Portrait

U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Voices


“God, body and mind, food for the soul
When you feeding on hate, you empty, my n!*$a, it shows.” — Rick Ross

“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 has 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 has 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.

Portrait

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:

The Computer

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 (okay, 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.

Some 171 years later, it’s easy to see that his vision was true, and that 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.

The Telephone

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.

The Internet

Today, most of us accept that the Internet is important, but this is a recent phenomenon. As late as 1995, astronomer Clifford Stoll wrote an article for Newsweek, entitled “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana,” 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 obsolete. 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 pigheaded 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.

Ben Horowitz is co-founder and partner of Andreessen Horowitz. He was co-founder and CEO of Opsware (formerly Loudcloud), which was acquired by HP, and ran several product divisions at Netscape. He serves on the board of such companies as Capriza, Foursquare, Jawbone, Lytro, Magnet, NationBuilder, Okta, Rap Genius, SnapLogic and Tidemark. Follow him on his blog, and on Twitter @bhorowitz.



39 comments
charlesjo
charlesjo

Henry Ford thought there were 2 types of people: 1 who thinks he can and 1 who thinks he can't.  And he believed they were both right.

charlesjo
charlesjo

@bhorowitz Great article!  Also, your VC firm ranks as top 5 among my entrepreneur friends.

dgoore
dgoore

Great article. The main reason larger companies are often slower to innovate is that have far more to gain by continuing to focus on what they are already doing and much more to lose in speculating on the next new thing. Clayton Christensen says hello. :)

CloudEconomist
CloudEconomist

Few would deride the concept that innovation is desirable or that we should celebrate the innovators. Who Ben describes as "haters", though, are more often than not people who are calling out boorish and bad behaviors that infamously characterize some high profile innovators. Additionally, there is always social tension that arises from the privileges of innovation-driven wealth that commentators have identified since the time of Plato.

So easy to label critics as haters rather than as commentators.

Nobu
Nobu

Thanks Ben!


This is a great read to start off a brand new year. Hopefuls unite with other hopefuls to make it happen. Happy 2014!


BraveNewMediaWorld
BraveNewMediaWorld

Great perspective Ben - especially this comment: "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."


I shared similar thoughts on challenges around big company innovation - based on first hand experience - last summer: http://bit.ly/1gxy91H

Flinndustries
Flinndustries

The best article I've read in 2014! Being a cynic is one of the easiest aspects of investing. Balancing risk, realism, an optimism is the hardest and most important. Thanks Ben!

LA_Banker
LA_Banker

Critical observation is a healthy and perhaps necessary thing for a successful ecosystem -- in much the same way that criticism is necessary for good government.


No one likes a perpetual negative Nancy. But so long as there are those who write skeptically of the tech world to counter the perpetual, rah-rah types, we all benefit. 


I don't see how a diversity of voices and opinions is a bad thing -- unless, of course, one is a VC with a meaningful financial interest in garnering only positive press. 

WYSIWYG
WYSIWYG

An otherwise great article that is diminished by the use of the word n!*$a. That word has such historical venom that I'm horribly surprised that Andreessen Horowitz would use such a word even in a quote. 

Sven
Sven

While I don't agree with the definition of "technology" the article is really really great. Thanks for that!

Technology is not "a better way of doing things" but technology is just "a way of doing things".

James Cole
James Cole

Great article.

A lot of people's attitude is: if I can't imagine how X would be possible (if I can't explicitly imagine how the difficulties I see can be overcome) then this means it is impossible.

But of course you can rarely just imagine, off the top of your head, how difficulties will be overcome. They have to be laboriously worked through over and extended period of time.

Kaleberg
Kaleberg

I always was told that the Airy / Babbage thing was actually the fallout from a design dispute over a telescope objective lens. Babbage was just on the wrong side in a totally unrelated battle. Also, the Analytical Engine was limited by the time's metallurgy and machining abilities. Brass was an old metal, but its quality was inconsistent, and precision machining for mass production was maybe 30-50 years in the future. Granted the AE would have been a good way to push the technology.


Bell wasn't the first with a telephone, though he was the first to patent a telephone with variable volume. It was easy to get digital sound using threshold crossing, but harder to send an analog signal.


Also, don't diss Europe. It was two German physicists working in Paris who developed the first transistor like switching device. They even sold a portable radio based on the device. The transistor, however, was easier to manufacture.


To be honest, the big advantage the US used to have was a high level of natural resources and a relatively low population. This kept wages high and spread the wealth in a way that was unheard of in Europe with its aristocrats and 0.1%. This created a market for all sorts of manufactured goods such as mechanical clocks, inexpensive books, heating stoves, water pumps, pocket knives, magic lantern slides, surreys with fringes on top and the like. After three decades of stagnation, US isn't like that anymore. The American ethos lately has been can't do - we can't feed everyone, we can't have higher wages, we can't provide everyone with medical care, we can't improve our road system and so on. Let's hope we see more of the old can do attitude.


JVC
JVC

I think you're mischaracterizing some of the "can't-do" characters in your stories.  Someone telling you your idea has no merit what so ever is one thing. Someone telling you your idea won't make money is completely different.  Someone telling you your idea isn't technologically feasible at this moment is also something completely different.  The last two are examples of pragmatism, not "can't do."


Babbage's computer was too far ahead of its time, technology needed to catch up with the idea.  Would it have made sense for the British government to continue to pour money into the project until 1947 when the invention of the transistor made building a computer a feasible exercise?  Uh, no.


Anyone who relies on Newsweek for a critical dissection of a technical trend is a moron.  Who cares what Newsweek thinks?  If your startup is challenging a societal norm, and the mainstream press agrees with your approach, then you're not as disruptive as you think you are and you probably need to go back to the drawing board.


As for the telephone, you got that one right.  The committee failed to recognize the importance of receiving a private message in a personal way... and eventually they paid for their hubris and went out of business.


Don't take the criticism personally.  Listen to it.  In all of that negativity being thrown at you, there are also some good ideas.  Good ideas that are critical of your approach, not your premise.





davidk01
davidk01

When every other start-up is founded by college drop outs who have no clue about the giants and visionaries that came before then then it doesn't matter how much can-do attitude you have. All you're gonna do is create another SnapChat. Where exactly is the "innovation" and "can-do attitude" in SnapChat?


So I hate not because there isn't enough can-do attitude and optimism but because that attitude and optimism is borne out of ignorance. Comparing the current crop of technology start-ups to the accomplishment of people like Tim Berners-Lee, Alexander Bell, Charles Babbage, and friends is giving the current crop of "technologists" too much credit and they don't deserve any of it.


Learn about the true giants and visionaries and then you might be able to dream big because you will be both humbled and exalted. A 20-something college drop-out is not something to be worshipped and venerated no matter how much "can-do attitude" they have because all of it is borne out of ignorance.

S.P.T
S.P.T

 I guess it all depends on how you look at the things.... I mean from which angle.... every angle as its own defending explanation to say why the way you are looking at it and what you see is right. Just like customs and laws vary country to country same action may right in some place which is crime in other place.

It’s a great article to understand how the things works and what road blocks you expect to hit  if you are thinking speeds that are higher than allowed limit.

For example: Big Companies strategy is like running everything on F1 track @ F1 speeds and startups are like going at the same speeds on i-ways…..we can’t judge who is right and who is wrong…as both have their own pros and cons (there is no statistical data added which show rate of success in Big companies and startups just picked some examples to give moral support to dare your dreams –  please do not look at the story behind that)

But the only thing you need to consider is which one is good for now and for future of the planet for good living in spite of just applying ideas to make the virtual (dead wealth digital #’s in banks- Currency) wealth by exploiting the resources of future just to get feel of Conquer the World after which becomes no value when resource exhaust. – Unfortunately you will not be business man if you think like this- You will be named under social activist in the history for the references like author took.

It all depends on the how you want to rule and the risk you take… there is no investor who goes mad until unless he is convinced (which needs the good skills of narration and presentation to tell the story that your idea showers the $$$)– this is what it makes the deal or no-deal – it’s that simple.

The Moral of the story is being smart and picking right chunks in right time is what Matters.

It may look wired analysis but if you just map it right way you get your answer.

PatMcQueen
PatMcQueen

Great article Ben.   I try to get my team to think about "Yes before No."  Instead of quickly explaining why something will not work come at the problem from the other side.  Think through how it may work?  Live in the land of possibility!  "Yes before No"  (Credit to Dan Gilbert for his Yes before No ism)  

Brandon Tilley
Brandon Tilley

I think people are reading a bit too much into the article and the examples Ben picked; in my mind, it's all about having a default attitude of curiosity and might-be-possible rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that ideas are stupid or impossible simply because they can't or haven't been done today.


Of course not every idea will be great; of course there will be failures leading up to any success; that's not the point. The point is your attitude to true innovation.

Saikiran Yerram
Saikiran Yerram

Great article. 


But I think its misleading to use history to prove the "Can do" attitude. I am no historian or I don't have all the facts but I would imagine people rejecting certain ideas for e.g. computer, telephone, was probably because of economic unfeasibility at that time. Building a computer that can be used by everyone or a phone line that can spawn states with crystal clear voice weren't possible due to technical limitations in that era. 

Its easier to derive that conclusion now than making a decision then. As a investor, your concern is all about scalability and it was no different then.


For e.g. If you have an idea and you come to me today for an investment that relies on genetical engineering and will cost consumers around millions of dollars, would I invest or would I wait till the technology in that area picks up. 

Unless I am a foreword thinking billionaire like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, perhaps. But I would imagine most investors will shy away from it. 


Also, I do agree that having positive attitudes towards ideas are critical but it all depends on the talent pool you're working with. You possibly cannot entertain ideas from everyone with varying levels of intelligence. 


What you can do instead is create an environment that is conducive to try new ideas and give a vehicle to prove it. For e.g. github allows individuals to pick their own ideas to work on that directly/indirectly translates to a better customer experience. 


But it all starts with your hiring policies. Period! You have to hire the best and thats what Google, Amazon, Github do to an extent. 

narayankpl
narayankpl

Looks like it might be a good idea to get hold of all those ideas which were probably ahead of its time or dumped into the drain.

Terikan
Terikan

You are overlooking some really obvious and really insightful bits that are put on full display by the historical references you make.  The big one is that the analytical machine wasn't the great invention.  It was in fact mostly pointless.  What makes computing devices great are how we use them, and that road was paved by software designers and creative thinkers, not those who built the specifications for the hardware.


With the telephone, the great advance in technology wasn't actually this ability to transform audio into a deliverable signal, but the advance in transmission tech that allowed it to go further.  It's easy to look back at things and poo poo at what opportunities were missed, but it's never that simple, and it's a bit of revisionist history to pretend that the concepts for a Turing machine lead to an iPhone (which btw would be a brick without apps and software).  


Finally, drudging up the opinion an astronomer had about business doesn't seem particularly relevant, and you'll notice that in all your examples, eventually technology found a way.  Wood and steam were never going to power the modern PC, and sometimes the rest of the worlds technology just isn't in place.  That's not the 'haters' fault.  

List examples of great technology that never happened and hurt the world because of haters?  hmm?  Can't find any?

BTW this is attempt number 15 to actually post a comment due to your site's requirement of loading scripts from 26 (not an exagerration) domains

Alan Huang
Alan Huang

Great article.  I'm reminded of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's discussion of entrepreneurs in his book, Anti-Fragile.  He describes how individual entrepreneurs are fragile - many will fail, some will survive and others will become dominant - which benefits entire body of the economy by making it more robust overall, while those who have failed bear a large personal cost.  He suggests that we as a society must encourage entrepreneurship by finding a way to provide softer landings for failed entrepreneurs who take the risk and are prepared to accept the consequences of failure.  We want to let a thousand flowers bloom, because we don't know which ones will thrive and which will wither.  And with the ones that wither, whether their learnings will allow them to thrive in their next incarnation.  Despite all of the negativity in the tech media, I sense that we as a US society are taking steps to soften the landing of entrepreneurs who have failed, with so many incubators springing up around the US and a softening stance toward people who have taken the entrepreneurial plunge if they decide to return to larger, more established companies.  Overall, I sense that the sentiment toward entrepreneurship in the US is much more positive (and gaining momentum) than what one may garner from reading internet writers whose main goal is to drive CPM with sensationalist headlines.

marin
marin

It's a nice sentiment and I get it but innovation can come from a variety of places. The Internet itself came from a culture of fear about war from the Russians and if you absolutely hate how Company X is doing something, that can lead to you creating Company Y to do it better - let's not pretend that someone like Steve Jobs had a fair bit of hate for his competitors too. 


There does seem to be a lot of negativity out there that's amplified by social media but there's room for legitimate criticism, especially when it's from your users/customers.  

