INTERVIEW: Neal Dempsey, Bay Partner - Innovation Equals Risk-Taking

2Neal Dempsey, Managing General Partner at Bay Partners and keynote speaker at SoftKinetic's DepthSense Workshop, shares his insights into successful innovation.

You're well known across Silicon Valley for your significant success as a venture capitalist, but also for your intense passion around mentoring entrepreneurs. How can that entrepreneur spirit benefit anyone, regardless of the work they do?

Neal Dempsey: Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. They often take calculated risks, so they may not as crazy as it may seem, but they do embrace the unknown. No matter what you do in your career, you can have an entrepreneurial spirit as long as you think differently and are constantly trying new things. Skilled developers especially embody the entrepreneurial spirit in their day-to-day jobs. They test an idea, fail often, learn what worked and what didn’t, and they try again. That’s exactly what entrepreneurs do. Beyond testing products, think about how else you can use your innovative experience to benefit yourself and your organization.

Q. What are some of the challenges developers face in today's highly competitive, ever-changing technology landscape? How can they be innovative and successful, while still taking risks?
Neal Dempsey: The biggest challenge developers face, as I’ve seen it, is choosing the right future. Technology is changing so fast. Developers have to think quickly and choose where to invest their time and efforts based on product roadmaps and priorities as well as the company’s vision. The good news is, that’s the reason Silicon Valley exists – we’re betting on constant change. In this fast-paced environment, “aha” moments occur daily. The challenge is to make smart mistakes so you can find the most useable product and strategy for the future.
When it comes to innovation and risk-taking, both are natural outcomes of the developer community. Developers are always taking risks so they can bring innovative products to the market. Sometimes they take calculated risks, but sometimes they take a risk that is beyond belief. The world has changed in unimaginable ways in the past 50 years because of the risks engineers and developers have taken to bring about big visions. Look at autonomous cars or virtual reality technology. It’s just incredible that technology has advanced to where cars can navigate the roads by themselves. Or we can put on a pair of glasses and experience a concert or a game from the vantage point of your favorite player. Or a doctor can perform an operation remotely. Innovation equals risk-taking, but the pay-off is truly life-changing.

Q. How can you understand the difference between when something isn't working and when you just need to try harder?
Neal Dempsey:  As a VC, that’s my primary job. Typically, we VCs tend to keep things alive longer than we should. Sometimes the ideas are strong and valid, but the team can’t seem to execute. Sometimes, the idea isn’t feasible and we waste a lot of time and energy on it because we like the team and we think they can evolve it to something market-worthy.
If you’re struggling with a problem, first, get lots of input from people with different perspectives and expertise. If you can’t see a clear way to pivot and make it work after getting good input and feedback, shut it down. Sometimes ideas are just ahead of their time because the hardware requirements aren’t there yet or the software isn’t there yet or the market isn’t ready yet. Put the problem aside and you might have a lightbulb later on how to use the product, or the market may catch up. It’s always hard to put away a good idea, but sometimes you have to do it so you can move forward.

You've seen a lot of companies - and even entire industries - come and go over the course of your career. What is the secret to longevity?
Neal Dempsey: 
If you want longevity, you have to keep reinventing yourself. Winners never rest on their laurels. As a company gets bigger, they often lose the ability to adjust to market changes quickly and re-create themselves. That’s the reason VCs like me are in business. Sometimes, big companies can’t get out of their own way. They get complacent. Entrepreneurs find the niches that aren’t being filled by the big companies. But the companies that can keep evolving and innovating, will have the greatest longevity.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned over the years about finding success?
Neal Dempsey: The most important lesson I’ve learned if you want to be successful is learn to listen. Listen to your customers. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your direct reports. Listen to your competitors. Listen to your bosses. If you’re not listening, you can’t stay relevant. If you’re not looking outside your own lenses, you’re missing a very big picture and someone else will push you out of the way. You can have a great idea, a great mind and the best team. But if you don’t listen, you can’t be successful.

What is the one piece of advice you would share with technology innovators and developers?
Neal Dempsey: Keep moving – literally and figuratively. If you don’t get a fresh perspective, you will lose your enthusiasm and that’s how people and products die. To stay alive, keep things fresh. To keep things fresh, don’t be afraid to fail, and by fail, I mean fail big. Have a product completely flop. Fail in an embarrassing way. You’ll learn some of your most valuable lessons about priorities and longevity when you fail big. Embrace failure and all its messiness because it is a great teacher. Keep moving, even if you fall down a hole. Crawl back out of it and share the lessons learned with others. Life is better when you’re fully engaged, so keep moving and remember to give back along the way.