Innovation is about business models – the Atari case
Innovation in (Silicon) Valley: after the chip, innovation saw the arrival of games, software and the Internet “As they were working on the first Computer Space consoles, Bushnell heard that he had competition. A Stanford grad named Bill Pitts and his buddy Hugh Tuck from California polytechnic had become addicted to Spacewar, and they decided to use a PDP-11 minicomputer to turn it into an arcade game. […] Bushnell was contemptuous of their plan to spend $20,000 on equipment, including a PDP-11 that would be in another room and connected by yards of cable to the console, and then charge ten cents a game. “I was surprised at how clueless they were about the business model,” he said. “Surprised and relieved. As soon as I saw what they were doing, I knew they’d be no competition”.
Galaxy Game by Pitts and Tuck debuted at Stanford’s Tresidder student union coffeehouse in the fall of 1971. Students gathered around each night like cultists in front of a shrine. But no matter how many lined up their coins to play, there was no way the machine could pay for itself, and the venture eventually folded. “Hugh and I were both engineers and we didn’t pay attention to business issues at all,” conceded Pitts. Innovation can be sparked by engineering talent, but it must be combined with business skills to set the world afire.
Bushnell was able to produce his game, Computer Space, for only $1,000. It made its debut a few weeks after Galaxy Game at the Dutch Goose bar in Menlo Park near Palo Alto and went on to sell a respectful 1,500 unites. Bushnell was the consummate entrepreneur: inventive, good at engineering, and savvy about business and consumer demand. He was also a great salesman. […] When he arrived back at Atari’s little rented office in Santa Clara, he described the game to Alcorn [Atari’s co-founder], sketched out some circuits, and asked him to build the arcade version of it. He told Acorn he had signed a contract with GE to make the game, which was untrue. Like many entrepreneurs, Bushnell had no shame about distorting reality in order to motivate people.” [Pages 209-211]
“Innovation requires having three things: a great idea, the engineering talent to execute it, and the business savvy (plus deal-making moxie) to turn it into a successful product. Nolan Bushnell scored a trifecta when he was twenty-nine, which is why he, rather than Bill Pitts, Hugh Truck, Bill Nutting, or Ralph Baer, goes down in history as the innovator who launched the video game industry.” [page 215]
Chapter 7 is about the beginnings of the Internet. Isaacson adddresses a topic which has come back has a hot debate these days: will machines and the computer in particular replace humans, with or despite their intelligence, creativity and innovation capabilities? I feel close to Isaacson whom I quote from page 226: “Licklider sided with Norbert Wiener, whose theory of cybernetics was based on humans and machines working closely together, rather than with their MIT colleagues Marvin Minsky and John mcCarthy, whose quest for artificial intelligence involved creating machines that could learn on their own and replace human cognition. As Licklider explained, the sensible goal was to create an environment in which humans and machines “cooperate in making decisions.” In other words,they would augment each other. “Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking.”
The Innovator’s dilemma
In the same chapter which tries to describe who were the inventors (more than the innovators) in the case of the Internet – J.C.R. Licklider, Bob Taylor, Larry Roberts, Paul Baran, Donald Davies, or even Leonard Kleinrock – and why it was invented – an unclear motivation between the military objective of protecting communications in case of a nuclear attack or the civilian one of helping researchers in sharing resources – Isaacson shows once again the challenge of convincing established players.
Baran then collided with one of the realities of innovation, which was that entrenched bureaucracies are resistant to change. […] He tried to convince AT&T to supplement its circuit-switched voice network with a packet-switched data network. “they fought it tooth and nail,” he recalled. “They tried all sorts of things to stop it.” [AT&T would go as far as organizing a series of seminars that would involve 94 speakers] “Now do you see why packet switching wouldn’t work?” Baran simply replied, “No”. Once again, AT&T was stymied by the innovator’s dilemma. It balked at considering a whole new type of data network because it was so invested in traditional circuits. [Pages 240-41]
[Davies] came up with a good old English word for them: packets. In trying to convince the general Post office to adopt the system, Davies ran into the same problem that Baran had knocking at the door of AT&T. But they both found a fan in Washington. Larry Roberts not only embraced their ideas; he also adopted the word packet.
