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The best founders are futurists (josephwalla.com)
106 points by arram on May 31, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

This is a tautological claim. Of course with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the biggest successes were those significantly changed the world... No way!? That's why they're successes! Lots, and lots of examples of people who similarly dreamed of changing the world with BIG ideas that completely failed. The bigger idea, the lower your probability of success, but with a larger potential return (both personal wealth and impact). I've never seen any data to support that your risk adjusted return on big ideas is better than for smaller ideas.

Massive vividness bias here.

A corollary is that both these claims can simultaneously be true: 1) most successful founders are futurists; and 2) most futurists are cranks.

So, the successful founders are futurists that are not cranks. And what would be the proportions of futurists that are not crank? That could be a good recipe to predict which founders will be successful...

Well, some might be cranks and also be successful. ;-)

(cough Nikola Tesla cough)

That just gives you a Venn diagram with three circles Cranks, futurists and genius. The union there is exactly one

Do you mean intersection?

The funny thing about this article is that it cites one of the biggest flops as a sign of success.

Dean Kamen might have said, if you live in the future, you won't drive short distances. He built Segway.

He just got the form factor wrong. Go to China and everyone rides electric scooterbikes for short trips (with payloads too).

America is so car-dominated that it's hard for this to catch on. If our cities had 10x the population and fewer parking spots (because space is at a premium), we would be doing the same.

In fact, we probably will get there within 20 years. I can't wait for a Tesla ultralight EV or motorcycle. But you'll see this first in Chungking or Mumbai.

Very true - it is in fact a blind spot in our culture - I live in a new build town (15 years old) and whilst most amenities are in walking distance there are no dedicated cycle paths, no pedestrian areas.

Why the hell did I move here? Bbecause there are no better towns in the south east - it's wrong, everywhere

Everyone rides motorcycles in Asia, but they still don't want to be standing the whole time.

You know, you're essentially standing when walking...

Most of these trips are relatively short, somewhere around 5 to 20 minutes. Nobody is touring on a scooter.

The Segway form factor is remarkably maneuverable and space efficient for one person. But it's not $3k better than a bicycle or cheapo electric scooter. People are also familiar with riding bicycles, so there's no learning curve for scooters.

It's also hard to do this on a Segway: http://starburst.hackerfriendly.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/...

Let's sum up this article.

In order to be successful monetarily, you need to make something people want.

This guy is a savant.

Great. More middlebrow dismissal. [1]

Instead of just dismissing an article for the obvious points, try to identify at least one idea that could be considered novel or worthwhile. In this article, the suggestion of "X will inevitably be part of the future, so I will build it" is a novel idea, at least to me, and especially with the list of real-life examples he gave.

That is completely different than building what people want. For example, a different color phone case for a new smartphone is something that many people want, but not a "future" idea as the article suggests. Robot butlers like in The Jetsons [2] will inevitably be part of the future, so there's an idea.

Learn to think positively and see the potential of all things, including "obvious" articles. I'd certainly recommend The Magic of Thinking Big [3], namely the example about prisons.

[1] pg: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4693920

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Jetsons_characters#...

[3] http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B002V1BMPI

This article only exists because HN exists. It was frontpaged because it was written by a YC member and the YC network (probably) propelled it straight to the top judging by the 100% submitted-by-a-YC-friend-and-frontpaged rate the author's blog enjoys.

It didn't suffer the inconvenience of competing on merit and the substance is lacking. The best founders stayed on top of an emerging market they helped create? That's why they're successful not how and not useful, but thanks for the advertisement.


Middle brow dismissals matter. Insight is the result of accurate thought, if someone makes basic errors then they're unlikely to have any worthwhile insights. Consequently, people seem unlikely to hit on anything that's going to give them an advantage by semi-randomly walking through articles and thinking really hard about what the writter might mean. There's charitable interpretation and then there's just grasping at straws.


Take the article in OP for instance. I've no more idea after having read the thing about how to see what people will want in five years than I had before I read the thing.

