Do Not, Under Any Circumstances, Start A Startup: Or, What I Learned At Startup School 2011

October 2011

There were actually two distinct themes at this year’s edition of Startup School, but the first makes for a better title. This is not a recap of everything that was said - for that, I believe you can watch the individual videos on eventually.

Theme One: Do not, under any circumstances, start a startup.

This is, of course, tongue in cheek. But more than half the speakers said, in one form or another, do not start a startup. The summary went something like:

Don’t start a company just for the sake of starting a company. Don’t start a company because it’s cool. Don’t start one because you think it’s going to turn out like it does in the fictional movies, because it won’t - death is the default for startups. Don’t start a company because you want to be like the founders you see at startup school, or want to be the “next [fill in the blank].”

As one member of this chorus, Paul Graham offered one of the more analytical and level-headed critiques of the current landscape. He spent a few minutes before the Office Hours segment to give a mini-lecture on what he’s seeing with this round of YC applications - he described some of them as “what would happen if you did Markov chaining on a corpus of TechCrunch articles.” One startup that came on stage later was asked point blank, “Is this the biggest problem you could find?”

Paul noted that Bill Gates was trying to solve a problem he had when he wrote the BASIC interpreter for the Altair. He wasn’t thinking that it would lead to a giant software company or even a company at all. This was later echoed by Mark Zuckerberg who said that Facebook became a company in spite of his intentions - it got so much momentum behind it that it was going to happen whether he kept going with it or not.

In fact there was a palpable undercurrent of exasperation from a number of the speakers who had probably seen, heard about, or been pitched by one too many fresh-faced college students with billion-dollar ideas and an odd affinity for ramen noodles, hoodies, and caffeine. Ashton Kutcher, of all people, expressed this best when he said:

“I talk to these founders with these big ideas, and they jump from the problem they’re solving to who they’re going to be or what they’re going to get. I hear ‘It’s going to be a billion dollar company’ and I have this switch in my head that slowly shuts off. Because they’re jumping to the effect. You have to be the cause…If you want to be Mark Zuckerberg the best you’re going to be is second place. Because Mark Zuckerberg will always be a better Mark Zuckerberg than you.”

If Ashton’s distaste for founders trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg by following exactly in Mark’s footsteps sounds familiar, it’s because Paul Carr wrote about it back in March[1]. Here’s the conversation Paul had with such a founder:

More worrying was his answer to the question “What are your plans for the app?”.

Without a flicker of irony, he replied “we’re going to be a billion dollar company.”

“You realise that’s not just a thing you can decide to be?” I asked.

A glare this time. A shrug. And then again, as if he were addressing a simpleton: “We’re going to be a billion dollar company.”

“How?” I said.

“You’ll see,” came the reply.

It was only then I noticed his outfit. Everyone else was in smart-ish jeans and shirts, but the entrepreneur was carefully dressed in a hoodie and a pair of open-toed flip flops. Later investigation would reveal that his “billion dollar” app was a social network for people with .edu addresses. The secret sauce? The fact that it gave college kids a way to flirt around campus.

Any of this sounding familiar?

“Doing a startup” has seeped into popular culture as a “cool” thing to do. It may come from Aaron Sorkin (Oliver Stone revisited), or it may come from the cadre of mainstream news outlets who don’t want to appear foolish by dismissing the next big thing and who therefore cover companies and founders earlier than ever. I think McSweeneys puts it pretty well with their update on the opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an internet startup to call his own.”

So why should you start a company?

Because you’ve found your mission. When Mark Pincus took some time to think about what he wanted to do next, he asked himself what he wanted to be doing for the next decade (or three). He describes building a company as “building a house that you would want to live in” - the timeframe of building and owning a home was chosen deliberately, I’m sure. Many founders Mark talked to are willing to pursue something if someone else will fund it - they want to see if someone else thinks it’s a good idea. But that’s backwards, he says. You need to decide that it’s a good idea to be working on it first.

Work on a problem that you want to work on - but choose your subject wisely. If you’ve chosen correctly, the company will follow.

Theme Two: Design

The most overt reference to design was late in the day when Ron Conway launched a thousand tweets by saying that “Design and user experience is the new intellectual property.” There was a more subtle thread leading up to that. The very first speaker, Marc Andreessen, talked about the early days of Netscape when “nothing was instrumented” - echoing something Jack Dorsey said several months ago. Instrumentation isn’t what people normally think of when they think of design, but building systems that are transparent and convey important feedback to the right people in fact can require the most rigorous design discipline.

James Lindenbaum, one of the founders of Heroku, picked up the thread next when he discussed “Poka-yoke,” or preventing the user from making mistakes. To him, design is thinking through the emotional state of the user. He described Heroku apps as sitting in the middle of a huge ecosystem of services that, thanks to EC2, can ping each other in just milliseconds from around the world. Applications are being “decomposed” into services that they consume so that it’s completely clear how they can be valuable and solve new problems, rather than having to resolve old ones. This makes systems design and architecture essential.

Mark Zuckerberg also got in on the party. Jessica asked about the choices he made when scaling the company, which he described as just another engineering problem to solve. Getting a lot of teams working together is just another complex problem that you have to decompose and design a solution for.

It’s turtles - er, engineering and design - all the way down.

Drew Houston of Dropbox wrapped up the afternoon. Dropbox probably isn’t the first company you’d think of when it comes to design - their site is sparse and features mostly stick figures - but the whole point is that they’ve built something that actually works. Even the text file I’m using to write this is getting continuously backed up to Dropbox - seeing that little green check reminds me that I’ll have this text (and prior revisions) permanently.

It’s very easy to become jaded and have a cynical take on “startup advice” in general. To be honest when I walked out of the auditorium yesterday I thought I had come to the definitive conclusion that the content at the previous year’s startup school had been far superior, and that this year had been, to use the technical term, too platitude-y. But after letting the various talks percolate overnight I realized that the message just took a little longer to reveal itself.

[1] The irony here is that Ashton Kutcher is actually an investor in that founder’s company, but who am I to let the facts get in the way of a good story.