Ah yes, the good old days. How quickly time passes. And I can’t help occasionally browsing through technology looking back. My youngest daughter is in her late twenties now. She can barely remember life before cellphones, and can’t remember life before personal computers or VCRs, because both of those were born before she was. I was talking a grandkid the other day, and she couldn’t conceive of a world before amazon.com.
Every so often I get reminded how far we’ve come. When I graduated from college in 1970:
The university had a computer in a basement that took up the space of an SUV and had way less power than an iPhone does now. Computer science students programmed it with perforated cards.
The dorms had one phone per floor. Long distance calling costs were significant. I was in the Midwest, so I’d call my parents in California once every couple of months.
We wrote letters. We read letters.
We used typewriters for every college essay, paper, and assignment. We’d often retype an entire page to correct an error. Sometimes we’d reword things to make the pages end or begin with the correct word so we could insert an additional page.
Four-function calculators existed, but nobody we knew had one. You could have bought a new low-end car for the price of two four-function calculators.
I did my sophomore year abroad, and the university sent us from New York to Europe on an ocean liner. That was cheaper than flying.
We wrote checks when we had to, used cash most of the time, and we got the cash from the bank teller window, not an ATM.
Credit cards were rare. Our parents had them.
Television was broadcast over the air. We watched in real time or not at all. We had 5 or 10 channels to choose from.
When we were driving we listened to the hits on AM radio mostly, or cassette tapes when we could.
And that’s just technology, or a smattering of technology. When I think of social evolution, and environmental deterioration, the end of the cold war, the rise of terrorism, polar ice caps … like we used to say: “far out, man.”
Muhammad Ali died last week. Most everybody knows about his having been, vocally, “the greatest.” And he was as great as he claimed, and not just for how much his atheltic talent and hard work, not just for how much he changed an otherwise dreary sport, and not just for his brazen, charismatic, unconventional, and thoroughly charming public persona. He was also great as a voice for conscience, doing what he knew to be right, in the face of very powerful opposition. He was not just a sport star.
Back to 1964
I’d like to help you understand 1964 from the point of view of baby boomers, as we mourn Muhammad Ali. Everything changed so fast. We were in high school. That year started for us with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just a few weeks earlier, late November of 1963. That was a shattering blow of reality, breaking a peaceful status quo, a trust in every day being like the previous, into tiny pieces. A few short weeks later, in February, we had the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. All year we had the 1964 presidential election, the Lyndon Johnson campaign Democrats pushing the Great Society and Vietnam War, and the Barry Goldwater campaign promising us nuclear war. By the fall we had Mario Savio at Berkeley and the free speech movement. The civil rights movement awakened, with Martin Luther King channeling Mahatma Gandhi and the power of non violence and peaceful protest. The whole world was cascading towards a new world order of psychedelic music, civil rights, protest, long hair, and what felt, especially to us teenagers, like a crusty entrenches establishment falling apart and being replaced by a vibrant new power of truth and real freedom.
Imagine how this felt to teenagers in high school. We were dealing with the growing up, hormones, and such that all teenagers have, but in our case laced, as if it had been LSD, with a sparkling optimism as bright and inviting as a clear mountain morning. Everything felt like a black-and-white world going suddenly into color. I turned 16 six weeks after the Kennedy assassination, three weeks before the Beatles arrived. Was it crisis, or gloom? No. When you’re that age, change is the goal, not the worry.
Where I was, an unremarkable nice suburb outside of San Francisco, as homogenous as white bread and whole milk, we knew the name Cassius Clay early in 1964 only vaguely as a charmingly vocal and self-assured Kentucky kid who had won a gold medal in boxing in the 1960s. It was in the same month that the Beatles arrived in New York that he became the greatest Cinderella story in the history of boxing, a tall, thin, lightning-fast 22-year-old kid defeating heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. Had it not been for his remarkable, instinctive media magic, perhaps nobody would have noticed. But Cassius Clay loved interviewers and they loved him back, and so we became aware of boxing. He had not even a snowball’s chance in hell to defeat the powerful, burly, undisputed champion. Until he did. And resoundingly, too. There was no doubt. The kid trounced the champ so badly that when the bell rang in the sixth round, Sonny Liston gave up. He refused to come back out. And then, despite everything else (the Beatles tour) going on, suddenly everybody followed boxing.
Ali followed his conscience
And then, with a one-two punch to rival his lightning-quick boxing style, Muhammad Ali announced to the world that he was not Cassius Clay anymore. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He had decided to follow the Nation of Islam movement, a matter of religion, mixed with black pride, and immersed in the 1960s struggles against overt and endemic racism. Doing that publicly, without equivocation, cost him something in the order of $10 million dollars. It got him locked out of boxing for several years, and, eventually, sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion. He remained free pending appeals that went eventually to the Supreme Court, which decided in his favor. But he lost his title, and his boxing license, and went from world champion to four years waiting in the wings, unable to fight.
That took courage. He went instantly from everybody’s hero to anathema, reviled by the main stream. The nation was still struggling to pass the Johnson civil rights laws, and much of the nation was struggling, violently, without shame, to maintain a racist status quo. Governor George Wallace of Alabama, openly racist, ran against Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries in 1964, and got votes. The police riots in Selma AL were early in 1965. Civil rights workers were murdered, and sit-in were broken up with clubs and tear gas. And the U.S. was at war in Vietnam, filled with the cries of “my country – love it or leave it.” But Muhammed Ali stuck it out. Courage is the active word when it takes risk, and sacrifice, to do the right thing.
The mainstream people did, later, recognize Ali’s integrity. He was invited to the White House several times.
I don’t like boxing. I had almost accidentally seen some of the best of it, when I covered two world championship fights from ringside, as a journalist, back in the 1970s. Muhammed Ali changed that for a whole generation, for a while. After the spectacular original upset, he defended his championship for years, was locked out of boxing for years, and then came back to win his championship again and defend it several times. His personal charisma and his obvious (even to the uninitiated) skill, a new light of foot and quick style, made boxing palatable for a while.
But it wasn’t his boxing that made him great. It was his courage and integrity. I honor his memory.
Something happened to truth in the last 50 years or so. Where once we had the ideal of objective truth based on evidence, we now have contentious argumentative truth, based on opinion and belief. And I miss the old kind. Let’s look at two divided nations, ours in 1968, and ours in 2016, and how they deal with truth. I like the old way better.
1968: truth, evidence, and facts in a troubled time
Let me take you back to 1968. I was in college. The U.S. was in the throes of the war in Vietnam. The country split apart over the war, civil rights, free speech, the military industrial establishment, and a presidential election. President Lyndon Johnson faced opposition inside the Democratic party from Robert Kennedy, first – but Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated that same Spring, and we had riots in a dozen major cities. Newspapers and television news called them race riots, but they echoed the frustration of an entire generation all over the world. There were riots that year in Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, and many other cities. Johnson stepped away from re-election. It became Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator, vs. Richard Nixon, the former vice president.
And in the background, we, as a society, believed in old-fashioned objective truth. We actually argued over evidence, with the shared conviction that evidence and validation of facts mattered. For example, those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam believed the government was hiding the objective evidence related to casualties, progress of the war, raids on Cambodia, and so on. Those who supported the war believed the government’s press released described the truth. Those of us who believed in sweeping change on civil rights believed that separate could not be equal, and those who fought for status quo insisted it could.
So we argued about the evidence, which we believed was a matter of finding the facts. Were we winning the war in Vietnam, or not? Were we supporting a government that represented its people in Vietnam, or not? Had we invaded Cambodia, or not? Was separate but equal acceptable, or not?
2016: Truth as repetition of opinion
Please notice the difference between then and now. Back then we believed that objective truth, which we called evidence, or facts, would end arguments. Today we don’t. The U.S. economy today isn’t growing or not, healthy or not, based on gross national product growth rates, unemployment, or other objective numbers. Instead, we nurture two radically different truths, depending on where we stand in polarized politics.
As you read this, you know exactly what I mean.
For example, unemployment is down to about 5% now, from more than 10% seven years ago. The economy is producing jobs now, hundreds of thousands per month, instead of losing jobs seven years ago. Those numbers prove something to some of us, and prove nothing to others. Each side has its arguments.
For another example, a recent poll showed that significant numbers of Americans believe President Obama was not born in the United States. And significant numbers believe he is Muslim. A couple of generations ago, arguments on those points would have been ended by what we then believed were objective facts, also called evidence. Today, however, evidence is discounted. There are no objective facts. Everything is based on what we believe.
Back then we looked to statistics and reliable middle-of-the-road journalists. Now we look for crackpots. If you don’t agree with me, my sources are crackpots to you. And your sources are crackpots to me.
I noticed the other day in a comment stream on my local newspaper. One commenter challenged another for evidence. The other responded with URLs of blog posts by crackpots. The act of publishing used to imply fact checking and reliability, and, therefore, factds and evidence. Opinion was there too, but set aside as opinion. Now opinion (of crackpots) is pushed forward as evidence. We seek what comedian Steven Colbert called “truthiness.”
The business of fractured truth
I studied Journalism in grad school in 1970 and 1971. Journalistic ethics were a big deal back then. The country generally depended on a slowly declining number of newspapers and three major television networks for news. The journalists of that time generally recognized that objective truth, based on evidence, was technically impossible but still the ideal, the goal. They strove to disclose their bias while still aiming for objective truth. They wanted evidence. Opinion was rampant, but there was the idea that opinion and truth were different things.
One thing that has happened, since then, is that the market for truth split into segments. In 1968 any major news source could only make money by uniting an entire audience around the goal of objective truth based on evidence. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley need to stay in the middle, to seem unbiased, to optimize the audience and the potential revenue of news. Today the market is so much bigger, so much more splintered, that even large news organizations can make money by addressing only specific segments. So the phenomenon of segmentation that used to drive a few niche magazines can now drive entire news networks. Roger Ailes showed the world a new way to make money in the middle 1990s, with Fox News.
It’s now a common behavior: opinion, repeated often enough, serves as a surrogate for truth. Evidence is discounted, ignored, or manufactured. People are citing blog posts with wild claims and bizarre opinion as if they were evidence.
And that’s bad. I miss arguing over evidence. And I miss arguments that end with facts.
How many self-styled startup experts have actually started a company? How many have gotten a startup to critical actually know what they are talking about? The online world of startup experts is infested with people who don’t know what they don’t know. I guess these people read the same tired clichés that sit in rich overabundance all over the web, and over time take on what they read as if it’s what they experienced. So clichés run around masked as expertise. Which makes for a lot of bad startup advice.
Bad startup advice
Here’s an example for you. The idea that passion alone can make a startup successful is absurd, but extremely common. It’s all over the web. Comments, blog posts, and updates are full of this illusion. We see it in angel investment pitches for the angel group I’m in. Watch a few episodes of Shark Tank and you’ll see it there, as entrepreneurs talk about how passionate they are and the sharks just roll their eyes. This again? The truth of the matter is that passion, although it does help get through the long days and late nights, doesn’t make that much difference. What matters is giving value, offering something people will pay for, showing up every day, and doing the work. And I wonder how many of those people who advise others to “just follow your passion” have ever actually built a business. “Do what you’ll love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is a naive cliché. Ask anybody who actually did successfully start a business. There was a lot of work involved.
Another example? The way-too-common assumption that startups have to get funded is just wrong. The latest available SBA statistics show about 450,000 new businesses start up in the U.S. every month. But in an average year, only 70,000 or so get angel investment, and fewer than 5,000 get venture capital. Real people start businesses using grit, savings, credit card debt, loans on house equity, and loans or investment from family. The normal process of a startup is not, not by a long shot, a process of going from idea to funding without a ton of hard work in between. Not does it take investment to make a startup. Some need it, and many others don’t. It depends on the business.
And a third example is a pet peeves for me, the idea that education doesn’t coexist with entrepreneurship. Why bother to get an education if you’re going to be an entrepreneur. I ranted about that one last month, in Young Entrepreneurs: They are Lying to You. For every Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg there are 10 million normal people wishing they’d stuck it out and gotten their degree.
Not that expertise is bad
However, for the record, I don’t mind it when someone shares expertise and experience accumulated from being close to startups, as sometimes happens with attorneys, business school profs, small business development center (SBDC) counselors, and others. They can be legitimate helpers. And of course there are functional experts who have expertise to share on marketing, writing, design, development, finance, and so on, without having started a business. But they should declare their expertise and stick to it. They should not reinforce the clichés.
But certainty is bad. These are startups
The level of certainty I see, way too often, is amazing. Having read a bunch of blog posts about Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Richard Branson doesn’t make anybody an expert – but so-o-o-o many people act like it does. There are people who draw from the enormous overabundance of startup advice available and repeat the common clichés, because they sound good. So they tweet, post, write, and comment. And they perpetuate the clichés with an air of certainty.
I think certainty itself, related to startups, is a sign of inexperience. There are no general rules that apply very well to startups. There is always room for “on the other hand.”
It started one morning at 2 a.m., when I had to deliver a finished set of financials the next morning. It was 2 a.m. and I was tired and done with the financials but I had done something in either Lotus 1, 2, 3 or Excel because I use both. I don’t remember which one it was but I had done something to break the damn spreadsheet! If the financials are going to work, when you change the assumptions the balance still balances and the cash flow, and so on.
So it was 2 a.m. and I had broken the spreadsheet. I thought to myself, there is so much productizability in this. I have to be [building this out,] assumptions, inputs, outputs [and so on], so that this doesn’t happen again.
Mixergy is a collection of interviews with entrepreneurs. Andrew Warner, founder, does a great job interviewing, and collecting interviews. The goal is a collection of thoughts and stories about entrepreneurship. I’m proud to be included.
Andrew posts the complete transcript along with the interview, so it’s easier to browse. Here’s another snippet, about raising venture capital and buying them back:
But then, and this is what’s important for the story, you need compatibility with your investors. When the whole thing crashed in 2001, then we had completely different business models. Our investors needed us to have an exit, a liquidity event. Valuations were back down onto what they really were, you know, two and a half times revenues, for example, for a healthy software company.
But two and a half times revenues wasn’t enough money to make me and my wife and our family feel like we wanted to just sell the business. I had to be 10 or 20 times revenues. But, our VCs were trapped as minority investors. And they were trapped forever. I now have eight angel investments. I understand how bad it is to be trapped as a minority investor with no hope of a liquidity event. I don’t want investors, even as a minority, who aren’t happy with me or my company, so we negotiated. Their lead partner there told me later that not until the negotiations were done, “Tim, actually I can tell you now, you are our best investment for 1999.”
Andrew led me through a lot of stories: How I failed as a hippy, how we got started on the web, how we realized we needed downloadable software, how I changed my role seven years ago to open the field for a new management team, and others. This led to a Business Startup.
I once saw a man walking around the inside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, taking it all in only through the very narrow view of his amateur movie camera viewfinder. The irony swept over me: he was not seeing it while he was there. Instead, he was recording it to see later. And I wondered: Would he really go back, later, and watches those vast hours of unedited videos? Hadn’t he exchanged his time in the cathedral for video footage nobody would ever watch?
Then last week I read the following:
Recent tests have found that people who think a computer will save their information recall much less of it than those led to believe the machine will delete it.
Fairfield University psychologist Linda Henkel believes something similar may be happening with digital photography. The more easily people can take and access pictures, she says, the less inclined they may be to remember the moment itself. “You’re just kind of mentally discounting it–thinking, ‘Well, the camera’s got it,'” Henkel tells Co.Design.
Socrates once feared that technology would corrupt human memory. Quaint as it sounds today, he was worried about a form of communication called writing. The more easily people could access something in a document, he reasoned, the less inclined they’d be to remember it.
So that goes back to Socrates. He was thousands of years ahead of his time. He had no idea. But we do, now. What can we call it: “click-save blindness?”
Tomorrow is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. It’s supposed to be about getting together and giving thanks.
My contribution to the Thanksgiving holiday is to recommend a Google search on the correlation between gratitude and health. It turns out that there are indications that being thankful is good for us all. It’s good for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Of course that’s not just for today, the holiday. That’s all year.
Doesn’t it seem like every other place wants to be Silicon Valley? We call the New York tech scene Silicon Alley, Portland is Silicon Forest, somewhere in Southern California is Silicon Beach, Austin Texas is Silicon Hills, and so on. There’s job envy, and growth envy. Googling “the next Silicon Valley” generates 46 million hits.
So I like the juxtaposition of two articles in MIT Technology review that contradict each other delightfully.
The first, from MIT Technology Review on July 3, is Silicon Valley Can’t be Copied. Author Vivek Wadhwa subtitled his piece “For 50 years, the experts have tried to figure out what makes Silicon Valley tick. The answer is people.” He explains:
Note that from 1995 to 2005, 52.4 percent of engineering and technology startups in Silicon Valley had one or more people born outside the United States as founders. That was twice the rate seen in the U.S. as a whole. Immigrants like me who came to Silicon Valley found it easy to adapt and assimilate. We were able to learn the rules of engagement, create our own networks, and participate as equals. These days, the campuses of companies such as Google resemble the United Nations. Their cafeterias don’t serve hot dogs; they serve Chinese and Mexican dishes, and curries from both northern and southern India.
This is the diversity—a kind of freedom, really—in which innovation thrives. The understanding of global markets that immigrants bring with them, the knowledge they have of different disciplines, and the links that they provide to their home countries have given the Valley an unassailable competitive advantage as it has evolved from making radios and computer chips to producing search engines, social media, medical devices, and clean energy technology.
In his by-the-bootstraps guide, the 2012 book Startup Communities, Feld laid out a guru-ish, four-point plan for how to create a growing mass of startup companies. But his rules boil down to just one: entrepreneurs must be the “leaders.” Everyone else—universities, governments, investors—are “feeders” that, though important, can’t kick-start a startup community on their own. Feld says if even fewer than a dozen established entrepreneurs team up and get serious—create an incubator, for instance—that nearly any city from Detroit to Cape Town can create a meaningful startup sector.
Feld’s principles have weight because he’s lived by them. He is a co-creator of TechStars, which gives startups seed money and three months of intensive training. Conspicuously absent from Silicon Valley, TechStars instead operates in seven other American cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Austin.
To me it’s perfectly reasonably that both of these contradictory points of view could be true. That’s good editing. What do you think?
Imagine a dark shape in the distant sky, moving towards you. Slowly. It’s white or perhaps off white, but not as clear a color as a cloud, speckled. And it seems more solid than a cloud, and it moves in ways clouds don’t. As it comes closer, maybe a mile away now, it’s as if it’s a flying giant creature. Then, as it gets closer still, you discover that it’s really an unusual flock of birds, flying very tightly together.
That’s a good metaphor for a hard fact about decisions we make. Most of the important big decisions are really made up of thousands of small decisions.
That’s life as well as business. Maybe more life than business.
For example, everybody wants to stay healthy. That’s the big decision. But it doesn’t happen without thousands of small decisions, probably dozens every day. Do I eat the big fat breakfast? Do I take the walk? Do I work out? Do I eat too much, the wrong things, or just right for lunch? Do I drive myself crazy worrying about next week? Do I dwell on my fears or just exhale and let it go? Staying healthy isn’t a big decision but rather a steady collection of small decisions.
For example, everybody wants to do well with their work or school. That’s the big decision. But it doesn’t happen without all those small decisions. In the context of school, every day it’s the choice of homework or not, more study or not, review or not, school work or television, take a nap or read the next chapter? Do I take the extra time to research SEO? Do I write that blog post, or put it off? Do I address the poor performance or let it go? Do I make those calls or put them off? Doing well in work or school isn’t a big decision but rather a steady collection of small decisions.
In my favorite topic area, business planning, doing it right isn’t a big business plan. It’s a just-big-enough business plan that gets reviewed and revised regularly. What makes it valuable is the process, the review, the management that happens because of the contrast between what was planned and what actually happened. And that happens not once but every month, in some contexts every week. Here too, the big decision is really a collection of small ones.
And, dammit, staying with it through the small decisions is hard. We’re human. The big decisions are glaringly obvious. Do you know anybody who doesn’t want to stay healthy, or do well in work or school? But actually executing on those decisions is really hard. We are so human, all of us, that it’s really hard to stick with the big decision without wavering through all the small ones. You can make nine out of ten healthy eating decisions and if the tenth is a Big Mac it nullifies all of the other nine. You can exercise all day one day and then not again for a whole month, and you’re worse off. Consistency is the collection of the small decisions.
Making the right decisions is easy. Making them stick is hard.