Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Products "R" Features

As a freshly minted Associate at a venture capital firm in early 2000's, I recall that one of my criteria for evaluating investment opportunities was figuring out (with analytic precision, of course) whether a particular startup was really a "product" or a "feature"... Turns out that was a totally futile (if not counterproductive) exercise!

So many of today's über-successful startups in fact are nothing more than features. Google started out as a feature inside a portal (Yahoo) and who knows, may end up being a feature inside a social network or mobile device 5 or 10 years from now. And look at all these neat features on your smart phone called Apps! Wouldn't you have loved to invest in some of the popular ones, like Angry Birds?

I think the traditional problem with investing in "feature" companies is the concern that a "product" company in that industry, with its seemingly infinite resources, can one day easily roll out that feature and crush that "feature" company. Sort of like how Apple crushed (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) Siri to the tune of over $200 million and Google crushed YouTube for $1.7 billion...

Suffice it to say, lots of great VC investments can be made in things that may be considered mere features today, but will end up being far more revolutionary and game-changing than many products in the market.  In the long run, we will all be dead and all products become features anyway!

Beware of "Happy Talk"

Nothing scares me more than Happy Talk, even on Halloween. We've all had our encounters with it. You know Happy Talk as soon as you hear it. And it makes our skin crawl...

It usually starts with "Things are going great! Best times ever! Tons of traction! Gods are smiling upon us!" and ends on similar upbeat notes "Couldn't ask for more! Just tryin' to keep up!" You catch my drift... SPOOKY!

Now, I am all for enthusiasm, positivity, and faith even in the face of severest hardships. Every entrepreneur needs to have those elements as a part of their M.O. or sooner or later will give up entrepreneurship for at least a steady income (if not peace of mind). However, it is one thing to be positive, and completely another thing to lull yourself into thinking that things are positive by ignoring the negative.

The danger with Happy Talk is our mental predisposition towards what psychologists broadly label as cognitive dissonance, the tendency of our brains to interpret reality only in the way that fits our thoughts and attitudes about it. Confirmation bias is another name for it. There are literally thousands of experiments that support this point, and they are all actually quite fun to read. For example:
  • An Ohio State study in 2009 showed people spend 36% more time reading an essay if that essay aligns with their opinions.
  • Another study at Ohio State in 2009 showed subjects clips of “The Colbert Report,” and people who considered themselves politically conservative consistently reported “Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said."
So, the same mental processes kick into gear once you engage in Happy Talk. You start drinking your own Cool Aid. You start ignoring all those little data points that don't fit the overall positive picture you are painting. And you know what happens after that...

So, next time you catch yourself engaging in such spooky activities, take a moment and reflect on whether your attitude really matches the data. That may save the day for you!

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steve Jobs: The Founder Archetype

I started this post with a list of my top 10 favorite things about Steve Jobs, but soon realized that any such attempt is futile at best. As the Da Vinci of our time, Steve Jobs' accomplishments were not limited to a set of inventions, principles, or theories. They spanned multiple disciplines (comp sci and art, for example), multiple decades (starting with the 80's, remember the original Mac?), and will have far reaching implications into the future (wearable computing, for instance).

But the one thing that will make him forever immortal, IMHO, is the fact that he has established himself as the "Founder Archetype" for as long as entrepreneurship will exist. His passion, ambition, perseverance, dedication and determination will be that which all founders will be judged by and compared against. He has truly upped the game for all of us; and that maybe his greatest legacy!

P.S. For some inspiration on how others are preparing themselves for this challenge, you may want to read and follow #LiveLikeSteve

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Chamath's Golden Rule!

Starting with my first topical post on this blog, I have been praising the advantages of a high integrity culture as the foundation of a sustainable business. Yesterday's leaked email from investor Chamath Palihapitiya to Airbnb CEO, wherein he provides an eloquent reason for not wanting to participate in a financing round that does not pass his integrity test, is a great reminder to all founders and executives of the importance to stay vigilant about preserving a culture of integrity in their startups. I confess that I don't know much about Airbnb's culture, but based on some of their past notoriety in the press (see one thread on TechCrunch here), I can see how small, incremental compromises in integrity may have led to this point, and hopefully Chamath's email and the attention it has raised to this matter can be a turning point for the company.

