Brad Hargreaves | Building Things

Brad Hargreaves on entrepreneurship, community and life

Your Product Chooses Your Community, Marketing Scales It

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Great businesses are known and grown by the communities that use their products. Apple’s brand was reinforced by the hip designers and musicians that used it through the company’s worst days. Facebook’s initial band of affluent college students proved more sustainable than MySpace’s crowd. Entrepreneurs have noticed, and I’ve seen many try to carefully architect the initial community that uses their product and comes to speak for their brand. This is absolutely the right intuition, as great communities reinforce great products reinforce great businesses.

Unfortunately, I see many entrepreneurs go about this in the wrong way, attempting to curate a seed community by limiting user acquisition channels to only those with a similar brand or a “premium” audience. In addition to being unsustainable, this strategy hamstrings the business and opens the door for competitors.

Your brand’s community is chosen by your product. If you have crafted your product to speak to the community you want, you need not resort to user acquisition jiujitsu to keep the good crowd in and the bad crowd out. If you are relying on targeted marketing rather than a great product to build your community, you are resigning yourself to a giant game of whack-a-mole as you try to stay ahead of the wave of “bad” users which will inevitably descend if you have any aspirations to scale. Good products shuffle bad users away from the spotlight, a “clean handling” that keeps the quality of the core community intact. Great products extract business value from bad users all the same.

Once your product and your community jibe, user acquisition marketing can be a powerful tool to grow the business. But user acquisition at scale is a messy game, and without smart product decisions it can end in disaster. MySpace had brilliant email acquisition marketing run by some of the best in the business, but users acquired through these channels are the kind of users that will set fifteen music videos to auto-play on page load if you let them. By letting them — that is, by not making the product decisions that elegantly handled these types of users — MySpace blew it.

Don’t blow it. Choose your community through your product; scale it through user acquisition marketing.

## A note: Some folks from the old-school advertising world may be a bit confused here. Some decisions traditionally in “marketing” — logo, colors, fonts, name — actually go in the “product” bucket in many web- and mobile-focused companies, and this is the way I classify them in my writings. Here, “marketing” is more specifically “user / customer acquisition”.

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August 12th, 2012 at 10:35 am

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Rent-Seeking Assets

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If you haven’t read Slate’s article on the economics of New York’s taxi medallion system, it’s worth the time. The tl;dr version is that the city government of New York has created an artificial set of rent-seeking assets — taxi medallions — where none should have existed in the first place. Specifically, the harm done to passengers and drivers by the economic rent extracted by medallion owners outweighs any possible benefit to putting an artificial quota on the number of cabs. Anyone who has tried to hail a cab in NYC between 4 and 5pm can attest to this.

Rent-seeking assets — explained quite well here — can be positive or negative for society. Many would agree that taxi medallions are a net negative. Carbon credits, on the other hand, are an artificial class of rent-seeking assets that could be quite beneficial. If economic theory is right, carbon credits will use an auction system to allocate the right to pollute to the firms producing the most economic value per unit of pollution.

So what makes a rent-seeking asset a good thing? I would argue that three criteria need to be hit to justify this kind of asset:

  • Negative externality of supply (the costs of pollution are not naturally born by the polluter)
  • Lack of differentiation among supply (your ton of carbon is just as bad as mine)
  • Destructive Nash equilibrium (naturally, all profit-seeking firms will pollute as much as they can get away with)

Unlike carbon credits, most products do not meet one or more of these criteria. I would argue that taxis do not meet the second and third criteria. While there may be a negative externality of supply — namely, pollution and traffic — there is certainly supply differentiation (some cabs are comfier, cleaner and friendlier than others), and there should not be a destructive Nash equilibrium, as in a free market taxis should only work the streets as long as it is financially sensible for their owners and drivers. Without these three criteria met, it’s not appropriate for government to create a rent-seeking asset class like taxi medallions.

Supply quotas and rent-seeking behavior go hand-in-hand. The City of New York limits the supply of taxi medallions to 13,000, which leads to a fair market price for a medallions of just over $1 million. But limiting supply doesn’t have to mean a quota. Professional certifications — such as the bar and CFA credentials — are great examples of meritocratic supply limitations. This kind of limitation is appropriate when supply is highly differentiated. In this case, not all lawyers and financial analysts are the same. These merit-based systems attempt to differentiate those truly able to provide services from the unqualified.

