Naveen Jain is not your average entrepreneur or CEO.
In fact, he’s not your average billionaire either.
Sure, he’ll talk about his heavy-hitter friends on a first-name basis, like Bill and Jeff (it takes me a moment during our conversation to realize that the names in question are in fact Gates and Bezos), but there’s something about Jain’s demeanor and approach to his multi-million dollar businesses that make you feel like you’re talking to your cooler, wiser relative who’s doling out the life advice you’ve been needing to hear.
“I tell people that passion is for losers,” Jain tells me bluntly. “Passion is for hobbies. Entrepreneurs have obsession, obsession to solve a problem so much that they cannot go to sleep. They go to sleep thinking about it, they jump out of the bed thinking about it … ask yourself, what are you willing to die for? And then live for it.”
Jain is founder of seven companies, including Moon Express (the first space-exploration company to be granted approval from the U.S. government to send a spacecraft to the moon) and his latest endeavor, Viome Health Sciences.
The serial entrepreneur’s approach to business is unique yet steadfast; he seems to have cracked the formula for what it takes to not only create and conceptualize an idea for a company, but also to see it through.
Philanthropy is a way of life — it and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive
Since the beginning of his career, Jain has always led with one question: How does what I’m doing (or what I want to do) help the most amount of people possible?
“Doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the only way to do well in the long term is to do good,” Jain explains to me. “I think that somehow people have this idea that there is a world of philanthropy, where you focus on doing good, and a world of entrepreneurship, where you focus on doing well. And I really feel the companies that succeed in the long term are the ones that actually focus on doing good … if you really want to do good, you create a company that solves a problem that people suffer from. I think that fundamentally my life’s journey has always been about that — find a problem and dedicate your years of your life to solving that problem. And when you do, you actually do a lot of good in the world.”
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This has been the essence of Jain’s approach to business since day one — when the central focus and mission of your company is helping as many people as possible, the success will come.
But creating a business model that’s focused on rapid and unsustainable growth for short-term gain versus investing in something that will see success exponentially over time through how many people’s lives are changed or inspired or helped by that product, idea or service is what separates a company with a short shelf life from one with longevity.
“This concept of exponentiality is so important when you’re looking for disruptive ideas,” Jain explains.
Enter Viome, a company that was born out of the idea of helping as many people as possible become informed and equipped with the knowledge of what is going on inside their own bodies in an effort to help prevent and reverse chronic diseases.
It’s an at-home testing kit focused on analyzing each person’s gut microbiome. Patients send over samples of blood and stool to Viome’s lab and receive a customized guide to food and supplement recommendations as well as overall insights into their health via analysis of each person’s mRNA (gene expression), which allows for Viome’s medical team to understand how different factors like diet, stress, fitness, disease, etc. individually affect each person — think of it as a combination of nature and nurture.
Jain’s desire to help people live a healthier lifestyle and help prevent future diseases was born out of a challenge that hit close to home for him.
“I am losing my dad to cancer. It’s a mission for me, I want to solve this problem,” Jain recalls of his early days trying to get Viome off the ground. “My dad was dying from pancreatic cancer. So I said, look, this is the problem. I’ll put the next 10 to 15 years of my life towards this and I will get as much money as I need to raise. I will get it and I will solve this problem.”
The concept of not succeeding has never been an option for Jain, and Viome is, in a way, his philanthropic way of giving back to all those who have suffered or have had a loved one suffer from chronic diseases that have been deemed irreversible, incurable or inevitable.
Sure, Jain could have just donated all of his life earnings into cancer research, but instead he redirected his thinking and resources towards solving the problem.
“I think giving money is a cop out. If you care about something, give it your time, because that’s the most valuable thing you have, you only have limited time,” he says. “And when you give someone time, you’re giving them the most precious gift. Giving money, you can make more. You can’t make more time.”
It pays to start an endeavor in a field you are unfamiliar with — that’s where disruption happens
Before beginning any company, Jain asks himself three questions: Why this? Why now? Why me?
For Viome, the answer was a nuanced yet simple response to two simple questions: Is there a way to prevent and reverse chronic diseases (both in the spheres of mental and physical health) that will in turn help billions of people? And if there is, what is the missing piece of the puzzle that hasn’t been discovered yet, and how can I figure out what that is?
“I started a company in an industry I know nothing about … if you are an expert in a field, and you start something in that field, you become useless, or at best what’s called incrementalist,” Jain tells me. “That mean you can be 10% better than anybody in the world, but you’ll never be 10 times better than anybody. To be 10 times better, you have to come as naive.”
At the time Viome was in its early incubation, everybody else in the health industry was focused on studying DNA and the human genome (think 23andMe and Ancestory.com) as a way of measuring and predicting health patterns and predisposition to diseases.
Jain mulled over the idea and pulled from a concept he remembered from his required high school biology classes — your DNA never changes, regardless of diseases, illnesses or lifestyle changes — even when you’re dead. If that was the case, how could DNA alone tell you everything you needed to know about diseases you would inherit in your lifetime?
It was there that Jain began researching the microbiome and gene expression.
The microbiome, by definition, is “the community of microorganisms (such as fungi, bacteria and viruses) that exists in a particular environment.” As humans, there are hundreds of trillions of these tiny organisms living in our bodies.
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Studying the microbiome was not an out-of-the-box concept for researchers and those in the health industry at the time, but what Jain noticed was that companies were focusing on what exactly these particular organisms were and trying to link those individual organisms to specific health patterns instead of focusing on their behavior. Why could one microorganism have virtually no effect on one person, but if you placed that same microorganism in another person’s gut, it would lead to a disease?
“As humans, 99% of all the genes that are expressed in our body don’t come from our mom and dad — they’re not ours. They’re all microbiome,” Jain says of his “a-ha” moment with Viome. “My point was, what if we actually focus on what they are doing, not who they are? That will solve the problem.”
Coming into the industry as an outsider looking in, you’re able to see things from a fresher perspective or what Jain calls “challenging the foundation of what every expert in the world has taken for granted.” New ways to solve problems require fresh thinking and new eyes on the problem, a completely objective perspective.
Jain drives home this point with the example of the great space race and the billionaires who are starting space exploration companies — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson — none of them have backgrounds in aviation skills or space exploration.
It’s also what drove Jain to start Moon Express.
“My fundamental belief is entrepreneurs are going to become the next superpower,” Jain affirms. “All of the biggest problems are being solved by entrepreneurs, not by countries. And that’s where the power comes from.”
Think so big that it scares you, then think even bigger
Of course, the concept of going to the moon and out of our atmosphere might be the definition of “thinking big,” but to Jain, there’s no such concept as thinking big enough.
“All 7.4 billion of us as humans, we live on a single spacecraft we call planet Earth. If this spacecraft were to be damaged, if an asteroid hit our planet, our whole species is gonna get wiped out,” he suggests, pointing to the extinction of dinosaurs as an example. “The idea is to go to the moon because it is a stepping stone — the moon is a terrible place to be living. It is within our cislunar system, which means that if something happens to Earth, the moon will have similar problems. The idea is to go beyond the moon, maybe Mars, but even Mars has the same problems, it’s in our solar system. It’s a matter of time before our Sun implodes and that whole solar system is gonna go away. So you want to go from our solar system to our galaxy, and then you want to probably go from our galaxy to a different galaxy, because you want to have as many backups in different places as you can. And someday, possibly even from our universe to a different universe in the multiverse. Otherwise, how would you save humanity, right? We all are going to die. And that’s a reason to go to space.”
On a more Earthly scale, Jain has used this exponential concept of thinking and approach toward provlem solving as the fuel behind the companies he’s launched (double pun intended there).
Whether it was securing the A-team to hop on board with Viome off the bat (former leader of Applied Genomics at the famed Los Alamos National Laboratory, Momo Vuyisich and former head of IBM Watson AI research, Guruduth Banavar, were two of Viome’s first employees, to paint a picture) or seeking to disrupt the Internet and search optimization (See Jain’s former company Infospace), if Jain could find a way to identify what he wanted done, he would a find a way to make it happen.
“The best and the brightest in the world wants to work on the toughest problems. And the people who are successful, they want to become significant. So you attract the most amazing team when you’re working on something that is audacious,” he tells me. “I worked for Microsoft, I worked for Bill [Gates] for a long time. And I was very, very successful. But to me, the problem was I was a cog in the wheel, I was not the person who could actually change the direction. And to me, I felt that what I have to go out and do is take a problem and just run it to the ground. I really feel that there is no problem I can’t solve.”
Let your life experiences be your overall driver and teacher/lead by example
Jain attributes this notion of nothing being unsolvable to his growing up poor in India. He came to the U.S. for work with only $5 in his pocket after working his way up and through the schooling system in his home country before earning his MBA.
“Behind every entrepreneur’s story, which looks like an overnight success, nobody sees the amount of work that goes behind it,” he points out. “I really think that is what life is about, it’s that every interaction we have changes who we become — the thing that looks like it was the catalyst is never the one. It’s everything else that happened before that.”
It’s no surprise that Jain, then, doesn’t believe in mentors, but in viewing one’s life experiences as a way of learning.
“You can’t unhear something, once you interact with something, it permanently changes you. And that is a constant in life that you’re constantly changing,” he muses. “I really think life is the biggest mentor you have.”
This lead by example, learn as you go and grow approach is something he and his wife, And, have remained mindful of when raising their three children — Ankur, Priyanka and Neil.
“There were a couple of things we did very, very different,” Jain tells me of he and Anu’s approach to raising their children. “Part of it was actually us redefining success for them. We told them, your success is never measured by how much money you have in the bank, but measured by how many lives you improve. Your self-worth doesn’t come from what you own, your self-worth comes from what you create. So you can own a lot, but if you haven’t created anything, then you are actually still a parasite on society. So don’t be a parasite.”
A quick Google search will show you that the Jain children are succeeding far beyond any parents’ expectations.
“I’m just so proud of every one of them,” Jain gushes. “Our thinking was never to, you know, take them to the water or make them drink. Everybody does that ‘I’m gonna force this down your throat.’ We learned what if we can make the children thirsty, guess what happens? You don’t have to take them to the water anymore. Once you make them thirsty, they will find their own water and they will drink. How do you make someone thirsty? Create intellectual curiosity. Once you do that, the children just never stop dreaming.”
Expect the unexpected and embrace it
Of course Jain’s successes haven’t come without their own set of challenges.
“Every entrepreneur is going to see ups and downs, and you have to accept them, and you have to expect them,” Jain says. “And when you are at the bottom of the beat, you just hunker down and know the next beat is going to be up, and when you’re on top of the beat, never become too arrogant because you know that winter is coming … you never want a smooth life. Because when you’re looking for a smooth life, you’re looking for the life of a dead person.”
This is precisely Jain’s answer when I ask him if there will ever be a day when he stops what he’s doing, when he grows too tired and decides he no longer wants to be an entrepreneur.
“Yes,” he smiles. “When I’m six feet under.”
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