Here is my favorite paragraph from Chamath's email, which provides solid practical advice on how to preserve integrity within your organization:
Treat your employees the same as you’d treat yourself. Do things that you will be proud of and can defend to anyone including your Board, employees, prospective hires etc. In such a competitive hiring market, you are competing with not just your obvious competitors, but also any successful tech company who is also looking for great talent. A principle that treats your employees as well as you’d treat yourself is a huge strategy for differentiation, retention and long term happiness of the exact types of people you will need to be successful. In contrast, if you are viewed as self-dealing and shady, it will only hurt your long term prospects…
The highlighted first sentence above is what I would like to call "Chamath's Golden Rule for Management", which is a great modern application of the ancient Golden Rule.

I recall that as I a lawyer I used to advise my clients against doing something they would hate to see on the cover of WSJ. Airbnb founders may find themselves in that uncomfortable position on Monday!

P.S. As full disclosure, Chamath is a good friend, personal hero, and former investor in my last startup Jaxtr, via the Mayfield Fund.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Don't Trap Your Customers!

For some reason, for years traditional marketers were convinced that consumers need to be herded/forced into making the marketer's desired choice, rather than letting the consumer make an informed decision. As an obvious example, think of claustrophobic setting in pre-Bellagio Casino's, where you could look for miles and not see an exit door! For some reason, it was believed that the less the gamblers saw the possibility of an exit, the longer they would sit at the cramped gambling tables. Not sure how they may have A/B tested that hypothesis, but perhaps they were using sheep rather than people in their experiments?

And alas, this kind of thinking found its followers in the online marketing world as well. I am sure you have all had the unpleasant experience of visiting a website where the options you were looking for were more or less hidden and you felt tricked into blasting an invite to all your friends or doing something else that would evoke an "Oh-My-God-What-Did-I-Just-Do" reaction. But the days of such online shananigans disguised as intelligent marketing may soon be over.

Experiments are starting to reveal that creating a comfortable and pleasant environment for customers leads to higher expenditure by them! Jonah Lehrer recently covered one study in his aptly titled post, Why Being Relaxed Makes Us Spend More Money. I highly recommend that UI/UX designers read that post and the studies referenced therein before becoming too aggressive in creating restrictive funnels that force users to take certain online actions.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Like it or not, "culture" determines your priorities!

I wrote previously on the virtues of culture as a startup accelerant (by reducing organizational inefficiencies, culture paves the path for exponential growth). However, I left out a crucial effect that culture has on shaping the startup's actual output: namely, that the startup culture manifests itself in the products & services the startup creates.

Here is how:

The entrepreneurial process is the result of making prioritized decisions based on a seemingly infinite set of tasks. Anyone who has spent time at a startup is familiar with the overwhelming (and ever increasing) amount of tasks that can only be tackled in a prioritized fashion in order to make any real progress. The Product Managers are especially familiar with this, as they typically own this process as far as the startup's actual product features and specifications are concerned. They are the stewards of an iterative process that starts with the collection and collation of inputs from various stakeholders inside and outside the organization (including employees and end users), and ending with assignment of the most important tasks to developers and engineers for the upcoming sprint/release cycle.

The most important part of this iterative process, however, is everything that happens in between: Namely, the assignment of prirorities to the requests. And that is exactly where culture comes in since much of the priorities are driven based on the cultural underpinnings (i.e., the "gut instincts" and "feelings") of the organization. Tasks that "feel" important and critical find their way to the top of the list, and those that don't pass the gut check, keep getting relegated to the bottom of the backlog.

