A talk with Adam Cheyer: Startups are the greatest change agent in the world

By May 14, 2014No Comments

We’ve spoken to Adam Cheyer about the power of startups and entrepreneurs. Adam tells us why he got into computing, how he built his first prototype of Siri and what he learnt from Steve Jobs during his time at Apple. Adam was keynote speaker at Pioneers Festival 2013 – watch his fireside chat here.

Let’s talk about computers and programming: Was it love at first sight for you?

Adam Cheyer: In many ways I feel computers were invented just for me. Computers were just emerging in schools when I was ready to learn about them. When I realized I could get grades for programming and then later on get money for this, it was incredible.

How did you get into it.

Adam Cheyer: I first heard about computers when they made an announcement there would be a computer club after school. I thought ‘that sounds like fun, I’d like to learn about it’. So I went after school and I was told, “Sorry this is not a computer club, it’s a computer team! You don’t know computers, you can’t join.” I stole printouts from the waste paper baskets to figure out what this was all about. Every week the computer team would receive six questions. Each team member had half an hour to write a program to solve them. The total school score would be submitted for ranking at national level. It was really a competition. So I started stealing printouts from the waste paper baskets and tried to figure out what this was all about. By the end of the year I was the fourth best in the school and we won the state championship.

Tell us about your very first entrepreneurial experience.

Adam Cheyer: When I was a kid I always had jobs during summer. I was a lifeguard, I was a paper boy, I was a juggling clown and a magician. My best paying job was actually solving Rubik’s cube. I got paid $25 an hour in 1981; it took me 20 more years to earn more than that – well past my Masters degree. My first entrepreneurial experience was actually in my 40s. Now I consider myself an entrepreneur, but I really feel like I added that and invented that for myself pretty late in life when I started Siri. So if people haven’t become an entrepreneur yet, but are thinking about it, there is probably still time.

Did you experience a particular moment where you thought now is the right time to start a company?

Adam Cheyer: In 2006 I was feeling creatively stifled, I felt that what I was working on was not getting out and changing the world – it was not impacting the world. In 2007 I made a verbally stated goal to do ‘5 projects that will have an impact on users in 2007’. The idea was to take my 5 best ideas build them into prototypes, show them to people and get feedback.
My 2008 goal was ‘One major and one minor’, which meant take the best two ideas out of the five that I had built and actually make them companies. Out of the five prototypes, Siri became my day job. I started Siri with Dag Kittlaus (CEO) and Tom Gruber (VP Design).

Which was the second one?

Adam Cheyer: Genetic Finance, which is still doing very well today. We have more than 1.5 million computers – that is more than Apple or Amazon or Microsoft – so it’s one of the largest compute clusters in the world. We have a machine learning platform which solves problems using this cluster that you can’t solve otherwise – with finance, genomics and healthcare applications. A third company actually started around one of the prototypes, which became Today Change has 50 million monthly users and is growing fast, 200 hundred employees and we will do about $30 million in revenue in 2014. It is a company that is focused on really making the world a better place.

At the same time you think the years before you became an entrepreneur were needed?

Adam Cheyer: I feel everything I learned along the way was needed and certainly helped me in being successful. But many of the ideas that I made into companies – they were not instant ideas – I had been thinking about or working on for a long time. Most people do not know this, but my first prototype of Siri was in 1993. Most people do not know this, but my first prototype of Siri was in 1993. I had a mobile tablet, a lot like an iPad and it had almost all the capabilities that came out by Apple almost 20 years later. You could use speech recognition, there were contacts, calendars, email, and maps. Many of the things you’d say – “schedule a meeting tomorrow at 6pm” – all worked in 1993, which was before I ever saw a web browser. However, I do say I wish I had discovered the magic of startups 20 years earlier, because it has really been the most exciting, the most thrilling aspect of my career.

What is the most important thing you learned while building your first startups.

Adam Cheyer: I’ve always had ideas of how the world could be different. But before becoming an entrepreneur and having some success I never knew that it was possible. The fact that I can actually make my ideas reality and impact the global world, that’s not something I ever knew I could do. Now that I have that under my belt, it’s very empowering. I hope that entrepreneurs out there know that it really is possible.

On a general level – how important is the concept “startup”?

Adam Cheyer: I believe startups are the greatest change agent in the world. So if you really want to move the world to a new place – to change it – it’s the startups that are going to do it. Not research labs and not big companies. I’ve been in all of them and I didn’t realize the power of a startup before seeing it for myself. You have to see the “white space" that no one else sees. When you do a startup, you HAVE to be ambitious, you HAVE to see something – the “white space” – that no one else sees and then go after it. If it’s just an incremental change, a big company will be able to do it better and faster because they already have users, they have resources, they have marketing, they have so many things you don’t have. You have to pick something, no one else sees. That’s incredibly hard to do.

You have started three companies and each one has been a huge success. Which lessons do you take away into your new ventures?

Adam Cheyer: You have to be passionate and understand what is important to you. Siri was an idea I had been working on for almost 20 years and thought would be a good idea. However, I didn’t know if the world would enjoy it. I called this project my “technology passion” that I wanted to get out there.

Figure out what’s important to you, what you need at that point in life, and pursue it courageously was for me inspired by Doug Engelbart, who was one of my mentors. We tried everything that we could think of to harness the collective intelligence of the world to solve the world’s complex, urgent problems, like poverty, education and environment. There was a big vision that resonated with me to make the world a better place. Genetic Finance, I thought was a good technology idea, but also it had a good business idea. So my advice is: Figure out what’s important to you, what you need at that point in life, and pursue it courageously – I needed these 3 things so I ended up starting 3 companies.

Last question: Which pioneer would you like to bring back to life and why?

Adam Cheyer: I would have to pick two and the first is Doug Engelbart, who I consider the greatest pioneer I have ever known, met or dreamed of. I feel if Steve were still alive I would still be at Apple. Doug not only invented the mouse, but he was a pioneer – he created personal computing. The first multi-windows system, the first hyperlink text-editing system, the first word processors – pretty much everything we use today in terms of interacting with a computer. The Internet was a piece of his vision. He not only did it for technology’s sake, he did it to make the world a better place. He created tools to make humans think better, act better and survive as a species.

The second is Steve Jobs. Also a great pioneer, who changed the world. He had a vision that others didn’t see and he went about pursuing it aggressively and making it a reality. With Siri we started something and I feel if Steve were still alive I would still be at Apple.