreneur to inspire us. Aim high with insights from Steve and Tony as you chase your own path to success.


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Radical Innovation, Breaking The Routine And Accelerating Success With Steve Hoffman

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Steve Hoffman. He is the Captain and CEO of Founders Space, one of the world's leading startup accelerators. Founders Space was ranked the number one incubator for overseas startups by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines. Hoffman is also a venture investor, Founder of 3 venture-backed and 2 bootstrapped startups. He's the author of several award-winning books. These include Make Elephants Fly, Surviving a Startup and The Five Forces.

In addition, he often served on the Board of Governors of the new media council. He was the Founder and Chairman of the Producers Guild Silicon Valley Chapter and was a founding member of the Academy of Televisions Interactive Media Group. Captain Hoff, as he is sometimes referred, has had more careers than cats have had lives. I'm sure we're going to dive into that as we get into the show. Welcome, Steve.

Thank you, Tony. It's fantastic to be here.

This is going to be a lot of fun. What we do on the show is we bring people like you on who share how you get to where you are and what revealed who you are in the world. Knowing that you've done a lot of things and lived in a lot of different places, I want to know the journey that got you here.

It was a long and twisted journey. As you mentioned, I have had more careers than cats have had lives. I've been everything from an electrical engineer, game designer to a Hollywood TV Development Executive, voice actor and Manga writer. You name it, I've done it.

What I love about that is it keeps life interesting. It adds flavor to life. Some people might say, “That's misdirected and confusing,” but at the end of the day, it keeps life interesting.

I want a confusing life and a routine. I want to wake up and not know what I'm going to be doing next year. That is my perfect life. I run this global startup incubator. I’m also a venture investor. I've also been an entrepreneur. I did 3 venture-funded startups in Silicon Valley and 2 bootstrapped. As you can see, it's a lot of different things.

How I began was when I was a child, I had a passion for games. I loved board games and role-playing games, you name it. I love computers. I'd code my games. I loved making movies. My best friend was going to film school and I thought I should go to film school. My dad was a rocket scientist from MIT and my mom is a crazy artist, so I got both of those genes.

My dad said, “Son, nobody makes it in the film business. You should study computers. Computers are going to change the world.” This was a while back and he was right. Because he's a smart guy, I took his advice against my judgment. I went and studied Electrical Computer Engineering but I wasn't passionate about it. I could do it just fine. I have good math skills and all of that but when I graduated, I decided, “I'm going to do what I want.”

I applied to the two top film schools in the country for graduate school. I got into USC, University of Southern California, the film school. I turned down all the job offers I had and went there. My life was never the same. I ended up graduating from film school in a fantastic experience. Like my dad had predicted, nobody hands you a job. I have plenty of great jobs coming out of Electrical Computer Engineering but had nobody offering me a job out of film and television.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil. And then sometimes you have to be an imposter. You have to fake it until you make it.

What I did was I got a thing called The Hollywood Directory, which listed out the contact information for all the top TV executives in Hollywood like producers and the ones who run the studios, all of them. I sent off 150 printed letters to the top executives in Hollywood and hoped that someone would reply to me. I had my Master's degree. I was ready to go. I had no other prospects. I ended up getting 3 replies out of 150. Hollywood is pretty decent.

The first one called me on the phone. I picked up the phone and he went, “Hello.” It was the producer of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. He was like, “I liked your letter. I don't have a job for you but I wanted to talk to you.” We had a conversation. I was nervous because I was a shy guy but we talked and talked. I said, “Thank you.” That was it.

Number two was the Head of Development for Disney's Touchstone movie branch at the time. She called me in for an interview. I was like, “Great. Disney.” I go in for an interview. It was going well. We're going back and forth. She then asked me a trick question. “Of all things, what movies do you like?” I was prepared in the wrong way from film school because I had spent three years getting my Master’s on Fine Arts Degree watching all these amazing artistic movies by great directors like Godard, Fellini, Truffaut and all these arthouse directors that nobody watches.

Naturally, she's going to ask me what I liked. I had this list of all these amazing directors. I rattled off a bunch of names such as Francis Ford Coppola and all these great directors that I loved. She then looked at me and she said, “You didn't mention any Disney movies.” I was like, “I love Disney when I was a kid and all this stuff.” Her face dropped. The interview ended. She couldn't wait to get me out of her office. I’ve blown it. I did not tell her what she wanted to hear. I was out the door. I only had 1 left with these 3.

