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Dent hallwayEach year Dent brings together a diverse and fascinating group of people who are “putting a dent in the universe,” ranging from entrepreneurs to artists, VCs to designers, and a little bit of practically everything in between. The power of Dent comes significantly from putting the right people in the same place for four days running, allowing us all to build relationships that go beyond the boundaries of the conference.

For the first time this year, we started offering an “Alchemist” registration to Dent, which is priced a little higher but helps underwrite the cost of offering free attendance to folks who otherwise would not be able to attend.

So far, Alchemists have funded four full registrations to Dent 2016, and all Alchemist registrants will have the opportunity to help select the recipients. That number will continue to climb as more folks register as Alchemists.

Scholarship applications will be competitive; we’ve got more than five times the number of applications as there are (currently) spots to hand out, but the deadline to apply for a scholarship to Dent is October 1st. So go apply today — or if you know someone who should really be at Dent, send them the link.


Simple is hard

by Jason on September 21, 2015

“How long does it take you to prepare one of your speeches?” asked a friend of President Wilson not long ago.

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

If you’ve heard Uptown Funk, the wonderfully persistent hit song from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, then you’ve probably noticed that it’s a startlingly simple song. The main riff is straightforward. The bass line is funky, yes, but it’s not like you need mad bass skills to pull it off.

It feels almost like anyone could have made this song.

It’s a powerful illusion. For some reason, we seem wired to think that complexity is the same thing as difficulty. We say things aren’t “rocket science,” because the equations we conjure up in our minds are incomprehensible.

It’s part of the reason it’s easy to start looking down your nose at popular culture. It lacks nuance, we say to ourselves. It’s just not complex enough to be worth our admiration. I’ve certainly caught myself thinking that because a book, or a talk, or an idea, is so simple, it’s not all that impressive.

But in fact the opposite is often more true. The number of folks who say that writing a hit song like Uptown Funk is easy is a lot bigger than the number of folks who actually write number one hit songs. Anyone who’s ever prepared for an Ignite talk (as I have) can tell you that getting a five-minute speech right is a whole lot harder than a half-hour one.

I think kids books are a great example of how hard it is to make something simple. A kids book needs to be simple. We don’t sit around critiquing The Very Hungry Caterpillar for not using enough big words.

As a parent, you’ll read a kids book dozens, maybe hundreds of times. That simple book needs to have something to offer your kid when she’s six months old, ten months old, sixteen months old… and the best books have something to offer you as well. It’s astonishing how much there is in a good kids book.

But simplicity for itself is not sufficient. Making something that is simple is just as easy as making something that’s complex. The hard part is taking something complex and making it simple without losing the meaning.

Quote from Quote investigator
This post also appears on my personal blog.


In our session “lessons from a consulting detective” presented in Sun Valley last March, Mark Duncan described several techniques that he relies on to sense if a suspect is a true sociopath. One of the inspirations for the session came from the dramatic approach used by Idris Elba in his portrayal of detective John Luther.

In Mark’s talk we showed a clip from Luther where the detective determines that interviewee Alice Morgan is a sociopath based on her inability to produce an empathetic yawn.

As it turns out, the results of a Baylor University psychology study indicate that people with psychopathic tendencies are indeed, less likely to be affected by “contagious yawning” than the general population.

To see the specific Luther interview clip below start at the 19:10 mark.

Keep watching as, Duncan follows up with several of his own tips, or you can dive in at the 21:18 mark.


This question is riddled with ill-defined words. What is “good”? What is “successful”? For that matter, what is “entrepreneur?”

But I think it’s an interesting question to ask nonetheless. It turns out that folks seem to fall into two different camps on answering it, and it depends on whether you want to take a strict definition of “success” and “good” (you can read the comments on Facebook here for a more nuanced view of everyone’s actual opinions).

If you want to measure success in the typical, stricter sense (does this business create and keep customers?) then it’s pretty hard to be a good entrepreneur if you’ve never managed to do the one thing all entrepreneurs must do: build a going concern, or reach an exit for your investors.

On the other hand, if you’re a bit more forgiving on what it means to be either “good” or “successful,” then we start realizing that there must be good entrepreneurs who have not had financial success for their businesses.

This interpretation makes more sense to me, because we consistently acknowledge that failure is inevitable as an entrepreneur, and VCs will make a habit of funding a “good entrepreneur” even after a failed venture, even if they haven’t had a successful exit yet.

