The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
-George Bernard Shaw
Lately, it’s become in vogue to write articles, comments and tweets about everything that’s wrong with young technology companies. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t find something in my Twitter feed crowing about how a startup that’s hit a bump in the road is “fu&%@d” or what an as*h%le a successful founder is or what an utterly idiotic idea somebody’s company is. It seems like there is a movement to replace today’s startup culture of hope and curiosity with one of smug superiority.
Why does this matter? Why should we care that the tone is tilting in the wrong direction? Why is it more important to find out what’s right about somebody’s company than what’s wrong?
The word technology means “a better way of doing things.” This is easy to say, but extremely difficult to do. Making a better way of storing information, a better currency, or a better way of making friends means improving on thousands of years of human experience and is therefore extraordinarily difficult. At some level, it would seem logically impossible that anybody could ever improve anything. I mean if nobody from bible days until 2014 has thought of it, what makes you think you are so smart? From a psychological standpoint, in order to achieve a great breakthrough, you must be able to suspend disbelief indefinitely. The technology startup world is where brilliant people come to imagine the impossible.
As a Venture Capitalist, people often ask me why big companies have trouble innovating while small companies seem to be able to do it so easily. My answer is generally unexpected. Big companies have plenty of great ideas, but they do not innovate because they need a whole hierarchy of people to agree that a new idea is good in order to pursue it. If one smart person figures out something wrong with an idea–often to show off or to consolidate power–that’s usually enough to kill it. This leads to a Can’t Do Culture.
The trouble with innovation is that truly innovative ideas often look like bad ideas at the time. That’s why they are innovative – until now, nobody ever figured out that they were good ideas. Creative big companies like Amazon and Google tend to be run by their innovators. Larry Page will unilaterally fund a good idea that looks like a bad idea and dismiss the reasons why it can’t be done. In this way, he creates a Can Do Culture.
Some people would like to turn the technology startup world into one great big company with a degenerative Can’t Do Culture. This post attempts to answer that challenge and reverse that tragic trend.
Dismissive rhetoric with respect to technology is hardly new. Sometimes the criticism is valid in that the company or invention does not work, but even then it often misses the larger point. Here are two historical examples to help illustrate:
In 1837, Charles Babbage set out to build something he called The Analytical Engine the world’s first general-purpose computer that could be described in modern times as Turing-complete. In other words, given enough resources the machine that Babbage was building could compute anything that the most powerful computer in the world today can compute. The computation might be slower and the computer might take up more space (OK, amazingly slow and incredibly huge), but his design matched today’s computational power. Babbage did not succeed in building a working version as it was an amazingly ambitious task to build a computer in 1837 made out of wood and powered by steam. Ultimately, in 1842 English mathematician and astronomer George Biddel Airy advised the British Treasury that the Analytical Engine was “useless” and that Babbage’s project should be abandoned. The Government axed the project shortly after. It took the world until 1941 to catch up with Babbage’s original idea after it was killed by skeptics and forgotten by all.
171 years later, it’s easy to see that his vision was true and computers would not be useless. The most important thing about Babbage’s life was not that his timing was off by 100 years, but that he had a great vision and the determination to pursue it. He remains a wonderful inspiration to many of us to this day. Meanwhile, George Biddel Airy seems more like a short-sighted crank.
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, offered to sell his invention and patents to Western Union, the leading telegraph provider, for $100,000. Western Union refused based on a report from their internal committee. Here are some of the excerpts of that report:
“The Telephone purports to transmit the speaking voice over telegraph wires. We found that the voice is very weak and indistinct, and grows even weaker when long wires are used between the transmitter and receiver. Technically, we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles.
“Messer Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their “telephone devices” in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?
“The electricians of our company have developed all the significant improvements in the telegraph art to date, and we see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained, when they have not the slightest idea of the true problems involved. Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy… .
“In view of these facts, we feel that Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s request for $100,000 of the sale of this patent is utterly unreasonable, since this device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.”
Today most of us accept that the Internet is important, but this is a recent phenomenon. As late as 1995, Astronomer Clifford Stoll wrote the article entitled Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana in Newsweek, which includes this unfortunate analysis:
Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping—just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.
What mistake did all these very smart men make in common? They focused on what the technology could not do at the time rather than what it could do and might be able to do in the future. This is the most common mistake that naysayers make.
Who does the Can’t Do Culture hurt the most? Ironically, it hurts the haters. The people who focus on what’s wrong with an idea or a company will be the ones too fearful to try something that other people find stupid. They will be too jealous to learn from the great innovators. They will be too pig headed to discover the brilliant young engineer who changes the world before she does. They will be too cynical to inspire anybody to do anything great. They will be the ones who history ridicules.
Don’t hate, create.