Our initial encounter with Jeff Heilman came from Elon Musk’s biography, by Ashlee Vance.
He may be a multi-talented, self-educated software consultant who is now one of Silicon Valley’s living legends but when he started out 25 years ago Jeff Heilman didn’t even know what the internet was.
Jeff began working with the Musk brothers in 1995 for their primary company, Global-Link (later known as Zip2) – none of them had any idea about the epic journey on which they were about to embark. Working as an account manager for the new internet company and becoming their first employee, Jeff admits it was a risky move but one that eventually paid off.
25 years on, the self-taught entrepreneur is continually innovating and when he’s not doing that, he’s pursuing his dream to become a professional golfer! Here, the father of 7 looks back on his trailblazing career working with the Musk brothers and shares with us his invaluable wisdom and advice for aspiring innovators.
If you had one message to share with the world based on your journey so far, what is it?
The one thing I tell everyone is that the answers you’re looking for are in your power of decision-making process. I think the thing that makes us as human beings the same, is that we are all vulnerable. We may have various superpowers, but we all have some sort of Achilles heel in our lives. The thing that makes people different, are the things we want. It’s all ultimately based on decisions.
But here’s the bad news… only 2% of the world fully understands the extent of control they have and for the other 98%, it’s just entertainment.
I tell you this not to be discouraging- but to be encouraging. All the buildings we see, all the software that runs the world, all the money – may be the product of the general working population. However, it’s the vision and the manifestation of that 2 %. My turning point came when someone asked me, which side of the percentage do you want to be? (you may not have known before today that you have a choice, but you do.)
It’s fun to talk to young people about my journey because of my association with Elon musk and I do feel it’s something I can do, to make a difference in people’s lives, especially for those who are ambitious and looking for answers. I always remember that it was down to other people who made that difference for me, in my life.
My suggestion is that you focus on the thing that scares the shit out of you every single day. That’s what you should do. If it’s public speaking, then do it. If it’s building your own company rather than getting a job, then start it. Elon probably didn’t say more than 50 words to me in the 4 months I worked with him. I saw him every single day. In an office that was the same size as a bedroom. He was totally, completely and maniacally focused on the thing that was resisting him the most – which was figuring a way to get the search engines to work easier.
The world doesn’t need another Elon Musk. What it needs is for you to become the best version of yourself and to continue to make decisions that will take you into the resistance. Then, guess what happens when you’ve overcome something that has resistance? You’ll start to become very clear and crisp towards your decisions. Eventually, decisions will be either a 1 or 0, yes or no, black or white, on or off. Life becomes very simple in that respect even though the complexities will multiply.
I choose to fill my schedule with things that scare me the most because that’s when my superpower is activated. Don’t you want to live your life when your superpower is working most of the time?
You’re someone who has experienced Silicon Valley since the 1970s. What was the atmosphere and environment like at that time and how has it changed since?
Silicon Valley has been a hub for technology since the 1940s. NASA built out its facilities here in the early days. But when I was a kid there was just Intel and Lockheed – the rest of it was just a bunch of farmlands. By the time the 1990s rolled in, the internet was in full swing so you can imagine the hotbed of technology companies.
Later, came the newly formed venture-capital companies in major universities like Santa Clara, Berkeley, and Stanford.
The biggest changes that I’ve seen in the last probably 10 to 12 years have been as a result of the absolute ubiquitous use of smartphones. These changes meant fewer requirements of being in Silicon Valley and more inclusive of the rest of the developed world.
For someone who has seen the growth of the internet first-hand, what’s next on the horizon?
My advice would be to shift the question from “what’s the future of technology look like?” to “what does the future look like and how will technology play a role in changes?”
Without gaining a higher and formal academic education to support the way through your career, how did you find this?
Earning a degree has nothing to do with entrepreneurship. Learning and experimentation and selling one’s ideas is the primary skillset.
The area I found most greatly underserved in each of the businesses I’ve helped build, was the area of communication skills. To me, explaining what a software product does is easy once I’ve done the homework. How anyone can sell something technical or non-technical without a genuine understanding or until they believe what they are selling is of tremendous value is beyond my comprehension!? Yet a great percentage of the people in sales need no such belief to solicit business.
