Joe Hyrkin – President and CEO of Wordnik

Joe Hyrkin currently serves as the President and CEO of Wordnik.  He has more than 20 years of experience in senior leadership and general management, both domestically and internationally. He has focused his career on creating and launching new businesses in the U.S. and Asia, and has been instrumental in pioneering creative revenue opportunities in the search, community and social Web spaces. In 2010, Joe completed a role as an entrepreneur in residence (EIR) at Trinity Ventures.  While at Trinity, Joe spent 6 months focused on evaluating more than 150 tech opportunities across next generation search, social commerce, community, crowdsourcing and social media. Prior to joining Trinity as an EIR, Joe was the senior vice president of sales and business development at Gaia Interactive.  While there, Joe oversaw all revenue, including virtual goods, advertising, sponsorships and merchandise, as well as all business development efforts including fundraising, strategic partnerships, content acquisition and content distribution. Prior to Gaia Online, Joe headed up the business side of multimedia search at Yahoo. He also served as head of business development and sales for Flickr. Before his time at Yahoo, Joe served as vice president of strategic accounts and Asia-Pacific operations at publicly listed company, Virage Inc., a provider of video search and publishing services and software. While at Virage, Joe and his team established some of the first business relationships in the broadband entertainment space, working with many of the world’s leading media companies. Prior to Virage, he led the sales group for, the top Chinese language web portal. Before that, Joe ran The Economist Group’s business in China for 4.5 years, establishing the company’s presence in the country and overseeing offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Joe serves on the board of directors of  Viximo, Inc., and on the advisory boards of Bunndle, Inc., RadiumOne, Inc., TaskRabbit and Zoodles Inc. (acquired by HTC).

What are you working on right now?

As the CEO of a startup, I’m always working on hiring and finding great people who are creative, talented and thoughtful, especially engineers.  I spend a lot time meeting with folks who can help make introductions to the best people they know. When growing a company, the more risk you can eliminate, the more likely you are to succeed. I believe hiring is the same way.  Potential employees who come via introductions from people I know and respect tend to be very valuable.

What does your typical day look like?

I wake up at about 5:45 AM.  I don’t do it every day, but I try to start my day with at least 15 minutes of meditation or journal writing.  Then my wife and I make lunch and breakfast for our 2 boys.  Feeding them and literally helping to provide the meals that nurture them is an important daily contribution for me and a way to connect with them in the midst of my busy day.  I’m usually in the office before 8:00 AM, unless I have a breakfast meeting, which I try to do a couple of times per week.  Because we’re a startup, I wear several hats. I’m the CEO and I’m also actively involved in some of our business development efforts, ongoing product strategy, PR, marketing and positioning.  I split my days between meetings with the team, working on specific projects related to more functional activities and interviewing and meeting folks related to hiring leads. On average, 1-2 times per week I’ll have an early evening industry event to attend.  I try to get home for family dinners a few times a week and often I am back online between my kids’ bedtime and 11:00 PM.  I travel 2-3 times a month for 1-3 days at a time.  My schedule is much more focused on client meetings during the day when I travel and follow-up emails and such at night. In general, I don’t get enough regular exercise, so I turn as many internal meetings into tea/coffee walks as I possibly can.  I usually manage at least 1 a day.

3 trends that excite you?

– The intersection of mobile, PC and personal data management.  Some refer to this as the hyperweb. – Discovery as distinct from search.  Search is all about making a specific query to identify a useful piece of content, usually selected from ranked results.  Discovery is all about spring-boarding from the content currently being enjoyed to connect with other content, such as relevant people to follow, other related content and products. In a world where there is massive growth in social content, discovery becomes the next major way in which both consumers and publishers will meet their needs for information, entertainment and education. – Personal publishing, by virtue of how content, ideas, likes and dislikes are shared publicly through Facebook, Twitter, Formspring, Tumblr and others, anyone with an account and password becomes a publisher.  Micro distribution is becoming more important than ever.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I believe in brainstorming, iteration, fast prototypes, more iteration and refinement.  I covered one whole wall in my office with white board paint and I’m constantly meeting with folks on the team to outline the ideas we have, flesh them out, sketch them and look for the unique opportunities that are best implemented by us. I think the combination of seeing an image along with the articulated details help transform ideas into aliveness.  Then our engineers work on embodying the product. We test, often go back to the big white board and refine.  Ultimately, having a group of users to test the ideas makes a huge difference toward knowing whether you have a real product or just a neat idea.  Getting to the point where the product can be played with is important. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. In fact, seeing the flaws early is an important part of the process and helps us answer questions about how unique and useful the product or set of features will be.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by watching greatness manifest and by those things and experiences borne out of the combination of the seemingly mystical and practical hard work.  I am a big baseball fan. One of the reasons I love baseball is because when played well, I can watch the results of unseen hard work combined with the perfect, almost mystical location of the ball, and synchronistic people involved.  A home run is a perfect confluence of events that is born from a combination of unseen preparation, talent, the individuals involved and a level of confidence that few possess.  Who in their right mind would stand, totally unprotected, 60 feet from a pitcher throwing a hard ball nearly 100 miles an hour? And then hit it 400 feet or more?  I find all that goes into such an exchange to be inspiring. I am also inspired by those that choose to do unusual things well or go beyond what others have seen. I am inspired by Steve Jobs. Among his many talents and legacies, he demonstrated to the world that the yin and yang can come together in products in ways that are both aesthetically pleasing and technically great.

What is one mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?

