This blog contains original articles as well as articles from the book "Start-Up", by Hervé Lebret, which exists both in English and French. It is available on Amazon as well as in electronic versions. To buy it, click here.
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Street Art @ EPFL – the end

April 11th, 2014 Comment »

I walked again on EPFL campus and after my first discoveries that can be seen on Street Art @ EPFL – or not Street Art? here are my final pictures. First the final result of two pieces (whch I had shown as work in progress).

- Edgar Mueller and his site Metanamorph

EPFL-StreetArt-EdgarMueller1

EPFL-StreetArt-EdgarMueller2

- Truly Design Studio and their site Truly Design

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-6

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-4

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-3

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-2

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-5

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-1

EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-7

finally three new works created near the new congress center:

- 3D Joe&Max and his site 3djoeandmax
EPFL-StreetArt-3DJoeandMax1

- Sylvain Meyer and his web pages on artnet.ch
EPFL-StreetArt-Meyer2

EPFL-StreetArt-Meyer1

- Daniel Schlaepfer and his site www.dschlaepfer.com
EPFL-StreetArt-Schlaepfer1

EPFL-StreetArt-Schlaepfer2

Dogfight: the dynamics of competition in fast-growth markets.

April 10th, 2014 Comment »

Following my previous post about Dogfight and the Apple vs. Google war in the mobile world, here is an excerpt I found interesting. You can also find it on Wired: Apple vs Google: Did Apple Learn Anything From Its War With Microsoft?

gorillagame

The reason why this is interesting is that it reminds me an old book I read in my Index years. The Gorilla Game by the famous Geoffrey Moore. Moore explains why in high-tech high-growth markets, there is usually space for only one major player. Apple and Google in the mobile world might be a historical aberration. Read why below…

DogFight

“Jobs said he never saw the similarity between his fight with Android and his fight with Bill Gates and Microsoft in the 1980s. But just about everyone else inside and out of Apple did. Android and iPhone were in a platform war, and platform wars tend to be winner-take-all contests. The winner ends up with more than 75 percent of the market share and profits — and the loser ends up scrambling to stay in business.

In the Microsoft/Apple fight, Microsoft won by more widely distributing its software, which created a bigger selection of applications to buy, which attracted more customers. Once customers had spent hundreds of dollars on applications that ran on only one platform, it was much harder to get them to switch. Ultimately, everyone started using computers running Microsoft DOS and then Windows because everyone else was doing it. This wasn’t lemming-like behavior, but completely rational. Computers were only useful if work performed on one machine could be used on another machine.

This was almost precisely the Android strategy. In 2010, the Android ecosystem was still far from robust. The Android app store was badly organized, and developers had a tough time making money there. Apple’s three-year head start had allowed it to sell nearly 60 million iPhones, create a store with more than 200,000 applications, and establish a developer ecosystem that had been paid more than $1 billion over two years. But because any phone manufacturer could make an Android phone, the size of the Android platform was exploding. By the end of 2010, it was as big as the iPhone’s. And it seemed like only a matter of time before Google fixed the problems with its app store.

More worrisome to Apple was that Rubin could succeed without having to convince many iPhone customers to switch. The number of people worldwide switching from cell phones to smartphones in the coming years was going to be so enormous that he just needed to focus on that group — not necessarily on iPhone customers — to get a dominant smartphone market share. It seemed unfathomable that Jobs would lose two battles the same way a generation apart. But with so many similarities between the two dogfights, it was hard not to think about it.

There have always been good reasons to believe that the Apple/Google fight might not play out like Apple versus Microsoft: Developers seem more capable of writing software for two platforms than they were in the 1980s. The platform-switching costs are much smaller, too. Back then, PCs cost more than $3,000 and each software title cost more than $50. Now the costs are less than a tenth of those. A new phone with a carrier subsidy costs $200, and each app costs less than $3 and is often free. Also, third parties — the carriers — continue to have a vested interest in making sure consumers have as many ways to connect to their network, and pay them money, as possible.

But what Google and Apple executives have always understood is that if the battle turns out that way — if somehow their mobile platforms can harmoniously coexist — it will be a historical aberration. Because of the press coverage surrounding the Microsoft antitrust trial 14 years ago, a huge amount of analysis has been devoted to how Microsoft built its Windows monopoly in the PC business: If you get enough people using your technology platform, eventually it creates a vortex that forces almost everyone to use it. But these economic forces have not been unique to Microsoft. Every major technology company since then has tried to create the same kind of vortex for its business.

It was how Jobs had dominated the music-player business with the iPod. It was also how Google in 2004 started to embarrass and challenge Microsoft for dominance in high tech and pushed Yahoo! to the brink of implosion. Google’s top-quality search secured the most search traffic. That gave it the best data about user interests. That data made its search advertisements appearing alongside the search results the most effective. That virtuous circle encouraged more search traffic, more data, and even better search ads. No matter how much Microsoft and Yahoo! tried to attract traffic with lower ad rates and improved search results, Google was always able to offer a better deal.

eBay did the same thing to the roughly two dozen other online auction companies, such as OnSale and uBid. By allowing buyers and sellers to easily communicate and rate one another, it built a self-policing community. That fueled a rapid growth in bidders. The more bidders eBay acquired, the more reliable its prices became. The more reliable eBay’s prices became, the more new bidders wanted to use it. The more bidders wanted to use eBay, the less they wanted to use competitors’ sites. Facebook’s social media platform is the most recent example of the power of platform economics. Its superior technology allowed it to offer users better features than competitor MySpace. Better features made Facebook more useful. The more useful it was, the more data users shared. The more data users shared, the more features Facebook could offer. Soon people were joining Facebook just because everyone else was joining Facebook.