'Building a great company is about predicting the future. You build something people want now and predict they'll continue to want it in the future.

Just think, if you live in the future, what does it look like? When you see it, that's what you should build.'

Well, gee, that's really useful advice.

Can you actually imagine reasoning that way?

"I think we should do this because in the future everyone will definitely want it."

"Why do you think that? ---"

"Because, uhm."

And then, at best, you just have the list of reasons that people use to select their ideas anyway, pain points and the like, predictions about how the marketplace will change and technology advance. At which point you're not using the supposed insight from the article to, 'Just think, if you live in the future, what does it look like? When you see it, that's what you should build.' you're just doing what you'd normally do under a different heading. You can drop the words 'in the future' from that entirely and you've got a run of the mill way of inventing things. The whole 'in the future' stuff hasn't added any information for you.

'Seeing the future,' by itself, is a terrible way to generate ideas anyway, even if you put that aside. The more obvious they are, 'X will definitely be part of the future,' the less probable it is that having the idea gives you an advantage. The less obvious they are, the less likely it is that you're going to see them and so the less effort it makes sense to sink into trying to do so - (indeed it becomes dramatically less likely that the thing you imagine will be in the future at all, so you're not so much seeing the future as day-dreaming.)

You need something where you have an information or thinking advantage, a way of predicting what your customers are likely to optimise along - a pain point, some sort of cost reduction, etc - knowledge about the world and human nature in other words. Otherwise you're just pulling stuff out of thin air. Which is a terrible business strategy and not even what the people in his examples did:

Job's support of no file system was based on itteration and the knowledge of the use of finder as compared to more traditional interfaces with the file system.

Dropbox was made to address the personal needs of the creator who kept forgetting his USB device.

Tesla's a very old idea at this point. People have been trying to use electricity and other forms of energy storage to address their transport pain for decades.

Microsoft was founded as a software company in a market where people were already making the same kind of programs - their first OS was a version of Unix for God's sake (Xenix).

Oh yeah, and there's Segway, which you know - still hasn't achieved any sort of dominance, so why that's even on that list.

It's just really poor advice that not even the people he seems to site have followed. They didn't see the future and build it, they saw a current problem or an opportunity and went for it.


So, yeah. Personally, I've found that articles that are so dismissed, even on close examination, rarely if ever benefit me in any way for having read them. You can generate a sort of fake wisdom from them, say something that seems profound, but I suspect that's more a function of our love for complex language than it is the underlying thought actually being insightful.

I find that this article is representative of much of the content of HN these days: provocative assertions made by relative nobodies with little supporting evidence save anecdote, but made with the full voice of authority. Found a middling startup or two, and you're suddenly an expert. Call me old fashioned, but I like to get my blanket generalizations only from those significantly richer, more powerful, happier, or more successful than I am.

The irony is that HN upvotes light commentary with blanket generalizations to the front page and also upvotes cruel dismissive comments criticizing that sort of light commentary to the top comment.

At the risk of sounding perverse and making a blanket generalization, I have this to say:

The people who upvote posts are not the same people who upvote or participate in the comments section.

The cognitive dissonance is actually two different sets of folks voting the way they perceive the world. It just happens that the people who like to comment are a tad more snarky.

I just realized that I only rarely vote, and that's only to help it stay in discussion for longer.

If you live in the future pg-bot will be able to downvote trivialy negative comments

upvoted for style

"Things have now gotten to the stage where I flinch slightly as I click on the "comments" link, bracing myself for the dismissive comment I know will be waiting for me at the top of the page." - PG

The quality of the comments is probably related to the quality of the content. Startup truisms and anecdotes-as-advertisements rarely stimulate interesting conversation.

I agree with what you're saying, but apparently most of HN enjoys this sort of content :(

Why is it important who has made the argument?

If it is a "blanket generalization" as you say, wouldn't it be more productive to quickly name a few counter examples? It should be very easy to do this no? On the other side, a rich and successful person can also be very bad at communicating his/her way of thinking.

