Culture Archives

A Prescient Table Of Contents

In May 2004, Paul Graham published “Hackers And Painters,” arguably one of the most important modern books focused on the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship. I was catching up on reading tonight and saw a post which referenced some passages from the book. I clicked through and was curious, “How old is the book?” Well, it’s just over 10 years old. A decade ago. I cut and pasted the Table of Contents from the book below — the title of each chapter and most of the subtitles are truly prescient, now with a decade of hindsight. I do not agree with 20% of what Graham blogs and tweets about today, but it is hard to argue he didn’t perfectly nail this thesis. Reading through each title, it’s remarkable to see the level of foresight he held, as if he saw the next decade unfolding in his mind.

A few nights ago, I was at a dinner and happened to sit next to a founder who had gone through YC twice. We talked a lot about entrepreneurship, the program, his experiences, and much more. This guest realized I had a lot of thoughts about the topic, so he asked me, “Well, what do you think motivates PG?” My answer: “I believe he wants to empower the people he believes are creators.”

<i>Hackers & Painters</i> Table of Contents

  1. Why Nerds Are Unpopular
    Their minds are not on the game.
  2. Hackers and Painters
    Hackers are makers, like painters or architects or writers.
  3. What You Can’t Say
    How to think heretical thoughts and what to do with them.
  4. Good Bad Attitude
    Like Americans, hackers win by breaking rules.
  5. The Other Road Ahead
    Web-based software offers the biggest opportunity since the arrival of the microcomputer.
  6. How to Make Wealth
    The best way to get rich is to create wealth. And startups are the best way to do that.
  7. Mind the Gap
    Could “unequal income distribution” be less of a problem than we think?
  8. A Plan for Spam
    Till recently most experts thought spam filtering wouldn’t work. This proposal changed their minds.
  9. Taste for Makers
    How do you make great things?
  10. Programming Languages Explained
    What a programming language is and why they are a hot topic now.
  11. The Hundred-Year Language
    How will we program in a hundred years? Why not start now?
  12. Beating the Averages
    For web-based applications you can use whatever language you want. So can your competitors.
  13. Revenge of the Nerds
    In technology, “industry best practice” is a recipe for losing.
  14. The Dream Language
    A good programming language is one that lets hackers have their way with it.
  15. Design and Research
    Research has to be original. Design has to be good.

For Yo, All It Takes Is A Little Push

It all started as a harmless addition to the Product Hunt feed, a little lightweight mobile app which just does one thing — we all know what that is now. But, it can be so much more, and the sheer ridiculousness of the app’s simplicity somehow managed to generate a high level of chatter about the app “Yo” to the point of it being comical. Underneath the jeers and laughs, however, lies something worth paying attention to.

First, we must consider how frustrating Yo’s rise is to others. Think of all the other technology entrepreneurs and investors who are building complex systems for mobile devices. It’s very hard work. And, then, a couple of folks not only have their dead-simple app explode, they also capture the scarce attention of the major tech blogs and influential people on Twitter.

Second, speaking of distribution – mobile distribution is a bitch. I’ve written about this too many times. See here for more details, but TL;DR, only a handful of apps get to experience true mobile distribution, and this is one of them. Additionally, a smaller handful of apps touch on the zeitgeist of consumer word-of-mouth, and Yo was able to do that.

Third, we’ve been beating a dead horse about apps needing to do one thing, and to do that one thing well. And, well, Yo takes that to the extreme. But, then again, why not? A step further, there’s the well-known post about big breakthroughs initially looking like toys (by Chris Dixon). It’s worth reading that post again.

Fourth, push notifications and the notification screen are becoming increasingly important. Most people who mock Yo likely do not have any clue about the changes afoot on the notification screen, how younger users tend to view notifications as media (versus in-app experiences), and how the mobile gatekeepers are planning to modify their operating systems to allow for a range of actions within push notifications themselves, removing the need of opening an app entirely.

And, fifth, we have all seen this movie before. In late 2012, a little app called Snapchat was growing fast, and people couldn’t understand why this simple app with a gimmick built around expiring images could fetch millions in venture capital. Even when I wrote this column a few months later, it generated an unusual amount of feedback for something I write, and to this day, is the most popular post (by traffic numbers) I’ve written. Only now with hindsight do more and more people understand how Snapchat provided a channel for people to share mobile photos without the fear of having recipients “Save To Camera Roll” on their phones. Dead simple, and now, genius. Most recently, the folks at Betaworks have joined a small group to invest in Yo. If there’s one group who understands native mobile consumer products, it is Betaworks. Rest assured they all see a larger opportunity, and not a “simple, stupid app.”

