Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Hoffman
World of Wonder
As a young man growing up in a small town in Arizona, Jeff Hoffman had a goal of visiting 50 countries. He reminded himself daily of that life’s ambition by taping a note to his mirror. The now-Florida based entrepreneur, humanitarian and mentor did indeed make it out of that small town — in a very big way.
After graduating from Yale University (attending an Ivy League school was another goal he checked off his list), Hoffman came to Florida’s Space Coast to work on a software team for the space shuttle program, where he realized his talent for managing complex projects. But he wasn’t much for cubicle life and had that nagging itch to see the world, so Hoffman put his mind to work on an innovation that would give him that freedom. He went on to create the kiosks that allowed for self-service boarding passes and traveled the globe installing them at airports. Those early entrepreneurial successes led him to become part of the founding teams of priceline.com and booking.com — now a company with a market cap of about $80 billion — and a series of other successful startups. For fun, he went on to produce Emmy and Grammy-winning videos and music on the side.
How well-connected around the world is Hoffman? The Dalai Lama once asked him for a selfie.
During the pandemic, Hoffman decided to return to Florida, first landing in Tampa and now settled in Orlando, which serves as a launching pad for his continuous travels as he works to mentor and support young entrepreneurs throughout the world. His non-profit organization, World Youth Horizons — which provides food, shelter and health care to children in some of the world’s poorest and most embattled environs, from Ukraine to Uganda — is now based in Tampa. One of his many personal mottos: “Your success is someone else’s miracle.”
“Success is not a destination; it’s a platform,” he says. “It’s the platform that allows you to do things that really matter. Mattering is making someone else’s life better. I don’t want to be judged by the number of dollars I make. I want to be judged by the number of people’s lives I make better.”
When he arrived in Florida, he picked up the phone and called Synapse Florida — the non-profit organization that has been instrumental in encouraging and supporting the state’s innovation community — and told them simply, “I’d like to help.” I was fortunate to meet Hoffman this fall at Synapse Orlando, when he squeezed in a talk and a question-and-answer session between trips to Peru and Puerto Rico and one to the Middle East, where he was mentoring and speaking to entrepreneurs.
Hoffman is a rarity among globally prominent entrepreneurs: There’s no idea too big for him to pursue, but also no personal contact too small for him to make. He has managed to retain his enthusiasm for new ideas, experiences and, especially, meeting new people — and not just the famous faces who appear on his social media timeline, but also the children in the orphanages he sponsors and the young entrepreneurs he encourages to e-mail him with questions.
How did the world not wear him down? Hoffman actively works at cultivating a skill most adults lose over time: His sense of wonder.
It starts with a daily discipline. Hoffman tries to learn one new thing a day but makes it something he doesn’t need to know. It can be something as small as reading an article on a topic that doesn’t pertain to one of his businesses or a task at hand. “Just follow your curiosity. Don’t overthink it,” he says.
Hoffman has given a name to his practice, “infosponging” — he goes about his day collecting what he calls “puzzle pieces of knowledge” and rearranging them in new ways. A couple of times a year, he calls his teams into what he refers to as “blue-sky sessions,” where he asks them to contemplate what they could build if they could start the company, or even their entire industry, from scratch. He’s been known to randomly stop in small businesses whose storefronts he finds interesting and then spend hours learning from the owner what they do there. The idea, Hoffman says, is to return to those childhood days where no question was too absurd and preconceived notions about the world and its limitations didn’t exist. “If people would regain their sense of childlike wonder, an entire new world would open up to them,” he advises.
Hoffman’s advocacy for supporting new ideas goes well beyond encouraging a mindset. He puts money behind his mentorship. His Global Entrepreneurship Network holds the Entrepreneurship World Cup, which since launching in 2019 has awarded $3 million in cash prizes, $150 million in in-kind prizes and provided opportunities for entrepreneurs at all levels. The next world-changing technology is out there, and Hoffman is determined to find it.
As much experience as he’s amassed leading startups and as many miles as he’s logged traversing the world, Hoffman is one tech titan who has it right: Technology is at its best not when it answers every question, solves every problem or replaces real-life relationships, but when it helps make us more human.