Tag Archives: hacking

Everything I Knew About Startups Is Wrong

Here’s a short list of the things I thought at one point which aren’t true.

  • Startups are about high technology. False. Startups are about making things that people want that scale. Yes, technology can help you scale, but it’s not required
  • Startups are all about hard work. False. Yes, startups require hard work, but there is also a luck element too (This is the main reason most of the other things I knew to be true weren’t)
  • You have to have a cool idea to make a lot of money in a startup. False. “Business Porn” has been sold to me since I was a teenager. The idea that cool businesses are also are very dramatic — great idea, super-cool founders, overcoming impossible odds, having something special about them that nobody else has. Hollywood and the book industry love this stuff, and it’s ruined millions of people’s ideas of what startups and business is all about. Most all of the time, it’s just work. Sure, it’s work you love, but lose the dramatics and focus on execution. Ideas are useless. It’s all execution.
  • Venture Capitalists accept plans over the net. False. Ask some VCs when the last time they took a bet on something they got over the net. Like never. If anything, they keep these web forms open as a way to figure out who to ignore. if you fill one out, they know that you have no idea how funding works, so they can permanently forget about you.
  • VCs actually know what the hell they are doing. False. Stats show that your company is no more likely to be alive after five years if you take VC money or not. Sure, if you take the money you might grow. You’ll have to grow or die. Most exercises in funding are social in nature. That means you know somebody. Some professor you know refers you to a fund, or you go to Y Combinator and make the rounds. VCs make money based on what all the other VCs are thinking and doing. Raising money is a cross between a beauty and popularity contest.
  • If your friends like the idea it’s pretty good. False. Your friends are your friends because they say nice things to you. This is true whether they’re hackers or not. What you need is customers, not friends. Get as close to the customers as you can. Live with them. Find out what they think.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and Apple can help you grow. True and False. Yes, if you win the lottery (or spend a huge hunk of time learning how to social engineer a great product), these services will let you gain a lot more traction than just being out there on the web. But apps are a sucker’s game: for every one guy posting how he made 100K there’s a thousand guys making nothing. Even if you succeed wildly, you lose. The owner of your walled garden is just going to incorporate your app into their base product.
  • Most startup founders will not tell you how they succeeded. Mixed Bag. The technology startup sector is tremendously more open than any other sector, so it’s false. Startup founders are usually more than willing to go on at length about how they did it. The crazy part is that most all of it is so unique to their particular idea, team, location, and time period. You’ll be lucky to listen to ten hours and pull 2 ideas out. Are there folks who will look at many startups and try to generalize for you? Sure! Several dozen folks. All with books, or podcasts, or seminars, or classes. There’s an entire industry out there based on you wanting to have a startup. It will bleed you dry and you’ll be no closer than when you started. Don’t be the fat guy reading Running World buying 300-dollar sneakers.
  • Most successful ┬ástartup founders know how they succeeded. I do not believe this to be a true statement. They know what worked at that particular time. They probably know why it worked. But once again, this is so contextual and people are so prone to overgeneralizing that the signal-to-noise ratio here is massively lower than it appears on the surface.
  • The best way to vet an idea is to ask other successful startup founders. Here’s where we take what we already know — there’s a lot of luck involved, advice is highly contextual, and don’t ask your friends — and add it together. The worst thing you can do with an idea is listen to others. Take the same hour you would ask and receive advice and go ask a potential customer. Find somebody who might want what you’re making. Do they like it? Would they give you money for it? If the answer is “yes”, then it doesn’t matter what all the successful founders in the world tell you. If the answer is “no”, then ask why and get real feedback from the people you’re trying to help. People can stand around the internet water cooler all day long and speculate on what might work or not. But you’re not getting anywhere. Developing a startup is about learning from the marketplace. What are you doing to learn from where it matters?

ADD: You might think that this post is terribly pessimistic. It’s not meant to be. In fact, I think the social nature of hanging out with other founders might drive out huge benefits for the new entrepreneur. I’d just be careful confusing implicit knowledge and social contacts with explicit knowledge and tactics. We focus on the explicit, the tangible, the teachable. I don’t think that’s where the good stuff is.

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Singing in the Brain

If you had a brain injury, but you were happier and enjoyed life more, would you be better off than if you were applied and smart enough to do a lot of neat things, but hated your life? What is more important, mood or performance?

As I write this, I’m running on about 3 hours sleep. I have a sleep disorder, so it’s not unusual for me to code/write/work with not a lot of sleep. I’m probably at 60% efficiency. Reflexes are down, short term memory trashed, and from time-to-time I experience “micro-sleep”

Because of my medical condition, the doctor prescribed Provigil, which is helps promote alertness. Back when I was a kid, we used to call this kind of thing “speed”, but Provigil is non-addictive (as far as I can tell), runs for 12 hours or more, has a tendency to build up in your system over time, lets you sleep while taking it, and has a tendency to make you nauseous.

Kind of a Devil’s Bargain. You’re a lot more energized — but you can feel very queasy also. And if you take it for several days and quit? Quitting is pain-free as far as I can tell, but you’ll be extra tired for a couple of days. Whatever the case, it beats falling asleep and crashing my car, so I’m a user from time-to-time whether I want to be or not.

The weird thing here is how the drug makes you feel. Provigil is commonly used off-label by programmers and other people in knowledge work as a performance-enhancer. I only take one now and then now, but back when I started I went for a month, and I felt really good! I got a lot of stuff done! I was energized, motivated, and I had a lot of creativity.

The thing is, once I stopped taking it and reviewed what I did, in some areas I didn’t do so well. While I was able to crank out code like the wind, I easily missed things I wouldn’t have missed had I taken my time. While I felt like writing a lot, the quality suffered. While I was in a great mood most all of the time, I also was more jittery than before.

In a lot of ways, my performance sucked, but I felt pretty good about it!

I’m a private pilot, although I don’t fly any more. Back when I was taking my exams, I remember reading about hypoxia — what happens to you as you fly higher and higher in an airplane without oxygen. As the oxygen in your blood decreases, it’s like turning down a light: your brain just gets slower and slower. Eventually you die. They put people in these machines and pump the air out slowly. Meanwhile they ask them to do things: write on paper, use their night vision, or show hand-eye coordination.

These people get worse and worse as the oxygen goes down, but something really weird also happens: if you ask these people how they are feeling, they well tell you pretty good! Feeling great! In fact, most of them really enjoy the experience.

If you ask them how well they are performing, they’ll say the same thing: kicking ass, man! Rock and roll!

Meanwhile their handwriting is complete nonsense, they can’t see at all in the dark, and they fail the coordination test. Researchers found night vision starting suffering as low as four thousand feet. Just fly into Denver from the coast at night and driving the rental car to the hotel? Guess what? You’re driving impaired.

Mother Theresa — a devout Christian and somebody whom most folks feel did great works in her life — suffered terribly with doubts about the existence of God and whether any of it made any sense or not. Was this a good way to live?

I bring this up because as an Agile coach and a hacker, I’m reading all the time about folks trying X, Y or Z and how much better they think things are. Some hackers are crazy about these wakefulness medications. Some agile teams try standups and think they suck, all the time communicating in ways they never had before.

I’m not saying you should throw all of these observations out the window, but I’m really concerned that 90% of what we read from hackers and teams are just subjective emotional reactions, not a measurement of whether it’s actually a good thing or not. We keep heading down this road and we’ll end up feeling totally awesome, while doing nothing much at all.

So next time you read about somebody hacking their mind with some chemical or trick, or some team trying something that they totally love and want to share with the world, ask yourself a simple question: how much of this is real, and how much is just a stupid human trick?

Bonus question: does it matter? (Remember the guy in the first Matrix movie? He knew the Matrix was fake, but it didn’t matter) If you do absolutely nothing in your entire life but take up space, but were happy the entire time and felt like you had the best life possible and there’s no way it could ever get better? Does it matter?

(If you’re wondering about the weird title, it’s a spin on a famous movie musical)

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Secret Hacker Bookshelf

I received an email two weeks ago from a guy in the Philippines. He wanted to learn how to program and didn’t know where to start. Last week I was talking to a family member — he wanted to get into computers but didn’t know where to start. This week, 2 people came up to me and asked me questions about which books to read to learn startups and marketing.

It’s a common pattern. On the forum I visit, HackerNews, every few weeks somebody asks the same question — what are the best programming books? What are the best startup books? What are the best books on marketing? There are a lot of people asking, and the same questions are asked quite frequently. A quick search on Google lists dozens of questions about programming.

So. What do hackers recommend to each other?

Frankly, it gets old having to post comments recommending the same books over and over again. I know others feel the same way. But still, I’d like to help. So I decided to take all day today and find the best books from hacker discussions and list them here. Next time somebody asks me, I can just point them to this page. Who knows, if enough folks like the list, maybe I can keep it updated and expand on it.

Caveat Emptor: reading a good book on something fuzzy, like marketing or starting a business, is like having a beer with somebody at a bar. There’s lots of great ideas and great experiences to be learned. It’s also important to note that it’s you, not the authors, who is responsible for your life. Don’t fixate on any one book or author and go off hell bent for leather on what the author said. Instead, sample broadly, compare notes, learn both sides of the argument, then figure out how to use this new information to do things you want to do.

Having said that, this is a pretty incredible list and a pretty cool bunch of recommenders. If you have time, you should follow the conversations around some of these books. Many of the people commenting and many of the people writing these books have made millions or billions of dollars and would like to help you succeed too. And they’re not the traditional get-rich-quick, business porn, or self-help books that clutter up the marketplace. Lots of value here.

These books are listed by how hackers rate them, the vote count — books appearing higher on the list were voted by hackers as better than those lower. The programming section has several sub-sections that I haven’t broken out yet, but you can easily spot where one section ends and another begins.

As for some meta advice, if I were interested in buying one of these books, I’d probably read the pro and con reviews on Amazon, taking careful note of the con reviews (many times the pro reviews are fake). I’ve had pretty good luck using this technique, especially when I get there from a recommendation from a friend. And now you just gained a thousand hacker friends :)

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Pop Music Hacking

When Mel Brooks was preparing “The Producers”, he did a lot of humming.

His 2001 musical did very well. It won a Tony for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Which is really kind of cool, if you think about it.

Because Mel Brooks doesn’t write music.

Brooks is a “hummer”. He hums up tunes and words until he likes them, and then lets somebody else do all the composition and arrangement.

In our minds we have a picture of a way music is composed. Some guy sitting over a piano sweating away, trying to find the right phrase. But it doesn’t always work that way. Music can be hacked too.

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Hacking to Great Guitar Rock Songs


  • Many hours of monotonous coding ahead. Perhaps data cleaning, comment-checking, pixel-pushing, or code reviewing
  • Desire to be entertained with lightly mind-engaging, upbeat music

Acceptance Criteria

  • Songs must be rock-and-roll, ie, from the last 60 years
  • Songs must feature prominent guitar work
  • Songs must have been popular when released
  • Songs must be recognizable to at least 40% of a randomly-selected audience
  • Songs must generally be upbeat
  • This must be a predefined, finite, readable list of songs that I own, not songs I want to buy, or songs I should be downloading

What would be the right way to code this? Given not a lot of time, I simply chose songs from “100 Greatest Guitar Solos” off of my hard drive. But I wondered: is there a better way? Not some quasi-internet radio station, a better way of picking songs with such fuzzy, yet describable criteria.

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