To the analytically inclined amongst us, however, the above may sound too fuzzy and perhaps even irrational, as they may object that a responsible Product Manager should primarily focus on the impact of various tasks on the key performance indicators or core metrics of the Product, and leave all emotions and feelings aside. However, even though I firmly believe in the importance of metrics, I have come to view that kind of rigorous analytics in product development as more or less an illusion.

There are many reasons that metrics alone cannot lead to real product decisions: First, the immediate impact of most development tasks is best an estimation and not known prior to release; second, there is usually more than one metric that is impacted by any given product change, and most organizations don't have a strict formula for how to trade off various metrics against each other; third, long-term impact of most product changes are inherently unknown; forth, most startups do not have a formula on how to weigh long term effects against short term effects; and so on and so forth. Product decision makers are dealing with very complex, multivariate issues, things far beyond the capability of the human brain. There is mounting evidence from experimental psychology that it is exactly situations like this where our emotional brain kicks into gear, and helps us make decisions based on our values (for a highly engaging and informative survey of the latest research in this area, I encourage you to read How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer).

And that's exactly where the startup culture makes its imprint on what it produces.

For instance, if "user experience" is important to the culture, then things that help the user's experience will become prioritized, at times even at the cost of some core metrics such as revenue or profits. On the other hand, if "fast growth" is in the startup DNA, then you will see tradeoffs that put at risk user experience and even long term financial viability of the organization.

This is why the role of founders as the guardians of culture is so critical to the success of startups!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Are you "Michael Jordan playing Baseball"?

Much more often than I like to see, I come across entrepreneurs who remind me of Jordan retiring from basketball to try his hand at baseball in 1994 (speculations abound as to why, but nonetheless he had the good sense to pivot back to basketball just after one miserable baseball season).

These days, with the consumer Internet momentum in full swing, I see first-time and repeat entrepreneurs from many fields (including law, life sciences, and enterprise software) pitching their Powerpoints and raising money for their first consumer Internet startup. And although I am usually the optimist and last guy to discourage anyone from a path of entrepreneurship, I can't help but be quite disappointed by this crop of entrepreneurs.

My disappointment stems primarily from the fact that in this new gold rush, Silicon Valley's greatest asset (intellectual capital) is wasted on futile reinventions of the consumer Internet wheel. To the uninitiated, building this shiny "wheel" may seem as simple as outsourcing a website and hooking it up with a set of "spokes" consisting of a database, Google Analytics, and a Facebook Connect integration to boot. But those who have been through the ordeal before, know better.

For starters, you need an understanding and appreciation of what it means to deliver a virtual consumer user experience that delights and transforms casual visitors to engaged users who would return and promote your services via repeated interactions. You need an appreciation of the delicate interplay between your technology platform and analytics, traffic and rapid iteration (aka A/B testing). And you need to understand how critical time is to everything you do. Which means, you cannot afford to start from ground zero and therefore, need to be able to recruit expert UI & UX designers, analysts, and developers that can deliver and improve what your users need faster than competition.

Is that impossible? Of course not, but as a first-time consumer Internet entrepreneur, your chances are pretty slim unless you bring in a co-founder that has done this in the past. Plus, you will need to recruit mentors, advisors and Board members that can shed light for you on the areas that you are lacking.

In summary, my advice to first-time entrepreneurs in consumer Internet (as well as any other field) is from the onset to

(1) talk to industry experts to map out the areas of competence that you need in-house to be successful,
(2) take an honest look at the founding team to assess which areas of competence you are lacking, and
(3) recruit co-founders/advisors/mentors/board members to fill in those holes.