As the mobile platform wars go forward, Google’s and Apple’s ecosystems might be able to coexist long term and generate big profits and innovation for both companies. But given recent history, they will have to fight it out as if it won’t happen that way. “It’s like the battle for the monopolies that the cable guys and the phone guys got 30 to 40 years ago,” said Jon Rubinstein, the longtime top Apple executive and former CEO of Palm. “This is the next generation of it all. Everyone — Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft — is trying to build their walled garden and control access to content and all that. It’s a really big deal.” And it’s not the kind of thing Apple or Google can afford to be wrong about.” [Pages 142-145]

Silicon Valley: the HBO new series

April 8th, 2014 Comment »

I had dreamt about it, HBO has done it…HBO-Silicon Valley
More when available in Europe…
SiliconValley-HBO

Here is the trailer. Funny and … true!

Street Art @ EPFL – or not Street Art?

March 28th, 2014 Comment »

EPFL is organizing a really nice exhibition of Street Art on the occasion of the inauguration of its new convention center. If I ask “Street Art or Not Street Art?” it’s because in general Street Art is an unauthorized form of art. But that does not diminish the charm of the works and the quality of the artists. Readers of this blog may ask where is the connection with start-ups. There is none, but I love this topic as you can see by following the Street Art tag. All this may be ephemeral. It is a work in progress so enjoy the days to come… Here is the link of the exhibition Art On Science.

streetart-EPFL

- Leon Keer and his web site Streetpainting 3D

EPFL-StreetArt-LeonKeer1

EPFL-StreetArt-LeonKeer2

EPFL-StreetArt-LeonKeer-WiP
Work in Progress…

- Zebrating and his web site Zebrating-Art

EPFL-StreetArt-Zebrating1

EPFL-StreetArt-Zebrating2

EPFL-StreetArt-Zebrating-WiP
Work in Progress…

- Edgar Mueller and his web site Metanamorph
EPFL-StreetArt-EdgarMueller-WiP
Work in Progress…

- Truly Design Studio and their web site Truly Design
EPFL-StreetArt-TDS-WiP
Work in Progress…

Maybe more to come if more appears… I also noticed other icons in a similar style, but not belonging to the exhibition. Two invaders
EPFL-StreetArt-Invaders

My colleague Pascal who knows so much about EPFL explained me that these nice little invaders were created for a 2010 exhibition. Here is the link Objectif Science – 2010 and the full collection

epfl-invaders

and a few more.
EPFL-StreetArt-BC

Finally some real Street Art?
EPFL-StreetArt-graffiti

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution

March 26th, 2014 Comment »

While reading Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution in the public transportation, this morning, I just took a short pause and looked at the two young people in front of me. They were both using their iPhone and I thought about the revolution which occurred in less than 10 years. Not many ebooks yet, no more newspapers and a few older guys like me still reading books. But most were using their smart phone…

DogFight

Dogfight describes the behind-the-scene history of a giant battle (I am not sure it is a war) between Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone. No need to give a complete a account, but just a few points. For example Fred Vogelstein writes (page 13): “One of the things that I didn’t expect when I took on this project was how hard it is to conceive and build the products that Steve Jobs liked to casually pull out of his pocket onstage. Whether you are an Apple engineer, a Google engineer, or any engineer, building products that change the world isn’t just work. It’s a quest. It leaves its participants not only tired the way all jobs sometimes do but mentally and physically exhausted – even traumatized – at the end. Part of Jobs appeal as a leader and a celebrity was that he successfully hid all this from public view. He made innovation look easy. [...] Before there could be smartphones and tablets we all now buy and take for granted, there was yelling, screaming, backstabbing, dejection, panic, and fear over what it would take to get these projects off the ground.”

And Vogelstein shows also the dirty politics and huge internal fights such as the one between Tony Fadell and Scott Forstall.

feature_scottforstall43__02__768x415

On the shoulders of giants…

The politics also exist at Google and there was similar tension between the iPhone team led by Vic Gundotra and the Android team led by Andy Rubin. The fight was really at its highest between Apple and Google, between Jobs and the triumvirat Schmidt, Page & Brin.

Rubin-Gundotra-Pichai
Andy Rubin, head of Android, Vic Gundotra, head of social, Sundar Pichai, head of Chrome in 2011.

It seems Google was embarrased by Jobs’ attitude (page 102): “They believe that there are very few firsts in Silicon Valley – that all innovation are built on the shoulders of others [...] One piece of evidence the Googlers used to make their point in their negotiations with Jobs was a 1992 video of James Gosling, a famous Sun Microsystems engineer and inventor of the Java programming language, showing off the Star7. This crude-looking handheld device had a 200KB radio; a four-inch, LCD, color TV screen; and speakers from a Nintendo Game Boy. Even then, before anyone but the richest executives had a mobile phone or had seen a Newton handheld, Gosling was showing off a machine not only with a touchscreen but with inertial scrolling. The harder you flicked the screen, the faster it scrolled through items.”

… Jobs and God

Most Silicon Valley people were (and still are) fascinated by Jobs. Vic Gundotra belongs to that group (page 98): “One Sunday morning, January 6th, 2008 I was attending religious services when my cell phone vibrated. As discreetly as possible, I checked the phone and noticed that my phone said “Caller ID unknown”. I choose to ignore. After services, as I was walking to my car with my family, I checked my cell phone messages. The message left was from Steve Jobs. “Vic, can you call me at home? I have something urgent to discuss” it said. Before I even reached my car, I called Steve Jobs back. I was responsible for all mobile applications at Google, and in that role, had regular dealings with Steve. It was one of the perks of the job. “Hey Steve – this is Vic”, I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer your call earlier. I was in religious services, and the caller ID said unknown, so I didn’t pick up”. Steve laughed. He said, “Vic, unless the Caller ID said ‘GOD’, you should never pick up during services”. I laughed nervously. After all, while it was customary for Steve to call during the week upset about something, it was unusual for him to call me on Sunday and ask me to call his home. I wondered what was so important? “So Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I’ve already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow” said Steve. “I’ve been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I’m not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient. It’s just wrong and I’m going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?” Of course this was okay with me. A few minutes later on that Sunday I received an email from Steve with the subject “Icon Ambulance”. The email directed me to work with Greg Christie to fix the icon. Since I was 11 years old and fell in love with an Apple II, I have dozens of stories to tell about Apple products. They have been a part of my life for decades. Even when I worked for 15 years for Bill Gates at Microsoft, I had a huge admiration for Steve and what Apple had produced. But in the end, when I think about leadership, passion and attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday. To one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met, my prayers and hopes are with you Steve.”

More to come maybe when I am finished with Dogfight…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – Final Thoughts: Human After All

March 21st, 2014 Comment »

As you noticed if you read my previous posts, I’ve been quite impressed by Peter Thiel’s notes about start-ups. I’ve written 7 long parts. I had been similarly impressed by Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State even if with only 5 posts!

Thiel-Mazzucato

I said it already, I would have loved to attend their debate in a few days at the conference Human After All, Toronto 2014. But apparently they do not participate to the same roundtable anymore… (After reading what follows, I see that Taleb would have been a great addition).

- He will discuss “The Economics of Radical Uncertainty.”
How do human beings truly react when confronted with conditions of genuine “unknown unknowns”? According to Frank Knight, “Uncertainty must be taken in a sense radically distinct from the familiar notion of risk, from which it has never been properly separated…The essential fact is that ‘risk’ means in some cases a quantity susceptible of measurement, while at other times it is something distinctly not of this character; and there are far – reaching and crucial differences in the bearings of the phenomena depending on which of the two is really present and operating… It will appear that a measurable uncertainty, or ‘risk’ proper, as we shall use the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all.” The economics literature from Knight onward is very good at laying out the propensity of markets to greatly overshoot and undershoot the fundamentals. However, economics does not adequately address the implications of “Knightean” uncertainty, because the discipline finds it hard to model this phenomenon. To get a full measure of this, one has to enter into the realm of psychology and neuroscience. That’s where the definition lies. Radical uncertainty, like so much else, is too important to be left to the realm of economics alone.

- She will be part of “Innovation: Do Private Returns Produce the Social Returns We Need?”
The machines of the first age replaced and multiplied the physical labour of humans and animals. The machines of the second age will replace and multiply our intelligence. The driving force behind this revolution will, argue the “techno-positivists,” exponentially increase the power (or exponentially reduce the cost) of computing. The celebrated example is Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel. For half a century, the number of transistors on a semiconductor chip has doubled at least every two years. But the information age has coincided with – and must, to some extent, have caused – adverse economic trends: stagnation of median real incomes; rising inequality of labour income and of the distribution of income between labour and capital; and growing long – term unemployment. Are the great gains in
wealth and material prosperity created by our entrepreneurs in and of themselves sufficient to produce desired social returns demanded in today’s world?

Start-ups are a great area to study the tension between individuals and society. A kind of chicken and egg situation… Indeed they might explain the growing gap between the USA and Europe in many dimensions. Mazzucato would be on the social side, Thiel closer to the individual. But do not see any provocative statement here. The thoughts of Thiel and Mazzucato are profound. I agree with most of what they say, disagree with smaller pieces, though most people could think their thinking can not be reconciled. I really think that combining their point of views is an interesting approach to what innovtaion really is…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 7: luck & uncertainty

March 19th, 2014 Comment »

This is my last post about Thiel’s class notes at Stanford and it is about Class 13 – Luck. Now I need to wait for his book to be published…

zerotoone

I love accidents. I mentioned it in a post which has nothing to do with start-ups (related to Street Art). The accident here is funny: I totally forgot to copy-paste Thiel’s class 13 and it is only when I began to read class 14 that I noticed my mistake. Now let me quote Thiel: “Note that this is class 13. We are not going to be like the people who build buildings without a 13th floor and superstitiously jump from class 12 to 14. Luck isn’t something to circumvent or be afraid of. So we have class 13. We’ll dominate luck.” Strange, right? I had to call this final part, part 7…