That which is dismissed or overlooked can often hold deep, insightful meaning. What looks simple and not valuable could, actually, be the first step in a more complex architecture and, over time, accrue real value. The line between uselessness and usefulness can be razor thin. While critics pen premature obituaries, it is the builders here who get to write the future. Yo has distribution, has the right location, and now the right timing with push notifications poised to change dramatically. Maybe, we should think of Yo, to date, as a very, very, very v1.0 product. The future may hold many versions.

At the end of “The Dark Knight,” Batman traps The Joker by a cable, dangling his enemy, upside down, from the top of a large skyscraper. The Joker, floating in the air, face to face with Batman, muses, “Madness, as you know, is like gravity…all it takes is a little push [notification].”

F-ing Up Innovation

The FAA recently laid down a ruling restricting some drone use cases. The FCC is not adequately defending the citizenry’s right to a neutral Internet. And, the FDA makes it painfully hard for all sorts of health-related startups, from hard science to wearables, to get into the clinical phase. And this doesn’t even begin to cover what the legislation of another acronym (SEC) has done to capital markets, most notably encouraging today’s most dynamic companies to stay private longer, to forego public markets, and to reward private investors in the name of protecting the public.

What The F?

The spirit of these bodies is to protect the public. That, however, was when our economy was working well. Today, despite what you see in the DOW or jobs reports, the economy has fundamentally shifted. This is, in part, why so many startups can provide local services — they have access to labor and routes (smartphones) to engage and manage that labor. But, people don’t want to be delivery-people all their lives. The economy, which has undergone a massive structural change, likely needs to loosen the noose around regulation and carefully let innovators push on the boundaries of what is possible. The hope here is harm is limited (if any) and the potential upside of a breakthrough could ignite new jobs and building blocks of a new economy.

That’s the theory, though. The reality is quite different. The leaders and team members of these Federal Agencies are politically appointed operatives, and they, just like elected officials, have twisted incentives. I won’t go into those here, but think of a revolving door where people give each other money in a never-ending merry-go-round. Anyway, we all know this. So, what to do? Outside of innovators leaving the country (a real threat), I think we all need the big technology companies (Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook) to use their lobbying power to sway the regulators on specific cases where innovative ideas are explored. Clearly, some of these companies have major interests in what the FDA, FCC, and FAA have struck down or frowned upon. In a way, these technology companies transform into our politicians, lobbying on behalf of creators and the folks who back them. The technology sector has to play this game, has to collect and organize its financial power into these efforts, to make sure regulators don’t go so far as to reward the old incumbents, which would surely be a strategy for more lethargy in the labor markets.

The 411 On Turning Naysayers Into Believers

One of the best feelings an entrepreneur can experience is turning a naysayer into a convert. Well, I wasn’t a naysayer necessarily of The Information, but I will admit that I wasn’t sure it would be worth it for me to pay for a subscription. Information (no pun intended — really!) is supposed to be free, right? Well, I was wrong. Now, I won’t say that this is for everyone, but after meeting the team, talking to a few friends who did subscribe, and mulling it all over, I plunked down my credit card and signed up. In two days, I realized I was wrong. I have a peculiar reading pattern where I send all must-reads to my email, so they all get attention. Lately, my Pocket queue has just collected dust. In two day, The Information passed the test for me. I had originally assumed the publication would be about inside information about the startup world, but no — that was a bad assumption. Rather, it felt like a newsroom that was focused largely on two angles: (1) Who are the big technology players, what are their strategies, and who is making moves within those companies? and (2) How does the advent of today’s technology interplay with government and society? The best way for me to characterize the result is like a 60/30/10 split between The Economist, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal style of writing, with the WSJ being the 10% of the equation. Most recently, a reporter for The Information profiled a big whig technology executive of one of the major tech companies, and it finally dawned on me: I needed to be aware of this person and the company, and I wouldn’t have found this information and level of analysis on any of the blogs nor any of the outdated financial or technology periodicals. The takeaway here (for me) is that there have traditionally been three big content verticals — sports, entertainment, politics. Now, we must add technology, as tech pervades society.

The larger story here, though, is about identifying, engaging with, and (hopefully) converting naysayers into believers.

