Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham Summary

Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job, as if the important thing were becoming a member of an institution. A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that.

Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham Summary
Source: paulgraham.com

Rating

8/10

There are some fantastic chapters but others are entirely skip-able.

This book covers:

How and why to be a contrarian thinker; programming wisdom; the difference between web-based and desktop software; the benefits of servers and in-house hardware; how to make wealth; why you should make a startup; and acquisition tips.


Preface

Computers have had far more effect on the form of our lives than space travel or nuclear technology.

Programmers tend to be divided into tribes by the languages they use. More even than by the kinds of programs they write. And so it’s considered bad manners to say that one language is better than another.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3: How and why to be a contrarian thinker.

The conformist test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? You should. It’s bad to have only conformist beliefs.

You shouldn’t have the same beliefs as everyone else because: Like every other era in history, our moral map almost certainly contains a few mistakes. And anyone who makes the same mistakes probably didn't do it by accident. It would be like someone claiming they had independently decided in 1972 that bell-bottom jeans were a good idea.

If you believe everything you're supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn't also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s — or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have.

If we could look into the future it would be obvious which of our taboos they'd laugh at. We can't do that, but we can do something almost as good: we can look into the past. Another way to figure out what we're getting wrong is to look at what used to be acceptable and is now unthinkable.

Changes between the past and the present sometimes do represent progress. In a field like physics, if we disagree with past generations it's because we're right and they're wrong. But this becomes rapidly less true as you move away from the certainty of the hard sciences. By the time you get to social questions, many changes are just fashion. The age of consent fluctuates like hemlines.

Here is another source of interesting heresies. Diff present ideas against those of various past cultures, and see what you get. Some will be shocking by present standards. Ok, fine; but which might also be true?

You can visit another country to see how their beliefs are different from yours.

My hypothesis is that the side that’s shocked is most likely to be the mistaken one. I suspect the only taboos that are more than taboos are the ones that are universal, or nearly so. Murder for example. But any idea that’s considered harmless in a significant percentage of times and places, and yet is taboo in ours, is a good candidate for something we’re mistaken about.

You can see this on a small scale in the matter of dirty words. A lot of my friends are starting to have children now, and they’re all trying not to use words like “fuck” and “shit” within baby’s hearing, lest baby start using these words too. But these words are part of the language, and adults use them all the time. So parents are giving their kids an inaccurate idea of the language by not using them. Why do they do this? Because they don’t think it’s fitting that kids should use the whole language. We like children to seem innocent.

  • This deliberately gives kids a misleading view of the world.

Moral fashions more often seem to be created deliberately. When there’s something we can’t say, it’s often because some group doesn’t want us to.

“I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side barely has the upper hand. That’s where you’ll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.”

When you find something you can’t say, what do you do with it? My advice is, don’t say it. Or at least, pick your battles.

Suppose in the future there is a movement to ban the color yellow. Proposals to paint anything yellow are denounced as “yellowist,” as is anyone suspected of liking the color. People who like orange are tolerated but viewed with suspicion. Suppose you realize there is nothing wrong with yellow. If you go around saying so, you’ll be denounced as a yellowist too, and you’ll find yourself having a lot of arguments with anti-yellowists. If your aim in life is to rehabilitate the color yellow, that may be what you want. But if you’re mostly interested in other questions, being labelled as a yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. I think it’s better to follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. Within my head, I make a point of encouraging the most outrageous thoughts I can imagine. But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders. The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club.

The trouble with keeping your thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it’s also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know.

Perhaps the best policy is to make it plain that you don’t agree with whatever zealotry is current in your time, but not to be too specific about what you disagree with. Zealots will try to draw you out, but you don’t have to answer them. If they try to force you to treat a question on their terms by asking “are you with us or against us?” you can always just answer “neither.

One way to do this is to ratchet the debate up one level of abstraction. If you argue against censorship in general, you can avoid being accused of whatever heresy is contained in the book or film that someone is trying to censor. You can attack labels with meta-labels: labels that refer to the use of labels to prevent discussion. The spread of the term “political correctness” meant the beginning of the end of political correctness, because it enabled one to attack the phenomenon as a whole without being accused of any of the specific heresies it sought to suppress.

