Making Something New

Most consumer technology companies are founded by young or youngish men. They’re funded by men who live in the same world.

They do best when making stuff for themselves. Take Vindigo. The original service, a Palm-based city guide, was made by smart dorks who didn’t like not knowing where to go in the big city. With Vindigo in hand, that tribe still wouldn’t know the latest underground bars, clubs, and restaurants, but they’d have directions (and, crucially, reviews to parrot) for the places that had already surfaced. Creators and audience understood one another, and it’s still one of the best mobile phone applications available in the US, though little known, and underused these days.

Juno, like Vindigo, hired the kind of people who later graduated to jobs at Google. Juno’s requirements were strict, but not sensible. Unbelievably, SAT scores counted. Experience didn’t. Ivy League GPAs were verified, but common sense wasn’t. This would have worked if the service were based on spotting tiny arbitrage opportunities, like their hedge-fund parent company. Instead, Juno provided free, dial-up email to millions of people who had never before used the Internet. The idea was audacious, and in theory the numbers worked.

However, Juno employees worked in a glass tower 26 floors above Times Square–opposite MTV, and in the same office as P. Diddy, back when he was Puff Daddy, and _Every Breath You Take_ played in every elevator. Those microscopic glitches our hedge fund brothers searched for? That was about the scale of our intimacy with customers. All we knew was, we were doing them a favor–hey, it was free–and that the product they bought most often from our daily bombardment of direct-sales ads was religious clip art.

This was just proof that they were weird. And most likely hadn’t gone to Yale.

A switched-on French colleague railed shortly before he left that it seemed everyone wanted to “do strategy,” and nobody wanted to go to the warehouse to figure out the best way to get these people the religious clip art they had paid for. Solving the technical challenges of serving ten million people was (rightly) valued, but learning about their lives was not. We spent our energy on odd things–getting fervent about serial commas in intranet articles, or designing “error message” advertisements to trick people into upgrading to paid services. Or “doing strategy.” (As Joel says, “no one at Juno owned anything. They just _worked_ on it.”)

Well, that was extreme, and that was ten years ago. Still, it’s left me with an interest in figuring out how people make things for people who aren’t like them. Walking around the Yahoo! offices in Sunnyvale last spring, it was clear that, though they still call it a campus, that internet generation is older now. The majority are the thirtysomething dorky guys I’ve always liked. And Yahoo!–like Google and others–has done well with the services that matter most to their staff as users: Autos, Finance, Personals, Instant Messenger, Video, Maps…

Where I get interested is in the efforts of tech founders and organizations to move beyond their tribe. In their efforts to hire, or at least get to know, people who are different. The Yahoo team I worked with last spring are little on the margins–“a bunch of moms,” they called themselves, maybe ten years older than the surrounding engineers. They’re designers, in a technologists’ world. And they wanted to work for customers that Yahoo hadn’t yet talked to. So they found some, visited them, and picked their brains. They made prototypes together, big looping sketches that filled walls. They spent time showing them how older services actually worked–even instant messaging is always new to someone. Eventually they gathered a bigger group–sixty representatives–from this tribe that doesn’t surf the web all day. For ten days, they lived at Yahoo!, while the “bunch of moms,” their engineering allies, and some executives with big ideas listened, answered, explained, and asked. There was no fancy method, just people getting to know one another, then sketching, building, and testing ideas together. They produced good work. Also some Princess Leia skits, but that’s another story.

The “just moms” were curious, self-deprecating, and tenacious as Borat. It’s to Yahoo’s credit that passionate entrepreneurs have a place to live, and room for a real life to draw from. I hope they succeed.

If you don’t take the time they took to explore unfamiliar ground, it’s hard to sound real. Here’s what today’s Valleywag pulled from an article on a recent launch–Yahoo’s Food portal, as it happens.

Just Wait Until Forbes Writes About Yahoo! Sex
* “Brown has been working with food for most of the Internet’s history.”
* “Yahoo! media and entertainment head Lloyd Braun hired Brown because ‘[Braun] identified “food” as something he wanted to do.'”
* “‘He saw the food marketplace as under-served.'”

(For the record, this is what real sounds like: Meetup’s Scott Heiferman on his stint at McDonalds.)

Is it fair to say most tech founders think they’re smarter than everyone else? I hope so. They need that shell of arrogance to weather all the doubts and threats and blows to come. (And besides, they’re often right about being smarter.) That belief is probably a necessary condition for facing startup odds.

It’s also a conviction that limits their reach, from what I’ve seen.

What I look for now are the ones who, in action and conversation, can make others feel more smart, valued, and heard, not less. Staff, family, friends, and allies first–they’ll need them, to get through the brutality of birthing something new. Then customers. Mena Trott has that quality, as far as I can tell with an outsider’s eye. That’s why her new blog/community service, Vox.com, addresses with such warmth and respect people who aren’t visible to the Valley tribe.

Of the six billion people in the world, it’s amazing how many still fall into that category.

4 thoughts on “Making Something New”

  1. Arrgh. Hideous old memories there. Maybe you could write a piece some day about how a song written from the viewpoint of a stalker, who could have been anyone from the usual creeps to a Mark David Chapman, could have possibly become so popular? I can’t do it — I couldn’t understand the song then or now — too old, I guess.

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  2. I think most people just remember the chorus and don’t think of the song that way.

    It was more difficult to read that wee piece Dervala. Didn’t have your usual flow. Feeling under the weather these days?

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  3. When I was a kid I just heard the earworm chorus. Now I can’t get away from the true stalker creepiness.

    I guess Sting and I can’t please all the people all the time. 😉

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  4. Hey, I’m catching up on a few months of dervalawesomeness (thanks for the shout out), and posting a month late. Please forgive the etiquette breach.

    So the best piece of advice I ever got was from my big brother, Matt. When I moved to NYC he told me to remember two things in the big city:
    1. Make sure you’re really interested before you go on the third date or you might suddenly end up dating by accident
    2. Always bring something to read. You spend a lot of time waiting around in NYC.

    I kept both rules, and am eternally glad.

    Careful on the cycle,
    love from becky and i

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