I have made a lot of mistakes and as far as I can tell, I’ll make many more; often to the chagrin of those around me.  I’d say the biggest mistakes I’ve made have been in failing to listen to the information in front of me, whether shared by someone or just from the circumstances of a situation because I had made up my mind or more often, I was lazy and not open to being responsive and flexible. I’m not just talking about listening to what a colleague is saying, though of course that is part of it. I’m talking about the kind of listening in which I’ve stated my position, but circumstances are indicated there was more to evaluate or consider.  At Virage when I was leading sales, I found that I would get very caught up in closing deals.  Companies want driven, hard-working salespeople who know how to identify the deal and bring in the business. I was very good at that and I built a strong reputation around being a closer.  I used that reputation as a closer to share my opinions and thoughts about products and strategies. Often times, the sharing came across more as demanding my opinion be followed rather than used as a way to contribute to a greater benefit. I found myself increasingly isolated because I was too focused on one point of view and my status as closer.  At one point, someone reminded me that rock stars get old and wear leather pants while leaders focus on helping to grow those around them. I’m reminded of those experiences often and the difference between being a legendary but lonely rock star  and being a great part of a joint success.

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

I spent more than 5 years working with 2 successful community sites, Flickr and Gaia. There is a misconception that great community sites will be tarnished by revenue-generation activities.  It’s simply not true. If you can’t turn a great community site into a profitable business, then you don’t have a great community site. You have a neat niche that isn’t valuable to consumers. Monetizing community sites isn’t easy, but if you coordinate the monetization efforts with services and products that enhance the user’s experience, the monetization process can become an instrumental component of the site’s success and the user’s enhanced experience.

What do you read every day? Why?

I read TechCrunch, Business Insider, Jason Hirschhern’s links of the day, WSJ’s AllThingsDigital, the New York Times headlines and Yahoo! News entertainment headlines.  I read these as a way to stay abreast of trends, ideas and the ecosystem in which I operate in every day.  In addition, though it may be old-fashioned, I know it’s considered old-fashioned, but I read the paper form of the newspaper every day.  I still like the form factor.

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

Synchronicityby Joseph Jaworski.  It’s a book that shows how many synchronous experiences are happening every day and ways to look for them, appreciate them and increase our chances of being able to listen to the world around us more deeply.  I believe that any book or experience that highlights or expands our capacity to engage in awe is beneficial.

What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

My Macbook Air.  It’s light, it looks cool and it keeps me connected.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

Mike Maples, a venture capitalist; Bradley Horowitz, who runs Google+; Josh Elman, a venture capitalist, Scott Kinzie, the CMO of BabyCenter; Gus Tai, a venture capitalist and Leah Busque, founder of task rabbit.

What is the most important role of a CEO?

CEOs should do three things: 1. hire, 2. inspire and 3. believe.  The first 2 are more obvious, but the latter is just as important. Hiring is more than just looking for the best background or set of skills.  Hiring determines the people who we’ll be surrounded by day in and day out.  The work that goes into identifying who we want to be involved in what we are building is among the most crucial things we can do.  While some CEOs start out writing code or specs, ultimately, few will continue to do so or drive day-to-day sales, marketing activities or partnerships.  Identifying the right people to do these things will make or break a company. Inspiring is about offering a tone and atmosphere in which people can come into work excited and engaged both by what they’re doing and the direction in which the company and products are going.  It’s about nurturing aliveness and enthusiasm for the possibilities that we’re creating.  Silicon Valley is one of the most creative places on Earth.  Those that truly inspire illuminate the connection between the source of the creativity and the resulting product being offered. Believing in and demonstrating that belief in the team and people working in the company is about standing for and highlighting those talents that each can contribute. As a startup, we’re always working with cutting-edge ideas and opportunities that if done well, can be ground breaking but that have a higher chance of failure than success.  So believing to the next phase of development and holding the larger vision of where we’re going gives the team a place to aspire to. It’s not just blind faith.  Believing combines seeing and illuminating the best kernels and threading them toward the vision of the future that we’re creating.

What was one of your biggest challenges and how did you overcome it?

I graduated with a joint degree in Chinese and political science in 1992.  Instead of going to law school, I went to Hong Kong to try my hand at working in the field I had studied.  I had a couple of family acquaintances in Hong Kong, but didn’t really know anyone. I had just gotten engaged and my fiancée was just finishing school in the U.S.  One of my friends let me use her weekend home on one of the outlying islands of Hong Kong. I was pretty much alone. I didn’t really have any close friends around and I was living an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong proper.  I was in Hong Kong to pursue my dream of a career in Chinese trade and politics, but I was really lonely and other than an inner sense that I should be in Hong Kong, I really wasn’t sure how to find a job or what I’d end up doing.  I spent a lot of time being lonely and questioning why I had done this to myself.  During the first few weeks I was there, there were plenty of nights in which I would call my fiancée or parents just to hear a familiar voice and talk about coming home.  When I first arrived, the few people I knew introduced me to a few people that they felt might be helpful in finding a job.  Each day, it seemed someone would introduce me to someone else. These were the days before email or cell phones and so I would camp out at a pay phone and call to set up appointments or wait to be called back.  Day by day, I battled doubt and optimism, but as I traversed from my pay phone nook to my appointments, I met more and more people.  Within 2 months, just as the money I had with me was about to run out, I landed my first job.  I found an apartment and received my first paycheck just as I was spending my last few dollars.  My fiancée joined me 6 months later and we ended up staying in Hong Kong and later Beijing for nearly 8 years before moving back to the U.S.


Wordnik Website: Wordnik on Twitter: @wordnik Joe Hyrkin on Twitter: @yankeejoe Joe Hyrkin on LinkedIn: