Dr. Tina Seelig on entrepreneurship, failure résumés, and the cost of dreaming small
For most, there's no such thing as a conventional entrepreneurial journey: And Tina Seelig is no exception. From working in neuroscience, to writing seventeen books, to launching her own small business ventures, Tina has done it all. And today, as a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering, she's teaching her students about one very important topic: What she wish she knew on her own business journey.
Dr. Tina Seelig
Dr. Tina Seelig is a professor, consultant, entrepreneur, and author of 17 books, including ‘What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20’. She has led several fellowship programs at the Stanford School of Engineering focused on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
She is the recipient of the Gordon Prize from the National Academy of Engineering, the Olympus Innovation Award, and the Silicon Valley Visionary Award.
An inspiring founder and professor shares what she wishes she knew when building her first business.
Dr. Tina Seelig’s career has been as multifaceted as it is impressive. After graduating from Stanford with a PhD in Neuroscience in 1985, she decided not stay in a research lab for long. Instead, she launched an even bolder experiment: founding her first business following the rise of the Internet. Since then, Tina has founded multiple companies, become a beloved member of Stanford faculty, and written a whopping 17 best-selling books—spanning a variety of genres from children’s literature to personal development to even a genre-defying chemistry-meets-cookbook. And she accomplished all of this while raising a family. One of Tina’s most successful books, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, distills the wisdom Tina can impart on readers, especially young entrepreneurs, as they embark on their own careers.
We sat down with her and she shared some of her most hard-won wisdom, including how to use an inch of professional opportunity to gain a mile, why goals can sometimes harden into limitations, and why, along with capturing your successes, you should also create a “failure résumé.”
After nearly a decade in tech entrepreneurship, Tina wanted to return to a more conventional job. But she was less than impressed with the options she was presented with. “When I read the description for the job I ultimately took,” she remembers, “I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash because it was such a junior position.” She thought to herself, “You know, I have a PhD, I’ve been in industry, I’ve started companies. Why would I take this junior position? But the next day I pulled it out of the trash and I said, you know, there’s something in here.”
The experience prompted Tina to coin a saying: “You don’t get a job, you get the keys to the building.” After accepting the role in 1999, Tina kept volunteering to take on more and more projects and responsibilities. “I kept saying, “Put me in, boss!’” she recalls. She ultimately learned that a job doesn’t have to be confined to its job description. Rather, once you get access to the inner workings of a company, you will often find unexpected opportunities to identify problems, pitch solutions, and add value. This is how Tina recommends leveraging a less-than-ideal role and turning it into a dream position.
That more junior role evolved into exactly what she was looking for, and Tina has been at Stanford ever since accepting that position back in 1999. A full 23 years later, she now serves as the Executive Director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program at Stanford University.
Amongst her students at Stanford, Tina is notorious for assigning one unconventional project: Creating a failure résumé. A failure résumé, much like its traditional counterpart, is an itemized document outlining professional experiences and endeavors—only, it focuses on the ones that didn’t quite go according to plan. But the most important part is to mine each of those experiences for insights. (We at Bessmer keep an Anti Portfolio of investment opportunities we missed for this very reason.) “The point of doing a failure résumé of all your personal, professional, and academic failures is to then ask yourself, ‘Okay, what am I gonna do differently next time?’”
“It’s so interesting how this idea is both so sticky and so provocative, but also a little scary for people,” remarks Tina. “We’re so used to looking at life through the lens of all the successes, and cherry-picking all of the moments we want to highlight for others to see. But there’s a flipside to that because the road to success is always littered with, well, failures!”
Tina hopes the experience of creating a failure résumé prompts students to rethink our current cultural judgments around so-called “failure.” “I don’t quite know why we as a species look at failures of adults when they’re doing complicated things that no one has done before with such disdain,” she says. “We should have another word for ‘failure’ with less negative connotations because it is an essential part of eventually achieving success. When you’re a baby learning to walk, you’re going to stumble so many times in so many different ways. But if you fall down the first time you walk and you go ‘forget it, I can’t do that,’ then you’re gonna be crawling the rest of your life.”
During Tina’s entrepreneurial years, she learned something surprising: The goal she initially set wasn’t actually helping her grow her business. In fact, it was inhibiting it.
“I had set a very specific goal for myself,” she says. “I wanted to prove that I could start a business and sell it in two years. And guess what? That’s exactly what I did. But that’s actually a problem in disguise. Because if I’d had a different objective I could have taken it much further.”
Tina concedes that had she set out to build a global venture, she would’ve found her way around obstacles that were beginning to emerge in her business. “The confining goal I’d set two years ago meant that when I hit those barriers, I was much more willing to sell than to push through to solve the problem,” she says. “So I tell my students this all the time: The goal you set for yourself becomes on some level a limitation.”
It took Tina many years to realize this. “It hit me when I was immersed in a world of teaching entrepreneurship. I realized that those people who were really successful entrepreneurs set much bigger objectives for themselves. Doing this unlocked the grit they needed to tackle truly huge problems.”
Ultimately, Tina points to the power of having an unwavering and ambitious vision to keep you motivated on your journey as a founder. “The truth is, when you’re starting a company, every day is a near death experience—in every aspect of the business. It might be personnel issues, technical issues, financing issues, market issues,” she says. “Something is going to try to come and bite you every single day. You have to have the right mindset or else you’re not gonna be able to make it through.”
Tina Seelig: Honestly, when you're scaling a company, every day is a near death experience in every aspect of the business. And unless you have a mindset that you see a vision that is way down in front of you, you're not going to be able to make it through and get to the other side of that challenge.
Talia Goldberg: Welcome to Wish I Knew, the show about the revelatory aha moments that founders, CEOs and leaders discover along their business journeys and why taking risks leads to growth. I'm your host, Talia Goldberg. And on today's episode, I'm going to start off by playing a sound from decades ago that most people, myself included, consider iconic. That's the sound of a dial up modem, a sound that you really couldn't escape in the '90s when you were logging into a computer to surf the web. Or in my case, I would log into AIM chat rooms
The invention of the web by scientist Tim Berners-Lee brought in a new era of information sharing and creation. And being a creator in the early '90s with the invention of the dotcom was a doorway to a world of possibilities. And that was no exception for our guest on today's episode, Tina Seelig. Tina graduated Stanford University Medical School in 1985 with a PhD in neuroscience, but instead of staying holed up in the research lab, she decided to venture out on her own and launched her first business in the early '90s following the rise of the internet. Since then, Tina's gone on to start her own companies, all while starting a family and writing multiple best selling books, 17 to be exact. One of these books, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, is all about the wisdom that Tina can impart on readers, especially on young entrepreneurs that are embarking on their own careers.
But don't just take my word for it. I'm going to let Tina tell you her own story of grit and of courage and what she wished she knew throughout the last 30 years of her career. Above all, Tina's story is one of persistence. And persistence is one of my all-time favorite qualities in an entrepreneur. It's the story about exploration, about finding her own true calling and the many twists and turns along the way that could have resulted in a dead end. We're going to talk to Tina today from her home in the Bay Area. And the next voice that you'll hear is my wonderful colleague and my Partner at Bessemer, Tess Hatch. Tess started out as Tina's student at Stanford. And then she became a mentee, then a collaborator, a co-teacher, and now, a friend
Tess Hatch: You have this phrase that I love, "When you start a job, you get the keys to the building." What inspired you to join the faculty at Stanford and teach innovation, and creativity, and entrepreneurship?
Tina Seelig: Well, I certainly did not start as a faculty member at Stanford. I came in, in the most junior role you could even imagine. And in fact, when I read the job description for the job I ultimately took, I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash, because it was such a junior position.
Talia Goldberg: The position was to be Stanford's Assistant Director.
Tina Seelig: And I thought, "I have a PhD. I've been in industry. I've started companies. Why would I take this junior position?" But the next day, I pulled it out of the trash and I said, "There's something in here." I came in at a really junior position, but I embodied this idea that you don't get a job, you get the keys to the building. And I just kept volunteering for more things, "Put me in. Put me in boss," and until finally, I had been given so many opportunities and had done a good enough job that I was honored to be made a official faculty member.
Talia Goldberg: Tina took a risk in accepting this junior position at Stanford, something that you'll come to learn is just a part of her DNA.
Tina Seelig: I am really, really interested in risk taking, especially risk taking around, how do you make calculated risks to end up achieving what you're hoping to in the long term? And I thought about it a lot over the years. And realized that people so often think that risk taking is binary, that you're either a risk taker or you're not. But I've realized that risk taking is much more nuanced. There are social risks, and financial risks, and emotional risks, and ethical risks, that I realized that in the long term, I could hopefully, turn it into something that was exactly what I was looking for.
Talia Goldberg: So as you can hear in Tina's voice, that more junior role did become exactly what she was looking for. And she's been at Stanford ever since accepting that position in '99.
Tess Hatch: So we'll get back to the 23 years at Stanford, but I'd love to rewind before that, because another risk you took, you were an entrepreneur. You had your own entrepreneurial journey creating Book Browser. Tell us about this idea. Where did it come from? And what did you learn from this experience?
Tina Seelig: So that feels like such a long time ago, but it really was quite an interesting risk that I took then. Let me go back a little bit further. I did my PhD in neuroscience. And I realized that I understood in great depth what was happening in my lab, but not in my kitchen. And so I started making a list of all the things I didn't understand about what was going on that I was cooking. And it ultimately turned into a book, which actually was on the chemistry of cooking called the Epicurean Laboratory.
Talia Goldberg: When the Epicurean Laboratory was published in 1991, Tina found that most bookstores were just placing her book in the cookbook section. But that just didn't feel right. It was a book about science.
Tina Seelig: I said, "There's got to be a better way to market books." And so, having an entrepreneurial spirit, I decided to look at that problem as an opportunity. And so I started Book Browser. And at that time, it was before Amazon, before the web existed. And it was a kiosk-based system for bookstores to help match books with buyers. So you could look at books by title, by author, by subject. The way it worked is that publishers paid per title, per book, per month to have their books listed in the system. And they were all very enthusiastic. This was a great way for them to promote the books that were new, but also the books on their back list. And so it did really well. And I was delighted that I sold it a couple years after I founded it.
Tess Hatch: You make it seem all dandy. You make it seem all up and to the right. Were there any surprises?
Tina Seelig: Oh my gosh. You can imagine, I had no idea how to build this product. I was a neuroscientist. I didn't know how to build anything in software. In fact, I didn't even know the word database. I mean, I didn't even know what that meant. So every single day was filled with another problem that needed to get solved. For example, we were talking about the days when this is for the internet. I now have these kiosks all over in all of these stores. How do you update them? You literally had to figure out, how did I make CDs? How did I end up getting the people at the stores, who would update the information? It was super complicated. And so the initial idea seemed really feasible until you started looking at the details.
Talia Goldberg: As Tina was navigating the growth of Book Browser, she learned something important, a lesson that will influence almost every single pivotal moment in this episode. The goal that she initially set out to grow her business wasn't actually helping. It was hurting.
Tina Seelig: I had set a goal for myself. I wanted to prove that I could start a business and sell it in two years. And guess what? That's exactly what I did. But that's actually a problem in disguise, because you could look at that as a success that I sold it in two years. But had I had a different objective, had I said, "I want to build this into a global venture," I would've found my way around those problems. The fact that I had these problems and I'd set a goal of two years meant that when I hit those barriers, I was much more willing to sell than to push through the barriers to solve the problem. So I tell my students this all the time, the goal you set for yourself becomes on some level a limitation.
Tess Hatch: When did you realize selling your company in two years was a problem in disguise?
Tina Seelig: I think it was a long time later. I think it was when I was then in the world of teaching entrepreneurship and realizing that those people who were really successful entrepreneurs set much bigger objectives for themselves, which allowed them to have the grit that was required to solve the everyday problems. Honestly, when you're starting a company or growing a company, scaling a company, every day is a near death experience in every aspect of the business. It might be personnel issues. It might be technical issues. It might be financing issues. It might be market issues. There is something that's going to try to come and bite you every single day. And unless you have a mindset that you see a vision that is way down in front of you, you're not going to be able to make it through and get to the other side of that challenge.
