50 Mins of Marissa Mayer

I just spent the past 50 mins of my life listening to this ETL video-cast of Google’s Marissa Mayer where she was sharing her lessons on innovation from her past 7 years of working experiences there.

During these 50 minutes, i wrote down stuff, thinking of recapping the lessons by blogging and thinking as i write.

And I spent the next 10 thinking what to actually blog about.

I wasn’t going to just do a point-by-point summary of what she said. Thats not blogging, thats called reporting, (like how secretaries take down notes mindlessly during meetings)

So my key takeaway wasn’t thinking about her lessons in the context of innovation, but of culture. Specifically, building a conducive culture in any organization.

Its a no-brainer that we spend about 50 years of our life working. For educated people with access to key information troves such as the internet like yourself, we are the educated strata of society who have the choice to decide what life, or rather working life, we want to have for a significant portion of our lives. Our companies become our “families” for a good part of the day and as we are emotional creatures since we are humans, we tend to bring the same emotions we have from our work back to our homes and the rest of our non-working lives. Which also means its very important to work in a positive work environment because it extends naturally to your ENTIRE life. Its not just the job function you are performing, not just the money you are in for, but its a lifestyle you choose when you choose to work in one particular company.

Which is why I think Google is great. The same theories that they learnt and applied to innovation or from their own product development extends beyond their applications in the workplace and can be used for personal enrichment too. I will highlight some useful ones.

SHARING –The Good Type

Marissa talks about the case, based on an analogy from Tom Kelley’s book Art of Innovation, of a hypothetical employee telling all his colleagues this great idea he/ she has for the main purpose of taking personal credit. This sounds great, pple are sharing ideas in the organization but the lesson is there is good and bad sharing. While sharing ideas are very important in any organization, a company should emphasise the message that:

  • no one shld get territorial over ideas because it doesn’t matter who thought of them in the first place
  • cultivate the culture that no one and nobody has any control over ideas and are free to conceptualize, daydream and contribute
  • focus on what the idea and how it can add value to their daily way of doing things

EXPERIMENTING — Because Innovation is not instant perfection

  • When you build something, can you really learn quickly about yourself, learn quickly from your users such that you can iterate more efficiently the next time?
  • Every time you make a mistake, you iterate out of it. Make more mistakes but make sure you learn and get smarter every time.

Google encourages failure. Because hope springs eternal when an organization has dreamers that act on their dreams and constantly try to make them realities. Nobody succeeds by doing the same thing all the time. You got to be different, which means you have to innovate, and when the correct approach towards innovation is adopted and this becomes something synoymous with the Google culture, pple join the company believing they can do the same experimenting and thats when the founder’s habits and beliefs become immortalized as the culture of the company.

Data is A-Political

TO eradicate office politics, take a very quantitative process towards decision-making and even suggestions. Numbers dun lie, and using them to back up statements creates a meritocracy that is not based on relationships but your ability to use number-crunching abilities to support your thought process.

The QnA session took up half the 50 mins. I love Socratic dialogue style of learning by discussing, not preaching. Thats why E27 events are great!

This guy asked what was one of the toughest questions for Marissa:

Q: What are some personal characteristics that made you successful?


  • Passion to work
  • Her Decision Process: Compile a list of the best decisions you have made and try to find out what is common between them. Especially when some decisions are really different from each other.
  • Work with people smarter than you are so you learn.
  • Challenge yourself by doing things that you are really not ready to do. Because you acquire new skill sets.You know your boundaries and you expand them.

Just a parting note, she had a really amusing gigglish laughter that is almost self-deprecating at times, endearing her to the crowd. 6 months away from Silicon Valley have almost made me forgot how much personality and charisma top executives like Marissa Mayer have compared to the many dour figures we have in Singapore where speakers seldom break out of their self-imposed shells once they step onto that stage to make a public presentation. Personalities like Marissa Mayer are icons and rallying points of a company culture.

They inspire. And thats another important hallmark of a good company culture.

Thanks to SGEntrepreneurs for cross-listing this too!


9 thoughts on “50 Mins of Marissa Mayer

  1. I went for Marissa’s ETL talk and I must agree that it was quite interesting and insightful.
    However, during the talk, some doubts popped up in my mind regarding practicality of effectively implementing some of these ideas at a company like Google.
    For eg., while fostering a ‘culture of idea sharing’ is great for any company, imagine how hard it would be to get someone to part with his/her ‘ownership’ of the idea. They came up with after all, and they perhaps want to be associated with it when that idea materializes into something big. And that of course would cause a lot of problems during the product development stage.
    After the talk, I got a chance to talk to Marissa and I asked her a few questions regarding other issues. I didn’t however get to ask her about this.
    What is your say on this?

  2. Well, i dun think such a culture is feasible in SIngapore in the short term anytime soon.

    TO put it bluntly, the altruistic type of sharing culture that Marissa talked about so much is simply anathema in Singapore. I cant’t put a finger to it but where Google seems to espouse the concept that the organization is more important than the self successfully, conversations with friends here will simply counteract such a belief as no one practises that and the reason they give is “this is the real world”.

    I myself have a strong opinion on this, it might be wrong. But in Singapore, education is functional and not philosophical. Its the reverse in America. What do i mean?

    When I learned math in elementary school, the teacher focuses on the content and not on the process. They fail to relate mundane academic theories with the greater picture of how such knowledge is useful to everyday life. This results in students growing up having this mental disconnect that academia is separate from everyday life. I think the focus on content led to rote learning and could be one way to expand this same theory to some Asian societies. And I also think this might be one reason why a same question thrown to an American student in Stanford versus someone from Singapore leads to many different responses. I think this is because of a more philosophical attitude towards education in America versus a more functional approach in Asian society.

    Prashant, what do you think?

  3. Pingback: Singapore Entrepreneurs » 50 mins of Marissa Mayer

  4. With 23 hours before my flight take offs and considering the fact that I’ve not started packing, I can’t help but watch her 50-minute video. It’s brilliant! Thanks. I’ll visit your blog when I’m back as, you know, I can’t access WordPress in Beijing. Good luck to your thesis!

  5. Hi! Bjorn Lee, pretty interesting article though I have never watched the video about Marissa Mayer.

    I agree with BL that cultural mindset is probably one biggest challenges. I agree that initiative (look at Sim Wong Hoo’s articles on NUTS) and passion are very important and it may be seldom seen on youth. But there is one exception guy whom I would like to recommend. He’s not an entrepreneur nor major in business but he has the traits of an entrepreneur (passion and initiative).

    That person is none other than Mechanical Engineering graduate 2003 Mr Peter Ho Yew Chi. He is one senior whom I respected a lot even though I do not know him. Since young, he loves cars a lot, however in Mechanical engineering, we do have a wide range of specialisation but sad to say, there is no automotive during his time.

    In 2001, Peter Ho managed to convince some other friends and Professor Seah Kar Heng to build a FSAE race car (FSAE is a student-built race car competition which is held in US.) as a FYP project. Obviously, the team wasn’t expert in the field and there were problems with fundings as well.

    But with two years of hard work, the first FSAE race carwas build in 2003 although it did not manage to reach US for competition due to a lack of funds. The dream continued and the 2006 FSAE car is NUS’s fourth FSAE race car.

    Peter Ho may not be an entrepreneur but his passion and dream of building his own race car are two traits which I think all entrepreneurs can learn from him. And, of course, Peter Ho is one such engineering student who can solve engineering problems creatively and can think out of the box. An innovative person too….

    In the most recent FSAE 2006 competition, our black FSAE car named Centennial II achieved a rank of no. 27th out of over 140 top university competitors. In the design criteria, the FSAE 2006 ranks the 9th best design. Although Singapore has very few local brand companies that has strong global presence, the NUS FSAE race car, being a student project is Singapore-made and international branded. (Not to mention that the NUS FSAE race car beats all asia university competitors from Japan, Korea etc. The 2006 FSAE race car is the best student-made car out of all Asia competitors.) And, NUS is the only “manufacturer” that Singapore government has given license to make cars.

    A pity, sorry.. the FSAE race car is NOT allowed for commerical purpose… unless u can convince the “kiasi” government.. It’s sad to say that given Singapore’s stringent regulatory condition and lack of sufficient space for creativity, many ideas are being “killed” before it is being translated into action.

    With NUS FSAE continuing to gain reputation, will that translate to a golden business opportunity to develop Singapore as a design automotive supporting hub? But with BMW design studio in Singapore and other automotive parts makers such as Bosch, Delphi and Denso…. It is hard to tell as of now….

    – From Mr YSF.

  6. thanks YSF, you just won the award for “Longest Comment on My Blog )Ever”. =) Keep it up, strong points there, entrepreneurship is a state of mind, we dun expect all who learn about it, its really about your mindset of doing things and not your status or what pple consider you as that matters. For example, i consider Lee Kuan Yew the best entrepreneur Singapore has and might ever had, maybe even the world for he created more than SGD$ 200 billion worth of assets out of a tiny speck of land with a deep port and nothing else.

    Thats entrepreneurship to me, undying passion and initiative, as you said, and if i may add, pure guts to defy all odds and nay-sayers. Yes, that distorted bubble of rerality is needed for successful “entrepreneurs”.

  7. Ha… sorry! Guess I wrote too many and forgive my grammatical errors as I don’t have time to check. I don’t write blog or read blog usually but keep up the interesting stuffs in your blog, Bjorn.


  8. Bjorn, I agree with you that there is a fundamental difference between the learning process in Asian schools and American schools.
    In fact, functional teaching is especially prevalent in India.. This primarily arises from a highly exam-oriented academic culture back there.. All efforts are made towards doing well in the final paper and absolutely nothing else matters. Neither the students nor the teachers are interested in dwelling into issues regarding practical applications or philosophical implications of things learnt. The engineers or doctors that come out of this system are highly capable when it comes to handling expected situations, but they falter when they face unexpected ones and are required to use their own judgement. They aren’t taught to think out of the box.
    However, on the positive side, I see a lot of curriculum based changes coming up in India that seem to be heading in the right direction. And that’s good news. As far as Singapore is concerned, I haven’t been exposed to the schooling system there and so I really cannot comment on it.

  9. Hello

    Great book. I just want to say what a fantastic thing you are doing! Good luck!


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