Although entrepreneurship is a noble endeavor, doing it without adequate preparation is socially wasteful and irresponsible.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Culture As Startup Accelerant

After all is said and done, culture is the glue that holds a society together, enabling it to overcome all sorts of difficulties. The importance of culture, however, becomes magnified in a startup setting, as succinctly put by Nilofer Merchant in a recent post on Harvard Business Review's blog:
Success is a function of Purpose, Talent, with a Culture accelerant. Or: S = (PT)C
Culture drives that much-valued-yet-elusive exponential growth that every founder dreams for their startup. Without that certain culture, no matter how many smart and talented people you gather around the table, and regardless of how great the mission you embark upon, you are unlikely to succeed. Why? Because all those well-intentioned smart people start getting in each other's way, and sooner or later, end up sabotaging each others' efforts rather than leveraging one another, and thus slowing progress, innovation and growth.

I must admit, I have never seen a successful startup whose employees detected the existence of a "bad" or "disfunctional" culture, and plenty of unsuccessful ones where that was exactly something (perhaps the only thing!) employees could agree on.

Culture is exactly why the founders are critical to the success of their startups: They are the ones who set the culture (just by sheer chronology of events) and can either maintain or destroy it over time (just by sheer action or inaction over time). Founders who are unaware of the critical role they play in fostering a productive culture within their startups have some very hard lessons to learn. The following are some examples of "peopley stuff" (Nilofer's phrase) that founders have a direct impact on:
  • Level of trust between employees
  • Level of collaboration among employees
  • Time spent on politics and CYA stuff by employees
  • Attitude towards risk and innovation by employees
  • General good-will of employees towards success of enterprise
  • Hours that employees put in at work
  • Hours that employees work during the week
  • Hours that employees dream about work (in a good way)
And this is just scratching the tip of the iceberg!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Manufacturing Entrepreneurs

I think every politician/economist in the world has by now accepted the fact that entrepreneurship is vital to long-term economic growth and prosperity. Much less understood, however, is how one would best go about creating more entrepreneurs in the society.

Do you create more entrepreneurs by copying "Silicon Valley" (whatever that means)? Do you do so by pouring more money into science education and R&D? Or by giving more tax incentives for engaging in entrepreneurial activities? Or is a liberal-arts education the missing ingredient, as Vivek Wadhwa recently suggested in The New York Times and TechCrunch?

As an entrepeneur with a liberal arts background (Philosophy, Economics, and Law), I do firmly believe that having had some exposure to the liberal arts is of great value in leading a well-rounded and grounded life. However, when it comes to entrepreneurship, I am not sure how much credit I can justifiably give to my liberal arts training.  As a matter of fact, I think the role of financial incentives, sciences as well as the liberal arts in creating more entrepreneurs in a society is quite limited at best. In other words, they may be considered necessary conditions for more entrepreneurship, but by no means sufficient. This is supported by existence of plenty of countries/states/regions/universities in the world that produce excellent scientific and liberal arts scholars and provide lots of tax incentives for entrepreneurial activities (such as in Canada), but those efforts do not produce the desired entrepreneurial activity in the target population who opt for more traditional career paths.

Why? Because the emphasis on  individual incentives and particular college degrees misses the essence of entrepreneurship, which is fundamentally a social activity and therefore mostly influenced by the prevailing culture. Some cultures (be it within a society, a company or a single family) kill entrepreneurship desires while others nurture and grow it.  In my experience, entrepreneurship only thrives in a culture that is forgiving towards those who fail at taking entrepreneurial risk.

Wherever I have seen strong cultural punishments (e.g., guilt, shame, etc.) associated with failed entrepreneurial endeavors (as in Canada, Germany and so many other societies), entrepreneurship has been stifled. Conversely, the culture in Silicon Valley intrinsically celebrates and values taking entrepreneurial risks. Having had near-hits with one's past ventures, in the Valley, is something to be proud of (even brag about) rather than hide. Behind most successful Valley executives and entrepreneurs is usually a trail of failed prior attempts. Counter-intuitively to outsiders, past misses make an entrepreneur even more "fundable", as those experiences are deemed invaluable to VC's and Angels alike.

