Tristan at TEDxBrussels; Photo credit:

published 13 May 2015 by Eva Thalhammer 8 minutes 40 seconds to read

"I want to get technology designers to be more thoughtful about their impact on the world"

Tristan Harris cofounded his company in 2011, sold it to Google and today works as a design thinker for the Internet giant. He is a passionate philosopher and one of the keyspeakers at PODIM 2015. To inventures he talked about regret, success, lessons learned on the startup road and what it means to set up a business in your early twenties.


About Tristan Harris
Tristan cofounded the web-glossary service Apture which was acquired by Google in 2011. He is an active entrepreneur, business angel and design thinker. Today, he works as 'product philosopher' at Google and helps to develop the independent design movement Time Will Spent. He graduated in Computer Science form Standford University. Tristan Harris is one of the key speakers at this year’s PODIM conference and will share his expertise on product development and startup design at the event in Maribor. 

inventures: When did you first get in contact with the startup scene? And when and why did you decide that it’s time to found your own company?

Tristan Harris: I was part of a program at Stanford University called the “Mayfield Fellows Program” that connected gifted engineering students to teaching entrepreneurship. Stanford as an institution emphasizes entrepreneurship and changing the world near the top of it’s overall value system, but the Mayfield Fellows program specifically tries to convert engineering students into broader-thinking entrepreneurs. Over the course of the yearlong program, we were paired with venture capitalist mentors from Sand Hill Road (the heart of Silicon Valley’s historic venture capital) and connected to internships at small startups with direct mentorship, usually from the CEO or other high-level founders. I worked with Jimmy Wales at Wikia, a for-profit spinoff of Wikipedia, and learned a lot about online content businesses. It was a profound experience and gave me the confidence and pattern-matching that it was possible to start my own company.

How did you meet your cofounders and coworkers? Is there any recipe for finding people to work with?

I met one of my cofounders in my first year as a freshman at Stanford and convinced him to buy a Mac (laughs). He also turned out to be a Computer Science student (also my major) and we became friends throughout college. I met our other cofounder, another Computer Science student, later through another Mayfield Fellow. I wish I knew a good recipe to find great people to work with. The first thing is to be part of the “movers and shakers” community, and be known for your talents and ways of thinking. I was part of a few groups at Stanford like that, including people who would go on to found many companies people have heard about (including one of my best friends who started Instagram). I think one thing people underestimate is that if you’re passionate about doing big things, and you’ve found that niche community in your area (whether it’s your university, or startup district) then you’re in the right place. Become known for your skills and make it known when you’re trying to start something. Somehow your network will tend to provide the right people.

What should aspiring entrepreneurs consider before launching their business? 

Get clear about what you’re really trying to do, and spend a lot more time thinking strategically about whether you’re going about it the best way.

I have a lot of regrets about the way I approached my last company. I was 22 years old, and as critical thinking as I was, it wasn’t enough. I recommend entrepreneurs be extremely thoughtful about what their motivations really are. Is this about ego? Is this about changing the world? Get clear about what you’re really trying to do, and spend a lot more time thinking strategically about whether you’re going about it the best way. I think people should also immediately study examples of other companies who’ve attempted what you’re trying to do. Lessons learned aren’t random. There’s a lot of wisdom in others’ experience, if you can read more deeply into what the reasons were behind their challenges. For almost anyone who asks me for advice related to my last company, my first advice is to absolutely avoid going down that road at all. It’s hard advice for them to swallow but I like being honest, especially since these choices end up steering years of really talented people’s lives. Working on a company is a hell of a lot of work, it’s worth taking the time to ask the hard questions first.

Can you tell us about your journey towards your current profession? You are often described as a "Product Philosopher“? What does this job description include?

