The Tao of Uber

Heaven and earth are not out to make friends;

Thus, they treat all creatures as straw dogs.

The sage is not out to make friends;

Thus he treats the people as straw dogs.

Perhaps this is something like a bellows between heaven and earth:

It is empty, but never exhausted;

It moves, and creatures manifest endlessly.

A lot of words will get you nowhere;

Better to just stay centered.

Tao Te Ching

Notes:

We can build, and build, but heaven and earth don’t respect the laws of society. Much of what we concern ourselves with on a day to day basis will, ultimately, be washed away.

There’s a lot of talk in the startup community about “changing the world.” While I have tremendous respect for anyone brave enough to build a business, the fact is that companies like Uber and AirBnb aren’t changing the world, they’re changing the transportation and hotel industries for a narrow segment of the population. If you listen to the investors who got in early on these startups, or talk to the founders themselves, you’ll hear a different story.

But where are all these players 100 years from now?

I believe you can admire and support innovators, without taking such a small view of the world as to think they own it.

We don’t own, we all rent.

That reality should force us to work with humility, to accept fortune with humility.

Tech addiction backlash?

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Americans have become “food aware,” and the resulting knowledge has a growing number of people pissed off at the processed food industry.

Turns out some types of foods are designed to be addictive. Morgan Sperlock publicized this years ago in his documentary Super Size Me, but he’s not alone. Consider this quote from Michael Moss writing for the New York Times Magazine:

What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations.

Quite an indictment, food as a designer drug.

If Michael’s claims are true, public anger seems justified. Similarly, the tobacco industry is a unanimous villain for designing cigarettes to be addictive.

Making addictive products, especially when the desired addiction damages public health, is bad. So, following that logic, why isn’t anyone mad at the tech industry?

Do you think it’s by accident that every person on an elevator, or most stopped at a red light, or even couples having a “romantic” dinner, are looking at their phones?

The tech industry designs their interfaces for maximum addiction, just like the makers of slot machines, who they are said to admire. Consider this quote from a Verge story describing a state called the “zone,” which is a haze many slot machine players find themselves in:

The “zone” is flow through a lens darkly: hyperfocused, neurotransmitters abuzz, but directed toward a numbness with no goal in particular.

Focused with no goal in particular?

Sounds like most people I know on the internet (myself included). What is usually accomplished on Facebook or Twitter other than mind numbing browsing?

Tech business models are predicated on user acquisition and retention. The idea is to keep you on their platform for as long as possible (to look at their ads), and then to bring you back as soon as possible after you leave (so you can view more ads).

The result? You crave the appearance of the little red flag that is evidence of a new Facebook friend request, or a new Twitter notification delivered to your phone in real time.

Fact is these notices are nonevents 99.99% of the time, and yet we continue checking for them. Checking for email, for new Tinder matches, whatever the case.

This digital addiction can be just as dangerous to our health and wellbeing as bad food.

It causes stress and sadness, destroys our attention spans, robs us of enjoying real moments with people we love, keeps us from sleeping well, causes fatalities on the road, and can even lower sperm count.

Does the tech industry have an ethical duty to design their products in ways that encourage healthy interaction?

Update: October, 23, 2016 – check out this article in the Atlantic on iPhone addiction, very important piece.

Better before more

No matter what we do, most of us want “more.”

Growth is practically a religion in the world of startups. There is a hyper focus on growing businesses, and growing them fast. It’s the same in other industries. My friends who work in salaried positions are always scheming on ways to get more salary.

There is nothing wrong with more, but it’s a mistake to ask for more without first understanding the foundation of more, which is better.

More rarely comes before better.

If you want more, get better.

That will get you more.

Listen to customers, not investors

If you’re going to start or sustain a business, you’ll need customers. You won’t need investor feedback. In fact, listening to too many investors has the potential to kill the energy that surrounds a promising new venture.

So don’t listen to investors.

Listen to customers.

It’s the marketplace that will determine whether you have something. If customers are interested, if they’re giving good feedback, if they’re willing to pay for your product or service, the investors will follow.

The startup community places too much emphasis on the investor, on the demands created by the image of his or her fund, and the returns he or she expects.

Don’t let the rules imposed by the self image of another business cast a dark cloud over yours. Your business exists to serve customers.

Lots of startups wait around for an investor to bless their idea, thinking that’s the path to success. But here’s the problem.

Investors are almost always wrong.

The vast majority of their ventures fail. Most don’t have anything approaching a crystal ball. No matter what they may say, it’s not just about great entrepreneurs and great ideas, it’s about hitting the next grand slam, and all the accolades that go along with that. It’s about ego, and investor ego has nothing to do with creating an amazing experience for your customers.

Funds don’t want great business ideas, they want startups that can double the size of the fund with GIANT returns. But here’s the problem. The potential return on investment way, way down the line is unknowable (again, see most investors fail). All the emphasis at the outset on “MAKE SOMETHING REALLY BIG THAT WILL EAT THE WORLD,  AHHHHHH!!! DISRUPT, BLAHHHHH” actually gets in the way of entrepreneurs making useful things for customers.

The “10X” sales pitch VC uses to raise money for their funds, doesnt have much to do with what will make a solid, profitable, business. Unfortunately, there is a whole class of startups out there whose goal is more VC, not profit, not self sufficiency.

Famous VC Fred Wilson said it well:

Investors have their own agenda. They want to invest in “bigger ideas” and “larger outcomes”. When they tell you that your idea is too small, they may be talking to themselves, not you. Do not make their problems your problems. This is your business, not theirs.”

If you’re raising capital for a startup, customer feedback, especially feedback that comes up again and again, is gospel.

Casual investor “advice” is not.

Back to Fred:

You have spent way more time and energy thinking about your business than someone who takes a 30 minute meeting with you, having never thought about it for one iota, and then gives you a ton of advice that you are doing everything wrong. You have to learn to hear that feedback but not react to it.

If you have a business idea you’re proud of,  one you believe in, talk to lots and lots of customers. Learn what their issues are, and how you can help them. Get the customer to bless the idea.

Then go talk to some investors.

If you must.

Startup prosperity

Many people are waiting for prosperity. It cannot come in the future.

Eckhart Tolle

Both startup founders and investors are often hyper-focused on the “exit,” that time in the future where all the hard work of building a business will pay off.

There’s nothing wrong with being compensated for hard work, but hopes of “cashing out” shouldn’t be the primary motivator for creating or investing. The exit doesn’t yet exist, it may never exist. Chasing it is the best way to build something really shitty. When that time does eventually come, the excitement is over. You’ll then need to go find more.

The real prosperity of a startup is in the uncertainty. It happens during the times when the business may fail, when investors doubt the idea. Taking on risk and pursuing dreams others won’t, that’s a form of prosperity all in itself.

The opportunity to get up in the morning and work on something you created. That’s a blessing regardless of the ultimate “success or failure” of the business.

The opportunity just to do the work.

Your own work. 

Therein lies the prosperity.

You define your business

Entrepreneurs, especially early in their careers, are often put in the uncomfortable position of having to justify what they do, both to friends and themselves. The early days never match your ambition. After all, what can you say you really “do” when you spent the day working in your underwear?

Don’t take yourself too seriously, but be vigilant against downgrading your dreams to match the subtle swipes of others. You define your business and what it can become.

The crowd does not.

Especially before it’s reached maturity, other people want to define your business, so they feel better about theirs. When you announce yourself as as an entrepreneur, you’re effectively saying you found a better way. Rather than climbing through an existing system, you’re creating a new one. For those who are invested in the status quo, this can be quite the blow. They’re working hard to advance in their hierarchy, and are motivated by its fruits. Word of a better, more exciting, potentially more lucrative path can be upsetting to the company man.

The comfort of a stable job may seem appealing at your lowest moments. You may be down on your plan at just the moment that face at the cocktail party lights up after learning that you work from a home office. Keep your head up. The goal isn’t recognition. It’s excellence, independence, and problem solving. Don’t lose sight of the motivations people bring to the table with their criticisms.