Regardless of whether the Valley mindset was created by amazing foresight or sheer historic accident, it is apparently exactly what our mammalian brains need to take on risk. According to a recent psychology experiment recounted by Jonah Lehrer on his blog, our brains' pleasure centers hardly distinguish between almost winning and actually winning, which explains why so many people flock to Vegas and actually enjoy throwing hard-earned cash at one-sided gambles. He goes on to provide an evolutionary explanation:
Why would the mammalian brain be designed this way? One answer is that we didn’t evolve for Vegas. Rather, near misses help us stay motivated when engaged in activities that require actual skill, and not dumb luck. Let’s say we’re learning to play basketball. At first, our shots are going to be all over the place, a seemingly random distribution of bricks and airballs. And yet, as we slowly get better, those shots will get closer to the rim. A few might even go in, which is pretty thrilling. The purpose of near misses, then, is to keep us motivated while we slowly improve our form. If we only got excited by makes, we’d quickly give up, which is why the brain also needs a mechanism to register progress.
Now imagine that you lived in a society where everytime someone missed the basket during training or in a game, they were boo'ed off the court or worse yet, threatened that they could never play basketball again. How many star basketball players would that society produce?

Just like in professional sports, entrepreneurship requires "actual skill, and not dumb luck." If the culture discourages risk taking entrepreneurial endeavors by punishing those who fail at it, then you start messing with those brain centers responsible for motivating people to become entrepreneurs in the first place. In which case, no amount of rewards, tax incentives, scientific or liberal arts education can motivate people to get in the game and start practicing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's So Wrong with Arrogance?

I have always had a negative gut reaction to arrogant/overconfident people. In popular culture, however, arrogance is played up as a cornerstone of success and downright entrepreneurial chutzpah, exemplified by icons such as Zuck in The Social Network, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or Donald Trump in the avalanche of The Apprentice "reality" shows.

But I felt vindicated when in the last issue of Harvard Business Review I encountered a very interesting research entitled "Experts Are More Persuasive When They Are Less Certain" by Associate Professor Zakary Tormala of Stanford GSB. According to this research which tallied ratings of a fictitious restaurant based on a variety of professional and amateur reviews, my gut reaction to arrogance has been spot on with majority of folks:

[We] asked subjects what they’d pay for a meal at our fictitious restaurant, Bianco’s. People who’d read the tentative professional review were willing to pay 56% more than people who’d read the highly certain professional review. But uncertainty had almost the exact opposite effect with amateur opinions. People who’d read a confident amateur review were willing to pay 54% more for a meal than those who’d read an uncertain amateur review.

Professor Tormala attributes this phenomenon to "expectancy violations":

People expect experts to be confident. Violations of that expectation surprise them. We see that in our data. Subjects reported being more surprised by the uncertain experts and the confident amateurs. A surprise draws you in and makes you pay more attention. It gives the review more impact.
I also think there is another phenomenon at play, which for a lack of a better word I call "Car Salesman Phobia". On a deep philosophic level, we all suspect that there is really no certainty in life. So whenever someone starts to come across too strong about anything, our intuitive alarm bells go off that this person may either have an ulterior motive (like a car salesman) or be so amazed by themselves that they are not checking their own blind spots. Those alarm bells are somewhat muffled when the expert starts admitting that there is room for doubt and further research.

So, you may ask, why is it that when amateurs show confidence we tend to trust them more? This, I believe, is due to the fact we start at such a low trust level with amateurs that their admission of certitude (or anything else other than total ignorance) is a relative improvement.

In conclusion, next time you are pitching your company to an investor or new hire, think about whether or not the person you are talking to would consider you an "amateur" or "expert" and then act with respective dose of humility, 

What do you think?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Innovation Déjà Vu (or The Idea Clone Wars)

I think we are all too familiar with how every now and then several Hollywood movies come out with the same basic plot in relatively short succession. Here are some of my favorites (not in Oscar-worthiness, but in how much of a clone the movies are of each other):

