Ramblings & ephemera

Business, work, and good ideas

From Paul Graham’s “Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas” (April 2005):

This summer, as an experiment, some friends and I are giving seed funding to a bunch of new startups. It’s an experiment because we’re prepared to fund younger founders than most investors would. That’s why we’re doing it during the summer– so even college students can participate. …

The deadline has now passed, and we’re sifting through 227 applications. We expected to divide them into two categories, promising and unpromising. But we soon saw we needed a third: promising people with unpromising ideas. …

One of the most valuable things my father taught me is an old Yorkshire saying: where there’s muck, there’s brass. Meaning that unpleasant work pays. And more to the point here, vice versa. Work people like doesn’t pay well, for reasons of supply and demand. The most extreme case is developing programming languages, which doesn’t pay at all, because people like it so much they do it for free. …

So why were we afraid? We felt we were good at programming, but we lacked confidence in our ability to do a mysterious, undifferentiated thing we called “business.” In fact there is no such thing as “business.” There’s selling, promotion, figuring out what people want, deciding how much to charge, customer support, paying your bills, getting customers to pay you, getting incorporated, raising money, and so on. And the combination is not as hard as it seems, because some tasks (like raising money and getting incorporated) are an O(1) pain in the ass, whether you’re big or small, and others (like selling and promotion) depend more on energy and imagination than any kind of special training.

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