Watching Game Tapes of History’s Best Entrepreneurs with David Senra
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“I can live the rest of my entire life never having one original idea. As long as I’ve mastered the handful of ideas that I see as recurring themes in the history of entrepreneurship, I will live a fantastic life. Because it's not only knowing this stuff, but also actually applying them.”
If you’ve listened to the most recent episode of Invest Like The Best, you already know about David Senra. David runs the Founders podcast (which will soon be part of the Colossus family) where he dives into the history of entrepreneurship one biography at a time (he’s up to more than 271!).
Watching David build the podcast is a first lesson in the obsessive focus he modeled after his favorite founders:
“The greatest entrepreneurs had one idea. They built everything around that one idea. There might be things that spawn off of that idea later on. There are other businesses that can grow out of that, other business lines, other products. But fundamentally, they start with an idea.”
What makes his work particularly compelling is his ability to connect the dots between generations of founders. He finds the connections and relationships within industries and points out how the best studied, copied, and mentored each other.
“With his actions, [Steve Jobs] is telling us that [Edwin Land] grabbed a hold of him when he was young, and his influence held on to him till the day he died. My goal is simple: I want to have the best podcast in the world on the history of entrepreneurship. I can't say that I do that if I don't go and chase these things down.”
David has created a unique body of work that allows any interested listener to dive into stories of history’s builders and relate to their setbacks and successes. Needless to say, we highly recommend it.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
“Reading a book is a movie for the mind. It's impossible to read a life story of an interesting person and not be involved emotionally. You're with them in their ups and downs. When you're reading the book, it's a predictable human reaction that you put yourself in their shoes.”
- On Kanye West and the founder's journey. "What you're seeing in that documentary to me is the clearest version of the founder’s journey. It's all the stuff that happens in a founder’s life before they build a successful business. … “He locked himself in a room making beats. I locked myself in a room making podcasts. You lock yourself in a room writing. Founders lock themselves in some room building software. It's the same exact thing.”
- On setbacks and doubts. James Dyson "has 14 years of struggle. He builds 5,127 prototypes. He mortgaged his house. Some days, after doing all these experiments, he's climbing into bed at night covered in dust, crying at how painful what he's trying to do. It's 14 years and 5,127 prototypes before he has a vacuum of his own design, that he owns completely, that he could start selling to the public. We know at year 14 he's going to have success. What about year three? What if he stopped right here? That makes perfect sense. This is why it's so difficult. It is the logical decision. He should have stopped there, but he didn't.”
- Founders love their companies. “He had been trying to build companies, successful and unsuccessful, for 50 years. He gave the best description of what I feel is the founder’s role. The founder is the guardian of the company's soul. You cannot be the guardian of your company unless you love it. Edwin Land, Enzo Ferrari, and Steve Jobs. They talk about their products the way you would describe your lover. It's not the same as, I made a toaster, here's the toaster. No, they describe it like they're in love with what they've done.”
- On reading multiple biographies. “Steve Jobs had this idea when he was 18 or 19 years old. I want to build great products. He did it until he died. … Not only did I read 10 or 12 books on Steve Jobs, but I also tracked down all the books on the people he talks about. This is my hero. This is another person I have an idea from. There's like 39 episodes in the archive that are on Steve Jobs or on Steve Jobs’ heroes and influences.”
- On founders selling their companies. “There is this weird mind virus. I have an idea, I'm going to start up, I'm going to scale up, I'm going to sell, and then I'm going to do that over and over again. Inevitably, the question is who are the entrepreneurs you look up to? Who are your entrepreneur heroes? And they start listing off people that literally worked in the same company forever. I don't understand. Are you learning from these people or not? Because no one would have known Walt Disney's name if he started Disney and sold it five years later. No one would know Job’s name if he just got kicked out of Apple and then disappeared.”
- On the value of compounding knowledge. “An investor understands the power of compounding. Knowledge compounds too. Imagine going back and trying to talk to Warren Buffett about everything he knew at 35 compared to what Warren Buffett knew at 80. That's not the same person. I've read 272 biographies of entrepreneurs so far. I have a unique set of knowledge there. It's going to pale in comparison to what I will know two decades from now or three decades from now.”
- On the birth of new industries. “Henry Ford had an idea. I want to build an easy, reliable car that the average person working at Ford can actually afford. That was unheard of. … Edison says something that changes Ford’s life. He says, that’s it, young man, you have it, keep at it. So, the next 5-10 years of struggle, he remembers what Edison said and it helped him. That's how Ford approached it. That's his idea. … Billy Durant had built this vertically integrated carriage company for horses. He … went and bought a bunch of other carriage brands, and put them under one umbrella. The exact same playbook at the early days of GM. … Henry Leland worked for Samuel Colt. The ideas that he learned in the mass production of firearms, he then shows up in Detroit and starts applying them to automobiles. When Henry Ford has a question, he goes to see Henry Leland. He is the wise old counsel with a lot more life experience.”
- On founders and culture. “Whoever you are and whatever is important to you, put that into your company. Don't shy away from the eccentric part of your personality because your personality is the foundation and the beginning culture of the company.”
- On the flawed lives of many founders. “It's safe to assume that every single person I have read about is smarter than I am. Yet you see all these smart-driven people make mistakes. They usually over optimize their professional life to the detriment of everything else. They destroy their personal lives. They destroy their health.”
- On focus and the ability to mute the world. “The people that get really good at what they're doing don't allow themselves to think or do much of anything else.”
- “Jony Ive, who obviously worked very closely with Steve Jobs, was talking about one of the main lessons from Steve Jobs. He's saying, “Steve was the most remarkably focused person I have ever met in my life.” Jony works with Steve almost every day. This guy who is having lunch with him damn near every day says he is the most focused person in his life. That should tell you to do an audit of your life. Am I focused?”