Matrix, Dark City, & Thirteenth Floor;
Deep Impact & Armageddon;
Antz & A Bug's Life;
Finding Nemo & Shark Tale;
The Truman Show & Ed TV;
Volcano & Dante's Peak;
War of The Worlds (with Tom Cruise) & War of The Worlds (without Tom Cruise);
United 93 & World Trade Center;

This, of course, is not a coincidence as pointed out in a study published in this 2006 Whittier Law Review article by IP attorney Igor Dubinsky:
Movies arise from scripts, scripts arise from ideas, and while ideas, as Justice Brandeis noted, are “free as the air,” they must be nurtured by authors to present any real value. Once an author gives birth to an idea for a story or movie, he develops it and then attempts to sell it to a movie studio. If the author can secure a meeting with a studio executive, he presents his idea at an “idea-man” presentation. Alternatively, the movie script can be submitted to a studio via mail or a third person.

On the average, movie executives receive over 20,000 movie and TV show ideas per year, but only review 6,000 of these, many of them over meals with executives from other networks. Movie ideas come from various sources including Sunset Boulevard, network executives, the studios themselves, stars and their agents, independent producers, writers, word of mouth, trade papers, and magazines... Only about 200 sample scripts are commissioned per year, and seldom are more than twenty of those

Sometimes the person who conceived the idea for a movie script will win a meeting with studio executives, only to have the idea rejected and then rewritten and developed by the executives without paying any copyright royalties to the original author. What happens even more often is that a script author will shop the same idea at numerous movie studios, or movie studio executives at different companies will discuss with each other ideas for movies they are thinking of putting into production. These same ideas will then be developed into movies by two or more competing studios. At the box office these similar movies will come out like déjà vu, within a few weeks or months of each other.   
Are the same nefarious forces at play when we see a sudden rush of group texting startups (hat tip to George Zachary for the apt tweet on this), location-based services, social commerce websites (aka Groupon clones), VoIP startups (ok, I participated in that Clone War by starting jaxtr, a "j" letter mobile VoIP company in 2005), etc?

As the parallels between Hollywood and Silicon Valley in the above excerpt are too obvious to point out, I would like to share with you a more generalized response, which is the following:

Innovation in Silicon Valley is as much a social process as is ideation in Hollywood. We need to talk to others to be able to refine and solidify all the various thoughts that swim around in our heads. The good thing about this social process is that we come up with better results because of it (a recent study points out that the best academic articles are those that are produced by teamwork rather than "solo geniuses"). The bad thing, however, is that as soon as we talk to one other person, we will have to accept the fact that there will undoubtedly be a multitude of others that will have the same idea planted in their heads and will want to do something with it. If you want to innovate, the clone wars are inevitable!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Are Big Ideas Dead?

It seems that Big Ideas are no longer around, at least in the high tech community. No one seems to really care about them. No one seems to want to take on any risk to pursue them in any serious entrepreneurial way. And the current emphasis seems to have shifted towards Small Ideas that require little or no funding and leverage existing set of public API's and the Social Graph (hat tip to Angel Bubble).

I say this after days of walking the hallways and chatting up numerous entrepreneurs and VCs at this year's SXSWi Conference (the interactive portion of South By Southwest, aka The-Closest-Thing-The-Tech-Community-Has-To-Woodstock) in search of someone pursuing, or at least believing in, a Big Idea. Instead, what I found was that it has somehow become more fashionable/lucrative/fundable to create incremental changes (even to clone Groupon or Foursquare), than to try to completely break the mold and change the dominant paradigm in any field. I was hoping to see something different, something truly original and breathtaking, but all that I could see was shades of the same.

And based on other reviews of the event, I am not alone in this disenchantment with the current state of our entrepreneurial culture.  Todd Wasserman has an interesting Op-Ed piece on Mashable, in which he proclaims:
"But we’re not just having an off year. We’re at a new, more boring stage in the [social media innovation] development cycle."
One very smart entrepreneur told me over drinks at SXSW that this year's Big Ideas are "The Internet and Social Networking", mocking the very premise of my inquiry, and thereby proving what I suspected all along: That we have all grown cynical of Big Ideas.

