Think Big and Cast a Wide Net

Written by Tom Fairey

8 March, 2022

Stanford, Google, Intel, 1999. Quite the CV, right?

The giants of early tech helped form who Rob Kniaz is.

But so did an acronym: OKR.

OKR stands for “objective and key results” and it refers to just that. Every quarter, everyone from the CEO down sets stretch goals for the key results they want to achieve — high-level objectives — which will guide their short-term work and the company’s progress. OKRs map where you are going and how you will get there.

At Google, OKRs were very public, and so were their results. Everyone had to post their OKRs publicly, and those who did not reach them were called out. 

(By the way, if you haven’t heard of OKRs, have you heard of MBOs? That’s “management by objective,” and it’s basically the same thing.)

At Google, Stanford, and Intel, Kniaz was surrounded by a rare collection of great talent — truly sensational people. In the aftermath of the deflated tech bubble, cash-rich companies like Google were able to scoop up workers left and right who had been jettisoned by failed firms.

“After 2001, a lot of values were decimated,” Kniaz told me. “People lost their jobs, they had crazy capital gains tax bills because of the American tax system even though they had actual losses, and a lot of people were gettable. Google could afford to get people who were otherwise unaffordable.”

Attracting great talent creates a positive feedback loop.

The more great people you attract to work for you at a great company, the more likely it is that even more great people will want to work there. Greatness attracts greatness. And that creates a trickle down effect, where that top talent trains the next generation of leaders and thinkers.

Those who have been wildly successful in business did not get there by accident — there is a lot of learning that goes on along the way to greatness, Kniaz said. 

“The history of product management is trial by fire,” he said. “You launch something and see what works.”

It’s bricklaying. It’s institutional knowledge. It’s not something they can teach you in business school. Not even at Stanford.

And that’s when Kniaz decided to do something that had never been done before. He brought OKRs to London.

Wait. Hold on. We are getting ahead of ourselves. Back up.

When Kniaz joined Google he had a tech background but had never done a product launch before. And that was a disadvantage, because like we just said, in business, you learn from your mistakes, and you keep adding on to that learning.

At the time, Kniaz was living in San Francisco but working south, in the valley — Mountain View, to be exact. While he was at Intel he was sent to Colombia for a work stint, and when he got back, he saw that the whole area was changing. What used to be a 55-minute, 35-mile commute in a large, comfortable American car became an hour and 20 minutes, then an hour and a half. Crime went up, the price of housing went stratospheric, and a lot of the old things that made San Francisco so charming closed and were replaced by things with a lot less charm.

Saturation had been reached.

Meanwhile, he had a lucrative offer to go to Facebook, but it would have been four more years of the same work — plus that maddening commute. No, Silicon Valley was out. And the world was flattening — cliche though it may be, it’s true. Kniaz wanted to go overseas. London was calling.

They probably teach OKRs in business school now, but at the time it was a new concept in the U.K., he told me. Kniaz arrived working in VC for Fidelity, figuring he would stay for a few years then go back to California.

But then he saw a gap. A problem that was begging for a solution.

The gap was that VCs were all lined up at the same feeding trough. They were looking for the next company to grow into a billion-dollar household name, and if it couldn’t be parlayed into a billion dollars it was not worth wasting your time on.

What he saw in London was different. The market was undercapitalized, everyone was risk-averse, old names dominated the scene, and the European way toward growth — let’s break even — was an automatic handicap.

Kniaz turned the old ways of VC in Europe on their head, becoming the first in on many deals, selling his VC to the founders the same way the founders were selling their idea to VC. The rest is history: Kniaz became a partner at Hoxton Ventures, earned a spot as a board observer at Babylon Health, became a member of the board of directors at Raptor Supplies, was an investor at Deliveroo — the list goes on and on. Check out his LinkedIn profile if you don’t believe me.

While Silicon Valley may be in his past (for now), Kniaz immigrated with many of his Golden State sensibilities, including the size of the social net he casts. And that may be one of the best lessons he can pass along to the non-Americans in the crowd:

Broaden your scene. Create a bigger community.

And this:

Build your network before you need it.

The people you meet along the way will shape who you are, the broader set of people you meet, the broader and richer your experience will be.

Oh yeah — and the more opportunities you will have.

In the U.K., Kniaz discovered that people kept a much closer, less diverse set of friends and associates. The people you went to Warwick or Strathclyde with 10, 15, 20 years ago were the same people you worked with, played football with, went to dinner with, and went to weddings with.

“In America, you cast a wider net,” he told me. “The depth of people you meet is unparalleled.”

That was key in a place like San Francisco, where the people you drank beer with when you were 25 are now the people who started Uber.

“The people you meet along the way are the people who will be a part of your network your entire career,” he said. “Being in California was a huge part of that for me. You need to be around like-minded people to grow.”

So there, there’s your advice from Rob Kniaz.

Go out and make friends. Explore. Be curious. And never stop imagining.

The Takeaway

Business is about connections and not being afraid to look at old problems in new ways.

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