Wes Sonnenreich to give Occasional Address for Curtin University Sydney graduation

On May 12, 2016 Wes Sonnenreich, Intersective Co-CEO will give the Occassional Address to the final graduating class for Curtin University’s Sydney campus. With over 300 graduates and attending family members, the ceremony will be held at Recital Hall, Angel Place Sydney.

The transcript of his address follows:

Before I start, I’d like to ask you to consider the following:

  • Have you looked at someone’s selfie in the last week and been jealous of the awesome success or fun that person is having?
  • Have you taken a photo, posted or done something specifically hoping it would make other people go “oh wow – that person is awesome/fun/successful/good looking“?
  • Have you considered how an activity will look on instagram before deciding whether to do it or not?

On Success

I was lucky. I didn’t grow up with social media. I didn’t have to be constantly reminded of every success that every person I knew was having – real or not.

But I did grow up in New York City, where no matter how successful you are, there are many people who are more successful – and they don’t need snapchat to let you know it.

I had to learn to define success for myself, and to not get trapped by constant comparison with others. After all, my MIT classmates founded Dropbox, Buzzfeed and the Khan Academy. By the time I was 30 my friends had multi-million dollar houses but I had just failed my second startup and was broke.

For me, success became about my ability to follow my passions without compromise. I’m much prouder of the first $1m revenue made by my current startup than the $500m my previous company is currently worth.

Why? It’s not because my previous company isn’t doing something important – it is, and the market clearly values it. It’s because my heart wasn’t truly in what my previous company was doing, and is now.

My company today, Intersective, is improving something I care very deeply about – education. Education gives people the tools to do what I’ve done – to make a living by following their passions. I think if more people in the world could do this we’d have a lot less problems. In my experience, happy and satisfied people don’t fight.

Even if this company ultimately “fails” in a commercial sense, I will still feel successful for what we’ve already accomplished. I am proud of all my failures where I tried to do something I believed in. I also know that I could not have built the company I have today without the lessons learned from my previous failures.

The Journey to Success

Every time I talk with an interesting, successful person, I’m reminded how varied the roads to success can be.

Let me tell you what I almost never hear: I studied hard, got into a great school, studied hard, got a top job, worked hard, and I’m now the CEO.

I’m sure those people exist. If I’ve met them, they were so boring I don’t remember them. But I’ve met a lot of successful people and all of the ones I can remember have much more interesting stories. In most cases, they did not take a straight path – there were many side journeys, some successful, some not so much.

You may listen to my journey and think – well, none of that will ever happen to me – but what can happen to you may be just as impactful and interesting if you let it happen.

My journey started with a family that was very close and supportive. One day, if not already, many of you will be building your own families. You will be wanting the best for your children and will be shocked at how much the best costs. But you should remember that the absolute best thing for their success is love, and it is free. Try not to let your pursuit of the money to pay for that expensive school come at the cost of love – it’s not a profitable trade.

I went to a great university with lots of amazing professors. And while I got decent grades and took some very interesting classes, the two most useful things I learned weren’t to be found in a textbook. The first was how to work with people who were much smarter than I was. The second was how to work through failure. Both would be key skills for my future.

After university I started an education technology company with a professor – someone who was much smarter than me. Aside from being an inventor of sonar, he was a virtuoso musician and composer, and had even played violin with Albert Einstein. That was intimidating! We had a great idea – what we built looked a lot like the Khan Academy today – but it was 20 years too soon. So even with all of the great brainpower, we failed. There was also a thing involving the Loch Ness Monster, but that’s a story for another time.

I started another company working on search technology – this was before Google. There were a lot of search companies then, run by a lot of very smart people. Then the dot com bubble burst and Google and Yahoo were all that remained. Our company was valued at over $150m when the bubble burst. But we were lucky – we hadn’t taken investor money so we weren’t in debt (more on that later) – and were able to exit that company at about break-even.

I then started an IT security company, with a very close childhood friend. This company had some early successes but eventually stalled. My friend and I didn’t agree on what to do and it started eating at our personal relationship. Eventually we parted ways and while we both went on to other success, we no longer speak to one another. Failures aren’t always financial.

One of the major clients for the IT security firm was a mining company in Australia. When I left, my clients suggested I team up with Deloitte. Turns out my experience with startups and innovation was very much needed, and I was soon asked to run Deloitte’s national innovation program. I had never considered that I would end up working with the executive team of a billion dollar company, but there I was.

My time with Deloitte introduced me to many of the people and companies I’m working with today, including the CEO of the mining business that I helped grow from $10m to $500m, and the co-founder of the education business that I work with today.

Sometimes life takes you in an unexpected direction, which in hindsight might turn out to be the way to get to where you wanted to be in the first place! For me, education led to search which led to security which led to mining and finally back to education. But looking back I don’t know how else I would have gotten here.

On Failure 

Do not be afraid of failure. Most people who are successful have failed many times. A person who hasn’t failed hasn’t learned how to persevere through failure and try again.

For the people in your life who really matter, you will not be defined by your success. You will be defined by what you do before and after the success. Most successes come to an end. Then what?

One of the key things I’ve done that has allowed me to fail, yet pick myself back up, is to constantly live within my means – regardless of where I am financially in life.

I do not have personal debt. Avoiding debt is something my father, someone who grew up during the great depression of the 30s, felt strongly about. There have been several times over the course of my life where I watched my friends spend “free money” – most recently during the global financial crisis, where many were getting zero down payment, zero interest loans to buy multi-million dollar houses. They could not afford these loans on their then-current income, but by the time the payments were due in 3-5 years, surely they’d get a promotion and pay raise, right?

Well, they didn’t get that pay raise. Some lost their jobs during the crisis. Others saw their income stay the same. When those payments came due, they lost their homes. But they also were forced to sell the homes at a loss, which meant they were much worse off than when they started.

You will see this again throughout your lives – opportunities to give into greed and get “something for nothing”. You will watch people around you benefiting from this and will inevitably say “why am I missing out”. Just remember – when you are in debt, that debt owns you and gets to direct your life. You are not free to follow your passions. If you want to be able to define your own success, you need this freedom.

While I do live within my means, I certainly don’t forget to live. There are many amazing things in this world that you can see and do and experience that don’t cost a lot. You can also just spend time with people you care about and enjoy their company.

Music is a major hobby and passion of mine; some of the best investments I’ve ever made were my musical instruments. I have enjoyed thousands of hours of entertainment over decades with an electric piano that costs the same as an iPhone that is obsolete after two years. Of course, I have an iPhone too – if you’re going to spend half your day looking at something you might as well make sure it looks nice.

Conclusion

I wish all of you the best of luck in your careers and life. I hope you are able to recognize and take advantage of all the amazing experiences that are within your grasp… and of course within the limits of your wallet too!

When you fail, don’t be afraid to share it with others. It will help you learn and will also help others realize they are not alone.

And finally, it doesn’t take a lot to be happy, if you think for yourself. If you can find a way to be happy within your means, then you will be successful, regardless of what life throws at you.

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