Dreams or Teams?
Monday, May 10, 1999 by Dave Winer.
Neural pathways are powerful things. Once an idea gets in your head, you start looking for reinforcement for the belief, then the idea fades into the background, but it stays there anyway, even if you aren't conscious of it, coloring everything you see.
Remember Don's Amazing Puzzle? How many F's do you see?
I feel like I'm on the sidelines, while the revolution is happening, I yearn to be the manager and promoter of a distributed site with thousands of writers and millions of readers. I yearn to sit at the table and make bets on the future of the Internet, not just comment on other people's moves.
But what if I got what I wanted? Would I be happy? Read on..
I got a great response to last Thursday's piece about money left on the table in the music industry. I've been forwarding some of the more interesting responses to people I know in the music business.
Just to let everyone know, lots of Silicon Valley people would love a shot at the Internet Music Label. There is a consensus that it would rise, would IPO and would make jillions of dollars. Which is, after all, the goal of the labels, to return value to the shareholders?
I know the music business is complex, but I see it as simple. As a user of the product I don't care how it gets to my ears. I want maximum convenience.
Viewing the business as simple because the user sees it simply is consistent with the many axioms of business. You know, the customer is always right. That's why I named my company UserLand, to remind me what's important. It's a dream I lose for a time then it comes back into focus. "It's the Users Dummy!" could my constant slogan.
To a user, music is about inspiration, emotions, memories, revelations and aspirations. You can't have a party without music. A song from childhood brings you back to the feelings of childhood. Music is a trigger, it opens windows inside ourself. With music comes security and revolution. It can jar your assumptions (Reggae), challenge your fears (Rap), and warm you like a snug blanket (Motown).
And music is international. I might not understand a foreign people when they write, but their melodies can tell me what's inside them that crosses language barriers, but not cultural ones. Learning a culture thru its music destroys neural pathways, breeds understanding and defeats war.
To the user the music business is simple but the content is complex. Today we're using the Silent Web. I can't wait for singing and talking sites. The Dancing Hamsters were just the beginning. Music can charm and music can arouse. Music is simple and music is complex.
If you doubt the connection between music and the web, read this piece and imagine that the Neville Brothers were funking out in the background.
Hey hey hey! Hey Pocky Way. Adopt the rhythm. Ooooh. Feels good!
I've always believed, at a visceral level, that it's the Big Idea that galvanizes users into motion. The dream of my Inner Entrepreneur is to deliver a product that galvanizes the world. An unqualified home run. The Triple Crown or Pearl Harbor. A decisive win.
And I have conditions on success. It's only interesting if I do it without the need for the usual trappings of corporatia, no need to market or sell or support the product. The product is so sexy the cash starts rolling in and everyone says "Dave Winer is a smart guy!" They keep giving me money to fund all my new ideas. I get to rewrite the rules of the industry. Everyone is happy because I am such a benevolent leader.
What a dream!
I can be forgiven for believing this myth because everything I've ever read or heard about the heroes of creativity focused on the individual accomplishment.
A short list of famous individual accomplishers. Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Larry Ellison, Marc Canter, Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, Kim Polese, and now Linus Torvalds and Eric S. Raymond; and in a different way, behind the scenes people like Ben Rosen, John Doerr and Jim Clark.
But the stories aren't people, they're just stories. Myths. Familiar stories like the songs of childhood. Usually David versus Goliath. Our heroes are dragon-slayers. We love to hear this story over and over. It's warm like a blanket, and inspiring in a nervous kind of way. But all the same it's a lie, not sustainable on a personal level. The traditional story doesn't have a happy ending.
The key point is the separation of the myth from reality. Stop for a moment and let it sink in. The stories are not the people. The stories are not the people. You can achieve the story, but you can't live the story. When you wake up in the morning you still are yourself no matter who the world thinks you are.
We define success measured against the stories. When you meet one of the people, the real person, face to face over dinner, inevitably an inner voice says what you always suspected, "I'm smarter than he is!"
You might actually *be* smarter, or not. After all, they are just people. A skeleton, a brain, flesh, blood, chemicals. A limited lifespan. Sometimes I think Bill Gates might be twice as smart as I am. That means he's worth two Dave Winers, not ten billion. There's only so much growing a single human being can do.
