October 12, 2022

Navigate To the Lighthouse: Kurt Davis

Hey, what’s up everybody? If you’re in the startup tech world, I promise you don’t want to miss this Author Hour episode. I’m your host, Hussein Al-Baiaty, and today, I’m very excited to be joined by Kurt Davis who is getting ready to share his journey and tell us all about his second book, Navigate To The Lighthouse.

Kurt is a technology executive with over two decades of experience, building tech startups throughout Silicon Valley, Europe, and Asia. From 2008 to 2017, he worked with a startup called Boku, where he led global business development focusing on deals with Apple, Microsoft, Spotify, Sony and so much more. 

I’m very excited to be with Kurt, let’s get into the episode.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: All right everyone, I have an amazing guest today. Kurt Davis is with me about ready to share his journey with us. I’m so excited. Kurt, thank you for taking the time today. Let’s start by giving our listeners an idea of your personal background and then we’ll kind of get into the meat of things.

Kurt Davis: Sure, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. My background is quite eclectic in the sense, I’ve done different things, as well, I’ve lived and traveled to different places. I guess, early part of my — well, I grew up in South Carolina and then went to Davidson College in North Carolina, the home of Steph Curry.

And Davidson had a big study abroad program and I ended up going to Japan after college and teaching English, then three years in Hong Kong in finance, and then went to China and studied Chinese and started my first company there doing mobile phone games.

I went to California afterward, that was around 2006, and worked in investments there with Mitsui and then worked in a startup called Boku, which this book is based upon that experience of doing business development with carriers and mobile phone carriers as well as big companies like Facebook and Google and Apple.

So I spent seven years at that company in California, one year in London, and then I went back to Asia to build out the Asian business in Tokyo and did that for around seven years. After that, I got burned out and decided to take a break and backpack through Africa and I wrote my first book about that.

Then I moved back to Tennessee where I’ve been since then and wrote books straight into the pandemic, this book and the Africa book and now, I’m running a new business. So that’s my background.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s amazing. Kurt, it sounds like you are just not busy at all, you just kind of walk around and you do nothing with your day, like, this is amazing work, especially your trip out to Japan. I feel like that studying abroad or working abroad, I feel like opens up your horizon a little bit more and it sounds like that’s kind of what it did for you in many ways. 

So, obviously you’re an extremely busy person and then, COVID happens and then you’re sitting there like, “You know what? I’m going to write about this journey” and you wrote your first book. Can you just briefly tell me about that experience of sort of backpacking through Africa, what that was like for you?

Kurt Davis: Sure, it was a journey, both inside as well as outside. Of course, you see a lot of different things and very different things than you were accustomed to here in the US, whether it’s abject poverty and illnesses to also feeling a different way as a white man traveling in Africa.

But you also feel a sense of uniqueness and welcoming from that community. It is [that way] in many of the places too. So that was quite interesting and then, of course, that journey inside, it calls into question a lot of the things that you know or believe or think and those things change.

So what I try to capture in my first book was, both of those journeys, the journey of what I’m seeing and doing as well as what I’m feeling and how I’m changing as a person. That’s what that book was about.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s amazing. I love that and you said you started writing that during the 2020 COVID situation. You’re just like, “I’m going to hunker down and write this experience out.”

Kurt Davis: Yeah, so I actually started writing before. I had blogged about it and then, I have a blog I’ve been keeping for many years and it’s evolved over the decades and, I started taking writing classes because I didn’t really know how to write a book. It started actually like, well, getting in writing communities and seeing how authors were and they get reading about travel memoirs and what makes them interesting and what not, so I started studying that whole genre a little bit more. 

Then I decided, maybe there’s an angle with what I’m trying to do, which was the combination of not just travel but self-help and personal development with travel because that’s really what it’s about at the end of the day. I mean, yeah, you can go ritz and glitz at the finest restaurants and hotels but or, do you really want to experience life as people lived life in these different places and that’s kind of what I was trying to get to. 

So what happened was as I was kind of going through that process, the pandemic hit and I had drafted the book already but I realized that the draft I had written wasn’t that interesting. I didn’t have the inside journey. So, when the pandemic hit, I said, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and write the inner journey” and I combined the two, and then that’s how the book finally got finished.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s amazing. I’m excited to kind of go back and I was reading a little bit about your history and your experiences and that book just kind of stuck out to me so, I might have to go back and check it out.

