The “General Magic” of Silicon Valley

This past week at Harmony, we got a chance to host a movie screening of the spectacular General Magic, all thanks to Michael Stern, who was a part of the company back in the day and is the Executive Producer of the movie.

If you don’t know about the the most important startup that nobody ever heard of — General Magic, you’re missing out on a great story of inspiration, failure, early days of a frontier technology and predicting the future — yes, all of that in one startup.

Here’s a trailer to give you a quick glimpse of what I’m talking about. We were lucky to spend time with Michael and get a scoop of the the early days at General Magic (1989–1994) before the movie screening.

Michael spoke to us about his memories of General Magic.

Here are a few quick insights that some of us at Harmony gained from the movie.

  • What really is failure? “General Magic” gave us new ways to think about this question. Is personal success or failure the same as the success or failure of the company you are currently building? What if the company fails, but you are on the right track of learning more about the technology and market, and the experience you gain prepares you to deliver something better in the future? Although General Magic the company may have been a failure, many members of the team went on to achieve extraordinary things in the following years. If you look at it that way, General Magic was not a failure — it sewed the seeds of success. This outlook is reassuring for folks who are entering a frontier technology today and betting on the long-term future.
  • Market timing is really important! And predicting the timing is very, very hard. Imagining how a new technology will change the world in the long run is great. But what’s also important is to think about what problems need to be solved today and what’s the possible path to get to the future. A good way to test the market is to do rapid experiments and ship something that solves a considerable pain point for a substantial set of users or organizations. Nurturing an early community of users and adopters of your new technology can help you by leaps and bounds. A lot of startups don’t scale beyond the chasm, because the market is not ready for the product or service you’re building, no matter how sophisticated the tech may be. This brings me to the final thought.
  • Learn as fast as possible. There’s a lot written about the lean startup methodology. The idea of rapid experimentation for product development is really helpful. Having world-class engineering capability is good, but you need to understand the true pain points of users or developers to have an actual product. Often we might think of partnerships for scale or adoption as great assets, but sometimes directly interfacing with users or adopters can generate better insights for your product. In the blockchain context, I often think hard about whether use cases need to be thought about before building a platform or whether building out a platform and letting users or the market decide the use cases is better? The answer could depend on what you’re building.
Harmony team and friends enjoying the movie

It’s great to experience this kind of inspiration with close friends and colleagues, especially when you’re working at a startup with an ambitious vision like Harmony’s. And of course, on such occasions, beers and pizzas are a must!

Thanks to Michael Stern and the team behind “General Magic” for this opportunity to learn from previous generations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Hopefully Harmony can one day be part of the legacy of Silicon Valley.