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by • December 16, 2013 • UncategorizedComments (2)872

Ignore posterity; build features

Every so often, the looky-loos seize their pitchforks and condemn the startup world, saying:

These startups are just toys and features. Why isn’t anyone trying to change the world!?

To which the only acceptable reply is:

Bollocks!

Because hidden within their complaint is the incredible claim that they can see the future. That they can judge how today’s companies will change tomorrow. Which is obviously bunk.

Any child can point at Tesla or SpaceX and say that they are Good. But that’s not predicting the future; it’s remarking on the present. But what came before Tesla? What laid the foundation upon which it is built? Amongst other things: video games. Musk has said that video games were one of the big reasons he got into engineering. Nobody could have told you that Wolfenstein 3D was going to contribute to privatized space travel. And I wouldn’t expect anyone to. It’s impossible. Or that Farmville would perfect the retention hooks which help Khan Academy deliver better education.

I saw someone ask on twitter whether video games had ever actually helped anything. Obviously yes. Games inspired an entire generation of 80s and 90s kids to learn how to program, and those kids are in turn now creating the companies and startups which are furthering education and medicine. It’s also why gender-balanced video games (The Sims, Farmville) are going to do more to close the gender gap in tech startups than any government or non-profit initiative. But could you have predicted that in advance? No way.

Condemning any startup as “unimportant” is incredibly short-sighted. The big changes are unpredictable. That means that you never get to them by working on stuff that seems most pressing. Even purely money-driven startups (e.g. Zynga) have funny ripple effects (e.g. gamifying education). If everyone is running around trying to “change the world”, then we’re micro-optimizing for the present. Just do whatever you’re interested in and excited about. I trust in curiosity more than I trust in predictions. Do what you like and we’ll see how it unfolds.

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2 Responses to Ignore posterity; build features

  1. Are you saying that criticism shouldn’t be employed when contemplating* an idea?

    *i would have written judging, but the definition of the word hinges on the possibility of criticism.

    • robfitz says:

      No, just that the future implications of something are always unclear, so you should ignore the particular type of criticism which condemns a project as unimportant. More pragmatic criticism (“this won’t work because the budgets don’t exist”) is great, and even fuzzy opinions (“I don’t like this”) can be helpful in helping you avoid silly mistakes.

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