I see this on HN more and more and it annoys me very much.

Interesting how you discredit advice from "relative nobodies." The world is mostly full of relative nobodies. You must have a hard time opening your mind to learn from anybody.

That wasn't the guys only criteria, so you're strawmanning them to an extent.

Even putting that aside though:

People who know what they're talking about write books. Oh not all of them, granted, but there are so many humans publishing so much stuff - so many of whom will be experts - that it makes at best limited sense to listen to anyone but the best. The world may be predominantly full of nobodies but that makes it a sorting problem.

Indeed, you could argue that for some literature the search data is rapidly becoming more important than producing anything new for a similar set of reasons.

"Do you create anything, or just criticize others work and belittle their motivations?"

- Steve Jobs

You should watch Eric's intro about himself (about a minute in) [1] before filtering advice and opinion based on someone's success.


Please spare us from this pointless meta-commentary - it's both boring and unnecessary.

It is possible that someone who hasn't founded a billion dollar company actually might have something interesting, insightful and useful to say. At least I hope so, otherwise you just condemned innovation to the gallows.

oh but those people realize they are nobodies. posts like this are a terrible attempt at self promotion.

Just to derail a bit...

I've always disagreed with Jobs over the filesystem thing. There's just a minimum level of knowledge a computer user needs to use the damn thing, and file systems are really fundamental to that. I've never seen an abstraction that worked well enough to replace the file system as we know it, so abstractions stay welded to particular apps. Then you have a bunch of domain specific abstractions replacing a common system that was never broken.

I've worked some service jobs, at a FedEx computer center and a University computer lab. I've seen several poor souls who couldn't for the life of them use a pointing device OR keyboard. Far more common is people who can't grasp the idea of usernames and passwords; and I mean really can't understand the difference.

"Why does it have to be so hard?" is the question. Not for hard concepts, but for every concept. People offer to pay me to write their email and school papers, so they don't have to fight with Word and the whole save/load idea (not to mention glacial slow typing). Maybe this person could be served by some ultra-simple software, negating the need for new skills. I really feel this is a disservice to them. In the case of a student, this all but guarantees they are dead in the water career wise, even if they somehow eek through school.

I think people should just learn about files, they are fundamental to computer use. In the far future, when we have Star Trek style voice driven computers, most people will utterly fail to use them. "Computer, email? No I mean the one I sent. Why can't you just find it?!? There was a picture". Anyone who thinks natural language is clear and intuitive should be sentenced to two years labor in a public computer lab or call center.

100% agreed on voice control and natural language. Regarding learning the fundamentals of computers vs. dumbing down the system, I fear that no one knows the right answer, and that there may not even be a right answer. There are arguments to made for both approaches and there's no one-size-fits-all sweet spot for that design decision.

I have my own opinions on it but I'm pretty sure I'm wrong too. I think this is one of those things where a bunch of well-intentioned people implement a bunch of different designs over the next few decades, and it just sort of converges on something even though every design leading up to it was fundamentally wrong in some sense, or went to far in one direction.

Thanks for the laugh, I love your rendition of a person trying to use a voice interface. I totally agree. Personally, I'm hoping for something a little finer-grained as a filesystem replacement, bound up with undo and live remote collaboration, with everything embeddable in everything else... an experience generally centered around data, with apps as a wrapper. It's been discussed for years, but I can't recall how it's usually refered to.

> Far more common is people who can't grasp the idea of usernames and passwords; and I mean really can't understand the difference.

Consider that these people may have never used a computer system where their "user name" is addressable in any way. To them, the user name and password are just two pieces of information that they need to give the computer.

> I think the minimum viable product has made us so effective at thinking short term that we spend less time thinking long term.

There is such a thing as a product or idea to be presented "before it's time". I wonder if there's an opposite of an MVP like a "Maximum Viable Product" - The most advanced product the market is likely to support at the moment.

Or not that the market is likely to support at the moment, but that is simply possible to build with today's materials and processes. Like the Apple Newton, perhaps.