“When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open mindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite.”

“Remember, it’s the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Fashion doesn’t seem like fashion to someone in the grip of it. It just seems like the right thing to do. It’s only by looking from a distance that we see oscillations in people’s idea of the right thing to do, and can identify them as fashions.

Time gives us such distance for free. Indeed, the arrival of new fashions makes old fashions easy to see, because they seem so ridiculous by contrast. From one end of a pendulum’s swing, the other end seems especially far away.

To see fashion in your own time, though, requires a conscious effort. Without time to give you distance, you have to create distance yourself. Instead of being part of the mob, stand as far away from it as you can and watch what it’s doing. And pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed. Web filters for children and employees often ban sites containing pornography, violence, and hate speech.”

“it’s the main difference between children and adults. When a child gets angry because he’s tired, he doesn’t know what’s happening. An adult can distance himself enough from the situation to say “never mind, I’m just tired.” I don’t see why one couldn’t, by a similar process, learn to recognize and discount the effects of moral fashions.

You have to take that extra step if you want to think clearly. But it’s harder, because now you’re working against social customs instead of with them. Everyone encourages you to grow up to the point where you can discount your own bad moods. Few encourage you to continue to the point where you can discount society’s bad moods.”

Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Programming wisdom, the difference between web-based and desktop software, the benefits of servers and in-house hardware, and startup tips.

“My mother has a computer that she uses for email and for keeping accounts. A couple years ago she was alarmed to receive a letter from Apple, offering her a discount on a new version of the operating system. There’s something wrong when a sixty-five-year-old woman who wants to use a computer for email and accounts has to think about installing new operating systems. Ordinary users shouldn’t even know the words “operating system,” much less “device driver” or “patch.”

  • This is why you need to make the customer experience super easy to use for any business you make.

“To developers, the most conspicuous difference between web based and desktop software is that a web-based application is not a single piece of code. It will be a collection of programs of different types rather than a single big binary. And so designing web-based software is like designing a city rather than a building: as well as buildings you need roads, street signs, utilities, police and fire departments, and plans for both growth and various kinds of disasters.

At Viaweb, software included fairly big applications that users talked to directly, programs those programs used, programs that ran constantly in the background looking for problems, programs that tried to restart things if they broke, programs that ran occasionally to compile statistics or build indexes for searches, programs we ran explicitly to garbage-collect resources or to move or restore data, programs that pretended to be users (to measure performance or expose bugs), programs for diagnosing network troubles, programs for doing backups, interfaces to outside services, software that drove an impressive collection of dials displaying real-time server statistics (a hit with visitors, but indispensable for us too), modifications (including bug fixes) to open source software, and a great[…]”

“But hardware is not just something to worry about. When you control it you can do more for users. With a desktop application, you can specify certain minimum hardware, but you can’t add more. If you administer the servers, you can in one step enable all your users to page people, or send faxes, or send commands by phone, or process credit cards, etc, just by installing the relevant hardware. We always looked for new ways to add features with hardware, not just because it pleased users, but also as a way to distinguish ourselves from competitors who (either because they sold desktop software, or resold web-based applications through ISPs) didn’t have direct control over the hardware.”

“When you’re writing desktop software, you’re practically forced to write the application in the same language as the underlying operating system—meaning C and C++. And so these languages (especially among non-technical people like managers and VCs) got to be considered as the languages for “serious” software development. But that was just an artifact of the way desktop software had to be delivered. For server-based software you can use any language you want.3 Today a lot of the top hackers are using languages far removed from C and C++: Perl, Python, and even Lisp”

“With server-based software, no one can tell you what language to use, because you control the whole system, right down to the hardware. Different languages are good for different tasks. You can use whichever is best for each. And when you have competitors, “you can” means “you must” (we’ll return to this later), because if you don’t take advantage of this possibility, your competitors will.

