John Maeda Talks Leadership, Learning, and Legacy From RISD to KPCB

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In the venture capital world, Eugene Kleiner brought in the notion that it isn’t about the idea, it’s about the people. Because the idea could be bad. But the people know how to pivot.

X: What are your thoughts on the blending of East and West in technology and business?

JM: More people are aware that the Chinese aren’t just copying anymore, they’re innovating. That’s a weakness, I believe, in the U.S. view of China—that they’re copycats. Remember what they called the Japanese before, and suddenly out of nowhere they came. The Chinese are working hard. I’ve been seeing this. So don’t underestimate it, but don’t be afraid.

X: Are you spending much time on China these days?

JM: Not now. I’m just settling into the VC world. Kleiner has a China practice, and I love talking to those guys because you can just see how far ahead some of the social stuff is. At Kleiner, it’s so different than academia.

X: You mentioned that last time we spoke. But I still talk to people who think academia is ahead, still feeding the technology pipeline.

JM: Yes, there is research that’s exotic and beautiful. But industry moves so fast. Nicholas [Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder] told me that when I was at MIT. I learned to appreciate industry in my early years as a professor, because an industry achieves scale.

X: What’s blowing your mind in industry these days?

JM: To be very honest, just the world of venture capital. When you hear stories, you just assume that venture capitalists are bad. Everyone I talk to says, “John, you’re in venture capital, oh my gosh, you’ve sold your soul to the devil,” blah blah blah. And I know bad people who are artists and designers—it’s not limited to that! You have to believe there are some good venture capitalists out there.

I think I get to learn the good parts of VC. I’m getting to be in a firm that’s reinventing itself, that’s moving fast, and I get to see what most people don’t get to see—the non-stereotyped version of VC. These guys work harder than any person I ever knew in my past lives. They really care about the entrepreneur.

My first week, I was at my first Series A pitch. I didn’t know what Series A meant at the time. Three guys come in, they’ve got their iPhones, their screens are all on, the demo is up, they start into their thing. Fifteen minutes in, the screens go dark. It’s an “oh s-h-i-t” moment. They’re like, “Oh no, no,” fiddling with the cable. One of my partners says, “Is that us, is that our fault? We’re really sorry, let me call someone to help.” I thought that was such a noble thing to do. It’s about how do you make people feel comfortable. I’ve seen that kind of behavior more than once. I’m learning how to be a better person in the VC world!

X: That’s ironic, isn’t it. [Laughter] What are your thoughts on your own legacy? How do you confront mortality?

JM: My life changed when someone told me life is lived in four quarters. I thought about it—wow, I’m at the end of my second quarter. If I’m lucky I’ll get a third quarter, but my fourth quarter is not going to be awesome. As you get older, you confront the fact that life is more finite. I’m so happy to be on stage—I want to feel versus not feel. There’s so much less at stake when you realize there’s not much time left.

X: Is there an overarching question you want to pursue in the coming years?

JM: Regina Dugan [Google vice president and former DARPA head] really inspires me in that she can bring technology forward through great leadership and make things happen at scale. As a professor I could do that with students, but now in this phase of my life, I think, how do I do something like that? Is it making a company? I don’t know. I’d like to realize innovation at scale and in new space. I don’t know what it is. But definitely I’m not going to go back to being a professor. That’s not in my goal list anymore. It was fun being a professor, I knew great professors at MIT. But it’s not for me. I see many faculty leaving academia now. I think it’s not a lot, but it’s unusual, people leaving tenured positions.

I don’t have a really crisp answer for my next quarter. I will just tell you that I hope to be alive and not be in the hospital. And I would like to participate in bringing more technology people to design and leadership. Because you can make things as a designer, you can make things as a technologist, but if you can’t lead, you’re just stuck making things.

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