I really like this point. I think there is, generally, a flaw in the thinking that because programmers are good at focus, they are good at prediction.

"Ahead of its time" may be outside of the natural means, on top of being quite possibly outside of the "epistemic network" of those thinkers assigned to the problem.

MVP eludes most, and as we become more democratic in our development practices, this scientific concept of MVP will so too become diluted. The future will likely simply be outlined by material needs. Let's say that ?

If you live in the future, there is no poverty

If you live in the future, there are no diseases

If you live in the future, you can live for 200+ years

If you live in the future, we stopped using fossil fuels

If you live in the future, computers don't track us

If you live in the future, facebook doesn't exist

so lets get back to work..

If you live in the future, rockets are fully reusable.

If you live in the future, Launch Loops are in operation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Launch_loop

If you live in the future, there are permanent residents on Mars and the Moon.

What kind of founder doesn't think this? "In the future everyone will be using this ____ that I'm making" - whether it's a virtual pet app or a new distribution of ubuntu. The problem is that just thinking this is the case is so far from meaning that it has any chance of coming true that the thought hardly helps anything.

I don't disagree with the thought, I just don't think it really carries any particular meaning.

There is what the future could be, what tomorrow will be, and what today is.

Sometimes building a product is about building the future, but not every product is about that. If you don't have the resources to see it through to the future where what you envision is the default, you will fail.

Think about Netflix. Streaming video on the internet is a 20 year old idea right? They had to start with delivering dvd's in the mail, which is kind of an analog version of streaming in some ways right? Similar idea, but also fundamentally different delivery mechanism. Even if their goal was streaming movies directly to houses, that's not what they built first.

If you can see the problems of today, a way to fix it tomorrow, and maybe what that evolves into in 5, 10, 20 years... awesome. But if you just see a good idea that will take 5, 10, 20 years to be viable... run away unless you have billions of dollars you want to light on fire(like Microsoft on tablets, web tv, home automation, etc...)

The best founders are lucky.

Right place. Right time. Right society.

A clusterfuck of luck if you will.

That's the only reasonable conclusion one can draw from such small data sets that include within them insane variance, complex systems, extreme path dependence, and extremely disparate successful strategies (sometimes VC shoot to the moon works, sometimes bootstrapping, sometimes established spin outs, sometimes tech, sometimes marketing, sometimes government contracting).

There is no best founders are X. Just unique situations accidently exploited by founders who happily find themselves embedded directly within them. Founders are by far the least important factor in the causal chain that ends up with their eventual success, or failure.

I would say 70% of my ideas are futuristic, which is why I'm working on the other 30%

That 70% depends on technologies that plain don't exist yet, or are highly experimental at best since some depended on funding that isn't there anymore so the underlying tech needed to move to the next stage is still nowhere to be seen.

Case in point: without CAD we wouldn't have stealth planes. The theory existed on paper and attempts at stealth go all the way back to WWII, but it wasn't workable until we had the computer power to crunch the numbers.

OK, that's an interesting piece. I'll take a stab at a "If you live in the future ..." statement that goes along with what we're doing at Fogbeam.

If you live in the future, computers will be more intelligent and will make it far easier and faster to find exactly the information you are looking for, will make useful predictions to guide your decision making, and will enable new management structures for organizations.

If you live in the future, computers will read your mind and bring that information to you without you having to ask. Google Now is one very early start to this.

I don't think that taking jobs as a reference for thinking ahead of time is specially good; In this particular video, he is presenting, to the general public, the 'file system' as a general software application that can be replaced by another one. This is totally and entirely misleading: without file system I doubt he can maintain any unified and persistent local data storage on a computer.

I understand that, ultimately, he is talking about the file explorer software application, but getting layman to confuse the two is almost a sin, as those users are potentially novice expert in the making (plus the fact that he is repeatedly say 'app', 'app', 'app', as if this would make the software application of the mac environment more of a software than on other platform ....).

If you really want to put a video of future thinking in the computing world, ... well welcome to 1968: http://sloan.stanford.edu/mousesite/1968Demo.html

I hope he's right, I certainly think about my company that way. But it's still a bold statement with no evidence given. Yes those founders might have said those things. Did they?

My gut says that yes, they did. However, they may have also said that the world is shaped like a burrito.

Certain jobs encourage the spouting of all kinds of sweeping statements. The ones that turn out to be true will be remembered, the others forgotten.

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.

Ha ha. I'm part of the problem.

But yeah, I think it's probably a good idea to have a vision of the future and strive to work towards building that, if you're lucky enough to be in a position to do anything about it, and hopefully your vision of a glorious posthuman utopia isn't my vision of a dehumanizing nightmare.

This reminds me of a saying in field hockey.

'Don't run towards the ball, run towards where the ball will be'

Believe that's originally from Wayne Gretzky:


Actually, his father said it. It is often misattributed; most notably by Steve Jobs all throughout his life who never admitted he was wrong.


Being able to envision the future is only a small part of being able to see the big picture, being able to see the big picture is an even smaller part of being a successful founder. But yes, I think it is a prerequisite to be a great founder.

...Among its visionaries was the scientist Alan Kay, who had two great maxims that Jobs embraced: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.... - From the Steve Jobs biography

I would classify myself as a futurist, but we have a flaw...one that tends to lead to our demise:


If you live in the future, there will be a thread on HN of "if you live in the future" quotes.


Enjoy !

Predicting the future is great and all. But in my experience, the best founders are the ones who execute in the present.

It’s less about being a “futurist” and more about the willingness and ability to build something you envision.

I imagine F.T. Marinetti dressed in business casual, standing at a whiteboard and talking with his team.

This is what MBAs call the "vision" part of "mission, vision, and values."

Telepathic and empathic abilities will emerge evolutionarily in the hominids through the mixed organization of their organisms and the long-term effects of information on the brain.

" If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite variety in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

In 5 years, if progress continues (and, in all things human, it might not):

1. The top software companies will be running open allocation. It won't get into the mainstream by then, and maybe not ever, because it's not practical for all industries. (You can't run OA easily in finance for regulatory reasons.) However, you'll have to pay hedge-fund money to recruit talented people into a closed-allocation company.

2. Location will be much less relevant than it is now. Right now, "Number 6 startup scene" means none at all. That's changing.

3. Google will either have been thoroughly destroyed (on a cultural front) by stack ranking, or have reinvented itself utterly in a form more like its pre-apocalyptic state.

Anyone who can turn these into startups, share your thoughts.

Can you please stop turning every thread into a diatribe against Google or pitching open allocation as a panacea to all organizational problems?

1. Your definition of open allocation seems to be "work on whatever you want". You don't need a PhD in organizational theory to know that this doesn't scale. I think what you really mean is "I want to work on whatever I want".

3. From what I can tell, you were at Google for less than a year. Your anecdotes about Google are neither representative, accurate, nor interesting anymore.

Every time you go on a rant about Google, you alienate people who, through first or secondhand information, know that what you're saying is not representative of the organization.

Please -- moderate yourself, or you'll probably end up hellbanned.

Your definition of open allocation seems to be "work on whatever you want". You don't need a PhD in organizational theory to know that this doesn't scale. I think what you really mean is "I want to work on whatever I want".

First, open allocation doesn't mean "work on whatever you want". It means that people work for the company directly rather than having their allowable contributions restricted by an intermediary who will usually use that power for extortionist purposes and force the other person to serve his career goals (rather than the good of the company, or the employee).

Employee and company actually have a common interest that is typically thrown under the bus in a closed-allocation environment.

Second, this sure as hell isn't just about me. Open allocation has second-order cultural effects that are positive for everyone.

You don't get a good environment if one or a few people get to work on whatever they want but the rest are stuck in narrow niches.

