Can Do vs. Can’t Do Cultures

A fantastic article by Ben Horowitz on the importance of optimism in advancing our society.

Can Do vs. Can’t Do Cultures by Ben Horowitz

Lately, it’s become in vogue to write articles, comments and tweets about everything that’s wrong with young technology companies. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t find something in my Twitter feed crowing about how a startup that’s hit a bump in the road is “fu&%@d” or what an as*h%le a successful founder is or what an utterly idiotic idea somebody’s company is. It seems like there is a movement to replace today’s startup culture of hope and curiosity with one of smug superiority.

Why does this matter? Why should we care that the tone is tilting in the wrong direction? Why is it more important to find out what’s right about somebody’s company than what’s wrong?

The word technology means “a better way of doing things.” This is easy to say, but extremely difficult to do. Making a better way of storing information, a better currency, or a better way of making friends means improving on thousands of years of human experience and is therefore extraordinarily difficult. At some level, it would seem logically impossible that anybody could ever improve anything. I mean if nobody from bible days until 2014 has thought of it, what makes you think you are so smart? From a psychological standpoint, in order to achieve a great breakthrough, you must be able to suspend disbelief indefinitely. The technology startup world is where brilliant people come to imagine the impossible.

As a Venture Capitalist, people often ask me why big companies have trouble innovating while small companies seem to be able to do it so easily. My answer is generally unexpected. Big companies have plenty of great ideas, but they do not innovate because they need a whole hierarchy of people to agree that a new idea is good in order to pursue it. If one smart person figures out something wrong with an idea–often to show off or to consolidate power–that’s usually enough to kill it. This leads to a Can’t Do Culture.

The trouble with innovation is that truly innovative ideas often look like bad ideas at the time. That’s why they are innovative – until now, nobody ever figured out that they were good ideas. Creative big companies like Amazon and Google tend to be run by their innovators. Larry Page will unilaterally fund a good idea that looks like a bad idea and dismiss the reasons why it can’t be done. In this way, he creates a Can Do Culture.

Some people would like to turn the technology startup world into one great big company with a degenerative Can’t Do Culture. This post attempts to answer that challenge and reverse that tragic trend.

Dismissive rhetoric with respect to technology is hardly new. Sometimes the criticism is valid in that the company or invention does not work, but even then it often misses the larger point. Here are two historical examples to help illustrate:

The Computer

In 1837, Charles Babbage set out to build something he called The Analytical Engine the world’s first general-purpose computer that could be described in modern times as Turing-complete. In other words, given enough resources the machine that Babbage was building could compute anything that the most powerful computer in the world today can compute. The computation might be slower and the computer might take up more space (OK, amazingly slow and incredibly huge), but his design matched today’s computational power.  Babbage did not succeed in building a working version as it was an amazingly ambitious task to build a computer in 1837 made out of wood and powered by steam. Ultimately, in 1842 English mathematician and astronomer George Biddel Airy advised the British Treasury that the Analytical Engine was “useless” and that Babbage’s project should be abandoned. The Government axed the project shortly after. It took the world until 1941 to catch up with Babbage’s original idea after it was killed by skeptics and forgotten by all.

171 years later, it’s easy to see that his vision was true and computers would not be useless. The most important thing about Babbage’s life was not that his timing was off by 100 years, but that he had a great vision and the determination to pursue it. He remains a wonderful inspiration to many of us to this day. Meanwhile, George Biddel Airy seems more like a short-sighted crank.

The Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, offered to sell his invention and patents to Western Union, the leading telegraph provider, for $100,000. Western Union refused based on a report from their internal committee. Here are some of the excerpts of that report:

“The Telephone purports to transmit the speaking voice over telegraph wires. We found that the voice is very weak and indistinct, and grows even weaker when long wires are used between the transmitter and receiver. Technically, we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles.“Messer Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their “telephone devices” in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?

“The electricians of our company have developed all the significant improvements in the telegraph art to date, and we see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained, when they have not the slightest idea of the true problems involved. Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy… .

“In view of these facts, we feel that Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s request for $100,000 of the sale of this patent is utterly unreasonable, since this device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.”

The Internet

Today most of us accept that the Internet is important, but this is a recent phenomenon. As late as 1995, Astronomer Clifford Stoll wrote the article entitled Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana in Newsweek, which includes this unfortunate analysis:

Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping—just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

What mistake did all these very smart men make in common? They focused on what the technology could not do at the time rather than what it could do and might be able to do in the future. This is the most common mistake that naysayers make.