Entrepreneurs need to be good with people. It’s hard to find talented people to work with you for less money than they could elsewhere. It’s hard to find customers who will buy a new product, or sign a contract with an untested organization. It’s hard to find believers in a new vision.

Over time, and sometimes multiple startups, these characteristics will become apparent. If you’re a good entrepreneur, failure will not be an obstacle to raising money in the future, or reaching out to past customers and partners, or poaching old co-workers.

To quote Scott Berkun: “there are many different kinds of not-succeeding and some are far more impressive than people who got very lucky and won.”

So fear not: exits are not the only measure of your value as an entrepreneur!


Why it’s OK to celebrate great leaders

by Jason on August 14, 2015

No great technological (or scientific, or societal) leaps happen as solo acts; companies and research labs succeed through the efforts of teams, and often if not always, many organizations are scrambling at the same time to be the first to succeed in a new market.

A friend sent me Amanda Schaffer’s recent article in MIT Technology Review, Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Mtyh, which claims (and I think rightly) that it’s bogus to think that innovation is driven by “a few great men.”

Amanda’s argument seems to go like this: the Technology industry puts leaders like Jobs and Musk on a pedestal, and credits them with the ability to single-handedly drive innovation forward. But if you dig under the hood, you find that Musk and Jobs are hardly lone geniuses; the innovations they claim credit for are made by people working for them, whom they abuse, and are funded not by their own companies but by decades of government research. If we idolize them and they become enthralled with their own success, they may become greedy:

If tech leaders are seen primarily as singular, lone achievers, it is easier for them to extract disproportionate wealth.

and drive away diverse talent:

If Silicon Valley, with its well-documented problems with diversity, is to attract a broader pool of talented people, encouraging more supportive managerial practices and telling more inclusive stories about who matters would surely help.

If we all fall into the misconception that innovation is driven by lone geniuses, we will lose interest in funding public research, and technological progress will slow or stop —

And finally, technology hero worship tends to distort our visions of the future. Why should governments do the hard work of fixing and expanding California’s mass transit system when Musk says we could zip people across the state at 760 miles per hour in a “hyperloop”?

Much of this is wrong. Some of this is right, but seems irrelevant to me.

The cult of personality is actually quite a bit older than Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Edison is credited as being the first “business celebrity,” in the 1870s, beginning with the invention of the Phonograph. Like these modern day giants, Edison headed up a lab filled with brilliant researchers who likely contributed more, technically, than Edison himself to the inventions there produced.

Despite the inventor’s fame and inability to credit others, we somehow funded all of the research that Jobs and Musk and others have benefited from more recently. It’s tempting to think that public research funds will dry up, but the data suggests otherwise. Total R&D spending by the U.S. Government has trended upward steadily since 1976:

US Spending on R&D 1976 to 2016
(click image to see data source at aaas.org)

And besides, things like wars (cold or hot) and other political factors tend to have much greater impacts on spending that business celebrities.

The Hyperloop is really infrastructure, not R&D though, and it’s a well chosen example, as the congregational budget office report shows a flat or mildly negative trend in spending on infrastructure, though I think you’d be hard pressed to make the case that this decline has anything to do with the Hyperloop. The bottom line is that it’s hard to find any evidence that celebrities of innovation have any notable negative effect on government investment in technological progress or infrastructure.

Amanda also spends some time trying to convince us that Musk and Jobs (etc) are just lucky people in the right place and the right time. That They are, in fact, totally exchangeable for anyone else. This is both true and misleading:

To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles?

The answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Of course we would still have a smartphone revolution and a bigger market for electric vehicles, or at least something of similar significance. And we would be celebrating the leaders who would have succeeded in their stead.

But this question disguises her real point, which is to say: there’s nothing special here. It could have been anyone, so why celebrate them? I think there’s a big difference between “could have” and “did do” — anyone could have made Facebook, but Mark Zuckerberg did. Anyone could have made Theranos, but Elizabeth Holmes did.

Assembling and leading a team of world-class talent is a difficult accomplishment in and of itself. To do so in an industry whose time is just right? To see, or at least guess, that the necessary technological components are just baked enough to bring something new and magical into existence? The ability to work people up over a new idea? To get headlines?

