Surprising wisdom – thoughts on Ben Horowitz’s new startup tale

I took a recent flight to San Francisco to have meetings with a few startups. Naturally I needed some good reading to immerse myself in for the flight over and back.

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

I have to admit, though I’m not a management consultant, I do pickup the big ones from time to time. Good to Great, How to Make Friends & Influence People, The Lean Startup, Innovators Dillemma & Who Moved My Cheese among my favorites.

I’d seen Ben Horowitz’s book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” in the news. But I also really love the a16z podcast, and although I don’t know a ton about the VC business, I thought it would be a good read.

Boy is that an understatement! The book is so readable & so accessible, there are nuggets of value in there for anyone in the startup world, or building their career, CEO or not!

On the efficient market hypothesis

I had always assumed Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a good theory, almost as scripture. So to see a different perspective on this, and one backed up by real experience. That’s cool.

“No, markets weren’t “efficient” at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion — often the wrong conclusion”. p52

What’s more for investors out there, it means good old fashioned investigative work can still turn up gems, that are worth investing in. Word to the wise.

Related: What I learned from David Maister’s book on trust & advising clients.

Questions for interviews

Add this one to your list of great interview questions. And if you’re being interviewed, why not volunteer this as an action plan. Great advice!

“What will you do in your first month on the job?” p122

Related: A review of Eli Pariser’s insightful book The Filter Bubble

On the Freaky Friday management technique

Freaky Friday was a movie way back in the 80’s. In it a mother & daughter are at each others throats, frustrated with the each other. They end up switching places, and quickly learn to sympathize with the other’s plight in life.

Horowitz decided to put this method to use between two of his managers. Pretty ingenious.

“After just one week walking in the other’s moccasins, both executives quickly diagnosed the core issues causing the conflict. They then swiftly acted to implement a simple set of processes that cleared up the combat and got the teams working harmoniously. p253

Related: A review of the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

On ancient wisdom & hard choices

“In life, everybody faces choices between doing what’s popular, easy, and wrong versus doing what’s lonely, difficult, and right.” p212

Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly. p213

Boy, can I relate to these bits of wisdom. Running my own business all these years, it hasn’t been easy. There have been ups and downs, and times when people told me to take a different road. But that courage. When you find it, it can be real fuel for you moving forward.

Related: Can a growth mindset help you recover from setbacks – Carol Dweck

On instincts

I realized that embracing the unusual parts of my background would be the key to making it through. It would be those things that would give me unique perspectives and approaches to the business. p276

When I work with entrepreneurs today, this is the main thing that I try to convey. Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct. p276

I hadn’t really thought of this, and it’s an interesting point. It may be one of the reasons why customers hire me, that I hadn’t realized. Certainly I can give an original viewpoint. But I think I will try to put this to work in the future.

Related: Startup of You – Reid Hoffman’s great book on career growth

On publicity in ventura capital

This is a curious & fascinating point about the history of venture capital. Ripe for disruption indeed!

Marc discovered that the original venture capital firms in the late 1940s and early ’50s were modeled after the original investment banks such as J.P. Morgan and Rothschild. Those banks also did not do PR for a very specific reason: The banks funded wars—and sometimes both sides of the same war—so publicity was not a good idea. p271

Related: A review of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch – Rewiring the world from Edison to Google

On the Andreesen Horowitz business model

This is pretty cool. Apparently the A16Z business model built a VC firm by helping startup founders in disruptive ways.

We decided to systematize and professionalize the network. p269

They modeled the firm after Michael Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency. They had managed to “shift the economics of the industry from the corporations to the talent” p270

Related: Deborah Tannen offers us insights on conversation & interruption across the sexes

On forecasting

I guess I instinctively understood this one, but it’s interesting to see it in black and white like that.

You should expect experienced people to be able to forecast their results more accurately than junior people. p250

Related: 5 things I learned from Frans Johansson about innovation from his book Medici Effect

On checking yourself

Keep yourself honest, ask this question.