Who does the Can’t Do Culture hurt the most? Ironically, it hurts the haters. The people who focus on what’s wrong with an idea or a company will be the ones too fearful to try something that other people find stupid. They will be too jealous to learn from the great innovators. They will be too pig headed to discover the brilliant young engineer who changes the world before she does. They will be too cynical to inspire anybody to do anything great. They will be the ones who history ridicules.

Don’t hate, create.

Link to original article: http://www.bhorowitz.com/can_do_vs_cant_do_cultures

BVP’s Anti-Portfolio

My friend Milan recently sent me Bessemer’s “anti-portfolio” – a sobering account of the opportunities they missed. That’s right, a VC actually documented and published a list of the companies they passed on. Many of which came back more than once for investment, and BVP passed. The list is short, but it’s filled with some of the biggest heavy hitters in the world today. Without further ado…

Anti-Portfolio

Bessemer Venture Partners is perhaps the nation’s oldest venture capital firm, carrying on an unbroken practice of venture capital investing that stretches back to 1911. This long and storied history has afforded our firm an unparalleled number of opportunities to completely screw up.

Over the course of our history, we did invest in a wig company, a french-fry company, and the Lahaina, Ka’anapali & Pacific Railroad. However, we chose to decline these investments, each of which we had the opportunity to invest in, and each of which later blossomed into a tremendously successful company.

Our reasons for passing on these investments varied. In some cases, we were making a conscious act of generosity to another, younger venture firm, down on their luck, who we felt could really use a billion dollars in gains. In other cases, our partners had already run out of spaces on the year’s Schedule D and feared that another entry would require them to attach a separate sheet.

Whatever the reason, we would like to honor these companies — our “anti-portfolio” — whose phenomenal success inspires us in our ongoing endeavors to build growing businesses. Or, to put it another way: if we had invested in any of these companies, we might not still be working.

Apollo Computer

Apollo Computer

(acquired by Hewlett Packard) BVP’s Felda Hardymon was offered a small position in the company’s last private round, and waved it away: too small a position, he thought, at too high a price. In less than a year it was worth 17x.

Apple Computer

BVP had the opportunity to invest in pre-IPO secondary stock in Apple at a $60M valuation. BVP’s Neill Brownstein called it “outrageously expensive.”

eBay

“Stamps? Coins? Comic books? You’ve GOT to be kidding,” thought Cowan. “No-brainer pass.”

Federal Express

Incredibly, BVP passed on Federal Express seven times.

Google

Cowan’s college friend rented her garage to Sergey and Larry for their first year. In 1999 and 2000 she tried to introduce Cowan to “these two really smart Stanford students writing a search engine”. Students? A new search engine? In the most important moment ever for Bessemer’s anti-portfolio, Cowan asked her, “How can I get out of this house without going anywhere near your garage?”

Intel

BVP’s Pete Bancroft never quite settled on terms with Bob Noyce, who instead took venture financing from a guy named Arthur Rock.

Along with every venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road, Neill Brownstein turned down Intuit founder Scott Cook. Scott managed to scrape together only $225K from friends, including HBS classmate and Sierra Ventures founder Peter Wendell, who personally invested $25K to get Scott off his back.

Ben Rosen, one of the founders of Sevin Rosen, offered Felda Hardymon the chance to invest in both Lotus and Compaq Computer on the same day. Says Hardymon: “Lotus wasn’t proven yet, and I was worried about the situation there. As for Compaq, I told him there was no real future in transportable computers since IBM could do it.”

David Cowan passed on the Series A round. Rookie team, regulatory nightmare, and, 4 years later, a $1.5 billion acquisition by eBay.

StrataCom

(acquired by Cisco) Felda Hardymon: “[Sierra’s] Pete Wendell asked if I’d like to look at Stratacom, which was doing a ‘fast packet switch.’ I gave him a blank stare.”

Source: http://www.bvp.com/portfolio/antiportfolio

App Prosperity by Eric Feng

Very interesting perspective on the advancement of technology in businesses from Eric Feng, who is the founder of Erly. It seems as though for many businesses, technology is only a means to an end – that the true art form is no longer in the ability to build an app or a website, but rather the resourcefulness and know-how to drastically increase the number of customers using a product.

App Prosperity

Published on November 20, 2012
by Eric Feng

In “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley defines prosperity as “the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work,” and he calls out some inspiring examples of how prosperous the world has become. In 1910, a phone call from New York to Los Angeles would cost 90 hours of work at the average wage; today, it’s less than two minutes of work. Today you can buy 7,200 hours of reading light with an hour of work; two centuries ago, that same hour of work could only afford 10 minutes of reading light.