And there is some merit to this cynicism. Big Idea inventions like the Laser, Electricity, Automobile, Ultrasound, Steam Engine, Printing Press, and the Internet happen so rarely and require such a confluence of serendipity, good fortune and resources that in an environment where you can relatively easily launch and grow a company by making an incremental improvement over something already in existence (if not outright copying), then why should you bother? In fact, isn't all innovation an improvement on prior innovations anyway, and that progress is a series of baby steps? For instance, wasn't the can opener invented 50 years after the birth of the metal can itself?

True, but still I hope I am wrong about the death of Big Ideas and that there is still someone, somewhere out there pursuing something that would have quantum leap implications for humanity, even if it is a metal can waiting for a can opener. If you know of some projects along those lines, please do comment below!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Revolutionary Solidarity

Solidarity is not discovered by reflection, but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, 'They do not feel as WE would'. -Richard Rorty
Like many, I have been obsessively following the rapid spread of revolutionary uprisings throughout MENA on Twitter and Facebook. It is impossible to summarize one's emotions in these times, which somehow simultaneously combines awe (at the countless acts of selfless heroism), anger (at the cruelty and brutality of a few), and hope (for a better future for humanity).

As an entrepreneur, when I take a step back and look at the general trends manifested by these uprisings, I can't help but be overcome by a deep sense of solidarity and commonality of purpose with the masses on the streets of MENA. That is not just because all entrepreneurs aspire to bring about revolutionary new changes to their field, but because we all seem to be marching at the forefront of a larger, emerging global consciousness whose core values are:

1) Belief in the Possibility of Change

People join a political revolution when they reach a point where they can no longer tolerate things-as-they-are and start realizing that there is a possibility that the socio-political status quo can change. "Acceptance" and "Status Quo" are no longer deemed to have an intrinsic value (which have been the core value in traditional societies), and are in fact blamed for being the instruments of oppression and as such, responsible for much of the suffering. The Frankfurt School Critical Theorists and Poststructuralists of 20th Century (e.g., Foucault) popularized these notions in the academia, but their mass application has only recently seen the light of the day.

Similarly, entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in one's conviction in the value of change. Sometimes the change may be about making a floppy disk smaller; or a new way of using a computer or a handheld device. But by definition, innovation and entrepreneurship is all about breaking with the past and bringing about a change, sometimes risking a lot in the process (though the entrepreneurial risks pale in comparison with the dangers faced by the revolutionaries on the streets).

2) Trust in Democratic Processes

Removal of an autocratic regime and replacing it with a democratic government is among the top demands of the masses in MENA. It stems from decades-long brewing of disdain for autocratic rule by an elite few who have used the citizenry as mere instruments towards furthering their own individual interests. Revolts, revolutions and uprisings are nothing new in the MENA as elsewhere in the world; what is remarkable during the recent string of uprisings, however, is the lack of a central opposition figure-head, a cult-of-personality that was central to prior upheavals (e.g., recall the central role of Khomeini in Iranian Revolution of 1979). Thus, there seems to be a common understanding and unspoken faith in people's capability to self-organize and govern themselves by putting their trust in a process that draws upon the collective wisdom rather than a person.

This "common understanding" seems to be the invisible hand that guides the entrepreneurial community as well. Startups are for the most part self-organizing, non-hierarchical entities, with a particular disdain for traditional corporate structures and detailed processes. Chaotic, agile, lean and spontaneous processes are respected as conducive to innovation and progress, whereas hierarchical, authority-based processes (characterized by lots of higher-level approval requirements) are frowned upon (if not, laughed at). Each startup is an exercise in democracy, and coincidentally enough, much of the products these startups create aim at further facilitating mass collaboration and contribution by drawing upon the potential of the crowds. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and scores of other social networking tools demonstrate how each individual is not only a consumer of important content, but also a producer with the potential to move and mobilize masses. As a result, today less and less personalities dominate our consumption of news, entertainment, or educational material than any other time in history. Technology entrepreneurs have tapped into the intrinsic value of the contributory potential of an individual in a way few governments have ever ever been able to do.  