“It’s a good idea to ask, “What am I not doing?” p52

Related: 5 things I learned from Gif Constable in his book Talking to Humans

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters

Is Dave Eggers right about the risks of social media?

eggers the circle

I have to admit, though Egger’s is a pretty famous author, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I do however read AVC regularly, the writing of renowned VC & Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson. So when one of the commenters pointed to the book as a great read I grabbed a copy on my Kindle.

Flipping through to the back of the book, the further reading section is telling. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, DeLillo’s White Noise, Huxley’s Brave New World & Orwell’s 1984 are just a few on the list. All books that I’d read & enjoyed not only for their story, but for their cautious warning of a dystopian future.

The Circle story takes place at a fictional Silicon Valley company “The Circle”, whose campus includes wings such as Old West, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Machine Age & Industrial Revolution. The main character Mae, has just been hired in customer experience. Employees at the circle are all but *required* to socialize together. There everything is ranked, from customer satisfaction, to employee participation, comments, likes, posts & shares.

Join 25,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

I came away with five major themes from the book. As the characters march through the pages, watch them sacrifice their morality, free will & eventually human rights too.

1. social media is like snack food

What I loved most about the story, was how extreme the social media use had become. It was as though every moment had to be captured, every interaction “shared”. And with that, others then comment, favorite, and interact.

But as we found later, social media became something of lesser value. It was like eating snack food, a simulation of real food, missing in nutrients, but masquerading as the real thing. The metaphor holds together well, as we see people become fatigued with Facebook in the real world, and the constant sharing of everything.

Also: Is quality journalism dead? What I learned from Ryan Holiday

2. Egger’s fictional technologies are close at hand

At one point in the story, Mae does a search to find out about her family history. What turns up is more than she bargained for. It turns out that her parents had a rather odd affinity for yearly baccanalian partying, and the photos shock & embarrass Mae.

Turns out some neighbor had scanned a whole shoebox full of photos, and from there the internet crawlers took care of the rest, indexing the photos complete with facial recognition & identification. Once that was complete, a simple search revealed pictures even her parents didn’t know exist.

Facial recognition technologies in fact already exist, though are not widely used quite yet. Governments are obviously beginning to use them for law enforcement, but facebook & google are certainly getting into the act too. What’s more the SeeChange cameras described in the story, parallel Google Glass for example, which is maturing quickly.

Related: Do consultants need to balance conflicts of interest?

3. secrets are a real human need

After Mae begins wearing the SeeChange monocle, everything she does is streamed to an online audience. It begins as an exercise in transparency, but we quickly see the trouble it brings as Mae has no moments of privacy.

In this world, moments of intimacy become shorter & harder to find. And we see then how Mae begins to crave those moments, and they become more precious too.

Check this: Why Oracle won’t kill MySQL

4. monitoring changes our behavior

Much of the monitoring and transparency in the Circle story comes from a new technology called SeeChange, a camera monocle worn around the neck, perhaps paralleling Google Glass that we have all heard of.

Surveillance can surely help prevent crime, or provide evidence after the fact. But one other affect of the technology is in warping people’s natural behavior, as though we are all on a stage, all on camera all the time. In Mae’s case she begins to act for the camera, and those around her do too.

Read: Why devops talent is in short supply

5. how social media warps our sense of time & human scale

Another interesting scene occurs when Mae follows up with a friend via text. Her friend doesn’t respond back, so she sends along another text a few minutes later asking if “everything is ok”. By Mae’s fourth & fifth message, she’s sure she’s been kidnapped, and by the tenth message she’s just angry and declares their friendship is over! All this in the span of 25 minutes.

I think Eggers uses a sort of extreme example, but really to illustrate an important point. In the world of always on communication, these types of misunderstandings are more and more common. Our sense of time changes, and we may feel that others are in slow motion.

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters