43: From Orphan to Entrepreneur: Musanga Logistics CEO Njavwa Mutambo

 
Njavwa Mutambo says he was orphaned at age 7, but that hasn't stopped him from working to build the tech startup scene in Zambia.

Njavwa Mutambo says he was orphaned at age 7, but that hasn't stopped him from working to build the tech startup scene in Zambia.

Njavwa Mutambo is the CEO of Musanga Logistics, a delivery company in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. 

Technology has the potential to transform economies in Africa, empower small businesses, lower costs – but before any of that can happen, there are some basic challenges. One of those is the cost of delivery. 

That's where Njavwa, and Musanga Logistics come in. He's using bicycle couriers and people who own trucks and need side-work, Uber-style – to connect people in Zambia like it's never been done before. 

Mutambo is by far the youngest guest I've ever had on the Fortt Knox Podcast. I met him by chance during a visit to Silicon Valley this summer. I was giving a talk at a venture capital firm, Goodwater Capital, and he was there. He asked me about coverage of African startups, told me what he was doing, and I just had to hear more. 

And that's really a big part of what Fortt Knox is about – that's why it rich ideas and powerful people. Whenever I can talk to someone who's doing something extraordinary that shifts the way I think about business, achievement, making the world better, I want to bring you that. 

So I invited Njavwa to CNBC's bureau at One Market Street in San Francisco. He described his vision for bringing more sophisticated e-commerce to the African continent, his path from impoverished orphan to tech entrepreneur, and what he learned from seeing Silicon Valley – and America – up close for the first time. 

42: Starting A Business? Your Most Important Partner Might Be at Home: Ben Chestnut, MailChimp

 
Ben Chestnut started a digital greetings company after getting laid off from a web design job; then, he started MailChimp.

Ben Chestnut started a digital greetings company after getting laid off from a web design job; then, he started MailChimp.

Seventeen years ago, life gave Ben Chestnut the push to start the company that became MailChimp. 

He was in web design. He got laid off. His employer offered him another job, but he knew – this was his chance to build his own thing.  

Today if you run a small business or you're into marketing, you've probably heard of MailChimp. For everyone else – it's the way a lot of people reach their customers' email inboxes. Newsletters, offers for special sales, you name it – MailChimp is in the tricky game of helping companies reach the people who actually want to be reached. 

Now, Ben Chestnut's team has more than 14 million users, and had more than $400 million in sales last year. Ben himself is an introvert – a soft-spoken guy who has perfected the art of capitalizing on the wrong answer and getting to the right one. 

The fateful moment when Chestnut decided to strike out on his own? He and his would-be cofounder scheduled a dinner out, and invited Chestnut's wife.

"She knew that deep down inside, I needed to start a business one day in my life. And so when I was laid off, and my cofounder and I really wanted to start a business, I said 'I've got to get my wife's permission first,'" Chestnut recalls. "And so we all went out to dinner one day, and I remember asking her, and to her it was a no-big-deal kind of thing. She just said, 'Yeah, do it. You need to do it." And that's all I needed to hear."

Even so, the road wasn't easy. First, the young company focused on web design. After a while, it became clear that what the small businesses really needed was a way to keep in touch with their customers. Eventually, MailChimp was born.

41: How a Master of Scale Climbed to the Top: Reid Hoffman, investor & entrepreneur

 
Reid Hoffman is co-founder of LinkedIn, early investor in Facebook, board member at Microsoft, and a member of the "PayPal Mafia."

Reid Hoffman is co-founder of LinkedIn, early investor in Facebook, board member at Microsoft, and a member of the "PayPal Mafia."

There is no one in Silicon Valley who's more connected than Reid Hoffman. That might be because he plays all of the connector roles, sometimes at once.  

He's a venture capitalist, at Greylock. He's an entrepreneur who co-founded LinkedIn, and sold it for $26 billion last year. (Hoffman's net worth is estimated to be north of $3 billion). Now he has a seat on the board of directors at Microsoft. After teaching a class at Stanford, he started a podcast, Masters of Scale, that's about the art and craft of building monster businesses.  

Hoffman is deeply qualified on that subject. He was a founding board member at PayPal, and early on became its chief operating officer. That also makes him part of an eclectic group of characters known as the "PayPal Mafia" former PayPal employees who went on to dizzying success. Members include Elon Musk, YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, investor Peter Theil, and entrepreneur Max Levchin, to name a few.  

I spent some time with Hoffman last week when I flew out to San Francisco to moderate a LinkedIn debate in front of a live audience. It wasn't politics: Reid was debating his friend Tim O'Reilly on the merits of spending gobs of investor money to build startups into dominant forces. 

After the debate, Reid sat down with me on the 17th floor of LinkedIn headquarters to talk about how he scaled from a pre-teen who was ambivalent about school into one of tech's most prolific builders:

That F in French 

In late elementary school, young Reid didn't see the point of class. That might explain how he ended up failing French.

"Once I started realizing I want to build that, I want to accomplish that, I want to participate and help in that kind of mission, in that kind of project, oh – this learning helps me do that. And once I made that connection, I got very focused on learning."

The lesson: Some people need to connect with more than the task if they're going to build great things. They have to see the big picture.

The Case for Diversity  

Hoffman has engaged in the rising conversation about culture and fairness in Silicon Valley by recommending a "decency pledge" that investors would make to founders. It's a subject I've explored with a number of Silicon Valley luminaries lately, as the tech capital's meritocracy facade has shown some cracks lately. 

"You have to start with a recognition that we are not yet the meritocracy we want to be. We are not yet the diverse and inclusive society we want to be. And we should all work toward that together," Hoffman says. How? "Make sure you're putting energy into helping the right high-talent, diverse individuals learn the culture. Whether it's anything from doing podcasts or other things to mentoring or teaching classes."

A Downside of Experience  

It turns out experience isn't everything. In one area in particular, it may have hurt Hoffman's investment portfolio. 

"Knowing all of the ways that PayPal almost died in getting its creation makes me know what the checklist is of, how are you on all these minefields? And so I didn't invest in Square, which is obviously a mistake. I didn't invest in Stripe, which is obviously a mistake. Great founders, great, interesting companies. It was my own PTSD from PayPal."

It's yet another lesson Hoffman has learned – and shared – that involves letting diverse points of view into the room, and remaining open-minded. That is, if you want to grow.

40: Another Way to the Top: How Julie Sweet Built Her Own Ladder

 
Julie Sweet, CEO for North America at Accenture, has honed the art of learning skills that prepare her to leap ahead.

Julie Sweet, CEO for North America at Accenture, has honed the art of learning skills that prepare her to leap ahead.

Julie Sweet was a high school sophomore with the gift of gab, entering various debate and speech competitions for the prize money, building her own scholarship fund. She wasn't doing it for kicks; at times growing up in Southern California she had just one pair of shoes, or one pair of pants that fit. Her father painted cars for a living, and her mother was a hairdresser.  

One particular contest at the Lions Club had come down to a final showdown between Julie and another girl. Julie lost. Stung by the injustice of it – she felt her speech had been better – she griped to her father on the way home.  

The other girl had been cutesy in the way girls were so often expected to be, that way Julie herself never had been. Plus, the girl's dad was prominent in the Lions Club. "My father said to me, 'You have to be so much better than everyone else that it doesn't matter about connections, it doesn't matter who you're the daughter of. And you weren't.' And so essentially, stop whining."

Julie Sweet today leads the North American business at Accenture, a global consulting giant that employs more than 400,000 people and produced more than $32 billion in sales last year. Sweet's territory made up almost exactly half of that total. 

I'm not really sure of the ideal way people become consultants. Maybe they get good at something, then show other people how to do it better? 

Sweet's path was different. She was a lawyer – a partner at one of those swanky firms: Cravath, Swaine & Moore – and left that to be the top lawyer at Accenture. 

She then parlayed that job into a bigger job. And that's the key detail here. She has a history of doing that sort of thing, and for the Fortt Knox podcast, I wanted to find out how. 

 

39: Started from the Bottom: Tristan Walker's Contrarian Silicon Valley Story

 
Tristan Walker, former head of business development at Foursquare, is founder and CEO at Walker & Company Brands.

Tristan Walker, former head of business development at Foursquare, is founder and CEO at Walker & Company Brands.

Tristan Walker is the founder and CEO of Walker and Company Brands. He's 33 years old. In this episode I somewhat jokingly say that growing up, he was an odd kid, because of the surface contradictions:

He's a business mind who made a name for himself when he joined a mobile technology startup, but his first company focuses on skin and hair care. He grew up in a working-class family in New York, and his father was killed when he was young – but he went to a boarding school.  

His most prominent investors? Andreessen Horowitz, the marquee Silicon Valley venture capital firm – but he and I speak plainly about Silicon Valley's diversity challenges.  

I recently visited Tristan Walker at the offices of Walker & Company Brands in Palo Alto, CA, the heart of Silicon Valley. This episode was special for me, because, let's be frank: There aren't many African-American technology journalists in this business. I'm one. There aren't many African-American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and Tristan is arguably the best-known. I'm seven years older than Tristan, but we're of a similar generation. We've been a part of this era of sweeping change, and seen what's missing ... and who's missing. 