So many people are trying to build cool new things (look at the rate of information flow on Product Hunt, for instance), and yet the competition for attention gets more brutal. The natural inclination is to enter into a sales pitch of sorts about why someone should try the product you built, or the product you invested in, or the product that you sourced and/or brought to Product Hunt. The incumbents usually learn to tune out these pitches. But, conversely, what about intensely engaging the naysayers? I’ve seen founders of some startups who are well-known but early monitoring threads and subtweets to find fans and the non-believers. I myself reached out to a well-known reporter who didn’t quite understand why a bunch of startups were in a space, emailed him, and he was kind to write back. Hopefully he follows through, and I’ll be watching. I’ve also noticed other reporters who berate a space but don’t engage back to learn more. Their reporting will suffer in the long-term, I’m sure of it. Anyway, the point of this all is that some naysayers hold clues for those who are creating something, and its a puzzle to figure it out. Additionally, some of the naysayers who do convert will end up being huge fans, so even on that count, it’s worth seeking them out on the chance you find someone invaluable to put into your corner. We have seen this happen with Swell (a radio pioneer in London is now one of our biggest fans) and I’ve heard other founders explain that some of their social media “whales” were groomed through this process. Not only does it feel good when it happens (endorphins!), it’s also a good strategy all around.

Online Condolences

I am 37. To date, I have been very fortunate not to personally encounter too much tragedy in my life, family, friends. Lately, on Facebook and a bit on Twitter, I have seen people publicly share bits of their bad news. It is hard to read. On a tweet, I’ll open the replies to see how people respond to their IRL friends or Internet friends; on Facebook, I’ll occasionally open up the comment threads to see what people are saying. The phrase I see the most is: “So sorry for your loss.”

I am compelled to write this post because in two instances, I saw this phrase so many times, it stuck with me. Everyone says the same thing, more or less. What can one really say in such a sad situation? Yet, I felt as if something is missing. I know there are some sites and apps out there that anticipated this social media need, but I haven’t seen any in the wild at work. I recall 1000memories was acquired by Ancestry.com, which makes sense.

So, the question I pose is – are we left to just tweets and short comments on Facebook that mostly say “so sorry for your loss”? Is that all the grieving want? Does it make them feel good? Is there anything more we can really say or do? Facebook is just 10 years old and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. There’s tons of debate and rules around what happens to a user’s data when they pass away, but what about an online memorial? Will people be able to attend an Irish Wake of an old friend via virtual reality?

“So sorry for your loss” seems too easy, too short, often devoid of meaning. There must be something better out there, or to be built, something that can be collaborative and last forever. I’d love to hear your opinion about this, to the extent you can share or feel like sharing.

“The [Fleeting] Knowledge”

Of all the places in the world where Uber really gets under the skin of others, London takes the cake. Why it does so warrants more examination. In London, cabbies are required to master the old city’s streets, all the nooks and crannies, if you will. It can take years (and lots of pounds and sterling) to obtain this knowledge.

In fact, that’s what London cabbies call it: “The Knowledge.”

Now, that knowledge is under attack. Cabbies were tested so as to have maps and turn-by-turn navigation capabilities in their brains. Each cabbie, in turn, had to do the hard work of writing this information to each of their “disks.” While the streets are static, the navigation is dynamic. Then, companies like Google (and others) started bringing maps online, followed by directory services (search) and turn-by-turn directions (navigation). But, up to a point, the convergence of those technologies only disrupted the old external GPS providers like Garmin, TomTom, and so forth.

Mobile, of course, changes everything. Mobile now places “The Knowledge” in everyone’s hands, and by proxy, in everyone’s brains. You can see why London cabbies are worried. I heard one on the radio this past weekend. He doesn’t like Uber. He feels that it’s unfair that his knowledge is now obsolete, or at least commoditized. He feels part of being a cab driver is maintaining a character of person that is higher, though I’m sure cuddly behavior exhibited by cabbies varies on a case-by-case basis. In a matter of 15 years, Google mapped the world, and Apple put those maps in the hands of everyone, complete with static street knowledge and powered by the most dynamic, real-time system consumers have ever enjoyed.

The result is what we see on the news and on the streets of London. Up to a point, human knowledge created a moat for some to earn a steady living. But along the way, machines maps combined with cloud computing on handheld devices created a mechanism to democratize and distribute (in real time) the knowledge that had been trapped inside the heads of a few select London cabbies.

It’s not just cabbies in London who hold “The Knowledge.” Many people in other jobs believe they worked hard to accumulate “The Knowledge” in their own fields, but many of them, too, will experience something akin to what these London cabbies are feeling. Think of mobile developers who have been grinding out cycles of Obj-C only now to have to learn Swift to write apps again. Think of those who report and analyze the tech and startup landscape for a living now having to compete with forums and blogs maintained by those who are in practicing their craft in the arena. Think of the venture capitalists who were trained in their craft for decades and over funds to manage large sums of money, only now to see upstarts leveraging platforms like AngelList and resources like Mattermark to invest smaller amounts earlier into startups.

