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(Editor’s note: Saad Khan is a partner at CMEA Capital. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
Umberto Eco, encyclopedic Italian author, philosopher, and semiotician is known, among other things, for the size of his private libraries. Just one of them is thought to contain over 30,000 books – and among private collections, is generally the stuff of legend.
When asked if he has read each of these tomes, Professor Eco is said to have explained that the value of such a collection was not in the books that he had read, but in fact in his assortment of unread books, his “anti-library.’ “A private library is not an ego boosting appendage but a research tool.” writes Nassim Taleb author of the induction-defying Black Swan. In other words, knowing what you don’t know can be even more valuable than what you do.
Sounds to me like Umberto Eco was building an awesome Advisory Board.
I’ve been fascinated for some time by the leverage that comes from distributed expertise. Building a board, whether of the Advisor or Director variety, is about finding the experience outside of your four walls that help you know what you don’t. And done well, this can mean the difference between life or death for any venture.
Take for instance a company like Evolution Robotics (one of our investments). Evolution Robotics is creator of the award-winning MintCleaner, and focuses on bringing state of the art robotics technology to consumer products. Early in the company’s existence, this meant partnering with consumer brands to augment their existing products. If you wanted to take your phone or vacuum cleaner or mobile device and give it the brains to autonomously interact with the real environment, you’d leverage technology from ER.
But the company also wanted to launch their own consumer products — and it was in that context that having the right advisors was critical. To help with design, Evolution tapped award- winning industrial designer Yves Behar, designer of the Jawbone headset and One Laptop per Child. To help with retail and CPG, Evolution reached out to people like Michael Merriman, former CEO of Royal Appliance, maker of the Dirt Devil vacuum. The talent and expertise of these and other strong advisors ensured the company could think through the unknown elements of a new consumer product launch, and help the engineers invent an entirely new consumer product category: autonomous hardwood floor care.
Advisors aren’t just for companies, though. They’re useful for any anyone. A few years ago I found myself having trouble executing on the “important but not urgent” things I wanted to accomplish. I was passionate about social entrepreneurship and film, two interests outside of my day job that just kept getting pushed off.
A friend and peer who understood my enthusiasm (and was tired of my whining) finally suggested that I put together a “personal board” to hold myself accountable. The idea was to assemble a group of people I respected, and with whom I’d check in on a regular basis to make sure I was staying on track with my personal goals. My personal board has also helped nurture my career and guided me through some of my toughest negotiations.
It’s something I’ve sworn by ever since.
Your crowdsourced advisors (aka your anti-graph)
There is a new frontier in the world of distributed expertise. We share our status with them on almost an hourly basis. They’re virtual, often consist of thousands of people, and they give us feedback immediately. They’re our social graph.
Anyone who’s asked a question to their Facebook friends or Twitter followers, or been floored by the responsiveness of the Quora community, can appreciate the power of virtual, distributed brains to help give you immediate feedback on vast array of topics.
A couple of weeks back I asked a very mechanical question to my Facebook friends and the Twitterverse related to data around venture-backed startups. While the information I was looking for didn’t actually exist in any one place, someone in my network actually wrote a script to mine the data from CrunchBase and other sources.
I’ve used my social graph in real-time to share cab rides from airports, to connect with people when I’m visiting a new city and even to test ideas for articles. But a far greater power is to keep you accountable and ahead of the things that really matter. And in that respect we’re just getting started.
Umberto Eco is clearly a man ahead of his time. Given the size of his anti-library, I can only imagine the size of his anti-social network on Facebook.