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Watching Larry Ellison Become Larry Ellison (2014) (steveblank.com)
143 points by tosh on Sept 16, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

Kathryn Gould, the real author of the post was one of my mentors. She was one of the first woman VC's in the valley and hated being reminded of it. She said she wanted to be known as one of the best VC's - period - and she was. Her commencement speech at the University of Chicago is worth a read. https://steveblank.com/2014/08/05/pioneering-women-in-ventur... She passed on way too early in 2015.

It’s Not the Calls You Take, It’s the Calls You Make One of my sayings

You are the creator of your destiny. In whatever business you’re in, there is always so much coming at you that you can stay insanely busy just responding. Don’t do that. Always think about what is your agenda, what do you want to make happen, what do you want the future to look like. This is not so easy.

I think this is a powerful idea. I was a homemaker for a lot of years. I think more than men typically are, women get socialized to respond to other people rather than setting their own agenda in this way, and it consigns us to servile roles, even if we are very talented.

She was apparently 65:



To my surprise, I can find no Wikipedia article about her.

Every time there's a post like this, young entrepreneurs in the valley tend to ignore the uncomfortable advice like "come to appreciate the sales culture" and idolize "be ruthless" and often interpret it as "be an asshole, all the time".

Also, just because some personality traits worked for a certain place, time, and cultural period, doesn't mean it's applicable to the industry today.

I laughed when I read that Ellison often said, “It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.”

Once, in the early days of the field of synthetic biology, I asked my mentor George Church why he collaborated with so many people who weren't obviously doing the highest caliber work. He replied, "When you're involved in starting a new field, often it's not enough to succeed by yourself. Sometimes you also have to help others not fail."

“It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.”

Because of the way Mr. Ellison been conducting himself business-wise, there is a saying in the Valley: "I would love to live a life as Larry Ellison, but heck I would not want to die as Larry Ellison".

Wow small world. I remember having a similar conversation with George Church circa 2000. Fun times and his vision has come to pass. Great guy.

Absolutely. Note that the interviewee starts out by stating they haven't talked to Larry in decades and only worked with them for a few years.

If someone doesn't evolve over a few years, let alone a few decades, then something is gravely wrong.

There's a relatively recent interview with Charlie Rose, in which Ellison comes off as huge d*bag.

Well this anthropomorphizes the heck out of the lawnmower.

He Had Some Quirks

Larry would sometimes take time out to think. He would just disappear for a few days, often without telling

Larry Ellison, Oracle’s founder and CEO, was brilliant, driven, witty, charming, ruthless, wildly egoistical, a superb salesman, a notorious womanizer—and a seriously random number. Anything could happen, and often did. For example, one fine day I was part of a group that had a late-morning meeting with Larry. When we convened at his office, he wasn’t there. This was not unusual. Larry has just acquired a new wife—his third—and he apparently liked to go home during the day to make love with her. But our meeting was important, so we piled into a car and took off for his new house in Woodside. My manager, a former classical cellist who was stunned by Larry’s behavior as I was, turned to me in the car and said, “And now, we journey to the land where time has no meaning”. When we arrived, Larry came to the door, tousled but in good humor, and invited us into a huge house devoid of furniture, at least on the first floor, where we transacted our business and left. […] But although Larry was a nice planet to visit, I didn’t want to live there. In six months at Oracle I had five different managers, the last of whom was a former CIA agent who was much crazier than Larry was, but nasty and not half as bright.

— High Stakes, No Prisoners : A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars by Charles H. Ferguson

It's one of those uncomfortable truths. It's hard to deny that the lawnmower is good at what it does, because it is, and has been doing it for a long time.

Also probably responsible for many decades of lost progress, though.

For those that don't get the lawnmower reference: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5170246

tl;dr Oracle is not a person. It is a unthinking, unfeeling machine. Treat it appropriately.

Larry Ellison has a lot to teach business people today. I’m willing to concede it might not be that he is a genius, but simply because he’s from an older generation and has practices that are mostly ignored now.

1). The influence of Japanese culture on Ellison: in a world of Agile ironically everyone seems to miss how incredibly beautiful Japanese philosophy and literature is. In an age of “authenticity” and emotional excess, the “Book of Five Rings”, by a 17th century Samurai, is eerily relevant today.

