Weirdness is the “new new thing”

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book review
Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen

“The important events in capitalism no longer occur mainly in oak-paneled offices, if indeed they ever did. They can happen in the least likely of places. On a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, for instance.”

Michael Lewis

The title of this piece is procured from Michael Lewis’ underrated book, the New New Thing, detailing the life of a classic Silicon Valley character, Jim Clark.

Jim Clark was a professor at Stanford, the creator of Silicon Graphics and the Geometry chip, and an engineering prodigy.

In the life after, he created the Geometry engine that ignited the computer graphics industry and then co-founded Netscape with Marc Andreesen. Nothing short of a Silicon Valley legend.

But, why is his story interesting?

“Maybe the simplest is the way Clark described it to himself: the guy who finds the new new thing and makes it happen wins. The engineers who help him to do it finish second. The financiers and the corporate statesmen, the sucker fish of economic growth, finish a distant third. Clark intended to sit on top of Silicon Valley as surely as Microsoft sat on top of the personal computer. Of course, he was not the first engineer with a taste for money and power. He was just the one who finally said, “Now’s the time to take it.”

This year, the economics nobel prize was given to Paul Romer, who works on New Growth theory. This theory is in a nutshell the equivalent of what Jim Clark was building 30 years ago. In less mathematical notation than Romer, New Growth theory posits that ideas are capital in the gears of the economy – they can have massive sway over various sectors and thus eventually be shown in GDP calculations.

People complain about lower productivity growth, manufacturing output, and a stagnant middle class in America: little to none of these people go on to address the problem.

Clark is like Churchill, who had famously remarked:

“I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen I like to make them happen.”

But unlike Churchill’s long-forgotten era, Clark believed that the real power was given to the builders of society: the engineers.

As he built one of the foundational companies of the 80s, Silicon Graphics International, Clark was later kicked out to bring in what Lewis’ calls an Organizational man: someone with no personality and who is quintessially boring. Good at steering the ship, but little else.

On the other hand, Clark would buy yachts, configure them to his liking, and set sail around the world wherever he wanted to go (he had no knowledge of ships before his first 7-figure purchase).

Not someone who belongs in an oak-paneled office, no matter how nice it is perceived to be. Dick Kramlich, a venture capitalist, said:

“Jim’s a revolutionary, you know. He’s out to revolutionize whatever needs to be revolted against.” [..]

“[Dick’s colleagues] thought Jim Clark was a bit of a crazy guy”

Entirely it was “revolting” against the Organizational man and everything the status quo stood for. But how do we get more Jim Clarks?

What I find funny is that people invest in start-ups expecting outsized returns, but also want those returns to arise from normal people. Normal people don’t make companies.

Chris Dixon puts it simply:

You’ve either started a company or you haven’t.  ”Started” doesn’t mean joining as an early employee, or investing or advising or helping out.  It means starting with no money, no help, no one who believes in you (except perhaps your closest friends and family), and building an organization from a borrowed cubicle with credit card debt and nowhere to sleep except the office. It almost invariably means being dismissed by arrogant investors who show up a half hour late, totally unprepared and then instead of saying “no” give you non-committal rejections like “we invest at later stage companies.”

It means looking prospective employees in the eyes and convincing them to leave safe jobs, quit everything and throw their lot in with you.  It means having pundits in the press and blogs who’ve never built anything criticize you and armchair quarterback your every mistake. It means lying awake at night worrying about running out of cash and having a constant knot in your stomach during the day fearing you’ll disappoint the few people who believed in you and validate your smug doubters.

I don’t care if you succeed or fail, if you are Bill Gates or an unknown entrepreneur who gave everything to make it work but didn’t manage to pull through. The important distinction is whether you risked everything, put your life on the line, made commitments to investors, employees, customers and friends, and tried – against all the forces in the world that try to keep new ideas down – to make something new.”

Certainly, people throw around arguments that they would be a “Jim Clark” if they were born into privilege like Bill Gates, or if they had skipped a grade like Steve Jobs.

Both of these are red herrings. People like Jim Clark don’t fit the fold: this is precisely why venture capital general partners can be paid unbelievable sums of money.


Live in the future, then build what’s missing.

Paul Graham

Let’s say you wanted to be a Jim Clark. To do so, the most optimal way would be to fully explore your weird interests. When we’re young, those interests can be beaten out of us; it’s Girardian Terror. I’d bet they still lie within us somewhere: when we’re walking down the street, sitting in class or at work, or engaging in conversation. Those passions don’t escape us so easily.

What is weird now is essentially what the nerds are working at on the weekends. Why is this the case? Dixon proclaims that at other times, society expects something from us in the form of time and labour. Weekends, nevertheless, are sacred geek time. Time to think and tinker. These ideas are the things we believe that others would disagree with us on. Today, I think, for most of the world, the weird ideas lie in building open networks such as blockchain-related technologies, programming medicine, and space infrastructure.

I’m most partial to space tech as I’ve always been the most fascinated by astronomy and aerospace innovation. However people have little to no idea that there is already a space race occurring between the vast powers of the world: China is exploring every crevice of the market to continue expansion.

The other reason many lack knowledge about these advancements is that they perceive these projects as mere “toys.” They used to call those people hobbyists, then it turned out those hobbyists made all the money. There is hysteresis in technology and working on cool projects: we’re too quick to dismiss innovation until it happens all at once like the smartphone era.

Being weird, vouching for AC while everyone else is pro-DC, is the only way to be Jim Clark-esque. It’s a hedge against being power and it’s the only way to build the future. In my life, I’ve been hesitant to write off people for acting unnaturally and arguing for implausible ideas. Over time, those people have become my closest friends. Maybe we can all learn to appreciate the bizarre a bit more – it’s definitely the “new new thing.”

21 Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Really interesting article. The debate around individuals being more risk-adverse and not daring to explore “toys” is easy framable through the understanding of their real means (The famous question of “What are you in it for?”), as well as how much they are ready to go through the pains of innovations in their space. Given these two, I would even try to imagine the possibility of legitimising their choices of playing it safe.
    For the sake of the discussion, it would also be good to frame the matrices & spectrums delineating the potential for a “new new thing” to become something far greater than expected. It is tempting to invest time into what is perceived to be the latest-cutting edge tech advancement recently made, but what is even more tempting is being able to see it through, observing the light at the end of the tunnel without hoping there’s one.
    Ideas like business teams may not be the always the best one to come up with a result, but if they’re framed well enough to be able to execute/be executed, then that’s all you need.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anirudh Pai says

      Playing it safe often becomes more like playing the lottery than anything else. As Thiel summarized: diversification in portfolios is simply an excuse for laziness – for not doing the grunt work of maneuvering through complexity. Play at its most pure, from science to investing, is heterodox to those who don’t understand it. Others may be able to execute better but they never had the breakthrough idea.

      Like

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