The Reality Check on making futuristic software

August 2, 2007 4:51 am 0 comments

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Ok so after a couple of posts that look at the world through rose-colored glasses, here is a nice writeup by Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin that offers some reality check (both in the same day too– what’re the odds?)

These are great points though — most all entrepreneurs would agree to have experienced this challenges often on a daily basis, unless you’re Jawwad Farid perhaps and can use your Reality Distortion Field to convince people leave IBM for summer projects.

This is a guest posting by Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin,
a company that enables people to buy homes online. He offers a
counterpoint to my posting about how easy it is to make millions of
dollars with “user-generated, long-tail, Web 2.0, social-networking,
open-source content.”


Last month, Guy called James Hong and Markus Frind heroes for running multi-million dollar websites like Hot or Not and Plenty of Fish in their underwear. Their stats are jaw-dropping: twelve billion page views, 380 hits per second, two hours of work a day.

Lately I’ve been thinking how hard, not how easy, it is to build a
new company. Hard has gone out of fashion. Like college students
bragging about how they barely studied, start-ups today take care to
project a sense of ease. Wherever I’ve worked, we’ve secretly felt just
the opposite. We’re assailed by doubts, mortified by our own
shortcomings, surrounded by freaks, testy over silly details. Trying to
be like James or Markus has only been counterproductive.

And now, having been through a few startups, I’m not even sure I’d
want it to be that easy. Working two hours a day on my own wasn’t my
goal when I came to Silicon Valley. Does anybody remember the old video
of Steve Jobs launching the Mac? He had tears in his eyes. And even
though Jobs is Jobs and I am nobody, I knew how he felt. I’d had the
same reaction–absurdly–to portal software and more recently to a
Redfin, a fledgling real estate website.

“The megalomaniac pleasure of creation,” the psychoanalyst
Edmund Berger wrote, “produces a type of elation which cannot be
compared with that experienced by other mortals.” Jobs wasn’t just
crying from simple happiness but from all the tinkering, kvetching,
nitpicking, wholesale reworking, and spasms of self-loathing that go
into a beautiful product. It was all being paid back in a rush.

Like the souls in Dostoevsky who are admitted to heaven because they
never thought themselves worthy of it, successful entrepreneurs can’t
be convinced that any other startup has their troubles, because they
constantly compare the triumphant launch parties and revisionist
histories of successful companies to their own daily struggles. Just so
you know you’re not alone, here’s a top-ten list of the ways a startup
can feel deeply screwed up without really being that screwed up at all.

  1. True believers go nuts at the slightest provocation.
    The best people at a start-up care too much. They stay up late writing
    Jerry Maguire memos, eavesdropping on support calls, snapping at
    bureaucracy, citing Joel Spolsky on Aerons, and Paul Graham on cubes.
    They are your heart and bones, so you have to give them what they need,
    which is a lot. The only way to get them on your side is to put them in
    charge.

  2. Big projects attract good people. If you aren’t
    doing something worthwhile, you can’t get anyone worthwhile to work on
    it. I often think about what Ezra Pound once said of his epic poem,
    that “if it’s a failure, it’s a failure worth all the successes of its
    age.” We’re not writing poetry, but it matters to us that we’re trying
    to compete with real estate agents rather than just running their ads.
    You need a big mission to recruit people who care about what you’re
    doing.

  3. Start-ups are freak-catchers. You have to be
    fundamentally unhappy with the way things are to leave Microsoft, and
    yet unrealistic enough to believe the world can change to join a
    start-up. This is a volatile combination which can result in group mood
    swings and a somewhat motley crew. Thus, don’t worry if your start-up
    seems to have more than its fair share of oddballs.

  4. Good code takes time. One great engineer can do
    more than ten mediocre ones especially when starting a project. But
    great engineers still need time: whenever we’ve thought our talent,
    sprinkled with the fairy dust of some new engineering paradigm, would
    free us from having to schedule time for design and testing, we’ve paid
    for it. To make something elegant takes time, and the cult of speed
    sometimes works against that. “Make haste slowly.”

  5. Everybody has to re-build. The short-cuts you
    have to take and the problems you couldn’t anticipate when building
    version 1.0 of your product always mean you’ll have to rebuild some of
    it in version 2.0 or 3.0. Don’t get discouraged or short-sighted. Just
    rebuild it. This is just how things work.

  6. Fearless leaders are often terrified. The CEO of the most promising start-up I know of recently used Hikkup
    to anonymously ask his Facebook friends if we thought his idea was any
    good. Just because you’re worried doesn’t mean you have a bad idea; the
    best ideas are often the ones that scare you the most. And for sure
    don’t believe the after-the-fact statements from entrepreneurs about
    how they “knew” what to do.

  7. It’ll always be hard work. Most start-ups find
    an interesting problem to solve, then just keep working on it. At a
    recent awards ceremony, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tried to think of
    the secret to Microsoft’s success and could only come up with “hard,
    hard, hard, hard, hard, work.” This is an obvious cliche, but most
    entrepreneurs remain fixated on the Eureka! moment. If you don’t
    believe you have any reliable competitive advantage, you’re the kind of
    insecure person who will work your competition into the ground, so keep
    working.

  8. It isn’t going to get better–it already is. In
    the early days, start-ups focus on how great it’s going to be when they
    succeed; but the moment they do, they start talking about how great it
    was before they did. Whenever I get this way, I remember the Venerable
    Bede’s complaint that his eighth century contemporaries had lost the
    fervor of seventh century monks. Even in the darkest of the Dark Ages,
    people were nostalgic for…the Dark Ages. Start-ups are like medieval
    monasteries: always convinced that paradise is just ahead or that
    things only recently got worse. If you can begin to enjoy the process
    of building a start-up rather than the outcome, you’ll be a better
    leader.

  9. Truth is our only currency. At lunch last week,
    an engineer said the only thing he remembered from his interview was
    our saying the most likely outcome for Redfin–or any startup–was
    bankruptcy, but that he should join us anyway. It’s odd but the more
    we’ve tried to warn people about the risks, the more they seem to
    ignore them. And since you have to keep taking risks, you have to keep
    telling people about them. You don’t want to be like Saddam Hussein,
    who never prepared his generals for invasion because he couldn’t admit
    he didn’t have nuclear weapons.

  10. Competition starts at $100 million. A Sequoia
    partner once told me that competition only starts when you hit $100
    million in revenues. Maybe that number is lower now. But if you do
    something worthwhile, someone else will do it too. Since you can’t see
    what’s going on behind a competitor’s pretty website, it’s natural to
    assume that all the challenges we just went over only apply to your
    company. They don’t, so keep the faith.

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