In the past decade, I’ve watched software applications experience their own boom in prosperity. When I was at Microsoft, SQL Server 2000, which took two years and hundreds of engineers to build, was a highly regarded product release in large part because of its speed and efficiency. Fast forward to October 2007, and fewer than 20 engineers built and launched the Hulu.com beta after 84 days of development. Less than three years later, three people built the Instagram app in eight weeks. Doing the math, that’s roughly a million collective hours of work for SQL Server 2000, ten thousand work hours for Hulu, and a thousand work hours for Instagram. I’ll admit, those are three very different applications, but they do all share an impressive trait: They are all very successful software products serving millions of users and worth billions of dollars. And the changes in the orders of magnitude are indicative of an important trend: Great software applications have clearly become easier to build.

But that’s only half the story. In a single decade, gone is the need to manufacture, package and distribute physical media (SQL Server). Gone is the need to buy, rack and maintain server hardware (Hulu). You can now focus exclusively on the customer experience and business logic of your application and use third-party platforms for all the supporting infrastructure, and do that all for a fraction of the cost (Instagram). Software applications are doubly prosperous: They are not only easier to make, they’re also far cheaper. The next billion-dollar start-up launched with 100 hours of dev work, costing only a few thousand dollars? It not only could happen, it will happen.

Another way to think of this app prosperity phenomenon is this: Because of the rapidly decreasing time, resources and costs involved, it’s now a given that any app can be built. Pure technical execution is no longer the difference-maker for companies that it once was. Of course, bad engineering can sink any business, but great engineering alone isn’t enough to win anymore — think about highly technically gifted companies like Color, for which engineering capabilities didn’t result in a win. Building faster than the competition is now often a difference of weeks, not years. Building cheaper than the competition is now often a rounding error. When multiple companies can solve the same customer problem in the same amount of time for the same cost, factors other than product and engineering execution will determine who wins.

So what are these new success factors? I’ve seen three important ones emerge: Distribution, Design and Business Model.

Not long ago, Groupon became the fastest company in the history of business to reach $1 billion in sales. But it would be tough to say that was achieved on the backs of engineering horsepower, considering the company didn’t hire its fifth engineer until it had over 100 other employees. But what Groupon did have was total mastery of viral distribution by setting up a clever incentive for customers to promote Groupon to their friends in order to activate deals, which helped grow its email list to more than 150 million subscribers.

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann also recently credited distribution — not engineering — as the key ingredient to his company’s success. It’s true that social bookmarking services are pretty easy to build — stand up a templatized Web site and grab Scrapy, Goose or another free crawler framework and you’re in business, which is why there were plenty of those sites before, during and after Pinterest launched. But none were as beautifully crafted or as thoughtfully designed as Pinterest (the poster child for Masonry layout), and none have 20 million users.

More recently, as Warby Parker, Birchbox and a host of other new commerce companies have burst onto the scene, highly targeted and vertical e-commerce has become cool again. But unlike the commerce companies of yesteryear that had to invest in big engineering teams to create custom infrastructure (Amazon used to have its own internal web programming language called catsubst, if you can believe it), these new companies have built on top of third party solutions, most commonly ecommerce-in-a-box Magento. They can then focus their resources and attention on their innovative business models — like Warby Parker with its disruptive pricing and margin management, or Birchbox with its creative subscription plans.

Exceptional growth strategy, user interface and monetization are what made the difference here, not engineering.

In a world of app prosperity, the most prosperous technology companies will be the ones that understand that being able to build their products is only a single step in a much longer journey. When every app can be built by anyone, you don’t need the greatest engineering team to win, and your competition doesn’t need that team to beat you. For businesses, technical execution is necessary, but no longer sufficient, for success. New skills and disciplines will be required to win out. And as consumers, we get to sit back and enjoy the show — because when every app can be built, that also means every app will be built. And that’s when we all get to prosper.

Eric Feng was formerly the founding CTO of Hulu and a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB). He most recently founded Erly, a social media start-up funded by KPCB, which was acquired in May of this year.

Lean into the Pain by Aaron Swartz

A great post by Aaron Swartz about the everyday things we do. More importantly, it’s about continuing on a track of personal growth throughout our lives.

Lean into the pain

This post is part four of the series Raw Nerve.