Talia Goldberg: By 1993, Tina had reached an inflection point.
Tess Hatch: So you sold Book Browser. You have a successful acquisition under your belt. What happened to go back to write it? You went on to write many, many more books.
Tina Seelig: You can look at my career and make it seem as though the whole thing was very well scripted and organized and planned. Or you could look at it as a random walk. It is much more like the latter. I used to change jobs like I change my socks. When I sold the company, I wanted to go back to something that I could really have much more personal control over. And I also at that point, had a young child and I decided to write kids books. I must say, people often think that this challenge of balancing work and family is very, very complicated. And it can be. But there's a secret in there that people don't often tell you. And that is that when you have a primary responsibility for your kids, it also gives you the opportunity to do a lot of experimentation. So that's what I did, knowing though that I was building foundational skills and accomplishments that were going to allow me to then get to the next stage later.
Tess Hatch: What were some of the other experiments you ran to build this foundation?
Tina Seelig: After I was writing these science books, I realized that kids needed much more guidance on how to do science. So I started a website called the Super Science Site. This was at the early, early stages of the web, where you could go on and build websites. And it was all sorts of tools for how to do your own experiments. I would post questions each day. So I might post a question such as, what flavor ice cream is your favorite? And then show how you could collect the data and organize it and give the results. The thing that's really funny that happened here, I had my email address on the site and so kids started emailing me. And they kept emailing me and emailing me. And I was getting all of this interaction with people. And they wanted me to essentially, help them with their science homework. And I got overwhelmed.
But instead of looking at it as a feature like, "Oh my gosh, I have all this engagement. Let me figure out how to engage with all these people," I got overwhelmed and thought, "I can't respond to all of these emails from all of these kids from all over the world."
Talia Goldberg: That panic led to another breaking point. The Super Science Site was supposed to be a one-way tutorial, not a help center for science homework. So once again, Tina found herself at a crossroad. Coming up, what happens when entrepreneurs panic and shut down? And what does Tina do while on the precipice of giving up and folding her own venture? That, after the break. Tina had overwhelming demand for her business venture, the Super Science Site. But in 1994, as its popularity grew and the demand rose, panic was setting in. And with no clear path to follow, Tina made a very difficult decision.
Tina Seelig: I just panicked and shut it down. I think this was another example where I didn't really take the time to think through, how can I solve this problem? My first instinct then was to quit. Just like with Book Browser, it was a missed opportunity to push forward. I should have stuck it out. And it's something that I have learned as I've gotten older, how to have more grit and more persistence when things get rough. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't ever quit. But there are times in which you should give yourself a pause before quitting to really evaluate the situation and see if that's really what you want to do.
Tess Hatch: So you shut down the site. What's next?
Tina Seelig: One of the things that I was doing during this time is trying lots of things and keeping what worked.
Talia Goldberg: And what Tina found is that writing is what worked. She'd written over a dozen books at this point. But there was one particular book that not only happens to be really relevant to this show, but also leaned into one of her passions, something we heard about earlier, motherhood.
Tess Hatch: So Tina, what was the spark to write your book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20?
Tina Seelig: It's interesting to think back, because I wrote the book initially for my son Josh, when he was on the eve of turning 20. What happened is he was about to go off to college. And I realized here, "This is a pretty sharp kid. He's going to do well academically." But I realized there were all these things I wish had explicitly taught him about what it means and how do you approach making your place in the world? What are the leverage you have? What's the mindset you should have? What are the tools you should develop? And so I started just making a list of all the things I want him to know. And it was just a Word document on my computer. And then I was asked at some point to give a talk to a business leadership group at Stanford. And I thought, "What should I tell them?"
