The passionate entrepreneur
Richard Robinson has made it his life’s work to seek out spectacular failure and run toward it as fast as possible. Often he misses his target. When this happens he stands up, puts his latest success in his back pocket with a shrug, and cheerfully looks around for his next shot at catastrophe. Here he speaks with us about what makes a global citizen and entrepreneur tick.
Story by Imogen Moore
Land on Richard Robinson’s about.me web page and you’ll find that in part he describes himself in the following way: ‘Based in the Middle Kingdom since 1996 and involved with eight startups during that time. Previously a senior executive at three companies from pre-IPO through to their public listings. Went on to found five companies in the mobile internet space. Three companies exited to publicly listed companies, one failed magnificently and one is still fighting the good fight. Active in the geek-o-system across Asia as startup advisor, mentor (500 Startups & HAXLR8R) and angel. Speak frequently at tech conferences globally (MC of TechCrunch Beijing, Global Mobile Internet Conference and Startup Asia Singapore & Indonesia).’
It’s clear that Robinson is not only driven, but is also very passionate about what he does. In fact, he has four great passions: travel, family, stand-up comedy and, as we’ve just learned, entrepreneurship. At first glance this seems like an eclectic collection, each element completely unrelated to the others. Not so. They are all fun, all fraught with risk, and none of them can succeed without absolute authenticity.
And it is through these desires that we also learn about what could be described as Robinson’s fifth passion – failure. A more accurate analysis might interpret that he exploits and uses failure as a tool. Failure provides the lessons that help him understand what needs to be done differently next time.
As a young man, Robinson knew that his destiny lay with China, so I ask how the dream became a reality. ‘People careen off in different directions after mundane events,’ he explains. ‘My mundane event was on a subway. I went to school in South Boston. Have you ever seen the movie Good Will Hunting? It was like that. One freezing miserable day the cuff of my trousers cracked like a bell, it was so covered in sleet. We were on the subway and a guy said “Screw this, I’m going to school in Florida.” Another guy said “Screw this, I’m going to school in Hawaii.” And I thought I’d split the difference “Screw this, I’m going to school in California.” And it came to me, the epiphany that I actually could. I could go anywhere I want.’
The night before he left Boston for the University of Southern California was the last time Robinson remembers being afraid of adventure.
‘When I was at USC I met an Australian who had been travelling for four years. Four years! I couldn’t process it. I had the cognitive equivalent of a record stuck on a scratch. Do people really do that? Is that even legal? It sparked something for me.’
So when an opportunity came along to study at Cambridge University, the self-described “plastic Paddy” packed his bags and boarded a plane for Europe. For Robinson, a born global citizen, RSM was a natural choice for his MBA.
‘I was looking for the most international programme I could get. And RSM was the most international business school: it’s more international than IMD in Switzerland, more international than London Business School. I feel like I chose well. There were a hundred students and maybe 30 or 40 nationalities in my class. No more than 10 per cent of the students were from any one country. I think in that environment you learn almost as much, if not more, from the student body as you learn from the teachers.’
There was one student in particular who inadvertently set Robinson’s feet on a path he still walks. ‘I got a job in a library with a fellow student whose surnamed happened to be Erasmus. He brings in a little diskette – a 1.4mb diskette – with a skull and crossbones on it and it’s labelled “Do Not Install”. So of course we installed it. It was the first browser ever on the school’s system (Mosaic, the predecessor to Netscape) and I fell in love with the internet.’
The timing couldn’t have been better. Up until this point, Robinson had been the captain of a ship without a rudder. ‘I came to RSM knowing that I wanted to be in China but not knowing what I wanted to do there. A lot of students were much more experienced. Some people had more than 10 years of solid work experience and other master degrees. They came into the programme with a very clear vision of what they wanted, whereas I was looking for clarity through the programme. And then I got it the very first week… the internet!’
The fact that there was no internet to speak of in China (the first commercial service was launched in 1995 with just 800 subscribers) didn’t faze Robinson in the slightest. With that unerring knack for identifying the potential for complete and total failure, he happily acknowledged that his goal was a straight path to disaster and then set about making it happen anyway. For this, he partly credits the RSM alumni network. ‘One of my partners, Karl Knoflach, who I’ve created three businesses with, was a student with me at RSM and moved to Beijing. The network has been really valuable to me.’
A small detour
‘Right after RSM I did this bike trip through Africa. I wanted to do something that was overland. And solo. And extreme. Everybody was saying: “Well, what kind of support are you going to have? Will you get sponsorship?” But I didn’t want that kind of safety net. I didn’t want to cheat. I wanted to push myself to my limits. In a way I was prepping myself for entrepreneurship. Because of the failure.’
Intuitively embracing the lessons that come out of failure may be Robinson’s biggest key to success. While other business people might have been devastated by the Dot Com Crash, Robinson’s gregarious optimism gives him a rubber coating, an enormous capacity for bounce-back that keep investors believing in him.
‘I was involved in mobile games for a while, but I turned 47 this month! I’m not that guy anymore and I realised I spend a lot more time on LinkedIn than I ever spent gaming. ‘So, I co-founded a company with the co-founder of the “Facebook of China” and we have partnered with the “Twitter of China” to create a “LinkedIn of China”. And so far, it’s proven to show some traction.
‘There’s this perception that everything in China is a knock-off of something else. It’s true that the business environment here is absolutely gladiatorial. Really, it’s brutal; you can’t stand still for a second. But there’s real innovation too, and not just the kind that happens in someone else’s space. Take YY.com for example.’
YY.com (not one of Robinson’s ventures), a social network with over 300 million users, taps into the Chinese tradition of patronage. Artists and performers from all over the country upload videos to YY and individual donors directly fund the artist. ‘Imagine a YouTube that didn’t have to scramble around for advertising revenue and does nothing but support young artists. It’s unique.’
The second-biggest key to Robinson’s success may very well be how oblivious he is to the extraordinary life he leads. When we speak, he is sitting under an enormous pressurised dome covering his son’s entire school. ‘The air in here is as clean and pure as in the Swiss Alps.’ He thinks nothing of excusing himself for a moment to speak fluent Mandarin, and barely blinks when off-handedly mentioning that (just like that Australian) he once grabbed a backpack and crossed oceans and continents for almost four years straight.
He does clearly identify one or two unusual but highly effective habits that help him succeed. He avoids all email and phone calls until he has finished one of his three or four daily 90-minute bursts of productivity. ‘Email is someone else’s To-Do List,’ he says.
Working just 90 minutes at a time? ‘It might sound counter-intuitive but it’s the most productive I’ve been in years.’ He is also an avid avoider of tedium. ‘I’ve always tried to fire myself for doing things that I’m not good at, for things that are repetitive. Delegate it or fire myself.’
Given how successful an entrepreneur he is, Richard Robinson may be the last person left in the world who would fire Richard Robinson!
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of RSM Outlook.