Category Archives: Must watch or read

The start-up of You by Reid Hoffman

I have never been a big fan of “How to” books, sometimes called “personal development”. Even if Reid Hoffman is a brilliant entrepreneur, he did not really change my mind with his Start-up of You. His book which sometimes look like an ad for LinkedIn and which is strangely written with four hands, one saying I (Reid) and the other, He (Ben Casnocha) is still a good description of what it requires to look at improving a career:
– know thyself,
– be adaptable,
– network,
– look for opportunities,
– assess risks.

He also has beautiful ideas. When he quotes authors such as Jonathan Franzen – “Inauthentic people are obsessed with authenticity” – or David Foster Wallace – “There is no experience you have had you are not the absolute center of”. (Pages 93-94) I assume Hoffman knows Franzen and Wallace were great friends until the death of the second – strong ties in networks.

He also prones diversity in networks. If people know each other too well, there is not enough diversity, if they do not each other well enough however, trust is tougher to build. You need both old blood (trust) and fresh blood in a team. (Page 118)

But a team is only as good as its members. team quality requires individual quality. Look below at the famous Paypal mafia(Page 159)

Even if Hoffman gives good advice t the end of each chapter, he is not over-analyzing. For example, when talking about risks: Of the voluminous research on risk, remarkably little of it actually analyzes how real businesspeople make real decisions in the real world. An exception is a study done by professor Zur Shapira in 1991. (…) What he found likely came as a disappointment to architects of fancy decision trees. The executives surveyed didn’t calculate the mathematical expected value of various scenarios. They didn’t draft long lists of pros and cons. Instead, most simply tried to get a handle on a single yes-or-no question: could they tolerate the outcome if the worst-case scenario happened?


Impressive panel @ESPCI_Paris #SiliconValleyinParis with @reidhoffman @tfadell @Hemaisphere, Sebastian Amigorean and Stephen Quake moderated by @APapiernik

You could ask me why I decided to read that book. In the end, it shows entrepreneurs are really good at action, less at analysis… The truth is I went to Paris to listen to him at a great event called Silicon Valley comes to Paris. I wanted to approach him, network! Without knowing I applied some his advice and also made some of the mistakes he is describing. My main mistake was not knowing his interest about European start-ups. In fact he has not invested in Europe, he does not know EPFL. It makes you humble and willing to network even further. Reid, would you come back in Europe and inspire aspiring young entrepreneurs?

Leslie Berlin strikes again with Troublemakers

I had read a few years ago the great The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin. After the biography of Robert Noyce, one of Intel’s cofounders, Berlin comes now with Troublemakers, a description of “How Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented the Future”.

The title is a reference to a famous Apple advertisement: The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. One of the great merits of the book is to focus on 7 individuals (2 women and 5 men) which are relatively unknown compared to the stars of Silicon Valley. Will you recognize them on the following image? (The answer is at the end of the post).

The book is not only great storytelling. It describes the dynamics of Silicon Valley from the late 60s to the early 80s and how “five major industries — personal computing, video games, biotechnology, modern venture capital, and advanced semiconductor logic — were born”. You can also listen to Leslie Berlin here:

The close-to-400 page book also has more than 80 pages of rich notes. It is really a must read for anyone passionate or just interested in Silicon Valley. Here are a few quotes:

Indiana Jones: I’m going after that truck.
Sallah: How?
Indiana Jones: I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.

“We didn’t want to be considered part of the flock. Eagles don’t flock, was our joke.” (Tom Perkins when asked why KP was not initially on Sand Hill Road – Page 192)


Let me make a short parenthesis. While reading this book, I read a very interesting article in the FT entitled Silicon Valley’s founder factory ‘Silicon Valley is lacking in one core area — a sense of entrepreneurial hustle’ (Leslie Hook – Jan 2018): “When I moved to San Francisco four years ago, I noticed something odd about the start-up founders I met: many of them resembled each other. Not just physically, though most were men under 35. But also in the way they spoke about their companies. They had PowerPoints at the ready, and big numbers on the tips of their tongues. Everyone seemed to know exactly what the total addressable market of their start-up was, even if they hadn’t yet made a single dollar of sales. […] By contrast, while there are a lot of founders in Silicon Valley, I have found relatively few entrepreneurs. The founders are smart and hard-working. But many are simply products of a system, which is why they all seem vaguely the same.” Interesting food for thought in comparison to the 70s…

As my personal contribution, here are 4 of my “usual” cap. tables. Ask Computer, ROLM, Cetus and Atari are companies from the 70s mentioned in the book that I had not studied yet… Ask was one of the first software companies and Cetus the 1st biotech company…


Ask Computer cap. table


ROLM cap. table


Cetus cap. table


Atari cap. table

Well to show the complexity of the exercise, here is a second Atati cap. table based on its S-1 IPO Filing…

In her final pages, Leslie Berlin also mentions another company founded by Mike Markkula, Echelon Corp. Echelon had the ROLM founders as well as Arthur Rock and Larry Sonsini as stakeholders. Here is a 5th table:


Echelon cap. table

Answer to the quiz, the seven troublemakers, from left to right:
Top row: Sandra Kurtzig, Mike Markkula, Fawn Alvarez, Niels Rimers.
Bottom row: Bob Taylor, Al Acorn, Bob Swanson.

How Do You Teach High-Tech Entrepreneurship according to Randy Komisar

It’s the 4th time in a few days that I show the video below to people. It is rather old (dated 2004) and it is just great. A sentence I remember from the first day I watched it is the following: “I think there’s stuff you can’t possibly learn in school and I’m not even sure you can learn that on the job. There’s an entrepreneurial character. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people may not think they have it, and they may have it. A lot of people they think they have it, and many don’t.” Here is the video and then the full transcript…

I think what can be taught, by and large, is a set of very basic skills about the various domains required for startup to succeed: finance, organizations, transactions, strategy, business models. You can get an exposure to that which can raise your entrepreneur IQ a hundred points. Because starting without that context, it could be awfully hard to understand what’s happening around you as you work in these environments let alone try to do it. I also think you can get exposure to the personality and character of entrepreneurship through the case study method in particular. You can begin to see the tortured lives that many entrepreneurs have to live in order to pursue their dreams. And you can get a sense of how that relates to your abilities to cope and to make tradeoffs in your life.

I think there’s stuff you can’t possibly learn in school and I’m not even sure you can learn that on the job. There’s an entrepreneurial character. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people may not think they have it, and they may have it. A lot of people they think they have it, and many don’t. The entrepreneurial character is very, very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. That entrepreneur character is very capable of understanding and targeting opportunities that others don’t see and is tenacious about their pursuit. At the same time, they remain permeable to know ideas and to course corrections from feedback from the market and from people who might have more experience or more insights than they’ve got. There’s a personality that works in this environment. And there’s a personality that I think is uncomfortable. And I try to explain this in particular in the classes that I teach. There is a badge of courage in being an entrepreneur. I mean, we sort of, you know, if you read the press and you read the local technology rags you know there is a real sense that entrepreneurs are a special super breed. They’re different. They create a lot of value. I love working with them.

But if you’re not an entrepreneur that’s OK too. There’s lots of other value to be created. There’s lots of other things to be “attacked” in the market place that maybe more appropriate. So I think you can learn a lot. And I think you can accelerate your ability to learn more by building a context. But I think ultimately you got to ask yourself a hard question. Am I suited for the uncertainties and ambiguities, the ups and downs, and the risks of being an entrepreneur, or am I not?

