The difference between tech’s most talented and the rest with Josh Elman

Josh Elman has figured out what separates the most talented people from the challengers.

He was an early employee at LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and held senior product roles at each. He helped drive LinkedIn’s user base from 250,000 to 3 million and launched that handy way to set your Spotify account up through Facebook. Put simply, he’s the “product manager’s product manager”.

He’s learned the importance of working to have the media on your side with Twitter, user growth with LinkedIn and moving from a product company to a platform company with Facebook.

One thing he’s learned with all three is that the best in tech take “deliberate action”.

“Successful people don’t just do things because they hope they’ll work. They don’t just do things randomly because they’ve heard it recommended in a book. They don’t just wait until they have enough data to take an action. They wait until they have enough gut instinct and as much information to be very deliberate about what they do,” says Josh.

He says that the key to this kind of approach is constantly looking back at past decisions and letting them inform future ones. If an outcome wasn’t as good as expected, analyse it to truly understand it, and figure out how this failure can lead to success further down the road. It’s what differentiates tech’s highest achievers from the merely successful, he says.

“If you send me a deck and it comes up as an attachment, I’ll have to click on it and download it – I don’t normally have the time do that”: Josh at Web Summit 2014

“Man, this is much earlier than I thought”

Josh made the jump from product to investing after he left Twitter. He had already been thinking about making the move after he realised that he struggled somewhat with helping companies scale after their initial early growth stage.

He’d gotten a chance to make major contributions to three of the world’s most used social networks when they were in their infancies. Although he thought he could contribute to new companies as an investor, he was forced to move quicker than expected.

When Jack Dorsey returned to Twitter in 2011 after a brief exile, it was decided that Josh, despite having grown the network’s usership to over 100 million, would be let go along with three other senior product managers.

“I struggled a little bit. At that point I thought, ‘Man, this is much earlier than I thought. But maybe it’s time to go give investing a shot,’” says Josh.

He’s now investing at Greylock Partners. He says that he’s always tried to play the long game with his career and keep his eyes on what was coming around the corner. For founders, it can be tough to recognise that life goes on after your current startup.

“It’s hard to realise that when you’re in the middle of it. There’s nothing else you can do but try to believe in what you’re doing. What do you do when you start to realise that the company you’ve built might not turn out the way you’d hoped it would? What do you do then?” says Josh.

He says that he’s seen friends decide to sell companies they’ve founded later go on to become huge executives at major companies. Others have had to wind a company down before founding another that has a huge exit.

“When you go through those really tough times, you can’t think, ‘If I don’t make this one work, my life is over’. But that advice from other people saying, ‘Don’t worry about it! Long game!’ just doesn’t help,” says Josh.

eoghan-joshelman-blog1Josh shares Web Summit Centre Stage with BoxGroup Managing Partner, David Tisch

The excitement and the confusion

He can remember his first day in the Greylock office, feeling both excited and confused about venture capital. It was something new. His first week was taken up with meetings old friends who had made similar moves; friends from whom he could pick up some tips.

He was allowed figure things out as he worked and adjust to his new career and was promoted to Partner in 2013. He says that he was lucky to have known the Greylock team for some time before he started.

Josh is keen to talk up the importance of luck and has said that “there is always a lot of luck to being successful”. All it takes is a for couple of small things to go your way, for you luck to take off, and “you’re in this incredible position. You can’t always predict these things,” says Josh.

“A crazy balance between imagination and creativity and pragmatism”

Investor or not, Josh is still a product guy. When it comes to learning more about product and social networks, he’s reluctant to make a clear distinction between his product management past and investment future. While his time at the three social giants was spent on the inside of the industry, the move to venture capital hasn’t necessarily put him on the outside.

“I like to think that when I’m at Greylock, I’m somewhere in between the inside and outside. I’m on the board of a number of companies, talking to the CEO or key team members often enough that I have a good insight into what’s going on. But I learned a lot more sitting in the product seats I sat in,” says Josh.

He currently sits on the board of Meerkat, Jelly and Medium. During meetings, talk about metrics and financials is kept to a minimum.

“We get into the product details and how they think about user growth and onboarding. Given the fact that I’ve spent time doing that at different companies, I can have a conversation on a different level than people who haven’t done that before,” says Josh.

When asked he really stops to think about what he thinks is the best designed product of the 21st century. In the end he goes for a “perfect little white device” that allowed you carry all your music around in your pocket. He says that to build something as perfect and generation-shaping as the iPod, you need to have a very particular approach.

“You have to have this crazy balance between imagination and creativity and pragmatism. Very few people can operate really effectively at that intersection,” he says.

He says that people who are too creative will get upset when their work doesn’t turn out perfect. Those who are too pragmatic people will wonder whether they could cut costs here and there or get hung up on minor details.

“When you can see all these tensions come up, you have to be ruthless enough to say, ‘This is enough for us to deliver.’ You have to be able to recognise that your product gives a moment of magic, but not a perfect magical experience, because that can’t ever really be delivered,” says Josh.

Just remember that when those tensions come up or things don’t look the way you thought they would, be deliberate about whatever you do.

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