I’ve been a regular on a site called HackerNews for a few years now. It’s supposed to be a place where technical folks can talk startups, but mostly it’s kind of evolved into a sharing place for stuff that interests hackers.
But damn, the place has grown. From just a few hundred members, the site regularly gets hundreds of thousands of people viewing per day.
Over all this time I’ve noticed one clear trend: the rise of the copycat. Whatever you do or say that might be popular, there are hundreds if not thousands of people ready to jump on the bandwagon.
About 18 months ago I got tired of having to create lists of books for people to share on HN. Lots of new folks wanted to know what the best thing to read was. So I thought: why not make a site where we list only the best hacking books and people can create and share lists of them? hn-books.com was born.
But it wasn’t alone. I spoke about my intentions online while I was building it. Within the next month there were a dozen book sites spawned by the members of HackerNews.
I’m not saying it was my original idea, simply that once it was mentioned there were a zillion deployments of the same idea.
At first this was really cool. When the community discussed the need to have some app to strip websites of all the annoying visual garbage on them, wham! A bunch of different really cool sites do that now. (Which I think is awesome.)
But it has a dark side. The problem here is that while ideas are cheap, having 100 people all trying the same idea puts an extra amount of time pressure on an entrepreneur that normally isn’t there. Everything that is mentioned is copied a hundred or a thousand times. It’s as if you, a non-painter, decided to paint a picture of a house. So you set up your easel and get out your paints in front of a nice-looking house and start to puzzle over how to start. Suddenly 500 other people all arrive — some of them who actually know how to paint — and set up all around you. Not only is it annoying, it’s also distracting. And it can lead to a kind of herd mentality where everything is attempted, but nothing is really tried. Next week all the same noob painters are all setting up around a nice-looking barn. Repeat and rinse.
It’s gotten so bad that mentions of a specific business strategy on HN have become counter-indicative of the prospects of your successfully trying it out. The more directly-instructive an article was, the more folks that were going to go out and follow the directions, especially if there’s no cost involved.
It took me a while to figure this out. I finally understood it by observing what was not being done: founders were not giving specific details of their business model execution at the level where others could actually use it. So you’d get a great blog article about how some guy made his startup, and how awesome it was, but somewhere in his actual business would be a few tricks he used that he’d never mention. After all, who wants a thousand people all using your tricks? You’d be crazy to publish that stuff.
It actually happened to me once. About three years ago I came across something very unique: a step-by-step guide on how to set up an internet business online that was written by somebody who was not trying to sell me something. I found it on some obscure user’s group online — I don’t even remember the search terms. At the time, I was willing to try anything. What could a month or two trying this hurt? So I tried it.
Did it work? Yes and no. I learned something very useful from this exercise. Whatever you do for a startup is going to take a long, long time. Take however long you are willing to work, then multiply it times three. It requires a lot of dedication and attention to detail that I (and most others) probably don’t have. As it turns out, getting good at painting is more about the attention, dedication, and mentoring you receive in your work, and not so much about the house you choose to paint. But good luck learning that the first time out. Most folks never learn it.
Most of us are great at thrashing around for a few months! Tell us an idea about an app that mines Facebook data and makes money and there will be a hundred guys tomorrow firing up their code editors. Sure, in a few months most will be gone, but expect to see everybody and his brother coming out with the same idea in a short amount of time.
I get a lot of SEO spam on the blog and in emails. Some of it is automated, but I actually get a lot of people following me because I’ve dealt with SEO in the past. For most all of these people, SEO is a shortcut to riches. Write some crap, make a landing page, then script up enough code so that you generate links back and start making conversions. Sure, Google might shut you down in a few months, but you’ll be thousands of dollars richer and will have used fake credentials anyway.
It’s the ultimate in ADHD money-making. Crap + Code + Conversions = money.
Here’s the crux of the matter: there are people who actually invent an iFart and make hundreds of thousands of dollars in a month, there are people who sit down to paint and make something that sells right away, but odds are overwhelmingly that you aren’t that guy. Odds are you will generally develop as most other startups develop; over a long period of time as you assemble these various business execution ideas into something workable that supports some grand idea (what the grand idea is — not important. The less you focus on that the better.)
We’d all would like step-by-step instructions on how to make a million dollars in a month. But if somebody published it, guess what? Everybody would be doing it and it wouldn’t work. The system is rigged so that the easier it is to connect effort to money, and the more that know how to do it, the less likely it is for a newcomer to make it happen.
That’s not saying that short projects are a waste of time. I love short projects that stand on their own and compete for my attention. Do something for 2-4 weeks and then be done with it. Move on. But don’t expect to see any results for a few years, if ever. What I learn from these exercises is being able to repeat the entire span of startups: idea, execution, business model, marketing channel, and so on. If you ask me, anybody who wanted to teach startups would have people actually learning all of these things with “practice” ideas, over and over. As they gain competence through trial and error and repetition, they’ll develop a voice and style that will carry over to a working business.
So if you want to be a copycat, fine. Go for it. But pick your poison: pick one idea and stick with it for a year or two, or do the micro-startup idea thing I did for a while where you develop something new every couple of weeks. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the death zone. Don’t “fall in love” with an idea, screw around with it for 4-6 months, then give up. That’s the worst of both worlds: you’ve picked something and stayed with it long enough to get really emotionally attached, yet you haven’t given it the attention it needs to actually grow (or die). Then when you finally switch to something new, it comes as a failure.
And whatever you do, don’t follow along with some idea mentioned on a popular website like HackerNews — unless you like learning through pain. The only thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to be reading about somebody else who tried the same thing and is now living the high life — without telling you exactly what they did that you missed out on. That’s not a learning experience, that’s self-torture.
tl;dr: because of both the mixed messages we send and the size of the HN audience, we’ve actually created something we didn’t mean to: an environment where lots of copying goes on, but not many are really working in a way that generates good learning about startups. Instead it’s much more of a copycat, cool-for-a-day, chase-the-herd atmosphere.
That hurts. Don’t do that.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.