Many people working for a relatively large corporation might bristle at the prospect of speaking face to face with 500 hackers with an average age of 22. I had exactly that opportunity this past Saturday as an invitee to Paul Graham's YCombinator Startup School held in Harvard's Science Center. Hands down, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.
The setup was simple: pull young aspiring entrepreneurs from around the world into one place and give them 36 hours of relentless exposure to tech luminaries, IP attorneys, serial entrepreneurs, VCs, and corporate sellout interlopers like me. The speakers ranged from Woz, who gave a fantastic account of the early Apple days to Stephen Wolfram, Sergey's first 'boss', who remarked that Sergey still owes him some deliverables. (I will be sure to let him know.) Olin Shivers gave a wonderfully ominous account of taking venture funding that contained one slide titled: "VCs – Soulless Agents of Satan, or Just Clumsy Rapists?” One for the scrapbooks, to be sure.
As I entered Harvard Science Center's Room B, where the event was held, I was instantly struck by the sheer energy of the crowd. It was between speakers, and the ambitious gaggle of hackers was comparing screens, showing off mashups, and climbing over the seats to continue protocol preference debates in closer proximity to their combatants. No one was running off to check in with their assistant or jump onto a mindless conference call with sales finance.
As speakers sequentially took to the podium, the students took to their seats, but by no means did the activity die down. The glow of screens (from a refreshingly Powerbook-dominated audience) revealed an array of real-time collaborative note-taking fora virtually assembling the room's minds in a concurrent recording and discussion of the event. Rather than laptops providing an instant messaging fueled distraction from the content, as is often alleged in schools (and in many of the meetings in which I sit at work) and where their use is being restricted, these kids were actually using them to dive even deeper into the content of the speeches. Every aspect of the proceedings was noted in real time and then integrated in a bevy of wikis that covered everything from speaker bios to where the parties were later that night. I relished when it was my chance to speak. Such open and idealistic minds looking back at me.
Having spent so many days speaking to relatively jaded trade conference attendees who half-listen to me, perking up only when my speech intersects with their pre-hardened agendas, it was a treat to be in a room of eager and ambitious geeks. So what did I have to say? Well, I think that others have covered topics such as how to start a company more thoroughly and with more authenticity than I ever could. Mark Fletcher, founder of Bloglines, is one of my favorites on this theme. (via Andrej) The 37 Signals guys are also getting a bit of worthy press for a recent interesting take on minimalism in entrepreneurial software efforts. I took the opportunity to consider the underpinnings of Google's success and describe a few potentially overlooked five cent nuggets from our experience:
Start! - Just get going. Don't waste a lot of time writing business plans or strategic roadmaps. It actually takes a lot of conceit for any of us to think we have a space so figured out so well that we know what the next five years will look like. Instead of spinning wheels, just start coding.
Solve User Problems! - What to code? It always shocks me how meek some hackers are about determining what to build. It seems we have created a technology culture where the MBAs and their Powerpoints somehow suck all the air out of the room and leave geeks feeling inadequate. Actually however, no one is better suited to invent than users of technology who realize that the user experience can always be improved. There is always the temptation to start from the money and work back to the user, but this never bears remarkable fruit. Instead, start with what is broken today. Fix it, and you will be richly rewarded.
Go Big! - While I love that the Internet has enabled the emergence and growth of niche businesses, I still believe that the most alluring opportunities for real hackers lie in building applications (and infrastructure/platforms) that will benefit hundreds of millions of users.
Stay Cheap through Demo! - I see too many entrepreneurs these days feeling they need to build an entire company to support what is essentially a feature of a larger search engine or portal. It depresses me to see creative people wasting productive cycles on the mundane aspects of building full companies. YCombinator gets this. Their Summer Founders Program gives kids stipends of a few thousand dollars each to build baby companies over a two month span. No directors of HR, no accounts payable. Just sheer pragmatism and code intended to create working demos. When talented people are allowed to focus on their core competency without distraction, cool things happen.
Geeks rule! - Echoing my earlier sentiments that we frequently confuse whoever is loudest with being the folks getting stuff done, we can't forget that is actually the geeks who rule technology. More than ever, thanks to cheap/free development environments and powerful hardware, individual developers are empowered to have direct, scalable, and meaningful impact. I don't want to completely dismiss the ecosystem of those of us on the periphery of coding - businesspeople, VCs, lawyers, consultants. However, I think all of our hand waving can often discourage the guys and girls who lie at the heart of technology. As such, I believe that all the venture money in the world is no substitute for talent.
Food! - This may seem like a non-sequitur, however too often we forget about the human and collaborative nature of what we do. There is nothing like a free breakfast/lunch/dinner to bring folks together, loosen them up, and encourage sharing, debate, and brainstorming. Too often, I hear people remark that they expect us to cut out the free food now that we are a public company. I don't blame them for their shortsightedness because I think the last bubble burst ingrained in each of us a healthy skepticism. However, food provides a cooperative, egalitarian, and participatory foundation for everything we do. For a few thousand dollars per employee per year, a workplace can feel more like a home, or better yet, a community for the mind. In that light, it is worth noting that Google didn't wait until the company was rolling in dough to start meals. I believe the first chef at Google was approximately employee #40 or #50.
Be Open! - I mean this is many senses of the word. First off, most literally, there are few reasons not to use open source software these days. It allows you to scale faster and leverages the collective expertise of developers around the world to advance your project. Open source software also maximizes the chances that your code will integrate well with an eventual acquirer. Beyond that though, openness should be a characteristic of your business at all levels. Be transparent to your users and listen to their feedback. Be clear with your team and employees and inspire their trust.
Following the talk, I spent the next two hours in the hallway of the auditorium answering questions, hearing pitches, and seeing demos. With this crowd, I could have stayed all week. Congrats to Paul, YCombinator, and to the participants themselves. I have already heard from many of them, and I expect we will all continue to see great things from this gang.