How to Give Up

April 19, 2007

When starting a company it is important to know how to give up. A founder has to cultivate a certain amount of insulation to stimulus in order to keep going with an idea and make it successful. Starting a company is essentially an insane activity when you measure it by the standards of most people. It’s not insane to me because I enjoy a certain amount of risk, but in all start-up likelihood I will fail. However, the quality of the work I do sustains me, and of course there is always the chance that it will make me rich.

So if I have this determination, how do I let go of the proper things at the right moment, while not giving up? I cultivate a systematic view of my success. Very broadly, I am forming a company to make something which will create some change which will make me rich. By holding this view it has allowed me to get through the following problems.

First, we lost our initial third founder. He knew way more Ruby on Rails than I did at the time. I had gone through only one tutorial online and was making my way through another. I still felt pretty incompetent in the framework. So I could have given up, but I didn’t because I held this overall view of what I was doing.

Second, we didn’t get the funding we wanted. It would have been with very interesting and well-connected people. So now we were all going to have stick with some sort of part-time day job and labor in our spare time. This sucks. This makes you want to get a real job and just get payed. However, I’m making a company and this is an acceptable loss. As all things pass in time, so do new oppurtunities for money arise.

Third, our idea sucked. Bizzarely, this was the easiest one to get by. We had been working on it for quite some time. We now had something to show people. But as the image increased in resolution so did the flaws in the model. If you were looking at me as this dawned, you would have seen me typing at my computer in the garage. I sat my head on my hands and ruffled my brow for a moment. I got up, went into the other room and said the idea sucked and it wouldn’t work. And then I stated the next idea we working on. I was murdering a baby, but it turned out I didn’t love the baby enough to make me delusional, I loved the idea of the start-up more.

All of these have been fairly external issues, which is why they have been easy to deal with. The next was when my co-founders were feeling unappreciated. I live in the Bay Area and they wanted me to move down to San Luis Obispo (3 hours South) to live and hack with them. For various reasons that only became clear to me over time (perhaps another blog post), I was unable to. They interpreted this as me not wanting to share the work with them. Up till that point I did most of the work myself. But suddenly they took great offense and since I am working with good people, they expressed it to me. So we hashed things out and some of it’s still getting dealt with, but I hope it will be resolved. This is the first failure that has been directly my fault.

Interestingly, this problem has allowed me to understand how I defined the difference between a founder and an employee. A founder is driven entirely by his own initiative. That statement is obvious, but in the context of my own experience it means the other two founders should be going about their business automatically. They should rip the code out of my hands if they have to and start working on it (and it is my duty to let go). But they did not do this. Now I am sounding like I am shifting blame away from myself. It is still entirely my fault because of my failure to communicate what my expectations were. If that had been communicated it would likely have been a non-issue.

Undoubtedly, I will have more failures. There will be plenty of right and wrong things to give up on. I’m hoping that what leads to my success will be a comfort with failure.

Encoding a Meritocracy

April 18, 2007

I started off thinking I was going to revolutionize the way businesses were made. The idea was to create a dynamic share system within a company, so that people are rewarded based on their contribution. At the outermost layer of the user experience, you join a group that has some goal you like. People would divide the main goal, for example selling sprinkler heads, into subgroups, such as development/marketing/sales. Each of these sub-goals would be a percentage of the main goal, and as such are a percentage of the company equity. Within these subgroups people could set bounties for certain tasks that would be some amount of shares in the sub-goal. When the company is set to generate income, you set a release version which locks everyone’s shares so that people will be payed based on that release. You can go on contributing, but your additions will only be represented at the next release.

We planned to make money by setting up this platform where anyone could insert their ideas and other people on the web could contribute. Then we would sell business services to these groups like app hosting, logo design, shipping, etc.

However, we couldn’t figure out how to protect the groups’ assets. What would stop someone from taking all the work and selling it himself and denying the contribution of others. Or some guy in a country with loose piracy laws stealing it. We could have various circles of trust, where as you do more work, more of the code, artwork, and prototypes are revealed as the admin trusts you. The trouble is working on a project is usually an all or nothing deal. In the end, their seemed no way to ensure that all contributors got payed, and that there would be no outright theft of people’s work.

Then we discovered that there was someone doing something similar CambrianHouse. Though their overarching idea was similar, we differed in that we were more focused on creating what would probably described as a structured wiki. I wish them all the luck.

Perhaps we will create an in-house version of the software, so that our current company’s share system is dynamically adjusted. I do like the idea of encoding a meritocracy, but for the moment the resources are going elsewhere.

To begin, I’ve just dropped out of school to start a company that I hope will revolutionize the way people learn. (It began as an idea for revolutionizing how people form businesses, but I will save that for the next post.) I think that we can create a system where education follows desire.

In current institutional education we use curricula to guide education instead of following people’s whims. Having people do things they don’t want to do causes a lot of unhappiness and makes for a very poor form of knowledge. Often enough, the knowledge that comes out of it is of very low resolution. After an initial drop in knowledge after the course ends, they then rebuild and add to the set of knowledge when they reach the next complimentary course. Whereas when someone’s passion is heavily married to the subject of their recent study, their knowledge has a very high resolution, and the specifics of a subject are instantly accessible.

You might say that one has to get through the unpleasant parts to get to the interesting stuff, but that is a fallacy dependent on the old educational paradigm. The system should follow your desires. Let’s say you want to learn how to engineer on the nanoscale. Your path will lead to physics and math, but the way you get to those stepping stones should not create a disconnect between each of the subjects. A curricula is a static mechanism that enforces that disconnect, through the form of time and content gaps. The solution that follows the interest of the adventurer creates no such gaps because the quest itself is a cohesive system.