What was once difficult (and costly) to obtain is now more likely to be commoditized, provided for free, and distributed at the touch of a fingertip or even before we know we need it. It happened to these cabbies in less than a decade. Keyhole (which became Google Maps) was founded in 2001 and acquired in 2004. And, it will happen to many others in different fields. This specific case was only really fueled by machine learning, cloud computing, and mobile networks. What happens when vehicles drive themselves? What about the block chain applied to supply chain management? What about the economic effects of 3-D printing on today’s manufacturing industry? Questions like these are never-ending, and, unfortunately, the answers are going to piss off a whole lot of people.

“Write Your Own Story”

Every week, there is someone or some entity in the tech world that had a story written about them that as just a bit off-message. It may not appear to be much to the audience, but it happens to strike a deep chord with the folks who are mentioned, who provided interviews, and so forth. Folks like to beat up on press for getting a story wrong, or for reporting it incorrectly (in their eyes), or for mischaracterizing their contribution to the overall subject. Earlier this week, when it happened yet again, I instinctively tweeted: “Write your own story.”

The original sin here is clear: People and organizations outsource their stories. Instead, people should write their own stories.

Writing your own story is hard. This applies to individuals, to companies, to firms, and everything in between. First, it can come off to others that you’re only talking about what’s central to you or your colleagues, etc. Having someone else write or say something may come off as more real. Maybe. Or maybe it strokes the ego. Second, the finished product is likely not part of the “official record” like it would be if it ended up written about by the NYT, or by Wired, or by Re/code, etc. Third, it can be hard to build up an audience. It takes time, effort, mistakes, pissing off some people. And, fourth, you have to own it — a misstep, a typewritten slip of the tongue can be screenshot, bookmarked, and saved for eternity until someone wants to dig it up and revisit your fumble.

There’s another slightly more subtle reason why one should write their own story — the decline of the influence held by reporters, journalists, and writers. Now, of course, some publications and writers will not only maintain their authority, they could actually boost it. But, for the overwhelming majority of them, whatever inherited influence they wielded before is eroding, and eroding fast. Stories on most topics are virtually indistinguishable from others. People will grow less willing to link out to other sites, especially how difficult it is to navigate sites on the mobile web or insider other reader apps. Additionally, the audience often expects to be able to directly engage with the writer of a story — on very public tech blogs or formal publications, those forums can degrade quickly or be quiet enough to hear all of the crickets.

Writing one’s own story isn’t just about controlling a message — if done well, it’s also an invitation for another person to comment, disagree, or help out. Writing a story isn’t about text or prose — it could be pictures, or Vines, or a collection of things. This actually gets to the heart of the problem some create and the opportunity others embrace. The opportunity is that each interaction, no matter which kind, is a way to engage and reengage a person in the audience, and over time, they become loyal, bring in others, and so forth. People fundamentally want to be a part of something, and those feelings are shifting more to the online world. On the flip side, the problem is that many people or organizations with big brands, big brand names, and “famous” people use online media to broadcast their message — they talk “to” their audiences. Yet, the opportunity, what what readers or watchers want is to be part of a conversation. They want to feel that they, too, are being heard. That’s the way I believe online attention has been shifting, and I have no reason to believe the pendulum will swing back in the other direction any time soon.

The Muddied Lexicon Of Startups

For a variety reasons I can’t go into in this post, entrepreneurship (worldwide) is in the rise and likely will not stop. As a result of this increased level of company formation, it brings with it new investors, new media personalities, and new conventions. All of this is good. One issue, however, is that what it means to engage in all of these activities is in flux, and the result is that founders, investors, and those in the tech media can begin, can frame, and can dictate conversations or interactions where each party may hold a different connotation for the same words they all use.

One example is “bubble.” There are a bunch of people on Twitter who have been calling it a “bubble” since 2011. Like Gordon Gekko mused, “Like a rooster trying to take credit for the dawn.” But, a “bubble” generally means that assets are overpriced, that people are beginning to take on debt to obtain equity, and that any popping of said “bubble” would trigger a widespread effect. More nuanced, you have some people who don’t believe any popping would be widespread, but that still assets are overpriced — hence, they called it a “bubble.” These are just two definitions — I’m sure there are at least eight more credible definitions.

Another example of a word used in different ways is “Bitcoin.” To some, Bitcoin is like a currency. To others, Bitcoin is a way to program money for it to have stored value. And, to others, Bitcoin represents a protocol that solves a key problem in computer science, a protocol that can be used — independent of the market price of Bitcoin — to execute autonomous tasks against a public ledger. Get into a discussion around “Bitcoin” and God help you that both parties are thinking of the word in the same way.