Most of our competitors used C and C++, and this made their software visibly inferior because (among other things), they had no way around the statelessness of CGI scripts. If you were going to change something, all the changes had to happen on one page, with an Update button at the bottom. As I explain in Chapter 12, by using Lisp, which many people still consider a research language, we could make the Viaweb editor behave more like desktop software.”

Web-based software companies don’t need to announce software version updates, but they should for PR purposes.

  • “The trade press, we learned, thinks in version numbers. They will give you major coverage for a major release, meaning a new first digit on the version number, and generally a paragraph at most for a point release, meaning a new digit after the decimal point.”

Web based software makes it way easier to find bugs. You want to let your users find bugs and then tell you about them. Or you can make a bug-tracking system.

You want to have great customer support because it is the best way to learn about your customers and how to make your product better. Solve problems/bugs and add suggestions on the fly. They can tell you what confuses them and needs to be simpler.

What big companies do instead of implementing features is plan them. At Viaweb we sometimes ran into trouble on this account. Investors and analysts would ask us what we had planned for the future. The truthful answer would have been, we didn’t have any plans. We had general ideas about things we wanted to improve, but if we knew how we would have done it already. What were we going to do in the next six months? Whatever looked like the biggest win. I don’t know if I ever dared give this answer, but that was the truth. Plans are just another word for ideas on the shelf. When we thought of good ideas, we implemented them.

At Viaweb, as at many software companies, most code had one definite owner. But when you owned something you really owned it: no one except the owner of a piece of software had to approve (or even know about) a release. There was no protection against breakage except the fear of looking like an idiot to one’s peers, and that was more than enough.

  • This works best for a small team of good programmers, not a big company.

“Fortunately, web-based software does require fewer programmers. I once worked for a medium-sized desktop software company that had over 100 people working in engineering as a whole. Only 13 of these were in product development. All the rest were working on releases, ports, and so on. With web-based software, all you need (at most) are the 13 people, because there are no releases, ports, and so on.”

“Viaweb was written by just three people.7 I was always under pressure to hire more, because we wanted to get bought, and we knew that buyers would have a hard time paying a high price for a company with only three programmers. (Solution: we hired more, but created new projects for them.)

The most efficient teams only have ~3 programmers.

Web-based software requires near-constant monitoring. One bug could crash the program for every user.

The biggest innovation of web-based software. You can collect data to learn about your users.

Efficiency matters for server-based software, because you’re paying for the hardware. The number of users you can support per server is the divisor of your capital cost, so if you can make your software very efficient, you can undersell competitors and still make a profit. At Viaweb we got the capital cost per user down to about $5. It would be less now, probably less than the cost of sending them the first month’s bill. Hardware is free now, if your software is reasonably efficient.

“The test drive was the way we got nearly all our new users. I think it will be the same for most web-based applications. If users can get through a test drive successfully, they’ll like the product. If they get confused or bored, they won’t”

I studied click trails of people taking the test drive and found that at a certain step they would get confused and click on the browser’s Back button. (If you try writing web-based applications, you’ll find the Back button becomes one of your most interesting philosophical problems.) So I added a message at that point, telling users they were nearly finished, and reminding them not to click on the Back button. Another great thing about web-based software is that you get instant feedback from changes: the number of people completing the test drive rose immediately from 60% to 90%. And since the number of new users was a function of the number of completed test drives, our revenue growth increased by 50%, just from that change.

“In the early 1990s I read an article that described software as a “subscription business.” At first this seemed a very cynical statement. But later I realized that it reflects reality: software development is an ongoing process. I think it’s cleaner if you openly charge subscription fees, instead of forcing people to keep buying and installing new versions so they’ll keep paying you. And fortunately, subscriptions are the natural way to bill for web-based applications.”

For companies, web-based applications are an ideal source of revenue. Instead of starting each quarter with a blank slate, you have a recurring revenue stream. Because your software evolves gradually, you don’t have to worry that a new model will flop. There never need be a new model, per se, and if you do something to the software that users hate, you’ll know right away. You have no trouble with uncollectible bills; if someone won’t pay, you can just turn off the service. And there is no possibility of piracy.

That last “advantage” may turn out to be a problem. Some amount of piracy is to the advantage of software companies. If some user would never have bought your software at any price, you haven’t lost anything if he uses a pirated copy. In fact you gain, because he is one more user helping to make your software the standard—or who might buy a copy later, when he graduates from high school.

“At times we toyed with the idea of a new service called Viaweb Gold. It would have exactly the same features as our regular service, but would cost ten times as much would be sold in person by a man in a suit.”

Desktop computers beat mainframe computers because it was easier for startups to code desktop programs. The application that pushed desktop computers into the mainstream was VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet. People bought Apple IIs just to use it.

The winning platform is (often) the one easiest to create on.

There is all the more reason for startups to write web-based software now, because writing desktop software has become a lot less fun. If you want to write desktop software now, you do it on Microsoft’s terms, calling their APIs and working around their buggy OS. And if you manage to write something that takes off, you may find that you were merely doing market research for Microsoft.

If a company wants to make a platform that startups will build on, they have to make it something that hackers themselves will want to use. That means it has to be inexpensive and well-designed. The Mac was popular with hackers when it first came out, and a lot of them wrote software for it. You see this less with Windows, because hackers don’t use it. The kind of people who are good at writing software tend to be running Linux or FreeBSD now.

  • All platforms (like Crypto Layer 1s) need to make it fun and easy to build on.

“It’s not so much that a competitor will trip them up as that they will trip over themselves. With the rise of web-based software, they will be facing not just technical problems but their own wishful thinking. What they need to do is cannibalize their existing business, and I can’t see them facing that. The same single-mindedness that has brought them this far will now be working against them. IBM was in exactly the same situation, and they couldn’t master it. IBM made a late and half-hearted entry into the microcomputer business because they were ambivalent about threatening their cash cow, mainframe computing. Microsoft will likewise be hampered by wanting to save the desktop. A cash cow can be a heavy monkey on your back.

  • The innovator’s dilemma.

“In a startup writing web-based applications, everything you associate with startups is taken to an extreme. You can write and launch a product with even fewer people and even less money. You have to be even faster, and you can get away with being more informal. You can literally launch your product as three guys operating out of an apartment, with a server collocated at an ISP. We did.”

  • How to make a startup: Have a couple programmers make an app out of an apartment. Use ASW.

“Web-based software never ships. You can work 16-hour days for as long as you want to. And because you can, and your competitors can, you tend to be forced to. You can, so you must. It’s Parkinson’s Law running in reverse.”

“At Viaweb we spent the first six months just writing software. We worked the usual long hours of an early startup. In a desktop software company, this would have been the hard part, but it felt like a vacation compared to the next phase, when we took users onto our server. The second biggest benefit of selling Viaweb to Yahoo (after the money) was to be able to dump ultimate responsibility for the whole thing onto the shoulders of a big company.”

  • You want to get acquired because it is a ton of non-stop work (16 hour days) to build and run a web-based app.

Most programmers are scared to start a startup because they (1) don’t know anything about business and (2) they’re afraid of competition. Graham says that both of these worries are unfounded. He says there are only 2 things you need to know about business: (1) Build something users love; and (2) make more money than you spend. (More on this below.)

As for building something users love, here are some general tips. Start by making something clean and simple that you would want to use yourself. Get a version 1.0 out fast, then continue to improve the software, listening closely to users as you do. The customer is always right, but different customers are right about different things; the least sophisticated users show you what you need to simplify and clarify, and the most sophisticated tell you what features you need to add. The best thing software can be is easy, but the way to do this is to get the defaults right, not to limit users’ choices. Don’t get complacent if your competitors’ software is lame; the standard to compare your software to is what it could be, not what your current competitors happen to have. Use your software yourself, all the time. Viaweb was supposed to be an online store builder, but we used it to make our own site too. Don’t listen to marketing people or designers or product managers just because of their job titles. If they have good ideas, use them, but it’s up to you to decide; software has to be designed by hackers who understand design, not designers who know a little about software. If you can’t design software as well as implement it, don’t start a startup.