So what does Thiel say about luck? Well it is a debated topic, as I experienced in my activity at EPFL. Thiel feels the same. He begins with: “The biggest philosophical question underlying startups is how much luck is involved when they succeed. As important as the luck vs. skill question is, however, it’s very hard to get a good handle on. Statistical tools are meaningless if you have a sample size of one. It would be great if you could run experiments. Start Facebook 1,000 times under identical conditions. If it works 1,000 out of 1,000 times, you’d conclude it was skill. If it worked just 1 time, you’d conclude it was just luck. But obviously these experiments are impossible.” adding the famous Thomas Jefferson’s line: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

Thiel is not so much interested in luck as in determinism vs. indeterminism. “If you believe that the future is fundamentally indeterminate, you would stress diversification. […]. If the future is determinate, it makes much more sense to have firm convictions. […] Overlay this diversification/conviction dynamic over the optimism/pessimism question and you get further refinement. Whether you look forward to the future or are afraid of it ends up making a big difference. And here is his vision of the world:

Thiel-World1

With an even more surprising and quite convincing:

Thiel-World2

“But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.”

But here I’d love to ask Peter Thiel what he makes of Black Swans if he believes in 0 to 1 more than in 1 to n. 1 to n belongs to statistics, not 0 to 1… (read again my part 1 if this is cryptic)

Thiel-World-SFBA

Thiel likes crazy ideas, like Reber’s project for the Bay Area in the 1940s above. He also still believes in finance despite its excesses: “In a future of definite optimism, you get underwater cities and cities in space. In a world of indefinite optimism, you get finance. The contrast couldn’t be starker. The big idea in finance is that the stock market is fundamentally random. It’s all Brownian motion. All you can know is that you can’t know anything. It’s all a matter of diversification. There are clever ways to combine various investments to get higher returns and lower risk, but you can only push out the efficient frontier a bit. You can’t know anything substantive about any specific business. But it’s still optimistic; finance doesn’t work if you’re pessimistic. You have to assume you’re going to make money. […] Indeterminacy has reoriented people’s ideas about investing. Whereas before investors actually had ideas, today they focus on managing risk. Venture capital has fallen victim to this too. Instead of being about well-formed ideas about future, the big question today is how can you get access to good deals. In theory at least, VC should have very little in common with such a statistical approach to the future.“

And he might agree with Mariana Mazzucato during his debate to come with her (at Human After All, Toronto 2014 – program in pdf) : “The size of government hasn’t changed all that much in the last 40-50 years. But what the government actually does has changed radically. In the past, the government would get behind specific ideas and execute them. Think the space program. Today, the government doesn’t do as many specific things. Mainly it just shifts money around from some people to other people. What do you do about poverty? Well, we don’t know. So let’s just give people money, hope it helps, and let them figure it out.”

Darwinism and design.

And all of a sudden, while reading this class 13, Thiel again surprises me! Obviously, the indeterminate optimism can be quite easily linked to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Accidents happen, but there is general positive evolution. And “Applied to start-ups, obsession with indeterminacy leads to the following phenomena:
• Darwinistic A/B testing
• Iterative processes
• Machine learning
• No thinking about the future
• Short time horizons”

Typical Blank’s messages! But Thiel envisages another possibility: “Apple is absolute antithesis of finance. It does deliberate design on every level. There is the obvious product design piece. The corporate strategy is well defined. There are definite, multi-year plans. Things are methodically rolled out.” (I do not think Thiel talks here about intelligent design which is opposed to Darwinian theory, but the coincidence is a little puzzling!

“On the heels of Apple has come the theme of well-designed products being really important. Airbnb, Pinterest, Dropbox, and Path all have a very anti-statistical feel. […] That link—great design—seems to work better and faster than Darwinistic A/B testing or iteratively searching through an incredibly large search space. The return of design is a large part of the countercurrent going against the dominating ethos of indeterminacy. Related to this is the observation that companies with really good plans typically do not sell. If your startup gets traction, people make offers to buy it. In an indefinite world, you will take the money and sell, because money is what you want. […] But when companies have definite plans, those plans tend to anchor decisions not to sell.[..] In an indefinite world, investors will value secret plans at zero. But in a determinate world, robustness of the secret plan is one of the most important metrics […] It’s important to note that you can always form a definite plan even in the most indefinite of worlds. […] We’re falling downwards towards pessimism. Can we shift instead to definite optimism?”

This is the end of my notes on Thiel’s great vision about start-ups.

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 6: founder uniqueness, technology singularity

March 17th, 2014 Comment »

Thiel’s concludes his Class Notes Essays (CS183 —Stanford, Spring 2012) with philosophical considerations about the uniqueness of founders (class 18) and the singularity of technology (class 19). Founders are a topic I regularly covered, for example with European Founders at Work or Founders at Work.

Again Thiel presents unusual ideas about founders. He sees them as a combination of extreme outsiders and extreme insiders.
Thiel-extreme-in-out
which he reinforces with this virtuous/vicious circle:
Thiel-extreme-in-out-circle

If this is not clear, two examples may help:
- “All [these] questions apply to Gates. Was it nature or nurture? He was a Harvard insider but a dropout outsider. He wore big glasses. Did he become a nerd unwillingly? Did he prosper by accentuating his nerdiness? It’s hard to tell.”
- “And then there’s the Steve Jobs version. [...] He had all the classic extreme outsider and extreme insider traits. He dropped out of college. He was eccentric and had all these crazy diets. He started out phreaking phones with Steve Wozniak. He took LSD.”

