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Big Omaha – Bo Fishback: ‘Learning really fast is way more important than being an expert’

Bo Fishback talked about his experiences at the Kauffman Foundation and Zaarly in delivering the closing speech of Big Omaha 2011. Photo by Malone & Company from Silicon Prairie News on Flickr.

Note: Bo Fishback, the founder and CEO of Zaarly, spoke Friday at Big Omaha. Since Fishback’s talk, Zaarly’s app was released in the app store (see today’s story, “Zaarly app now live, offers being posted on the Silicon Prairie“). This recap of Fishback’s speech reflects his sentiments before today’s launch. 

“You guys caught me at a weird time,” Bo Fishback said. “I am going to be super honest about what we are doing, where we are in the process … we are 9.5 weeks into a startup that we’re working on.”

That was how Fishback, the CEO and co-founder of Zaarly, opened his presentation at Big Omaha, and it was spot on. Fishback has just recently left the Kauffman Foundation, where he was the vice-president of entrepreneurship, after a whirlwind experience at Startup Weekend Los Angeles. He touched on the differences between what he has learned in his years at Kauffman and how things have gone so far at Zaarly.

Working for the Kauffman Foundation

“How on god’s earth did this happen? This [job] is amazing,” Fishback said. “I have probably worked with a thousand founders over the last five years and loved every second of it … It was the most intellectually broadening and engaging experience ever. You get to work with famous economists and billionaires and all this kind of stuff. It was pretty much perfect.”

Starting Zaarly

“I show up Friday night, listen to 30 pitches. I didn’t really fall in love with anything,” Fishback said. “I pitched an idea for the company and three days later went home and told my wife that I was gonna leave Kauffman to go work on a startup.”

Giving advice

“I am not a huge, huge believer in people getting up here after building several companies and telling people that want to do it how to do it,” Fishback said. “I think it’s just not quite like that. In this particular instance, it’s really not like that. I have no idea if what we are doing is going to be wildly successful or the most hyped disaster in the world … I am not here to tell people how to build a company.” He added that people frequently ask him what did he learn from all of his experiences. “It is hard to come up with things that are tangible,” he said.

The Zaarly pitch

Fishback asked how many people have heard of Zaarly, and pretty much every hand in the room went up. “Every single person in this room has found themselves in the situation before where they have said, ‘I would pay some money for some ice cream right now’ or whatever it is that you want. It has been tried several times before. It is no way a shockingly new idea, it’s just an idea that maybe its time has come.”

Fishback continued: “It does something that has just never ever happened before. It creates transparency into wealth that would love to be put to use in the community. So if someone is willing to take $100 to bring me fresh milk from an Omaha dairy cow right now … it creates almost instantly the ultimate opt-in employment market.”

At that point, in a move orchestrated by the Zaarly team, local dairy farmers led a cow into KANEKO for a brief cameo. 

Fishback’s speech included a guest appearance by a local dairy cow. Photo by Malone & Company from Silicon Prairie News on Flickr.

The jug of milk delivered to Fishback on stage. Photo by Malone & Company from Silicon Prairie News on Flickr.

Expertise

“I have been pitched probably 30 times by doctors coming to me with the greatest idea ever for a restaurant,” Fishback said. “And I always wonder, like, ‘What are you doing? You are in medical school!’” He added that the great opportunities come when founders are experts in the area. Zaarly, for instance, incorporates elements of local, peer-to-peer, local markets, etc. “All of these things … there are people that are really, super duper smart at all of this. And then there is us over there … It turns out that learning really fast is way more important than being an expert.”

Handling the hype

“We quit our jobs, we start working on this thing and decide we want to launch at SXSW,” Fishback said. And then the press started to get wind. They were featured in TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb and the Wall-Street Journal. “The whole time I had this feeling we were walking on the edge of super-dangerous and super-awesome.” He then showed a slide showing Zaarly being featured in Silicon Prairie News six times. “I knew that the hype train had really, really left the station,” he said.

The importance of ambition

“I sat down and started writing down what … could go awesome and what could go terrible, and it ended up being this big, long thing,” Fishback said. “What I really ended up starting to think about is what this company is really supposed to be about … This is what I started thinking about. We’re building a company that is on the outermost edge of ridiculously, mind-blowingly awesome in a few categories.” What he realized was that it really came down to ambition. Fishback said ambition sometimes gets a bad rap, but “it turns out that ambition is what drives pretty much every entrepreneur.”

Where Zaarly stands

Fishback assessed where Zaarly is: “You are going down these paths … the whole way we have done this thing is just by experiments. It’s like an anti-Walmartification of the world. Everything that you can get at Walmart is within a half hour of where we are right now, I just don’t know how to get it. We are at the core of that. It’s a little eBay-ish, but … If we can [get it right], then we are going to change the way buying and selling happens in some way.”

Fishback continued, touching on funding Zaarly has turned down. “When you get to be on the hype train, it is really easy to drink your own Kool-Aid,” he said. “In the last nine weeks, I think we have been offered somewhere like $200 million in venture capital. On the one hand, I just had to pinch myself.”

Staying focused

“One way for sure you know you are not going to do anything interesting is by not doing anything,” Fishback said.

“If everyone could really just step out of their skin … when you start to do that, you start to realize you get … however many shots it is, so if you don’t make it about you, you are basically giving it away to other people before you even get going.”