We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn't stand were people with a lot of attitude. But most of those weren't truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first. When nerds are unbearable it's usually because they're trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like "I don't know "Maybe you're right and "I don't understand x well enough." This technique doesn't always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the mit cs department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I'm told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck yeager.
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Almost everyone who worked for us was an animal at what they did. The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that i used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her. You could sense them squirming on the hook, but management you knew there would be no rest for them till they'd signed. If you think about people you know, you'll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person's image to mind and imagine the sentence "so-and-so is an animal." If you laugh, they're not. You don't need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup. For programmers we had three additional tests. Was the person genuinely smart? If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around? That last test filters out surprisingly few people.
Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can't save bad people. People What do i mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into fuller another language, but I think everyone in the us knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive. What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won't take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 am rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a pr person who will cold-call.
The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an nda. Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route. Microsoft's original plan was to make money selling programming languages, of all things. Their current business model didn't occur to them until ibm dropped it in their lap five years later. Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they're not transferrable. They're not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about. What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them.
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I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't suck. For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as were a class project.
And yet there's a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked. An idea for a startup, however, is only a beginning. A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go phone to vc firms with a brilliant idea that you'll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth.
Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed. And that's kind of exciting, when you think about it, because all three are doable. And since a startup that succeeds ordinarily makes its founders rich, that implies getting rich is doable too. If there is one message i'd like to get across about startups, that's. There is no magically difficult step that requires brilliance to solve.
The Idea, in particular, you don't need a brilliant idea to start a startup around. The way a startup makes money is to offer people better technology than they have now. But what people have now is often so bad that it doesn't take brilliance to do better. Google's plan, for example, was simply to create a search site that didn't suck. They had three new ideas: index more of the web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. Above all, they were determined to make a site that was good to use. No doubt there are great technical tricks within google, but the overall plan was straightforward. And while they probably have bigger ambitions now, this alone brings them a billion dollars a year. There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before google.
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