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The Rise Of The Gentleman Hacker (techcrunch.com)
178 points by ericflo on Dec 3, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

There's no need to wait for a $100 million dollar exit to do this. If you have a lifestyle business (say, a web design company, or an online agency) that throws off enough cash, you can set up a team of hackers and UI people and start throwing stuff at the wall.

In fact, if they are truly free to be creative, yet have some constraints in terms of time and money, its likely to work better.

Can I just say that I despise the phrase lifestyle business? I know what you mean by using it, but wouldn't it be more accurate to describe a project that didn't take VC and has paying customers as simply a business? I would suggest that not aiming for a Google or Facebook acquisition (or big IPO) actually allows that kind of experimentation.

It's about being more specific about the intentions. Yes, lifestyle businesses could be simply 'a business', but startups are also 'a business.'

Try reading your post with s/lifestyle business/startup/g;... it's the same point. More specific language isn't a bad thing.

As I said above, I understood what you meant. I just find the phrase slightly damning--and indicative of a problem in this space. I see a trend in commentary on tech blogs and conferences that imply that as a developer, either you're creating the next Google or Facebook acquisition, or you've traded the big payout for a "lifestyle business" that is probably turning a profit and carrying no debt, with no hybrid examples in the vast middle. It's a bit like saying, "Poor Joe Startup, he has a nice lifestyle business there, but it'll never be Twitter, Foursquare, or Path.com." Personally, I'd love to have those problems.

To me, "lifestyle business" does represent a certain subset of businesses, but tends to be used, as you said, for any company that is not raising money to go for the big exit.

In my opinion, "lifestyle business" implies that the business is done to generate cash in a regular manner with little input. The business itself doesn't matter so much in the end and the main goal is to sustain the revenues rather than necessarily expanding the business. This is exactly what "The 4-hour Work Week" is talking about. Real-estate investments can be like this as well.

On the other hand, you have bootstrapped businesses like 37signals, GitHub or plain web/design agencies which tend to be wrongly lumped into this category. If these were lifestyle businesses, then any store owner, plumber, contractor would have a lifestyle business as well.

On an unrelated note, it seems very premature to put Path.com in the same category as Twitter and Facebook.

I agree, it's unfortunate when 'lifestyle business' is used in a derogatory manner. I'd rather just take the term back, like "monkeypatching." Words can mean good things in one crowd, and bad things in another.

(and I'm not the OP. ;) )

I agree with that. I already use the term as something to aspire to. Indeed, a "lifestyle business" is my dream job.

Your problem isn't with the phrase then: it's the connotation. That problem would not be solved by not calling stuff as-it-is, mostly because the root cause is journalism -from their point of view, you're either next Facebook (and thus, story-worthy), or nobody.

Let me suggest a viable alternative, that would actually solve your problem: be more selective about the kind of infosources you're letting yourself influenced by, OR be more cognant about the fact, that you're letting yourself influenced by writings of underpaid philosophy-grads. More generally: ask the question "how do I know what I think I know" a bit more often. Or just take the red pill, and dig into techcrunch archives, say, 3 years back, and compare with reality. All of these can work wonders for your perception.

A phrase _is_ a set of connotations, so I would argue that his problem is indeed with the phrase.

So, um, where do I sign up with these folks?

To generalize from my very limited experience, people doing this use the same hiring strategies as companies, but 1) rely on personal connections and relationships more, since they're often trying to stay a bit under the radar, and 2) are more connected with academia than your average hirer. One approach could be to network at non-mainstream events in your area that are more about creating and seeing cool stuff than networking, such as dorkbot. Also, probably just networking aggressively would work, at whatever are the best gatherings in your interest area, such as the web 2.0 summit, or health 2.0. These people are probably there somewhere, and if not, their friends are.

If you're awesome and into bioinformatics, and are in austin, the bay area, or the pacific northwest, ping me. I'm not in the same league as the folks in the article, but this is more or less my approach right now, and I know another couple people in similar situations.

I don't know if I'm "awsome" or not, but is this bioinformatics thing... what ever it is, for real? Or it just a few enthusiast having fun learning? (Nothing wrong with that, it's just not something that would dislodge me form my "for reals" big corporate bioinformatics dayjob in the North East.)

To answer your question as best I can: it's exploratory at the moment, like the examples in the original article. The immediate goal is to pursue directions one of which will hopefully produce software and knowledge clearly valuable enough to warrant significantly increasing resources devoted to it--the next inflection point. Risks and rewards are high at this stage. I won't go into a why starting or joining a startup is fantastic, though, as PG does that just fine[1].

Capturing created value outside of the research arm of a big pharma company is of course a key challenge in bioinformatics, and I'd love to meet or chat with you if you're thinking about this too.

In the missionary vs mercenary divide that John Doerr uses to segment startups, I'm now a missionary. The end goal is to cure disease.

[1]: http://paulgraham.com/notnot.html; http://paulgraham.com/boss.html; http://paulgraham.com/articles.html

I don't need convicing that it is easy to inovate outside of big pharma. Altough bioinformatics startups do require quite a bit more cash then pure software startups.

However, the biggest part of capturing value is the regulatory burden.

In other words, lets say you have a great way to discover biomarkers. Even more so, you go ahead and DO discover a pile of biomarkers with great potential.

Then you attemp to sell those biomarkers to big pharma, and that is when you find out:

Even with all their beurocracy and horrible return on R&D investments, big pharma is sitting on a huge pile of biomarkers.

Pushing any one tratment through the pipeline costs a metric tonne of cash and takes 10 year before you even know if it's worth to keep going.

That is why there's a huge backlog of potential drugs, biomarkers, treatments, etc.

Thus merely finding new things with potential is only slighlty better then nothing.

Agreed. You've got to address the real problems, or you won't get anywhere.

If you specifically want to sign up with Birch's Monkey Inferno, feel free to get in touch with me (bill@justin.tv) and I'll pass your contact details along - I know a couple of people who are involved.

I work for a business that is exactly like that, owned by a Gentleman general entrepreneur.

It's very weird, a little C/C++ in the morning, some PHP in the afternoon, and then massaging some huge datasets with Python and JavaScript in the evening could be just your regular day, in fact, I think I had at least three just like that. It could be fun, if you like that sort of thing. It can also be absolutely exhausting.

Maybe this is the small-scale return of private research units like Bell Labs or (Xerox) PARC (although both of them still exist, they are not as significant as they once were) for the Web: put a group of awesome guys together and just let them cook a bit and see what's coming out ...

It's more like the classic definition of skunkworks than "official" research. A good example is NuCalc, which continued to be developed after the project was cancelled by Apple.

We call that being a `research scientist', which basically means playing on the company's dime.

Of course, you generally have to have a Ph.D. and prodigious output of papers to get the job.

Get someone really young who wants responsibility and they may even work for next to nothing in exchange for big equity stakes in their projects – sort of a modified Y Combinator model.

It doesn't sound very gentlemanly to me to be rich enough that you've decided to open a business just to screw around (hence force referred to as "the club house") but to target employees that are young and dumb (tm) enough to accept little to no compensation while you drive your SL class into the office every day. If you can afford to pay a baseline wage but seek not to it's just a type of exploitation.

I would assume these gentleman hackers are smart enough to realize that you don't use the same compensation structure for a maybe-profit company with no business model as for a for-profit startup. I hope Arrington is just speculating (incorrectly) in this case and these "gentlemen" aren't drastically underpaying their employees.

I think you're right, this is much more likely to just be an arrington-ism than anything else.

This sounds like a really good solution to the classical problem about what to do, once one has made enough money in a successful exit event.

yeah, what a horrible problem to have in the first place.

For me at least that's equivalent to solving the knapsack problem, but hey - if it's easy for you to optimize usage of absurd amounts of capital according to your utility function, then more power to you.

what i was trying to say is, that first you have to work insanely hard and/or have a huge amount of luck to be in a situation where you actually have that problem. Then when you have reached that, you can think about how to solve it, which i fould find a very nice problem to deal with.

Reminds me of this shirt:


Maybe this could be the official emblem of this new breed.

It's like the cost of meaningful tech research has dropped so much with software that the "public money -> universities" model can now be replaced by "wealthy individual -> hacker shop" model. Interesting parallels to art world; worked well for the Medicis.

The article is interesting, but dear... The picture he uses is awful. The basic composition is fine, but the blatant overuse of HDR is incredibly annoying.

Sorry for the off topic, but I had to get that off my chest. :)

can't we have both? a gentleman hacker farm? a small countryside farm where you can go to bootstrap your own startup. i mean, we've kind of discussed similar in the past and i still actually kind of like the idea.

Sign me up!

Maybe then, they can focus on 'real' problems like global warming and green energy.

I'd focus on the software side of 'real' problems and team up with others project focusing on the engineering side. Still keep to my core area I know best while still tending towards these kind of real worldwide problems.

I'd also love to fund research that misses out because it can't be monetized easily.

With money to burn you could certainly make great strides in improving software in many areas of the sciences. A lot of tools used daily in areas of biology for example are very capable but were typically designed for use by the original author only. You could improve the lives of countless grad students and other researchers simply by providing a decent UI and good documentation. The savings and benefits would be enormous but you certainly would not make any money doing so.

I assume you're being ironic? I think the jury's out on both of those things being real problems.

Correct, with the only qualifier being that this only applies to juries that are composed of anti-reason, science illiterate individuals.

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