- On podcasting and learning the how vs. the what. “I'm not copying the what, I'm copying the how. I don't want to build a conglomerate. I'm not building anything in the semiconductor industry, in the defense industry. I'm not doing anything that Henry Singleton did. But I could take how he did his approach to business and apply it to mine. When I see these things, I’m like, I’ll just apply that to podcasting. My business is so much simpler than Teledyne or Apple.”
- On avoiding ruthless people. “I don't read a story and say that person's dead, I have nothing to worry about. No, that personality type was alive then, they're alive today, they will be alive in the future. Human nature is constant. … When I come across somebody that’s completely ruthless. The minute you stop being useful, they will discard you. This is a problem that appears over and over again. What is your solution, David? The solution I’ve come up with for my life is avoidance. I don't want to partner with you. I don't want to chase money with you. I don't want to be friends with you. … I am very selective about who I spend time with. I only have one good filter for this. I think there might only be one good filter. That is time. Time is the best filter.”
Frederik Gieschen: I want to start with your obsession with Kanye or specifically the documentary. Tell me why that captivates you so much.
David Senra: One of my favorite YouTubers, this guy named Casey Neistat, used to have this daily vlog that was extremely popular on YouTube. What was interesting is, in his studio, you would see in the background that he would constantly play The Godfather movie on a loop over and over again. He's obviously a filmmaker so he's being inspired by one of the greatest films to ever be created.
The first four hours of my day is usually just spent with a physical book, just concentrated on reading a biography of an entrepreneur, and trying to build this vast catalog of all that took place in the history of entrepreneurship. What can entrepreneurs learn from? What are the best ideas to copy and the worst ideas to avoid?
All the thousands of smart people that lived before us, they ran all these types of experiments throughout their entire lives. How to build a company, find new ways to manage, build new technology, then somebody wrote those ideas down in a book. That's a famous quote from Marc Andreessen on why he reads so many biographies.
It describes exactly what I’m trying to do with Founders podcasts. When I’m not doing that, and I’m working on a computer, half my screen is just the first two episodes of the Kanye West documentary that's on Netflix, Jeen-Yuhs. The reason that it’s so interesting is because obviously, Kanye is one of the most famous people in the world. He's very controversial. There are people that love him, people that hate him. But what you're seeing in that documentary to me is the clearest version of the founder’s journey that I read about in biographies. It's all the stuff that happens in a founder’s life before they build a successful business.
Most of what I find interesting in reading biographies is not Bill Gates post IPO, one of the richest people in the world. It's what happened in his childhood. Why is he making the decisions he made? What kind of personality does he have? What's the pre-history of Microsoft?
There's a fantastic book, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. It's called Hard Drive. It's a biography of Bill Gates that came out probably over 20 years ago. The reason it's so good is because it covers the first 35 years of his life, it ends with the Microsoft IPO. You get an understanding of who he is as a person, all the different ideas he had. Him struggling and searching for where he wants to put all that energy, and then the psychopathic dedication and obsessiveness that he applied as soon as he and Paul knew what they’re doing. It's a full-on sprint. It's like sprinting through a marathon for two decades until he relinquished the leadership of the company.
What I see in the Kanye documentary is that it’s exactly what's happening in Kanye’s life. Because the documentary starts with not with the Kanye who's super famous, super rich, he's in his mid-40s, or however old he is. It's 21-year-old Kanye. It is the Kanye that has had a dream since he was 12 years old. There's a great line that I repeat over and over again on the podcast because it's very obvious. It’s a line from another rapper named Russ. He says the public praises people for what they practice in private.
By the time we meet Kanye West, and he shows up in New York City, he is being introduced to the biggest rapper in the world, which is Jay Z at the time, and he's selling beats to Jay Z. What we didn't see was Kanye as a seventh grader, making his first beat, which is terrible than his second beat, which was a little less terrible than his 2,000th beat, which is less terrible.
There's a line in one of his songs that I love. It came on his first album. He locked himself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers. I really think this describes exactly the same thing that Bill Gates was doing, all the hours programming, and all the hours selling the software, and everything he was doing.
That is the maxim I use. Founders as a podcast is getting a lot more attention and there's a lot more listeners. It's been something I’ve been working on for six years. For those six years, it's completely full time, reading several hours every day for the last four years without missing a day of reading a biography of an entrepreneur and trying to document what took place in the history of entrepreneurship that may be useful to the entrepreneurs that are operating today. It's the exact same thing.
He locked himself in a room making beats. I locked myself in a room making podcasts. You lock yourself in a room writing. Founders lock themselves in some room building software. It's the same exact thing. That founder’s journey is condensed down to two hours.
Something that I noticed over and over again in these biographies. Belief comes before ability. Kanye knew he had the capacity to be great. He was willing to do the work necessary to achieve that greatness. But he also would do some things a lot of which is like a mental battle because the entire outside world is telling you that you're not great. Nobody wants your beats. Nobody wants you to rap. You don't know what you're talking about. So, he talked about when he took the big risk of moving from Chicago with no money to Newark, New Jersey, because the center of the hip hop world at that point in the early 2000s was New York City. That's where everybody was at. I need to go where they're going.
It is the exact same journey. If you wanted to build a car company, and you are living in America in 1900, you're going to Detroit. It's the exact same thing that you see over and over again. Same thing. If you wanted to build a technology company, since the 1970s, starting in 1950s, but especially in the last 20 or 30 years, you would go to San Francisco. That obviously is probably changing right now.
Kanye goes there. He didn't even have money for a car. He had to take the train to New York. He decided that on the way to get to the train, he’s going to practice his Grammy speech. He is practicing his Grammy speech before he made his first album. He doesn't even have a record deal. He has no money. He's trying to sell as many beats as possible.
