Productivity, Innovation, and AI: an Interview with Jerry Yang

Jerry Yang is a technology forefather. Co-founded Yahoo! in 1995, Yang also sits on the boards for Workday, Alibaba, and Lenovo. He started AME Cloud Ventures with the belief that data, cloud, and hardware advances will create unprecedented opportunities for great companies to be built. I had the opportunity to sit down with Jerry to ask him about productivity, about investing in China and Japan and about investing in AI.

Productivity

Q: You run a venture company, you’re also an entrepreneur, you advise and sit on the boards of some great companies. When you think about the most effective executives you’ve worked and partnered with, what productivity attributes stick out the most for them?

Jerry:  I think all executives have their own style to be productive. But I think the common thread would be that they have a very effective executive assistant team that organizes their calendars so that when meetings happen, they are very precise. People are trying to replace this with AI, but this is very hard to do practically. Assistants have to match the executive’s style, some require considerable help with prep, others don’t.

Executives spend lots of time in meetings, which makes it critical that meetings are well run. Many resources inform and help with communications before and after these meetings. However, these meetings are where decisions are made, and actions are taken. Executive assistants serve those critical needs, and they are an under-appreciated resource to the teams.  They also highlight an underserved market for these types of tools. Part of what Eva can do is she could help the exec assistants capture these actions and decisions.

 

Q:  Prioritization, Responsiveness, Presence, Bias-for-Action, & Continual improvement are important building blocks of productivity.  Which one of these is most important to you – and how do you go about achieving that?

 

I would rather wait a week and do something well thought out rather than fire something back right away that creates unnecessary work for others

Jerry: The answer depends on the executive. The higher you are in the c-suite, the more important responsiveness and quality of action become. However many confuse rapid response with how much weight the action has. I would rather wait a week and do something well thought out rather than fire something back right away that creates unnecessary work for others due to lack of critical thinking. The key issue is that the decisions that senior executives make usually create work for others. Creating efficiency by giving clear, actionable, meaningful, well-synthesized commands that are correctly assigned is the most important skill to have.

 

Meetings

Q: Meetings need a fundamental upgrade.  There are 9 billion meetings every year, but most fall short of our expectations, subsequently eating up way too much time relative to the output. How do you focus your teams on having productive meetings that drive good decisions and drive important actions? What are the key ingredients of reducing meeting overload and improving meeting output?

 

 …it’s not about having a critical mass of participants it’s about having prepared participants.

Jerry: We need to make sure there is something ahead of meetings – to ensure there is a critical mass to have a meaningful meeting.  Too many times meetings are held because they are scheduled not because it is needed.  Preparation is key, especially for those responsible for having the meeting.  No matter what type of meeting, it’s not about having a critical mass of participants it’s about having prepared participants. Time should not be spent for catching people up, if team members are unprepared, then meetings should be rescheduled. Rescheduling might seem punitive, but it is better than wasting people’s time.  Once people know that you are prepared to not have a meeting when people haven’t done the right preparation, people tend to be more accurate about what they are trying to achieve.

 

Q:  From my perspective, the most effective meetings balance a few core parts: one part Navy seal fitness test (accountability) , one part a suspense thriller (discussion on an important topic with an unknown outcome) one part cheerleading (sharing wins and establishing goals) and ending the session with a bit of reality-show where you get the participants involved via Q&A.  What do you think about this description? What meeting styles do you prefer?

Jerry: I like elements of all three. I believe strong metrics truly help, especially in business centric or sales centric meetings. Performance should be a consistent part of your focus. The cheerleading meetings motivate teams and give them the positive support, but it’s critical to have people walk away feeling they can do more. Meetings where there is suspense, and you are debating a critical strategic issue are less frequent but important. Most meetings there is a focus on performance or motivation. Also, as an executive, everything you do or say is ultimately reflected by your team. Is the executive moody, consistent, erratic? You have to make sure you are performing at a high level in all meetings even if it’s just a quick standup. You want people to leave with a sense of accomplishment and direction. That direction and energy impact the teams as they move on to other things.