Thiel is convincing when he explains that a start-up is not a democracy. Founders are Kings, and Thiel may have followed René Girard at Stanford since he then develops a theory of scapegoats. The god may become a victim.
Thiel-monarchy

Thiel is a little short about the dual-founder situation: “The dual founder thing is worth mentioning. Co-founders seem to get in a lot less trouble than more unbalanced single founders. Think Hewlett and Packard, Moore and Noyce, and Page and Brin. There are all sorts of theoretical benefits to having multiple founders such as more brainstorming power, collaboration, etc. But the really decisive difference between one founder and more is that with multiple founders, it’s much harder to isolate a scapegoat. Is it Larry Page? Or is it Sergey Brin? It is very hard for a mob-like board to unite against multiple people—and remember, the scapegoat must be singular. The more singular and isolated the founder, the more dangerous the scapegoating phenomenon. For the skeptic who is inclined to spot fiction masquerading as truth, this raises some interesting questions. Are Page and Brin, for instance, really as equal as advertised? Or was it a strategy for safety? We’ll leave those questions unanswered and hardly asked.”

Thiel-dual-founders

Thiel’s vision (as well as the visions of his guests – I mixed them here) of technology was mentioned in my previous post. Again quite fascinating. “People do tend have some view of the future. They usually project relative stagnation. People tend to believe that, not only will most things not change, but what will change won’t change very quickly.” But “there’s a compelling case that we’ll very likely see extraordinary or accelerated progress in the decades ahead.”

One guest: “My take is that innovation comes from two places: top-down and bottom-up. There’s a huge DIY community. These hobbyists are working in labs they set up in their kitchens and basements. On the other end of the spectrum you have DARPA spending tons of money. Scientists are talking to each other from different countries, collaborating. All this interconnectedness matters. All these interactions in the aggregate will bring the change.

Another guest: “I disagree. There are a very few visionary people who can make a real difference at the formative early stage. This is why mainstream opinion formers are absolutely pivotal. Perhaps no other subset of people could do more to further radical technology. By overpowering public reluctance and influencing the discourse, these people can enable everyone else to build the technology. If we change public thinking, the big benefactors can drive the gears.”

The third guest: “I do not think that progress will come from the top-down or from the bottom-up, really. Individual benefactors who focus on one thing, like Paul Allen, are certainly doing good. But they’re not really pushing on future; they’re more pushing on individual thread in homes that it will make the future come faster. The sense is that these people are not really coordinating with each other. Historically, the big top-down approaches haven’t worked. And the bottom-up approach doesn’t usually work either. It’s the middle that makes change—tribes like the Quakers, the Founding Fathers, or the Royal Society. These effective groups were dozens or small hundreds in size. It’s almost never lone geniuses working solo. And it’s almost never defense departments or big institutions. You need dependency and trust. Those traits cannot exist in one person or amongst thousands.”

Peter Thiel: “That’s three different opinions on who makes the future: a top-down bottom-up combo, social opinion molders, and tribes.”

To be honest, I was more convinced with his analysis of founders than of technologies. His conclusion is worth reading as inspiration: “This course has largely been about going from 0 to 1. We’ve talked a lot about how to create new technology, and how radically better technology may build toward singularity. But we can apply the 0 to 1 framework more broadly than that. There is something importantly singular about each new thing in the world. There is a mini singularity whenever you start a company or make a key life decision. In a very real sense, the life of every person is a singularity. The obvious question is what you should do with your singularity. The obvious answer, unfortunately, has been to follow the well-trodden path. You are constantly encouraged to play it safe and be conventional. The future, we are told, is just probabilities and statistics. You are a statistic. But the obvious answer is wrong. That is selling yourself short. Statistical processes, the law of large numbers, and globalization—these things are timeless, probabilistic, and maybe random. But, like technology, your life is a story of one-time events. By their nature, singular events are hard to teach or generalize about. But the big secret is that there are many secrets left to uncover. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them. There is perhaps no specific time that is necessarily right to start your company or start your life. But some times and some moments seem more auspicious than others. Now is such a moment. If we don’t take charge and usher in the future—if you don’t take charge of your life—there is the sense that no one else will. So go find a frontier and go for it. Choose to do something important and different. Don’t be deterred by notions of luck, impossibility, or futility. Use your power to shape your own life and go and do new things.”

Reading these last lines, I remembered the conclusion of my book: “And I suddenly remembered an essay by Wilhelm Reich, the great psychoanalyst, which he wrote in 1945: “Listen, Little Man”. A small essay by the number of pages, a big one in the impact it creates. “I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”.

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 5: a vision of the future of technology

March 15th, 2014 Comment »

I am still not sure how Thiel’s class notes on start-ups will finish, but they are more and more fascinating, class after class. At least his vision of this world is.

Class 14 is about cleantech and energy. “Alternative energy and cleantech have attracted an enormous amount of investment capital and attention over the last decade. Almost nothing has worked as well as people expected. The cleantech experience can thus be quite instructive. [...] To think about the future of energy, we can use the [another] matrix. The quadrants shake out like this:
- Determinate, optimistic: one specific type of energy is best, and needs to be developed
- Determinate, pessimistic: no technology or energy source is considerably better. You have what you have. So ration and conserve it.
- Indeterminate, optimistic: there are better and cheaper energy sources. We just don’t know what they are. So do a whole portfolio of things.
- Indeterminate, pessimistic: we don’t know what the right energy sources are, but they’re likely going to be worse and expensive. Take a portfolio approach.”

Both for energy and transportation, Thiel’s fills his quadrants with interesting examples:
Thiel-World3

and he adds: “Petroleum has dominated transportation. Coal has dominated in power generation. [...] Typically a single source dominates at any given time. There is a logical reason for this. It doesn’t make sense that the universe would be ordered such that many different kinds of energy sources are almost exactly equal. Solar is very different from wind, which is very different from nuclear. It would be extremely odd if pricing and effectiveness across all these varied sources turned out to be virtually identical. So there’s a decent ex ante reason why we should expect to see one dominant source. This can be framed as a power law function. Energy sources are probably not normally distributed in cost or effectiveness. There is probably one that is dramatically better than all others.”

But the analysis explaining the cleantech bubble were far from clear. “One problem was that people were ambiguous on what was scarce or problematic. Was there resource scarcity? Or were the main problems environmental?” [...] “To have a successful startup, you must have good answers—or at least a good plan for getting those answers.” Answers to many issues such as
- the market
- the secrets
- the team and its culture
- the funding
and unfortunately many mistakes were made.

Regarding the market, there was the issue of both explaining how to become a leader of one segment (PV, wind,…) and why a segment was better. Regarding the secret: “If you want to start a company, you should have some important secret. But in practice, most wind, solar, and cleantech ventures relied on incremental improvements.” Even worse, “most cleantech companies in the last decade have had shockingly non-technical teams and cultures. Culture defaulted toward zero-sum competition. Savvy observers would have seen the trouble coming when cleantech people started wearing suits and ties. Tech people and computer people wear t-shirts and jeans. Cleantech people, by contrast, looked like salesmen. And indeed they were. This is not a trivial point. If you’re dealing in something that’s incremental and of questionable durability, you actually have to be a really good salesman to convince people that it’s dramatically better.” Finally “a good, broad rule of thumb is to never invest in companies who are looking for less than $1 million or more than $1 billion. If companies can do everything they want for less than a million dollars, things may be a little too easy. There may be nothing that is very hard to build, and it’s just a timing game. On the other extreme, if a company needs more than a billion dollars to be successful, it has to become so big that the story starts to become implausible.”

If Thiel were to bet on soemthing, it would apparently be Thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Class 15 is about other future bets.

Thiel-World4a
Thiel-World4b

Thiel is a strong believer in contrarian (and sometimes huge) bets. He is interested in or at least puzzled by transportation, robotics, weather and energy storage. And his way of choosing is to look at what did not work (yet) in the past: “Various VC firms in Silicon Valley warned expressed concern about [investing in unique technologies]. They warned us that investing in SpaceX was risky and maybe even crazy. And this wasn’t even at the very early stage. [...] (Danielle Fong:) People like to act like they like being disruptive and taking risks. But usually it’s just an act. They don’t mean it. Or if they do, they don’t necessarily have the clout within the partnership to make it happen. (Peter Thiel:) It is very hard hard for investors to invest in things that are unique. The psychological struggle is hard to overstate. People gravitate to the modern portfolio approach. The narrative that people tell is that their portfolio will be a portfolio of different things. But that seems odd. Things that are truly different are hard to evaluate. [...] The upside to doing something that you’re unfamiliar with, like rockets, is that it’s likely that no one else is familiar with it, either. The competitive bar is lowered. You can focus on learning and substantive things over process, which is perhaps better than competing against experts.”

Class 16 is about maybe the highest of all bets: life and death.

I have not so far mentioned the sentence which comes at the top of each series of class notes: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

The problem.

“Like death itself, modern drug discovery is probably too much a matter of luck. Scientists start with something like 10,000 different compounds. After an extensive screening process, those 10,000 are reduced to maybe 5 that might make it to Phase 3 testing. Maybe 1 makes it through testing and is approved by the FDA. It is an extremely long and fairly random process. This is why starting a biotech company is usually a brutal undertaking. Most last 10 to 15 years. There’s little to no control along the way. What looks promising may not work. There’s no iteration or sense of progress. There is just a binary outcome at end of a largely stochastic process. You can work hard for 10 years and still not know if you’ve just wasted your time.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that all the luck-driven, stats-driven processes that have dominated people’s thinking have worked pretty well over the last few decades. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that indeterminacy is sound practice. Its costs may be rising quickly. Perhaps we’ve found everything that is easy to find. If so, it will be hard to improve armed with nothing but further random processes. This is reflected in escalating development costs. It cost $100 million to develop a new drug in 1975. Today it costs $1.3 billion. Probably all life sciences investment funds have lost money. Biotech investment has been roughly as bad a cleantech.”

The perspectives.

“Drug discovery is fundamentally a search problem. The search space is extremely big. There are lots of possible compounds. An important question is thus whether we can use computer technology to reduce scope of luck. Can Computer Science make biotech more determinative?”

“These are big secrets that play out over long time horizons, not web apps that have a 6-week window to take over the world.”

“The sequencing of the genome is like the first packets being sent over ARPANET. It’s a proof of concept. This technology is happening, but it isn’t yet compelling. So there is a huge market if one can make something compelling enough for people to actually go and get a genome sequenced. It’s like e-mail or word processing. Initially these things were uncomfortable. But when they become demonstrably useful, people leave their comfort zones and adopt them.”

“Biotech got quite a burst in late 70s early 80s, with new recombinant DNA and molecular biology techniques. Genentech led the way from the late 70s to the early 80s. Nine of the 10 biggest American biotech companies were founded during this really short time. Their technology came out some 7-8 years later. And that was the window; not very many integrated biotech companies have emerged since then. There was a certain amount of stuff to find. People found it. And before Genentech, the paradigm was pharma, not biotech. That window (becoming an integrated pharmaceutical company) had been closed for about 30 years before Genentech. So the bet is that while the traditional biotech window may be closed, the comp bio window is just opening.”

“There’s really no rush to spill the secret plans. This space is very much unlike fast-moving consumer Internet startups. Here, if you have something unique, you should nurse it.”

“Slow iteration is not law of nature. Pharma and biotech usually move very slowly, but both have moved pretty fast at times. From 1920-1923 Insulin moved at the speed of software. Today, platforms like Heroku have greatly reduced iteration times. The question is whether we can do that for biotech. Nowhere is it written in stone that you can’t go from conception to market in 18 months. That depends very much on what you’re doing. Genentech was founded the same year as Apple was, in 1976. Building a platform and building infrastructure take time. There can be lots of overhead. Ancillary things can take longer than a single product lifecycle to accumulate. [... the] VC is broken with respect biotech. Biotech VCs have all lost money. They usually have time horizons that are far too short. VCs that say they want biotech tend to really want products brought to market extremely quickly. “Integrated drug platform” is an ominous phrase for VCs. More biotech VCs are focused on globalization than on real technical innovation. VCs typically found a company around a single compound and then pour a bunch of money into it to push it through the capital-intensive trial process. Most VCs not interested in multi-compound companies doing serious pre-clinical research.”

And as a conclusion of class 16, “Startups are always hard at the start. There are futons and ironing boards in the office. You have to rush to clean up for meetings. But maybe the hardest thing is just to get your foundation right and make sure you plan to build something valuable. You don’t have to do a science fair project at the start. You just have to do your analytical homework and make sure what you’re doing is valid. You have to give yourself the best chance of success as things unfold in the future.”

Class 17 is about the brain, artificial intelligence, maybe the last frontier in technology, certainly going further than the previous topics addressed here.

thiel-world5

Not much more to add except maybe the short description of the approach by 3 start-ups:
- Vicarious is trying to build AI by develop algorithms that use the underlying principles of the human brain. They believe that higher-level concepts are derived from grounded experiences in the world, and thus creating AI requires first solving a human sensory modality.
- Prior Knowledge (acquired by Salesforce since Thiel’s class) is taking a different approach to building AI. Their goal is less to emulate brain function and more to try to come up with different ways to process large amounts of data. They apply a variety of Bayesian probabilistic techniques to identifying patterns and ascertaining causation in large data sets. In a sense, it’s the opposite of simulating human brains.
- The big insight at Palantir (…) isn’t regression analysis, where you look at what was done in the past to try to predict what’s going to be next. A better approach is more game theoretic. Palantir’s framework is not fundamentally about AI, but rather about intelligence augmentation.

And one more comment: “For the most part, academics aren’t (working on strong AI or crazy things) because their incentive structure is so weird. They have perverse incentive to make only marginally better things. And most private companies aren’t working on it because they’re trying to make money now.(…) Bold claims also require extraordinary proof. If you’re pitching a time machine, you’d need to be able to show incremental progress before anyone would believe you. Maybe your investor demo is sending a shoe back in time. That’d be great. You can show that prototype, and explain to investors what will be required to make the machine work on more valuable problems. It’s worth noting that, if you’re pitching a revolutionary technology as opposed to an incremental one, it is much better to find VCs who can think through the tech themselves. When Trilogy was trying to raise their first round, the VCs had professors evaluate their approach to the configurator problem. Trilogy’s strategy was too different from the status quo, and the professors told the VCs that it would never work. That was an expensive mistake for those VCs. When there’s contrarian knowledge involved, you want investors who have the ability to think through these things on their own.”

End of part 5!

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 4: it’s customer, stupid!

March 12th, 2014 Comment »

Thiel’s classes 9 to 12 leave the pure field of start-ups to the higher levels of economy, business and innovation. Thiel gives general advice such that customers are important and more important than competitors with the recurring “obsession” that peace and correlated monopoly  are better than war and deadly competition.

customer-stupid

Class 9 is about customers and more specifically how to find them. “People say it all the time: this product is so good that it sells itself. This is almost never true. […] The truth is that selling things is not a purely rational enterprise. There is much stranger stuff at work here. […] Most engineers underestimate the sales side of things because they are very truth-oriented people. In engineering, something either works or it doesn’t. […] Engineering is transparent. […] Sales isn’t very transparent at all. (As a side comment, I advise again to read Packer about transparency and politics in SV, in fact look at what follows!) […] A good analogy to the engineer vs. sales dynamic is experts vs. politicians. If you work at a big company, you have two choices. You can become expert in something. The other choice is to be a politician. […] The really good politicians are much better than you think. Great salespeople are much better than you think. But it’s always deeply hidden. In a sense, probably every President of the United States was first and foremost a salesman in disguise.

