Tom Lehman, Co-Founder of Genius
Tom Lehman is a self-proclaimed “life hacker,” an innovative ceramicist, and the Co-Founder of Genius—the internet’s destination for annotation. With the intention to “look deeper,” Genius was built on the human desire to dig into things you love. We take a look into the Co-Founder himself.
An Interview: Get To Know Tom Lehman
WORDS BY: ZARNA SURTI
We sat down with Tom Lehman to talk about Genius, ceramics, and everything in between.
What is Genius all about?
The entire idea behind the site is to make it cool to not know things and to then find out about them—rather than making people feel bad for not knowing things. People are constantly pretending to know everything and there’s a lot of pressure in the world to pretend to know things, particularly about music or culture. What Genius is about in a lot of ways is making people feel better about admitting that they don’t know, finding out the answer, and then ideally sharing that with someone else who also wants to know.
How do you convince those unfamiliar with the site that internet annotation is necessary?
Annotation is a big part of our brand and also, kind of an annoying word. If you search Twitter for “annotated,” people are complaining about doing annotated bibliographies—that’s how people think of annotation as a word. But as a concept it’s the most natural thing in the world. Everyone has had the experience of wanting to know what a line in a song means, or what a movie means, or what’s going on in a work of art. Our tagline in many ways is “look deeper, ” because there’s the human desire to know something about the meaning of culture and there’s also the human desire to be able to provide that meaning. When the site started as Rap Genius and my friends were explaining rap lyrics to me I was having a great time, but they were also having a great time, because it’s fun to be able to share your hidden knowledge and peel back the layers for someone.
Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and even Instagram already offer a place for commentary. What makes Genius different from those platforms?
What Genius is about in a lot of ways is taking what is already happening and bringing it closer to the thing being talked about. That’s sort of the fundamental idea of annotation, which is, as you are experiencing something, you should be able to immediately access the annotations right there. These platforms allow you to post new things as well, but you can’t annotate on Facebook today—although, a boy can dream.
You started as Rap Genius, what drove you to shift the brand to Genius?
My interest in the topic of annotation and the topic of discussing culture and art were never limited to hip-hop. The reason the whole project started with rap was because I was really coming to appreciate hip-hop through the annotations my friends were giving. In many ways, the re-brand was just a formalization of what was already happening, but in other ways it was a big move because it represented us putting our money where our mouth was in terms of expanding. It was really more about accepting that challenge than thinking about the way we approach annotating culture differently, because we were already doing it for all mediums—not just rap.
What advice do you have for people wanting to leave their full time job to become entrepreneurs?
You don’t have to wait until everything’s perfect to do the things you really want to do—it’s more about having the courage to do what you want to do.
What inspires you?
The truth is, the thing that inspires me most is waiting and trying to learn the incredibly hard lesson of constant change. Just observe yourself, feel in your bones that what you’re feeling now is temporary and that everything is temporary, and live accordingly. I think the best way to become inspired is to wait, and often waiting just means not quitting—even if not quitting feels like you are just pretending.
You’re 32. What is the hardest part of being a young CEO?
I don’t know if it’s that much harder than being anyone trying to do anything. As you start to have a bigger company, communicating with people can be tough if people are also looking for your approval, and I also think accepting the impermanence of everything is very hard. People join the company, people leave the company; different stages of the company come and go; different stages of life come and go. You’ve got to be attached to making good stuff, but you can’t be that attached to any sort of specific situation or moment.
Creatively, where do you get inspired?
First of all, I get out into the world—it’s not about sitting in your house and looking at things. It’s about getting out into the world of unexpected stuff happening, and surrounding yourself with people who can come up with interesting notions that hopefully you can re-combine and build upon into something bigger. It’s much more of a process of observing and synthesizing than it is of dreaming stuff up. In general, I am not one suited to work alone—it would be very, very hard for me to work solo on a big project.
Speaking of inspiration, what draws you to ceramics?
Ceramics started when I was in high school, and to graduate high school I needed a fine art credit. At the time I was very irritated by that because I thought, “I know what I like and I don’t like art.” I took the art class and ended up really liking ceramics and wanting to do a lot of it. Then I did it on and off until we started Genius, but then I quit. I quit because I thought I didn’t have time and in some ways that was true—I didn’t have as much time. So I got back into it this year and what I like is that it’s a metaphor for work because it really embodies the quantity theory; and for me at least, ceramics occupies a good niche in the world where you can become good at it as a normal person. Also, I think there’s something important about a tactile exercise that mentally trains you—you can’t look at the internet, you can’t look at your phone.
Where do you find meditative elements in your day?
I don’t meditate, so that’s one problem. Ilan, my business partner and closest friend, is a meditator and is always, not explicitly, but implicitly slam dunking my face with that. But I think even if you don’t meditate, you can find meditative elements. The key is to not beat yourself up and to realize anything that allows you to observe changes within yourself is meditative. That to me is the key of meditation—observing yourself, observing that things change, and then gradually feeling in your bones the impermanence of everything.
Tom Lehman-isms: How To Be A Genius
Want to follow in Tom's footsteps? Here are our five favorite ISMs by the man himself—with his thoughts on each of them.
1. It’s not not your job
“Take ownership. Seek to discover hidden projects and backstop them. Always be asking yourself what’s going on and whether it’s good. Trust your gut—if something looks broken, investigate even if everyone else is acting like it’s fine and you feel unqualified to voice a contrary opinion. Things tend to look weirder as you look closer—turn over the rocks and witness the nasty creepy crawlies squirming underneath.”
2. Don’t fill up on bread
“Choosing how to spend your time is one of your most important and difficult jobs. Choose well and you’ll have a massive impact on our chance of success. Choose poorly and you might as well not be coming to work at all.”
3. Being busy ≠ Making progress
“Just because you’re not on Facebook and are feeling busy and generally stretched thin and tired doesn’t mean you’re making progress! Ask yourself: how, through my efforts, is the world different now than it was a few days ago? Have I brought about a positive outcome? Have I pushed things forward?”
4. Write like a human
“Whenever you write something read it aloud and ask yourself, ‘is this what I would say if I were just explaining this to someone in person?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then make it more human and less ‘professional.’ So if you’re using phrases like ‘prior to’ (versus ‘before’), and ‘in the event that’ (versus ‘if’), and ‘don’t hesitate to ask’ (versus ‘whatever’), or whatever else that makes it sound like ‘a business email,’ rewrite it to be more conversational.”
5. Be skeptical of efforts
“Experts won’t solve your difficult problems so don’t expect them to save you. Run into the spike and face down ambiguous situations yourself instead of wasting time looking for the mystical expert who’ll tell you what to do.”
Listen In: A Podcast
New Rules: Tom Lehman
A Genius History
There’s no formula to building a business from scratch, but if the history of Genius is any indication, it takes dedication, hard work, and a fumble or two along the way. From Co-Founders Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory becoming friends in college to what Genius is today, here’s a brief timeline of their journey.