Build a Team that Ships

I started my first company 15 years go, and I still can’t manage. I suspect that very few people can. With AngelList, we want a team of self-managing people who ship code.

Here’s what we do:

  • Keep the team small. All doers, no talkers. Absolutely no middle managers. All BD via APIs.
  • Outsource everything that isn’t core. Resist the urge to pick up that last dollar. Founders do Customer Service.
  • People choose what to work on. Better they ship what they want than not ship what you want.
  • No tasks longer than one week. You have to ship something into live production every week – worst case, two weeks. If you just joined, ship something.
  • Peer-management. Promise what you’ll do in the coming week on internal Yammer. Deliver – or publicly break your promise – next week.
  • One person per project. Get help from others, but you and you alone are accountable.

If they can’t ship, release them. Our environment is wrong for them. They should go find someplace where they can thrive. There’s someplace for everyone.

It’s not perfect. We ship too many features, many half-baked. The product is complex, with many blind alleys. It’s hard to integrate non-engineers – they aren’t valued.

But, we ship.

Why You Can’t Hire

There isn’t a shortage of developers and designers. There’s a surplus of founders.

The cost of starting a company has collapsed. It’s now just (minimal) salaries. For entrepreneurs, desks are free, hosting is free, marketing is online, and company setup is cheap.

Raising the first $25K for product development is easy – join an incubator. Raising the next $100K is easy – investors are following the incubators with automatic notes. Building a product and launching a product are easy – develop on Open Source Stacks, host on Amazon, launch on Facebook, Android or iOS, get your early traction.*

Getting real traction is hard. Raising millions of dollars is hard. Building a sustainable, long-term company is hard.

Yammer can hire. Square can hire. Twitter can hire. These companies have achieved product / market fit. Your pre-traction company has not, and so it has a hard time hiring.

If the costs of founding a pre-traction company have gone down, then returns to pre-traction founders must go down.

Throw out the old cap tables. A founder doesn’t get 30% and an early engineer shouldn’t get 0.25%. Those are old numbers from when you had to raise VC capital before you could build a product. Before everyone could and did start a company.

Post-traction companies can use the old numbers – you can’t. Your first two engineers? They’re just late founders. Treat them as such. Expect as much.

Your next five designers and developers? Your cap table probably can’t even afford them until you have traction, and the cash that follows it.

Close the equity gap, and hiring will get a lot easier.


* Of course nothing is ever “easy” – but it’s a lot easier than it used to be.

** This is just my opinion, not that of my employer. But you can see what they’re doing to help at AngelList Talent. Coincidentally, the lead hacker on that project put up this related must-read post on his own blog yesterday.

Y Combinator vs. Graduate School

Y Combinator* is the new Graduate School.

In some ways, it’s better:

– You pay to go to graduate school. YC pays you.
– After school, you get a job. After YC, you create jobs.
– You repeat the works of the greats in school. YC expects you to do original work.
– In school, you are graded on an arbitrary scale by arbitrary people. After YC, you are graded by the real world.

Some day, most schools in most disciplines will be like this.

* – Of course, “Y Combinator” is a generic term for Techstars, I/O Ventures, SeedCamp, Capital Factory, Founders Institute, and all of the other similar pre-angel incubators.

Why You Need to be in Silicon Valley

For years I didn’t believe this. I thought that you could take advantage of the benefits of Boston, Seattle, NY, Austin – cheaper talent, no echo chamber, local Universities, etc.. But I give up. I found myself telling an entrepreneur why he had to be in Silicon Valley if he wanted to succeed. Most of my points are about Consumer Internet businesses…

I won’t belabor the obvious reasons – the Investors are here, the best engineers and entrepreneurs self-select and come here, Stanford and Berkeley, yadda yadda.

Instead, here are some points that you may not have considered:

– Especially on the Consumer Internet, modern businesses are becoming winner-take-all (thanks to leverage and network effects). Therefore, if you’re 10% better than the competition, you win, likely the whole market. You need every possible edge…

– All of the companies that you need to partner with are out here. Business development doesn’t happen in formal meetings. It happens in informal coffees, parties, and relationships.

