To be one of the best in the world at something, you have to work hard.
While this seems obvious, there are many people who don’t believe it’s true. Many people believe you can become great just working 9 to 5. It’s not clear where this controversy comes from.
It could be a result of the fact that we can’t all agree on how many hours of work really constitute “hard.” Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something. But it is not just the hours … it is the obsession that matters.
You cannot be great at something unless you are obsessed with it. You need to be thinking about it all the time. That obsession may consume you and it might not be healthy for you … but that is the difference between the great and the merely good.
Hard work is a prerequisite to changing the world.
People who changed the world were workaholics. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, or Alexander Hamilton. They all put in many hours more than a standard 40-hour week.
The difference though is that their work is an extension of who and what they are.
They worked hard because it did not feel like work. At least not always.
Actually getting 40 hours of work done in a week is rare.
There are very few people who can do world-changing work in a 40-hour week. I’ve never seen one.
Warren Buffet once famously stated that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. Power laws rule much around us, but more so in the technology and business worlds. One fantastic deal, such as Facebook buying Instagram, can shift the bedrock of business everywhere. Despite the common belief that 80% of company acquisitions are failures, the remaining 20% can shape a new path for in that company – the expected value is still enormous and is definitely a worthwhile path if executed properly.
Many people mistake averages for value. Venture capital is exactly the opposite of this: missing the seed round of AirBNB if you had the chance to invest means you would be financially worse off than had you invested in 50 Theranoses. The difference is that in the first case you would make 1000x your investment or at worst 0, so the opportunity cost is immense.
Power Laws also exist in company acquisitions.
The Power Law of Company Acquisitions is why companies continue to make acquisitions. In the few cases it does work, like Google’s purchase of YouTube, the gains can continue to reap dividends decades later. Fundamentally, most of the best acquisitions are contrarian in nature; otherwise, they would have been bought by another company already. And sometimes, like the YouTube acquisition, there are only a few companies that could have acquired it successfully – the key is to stay within your circle of competence.
I plan on writing a lot more about why the Thiel interview question (what is an important truth that most people think is crazy) and why it is so brilliant. In the meantime, here is a tweetstorm with my quick thoughts:
Much of marketing is social proof. You use products because you see other people that you admire using products. This is especially true in B2B marketing.
Social proof, when it works well, is a feedback loop. Actions create evidence which create relevance and then create consequences.
This is true in products you buy personally and products you buy for your business. It is true for homes, schools, medical procedures, and even political candidates. Social proof is the number one thing that convinces you to choose any product that is out there.
If you are a marketer, you need to acknowledge the power of social proof and use it to your advantage.
Social proof is a very good short-cut for people who are doing due diligence of a product. They want to understand who else is using a product and what they think of it.
In marketing, social proof is king, queen, and emperor.
Rapid raise in stock prices result in some people in the company being overpaid. This can be very bad for the overpaid employee and also very bad for the company.
Many tech companies are going public right now and many tech companies have seen significant share price increases in recent years. We can expect that most of these are facing real internal motivational challenges that could be extremely hard to overcome. The weirdness of RSUs in public companies
Let’s say that a company gives you an offer of $100k salary and $500k in RSUs vested over 5 years. That essentially means that the company values you at $200k per year (as stock and salary are fairly fungible in public companies).
Let’s say the stock goes up by 20% after six months. The RSU grant (over 5 years) is $600k and your yearly comp goes from $200k to $220k (a 10% increase). No big deal for the company as you are probably worth more than 10% more than what they originally offered you because you now have been at the company for 6 months, understand the processes there, have grown your skills, etc.
But now let’s look what happens when they stock goes up by 300% after 3 years (which happens in the tech world). Now the original grant of $500k is now $2 million (over 5 years). So the stock alone is $400k per year. Add in the salary (with assuming some raises is now $150k/year) and you pulling in $550k per year.
This is when things get a bit hairy. Because likely the company only values you at $350k so you are making $200k more than you are worth. In fact, if you quit the company and went to work for its top competitor, you might have a hard time getting more $300k.
When you are evaluating a business (to invest in or join), one simple heuristic is to understand how easy is it for the business to get new customers.
In B2B businesses, the metric that companies track is CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost). But this metric in itself isn’t that interesting and companies typically track LTV/CAC ratio where LTV is the LifeTime Value of customers. The problem with this ratio is that many companies are constantly focusing on the numerator rather than on the denominator.
The cost of acquiring the next marginal customer should be less than the cost of acquiring the last customer. And you should see this cost decline over time.
The CAC itself should decline each month. If it does, it means you likely have a great business. If it doesn’t, the business is a good business at best.
Of course, CACs should be declining for a specific cohort of customer. If your business was only focused on small businesses and now you are selling to enterprises, your CAC will increase dramatically. In this case, the key thing is to track the CACs for SMBs and enterprise customers separately (with is why so many firms use the LTV/CAC ration to simplify this step).
The best way CACs will decrease over time is if you haver some sort of network effect. LiveRamp (my last company) is a middleware company … which means it is essentially a marketplace of buyers and integration partners. It is a classic network effect business that makes it easier and easier to acquire new customers over time. Once we hit about $10 million, the CACs started dropping fast.
One other way to think about this when selling to enterprise is to track the quota for a full ramped sales rep. Is the quota for an average sales rep going up over time? If so, you have a great business. If not, the business still has some work to get to great.
All platforms follow this logic. Companies like Plaid, Segment, Marqeta, LiveRamp, and Carta are classic platforms where acquiring new customers gets cheaper over time (disclaimer: I’m either an investor or friends with the CEOs of all these companies). These types of companies can take the savings (from not having to invest as much in sales and marketing) and put them into the product. So the product can get better and better over time (which is the double-edge flywheel that all great companies have).
Other companies that have declining CACs are ones with great brands. Essentially every time a company buys their service (and raves about it), other companies are more likely to use it. Twilio and Stripe have declining CACs because they have become the default go-to companies in their space. There is a LOT of power in being the default.
Summation: Once a business gets over $10M ARR and it has declining CACs, it has the makings of a great business.
When venture capitalists tell you “your TAM is not big enough” what they are really saying is “I don’t think your team is smart enough to move to an adjacent market once you dominate your initial niche.”
They are not really saying your TAM is too small. Great VCs invest in companies with small TAMs all the time. They might believe that the founders’ think too small or that the founders just are not very good.
Many great companies started in markets where the TAM (Total Addressable Market) is small. In some cases, the companies under-estimated the TAM (the TAM got way bigger over time). In other cases, the team was smart enough to move to other adjacent markets.
Of course, it is really hard for a venture capitalist to tell a founder “we do not think you are talented.”
Even when a VC truly believes that, they can never actually say it. But founders want to know why a VC is passing and the VC wants to preserve some optionality to invest in the founder in the future (in case the VC’s assessment about the founder was wrong) or in the founder’s friends. So VCs come up with another reason not to invest. A good one is that the TAM is small — that usually satisfies the entrepreneur (who thinks the VC is just not smart enough to see the bigger picture) and satisfies the VC (who wants to preserve the relationship).
Investing in companies that are initially focused on a smaller niche is actually easier to do than investing in companies that are going after a giant market.
If the company is going after a giant market, then there is usually massive competition in the market and you really have to spend a great deal of time understanding the market (and each competitor) before investing.
For instance, if we were thinking of investing in Ford Motor Company (which competes in the giant market of automobile sales), we need to understand a ton of things:
What are the future of of cars? Will demand increase in the short term? What about the long-term?
How does the rise of places like China and India change the demand curve for autos? Even if it greatly increases the demand for cars, will Ford be able to capitalize on it? What about auto tariffs?
Ford makes much of its income on selling trucks (like the F150 — one of the most amazing vehicles). How does the demand curve for trucks change in the future?
What will happen to emissions policies? Is Ford investing in enough green vehicles to take advantage of potential policies?
While Ford is a big company, its market share in the auto industry is really low (because there is SO MUCH competition). So now we need to know about ALL the other car companies (and even potential car companies like Apple) to understand the future competitive dynnamics.
And many, many more things (like the financial profile of Ford, its labor contracts, its capitalization structure, and more).
It is much simpler to invest in smaller businesses that are tackling a smaller niche. We can get our head around the niche faster. We can assess the competition faster.
