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A few weeks ago a I wrote a post titled It’s Not Right vs. Left, It’s Old vs. New about the conflict between innovators and incumbents. As a society, we are just starting to wander into the real structural conflict around this and I don’t believe our government, either at the local, state, or federal level, really knows what to do about it, or how to effectively engage in it.
If you want a magnificent example of this, all you need to do is look at what’s going on with Bitcoin. Actually, you just need to read two relatively short “open letters” which appeared on the web this morning.
Now, read Fred Wilson from USV’s blog post A Letter To Senator Manchin where he explains how regulatory activity in the US is already inhibiting innovation around Bitcoin, rebuts Manchin’s perspective, and analogizes Bitcoin to the Internet.
It’s probably no surprise that I completely agree with Fred’s perspective.
For disclosure, I don’t have much of a financial stake in this game – I own slightly less than 20 Bitcoins (I’ve used fractions to buy some stuff), have no intention to be a Bitcoin trader (I don’t actively trade individual public company stocks or currencies either), and I don’t have a direct equity investment in any company around the Bitcoin ecosystem (although I have several investments in VC funds who do.) I originally bought the Bitcoins for the Coursera course Startup Engineering which I managed to get through the fourth week of before I couldn’t make enough time to keep up with it. I thought I’d bought 10 but was surprised to see a few months ago that I had 20.
While I don’t have a financial stake, I have a huge intellectual and emotional stake in this. Bitcoin is a fascinating innovation. It has the potential to transform a number of different things, where fiat currencies and payment mechanisms are merely two of them. As a computer science problem, Bitcoin is a fascinating one. And, as an innovation vector, it’s a great example of “new” in a world that is desperately trying to hold on to “old.”
We are going to have a very rocky road as a society over the next 40 years. As with every generational shift, there is a lot of disruption (the 1960′s immediately come to mind.) But the amount of change, pace of change, democratization of innovation and entrepreneurship, connectivity of communication around the world, and intellectual complexity of the new innovations being created will dwarf anything we’ve seen as a species since our first moments of sentience.
Bitcoin is just a visible 2014 example of this. As Fred says at the end of his post
“When something as new and as different as Bitcoin emerges, it is tempting to want to “put the Genie back into the bottle” and protect ourselves from it. But thankfully the US did not do that with the Internet. The impact of the commercial Internet on the US economy and our society as a whole has been massive and overwhelmingly positive over the past twenty years. We should approach Bitcoin in exactly the same way and if we do, I expect the benefits we will see will be equally important, impactful, and beneficial to our economy and our society.”
My message to all the incumbents out there is a simple one. The more you try to organize and control “the new”, the harder it is going to be on society. The new is going to route around things, just like the Internet routes around things. Rather than fight innovation, embrace it, encourage it, iterate on it, accept the mess of it, and play with it, rather than against it. It’s more fun and will serve us better in the long run.
For the past 15 years, I’ve signed everything in green ink. I don’t remember how it started – it just did. I think I found a green Paper Mate felt tip pen that I liked and just started using it. So – if you have something from me signed in green, you know it’s an original. Otherwise it’s a copy or has an electronic signature.
About once a month I get a document back from a lawyer with the request to “please sign in blue ink.” I’ve always found that amusing, so I do.
This morning I wandered by my partner Jason’s office and told him about the regular, recurring requests to please sign in blue ink. He looked at me like I was from Mars, which might be true. I showed him the request. He said, “I don’t remember which class in law school taught that documents need to be signed in blue ink.”
Just a reminder that it takes a long, long time for archaic business practices to completely disappear. Fax machine anyone?
I had a wonderful time interviewing Larry Gold last night at Entrepreneurs Unplugged. Larry is a special guy and someone I learn from every time I’m with him. Among the many great stories he told, including a doozy about the time he was a sophomore at Yale, he had a powerful one about how entrepreneurs assess potential outcomes. It resulted in a fun version of entrepreneurial math.
Envision a scenario where you there are 10 separate things you need to do to have a successful outcome. Each one has a 90% probability of success. What’s the probability that you will achieve a successful outcome?
I struggled with 6.041: Probabilistic Systems Analysis and Applied Probability (the probability course I took as an undergraduate) – it was one of those courses where I felt like I was a week behind for the entire semester. I did better in 15.075: Statistical Thinking and Data Analysis - maybe I was a little older, it was a little easier than 6.041, or I was more interested because I liked the professor better. If you are having trouble with a quick answer, both courses are available to you on MIT OpenCourseWare.