Finally, the most painful is around the monikers we attach to fundraising stages and milestones. We go from bootstrapped to friends & family to angels to super angels to microVCs to seed funds to traditional VC funds and all the way up to growth funds, private equity, hedge funds, mutual funds, and eventually out to the public markets. Along the way, founders and investors have picked up the lexicon, and when they two sides meet, each side comes into the conversation with their own frame about what constitutes their current stage. “We’re heads down working to prepare for our Series A.” Really? What does that even mean? And, especially in an environment when products are launched for little or no money, and when seed rounds are left open indefinitely to a long-term rolling close, when does one round end and another begin?

There’s no shortage of examples. What does the viral proliferation of this divergent language all mean?

It means that in order for two parties to be on the same page, they have to use the same words in the same way. Each conversation and interaction needs to be framed in a way such that the other side understands. Today, we are mostly experiencing the opposite. Today, we expect funding rounds to happen in a linear fashion, up and to the right; we expect that investors don’t have to change their position in the market, despite market forces pushing them in different directions; and we expect that the people who are tasked with reporting all of this “for the official record” will see it our way.

Hence, our expectations are out of whack, and need to be fundamentally reset. Perhaps the transparency of AngelList profiles will nudge the crowd into this direction. Perhaps the next Mike Arrington blogger/reporter who has a full grasp on the intersection of where founders, investors, and the press meets will come up with a new lexicon. Until then, we are likely to engage in more conversations where the other side uses the same words, but those words mean very different things to them. The result? More noise, and less signal. Grab your noise-cancelling headphones.

Marketplace Chat With Sosh, UrbanSitter, Rover, And Postmates

From the Store to the Street Panel from Menlo Ventures on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by friends at Menlo Ventures to participate in a small event touching on marketplace businesses. I moderated a panel that consisted of the founders of UrbanSitter, Sosh, Postmates, and Rover — all incredible early-stage companies with real traction. For about 40 minutes, we had a detailed discussion about how each one kickstarted liquidity in their product, how they think about expanding geographically while maintaining a quality of service, and how they work to ensure transactions are safe, secure, and build trust. I know the cost to watch video is quite high, but this conversation is only going to appeal to those who build and/or invest in marketplaces — and to those people, I’d say, you’ll definitely enjoy this chat. As someone who loves marketplace products and businesses, and as someone who has had the fortune of working with founders who are building businesses like Hired, Paddle8, Exitround, Cambly, and a few others, I’d recommend this discussion to those who work on such marketplaces. Whether it’s Sosh, UrbanSitter, Rover, or Postmates, each service has a slightly different approach to liquidity, geography, and transaction volume and other matters. I hope you enjoy the chat and if you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it.

The Number One Risk Facing Early-Stage Startups

On the first of every month, I write a short note to the founders I get to work with. The most recent note contained a more sober bullet point. I didn’t intend to focus on this topic, but it’s been coming up more and more in conversation, so in the spirit of hoping the information spreads more broadly, I’m copying and pasting that bullet point below, verbatim:

“Company Risk: The single greatest risk for an early stage company is to run out of money. That can happen because there’s no business model or revenue, or because the next stage of financing wasn’t prepared for. I will sound like a broken record to some of you, but this is a REAL RISK. It’s dangerous. I view my job #1 is to help everyone avoid this risk. There have already been a few cases where the company runway is very short. In such a situation, please please please tell me. I’m here to help. It’s not easy stuff to go through, but I’m doing this whole fund to be helpful and learn. I only invest a small amount, so most of you (I hope) brought me in for something other than money.”

This is nothing new nor is it rocket science. And, of course, not everyone will make it despite valiant efforts.

But, don’t take it from me. Look how Fred Wilson laid out the three key jobs for a startup CEO — one of which is to make sure there’s always enough cash in the bank. Or. look back to December 2011, on Chris Dixon’s blog, where he outlines this situation (and potential trap) very clearly. Even though this is all common knowledge and written in countless blog posts, it seems as if lots of people are just taking future financings for granted. Nothing could be further from the truth. These risks are very real, and they sneak up even on many founders. And, especially if a young startup has taken angel and seed funding from a party round of individuals and/or small funds for small amounts, even the investors can find out about a bad cash situation on the very last day. Unnecessarily running out of money is a real, existential risk, like falling asleep at the wheel — one that should be taken seriously and repeated often for the benefit of the overall community of founders.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus