Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Now? What Wave Are You Riding? (弄潮儿)

"When there are big waves-like the annual tide bore at the mouth of the Qiantang River in Hangzhou province-local daredevils, known as nong chao er (弄潮儿), have been playing the tides for many centuries. 
Classical Chinese poets described with amazement the site of nong chao er swirling around in the deadly current, swimming and turning somersaults while they held aloft brightly colored flags."   
Excerpt from "Tide Players - The Movers And Shakers of a Rising China:
 I can't think of a better quote to sum up what starting a company is like.

1. What Wave Are You Riding?
Often, there are macro changes that drive a company to be successful.  There are many examples of products that launched too early (pen computing), with a later version reaching massive product / market fit (palm pilots).  The best entrepreneurs ask "Why now?" - what is the meta trend that creates a window of opportunity that I can take advantage of?

Paul Graham has a nice quote that captures this:
Whatever people are going to do for fun in 20 years is probably predetermined. Winning is more a matter of discovering it than making it happen. In this respect at least, you can't push history off its course. You can, however, accelerate it.
There are a number of macro trends happening before our very eye: smart phone market share (enabling e.g. Square), the rise of tablets, new ecommerce models (Gilt, GroupOn), rapid fire global reach for new products (Samwer brothers).

The smartest entrepreneurs ask themselves "why now?", "what has changed?" and build products that take advantage of newness or big trends that are reshaping our world.  In hindsight these big trends get labels such as "Sharing Economy" (AirBnB, LendingClub, Kickstarter...), and "Social Curation" (Pinterest).  The best entrepreneurs implicitly see what is coming and manage to ride the big tide that will reshape the ground beneath it -before something is obvious enough to be called a trend.

Photocredit: http://www.bodysurf.com.au/

2. Turning Somersaults in a Deadly Current.
Big changes bring both outsized opportunities as well as leave a lot of dead startups and incumbents in their path.  People forget that in the 1980s there were literally thousands of computing and peripherals companies - almost all of whom died.  Anyone remember Apollo Computers?  Or Symbolics?  Or Quantum?   Like any piece of history, only the victors are remembered.   And the victors are the ones who rode out the turbulence of the big waves that shook their industry (Microsoft moving into O/S when it wanted to sell developer tools to IBM, IBM changing to a services company, Intel's massive pivot into microprocessors and out of memory, etc.)

Starting a company feels a lot like being lost in a riptide current and trying to keep your bearings.  You are tossed to and fro by the market, your employees, and your users until you either drown or find that through some miracle your product is actually loved by somebody.

3. Waving Brightly Colored Flags.
To some extent, starting a company is a bit of a fuck you to the world.  It is telling people that you want to drive your own destiny and really believe you can do something better than anyone else.  That you can build something truly great that people will love.  While you are being battered by the tidal forces that are re-shaping our world, you have the gall to wave a brightly colored flag to let the world know, without a doubt, that you are one to watch.

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