Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
Don’t hide your ideas. Test them with anyone who will listen
In Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs closely guard their ideas, codes, formulas, and secret sauces, Frederic Kerrest is an open book.
The co-founder, executive vice chairman, and COO of identity management company Okta is a firm believer in sharing ideas with as many people as he can, and that “keeping your ideas to yourself is a big mistake.”
Kerrest has the track record to back up that wisdom. Between 2002 and 2007 he helped grow Salesforce from a company of 150 people and roughly $25 million in revenue, to more than 3,500 employees and $1 billion in revenue. In 2009 he started Okta with former Salesforce colleague Todd McKinnon; today the company is valued at $35 billion. And now Kerrest is also a co-founder and board chairman of a company using artificial intelligence to treat brain diseases.
We spoke with Kerrest about this new idea in medical care, and why people should worry less about having their ideas stolen.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by technology, entrepreneurship and discovering new ways to solve difficult and ubiquitous problems that will have an enduring impact on the world. This is true across all industries, whether it’s enterprise technology to keep companies and government organizations secure, or health care innovation to improve patient outcomes.
Who inspires you?
I am inspired by ambitious entrepreneurs who are going after big, hairy, audacious goals, with a plan to attack the most difficult and interesting problems out there. Nothing inspires me more than scrappy entrepreneurs chasing their dreams and changing the world. I was lucky enough to meet some of the entrepreneurs who have inspired me the most while working on my book “Zero to IPO,” and hear their actionable advice on achieving success.
Where do you get ideas?
Ideas can strike at any time, but mine typically come to me in the shower or while reading a good book. I read about everything, including history, technology, and business. I also enjoy biographies and autobiographies of the inventors and entrepreneurs who I admire. Learning about some of the most pivotal innovations of our past helps me find inspiration to tackle the problems of today and the future. A lot of my good ideas stem from discussions with other entrepreneurs who are willing to spitball ideas and collaborate to find better ways forward.
How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?
We look to hire builders and owners who can help take what we have and bring it to the next level, whether that’s with existing products or innovative new ideas. Okta Ventures, our corporate investment arm, makes early-stage investments in identity, security, and related technologies so we stay at the forefront of innovation across the ecosystem.
How do you keep track of new ideas?
Personally, I use Evernote as an application across all of my devices to keep track of my ideas, as well as my priorities and areas of research and focus. I also keep a notebook on my nightstand so I can write down middle-of-the-night reminders or ideas.
Who do you share new ideas with?
I share new ideas with as many people as I can, as often as I can. I am of the strong opinion that keeping your ideas to yourself is a big mistake. Some people don’t want to share their ideas because they are worried someone is going to steal them. This kind of fear usually means you don’t have the experience and expertise needed to be thinking 30 years ahead of everyone else. But even more importantly, this fear indicates to me that the idea can be easily implemented without barriers, signaling it’s really about who can run faster. This does not create sustainable competitive differentiation and innovation in the long term.
How do you test ideas?
I test ideas by bouncing them off of people, including partners, prospects, colleagues, customers, investors — pretty much anyone who will listen. Talking through ideas helps me look at the problem I’m trying to solve through different lenses, and getting feedback early on saves me valuable time in the long run.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have a meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
One thing people might not know about me is that in addition to my job as executive vice chairman, chief operating officer, and co-founder at Okta Inc., I am also the chairman of the board and co-founder of a neurotherapeutics company called Herophilus.
Herophilus is a neurotherapeutics development company that employs AI-driven, phenotypic screening to discover and develop novel drugs for complex brain diseases (starting with Rett syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease) and disorders for which traditional discovery techniques have proven least successful.
Central nervous system diseases are very serious afflictions that affect many in society, and I have had personal experience with them in my family. There currently aren’t many effective cures for CNS diseases, but with today’s modern tools and technology, I believe there should be a better way to find some. One of my closest friends is now a professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco and the idea for Herophilus came out of his post-doctoral work. As a former entrepreneur himself, he knew there had to be a better way to use modern tools, technology, and processes to build a company aimed at addressing some of these unmet needs.
While Herophilus is still in the preclinical stage, we have already begun establishing partnerships with some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world who see a lot of promise in our approach and are interested in using our platform and processes to find cures to CNS diseases. Using innovative screening methods to bring transformative medicines to millions of patients battling these diseases will have a meaningful impact in the world.