Eric Burns | Crain's Seattle

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Eric Burns


Eric Burns co-founded Panopto in 2007 after working on the idea for several years with peers from Carnegie Mellon University. Panopto is a video platform for businesses and universities that manages, live streams, records and shares all forms of visual content.

The Mistake:

I think the biggest mistake I made was to treat many other fields – outside of the software engineering piece that built the product and was my background – as similarly hard science.

There are very steep barriers to making positive contributions to that effort. I sort of assumed that every other discipline had the same barriers, where you just aren’t allowed to participate without a certain level of credentials or a certain degree of experience.

What I realized over time is that it’s very dangerous to treat functions that contribute to the success of the company as domains that should be run by the experts. It’s dangerous because it allows somebody in an operating role to convince themselves that things are fine without deeply understanding the details, and to avoid one of the most fundamental roles that an operator has – -which is to be able to call foul on ideas or proposals that just don’t hold water at a basic logical level.

You can take that deferential approach and say, “I don’t have this background and I don’t really understand this, but you’re the pro and you’ve got the track record, so I’m going to go with what you say.” [But] the danger of that is, it leads you into traps of feeling unempowered and as though you can’t correct an organizational problem yourself.

It’s not really about expertise; it’s about reasoning through problems.

The Lesson:

Respectfully challenge every senior person approach and don’t back down when it seems as though you just don’t have the background. It’s not really about expertise; it’s about reasoning through problems.

There’s a great quote: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It’s not about having the recipe for a pattern and deploying the recipe. It’s about being analytical, about how the degree to which a new opportunity or a new problem matches previous problems – and also where it doesn’t.

If you’ve got a solution that’s 90 percent right for a 90 percent similar situation, in that remaining 10 percent, everybody’s input is valuable. Premature deferral to expertise can lead you to groupthink and bad decision-making.

So what I finally realized was I had to kind of fearlessly wade into everything, even things where I felt completely outclassed by other folks in the room and their experience. I really just didn’t know what I was talking about. I think that the assumption that these things were inscrutable and were going to be hard to understand, led to accepting the wrong hires coming into the organization, or taking too much time to make an organizational change that needed to occur.

None of these things were fatal for the company. But I think there was a degree of reducing our momentum as we had to make changes that ended up getting deferred.

Follow Panopto on Twitter at: @Panopto.

Photo courtesy of Eric Burns.

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