38: The Brooklyn Kid Turned Angel: Jason Calacanis, Investor

 

Jason Calacanis's dad had a neighborhood bar, his mom was a nurse. He grew up middle class in Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s.  

Today, he says, his net worth is somewhere north of 100 million dollars. That's not because he's an entrepreneur, though he has started a handful of companies. Jason got RICH as an entrepreneur. But he got really, really rich by investing in the crazy ideas … of other entrepreneurs.  

He just wrote a book: Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups. He says he can tell you how he did it, and give you pointers so that – maybe you can do it, too. 

In the tech world, we call these people "angel investors." They're usually the first money into a startup, giving six figures or less – just enough to keep an idea going while the founder figures out whether it's big enough to attract millions from venture capitalists.  

The downside of being an angel investor: It's really risky. You're probably going to lose the money you put into 90% of startups. The upside: If you get a couple of winners, they can be huge wins.  

And get this: because of the way regulations are changing, you can now become an angel investor, from the comfort of your computer. You can pool your money with other angels. 

Jason Calacanis is a frequent guest on my TV show, Squawk Alley, on CNBC. He came to the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square on a summer day to talk about angel investing – and his life as an entrepreneur.

35: Legacy of the Lemonade Stand: The Skimm's Founders Talk Creativity, Work Ethic and Sexism

 
Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin met in college, and later decided to build their own media brand.

Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin met in college, and later decided to build their own media brand.

Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, co-founders and co-CEOs of The Skimm, made a gutsy gamble five years ago. They bet that one of the big problems with the news business was the tone. Media outfits took themselves too seriously, and weren't speaking to young people.  

The pair's solution? The Daily Skimm, a newsletter targeting millennial women that keeps you up to date on what's happening in the world.  

They didn't invent the daily newsletter by a long shot – but Weisberg and Zakin are working the kind of magic with it that should make every media executive in the world sit up and take notice. Here's a little context: The New York Times announced recently that it has 13 million subscriptions to its 50 newsletters. Weisberg and Zakin have 5 million subscribers who open their one newsletter multiple times per week.  

I caught up with Carly and Danielle at The Skimm's headquarters on 23rd Street in Manhattan for the Fortt Knox Podcast. We talked about their journey as business partners and friends, the roots of their entrepreneurial drive, and today's unique challenges for women in the startup game. 

It Began With Lemonade 

Both Weisberg and Zakin had lemonade stands when they were little girls, though one made a lot more money than the other. 

"I would set up a lemonade stand at the intersection of where all the tourists were, and would sell lemonade for way too much," Weisberg says. "I think as young women, our moms always told us, 'You have to have your own way of making money.'" 

Both women had family members who ran businesses, with varying levels of success. They knew it would be hard, but were confident they should give their idea a chance.

They're Thinking Big 

It's one thing to have a single hit product; it's another to build a thriving business around it. Zakin and Weisberg are clearly plotting moves far beyond their popular newsletter. They've also launched an app, which syncs important (and fun) events onto a subscriber's calendar. Overall, they're looking to build a lifestyle brand that accomplishes what morning TV did in its heyday.

"What worked, when you deconstruct it is, it was two to three hours of telling you, here's everything you need to know to be a functioning person: This is the news, the latest movie that's out, the book to read, how to cook your Thanksgiving turkey," Zakin says. "Our audience is not watching morning TV in those ways anymore."

Here's the nugget for entrepreneurs: The founders were TV producers before they started the company, and they've found ways to repurpose those skills for an under-served audience.

Forget Sugar And Spice 

The founders have faced their share of doubters in the five years since they launched The Skimm – and some sexism, too.

"We've had people tell us we're being emotional. You don't say that to male founders," Zakin says.

Weisberg says one potential investor's pitch was, "I'd like to buy some [equity] from you, and it will help you pay for your wedding."

They're not hung up on the roadblocks, they're pragmatic about them. And that might just be part of what helps The Skimm connect with its audience.

34: Nearly booted from high school, Talend's Mike Tuchen learned a lesson he uses as a CEO

 
Talend CEO Mike Tuchen used learned the hard way that sometimes, you have to double down on your strengths.

Talend CEO Mike Tuchen used learned the hard way that sometimes, you have to double down on your strengths.

By Deborah Findling with Jon Fortt

Mike Tuchen is best when he’s feeling down. Halfway through a project he kicks his efforts into overdrive just when others might start to relax.  