I have worked extremely hard to understand technical concepts in software and networking products of which for the most part did not come to me easily, but only after much intense study. I did not focus on engineering in school and so, it probability took me 5-6 years of selling technology to get the basic concepts of IT and software. A lot of people did not have the willingness to put in the work to learn about how technology operates, and this has given me an advantage in my ‘lack’ of education because I was honest in my assessments early on and found there was simply no other way for me to succeed in Silicon Valley than to study.
It is true, my most advanced academic level completed is high school or 12th grade. From a formal education standpoint, I lack much of the mathematics and science classes of the average second-year engineering student. But that is not to say I am not educated. For example, can most people in business explain what it is they do for a living in such a way, where the explanation of their topic of mastery would sufficiently satisfy a university professor as well as a 12-year old to understand it well enough for them to explain it to a third party? I believe this is the genuine role of a sales presenter.
IBM hired me for my understanding of cloud computing and analytics which I gained at Intel.
Intel hired me for my experience in virtualization of the data center which I gained at CA Technologies.
CA hired me for my experience in the data center and in storage which I gained at CISCO, AccelOps and from starting Tegile.
CISCO bought Perfigo for its exceptional security product which was easily learned with my background in IT sales.
Herein lies the road map to success paved by personal development, study, communication skills, and by learning not just what a company does, but what they needed to do.
You mention the importance of mental toughness. How do you maintain such a way of thinking and for those who have yet to master it, is it simply a ‘lightbulb moment’ that clicks one day?
There is a quick moment, but it usually comes after a long period of working and training and trying to figure out details to achieve your dream or ideal future.
What was it like working so closely with Elon Musk and his brother Kimbal in those early stages?
I certainly did stumble across Zip2 – which was called Global Link in the beginning. I responded to a newspaper ad for one of the first internet companies in the valley – which is ironic (if you’ve read Elon’s story). I met with the Musk brothers and agreed to start in sales the next week. When I met Elon and Kimbal, they had a tiny office in Palo Alto. There was a desk and two laptops which were expensive at that time – maybe $3-4,000 a piece in today’s dollars. They had maybe $10,000 from their parents and had only been working for a few months. There was no product, no people, no space to work in. It wasn’t very impressive.
Kimbal was a very positive person. He and I would go to coffee each day and talk about the sales calls I was making by literally knocking on doors and asking businesses if they wanted to be able for people to find them on the internet.
The internet wasn’t anything we’d ever heard of before and no one I knew had ever used it in 1995. We were very early. As a result, it turned out, I didn’t make any sales and the guys ran out of money after about 3 months. They offered to have me stay on working for no pay until they got funded, but I had bills to pay and could not see how we would ever make it as a company, so I respectfully declined.
It was very uneventful. Silicon Valley had not been placed on the map yet. The word “start-up” was not a thing people spoke of or knew about.
Looking back, I don’t have any regrets in leaving Zip2.com because at the time it wasn’t anything. I’m certainly glad to see these former friends and employers of mine to have done so well, but my timing in working with them was so early I don’t think there was much chance for my poor sales skills, doing them much good at the time either. They were painting houses in Canada just a few months before I started working for them in Palo Alto and I’m sure even they could not have imagined at the time how far they would go.
As a father of 7 kids, what’s one piece of advice would you give to them?
The main advice I give them is to pay close attention to cause and effect and to propaganda. I rarely tell them what to do, but I’m constantly challenging them to examine how they think.
The basis for all success, in my mind, is taking consistent and repetitive action along the lines of building a “belief” that someone can do a thing. Until there’s a POP! in the subconscious which says, “I know I can do this.” Until you get to that POP! there’s always doubt, and that doubt is NEVER to have a voice in one’s decision making as to what they will do.
With a focused outcome clearly held in one’s mind at all times, with a tremendous imagination and the reiteration of the image again and again in detail with a recalling of the emotional reasons as to WHY you might do a thing or acquire a thing, there’s really no limits to what a man or woman can achieve. But without this “faith energy,” I’m not certain I could have the ability to successfully get out of bed and get to my breakfast in the morning.