When you first begin to exercise, it’s somewhat painful. Not wildly painful, like touching a hot stove, but enough that if your only goal was to avoid pain, you certainly would stop doing it. But if you keep exercising… well, it just keeps getting more painful. When you’re done, if you’ve really pushed yourself, you often feel exhausted and sore. And the next morning it’s even worse.

If that was all that happened, you’d probably never do it. It’s not that much fun being sore. Yet we do it anyway — because we know that, in the long run, the pain will make us stronger. Next time we’ll be able to run harder and lift more before the pain starts.

And knowing this makes all the difference. Indeed, we come to see the pain as a sort of pleasure — it feels good to really push yourself, to fight through the pain and make yourself stronger. Feel the burn! It’s fun to wake up sore the next morning, because you know that’s just a sign that you’re getting stronger.

Few people realize it, but psychological pain works the same way. Most people treat psychological pain like the hot stove — if starting to think about something scares them or stresses them out, they quickly stop thinking about it and change the subject.

The problem is that the topics that are most painful also tend to be the topics that are most important for us: they’re the projects we most want to do, the relationships we care most about, the decisions that have the biggest consequences for our future, the most dangerous risks that we run. We’re scared of them because we know the stakes are so high. But if we never think about them, then we can never do anything about them.

Ray Dalio writes:

It is a fundamental law of nature that to evolve one has to push one’s limits, which is painful, in order to gain strength—whether it’s in the form of lifting weights, facing problems head-on, or in any other way. Nature gave us pain as a messaging device to tell us that we are approaching, or that we have exceeded, our limits in some way. At the same time, nature made the process of getting stronger require us to push our limits. Gaining strength is the adaptation process of the body and the mind to encountering one’s limits, which is painful. In other words, both pain and strength typically result from encountering one’s barriers. When we encounter pain, we are at an important juncture in our decision-making process.1

Yes it’s painful, but the trick is to make that mental shift. To realize that the pain isn’t something awful to be postponed and avoided, but a signal that you’re getting stronger — something to savor and enjoy. It’s what makes you better.

Pretty soon, when you start noticing something that causes you psychic pain, you’ll get excited about it, not afraid. Ooh, another chance to get stronger. You’ll seek out things you’re scared of and intentionally confront them, because it’s an easy way to get the great rewards of self-improvement. Dalio suggests thinking of each one as a puzzle, inside of which is embedded a beautiful gem. If you fight through the pain to solve the puzzle, you unlock it and get to keep the gem.

The trick is: when you start feeling that psychological pain coming on, don’t draw back from it and cower — lean into it. Lean into the pain.


In agile software development, there’s a phrase: If it hurts, do it more often.2

For example, imagine Jane and Joan are working on a software project together. They both have a copy of the code; Jane is making the error messages friendlier while Joan is adding a new feature. They both work on their task for days and days until it’s finally done. Now they face a problem: they need to merge their different changes back together.

Maybe you’ve had this problem, either with code or with text documents: you send a draft of a report to two friends, both suggest different changes, and you have to merge all their changes back into the original document. It’s incredibly annoying — and doing it with software is way worse. So people put it off. Jane thinks “you know, let me just make the thank you messages a little nicer before we merge” and Joan thinks “you know, let me add just one more feature before we merge”.

They keep putting the merge off, and every time they do the task gets bigger and more painful. But they have to do it eventually. By then, the merge is so big that it takes days of painstaking work just to piece together the already-written code. It’s an arduous, painful process — which makes Joan and Jane just want to put it off even longer next time.

The agile approach, however, is to do the opposite: merging hurts, so we’ll do it more often. Instead of merging every couple weeks, or every couple months, we’ll merge every single day, or every couple hours. Even if Jane and Joan aren’t even close to finished with their work, they’ll check in what they have so far (maybe with some special code deactivating it until it’s finished) so they don’t end up in merge hell later on. These very small merges tend not to be painful at all, they’re so easy that you hardly even notice.

The same principle shows up all across software development: from testing to releasing, your natural inclination is to put off painful things, when doing them more often actually is much easier.

And I don’t think it’s limited to software. I think the same principle would work even if, for some odd reason, you were required to touch a hot stove for an hour. Procrastinating and putting it off until you had no choice but to hold your hand to the stove for a full hour would end up being very painful. But if you did it in small frequent bits, just quick taps of the stove with your finger that eventually added up to an hour, it wouldn’t be so bad at all. Again, the trick is not to run from the pain.


Of all the self-improvement tricks I’ve learned, this one was by far the most surprising — and by far the most impactful. I spent most of my life hemmed in by my talents. I knew I had strengths and weaknesses and it just seemed obvious I should find jobs that fit my strengths. It seemed crazy to take a job that probed my weaknesses.

Sure, there were somethings, over there, that I wished I was better at, but they seemed so far away. Meanwhile, there were lots of things over here that I was good at. Why not just keep doing them? Sure, I realized intellectually that I could get better at the other stuff, but it hardly seemed worth the pain of trying.

I’d learned not to shrink from hard truths, so I’d literally have this conversation with myself: “Yes, I know: if I got better at selling things to people [or whatever it was], I’d be much better off. But look at how painful I find selling: just thinking about it makes me want to run and hide! Sure, it’d be great if I could do it, but is it really worth all that pain?”

Now I realize this is a bogus argument: it’s not that the pain is so bad that it makes me flee, it’s that the importance of the topic triggers a fight-or-flight reaction deep in my reptile brain. If instead of thinking of it as a scary subject to avoid, I think of it as an exciting opportunity to get better, then it’s no longer a cost-benefit tradeoff at all: both sides are a benefit — I get the benefits of being good at selling and the fun of getting better at something.

Do this enough times and your whole outlook on life begins to change. It’s no longer a scary world, hemming you in, but an exciting one full of exciting adventures to pursue.3

Tackling something big like this is terrifying; it’s far too much to start with. It’s always better to start small. What’s something you’ve been avoiding thinking about? It can be anything — a relationship difficulty, a problem at work, something on your todo list you’ve been avoiding. Call it to mind — despite the pain it brings — and just sort of let it sit there. Acknowledge that thinking about it is painful and feel good about yourself for being able to do it anyway. Feel it becoming less painful as you force yourself to keep thinking about it. See, you’re getting stronger!

OK, take a break. But when you’re ready, come back to it, and start thinking of concrete things you can do about it. See how it’s not as scary as you thought? See how good it feels to actually do something about it?

Next time you start feeling that feeling, that sense of pain from deep in your head that tells you to avoid a subject — ignore it. Lean into the pain instead. You’ll be glad you did.

Next in this series: Confront reality


  1. Ray Dalio, Principles (2001), part 2 (visited 2012-09-01). This whole section was inspired by his argument. 
  2. I first heard this phrase at a ThoughtWorks training. See also Martin Fowler, “FrequencyReducesDifficulty,” Bliki (28 July 2011). 
  3. See, for example, Derek Sivers, “Push, push, push. Expanding your comfort zone,” sivers.org (13 August 2012). 

20 life-changing realizations from the world’s youngest VC by Alex Banayan

Pretty impressive and insightful thoughts from a young go-getter. Sometimes good advice comes from the least expected places – namely a teenager – because his view of the world has fewer filters.

20 life-changing realizations from the world’s youngest VC

20 life-changing realizations from the world’s youngest VC
August 14, 2012 8:00 AM
Alex Banayan
Alex Banayan is a 19-year-old associate at San Francisco-based venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners. His upcoming book will feature 25 of the world’s most successful people and reveal the little things they did to propel their careers. He previously wrote about the five traits of radically successful people.

With only a few days left being a teenager, just thinking about what happened this past year gives me chills.

Before I continue, I have to warn you: this post is not for everyone. And this isn’t a tech-focused post, either. I’m writing this for that person out there who needs that extra reminder that anything is possible. If you want to know how my world flipped this year, and what surprising lessons I’ve learned along the way, keep reading.

The Transformation

This past year has been a whirlwind of life-changing events, but I don’t take credit for any of it. This all happened because of the people in my life who believed in me, guided me, and pulled me up. I wake up every day humbled by those people in my life. They are the successes, and I’m just riding the wave.

To give you some insight on what happened to me, I’ll share with you a few things that show how my life was a year ago and what it’s like now. But let’s be extremely clear: this isn’t a “things I’ve done” list, but rather a case study on what is possible—and if a scrappy teenager like me can pull it off, just imagine what you can do.

  1. A year ago I was 40lbs heavier and I couldn’t run for more than 10 minutes. Today, I’ve dropped the 40lbs (thanks to Tim Ferriss’ slow carb diet) and I’m now training for my first triathlon (never thought that would happen!).
  2. A year ago I sat my dorm room and dreamt about being in the “real world” of Silicon Valley. Today, I’m an associate at Alsop Louie Partners, a San Francisco-based high-tech venture capital firm.
  3. A year ago I only had three people confirmed for my book and I had to chase down people on the streets (literally) to get them to agree to do interviews. Today, I’m at eleven confirmed interviews and counting—and the momentum keeps on growing.
  4. A year ago, I wrote in my journal that I wished to meet some of my business heroes, which included people such as Tim Ferriss, Tony Hsieh, and Elliott Bisnow. Today, I’ve not only met them all, but I’ve even shadowed one of them, had dinner with another one, and traveled to Europe with the third (it was amazing!).

I never would have guessed any of this would happen. As childish as it sounds, I’ve learned that dreams can actually come true. It’s crazy when you think about it. You just have to be willing to lay each brick, one by one, until you eventually build up to the clouds.

The following are the lessons I’ve learned along the way that have made this all possible. I share them with you with the hope that they help you too.

The Lessons Learned

  1. Writing in a journal changed my life. Journaling helps me with two things—maintaining my happiness level (if you write about happy moments in your day, your brain literally relives it) and helping me discover ideas I didn’t even know I had. A motto of mine is: I read books to learn what others know, but I write in a journal to learn what I know.
  2. Lightning strikes those who run around in thunderstorms. The chances of you getting struck by lightening while sitting in your house is slim. But the odds go way up when you go outside, climb trees, and hang onto metal objects during a storm. Success works the same way. Go to conferences where big players are, say yes to opportunities, and tell your story everywhere. You can create your own luck.
  3. Family first, always. I’ve realized that the one constant factor in life is family. Friends change, jobs change, girlfriends change, but your family is your family forever. Invest the time to make the relationships with your siblings and parents truly special. And if you don’t have biological family- find a community (such as Summit Series) and treat them as such.
  4. Never save the “best for last.” Give it all you got from the start. And it’s okay to eat your dessert first.
  5. Life is just a people game. Institutions that seems larger than life (ie. The White House, Disney, Microsoft) are just made up of people. If you learn how to pull back the curtain and find the people operating the machine, and become friends with them, you can make the impossible – possible.
  6. “No” just means “not right now” or “you asked me the wrong way.” Just because someone says “no” today, doesn’t mean they will say “no” tomorrow.
  7. There really are good people in the world. People want to help people who remind them of themselves, demonstrate they have potential, and have genuine intentions. You would be surprised by how radically kind people are when you ask for help in the right way.
  8. Reading books is the single most underrated key to success. Seriously. My top six books recommendations are: Never Eat Alone, Delivering Happiness, 4-Hour Workweek, Pour Your Heart Into It, When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead, and The Art of Possibilities.
  9. Most people’s email addresses can be found online in under a few minutes. The internet gives you access to contact people you can’t easily meet in person. Take advantage of that.
  10. Troubles are inevitable, but being stressed is a choice. I’ve learned to not worry about the little failures in life and focus on making the big success come true.
  11. Stop thinking about saving money and start thinking about making it. I’ve met people who spend hours cutting coupons and looking for ways to save a couple of dollars. If they spent that time working overtime or starting a business, the financial rewards would be much greater.
  12. “Networking”, passing out business cards, and attending mixers with people in suits is a waste of time. Focus instead on creating friendships with people who you really connect with. Networking makes me feel slimy and is no fun. Making friends is eternally fulfilling and enhances all aspects of your life and career.
  13. You are the reflection of the 20 people who give you the best advice. Try to get advice from the most wise and accomplished people you can get a hold of. Their hindsight can be your foresight.
  14. Life is not a zero sum game. Someone does not have to lose for you to win.
  15. Make time for free-time. Create time in your schedule to just explore, go on adventures, read something new, and talk to new people. I have way too many high-potential friends who are so busy spinning their wheels and working hard that they never actually do anything noteworthy. If you make time for free-time, you never know where your next big idea will come from.
  16. Accomplishments are not the driving force behind happiness. The happiness caused by the reaching the top of the mountain is momentary, but the happiness caused by the memory of climbing a fun mountain lasts a lifetime. The same applies to careers.
  17. Being funny and telling awesome stories can quickly turn strangers into new friends. Both of those are skills that can be learned and honed.
  18. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is BS. Having friends in high places isn’t helpful if you have nothing to deliver. Success is 80% the product and 20% how you get it seen. Who you know is necessary for that critical 20%, but don’t neglect that fundamental 80%.
  19. Service workers and secretaries. Treat these two groups of people exceptionally well. It’s one of life’s little secrets.
  20. You will surprise yourself by what you can accomplish when your back is against the wall. Nothing is more motivating than treading on the edge of failure—it will make you do incredible feats that you didn’t think you could ever pull off. But you’ll only get to that point if you take unimaginable risks.

