5 Intrapreneur Startup Lessons From The Co-Father Of The Xbox

A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

Robbie Bach 6_17

I was great fun to interview Robbie Bach, Co-Father of the Xbox, as part of UC Santa Barbara’s Innovator Stories series. Robbie shared some interesting insights during our discussion, many of which were drawn from his book Xbox Revisited.

You can listen to our discussion in the background, while you work, run or play Super Mario Odyssey. If you’d rather download Robbie’s talk for free on iTunes, you can do so here.

For those who don’t have the time to listen to our entire talk, I’ve outlined five lessons, along with the corresponding video timestamp, to facilitate quick access to issues of particular interest to both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

  1. The Top-Down Principle: 3, 30, 300 & (3,000)

When mapping out what the Xbox would ultimately become (note: “Xbox” was an internal code name that stuck), senior management created a three page executive summary. This was then passed to a team of 15 mid-level executives who crafted a 30-page document, which was later translated into 80 PowerPoint slides.

The PowerPoint slides served as a roadmap for the detailed hardware, software and service specifications. Robbie's goal was to capture the specifications in 300 pages, but ultimately the document ballooned to 3,000 pages. As Robbie noted, [at 16:10] “… the cool thing about it was (the) management team didn't have to do any of that work because it was based on the three pager, we knew that the right types of things were getting done and decisions move down into the organization.”

  1. Purpose, Principles And Priorities

Leading such a large team at Microsoft forced Robbie to boil down his messaging into bite-size portions. On smaller teams, leaders have time for detailed discussions with individual contributors. Though effective at startups, this approach doesn’t scale within large organizations.

According to Robbie [17:06], “I learned early in my college freshman year that I was a good extemporaneous speaker. If you're good at that, what you do is somebody gives you a topic and you come up with three things to say. You say (them) very clearly, you repeat them and you summarize them. What you discover, if you do it enough, is you realize that people don't remember more than three things anyway. You're lucky if they remember them. So if I'm trying to communicate something, there's only three things I'm trying to say: purpose, principles (and) priorities.”

  1. Find Your Anti Doppelgänger

Robbie was fortunate to begin the Xbox project with a strong team, including J. Allard, who was polar opposite of Robbie’s button-down, corporate approach to management and problem solving. J. brought a diversity of thought and free-flowing creativity to the team that was simultaneously vital and challenging. Per Robbie [19:18], “When I first met Jay he had hair and he would… color it every other week a new color. One week it would be orange… but it would (constantly) change.

J is sort of the anti-Robbie, he's a very smart technical guy, a visionary, who could see around corners. Xbox is J’s creation… (Yet) I wanted to fire him two or three times and he tried to quit two or three times.

We had to figure out which one of us had which superpowers and focus on those. When it came to talking to publishers, I mostly did the work… when it came to talking about software architecture, I might go to one meeting in a year on that.

The lesson for me… was if you surround yourself with great talent, you have to let the talent be great right and you have to be humble enough to know that you're a great talent yourself but only in certain ways… like the Avengers, you’ve got to know your superpower and you’ve got to know your kryptonite. J was the solution to my kryptonite.”

  1. Intrapreneurs Must Protect Their Team

One of the biggest challenges of acting entrepreneurially within a large organization is keeping the executives of the mothership at bay. The temptation is for these executives to smother the entrepreneurial team with love and attention – mostly in the form of endless meetings, useless updates and turf wars over resources.

Thus, an intrapreneurial leader must vigilantly shield their organization from the parent company to allow a nimble, innovative culture to develop and thrive. Robbie was no exception in this regard, as he notes [29:03], “(there was a)… meeting called the Valentine's Day Massacre… this was a four hour fight with Bill Gates with Steve Ballmer in the conference room at Microsoft that went until 8:00 or 8:30 at night. The topic was ‘are we going to use Windows are we gonna use all the same playbook for Microsoft or not?’ At the end of the day… (I) had to say, ‘If you want us to do that we're not the guys to do it, so we'll just go back to our old jobs.’

(We) then we argued for another hour about what that would mean and at the end of the day, to their credit, Bill and Steve said, ‘Go do it and do it your way, and we will support you 100%’ and they did. There were other people in the company who didn't like it and Bill basically told them ‘Hey, these guys are on a mission and we're gonna support them to get it done right.’… so my job was really protecting the team in some respects from the rest of Microsoft.”

  1. Job And Family – Be A Leader, Not A Manager

Immediately prior to Xbox’s initial launch, Robbie submitted his resignation, due to the stress and the detrimental impact his long hours were having on his family. Rather than accepting Robbie’s resignation, his boss encouraged him to take a ten week sabbatical, which included sessions with an executive life coach.

Robbie recalls that during his sabbatical, he [32:58]“…got out of my head that I had to choose between my job and my family and got into my head that that's an ‘and statement,’ job and family, and that if you make conscious choices and you're thoughtful about it, you're disciplined, you can make both of those work.

So I came back and… told the team, ‘I won't take a trip unless it's planned nine months in advance.’ Suddenly I could plan the trips around my family, my wife knew when I was leaving and when I was going to be back. The trips were better, they were jam-packed, I was busy every day. (I) realized that I could again be a leader not a manager.

I left meetings in midstream at 5:30, (and said) ‘Hey, I told you I was going to be done at 5:30. I've got to coach at 6:00. I'll be back on email at 8:00. Thank you very much drive home safely.’ … people realized that meetings had an end and they had to come prepared. If they wanted an answer that day, they had to get to the answer. Meetings started to start more on time, people started to have better conversations (and) we got to answers. I was still able to go coach, which I loved doing.

(I realized that) people are incredibly good at taking cues. They watch what happens in the office and in a day or two they figure it out… so what you have to recognize is that everything you do communicates and so you have to… be really thoughtful and conscious about… setting the culture of the place.

The Xbox team worked incredibly hard… so that was never the issue. The question was whether we were working smart or not and whether we were using our time efficiently and effectively and whether it was gonna lead to people getting divorced in the group… People get caught up in their work and they can't get to the rest of their life. Leaders have to set that example. I don't know whether I did it perfectly or not, but it did change the way the team worked… and it certainly changed the way I felt about my job. Like I said, (it) gave me my ten best (working) years.”

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

Image credit: UC Television

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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