ideamensch Interview, Richard DeVaul

Richard DeVaul is an innovation thought leader, consulting CTO, and founder of HyperSolve. Previously he oversaw early-stage innovation activities at X, the Moonshot Factory (formerly Google [X]), starting and leading projects that created billions of dollars of enterprise value, including Project Loon. He was also an early leader of the Foghorn investigation into carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, and the Calcifer investigation into next-generation airships. He has worked on topics ranging from providing low-cost clean water and food in the developing world to grid-scale thermal energy storage to robotics, advanced machine learning, and climate change. Rich was part of X’s executive leadership team and also dealt with issues of X governance, strategy, and organizational change. Richard DeVaul is listed as an inventor on 73 issued US patents.


Prior to joining X in 2011, he worked in technology advancement at Apple, leading Apple’s Technology Advancement Team, investigating new technologies, features and approaches. Rich DeVaul holds M.S. and Ph.D degree from MIT, and a B.A. in Environmental Design from Texas A&M University.


Where did the idea for Hypersolve come from?

Hypersolve was the result of my time spent leading technology-focused innovation at Apple and Google, as well as my experience working at the MIT Media Lab and startups. This gave me a unique perspective on innovation, organizations, and organizational culture, and I realized that many others could benefit from that. That’s why I started Hypersolve.


What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

For me, the key to productivity is the right balance of structure and freedom. I don’t do well with a schedule that is too rigid, but I also need to know what the plan is for the day. Other critical factors are exercise, enough sleep, and the right amount of caffeine.

Since the start of the pandemic, my workday is a balance of household chores, writing, exercise, engineering or research, and remote meetings. Making time for family and friends is also important. I usually start with a to-do list and some fixed obligations, and I weave the rest in. I don’t have a lot of down-time in my day, but the variety of tasks, from feeding chickens to advising startup founders keeps me engaged.

Managing interruptions is also really important. Since a lot of what I do these days is writing and communications, I need long stretches of focus. For me, that means being thoughtful about social media and other sources of interruption. Most calls go to voicemail, most notifications are silent. After working for an hour or so, I’ll deal with whatever has come in as a batch.

I also use structured procrastination as a way to get things done — by having lots to do, I can put off one task by working on another. I used to be embarrassed by this approach, but it works well for me.


How do you bring ideas to life?

That depends on the idea, of course. Sometimes I write some code, sometimes I build a flying robot, sometimes I write a Medium post. Often the ideas come to life in conversations with other great people. I find that the process of externalizing an idea in a form you can share, ideally in a form that other people can use, is the best way to explore something.


What’s one trend that excites you?

There are lots of exciting trends right now as we start to make the transition to a post-COVID world. One trend I’m excited about is the emergence of the benefit corporation and the recognition that businesses need to be about more than just making money. I’m also excited about the rapid progress being made in renewable energy, in distributed finance, and in machine learning and quantum computing.


What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Listening, paying attention, and asking questions. The right questions are much more important than right answers.


What advice would you give your younger self?

Slow down and appreciate things more, even the problems and difficult spots. But especially take time to appreciate successes and the great people in your life.


Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Only one? 🙂 Billion-dollar ideas are dime-a-dozen. Value lies not in an idea for a solution, but in understanding the right problem to solve, and in the hard work of turning an idea for a solution into reality.


As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Get out of your comfort zone. If you aren’t comfortable being uncomfortable, you won’t be able to make good decisions when things get messy and uncertain.


What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

My network is my business. By building and maintaining relationships and by focusing on communicating to a wider network of potential clients and partners I’ve been able to create a continuous stream of opportunities.


What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Only one? 🙂 I’ve had many failures, as has almost every other successful entrepreneur. In innovation and entrepreneurship failure isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. To be successful you must be willing to try stuff that might not work. And if it doesn’t work, you pick yourself up, study what went wrong, and try something else.

One recent failure involved me screwing up a technical analysis in a really embarrassing way, which ultimately led to a partnership falling through. My technical credibility is one of the foundations of my brand, so that was really painful.

Stepping back from the situation, It became obvious that I had built a model that was way more complex than any single person could reasonably cross-check. I realised that my real error wasn’t the mistake in the model, but in not insisting on my partner investing the necessary resources, in this case hiring additional analysts, that would have supported a robust process.


What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Only one? 🙂 Actually, no. Here are several: First, we don’t have this remote collaboration thing nailed. The Zoom model of looking each other in the eye is stupid — that’s not how people work together. Figure out how we can all be engaged while looking at the thing we are working on, and you will make a killing.

Another: I still have no good way of prioritizing my interrupts. Twelve different apps compete for my attention. I need something that can manage all of these coherently and in a context-appropriate way.

Another: low-friction, proactive collaboration discovery. I’m working on stuff, so are you. If you aren’t already in my network, how can I know that you might be a great partner? Spamming my social media with requests will kill engagement. I want a proactive “OK Cupid” for business that can make good, high-quality recommendations. …. I’ll stop there. 🙂


What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Hmmm…. debating. Here are the contenders: a bottle of WhistlePig 12-Year-Old World Rye, a digital one-year subscription to the Harvard Business Review, or maybe it was the late-season lift ticket at Squaw Valley that let me get one more day of snowboarding this spring.


What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Oh, so many choices here. I think Gmail and Google Calendar have been the most valuable web services I’ve used over the last 20 years. But more recently: LinkedIn for networking, Discord is killing it for team-focused collaboration (sorry, Slack), Telegram is awesome for social and business chat, Signal for robust, secure communications. And I’ll mention Bear, a simple, elegant note-taking app that I use for meeting notes, to-do lists, and light-weight project management.


What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Only one? 🙂 Nope, top three; The One Minute Manager, Built to Last, and Made to Stick.

The first teaches you the basics of people management, the second teaches the basics of building a great organization, and the third teaches the basics of effective idea communication.


What is your favorite quote?

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.— Margaret Mead


Key Learnings:

  • Billion-dollar ideas are dime-a-dozen. Real value lies in understanding the problem to solve and in the hard work it takes to turn a solution concept into reality.

  • Being effective as an entrepreneur means learning to operate outside your comfort zone. You can’t expect to make good decisions under pressure and with incomplete information unless you make a regular practice of being uncomfortable and trying new things.

  • Working in innovation and entrepreneurship, failure isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. Failing isn’t a problem but failing to learn from failure is. Whenever we try something that doesn’t work, it’s a learning opportunity that lets us tackle the next challenge in a smarter way.


Full interview: https://ideamensch.com/richard-devaul/