The essential questions we need to answer when investing in a niche business are just four:
Will this company be able to dominate the niche? Sometimes the company is already dominating the niche. Sometimes there is a network effect reason to dominate the niche.
Is this niche more important than other people realize? Maybe most people think the niche caps out at $50M/year in revenues but you believe it is five times bigger. Sometimes the niche gives the business a jumping off point to other niches because of its centrality. In general, niches that are more central (have more adjacent niches) are more valuable than niches that are less connected.
Is the team capable enough to move to adjacent niches once it dominates its first niche? Some teams find themselves in a good position but cannot take advantage of their position. This is actually why most VCs pass on companies. Of course, they cannot tell the founders that they passed because they do not think the founders are smart enough. So they make up another reason (the “market is not big enough”) which is just code for “we do not think you have an excellent team.”
Is the price of the investment reasonable? This one is hard to understand but if the first three are yes and only a few investors think they are all yeses, then the price is probably reasonable.
LiveRamp’s niche dynamics: dominating onboarding
One interesting example is LiveRamp (NYSE:RAMP). (note: I was the founder and CEO of LiveRamp for its first 9 years … so I am incredibly biased). LiveRamp launched its initial product at the end of 2010 going after the “onbooarding” niche. At the time, the market was less than $3 million worldwide! (Now that is a really small niche).
LiveRamp’s first year revenues from on boarding was $1 million and we ended the year with about 25% market share. But there were a few things that made the niche interesting:
We believed the niche was a total of $50M year. (Turned out we underestimate the niche by 4-6 times). So there was room to grow.
We thought there were network effects in the business — it made sense (for a bunch of reasons we will not go into now) for one company to be the winner — essentially it was a winner-take-most market. Ultimately we were proven correct as LiveRamp quickly got to over 70% market share.
We understand the capabilities of all the competitors and figured that they would not invest appropriately to dominate the onboarding market. Each competitor was already in many other markets and it did not make sense for them to continue their investment.
We believed that onboarding, while a small niche, had significant centrality to other markets in the marketing ecosystem. We assumed we could use our position to move into those other niches. This ultimately turned out to be true in some cases and more difficult than we hoped in our cases.
We had a lot of confidence in our team. Even today, almost nine years later, LiveRamp is known for having an extraodinarily talented team. Of course, most start-ups think they have a great team (and many overvalue their talent). But in 2010 our team was extremely young and inexperienced — so one could forgive an outside investor for undervaluing it.
Carta’s niche dynamics: dominating cap table management for start-ups
Carta, formerly known as eShares, is a great company. (another disclaimer: I am an investor in Carta and also a customer across many businesses).
Carta helps companies manage their capitalization table. If you have invested in a bunch of start-ups, you almost surely have gotten some of your stock certificates via Carta. In fact, of the 130+ start-ups I have invested in, Carta is the ONLY forward-facing cap table management system that I have ever interacted with (except for mergers and acquisitions where I have seen many different systems).
Carta, even from its early days, dominated the cap-table management for start-ups. And yes, it was a small niche (one that many VCs underestimated). But even today, most start-ups run their cap table on Excel — so there is still a lot of growth in the niche.
If you were an investor when Carta was starting, the first thing to understand was do you think Carta could dominate its niche. Surprisingly, many investors that passed on investing actually thought Carta WOULD dominate its niche. Given Carta’s huge current success, the investors either made one of two errors:
They underestimated the power of owning the niche of cap table management in start-ups.
They underestimated the talent of Carta’s team and its CEO (Henry Ward).
My belief is that any VC that passed for Error #1 should stop being a professional investor. That is not a good mistake to make.
However, my guess is that the vast majority of VCs made Error #2. That error is much easier to make as it is extremely difficult to evaluate people (especially after just spending a few hours with someone). Henry Ward has turned out to be an excellent CEO. But everyone has vastly underestimated people before. And everyone has vastly overestimated people before.
What you should do when a venture capitalist tells you that your TAM isn’t big enough
Obviously you should spend time evaluating the TAM. But you should also take solace that many, many great businesses (from AirBNB to Zoom) were passed by talented VCs who underestimated the team.
Summation: When VCs tell you “your TAM is not big enough” what they are really saying is “I don’t think your team is smart enough to move to an adjacent market once you dominate your initial niche.”