To say it could be anyone is to implicitly shrug off the difficulty of all of these accomplishments, which is too bad, because that too is dangerous water: how many brilliant innovations have floundered in obscurity? You may not like the fact that we need to be sold on progress the same way we need to be sold on dish soap, but it is what it is. Accomplishing great things requires both talent and recognition.

So while I agree that this kind of success is available to anyone, I disagree with the idea that it’s nothing special.

And I will add another, more subtle way in which celebrating the “greats” of innovation may actually be a good thing; it gives us as a society a hook on which to hang our debates. We are humans, and we like our stories personified. It’s easier for us to digest changes in transportation by talking about Musk and Kalanick than by trying to debate the abstractions of traffic flow, growth, population trends, transport preferences, and so on.

Without our little wizards, I think we’d be harder pressed to make policy and form our own relationship with the changes in technology that insert themselves into our lives every day.

So do hero myths and business celebrities have their downsides? No doubt. But are they, on balance, a negative? I would guess not.


Greatness is talent plus recognition

by Jason on August 10, 2015

talenplsurecognition500At Dent each year we spend a lot of time breaking down what it takes to be, for lack of a better term, one of the “greats.” Even though it’s not well defined, our society seems to have a pretty good consensus on what it is to be great: we all agree there are some great Scientists like Marie Curie, Politicians like Winston Churchill, Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Actors like Katharine Hepburn, Musicians like Miles Davis, and so forth.

Greatness, I think, is a pretty compelling idea. It has its own attraction, beyond simple wealth or fame. Maybe because of ego. But what makes someone capital-G-Great?

I’ve been searching for a useful framework on which to hang many of these observations, and I think it might be this: greatness equals talent plus recognition.

Let’s dig into this a little bit to explore the idea and see how other things we already know about might fit in.

Firstly, “talent” warrants some definition. I mean talent much the way Howard Gardner means “intelligence”. In Gardner’s words:

To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving—enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he encounters and, when appropriate, to create an effective product—and must also entail the potential for finding or creating problems—thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge.1

In other words, I mean that a talent is something that you develop, not something you have. This makes a lot of sense to me. Think of how we talk about people with a knack for something: “She has a talent for drawing,” or “He has a talent for charming people.”

Neither of these things (nor any other in a long list of “talents”) come pre-equipped, though often those who practice it early and successfully develop their talents so much earlier than their peers that by the time we’re paying attention it appears natural.

So within this framework of greatness, half of the battle is learning to be really really good at something. When you look at who we consider great, the scope of possible talents for greatness is fairly wide. You can be great at charity work (Mother Theresa), you can be great at war (Napoleon), you can be great at acting (Meryl Streep), you can be great at inventing (Thomas Edison), and so on.

The other half of the battle is getting the world to know and care about your talent. There are probably a hundred thousand amateur or semi-professional musicians out there that have the talent to be another Lady Gaga — but they haven’t made the leap to recognition that greatness requires.

Now looking through this lens, we can start to file the techniques, books, frameworks, and lectures that inform our quest for greatness into one of two categories: those that help us develop our talent, and those that help us develop our recognition.

At a glance, this seems like a useful division, though sometimes a circular one (where something that develops a talent is developing a talent that will help you become known — a good example of this is The Charisma Myth, a book teaching the aspects of charisma).

So where do some common examples fit — books, blogs, brainiac theories?



  • The Charisma Myth from Olivia Fox Cabane
  • Influence from Robert Cialdini
  • Gladwell’s both loved and hated Tipping Point
  • Research into Managerial Mystique from Denter Maia Young

Note: this list is hardly exhaustive, it’s just a reflection of what’s been floating around in my brain recently.

These are all new thoughts to me, and untested. I’m very interested in hearing what you think about these ideas, whether they’re useful, interesting, old news, boring, or anything in between. Feel free to email me your thoughts, or preferably, write up your own post in response (on medium if you have no blog). If you really want to, you can of course just leave a comment.

1 Gardner, Howard (2011-03-29). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (pp. 64-65). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.


Why ethical decisions escape us

by Jason on July 22, 2015

It turns out that we as groups of humans are pretty bad at actually making ethical decisions. And according to professor Ann Tenbrunsel, it’s mostly because we don’t recognize we’re making ethical decisions when we make them.

