I recently stumbled on the writings of Paul Graham and I have to say I’ve been incredibly impressed. It’s not often that I find myself finding such insight and experience in what I read. Most people out there are hawking versions of the same story, but Paul Graham seems to have a unique perspective on quite a lot of issues, and he has the experience to back it up.
His articles can be quite long (many of them have been compiled into a book actually). But I’ve included some highlighted passages below that stood out to me as I was reading.
He is a programmer as well so I was able to relate on a lot of those points. He built a software company in the 90’s which eventually was sold to Yahoo for around $50 million and became the Yahoo Stores product. He is now a venture capitalist and started y-Combinator, something I wrote about in the past and was very impressed with (but didn’t know he was connected to at the time). I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of him until now. His essays are outstanding (he doesn’t really have a blog but there is an RSS feed for his essays which you can subscribe to).
Thoughts on wealth…
A surprising number of people retain from childhood the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world…When wealth is talked about in this context, it is often described as a pie. “You can’t make the pie larger,” say politicians. Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is– and you specifically are– one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell your car, you’ll get more for it. In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven’t made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie.
If you wanted to get rich, how would you do it? I think your best bet would be to start or join a startup. That’s been a reliable way to get rich for hundreds of years.
If you’re in a job that feels safe, you are not going to get rich
If you’re a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully, run upstairs. (Here he is talking about the idea of going after hard problems in business, and how small companies can solve them quicker).
Do the founders of a startup have to include business people? That depends. We thought so when we started ours, and we asked several people who were said to know about this mysterious thing called “business” if they would be the president. But they all said no, so I had to do it myself. And what I discovered was that business was no great mystery. It’s not something like physics or medicine that requires extensive study. You just try to get people to pay you for stuff.
…you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like “I don’t know,” “Maybe you’re right,” and “I don’t understand x well enough.”
If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you’ll learn something important about business school. You don’t even hit an MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only four MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you’d do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA.
It’s worth trying very, very hard to make technology easy to use. Hackers are so used to computers that they have no idea how horrifying software seems to normal people. Stephen Hawking’s editor told him that every equation he included in his book would cut sales in half. When you work on making technology easier to use, you’re riding that curve up instead of down. A 10% improvement in ease of use doesn’t just increase your sales 10%. It’s more likely to double your sales.
If you want ideas for startups, one of the most valuable things you could do is find a middle-sized non-technology company and spend a couple weeks just watching what they do with computers. Most good hackers have no more idea of the horrors perpetrated in these places than rich Americans do of what goes on in Brazilian slums.
Start by writing software for smaller companies, because it’s easier to sell to them. It’s worth so much to sell stuff to big companies that the people selling them the crap they currently use spend a lot of time and money to do it. And while you can outhack Oracle with one frontal lobe tied behind your back, you can’t outsell an Oracle salesman. So if you want to win through better technology, aim at smaller customers.
Google understands a few other things most Web companies still don’t. The most important is that you should put users before advertisers, even though the advertisers are paying and users aren’t. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads “if the people lead, the leaders will follow.” Paraphrased for the Web, this becomes “get all the users, and the advertisers will follow.” More generally, design your product to please users first, and then think about how to make money from it. If you don’t put users first, you leave a gap for competitors who do.
For most startups the model should be grad student, not law firm. Aim for cool and cheap, not expensive and impressive. For us the test of whether a startup understood this was whether they had Aeron chairs. The Aeron came out during the Bubble and was very popular with startups. Especially the type, all too common then, that was like a bunch of kids playing house with money supplied by VCs. We had office chairs so cheap that the arms all fell off. This was slightly embarrassing at the time, but in retrospect the grad-studenty atmosphere of our office was another of those things we did right without knowing it.
The most important way to not spend money is by not hiring people. I may be an extremist, but I think hiring people is the worst thing a company can do. To start with, people are a recurring expense, which is the worst kind. They also tend to cause you to grow out of your space, and perhaps even move to the sort of uncool office building that will make your software worse. But worst of all, they slow you down: instead of sticking your head in someone’s office and checking out an idea with them, eight people have to have a meeting about it. So the fewer people you can hire, the better.
If two companies have the same revenues, it’s the one with fewer employees that’s more impressive. When people used to ask me how many people our startup had, and I answered “twenty,” I could see them thinking that we didn’t count for much. I used to want to add “but our main competitor, whose ass we regularly kick, has a hundred and forty, so can we have credit for the larger of the two numbers?”
Avoid starting a startup to sell things to the biggest company of all, the government. Yes, there are lots of opportunities to sell them technology. But let someone else start those startups.
On reaching ”ramen profitability“…
Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses….A morale boost on that scale is very valuable in a startup, because the moral weight of running a startup is what makes it hard. Startups are still very rare. Why don’t more people do it? The financial risk? Plenty of 25 year olds save nothing anyway. The long hours? Plenty of people work just as long hours in regular jobs. What keeps people from starting startups is the fear of having so much responsibility. And this is not an irrational fear: it really is hard to bear. Anything that takes some of that weight off you will greatly increase your chances of surviving.
On finding work that you love…
Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water. Whatever I thought he meant, I didn’t think he meant work could literally be fun—fun like playing. It took me years to grasp that.
What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends…This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.
The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal injury litigation, ambitious people aren’t tempted by it. That kind of work ends up being done by people who are “just trying to make a living.” (Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say this.) The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.
With such powerful forces leading us astray, it’s not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions. It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial.
By the way I’m working on a new design for StartBreakingFree.com (you can see most of it is up already). More details on this coming up soon and other changes I’d like to make to the site.
Until next time, keep breaking free! Brian Armstrong