Gap Year Learnings II
On Silicon Valley, Startups, and Software Engineering
- I spent a big chunk of my gap year studying the future of various industries to see if I'd like to work in any. A potential reason this approach is suboptimal: it assumes you're motivated purely by a desire to enact the greatest good in the world. Studying across industries reveals high leverage, important, work, and makes you question why you still don't want to do it. For example, after studying three industries, I think working in any of climate or education or developer tools is really impactful, important work. But I still don't plan on doing it. That's because I, like almost everyone, am not purely motivated by the leverage of the work. I also care about how intellectually interesting it is, how much beauracratic bullshit I'll have to wade through, what kind of people work in the industry, and more. I'm lucky that doing this industrial survey has made me explicitly confront these difficult truths, because now I have a lot more clarity in what I am looking for in the immediate future.
- Similarly, I understand viscerally that successful companies are not novel ideas or problems, but old ideas and problem executed flawlessly, or in a novel way. The bottleneck for startup growth in many of these industries is not product, but industry connections, and I don’t have any. How can I expect my execution to be better? More importantly, I've found that the initial problems and ideas you spot are not what will form the basis of your company. The problem that you end up finding product-market fit is a result of deeply understanding the customer, not the one you spotted initially. And therefore any problem list I compile is merely a list of starting points, each one having to be explored through industry contacts for months to see if there’s anything there at all. In VC-speak, I’m not the right founder for almost all those problems, and that’s really what makes companies succeed.
- Most people working on startups are smart people that want to get rich, not because they have any "passion" for the problem. People are not "passionate" about enterprise software or dating apps. They are, however, passionate about making bank. And there's nothing wrong with that. These smart people do this by creating a lot of value for customers fast (they don’t really care which customers). And this is fine, too.
- I finally understand where the culture of studying CS to become a tech entrepreneur came from. I think that today, with most web and mobile software, CS courses are not very useful as most of what you learn is completely unrelated to the programming work you do. Many people (who have done CS degrees), counter that it teaches you "general principles" that help you pick up more specific, concrete frameworks and trends faster. I have been generally unconvinced. But I now see that this culture is just a remnant of the past. CS really was important for early 2000s and 1990s founders because all the abstractions that people build atop of today, like web frameworks, mobile SDKs, had to be invented from the operating system and physical network level up. For exampe, Paul Graham's Viaweb had to pioneer the act of sending information via HTTP to a remote server, and that required knowledge of servers, operating systems, as well as their customers’ pain points. The literal idea of a web application did not exist when it was invented (tautologically), and so for the inventors, they had to build it from the fundamentals of computing. This is why they actually needed to know computer science, and, similarly, we don't today (if you're building pedestrian web/mobile software, which most Silicon Valley startups are).
- Many people in the valley are very well read, and thoughtful about their opinions in a scholarly way. Perhaps my fierce opposition to the can-do & move-fast-and-break-things culture of the Valley may arise more from general shock of how quickly things can get done in the Bay Area than anything else.
- I always thought people pursuing startups for the sake of startups fail, and that some poetic justice in the world would mean that those who succeed had a genuine love for the problem they were trying to solve. This is just fiction. Almost all founders are mercenary, and there's nothing wrong with that. Information technology has meant that smart, determined people can almost-predictably get rich if they try enough times, and I can't, and shouldn't, blame people for trying to get-in on this new status quo. The repeat founders are in fact they’re the most likely to succeed, because they persistently are looking for problems people want solved, and are trying to solve them across diverse fields, learning tons in the process. Given that most of the difficulty in making a company succeed is actually to do with distribution and business, not product, this makes sense, even if it isn't the way I wished it was.
- An important (and scary) one: to be remembered for creating, discovering or inventing anything outside of academia, you have to own distribution to get credit. Philo Farnsworth invented the television, have you heard of him? No, because he was not part of the company that ended up distributing it at scale, and so there was no way for people to know that, he, in fact, was the one that invented it. Whereas with Apple, there were teams of PR people using various channels to tout how innovative their engineers (and Steve Jobs) were in coming up with the iPod, or iPhone. People don't famous if no-one talks about their work. Anytime you associate an invention with someone (another example: Haber, Bosch with the fixation of nitrogen into Ammonia), it's because their company worked hard to have you make that association (as BASF, the chemical company they worked at, did). In the real world, sales, marketing and PR matter. Often much more than quality of product and technical ability.
- I sometimes feel bad about being interested in startups because if I was born 50 years ago, I might have aspired to be an executive at a big company, or 500 years ago, a painter. I kept telling myself I should do something I would've done regardless of when I was born, as that is what you "truly" want to do but now I see there is no such thing. One has certain overarching philosophical goals in life (wealth, or posterity, or interesting experiences, or fame, etc), and these are the invariants. The way you go about working towards those will of course vary with when and where you're born. I'm only now learning that instead of shirking away from this reality, accept it as the natural state of things. The methods you should use to get to those invariants vary a lot with time (founding startups was not the highest way to exert leverage 50 or 100 years ago, and may not be in 50 or 100 years time). And you should act appropriately. It’s not “wrong” or “mimetic”, but sensible.
- You can broadly classify all great people into two bins: creatives and businessmen. Einstein, Bach, Michelangelo, Plato, all fall into the former. Caesar, Napoleon, Churchill, Rockefeller, all fall into the latter. Jobs and Edison are are more ambiguous. I use the word "businessman" to describe anyone whose success depends more on external events and their ability to navigate them. Creative types are more at war with their own intellect, constantly asked the question of: are you inventive enough to spot that breakthrough idea? Businessman are more at war with external circumstances: can you motivate employees not to go on strike, can you secure more military funding as your army is about to fall apart? Once you put it this way, you have to ask yourself: am I good enough to produce as much as the Renaissance masters or Greek philosophers of antiquity? If not, the future path is obvious: work hard at becoming great at selling things, motivating people, negotiating, envisioning the future, more than working hard at any one skill or craft like a creative might.