by Habbi 20 Aug 2018

Who is Paul Graham?

programmer, writer, investor

It's hard to explain why when some people say something, you just listen; but Paul Graham is such a person. He operates in the space that can often be so saturated with buzzwords and bullshit that it's hard to tell fact from fiction – but his grounded perspective is both classic and refreshing.

He has written 178 essays on his website, paulgraham.com on everything related to startups including why it matters to live in a startup hub; to advice for founders and broader for programmers and just life in general. He shares his perspective as an investor, and insights on life in Silicon Valley as well as thoughts on the state of the economy, the publishing industry – or tips on how to write better and manage your time.

He writes about philosophy, politics and art and the principles of making things. It's one of place on the internet you shouldn't feel bad about sinking multiple time units clicking around in. And so when I saw some of his Standford lectures were readily available on YouTube, I simply listened.

Here are some of my notes from his lecture 'Before the Startup', which also exists as an essay and is transcribed in full here. 

Why Do I Care?

Not only do I work in this space, but my friends and family are entrepreneurial themselves so these are easily the types of conversations I find interesting and have all the time. What I liked about Graham's talk was the structure of it and how apt his points were.

My favourite quote from the entire talk was when he compared starting a company to the process of learning how to ski. And the thing about skiing is that everything is just kinda backwards.

When you first try skiing and you want to slow down, your instinct is to lean back. But if you lean back on skis you fly down the hill out of control.

So part of learning to ski is learning to suppress that impulse. Eventually you get new habits, but at first it takes a conscious effort.

As someone who has gone skiing; skiing is not natural. Every instinct in your body is telling you to do one thing, but that is literally the opposite of what you should be doing. There's a list of things you need to keep in mind at all times that goes against your instincts when first learning how to ski so you don't fall down.

This is so unnatural that if you're about to go on a ski trip for the first time in your life – you will spend the first three days (at least) in ski-school following an instructor around. The contrasting example is running. If you want to get into running, even if for the first time in your life; you'd be perfectly safe just putting on some running shoes and give it a whirl.

And in this talk, Graham gives the parallel list of things to keep in mind for starting a company or project or a product or a business. And as someone who works on building products and sharing projects, I thought maybe I should write these down.

Paul Graham's Points

in the order he made them

1. Instincts

Your instincts about business are counterintuitive.
Your instincts about people are not.

2. Expertise

You don't need to be expert in startups.
You need to be an expert in the problem your startup is solving.

3. Gaming the System Doesn't Work

Users will use products that solve problems for them.
There is no 'keeping up appearances' hack for that.
Build the product. Make it good.

4. Starting a Business Young is Not Better

Ironically, working on domain expertise is probably a better use of your time than "attempting to start a business" because you really want to run a business. What the business does matters more than the mechanics of running a business.

5. Learn First

Trying too hard to build a company is a path to generic uninteresting solutions.
Working on interesting problems where "oh, we could structure a company around the solution we found" is how the biggest companies of today all started.

Graham's Points, Linear Order

don't mind me

I get why Graham would structure his talk in the way that he did and to make it engaging. He had to capture the imagination of his audience and the best way to do that was with the skiing story.

Because people get bored when told the 'do your homework first' story when they're hungry to start their own business. But I actually think that the linear way of what Graham was saying goes like this:

1. Become an expert in your field
Learning complicated things and understanding them and being able to solve problems is rare and valuable.

2. Reach the cutting edge
You now see opportunities in the 'adjacent possible' that you wouldn't possibly know about unless you'd done all the initial work.

3. Humans
By this point you've probably worked with lots of different people, so you know who you work well with, who you trust, and have a plethora of industry contacts.

4. Get Started
Know that once you start, you're crossing a point of no return.

5. Do the Work
The best 'hack' to get investors and users and other desirables, is by making a good product. A product people use. Better yet, a product people pay for.

What the Journey Then Looks Like

Learning the mechanics of business is basically useless: solving complicated problems is what is truly valuable. The classic subjects are classic for a reason. Physics, philosophy, sciences => they train our brains to solve problems and that's why they are valuable.

Solving interesting problems a) keeps your interest long enough so you could potentially solve it and b) makes you a domain expert in that field. Working on interesting problems leads you down the path where the solutions become products or companies almost as byproduct of what you're doing anyway. Here are Graham's recommendations:

    • One, learn about a lot of things that matter.
    • Two, work on problems that interest you.
    • Three, with people you like and/or respect.

    If we give ourselves that Graham knows what he's talking about, these three point kind of merge into being three elements of the same process. As you're learning and figuring out the domain you work in, that's when you're exposed to the people who are in that field and one day you realise you've reached the edge of what is possible today.

    "At its best starting a startup is merely an ulterior motive for curiosity. So here is ultimate advice for young would-be startup founders reduced to two words: just learn."

    – and with just a little insight, you see what will be possible tomorrow with the tools and the people and the knowledge available to you today.

    The Bleeding Edge Leads You to the "The Adjacent Possible"

    This idea of bleeding edge is closely related to 'the adjacent possible', made famous by Cal Newport's "So Good They Can't Ignore You". He makes the point that what is just beyond the possible at any one point is 'the adjacent possible'. His point is that innovation isn't as genius driven as we're made to believe, but it's systematic.

    We grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems, and so on. The truth is that technological advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible.

    The idea is that reaching the edge of a field brings you to the realms of what is possible given available resources, but haven't yet been done. And that's the point Graham is making. We need to reach the edge of what is possible – to see what is just beyond the horizon because odds are we already have the resources to take it a step further, since we got this far already.  

    Young is Not Better

    Graham gets pretty passionate about how all-consuming and irrevocable starting a business is. He's particularly passionate about encouraging college students to not start a company during their studies.

    "There's not even a tradeoff here.
    You're not sacrificing anything if you forgo starting a startup at 20, because you're more likely to succeed if you wait."

    This is a point I feel like I've internalised pretty seriously. Not because of Graham's talk, but because of my personal experiences. I've been surrounded by people running businesses since I was a kid, so I know what the missed parties and the late nights, and the restarting servers in restaurant bathrooms looks like up close.

    This is the point that resonates with me the most. Having a company is real cool, but what it really means is you're on call indefinitely and forever and always. This is a real cost that you don't pay when someone else is responsible for your salary. And I really love that Graham makes this point so strongly, and that he talks about it as passing a point of no return.

    Knowing that beforehand means you can build value into your life before you set out to start your business. That actually makes you more likely to succeed, because you have perhaps used your time to master a craft or gotten yourself to the bleeding edge of an exciting new field, where opportunities become clear to you.

    on Appearance vs Doing the Work

    This is probably my favourite point of them all, and my favourite part about business and any creative endeavour overall – and that is that there is no workaround. I wrote about this in "only the work remains" where the point is now that a lot of barriers that existed before there is nothing to hide behind. The work stands for itself.

    This is counterintuitive because our whole lives we've mastered the art of the appearance of the work. 

    There is no boss to trick, how can you trick people, when there is nobody to trick? There are only users and all users care about is whether your software does what they want, right?

    They're like sharks, sharks are too stupid to fool, you can't wave a red flag and fool it, it's like meat or no meat. You have to have what people want and you only prosper to the extent that you do.

    People only watch videos they are interested in, and they only use products that solve problems for them. It's that simple. In school we had SparkNotes and now we're told about growth hacks to short-change our way through life. But what I love about companies and products, is that "gaming the system" doesn't work anymore.

    Graham says that 'the appearance' might work a little with investors, but it doesn't work with users. It doesn't work in getting people to use your product. If the product is no good, no one will use it.

    Why It's So Counter-intuitive

    And so I think this is why he talks about the counterintuitive nature of building a business. All the tricks we're used to in our lives so far, like the 'fake it till you make it'-s and keeping up appearances just don't work.

    When I was running Y Combinator I used to joke that our function was to tell founders things they would ignore. It's really true.

    Batch after batch, the YC partners warn founders about mistakes they're about to make, and the founders ignore them, and then come back a year later and say "I wish we'd listened.

    The work lies in the work itself and having a true understanding of what problem is being solved and for who. And because a lot of the easy problems have been solved already – if we want to find worthwhile solutions, we first have to expose ourselves to the domains where there are interesting problems yet to be solved.

    And that once we get there, we actually find ourselves in such ripe territory that starting a business almost becomes inevitable as the method of bringing a solution to life. It seems like it shouldn't be that hard to figure out once you get there – even though as Graham articulated, there's a list of things to keep in mind when getting started that goes against our every instinct. Not unlike when we first start skiing.


    tell me what I'm missing
    Hrefna Helgadóttir (Habbi)