Why one entrepreneur hits a home run and another languishes has more to do with the times, and how the team of people behind the front-person executes. All companies are dysfunctional. Part of the dysfunction is the idea that the company is realized in a single brain.
I still believe some brains resonate with the world more effectively than others, and some brains can teach other brains how to resonate. Yes it matters, very much, who is leading a company. But after that, is the person attractive and is the pattern their brain sees in harmony with the way the world is going? Luck plays a big role too.
Most of the heroes we look up to were good at picking up other people's ideas, not synthesizing their own. Some of them have no ideas at all, they just are good at sensing where the world is going. And others play the game by covering every bet.
So, after you reach the limits of a single human being, what comes next..?
A blind spot, but it was easy to debug for a couple of reasons. First, I already knew the hero myth was a lie (but I forgot to apply it to myself), and second I asked people who start new companies what they're looking for. It's like putting a printf or writeln or dialog.alert statement in a program to debug it. If you don't know what the problem is, just ask.
The startup guys, the VCs, are not short on ideas. There are so many open spots as the new e-commerce system builds out. Whole industries are up for grabs. New twists on old industries, like the music and book businesses, even garden supply is being revolutionized by new technology. And whole new industries remain to be created, ones that connect people in ways that take advantage of the new power of the Internet, things you couldn't do over the telephone or TV. This used to be called groupware. It's still a good way to describe what's going on.
The startup guys aren't short on ideas, or cash either. What they need are *teams* of people who work well together, who are fresh, smart, fearless and crisp, who move instead of worry. A little bit of experience, but not so much that they get paralyzed. Build a big company quickly. Add another essential ingredient, a hero to meet with reporters, to stand on stage, to rally the users and other developers. But that's just one part.
Yes you still need ideas, good ones, if only to galvanize and organize the team.
It's the team that's what wins, not an individual, now and always. This is, believe it or not, a revelation to me. A former blindspot, erased. Whew!
A former blindspot, now my religion. It's the team. It's the team. The team is the next step. Repeat until it sinks in.
A very wise man once asked me a very important question.
"Are you a pimp or a whore?"
I'll let you know!
A friend of mine has an idea. It's a good one. An application for the Internet that no one has thought of? Presumably. Unlikely though, almost every idea has two or three or twenty-three people working on it. My friend is an "idea guy" not a "business guy". He needs to find his other half. But that's just the beginning of the problem. If you want to win, you need a management team. He asks for help finding a business guy, but I can't help him. I urge him to find a management team he can join, where his ideas and his resume would help launch the company to the stars. It'll be an uphill battle to hire a management team in competition with the VCs, who can offer what every member of a management team wants, the probability of getting rich.
Another friend, three years ago, was struggling as the CEO of his own company. An offer comes along to join a management team. A high-flying Internet company of the highest pedigree. He accepts the job. Three years later the company is public and he's a millionaire. No doubt he had to swallow his pride many times in the process. No doubt he's not making progress in his personal competition with the icons of Silicon Valley. But he now has the money to fund his own ideas. He has a nice house and no longer has to worry about money. Do I think that's an accomplishment? Yes I do. It's a huge accomplishment, because he had to overcome the hero myth and be satisfied with being disgustingly wealthy.
Accepting this is on the path to happiness. We are all part of something that's much bigger than ourselves. That may be the big lesson of life, it certainly is the lesson of business. In a previous piece I recommended submission. Now I recommend joining. Same thing. Go with the flow. Don't wait for the world to discover your brilliance. Join a team. Make it work. Now, as never before, that formula works.
Seeing this in my friends has helped me see it in myself. No longer am I wanting to be the next Marc Andreessen or Bill Gates, nor am I trying to recapture the glory of my past life as a software entrepreneur. I want to be part of the machine. I want to make happiness and money. I am not the hero. I am not good or bad. I am an average guy who can help. That's all. And that's not bad.
Like so many others, I too want to be part of the Internet Music Label.
But I know I can't *be* the label. It will be itself. And it's only one of the things I want to be part of.
So many people want to be part of it, is that good news or bad news?
It's bad news if I want to be the hero, but good news since I want to be part of a team.
Am I pimp or a whore? Finally, I found something that I could be a good pimp for!
And it's just one idea.
Let's keep trawlin.
PS: Linus Torvalds is a smart man. He disclaims the hero culture. He asks people to ignore the hype. Thank you Linus. Finally a hero who gets it.