This kind of merit-based qualification can also work within a quota system. High-end college admissions is one example of this. There are only approximately 1,500 spots in each class at Yale, but those 1,500 are newly allocated each year on a (mostly*) merit-based system.

But even if those spots were simply sold to the highest bidders, it wouldn’t be a very good example of a rent-seeking asset. Specifically, Yale acceptances are missing a key characteristic of this kind of asset: transferability.

Imagine, for a moment, that a group of 1,500 people were given the right to admit to Yale anyone of their choosing per year back when the university was founded in 1701. Yale never built an admissions office -- it simply filled each class by taking one name from each of these "Admission medallion" holders every year. Of course, since the University would greatly outlive the medallion holders, the holders were given the right to transfer or sell their Admission medallion to anyone of their choosing.

Over the course of time, the vast majority of Admission medallions were acquired by various investment funds and private equity firms, such as Admission Financial. Each year, these huge firms auction the 1,500 spots off to the highest bidders. With some parents willing to pay north of $5 million to get their kids into Yale, the Yale admissions business brings in north of $7 billion per year in economic rent to massive holding companies -- essentially a transfer payment from aspiring families to wealthy investors and funds.

This is a silly example, but it paints a picture of how insane this kind of rent-seeking asset model would seem for more obviously differentiated products. Medical licenses are an even more extreme example: obviously, medical licenses should not be assets simply to be auctioned off to the highest bidder and subject to transfer or sale without restriction like carbon credits or taxi medallions.

Unfortunately, higher education accreditation often functions as a rent-seeking asset. While accreditation should in theory be a quality assurance mechanic — licensing schools as Bar Associations license lawyers, for instance — in practice accreditation is an asset that can be bought and sold, accumulating rent for its owners. Extremely challenging to acquire and just as difficult to lose, the treatment of accreditation as an asset rather than a qualification has played a significant role in the sad state of higher education today. Much like Medallion Financial buys and sells taxi medallions, financial institutions have seen an opportunity doing the same with colleges and their accreditations.

I do not believe that economic rents are always bad things. Rent-seeking assets have their place. But identifying that place — and where merit may be a more appropriate filter — is more critical than ever.

*From an economic perspective, things like athletic recruitment and legacy status count as “merit”, as the spots aren’t simply allocated to the highest bidder as it would be in a rent-seeking economic model. Although I’m sure there is a certain level of donation beyond which my kid is pretty much guaranteed to get in, so “mostly” applies.

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July 10th, 2012 at 11:18 am

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Accuracy and Precision

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In conversation, the terms accuracy and precision are used interchangeably. But they mean different things, and the difference can play a big role in the growth of a business. Before getting into early stage companies I spent most of my time in a science lab, which couldn’t have put me in a worse position to understand how accuracy and precision affect startups.

Courtesy Jekel 1996

In science, precision is valued above accuracy. In this case it’s called repeatability, and being able to run the same experiment multiple times with the same results is a good thing. After all, most fields of science expect results with 95% confidence, which means that your error rate can be no higher than one in twenty. So controlling for all possible variables and demonstrating repeatability are of utmost importance.

In startups, this kind of thinking will get you killed on two fronts. First, achieving 95% confidence is impossible in business. If you can collect enough data to be right 60% of the time you’ll get buildings named after you. You can’t possibly control for all variables; you’re lucky if you have the time and money to even understand what they are. This can be summarized with with the old business adage “it’s better to be generally correct than exactly wrong.”

Second, running a variety of experiments that yield different results is a positive thing. If all of your business experiments look similar and yield similar results, you haven’t learned very much, and you certainly haven’t explored the full set of possibilities. In all likelihood there is a better outcome elsewhere, open for a competitor to find and exploit. In other words, you don’t want to optimize toward a local maxima while missing a bigger opportunity.

Take marketing strategy, for instance. Good entrepreneurs usually try a number of diverse strategies — perhaps PPC, plus SEO, plus events or social media — to get a few data points around what works and what doesn’t. Thinking about this as a fractal and trying a few diverse strategies within each of these categories can pay dividends as well. While most of these experiments will likely fail, they can provide multiple starting points from which to drill down and test further, or provide guideposts to the right answer.

