UPDATE: The Oxford Foundry

Breaking the mould

A US$1m gift from LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman will create an entrepreneurial hub for encouragement, mentorship and inspiration in Oxford.

‘I hope the ventures emerging from The Oxford Foundry will be transformative businesses that enhance the way we live and the way we work’

Words: Leah Milner
Portrait: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

In June, Reid Hoffman, co-founder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, announced a US$1m donation to support entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School and the University of Oxford.

His gift is a founding donation for The Oxford Foundry, a new School-wide initiative to help budding future student entrepreneurs. He will also be Senior Advisor, giving his time and advice to help the Foundry scale its impact.

In 2003, Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn, the world's largest professional network, and it now has more than 450 million members around the world. Hoffman is the co-author of two New York Times bestselling books: The Start-Up of You and The Alliance.

He feels that Oxford Saïd is a great place to make his contribution towards fostering future entrepreneurs as the School is able to draw upon the assets of the University, including its considerable network of talent and ideas.

‘The Oxford Foundry will also have strong connections with the broader business community in London and throughout the UK’

'The Oxford Foundry will also have strong connections with the broader business community in London and throughout the UK, enabling access to networks of capital and mentorship, both critical for entrepreneurship to thrive', he says. 'Coupled with the Dean, Peter Tufano's leadership, I felt this was a gift that could further catalyse the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Oxford.'

The Oxford Foundry aims to create an environment in which students can advance groundbreaking ideas, prototype and experiment, as well as connect with potential funders. 'I hope the ventures emerging from The Oxford Foundry will be transformative businesses that enhance the way we live and the way we work, and will have a positive impact on our world,' says Hoffman. 'I hope that they are built and led by women and men who are adaptable, continuous learners, and inclusive leaders who possess a strong moral compass.'

But are some people born more entrepreneurial than others? 'Just like any talent, you can be naturally born with a lot or a little,' Hoffman says. 'Some concepts of entrepreneurship can be taught, but ultimately it is learned from experience and so you can never fully prepare other than by doing. My advice: fail quickly, learn quickly, keep moving.'

Unlikely route to success

In a seminar at Saïd Business School on 5 June, Hoffman said there is no set route to becoming an entrepreneur. His Bachelor's in Symbolic Systems at Stanford University, followed by a Master's in Philosophy at Oxford, were hardly the most obvious springboard for a tech start-up career. In fact, Hoffman said it was only upon the launch of his second business that he began to consider the term as applying to himself. He was driven by his fascination with how people communicate with each other and his desire to participate in and influence public intellectual debate.

He argues that entrepreneurial talent is vital in all companies, not just start-ups, a theory he expounds in his book, The Start-Up of You.

‘Even if you are not starting a company and you are pursuing a career, you are still being the entrepreneur of your own life’

He said: 'Even if you are not starting a company and you are pursuing a career, you are still being the entrepreneur of your own life and you should approach that with the skills that an entrepreneur has.' Key among these are the ability to read trends, the direction of market; knowing how to create competitive differentiation; how to build relationships in a networked age; and how to take intelligent risks, he said.

One of the problems for companies looking to attract and retain talent, which Hoffman explores in his book, The Alliance, is that employers and new recruits tend to wilfully deceive each other over the likely duration of employment given that the concept of a "job for life"? is now all but extinct. 'That's trust erosion,' he said. Instead, he believes that we should 'trade lifetime employment for lifetime employability'. This means a much greater degree of openness in the recruitment process and in ongoing conversations about what the company and employee hope to gain from their relationship.

‘Leadership is not just a solo act, it's a team act’

To be an effective leader, it is more important to amplify your strengths than diminish your weaknesses, said Hoffman. 'Leadership is not just a solo act, it's a team act,' and it is therefore important to recruit others who complement your skill set. At the heart of being a successful entrepreneur is 'being contrarian and right', he said. While the former is easy, the latter is clearly much harder.

Entrepreneurs should test ideas on a close network of trusted smart people and ask them what might cause the venture to fail or why the model might be broken, he said. However, if you know of a factor that other smart people might not be aware of, which means your business can succeed in the face of perceived barriers, you may just have landed on that elusive successful idea, he explained.

After finding the right idea, the next huge challenge faced by start-ups is how to scale up. Here, Hoffman set out the concept of "blitzscaling"?, the focus of his next book. Rather than moving into new markets only once the business model has been finetuned, companies like Uber, for example, deploy a large amount of capital to operate in multiple cities at the same time and take control of the global market. Hoffman said it can be a high-risk strategy, but for businesses that need to establish a network effect and stamp out competition, it can be necessary.