Rich Weisberger
Rich Weisberger

Great piece. The problem with innovation'a history is that it keeps repeating itself. Why? .05 percent know and project and. 99.05 percent nod and predict.

besplatan
besplatan

Cherrypicking. A great majority of startups fail and their ideas are proven as unworkable or impractical, so it is not unreasonable to summarily dismiss most of them. 

What a good investor recognizes and bets on isn't the idea itself but the entrepreneur. Even then they recognize that  most startups will fail, but if the investment is small enough and the possible payoff is large enough and one invests in many projects, the investor will win out in the end along with the best entrepreneurs, no matter how crazy and impractical the idea originally was.

Luc@Mop
Luc@Mop

Really interesting article which can be illustrated in a lot of Companies !


On the other hand, in USA which is the Pionner's Country, it's easier to create new (clever) business faster and easier than in the Old Continent (eg. France) where administrative and hierarical are so heavy !

defcon_5
defcon_5

Would love to see a post on how you define "great" in this context, Ben.


"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."


Marvin
Marvin

This is a good mantra to start the year with.

Binfire
Binfire

Kara & Walt, best of luck with the new venture & happy new year!

ranjanxroy
ranjanxroy

That Western Union excerpt is incredible

DV Henkel-Wallace
DV Henkel-Wallace

I always love comments by these scoffers (like 'that startup is ”fu&%@d,"').  They help identify the people to ignore.  Starting a business is hard enough, and when someone self-identifies as a shoot-from-the-hip scoffer it points out to me that THEY won't be someone who will come from left field and plane my business plan.  That person is hard to find!


Note: one fuckwit comment means nothing -- I probably don't really know the context, and anyway we've all made stupid comments at one time or another.  But spewing a regular ration of blowhard commentary is like walking around ringing a leper bell.  It's a service to the community.


The Cliff Stoll and Western Union cases are more dangerous because as you say we can all accidentally fall into them.  That's the crux of Clayton Christensen first book, the Innovator's Dilemma.

Scobleizer
Scobleizer

My friend Andy Grignon worked for Steve Jobs and was on a very small team building the original iPhone. Steve told him "sorry, you can not hire anyone who has worked on a phone before." 

Why not? For exactly the reasons laid out here. He didn't want his team to find out what they were attempting to do was "impossible." Andy learned that when he went to AT&T to pitch them on what became visual voice mail. Andy and his team thought it was possible. The AT&T folks thought they were nuts. It took lots of work by Steve Jobs to convince AT&T to try.


Agree there is too much naysaying. I think this is because there simply are too many startups now and too much change too quickly for most humans to absorb. 

Walruswinks
Walruswinks

I have been struggling with a new concept called "vertical video" and you are spot on. Apple rejected my video which is 720hx1280v even though iPhones create just that! Then there's VVS (vertical video syndrome) with 4m views and counting. But when people watch my "animated film" they rarely blink. The world is strange indeed. I ended up embedding the video in a portrait oriented eBook!

Christina N
Christina N

@WYSIWYG Agreed. Fantastic article that I would love to share on LinkedIn and my company's SalesForce chatter feed, but won't because of this. Still a great read, just wish that one little line wasn't there.

Brandon Tilley
Brandon Tilley

@PatMcQueen I really like the wording "Yes before No"! It doesn't mean that No is never the answer, just that it's not the default.

Luc@Mop
Luc@Mop

@besplatan 

YES, one of the major Innovation Killing Process, is the ROI First Law !

And after, it's the dividends for the shareholders First Priority System !

It was not so much the case few decades ago !

charlesjo
charlesjo

@Luc@Mop It's really unfortunate.  Governments should be encouraging entrepreneurs.

Alan Huang
Alan Huang

@Scobleizer Really interesting example.  Although I don't know the details about Tesla's design process around the Model S, as a former US auto employee, I find it striking that an automotive startup founded by industry outsiders has built a car that received the highest ever rating for a car by Consumer Reports and perhaps other car publications.  It's a bit early to say whether Tesla will have the same impact on the auto industry as Apple has had on the smartphone market, but it's interesting what Tesla could do with substantially fewer financial resources and than the incumbents.

Matt Schmulen
Matt Schmulen

@Scobleizer  It seems that some of negative feedback comes when people mistake the call for contribution as a call for approval. 

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