So while the precision of experiments is not so critical, accuracy is key. With all your experiments, you want to be close enough within range to triangulate the right answers through experiments. While precision without accuracy is dangerous, being neither precise nor accurate is useless. Trying five wildly different social media engagement strategies for a beta product may yield a false negative if social media isn’t the right acquisition channel; picking a wider variety of tactics may have generated more interesting results.

Business isn’t science, but you can be scientific about it. Having the right experimental framework can go a long way to saving time and money.

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May 13th, 2012 at 12:38 pm

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One of my favorite essays of all time is accomplished game designer Greg Costikyan’s account of attending the pay-to-pitch New England Venture Summit as a first-time entrepreneur raising money. Coming from the self-described subculture of “science fiction fandom”, Greg illustrates the conference as “[a] variation on that basic [subculture] motif”.

His opening observation on subcultures is worth repeating. Like Greg, I grew up as a part of a subculture. It happened to be online gaming, although the particular choice doesn’t really matter; subcultures are ubiquitous online and off. Now I’m part of a different subculture — scalable startups*. And it’s just as much of a subculture as anything else.

This isn’t just a semantic point. Lots of people casually refer to this community of entrepreneurs as the startup “industry”. But it isn’t an industry; it’s a subculture. Like any subculture, it has its own unique vocabulary, memes, and shared historical narratives and ideologies. It has its own heroes and villains, values and virtues. Healthcare, education and telecom are industries — within them they share trends and players, but from a social perspective are diverse and decentralized.

From the perspective of someone seeking a job at a startup, this distinction means that admission is granted to the startup subculture through a different means than if it were an industry. This is especially relevant to anyone who is trying to land a job at a young tech company but lacks programming or design skills. Submitting a resume will get you next to nowhere. Spending time meeting people and reading up on topics startups care about (which can easily be found on Hacker News) is a more efficient way in the door.

This doesn’t mean you need to be part of the scene. It just means you have to use different means than typical; means that may seem more analogous to a journalist wiggling into the long-haul trucker subculture than a recent college grad trying to get a job. So when someone approaches me looking for advice on getting a job at a startup, I tell them to think of the problem less like getting hired by Goldman or McKinsey and more like getting established as a writer or artist. After all, one could say that what many entrepreneurs are doing is a new kind of art.

* I specifically refer to the subculture as “scalable” startups to differentiate from, say, the affiliate marketing and lead gen world (which is a fascinating subculture in and of itself). But it’s a total different feel, with its own vocabulary and values.

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November 27th, 2011 at 4:22 pm

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Occupy Wall Street is about student debt

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Up to this point I hadn’t thought much about the macro reasons behind Occupy Wall Street, assuming it was driven by a general disaffection with economic inequality. But when I checked out We Are the 99 Percent this weekend, I saw a clear common thread among the protesters: the presence of overwhelming student debt.

Student loans are a unique kind of financial instrument. They are the only kind of debt that can’t be forgiven through bankruptcy, even when the loans come from private sources rather than government-affiliated institutions (like Sallie Mae). These loans have been a pretty standard part of the American education system for the past decade, especially among private, for-profit universities, where 96% of students graduate with an average of $33,000 in debt [PDF].

Protestor at Occupy Wall Street


The past 70 years of American education have been built around a simple social contract: go through four years of liberal arts education, and there will be jobs waiting for you on the other side. You can even take on an otherwise unconscionable amount of debt to do it — after all, education is an investment, not just an ordinary expenditure.

Over the past three years, that social contract has been broken. The jobs that used to be available to young people with passion and drive but no appreciable skills are gone, and the graduates who would have taken those jobs are unemployed. But they still bought into the social contract, accepting suffocating amounts of student debt to get the education that didn’t give them the skills they actually needed to get a job. And just when these young people should be at the height of productivity — working hard, inventing things and starting companies — they are left deep in debt with no marketable talent.

So they’re angry, although without the channels or eloquence to express that anger in a meaningful way. So they lash out at the faceless financial-industrial complex — the people who ostensibly have created and maintained this destructive environment from behind the curtain.

But reality is much more complicated. While the folks on Wall Street have managed to hack the system, manipulating a need for liquidity and market inefficiencies to drive incredible financial returns, they’re hardly the only group at fault for a badly broken educational framework.

As a first stop, the frustrated graduates should take a look at the for-profit university administrators who adopted shady, over-promising marketing practices or the government officials who allowed often well-intended laws to be hijacked to saddle students with unforgivable debt. Or perhaps they should take a look at the state education heads and politicians who have resisted a move toward more practical, vocational education for some segments of Americans.

I maintain that unemployment is not high due to a lack of jobs — General Assembly, for one, has plenty of open positions. Rather, it is high due to a colossal mismatch of skills and market needs resulting from a dated and broken educational system.

The protestors at Occupy Wall Street are right to be angry. But articulating the problem is the first step in fixing it.

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October 9th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

What we don’t know

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[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns;
that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
                                                                                         – Donald Rumsfeld

I first heard the word “de-risked” from a Silicon Valley VC as he passed on the GoCrossCampus deal a few years ago. I’ve heard it a number of times since, always in the same early-stage investment context. It’s an odd word. It has always reminded me of the Rumsfeld quote, at once mixing political doublespeak with a certain higher-level truth and meaning.

And in a way, Rumsfeld and the venture capitalists are saying the same thing, although I think Rumsfeld said it more meaningfully. At the simplest level, de-risking has two components:

–     Converting the unknown to the known
–     Converting unknown unknowns to known unknowns

That is, de-risking is about taking the unknowns of a business and turning them into knowns. But it’s also about discovering what we don’t know; it’s about cataloguing the unknowns and scheduling them for future exploration.

I think this has some significant implications for the entrepreneur. I’ve found that much of the work an entrepreneur should do prior to seed funding is not simply “proving things out” but rather exploring the key unknowns that stand in the way between the entrepreneur and massive success. Said another way, I see entrepreneurs doing too much work discovering and not enough work figuring out what they should be discovering.

Doing this will enable a healthy incrementalism and structure, bringing the spirit of a scientific experiment to an otherwise qualitative exercise in guesswork. As unknowns are converted to knowns in a deliberate fashion, the business is “de-risked” and the door is opened to more significant relationships with partners and investors. Without this discipline, the entrepreneur risks wasting time exploring things that aren’t all that meaningful – or worse, will lead to the wrong conclusion about where the business should go.

And from a purely practical perspective, an entrepreneur may be surprised at how well a list of the unknowns in their business – framed as a robust list of the things that must be proven out with the money they are raising – will go over with any investor.

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August 28th, 2011 at 8:54 am

The Path

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There are a lot of philosophical divisions among entrepreneurs: bootstrappers versus fundraisers, platforms versus content, lean versus fat, et cetera. But one has struck me as particularly underappreciated: those who build user flows as a series of deterministic paths and those who don’t.

Paths are best understood in the context of user flows. In a path-driven business, each experience that a user — especially a first-time user — encounters is designed with the singular purpose of pushing a user to the next experience and perhaps collecting some information along the way. In the case of web businesses, each “experience” is a page. To generalize, a path is deterministic in nature; a subject’s destination on any particular page has been determined by the page’s design.

Free Awesome is a great example of a purely path-driven business. While there are plenty of links, there are really few options to leave the path, which presents the user with an alternating series of instant-win games and lead gen. This enables simple mathematical modeling and optimization of the business.

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of businesses aren’t driven by paths. General Assembly is about as far as you can get from a path business — we’re building value in a brand rather than a platform or cash flow — but we still think of large pieces of it in a path context.

But some of the best companies create products that feel like robust experiences but are actually just deterministic paths. was a great example of this. While it felt like a comprehensive site, Mint really just guided the user down an inevitable path toward high-value lead gen offers, such as credit cards. That outcome was baked into the site’s raison d’etre at the highest level: users were ostensibly on the site in order to optimize their expenses and save money. So Mint would lead them down a path, collecting sensitive financial information along the way, with the eventual outcome of providing the user with an opportunity to get a low-APR credit card from Discover.

From a psychological perspective, Mint was brilliant. The “saving” component was the carrot hanging in front of the user the whole time. So when the user finally ended up on a page filled with the same credit card offers they get in the mail every week, they viewed those offers as opportunities to save money rather than just more ads.