With the third one that I got, I was like, “I got to make this work because nothing else is coming in. This is the only chance I have.” This guy, Chuck Freeze, had a big office building right across from the Mann's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard with his name in big letters at the time. He had produced over 150 TV movies, mini-series and things like that.

He called me into his office and I was like, “I am not going to say I don't watch television.” I hadn't watched television in a while. I was in film school. There were all these great movies but I'm not going to say that. I learned that lesson. I go into his office. He has this huge office with all these Emmys on the walls and all this stuff.

If you've seen the film, Barton Fink, there's this producer in there by the Coen brothers. He was like a spitting image of that producer, a big fat guy with gray hair. He looked at me and goes, “Hoffman, I'm looking at your resume. You want a job.” I was like, “Yes. I want to write or direct films.” “I don't know about that, Hoffman, but I'll see what I can do.”

The next thing I know, I get a job as a reader. I don't know if you know what a reader is in Hollywood but a reader is someone who is paid a minuscule amount of money, not even enough to buy pizzas with, to read scripts. It sounds wonderful. I get to read scripts and then you write up a synopsis, whether you like it or not. It’s your opinion if the script should be produced but the scripts are horrible.

They give you all the scripts that they get in from anywhere. Ninety-nine percent is not good. What they're counting on you to do is filter out the 99% of the bad scripts, tell them which are the good ones and they'll read those. You're essentially a giant filter. As a reader, I would do this job. I was dyslexic, so it was a challenge to read these quickly but I ground through it. I did as many scripts as they would give me because that was the only way to get ahead.

After a couple of weeks, I was already burning out of this job. I didn't know how to get through to the big head of the production company, so I sent him another letter. In the other letter that I sent him, I said, “I can do more than this and offer you more. I went to film school.” He calls me in a week later and he's like, “Hoffman, it's only been a few weeks. You're unhappy with the job.” I'm like, “I'm happy but I could do more.” “Hoffman, I don't know about this. Go away.”

I go away and wait. Sure enough, he gives me a second job. I still have to be a reader but he gives me a job with his son who is producing a mini-series. He wants me to do all this research on The Oregon Trail and this character called Francis Parkman, this guy who was one of the pioneers. I loved it. It's research. I read all these books and had to write up a whole synopsis of the actual potential mini-series.

It was an outline of the whole mini-series. It was a wonderful job. I worked my butt off and did a great job. I give it to him. His son was grumpy because he didn't make it on his own. He's working for his dad. He's late 39 years old or something. He feels like a failure. He scowls all the time and never talks. I was fearful of his son. He was not a happy man but for the first time, he smiled and said, “You did a good job.” I was like, “I made him happy.”

I write another letter because I don't know how to get through to him. I can't just walk into his office. I'm shy, so I'm not going to just barge into his office and demand something. I wrote another letter saying, “Your son loved the treatment I did for the mini-series. I could do more.” I get called into his office a week later. He was like, “Hoffman, again, I gave you a promotion and then you're asking for more? You’ve only been here a couple of months. Go away, Hoffman.” I go away.

I came to pick up my scripts one day. I was back to reading. The research job was over. All the other readers are going in and out. I come into the Head of Development. She's sitting and I go, “Where are my scripts?” She looked up at me and her eyes were shooting daggers. She's so angry. I was like, “What?” She stands up and, through gritted teeth, says, “You got me fired.” She picks up her stuff and storms out of the office. I'm standing there like, “What is she talking about? I have no clue.”

A moment later, Chuck's assistant calls me in and says, “Chuck wants to see and talk with you.” I go into his office very confused. He goes, “Hoffman, you're my new Head of Development.” I was like, “What?” I didn't even ask for that job. I wanted to be a writer and director. I didn't even know what a Head of Development was doing. He goes, “Go back and do your job.”

I walk into her office, which feels like the opposite. It doesn't feel like my office. I looked out the window and there's the famous Mann's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. I was like, “This is bizarre. I don't know what this person does, except hand me scripts. That's all of her job I know.” The phone rings. I looked at the phone and didn't feel proper answering it. It’s not my phone.

I pick it up and it's this agent on the other line from one of the big three agencies. He's like, “Can I talk to blank?” I go, “She's not here but you can talk to me.” He goes, “We have this project.” He starts pitching me the project. “Can I send it over?” I'm like, “Sure, send it.” I don't know what to say. I come back in sitting at her desk and all the other readers start to come in.