Also, the tax rates can change substantially between regions and cities. The top income tax rate in California is 13.3%. The top income tax rate in the State of Washington is zero (the seven states with zero income tax are Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming). So even though Seattle is getting really expensive, you can save a lot of money by taking a job there instead of San Francisco.
So what would happen in there was a law that stated that all salaries need to be quoted in post-tax PPP-adjusted dollars?
Imagine that there was a law that forced every employer to quote both the absolute salary (like $120,000 in SF) and the after-tax PPP-adjusted salary (would transform to probably $50,000 in SF).
What would happen?
First thing that would happen is that many fewer people would want to work in places like San Francisco and New York City. While everyone intuitive knows that these places are high-tax and high-price, seeing the stark different on the job offer would make a significant number of people pause before taking a job.
The second think thing that would happen is that many employers would need to react to this. One way to react is to increase salaries. But the salaries in places like San Francisco are already much higher than most places and would likely need to go up another 50%+ to compensate. The more likely reaction is for employers to hire more people outside high-tax and high-PPP areas.
Long term, more people are going to start thinking about their income in “real” dollars — which means the dollars they have left over after living their life.
Summation: Older people (over 50) are getting more advantages from computers than younger ones. We should expect to see a huge renaissance the productivity of older business people in the future.
In business, there are advantages of being younger and advantages at being older. And historically there has been tensions between the two.
Many advantages of Being Younger
Fearlessness: Youngers people have less fear of older ones. They have less to lose, less social status, no mortgage. If they fail, they will not be lower on the status ring. The best soldiers are usually those in their 20s.
Older people have much more to lose and that means they are often quite poor at calculating risks.
More time: The older you are, the more time commitments you gather. You eventually get married and have kids. You volunteer at a non-profit. You get involved in your church. You pick up golf as a hobby. You go to the Sundance Film Festival and Burning Man every year.
When you’re younger, you have not yet accumulated the debt of these commitments. That allows you to spend more time working. Of course, not every young person spends a great deal of time working (many spend an equal amount of time socializing) … but those that do concentrate on work have a massive advantage because working hours compound. Almost all super-successful people worked insane hours in their 20s. In fact, people who do not work insane hours in their 20s are at a massive disadvantage for the rest of their lives.
More raw brainpower: Younger people have better working memory, they have more stamina, and they have more calculations per second. They have a much faster CPU. It seems unlikely that we will have a 55 year old chess champion. And most Physics Nobel prizes went to work that was done by people in their 20s or early 30s.
More ignorance of “what works”: Older people are more likely to get stuck in their ways. They have a hard time seeing that the Emperor really has no clothes. So they are more likely to do things the way they have been done before. The old saying “science advances one funeral at a time” applies to business innovation as well.
But there are also many advantages of Being Older
Money: Older people are a lot richer than younger ones. Many older people gain leverage by hiring younger people and telling them what to do. They are often able to rent the time, fearlessness, and brainpower of younger people.
Cunning: Cunning is the ability to work with people and also work against people. It is something one gets better at over time. It is not something people are just born with. A 55-year-old can often play two 25-year-olds against each other.
Wisdom: While young people benefit from ignorance, older people benefit from wisdom (which is the opposite side of the coin). Older people have had more time to read, learn, and compound knowledge.
Connections: While “What-You-Know” is now more important than “Who-You-Know”, who-you-know is still important. Older people have had more time to develop meaningful connections. And many of those connections will be other very successful people. I did not know any major CEOs, U.S. Senators, world-renowned authors, etc. when I was 22 (but many of the people I met when I was 22 turned into these people).
Stature: Older people have a history and a brand. And while that history can work against them (like a voting record for a member of Congress), it gives comfort for others to work with them. People with a brand have an advantage in recruiting talent, raising money, etc. If an entrepreneur sold their last company for $300 million, it will be a lot easier for her to recruit people to her next company than a first-time entrepreneur.