Some entrepreneurs may look at path-driven thinking as limiting. After all, building your experience as a path discourages users from exploration and tends to focus the business on quantitative — rather than design-driven — decisions. It’s not for everyone. But I do recommend the path approach to many of the first-time entrepreneurs I meet for the following reasons:

Paths kill scope creep If you are designing your site as an experience that contains a bunch of different things that users can do, it’s awfully tempting to build yet another shiny thing for your users. This leads to scope creep, frustrating developers and pushing out timelines. When you are building a path, feature creep makes little sense: something either helps your user get to the next page or it doesn’t. Details can be A/B tested after launch.

Paths simplify evaluation As an early-stage entrepreneur, you want to figure out whether your idea flies as soon as possible. If you have a path, figuring this out is easy and requires little more than Google Analytics: either the conversion data adds up or it doesn’t. If you have a complex multi-dimensional user flow, it’s challenging if not impossible to figure out why the dog food isn’t getting eaten.

Paths end debates Passionate debates about design are one of the most painful parts of the early-stage startup process. As they simplify evaluation, paths make many of these debates far less necessary — if something is in contention, there is a clear quantitative conversion metric on each page to test it against.

I’m not arguing against design. But good design is hard, and design outside of the constraints of a deterministic path is really freaking hard. And if you’re a founder of an early-stage company, your job is already hard enough.

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August 14th, 2011 at 11:39 am

Selling to Middle America

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Jump Ramp Games founders Alex Betancur and Tony Vartanian are teaching a class on Selling to Middle America at General Assembly next week. I don’t typically blog about GA classes, but I think this is one that everyone should take. Not only are Alex and Tony great guys, but they have a rare understanding of how to craft products and marketing campaigns to appeal to Middle America. At one point, this class’s working title was simply “Schlock”, which should give you a good idea of what it’s about.

We’re teaching this for a few reasons. First, selling to Normals isn’t easy. Lots of startup folks think that appealing to Middle America is intuitive, which is totally untrue for most of us. Rather, the people who do get it typically come out of the offline direct response world — think bulk mail and magazine subscriptions. Traditionally, these have been the things that have gotten Middle America to open its wallets. But as online products get better and faster, it remains an open question to see which startups can get Middle America to buy in.

Some examples of companies that have done this well on the web include Zynga and PCH, both of which make compelling use of games to engage. And let’s not forget NYC’s least well-known successful consumer web company, PlasmaNet (where are you, Adrienne Jeffries and Alyson Shontell?)

Second, the payoffs from building a rapport with Middle America are overwhelmingly larger than serving the tech niche. Not only is the market much bigger, but it is often more willing to pull out its wallet while asking fewer questions and demanding less. It’s shocking what can work on the web with normal Americans — I was certainly blown away when I first saw the success of a coreg path from the publisher’s side.

And it’s important to note that Middle America is a diverse place with lots of different markets and psychographics. It’s easy to lump all of “Middle America” into one group — which I’ve been doing for most of this post — but even the most jaded hipster wouldn’t confuse a Hot Topic with a TJ Maxx. Understanding psychographic-specific marketing and what tactics work with what groups are critical parts of growing a mainstream business.

As a final word of warning, don’t confuse poor aesthetics with poor design. Lots of sites — such as PlasmaNet’s FreeLotto — are ugly and challenging to navigate. But they don’t look like that for want of trained designers — rather, they are compulsively driven by analytics and build what works. And in many cases, schlocky-looking stuff plays with Middle America in a way that sleek, intuitive design doesn’t.

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June 29th, 2011 at 10:32 am

Heisenberg Raises Money

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The principle of quantum uncertainty, published by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, approximately states:

Certain pairs of physical properties of a particle — such as present position and momentum — cannot be simultaneously measured beyond a certain arbitrarily high precision.

Stated another way, simply measuring the system will cause a change in its state, making precise knowledge of both position and momentum impossible. That theme — that a system can be changed merely by observation –is common in quantum mechanics (see Schrödinger’s cat) and is one of the most challenging concepts for non-practitioners.

But I think the concept is more broadly relevant, which is why I’m bringing it up here. As my fellow General Assembly partner Jake Schwartz noted, the uncertainty principle can be applied to raising money for your startup. He doesn’t blog, so I’m taking the liberty of explaining on his behalf.

In much of economics, there’s an assumption of perfect information — in this context, that entrepreneurs know the market interest and valuation of their companies, or can at least discover it with minimal transaction cost. But economic principles rarely translate perfectly to the real world. In reality, it is impossible to discover the interest in and valuation of your company without changing it.

This is often referred to as a part of the social proof you need to raise capital. According to that point of view, early stage financings are driven less by the fundamentals of companies and more by investors’ pscyhology. The positive filter of social proof has been reasonably well-discussed: specifically, how “in demand” the deal appears to be and which other investors are participating. But the negative filter of social proof –that is, the risk that a deal seems to have been “shopped” or been on the market for too long – can be far more insidious and powerful.

This is where the Uncertainty Principle of Capital comes in. Since early stage valuations are so dependent on social proof, the mere act of discovering the “market” interest and valuation of your company will inevitably change it. Or more formally, in the early stages of fundraising, the accuracy of a valuation and the momentum of a deal cannot be simultaneously known beyond an arbitrarily high number. A quick attempt to get a “market” valuation on an early-stage company can send the interest level in a deal spiraling downwards as it gives the company the feel of being “shopped” and alienates potential sources of capital.

Much of the game entrepreneurs play when talking to investors is about minimizing the effects of the Uncertainty Principle of Capital. This can explain the adage

“If you ask for money, you’ll get advice. If you ask for advice, you’ll get money.”

This doesn’t mean “be sneaky”. But it does mean that, as an entrepreneur, you’ll need to be able to deal with no small amount of uncertainty — and will need a compensating amount of patience. For veteran entrepreneurs, this shouldn’t be a surprise. For those of you just launching entrepreneurial career, get used to the queasy feeling of uncertainty now, as it surely won’t be the last you’ll see.

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June 23rd, 2011 at 5:34 am

“Until then, there’s life”

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My first childhood house was deep in the woods of rural southern Arkansas — about 30 miles away from the nearest grocery store and 100 away from the nearest mall, to give some perspective. The place was unabashedly country, not quite David Lynch but certainly not Rockwell or even Garrison Keillor in the pantheon of rural American archetypes. My dad loved trees — it’s what got us out there in the first place — and he spent a fair bit of time growing what a hipster might call an artisanal arboretum* in our backyard. To him, he was just growing interesting trees. A variety of pine, sycamore, cypress, poplars and other plants probably not meant to grow in the south rose out of the ground behind our house.

But the distance from civilization was taxing. The talk of moving was always close at hand, but it took several false starts before it finally happened.

During one of those false starts — I was probably 8 or 9 — I came upon my dad planting a new sycamore tree a hundred feet from our back deck. As my mind was occupied with thoughts of a move, I asked him: “If we’re moving next year, why’re you planting something? Why does it matter if we’re just going to leave?”

He paused for a moment as he put down his shovel, catching his breath in the humid southern spring day. And he said something that I’ve remembered to this day:

“Until then, there’s life.”

With that, he picked back up his shovel and kept digging.

When starting a company, it is easy to focus on the destination rather than appreciating the journey. Entrepreneurship is somewhat unique in this way — most teachers, for instance, are content to be teachers. They don’t consider “teaching” something that happens along the way to a greater goal. There’s a certain stability and peace in this. But because the popular lore of entrepreneurship has been built around the huge mega-exit, many founders focus solely on the goal and forget that until then, there’s life.

This is why I advocate entrepreneurship as a career choice as opposed to than the one-off notion of “doing a startup”. The venture business is a long game best played by those with time and patience. As as the canon of entrepreneurship is written by people like Eric Ries, Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, Steve Blank and others, the gulf between the founders who have taken the time to learn entrepreneurship as a vocation — usually by doing it repeatedly and immersing themselves in the community — and those who have not will widen. In the end we’ll judge ourselves not by the destinations we’ve reached, but the journeys we took to get there and the stuff we did along the way.

* As of this writing, there are zero results on Google for the phrase “artisanal arboretum”. You can thank me for this addition to the lexicon of artisanal things at a later point.

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May 15th, 2011 at 1:49 pm

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Speaking the Same Language

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For thousands of years, cultures were separated by communication difficulties enforced by language barriers. But today, communication barriers have little to do with native tongue, as English has become the common language of international business, academia and government. Rather, the communication barriers of the 21st century are our differing familiarities with communication technologies. As technologies evolve, these “cultural” differences will become just as powerful as language barriers.