Creations are malleable, unknown quantities. Letting others define yours is akin to asking the dude next to you at the hospital to name your newborn baby.

No.

You decide your baby’s name, you raise it and shape it according to your vision. You love it.

You decide what it becomes and when it’s arrived, how high it can fly…

People to forget

“Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us”

Pablo Neruda

As we go through life, inevitably we come across people, who for one reason or another, don’t love, or even like us. Accepting this is part of growing.

And growth is an important goal. But letting go of enemies (no matter how benign) is equally important.

When I do this, they’ll see” is a dangerous trap because it places those who don’t understand us in control.

Winning love from an enemy doesn’t represent success. Forgetting an enemy by gently taking the sting out of their imagined indictments does.

Work to please the love in your life, not those who withold it.

The entrepreneur’s jersey

I make dough, but don’t call me dough boy.

Ice Cube

Most of us have seen the movie Rudy. The story of a kid from Gary, Indiana who makes the Notre Dame football team against long odds.

By all measures, Rudy was a football player before he ever ran out of the tunnel. But until his family saw him in his jersey, they didn’t believe he was part of the team.

He could talk about practice, even show the bruises he’d earned, but they didn’t see it.

And they won’t.

That’s what it is to be an entrepreneur. Most of the job is spent with the practice squad. Taking beatings.

Until we’re wearing a jersey, it’s polite smiles.

We can feel ourselves growing stronger, learning from teammates. But as real as it is to us, it’s not real to them until we’ve been assigned a number.

Maybe that shouldn’t matter. But for many, the entrepreneurial ambition is to run onto the field in a jersey. Not as much to validate the entrepreneur, as to silence his critics.

My “little” project?

Wait until you see me in my jersey.

Honoring the chooser

I’ve never been one to be chosen. At least not in the traditional sense. I was never much of a student, went to a mediocre law school, wasn’t particularly popular in high school. I was chosen once by a big law firm, and it was one of the worst things that ever happened to me.

However, I realize that being chosen by the system is only one of the many ways we choose people. Most of these choices are far more subtle than telling an actress she got the part. Part of understanding people is recognizing when they’ve chosen you, what they’ve chosen you for, and what the choice means to them. Each time we’re chosen, we must honor the chooser, and live up to what they’ve seen in us, because as George MacDonald said “to be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”

As a career entrepreneur, I’ve chosen myself. I may rarely be picked by the system, so I’ve created my own. My ability to help those I love through my businesses, is one of the most important things in my life. I have to be careful to honor the beliefs that drive me, and surround myself with people who will both inspire and nurture my vision.

Each time a client hires our agency, we’ve been chosen. People trust their businesses to us with faith that we’ll help them grow. They just as easily could have hired a competitor, but they chose us. This is a tremendous responsibility that we must be careful to honor.

When a friend shares excitement with us, we’ve been chosen. We’ve been selected as someone worth sharing hope with. If we love our friend, we will take the time to share their joy, and bask in whatever mood is appropriate, for as long as appropriate.

We meet people all the time who are reeling, and they show us just a glimpse. In that moment, we’ve been chosen. Our best can give them a moment of safety.

Being chosen is rare, and it’s an honor.

A beauty we see clearly is disregarded by another. Had we done the choosing, a different result, but what of those times that we’re the selected beauty? In those moments, we have to honor the risk that another puts in us. When another deems us suitable, we must be suitable.

To break that trust is to break our own back.

The door doesn’t close behind you…

You got really good at something. Studied, practiced, failed, ultimately succeeded. Now you’re in, part of the club.

The door doesn’t close behind you. Others will try to walk “your” path.

They may walk it better.

Getting “it,” then telling the next generation they’re pretenders is no good. More often than not, it’s a defense mechanism rooted in not wanting to believe that someone else can do what you do.

That’s a small mindset. There was a time when you couldn’t do what you do either, and if you’re growing, there are more of those days on the horizon.