I got really interested in philosophy and existentialism as a senior in college. I loved asking the big questions - “what is the art of living?” “how do we know what’s really ‘good’ for people?” Later I joined a lab at Stanford called the “Persuasive Technology Lab” which applied social psychology and persuasion principles to designing technology applications, to encourage people into forming new habits and behaviors. In the class I became concerned about the ethics of all this persuasion. For the first time in history, a small number of people, mostly young white men living near San Francisco, have influence over the attention and choices of billions of people, through the technology they put in our pockets. Given the real scale of impact these designers have over our lives, those philosophical and ethical concerns become very real, practical questions that we need to answer. We have a Hippocratic Oath for doctors to acknowledge the power they have over patients lives, but we don’t have anything like that for technology designers. I’ve been lucky to focus on these concerns the last two years. 

It seems you are interesed and experienced in different areas of design. In your opinion, what should startup teams pay attention to when setting up a product? How important is the design of a product or even website?

One of the hardest lessons to learn in entrepreneurship is how to actually work on problems in order of biggest risk.

The importance of design really depends on what your goals are. In terms of what’s good for the world, great design is critical. A world that has more empathy for human needs, that creates products and systems that better “fit” the diversity of human needs is a world I want to live in. But from an entrepreneurship perspective, you don’t have infinite time or resources, so spending time on design means not spending time on something else. One of the hardest lessons to learn in entrepreneurship is how to actually work on problems in order of biggest risk. If design isn’t the top concern, then push it off til later. Famously, some businesses like those selling enterprise software don’t have to prioritize design to be successful.

What are your biggest milestones and successes of the past? Is there anything in particular you are proud of having achieved?

It’s small, but when I was 19, I worked for Apple and invented the searchable auto-completing Help feature in Mac OS X, and it’s still shipping on every Mac today, ten years later. It’s hard to work on anything that has longevity in technology, so I’m surprisingly proud of it.

What are your plans for the near future? What the next big goal on your list?

I want to get technology designers to be more thoughtful about their impact on the world, and create an ethical or “Responsible Design” movement. I gave a TEDx talk in Brussels on this recently on how to design a world that helps us spend our time well, instead of just sucking away all our time. I call it designing for “Time Well Spent” instead of just “Time Spent”.

What was the most important lesson learnt on the startup road for you?

Be extremely careful about what you want to work on, you will be stuck working on it for a long time. Also be very thoughtful about who you choose to work with – your cofounders, your investors. I cannot overemphasize this.

You successfully sold your startup to google in 2011. What is the key to creating a successful business and exit it? 

I invest in things that are tackling systemic issues and fundamentally purpose-driven, aiming to do social good.

I’m not sure I would call our acquisition the most incredible success, so I don’t know how much I would suggest people listen to me. My friends have started some of the most well-known companies, from Instagram to AirBnb to Asana. What I’ve also learned is how random success can be. It’s hard to predict what’s going to be a massive success. We started our online publishing company (Apture) about six months before the iPhone launched. If we had known about the iPhone and waited six months, we might have been more successful focusing on the revolution in the first generation of iPhone applications than online publishing. You never know how to time these things.

You are also an active angel investor. What do you offer your teams besides the money?

I invest in things that are tackling systemic issues and fundamentally purpose-driven, aiming to do social good. The company I’m excited about now is ProductBio, which is going to shift billions of dollars from being spent on non-sustainable products to sustainable ones. 

You are one of the keyspeakers of this year’s edition of PODIM. How did you get in contact with the European startup scene?

My previous company’s fiercest competitor was Zemanta, a Slovenian company. After we sold Apture to Google, their founder Andraz Tori and I have become great friends, and he’s involved in putting on the PODIM conference. It helps that Andraz is a really good guy. This is my first time in a while being in the European startup scene, so I look forward to finding out more about it.

Is there anything you regret in your life as an entrepreneur? What would you do different if you would have the chance? 

I regret not trying to work on the biggest most pressing problems, and being more thoughtful about what I would spend critical years of my life focusing on. We have one life on earth. I want to spend it well. Entrepreneurship consumes your time and your relationships, so I can’t emphasize how important it is to choose wisely.

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