3) Disdain for Centralization

Autocratic regimes tend to be heavily centralized for obvious reasons: The dictatorial head of the state needs to maximize his control in order to minimize the risk of a coup or transparency into his personal gains. Thus, centralized government control over all societal institutions, including economy, media and communications are necessary to the survival of a dictatorship (e.g., there is no "freedom of speech" in any of the dictatorial regimes, and most uprisings are met with a shutdown of mass communications infrastructure as it was done in Algeria and Egypt recently). Because of this, centralized structures are all but synonymous with the threat of oppression and dictatorship. Not surprisingly, demands for a decentralized government has been high on the revolutionary agenda in the MENA.

Decentralization has also been a core value in the tech community. Entrepreneurial ventures are mostly decentralized organizations, where smaller teams work on projects with minimal central control as mentioned above. The Internet itself is based on a framework for decentralized distribution of packets of data (although the decentralization work is still far from over, as evidenced by the need for solutions such as the one advocated by OpenMesh Project), and many popular applications take advantage of the efficiency gains and network effects inherent in a distributed network (e.g., Skype, BitTorrent)). The general disdain for centralized approaches and normative preference for decentralized, distributed and unregulated processes is quite palpable across the entrepreneurial communities (see also, the debate over network neutrality).

Although thousands of miles apart, our entrepreneurial community shares its set of core values with the freedom fighters in MENA. This does not only explain why these events feel so instinctively important to us, but also serves as a reminder that we should do our share to further spread the word about their struggle as an act of solidarity.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Moral Evolution

Working on an article that better explains this evolution, and its connection with the uprisings in MENA. Please share your thoughts on the diagram!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Startup Lessons Learned While Running A Marathon

I recently started training for the marathon (alright, half marathon, but for someone as unathletic as I, it is practically the same thing anyway) in honor of my late father who had been fighting cancer for 18 months. This has been a life-changing experience for me on so many levels. Among many things, it has helped me understand the fundamentals of entrepreneurship a lot better.

So, without further ado, here are my

Top 5 Startup Lessons Learned While Running A Marathon:

1. Don't bother if you don't have a Cause (yes, with a capital "C").
What gets me up hitting the pavement and running mile after mile in rainy, cold winter morning weather is not the promise of a large payoff or some other material gain. I am doing this marathon in honor of my father and in an effort to raise funds to help find a cure for cancer. Remembering our family's struggle and hearing the stories of others during my training has been a supernatural motivating force.

2. It is all in the... PACE!
It is amazing how our instincts are not tuned for endurance sports... Somehow evolution didn't take into account tens of miles of running or founding a startup! So many people seriously injure themselves during their practice runs (or even at the goal event) because they simply run too fast, especially in the first half of the run. You need to start slow and build up gradually. You are in it for the long haul, so you need to save up as much energy as you can throughout the process. The end is typically farther than the eye can see and there are hills in between.

3. Ignore others.
This is really a continuation of #2 above. I have had to force myself to fight a lot of competitive urges in order to maintain a healthy pace. As soon as you get wrapped up in what others do, you lose sight of your own pace. 

4. Work through the pains.
I have yet to do a decently long run (6 miles or more) that did not involve some kind of pain/cramp/pinch somewhere in my body. And what has worked best for me in those situations is to slow down slightly, focus on my form, and breathe into the pain (a yoga-esque technique).

5. Focus on your form, not the distance.
To battle the toughest parts of the course, such as a steep hill, or the last mile, etc., what works best for me is to focus on my form (shoulder position, back, tummy, hips, foot placement) and keep looking slightly ahead. On the other hand, trying to look at mile markers or top of the hill is usually a recipe for disaster and great way to lose motivation.

Somehow I wish I had gone through a marathon before my first startup!