Now let’s talk about competition. What you’re afraid of is not presumably groups of hackers like you, but actual companies, with offices and business plans and salesmen and so on, right? Well, they are more afraid of you than you are of them, and they’re right. It’s a lot easier for a couple of hackers to figure out how to rent office space or hire sales people than it is for a company of any size to get software written.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is essential: How to make wealth, why you should make a startup, acquisition tips

I recommend reading this entire chapter here: http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html

“If you wanted to get rich, how would you do it? I think your best bet would be to start or join a startup”

“Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast.”

“Here is a brief sketch of the economic proposition. If you’re a good hacker in your mid twenties, you can get a job paying about $80,000 per year. So on average such a hacker must be able to do at least $80,000 worth of work per year for the company just to break even. You could probably work twice as many hours as a corporate employee, and if you focus you can probably get three times as much done in an hour.1 You should get another multiple of two, at least, by eliminating the drag of the pointy-haired middle manager who would be your boss in a big company. Then there is one more multiple: how much smarter are you than your job description expects you to be? Suppose another multiple of three. Combine all these multipliers, and I’m claiming you could be 36 times more productive than you’re expected to be in a random corporate job. If a fairly good hacker is worth $80,000 a year at a big company, then a smart hacker working very hard without any corporate bullshit to slow him down should be able to do work worth about $3 million a year.”

“If $3 million a year seems high, remember that we’re talking about the limit case: the case where you not only have zero leisure time but indeed work so hard that you endanger your health.”

Wealth is not money: Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.”

“The advantage of a medium of exchange is that it makes trade work. The disadvantage is that it tends to obscure what trade really means. People think that what a business does is make money. But money is just the intermediate stage—just a shorthand—for whatever people want. What most businesses really do is make wealth. They do something people want.”

The Pie Fallacy

A surprising number of people retain from childhood the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world. There is, in any normal family, a fixed amount of money at any moment. But that’s not the same thing.

When wealth is talked about in this context, it is often described as a pie. “You can’t make the pie larger,” say politicians. When you’re talking about the amount of money in one family’s bank account, or the amount available to a government from one year’s tax revenue, this is true. If one person gets more, someone else has to get less.

I can remember believing, as a child, that if a few rich people had all the money, it left less for everyone else. Many people seem to continue to believe something like this well into adulthood. This fallacy is usually there in the background when you hear someone talking about how x percent of the population have y percent of the wealth.

“What leads people astray here is the abstraction of money. Money is not wealth. It’s just something we use to move wealth around. So although there may be, in certain specific moments (like your family, this month) a fixed amount of money available to trade with other people for things you want, there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history.

Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is—and you specifically are—one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell your car, you’ll get more for it.

In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven’t made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie. And in fact, when you look at it this way, you wonder why anyone would think there was.

Kids know, without knowing they know, that they can create wealth. If you need to give someone a present and don’t have any money, you make one. But kids are so bad at making things that they consider home-made presents to be a distinct, inferior, sort of thing to store-bought ones—a mere expression of the proverbial thought that counts. And indeed, the lumpy ashtrays we made for our parents did not have much of a resale market.”

“The people most likely to grasp that wealth can be created are the ones who are good at making things, the craftsmen. Their hand-made objects become store-bought ones. But with the rise of industrialization there are fewer and fewer craftsmen. One of the biggest remaining groups is computer programmers.”

“It’s also obvious to programmers that there are huge variations in the rate at which wealth is created. At Viaweb we had one programmer who was a sort of monster of productivity. I remember watching what he did one long day and estimating that he had added several hundred thousand dollars to the market value of the company. A great programmer, on a roll, could create a million dollars worth of wealth in a couple weeks. A mediocre programmer over the same period will generate zero or even negative wealth (e.g. by introducing bugs).

This is why so many of the best programmers are libertarians. In our world, you sink or swim, and there are no excuses. When those far removed from the creation of wealth—undergraduates, reporters, politicians—hear that the richest 5% of the people have half the total wealth, they tend to think injustice! An experienced programmer would be more likely to think is that all? The top 5% of programmers probably write 99% of the good software.”

What a job is: In industrialized countries, people belong to one institution or another at least until their twenties. After all those years you get used to the idea of belonging to a group of people who all get up in the morning, go to some set of buildings, and do things that they do not, ordinarily, enjoy doing. Belonging to such a group becomes part of your identity: name, age, role, institution. If you have to introduce yourself, or someone else describes you, it will be as something like, John Smith, age 10, a student at such and such elementary school, or John Smith, age 20, a student at such and such college.

When John Smith finishes school he is expected to get a job. And what getting a job seems to mean is joining another institution. Superficially it’s a lot like college. You pick the companies you want to work for and apply to join them. If one likes you, you become a member of this new group. You get up in the morning and go to a new set of buildings, and do things that you do not, ordinarily, enjoy doing.”

“And that’s what you do, as well, when you go to work for a company. But here there is another layer that tends to obscure the underlying reality. In a company, the work you do is averaged together with a lot of other people’s. You may not even be aware you’re doing something people want. Your contribution may be indirect. But the company as a whole must be giving people something they want, or they won’t make any money. And if they are paying you x dollars a year, then on average you must be contributing at least x dollars a year worth of work, or the company will be spending more than it makes, and will go out of business.”

“Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job, as if the important thing were becoming a member of an institution. A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that. All a company is is a group of people working together to do something people want. It’s doing something people want that matters, not joining the group.”

“It turns out, though, that there are economies of scale in how much of your life you devote to your work. In the right kind of business, someone who really devoted himself to work could generate ten or even a hundred times as much wealth as an average employee. A programmer, for example, instead of chugging along maintaining and updating an existing piece of software, could write a whole new piece of software, and with it create a new source of revenue.

Companies are not set up to reward people who want to do this. You can’t go to your boss and say, I’d like to start working ten times as hard, so will you please pay me ten times as much? For one thing, the official fiction is that you are already working as hard as you can. But a more serious problem is that the company has no way of measuring the value of your work.”

To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.”

“That’s the real point of startups. Ideally, you are getting together with a group of other people who also want to work a lot harder, and get paid a lot more, than they would in a big company. And because startups tend to get founded by self-selecting groups of ambitious people who already know one another (at least by reputation), the level of measurement is more precise than you get from smallness alone. A startup is not merely ten people, but ten people like you.

Steve Jobs once said that the success or failure of a startup depends on the first ten employees.”

“There is, as I said before, a large random multiplier in the success of any company. So in practice the deal is not that you’re 30 times as productive and get paid 30 times as much. It is that you’re 30 times as productive, and get paid between zero and a thousand times as much”

“We would have much preferred a 100% chance of $1 million to a 20% chance of $10 million, even though theoretically the second is worth twice as much. Unfortunately, there is not currently any space in the business world where you can get the first deal.”

“The closest you can get is by selling your startup in the early stages, giving up upside (and risk) for a smaller but guaranteed payoff.”

“The people in charge of acquisitions will be among the more conservative, because they are likely to be business school types who joined the company late. They would rather overpay for a safe choice. So it is easier to sell an established startup, even at a large premium, than an early-stage one.”

“I think it’s a good idea to get bought, if you can. Running a business is different from growing one. It is just as well to let a big company take over once you reach cruising altitude. It’s also financially wiser, because selling allows you to diversify”

“How do you get bought? Mostly by doing the same things you’d do if you didn’t intend to sell the company. Being profitable, for example. But getting bought is also an art in its own right”

“For potential acquirers, the most powerful motivator is the prospect that one of their competitors will buy you”

“The second biggest is the worry that, if they don’t buy you now, you’ll continue to grow rapidly and will cost more to acquire later, or even become a competitor.”

