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What Makes You So Smart, CEO?

Noah Davis talks to Yext CEO Howard Lerman about finding friends to work with, the importance of great teachers, and the balance between intelligence and execution.
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Howard Lerman spent part of his high school years playing with a $1 million supercomputer, using it to communicate with fellow student Sean Parker. In college, he used his "bias toward action" to build a company, which he sold, and he hasn't stopped since. The current CEO of Yext is one of Crain's 40 Under 40, and he spoke with Pacific Standard about finding friends to work with, the importance of great teachers, and the balance between intelligence and execution.

You went to Thomas Jefferson High School, a place that has produced some brilliant thinkers and offers students some remarkable freedom. How did that impact you?

I want to take a step back before TJ. When I was in sixth grade, I started to hear about this famous math teacher in McLean, Virginia, at Longfellow named Mr. Williams. Vern Williams. He was famous for getting kids excited about math and science. He was an unconventional teacher. There were equations on the board. When I was in sixth grade, I realized that I wanted to be a part of that.

Howard Lerman. (Photo: Victoria Will) 

Howard Lerman. (Photo: Victoria Will) 

I had the good fortune of being assigned Mr. Williams at Longfellow Middle School when I was 12. I went to his class, brought home the brainteasers that first night, and was so excited about them. After my dad couldn't solve them, he made me transfer out of Mr. Williams' class the next day. That was my foray into a great math education. But what was crazy is that I would still sneak in to hang out with Mr. Williams. He had an unbelievable impact on me. When I think of him, I think of those Apple "Think Different" ads. He really thinks different. It's not walking into a middle school class. I don't think there was a textbook.

So I knew him, and I knew a lot of people in his classes. That's where I met Tom Dixon, my CTO, with whom I've started multiple companies. I also met Alok Bhushan, who is now a finance executive at Yext, in seventh grade. We all went to Longfellow. We all went to TJ.

Mr. Williams taught me that you didn't have to use the textbook. You could do things your own way and beat the system. I set a goal to be independent.

At TJ, did you feel like you were smarter than your classmates?

I don't think there was a ranking system like that. I think people were smart in different areas. I definitely was not even close to the smartest guy at TJ. I can articulate who I believe those people were. I think Tom and Alok were up there. Dave Scherer and David Rosenthal, who were friends of mine and founded a company called FoundationDB that just got picked up by Apple.

I think I was a little different. I could comprehend what was going on, but I could not come up with what was going on. I always focused on creativity, thinking different, and coming up with ideas. At TJ, it was safe to do that. There wasn't a strict, military discipline. Most high schools are very strict with the rules. My entire life has been about avoiding the rules. I realized that whoever makes up the rules wasn't necessarily considering my particular circumstances. At TJ, there were rules, but it wasn't like that. You could be late. It was a safe zone to be a little different. You weren't going to get a ruler slapped across your hand.

Then you went to Duke, where you reportedly majored in history because it was the easiest major you could find. Is that true?

Absolutely. History is fun. You can read stuff, and you can get into things. I like history because you can come up with your own ideas and back them up in a way. But the reality is that it was pretty easy to pretend you read a book, write an essay on it, and focus on other stuff.

You started your first company at Duke. Did you go in knowing that's what you wanted to do?

I was super lucky. I happened to be born in an area in Northern Virginia that was close to TJ, and everyone's job is to go to college. But on the path of thinking different and doing things differently, I didn't really go to college with the expectation of getting an education. I learned more in high school than I learned in college. I think college, probably for most people, isn't a place where they fill their brains with knowledge. It's actually a place where you become an adult.

How about now? Do you still pursue knowledge in a formal way?

They are intertwined. I didn't show up to Duke with the vision of building a company. I met people at TJ who I knew I would be able to do cool stuff with, and I stayed in touch with them. Obviously, we have done cool stuff. I started my first company in my dorm room my junior year. I have a bias toward action. I know capable, intelligent people who are smarter than me and better than me and they can make more stuff than me, but I've been the catalyst.

Learning is a life-long process. Not everyone learns from classroom settings. I've learned more over the past 10 years building companies than I could have ever hoped to learn at business school.

A company starts off as this tiny little thing, but once you get it going it becomes a living, breathing organism. You can come up with theories and apply them. That's when the textbook stuff does start to make sense, and you try to apply it.

Do you do that in a formal way?

I think it's informal. A lot of people here are reading the same books. Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton, just wrote a book, and there's a whole theory about givers and takers. We talk a lot about the Myers-Briggs test, which describes certain personality traits. We think about how we put together teams. There's a lot of theory about how you think about these things. And that's only on the organizational side. On the technical side, we're always looking at new technologies.

You mentioned that you surrounded yourself with smart people but that you're the catalyst. Why is that?

I have a very strong bias toward action. One of the things I always want to do is something. A lot of smart people sit around, pontificate, and white board things out, and they go in circles. I've always been of the mindset of let's do something, see how it goes, and iterate from there. I'm always trying to do stuff. Part of that is ambition. But it's more about wanting to make cool stuff. It takes great people to do that. You have to mobilize hundreds or thousands of smart people going in the same direction to do something big. My job has changed from being the founder of a small start-up to steering an armada.

Who should I talk to next?

Brian O'Kelley of AppNexus.


What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.