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 to know everything. More importantly, you have to know what you don’t know, and you have to hire the best and brightest. If you use the Jack Kennedy model, he once said, “If I’m the dumbest guy in the room, we have a chance.” I’ve held to that. I want to be the dumbest guy in the room. If I’m the dumbest guy in the room, my company has a chance. I’m looking for people who are smarter than I am, better than I am, more disciplined than I am, more driven than I am. Great! That is often a threat, unless you have confidence in your own ability to manage.

X: Why did you write this book? Don’t you have enough on your plate?

NS: I had finished working on SDNN and it had been a failure. [The San Diego News Network was an online news startup; 2009-2010 RIP.]  We closed in late May, early June last year, and it was really a visceral and painful experience. While I’ve done more than a half-dozen startups and also some real estate, this one had a lot of feelings. We really cared deeply.

So I decided that I was going to be a consultant. I was done forever and would never be a CEO again. And if you’re going to be a consultant, you have to have a book. So I sat down on June 14, 2010. I’m a very disciplined writer. I measured it out. A book is 230 pages, which is 63,000 words. So I said I’ll write 80,000 words and cut it down.

X: Your wife told me you were once a scriptwriter for MASH.

NS: She makes it sound like I was a staff writer. Let’s tell the truth. I was not. I was a freelance hack in Hollywood for 10 years. I submitted stories to Newhart and Alice and Tony Randall, and I did some stuff for Newhart in Vegas, and I submitted to MASH. Some got published, some got rewritten, some got tossed out, some got no credits. Who cares? It was interesting and I was a writer. I was supposed to be a funny writer.

Now there is a subtext. I’ve taught at San Diego State, and I now teach at the von Liebig school at UCSD, and I am deeply involved in the startup racket in this town. I’ve been on the panels at Connect, and [Connect] Springboard, Venture Group, and blah, blah, blah. And my sense is that often, if not frequently, people don’t tell the truth. The panelists wave their arms and say, we went out and raised $25,000 or $250 million and then we sold the company for $1 billion and there we are. That’s not exactly what really happened.

Neil Senturia

So I decided that I would write a business book that had several principles. It was going to tell the truth. On the other hand, the opening paragraph says don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. At the end of the day, I’m really a storyteller, and I use the truth to serve my purposes. So this is not a business book. This is really a story about ways to live your life. There’s 223 rules, some are 10 words and some are half a paragraph and there are 500 rules total. This is the first volume, and the balance, which would be 277 rules, are coming in Volume 2.

X: Is there really a volume 2? Or are you bending the truth?

NS: Absolutely. I have 10 more stories that I haven’t told. I am a storyteller, and one of the things that you should teach in entrepreneurship when you go to raise money: Don’t wave your arms about ROI or, you know, the technology spins the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. What investors want to hear is a story, so tell me a story.

X: So when you say Rule No. 263, you’re just pulling that out of your ass, right?

NS: No, no, no, no. I have 500 rules.

X: And you can remember each rule?

NS: Well, when I was younger I could. But the nice thing is that they’re not in order.

X: What?

NS: In other words, there actually are 500 rules, and they come and—If you read both volumes, or maybe all three, they will all fit together.

X: Unh-huh.

NS: The first three rules are inviolate.

X: In violet, you mean, like the color purple?

NS: No. Inviolate means it can’t be changed. It’s inviolable. Do you want to hear the first three rules?

X: I’m just messin’ with you. Go ahead.

NS: Rule 1 says that you must return every e-mail and every phone call. I hedge a little. But in general, on balance, it’s good to return 100 percent of your e-mails and phone calls. ‘Cause you never know. You think you know, but you never know.

Rule 2 says that networking is a profession. You must become a professional at it. Networking is powerful, it’s important. If you don’t do it well, learn to.

Rule 3 is one of the toughest rules in the book. It’s a little Zen-y, but you gotta go with it. It says you must attend all the conferences, meetings, and events that you know will be a total waste of time. It’s a very important rule, and I’ve proven it 50 times, when good stuff happens. In that availableness, in the body language, in the accessibility, good things often happen. If you know where you’re going, you don’t see anything along the side of the road. So those are the kind of things in the rules that have nothing to do with, you know, CDMA, or cloud computing, or Facebook. It has to do with how you think about living.

So those are three rules. There are another 225 to follow. [Or maybe 220.] You should read the book.

X: How’s that consulting thing working out for you?

NS: Here’s that story: I’m relatively unemployed and I’m writing my book and I go out to be a consultant and what I find is, “Gee, it’s hard to get clients if you don’t have a consultant personality. I’m well known in this town and gee, the last thing I seem to be able to convince someone of is that I have a consultant personality.” A consultant personality is someone who is willing to be calm, patient, give advice, and not be upset when it’s not followed. Those are people who are often willing to sit in the back seat of the car, and don’t really give too many opinions about where to turn. I sit in the front seat on the passenger’s side and my first response is to grab the fucking wheel, you know, you’re doing it wrong. So I could see that I was not really a good consultant.

I finish the book Sept. 10th. I learn a lot. One thing is that what used to be self-publishing, which was considered, you know, you’re a total failure [because] nobody else will do it, is now—a lot of people self-publish. The truth is that Amazon, the Internet, and self-publishing are going to disintermediate the brick and mortar book stores. So I don’t want to be in Barnes and Noble. What I did was I hired a book Sherpa. One of the rules in the book is that it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that’ll kill you. The fact that I know a fair amount about some things doesn’t mean that I know a lot about everything, and the first thing I admitted, and this is an important rule, is I didn’t know shit about how to publish a book. I knew how to write one. But writing it and publishing are too different things.

About four days [before I finished], I get a call from San Francisco, a guy named Andrew Corradini. He says “I met you two years ago at a conference. I have a company, I’ve done this and this and this, I’ve run it into the ground. We’re totally broke. I’m desperate. I’m quasi-suicidal, will you help me?” My response is, “Sure! come on down.” He gets on a plane, he comes down, and the end of that story is that I buy the assets of the company, I raise a couple million dollars and I’m now in the Oberon Fuels business, which is alternative energy. So I’m back as a CEO, which means I don’t have to be a consultant any more. So you don’t know what to expect, the wheel is always spinning.

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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