So, your new book that you’ve sort of been developing and have now launched, tell me the premise of this book and who did you design it for? Who did you write this book for? We talk a lot about that at Scribe; who do you identify the book being like? If it was sitting in somebody’s lap who is that person?

Your new book, I thought it was a little bit profound, especially with this idea of lighthouse and we’ll talk about that a little bit later but what was your goal with this new book?

Kurt Davis: Well building all, as a segue to Africa, a lot of this happened in Africa because I was teaching at entrepreneurship centers and they kept asking, “How do you close deals? How did you close a deal with Apple? How did you close the deal with these big companies? Well, we want to do that.” So I started to make presentations about it. 

I actually, by the time I left and I had come back to the US and I was also talking to some accelerators here, I had made a hundred-page PowerPoint presentation about how to go through this process.

So I had already done that and I already had this avatar of an entrepreneur, you know, a head of sales who was interested and then I had a few other friends ask me and call me and talk to me and I saw it was a running circle kind of big question mark in the tech community is, how do you get past that early adopter phase that you know, the visionary phase and we had a team of people at our company who was quite good at doing this.

We, in many ways, we’re one of — we’re few people who understood how to do this because we had spent six years, seven years doing it and it was a kind of a unique thing. We really honed in on like, this is the target, this is the target of people who don’t know how to approach these companies and it’s a question mark they all have.

They think they can do it but they don’t know how to do it. They don’t know what to say, they don’t know even how to approach them. They don’t know how to make contact with them, they don’t know what to say when they get there, they don’t know what to pitch when they get them in the room, all of these types of things. So that’s the avatar.

The Lighthouse Deal

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that. I love that you sort of narrowed it down to these people who are trying to basically learn to knock on the door and learn how to communicate with these potential opportunities that are huge. You talk about that in your book and you kind of frame it around this idea of, that’s known to your industry called the lighthouse deal. Can you tell us a little bit about what this idea of a lighthouse deal is?

Kurt Davis: Sure. In industry circles, we call it the lighthouse. A lot of people say this, I don’t know if it has permeated to everybody where they all know what a lighthouse is. I just know that in certain circles in business development in San Francisco in the Bay, they call it the lighthouse and so I wanted to take that and get that out to where everyone’s saying, “We got to go get our lighthouse deal.” 

So whether you’re in clean tech or you’re in software or SaaS or whatnot, we need to get that big deal that takes us to the next level. That’s really what I wanted to make the sticking point and then I was able to build off that and be a little bit more creative. I didn’t want to write just another business book that was a little bit sleepy. I decided and I had recently gotten my sailing license over the last in like three years ago.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love it. So it makes even more sense.

Kurt Davis: Yeah, so I was like, “How do I make this more interesting?” I was like, “Well, if I kind of wrap in this whole idea of sailing and navigating to the lighthouse, this could be a little bit more interesting.” So I try to do that. I think it was done well, I might have pushed in a few ways I shouldn’t have. A little too much but I think it was trying to make it more fun.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that. I think that’s very creative, you know? I think as writers and these people that are trying to be creative and be — how do I tell this story of, navigating, you’re literally navigating waters into how to make a sail. I think it’s a great analogy and you’re actually doing it which makes it even more vivid and rich while you’re writing. 

So I love that. I love that sort of approach and it’s something unique, when I was kind of flipping through your book like, “What does the lighthouse have to do with business and deal?” and it just kind of like came together. I was kind of skimming through it and you obviously have set out and created this, like, lighthouse framework. 

Again, you’re kind of weaving this creative aspect to it where you’re talking about navigating the waters and how you get to this new opportunity, this new land of opportunity and so what do you think, you know, for me so…

Kurt Davis: By the way, you make it sound much better than I did but you’re right, that’s what I was going for. So I feel good that it came out that way.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: No, it totally did. Like I love that, right? Because, let’s be honest, business is business and it feels like an endless array of business books out there in the world, right? And those are great things but if we can become creative and really speak from our personal experiences, which is what you’ve done in this circumstance, it really becomes powerful.

Because not only am I learning a business tactic, I’m also learning about you and how you approach this, right? Which kind of gives me a hint about how I should approach whatever business endeavors, right? And so there was a part in your book where you talk a little bit about your young, hustling days and I love that because I could relate to it, [as the] the lawn mowing pushing kid, trying to sell stuff to my neighbors or whatever it was, right? How did that young hustler get to Silicon Valley? That’s my question.

