Where was the entrepreneurial dinosaur when we needed him?

Interview with Naveen Jain

Naveen Jain is an entrepreneur and philanthropist driven to solve the world’s biggest challenges through innovation. He is the founder of several successful companies including Viome, Bluedot, TalentWise, Intelius InfoSpace and Moon Express, where he is currently chairman.

August 4th, 2020   |    By: Jonathan Low

When I’m listening to Naveen Jain describing his plan to create big business on the moon, it’s hard for me to grasp that he was once a poor child in India.

Today, Naveen is a billionaire and a very successful entrepreneur. His own recipe for success is, among other things, not knowing much and not being very good at anything. To me, that sounds like the opposite of what business life normally requires, yet Naveen isn’t joking, and his track record proves that he is not wrong either. After all, the young boy that grew up in poverty in India is today changing the world as we know it and has Sir Richard Branson and Google founder Larry Page as two of his good personal friends.

Jonathan: Naveen, I find it so inspiring that you have used entrepreneurship not only to change your own living conditions but also to change the lives of millions of other people. So I’m curious, what do you actually mean when you tell me that it’s important not to know too much?

Naveen: When you’re really good at something, you have a tendency to only be able to improve it a little bit.

We see this all the time in companies with great skills and experience that still lose market shares to fast-growing startups because the people in the old-thinking companies might be skilled, but they are also trapped by all of their knowledge in a particular field and only manage to produce incremental innovation, not radical or disruptive innovation.

On the other hand, when you don’t know very much about a particular field, you’re truly able to challenge it. This forces you to ask all the curious questions that children love to ask—those we sometimes call “stupid questions” but which are often brilliant and eye-opening because the person asking them is genuinely curious.

In my own case and career, I’ve never started two companies in the same industry. I’m not really an expert or guru in any particular field, but what I am is an entrepreneur, and what I love to do is challenge the status quo in industries that I become interested in or fascinated by.

Jonathan: You often hear that entrepreneurs are the kind of people who view the glass as half full rather than half empty. Do you agree?

Naveen: No. To me, entrepreneurship is not about being overly optimistic. If you’re too optimistic, you risk making bad decisions, because you think that everything you do will succeed.

The reality is the opposite. Entrepreneurs fail all the time. The challenge is not to avoid failure but to fail fast and cheap. So to me, entrepreneurship is about asking the question, is this glass worth filling?

Jonathan: Nice metaphor. A bit like Simon Sinek, who has also written an article for this book and who talks about starting with why—meaning what is your cause, what is your belief, why does your organization exist? Is that a relevant comparison?

Naveen: Yes absolutely. When I start new companies, I always start with why, and I combine this with thinking big. I call it moonshot thinking.

Moonshot thinking is about solving big problems that are worth solving. If you manage to do so, you become highly successful—both when it comes to your feeling of meaningfulness and to your bank account.

I never aim to solve problems that affect less than 100 million people in the world and preferably more. This might seem like too big a challenge to give yourself, but in fact, big problems are often not more difficult to solve than the smaller ones.

So, if this is in fact the case, and you’re going to spend thousands of hours on your project no matter what, why not aim for the moon to begin with?

Jonathan: As I’ve understood your latest business venture, aiming for the moon is no longer just a metaphor for you but to be understood literally and as a potentially lucrative business opportunity for you.

Naveen: Yes, that is true. My company Moon Express is about going to the moon, not like the United States did many years ago for scientific purposes but with a business intention.

The moon is a potential treasure chest that has vast amounts of iron ore, water, rare earth minerals, and precious metals, as well as carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste. Experts concur that the value of these resources is in the trillions of dollars.

The moon can also serve as a fuel depot station for interplanetary space exploration. It has massive amounts of ice (H2O) trapped on the lunar poles that can be used for rocket fuel.

Jonathan: The moon is big business because of its metals?

Naveen: Yes, but not only this. It’s also the possibility to develop a multiplanet society for us humans. Think about what would happen if a large asteroid hit the earth. Most likely, we would all die — become extinct overnight.

Currently, we don’t have any strategy or action plan for dealing with this threat, which might not be happen- ing in the very near future but could do so in the generations to come.

When we’re not addressing this, we’re acting like the dinosaurs did millions of years ago. However, unlike the dinosaurs, we’re able to act in a more reflective and entrepreneurial way. I mean, where was the entrepreneurial dinosaur when they needed him?

Jonathan: A multiplanet society. Wow! Again, I have to remind the readers that you grew up in a poor family in India. You were curious, wanted to fill glasses worth filling, and now you’re talking about reinventing the moon for humans. Does this also mean that we will see regular people like myself traveling to the moon in the future — not only billionaires?

Naveen: Yes, of course. Think about the word honeymoon. Instead of going to Paris for a week, why not give your new husband or wife an actual honeymoon?

