Spiral Staircase in Hyderabad Alley
I had never heard of Hyderabad before I got to India, though it is India’s 6th largest city with over 4 million residents, and occupies a prominent place in the center of southern India. Even so, I hadn’t planned to go until I got an email in early June. It was from Seth Godin’s blog, and said he’d be giving a speech in Hyderabad July 7th. Tickets were $50, and I rushed to purchase mine since they were limited to just 100 available for purchase, and my rush paid off because I got an email a week later confirming my attendance.
- Image by http://www.prestonlee.com/archives/67 via CrunchBase
So I adjusted my plans a bit and set things up so that I’d arrive in Hyderabad two days before the event. Before arriving, for the first time ever I set up a place to stay through Couchsurfing. Nearly 11 years old, Couchsuring is a way to find people that have a couch you can sleep on wherever you’re heading. Not only is it free, but its a great way to meet some locals wherever you’re going. Find out more at couchsurfing.com .
My host was someone I can’t name, as I explained before. Ill call him Mr. E. Mr. E is an American and has been in Hyderabad for nearly 10 months, starting out as a student but quitting when he realized how terrible the school he was at was. Now he’s working a tech company doing computer programming and design for a new product they’re launching.
Not only did we get along, but our shared interest in tech stuff, mischief, and living abroad led to many a spirited conversation on said topics. It was great knowing someone who knew the ropes of Hyderabad, making a new friend, and not spending nights alone in a hotel room. Not to mention an apartment with Wifi where I could spend my days working to my heart’s content (or my brain’s limits). Lastly, it was a free place to stay!
My main purpose in Hyderabad, however, was to meet Seth Godin. Not only do I revere his marketing brilliance, but I also wanted to pitch him a new project I’m launching soon: www.theInteract.net .
One of the things theInteract does is to enable people with large followings, such as Seth Godin, to create virtual meetup events where their followers can meet and interact with each other over videochat. Seth Godin, for instance, might email his blog followers a message telling them to go to www.theinteract.net/sethgodin at 8pm on Tuesday for one hour. During that time, they could meet other members of Seth’s Tribe, as he calls it, or also participate in a brainstorming session directed by Seth.
To prepare, my partner Nat and I put together a presentation for Seth and put it up on special page created just for him at theinteract.net. There would be 300 people at the event, and with 1 hour of mingling time post-event, I figured I had about 12 seconds to talk to him, hardly enough to pitch him. So instead, I wrote the special web address on a business card, with the intention of giving him a 10-second pitch and then directing him to special address where he could view the presentation.
Arriving at the Indian School of Business
At the Indian School of Business
Fast forward to July 7th, the day of the event. I made it a point to arrive two hours early, fearing some kind of catastrophe that would delay me and put an end to weeks worth of careful plans. I was one of the very first people to arrive, and to my delight when I entered the auditorium Seth was up on stage setting up his laptop and ordering around the staff that were there to get things ready.
Seth Doing His Thing
I had assumed that I’d have several more hours to fine-tune those precious 25 words I’d have, but I quickly realized that the time was now. When it looked like he wasn’t busy for a few seconds, I hopped up on stage, walked over and stuck my hand out. I don’t remember the exact exchange, but it went something like this:
Me: “Hi, Seth. Its a great pleasure to meet you, I’m looking forward to the talk.”
Seth: “Thank you. Are you a student here?”
Me: “No, I’m an entrepreneur traveling through India. I’ve wanted to travel here for quite awhile, and since all I need is the internet to do my work, I figured why not spend some time in India.”
Seth: “Oh, that’s great. What are you working on?”
Me: “Two main projects. A company that offers crash-course language instruction for travelers, and one that allows people such as yourself to host virtual meetups for their followers over videochat.”
Seth: “That sounds interesting.”
[conversation waning, he’s got stuff to do and I don’t quite feel free to go on talking about myself]
Me: “I know you’re busy, but if you’ve got any spare moments in the next few days I’d love to send you a short presentation on theInteract.” [hands business card with special web address for Seth written on it.]
Seth: “Uh sure. I’m very busy, but just send me an email and maybe I can check it out.”
Me: “Thanks so much, it was great talking to you and I’m looking forward to the talk.”
And that was it. I’m embarrassed to admit that my voice was audible nervous when talking to him. It wasn’t terrible, but it was noticeable. Ah well, I made my point and he did indeed check out the presentation (more on that later).
He was busy enough at the time that I didn’t want to ask him to pose for a photograph. However, a few minutes later I realized that I’d seriously regret it if I didn’t have some kind of picture proof. I hopped up on stage and had one of the ladies hosting the event snap a picture with Seth in the background. Kind of goofy, but better than nothing.
As I sat waiting for the talk to begin, I was sitting two seats away from a wiry kid that obviously wasn’t Indian. After a few minutes we started talking, and I soon found out that this was Seth’s 17-year-old son. I wasn’t surprised to find that he was sharp kid, had already started a few micro-businesses, and seemed to have a good head on his shoulder. I felt a little awkward, though, because it felt a little sketchy to pitch to someone and then get all buddy-buddy with their kid.
It was fine though, and it was interesting to hear his take on India and traveling with his dad. Right before the talk began, just across the aisle sat a man that looked oddly familiar to me. I couldn’t place, but we exchanged smiles and he introduced himself as “Chris.” I briefly told him what I was doing and he responded “Only in the 21st Century!”, to which I nodded in agreement.
Then the talk began, and some of the first words in the introduction was acknowledgment to two special attendees: Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of the Acument Fund, which was the event sponsor; and Chris Anderson, the guy I had just spoken with, the Curator of the TED Conferences. (Check out Ted.com right now if you’ve never heard of it!)
I immediately started laughing to myself. Not only had I met Seth Godin, but also Chris Anderson, Curator of one of my favorite organizations in the world. All in a day’s work.
The talk itself was good, though he mainly recounted a lot of points and anecdotes from Linchpin, his latest book. A lot of Linchpin is about finding and doing work that sets you apart from others; Seth’s argument is that technology, globalization, etc. have transformed how we work and who is valuable, and that if you don’t demonstrate your value to others then you’re bound to drudgery and job insecurity. This is great for many, many people, but to a cigarette vendor in India struggling to make ends meet, much of his advice isn’t too practical.
It was great for me though. At one point early in the talk, Seth brought up the example of “the entrepreneur traveling the world with his laptop and an internet connection,” and I’m 100% certain he stared right at me for the duration of that sentence.
I had been curious as to what Seth’s personality would be like, and though I had a limited interaction with him I found him to be sharp and to-the-point. He’s a busy guy and doesn’t fool around. His jokes were subtle and his talk not without humor, but I could more easily imagine grabbing a coffee with him than a beer.
Afterwards, I was eager to speak to Chris Anderson some more since we’d only talked briefly before. We had a nice chat for a few minutes, but I had to make way for others that had lined up so it was pretty short. I basically told him “thank you” for TED on behalf of humanity, told him what I was doing in India and about each of each of the projects I’m working on. I also told him that it was a life goal of mine to be invited to speak at a TED conference (as if he doesn’t hear that every day). He mentioned TEDx, which is basically locally-organized TED talks that help the main TED Conference find interesting speakers. He was suggesting that this might be a good venue for me to talk, so I’m not sure if he fully understood that I was telling him I was looking to talk at THE TED Conference in San Francisco. As I said, people were waiting, but he gave me his email address and I told him that I’d shoot him an email sometime.
After the event, I wandered outside to the hall where refreshments were being served and the audience could mingle. As soon as I walked outside, I heard someone call out my name. I turned around, and standing in front of me was none other than Priya, a fellow Brown ’08er who was working at the Acument Fund in Hyderabad. We’d been in a six-person seminar on Education our junior year, and needless to say we were both pretty shocked to run into each other in Hyderabd. Outside, I also met a lot of other interesting people, including business execs, students at ISB (the Indian School of Business, where the event was held), as well as some folks working at the Acumen Fund.
I hitched a ride back town with a group from the Acumen Fund, mostly constituted of summer interns. They were an impressive lot: students at Stanford GSB, Harvard’s Kennedy School, Columbia, etc. I’d run into these folks a few days later at a house party, but I’ll save that for next time.
All in all, it was an amazing day, and I returned back to Mr. E’s house with a head rushing with thoughts.
As for my pitch to Seth? I followed up the next day and emailed him the link as he’d requested, and later that evening got a reply. “No I’m not interested in the moment, but I enjoyed the presentation.”
Rats. In the end, in a weird way, this turned out to be a good thing, as it lead to a few insights/revelations about our product that I hadn’t fully-grasped so far. I won’t go into it here, but it wasn’t a total loss, and could hardly detract from the day as a whole.