Words of Wisdom from the Dumbest Guy in the Room: A Q&A with San Diego Serial Entrepreneur Neil Senturia

4/5/11Follow @bvbigelow

The way Neil Senturia talks about his “rules” for entrepreneurship reminds me of the way the Pirates of the Caribbean adhere to the pirate code—which is to say the code of conduct among buccaneers is really more what you would call guidelines than actual rules.

Senturia describes his rules as immutable and inviolate. But if you listen, you can hear him concede that there might be some exceptions, and after that maybe if you break a rule of entrepreneurship every now and then, so what? I mean, just between you and me, what’s going to happen? Are the startup police going to come and arrest you?

Nevertheless, Senturia has been around this town for a long time, and he’s had his successes, culminating in a series of San Diego startups—some good and some not so good—and enough money for an office in La Jolla and a little startup fund that he calls Blackbird Ventures. So he might have some worthwhile advice in there somewhere.

Senturia started his career close to 40 years ago, writing TV scripts in Hollywood and jokes in Las Vegas. There is still a Woody Allen-doing-standup quality to just about everything he does, or maybe it’s more like Henny Youngman in the Catskills because sometimes his jokes are so old. After a decade in Hollywood, Senturia found a second career in Southern California real estate and development. He did some big deals, including one in downtown San Diego that created the twin tower condominiums across the street from the San Diego Convention Center. He started his first Internet company, Atcom, in San Diego in the early 1990s—and he rode the dot com wave like Duke Kahanamoku all the way to the beach. Now Senturia is the CEO of a company developing synthetic liquid fuel “with zero-to-negative carbon impact,” whatever that means. He tells me he can’t talk about it, but then he does.

I always wanted to ask him why he ever thought he could start a synthetic fuel company or an Internet company in the first place, and I finally got a chance to do just that. Senturia recently self-published a business book about entrepreneurship that he wrote in his inimitable way. He says the book is really about how to live your life, because “how you behave reflects how you think, and it matters.” The title of his book is “I’m There for You Baby: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to the Galaxy”—and already I’m pretty sure he’s exaggerating. The book has been out about a week, and already there is a used copy available on Amazon. I quizzed him about the book and his career, and I have condensed and edited our conversation.

Xconomy: When you started Atcom, what made you think that you could run an Internet company? Did you know anything about computers at the time?

Neil Senturia: I knew how to turn them on! More importantly, I knew what a client-server was. I thought it was a waitress. They talk about client-server architecture, and I’m thinking, “OK, just bring me a menu.”

X: I have the same question, essentially, about your latest venture. What makes you think you know anything about biofuels?

NS: I don’t have to know anything about biofuels. What I have to know is how to build a team, and motivate them, and bring out the best and brightest and have them be successful. You’ve asked a really important question. There’s a little bit of chutzpah and arrogance that says you built 2 million square feet of real estate, but what the fuck Jack, what do you know about a computer? You’re not in Silicon Valley. You’re not a computer scientist. You can’t write code. But as a CEO, I don’t think you have … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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