Facts, Truth, Courage…

The word Start-up is controversial. Money, business are often the synonymous and at the time of the Paradise Papers, they do not have good press, with reason! I sometimes had to “defend” and I would still defend a world that is important … And more widely, I believe, we must fight to defend the importance of facts and a “dirty word”, truth, with courage. In a world where communication is confused with information (already at the beginning of the 20th century, Schumpeter explained that capitalism could not exist without marketing and advertising) it is important that the voices defending the facts, truth with courage be heard. For this reason, I have sometimes come out of the strict framework of technology, innovation and high-tech entrepreneurship to mention intellectuals who seem important to me. Harari, Piketty, Fleury, Stieger, Picq.

A long introduction to mention a beautiful interview of Pascal Picq on France Inter this morning: “We must deconstruct male domination in Hollywood as elsewhere.” The link to the site in French is here. A brief excerpt: “Note: the bonobos, who are close to us, have not evolved like us. Homo sapiens is one of the most violent species towards its females, so women. The degrees of this violence vary according to time and culture. The dominant status is exercised with regard to Nature on the one hand, and women on the other hand. The behaviors of male dominance that are rooted in our human societies are the result of a behavioral evolution, and not of a natural and genetic determinism. In the bonobos, the female is dominant, the violence of the relations is mastered by the hedonic relations, and the bonobos live according to a model of gynocracy. The bonobos and the men did not have the same behavioral evolution. And I say that we can not blame our nature, as some do, in the principles of male dominance that have been imposed on humans. It is a behavioral evolution that has become embedded in agricultural societies and industrial societies. Historically, where foods or things are produced, men tend to take control of production and reproduction.”

I should have added that this interview is related to the Oscar granted last night to Agnès Varda for her career and coincidence or not, my previous article in French only – If you do not love me, I can tell you that I do not love you either – dealt with Sandrine Bonnaire, the actress of Agnes Varda in the magnificent Vagabond.

In all disciplines, scientific or not, complexity makes it difficult sometimes, not to say often, to assert truths. They seem sometime to be moving. But there are facts that one must always analyze as honestly as possible with courage and then we can come out with truths. Thanks to these intellectuals who work without dogma and help us understand the world.

And to finish on a “lighter” touch, here are two works by Obey whose artistic fight is magnificent!

Hopeful Monsters

‘What are hopeful monsters?’ I said ‘They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them.’
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley [P. 71]

Hopeful Monsters could have been startups, but it is a novel, a marvelous novel written in 1990 and that I am reading again these days. I had read it in another century, when there were only books in paper and independent bookstores still existed. I had bought it in the late Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California.

Bruno held out his hands to the flames and talked to them in an unintelligible language. Minna said ‘What do you say to the fire?’
Bruno said ‘I say “Come on up! Do as I say or I’ll punish you!” ’
Minna said ‘And does it?’
Bruno said ‘If it wants to.’

The first 3 chapters begin this way:
Chapter I – if we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?
Chapter II – if we are talking about an environment in which the acceptance of paradoxes might breed, then this can happen in an English hot-house, I suppose, as well as in a melting-pot of Berlin streets.
Chapter III – if, for the sake of change, old ground has to be broken up, one or two seeds lie secret – what terrible opportunities there were during those years!

I had never read a novel which mixes philosophy and science with beautiful story-telling. Not an easy read. Not sure it is a masterpiece either, though…

“Don’t f**k it up” – Advice to founders

I should not like “Don’t f**k it up”. Just because I am not a big fan of “how to” books in high-tech entrepreneurship. There is another reason why I should not like, i.e. the subtitle: “How Founders and Their Successors Can Avoid the Clichés That Inhibit Growth”. Usually I think foudners should not have successors. But I did not hate les Trachtman’s book at all. The reason is Les gives good advice to founders, the main one being “Trust and Empower”.

