“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies”

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

– Douglas Adams (entire original article is well worth reading)

 

The idea maze

The pop culture view of startups is that they’re all about coming up with a great product idea. After the eureka moment, the outcome is preordained. This neglects the years of toil that entrepreneurs endure, and also the fact that the vast majority of startups change over time, often dramatically.

In response to this pop culture misconception, it has become popular in the startup community to say things like “execution is everything” and “ideas don’t matter”.

But the reality is that ideas do matter, just not in the narrow sense in which startup ideas are popularly defined. Good startup ideas are well developed, multi-year plans that contemplate many possible paths according to how the world changes. Balaji Srinivasan calls this the idea maze:

A good founder is capable of anticipating which turns lead to treasure and which lead to certain death. A bad founder is just running to the entrance of (say) the “movies/music/filesharing/P2P” maze or the “photosharing” maze without any sense for the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the technologies that are likely to move walls and change assumptions.

Imagine, for example, that you were thinking of starting Netflix back when it was founded in 1997. How would content providers, distribution channels, and competitors respond? How soon would technology develop to open a hidden door and let you distribute online instead of by mail? Or consider Dropbox in 2007. Dozens of cloud storage companies had been started before. What mistakes had they made? How would incumbents like Amazon and Google respond? How would new platforms like mobile affect you?

When you’re starting out, it’s impossible to completely map out the idea maze. But there are some places you can look for help:

1) History. If your idea has been tried before (and almost all good ideas have), you should figure out what the previous attempts did right and wrong. A lot of this knowledge exists only in the brains of practitioners, which is one of many reasons why “stealth mode” is a bad idea. The benefits of learning about the maze generally far outweigh the risks of having your idea stolen.

2) Analogy. You can also build the maze by analogy to similar businesses. If you are building a “peer economy” company it can be useful to look at what Airbnb did right. If you are building a marketplace you should understand eBay’s beginnings. Etc.

3) Theories. There are now decades of historical data on tech startups, and smart observers have sifted through to develop theories that generalize that data. Some of these theories come from academia (e.g. Clay Christensen) but increasingly they come from investors and entrepreneurs on blogs.

4) Direct experience. A lot of good startup founders figure out the maze through direct experience, often at work. The key here is to put yourself in interesting mazes and give yourself time to figure it out.

The metaphor of a maze also helps you think about competition. Competition from other startups is usually just a distraction. In all likelihood, they won’t take the same path, and the presence of others in your maze means you might be onto something. Your real competition – and what you should worry about – is the years you could waste going down the wrong path.

FiftyThree

Steve Jobs predicted that tablet computers would become so dominant that “PCs would become like trucks” – special-purpose industrial devices. Skeptics replied that tablets were only useful for consumption and not creation and therefore couldn’t replace PCs, to which Jobs said:

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad. When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

History supports Jobs’ argument. In the past, new user interfaces led to new categories of creation applications. Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers had text-based interfaces, word processors and spreadsheets were invented. In the 80s and 90s, when computers had graphical interfaces, presentation and image editors proliferated. Jobs was simply predicting that historical patterns would repeat.

Today we are announcing that Andreessen Horowitz is leading a $15M Series A investment in FiftyThree, a company whose goal is to build the essential suite of mobile tools for creativity. You might know FiftyThree as the company behind the iPad app Paper. Paper has been embraced by millions of everyday creators, and has won dozens of awards (including Apple’s App of the Year). It is also one of the top grossing iPad productivity apps ever. But this is only the beginning of FiftyThree’s ambitious plans.

The FiftyThree team spent their careers working on breakthrough computing projects, including lead roles on Office, Kinect, Sonos, and the Xbox. Particularly relevant was a project they led at Microsoft called Courier that has been widely praised as a visionary take on tablet computing (unfortunately, Courier was never brought to market).

FiftyThree didn’t need to raise money, but decided that the opportunity was so large that it made sense to accelerate their efforts with additional capital and resources. They’ll be expanding their engineering teams in New York and Seattle, and will broaden their offerings across software, services, and hardware.

I first met the founders in New York in 2011, and have since spent a lot of time with them. I’m convinced that they are one of the most innovative design and engineering teams in the world. In the past, they reimagined how we play games, view images, listen to music, create documents, and more. With FiftyThree, they are rethinking the very way we create and collaborate on ideas. I couldn’t be more excited to be involved.

Some thoughts on mobile

– People tend to lump smartphones and tablets together as “mobile”. This can be misleading. Ask people who run internet companies and they’ll tell you that user behavior on tablets is far more similar to user behavior on desktops/laptops than it is to user behavior on smartphones. That said, the software on smartphones and tablets is similar, as are the discovery mechanisms (mostly app stores) and monetization techniques.

– Microsoft is running ads making fun of the iPad for being a “consumption” device. Here’s what Steve Jobs had to say back in 2010 about creation (“productivity”) on the iPad:

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad. When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

If you go back and look at the history of productivity apps you’ll see that each major user interface shift led to new classes of productivity apps. Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers had text-based interfaces, word processor applications like Wordperfect and spreadsheet applications like Lotus 1-2-3 were invented. In the 80s and 90s, when graphical interfaces became popular, presentation apps like Powerpoint and photo editing apps like Photoshop were invented. If the historical pattern repeats, productivity apps that are “native” to the tablet will be invented.

– App stores have had a few important effects: 1) They take 30% of revenue, which scares away most big companies (e.g. Microsoft) and also startups/venture capitalists. Not many businesses can survive an immediate 30% haircut. 2) They’ve led consumers to expect very low prices for software. It’s hard to imagine charging $30 let alone hundreds of dollars for software through app stores (although some mega-hit games do get near these levels with in-app purchases). This is why many big software vendors are scared. 3) The discovery mechanisms (e.g. top download charts) tend to have a rich-get-richer effect, making it very hard for software to grow from niches, as they often did in the past. Just as in the movie industry, the trend is toward creating blockbusters that appeal to everyone. The emergence of new app discovery mechanisms (e.g. FB & Twitter) might alleviate this problem.

– The best entrepreneurs understand these dynamics and have been exploring “attach” business models, which basically means charging for something outside of the app store, like offline products/services (e.g. Square, Uber), online services (e.g. Spotify, Dropbox), and sometimes even hardware. Most of the companies that have succeeded (= generate real revenues/profits) on mobile were either desktop incumbents (e.g. eBay, Amazon, Facebook) or have attach business models.

– Fans of Apple and Google have been arguing lately about which company is winning mobile. Apple has more profits, but Android has more users. But what really matters is when and if developers switch over to developing for Android first, or even Android only. For now, iOS users tend to monetize much better than Android users, more than making up for the smaller user base. The switch to Android first hasn’t happened yet, but at least based on conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs, it seems likely to happen in the next year or two.

– Mobile has had a big effect on b2b software. People want to use their personal iOS/Android devices at work, and many people now have computers with them all the time who didn’t before. This has created opportunities for 1) traditional b2b software that is mobile friendly, 2) companies that support mobile devices for businesses (e.g. mobile security, compliance etc), 3) brand new categories of software for users who previously used pencil and paper for various business tasks.