an hour, you can kind of figure out if
someone’s interesting. That’s usually how
I met people, and then, sometimes, I met
people at work.
XRDS: How do you typically find your
ITO: For me, mentors are the most
important thing. But it’s kind of random.
One of my first mentors was a guy who
ran a tropical fish store. I went in and
said, “I want that fish.” And he said, “You
can’t have that fish because you wouldn’t
know how to take care of it.” And I said,
“Yes I would.” And he said, “Do you know
what ammonias, nitrates, and nitrites
are? And do you know how that metabolic
cycle works?” I said, “No.” “Then,” he
said, “you would kill them. Start with
some goldfish.” And I got really upset that
I couldn’t buy the tropical fish I wanted.
But he challenged me, so I said, “OK, I
want to learn.” So he taught me how the
bacteria metabolize the ammonia and all
that. And then I learned and got obsessed
with it. But he was really interesting
because he’s the one who said, “No, you
have to get the science right before you
get to play with the fish.”
But here’s the short version of how
to find mentors. The key thing is if you
want to learn something specific from
somebody—and if there’s somebody
where that’s the thing they’re proud
of, and that’s the thing they like to talk
about—if you can present yourself in a
way that you’re curious about the thing
they want to teach, there will often
be a fit. Even for me, if I find someone
obsessively curious about something I
like to talk about, I’ll then be happy to talk
to that person.
The worst thing is it’s sort of random.
Also it’s a two-way street, because you
always want to learn from your mentee.
So I hate it when people ask to come and
pick my brain. That sounds really one
way. You also have to present yourself
as a curious person who might have
something interesting to share.
XRDS: What tips do you have for people
ITO: If I meet a really interesting
person, I often ask, “Who is the most
interesting person you know?” And if I
Also, there’s this other thing. A lot
of investors hate to invest in couples.
I’ve worked with a lot with couples, and
I’ve invested in a lot of startups run by
couples. PSINet was couples; Six Apart
was couples; Flickr was couples. The
company where I got my job early on,
Energy Conversion Devices, was started
by a husband and wife. I’m not afraid
of husband and wife, or boyfriend and
girlfriend. I think there’s a risk that when
they break up it often hurts the company.
But at the startup level it works well
because they’re going to be thinking
about the company 24 hours a day.
There are trade-offs though. Downsides
and upsides. But as an investor and as
an employee, I haven’t found it to be a
problem, but some people will warn you
XRDS: How do you find collaborators?
ITO: For me it’s now all through
referrals. At the Media Lab and slightly
more broadly at MIT, I make time to meet
anybody who’s in my community, because
it’s sort of my job. But now on the
outside, in the wild, I almost never meet
with anybody unless they come through
somebody I trust is going to be careful
about whom they introduce me to. If
someone sends me two people I don’t like,
I may still like that someone but won’t
trust them as a referrer. I have a network
of people whose referrals I trust. It took
me a while to get where I am now.
If someone is trying to meet me, you
need to find a channel to get to me, and if
you can’t, then you shouldn’t even really
try. It’s unfortunate, but when you get
to people like Reid Hoffman and others,
that’s roughly where you end up.
XRDS: How about the earlier you?
ITO: When I was starting out, what
I found really helpful was going to
conferences: So Foo Camp, which is by
invitation only, or South by Southwest,
where anybody might show up. I used
to go to a lot of these conferences to
hang out with people; where you can
kind of quickly figure out if somebody
is interesting or if you have a common
interest. And at the “unconferences,”
where you’re sitting in a room with three