Let me give you examples:

I know that every founder believes his company is special, exceedingly complex, and unique. I can assure you that the challenges confronting you are just not that different. Ninety-five percent of your problems are shared by other founders, which is good news because it means your problems are solvable. They’ve been seen and handled many times before—all that is required is the smarts and the courage to address them. [Page 2]

“Employees who are taught to mistrust their own instincts are not very likely to trust their colleagues’ instincts, either.” Fear of failure can easily poison a company culture. Team-building efforts are useless when everyone’s first imperative is CYA — cover your ass. [Page 12]

The process of building a team is not that different from raising a healthy, self-sufficient child. […] You want them to learn from their mistakes and the
resulting painful consequences.
[Pages 15-16]

Micromanaging can often be an excuse for not developing and committing to mid-range and long-range goals. It can also serve as an excuse, changing your mind about what’s most important from one day to the next. A lot of founders run small companies that way, and they never scale those companies because it’s impossible to run a larger company on the basis of what the founder is feeling that particular day. [Page 20]

and his advice to foudners is to give more and moe importance to strategy by [Pages 31-33]:
1. Track your time.
2. Decide what not to work on, and stick to it.
3. Plan for the unexpected.
4. Write down your goals and revisit them quarterly.

More in another post…

Mathematics again: Unexpected, Inevitable and Economical

“La libertad es como un número primo.” Roberto Bolaño, Los Detectives Salvajes

Michael Harris’ mathematics without apologies, I said it elsewhere, is a must-read if you are interested in mathematics. And probably even more, if you are not. But again, it is not an easy reading.

After the claim in his Chapter 3 that mathematics was “Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful”, Harris goes on with provocative and thoughful arguments about the relations that mathematics have with Money (Chapter 4 – Megaloprepeia), with the Body (Chapter 6 – Further Investigations of the Mind-Body problem), with Foundations (Chapter 7 – The Habit of Clinging to an Ultimate Ground) and even with tricks (Chapter 8 – The Science of Tricks), Harris finally comes back to Apologies after a personal chapter about inspiration and work (Chapter 9 – A Mathematical Dream and Its Interpretation).

The author made me discover, shame on me, that “apology” does not mean only praise, but also excuse or defense. Difficulty and confusion of the vocabulary, indeed a recurrent theme of Harris’ book. Let me be quite clear again. I did not understand everything and I imagined Harris could have created a new index. As you may know if you read my blog, I mention Indices from time to time, like the Erdős Index, the Tesla Index. This new Index could be 0 for Maths Giants or Supergiants, humans who could be awarded the Fields Medal, the Abel Prize or equivalent, 1 for those who can understand (everything) that has been written in mathematics by those with 0 Index; then 2, for those who can understand (everything) that has been written in mathematics by those with 1 Index, etc… I do not know where the index would stop and perhaps it already exists… I woudl like to believe that I was at the Index 3 but not sure! But then I made my discovery about “apology”, I put myself down at Index 5…

Harris goes even stronger than Hardy with his “No Apologies” even if he quotes him: Irony has not spoken its last word on the flight from utility [of science], even when utility is understood, with Hardy, as that which “tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth”. [Page 296] I think harris has written a very useful book about mathematics. I add another example on the nature of mathematical beauty: “there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy” [Page 307].

When looking for more information about harris, I found his web page which begins with the quote i give above from Bolaño. When I discovered Bolaño a few years ago, it was such a shock that I read everything I could find. Again without understanding everything. But if you read Harris’ chapter 9, you will undestand that “not understanding everything” may not be that important, compared to the impact that (apparent) confusion may create…

PS: I could have added that while I was reading Harris, a controversy arose around a new solution for the P vs. NP problem. More about this in a detailed pdf and on its author’s blog. I also should have mentioned the Langlands program and Alexander Grothendieck, whom I also mentioned here. But again Harris book is so rich…

Mathematics – Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful

“It’s not the marbles that matter. It’s the game.” Dutch proverb

“In mathematics, the art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” Cantor

Mathematics can be made simple, even obvious; and beautiful, and even useful. Just read my previous post about Ian Stewart’s 17 Equations That Changed the World. But there are other more provocative views. You just need to read Michael Harris’ mathematics without apologies.

