Ended: Sept. 29, 2014
Non-monopolists exaggerate their distinction by defining their market as the intersection of various smaller markets: British food ∩ restaurant ∩ Palo Alto Rap star ∩ hackers ∩ sharks Monopolists, by contrast, disguise their monopoly by framing their market as the union of several large markets: search engine ∪ mobile phones ∪ wearable computers ∪ self-driving cars
A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products, and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto—“Don’t be evil”—is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.
Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better. Even the government knows this: that’s why one of its departments works hard to create monopolies (by granting patents to new inventions) even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). It’s possible to question whether anyone should really be awarded a legally enforceable monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design. But it’s clear that something like Apple’s monopoly profits from designing, producing, and marketing the iPhone were the reward for creating greater abundance, not artificial scarcity: customers were happy to finally have the choice of paying high prices to get a smartphone that actually works.
Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. Then monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of. So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It’s a relic of history. Economists copied their mathematics from the work of 19th-century physicists: they see individuals and businesses as interchangeable atoms, not as unique creators. Their theories describe an equilibrium state of perfect competition because that’s what’s easy to model, not because it represents the best of business. But it’s worth recalling that the long-run equilibrium predicted by 19th-century physics was a state in which all energy is evenly distributed and everything comes to rest—also known as the heat death of the universe. Whatever your views on thermodynamics, it’s a powerful metaphor: in business, equilibrium means stasis, and stasis means death. If your industry is in a competitive equilibrium, the death of your business won’t matter to the world; some other undifferentiated competitor will always be ready to take your
All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.
The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same things as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes.
For Hamlet, greatness means willingness to fight for reasons as thin as an eggshell: anyone would fight for things that matter; true heroes take their personal honor so seriously they will fight for things that don’t matter. This twisted logic is part of human nature, but it’s disastrous in business. If you can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, you’re already more sane than most. The next chapter is about how to use a clear head to build a monopoly business.
Network effects can be powerful, but you’ll never reap them unless your product is valuable to its very first users when the network is necessarily small. For example, in 1960 a quixotic company called Xanadu set out to build a two-way communication network between all computers—a sort of early, synchronous version of the World Wide Web. After more than three decades of futile effort, Xanadu folded just as the web was becoming commonplace. Their technology probably would have worked at scale, but it could have worked only at scale: it required every computer to join the network at the same time, and that was never going to happen. Paradoxically, then, network effects businesses must start with especially small markets.
The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of the fund combined. This implies two very strange rules for VCs. First, only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund. This is a scary rule, because it eliminates the vast majority of possible investments. (Even quite successful companies usually succeed on a more humble scale.) This leads to rule number two: because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules.
Every university believes in “excellence,” and hundred-page course catalogs arranged alphabetically according to arbitrary departments of knowledge seem designed to reassure you that “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.” That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future. For the startup world, this means you should not necessarily start your own company, even if you are extraordinarily talented. If anything, too many people are starting their own companies today. People who understand the power law will hesitate more than others when it comes to founding a new venture: they know how tremendously successful they could become by joining the very best company while it’s growing fast. The power law means that differences between companies will dwarf the differences in roles inside companies. You could have 100% of the equity if you fully fund your own venture, but if it fails you’ll have 100% of nothing. Owning just 0.01% of Google, by contrast, is incredibly valuable (more than $35 million as of this writing).
Remember our contrarian question: what important truth do very few people agree with you on? If we already understand as much of the natural world as we ever will—if all of today’s conventional ideas are already enlightened, and if everything has already been done—then there are no good answers. Contrarian thinking doesn’t make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give up.
Hipster or Unabomber? All fundamentalists think this way, not just terrorists and hipsters. Religious fundamentalism, for example, allows no middle ground for hard questions: there are easy truths that children are expected to rattle off, and then there are the mysteries of God, which can’t be explained. In between—the zone of hard truths—lies heresy. In the modern religion of environmentalism, the easy truth is that we must protect the environment. Beyond that, Mother Nature knows best, and she cannot be questioned. Free marketeers worship a similar logic. The value of things is set by the market. Even a child can look up stock quotes. But whether those prices make sense is not to be second-guessed; the market knows far more than you ever could.
Along with the natural fact that physical frontiers have receded, four social trends have conspired to root out belief in secrets. First is incrementalism. From an early age, we are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one very small step at a time, day by day, grade by grade. If you overachieve and end up learning something that’s not on the test, you won’t receive credit for it. But in exchange for doing exactly what’s asked of you (and for doing it just a bit better than your peers), you’ll get an A. This process extends all the way up through the tenure track, which is why academics usually chase large numbers of trivial publications instead of new frontiers. Second is risk aversion. People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn’t look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right—dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in—is already hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable. Third is complacency. Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least. Why search for a new secret if you can comfortably collect rents on everything that has already been done? Every fall, the deans at top law schools and business schools welcome the incoming class with the same implicit message: “You got into this elite institution. Your worries are over. You’re set for life.” But that’s probably the kind of thing that’s true only if you don’t believe it. Fourth is “flatness.” As globalization advances, people perceive the world as one homogeneous, highly competitive marketplace: the world is “flat.” Given that assumption, anyone who might have had the ambition to look for a secret will first ask himself: if it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already? This voice of doubt can dissuade people from even starting to look for secrets in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique. There’s an optimistic way to describe the result of these trends: today, you can’t start a cult. Forty years ago, people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known. From the Communist Party to the Hare Krishnas, large numbers of people thought they could join some enlightened vanguard that would show them the Way. Very few people take unorthodox ideas seriously today, and the mainstream sees that as a sign of progress. We can be glad that there are fewer crazy cults now, yet that gain has come at great cost: we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.