Wrapping Up

The coolest part of all this is that I’m actually not particularly special. Anything I did, you could do too – and probably better. The only reason all this happened to me is because I was crazy enough to try.

I am not an example of a lucky exception, but rather proof of what is possible.

What happened to me this past year can happen to any of you if you want it bad enough.

My hope is that with this article, I could touch the life of someone who is on the verge of taking that next big jump. Just over a year ago, when I dropped being a pre-med in college, it was the inspiration from others that helped me make that much needed leap.

Nothing is more powerful than the human soul on fire—and I hope I could help spark yours.

First-Time Startup Entrepreneurs: Stop F*cking Around by Paul Stamatiou

Great post by Paul Stamatiou on TechCrunch about the importance of getting work done. Ideas, while great, count for nothing if you fail to execute.

Reminisce with me for a bit. Do you remember the first time you got an Internet connection? Before your computer was always connected and when going online was a thing you had to plan. The joys of seeing new browsers like Phoenix emerge. Your excitement when you first experienced the Web with your new high-speed connection. It was a time when sites rarely had any JavaScript and DHTML was the buzzword of the year. Now it’s hard to believe that Chrome is just a few years old.

When I first visited California for my Yahoo! internship (news of which immediately hit Valleywag, remember that site?) I knew I had to move out here eventually. I came back every year visiting friends and checking out startups.

Every time I drive into San Francisco and see the skyline, it’s a strong reminder that I’m fortunate to be in a time and place where I have wanted to be for so long, with such a vibrant and strong tech community. And that I better not fuck it up wasting time and being unproductive. I’m not here to talk about your startup idea, offer Backbone.js tips, discuss how to find your first customers or offer tips to pimp out your AngelList profile. I just want to say a few words on how to work. This is a post to new entrepreneurs about getting shit done.

This is all started with a tweet of mine. I was annoyed some friends that just began working on a startup were slacking off. Over 150 retweets later, I decided to elaborate on my thoughts here.

i’m going to teach a course for first-time startup entrepreneurs called stop fucking around and get back to work.

— Paul Stamatiou (@Stammy) April 23, 2012

We are in an amazing time right now — perhaps the perfect time to build companies. And it pains me to see first-time entrepreneurs flush away this huge opportunity getting caught in the hype of how cool it is to do a startup, going to endless meetups and spending entirely too much time on Maserati problems when they’re not busy cargo cult coding. Startups are a grind. It may end with having to get a job, or it may end with a big smile and a Section 280G, but either way you’ll have learned a ton.

YOUR WORKDAYS ARE SACRED

Think about the opportunity cost here. You could be off making six figures but you decided to swing for the fences with your startup. That takes guts. So why would you slack off and waste time? This is not a 9-5 job. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t suck it up and work your ass off. So please avoid all those endless meetups you go to for the sake of meeting up. Like Michael Arrington says, “use all that free time to start spending time with the serious people, doing serious things.”

Someone wants to meet during the week? Unless its actually business-related, turn it down or move it to the weekend. If they really want to meet, they will sacrifice some of their weekend too.

I will make one exception though. I’m a big believer in paying it forward. If someone needs genuine help I’m always down to lend a hand. It’s my way of returning the favor that people like George Zachary, Dan Martell, Hiten Shah and Noah Kagan that have spent countless hours helping entrepreneurs like me for as long as I can remember.

GET READY FOR UPS AND DOWNS

You will have days that suck. Getting accustomed to this will be a challenge for any new entrepreneur. I once tracked my mood everyday for a few months while I was working on my last startup (this was when we were fundraising).

FIND YOUR THING

This is one of the things Marissa Mayer has mentioned for how to prevent burnout and I have found it to ring exceptionally true. What do you need to do for yourself every week to keep your sanity? For me that’s running a few hours per week and seeing the occasional electronic dance music show with my cofounder. These things leave me feeling more energized and happier, something you can’t often say about attending lots of tech meetups and conferences.

WHAT’S YOUR PLAN?

Picplum is my third startup and if there’s one main difference between my last startups, it’s definitely our planning. I’ll be the first to say that I have a bad habit of always wanting to build first. New idea? Start with javascript. Wrong! Fortunately I have a great cofounder that keeps me in check and reminds me to spec things out first. Unless you are blessed with building a product that is solving your own problem and you are your target user, chances are you need to take a step back to throw away all of your assumptions.