The entrepreneur is a rebel (who loves power)
One hard-core hacker, Steve Dompier, told of going down to Alburquerque in person to pry loose a machine from MITS, which was having trouble fulfilling orders. By the time of the third Homebrew meeting in April 1975, he had made an amusing discovery. He had written a program to sort numbers, and while he was running it, he was listening to a weather broadcast on a low-frequency transistor radio. “The radio started going zip-zzziiip-ZZZIIIPP at different pitches », and Dompier said to himself, “Well, what do you know ! My first peripheral device!” So he experimented. “I tried some other programs to see what they sounded like, and after about eight hours of messing around, I had a program that could produce musical tones and actually make music”. [Page 310]
“Dompier published his musical program in the next issue of the People’s Computer Company, which led to a historically noteworthy response from a mystified reader. “Steven Dompier has an article about the musical program that he wrote for the Altair in the People’s Computer Company,” Bill Gates, a Harvard student on leave writing software for MITS in Albuquerque, wrote in the Altair newsletter. “The article gives a listing of his program and the musical data for ‘The Fool on the Hill’ and ‘Daisy.’ He doesn’t explain why it works and I don’t see why. Does anyone know?” the simple answer was that the computer , as it ran the programs, produced frequency interference that could be controlled by the timing loops and picked up as tone pulses by an AM radio.
By the time his query was published, Gates had been thrown into a more fundamental dispute with the Homebrew Computer Club. It became archetypal of the clash between the commercial ethic that believed in keeping information proprietary, represented by Gates [and Jobs], and the hacker ethic of sharing information freely, represented by the Homebrew crowd [and Wozniak].” [Page 311]
Isaacson, through his description of Gates and Jobs, explains what is an entrepreneur.
“Yes, Mom, I’m thinking,” he replied. “Have you ever tried thinking?” [P.314] Gates was a serial obsessor. […] he had a confrontational style [… and he] would escalate the insult to be “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” [P.317] Gates pulled a power play that would define his future relationship with Allen. As Gates describes it, “That’s when I say ‘Okay, but I’m going to be in charge. And I’ll get used to being in charge, and it’ll be hard to deal with me from now on unless I’m in charge. If you put me in charge, I’m in charge of this and anything else we do.’ ” [P.323] Like many innovators, Gates was rebellious just for the hell of it. [P.331] “An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore be viewed as a bit imbalanced. […] Gates was also a rebel with little respect for authority, another trait of innovators. [P.338]
Allen assumed that his partnership with Gates would be fifty-fifty. […] but Gates had insisted on being in charge. “It’s not right for you to get half. […] I think it should be sixty-forty.” […] Worse yet, Gates insisted on revisiting the split two years later. “I deserve more than 60 percent.” His new demand was that the split be 64-36. Born with a risk-taking gene, Gates would cut loose late at night by driving at terrifying speeds up the mountain roads. “I decided it was his way of letting off steam.” Allen said. [P.339]
Gates arrested for speeding, 1977. [P.312]
“There is something indefinable in an entrepreneur, and I saw that in Steve,“ Bushnell recalled. “He was interested not just in engineering, but also in the business aspects. I taught him that if you act like you can do something, then it will work. I told him, pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.” [P.348]
The concept of the entrepreneur as a rebel is not new. In 2004, Pitch Johnson, one of the earliest VC in Silicon Valley claimed “Entrepreneurs are the revolutionaries of our time.” Freeman Dyson has written “The Scientist as a Rebel“. And you should read Nicolas Colin’s analysis of entrepreneurial ecosystems: Capital + know-how + rebellion = entrepreneurial economy. Yes rebels who loves power…
An amazing article I had totally missed and read yesterday thank to a colleague from IFJ/venturelab, thanks! Arnaud Bertrand does not give the usual lessons about money, product, market, blablabla. It is much more profound and painful…:
1- Succeeding at building a good business is first and foremost succeeding in the art of hiring and managing people
2- Having a differentiated product or service is far from being enough to capture your market
3- Founding a company and seeing it to success is winning a whole lot of fights against yourself
I just finished reading Elon Musk and following my two previous posts (part 1 and part 2), here are additional notes.
How does innovation work
It’s really a fascinating book and obviously Elon Musk is too. A really unique and tough character. And obviosuly, very much criticized and hated too. One such harsh critics comes from the MIT Technology Review with Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Myth by Amanda Schaffer. You should read it. I just extract two sentences:
– “To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles?” Well, this is a critical question about the source of innovation. Society or individuals. The question is relevant for science too.
– “It’s precisely because we admire Musk and think his contributions are important that we need to get real about where his success actually comes from.” This is a quote from Mariana Mazzucato whom I have often quoted here. her book The Entrepreneurial State is a Must Read. It deals with the role of government in innovation. my stronger and stronger belief with years is that the governement makes things possible (science, technology and invention, innovation) but without exceptional individuals – often geniuses, sometimes to the border of insanity – I am not sure so much happens.
Now let me quote more Ashley Vance because the final chapters are as great as the first ones. These quotes show that despite the high role of the governement, it’s not sufficient to explain how innovation works.
As Tesla turned into a star in modern American industry, its closest rivals were obliterated. Fisker Automotive filed for bankruptcy and was bought by a Chinese auto parts company in 2014. One of its main investors was Ray Lane, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Lane had cost Kleiner Perkins a chance to invest in Tesla and then backed Fisker – a disastrous move that tarnished the firm’s brand and Lane’s reputation. Better Place was another start-up that enjoyed more hype than Fisker and Tesla put together and raised close to $1 billion to build electric cars and battery-swapping stations. The company never produced much of anything and declared bankruptcy in 2013.
The guys like Straubel who had been at Tesla since the beginning are quick to remind people that the chance to build an awesome electric car had been there all along. “It’s not really like there was a rush to this idea, and we got there first,” Straubel said. “It’s frequently forgotten in hindsight that people thought this was the shittiest business opportunity on the planet. The venture capitalists were all running for the hills.” What separated Tesla from the competition was the willingness to charge after its vision without compromise, a complete commitment to execute to Musks’s standards.
During the entire period of SolarCity’s growth, Silicon Valley had dumped huge amounts of money into green technology companies with mostly disastrous results. There was the automotive flubs like Fisker and Better Place, and Solyndra, the solar cell maker that conservatives loved to hold up as a cautionary tale of government spending and cronyism run amok. Some of the most famous venture capitalists in history, like John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, were ripped apart by the local and national press for their failed green investments. The story was almost always the same. People had thrown money at green technology because it seemed like the right thing to do, not because it made business sense. From new kinds of energy storage systems to electric cars and solar panels, the technology never quite lived up to its billing and required too much government funding and too many incentives to create a viable market. Much of this criticism was fair. It’s just that there was this Elon Musk guy hanging around who seemed to have figured something out that everyone else had missed. “We had a blanket rule against investing in clean-tech companies for about a decade,” said Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist and Founders Fund. “On the macro level, we were right because clean tech as a sector was quite bad. But on the micro level, it looks like Elon has the two most successful clean-tech companies in the US. We would rather explain his success as being a fluke. There’s the whole Iron Man thing in which he’s presented as a cartoonish businessman – this very unusual animal at the zoo. But there is now a degree to which you have to ask whether his success is an indictment on the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things. To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.” [Pages 320-21]
Tony Fadell about Musk
Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive, credited with bringing the iPod ad iPhone to market, has characterized the smartphone as representative of a type of super-cycle in which hardware and software have reached a critical point of maturity. Electronics are good and cheap, while software is more reliable and sophisticated. […] Google has its self-driving cars and has acquired dozens of robotics companies as it looks to merge code and machine. […] And a host of start-ups have begun infusing medical devices with powerful software to help people monitor and analyze their bodies and diagnose conditions. […] Zee Aero, a start-up in Mountain View, has a couple of former SpaceX staffers on hand and is working on a secretive new type of transport. A flying car at last? Perhaps. […] For Fadell, Musk’s work sits at the highest of this trend. “Whether it’s Tesla or SpaceX, you are talking about combining the old-world science of manufacturing with low-cost, consumer-grade technology. You put these things together, and they morph into something we have never seen before. All of a sudden there is a wholesale change. It’s a step function.” [Pages 351-52] Doesn’t this remind you of Zero to One by peter thiel.
Larry Page about Musk
Google has invested more than just about any other technology company into’s Musk’s sort of moon-shot projects: self-driving cars, robots, and even a cash prize to get a machine onto the moon cheaply. The company, however, operates under a set of constraints and expectations that come with employing tens of thousands of people and being analyzed constantly by investors. It’s with this in mind that Page sometimes feels a bit envious of Musk, who has managed to make radical ideas the basis of his companies. “If you think about Silicon Valley or corporate leaders in general, they’re not usually lacking in money,” Page said. “If you have all this money, which presumably you’re going to give away and couldn’t even spend it all if you wanted to, why then are you devoting your time to a company that’s not really doing anything good? That’s why I find Elon to be an inspiring example. He said, ‘Well, what should I really do in this world? Solve cars, global warming, and make humans multiplanetary.’ I mean those are pretty compelling goals, and now he has businesses to do that.” [Page 353]
Larry Page about education
This is a very interesting piece [pages 355-56] not linked to Musk: “I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do.” Page said. “I think like we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.” [Pages 355-56]
Some final words about Musk
It’s funny in a way that Musk spends so much time talking about man’s survival but isn’t willing to address the consequences of what his lifestyle does to his body. “Elon came to the conclusion early in his career that life is short,” Straubel said. “If you really embrace this, it leaves you with the obvious conclusion that you should be working as hard as you can”. Suffering though has always been Musk’s thing. The kids at school tortured him. His father played brutal mind games. Musk then abused himself by working inhumane hours and forever pushing his businesses to the edge. The idea of work-life balance seems meaningless in this context. […] He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strength and will. [Page 356]
As Thiel said, Musk may well have gone so far as to give people hope and to have renewed their faith in what technology can do for mankind. [Page 356]
After reading chapters 8 & 9 of Elon Musk and after my recent post about the Tesla and SpaceX leader, I am now fully convinced Elon Musk is much more than Steve Jobs. He has brought back optimism to Silicon Valley, to the USA and maybe to the world. He has also brought back hardware and engineering in a world that was thinking everything was virtual and online. Mea culpa, I felt the same; I felt that software and intelligence was what was driving the world. Elon Musk has shown that tinkering, experimenting coupled with an ambitious vision could change the world.
“When the launch was successful [SpaceX 4th launch but the 1st to be successful], everyone burst into tears”, Kimbal said. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had.” Musk left the control room and walked out of the factory floor, where he received a rock’s star welcome. “Well, that was freaking awesome,“ he said. “There are a lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it – a lot actually – but as the saying goes, ‘the fourth time is the charm’, right? There are only a handful of countries on Earth that have done this. It’s normally a country thing, not a company thing…. [Page 203]
But the reader should not forget the tough reality: For Gracias, the Tesla and SpaceX investor and Musk’s friend, the 2008 period told him everything he would ever need to know about Musk’s character. He saw a man who arrived in the United States with nothing, who had lost a child, who was being pilloried in the press by reporters and his ex-wife and who verged on having his life’s work destroyed. “He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve met”, Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” That ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis stands as one of Musk’s main advantages over other executives and competitors. “Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray,” Gracias said. “their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain”. [Page 211]
Again, Musk is not afraid of risk-taking. As 2008 came to an end, Musk had run out of money […] The couple had to start borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Musk’s friend Skoll and Riley’s parents offered to remortgage their house. Musk no longer flew his jet back and forth between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. He took Southwest. [Pages 206-207] He manage to save Tesla, The deal ended up closing on Christmas Eve, hours before Tesla would have gone bankrupt. Musk had just a few hundred thousand dollars left and could not have made payroll the next day. […] On December 23, 2008, however, SpaceX received a shock. People inside NASA had backed SpaceX to become a supplier for the ISS. The company received $1.6 billion as payment for twelve flights to the Space Station. [Page 210]
It is also interesting to mention Musk’s hiring methods! The SpaceX hiring model places some emphasis on getting top marks at top schools. But most of the attention goes toward spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives. The company’s recruiters look for people who might excel at robot-building competitions or who are car-racing hobbyists who have built unusual vehicles. The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal. “Even if you’re someone who writes code for your job you need to understand how mechanical things work. We were looking for people that had been building things since they were little.” [Page 220] Interviews are tough with puzzles, code writing and Musk interviewed the first 1’000 employees de SpaceX.
I am far from finished but needs to end up for now with my usual cap. tables for Musk’s ventures: 1-Paypal, 2-Tesla Motors, 3-SolarCity which he did not found but backed from the early days and the two founders are his cousins, 4-finally a tentative cap. table based on what SpaceX announced.
Elon Musk is probably the new Steve Jobs. He might be much more even. His early life, his private life has not been simple and easy. He is probably as tough with a similar distorted perception of reality as the Apple hero. But as an entrepreneur, he may have a broader vision and ambition. He began small and simple with Zip2, an early Internet yellow pages start-up, which he still sold for $307M, followed by X.com which had the ambition to change the banking system before it merged with Confinity to become Paypal. Both were just experiments! He learnt and developed his “grandes oeuvres”: Tesla and SpaceX.
Zip2 – 1995 – 3 co-founders (Elon and Kimbal Musk, Greg Kouri) $3M with MDV – sold to Compaq / AltaVista for $307M on April 1, 1999 after more than $50M additional funding. Elon made $22M, Kimbal $15M, MDV 22x its money.
X.com – 1999 – 4 co-founders (Ed Ho, Harris Fricker, Christopher Payne, Elon Musk) and early employee, Scott Anderson. Bill Harris, CEO in Dec. 99. Merges with Confinity in March 2000. Musk netted $250M from the sale to eBay or $180M after taxes.
All told, Musk invested $12M into X.com, leaving him, after taxes, with $4M or so for personal use. “That’s part of what separates Elon from mere mortals,” said Ed Ho, the former Zip2 executive, who went to cofound X.com. “He’s willing to take an insane amount of personal risk. When you do a deal like that, it either pays off or you end up in a bus shelter somewhere.” [Page 80]
Musk was replaced as CEO while on honeymoon. But when it became clear that the company had already moved on, Musk relented. “I talked to Moritz [from Sequoia] and a few others,” Musk said. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be CEO but more like ‘Hey, I think there are some pretty important things that need to happen, and if I’m not CEO, I’m not sure they are going to happen.’ But then I talked to Max [Levchin] and Peter [Thiel], and it seemed they would make these things happen. So then, I mean, it’s not the end of the world. […] Throughout this ordeal, however, he showed incredible restraint. He embraced the role of being an advisor to the company and kept investing in it, increasing his take as PayPal’s largest shareholder. “You would expect someone in Elon’s position to be bitter and vindictive, but he wasn’t”, said Botha [from Sequoia], “He supported Peter. He was a prince.” [Pages 88-89]
Musk is direct and tough but “He comes from the school of thought in the public relations world that you let no inaccuracy go uncorrected” [page 91]. An example of toughness in his private life: “He was constantly remarking on the ways he found me lacking. ‘I am your wife,’ I told him repeatedly, ‘not your employee’. ‘If you were my employee,’ he said just as often, ‘I would fire you.’” [Page 94]. He married and divorced 3 times, first with Justine Wilson, with whom Musk had 1 baby who died after 10 weeks, then 2 twins, then 3 triplets, then twice with Talulah Riley.
Chapters 6 and 7 are a MUST READ. They show the drive, craziness, vision, obsession that Musk put into building rockets and electric cars, combining the chaos of start-ups and the structure needed for manufacturing.
SpaceX – Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – 2002 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX. The [PayPal] deal gave Musk some liquidity and supplied him with more than $100M to throw at SpaceX.
Tesla Motors – founded on July 1st 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning who had sold a previous start-ups for $187M in 2000. In parallel Musk helped J. B. Straubel, a passionate Stanford student, who had seen batteries had reached efficiency possibly useful to electric cars. Musk invested $6.5M in Tesla and Straubel joined in May 2004. On January 27, 2005, the 18 Tesla employees had built the first prototype. Musk invested another $9M in a $13M round. In May 2006 Tesla had 100 employees. Musk invested another $12M together with DFJ, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and others for a new $40M round. In the middle of 2007, tesla had grown to 260 employees. [page 165]
There is an interesting section about Detroit and how different its culture is from Silicon Valley [Page 164¡: Every time Tesla interacted with Detroit it received a reminder of how the once-great city had been separated from its own can-do culture. Tesla tried to lease a small office in Detroit. The costs were incredibly low compared with Space in Silicon Valley, but the city’s bureaucracy made getting just a basic office an ordeal. The building’s owner wanted to see seven years of audited financial from Tesla, which was still a private company. Then the building owner wanted two years’ worth of advanced rent. Tesla had about $50 million in the bank and could have bought the building outright. “In Silicon Valley, you say you’re backed by a venture capitalist, and that’s the end of the negotiation.” Tarpenning said. “But everything was like that in Detroit. We’d get FedEx boxes, and they couldn’t even decide who should sign for the packages”.
Then fights began between Musk and Eberhard: The engineers credited Eberhard with making quick, crisp decisions. […] Musk wanted changes that started to delay the Roadster, Musk kept pushing the car to be more comfortable. […] Eberhard groused that these features were slowing the company down. […] The company as a whole was sympathetic to Martin [Page 165]. Many issues began to appear, technical problems such as the transmission, overall costs issues and finally delays in delivering the Roadster to customers who had prepaid for it.
In August 2007, Tesla’s board demoted Eberhard to president of technology. Most of the employees were tired; Tesla was running out of money after $140M spent. In the meantime, SpaceX failed with its first two rocked launches. And musk filed for divorce. When the 2008 crisis burst out, Musk was in personal and business troubles with his two companies.
Biocartis might have been a Swiss success story but most of the company is now based in Belgium. Probably not a decision of investors (as people think when company move) but from management! One of the founders is from Belgium and an impressive serial entrepreneur: Rudi Pauwels. Here is what you could read in the IPO document:
Still the numbers are interesting. The company has raised more than €200M before its €100M IPO this week. Despite such huge amounts the founders have kept about 5% of the company. Its IPO prospectus is available on the company web site. It has signed deals with Philips, Hitachi, Biomérieux, Abbott, Janssen and Johnson & Johnson and counts Swiss-based Debiopharm among its mains shareholders. Here is my usual cap. table:
“Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes. They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness. When I first became a CEO, I genuinely thought that I was the only one struggling. Whenever I spoke to other CEOs, they all seemed like they had everything under control. Their businesses were always going “fantastic” and their experience was inevitably “amazing”. But as I watched my peers’ fantastic, amazing businesses go bankrupt and sell for cheap, I realized I was probably not the only one struggling.” […] “Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct. If the keys are not there, they do not exist.”[Page 275]
Again the book is not an easy read. It is more advice about processes than anything else, so you may not enjoy the book if you do not need to apply it now. If you are not an ambitious entrepreneur who needs to scale his venture, reading the book may not be useful. Still it is a great book. Let me give you a couple of examples.
“Figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage. Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.” [Page 50]
Funnily enough, Horowitz quotes Thiel. (By the way, quotes on the back page supporting Horowitz’s book are from Page, Zuckerberg, Costolo and Thiel…) “I don’t believe in statistics, I believe in calculus”. And his advice “when things fall apart” are
– Don’t put it all on your shoulders.
– This is not checkers, this is motherfuckin’ chess.
– Play long enough and you might get lucky.
– Don’t take it personally.
– Remember that this is what separates the women from the girls.
I summarize his advice from pages 64 to 93 as when things fall apart, face the truth and tell the truth. Tell the truth to your employees, tell the truth to your future ex-colleagues, tell the truth to your friends and more importantly, tell the truth to yourself.
I understand now why Andreessen-Horowitz is seen as a firm which has put in place tons of processes. Horowitz describes many tasks founders should be utmost careful about. Taking care of people, first. He also describes how you can do mistakes by trying to do good. Just one example: “our hockey stick [the shape of the revenue graph over the quarter] was so bad that one quarter we booked 90% of our new bookings on the last day of the quarter. […] I designed an incentive to closed deals in the first two months. […] As a result, the next quarter was more linear and slightly smaller… deals just moved from the third month to the first two months of the following quarter.”
Other interesting examples are about smart people and bad employees. “Sometimes, you will have a player that’s so good that you hold the bus for him, but only him.” And senior (old) people: “When the head of engineering gets promoted from within, she often succeeds. When the head of sales gets promoted from within, she almost always fails”. [Page 172] Horowitz explains also there is not one rule, it is company-dependent. Andreessen favors giving titles easily, Zuckerberg has opposite views.
“Perhaps the most important thing that I learnt as an entrepreneur was to focus on what I needed to get right and stop worrying about all the things that I did wrong or might go wrong.” [Page 200] Again focus on the strengths, not the weaknesses.
Ones and Twos
Horowitz quotes Collins’ “Good to Great”. “Internal candidates dramatically outperform external candidates.” And then adds that “Collins does not explain why internal candidates sometimes fail as well”. There are “two core skills for running an organization: First, knowing what to do. Second, getting the company to do what you know. While being a great CEO requires both skills, most CEOs tend to be more comfortable with one or the other. I call managers who are happier setting the direction of the company Ones and those who more enjoy making the company perform at the highest level Twos.” When they are not competent at both, “Ones end up in chaos and Twos fail to pivot when necessary.” [Pages 214, 216]
Horowitz shows that great CEOs need vision like Steve Jobs had, competence in implementing like Andy Grove had, and ambition like Bill Campbell. One of Horowitz favorites references is indeed Andy Grove and his “High output Management.” Horowitz shows how much respect is has for Jobs and Campbell, but the systematic processes remain his favorite, therefore Grove.
Horowitz also strongly believes that “life is struggle” (quoting Karl Marx) and that CEOs have to be ready to be both peacetime CEOs (when a company has a large advantage over competition in a growing market – Eric Schmid at Google until Page took over) and wartime CEOs (companies facing existential threats – Grove at Intel when they switched from memories to microprocessors or Jobs at Apple when he came back).
“Be aware that management books tend to be written by management consultants who study successful companies during their times of peace. As a result, the books describe the methods of peacetime CEOs. In fact, other than the books written by Andy Grove, I don’t know of any management books that teach you how to manage in wartime like Steve Jobs or Andy Grove.” [Page 228]
Horowitz hates the idea that founders should be replaced, that companies need professional CEOs who know how to scale companies or who “should be the number-one salesperson.” CEOs define the Strategy (“The story and the strategy are the same thing.”) and do Decision making (“with speed and quality”).