The moon has always had romantic connotations, and who knows if we’re not also going to disrupt the whole diamond industry with Moon Express. I mean, who would want something so boring as a diamond when you can give your wife an actual and beautiful rock from the moon?

I think in Scandinavia, where I was born and raised, this sounds fascinating on one side but also overwhelming. I mean … Going to the moon and creating a business out of it? It sounds like a sci-fi movie rather than something you would ever be able to do as a Dane. Denmark might be a small country, but that is really just an excuse. In today’s world, distance doesn’t exist. There are no geographical boundaries and everyone is available to you if your business idea and business model are good enough.

For example, you and I didn’t know each other just 1 month ago, and now we’re Skyping and emailing about entrepreneurship, innovation, and disruption. So the world has gotten so small, and this makes it even more meaningful to think big.

Jonathan: I’m very curious about how we can train young people to become entrepreneurs like we are. Some people in my home country claim that the education system is broken. Do you agree?

Naveen: No, I don’t actually. The education system works precisely as it was designed to work. The problem is that the world has changed so drastically, but the way we educate people hasn’t. Our education system was developed for an industrial era, when we could teach certain skills to our children and they would be able to use these skills for the rest of their lives, working productively in an industry. We are now living in a fast-paced technological era when every skill that we teach our children becomes obsolete in 10–15 years due to exponentially growing technological advances. Meanwhile, new categories of jobs are being created because of these technological advances. It’s hard to imagine that half the jobs that exist today didn’t exist 25 years ago.

So our education system today uses the mass production – style manufacturing process of standardization. We are using the same process to teach our kids today, grouping them by their date of manufacturing (i.e., age). Once a year, we use standardized testing to see if they are ready to move to the next grade of an education-advanced assembly line. How do we then rethink this?

Rethinking education starts with embracing our individuality. Our life experiences are very different from one another, and yet we seem to think every one of us can learn the same way. Some of us learn experientially, while others are more attracted to logical or conceptual learning. Why are we limiting ourselves to one format or curriculum when we know that each individual is going to learn differently? Further, why are we advancing children to the next level, or grade, on an annual basis, as opposed to when each is ready?

Just think of the opportunities we can unlock by making education as addictive as a video game. This type of experiential, addictive learning improves decision-making skills and increases the processing speed and spatial skills of the brain.

Jonathan: You’re a frontrunner in the moon race, but I understand that you and your team are also trying to disrupt things within the health industry.

Naveen: You’re talking about my company Viome, which by the way is another example of an industry that I knew absolutely nothing about before I started working in it. When we started Viome, the most important thing when founding the team was not skills but trust. This is also one of the key findings that I would like to pass on to other entrepreneurs: the importance of hiring great and skilled people that you really trust and like. Those are the two keywords.

In Viome, we’re curious about why people get sick and how we can control this in the future. What we have discovered is that genetics plays a very small role in our complex human body. Even identical twins can turn out very differently, and when we give people the same kind of drugs, they work differently on the individual.

At Viome, we believe that this is due to the fact that our body is in fact only 10% human and 90% micro bacteria. Our body is in this sense a climate, and while there are only 20,000 genes in our human DNA, there are 10 million genes in our gut. We need to understand this complexity better.

Historically, we have believed that the causes of Parkinson’s, depression, and so on are primarily neurological or originate in the brain, but recent research indicates that depression’s root cause may be directly related to bacteria found in the gut. Doctors and nutritionists have always known there is a connection between the brain and the gut, but we understand the gut better now, and it seems like the gut has a mind of its own called the enteric nervous system.

If we’re right about these assumptions, and if we manage to crack the code, Viome has the potential to profoundly impact the medical field and be a major step forward in effectively treating and possibly curing people plagued by depression, Parkinson’s, and other diseases. While changing a person’s bacteria is still a stretch for doctors, it is easier and more straightforward than trying to change an individual’s genes.

Jonathan: Last question to you, Naveen: Going to the moon and solving life-threatening diseases: is this big money or big impact for you?

Naveen: It’s both. They are not each other’s opposites but should instead be closely linked. The billionaires of the future are the people who manage to solve problems for billions. And at the end of the day, everyone reading this article could become one of them. However, money shouldn’t be your key motivating factor. To find your true passion, instead, ask yourself the following questions:

What if I had billions of dollars and everything that I wanted in life? What would I do then?

Find your answer and follow it!

About the Author

Jonathan Low

This article was done by the Danish serial entrepreneur Jonathan Low. Low is based in Scandinavia but has traveled the world interviewing and talking to some of the leading entrepreneurs and innovators on the planet. The article is part of this journey.

Jonathan Low is the founder of 5 tech-companies and the author of two #1 bestsellers about entrepreneurship and marketing. He is also a public speaker at events in both Europe and the US.

Currently, he is the co-founder and CEO of JumpStory transforming the image industry online. JumpStory has experienced massive growth during the last year and has expanded from nothing to customers in more than 135 countries. Major media like Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, The Next Web, etc. have named JumpStory Netflix of images.

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