Kurt Davis: It’s funny, you know, the paths we all take, I mean, and how we get there and I was trying to make it as relatable as possible to anyone who is reading it. I’ve been very interested in technology even in college and the prospect of wanting to go to college. In fact, it was my dream to go to Stanford when I was growing up. 

I never really pursued that coming from South Carolina but you know, I was very happy to have gone to Davidson. In fact, that led me to Asia where I got into a technology fund somewhat serendipitously through a contact. I started at that funded finance in Hong Kong, I would come back to California to work on some deals. 

Obviously, the connection, the Asia connection between California and Asia is so strong. It is so interlinked that that’s kind of when my door in my world opened to that world, and then when I started my little business, I realized if I was going to be starting companies or building companies, I should be in that part of the world because that is where everyone who is doing it at the time in the early 2000s was going to be and all the players were. 

I wanted to go spend time there and I think in my next book, I talk more about the personal journey and kind of the ups and downs of the personal journey that I went through, going there in the journey of the startup and that environment and at that time, which was quite an interesting time for early or mid-2000s. 

Incorporating The Writing Routine

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I mean the mid-2000s were an incredible time but also, it was kind of like sort of heading into a funky recession and there is a lot happening in that time and to start a business, all of those good things so I can understand how sort of like a third book in relation to the personal ups and downs as opposed to just the business ups and downs, that could be really powerful. 

So you are very much, obviously, into writing. Do you feel like — because I know for me, it’s kind of like a cathartic almost therapeutic process — do you feel that when you go into your writing, when you go and try to coach and teach and speak about this work, do you feel a sense of fulfillment? 

Kurt Davis: I think there is a few points there. One, it can be cathartic in ways of just getting it out and sometimes getting things out on paper, it helps you release things, emotions and thoughts and bad thoughts and good thoughts and if you do it on paper, it’s probably the best way to do it sometimes. So it can be very cathartic especially when you’re looking at things you maybe regret or maybe wish you would have done differently. 

But it is also realizing that it’s a learning process, that life is a learning process and that in some ways is the best way to get it out is on a piece of paper because you have to think through it too sometimes. So yes, and then if you take that message and you look at it and you want to use that as a script to talk or teach or whatever you’d like, it makes it a lot easier to do that. You have thought about it and then you can also research what other people have done and draw parallels and analogies to what you’ve done and learn from that. 

Then at the end, I think the third thing was, is it fulfilling? Whenever you share a message or [are] teach others, I think it’s fulfilling. All the studies in wellbeing, if you are doing either wellbeing studies, if you look at any religion, everything a part of that talks about giving your knowledge and giving and helping others and if this is you know if this is the way that I give back a little bit and help other entrepreneurs or people, it makes me feel good and it is fulfilling that way, so yes. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that. I love when I wrote my book, that was the biggest thing for me. It was so cathartic. I felt like I can finally detach from the particularly emotions and just kind of understand them a little bit more and understand this idea of like connecting the dots going backwards and like how they actually connect and why. So I thought for me, that was really powerful and I can kind of sense that in your work as well, which is really powerful. 

So you are thinking about writing a third book, which I think is phenomenal and this is your second, which meant where do you find the time? Like where do you say, “Okay mornings, afternoons, evenings”, where is your hotspot of where you like sit down and write or maybe put it on a speaking note or whatever it is? How do you come to that writing every day? 

Kurt Davis: Well, during the pandemic it was a little bit easier. During the lockdown, it was cool and easy because it’s like, “Well, what am I going to do today? Ah, I’ll write.” 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Right, I’ll write, yep, exactly. 

Kurt Davis: But as we know and as you know, to get a book finished it does take discipline. I mean, yeah, just sit your butt in the seat and write until you get that draft on. I think, I don’t know if Scribe was offering this, they launched this guided author session at that time and Tucker was really pushing it. I did that and that was very helpful to create a discipline of like, “I’m going to get this done” and I earmarked three months to get this book done. 

I was like, “I am going to get this draft done” and I had someone kind of help me along the way and we knocked it out in about 60 days, the whole thing and then I took a little time. I had some family issues and editing issues and I had some other people who wanted to contribute and I wanted to change things. I mean, I went through quite a lot of edits to get the people I wanted, the extra people whom I wanted to contribute to and get the right story and make sure everything was represented the right way. 

So it took me another good year after that, of course, I have some family issues, some sicknesses to go through but you know, now I am getting back more into a normal job as I’m running a company and what I am doing now is I am making writing part of my work. So I am actually trying to wake up in the morning three times a week. I am not pushing myself too hard, only three or four times a week in the morning, but actually on the weekends as well. 

