Uncommon Interview: Brad Keywell

The Maroon spoke with the Groupon founder and Booth School teacher on toys, Objectivism, and Midwestern values.

By Jonathan Lai

Serial entrepreneurs Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky cofounded Groupon in 2008 with then-Harris School of Public Policy student Andrew Mason. Groupon, a social retail website, recently turned down a reported $6 billion acquisition offer from Google. This quarter, Keywell and Lefkofsky are joint teaching a course at the Booth School of Business called Building Internet Start-Ups: Risk, Reward, and Failure. The Maroon spoke with Keywell about toys, Objectivism, and Midwestern values.

Chicago Maroon: You’re teaching a class at the Booth school with Eric Lefkofsky. How did it come about?

Brad Keywell: Eric Lefkofsky is my partner, my business partner, and Eric started teaching years ago, at DePaul, a course on technology disruption and technology-centric businesses that can change different industries. He then moved that class to Kellogg, where I began to get involved with the course, guest lecturing and helping out, and ultimately we decided we were going to teach together…. It’s been a great partnership because Booth is a spectacular school with a true focus on entrepreneurship.

CM: Can you describe the “midterm experience” that the course description promised students?

BK: We gave each student a five-dollar bill, and the instruction was to take the five-dollar bill and buy a toy. The challenge is to create as much value as possible starting with the toy, using the Internet, using their own resourcefulness, using creativity, and then deliver it in the form of a video that either documents the results of their efforts or documents some value creation that started with the toy. So what we’re doing is challenging our students to be creative, to be resourceful, and to be innovative as it relates to creation of value.

CM: How would you have done it?

BK: Well if I told you, then I’d have to kill you, so I can’t tell you.

CM: Do you think future entrepreneurs will keep achieving the kind of success Groupon and other Internet start-ups have achieved in the past decade?

BK: I think that the advances in the Internet, specifically as it relates to the social graph, and the proliferation of interesting data, combined with advances in mobile technology and location-based services, have created a platform where great things will be created in the months and years to come that simply could not have existed ever before now. And then once those things are created, the mechanisms are in place for those things to grow at paces faster than has ever been conceived. So the possibility for a student in my class, or any student for that matter, to create the next Groupon or the next whatever, the possibility’s absolutely there.

CM: On your website it lists some of your favorite books, and I noticed many of them are by Ayn Rand, and that on the list of charities you admire is the Ayn Rand Institute. Are you an Objectivist?

BK: I’m not… [laughs]. I would not consider myself an Objectivist, but I would consider myself somebody who is profoundly moved by Atlas Shrugged and who looks at Atlas Shrugged as an important book for any aspiring entrepreneur or aspiring “do-er” in our society.

CM: At the Future of the City conference last week, you talked about Chicago and “Midwestern values.” What do you see as Midwestern values?

BK: At the conference last week, what I talked about was the need for our city and our region to embrace entrepreneurial risk-taking. Because without entrepreneurs and without risk-taking, we are not going to create the jobs we need to revitalize our cities. So in the context of that, what I talked about was the entrepreneurial resourcefulness and the values of hard work, persistence, and dedication that I think uniquely exist in the Midwest, and that clearly are an asset that we have capitalized on with our businesses—Echo, Mediabank, Groupon, and Lightbank among them.

CM: How would you recommend entrepreneurial-minded U of C students put that resourcefulness to work?

BK: You know, the University of Chicago is one of the great educational institutions in the country and really in the world. So what it provides for a student is a remarkable canvas. The question for each student is, what are they going to paint on that canvas? And I look at the University experience as one where the University is responsible for providing as many resources and choices as they responsibly can for the students, but ultimately the students are responsible for utilizing and capitalizing upon those resources in their own unique way.

So to a student at the University of Chicago, I would say, “Everything is at your fingertips, but ultimately only you can make the experience of the U of C a great one for you.”