Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

Pablo Picasso

You’ve heard me say no one knows anything many times. And while it is true in a way, it also isn’t the entire truth. It’s incomplete.

I think there’s a better approximation of the truth.

That is:

People mistake their assumptions for facts. If you reason up from the bottom you could discover things others think is impossible.

Not quit as catchy, which is why I usually say no one knows anything and then add on later.

So how can you and I do great things?

  1. Keep your eyes open for problems.

What annoys you? What things still have no solution? What is way too inefficient for 2017? What do you wish existed? What makes you annoyed and other people respond with “that’s just the way it is”?

2. Work on things you enjoy. I’m a big believer in avoiding premature optimization. It’s the cool thing nowadays to say: “I’m gonna transform the entire healthcare system.”

But so many ambitious startups started so smalll. So many that I almost want to say all of them. There are just a handful that started with a clear goal and executed.

The difference is hard-easy and easy-hard.

Hard-easy is a technical problem that is so hard that it may not be possible.

“I wanna build a transporter like in Star Trek.” If you manage to pull that of, your main concern will not be how to monetize that.

Also because it’s hard your defensibility is high.

In this situation the solution is hard but everything else by comparison is easy.

Easy-hard is a problem that is easy to create but everything else is hard.

When Brian and Joe started Airbnb their concern wasn’t isn’t possible to build a marketplace.. uhm fuck yes it is..

The problem was.. Do users want this? How can we get users? Is this the right problem to solve? How can we prevent cloning? How can we get and maintain quality? And a dozen different questions that you only discover on the go.

The tech is relatively easy but everything else is hard.

This is why PayPal chose to ramp up so incredibly quick. They were worried that their defensibility was low because it would be easy to clone the site.

They were half right. It was easy to replicate everything.

Including the fraud problems.

This turned out to be a very challenging problems that they managed to solve. Which made their easy-hard a lot more hard-easy.

Airbnb experienced the same thing when Rocket tried cloning it with Airizu and Wimdu.

Turns out the site was easy to clone. The community was not.

Okay so what to do? If you wanna do a hard-easy problem. Learn everything you can. Accumulate knowledge so you can do the thing.

Wheter it’s building a quantum computer, curing aging or going to mars.

These ideas tend to require more capital but fortunately a lot of accelerators and VC’s are mainly interested in these moonshots. (Khosla, a16z, YC have all explicitly stated their interest in risky ideas with a huge potential pay off.)

What if you’re like Brian and Joe pre Airbnb. And all it is, is you ( a buddy) and a desire to help build the future.

Most people would say you’re kinda screwed and that the idea has to come before the business.

Well that doesn’t help you very much if you can’t breath because you want to help build the future that bad.

I think you should do the same as Andrew (Groupon), Brian/Joe (Airbnb), Rob/Dave (Soylent)..

You just work on things you’re interested in and keep your eyes open.

Andrew worked on a way to convince companies to behave better by using peer pressure after a bad experience with his cell phone contract. This went nowhere and eventually spun off Groupon cuz it was the one thing users used The Point for.

Brian and Joe were thinking about the big idea but rented out their room so they could make rent. After that ‘Airbnb’ experience they tried building a roommate site (which already existed) for four months before saying, you know what this renting out your room thing.. maybe give that a go.

Rob and his roommates where hungry and broke. So Rob made some cheap powered food and eventually lived of that for a month. People started saying that they wanted to try that as well, which is how they discovered they were on to something.

I can keep going but you catch the general idea here.. work on stuff you think is interesting. Most VC’s and accelerators have huge isssues with this approach because of the inherent uncertainty.

It’s not at all clear that being baller in SF and riding around in limos with your friends will spawn Uber, revolutionizing transportation. Or that being to broke to buy food will create soylent. Or forgetting dog food will create task rabbit. Or that being unable to cancel our cell phone contract will create Groupon. And so on.

The pros can’t tell. What’s even worse is neither can you.

So being highly motivated to build the future coupled with you can’t tell becomes a recipe for premature optimization which basically means you’ll kill your ideas before they’re born. Pretty soon you stop getting ideas at all.

Just try things.

1 of the most inspiring things I’ve ever heard a founder say was Sal Khan when he explained how Khan academy came to be.

He said that after his first talk with Bill Gates he thought to himself it’s a good thing it all started as this little side project, otherwise I would have never started.

He basically helped his nieces and nephew with math and eventually put that on YouTube so he didn’t have to give the same explanation multiple times. They told him they actually preferred that. He started getting feedback from strangers on YT saying they loved it.. and slowly the mission started taking shape.

Imagine going about this like this, the current hip way.. “I am going to disrupt education.” Where TF do you even begin.

I can tell you where you don’t… teaching math to your nieces followed by having a low production, black background video on YT.

You’d want to make it as perfect as possible.. which would be a mistake.

Instead just satisfy your own curiosity. Build those things, solve those problems and if you are overwhelmed, just think about the absolute smallest step in the right direction you can make.

One of the benefits all these easy-hard founders had is that it was never supposed to be a business which is why they had fun and why they could start small.

Let’s say you had the vague idea of Groupon. Can you email 1 small business owner and explain to him that if he’ll give a discount you’ll get him customers.

Next day you’ll do 2,4,8 and eventually you started approaching 1 in person and then 2,4,8.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re afraid of making mistakes because you want to do it perfectly. Instead you should just DO something. Make the smallest possible step in the right direction and keep going.

So here’s my advice boiled down to four words.

Start small, keep going.

*typed this in 1 go so on my phone so srry for any typos.

My mathematical education was rather independent and idiosyncratic, where for a number of years I learned things on my own, developing personal mental models for how to think about mathematics. This has often been a big advantage for me in thinking about mathematics, because it’s easy to pick up later the standard mental models shared by groups of mathematicians. This means that some concepts that I use freely and naturally in my personal thinking are foreign to most mathematicians I talk to.

- Bill Thurston