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An audience with Alvy Ray Smith : Pixar co-founder visits GridAKL

Most people have more than one string to their bow, you may be able to code in rails as competently as you can speak French. You may be a writer that moonlights as a diver. For Alvy Ray Smith, most know him as “that guy that co-founded Pixar”, although as it turns out his skills and passions extend far beyond this one storyline…

Alvy Ray Smith is an enigmatic figure; a cross between eccentric scientist and loveable santa complete with a texan drawl. Popping into the Grid Hub for a casual convo when in NZ for a speaking tour, Alvy chatted to our resident community keen to meet people like him (technologists, curious folks, creatives, designers) to talk about what matters – future thinking.

Calling on a diverse background that blends academia, creativity and technological know-how with business skills, the conversation was interesting on two levels. The first, the diverse experience, honesty and infectious curiosity of Alvy. The second, the fact the audience reflected what Alvy bought to the table; from the UI designer who credited her artistic career to a paint programme Alvy helped design, to the film-maker keen to talk narrative, devs talking Moores Law and startup owners talking V.C.

Over an hour, we chatted about everything from Xerox turning down colour, to Steve Jobs being both a bully and a hero. Fighting for a venture deal, getting it and then loosing it and what he thinks is the next ‘big’ thing. We will be sharing a full video of the entire session soon, but in the meantime we put together six awesome things that we learnt from Alvy…

1) Getting capital is hard: For anyone at the helm of a startup that they really believe in, take heart; everyone (even Pixar) has been where you are now. Pixar was turned down 30 times for investment before finding Steve Jobs, and it was his stubbornness that allowed Alvy and co to retain him as an investor. When asked from the floor ‘But do you not think that its easier to get investment now?’ Alvy responded – No. The antidote to this? Alvy gave advice many of us would have heard before, clarity, tenacity and a belief in what you do is imperative to succeed. Not only to get investors on side, but to also keep a clear head and focus when times are tough. 

2) Fail fast – #Flearn: Alvy recounted a story of meeting with General Motors with an eye to a corporate partnership. The relationship progressed up to the point where the lawyers were sitting around the table saying ‘its going to happen’ – only to have it all fall apart a day later. Picking up on sentiments we heard from Mick Liubinskas, failing fast is always essential because its more about the getting up than staying down.

3) Humans matter: Alvy talked repeatedly about the amazing people that helped make the Pixar dream come to life, and how at the end of the day this was all that ever matters. For anyone wanting to unite their team no matter the diversity of their skill-set, Pixar should be a case-study. Shirking titles such as technical & creative, Alvy likened Pixar to ‘a mutual admiration society’ where people worked to achieve amazing outcomes through relationships, collaboration and the innovation that comes from blending disciplines.

4) Define success: In a startup world that seems exceedingly about the ‘exit’, Alvy reminded us that any venture he started was never about the money. Dialling up the eco-system, creating a framework of success for your employees or even challenging the status quo are all fine reasons in Alvy’s book to start something new.

5) Be lucky: We love a good synergy at Grid AKL, so it seemed timely that the day after James Hurman spoke at Creative Mornings Auckland about luck, that Alvy Ray Smith mentioned the exact same thing.  Alvy, recounting the many times he has seen good ideas fail in the world of startup, remarked that there is always an element of luck in what happens. James Hurman believes this is true, but that the lucky are those that are open to new chances, positive about opportunity and outwardly open to what the world has to throw at them.

6) Patience is a virtue: Pixar would not be the success it is without the faith they had in Moores Law, and it was this that underpinned everything that they did. Essentially waiting 20 years for technology to catch up with their dream of making what turned out to be Toy Story. Competitors in a bid to be the first ended up bankrupting their own projects by investing in super computers they had no ability to pay for. Whilst Alvy jokes that he and Ed Catmull learnt how to do business from ‘how to run a business’ books, their decision to wait for the economics of computing to be in their favour before going for the end game is an example of both patience, and business acumen.

GridAKL and our community of awesome residents want to give thanks to the guys from The Project, Project Connect and The American Embassy for making our one on one time with Alvy Ray Smith possible. The Project, an exploration of global (and local) innovation will be taking place in April 2015. For more information click here.