For at least 90 minutes, I will make myself write about what’s happening in the current company or the current situation so that the story is almost real-time. I’m kind of working on books three and four simultaneously, three is the historical personal journey. Four is like I’m doing this as I go on this startup, so I am actually writing the story as I’m doing the startup. So this is, the fourth book is actually doing that. 

When this startup is over I’ll have written everything in that current state of mind and then I’ll be able to edit and it will be a quick release rather than I already know the subject of it, rather than have to look back. So now, I’m making writing as part of my work. It actually helps me get better at my job, it makes me start to realize, “Ah, actually this is something I’m not thinking about I should be thinking about.” So I am making it a part of my job, I don’t know if that helps. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, no that clarifies a lot. I mean, I love that you’re just kind of interweaving the writing process as a part of archiving how you are developing this new work but also reflecting back at your personal journey. I think it’s really amazing, man. I mean, like thinking about writing is a part of my day as opposed to a thing that I have to do on top of the other things that I have to do is a way to sort of clarify what writing is and what it can do for you. 

I think just talking earlier about just how cathartic it is and sitting down and writing about your current journey as you go through it, I’m sure it’s very helpful too just to kind of process what you are going through and navigating the business world, so I love that. I think that’s amazing. So congratulations man. I mean, this is again your second book. It’s no easy feat to write one, it is definitely not an easy feat to write two and you’re working on a third and fourth. 

I love that, kudos to you. If somebody were to take away like one or two things from your new book, what would that be? 

Kurt Davis: The first point would be to shoot big but to invest wisely, shoot big but invest wisely. You’re not — I think too many people think all or nothing when they come to think about chasing big deals or big opportunities and none of that is wise to go all or nothing. I think risk assessment is very important. So shoot big but do your risk assessment and be balanced as you do it. 

I think that’s one of the key points and the second key point is using the metaphor of sailing. When you are sailing a ship, you have a team and you have a captain but the team has got to be on board and the team has got to work together like everyone from the product, engineering, CEO, board levels have got to understand that they need to help in getting that deal closed and teamwork is essential, you know, be the captain is only as good as his crew. 

It’s very important to keep that in mind, a person who is constantly hustling, on the call, on the street, on the plane, or moving is not going to have the ability to deliver high-quality presentations, materials, technical understanding, and all of that without a really good team behind them.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: One hundred percent agree with that. These are two amazing points that I know that your book will help so many people navigate those waters. I think lighthouse deals, I mean from my understanding are these big opportunities but it takes time, effort, energy, team, resources, and thoughtfulness because I know some of these deals could take years to button down. 

So I just appreciate you putting your energy, your hard-earned knowledge into this book. I am very excited, so congratulations to you. We’ll get it out there as best we can, Navigate To The Lighthouse: A Silicon Valley Guide to Executing Global Deals. It is available right now on Amazon, go get this book, don’t sleep on it. 

Other than that, thank you so much for meeting with me today Kurt, it’s been a pleasure just getting to know you and learning a little bit about your book, and your writing process. We’re all very excited for your third and fourth installment, keep us going, and good luck on your journey with your new business as well. 

Kurt Davis: Thank you. Thank you for having me and if any of the audience wants to reach out, they can ping me via email as well. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Very cool, so I was going to say, so where can people find you if just online, email, Twitter, where you at mostly? 

Kurt Davis: Right, so most of my aliases online are Kurt Davis Alive, so Kurt Davis Alive, so kdalive.com and it’s also on Instagram and YouTube and Twitter, I am not real active on Twitter, to be honest. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, neither am I. I’m just — 

Kurt Davis: I’m not. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s great. 

Kurt Davis: If I am going to write, I want to write something and I think about, I think this whole Twitter stuff is a load of bull. So that’s just my opinion, so if you can only write what is 160 characters, you probably don’t have a really good thought process so. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah or it’s just too quick, yeah. No, I totally agree. Well, thanks again, Kurt. It was an absolute pleasure. I am excited for your book, I hope it does amazing. I know we’re going to get it to a number one seller. Other than that, it’s been a pleasure having you today on Author Hour Podcast. 

Kurt Davis: Thank you, thank you and so excited to work with Scribe and I suggest everyone do that. That’s just my saying because I’ve had a great experience. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s awesome, we didn’t pay Kurt to say that by the way everyone. 

Kurt Davis: They did not. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Thanks a lot.