Making Complicated Things Simple

Robin Li


Last week, I attended a lecture at Stanford featuring Alon Cohen, President and Co-Founder of Houzz. Houzz (a GGV portfolio company) is a leading platform for home remodeling and design, where users can browse millions of photos, find products, connect with professionals, share inspiration and collaborate on projects. More than 25 million unique users visit Houzz monthly, viewing 4 million photos of professionally designed interiors and exteriors. Cohen co-founded Houzz with his wife Adi Tatarko, who is the CEO, and I was excited to hear the story behind this wildly successful company directly from the founder.

Alon’s lecture focused on staying true to one's convictions while building a user-centered product. It was an inspirational and empowering hour. You can watch the full lecture here.
These are a few insights that resonated with me:
1.  There's no right or wrong path - it's what you make of it along the way. Founding a startup does not have to be your first career path. Alon worked as a teacher after college, and it turns out that teaching is a great way to learn how to manage teams and a company.  He learned as a teacher how to make very complicated concepts very simple.
2.  Two pieces of advice: (1) Pick the right people and (2) Just work hard. The great thing is that both of these lessons are within your locus of control.  Great employees will attract other great employees, which will in turn shape the culture of your company.  It's important to have smart and capable people around, but having nice people is invaluable. They make others feel like they can be themselves.
3.  Truth: Nothing is ever easy.  You will always encounter obstacles that block you from moving forward.  But you should also remember that these obstacles are there for other people too – and may keep them from reaching the goal before you do.  There is no secret sauce.  Nothing happens overnight - but everything is incremental.  
4.  Every time you have a difficult moment, think about the tale of the two frogs and the bucket of milk.  The sides were too slippery and they were unable to get out.  While one frog gave up, the other kept swimming and trying.  Ten minutes later, the frog felt something solid beneath his feet.  He had churned the milk into butter and jumped out of the bucket.  
5.  Silicon Valley's culture is an apprenticeship model that reinforces an appetite for creativity and discovery.  The Silicon Valley ecosystem is composed not just of VCs and startups, but also of the area's schools and general public.  This seminar series is generously supported by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, but it's open to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the general public.  We are all part of the ecosystem that makes Silicon Valley great and owe it to ourselves to continue to learn and pay it forward.
This lecture spoke volumes to me as both an immigrant and a former teacher.  Alon immigrated to the US when he was 30, and it was not easy for him to assimilate as an adult.  But he tackled it with a positive perspective and the knowledge of what things were within his control.  He is the embodiment of a modern American dream.