Tuchen is the CEO of Talend, a company with a billion-dollar market value. It helps its customers take advantage of their data and apply it effectively. But before kicking off a career that has included an executive stint at Microsoft and a turn as CEO of Rapid7, he was nearly kicked out of boarding school and had to figure out how to make a contribution as the runt of his Brown University rowing team. 

Tuchen joined the Fortt Knox podcast to share a story that's not your typical wunderkind-makes-good tale. But he shows that when the pressure is on, winning can mean making surprising choices. 

Own Your Choices 

High school was a time of self-discovery for Tuchen, who had just signed up for an elite boarding school filled with talented students. At his old school he was the class brain. With so much competition at this new school, he soon became more of the life of the party.  

When he got shipped home on a three-day suspension, his parents didn't yell at him. They challenged him. Decide what you want to do: Go back and get serious, or quit the school. 

“I realized what I was doing right there clearly didn’t lead me to anywhere I wanted to go," Tuchen says. "I was this close to being not the successful guy I wanted to be – but a high school drop-out.”  

He went back to school, he reset his goals and focused on physics. “I ended up winning the physics prize and in my last few years of school truly winning some awards, being one of the top kids for that.”  

Strategy is Strength 

If you were to sketch an idea of what a Brown University rower might look like it would not be a teenaged Mike Tuchen. Yet, despite standing 5’11’’ and weighing just 155 lbs at the time, he was a key player in their races. 

Tuchen takes lessons from his time on this team to this day. Sitting in the rear, he was responsible for steering the team, building a strategy. 

“You can go for very short bursts of maybe 30 seconds or a minute” rowing your hardest, Tuchen says. “The question is when and how do you use those bursts?”  

Eventually the team started winning races by choosing their moment. At the halfway mark, the team would give it their best push. They could often push to the front, gaining a boat length or more, demoralizing other teams in the process.. 

Tuchen applied these skills to his first management opportunity, using the chance to creating belief and excitement, motivating people around a goal. 

Risk is a Privilege 

Tuchen’s father immigrated to America from Germany, with just a few dollars in his pocket. His scholarship held some constraints but ultimately led him to a job at AT&T – a company where he spent his entire career. 

"That completely changed his life, and created the opportuinity that I had," Tuchen says. 

Where his father could not afford to take many risks, Tuchen took plenty, knowing he had a stable family to support him. Now he appreciates what his father sacrificed so that he could have more options.

31: Playing the Long Game: Steve Ballmer Talks New Beginnings

 
Former CEO Steve Ballmer is the largest individual holder of Microsoft stock, because he hasn't sold much.

Former CEO Steve Ballmer is the largest individual holder of Microsoft stock, because he hasn't sold much.

Steve Ballmer retired from the Microsoft CEO job three and a half years ago. Then he bought the L.A. Clippers, the basketball team, for two billion dollars.

Ballmer has that kind of money because he's the one person in the world who owns the most shares of Microsoft stock. What's that? You thought Bill Gates owned the most? He did. But he's been selling a lot of it over the years.  

Not Steve Ballmer. He's sold a little, but he's held onto most of it. More than 300 million shares, to be precise. So let's do a little arithmetic. That's 300 million, times 71 bucks a share, which is about where Microsoft was trading at the beginning of June 2017. That's $21.3 billion dollars. 

I had the pleasure of covering Microsoft, and Ballmer, for a good stretch during the past two decades. I got some time with him recently in Rancho Palos Verdes California, at the Code Conference. We put a little of it on CNBC, but I decided to share the whole thing for this episode of the Fortt Knox Podcast. Here are just a couple of highlights:

Wall Street Doesn't Know Everything

According to conventional wisdom, Steve Ballmer's tenure as Microsoft CEO was fraught. The stock didn't do well. Google's search empire emerged and Microsoft couldn't catch up. Apple beat Microsoft in mobile. Ballmer tried unsuccessfully to buy Yahoo (a deal investors were glad didn't happen) and successfully bought Nokia (a deal investors wish hadn't happened).

But here's what the historians often leave out: Ballmer took over just before the dot-com crash, a no-win situation. Despite Google's brilliance, it failed to take down Microsoft Office with Google Docs. Chairman Bill Gates was still working full-time at the company as it missed the modern smartphone and produced the Zune. (If you've been following my writing on LinkedIn, you'll note that I've held this opinion of the Ballmer legacy for a long time: See "Ode to Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer, Underrated Billionaire.")