Some of them I've met in the hall and we've talked and stuff. Some of them have been working there for years. They looked at me and said, “What are you doing behind her desk?” “I'm the Head of Development now.” They can't fathom it. They're like, “Are you going to give me my script?” I was like, “What scripts? Where are they?” They know. They showed me and took their scripts. The story goes on.

I then got called into Chuck's office the next day to do my job, which I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what she did besides handout scripts. They don't teach you this in film school. They show you art films and you make some movies but I wasn't making movies. I was in this business that I did not understand. I don't watch any TV. I watched these art films for the past years.

I'm sitting there with one of Chuck's other sons. Nepotism runs wild in Hollywood. He's scared of his father because his father is this big imposing figure. Unlike the other son, he’s not grumpy. He's very insecure. We're sitting there, so I feel less insecure because he's more scared of his father than I am. I don't know what I'm doing.

There's no better way to make a product than if you are the customer and you are passionate about it, because then you understand exactly what's in the customer's head.

They started talking, him and his son, about this TV movie that they were going to make. They're trying to figure out who to cast in different roles. Chuck turns to me and goes, “Hoffman, you're the genius. Who should we put as the female lead?” I'm not one of these people who knows the names of actors or actresses, especially ones on TV. If they're not super famous, I don't know what to do. I think quickly and say, “Chuck, let me get back to you on this.” “Tomorrow, tell me.” I went back to my office.

My brother's best friend was in Hollywood trying to make it. He has a photographic memory and is an encyclopedia of everything Hollywood, every little trivial thing you ever do. I called him up on the phone and went, “Randy, we have this TV movie we're producing.” I described the part. I go, “Who could do this?” He goes, “That's easy. You could have this actress. She would be great and even be better.” I'm writing all down these names I don't know.

The next day I go into Chuck's office and they're all sitting, him and his son. He goes, “Hoffman, did you think about it?” I go, “Yes, Chuck. I did. This actress is my first choice. If she's not available, this actress, and if she's not available, try this one.” Chuck looked at me. “Hoffman, you're a genius. Brilliant.” I fumbled my way through that job. That was the beginning of my very first career.

What I love about it is there's an element of you've got to be persistent to keep on writing those letters and everything. There's a message in there that everyone in Hollywood starts to see. Eventually, you arrive but it takes a lot of persistence, writing letters and showing up in people’s offices.

You have to get up there and ask for stuff you don't deserve to get promoted. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. Sometimes you have to be an imposter. You have to fake it until you make it. All those different elements came in, and it turned out great. I worked there a year and then decided, “This wasn't the job I wanted.” I didn't want to be a business person in Hollywood. I didn't study business. I went to be creative. Ironically, I write business books like Surviving a Startup. I'm an entrepreneur. Life is crazy, but at this time, I wanted to do the film and something creative.

I found out one of the producers there was his cousin was the Founder of the big game company Sega in Japan. He was an American who was there after World War II. Sega had surpassed Nintendo to become the number one video game company at the time. It was the ‘90s. I said, “I love games. It's my second favorite thing. I'd love to be creative. Can you hook me up?” He introduced me to the Chairman of the company, his cousin. He offered me a job in Japan. I was like, “How cool is that making games in Japan?”

I went to Chuck and said, “Chuck, I'm going to quit and go to Japan to make games.” He was like, “Hoffman, are you crazy? You're off to a good career in Hollywood. What are you doing?” He was right. I was crazy. He goes, “What are we going to do without you, Hoffman?” I was like, “You could hire my brother.” “Does he have any film experience?” “No, but he works at a record store selling vinyl records.” He goes, “If he's another Hoffman, we'll hire him.” He hired my brother and I went off to Japan for my second job, designing video games.

This can't be made up. It's so unreal but hilarious that he would hire your brother and bring him in. I can't wait to hear more about the next chapter. One of the things that I love about your story is that it makes a lot of sense about all the things you do. I’m always talking about how you have to collect dots to connect dots.

Having a career and multiple careers that are eccentric out there and very different, you collect all these things and then find ways to make them come together. You're a big-time dot collector. Even thinking about it from the perspective of as a child, having that interest in making movies, that's a whole different experience in making a movie now. Everyone's a movie maker when it comes to their phones.

We all have smartphones. I had to edit these on Super 8. It was a very different experience. It was much more involved. You couldn't pick up your phone and shoot. The film was expensive, so we had to treasure it and set up each scene. It was different than it is now.

I remember playing with VCR tapes, rewinding them, slow-mowing them and playing around. It's a whole different experience. It was a lot of fun then.

VHS tapes were a luxury because you could have a lot of recording time. However, the quality was so poor that I preferred to do a film.

Here you are entering into Sega. That's the company you went to work for. Tell me what your experience was coming into a new culture in Japan.

It was an amazing experience. I was the only foreigner in our division. I was the token American genius, they call me. My job was to come up with creative ideas. It was fun because our team was producing mini-star tours like a simulation ride through outer space. We had, as the narrator and host for the ride, none other than Michael Jackson. He came to our offices and took people on a space tour. It was Michael Jackson’s space tour. They're putting these ride machines that they're building into Las Vegas and all these other places. It’s a fun experience there.

The beautiful thing about that job was since I was an American, all the Japanese would come to me and pitch me an idea for a game. They would say, “What do Americans think of this?” Whatever my personal opinion had the beat was, that is what all Americans thought, according to them. I would say, “Americans love it. If I loved it.” I’m like, “No, the Americans won't like that,” if I didn't think it was good enough. It was a fun position. I had to learn Japanese culture, speak Japanese and all these different things.

Sure enough, a year later, I started to hear about the internet coming in. It was just being born. I thought, “I could make games myself. I don't have to work for this giant company doing games for them. I could do this. I have an engineering background. I have all these ideas.” I quit my job and moved back to my home area, which is San Francisco. I set and launched my first company. That's how I became a tech entrepreneur. I was coding my own games.

I came up with this idea. I had this vision that I wanted to do non-violent games because I thought there were too many violent games out there. My mission was to make them as fun as any shooter game out there and educational but not feel educational. They would teach you something but you didn't feel like you were playing an educational game. You were playing a game but you are learning.

My first idea was I would make this game called Gazillionaire. You can see it on Gazillionaire.com. It's out there still. After all these years, the game is still super popular. It's on steam. A huge number of people play it. It's one of these classics. I was coding the game myself. I did a lot of the artwork and drew it myself. It was a job where I got to be creative like I wanted to be. I created this whole universe.

Gazillionaire was a game that ironically teaches what I teach but in a very different way. It teaches people to be entrepreneurs. You run your own space trading company in outer space. It's supply and demand. You hire workers. They go on strike if you don't pay them well enough. You have to decide whether to buy insurance. You have to buy them advertising, marketing dollars and all this stuff in a fun, crazy outer space world.

I made it with a few other people that had different help. I didn't know what to do again. I made the product with my own money. I bootstrapped it but I didn't know how to get it out there. I wasn't a game company or a publisher. There were these things called BBSs, Bulletin Board System. It's pre-internet. Only scientists and staff were using the web browsers, so nobody was on them.

I upload it to these bulletin boards where these geeks hang out in download shareware. They would download a trial version of the game and if they liked it, then they would buy the full version. Sure enough, a week after I uploaded it because there was no eCommerce, I got $15 cash in the mail. I had the stack of floppy disks I shoved into a giant envelope and mailed it off to the person playing.

There's no substitute for getting lots of feedback every step of the way. 

It turned out that the person who bought it was none other than Lord Gek. You may ask yourself, “Who is Lord Gek?” He is your prototypical geek. If you went by the name, he literally was Lord Gek. He lived in the Bay Area and was a complete nerd who would go to bulletin boards, download games and purchased one. I invited him over for dinner. He had the goatee and was a fat guy. He's exactly like you would imagine. He was nice, so we had fun. He was my first customer ever, for one of the products I've made.

After Lord Gek, orders started to trickle in. It wasn't enough to live off of, especially in San Francisco Bay Area, but it was money. I heard that one of the largest PC game companies in the world at the time, Spectrum HoloByte MicroProse, their testers had downloaded my game and gotten hooked on it. It's an addictive game and fun. They wanted to put it out worldwide to every retail store everywhere.

The president called me up and said, “Come on in. We want your game.” I'm negotiating with him for the game Gazillionaire. I suddenly figured out that this giant game company desperately needed my game. I'm like, “Why does he need my game so much?” It turned out they let slip that their big production Star Trek, which they’d spent millions of millions of dollars on, was delayed and wouldn't launch until the next calendar year, yet they had to book revenue at the end of that year or their stock price would go down. They are a public company.