Harris is certainly not as easy to read as Stewart. But it is as (maybe more) enriching. His Chapter 3 for example is entitled Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful. In this world of increasing pressure to justify the usefulness of science, the author fights back. “There is now a massive literature on the pressures facing university laboratories. These books mostly ignore mathematics, where stakes are not so high and opportunities for commercial applications are scarce, especially in the pure mathematics.” [Page 55]

But even Truth seems to be at stake.“If one really thinks deeply about the possbility that the foundations of mathematics are inconsistent, this is extremely unsettling for any rational mind” [Voevodsky quoted on page 58] and a few lines before “Bombieri recalled the concerns about the consistency, reliability, and truthfulness of mathematics that surfaced during the Foundations Crisis and alluded to the ambiguous status of computer proofs and too-long proofs.”

Finally Harris mentions some confusion about Beauty quoting Villani: “The artistic aspect of our discipline is [so] evident” that we don’t see how anyone could miss it.. immediatley adding that “what generally makes a mathematician progress is the desire to produce something beautiful.” Harris then quotes an art expert advising museum-goers to “let go of [their] preconceived notions that art has to be beautiful”. [Page 63]

Harris adds that “the utility of practical applications, the guarantee of absolute certainty and the vision of mathematics as an art form – the good, the true and the beautiful, for short – have the advantage of being ready to hand with convenient associations, though we should keep in mind that what you are willing to see as good depends on your perspective, and on the other hand the true and beautiful can themselves be understood as goods.” [Pages 63-4]

The short answer to the “why” question is going to be that mathematicains engage in mathematics because it gives us pleasure. [Page 68]

Maybe more in another post…

Instead of another post, here is a short section extracted from page 76 and added on August 27:

The parallels between mathematics and art

“Here the presumed but largely unsubstantiated parallel between mathematics and the arts offers unexpected clarity. Anyone who wants to include mathematics among the arts has to accept the ambiguity that comes with that status and with the different perspectives implicit in different ways of talking about art. Six of these perspectives are particularly relevant: the changing semantic fields the word art has historically designated; the attempts by philosophers to define art, for example, by subordinating it to the (largely outdated) notion of beauty or to ground ethics in aesthetics, as in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, which by way of Hardy’s Apology continues to influence mathematicians; the skeptical attitude of those, like Pierre Bourdieu, who read artistic taste as a stand-in for social distinction ; the institutions of the art world, whose representatives reflect upon themselves in Muntadas’s interviews ; the artists personal creative experience within the framework of the artistic tradition ; and the irreducible and (usually) material existence of the art works themselves.
Conveniently, each of these six approaches to art as a mathematical counterpart: the cognates of the word mathematics itself, derived form the Greek mathesis, which just means “learning”, and whose meaning has expanded and contracted repeatedly over the millennia and from one culture to another, including those that had no special affinity for the Greek root; the Mathematics of philosophers of “encyclopedist” schools; school mathematics in its role as social and vocational filter; the social institutions of mathematics with their internal complexity and heir no-less-complex interactions with other social and political institutions; the mathematicians personal creative experience within the framework of the tradition (the endless dialogue with the Giants and Supergiants of the IBM and similar rosters); and the irreducible and (usually) immaterial existence of theorems, definitions and other mathematical notions.”

Maybe more in another post…

How much do you know (and love) about mathematics?

A tribute to Maryam Mirzakhani

From time to time, I mention here books about science and mathematics that I read. It is the first one I read by Ian Stewart. Shame on me, I should have read him a long time ago. 17 Equations That Changed the World is a marvelous little book that describe the beauty of mathematics. A must read, I think

So as a little exercise, you can have a look at these 17 equations and check how much you know. What ever the result, I really advise to read his book! And if you do not, you can have a look at the answers below…

And here is more, the names of the equations and the mathematitians who who discovered them (or invented them – depending on what you think Math is about).