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.