Pick some sort of task/project management tool and use it. Whether it’s Trello, Hackpad, Asana, Flow, Sprintly or what have you — just pick one. Keep track of every idea, feature request or bug but rigorously prioritize. Do not allow anyone else to use their own system, because they’ll never check the company Asana and always be one step behind.

Not sure if it’s worth your time to fix something right now? Hiten Shah of KISSmetrics once told me something a few years ago that stuck:

For those customers that email about small feature requests or tweaks: Don’t fix it until you get one passionate user complaining about it/emailing you an essay.

One thing I learned about myself is that if we set an amount of time a new feature or update should take, I’m more likely to think through everything involved and spec out all the steps. This applies for at least anything that touches the UI. For example, we recently designed and built a new share page for the new Picplum. When I first started working on it, I was in the mindset that this was going to be a simple afternoon project that I would just hook up with current layouts and maybe extending one Backbone view. Easy.

While that could have been the route we took, we decided to take a step back and define the goal of this page. What was the first thing we wanted the user to do? Did it need to use the same layout as other pages? What followed was a productive 30 minute product chat with some sketches that resulted in a much better idea of what we wanted the user to experience. I mocked up 5 variations in Photoshop, had quick back & forths on the designs then built the one we decided on.

By mentally setting the length of this task from a hasty “I need to push this tonight” to a more effective “lets plan this out and take more time if necessary” the end result was much more robust. A better product and better code that you won’t have to end up rewriting twice later on.

The opposite of this is spending days or weeks “planning” a single feature and feeling like that is actual work. Thinking about how to do something won’t actually get it built. I’ve seen one too many startups that are way too happy about all the notes they’ve scribbled down over the last week about what they want to do. Just go do them, and surprise me when you’re making real progress.

GET MORE FEEDBACK

I used to do this all the time: I’d spend hours or days building what I thought was the perfect feature only to realize my cofounder and I had different thoughts on how it should all piece together.

Get more feedback, more often.

But how do you get quick feedback without sounding condescending and nagging for status updates from your cofounders? Just make it a habit. Anytime one of us asks “What are you working on?” or “How is X going?” it’s not a translation for “WTF is he doing” but rather just some friendly accountability and an offer to help. Make sure you and your cofounders keep each other in check with this simple habit.

The best part about these tiny status updates here and there? Less meetings.

Keep it light and iterative. For me this is often sharing a screenshot in Campfire with Akshay or flipping my monitor around to talk through something. One thing that stuck with me is Jeffrey Veen’s talk Designing for Disaster. He talked about how to conduct product reviews and keep them constructive:

The review is not a forum for expressing opinions. It is a forum for solving problems.

Instead of I don’t like blue, ask “what is the reason this is blue?”. Ask if this is a convergent discussion or a divergent discussion. If you need a decision made, make it. If you need ideas make that clear, and have a divergent conversation.

 BE DECISIVE

There’s nothing worse than trying to spec out that new feature or product and ending up with more questions. “Yeah we could do that” is not an acceptable answer. Entrepreneurs need to be able to make quick decisions and move forward with them. Delaying will not make the decision any easier (unless of course you’re waiting a few days for more data on that A/B test or more visitor metrics for your data-driven decision). Make a decision, put it in your Asana, assign people to it and get back to work.

WHEN YOU GET STUCK

If you can’t figure something out in 20 minutes, move on if it’s not blocking or ask your cofounders. My cofounder Akshay is big on this “20 minute rule” of his. If you’re spending 2 hours trying to properly bind events on a collection or figure out why your RequireJS optimized build isn’t working on production, you are both wasting time and not putting your resources to good use. By resources I mean your smart cofounders. A pair of fresh eyes always helps.

RESPECT THE ZONE

Find out how you work best. It may be a bit eccentric but when I really want to get work done I do things like hide the clock in OS X, close anything that can make sound (except Spotify of course), close all unrelated browser tabs, and make sure nothing else is cluttering my mind, like any small nagging tasks that I should probably finish first. Perhaps you need to perfect your coding cave.

Picplum office

Make sure you know what you and your cofounders need to be productive. If that means designating a specific “wired in” work period every day when there are no distractions, then so be it.

GOOD LUCK!

You can be so bad at so many things… and as long as you stay focused on how you’re providing value to your users and customers, and you have something that is unique and valuable… you get through all that stuff.

– Mark Zuckerberg