You can book revenue. As soon as you ship a product to the store, you can count it as revenue on your book. It was fall. They had to close it and get it out the door by Christmas time. They had to do that. I was in the driver's seat. I started demanding stuff. I was like, “I want to keep the sequel rights.” Normally, they get them. “After a year, I want the right to make a new sequel. I can shop it around to anybody I want.” Everything I asked for, they gave me.

They gave me a big advance on royalty. I couldn't believe it. I'd hit the jackpot with this little game. It went out there and did incredibly well. It got better reviews, which they were pissed off, than their big multimillion-dollar production Star Trek. I had spent maybe $3,000 on that game to buy a new PC. The graphics are crude. The game was outdated the day I released it but it was idiosyncratic and funny. The graphics weren't pixel art but they were like no other game out there and people fell in love with it. That was my first entrepreneurial endeavor ever and it was an amazing experience.

There are so many great lessons in that you can then share with other people who have gone through this journey of creating products like that, where it's about intellectual property and figuring out what people need.

There are two different ways to be an entrepreneur. I write about this in my book Surviving a Startup, all about how you figure out what product to make and everything. One way is you go out and talk to the customer but in this case, I was the customer. The other way is if you're the customer, I made that game for me. I wanted to play exactly what I wanted to make, so I bet there would be a lot of other people like me because I was a game player and maker.

One of the questions I want to ask you at this point is to say, “Do you find that the secret sauce to making a business successful is to be the person who is a consumer of the product you're trying to develop if you're not passionate about that product?”

There's no better way to make a product than if you are the customer and you are passionate about it because then you understand exactly what's in the customer's head. It's in your head. In real life, in most cases, people aren't the customer. You're building software for a client or a group of people out there. You may be a user but you're only one type of user or not even the ideal customer.

Even if you are the customer, at the end of the day, you can always make your product better by talking to other people because they will see things, have perspectives and a way of experiencing your product that you can't have as the creator. There's no substitute for getting lots of feedback every step of the way.

What you're also tapping into is if you don't love your customers and they’re not the people you hang out with, then it's hard to make products that will excite them. Think about having Lord Gek over for dinner. That's insane but that speaks to something important. These people are part of your tribe. They're the people you want to hang out with, have dinner, a beer or whatever it may be.

I was a complete nerd, so I was making products for other nerds. It's true. One of the things I tell entrepreneurs is when you're starting your company, focus on something that people will be passionate about. Getting people to try something new and recommend it to their friends, there's a high bar. They're not going to do it unless they're into this. It either has to solve a huge problem for them or provide a huge benefit to them, whether it's entertainment benefit, efficiency or more money. Whatever the benefit is, it needs to be an enormous benefit.

If you go out to your customers, you talk to 100 of them and they all say, “That's nice,” I will tell you, you're dead in the water because nobody buys a nice to have as a product. They're like, “You download an app on your phone? That's nice.” A week later, it’s deleted. The things you keep are like, “That's amazing. I need that. That's perfect and what I was looking for.” Those are the businesses that take off like rockets.

It's having those raving fans.

Whatever it is, it can be a B2B product or a B2C. It doesn't matter.

I want to get back to your story because I feel like there's more that I want to tap into in the time we have here. There's some serendipitous path that you've created in this. More and more, you’re learning lessons are becoming who you are, which is giving back a lot to people who are doing this work themselves. Your life is the laboratory of discovering.

My whole life has been that and everybody's life should be. If you can't turn your life into a fun story that you'd want to watch as a movie, then rewrite the script. Rewrite your life. You have the power. You're the director of your life. You can do whatever you want. You just have to decide, “I'm going to do that crazy thing.”

It's funny you say that because I have shared in my newsletter about, “What would the name of your life movie be?”

If it's your movie and you want to watch that movie where you’re sitting home depressed all the time. Nobody wants to watch a movie about somebody who's sitting home thinking about what they could do and never doing it. They want people out there doing it. If you want to go to Africa and trek across the Sahara, do it. Figure out a way to make it happen.

Tell me more. What happens next?

I did this company. We made a series of this business. We call them business simulation games out there. My friend from film school, who I connected with was an amazing person. We've made experimental movies together. She had been working on this big project for Microsoft, one of the very first massively multi-user games.

