Moonshot Thinking & the film “The Edge of Tomorrow”

I got around to watching the new Tom Cruise sci-fi film “The Edge of Tomorrow” this long weekend. While I will do my best to avoid sharing any spoilers, I certainly enjoyed the movie for its portrayal of a fresh perspective and I’d like to figure out if I can share my thoughts as coherently as the movie itself.

The movie’s basic premise is that the world’s gripped by crisis. It has been overwhelmed by a technologically superior alien species known as the mimic, that wants our planet for itself. Europe has been lost and a press officer Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) has been reluctantly drafted to the front lines in a major counter-offensive. Unprepared, he dies on his first day of battle and wakes up to a unique phenomena.

Just like in a video game, every time Cage dies, his death allows him to re-spawn back in time to the point where he joins the other troops a whole day before the battle begins. The rest of the movie is about his desire and discovery of the abilities to win the war for humanity. Without spoilers, here’s what I think a summary of the story ought to be.

We can’t be absolutely prepared in skills, resources or else for any worth-while challenge.
As we take the only active steps we know to face it head on,
we discover that our initial anxieties about the challenge are unfounded.
We try and try again only to lose our way and find our way back in to this game we’ve created.
Eventually, our ability to rise above the challenge transcends odds and circumstances alike.

If by now you haven’t already figured out the metaphor, I believe the movie is alluding to moonshot thinking.

As goals go, the premise is that we’re bad at distinguishing between what’s truly impossible, and what’s hard but only just beyond our current means.

An apt example of this is where the word moonshot comes from, the US Apollo missions to the moon. At the time of the first moon landing, there was no precursor to the moon mission. Peter Thiel referred to the idea of simply ‘reaching the moon’ as the ‘Calculus metaphor‘, arguing that ‘a spaceship can’t ride on probabilistic thinking’.

Fittingly, this past week India managed to reach Mars on its first attempt, a first in itself. There’s more.

Today we’re gripped by an irrational exuberance with respect to the proliferation of personal technology in India. This is the same exuberance as I’d experienced in the past. It’s more certain now that smartphones can bring about technological parity between every Indian, regardless of his demographic and even education. In Android, Google knows it has the best chance to achieve this with what will be the next 300Mn Indians to go online.

Now is the best time to reset what we know and otherwise to welcome this transformation.

What’s Luck Got to Do With Breakout Success

I enjoy putting together a once-a-year panel of successful entrepreneurs for the Pune OpenCoffee Club. This year’s panel was posed an interesting question. Someone from the audience asked “What role do you think luck has had to play in your success?” There are two extreme perspectives that one might take. These were relatively young entrepreneurs, each one having distinctive achievements early on in their lives. On one hand, was the surprise breakout success each one had had. On the other hand, each one’s struggle was undeniably real. While each one of them listed the ingredients of their success, none of them mentioned luck. The audience on the other hand didn’t immediately believe that the panelists weren’t favored in any way.

Tom Preston-Werner, Cofounder at GitHub has one way of looking at luck (from his talk at Startup School 2010 “Optimizing for Happiness“). As an entrepreneur’s wits get sharper with time (or hungrier, if you must) the way he looks at luck is both what he can control and what he can’t control. It’s both you and this constant we can’t change. He might not be able to control if someone will invest in him, but he can control if he will choose to invest in himself.

Tom’s journey began with that choice. He relates that he asked himself “Should I seek permission to build GitHub from an Investor? Or build it anyway?” He’s shared other choices in a similar fashion, including picking a big idea, moving to San Francisco, bootstrapping his company, giving Gravatar away to WordPress, choosing his cofounders, giving autonomy to his employees, deciding on an office space and so on.

In hindsight, I do agree with Tom that luck does have a role to play whether good things will happen to you or not. Before luck swings your way you cannot know for certain when it will strike. With that in mind it’d be foolish to assume that you can cease stacking the odds. Pick the objectives that you believe are right (or as Tom says, optimize on happiness) and keep at it. Learn to get better at recognizing what needs to be in your favor and its role in your eventual success. Interacting with a peer-circle of successful and experienced entrepreneurs is one way to stay sharp.

As Tom recommends, stop waiting on Luck and start acting on key decisions proactively. Then you have a real choice from day zero and a better chance of picking up on favorable winds.

Three “Letters from the CEO”

How do you convey a deep sense excitement for what lies ahead? How do you share a sense of reward after huge effort? Here’s three outstanding letters from Marissa Mayer, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos that apply the written word well in conveying passion and direction.

Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos announcing the Kindle Paperwhite. His letter was front and center on the Amazon home page (pdf screenshot) marking the final turn away from ‘gold box’ offers and cluttered Amazon home page of the early 2000’s. Read the letter as reprinted on Kindle Chronicles.

Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer on renewing the Yahoo Logo “Geeking out on the Yahoo Logo“.

Square CEO, Jack Dorsey on signing up Starbucks “Onward“.

I added this one from CEO GoDaddy, Blake Irving (png) a little after publishing the post.

Hope you enjoy reading these as much as I have!

Single Minded

Most of these investors-cum-inventors are motivated by personal passion to create companies. Under this model, entrepreneurs often tap their own networks and wallets to finance their ideas.

“I don’t have any hobbies,” said Max Levchin, a co-founder and former chief technology officer of PayPal. “This is what I do.” …

Read the rest of the article – Entrepreneurs help build startups by the batch – NY Times.

Being single minded is one way that things get done. It can also become the reason why everything else starts to lose it’s color. Hang in there. Life will always be bigger. I guess that it is this need to transform what we work on, what we produce, what we’re affected by, to become all of life that keeps things greased.

From what I’ve read – Pixar is great at keeping this thought at the center of it’s creative processes. They know that they can get the best out of their teams if they allow them to seed and work on their own ideas. This is not to say that Pixar does not play a role, they play a huge role in refining these ideas, leveraging what they’ve learned as an institution in order to make these ideas work.

Emotional ownership at Pixar was significant enough for John Lasseter and Steve Jobs, Pixar’s boss at one time, to balk repeatedly at activating a clause that would transfer Toy Story’s characters over to Disney. They made the same call when even when they were nearing broke. When the sale did happen, it appeared almost as if Pixar would be buying Disney, retaining creative control.

Max Levchin, Slide

Why the MnA Market for tech. Startups in India is a joke.

An Open Letter to CEO’s, Tech, MnA Execs of Incumbents, Entrepreneurs.

This letter is greatly inspired by Dalton Caldwell’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg and is aimed at making a corrective impression with those who drive the M&A in technology companies across India. This is an opinion letter written by me based on my experiences of over 6 years as an entrepreneur in the Technology and Internet space in India. I have only the entrepreneurs perspective to offer. But I do believe my experience and views will matter to you, especially if you are in any way connected to or affected by MnA’s of startups. This was not my first conversation around acquisition, I’ve had several in my journey. The funny thing is this story repeats itself every time. In fact, several entrepreneurs who read this post relate to it with their own stories which follow this pattern. Enough that we might even call it a broad trend.

The backdrop.

A couple of months ago I was invited to meet with different executives of a potential acquirer with the purpose of acquisition of a technology that I’ve created. What we were selling was strategically ‘aligned’, could potentially expand the acquirers business, get  them to-market significantly ahead of time, and in turn solve a valuable business problem for both.

Continue reading Why the MnA Market for tech. Startups in India is a joke.

What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?

(c) 2001, Saras D. Sarasvathy.

Professionals who work closely with them and researchers who study them have often speculated as to what makes entrepreneurs “entrepreneurial”? Of course, entrepreneurs also love to hold forth on this topic. But while there are as many war stories and pet theories as there are entrepreneurs, and researchers, gathering together a coherent theory of entrepreneurial expertise has thus far eluded academics and practitioners alike.

What are the characteristics, habits, and behaviors of the species entrepreneur? Is there a learnable and teachable “core” to entrepreneurship? In other words, what can today’s entrepreneurs such as Rob Glaser and Jeff Bezos learn from old stalwarts, such as Josiah Wedgwood and Leonard Shoen? Or even within the same period in history, what are the common elements that entrepreneurs across a wide variety of industries share with each other? In sum, is there such a thing as “entrepreneurial thinking” that can be applied across space, time and technology?

Continue reading What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?

A Summer of Startup Teams

As I look forward to April, I can sense the anticipation of talented individuals who are about to embark on remarkable journeys. This is also is when the foundations for these companies are being laid. Some will be starting out with their friends. As the gears churn away in the minds of the founders, they are carefully going over an important question in their minds – how can I include my co-founder best in what we’re about to do? Founding teams are hard to build, and once built they should be equally hard to pry apart. And yet it happens all too often.

… It was like a breakup scene from a Hollywood movie: it was raining and we were arguing in the street. We couldn’t even agree on where to walk next. And so we parted in anger, heading in opposite directions. As a metaphor for our company’s failure, this image of the two of us, lost in the rain and drifting apart, is perfect.

