The Power of Doing Something Meaningful with Vivek Sharma, CEO of Movable Ink

06/15/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016


Being an entrepreneur has little to do with running a business and more to do with a mindset.

The world is peppered with insanely large problems. And while many try to address those problems with conventional remedies, the entrepreneur will reframe the problem.

Vivek Sharma has spent a lifetime reframing problems. Sharma asks questions in different and unexpected ways. This mindset changes how he sees and responds to the problem.

The entrepreneur must seek out the unconventional questions:

  • How can I break the big problem into 6 smaller ones?
  • What limiting beliefs do I have that are stopping me from solving this problem?
  • What if I am the problem?
  • What am I actually trying to achieve by solving this issue?

Sharma has a long career of solving problems while failing to solve others. But what Sharma has done better than most is to intimately understand how to reframe the problem so he can find the exact answers needed.

The interview

Who is your role model, and why?

I really look up to inventors who challenge conventional notions and attempt to solve insanely large problems. Three such individuals come to mind: Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, and Nikola Tesla. I could write at length about any one of them, but I'll focus on Kurzweil.

It was the late '90s and I had been a recent computer science grad and working at a fast-growing Silicon Valley startup. One of the engineers on the data mining team clued me in to Ray Kurzweil and his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Kurzweil was a child prodigy and by his 20s had invented several technologies including the music synthesizer, the print-to-speech reading machine, and optical character recognition.

In 1999, his book laid a compelling argument on why pattern recognition is core to human intelligence. A child can quickly learn how to catch a baseball, identify objects in photos, learn a new language, and reason.

Pattern recognition is a skill that the best computers struggle with. Kurzweil went on to make many predictions about technologies we could expect to see in the coming decades and many of those predictions have been borne out.

What was so inspiring about his ideas was that they were world changing but none of them conflicted with physical laws. He went on to make the case that the exponential progress in different technologies would converge into some mind-blowing products at a reasonable timescale.

Kurzweil doesn't come without his critics but his ideas have inspired many computer scientists as a blueprint for the future. If you can't imagine the future, then you can't create it.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Choose role models that attempt to solve insanely difficult issues because they will change your standard of thinking.

What do you value most about your company’s culture and vision?

Movable Ink is working on helping marketers create highly personal experiences and prioritize context over channel. The balance of power has shifted to consumers who choose when, where, and how to engage with a brand, and we get to build the tools that make this possible.

I'll highlight one of our core values: "Outcomes over Activities".

We constantly think about this one. It's very easy to grow a company and spend your time on things that don't really matter. When you're running a five-person company, teams naturally pick the most valuable things to work on because of a lack of time and a visceral feel for how the entire business is doing.

This gets tougher as a company gets large and we are hyper-focused on defining the few things that matter in any quarter for every employee. The great thing is that every employee gets to be CEO of their piece of the business and have that visceral feel of how they contribute to our mission.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Whether your company is small or growing rapidly the most important thing to keep in mind is that each team member plays a large role in your companies success.

If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great 12 months it’s been for you in this role, what would that day look like?

Companies go through some very distinct phases:

  • Idea
  • Product-Market Fit
  • Growth
  • Empire Building

Movable Ink sits squarely in a fast-growth phase and we're constantly thinking about how to do everything at scale. This could mean building a predictable leads engine, a consistent way of interviewing, and setting objectives throughout the company.

We've also built out an all-star management team, many of whom have joined in the last six months.

Looking back in 12 months from now, our biggest success will be building out a consistent way of recruiting stars and providing the support and training they need to do the best work in their career.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Each distinct phase your company will require that type of rock-star. It’s important to build systems that allow you to attract those rock-stars, at the right time.

Tell me about your last project. Who was involved and what was the biggest challenge?

One of our big projects this year has been objective-setting and getting the company aligned on common goals. We are implementing a performance management system called OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) that were invented at Intel and popularized by Google.

OKRs force you to be disciplined at defining your company's top-level priorities and breaking them down into small parts.

We are believers in the long term values of OKRs, but the challenges have included: educating the company on why we are using them, making the process as light-weight as possible, and choosing the right software platform to track them.

We are beta-testing the program with the management team but it will make its way to every employee at the company. The biggest challenge has been in making the program lightweight because people won't buy into and stick with a framework if it isn't easy to do and helps them do their job better.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Setting clear objectives is crucial to accomplishing company goals. More importantly, the system used to implement and track those objectives must be easy to use and designed to empower your team.

What has been the biggest let down in your career so far?

Back in 2003, I started a company to build a mobile social network, a "Friendster for the phone", in a time when few startups were exploring mobile.

This was about 4 years before the iPhone launched and the state-of-the-art were Palm and Nokia phones because they had SDKs. We started building a product, fueled by a giant vision to connect people through their mobile devices.

It was a 3-year grind with no salary and we built a lot of product without validating the market and moving the business along the way. We were also too early to the market and it took the iPhone launch to unlock what is possible with mobile apps.

When we finally closed shop after 3.5 long years it was the biggest failure of my life. In retrospect I recognize the great lessons I learned and the importance of frequent and honest feedback.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Intelligent risk taking is part of the entrepreneurial-brand. And using a framework that exploits intelligent risks is crucial not only to the company success but learning from each failure.

Tell me about the time you realized you had the power to do something meaningful?

The first time I programmed in BASIC on an IBM PC (in middle school) I realized this was fundamentally different.

It was incredible to realize that a computer could do exactly what you told it to do and even take input you provided to come back with an answer. Early projects involved solving simple math problems. Later I would program a tiny Pacman sprite that would run around the screen.

It wasn't until high school that I programmed something called the "Game of Life", which is an example of an evolutionary algorithm. In the "Game of Life" the programmer sets some simple rules of nature and lets the program run over many generations.

The outcomes can be very unpredictable, and I realized that computers could do far more than people think. I entered college as an aerospace engineer but switched into computer science when I realized I could build things that weren't bound by the physical laws.

When Marc Andreessen says, "software is eating the world", I fully believe it and there is nothing more exciting than working in this new frontier.

Entrepreneurial Tip: We all have many passions. But I believe that we only have one calling. Search for your calling and then pursue it without fear.


Question: As an entrepreneur what problems are you solving? And what does your unconventional process look like?

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