And ... this is controversial, but I'm just going to put it out there – Microsoft wasn't in such terrible shape when Steve Ballmer retired. When companies are in bad shape, new CEOs clear out senior executives and bring in new blood. New CEO Satya Nadella didn't do that. He has reorganized the leadership structure, elevated some people, made some bold acquisitions; the stock has roughly doubled. Here's how Ballmer put it:

"I think we did a good job building profits; over time there's some correlation that's got to exist between profits and stock price, although this market has sort of said we're willing to be very long-term patient with some [company stock prices] that are way out of whack with the current earnings," Ballmer says. "Frankly, I don't think the stock price had any chance to move as long as I was CEO. People were locked into a worldview about how things were, and sort of the change of CEO let people step back and say, OK, let's think about this thing again."

Facts Matter to Democracy

Another project he's spending time on: USAFacts. It's a trove of information about where our federal tax dollars really go – you can find it at USAFacts.org, and play with the numbers yourself.

Ballmer started digging after his wife asked him to get more involved in the family foundation's charitable work. Ballmer is passionate about making sure kids have the opportunity to do better than their parents did financially. I asked him if there's a philosophical grounding to the idea.

"I won't remember the quote – somebody gave me a Jeffersonian quote on this topic – something to the effect that if you want to have a representative democracy, you have to have an educated citizenry. And I think numbers are an important part of the education process," Ballmer says. "When push comes to shove, you're either writing a law, or you're deciding how much money to put into something. Or you're imposing regulation. Those are the real, three tools of government."

30: Tom vs. the Elephant: How One Billionaire Entrepreneur Keeps Going

 
Tom Siebel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and survivor of a run-in with a five-ton elephant.

Tom Siebel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and survivor of a run-in with a five-ton elephant.

To say Tom Siebel has had an interesting life would be putting it mildly. He’s a billionaire, a tech visionary, and the survivor of an elephant goring eight years ago that, by the odds, should have killed him.  

Several doctors told Siebel he would never walk again, much less sail competitively. But he does. 

So what do you learn about life when you’ve stared down death in the form of a five-ton elephant, been crushed by that elephant, and lived to tell the tale? What do you learn when you’ve invented one of the first killer workplace apps of the PC era, then sold it for about $6 billion dollars? 

After you’ve made all that, survived all that, why, at 64 years old, are you still inventing? 

Tom Siebel, now the CEO of C3 IoT, sat down with me for the at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square to share some insight into what’s made him tick – and what’s helped him succeed. Here are some bits to chew on:

Never Say Die 

Tom Siebel had been on a walking safari with his wife and daughters when an elephant attacked him; he says that during his recovery he had 19 reconstructive surgeries and relied on an electric wheelchair to get around. One of his legs was almost completely shattered. Throughout the process, he kept looking for a doctor who could help him to make real progress. 

"I would go visit physicians, and they would explain that they're going to have to remove my leg, and I'd say OK, you're fired." Finally he called the maker of the device that was holding his leg together, and asked what doctor in the world had the most experience installing it. It turned out, the two best were just up the road in San Francisco.  

A few years later, Siebel made a full recovery.  

The lesson here is not so much in what to do if you're trampled by an elephant. (That's probably not going to happen to most of us.) It's in what to do if someone tells you that your goal is impossible: If that goal is important enough, don't just get a second opinion, get expert insight. 

Work for Someone and Learn 

Where did Tom Siebel learn to run a business? From working at Oracle. Where did the leaders at Oracle learn? Trial and error. I asked whether he thinks that's ideal. Actually, no, he says.  

“I think it might be a good idea to go work for another company first and learn about sales, learn about marketing, learn about accounting, learn about compliance, learn about human capital practices," Siebel says. "Maybe learn a little patience, get a little humility.” 

We tend to focus on the exceptions to the rules, people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But many of the rest of us would be wise to spend a bit more time learning about business before trying to run one. 

Your Spark Doesn’t Need Approval 

After working for Oracle from its early days until it reached about $1 billion in sales, Siebel had an idea: Rather than just focus on databases, he wanted to build an application – a program that would help businesses keep track of their best sales prospects and close deals faster. He took the concept to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who said no. Was Siebel crushed? Discouraged? 

“I was satisfied that it was a good idea, I was satisfied that there was a market there. It was just not a market that Larry Ellison was interested in pursuing at that time," Siebel says. "And I mean, Larry is a very, very bright guy. His successes speak for themselves. But he didn’t have an interest. He didn’t see the market. I did. And I just decided to go for it.” 

Go for it, he did. Siebel Systems became a force in enterprise software, so much that Ellison tried to build his own version to beat it. Ellison eventually decided to buy Siebel out for $5.8 billion instead, with Tom Siebel's blessing. 

No matter how smart your friends – or bosses – are, they can’t make the big career decisions for you. Listen to their advice, and weigh it against what you’ve learned. If you believe you’ve got what it takes, go for it.