CalSouthern MBA learner Christian Hessler is an extraordinary man, in the term's most literal sense. The founder and CEO of user-authentication company LiveEnsure, he also mans the helm of ThereHear, a crowd-sourced API for maps, games and social networks. He has held executive positions with technology titans CA Technologies and Sun Microsystems. He's a business leader, tech visionary, lecturer, serial entrepreneur and futurist. Oh, and a film producer, screenwriter, musician and composer.
A conversation with Hessler tends to cover a fair amount of ground—and stay with you awhile. As Exhibit A, we present the following discussion, in which he riffs on many of his favorite topics: business and entrepreneurship, learning and education, Silicon Valley culture, innovation, mentorship and creativity. He even offers a few pragmatic success tips for fellow CalSouthern learners.
You've had a long and successful career in technology, but you originally studied English and music at Vanderbilt. When and why did your interests shift from the arts to technology? Was it as abrupt a shift as it seems?
In my mind, it's all the same stuff. Read the seminal Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Hofstadter for a fascinating technical explanation of why they are essentially the same thing.
My studies at Vanderbilt gave me a very well-rounded grounding in liberal arts, sciences, languages, psychology, history, etc. (My graduate work encompassed technology, arts and business, in that order.) Basically, I learned how to learn, a skill that has served me throughout a life where the only constant has been change and which has enabled me to learn new things at every stage of my life. The second critical skill I learned was how to deal with people. If you master learning how to learn and dealing with people, virtually every career is at your fingertips.
I know many programmers and entrepreneurs who are also musicians. There's something about those sides of the brain that click together; most people I meet in the tech or innovation space are also creative in some other aspect of their lives. Creativity feeds the innovation side of things, such as problem solving, understanding the beauty and elegance of solutions and your emotional IQ. Steve Jobs cited college calligraphy courses as a great influence on his sense of style, design and beauty, and we all know how that all gloriously ended up.
For me, music serves my creative side. The technology and start-up stuff fuel the innovation and entrepreneurial side. Success is all about elegant orchestration and good balance, whether you are talking bagels, bricks, software or sonatas.
Your career in technology is long and varied, and worthy of an article in and of itself. Can you summarize it for us here?
I started out after undergrad as a museum curator in the arts, humanities and education. From there, I did a lot of early tech work related to events, multimedia and galleries. Then I went back to grad school and, in the '90s, starting working for CitySearch, one of the original online social media/digital content sites. That was sold to TicketMaster and USA Networks, but the tech bug (and paycheck) had bitten, so I moved on to healthcare technology, then banking, then enterprise and finally to Computer Associates and Sun Microsystems, two giants in the tech area.
Armed with that experience and a few more degrees, I left traditional employment in 2005 to start my own companies, in the immediate aftermath of the bursting of the dot com bubble—and with a new baby. I left the port and headed into the perfect storm, but never looked back.
Please tell us a bit about your current ventures.
LiveEnsure is a global security solution for cloud, web, mobile, games, apps and commerce that authenticates users through a patented mathematical triangulation of their context, rather than through the storage, transmission or exposure of their credentials. It takes the place of those horrible passwords, SMS or PIN numbers, keychain tokens and the “what's your mother's maiden name” questions.
We launched in 2013, landed some patents, a government research and development contract and lots of industry press. We are now live in more than 80 countries on iOS, Android and Windows, and work with major mobile, automotive, social media, cloud storage, banking and gaming partners and customers around the world. It's a very exciting and critical time to be in user authentication, as evidenced by the recent hacks and the introduction of fingerprint readers and other biometrics solutions.
I am also working on some other projects, including ThereHear, a crowd-sourced audio API for web, mobile, apps, maps and games. It allows you to “hear” the actual place you digitally go to in certain maps or apps you visit online. With ThereHear, the source audio for these real locations is provided and geotagged by real people who use their mobile device to feed (record) the audio and send it to the cloud. There, it will be scrubbed for privacy/decency, and then layered and mixed for use by others. The developer API would then be available for anyone to use to enhance their app, content or mobile experience with a rich, accurate and interactive audio layer. It's like a real-time Twitter feed, but for sound.
There are those who might be surprised to learn that a successful serial entrepreneur and CEO would decide to return to school to pursue his MBA. What was your motivation?
Despite over 20 years of experience in technology, media and business, I never received a formal education in business principles from a dispassionate perspective. My business learning was JIT (just-in-time) OJT (on-the-job training). An MBA at this stage in my life helps me study other business cases, companies and ideas that are not front-and-center to my daily work demands.
Having that alternative view of accounting, ethics, marketing, economics and other topics in a flexible academic environment is perfect for my career right now, as I work with customers, investors, partners, governments and international markets, each with their own challenges and experiences. The MBA courses I've taken have mirrored the cycles of the business I was experiencing as I took them, from intense ethical decisions about mergers and acquisitions to marketing and accounting challenges for new products, new shareholders and new corporate structures. It's amazing how things have lined up.
The MBA courses are incredible relevant and frankly, I would not have fully appreciated most of this material earlier in life. I like to constantly learn and the “younger me” would not have appreciated this information on a level that the “older me” now does. I'm not knocking doing an MBA right out of undergrad; that just wasn't for me.
There's a perception that some leaders within the tech industry may not value or embrace a formal business education as much as other sectors might. It's more about developing the technology, and using fresh, disruptive thinking to make your own way. Is that a total misconception?
While the perception is definitely there, the underlying notion is total nonsense. Disruption is overrated. Garage start-ups are frequently just hype. Most of the heavy hitters in Silicon Valley have MBAs on staff, and the ones that don't eventually hire the ones that do. At some point, your so-called disruptive idea has to find a market and make money. And getting users is not the same as getting customers. My advice for budding tech entrepreneurs is to try to get an engineering degree, an MBA and a law degree, if you have the means and the time. Or at least read up on those subjects very heavily. I'm two for three so far.
A lot of entrepreneurship is do it yourself. As a proper start-up, you spend more time working on business and legal things (patents, contracts, shareholders, boards) than with code or creativity. Yes, you need the inspiration and tech skills, but without business sense, you are essentially running a charity unless and until you get really lucky.
Mark Cuban was recently interviewed talking about the new tech bubble based on the nonsensical app markets and cloud or mobile adware services. He thinks they may “out-crash” the 2000s fall because of the dearth of good business sense in those circles. Sound business, value, market and customer realities still apply, regardless of the platform or venue.
What was it about CalSouthern and its MBA program that appealed to you?
I found the program through extensive research of executive MBAs. My schedule and budget were tight, but more importantly, I needed extreme flexibility. When duty calls, I can't be stuck in an online webinar from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, for example. I was looking for a flexible, customizable, accredited, low-cost, high-value degree.
What would you say to the cynic who assumes that online learning represents an easy path to a degree or a less effective learning methodology vis-à-vis traditional, brick-and-mortar education?
Frankly, that is rubbish. Everyone will learn this way in the coming era, period. Even hands-on training will be done through Oculus Rift, 3D printing, mobile technology and digital social interaction, in my opinion. I've taken Harvard courses that met inside Second Life. I recently heard a lecture by the legendary futurist Dr. Michio Kaku along these lines.
The CalSouthern MBA coursework is very challenging, the topics are relevant and applicable, and the online learning process is fully in line with this revolution and conducive to understanding the material and applying it without artificial constraints and stress.
Basically, it is how real world works. I don't memorize things in business, I have to search out and discover the things I don't know. I don't make decisions alone; I share them with my team and come up with best ideas. Maybe I learn best from midnight until 2:00 a.m. on seat 4C on Virgin America, not from 7:00 to 9:00 sitting in a campus lecture hall. Just like life, you are always learning, all the time, everywhere. CalSouthern provides exactly the right model for today's higher-education needs, budgets and modes.
You are doing extraordinarily well in your program; do you have any success tips to share with others?
The secret is to blend the learning with what you are doing in life at the time. Make it personal. Most successful songwriters, poets or screenwriters urge you to “write what you know.” So, study what you know. Apply the principles to your life and it will make more sense and have more value.
The beauty of CalSouthern is you can create your own MBA path beyond the core foundational classes, bringing into the mix what you need to know and want to know about business. Everyone can benefit from a solid business education as it touches every aspect of our lives, both as creators and consumers in the marketplace.
More practically, I have a pretty simple formula. I read the material first, then re-read and outline it, putting concepts into my own words. Then I tackle the forum, followed by the questions and, finally, the case studies and papers. This way, the information gets three chances to find its way into my brain, each with appropriately increasing degrees of detail and confidence. By the time I am penning the final APA-formatted papers, I feel like I am teaching myself the material and that helps immensely with both understanding and retention.
Where do you see yourself five or ten years down the road? Are there any future project ideas you can share?
I'm simply trying to learn as I go, make a difference, create value and leave more than I found. Five to ten years down the road, I hope to still be creating new things and finding customers and audiences who get value from them. But more importantly, I plan to be at a level where I can spend more time sharing my experiences and knowledge with my children and their peers.
It seems that mentoring fell out of favor somewhat in the 20th century. However, I think it's critical. Most successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have forged and exploited great mentoring relationships to learn the things not found in books or online. In the future, I hope to be in a position to do more of that and maybe spare others from the mistakes I've made.
I guess that brings this conversation full circle. The CalSouthern program is about sharing applied knowledge and information, not just stale or theoretical lessons meant for institutionalization. An MBA in 2015 is about dynamic execution, not just a foundational education. That is what led me to this program and I hope to be successful at completing it and eventually applying and sharing what I've learned with others.