So I actually wouldn't be attracted to a job where I got to work on whatever I wanted but everyone else lived under closed allocation.

Under closed allocation you get a culture of internal social climbing. It's no longer about doing things. It's about getting permission. You have a society founded on getting jobs rather than doing work, then.

Also, the quality of projects that exists under closed allocation is inferior because people can't vote with their feet.

open allocation as a panacea to all organizational problems ... You don't need a PhD in organizational theory to know that this doesn't scale.

Open allocation is not a panacea. Far from it. Organizational problems happen because that's how people are. However, open allocation is almost always strictly superior to the alternative, which is closed allocation.

Open allocation is the more natural state. Closed allocation is the bulky add-on that needs to be justified, and only when there are necessary information barriers whose integrity is more important than maximal productivity (this is true in secure government jobs, and in some parts of finance) is there any justification for it.

Please -- moderate yourself, or you'll probably end up hellbanned.

Is that a threat?

> rather than having their allowable contributions restricted by an intermediary who will usually use that power for extortionist purposes and force the other person to serve his career goals

What you're describing is a borderline sociopath, not a result of closed allocation.

You make a lot of conjectures. Do you have any evidence or verifiable experience to back up these claims:

> Employee and company actually have a common interest that is typically thrown under the bus in a closed-allocation environment.

> Also, the quality of projects that exists under closed allocation is inferior because people can't vote with their feet.

> However, open allocation is almost always strictly superior to the alternative, which is closed allocation.

Sounds like you should be a management consultant.

> Is that a threat?

Sigh...there's your persecution complex again. I wish I had the power to delete your posts from my own feed (perhaps a browser extension?).

Michael, I mean this very, very sincerely, and out of genuine concern -- please do consider the possibility of talking to a counselor. I don't know a thing about you or your situation beyond your posts here, but I've seen you bring up suicide in another thread (not to imply that you're suicidal), and your inability to move on from an ostensibly bad experience at Google suggests to me that you might well benefit from a professional ear.

Edit: I'm only saying to you what I would if I knew you in person.

I don't know you or Michael, but just from this exchange, it looks like you are the one out of line here. Nothing you have written has contributed to the discussion.

Sometimes people have obsessions. I will rant for days on how much Java sucks as a language, how 99% of American corporations have idiots running their supply chains, how energy storage is the singular important problem facing alternative energy, and how City Planners are a bunch of nimwits that are inadvertently destroying livelihoods of millions of people in their quest for the ultimate Sim City. I'm sure you have some of your own. It isn't that big of a deal to ignore someone's posts on HN.

> but just from this exchange,

That's the problem -- it's not just from this exchange. It's the exact same theme in stories that are very, very tangentially related to Google, over many, many weeks on many, many stories.

I've been here for a while, and I can list the very few usernames that stick out to me in comment threads: tptacek, edw519, pg, matt_cutts, patio11, and michaelochurch. The others almost always add to the discussion in interesting ways. Michael, unfortunately, is a one-track record.

>What you're describing is a borderline sociopath, not a result of closed allocation.

The difference is that you can easily get away from such managers under open allocation.

Public restrooms are a good example to look at if you want to see what happens when everyone does what they want.

In your ideal phony anarchist workplace, who does the maintenance work? And who mops up shit from the bathroom floor?

Well, you obviously didn't read the post to which you replied.

I read it. You said, "First, open allocation doesn't mean "work on whatever you want"and then spent rest of the paragraph saying it does.

How do the bathrooms get cleaned? How does maintenance code get written? You've said in the past that such code is always just a manager trying to show power over peons, that is just paranoid insanity with maybe a touch of bitterness from having to work on it.

Your writing is predictable, tepid, and spam. You have a comment on every single story here dealing with employment.

If I hear VC-istan one more fucking time.. Well let's just say you have probably driven away lots of people from this site.

Open allocation can be limited to only software engineers.

if progress continues

you mean if there is the slightest bit of evidence for any of these. For which, while avoiding any sort of predictions about the shape of the future, there isn't.

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