Innovation

Q: Investing in Innovation:  You have a great track record picking successful innovations to bet on. Alibaba was one of the most successful bets made in Valley history. Yahoo Japan was another bet. What makes you able to make such successful cross-cultural bets?

Jerry: Making bets in global cross cultural settings is very difficult. There is no standard formula.  I can highlight two or three practices that helped us.

  1. We didn’t just drop into China and just choose one partner. It was years of repetition and years of iteration where we experienced the successes and failures that helped us evolve.  Through this experience, we concluded that we wanted to work with Alibaba. That was the culmination of several years of ground work and on the ground learning.
  2. This was true in Japan also. We ultimately bet on the people.  In green field opportunities, you have to focus on the right people.  China and Japan were green field opportunities for digital in the mid-90s.  We wanted to pick people who were ambitious and had a vision and wanted to set the rules rather than follow the rules.  Both CEOs we chose to partner with were visionaries who wanted to define the game and set the game rather than play by someone else’s rules.  Choosing the right entrepreneur is especially important in these green field opportunities.

Q: Another area where you have made bets on is productivity. You bet on Evernote, Zoom, Workday and now Workfit. What do you look for when making such bets?

 

For better or worse, AI is an ingredient to making a better successful application that works for a value prop users really need.

Jerry: I think of a couple of things when making these bets:

  1. Better Experience @ Work: We look for productivity tools that work better in a cloud environment. We also look at productivity capabilities that are very intuitive and will spread virally similar to a consumer capability. Using an enterprise tool shouldn’t be more laborious. The way it has been until now is that if you were going to log on to an enterprise tool you expected to have a bad experience. That’s changing. With good easy to use UIs, analytics on how users adopt and rapid feedback, enterprise tools are becoming more consumer like. That higher consumer standard has now reached the enterprise. So in summary, we look for enterprise tools that have an experience that is as good as a consumer experience.
  2. Large valuable data assets: Major companies like Salesforce allow you to develop apps on top of these large islands where a plethora of tools has been pulled together. That means if you have a new application you can distribute on one of these platforms. To do this well, you need a unique data asset. The data around audio and data around communications is one of the bigger gold mines that haven’t been tapped yet. If you solve this, it will be huge. When you think of the large mines of data that have to be mined and leveraged audio sticks out. You guys are on to something, and it is a fascinating problem. Particularly you need to make all this consumer accessible. That takes a lot of work.  Our kids will be used to saying “hey Eva do this.” We have seen what a mobile OS looks like, but what is the next voice operating system for work? We have seen Siri, Alexa, and Google for the consumer.  But the voice operating system of choice at work hasn’t been achieved yet.  It is a huge opportunity, and it needs a platform.

 

Q: When you bet on an AI company what attributes are most important in driving the bets?

Jerry: I think AI is overloaded and overused. It is the word du jour. But to answer the question, I look for a couple of attributes.

  • a) We look for companies that have an advantage by using AI. Is it an algorithmic advantage stemming from deep learning or a machine learning technique? Is it a data advantage or a training data advantage? Ultimately the advantage needs to be specific, like autonomous driving, computer vision or audio. Some companies have over generalized, and it would be far better to find one key application that works well for their method. We look for excellence. For better or worse, AI is an ingredient to making a better successful application that works for a value prop users really need. It doesn’t need to be sexy per se, but you can’t just have a grand vision based on algorithms.
  • b) You need to tune and focus on an experience that is better than everyone else’s. You need to have a period where you labor through many iterations. This is where you build a significant barrier to other people who will be behind you. Look at self-driving cars. It will take years to handle all the edge conditions. For other applications, you have to manage the edge conditions. This is mission critical for the enterprise. Getting that last one or two percent of accuracy in a real world scenario is what defines the standard. There is no shortcut around that.

*Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability. AME Cloud Ventures is an investor in Workfit.