So I went to this list I had put together for my son and I crafted this talk called, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. And after giving it, I ended up getting asked to give it again, and again, and again, and again. And at some point I was giving it to all the cadets at West Point Military Academy. And on the way back on my flight, I said, "You know what? I do need to turn this into a book." And that's when I wrote on that plane, I wrote the book proposal. So I sat down on this flight. It was a super early morning flight. Everybody just got on the plane and shut their eyes and went to sleep. But it was a cross country flight. So at some point we did wake up. And I could have just sat there, put on my headphones and read a book. But I took a risk of introducing myself to the guy sitting next to me.
It turns out he was a publisher. And I was very curious. So I asked a lot of questions. We talked for the whole flight. At some point, I told him I had this book proposal. And he was polite enough to look at it. But he said, "This is not right for us."
Talia Goldberg: Despite the publisher's rejection of her book proposal, Tina made a good enough impression to at least get his digits. She was practicing what she'd learned from Book Browser and from the Super Science Site, do not quit. And after the flight, they continued to talk and they even made plans for him to come visit her class at Stanford.
Tina Seelig: And such a funny story, he got very intrigued by some of the projects that my students were working on. And he thought maybe there was a book in that. Maybe the students wanted to write a book. Now, you can imagine, I was a little bit hurt. He wanted to do a book with the students and not with me, but you know what? I was a good sport. But in that meeting, he brought one of his editors down. And when we were talking over lunch, his editor said to me, "Well, gee, Tina, have you ever thought of writing a book?" And I said, "Funny, you should ask." And I gave him the exact same proposal I had given his boss two years earlier. And he, within two weeks, said, "We want to do this. Here's a contract."
Talia Goldberg: So after many tries, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 was contracted to be written. But it was from her past ventures where she took those wish-I-knew moments and used them to shape her future. That brings us to today, where she teaches creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship at Stanford. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the show, Tess was one of Tina's students.
Tess Hatch: One thing that I remember specifically from taking your classes is your failure resume. Can you share with us what that is?
Tina Seelig: A failure resume is a way to capture all the things that didn't go as you hoped, and then to mine each of those for insights. It's so interesting how this idea is both so sticky and so provocative and a little bit scary for people. We're so used to looking our life through the lens of all the successes, all the things we do that we want to shine and we want everyone to look at. But there's always a flip side to that. The road to success is littered with failures. We really should have another word for it, because when you are a kid and you're learning to walk, and you're learning to talk, and you're learning to ride a bicycle, you're going to have failures. You're going to fall off your bike. You're going to stumble in so many different ways. And that is part of the learning process. That is the thing that's so important.
And if we don't mine those for data and learnings, we're never going to get anywhere. If you fall down the first time you walk and you go, "Forget it, I can't do that," you're going to be crawling the rest of your life. So I don't quite know why we as a species look at failures of adults when they're doing complicated things that maybe no one has done before, and why we look at those failures with such disdain. And so that's what I have my students do, do a failure resume of all their personal, professional, academic failures, disappointments, flub ups, and then to mine them and say, "Okay, what am I going to do differently next time?"
Tess Hatch: I love the learning from it, having a growth mindset of, "Oh, this didn't go according to plan and I'm going to take this opportunity to learn." And as someone who recently looked back on her failure resume from when I took your class, I look back on each one of those and I am shocked, but delighted that those things didn't come to fruition. In grad school, I was interning at a different venture capital firm. And I was hoping it would turn into a full-time opportunity. And that didn't come to fruition. Instead, the day after grad school, I started at a firm called Bessemer Venture Partners. So those failures, what's the new word for it?
Tina Seelig: Data.
Tess Hatch: Data, exactly. Data. Tina, one other exercise was the Professional Happiness Design, PhD. Can you share about that one, too?
Tina Seelig: Right. So one of the things that we crafted for the PhD program was the Professional Happiness Design. It was their PHD that went along with their official PhD. And this is something where you look at where you are now, where you want to go, and how you're going to get there. And the thing that was so interesting is to see how differently people hoped to play out their life. Some people were very career oriented. Some people were really family oriented. Really, that's what they wanted to put first. Some people said, "There's a big problem in the world that I want to tackle." And so by articulating that to yourself and also just sharing that with other people, sets you on a much clearer path to get there.