“You’d think that a company about to buy you would do a lot of research and decide for themselves how valuable your technology was. Not at all. What they go by is the number of users you have”

“In effect, acquirers assume the customers know who has the best technology. And this is not as stupid as it sounds. Users are the only real proof that you’ve created wealth. Wealth is what people want, and if people aren’t using your software, maybe it’s not just because you’re bad at marketing. Maybe it’s because you haven’t made what they want”

“So I think you should make users the test, just as acquirers do. Treat a startup as an optimization problem in which performance is measured by number of users”

“Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization”

“Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.

Remember what a startup is, economically: a way of saying, I want to work faster. Instead of accumulating money slowly by being paid a regular wage for fifty years, I want to get it over with as soon as possible.”

“Since it became possible to get rich by creating wealth, everyone who has done it has used essentially the same recipe: measurement and leverage, where measurement comes from working with a small group, and leverage from developing new techniques.”

Work in as small of a group as possible and use leverage: capital, employees, code, and media.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7: You need to create wealth, it is not something given to you.

“Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.”

“Because of the circumstances in which they encounter it, children tend to misunderstand wealth. They confuse it with money. They think that there is a fixed amount of it. And they think of it as something that’s distributed by authorities (and so should be distributed equally), rather than something that has to be created (and might be created unequally).”

“Where does wealth come from? People make it. This was easier to grasp when most people lived on farms, and made many of the things they wanted with their own hands. Then you could see in the house, the herds, and the granary the wealth that each family created. It was obvious then too that the wealth of the world was not a fixed quantity that had to be shared out, like slices of a pie. If you wanted more wealth, you could make it.”

“Because kids are unable to create wealth, whatever they have has to be given to them. And when wealth is something you’re given, then of course it seems that it should be distributed equally.”

“In the real world, you can’t keep living off your parents. If you want something, you either have to make it, or do something of equivalent value for someone else, in order to get them to give you enough money to buy it. In the real world, wealth is (except for a few specialists like thieves and speculators) something you have to create, not something that’s distributed by Daddy. And since the ability and desire to create it vary from person to person, it’s not made equally.

You get paid by doing or making something people want, and those who make more money are often simply better at doing what people want. Top actors make a lot more money than B-list actors. The B-list actors might be almost as charismatic, but when people go to the theater and look at the list of movies playing, they want that extra oomph that the big stars have.”

“How much someone’s work is worth is not a policy question. It’s something the market already determines.

“Are they really worth 100 of us?” editorialists ask. Depends on what you mean by worth. If you mean worth in the sense of what people will pay for their skills, the answer is yes, apparently.”

“Steve Jobs saved a company that was in a terminal decline. And not merely in the way a turnaround specialist does, by cutting costs; he had to decide what Apple’s next products should be. Few others could have done it. And regardless of the case with CEOs, it’s hard to see how anyone could argue that the salaries of professional basketball players don’t reflect supply and demand.”

“Are [skilled CEOs] really worth 100 of us? Would a basketball team trade one of their players for 100 random people? What would Apple’s next product look like if you replaced Steve Jobs with a committee of 100 random people? These things don’t scale linearly.”

“When we say that one kind of work is overpaid and another underpaid, what are we really saying? In a free market, prices are determined by what buyers want. People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things”

“But it was not till the Industrial Revolution that wealth creation definitively replaced corruption as the best way to get rich. In England, at least, corruption only became unfashionable (and in fact only started to be called “corruption”) when there started to be other, faster ways to get rich”

“With the rise of the middle class, wealth stopped being a zero sum game. Jobs and Wozniak didn’t have to make us poor to make themselves rich. Quite the opposite: they created things that made our lives materially richer. They had to, or we wouldn’t have paid for them.

But since for most of the world’s history the main route to wealth was to steal it, we tend to be suspicious of rich people. Idealistic undergraduates find their unconsciously preserved child’s model of wealth confirmed by eminent writers of the past. It is a case of the mistaken meeting the outdated.”

“Only a few countries (by no coincidence, the richest ones) have reached this stage. In most, corruption still has the upper hand”