A Day with the CEO of Kiva, Matt Flannery

December 2, 2011

After about 4 months spent in the San Francisco Bay Area getting to know the entrepreneurial scene, it hit me. If you name almost any famous tech entrepreneur in the Valley, during my time here, I’ve either seen them speak and met them in person, had a meeting one-on-one with them and interviewed them to learn from them, or spent between 1-5 days shadowing them. And then I realized – not everyone in the world has had this opportunity. But maybe they’d like to hear about it. So I started writing about my experiences – basically some anthropological observations about my time with some of the most famous entrepreneurial luminaries in the world: Peter Thiel (Paypal), Joe Gebbia (Airbnb), Dave McClure (500 Startups), Eric Ries (Lean Startup), Steve Blank (4 Steps to the Epiphany), Reid Hoffman (Linkedin), Brad Feld (Techstars), Jessica Mah (Indinero), Matt Flannery (Kiva), Randy Reddig (Square), Brian Wong (Kiip), Sam Zaid (Getaround), and more. Here is my first entry. I would love to hear people’s thoughts on it and whether they would like to hear more of these stories.

A Day at Kiva with Matt Flannery
“Focus your life on the ecstasy, not the laundry”

This is what Matt Flannery, the Founder and CEO of Kiva, said to me as we strolled along beneath a waterfall in a park in downtown San Francisco. He was kind enough to let me shadow him for a day and sit in on all of his meetings (well, all the ones I could legally attend). I was a fly on the wall – an anthropologist, as he put it – observing the employees’ day-to-day activities with as little alteration due to my presence as possible. And I learned more from this experience than I could have ever imagined.

I learned that being CEO is not about being the expert across every domain. It’s about hiring people who are incredibly smart and driven in certain functional areas of expertise, and helping to spark their fire. Everyone at Kiva that I observed acted as a mini-entrepreneur within their domain, from the fundraising officers proposing new methods and practices for securing donations, to the marketers creating their own customer acquisition funnel and campaigns, to Matt’s assistant, who got him to install Tripit on his iPhone (having pre-loaded all his travel arrangements into it) and produced a clear plastic folder that she’d thought would be good for him to put all his travel receipts into. They didn’t ask for permission or instruction on what to do – they just did. And they were some of the most passionate and engaged people I’ve ever encountered. An amazing illustration of this was the engineering and product team (affectionately known as “Braincrave”), who invited me to join them for lunch and proceeded to gush about Kiva and how they got 2 weeks out of every 10 to work on projects not connected to what their managers wanted them to do, how this was more efficient than regular 20% creative time where people have every Friday afternoon off because it meant they could get full projects done, and how it led to them creating a real-time visualization dashboard of loans being made and repaid. In an environment where no one can hire engineers, these told me that even though many of them had startup ideas on the side, they couldn’t bring themselves to leave Kiva because they loved it so much – a completely different answer than anything I’d ever heard from any other ‘wantrepreneur’.

Now back to this laundry detergent analogy (which is particularly relevant to me because as some of you may know, my prior career was in marketing laundry detergent). One of Matt’s afternoon meetings was cancelled and I had the rare and precious opportunity to go for coffee with him and then take a stroll around a nearby park. I was asking him all sorts of questions about whether he thought it would be best to start a non-profit or a for-profit, and whether I should try and get some experience first. I’d been told that the best model for making a positive impact on the world was to try and accumulate as much wealth as possible, and then to use it for good. I also asked him what he thought about getting an MBA. His overall message was that I was too focused on the laundry – the stuff that doesn’t matter (referencing a book called “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”). He said it wasn’t about for-profit or non-profit, non-tech or tech – it was about focusing on solving a problem you are really passionate about, little by little, day by day. That would help you determine what the best ways were to solve the problem. Matt said that many entrepreneurs were too focused on making a company, raising money, and meeting deadlines, and that this could cause problems – unlike this, Kiva (and many other great businesses) started out just focusing on a problem and not even planning to become a big company. He also said that MBAs were not helpful to becoming an entrepreneur, and that in many cases they can actually harm your entrepreneurialism – they teach you the intricacies of doing the laundry, when really you could just be doing the laundry without knowing so much about it. Also, trying to accumulate a lot of money so that you can then give it back is not a proven success path: the richest tech entrepreneurs did not set out to make a lot of money (or to make a lot so they could give it back later) – they did their daily activities because they were fascinated by them and totally passionate about the problem they were solving. So it’s more about focusing on the ecstasy – what you love to do – and this passion will be what makes you be able to jump out of bed every morning.

He closed one of the most amazing days of my life by saying that it was too bad I’d just come for a day of boring meetings, and that it wasn’t really the fun stuff. If he didn’t consider what I witnessed today to be fun, I can’t even imagine how awesome his definition of fun must be.

After the laundry…the ecstasy.


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