Aristeon Award – Marina Hatsopoulos

 

November 2017

Marina Hatsopoulos Award Speech


As parents of Greek immigrants, I was taught that anything was possible if I worked hard enough. I always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. When I couldn’t get a job in management, I decided to commercialize a 3D printing technology out of MIT. I didn’t feel ready to be CEO, but like many Greeks today, I decided to make my own opportunity.

 

Four of us out of MIT—the two inventors, my husband Walter, and I—started Z Corp. and grew it to become an early leader in 3D printing, with 125 employees. After ten years, with four children, I was burned out, so we sold it. Since then I’ve been on corporate boards, angel investing, and have become connected with the startup scene in Greece.

 

The Greek economy, shattered in 2008 by the debt crisis and austerity, shrank by 25% over six years. The loss of 1 million jobs resulted in peak unemployment of 28%, or 58% for the youth. Crisis and failure are not fun. Nobody wants it. But if we learn from it, failure often opens up new possibilities and opportunities. With no jobs available, people are creating their own jobs by founding startups in agriculture, food, tourism, logistics and technology. Instead of generating more government jobs, Greece has been forced to reboot. Entrepreneurship offers economic opportunity, and unlike the old bureaucratic government jobs of the past, it rewards very different attributes, like risk-taking, innovation, drive, and team-work. Greeks have always been natural entrepreneurs outside of Greece. Of the Greek immigrants in the US labor force, 16% are small-business owners, the highest rate of any immigrant group.

 

These startup efforts are supported by technology research centers, incubators, accelerators, and startup competitions, as well as a new commitment for €320 million by EquiFund, a fund-of-funds investing in venture, private equity, and tech transfer funds in Greece.

 

While economic growth in Greece in 2017 is at about 2%, Greeks don’t feel it yet. They’re downtrodden. Yet entrepreneurs in Athens are bubbling with excitement about the future. This startup activity will take years to impact the overall economy, so it’s not a fix for Greece’s current debt issues, but it’s already creating new jobs.

 

In Plato’s Republic, the four cardinal virtues are wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. These form valuable guideposts for entrepreneurship.

 

Wisdom is knowledge. When you’re doing a startup, you need to know everything that’s happening in your field, which requires continual dialogue with your customers. Technology entrepreneurs often fail at this, because they’d rather code software than pick up the phone.

 

You need a strong mentor who will tell you what you don’t want to hear. Many entrepreneurs who have early success begin to believe they have all the answers and they stop listening. This is very dangerous.

 

Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and fill them in with others on the team. My biggest weakness was management itself as the company grew: being a mentor, teacher, and helping each employee grow. Ironically, I learned management skills from a couple of the people I managed.

 

Hire people who are complementary, not in your own image. Our founders were so different. Jim was a quirky MIT PhD who ran around naked with gold spray paint on his body as part of the Ignobel Awards at MIT, and Tim slept on a mattress in an MIT lab. Jim has the most incredible breadth of technical knowledge of anyone I know, and Tim is this out-of-the-box creative guy who tries crazy things that nobody else will try, and gets them to work. The magic of our chemistry lay in our differences.

 

The most essential piece of wisdom is judgment to make good decisions. Hire people with good judgment and encourage an open exchange of opinions among your team. We used to get into heated debates—never personal—and everyone’s opinion mattered. That very Greek dynamic helped us reach better decisions.

 

Although it’s important to know what’s going on in the world, it’s at least as important not to allow what other people are doing to influence your better judgment. For example, there was a time when people were raising tons of money from venture capital and spending like crazy for growth. I was told “profitability” was a bad word. Later, lean startups became a thing. It’s important to stay your course.

 

The second virtue, temperance, is the control and self-restraint over our appetites and desires: setting aside pleasures in order to focus. Every day is a race. There’s too much to do and inadequate time, money, and people, which makes it a game of priorities. Many great ideas go to the bottom of the list, and you’re making decisions with inadequate information. Things reach out to try to derail you—worthy, but off-track. Just say no.

 

As we built the business, I was raising children, so my life for ten years was devoted to work and family, with no time for extracurricular activities. We put a nursery in at the office, right behind my desk. A nanny came and watched our twins for the first year of their life. When I needed a break from work, I’d go play with them, and when I needed a break from them I’d go back to work. This worked until Jim taught them how to push the button to reboot peoples’ computers.

 

While working hard is important, working smart is even more important. Find the path of least resistance. When we had trouble finding an affordable computer scientist, we hired a chemist to write our software.

 

Entrepreneurship is messy. Perfection is your enemy, because if you take the time to go from 80% to 100%, you give up too much. Excellence is not perfection; excellence is good enough on the beta machine so you can iterate one more time, get feedback, and still get to market before the competition, with a product that’s much better.

 

Don’t plan on exiting in the next year. Assume you’re in this for ten years, so it better be something that feels important.

 

The third virtue, courage, is the willingness to confront pain, danger, discouragement and uncertainty. An entrepreneur spends a lot of time with a blank sheet of paper. This requires a willingness to play in the unknown, and to be creative, making up rules where there are none. Nobody tells you what to do. Nobody slaps you on the back to tell you you’re on the right track. In fact, most people are telling you why your idea is stupid. Question all assumptions, and don’t take any single person’s word—including your own—as gospel. What might’ve worked in the past for other companies may or may not work for you. Stand by your decisions, and when you make a mistake, own it.

 

The most courage you’ll need is in facing failure, which is an inevitable part of entrepreneurship. When you fail, you need to put your ego aside, stop feeling sorry for yourself and self-reflect. What can you take away to improve your chance of success, or how do you need to pivot? Without failure, we’d never push ourselves as hard. Failure is our path to excellence. When we push past our laziness, past what we think is good enough, and past what we think we can do, we produce what we never thought possible.

 

A word of caution. Socrates said, foolish endurance is not courage. Entrepreneurs sometimes follow their vision blindly, despite what the market tells them. Courage is facing new information and adjusting course. We tried to raise venture capital early on, but in the 1990’s the internet was taking off and hardware was out of fashion, so we ended up bootstrapping, which helped us reach profitability early on.

 

The fourth virtue, justice, is a human longing to do a duty that bonds a man in society. Socrates believed that each human should do the job one is naturally suited for. This requires self-knowledge. One may wish, as I did, to be a concert pianist, but possess the fingers of a mathematician. At Z Corp., we learned to let Jim and Tim soar in the areas where they were so gifted, and we stopped trying to get them to be something different. When you find someone who has a deep passion and intrinsic skill in what they do, they display a fire in their soul. It’s magic, and it’s a worthy—and attainable—aspiration.

 

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but its lessons are universal, and apply to life in general. Don’t let anyone else—or your own inertia—determine your course. Whatever you do should feel important. Face your fears, learn from your mistakes, and be brave enough to change course.

 

Grit is perseverance to overcome obstacles in achieving your goals. This country was built on grit, although grit seems to be going out of style. We as a society have come to a mind-set that stress, hardship and all uncomfortable feelings need to be avoided. What if, instead, we worked to become more resilient, so we can handle whatever comes our way? We could then push through our pain, as our parents and grandparents did when they got on the boat to come to America, in order to achieve our dreams.