Back to the question. If you guessed around 35% you are correct. It’s actually 34.87%, which is (.9)^10. Now, by using the word separate, I’m implying 10 independent events, but this is the nuanced joy of theory versus practice.
Larry pointed out with glee that regardless, entrepreneurs believe when they start down the path of doing these 10 things there will be a successful outcome. Hence entrepreneurs math is (.9)^10 = 1.
Whether you agree with the math or not, it’s a great anecdote. So many things that we try as entrepreneurs and investors fail. We never make an investment thinking “this isn’t going to work”; we always invest thinking “this will work.” I don’t know any entrepreneurs who started their business thinking “this will fail” or even “this only has a 35% chance of working out.”
This shit is hard. And it’s low probability. Even if you have an ultimately successful outcome, many of the things you are going to try along the way are going to fail. But to do them, you’ve got to believe they are going to work. You’ve got to enter into the illusion that (.9)^10 = 1.
“In Washington DC, it’s not right vs. left, it’s old vs. new” – Senator Michael Bennet
I’ve been thinking about this since I heard it last Sunday evening in a conversation with FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. I was part of a fascinating private group discussion with him and came away with a lot of respect for him and appreciation for how he approaches things. While I’m on a year hiatus from political stuff, I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet with him given my close relationship with Phil Weiser (CU Law Dean), and Phil’s deep respect for Tom.
In the midst of the conversation, this line from Michael Bennet, one of our Colorado Senators, popped out.
Michael’s statement rang true with me. But it’s not just in Washington, it’s everywhere. This is the classic incumbent vs. innovator challenge and we are seeing it play out aggressively across all industries and geographies as the machines, especially the software in the machines, have the impact on society that many of us have been anticipating and investing in for a long time.
The confusion – and conflict – in our society around this is just beginning. The mess in DC is just a starting point. Suddenly cities like San Francisco are struggling to reconcile two diverging classes – the rich and the poor – with the middle rapidly being squeeze out of the city. Cities like Chicago and Seattle are seriously considering trying to regulate a new generation of innovators, in the form of Uber and Lyft, while at the same time trying to present themselves as forward thinking innovative places to live. We went through this last year in Denver with Uber and my instinct at the time was that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s a really big iceberg. The incumbents are extremely powerful and love the status quo. Sure – they aren’t stagnant, but they’ll use all the tools available to themselves to protect their flanks. And the attackers aren’t from the left or the right, but from the new.
I’ve spent my entire professional career working on the new. I’ve always felt frustrated by the incumbents, by the bureaucracies, and by the old way of doing things. I’m not very nostalgic and spend most of my energy looking and moving forward, rather than trying to protect what I have.
Over the past few years, I’ve felt like the dynamic I’m describing was accelerating. There were days I just felt like I was getting older, but when I reflect on it, it’s no different that it always has been throughout history. While time marches on linearly at a very consistent cadence, change does not. It comes in fits and spurts and is as chaotic as the early days of any fast growing company. It’s not predictable, and when it accelerates, lots of crazy shit starts to happen.
I don’t have a solution to this, nor do I think there is one since it’s a completely unstable and dynamic situation. Many humans instinctively resist change. We fear the uncertain. We try to control what we can’t control.
Accepting the mess is part of the beauty of being human. All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
Techstars is rolling out a short video program with some of the entrepreneurs and mentors favorite quotes. I recorded a few of them recently – my first one is up.
I’m a huge Battlestar Galactica fan and think Commander William Adama has amazing leadership lessons for any entrepreneur. If you don’t know what “rolling the hard six” is, it’s a classic example of a high risk / high reward scenario. Per Urban Dictionary:
“Rolling a hard six has a probability of about 3% whereas rolling six by any other combination has about a 14% chance. A hard six pays 7 to 1 whereas a regular six pays only 7 to 6″
I’m not a craps player, but I love the metaphor. As an entrepreneur, you often have to combine luck with the right call at the right time. You can make the right call and be unlucky, or you can make the wrong call and be lucky. But when you find yourself in a jam, you often need to make the right call AND be lucky.
My imitation of Adama is pretty lame however.