2). Destruction, not profit: I actually like this quote. When I first heard it I rolled my eyes, but if you watch this video Larry Ellison never talks about profit or EBITDA or any bullshit like that. When people think of destruction and failure, they think of Microsoft in the 90’s, but really it’s more two-way than that. I think this philosophy is very motivational in the sense that Time Warner Cable must be destroyed, Pfizer must be destroyed, Equifax must be destroyed, etc.

3). Steve Jobs: Ellison and Steve Jobs first met when Ellison went over to complain to Steve about his peacocks making noises in the morning. After that they become friends for the next 30 years, and Oracle had a plan in place to buy Apple and reinstall Jobs in 1995. I wish Ellison had more Steve Jobs in-him when upgrading Oracle products, but at least he could see the success of Jobs.

EDIT: I mention a video in one of my comments. For that part I wasn’t referring to the audio interview posted above, but this: https://youtu.be/thRAjlyCfKE

This seems a bit of a puzzling list...

1) What specifically of Japanese philosophy informs Ellison's approach? What has either Ellison or Japanese philosophy to do with agile or its complement? What is the meaning of "emotional excess"?

2) Why would one think of "Microsoft in the 90s" together with "destruction and failure"? The 90s were an incredibly successful time for Microsoft. Why must TWC, Pfizer, et al., be destroyed? Because some folks don't like large, dominant, somewhat pathological organizations?

3) "Upgrading Oracle's products"--does this happen? Isn't Oracle's approach the the diametrical opposite of a consumer hardware company that sells on product strength and style?

Can't answer all of them but a few thoughts: 1) Agile methodology was essentially developed by Toyota and its roots are inspired by Japanese philosophy 2) Microsoft's main philosophy at the time was essentially to "destroy" all competition in order to remain a monopoly. Regarding TWC, Pfizer, Equifax, strong arguments can be made that they are very bad for consumers, either rent-seeking monopoly (TWC thanks to owning large parts of physical network), attempt to make more money by keeping consumers sick (Pfizer), or plain fraud (Equifax). If a startup can provide the same or better services without the harm, it can destroy these parasitic companies, benefitting both the entrepeneur and the consumer. 3) Sure Consumer (Apple) and Enterprise (Oracle) product strategies are different but I wouldn't say they are diametrical opposites..in the end both Oracle and Apple are in the business of maximizing sales of technology products. Ellison sometimes appeared to lack the visionary aspect of Jobs when it comes to upgrading products, i.e. when he said at a conference that cloud is just hyped B.S. (I think it was 4-5 years ago), then have spent last few years trying to catch up to the competition. http://www.cbronline.com/news/cloud/he-said-what-5-things-la...

The Book of Five Rings is relevant to what, exactly?

Why do business guys latch onto stuff like this so hard, it is literally a book about sword fighting, it tells you where to put your feet, how to grip the sword, to keep your pinkie loose and grip with your forefingers. How is that strategy going to help your SaaS business?

Same reason everybody loves The War of Art and The Inner Game of Tennis or Impro. The lessons you can learn from them are applicable far beyond the fields the books are technically about.

>>Same reason everybody loves The War of Art and The Inner Game of Tennis or Impro. The lessons you can learn from them are applicable far beyond the fields the books are technically about.

Generally the reason people like these books is because openly advertising you like them makes you sound enlightened.

I'm sure a lot of people start reading The Art of War because of a cargo-culting impulse, but it actually does have some interesting thoughts in it. You might enjoy it.

Oh, huh, I guess my brain autocorrected, thanks for the correction. It sounds like you'd recommend it?

"The lessons you can learn from them are applicable far beyond the fields the books are technically about."

The 'Art of War' is about winning in a zero sum game.

For most of history, that's the only way wealth could be created, i.e. 'taken'.

The Valley in particular, is a testament to the opposite - that value can be created out of thin air, that we can 'grow the pie a lot, and just take a small slice as profit and everyone wins'.

The 'Art of War' is therefore a bad business book for so many reasons - it presupposes that the only way you can win, is by destroying others. Surely, in some markets/situations it may be like that, but overall, it's antithetical to the premise of innovation.

Gates was somewhat like that Jobs a little less.

The 'new gen' are not really like that so much. I think Zuck & co. are highly competitive, but not conquerors.

Or so the readers claim. What lessons, specifically, can we derive from the Book of Five Rings that apply to modern business?

If you or anyone else can elaborate on that in the context of The Book of Five Rings specifically, I would be fascinated to hear about it.

I'm not someone with amazing business achievements to boast about but I was inspired by Musashis argument that every move should include the intention to cut your enemy. It's so easy to get caught up in the role play of tactics - thinking you are parrying or doing this or doing that and losing track of the actual goal. Its not as if your every move will succeed in cutting and that's fine but dont get so caught up in the form of what you are doing that you forget the purpose.

But I didn't read the Book of Five Rings because I wanted to get good at business, I read it because Musashi seemed like a fascinating character.

> The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.

It also speaks to efficiency. Just like in go you don't want any of your moves to be doing just one thing.

EBITDA is not 'BS'.

It's a pretty good metric, actually :)

It really just means 'profit without weird accounting things taken out'.

That photo from 1978 is quite possibly the most explicit portrait of nerdom ever. It makes Comicon look like a frat party. I have never seen anything so completely nerdy.

I think this one beats that: http://www.newsweek.pl/g/crop/0/-1050/newsweek/6360443584828...

It's a photo of four young (in the 90-ties) Polish algorithmic contests competitors, chilling out.

Oh man. I haven't seen that in a long, long time. It used to be a popular meme.

I'm not even sure where I could go in SV to find this anymore. Our loss tbh.

Here in Eindhoven (Netherlands) most hardware startups look like that.

If you like this story, you can continue the story with "Softwar" a book about Oracle and Larry Ellison in quite the same tone.

Actors wear eye makeup in theatre, so their eyes are visible from the back row. “It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.” seems to be a similar overthetop way to commumicate a message company-wide. Similar might work for communicating to potential customers...

When Pracle was a startup, they beat IBM to market with a database that used IBM's idea (Codd's relational algebra), and IBM's query language (SQL)... which is one of the few (only?) technologies still dominating almost 4 decades later. Typically, in software, 10 years is pretty good.

So, I think he had excellent foresight into how important SQL could be.

All that said, I was horrified when Oracle bought sun (amd java). I personally prefer their hippy-like approach of free open standards... but I have to acknowledge the merits that Ellison did have.

If anyone wants to read more about Ellision, you should read

The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: God Doesn't Think He's Larry Ellison


Would anyone here honestly be excited to work for Oracle?

I work for Oracle at the moment. We are working on a new cloud offering with many of us ex-Amazon. Our organization feels very different than the rest of Oracle. Also were hiring....

In 1982? Yes.

If for some reason I would have gotten such a job, or a similar one working close to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in the early days, I don't think I would have lasted. Larry, Steve and Bill were all extremely driven and very high-strung guys with nasty habits of treating those around them like shit.

Somewhere along the way I would have gotten chewed out over something I considered either a good-enough solution or an understandable oversight. First time, no problem. High standards, yes sir, right away sir. But the second? And the third? At some point I would have decided that life's too short to be treated like shit by a maniac, and left for some more conventional job.

Today? No. It's a big successful company with a decidedly mixed reputation both as an employer and product provider.

Larry always had a 10-year technical vision

Is that harder to do now than back in the 1980s? The pace of technological development has accelerated, and it's so hard to predict the standards and platforms and business needs that will arise 5 years from now, let alone 10.

Those 1980's were quite messy too. Larry picked a robust solution (SQL) to build upon, something the market desperately needed and he somehow grasped it better in the smoke and noise of the day. Of course this is not the only ingredient for them to rise above the heap. The company I worked at that time was a Sybase shop and Sybase SQL performed so much better than Oracle then. An ability to sell aggressively, staying power in improving a good technical vision, etc. is also needed just as it is today.

My understanding was he just copied IBM's DB for a different platform, mimicking their API to the call.

It's like watching fish rot.


Please comment civilly and substantively or not at all. Dismissive balls of inflammation don't take the discussions where we want to go.


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