– If you are here, your network will be using all of the latest tools – Twitter, Foursquare, Quora, Nexus One, etc., before other networks in other cities will. These networks hit critical mass here earlier and are thus more valuable to the early adopters here. You’ll have a 3-month+ head start on people outside to see what’s coming next. Imagine trying to design next year’s clothing without firsthand immersion in this year’s fashion, in Milan or Paris.

Sure, it’s possible to build a great Consumer Internet business starting out somewhere else, but given that these are winner-take-all businesses, do you want to start out that far behind the curve?

The returns to entrepreneurship

I was at dinner the other night with a group of entrepreneurs. One told the story of a 27-year-old whiz kid whose company will likely exit for $500M – $1B – the business now being less than two years old. You can imagine the effect that this had on the brilliant, hardworking 35+ entrepreneurs in the group, who have had their share of hits, but not at that magnitude and not that quickly.

These stories are getting more commonplace. It seems that the entrepreneurs who “hit” these days are doing it more quickly, making more money, and doing it at a younger age. Back in the 70s, it took a decade plus to build a company and $10M, even in today’s dollars, was a big victory for an individual. Up until the late 90s dot-com boom, even though these stories existed, they were less common and took longer.

The storyteller explained that this 27-year-old is more brilliant and more hard-working than the previous entrepreneurs he’s seen.

That can’t be it. There are only so many hours in the day, and the entrepreneurs of yesteryear worked just as hard as the entrepreneurs of today. And the ones who came before were just as brilliant. Human intelligence has not evolved that dramatically in 10-20 years.

Rather, I posit that the amount of leverage available to a modern Internet entrepreneur is far, far greater than was available to entrepreneurs of previous generations. The number of entrants has dramatically increased as well. The overall hit rate might be lower, but the ones who win, win bigger and faster thanks to the leverage.

Gone are server farms, telesales and support, marcom material, tradeshow booths, direct sales forces, licensed software, mountains of code, reseller agreements, plane tickets, hotel rooms, printing CDs, voicemail systems, and so on and so forth.

Modern Internet entrepreneurship starts with a few engineers working for nothing and carrying latops and cellphones. They coordinate with Skype and GTalk and wikis and bug tracking sytems. The company itself is snapped together with outsourced HR, cookie-cutter incorporation, and outsourced finance / payroll. Marketing is done virally, or through SEO, or SEM. Customer service is handled via the community and forums. PR and outreach through tweets and blogging. Payments come via Paypal. Ads are served up by third-party ad networks. Storage goes on Amazon. Computation scales via Amazon, Softlayer or Rackspace. Code is built upon stacks of open source, SaaS, and $10/month services.

What used to cost $1M-$2M to set up, now costs $10K. What used to cost $5M to build, now costs $250K. What used to cost $20M to go to market now costs $1M.

But the upside hasn’t gone down. It has gone *up.* The 3 billionth person will be online shortly. They can all use the product. Network effects are stronger than ever, and some businesses become natural monopolies very quickly. Most web products have no marginal cost of replication, so adding a new customer is pure profit.

Less labor required. Less capital required. Less cost to scale. Larger markets. Cheaper marketing. No cost to ship more product.

No, people aren’t getting any smarter or harder-working. But the amount of leverage is obscene. The hits – Yahoo!, EBay, Google, Skype, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, are each arriving faster than the previous one did. And the leverage is increasing, not decreasing.

The returns to scale for being smart, young, skilled, and high-energy have gone up tremendously, and that has profound implications for society. The smart are getting richer.

Update: An insightful comment on Hacker News: Basically, the Internet is a wide and deep place. The depth creates a few huge winners and the breadth creates a large number of small winners (who would have been losers in the old system, but due to the above-mentioned low costs, can still win). What’s missing is the traditionally fat middle. We’ve gone from a normally distributed set of outcomes, to a power-law distribution. The median is a small fraction of the mean. This is bad news for anyone who has built their business predicated on their achieving mean outcomes. That includes mid-stage VC funds, moderately-capitalized companies (traditionally speaking), and societies that care about “equal” outcomes.

Users bring you traffic

Duh.

But how?

I only know of four viable methods:

  • A simple core built-in feature, where by using the product, users invite / share it with others. This used to be mostly about email address import, although these days Digging, Tweeting, and of course, spreading on Facebook are very popular
  • Users embed the product onto their own blogs / pages / sites
  • Users create original content that gets picked up by GoogleBot, gets SEO’ed, and then brings in other users via Google search.
  • Users actually pay for your content, whether through subscriptions, or much more likely, virtual goods. This, in turn, allows you to buy traffic

If you don’t have one of these four methods in operation, and you’re building a web-based company, you’re going to find yourself begging for traffic a lot. 

The Aging Entrepreneur

Can older people be great entrepreneurs?

Marc Andreesen has a great post on this age-old question. In part I, he’s digging through the data. Some of his observations are powerful and worth summarizing:

"Generally, productivity — output — rises rapidly from the start of a career to a peak and then declines gradually until retirement.

This peak in productivity varies by field, from the late 20s to the early 50s, for reasons that are field-specific.

Precocity, longevity, and output rate are linked. "Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit." High producers produce highly, systematically, over time.

The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The periods of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity — taking more swings at the bat — is much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.

Intelligence, at least as measured by metrics such as IQ, is largely irrelevant."

I went through an evolution of sorts on this topic.

I started with a variation of the Beard Hypothesis (enthusiasm decreases with age but experience increases, and there’s an optimum cross-over point). This is the easiest viewpoint as you get older and look back at some of your earlier crazier ideas, but notice that that older crowd is very risk-averse. Douglas Adams had a great take on it:

  1. "everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
  4. Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are."

 

I then moved on to Dean Simonton’s observations, beautifully covered in Marc’s article. My thinking was driven by books like "The Black Swan," "Fooled by Randomness," DeVany’s analysis of Hollywood Economics and Home-Run Hitting, and a casual observation of how Evolution creates things (massive trial and error). Basically, the number of swings at bat, poems attempted, paintings painted, etc. determine the success rate. The more you try, the more you learn, the faster you iterate, the better you get, and the more chances that you have of being productive. Your outcome scales more with the number of bets than the size of the bets. As the violinist Pablo De Sarasate put it, "For 37 years I’ve practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius. "

Now I prefer a slightly different hypothesis. More of the creative instinct is driven by the sublimated sex drive and the desire to attract a mate than we give it credit for. And more of it is squelched by the demands of family than anything else. An extreme take on it is presented by Kanazawa:

"Scientists tend to ‘desist’ from scientific research upon marriage, just like criminals desist from crime upon marriage."

 

Marc asks:

"So here’s my first challenge: to anyone who has an opinion on the role of age and entrepreneurship — see if you can fit your opinion into this model!"

When you are young, hungry, and single, you have

  • huge amounts of free time (more swings at the ball)
  • less to lose (more swings)
  • enthusiasm (more likely to swing)
  • sublimated sex drive (more likely to swing to stand out from your peers).

As you age, you have

  • less free time, more family demands, larger social networks (less swings)
  • more to lose (public embarrassment in front of an established social circle means you don’t want to start anything fresh) (less swings)
  • experience (if you’re probably going to miss, why bother swinging) (less swings)
  • fulfilled sex drive (have sex rather than swing)

"And here’s my second challenge: is entrepreneurship more like poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics — which exhibit a peak age in one’s late 20s or early 30s — or novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, and general scholarship — which exhibit a peak age in one’s late 40s or early 50s? And how, and why?"

 

Unfortunately for an aging me, anecdotal evidence aside, entrepreneurship favors the young.

The difference between poetry, pure math, theoretical physics, and novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, scholarship, is that the former set requires huge (multi-year) intense, focused, almost isolated blocks of free time, whereas the latter set can be picked up and put down and resumed later without too much cost. The first set comprises problems that are solved by an emotional state (poetry, painting), by loading a very difficult single framework into your head (math, physics, coding), and / or competition (driven by sex drive and time-sensitive). The latter set are more rational, are systems problems rather than point problems, and don’t have time-sensitive competition.

Modern entrepreneurship, especially web entrepreneurship, is extremely competitive / time sensitive, requires enormous amounts of iteration even within a single product life-cycle, and often requires solving many challenging technical and business problems one after the other in a public view (with the opposite sex watching). So, it favors the young and single.

Which is not to say that one can’t do it if one is older and settled down. Mathematician Paul Erdos was famous for his prioritizing his work above all else (he remained single, by the way). There are many older successful entrepreneurs who spend tremendous amounts of time away from their families.

…and the rest give up and just become VCs…