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Reid Hoffman on being an entrepreneur, leadership, and blitz-scaling

Entrepreneurialising your career, trading employment for employability, leadership as a team act, and blitz-scaling: Reid Hoffman’s seminar at Saïd Business School on 5 June covered a myriad of topics, each one of which could have been the subject of a lecture series in its own right.

Hoffman, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, was speaking after the announcement of his  $1M founding donation for ‘The Oxford Foundry,’ a new initiative driven by Oxford Saïd in collaboration with other departments, where he has also agreed to be the Senior Advisor, giving his time and advice to help start and scale new ventures.

Why become an entrepreneur?

Hoffman’s own entrepreneurial journey started because he wanted ‘to strengthen the public intellectual culture in the US’: that is, publicly to engage in critical thought, ask questions about who we are, and reflect on problems in society. Academics do this to a certain extent, he acknowledged, but they are specialists and tend to have a narrow focus. He wanted to influence society more widely, and he saw software as ‘a medium with which we communicate with each other, understand and parse the world.’

‘I actually didn’t realise the word entrepreneur applied to me until the second company I started,’ he said. ‘I wanted to do something, and starting a company was the way to achieve it, but I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur.’

His background, in symbolic systems and philosophy, is certainly not one that immediately screams ‘future entrepreneur’, but he pointed out that you can become an entrepreneur with any background. He found his philosophical training particularly useful in helping him articulate and analyse his ‘investment theses’ – between three and seven things you are ‘betting on to be true’ to justify your project. Being ‘crisp’ about these theses is helpful in developing your pitch, and can also help you figure out if you’re on a failing path – which allows you to correct quickly.

Entrepreneurialising careers and organisations

An entrepreneurial approach does not just apply to starting and scaling companies. Hoffman believes that individuals should ignore traditional career advice (‘find your passion’) and approach life like an entrepreneur, so: read future trends, look at your own assets, create competitive differentiation, and manage networks, asking yourself what alliances you need to make.

Plus, ‘If you are not identifying the intelligent risks you should be taking to help you succeed, you are either failing, or not succeeding as well as you might.’

For organisations, part of succeeding and thriving is employing entrepreneurial people. Hoffman suggested that a radical new approach is needed in order to recruit and retain these valuable employees. He believes that the traditional work bargain between firms and employees is ‘mostly broken’. No-one expects a job for life any more, and employers do not consider it their responsibility to provide one. As a result, said Hoffman, employers and employees are effectively ‘lying to each other all the time’. Even when someone is first employed, there is a high likelihood that they will leave in the future, but no one ever talks about it. Looking for another job is a cloak-and-dagger enterprise. As a result, the trust between employer and employee is lost.

What Hoffman suggests is to ‘trade the idea of lifetime employment with lifetime employability’. Jobs are conceptualised as a series of ‘tours of duty’ during which employees manage their own employability, but they are supported by the employer. In return, it is the employees’ responsibility to help the company succeed.

Becoming a leader

To those students in the audience who aspired to be leaders, Hoffman advised, ‘If you want to be a leader, think about what kind of leader you can be.’ Index the things you are good at – are you an inspiring orator, or good at team leadership, or are you strong operationally? Very few people are strong across the board, and particular skills often have inverse weaknesses. For example, the most out-of-the-box, creative thinkers tend to be less strong operationally.

So leadership development should focus on amplifying your strengths and strengthening your weaknesses. But Hoffman suggested that it is actually better to recruit someone who can balance out your weaknesses. ‘Leadership is not a solo act, it is a team act,’ he said.

Future tech trends and blitz-scaling

Anyone privately developing an idea for ‘the fifth Airbnb for pets’ probably shelved it immediately after the event. Hoffman stressed the need to develop an idea that is ‘contrarian and right … Being contrarian is easy, being contrarian and right is a bit more difficult.’ He advised finding something a little off the beaten track and asking smart people what’s wrong with it.

He also said that it is best to develop an idea that is big. The Silicon Valley success story is not in start-ups but in the ‘ability to scale up at speed.’ This introduced the concept of ‘blitz-scaling’, which he is currently teaching at Stanford. Blitz-scaling is the rapid scaling of a company to serve a large and usually global market. It is almost always managerially inefficient, he warned, risky, and capital-intensive. It is what Uber is doing at the moment, for example, both because the idea needs a critical mass and because they need to establish themselves before competitors catch up with them.