Thiel loves quadrants but does not draw one here, he just explains it:
- Product sells itself, no sales effort. Does not exist.
- Product needs selling, no sales effort. You have no revenue.
- Product needs selling, strong sales piece. This is a sales-driven company.
- Product sells itself, strong sales piece. This is ideal.

Thiel has similar views on marketing “Advertising is tricky in the same way that sales is” and he uses the famous quote: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted: the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Sales follow a power law similar to the one existing in value creation. Viral marketing rarely works… and viral marketing requires that the product’s core use case must be inherently viral.

In his class 10, Thiel begins to explore the future and shows how difficult it is to identify opportunities. He even mentions the nice quote (but never said in reality) “everything that can be invented has been invented” (falsely) attributed to U.S. Patent Commissioner Charles H. Duell in 1899. Again both in terms of technology innovation (vs. computers) or globalization (vs. China), he advises not to compete but to collaborate.

But the worst competitor is time… “More interesting are cases where people are right about the future and just wrong on timing. […]And being too early is a bigger problem for entrepreneurs than not being correct. It’s very hard to sit and just wait for things to arrive. It almost never works.” Andreessen who was Thiel’s guest approved: “For entrepreneurs, timing is a huge risk. You have to innovate at the right time. You can’t be too early. This is really dangerous because you essentially make a one-time bet. It’s rare are to start the same company five years later if you try it once and were wrong on timing. Jonathan Abrams did Friendster but not Facebook.

And Andreessen also agrees about sales: “The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to cultivate and glorify this mentality in the Valley. We’re all enamored with lean startup mode. Engineering and product are key. There is a lot of genius to this, and it has helped create higher quality companies. But the dark side is that it seems to give entrepreneurs excuses not to do the hard stuff of sales and marketing. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call no distribution strategy a viral marketing strategy.”

Again about timing: “You can go wrong in a few ways. One is that the future is too far away […] It’s like surfing. The goal is to catch a big wave. If you think a big wave is coming, you paddle really hard. Sometimes there’s actually no wave, and that sucks. But you can’t just wait to be sure there’s a wave before you start paddling. You’ll miss it entirely. You have to paddle early, and then let the wave catch you. The question is, how do you figure out when the next big wave is likely to come?”

A few not related topics:
- You need to find the balance that lets you think about patents least. It’s basically a distracting regulatory tax.
- What’s ideal is to have a founder/CEO who is a product person. Sales operators handle the sales force. Larry Ellison [is no exception and] is a product guy.
- Being CEO is a learnable skill. With the “world class” CEO model, you miss out on Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. The CEOs of those companies, of course, turned out to be excellent. But they were also the product people who built the companies. [Do not misunderstand] everybody thinks management is a bunch of idiots, and that engineers must save the day by doing the right things on the side. That’s not right. Management is extremely important. Great management and a great product person running the company is characteristic of the very best companies.

Class 11 is also about the future, but in terms of “secrets” which may be important to know how to identify real opportunities: “Some secrets are small and incremental. Others are very big. The focus should be on the secrets that matter: the big secrets that are true. The big ones so far have involved monopoly vs. competition, the power law, and the importance of distribution. “Capitalism and competition are antonyms.” That is a secret; it is an important truth, and most people disagree with it.”

Thiel explains why secrets are important: “Four primary things have been driving people’s disbelief in secrets.
- First is the pervasive incrementalism in our society. People seem to think that the right way to go about doing things is to proceed one very small step at a time. […] Academics are incented by volume, not importance. The goal is to publish lots of papers, each of which is, in practice at least, new only in some small incremental way. […]
- Second, people are becoming more risk-averse. People today tend to be scared of secrets. They are scared of being wrong. Of course, secrets are supposed to be true. But in practice, what’s true of all secrets is that there is good chance they’re wrong. If your goal is to never make mistake in your life, you should definitely never think about secrets. Thinking outside the mainstream will be dangerous for you. […]
- Third is complacency. There’s really no need to believe in secrets today. Law school deans at Harvard and Yale give the same speech to incoming first year students every fall: “You’re set. You got into this elite school. […]
- Finally, some pull towards egalitarianism is driving us away from secrets. We find it increasingly hard to believe that some people have important insight into reality that other people do not. Prophets have fallen out of fashion. Having visions of the future is seen as crazy. In 1939 Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to get serious about nuclear power and atomic weaponry. Roosevelt read it and got serious. Today, such a letter would get lost in the White House mailroom.”

But… “There is no straightforward formula that can be used to find secrets.”

Class 12 is about war and peace again, but I do not have much to comment here except a quote from Reid Hoffman: “A side note on invention and innovation: when you have an idea for a startup„ consult your network. Ask people what they think. Don’t look for flattery. If most people get it right away and call you a genius, you’re probably screwed; it likely means your idea is obvious and won’t work. What you’re looking for is a genuinely thoughtful response. Fully two thirds of people in my network thought LinkedIn was stupid idea. These are very smart people. They understood that there is zero value in a social network until you have a million users on it. But they didn’t know the secret plans that led us to believe we could pull it off. And getting to the first million users took us about 460 days. Now we grow at over 2 users per second.” Peaceful secrets are safer than competing for known things.