War and Business as Vectors for Innovation

It's interesting to note the similarity between the type of relentless resourcefulness important in war, and in business. The reason the French Republic got enough artillery to fire at the allies at Toulon was because Napoleon personally pulled strings to get more supplies, had new forges build on-site, trained people to themselves train troops on using artillery. An example of the circumstance/skill dichotomy is that the geography of Toulon and the layout of the Allies meant that any fighting was done by artillery, which is what Napoleon happened to be trained in (right person at right place at right time).

And on the importance of implementation/distribution channels—I would argue that profits are to modern business what war was to nations: mechanisms for propagating/disseminating some radical innovation. Something as revolutionary as the French Republic and its progressive ideals could easily have been stamped out at various points in its infancy, changing the face of the world forever (setting us back 50-100 years!). It succeeded not because of the "correctness" of its ideals, in any absolute sense (ideals which philosophers had come up with long before they were enacted, just like Xerox came up with the graphical computer interface long before it was implemented/distributed by Apple), but because of the enterprising and relentlessness of a few men (like Napoleon) in changing the incumbent landscape enough to allow for introduction, distribution and implementation of these radical new ideas that had been fully fleshed out in theory.

Importantly, this was done from within the existing infrastructure (fighting wars with other nations that opposed Republicanism). To spread successfully, the new innovation (Republicanism) did not just have to be a superior method of running a state, but also had to be better at winning wars. I see this fragility at birth to also be present in businesses—every household, office, and more, might look different if Jobs hadn’t recognized the potential of the GUI at PARC that one day he visited; just as how the whole world’s methods of government may still be leaning aristocratic, if Napoleon hadn’t been enterprising enough to requisition extra Artillery at Toulon or food for his soldiers at the bridge of Lodi (victories which led directly to him gaining power to implement civic innovations like his Code Napoleon).

You also see that attempting to scale any major innovation (GUI, Haber process, batillon carré) requires lots of related, ancillary innovations as well as a receptive landscape—think Apple's redefinition of technology in retail via Apple Stores, Carl Bosch at Oppau/Leuna practically inventing the fields of high-pressure and catalytic chemistry, countless small but crucial bills passed under Napoleon. It’s a philosophical question of which you believe to be higher impact work—the invention of a concept (Wozniak, Haber) or its distribution/enactment at scale (Jobs, Bosch). An important caveat when weighing the two is that we usually know very well who was first to implement an innovation at scale, but the question of who was first to conceive with the theory is usually murky and debatable.

In short, I've changed my opinion on what makes a startup succeed (and its competitors fail). A year ago, I'd tell you it was the novelty of the idea, insightfulness of the founders, and receptiveness of the geography and market at the time. Now, I think that successful founders are measured by very different yardsticks. Their test isn't how novel or unique their idea is, their test isn't how insightful or intelligent they are, and their test isn't whether the market or geography is ready for their cool new idea at that time. They are, instead, testing every hour of every day. They are tested when they hire their first employee--are they charismatic and inspirational enough to motivate and persuade a phenomenal engineer to risk it all to come work for them? They are tested when they are running out of money, and don't know any VCs--can they find a way to get a warm intro to a VC or dazzle investors through some creative stunt? They are tested when their initial customers tell them their product is shit--do they know when to persevere, and when to quit? Do they make the right decision at that point, and at every other pivotal moment that marks the early days of starting a company (or anything, for that matter)?

In this sense, I no longer see startups as outlets for scientists to out-innovate each other, but what they are: businesses. And the ability to run a startup is just a long way of saying you know how to do business. In other words, you're a good businessman.

This is an important realization for me because this word, "businessman", in particular, was one that would have had me see someone as "braindead" when first meeting them. I think many scientists/engineers share this sentiment. But now I find that 99% of what comprises entrepreneurial success is, unsurprisingly, entrepreneurial qualities. It seems trivially obvious in hindsight, but from what I've seen in the Bay Area, most technical founders, even those aged 30 and older, do not viscerally understand this until after their first or second company fails.

In other words, I see now that innovation is not the cost of startup success, but the reward. Now that Facebook has tens of billions in cash reserves, it can pump money into moonshots like Oculus and CTRL-Labs knowing that it can pay for all that research and afford those risks, to a degree that even the biggest universities cannot. I believe Google outputs more computer science research than Stanford and Berkeley combined. Just ONE of Google's moonshot projects, Waymo, has been given more R&D funding in one year ($3B) than MIT gets for ALL its departments in several years ($1B/y). That is what Sergey Brin and Larry Page feel proud for when they put the kettle on to boil every morning of every day. That, is high leverage work.

The requirements for getting to a point where the company is well enough endowed to innovate at all are simple to define: be an anomalously resourceful, charismatic person who can identify what is essential and what isn't, and act decisively and correctly in very high pressure, resource-constrained, systems. These are not necessarily, or indeed at all, the traits associated with "innovation" or "science", which are more to do with the creation of knowledge and tools, and require very different skill sets. Instead, these traits describe a good businessman. And, I would argue, also describe the legendary soldier-statesmen of eons past. Jobs, Gates and Caesar, Napoleon have more in common than it might seem.

Put differently, business is modern warfare, and innovation is the prize.