That should give you an idea of why it's so important for people building companies, but also literally anybody trying to do something difficult, to have that constant exposure. It's ups and downs and ups and downs. He's got a psychopathic level of persistence and an unbelievable amount of resourcefulness, which I think are traits that every single person that I’ve read a biography of that has built a great company has.
Frederik Gieschen: A key element that makes your podcast interesting is that we can relate to the journey and the difficulty, the doubt. How do you think about lessons from setbacks and mistakes?
David Senra: There's no story that you're going to read, where this man or woman had an idea, they woke up, I'm going to do it, they start doing it, and then they achieve the goal, and it's a happy ending. It's like, I have this idea, or maybe a vague idea of what I want to do. I just keep trying a bunch of things. Then I take one step forward, maybe two steps back.
What I'm fascinated by is these alternate paths. Most of the people I study are dead. Even if they're alive, they're in their 70s, 80s, or 90s. They're talking about stuff that happened in the past. Everybody listening is still going forward in life. So, I always start thinking let's pause here in this person's life
Let me use James Dyson as an example because I'm obsessed with his autobiography. He has this fantastic autobiography called Against the Odds, an Autobiography by James Dyson. It's shocking to me how so few people, especially entrepreneurs, have read that book. He just wrote another autobiography. But he wrote that autobiography as a 70-year-old man that owns 100% of a multi-billion-dollar company, so that got a lot more attention.
But he wrote an autobiography when he was in his 40s. At the time, Dyson wasn't a $30-billion company, it was doing 300 million in revenue, which is fantastic. He had one product, which was the cyclone vacuum, and it was in one country, which was in England. The reason that biography is so fantastic is because it is all about struggle. He had this idea where he’s pushing around this crappy Hoover vacuum. It's not sucking because the bag is now blocking the suction, so he’s ripping up the bag, and he thinks, this is poorly designed, I could do something better.
He has 14 years of struggle. He builds 5,127 prototypes. He mortgaged his house. Some days, after doing all these experiments, he's climbing into bed at night covered in dust, crying at how painful what he's trying to do. It's 14 years and 5,127 prototypes before he has a vacuum of his own design, that he owns completely, that he could start selling to the public.
There're so many examples in that book where I try to pause. We know at year 14, he's going to have success. What about year three? What if he stopped right here? That makes perfect sense. This is why it's so difficult. It is the logical decision. He should have stopped there, but he didn't.
What's the difference? The version of James that didn't stop and kept going, we see where that one winds up. He's built one of the most successful businesses owned by one person. Meanwhile, we don't see the alternate pathway. For every one person, for every one version of James that continued, there's 10,000 that can't take the pain anymore and quit. Then maybe there's another 10,000 that persevered, and they got to year six, but they quit. Then they quit year 9 or 10 or 11.
That's why Steve Jobs at the end of his life, one of the last things he said, after himself having 13 years of struggle between when he got kicked out of Apple, and when he goes back, is people say that you have to have a lot of passion. It's true. Your passion pushes you on because it's illogical. It is difficult. It is logical to quit. But if you love what you're doing, and you truly believe what you are making the world has to have, and there is no plan B for you, you're not going to quit the passion and the love you have for it.
It's just like a relationship. Think about the ups and downs of a friendship or a marriage. Anything that's going to take place in a human's life over a long period of time is going to be fraught with conflict. That's just part of our nature. So, the love you have for that person, the amount of shared history you have, pushes you forward. This is a temporary bump in the road. We're just going to keep going because it's important to us.
I think that same love is apparent in history's greatest entrepreneurs. I covered the biography of this guy named Sidney Harman, who if you ever get into like a luxury car, you'll see speakers that say Harman Kardon. He winds up writing this fantastic autobiography. He's 80 or 90 years old when he's writing it. It's called Mind Your Own Business. In that biography he's distilling 50 years. We haven't even been alive for 50 years. This dude had been trying to build companies, successful and unsuccessful for 50 years. Imagine what he knows. He gave the best description of what I feel is the founder’s role. The founder is the guardian of the company's soul. You cannot be the guardian of your company unless you love it.
What's fascinating is I read a bunch of biographies of Edwin Land, Enzo Ferrari, and Steve Jobs. They talk about their products the way you would describe your lover. It's not the same as, I made a toaster, here's the toaster. No, they describe it like they're in love with what they've done.
Frederik Gieschen: You’ve read maybe five biographies on Edwin Land? Very few people will read multiple biographies of the same person. And you read biographies and autobiographies. Tell me about the value of these different perspectives. Why do you keep reading book after book about the same person?
David Senra: It's not that I only read the same book or multiple books of the same person. In Edwin Land’s case, I’ve read five biographies of him. I spent the last two weeks rereading three of those. When I find people I'm deeply interested in, people that I want to influence my thinking and my approach to work and life, that's just how I am. I have an obsessive personality. It's either 0 or 100. I’m totally disinterested or all in and I’m going to read every single thing.
It's dangerous for me to get involved in other forms of media. I got super addicted to Game of Thrones. I found the TV show before I found the books. I watched the episodes over and over again. I read all the books. My wife caught me in bed one night and I'm studying the family trees by flashlight. I've always been like that. I don't know why.
I’m super into Steve Jobs. I have read probably 10 or 12 books on him. It's all subjective but if you have a list of history's greatest entrepreneurs, let's say you have a top five list, if you could even do something, Steve's on that list. That's not debatable. He made incredible products in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 2000s, and the 2010s right before he died. He had this idea when he was 18 or 19 years old. I want to build great products. He did it until he died.
In every biography, they will tell you who they studied. To even get on Founders podcast, you had to be so good at your work that somebody wrote a book about it. That is the smallest percentage of any human of human beings that ever lived. What's remarkable is that those kinds of people all spent time studying the people that came before them. They will tell you that this person influenced them. They started studying this person.
Not only did I read 10 or 12 books on Steve Jobs, but I also tracked down all the books on the people he talks about. This is my hero. This is another person I have an idea from. There's like 39 episodes in the archive that are on Steve Jobs or on Steve Jobs’ heroes and influences.
I can't answer your question why I do that other than I find it interesting. A lot of people ask me how do you decide what book to read? I have hundreds of unread books. I just look at who I am most excited to learn about right now. I don't have a master plan. Sometimes it may have made more sense to just group all these books together, and then maybe do 10 straight episodes on it. Then there's something else that I read that affects how I think about something two weeks from now or two months, and now I'm more excited to read or to learn about that.
With Edwin Land in particular, I just made the case that no matter what your list is, if you're talking about history's greatest entrepreneurs, Steve Jobs has got to be on it. Yet there are interviews where Steve's in his 20s, and there are interviews that he's giving to Walter Isaacson right before he dies, and he's talking about the same person. He's saying, Edwin Land is my hero.
He said something about building a company at the intersection of art and technology. If you ever watched Steve Jobs give presentations, he put a signpost on it, they use the word technology and liberal arts. What did Steve see in this guy? Edwin Land was in his 70s when Steve Jobs was in his 20s. As he was building Apple the first time, he got to meet Edwin Land three times.
You can read his famous interview in Playboy magazine in the 1980s where he said that visiting Edwin Land was like visiting a shrine. They talk about their products and their work in a very romantic way. He didn't say it was great, the guy's cool, he's really smart. He compared it to a religious experience, like visiting a shrine. I pay attention when they use words like this.
I don't just read casually. I think about what does that line means. If I don't know who that person is, let me go look at that person real quick, before I continue this paragraph. I need context here to actually understand what he's trying to tell us.
With his actions, he's telling us that this person grabbed a hold of him when he was young, and his influence held on to him till the day he died. My goal is simple: I want to have the best podcast in the world on the history of entrepreneurship. I can't say that I do that if I don't go and chase these things down.
Steve is too important to entrepreneurs, even if they're not in the technology sector, to not study. So, let's go back and find Edwin Land. He was completely obsessed. He had this idea. He wanted to have a great scientific discovery that was uniquely his own. He started working on what soon turned into Polaroid when he was 17. He works on various variations of the same idea until he's 70. Who the hell runs a company for 50 years? Who does that? Especially in our day and age where everybody's super distracted. Half my day is spent reading biographies of history scriptures. Then half my day is just talking to friends that are founders that listen to the podcast.
There is this weird mind virus in the entrepreneurial industry, where it's like, I have an idea, I'm going to start up, I'm going to scale up, I'm going to sell, and then I'm going to do that over and over again. Inevitably, the question is who are the entrepreneurs you look up to? Who are your entrepreneur heroes? And they start listing off people that literally worked in the same company forever. I don't understand. Are you learning from these people or not? Because no one would have known Walt Disney's name if he started Disney and sold it five years later. No one would know Job’s name if he just got kicked out of Apple and then disappeared.
Enzo Ferrari is another person I bring up over and over again. A lot of these people I admire for how they approached work, but I don't want their lives in the sense that Enzo Ferrari had one focus his entire life. That was Ferrari. He probably didn't care about another human being other than himself and his son. That’s highly likely. I've read three biographies on him. He worked on Ferrari every day for 60 years, seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day.
Frederik Gieschen: Very different from the typical venture-backed startup which you build, take public or sell, and then do the next thing.
David Senra: Polaroid was venture-backed. Apple was venture-backed. I don't care if you bootstrap or if you raise money. What I'm interested in is people that have found something they love to do, and they want to do it for a long time. Because think about it, you've studied the history of finance way more than me. I've told you that me and you get along because we do similar things, but I think you're a way better researcher than I am.
An investor understands the power of compounding. My point is knowledge compounds too. Imagine going back and trying to talk to Warren Buffett about everything he knew at 35 compared to what Warren Buffett knew at 80. That's not the same person. So, I’m trying to study the best of the best and people that are completely obsessed. That's fascinating to me.
I've read 272 biographies of entrepreneurs so far. I have a unique set of knowledge there. It's going to pale in comparison to what I will know two decades from now or three decades from now. I don't understand why you keep wanting to jump around, where you're giving away all the gains that aren't going to take place for another decade or two decades from now. The amount of knowledge and skills. Same thing for skills. You're a much better entrepreneur with 20 years of experience than you are with two.
Frederik Gieschen: One of the things that you're able to do is kind of look at all the different founders as, as an industry kind of comes into, like is born, right and how they approach things. I think you did start a series but you did a bunch of people in automotive. When we talk about founders today, it's mostly in the context of technology. But you study people in retail, automotive.
David Senra: I’m fascinated by the birth of not only new companies, but new industries. The railroad industry in the late 1800s in America has a lot of parallels to the early days of the Internet. What's fascinating is you see the same personality type over and over again. I think studying the birth of the industry, when it's not at all clear how it's going to turn out, is fascinating.
I read 12 or 15 biographies on early American automotive company founders. It's the same story as if you study the early days of the Internet or technology in and around Silicon Valley, where they wind up all knowing each other. The only thing that might be different now is usually at the beginning of an industry, they're all centered in the same geographic location. Obviously, technology is in Silicon Valley, Detroit was the center for cars.
Even the supercars, the race cars that happened later in the 50s and 60s, Ferrari, Bugatti, they all knew each other. They were all in this area. In fact, Ferrari says, it's really important because he says he feels that different geographic areas develop certain psychosis, for certain industries. He's like, where I grew up in Italy, we had a psychosis for racing cars, everybody there was into racing cars. That's what they thought about. That's the skill set they developed. In that way, I couldn't have made Ferrari anywhere else. It's basically the point he was making there.
Henry Ford is also a really fascinating person. I like his approach to company building. I liked the way he thought. He had one idea that was completely different from everybody else's. In the early days of the car industry, it's like cars are for rich people. His first two companies failed, which is very common. Enzo Ferrari’s first company was bankrupt. Disney's first company was bankrupt. Steve Jobs had two or three failed attempts. Let's say he had two failed attempts before he actually gets to what we know him today, which is everything that happened from 97 till he died. That's why we know him.
The industry had this idea where you build a small volume of $6,000 or $8,000 cars, which is excessive. Because the Model T, which obviously was his main idea, got down to 400 bucks, then 300 bucks, then 275. A lot cheaper than what they told him to do. Everybody was saying, Ford, you build it for rich people, and Ford said, I want to make the world's first car for every man. First of all, that doesn't exist. Two, I have one idea.
That's what’s fascinating. He says you only need one idea. This is very important in today's age of infinite distraction. The greatest entrepreneurs had one idea. They built everything around that one idea. There might be things that spawn off of that idea later on. There are other businesses that can grow out of that, other business lines, other products. But fundamentally, they start with an idea.
Henry Ford had an idea. I want to build an easy, reliable car that the average person working at Ford can actually afford. That was unheard of. There wasn't a thing like that. He didn’t know how to do it. He just knows that this is the idea that drives him. He’s willing to do the work necessary to learn the skill set required to do that. Obviously, he had to invent. He not only invented the Model T, but he invented the manufacturing process to the scale needed, which didn't exist at the time, to get that volume up so the price goes down.
But what's interesting is there are three people like that. Everybody knows Henry Ford. But there are other people that are really important. General Motors - still a massive company - how many people know the name of the founder? I talked to entrepreneurs, nobody knows it. If they did, they learned it on Founders. It's Billy Durant.
Not only do they know each other, they all come from different experiences. They had different strategies for building a car company. That's really important for founders to know. There's more than one way to win.
Think about Henry Ford. He thinks I got to get the hell off the farm. This is terrible. He goes to the city. He starts to become a machinist. He starts working on steam engines. Then he's like, most of the cars of the day were built with steam engines or electric engines. This doesn't make any sense. Steam is terrible for a car. I'm going to try to make an internal combustion engine, and then he shows that idea to Edison, because he idolized Edison.
He tells Edison who's a much older man and way more famous. Ford at this time when he's having a conversation with Edison, has no money, no fame, and no notoriety. Twenty years from that meeting, he's going to be the richest person in America. By 1919, he owned Ford Motor Company, 100%. He bought out all his investors. It was a private company. It'd be like owning a multibillion-dollar company 100% today.
He meets with Edison. Remember, Edison is electricity. He explains his idea for an internal combustion engine. Edison says something that changes Ford’s life. He says, that’s it, young man, you have it, keep at it. So, the next 5-10 years of struggle, he remembers what Edison said and it helped him. That's how Ford approached it. That's his idea. Hey, I came from steam. That doesn't make sense. Let me do an internal combustion engine. Then once I figured it out, let me produce in such a volume that everybody can afford it.
Billy Durant came from horse carriages. His idea is not like doing Durant motors, which is what Ford's doing. I'm not going to do just one car. He had built this vertically integrated carriage company for horses. He started the company, started making a bunch of money, then his carriage company was successful, and went and bought a bunch of other carriage brands, and put them under one umbrella. The exact same playbook at the early days of GM. He was running for horse carriages. That leads me to the third person.
Then you have Henry Leland, who was just a complete badass. Henry Leland is the founder of Cadillac. He is a generation, if not two generations older than almost every other American automotive founder. He is 60 years old when he starts Cadillac. Ford is 30s at this point and I think Durant's maybe around the same age.
Not only did he start Cadillac at 60, but he also starts Lincoln motors, which he named after his hero, Abraham Lincoln, at 70. Cadillac was technically the first commercially successful American automotive company ever made, which is really fascinating because you could sell cars, or your cars could be loved, but they couldn't figure out the finances. They could make a successful product but maybe not a successful business. Henry Leland because he was older and had more experience was able to do both.
Where did he come into this? He was a machinist. Remember, he's sixty years old. He was the one to introduce interchangeability, which helps in the mass production of everything now, but especially the mass production of cars back then. He learned that because when he grew up, the forefront of technology at American history at that time was fighting wars. Not only are they doing this push for manifest destiny, but the American government also needs to mass produce pistols. Henry Leland worked for Samuel Colt. The ideas that he learned in the mass production of firearms, he then shows up in Detroit and starts applying them to automobiles. Then what's fascinating is when Henry Ford has a question, he goes to see Henry Leland. He is the wise old counsel with a lot more life experience. I read his biography. It’s called a Master of Precision. Just like Steve Jobs, just like Leland, just like Enzo Ferrari, he had insanely high standards of quality for his product, obsessively high.
His whole thing is like, I'm not building the “every” car for everybody. I'm not building a bunch of different brands under one company umbrella. I'm building the best luxury car available. So, he put all that into Cadillac. Eventually, he winds up selling for a good amount to Billy Durant.
Those same ideas happen over and over again. There are people with different backgrounds, they have their own idea, their own personality. The important part is whoever you are, and whatever is important to you, put that into your company. Don't shy away from the eccentric part of your personality because your personality, the founder’s personality is the foundation and the beginning culture of the company.
On the flawed lives of many founders.
There's a lot of people that if you ask me, who are your entrepreneurial heroes, Henry Ford is one of them. But not in the personal domain. They're usually super flawed people, which also heavily influenced decisions I'm making in my own life.
It's safe to assume that every single person I have read about is smarter than I am. Yet you see all these smart-driven people make mistakes. They usually over optimize their professional life to the detriment of everything else. They destroy their personal lives. They destroy their health. In Henry Ford's case, he’s super antisemitic, and this hatred for the finance industry.
If all these people are smarter than me, what's the chance that I am likely going to make the same mistake. Knowing that, I have to put barriers on myself. A lot of that is just I'm relentlessly focused. I won't allow myself to think about anything else but making the podcast. I'm not starting another company. I'm not running a fund. I am reading books and making podcasts. I have one focus. I found what I want to do and I'm going to do it for an excessively long time.
That is important to me. The reason it’s important to me is because if I start filling my life with all these other things, then my health is going to be destroyed. I'm married and have kids. I'm not going to be a shit husband. I'm not going to be a bad father. I'm going to also have fun in life. There are a lot of founders that get to the end of their life, which didn't even have fun. They could be just as rich or richer than 99.99% of the people that ever lived, and they didn't even have fun in life.
Frederik Gieschen: You mentioned the age of infinite distraction. You're doing one thing. And you told me once about the mute button. I'm always wondering what lessons you are applying to your own life. And it seems like focus and simplicity are key.
David Senra: Something I take away from my own work is it's very apparent that the people that get really good at what they're doing don't allow themselves to think or do much of anything else. You and I have in our past conversations, the DMs, emails, or phone calls that you and I have had, we've talked about Henry Singleton. You've sent me some fantastic research, stuff on microfilm. It's just a different level.
Singleton had an influence on me. I read both The Outsiders, and the book Distant Force, and the stuff you sent me, and other people listening to the podcasts sent me the entire zip file on hard-to-find research on Singleton. I'm not really worried about capital allocation like he was. I respect his focus. I don't care what everybody else thinks in my industry. There's a great line in his book where he sits in his corner office with an Apple computer just thinking up strategies. These strategies are usually counter to what other people were doing at the time. It speaks to his focus.
Arthur Rock is one of the most famous venture capitalists, and he invested in Intel, Apple, and Teledyne, which is Singleton's company. He says something fascinating. He says Henry singleton reminds me of de Gaulle. He has a singleness of purpose and a tenacity that is just overpowering. You never know when a quote hits you, and embeds in your mind, and never lets you go. That quote made me read a 700-page biography of Charles de Gaulle, which I did a podcast on.
Singleton is one of the people I most admire. Charlie Munger says that Singleton's literally the smartest person he’s ever met. They were like neighbors or something. His returns were utterly ridiculous. You have Warren Buffett saying stuff like, it’s a crime that business schools don't make it mandatory to study this guy. that you could take the top 100 business school graduates, add up their record, and it's not nearly as good as him.
You start digging into his life stories like wait a minute, he starts his companies at 44, ran it for 20 years, and just dipped out to work on his ranch. He gets a so-called later start in life. It's his first company, if I remember correctly, he did it for 20 years, and then put out one of the best records in American business history.
When I read stories like that, I think about what he is doing that’s different from everybody else. A lot of that was just focus and concentration. He wasn't concerned about investor relations. He wasn't concerned about courting the press. He wasn't concerned about what you were doing. He had the rare ability to mute the world, which is what you and I have talked about in the past. This idea that I'm going to mute the world. I'm going to do my own independent thinking. I've done the work necessary to have the ability to trust my own judgment.
Once you do the work necessary to trust your judgment, mute the world, and focus on what you're doing. My own path over the last few years has greatly enhanced that judgment. I can live the rest of my entire life never having one original idea. As long as I’ve mastered the handful of ideas that I see as recurring themes in the history of entrepreneurship, I will live a life, a fantastic life, a life better than 99% of humans that have ever existed. Because it's not only knowing this stuff, but also actually applying them.
Focus and concentration are hugely recurring themes in the history of entrepreneurship. I just saw this fantastic video where Jony Ive, who obviously worked very closely with Steve Jobs, was talking about one of the main lessons that he learned from Steve Jobs. He's talking about this after Steve died. He's saying, “Steve was the most remarkably focused person I have ever met in my life.” Jony works with Steve almost every day. We just got done talking about how you got to put Steve on your top entrepreneurs of all-time list. This guy who is having lunch with him damn near every day saying he is the most focused person in his life. That should tell you to do an audit of your life. Am I focused?
I'm assuming if you're listening to Founders, if you're reading this, you are the person with a certain personality that they're not going to have a content life unless they are really good at what they do professionally. That doesn't mean you have to have every waking hour dedicated to that. That's not what I'm talking about. There is a personality type and I'm one of them where I will not be satisfied if I get to the end of my life, and I'm not really good at what I do professionally. It's going to be a balance.
This idea where Jony was saying that Steve was the most remarkably focused person he has ever met in his life. This sounds simplistic. This is still Jony talking. But it shocks me how few people practice it. It is a struggle, Jony says, to practice focus, and he says something that’s fascinating. He says focus is not something that you aspire to. You don't decide on a Monday, that you’re going to be focused. It's every minute questioning, why are we talking about that? That is not what we're working on. This is what we're working on. His whole point that he learned from Steve is like, you can achieve so much when you truly focus.
What focus means is saying no to something that with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea. You wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it, because you're focused on something else. There are ideas that I’ve been presented with, whether it's starting a company, investing whatever it is, that I’m sure would have made a lot of money. They were good ideas, but it's not Founders podcast. I will deal with that later if I ever get to. If I never get to it, that's fine. Because I found what I love to do.
It is an obsession disguised as a podcast that has to function as a business. I do it as a hobby. I do it naturally because I've been reading all the time since I was a little kid, since I could read. I know it's something I could do for a long time. I know I'm going to be reading books. 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, I'm still going to be reading.
On podcasting and learning the how vs. the what.
I fundamentally believe that podcasting is a major technological revolution, which is extremely important. Going back to the career of Henry Singleton, if you've actually studied the career of Henry Singleton, he had an early faith that semiconductors are going to be the dominant factor in future electronics. He arrived at that conclusion. This is important. He arrived at that conclusion. When that which to him was a fact was still being debated by others. In that industry, it was still being debated. He's saying this is going to be the dominant factor. This is what I'm going to go all in on. Obviously, he diversifies because he's got this giant conglomerate later on.
I'm not copying the what, I'm copying the how. I don't want to build a conglomerate. I'm not building anything in the semiconductor industry, in the defense industry. I'm not doing anything that Henry Singleton did. But I could take how he did his approach to business and apply it to mine.
I had an early faith in podcasting. I was obsessed with podcasts way before I started one. I feel that one, we're in the very early days where people think it's already saturated. I completely disagree. But I also think that on-demand audio is the best way for entrepreneurs to learn when they're doing other things.
I think reading a book is the best way to learn. But I can't read a book when I'm driving. I can't read a book when I'm walking. I can’t read a book when I'm washing dishes or when I'm at the gym. But on-demand audio is a superpower for entrepreneurs. Because why? It is a superpower for other people, but especially entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs are building structures from which they can profit from their learning.
If you come up with a good idea, think about Singleton, let's go back to him, he picked up Alfred Sloan's book. Alfred Sloan was running GM at the height of GM. I think this is in the 1960s. He puts out the book. That book was read by everybody. One of those people was Henry Singleton. In that book, Alfred Sloan said GM almost went out of business because they didn't have a solid financial base. The way to get a solid financial base is to have either ownership or direct relationship with some kind of financial institution.
Singleton used that idea. I forgot the name of the insurance company. He uses Sloan's idea then he puts it in his own way, puts it to work in building Teledyne. He says, I did this because Sloan told me to do that. So, he's not copying. He's not building GM. He's building Teledyne. He's not copying the what, he's copying the how.
In some cases, you could take a bunch of different entrepreneurs and grab ideas from them. But a lot of these ideas are contained within one person. Focus, concentration, finding something you love to do, trying to be really good at it, getting people that can help you. Think about who was sitting on singleton's board of directors. He had Claude Shannon for god's sake, he had Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory as one of his advisors.
These themes just pop up over and over again, regardless of the industry they’re working in, where they're living in the world, and what time in history they're living. When I see these things, I’m like, I’ll just apply that to podcasting. My business is so much simpler than a Teledyne or Apple.
Frederik Gieschen: How do you think about the inverse - the people you may admire for their success but want to avoid in life or that you have to be careful around?
David Senra: I have a rather cynical view of human nature. I think it's cynical and accurate, but I'm also weirdly optimistic about my own future and humans on an individual basis. My own experience in life is just coming from a family on both sides of family trees, full of just all the worst traits you could possibly have in a family, whether it is people abandoning their kids, not necessarily my parents abandoning me, but their family trees, aunts, uncles, grandfathers, great grandparents. All these people were just alcoholics, drug abusers, child molesters, violent people, drug addicts, overdoses, alcoholism. My entire life, I saw examples of exactly what not to do.
Then I also had this weird obsession with studying history, which I’ve had my entire life. It's the same thing an athlete does. You want to be really good at basketball, you watch game tapes, or you want to be really good at boxing or whatever, you watch tapes of the people you're going to fight. Studying history is just watching human behavior. I'm watching game tapes of human behavior all day long. If you study what the true nature of humans is, there's a lot to be desired. Charlie Munger, who is also famous for reading hundreds of biographies and being obsessive about studying humans, says the same thing. You have to be very careful around people. You should only be working with people you admire and trust.
Listening to Charlie speeches on humans, reading his writing, reading poor Charlie's Almanac, the Tao of Charlie Munger, Trent Griffin's book on Charlie Munger, these are all good. These are things you could read in a week or two. You get the synopsis of somebody that has spent 1,000s of hours in their lifetime trying to figure out what are humans, what motivates them, what are they incentivized for?
I see the same thing in these books, where these people are ruthless. In some cases, you could even say sociopathic or psychopathic. I don't read a story and say that person's dead, I have nothing to worry about. No, that personality type was alive then, they're alive today, they will be alive in the future. Human nature is constant. We seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that human beings, if you expose them to similar stimuli, they react in very predictable ways.
When I come across somebody that’s completely ruthless, the minute you stop being useful, they will discard you. This is a problem that appears over and over again. What is your solution, David? The solution I’ve come up with for my life is avoidance. I don't want to partner with you. I don't want to chase money with you. I don't want to be friends with you.
In some cases, unfortunately, ruthless people wind up giving gifts to the world. Henry Ford was a ruthless person. He was obsessed with one goal and one goal only. Try getting around before we had a car. You're on horse. You're walking. That is a gift to the world. Somebody else probably was going to figure that out eventually, but he got there first. When I see people that just put dollars above everything else or I know that I'm just a means to an end for them, I just avoid them.
Now, the inverse of that is, I am very selective about who I spend time with. I only have one good filter for this. I think there might only be one good filter. That is time. Time is the best filter. Luckily, I work alone. I don't rely on anybody else. Now I’ve met a bunch of people through the podcasts that I’ve talked to for maybe 10, 20, 30, 50 hours. We have good relationships, but I know some of those will develop into even deeper relationships, and eventually in time, they'll reveal who they really are.
When I'm not spending time working, I spend time with people I’ve known for a long time. My small group of friends that I know, most of the people I talk to on a regular basis, I’ve known for 15 years, 20 years. You could fake being a scumbag for a year, two years, maybe even five years, you're not going to fake being a scumbag for 15 or 20 years.
In many of these cases, it's not a transaction. There's nothing I could do for them. We hang out. We talk because we like each other. We have shared experiences. I don't need 500 friends. I'm a super introverted person. Getting publicity for my work makes me uncomfortable, but I do it because I truly believe in what I'm doing.
I have no interest in trying to achieve personal fame. I have no interest in trying to go to all the events. Almost every single invitation I get, I turn down. Because I’ve already figured out what I truly like to do. Those handful of things that you like to do, I'm just going to keep doing them.
Frederik Gieschen: You're happy being in your room building the podcast, Singleton was happy with his computer strategizing. A lot of founders will fall into that bucket of being happy by themselves. But whether it's Steve Jobs, Edwin Land, or Edison, who were really good at getting the world to buy into their vision. I feel like I see that in so many of your episodes.
David Senra: It's a skill that you can learn. Buffett is a fantastic public speaker. He used to shake and throw up at the thought of public speaking. He took that course, Dale Carnegie. That was the best investment he’s ever made. That's a skill set. You learn how to do it. What I think helps when I do any kind of promotion for the podcast, I just try to add value.
I have a unique dataset. I've read over 100,000 pages, 271 biographies of entrepreneurs. I have over 20,000 separate highlights in this app Readwise, which is like this giant database I use to remember and refresh everything I'm thinking. Everything I put out into the world is like Steve Jobs said this, you might find it valuable.
Even in many cases, I'm not saying listen to my podcast. You'll understand that this is like a little 30-second blurb that is valuable. Why does this guy have so many of them? Oh shit, he does a podcast. This is something I learned from Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, where he said belief is irresistible. Before Nike, he tried to do a bunch of sales. He says, I was terrible at selling encyclopedias or mutual funds, but I have this idea. The German running shoe is dominating. That's the founder of Adidas, where I read his biography too. Why don't we import these Japanese running shoes? They're cheaper. They're still good quality. I'm going to import them then I'm going to put them in the trunk of the car. I'm going to drive around the state of Oregon to all these different track and field meets. I'm going to park my car in the field, pop open my trunk and say, "Hey, guys, I have a product that is beneficial. I'm a runner, you're a runner. What do you think?"
He winds up selling out every time he does this. In the book, he has this internal monologue where he's driving. What the hell is happening here? I couldn't sell a mutual fund, couldn’t sell an encyclopedia. Now, I have no problem selling. I can't even keep inventory. Literally my big problem is not having enough shoes. He realizes I'm not selling a product. The entire foundation of Nike started with his belief that if everybody got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place.
My version of that is, I truly believe that biographies are some of the greatest things to read. They have a ton of useful information that yes, you can also use it to be better at your business and building your business, but also how to live a better life. I'm not selling anything because I believe that. Imagine if I didn't believe that. I've probably spent way over 10,000 hours reading biographies. What a waste if you didn't believe that. Once you find what you truly believe in. I'm excited about this shit. I legitimately love it. Because you're talking about human life.
To me, reading a book is a movie for the mind. It's impossible to read a life story of an interesting person and not be involved emotionally. You're with them in their ups and downs. When you're reading the book, it's a predictable human reaction that you put yourself in their shoes.
Frederik Gieschen: You’ve done your 10,000 hours. If you've read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He put the focus on all the environmental factors. Someone like Bill Gates had a modern computer at their school which steered him in a specific direction or gave him the opportunity to get get started in a certain way.
David Senra: The computer time was excessively expensive. They were spending like $3,000 a month. It would only happen at a school like the one he went to. You're 100% right there. A lot of life is just random. That's why I just think it's not enough to read one book about a person that interests you. It’s because you could read a biography from a historian on Edwin Land, but you could also read a biography from somebody who worked for him for 25 years. Different insights.
Life is way too complicated. It's hard to figure out cause and effect in most of life. We have a very feeble understanding of reality in general. I am okay with being uncomfortable. I think I could study my whole life, and still, life is a mystery to me. The world is a mystery to me, and that's fine. I just tried to pick up life skills along the way that increase my chance of getting to the end of my life with very few regrets.
Because that's the thing that terrifies me the most. Being on your deathbed at 80 or 90 years old, and be like, dang, I never took that chance. There could have been an easily avoidable mistake that humans throughout history make over and over again. I could just avoid it by just knowing that.
The way I look at things is I'm just trying to collect a few good ideas and then build a life around those few good ideas. I think Charlie Munger has it right. Stop trying to be brilliant, just try to be consistently not stupid. It's so hard for humans to be consistently not stupid.
I just did this podcast with this guy named Julio Lobo. The book is amazing. It's called The Sugar King of Havana. He's the last Cuban tycoon before Castro takes over. The dude winds up trying to corner the sugar market. At one point, he's worth $5 billion. But he didn't know when it was enough. He had a bunch of money and then took on a bunch of leverage to try to make even more money.
10 years into the future, he is living out his last days in Spain in a small apartment living on an allowance from his adult daughter. I want to know how he got to the $5 billion and then I want to have the dedication and the discipline to stop, and to never do something like that.
On finding balance.
Out of every single person I've read, Ed Thorpe to me got the closest to mastering. He's able to make a lot of money now easily and build great businesses. But he also was a good father. He was a good husband. He took care of his health. He looks fantastic. Go watch the Tim Ferriss episode of him on YouTube. That guy's almost 90.
Frederik Gieschen: This was fantastic. Thank you so much, David!
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