Carlos Barrabes' Leadership Lessons Learned From Second Life
Serial entrepreneur Carlos Barrabés is the founder of Barrabés.com, an e-commerce platform for ski and mountain gear. A key figure in introducing and popularizing the Internet in Spain, he is an expert on digital innovation and its implication for society. Ashoka’s Valeria Budinich caught up with Carlos to discuss how the world is changing fundamentally and what this means for new leadership and ways of organizing.
Valeria Budinich: When did you discover that you were an entrepreneur or that you wanted to be one?
Carlos Barrabés: My parents owned a shop where I used to spend a lot of time playing. I woke up early with my parents to open the store and I would go home when we closed. So my entrepreneurial spirit – that way of life – was ingrained in my culture. It was, in fact, my family’s way of life.
Budinich: When we talk about entrepreneurs creating a new world, what was the first world that you created?
Barrabés: My first world was making a radio program with the loudspeakers in my school. I was 16 years old. You couldn’t hear very well, but it really excited me as a means of communicating with my immediate world. I’m from a very small town in the mountains, far away from the big cities, and I studied in a boarding school – so I always felt the need to express myself because I didn’t find that many avenues. For me, entrepreneurship has always been a medium of communication and expression. It also has an incredible element of introspection. Deep down, we create when we have something internal that we want to solve. I’ve always done the things that I felt I needed to do. ‘Doing things,’ creating companies and projects, is the way I like to be in the world.
Budinich: Can you point to a time when something you thought would work didn’t? What did you learn from that experience?
Barrabés: Yes, of course. Something that I was very interested in was Second Life. I participated in many interesting Second Life projects and dedicated a lot of time to understanding it. The truth is that once the online social world found its grounding with Facebook, what I had learned became very useful, but in the moment, I thought that it was bigger than it was. The philosophy stuck with me, but the project itself did not. And that happens! It’s normal to fail. In fact, it’s necessary. If you don’t fail it’s because you did not risk enough, and if you didn’t risk enough it’s because you didn’t put your whole self out there.
Budinich: You were one of the main players in bringing the Internet to Spain. Looking back, what are the most significant contributions that you and your team made?
Barrabés: That’s hard to say. We had a vision from the beginning not to keep what we knew to ourselves. I wanted to spread the word and my team felt the same way so I gave many talks – I’ve talked to well over 100,000 people in my life. So really, the vocation of storyteller evangelist was there from the beginning. We were fully aware that we had something that could make the world a better place. That is why we set out to tell the story and it’s why we continue to tell it today. It’s important to remember that the new world of the Internet is still very young. We are in the first stage which is why it should be regulated and understood as a step towards a different world where everyone is a player, where everyone gets to participate. The next phase of digitization will bring huge opportunities. Big players like Facebook are first edition monopolies.
Budinich: How do you describe the future that is materializing?
Barrabés: The most determining factor in what is happening today is that the intelligence and the capacity for action is distributed. For centuries, the strength, importance, and the ability to ‘do’ belonged to very few. The best word to describe the emerging world is access: access to education, to a dignified life, to work, to creating a community. What is really comes down to is a more human world.
We have always measured the world through productivity. But the world today no longer just manufactures. The metrics for productivity are flawed because in real life it’s about happiness and humans. What should be measured is: How happy does it make people? Today people are demanding that productivity be more human and not only focused on manufacturing and resources.
Budinich: In this new world, what are the biggest challenges for companies to adapt?
Barrabés: The problem is the existence of an old world that is becoming concentrated very fast. But there is also a new world, the world of startups, which are increasing every day. Why are so many new companies emerging? It’s because the companies of the old world are dedicated to managing the old world and the new world is being created by startups. That’s why the new world is so new – because it is being created by people who think differently and who are having a powerful effect on the old world. Those who transform are those who think like the new generation.
Budinich: In your description, there is a new understanding of how we must generate wellbeing as wealth in a more distributive way. Are we ready for that?
Barrabés: There is an abundance of awareness but not enough technology. The problem is that technology is still largely concentrated and creates large concentrators (the 1%). The advantage of productivity that technology offers is so huge that whoever wields that power, gets the money. For more distributed power, technology’s biggest goal is to become decentralized so that intelligence exists in the nodes and not in the center. That’s the biggest challenge and goal. Technologically speaking it’s going to be possible because that’s the way technology is headed. The step between distributed and decentralized is a step toward the start of a better world.
Budinich: What skills will be most needed?
Barrabés: Those who will succeed in the future will be those who can balance two egos: the personal and the social. You need a personal ego that makes you want to do things better, to ensure that systems work, and to empower yourself. You also need a social ego. For the leader of the future, it’s not a question of tools, technology, studies – it is a question of personal balance.
In a beehive, for example, the community is more important than the individual. That’s the key. There are many groups that don’t work. That’s why diversity is such an issue. It is seen as difficult to manage whereas its benefits are immense and incredibly important for the individual, the company, and the world. Managing diversity is complicated because you need a balance between the personal and social egos. I see this as one of the big goals of the emerging world that has already begun. People have the ability to listen and be good team players. These are not 20th-century skills, a time when the personal ego dominated. Nowadays if you only have one ego, you impede progress. The new world will be one of communities, but without individuals, communities cannot function. If the individuals within a community cannot reach their full potential, then neither can the community.
Budinich: These new leaders will be the ones to make the transition. Who is forming the new leaders? What advice would you give to a business school dean?
Barrabés: You can’t give advice to the last emperor of the Roman Empire Romulus Augustus. What do you say to someone when Google says you don’t need a university degree to go work for them? I think we are really in a moment of learning by doing and constant learning growth throughout life.