Social capital is the dark matter that forms connections between people. It is what makes people want to give you opportunities and help you succeed. Building social capital means people are willing to do things for you, and it gives you power. Few people think strategically about building social capital, but it can be just as valuable as financial capital.
Samo Burja in a podcast with Palladium offered a framework for creating social capital (as summarized by @prigoose):
- Seek gainful unemployment
- Talk to strange people
- Be indispensable to a live player
- Make IRL friends and be loyal to them
One person who I immediately recognized had done these was Travis Kalanick (Co-founder and former CEO of Uber). Before joining Uber, Travis built massive amounts of social capital with powerful people in the tech world. He detailed many parts of it on his blog and talks.
Travis claimed to be “more unlucky” than most and still succeeded. When listening to and reading his work, his pure hustle was probably the largest factor in his success, but the social capital he built is second. Without his social capital, he wouldn’t have been as successful an entrepreneur, investor, or advisor. He wouldn’t have lasted so long at Uber, or maybe even been a part of Uber at all.
The social capital he built had a massive role to play in his success, and you can learn a lot about how to build it from him (even if you don’t like him or support some of his actions).
Seek gainful unemployment
After Travis’ second company was acquired, he became gainfully unemployed. He angel invested, advised, travelled, hosted, and met people. More importantly, he became the (self-proclaimed) Wolf from Pulp Fiction. He was in the weeds of the startups he worked with. He helped raise money, sell, manage investors, manage engineers, and more. He fixed problems and saved companies. This built massive amounts of social capital with entrepreneurs and their teams.
My last company worked out and now I advise and invest in the most amazing companies and entrepreneurs out there. The JamPad is my way to give back to my fellow scrappy soon-to-be-successful entrepreneurs and have a blast while I’m doing it.Travis Kalanick, “CouchSurfing for the TechCrunch50”
He could have relaxed, casually invested, gone to parties, and done rich people things, but he didn’t. He made good use of his “unemployment,” often working 15+ hours per week at a single company, taking tens of meetings a day with entrepreneurs, investing, and more.
Without this period of gainful unemployment, he probably never would have founded and joined Uber (which he wasn’t the CEO of at first). Without the time, energy, and social capital built up, he wouldn’t have become the leader of Uber, and his career wouldn’t be what it is today.
When Travis sold his company, how did he spend the money? Angel investing and buying a “JamPad.” At the JamPad, he hosted early-stage entrepreneurs to work on new ideas.
The JamPad is my San Francisco home. It is a place where entrepreneurs regularly come to hang out, to rap on ideas, to jam with other entrepreneurs, to play Wii Tennis and Gears of War, and to have fantastic healthy gourmet meals made by the JamPad’s in-house chef. Normal open hours for the JamPad are from 10AM to 2AM. We also do BBQ’s, grill seshes, art & wine events, networked Armagetron competitions, coding seshes, you name it.
He had up to 15 entrepreneurs come by his house each day, morning to night, scheduled and unscheduled. He jammed with them on areas like sales strategy, technology, and random ideas. He let finalists at TechCrunch50, a popular startup competition, crash on his couch (he had 23 applicants). It was useful for meeting new entrepreneurs to invest in, hosting teams in their early days, and recruiting future collaborators.
Hosting is a favour that can benefit both parties. The host spends time with interesting people. The hosted person gets a place to stay. Both get entertainment, get to know each other, and create the bonds that form social capital for the long term.
Talk to strange people
Travis saw himself as a curator of entrepreneurs who, by definition, are strange people. He tried to find “really awesome” entrepreneurs and work with them. He was an “insanely curious” person who loved new ideas (good and bad). As an example of what he looked for, here’s the “application” to crash at the JamPad:
The JamPad is my house for God’s sake. There will be a brief vetting interview in order to determine who we award the FREE LODGING to. Best chances are to those who 1) have a GREAT idea 2) are generally optimistic, hard-core entrepreneurs, 3) bring a lot of passion and creativity to their work and their life, 4) are fun to hang and have a beer with, and 5) do not have serious legal troubles (bad credit scores excluded ;))
Travis understood the importance of social capital and talking to strange people more than most in Silicon Valley. People build cool things and make money. They are also the ones who can help you get things done. The hangout and the party is where you meet and get to know people, as he explained in this hacking CES post:
Do not underestimate the power of the party circuit. It’s where crucial networking goes down, and it’s there that you become a player in the industry, not on the convention floor.
Part of the value of hosting people and going to parties is getting better access to “strange” individuals. It is of higher fidelity than meetings, group dinners, or networking events. There is more information you can get about someone from an unstructured, in-person event than anywhere else. Those strange people often become the most valuable people to know, and they’re often responsible for outsized success.
How do we know all this information? Because Travis wrote and presented more than others did. His blog “Swooshing” includes fascinating details on how best to raise a seed round, how to negotiate in an African market, and how to “hack” CES. He did several talks for entrepreneurs detailing his journey. This is insider knowledge made public, something that is extremely valuable.
He wrote in support of his companies by doing marketing for them, asking readers to apply to work for them, posting job listings, or defending them from the media. He wrote entire blog posts stating how great a specific portfolio company of his was. He saw the value in writing on the internet when fewer were doing it.
Writing and presenting are at the top of the funnel for creating social capital. It is creating social capital with people you’ve never met and building credibility with them. It is also a way to have skin in the game and show your public support for a company. This didn’t go unnoticed by the entrepreneurs and “strange people” he worked with.
Be indispensable to a live player
Samo Burja defines a live player as “a person or well-coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before.” Entrepreneurs solving big problems are live players. Travis worked hard to be indispensable to them. You can see the type of “live player” he was around in a post on going to Obama’s inauguration:
I split the 2 tix with my good friend Garrett Camp , founder of StumbleUpon, yes, we’re going stag to the inauguration, you got a problem with that?? Also, Chris Sacca got a pretty killer techie crew hanging together: the Zappos guys (Tony and Alfred), a few Google peeps (Sacca and company), VC-dudes and Twitter home slices (what up Ev and Sara), … a truly solid crew of great people is the icing on the cake. When you’ve got the kind of crew we’ve got, the party is wherever we are.
When he spent time with “live players,” he was able to be valuable to them. He was their consigliere. He had experienced tough times at his past companies which allowed him to give real, valuable advice. He angel invested in them and helped them raise money. He connected them with other people in his network. He hosted their early teams, often becoming part of the team himself.
All of this while remaining behind the scenes, keeping the “live players” out front. The value he provided was massive, and so was the social capital he gained with these live players.
Make IRL friends and be loyal to them
Loyalty was important to Travis. He was scarred from his first two big companies where disloyal investors didn’t fully support him. He felt screwed by them.
In 2000, the MPAA and three dozen other organizations brought a $250 billion lawsuit against the company for copyright infringement. One of its investors turned on the company as well, giving Kalanick a deep distaste for venture capitalists.Cameron Nuckols, Notes from Super Pumped
He was seemingly extremely loyal, something that comes with the “consigliere” title. He talks about being loyal to the CEOs over investors. Later, the inner members of his team at Uber were expected to be similarly loyal.
You can see how he built up this loyalty by looking outside of work. As proof, he travelled extensively with friends in what he called “The Random Travelers Society.” Travelling to random places does not sound like something you do with disloyal friends.
One of the most interesting trips is an annual pilgrimage I make with The Random Travelers Society. The Random Travelers Society is a 3 year old organization made up of 12 technology entrepreneurs from around the world who love adventure travel.Travis Kalanick, “Spinning the Globe“
The loyalty and close friends Travis created along the way led to many benefits for him. Most obviously Uber which he co-founded with Garrett Camp, a long-time friend of his. He didn’t run the company at first, but stayed loyal and eventually became CEO.
Travis went through many tough situations, many of which he was able to get through better because of the loyalty he built with the people around him. Examples include nearly being charged with tax fraud at Red Swoosh but staying afloat with last-minute deals, and staying at Uber with the support of long-time investors. The social capital he built paid off in a big way.
Building social capital yourself
If you think building social capital is valuable, all of this can be applied to your life. You don’t have to do it like Travis. There are many examples from his career you wouldn’t want to copy, but you can learn from some of them.
Maybe you aren’t trying to become a billionaire, but just a better member of your community. You can host a small event, talk to strange people, write, and make loyal IRL friends. If you’re good at it, maybe you’ll even be able to seek gainful unemployment and be useful to a live player. It doesn’t happen if you don’t try though, and I won’t promise you’ll become a billionaire.
Thanks to Katerina Bohle Carbonell, Caryn Tan, Zac Thomas, and Georgia Patrick from Foster for the feedback.
Let me know what you think on Twitter.
2 thoughts on “How to Create Social Capital Like Travis Kalanick”
Really interesting, thank you.