Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Live from Silicon Valley

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Last week, on an impulse, I picked up a used copy of Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that came out more than fifteen years ago. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get to it—it’s a fantastic read, particularly if you allow yourself to browse at random, and it seems to have singlehandedly kicked off the oral history boom that has become pervasive enough to be the object of satire itself. There are countless anecdotes that I’d love to turn into the subject of a post, but I’ll start with this one, from legendary comedy writer James Downey:

Lorne [Michaels] at the time was anxious to get into movies in a big way, and he had a deal with Paramount. And different writers and teams of writers—like Tom Schiller wrote a movie—each had movie ideas. Lorne was pushing [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and myself the most to do a movie. But we didn’t really have an idea. We had the deal before we had the idea, which is not a good way to do anything. So from like the summer of 1980 on and off for the next two years, we just in a desultory way wrote the screenplay, which once we finished it Paramount was then able to officially reject.

The italics are mine. And while it’s tempting to agree that you should start with the idea, that’s often not how it works in Hollywood. Instead, like Michaels, you get a development deal, which amounts to a bet by a studio that you’re talented enough to eventually come up with something interesting.

And you don’t just see this in the entertainment industry. Yesterday, my wife brought my attention to a post on Hacker News with the title “We have a great team and capital but can’t find a good idea.” The poster noted that he had a group consisting of himself and two friends, one with a lot of money from a stint in private equity, the other with a doctorate in computer science. They had “investors that are willing to write blank checks” and “cash in the bank to continue experimenting,” but they were missing one crucial element. The poster elaborated:

We have read everything on how to come up with startup ideas (ranging from Paul Graham essays to The Mom Test). We have ran interviews with friends in corporate and startups, asked old colleagues, attended conferences, organized meetups in our city, a ton of time spent networking, etc. The few product ideas we came up with following the above process we dropped, often because we discovered that that space is ultra crowded or commoditized. We will not give up but are getting unsure on how to break the stalemate. Any tips or advice?

The suggestions, not surprisingly, ranged from “stop looking for ideas and…start looking for problems” to hiring an “idea generator” to getting out of the game entirely. (My favorite: “Find an unsexy domain that you have more access to than the average person. Start to build domain expertise in that area as quickly as you can…Loop back with the people in the unsexy industry to get feedback.” I like this because it’s basically how I wrote my book.)

It’s easy to smile at this sort of thing, but it reflects an assumption that still permeates much of Silicon Valley, which is that what matters isn’t the idea, but the team. Hacker News is an affiliate of the startup incubator Y Combinator, which essentially provides development deals for promising entrepreneurs, with a business philosophy to match. In his book The Launch Pad, Randall Stross says of its cofounder Paul Graham: “Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.” Elsewhere, Graham himself has written:

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea…Since a startup ought to have multiple founders who were already friends before they decided to start a company, the rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.

And the notion that the team itself is what truly counts has led to a lot of talk, legitimate or otherwise, about the concept of the pivot, in which a startup that began by doing one thing abruptly decides to do something else.

In fact, the underlying point here seems sound enough. Ideas are cheap, and incubators are probably right in investing in founders rather than in concepts. If I had the money to be a venture capitalist, I’d do the same thing. But in the end, the real test of the team is its ability to generate and execute a good idea. (Most people who get development deals of any kind have already managed to do it at least once.) And you only get the tools that you need to do anything well by coming up with ideas on your own and taking them as far as you can. Just as you can learn vastly more from writing a novel from scratch than from fanfic or ghostwriting somebody else’s book, shepherding an idea to start to finish is the most reliable way of developing certain indispensable skills. As Chris Rock says in Live from New York:

The best thing about the show is that when you did write a piece, you were responsible for it. You were in charge of the casting. You were in charge of the costumes. You produced the piece. I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live. It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.

You could say much the same thing about any project, as long as you see it to the end. Its lifespan may not be any longer than that of your average comedy sketch, but its lessons remain—which is just another way of saying that ideas and experience emerge from the same cycle. And the apprenticeship is necessarily brutal, in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. As Martin Short puts it elsewhere in the same book: “You’re a star on Saturday night, but if forty-eight hours later you haven’t come up with an idea, you’re a failure.”

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