Relationships – Inspire people to help you

Geetha Vallabhaneni & Andy Belk – Relationships – How to inspire people to help you.

Andy Belk: So, we both worked at Azul Systems, which was a start-up… how how long ago?… Well, it was like 8 years ago for me…

Geetha Vallabhaneni: And I started there in 2008 and Andy actually left by then.

Andy: Yes, but it was a cool company to work at… lots of great people… and we had this tradition that, if anybody left, we’d have a leaving party. So, at one point, somebody was leaving and, even though I had left a year and a half previously, I still got invited to the party. So I show up for lunch… [to Geetha] Was it the Mexican restaurant or something?

Geetha: That was.

Andy: And we all sat down randomly at the table and we’re chatting to people we know, and I have this tendency to talk to people who I don’t know, and I think that’s probably one key to making relationships…

Geetha: That’s truly true.

Andy: That’s, you know, a basic, fundamental thing… is that, if you always talk to the people you know, you’re never going to…

Geetha: And that goes back to the point that we were talking about, you know, you have to have a curious mind, in general… open-mindedness about it… so that partly plays into it, too, like actually walking up to someone that you don’t know and saying, “Hi,” and learning about them a little bit, right? So that’s how we started.

Andy: And part of it’s about being genuinely interested and then you hit something where you have something in common. And I think that probably plays a role as well because there are a lot of people in The Valley who have a wide variety of interests so they are not just geeks who worked really hard. At the weekend they go off mountain-biking or skiing or kite surfing or running. And while we were talking, one of the things that came up is that Geetha liked running and I was a big runner [to Geetha] but you were having some… were you having some foot problem?

Geetha: At that point, I actually, I just ran half a marathon and it was not a foot problem but I was actually trying to branch off into, like, biking and stuff like that… and then I started the start-up and I barely have time to train to do any more so… and I actually don’t eat on time these days so… like today, I went for a 7-mile run… I haven’t eaten this morning… so it’s not a good thing. [Laughs] So, yes, we started talking about…

Andy: Don’t forget to feed her!

Marzena Kmiecik: We’re going to go and feed you after this.

Andy: You can’t live on just tea. Anyway, so that’s how we met and then, just because we seemed to get on, we just sort of kept in touch… I mean, I didn’t see her on a weekly basis but, occasionally, we’re in the same area. We’ve ran into each other at… [to Geetha] was it Trader Joe’s?

Geetha: Trader Joe’s and then Starbucks a couple of times. The immigration issues is something. You know, I actually advocate for immigration reform. And Andy ran into his own immigration issues and then he connected me with someone else that had the issues.

Andy: And I spent some time and gave her my story about how I arrived in the US and went through the whole immigration… and getting the Green Card was a pain… and, you know, how, if they made legal immigration easier, it might solve some aspect of their illegal immigration problem. So those are the kind of things that have kept us going and in touch.

Geetha: And I think, genuinely interested in people – I think Andy used that expression, right? – so, when you want to make meaningful connections, you can’t just walk up to them and say, “Hey, I know so and so and here’s what I do and here’s how you can help me.” You don’t build relationships like that, right? You actually have to be someone that cares about a different viewpoint and cares about people and actually learning from them, right, as a result, and that’s how you build enriching relationships.

Andy: Yes, how everything is a two-way street. It’s not just a matter of connecting with people, getting their phone number and that’s it. You really want to have shared experiences as well that you can actually base a friendship and a relationship on, as opposed to just, you know, a collection of phone numbers in a book.

Geetha: Once you focus on that, automatically actually, people are inspired to help you and I have 100 stories like that. Once you built friendships, you’ve built actual human relationship first – like he said – you have to understand what, where they come from. And then they know you and they actually value you as a human being, without you asking, they actually are inspired and motivated to help you and open doors for you. And that happened to me countless number of times and that actually inspires you to take that forward, like the whole pay-forward culture in Silicon Valley in books that we write. So many people help me; I am just compelled and motivated to help the next person and the next generation.

Andy: Yes, and I think that’s definitely the way it works from my perspective, too, because I’m just interested in helping people out because they have an interesting product, or a good idea, or they’re a fun person; I want to see them succeed, or something like that. I’m not necessarily getting anything out of it. And here’s a classic example of a relationship that came about, and has so far come to good fruition, that was, again, down to some sort of… a collision of random events. So, a friend of mine, who I used to work with at Swiss Bank in London, many years ago; he had a start-up in England that was doing pretty well and, as part of that, he had got in touch with the, essentially, the equivalent of the English Chamber of Commerce and they were doing some sort of an event, ‘free food, freeze booze’, at the embassy in San Francisco, or the consulate – I forget which one – and he said, “This is cool; you’re at Apple; you must know a bunch of people; you should come along….” And it was one of these networking events, which I don’t usually find that interesting, but I was like, “Free food, free booze… can’t be bad… even if nothing interesting goes on, I’ve got free food, free booze”. So I showed up to this event and I talked to quite a few people and I got lots of business cards and, you know, and I was busy chatting, and some of them had some interesting ideas… and there was this one guy who… At this time, I was working on Apple TV and there was one guy who was doing media in London. He was sort of an aggregator for content so, I mean, that was obviously of direct interest, and so I got his card and I ultimately gave it to my boss to follow-up on.