Less competition: Weirdly, older entrepreneurs have a lot less competition than younger entrepreneurs. At least in Silicon Valley, it seems there are 100 times more entrepreneurs in their 20s than entrepreneurs in their 50s. Most successful people in their 50s have no desire to go through the rigor of starting a company again. They usually opt for less stressful lives (like deciding to be a venture capitalist or running a winery). That means that those 50+ people that do decide to start companies have a pretty big advantage because there are a not a lot of wise, well-connected, monied people who they are competing with.
Young vs Old: Who Wins?
To summarize the post thus far:
Ability to buy brainpower and time
The advantages of being young seems to equal the advantages of being old … at least when it comes to starting companies.
Historically young people have a way higher failure rate … but they also have a much higher rate of creating an iconic company (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc.).
In the past there was a tension between young and old. The young having big advantages in some societies and the old having big advantages in others. If I had to pull a number out of my butt, I would say that the best age to start a company has been 34 (not exactly “young” but definitely not old).
The best age to start a company will get much higher as computers are becoming a bigger part of our lives …
How the age advantages shift with computers: advantage to the older
Computers significantly change the advantage calculation.
Computers give younger people more access to wisdom through easy access to knowledge. The compounding advantage that older people have had in the past is going to be less important in the future. Computers also make it easier to find people and get in touch with them — so the Who-You-Knows are going to be less valuable in the future — and younger people, while still having less access to connections, are at less of a disadvantage here.
But computers help older people IMMENSELY.
Computers are the world’s best way to get access to raw brainpower. And as more brainpower tasks are getting taken over by computers, people with money (older people) will have a significant advantage over those that don’t (younger folks).
The proliferation of tech services also advantage older people. You can get access to the best APIs and services with dollars. Of course, most people (especially older people) will have trouble selecting and managing vendors. Most people (especially old people) are going to be trapped in the 20th century paradigm (one that rewards hiring and growing people). The most important business skill in the 21st century is the ability to select and manage vendors. But the older people that can successful navigate the new world will have an advantage.
As computers get stronger, it gets easier and easier to buy time and brainpower. We already have compute-on-demand (AWS) and people-on-demand (UpWork).
The biggest disadvantage that remains for older people is being trapped in an old way of thinking. If science really advances one funeral at a time, innovation could be significantly slowed as older people have more advantages (and are living longer).
One of the advantages that older people have that seems to be not going away is lack of competition. It used to be that very few 24 year olds ever thought about starting a company (especially those that had lots of opportunities). Even when I started an Internet company in college in the 1990s, it was really strange to have a student entrepreneur. Today it is becoming easier and easier to for 24 year olds to start companies — easier to get training, knowledge, and seed capital. YCombinator and other institutions have significantly promoted entrepreneurism among the young. My guess is that the number of amazing twenty-somethings starting companies has gone up at least 5 times in the last decade … and that trend is happening all over the world.
But people over 50 are still not starting companies in large numbers. It never was big, and I see no anecdotal evidence that it is growing. People that have been successful in the 30s and 40s are rarely opting to get back “in it” in their 50s. Instead, they are opting for easier and less stressful lives. So the few 50-somethings that do start companies could have increasing advantages. Especially those that still put in the long hours. (Even Bill Gates, one of the best entrepreneurs ever, hung up his business cleats before he turned 50).
More people in their 50s SHOULD start companies. It is actually a great time to start a company. Many people in their 50s are empty nesters (or at least no longer have super young kids). They can actually travel more and work harder than those in their 40s because they have fewer family obligations. They are usually more financially secure (maybe have paid off their mortgage already) and potentially more willing to take some sort of financial risk. And people in their 50s have so much more energy today than in years past — people live healthier, are more active, etc.
What are the societal implications of computers giving older people advantages?
The most obvious implication is wealth inequality. If older people get more advantages as they age, their wealth will compound faster. Coupled with living longer (and being active longer) means more wealth inequality.
Since the person in their 50s is more likely to build a one-to-N business than a zero-to-one business … it could mean less innovation for society and more incrementalism.
But it also could give hope to millions of people who are over the age of 50 and still have big dreams and ambitions. Ambition shouldn’t end at 45. Computers can keep ambition going way longer than in the past.
This also means that MORE 50-year-olds should start companies. However, I don’t think they will. So the few 50-year-olds that do should see very big advantages.
Summation: They advantage of getting older is growing. Computers are getting better at doing what young people do.