Tess Hatch: When you were a PhD student and you had done your PHD exercise, what do you think yours would've said?
Tina Seelig: Oh, my gosh! No one has ever asked me that before. I know that I did not want to stay in the lab. I graduated with my PhD in 1985. And back then, we were in the middle of a recession. I saw my colleagues not getting tenure, not getting funding. So the traditional path of staying in the lab and doing science was less attractive than when I started. And I was so fascinated with this new world of biotechnology that was started. Genentech was started just about the same time. It was really exciting to see how the innovations and the discoveries from the lab were making it out into the world. And I really wanted to be part of that. So I believe that at that time, I would've crafted a story about my going to a biotech company, but on the business side and helping to scale those ventures.
Tess Hatch: How often should one do a PHD? Is it every five years? Is it every 10 years?
Tina Seelig: I think we're all different. There's some people who are sort of fire-and-forget missiles. They set a goal for themselves and they look up 10 years, 20 years later and say, "Okay, did I get there?" Other people evaluate their life every week or two. I think it's really important to actually think about that. How often are you going to reevaluate your life and do the course corrections? Sometimes the course corrections could be quite simple. It might be there's a colleague you're not sinking with well, and to think about if you just solved that problem, everything was going to go more smoothly. Theye're also then just really big course corrections like, do I want to move to another place? Do I want to pivot to another industry? And I think it's important to be very clear with yourself about how often you want to actually decide to decide whether you want to do something different.
Tess Hatch: I think this relates so well to companies. And often I make this analogy, let's say it's a rock ahead of us that we're swimming towards. And if you just put your head down and swim to the rock, eventually, after the 30 minutes of swimming, you're going to look up and the rock's going to be a mile to your left or your right. On the other extreme, you could just keep your head up the entire time and swim looking at the rock, but it's going to take you two hours versus the 30 minutes. So what's the time to do the PHD or reevaluate these questions? What's the time to look up and course correct towards the rock, whether it's your company or whether it's your life?
Tina Seelig: Gosh, Tess, that was such a brilliant analogy. And a lot of it has to do with how rough those currents are. If there are no currents, then maybe you just swim that 30 minutes and get to your goal. But if you're in a situation where there are a lot of cross currents, you're going to have to be evaluating much more frequently. So I think there's a blog post in that, my friend. We'll do it together. How about that?
Tess Hatch: Oh, deal! So Tina, I have one last question for you. This is the Wish I Knew Podcast. So we have to end each episode with answering that question for our listeners, as they embark on their own personal, professional, entrepreneurial journeys. Looking back at your time as a professor, as an entrepreneur, as an author, as a mom, what do you wish you knew.
Tina Seelig: Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous. Many people do just enough to get by in situations. This is sort of beaten into us in school, where you're told, "This is what you need to do to pass this course." But in real life, there is no, "This is what you need to do to get an A." There is no top grade. You're not just there to satisfy some specific goals, but to really never miss an opportunity to be fabulous. If you're going to commit to something, do it to the best of your ability and don't give yourself limiting goals. To echo back the story I told earlier about Book Browser, where I limited myself by giving myself some constraints that ended up limiting what I ended up accomplishing. And this is really important. If you don't give yourself those constraints, the sky really is the limit.
Tess Hatch: Tina, thank you so much for being here.
Tina Seelig: You are the best. It is just such a joy. Thank you so, so much for including me.
Talia Goldberg: That's it for today's episode of Wish I Knew. You can find and follow the show anywhere you listen to podcasts or at BVP.com/wishIknew. Special thanks to this week's guest, Tina Seelig, and to Tess Hatch for being a part of today's conversation. Wish I Knew is a podcast by Bessemer Venture Partners. The show was created by our very own Karen Lee and Christine Deakers. I'm your host, Talia Goldberg. Our show is produced by the team at Filia Media. Our lead producer is Molly Getman. Our executive producer is Kait Walsh. We're engineered by Evan Viola. Our theme music is by Terry Divine-King at Audio Network. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.
And remember, failure is just data that you can turn into future success. We'll see you on our next episode.See Less