Sometimes looking for natural secrets and looking for human secrets lead to the same truth. Consider the monopoly secret again: competition and capitalism are opposites. If you didn’t already know it, you could discover it the natural, empirical way: do a quantitative study of corporate profits and you’ll see they’re eliminated by competition. But you could also take the human approach and ask: what are people running companies not allowed to say? You would notice that monopolists downplay their monopoly status to avoid scrutiny, while competitive firms strategically exaggerate their uniqueness. The differences between firms only seem small on the surface; in fact, they are enormous.
The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom. So you might ask: are there any fields that matter but haven’t been standardized and institutionalized? Physics, for example, is a real major at all major universities, and it’s set in its ways. The opposite of physics might be astrology, but astrology doesn’t matter. What about something like nutrition? Nutrition matters for everybody, but you can’t major in it at Harvard. Most top scientists go into other fields. Most of the big studies were done 30 or 40 years ago, and most are seriously flawed. The food pyramid that told us to eat low fat and enormous amounts of grains was probably more a product of lobbying by Big Food than real science; its chief impact has been to aggravate our obesity epidemic. There’s plenty more to learn: we know more about the physics of faraway stars than we know about human nutrition. It won’t be easy, but it’s not obviously impossible: exactly the kind of field that could yield secrets.
Unless you have perfectly conventional beliefs, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything that you know. So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more. In practice, there’s always a golden mean between telling nobody and telling everybody—and that’s a company. The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.
A board of three is ideal. Your board should never exceed five people, unless your company is publicly held. (Government regulations effectively mandate that public companies have larger boards—the average is nine members.) By far the worst you can do is to make your board extra large. When unsavvy observers see a nonprofit organization with dozens of people on its board, they think: “Look how many great people are committed to this organization! It must be extremely well run.” Actually, a huge board will exercise no effective oversight at all; it merely provides cover for whatever microdictator actually runs the organization. If you want that kind of free rein from your board, blow it up to giant size. If you want an effective board, keep it small.
As a general rule, everyone you involve with your company should be involved full-time. Sometimes you’ll have to break this rule; it usually makes sense to hire outside lawyers and accountants, for example. However, anyone who doesn’t own stock options or draw a regular salary from your company is fundamentally misaligned. At the margin, they’ll be biased to claim value in the near term, not help you create more in the future. That’s why hiring consultants doesn’t work. Part-time employees don’t work. Even working remotely should be avoided, because misalignment can creep in whenever colleagues aren’t together full-time, in the same place, every day. If you’re deciding whether to bring someone on board, the decision is binary. Ken Kesey was right: you’re either on the bus or off the bus.
For people to be fully committed, they should be properly compensated. Whenever an entrepreneur asks me to invest in his company, I ask him how much he intends to pay himself. A company does better the less it pays the CEO—that’s one of the single clearest patterns I’ve noticed from investing in hundreds of startups. In no case should a CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed startup receive more than $150,000 per year in salary. It doesn’t matter if he got used to making much more than that at Google or if he has a large mortgage and hefty private school tuition bills. If a CEO collects $300,000 per year, he risks becoming more like a politician than a founder. High pay incentivizes him to defend the status quo along with…
Low CEO pay also sets the standard for everyone else. Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, was always careful to pay himself less than everyone else in the company—four years after he started Box, he was still living two blocks away from HQ in a one-bedroom apartment with no furniture except a mattress. Every employee noticed his obvious commitment to the company’s mission and emulated it. If a CEO doesn’t set an example by taking the lowest salary in the company, he can do the same thing…
From the start, I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal. So we set out to hire people who would actually enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.
Above all, don’t fight the perk war. Anybody who would be more powerfully swayed by free laundry pickup or pet day care would be a bad addition to your team. Just cover the basics like health insurance and then promise what no others can: the opportunity to do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people. You probably can’t be the Google of 2014 in terms of compensation or perks, but you can be like the Google of 1999 if you already have good answers about your mission and team.
Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible. Startups have limited resources and small teams. They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd. We all loved science fiction: Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek. Most important, we were all obsessed with creating a digital currency that would be controlled by individuals instead of governments. For the company to work, it didn’t matter what people looked like or which country they came from, but we needed every new hire to be equally obsessed.
The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.
In between personal sales (salespeople obviously required) and traditional advertising (no salespeople required) there is a dead zone. Suppose you create a software service that helps convenience store owners track their inventory and manage ordering. For a product priced around $1,000, there might be no good distribution channel to reach the small businesses that might buy it. Even if you have a clear value proposition, how do you get people to hear it? Advertising would either be too broad (there’s no TV channel that only convenience store owners watch) or too inefficient (on its own, an ad in Convenience Store News probably won’t convince any owner to part with $1,000 a year). The product needs a personal sales effort, but at that price point, you simply don’t have the resources to send an actual person to talk to every prospective customer. This is why so many small and medium-sized businesses don’t use tools that bigger firms take for granted. It’s not that small business proprietors are unusually backward or that good tools don’t exist: distribution is the hidden bottleneck.
Most cleantech companies crashed because they neglected one or more of the seven questions that every business must answer: 1. The Engineering Question Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements? 2. The Timing Question Is now the right time to start your particular business? 3. The Monopoly Question Are you starting with a big share of a small market? 4. The People Question Do you have the right team? 5. The Distribution Question Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product? 6. The Durability Question Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future? 7. The Secret Question Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings. Maybe we still would have avoided these bad investments if we had taken the time to evaluate each company’s technology in detail. But the team insight—never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit—got us to the truth a lot faster. The best sales is hidden. There’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech. Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison; Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk THE DISTRIBUTION QUESTION
Every entrepreneur should plan to be the last mover in her particular market. That starts with asking yourself: what will the world look like 10 and 20 years from now, and how will my business fit in?