William Gibson, the cyberpunk novelist has said “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” This perfectly describes a key lesson of greatness from Marc’s Netscape experience.
The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed.
That's the voice of William Gibson, the pioneer of a science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk.
Mark Andreessen mentioned Gibson's quote early in our discussion because it highlights a key lesson of greatness. Founders who live in the future have the best chance of winning big. Let's find out why.
Founders who live in the future have the best chance of reaching greatness.
So what's the big idea here?
Well, it turns out that if you want to start a great startup, it's helpful to learn a counterintuitive lesson:
Don't try to think of a startup.
What the heck am I talking about?
There's a more consistent path to greatness. Instead of looking for startup ideas, you live in the future and notice something that's missing, and then you build something that solves what's missing.
Let's consider four things that were true of Mark when he was at the University of Illinois.
Mark made something he wanted for himself;
He was able to build the thing he wanted;
Big companies and most normal people didn't realize that his work was important;
and most crucially he was living in the future before most of the rest of the world.
So what does it mean to live in the future?
It means finding a rapidly changing new field that you are passionate about and it represents a major technology inflection, and it also involves building things that will make that future better for you as you experience it while also considering the larger application of the tool. You want to engage in deep work that gives you specific, differentiated, and well-grounded knowledge that almost nobody else has yet.
How was Mark Andreessen living in the future? He worked at a lab at the University of Illinois that had computing resources most people could only dream about, and as he explored the limits of the technology that was shaping his future world, he was working on ideas that would make the internet useful because he needed to build these things for it to be immediately useful for him.
And as he built these tools, he went a step further. He went to the campus library to read about things like the Memex by Vannevar Bush as well as science fiction novels, as well as prior attempts that had failed to solve the problems that he was trying to solve. He spent time understanding why now was the right time to make some of these ideas come true for the very first time on the advanced systems he was working on.
Why is living in the future so powerful?
Well, first you're identifying an opportunity that most have not yet discovered. You're developing informed intuition in areas where others have no information or intuition. This massively increases your probability of finding a non-consensus insight, which as we've discussed is key to breakthrough startup outcomes. Also, if you're already living in the future and you find it important problem to solve, your intuition is far more likely to be right. After all, much of your hunch comes from the fact that you're solving your own visceral pain.
On the other hand, if you start out by trying to think up startup ideas, you're likely to solve a problem that sounds logical on the surface and in the present, but is not viscerally compelling enough for real people experiencing a desperate need. Too many startup ideas start like a perfect Hollywood script, which may work for movies but usually is bad for creating awesome startups. A great example of this is when you hear of an X for Y startup. We are Uber for dry cleaning. We are Snapchat for corporations. We're a social network for sports fans. This is what Mark referred to as synthetic startups in our interview. These ideas might sometimes turn out to be right, but it's likely that all of them had been tried many times by founders living in the present.
Another type of startup idea that's usually too small from an insight point of view tries to solve a complaint with a current popular product. These days, FLOODGATE gets a lot of pitches from startups seeking to fix what's wrong with Twitter spam or Facebook fake news, and I wish them well, but keep in mind Google didn't try to fix Microsoft Windows and Facebook didn't try to correct the weaknesses of Google.
How do you know if you're living in the future?
The more you live in the future, the easier it will be to develop meaningful insights. Obvious problems will surround you as you try to push the state of the art forward. The more you live in the present, the more you will struggle to find white space in markets of today.
But you don't need access to a supercomputer or to be driving the cutting edge of a technology to live in the future. Bill Gates and Paul Allen had already been tinkering with computers in the Basic language before they created Basic for the first MITS Altair personal computer. Their active experimentation made their minds far more prepared to say, of course the first personal computers will need to run Basic.
So back to Mark Andreessen and William Gibson. How can we net it out?
First, it's good to build your skills as a hacker so you yourself can build what's missing in the future you're living in. The second lesson is that most apparent overnight successes like Netscape didn't really happen overnight. Netscape was created after Mark Andreessen spent many years actively living in the future and building products to address what was missing. This is true of so many of the great startups, whether we're describing Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and many others.
How crazy is it, though, that in Mark's case, he did it while earning minimum wage in a campus computer lab and on a project that couldn't even secure additional funding?
Steve Blank, the inventor of Customer Development, often says to start by getting out of the building. The thought I leave you with is before you develop customers, you also want to also engage in insight development,
And when it comes to Insight Development, my advice to you is simple.
Get out of the present.