Going to Silicon Valley was Liquidnet founder’s ‘best mistake’ – here’s why

Seth Merrin, founder and CEO of Liquidnet
Liquidnet

We hear a lot of what the world’s most successful people did right, but what they did wrong is equally, if not more, important.

Failures are usually the biggest contributors to one’s success – just look at the career of Seth Merrin, a serial entrepreneur behind award-winning global institutional dark pool trading network Liquidnet which today manages $15 trillion in member assets.

The 57-year-old’s book “The Power of Positive Destruction” details the lessons he learned in business through observation of other people’s successes and mistakes, as well as the examination of his own failures.

“I was motivated to write a book from all the lessons learned and put into practice at Liquidnet that seemed to resonate in the talks, lectures, and among the entrepreneurs seeking advice,” he tells Business Insider over email.

The “positive destruction” he is referring to is the ability to think differently to disrupt a business or even a whole industry.

Released earlier this year, the book covers extensively the strategies Merrin himself has employed throughout his business career, including techniques to identify large problems that need solving, and also how to create those solutions and sell them to customers.

But before he was even a businessman, Merrin had already learned some of the most important business lessons from the first businessman he ever knew – his father, Edward Merrin.

As a second-generation jeweller, Merrin’s father was always innovative in his strategies to sell more jewellery and expand the business.

“Dad spent the time with me not to lecture but to challenge me to sell to him and provided feedback,” Merrin says.

His dad would role-play sales situations and negotiations, showing him the value of being more prepared than the people he was meeting.

As a result, Merrin found that business was not such a “scary” affair, and that the art of business could be broken down into some basic strategies.

This attitude, perhaps, is why the successful disrupter has managed to turn his failures into some of his biggest successes.

Best failure he’s ever had

After selling his first company, Merrin Financial, in 1996, the entrepreneur took interest in what he thought was “an amazing idea in the healthcare industry”.

He then invested $500,000 of his own money, and eventually took over as CEO at a software company which aimed to save lives in Intensive Care Units through real-time data and data visualisation.

The decision turned out to be what he now calls “a very expensive lesson” and a “huge mistake”.

He says: “The premise was correct and still is but as they say, ideas are a dime a dozen, (and) it’s all about execution.”

On hindsight, Merrin admits he thought he was “God’s gift to software”, and wrongly assumed he could enter an industry that he knew nothing about.

In the end, despite engaging Macintosh user interface designer Jef Raskin to create some “very cool” features, Merrin realised how difficult it was to obtain and retain talent if he was not able to prove tremendous monetisation opportunity in a company.

And after plenty of rejections, he knew the business was going to be a flop.

“Ultimately, we failed hard. But we failed quickly,” he wrote in the book.

But the nine-month experience in Silicon Valley was his “best mistake”, he says, because it inspired him to take the culture of openness and the principles of technology and innovation back to Wall Street.

“What I saw in Silicon Valley later inspired me to bring design to a financial application,” he wrote, referring to Liquidnet’s simple and intuitive system.

Creating unfair competitive advantage

For entrepreneurs who are hoping to make a change, the experienced disrupter says it’s important to focus on creating an unfair competitive advantage, or “stack the deck in your favour”.

“Start with a large problem that when solved would create an unfair competitive advantage for any customers that use it, (then) come up with a 30-second pitch that is so compelling your prospects would be stupid not to use it,” he says.

And of course, you have to be passionate about the solutions you create.

“I love the process of creation,” he says when asked what his motivation in business was.

“It’s all about making the world a better place. (In) business, by making a company or an industry better, or in philanthropy, by creating solutions that improve the quality of people’s lives around the world,” he says.

It also helps that his goal is to “be the best in the world at what I do”.

“It will always be a work in progress but to be the best, you have to constantly train, continue to learn and be in excellent health,” he says.

After decades in business, he shows no signs of stopping.

Besides reading and working out five days a week, he also meditates twice a day and goes on “great vacations”.

And if you thought his life was all about work, you’re wrong.

He also makes sure he spends a lot of time with family and friends – something he learned the importance of while making mistakes in Silicon Valley.