The Gospel According to Paul Graham

I first heard of Paul Graham about a week ago. One of the teaching fellows at MEST mentioned his name and said he’s a good resource for startups.

The next time I heard of Paul was two or three days ago, when reading something on design on Medium. His site, as I expected, was bare, as though picked from an age before CSS3. It had that snobbish big-shot appeal, the sort of thing I tried to imitate on my github page.

The guy had a lot of content, and he seemed to be some respected American startup guy. Oh, and the founder (or one of the founders) of Y Combinator. Pretty big deal.

I found the article linked to as somewhat abstract and too distant to matter much, but still mildly interested in this legend I was now uncovering, I scanned his blog some more. I checked the essays. Loads of them. Too many, actually. I didn’t know where to begin or what to look out for. The font was too small so I closed the page. Too bad for Paul.

Today, for the third time as in some divine illustration, Paul Graham’s name was mentioned in class, and an email with the link to this article was sent us. See how it’s snobbishly named ds.html? Here you go, you fancy pants with your newfangled urls.

I trust that you took time to read through the wisdom therein contained and are now continuing this essay with your head lifted high in enlightenment from the fountain of all common sense that is the wellspring from which has flourished so great an age of the Valley.

Sorry, I get carried away. Just go read the damn article and come back.

Did you find the links to his other essays in this one? Especially the one titled startupideas.html? The old man had me at “not to try to think”.

I reluctantly read through the first paragraphs of that article while I waited at Koffee Lounge for this manager at Enterprise Life to come for a meeting my capstone team had asked for. Somewhere in the middle Paul struck me as someone who’s seen it all: well most of it.

Having lived before the age of PCs and the Internet, he’s keenly watched the rise of trends and entire new industries that have come to dominate modern life. And he wasn’t just a casual observer, like so many old men who could have been Paul Grahams wherever they are, but chose not to.

Paul’s writing is simple enough to accept, but the profundity of his insights are the sort of thing you expect from a book as ancient as the Bible. Truly, his essays read like books of the Bible. They mix his own personal experience with learnings from several entrepreneurs. He speaks of startups with a conviction a preacher would about Heaven.

The essay on startup ideas struck me as exceedingly powerful because it made me realize things I hadn’t paid attention to, exposed me to the possibility of doing something fun and productive but more importantly reinforced certain decisions I had made with my capstone team.

We started this capstone project after three months of more-or-less fruitless ideation. Desperate to come up with something, we sat for one more session to brainstorm ideas. According to Paul, this is the worst thing you can do to yourself. We did it anyway, because none of us had been enlightened. ☺

Somewhere during the long conversation, a sitcom idea popped up. True to its name, it was funny. The initial idea was to make an app for political parties in Ghana. What will it do? No fucking clue man, but we’ll get a lot of users. Why? Because Ghanaians like politics.

One member of the team — arguably the wisest then — objected to it, but the other three of us rode the wave of enthusiasm that welcomed this idea. At last we had something everyone on the team was crazy about. Except Eli, but Eli’s opinion didn’t seem to matter then. If we voted, democracy would have decided that we go ahead with this idea. Democracy in a four-man team is bullshit. Don’t ever use that as a solution to your problems. It is the easiest, most cowardly way to resolve issues in a team. By relinquishing our decision-making to simple numbers, we insult our sense of negotiation and compromise. We abdicate reason and take polls. Polls are shit.

We went ahead with this for a while, and in a few days one team member, Abdul, became the champion of this idea. It evolved into a political news and issues app that let people vote on issues and — based on the kind of information we have about then, including political affiliations and stuff — we could have valuable data on how Ghanaians think about political issues.

We even gave it a name. IssueNut. We came up with it after a lengthy session where I excommunicated several alternatives I thought were either sub-par or downright cringe-worthy. The thing about this idea was, we knew it will be big. There was no way to prove it. We just felt we knew Ghanaians well enough to know it will be big. But how do you prove something like this to a panel of investors who fly in from wherever they live to listen to you pitch for seven minutes?

We decided to build.

As a team of four developers captured by a sitcom idea, it’s very easy to go this way. After all, building wouldn’t cost you your life. It’s your life actually, to build stuff. And sometimes, we reasoned, you have to build it to prove it. We looked at Ghanaian news apps on Google Play and saw their traction. We could capture that sort of attention and let people vote and stuff. It looked easy. It looked fantastic. It looked like the sort of thing you watch on tv. Scripted and easy. A sitcom.

It was a sitcom. A slightly painful one too.

Eventually my Spidey Senses started tingling like crazy when we began looking at the actual business of IssueNut. The team thought that selling data on voting patterns will be enough. But we had to look for organisations to buy our data. Then came the issue of the value of the data. Abdul had the idea that we didn’t need to have very large numbers to make our data valuable, because current surveys worked with much smaller sample sizes. And people found them valuable.

This didn’t go down well with me though. It didn’t seem enough to make build a business on this. I don’t know if that was the right way to think about it, but that’s what I did and, all of a sudden, IssueNut looked like something horrible.

The next few weeks were spent patching up the idea. We raised issue after issue and fixed them as we went along. I hated these meetings. We seemed more desperate as time went on. Abdul got more — I don’t know how to put it — obsessive about IssueNut. Eli went along, as he put it, with the team. Rubin cooperated willingly because we had spent three months ideating and this was the only idea that had the most backing. I slowly fell back and started playing the rebel.

This was hard because the last time I forced a team to pivot on an idea, I led it down the tumultuous path to a horrible pitch. It was the one where the guy who sold Macromedia to Adobe called me a copycat. That’s a big deal, calling me a copycat. I still carry the scars of that day, and knowing how difficult it can be, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t derail another “perfectly” okay team. On the other hand was the recent issue I was having with Flippy; the needless frustration I had caused for myself because I wouldn’t speak up, because I wanted to play nice and just go with it.

I weighed the two options and said fuck it, then I started pushing (with Eli’s backing) for a pivot. I took the plunge and looked back to see what Abdul and Rubin will do. I knew the risks well. This was crazy. This was necessary.

Then the most amazing thing happened, and this is what convinced me of how awesome my team was. We came to a compromise. We did not vote on pivoting. It’s probably because the team was split 50/50, but still, what’s more remarkable than a compromise? And that was only the first great thing that happened.

We decided to ideate again and go on some validation. The next day, we did just that and the results were mixed. IssueNut was brought up again. We talked, argued, debated, went back and forth and then, the second miracle happened just when I least expected it.

Abdul decided to set aside IssueNut to work on another idea, one with a more painful problem to solve. That totally blew me. I could go on about when I first met Abdul and what I first thought of him, and how things changed after one year in the same class. That day validated all the good I had seen in him, which can be summed up in a single word: maturity.

That he was mature enough to let go of this idea he had championed moved me. Even I wouldn’t do that. I will bitch about things till I got tired and was thoroughly beaten. Abdul just cooly set it aside and put his mind to new ideas. Now that’s an awesome teammate.

Eventually we decided to tackle the problem businesses face because of lack of trust. African businesses lose a lot of potential clients because people are afraid of scams. We want to solve that, to make it easier for people to trust an online business. That’s a serious problem. And it’s scary as hell to work it, because of all the schelps involved. But we’re working on a solution, and I hope it goes well.

If you read Paul Graham’s essays, you’ll notice what we did is exactly what he recommends. Not to sit in the couch and come up with sitcoms. No, but to solve real problems. Preferably problems we ourselves experience. I don’t know if he mentions it somewhere, but pivoting too is essential.

Reading Graham reinforced all these experiences and made me value not just myself but my team more. And, it made all his thoughts more real to me, which is totally-fucking-awesome.

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