According to a Harvard paper (that predates her book, Blind Spots), we tend to make decisions that have ethical consequences “in the moment”:

We argue that the temporal trichotomy of prediction, action and recollection is central to these misperceptions: People predict that they will behave more ethically than they actually do, and when evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they believe they behaved more ethically than they actually did.

The paper’s authors also divide a person into two “selves”:

The “want” self is reflected in choices that are emotional, affective, impulsive, and “hot headed.” In contrast, the “should” self is characterized as rational, cognitive, thoughtful, and “cool headed.” The presence of these two selves within one mind results in frequent clashes: We know we should behave ethically when negotiating with our client, for example, but our desire to close the sale causes us to make misleading statements.

It seems like what they’re dancing around is that we all imagine ourselves to be a certain kind of (ethical) person, but when we get into the details of making decisions, we often:

  1. Don’t recognize that there are ethical dimensions to the decision
  2. Make the decision based on specific incentives at hand, not general principles


Everyone’s heard the adage that you manage what you measure, and so we all understand that it’s important to pick business metrics that encourage the right kind of growth.

But this recent retrospective on YouTube’s recommendation engine change from serving up videos with lots of views to serving up videos with lots of view time — a subtle but important difference — highlights how much metrics impact product design and your relationship with your customers.

The metrics you choose are, in fact, scope defining: if YouTube weren’t tracking how many minutes into videos people were watching (metric!), then it might not have occurred to them to re-structure their algorithm to weight it more heavily.


Inside Out This year, the Dent Library included the new book Creativity, Inc, and it’s one of the best business books I’ve ever read. Every time I finish a chapter I feel like I’ve gotten a book’s worth of knowledge out of it.

It’s also full of insights into the movie making process and Pixar, and one thing that strikes me about their approach is that Pixar really builds movies through auteurship, probably more than almost any other studio. Which means: the movie is really, substantially the vision of the director — the director keeps the ultimate artistic vision for the film. Sure, the brass can cancel or greenlight it, but the don’t provide story input.

Yesterday evening I went to see the latest Pixar release, Inside Out, which reminded me a lot of Up and Monsters, Inc. — which were the other two Pixar movies he directed. And since Pete is from Minnesota, and I assume moved to San Francisco to work at Pixar, the movie may even be a bit autobiographical in some ways.

In Creativity, Inc, Catmull says he never understood why people debated over the dichotomy between a great idea and a great team. Ideas (he reasons) come from people, so great ideas come from great people… so there’s no debate.

It seems to me like Pixar, as an experiment in finding and enabling great people, is a wonderful success story. Because apparently we needed proof to know that committees can kill creativity 😉


We’re very excited to announce that thanks to several generous and early Alchemist-level Dent registrants, we’ll be able to provide a scholarship program to Dent 2016.

The press-release version of the announcement is below, or you can just go visit the scholarship page and apply (or help fund it by registering as an Alchemist).

* * *


Now entering it’s fourth year, Dent — an intimate, invitation only retreat for people who are “denting the universe,” — is launching a scholarship program that will set aside up to a dozen registrations to be awarded for free to folks who would not otherwise be able to attend the event.

“This year we’ve introduced a new type of registration, something we’re calling an ‘Alchemist’,” said Jason Preston, co-founder of Dent. “Alchemists are invited to a private reception, get a free room upgrade at the Sun Valley Resort, and receive several other perks, but mostly the extra fee goes to fund free attendance for Dent Scholars.”

Already, three scholarship registrations have been fully funded. The number of funded registrations is updated live on the Dent Scholarship page as Alchemists register for Dent throughout the year.

Dent Scholars will be invited to attend the Dent Conference and all associated events. Denters will arrive on Saturday, March 19th and depart on Wednesday, March 23rd. Every Dent registration includes the cost of meals, drinks, receptions, managed activities like the photo walk, scavenger hunt, wine tasting, parkour, and of course conference sessions.

In addition to the normal Dent schedule, Scholars are invited to attend a special reception immediately prior to the kickoff party on Sunday afternoon, where they will have the chance to meet and talk with members of the Dent Advisory Board, Speakers, Alchemists who have made Scholar attendance possible, and the conference Founders.

Dent brings together a wide-ranging group of highly motivated entrepreneurs, investors, innovative thinkers, designers, artists, and leaders who are all looking to “put a dent in the universe.” It’s a unique opportunity to meet and build relationships with the kinds of folks who can help you make a difference.