But that actually wasn’t the interesting one, because I bumped into this lass by the name of Alexandra and we were just chatting. She was unusual because she was British but she’d been born in Jamaica, which just kind of made her unusual. And so we were chatting. And I’d lived in random countries so the fact that, you know, I’d moved around a lot and lived different places, makes me interested in other people who have lived and moved around in various places because, I think, those of us – and funnily enough, it includes the 3 of us – people who have moved around countries, I think you get a much wider perspective of the world, and people in general and, I think, you become much more accepting because you’ve been much more exposed to different attitudes. So, anyway, we were just chatting away and, at some point, either I or she started talking about kite surfing, because she’d been trying it, and I was like, “this is perfect,” because I’m hanging out with this group of folks who go to Maui, or go to random places, and we talk about business and we talk about kitesurfing and: “You’d be perfect so you should come along,” so we kept in touch and I put her in touch with Bill and when she came on the next trip… and had a great time… and it was all fun and, ultimately, as far as I know, Bill ended up investing some money in her but, as a result of discussing with all the folks on the trip, she also changed her business model. So there was a really interesting dynamic, or lots of things that happened, and she’s launched her site, launched the product and it’s been going pretty well. It’s a site called Lulu where girls get to rate guys… it’s girl-only!

Geetha: Haha. Interesting!

Andy: So I can’t say I’ve actually used the product… although I may be on it… who knows! [Laughs]

Geetha: Do you want me to spy and find out your rating?

Andy: Yes, absolutely! So, that’s one example and it was this combination of factors: I kept in touch with the friend that I’d worked with in London; he put me in touch with the consulate event… he got me invited; and she happened to be there and happened to have kite surfed; and, you know, so the whole sequence of things that… anyway…

Geetha: Connecting the dots, that really does happen in real life.

Marzena Kmiecik: What do you think makes Silicon valley so different in that respect? Why does it seem that, here, people ‘get it’ more than in any other area?

Geetha: I don’t think it’s unique, in terms of human nature of people that are here, it’s about how traditions start, really, and I think it’s… so if someone figured, with a big heart, I’m going to help this person. And this is, again, starting something and perpetuating it, perpetually, right? So, someone helps someone and they feel like, “Oh, you know, that person helped me so selflessly; there was nothing in it for him or her. Now I have to do the same thing.” It’s instilling that thought. I don’t know who started it. I’m sure the founding fathers of Silicon Valley – the first semiconductor companies – they probably had some great people… [to Andy] What do you think?

Andy: Well, I mean, the two Steves… Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. They got their first start by doing deals with various companies to get parts and things that, you know, if people hadn’t thought that they were interesting, or felt sorry for them or something, they would have had to get together a lot more money or something like that, so… yes, I think there is a history of that. And, you know, it’s a combination of things because there’s also a bunch of people out here to make money and that feeds into this in a slightly different way so the VC firms have a history of betting on a whole bunch of things, and a lot of them are just never successful, but they bet on enough so that, when they get one or two successes, they do well out of it.

And I think you can’t deny that having the combination of San Francisco, Stanford, Berkeley and, in some ways, the geography of the place, doesn’t play a role. San Francisco, as a city, is just really unusual. Geographically, it’s unusual – it’s really hilly. And it’s isolated on the tip of a peninsula, which means that, apart from one direction, you hear water. It’s got different microclimates all the way around so you can go in any direction and you can get stuffy-hotness, fog, wind or pleasant temperatures under the redwoods. And that, in itself, just attracts an interesting bunch of people who are looking for something that’s a bit unusual.

And then Stanford is just this center of, you know, it’s an amazingly, great university in multiple respects. First of all, it’s gorgeous. I remember when I first arrived in the US, because I was coming to a physics conference, and I landed – the plane was really late because the runway in Newark had melted in the heat, so that gives you some idea about which summer it was. I think it was the summer of ’88, I think. And so, when I finally landed, it was something like 1 o’clock in the morning – and I took a bus down to Stanford from the airport and I had to walk to the dorm rooms, to get to where I was supposed to be sleeping, So, I’m walking – and I think there was a pretty full moon – so I’m walking down Palm Drive, with all these palm trees, having come from my university, which is a bunch of concrete blocks with a few brick blocks, in the middle of London… thinking, “I think I should have done my PhD somewhere else.” So, it’s a beautiful place to go visit but also it’s got lots of really smart, creative people.

And then there’s Berkeley, which adds another different factor, and they have a great tradition of great engineering and great thinking and producing good software but, in addition, they’ve also got this sort of anti-establishment feeling and I think those two universities have pulled in different directions and that tension creates more creativity.