AI, CRISPR, gene editing, nanotechnology, space technology – all these things are going to transform the world in the coming decades.

The engineer she had been working with had all the proprietary technology. She said, “Let's break away from what I'm doing now with this engineer and let's do a startup with this technology.” This was my first venture-funded startup. It was an amazing technology that wasn't being used at the time that allowed a massive number of people to connect simultaneously and have a game experience.

Before then, almost everybody was playing single-player games. That's what I had made and 99% of the games were at the time. This was something new. We were looking to break in. The first idea I had was, “We should build a platform and license this out to game developers, so they don't have to do all the work to build this.”

What I didn't understand was that the game developers I talked to were like, “We don't need it. Single-player selling is fine. Why do I need your platform? I don't need to make it multiplayer.” “Multiplayer is so cool. You want to do multiplayer.” “Now, we all know that. It's obvious.” They also would say, “I'll use your platform but I only want to give you a tiny bit of revenue share because we don't want to give away much of our money, otherwise, I'll do single-player or if I want it, I'll build it myself,” not realizing how much work it was.

Nobody was adopting cloud platforms at the time, which is what we're offering way before the cloud. It was not something people wanted to do. They were very reluctant to do it. That didn't take off after two months of pitching those ideas to all of these game developers that I knew from the San Francisco Bay Area. I was like, “There's no business here. We can't make a business.”

We decided to do it ourselves. We were like, “We don't have the resources and money to make a 3D game or all this other stuff. We haven't done that but we'll make a very simple game and use this new technology.” It was called JavaScript. Nobody knew what it was at the time. It had just been released. Our engineer said, “I can create a little game that people cut and paste into their website.” We went like, “How cool is that? You could plug a game.”

We came up with the idea of Jabber chat. It was a game that you could play while chatting with people. There were all these cool word games that as you chat, you could play word games in the chat. It’s super fun to create games. We put it out there. All of a sudden, it starts to spread. We had 100 different websites plugging in our Jabber chat into their website.

We entered it in South by Southwest, a big conference in Austin. We won first prize for interactive. We were like, “We're on top of the world but we're not making money. Nobody's paying us. It's a free thing. We got to make money. We have no money.” We heard about this thing called internet ads. We’re like, “That is the future.”

We got our engineer and he embedded banner ads into our Jabber chat. We're like, “With all these users, there are lots of money.” We wait for the first check to come in. The first check comes and we look at it. It isn't enough to buy a pizza for our team. This was pre-Google AdWords. It was some company that doesn't exist anymore. Nobody was buying ads. It was $13.57, something like that. We're like, “This is pitiful. We can't live off of this, let alone build a big business.”

We start casting about for ideas. We have this technology in search of an idea. We hear through the grapevine that MTV wants to do an interactive TV show. We're like, “MTV, we could do that. We haven't built the technology to synchronize broadcast television to online but we can figure that out.” We called the Vice President of MTV and left a voicemail. He doesn't call back, so we call him again and again. He still doesn't call back. We're like, “He doesn't know who this crazy company Spider Dance is. What are they?”

My friend with who I started the company gets the opportunity to speak at CES because of her previous job, the whole Microsoft project and everything. After her talk, she mentioned, “We're doing interactive television. This is our vision,” even though we hadn't built any of that. Afterwards, some guy comes up from the audience, pushes through everybody else, runs right up there and says, “I have to talk to you. I am the Senior Vice President of MTV Interactive and you have exactly what I need.” She looks at him and goes, “I know. We've been leaving voicemails for you all month.” A couple of weeks later, we had a deal signed and $300,000 in the bank. We were off to the rodeo at that point. This is how crazy life goes.

One of the things that I wanted to get into is some of the lessons you've learned that we can cap your journey into this moment. There are so many things about what you share up to this point, which is powerful. You have to keep on showing up. When life puts that obstacle in your way, keep on moving.

We had two false starts, both of which were great ideas and we're too early. The massively multiplayer game engine we can see is a great idea. It's obvious. The whole idea of a Jabber chat was ahead of its time that we couldn't monetize it. You have to keep trying stuff. We didn't know the lean startup method at the time because there's no such thing. We were practicing it without realizing what it was. We learned that lesson and got into somebody.

You have to get in front of people and tell them what you envisioned doing, not what you've done. What we've done was a massively multiplayer game engine for chat but what we envisioned was this big interactive TV thing, which we ended up launching. It was only a vision but we had to put it out there to get beyond the level we were at.

To be a capstone of this is you can't limit yourself to what is already in existence. You have to think bigger and beyond and allow yourself to fit into that vision by moving towards it. You may even go well beyond that vision and see what else you can create. Your energy and stories are powerful. I'm so grateful to have you on the show.

Thank you. It’s been wonderful being here.

Before I let you go, I do have one question I always ask my guests and that is what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

First of all, I love books. I write books. I read at least a book a week, which seems crazy, but I do. There are amazing books out there. I'm a big fan of history. Reading it is important. I read anthropology, psychology, and lots of business books, but for this show, I'll leave you with The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It’s a profound book that makes you understand human character so much better.

If you want to broaden your horizon, read books, you would never otherwise read. That's my advice more than anything. Another practical book on the other end of the spectrum is Chris Voss. He wrote a book called Never Split the Difference, which is about how to negotiate. When people ask me about great books, like great movies, there are too many to list.

Chris Voss is brilliant, but I love the other recommendation because I'm inclined to go and dig that up.

Read it again if you've read it before because it’s one of those books you can read over and over and you'll see different things in it every time. The characters are so rich and tormented. The psychology is so advanced for the time of writing. It's a wonderful book. There are so many other great books out there. I could go on and on forever.

Including your books, by the way, which I enjoyed, it’s well done. I haven't read them all but I've read Make Elephants Fly, which was a cool book. It’s fun to check out.

Make Elephants Fly is for all those people who have a big idea that seems too big to get off the ground. It will never fly. It tells you how to do it. In 2021, I published two books, Surviving a Startup, which is all about surviving a startup, which I know a bit about, and The Five Forces that change everything, which is about how future technologies like AI, CRISPR gene editing, nanotechnology, space technology, and all these things are going to transform the world in the next coming decades. It's about the future of technology and how that will change our lives.

I'm going to have to pick those books up and start reading those. My list keeps on getting longer. I don't want to keep you too long, but I want to say, thank you so much for coming on and bringing yourself and your stories. I feel like we could do another hour of conversation.

Thank you, Tony. If anybody wants to reach out to me, it's super easy to find. Go to FoundersSpace.com. I’ve got lots of videos there and fun stuff for people. You can also find me on LinkedIn or any of the other social networks. I'm there, Steve Hoffman.

Thank you, and thanks to the readers for coming on the journey. I know you're leaving with so many great insights. That's a wrap.

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 About Steven Hoffman (Captain Hoff)

Steve Hoffman (Captain Hoff) is the Chairman & CEO of Founders Space, a global innovation hub for entrepreneurs, corporations, and investors, with over 50 partners in 22 countries.

Hoffman is also a venture investor, founder of three venture-backed and two bootstrapped startups, and author of several award-winning books. These include “Make Elephants Fly” (Hachette), “Surviving a Startup” (HarperCollins), and “The Five Forces” (BenBella).

In addition, Hoffman served on the Board of Governors of the New Media Council, was the founder and Chairman of the Producers Guild Silicon Valley Chapter, and was a founding member of the Academy of Television’s Interactive Media Group.

While in Hollywood, Hoffman worked as a TV development executive at Fries Entertainment, which produced over a hundred TV shows, acquired by MGM. He went on to pioneer interactive television with his venture-funded startup Spiderdance, which produced interactive TV shows with NBC, MTV, Turner, Warner Brothers, History Channel, Game Show Network, and others.

In Silicon Valley, Hoffman founded several startups, in the areas of games and entertainment, and worked as Mobile Studio Head for Infospace, with such hit mobile games as Tetris, Wheel of Fortune, Tomb Raider, Thief, Hitman, Skee-Ball, and X-Files.

Hoffman went on to launch Founders Space, with the mission to educate and accelerate entrepreneurs. Founders Space has become one of the top startup accelerators in the world. Hoffman has trained hundreds of startup founders and corporate executives in the art of innovation and provided consulting to many of the world’s largest corporations, including Qualcomm, Huawei, Bosch, Intel, Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC, Gulf Oil, Siemens, and Viacom.

Hoffman earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of California and a master’s degree in film and television from the University of Southern California. He currently resides in California but spends most of his time in the air, visiting startups, investors, and innovators all over the world.


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