You may like the “Freaky Friday Management Technique” [Page 252] and “Should You Sell Your Company?” [Page 257] but let me finish with some of his final thoughts: “First technical founders are the best people to run technology companies”. […] “Second, it is incredibly difficult for technical founders to learn to become CEOs while building companies.” [Page 268] Which is why VCs should help these founders becoming CEOs, by helping them acquire the skill set as well as building a network.
Finally if you wonder why Andreessen-Horowitz web-site is www.a16z.com, you just have to count the number of letters in the name between the a and the z…
“Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.” The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.
The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs; there’s no recipe for playing NFL quarterback; there’s no recipe for running for president; and there’s no recipe for motivating teams when your business has gone to crap. That’s the hard thing about hard things— there is no formula for dealing with them.”
This is how begins The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz [see page ix]. After a first chapter about his experience in start-ups (Netscape, LoudCloud), Horowitz gives advice to entrepreneurs. And it is not business school-like advice indeed.
Marc: “Do you know the best thing about startups?
Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria, and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.
Marc is Andreessen, the founder of Netscape, with whom he co-founded VC firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z.com) in 2009.
“People often ask me how we’ve managed to work efficiently across three companies over eighteen years. Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and not longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong with my thinking, and I do the same for hi. It works.” [Page 14]
I plan to come back with comments about this book when I am finished, but let just me finish for now with my usual start-up cap. tables. here Netscape and LoudCloud.
Movies may become a better way to communicate about start-ups & entrepreneurship than books or blogs. It’s something Neil Rimer had told me when I published my book. It is true there has been a number of new features in fiction (The Social Network, Jobs) and non-fiction (SomethingVentured) recently without a need to mention old stuff such as Triumph of the Nerds Silicon Valley Pirates and special events on television such as PBS.
Startup Kids belong to this new trend and it is an interesting (and fun) document. You may watch the trailer here and I will quote a few entrepreneurs thereafter. The document had been mentioned to me by colleagues (merci Corine ) who showed it to me, including the very good blog article of Sébastien Flury: The Startup Kids – a film that any wannabe founder should watch! (whom title I used, nice Sébastien 🙂 )
Drew Houston, Dropbox: “It’s like jumping out of a cliff and having to build your own parachute”
Kristian Segerstrale, Playfish: “An entrepreneur is a person who dares to have a dream that not many people have and even more important dares to chase it, put their money where their mouth is and their time and their career and dares to take the risk to going out there to realize that vision.”
Alexandre Ljung, SoundCloud (from Sweden and based in Berlin and San Francisco): “I did not have the typical entrepreneur background, […] but in hindsight I was very focused on projects so I was very entrepreneurial but not in a business sense.”
In European Founders at Work, his co-founder Eric Wahlforss states “I think we could have easily done this in one year faster if we would have been a little bit more bold and thinking a little bit more in terms of scale early on. We started out very small, had almost no money at all, and a very small team. I think we could have been bolder. […] and running with a bigger vision from the start.” And then “Do it.” It’s the best decision I’ve ever done in my whole life. […] And I was studying engineering as well, and I had one hundred classmates. And I know that almost zero of them actually went on to start a company, which is kind of crazy because I know a lot of them have good ideas. But none of them quite felt that they were able to pull it off.
Luck is an important topic in the movie
Segerstrale again: “Successful start-ups need a lot of things, they need a great idea, they need a great team, they need to be there at the right time, they need the right level of funding, and they need a lot of luck.”
Tim Draper, founder and investor, DFJ: “There is a lot of luck in the success of all the companies which have succeeded. You need a lot of luck, there were 25 search engines funded before Google was funded. There was Friendster and LinkedIn and MySpace and about 50 others before facebook became the big winner in that area.” [And it was the same with computer companies in the 80s!]
Finally do not miss Zach Klein (founder of Vimeo) in his beautiful wood cabin which reminds me of Thoreau’s Walden.