These words are from Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup‘. Not very long ago, I had bought into the vision of a couple of ideas and had contributed myself to each one. Along the way, spin-outs were proposed and a decision had to be made. I think I made the right one by letting go, especially considering I personally was not contributing and did not wish to continue contributing in startup mode at the time. Erics’ words closely reflect the ensuing turbulence in my mind at the time. I could not understand my choice as I felt that I was missing deserved attribution.

If one were to think of reality in only this one way, the point of it all would be sadly missed. It would be like trying to guess what an entire Jigsaw puzzle might look like based on just a single piece. When you start off together you know so little about each other except for a gut feeling that you are both going in the same direction and that you would like to share success. Given enough time and pressure, your relationship will develop into something that is closer to family and is less like a purely professional one. Beyond family, a co-founder can enrich your venture in a way that resonates with the spirit of your team and complement your own skills and mindset.

If we look at those who work with us in this way, we might be slightly embarrassed about holding back on many things. For instance, you may have thought your idea and existing work is worth a great deal of equity, or you might have missed out on attributing someone else in the past. That’s alright. It happens to the best of them. Perhaps you were just not ready for it at the time. Founders can choose to auto-adjust to each other to make these deviations irrelevant. It is also ok to find out that things are not going to work out after all. If that is where you are, the best piece of advice you can get would be to accept it and continue to move forward.

Building a founding team is hard work and in contrast it might be better to focus on a challenge that comes before that – how to get started. Success is an irresistible magnet that will help you attract the best talent. From that point, finding a right co-founder is as simple as looking for the right vibes.

If you do have the opportunity to start out with someone I suggest that you err on the side of family and not on the side of being professional. It will lay the foundation to what I believe is necessary for a great company. It might sound absurd but not much more than common wisdom that great companies are especially so because of great founders – not limited by an exact sense of ownership, or propriety.

Customer DNA

A 1,000+ emails sent. Worked with the largest, to the smallest customer, all the way down to their end-users. Stumble occasionally but get back up and keep course – and then completely out of the blue, you strike the right note with someone. Can’t help but share this badge I earned.

What a delight to read your letter this morning as I opened my daily emails! You belong in customer service as you understand the pure human intent inherent in the term! Several things… thank you for communicating to me what my next step is; sending a message having a tone that tells it’s reader it was generated by a human being; and for being culpable, responsible for the information being sent out. Again, thank you for starting my morning off today with a happy, oft absent, nod to being genuine! Kudos to you!

(dec. 8th, 2011)

Merry Xmas & a Happy New Year to all!

Related:
* Fab.com: Customer Service Tips.

Return to Main

This post has been the most unusual one to write. It has been an effort of well over a year now to gather what I have learned and put it into proper words. Some introspection, a series of conversations with family, other entrepreneurs, friends and mentors helped me find them, and yet it must remain unfinished.

In April this year, I took up a full-time with ShopSocially and have been working there ever since. Before that people, including some who I did not even know – used several words to describe where I was at, including ‘struggling’, ‘stuck’ and so on. It was never a secret that times were difficult. Speaking carefully, I only recently discovered that my work on my venture was missing heart.

The problem did not lie in what I was building, or any of the million other things that I might have felt. It had simply become of paramount importance for me to succeed, and by staring so hard at only this one thing – the emotional content necessary to make things work vanished. With no freedom from failure, every thought became rigid, the negative amplified, and small details sadly missed.

It has been a hard-earned lesson, but a valuable one.

Fortunately, life decided to take me over and cut off my past. My time with those around me at work and home has given me an opportunity to train in their inherent cycle and recover original perspective to build on. Yes, I am not in a venture where I am in a position of risk, and I get that we all want to be that proverbial Tiger hunting it’s prey. I also think I understand now that in order for the Tiger to be a Tiger, he must put in the same amount of intensity in hunting a mouse as he must when hunting another animal that is much bigger or faster than itself.

If you read up stories of founders who made it (or did not), that will tell you that they did not know before hand all that they were building – but with uncommon sincerity did they mix their lives, work and ambitions to lay down layer upon layer. Take this blog site for example, I have to work on not only it’s contents, but how it looks and feels as well to make it agreeable to you. In order to discover that I must first write and so on further in. Same principle.

So what lies ahead? Truth is, all I know right now is the compass-bearing and am taking on challenges one at a time. I have plenty of moves left to get me to where it is that I am going. I am also constantly tinkering with my self to improve. For those of you who believed in me, encouraged me, I might be slow to come around but I stay in your debt as I go forward.

Related links:
Secret Trait of Every Successful Entrepreneur – Inc.com.
Secrets of the Accidental Entrepreneur – Techcrunch.
“How not to die” Paul Graham.
The struggle is not failure, but …