Just this week, I was speaking with a New York State employee who had called me in an attempt to get a corporate issue resolved. I had a complete a form, and part of the conversation went something like this:

Me: How do I find the form?
Her: Are you near a pen and paper?
Me: No, I’m walking. Can you email me the URL?
Her: We can’t use email. I have to spell it out to you.
Me: Okay, but I’m not near a computer or a pen. Can I call you later today?
Her: I don’t have a direct number. I’ll call you.
Me: Okay, so then I mail you the form? What’s your address?
Her: We prefer fax.

I’ve discussed the government technology gap before — clearly, there is a disconnect in native communication platforms between my company and New York State and likely a comparable disparity between myself and this employee. But this is not simply a hierarchy of tech savvy. For instance, while both an average American teenager and I are technologically competent, we live on different platforms — I live on email and Skype and am occasionally annoyed whenever someone sends me an important note via Facebook or over a text message. We communicate in a different technological language.

As communication evolves at an ever-increasing rate, my native platforms will continue to diverge from both the teenager’s and the NY state government employee’s. By the time New York State, for instance, adopts email, I will probably have moved on to a totally different communication platform. But at the same time, new technology quickly yet unevenly spreads across our society, leaving us in the position of being unable to communicate effectively — not across cultural or linguistic barriers, but across technological ones.

On a related note, I have seen several examples of employers making hiring decisions based on a potential employee’s presence on the social web — not in the negative sense that you hear about in the news, but rather to ensure that a new team member participates in the same communication platforms as the rest of the team: Facebook, Twitter et al. This has become a big piece of the “cultural fit” that so many companies — especially startups — talk about.

Communication barriers tend to amplify over time. This is how species are created and languages are formed. If it is difficult for Group A to understand Group B due to a slight language difference, they are less likely to communicate. But with less direct communication between the groups comes a continued divergence of language, which can eventually lead to an entirely new language being created — and the groups totally unable to understand each other. While the opposite process has been happening for the world’s languages, I worry that divergence will begin again on top of technological barriers.

I’m not sure there is an effective solution here. “Education” is one answer, but in reality the problem is rarely an unfamiliarity with technology in general — it is either a lack of comfort with particular platforms or regulatory barriers that prevent its effective use.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

May 1st, 2011 at 11:18 am

The Democratization of Gaming

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On June 4th, my own General Assembly will be co-producing its first conference: the Mobile Gaming Summit. The fairly literal title of the event belies a deeper meaning — a meaning that speaks to me as well as to General Assembly’s mission. In many ways, the Summit should really be called “The Democratization of Gaming Summit”, or more broadly, “the re-democratization of application development”.

The first mobile platform

I started programming in middle school, building games on my TI-83 calculator while bored in class. Word of mouth was the only way to share applications — typically games — and doing so required connecting the two calculators with a special cable. It was hardly a scalable distribution channel, and I can only imagine where Texas Instruments would be today if they had built a robust app store and marketed it to bored hackers in junior high. While Objective C is certainly more challenging than the BASIC* we all learned for the TI-83, the relative openness of the Apple and Android app stores nonetheless represent a remarkable democratization of game development.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe there is any secular force ensuring that this trend has to continue. The creation of popular native PC apps fell out of popular reach over a decade ago and hasn’t come back. There are a number of reasons for this, but ultimately, the continued democratization of mobile platforms must be in the hands of the platforms’ minders — Apple, Google and to an increasing extent, Microsoft — to ensure. While I hear a lot of complaining about Apple’s strict and often Byzantine app store rules, I think the biggest threats to the democratization of app development come not from top-down restrictions and regulation, but from the sneaky and un-competitive practices of established studios.

To give a specific example, it is remarkably easy for well-capitalized developers — be they established studios or spammers — can buy good market positioning by purchasing app downloads. To keep competition fair and developers honest, those who control the platforms must put some limits on these practices.

For the rest of us, it’s all about education. Apple and Google will do whatever they’ll do, but it’s on us to make sure that we as developers know the best practices and methodologies of working within the system. That’s what the Summit — and General Assembly’s educational offerings — are all about. Some of the most creative, interesting and transformative products are created when regular people are given the tools to create and the avenues to distribute and monetize those creations. The more regular people know how best to work the system, the cooler stuff we’ll be able to create.

And that’s why I’m thrilled to be working with the Mobile Gaming Summit. I hope many of you can join us there.

* You also could build TI apps in Assembly, but c’mon.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

April 23rd, 2011 at 4:08 pm