Hail Mary and Ambition

By editor on February 20, 2018 — 4 mins read

Anything you start: it could be a pretzel business, it could be a home printing business, or it could be Facebook, probably has a 1% chance of success. It really just doesn’t matter what it is.

If you have a 1% chance of success, why aren’t you throwing the Hail Mary on something crazy? By definition it is a Hail Mary. On the off-chance that it works, it’ll be transformational. For you, for the people that work for you, your community, how it inspires other people, the world. All that shit is so much cooler than just working on something small. And right now, what’s happening is we have too much small stuff, not enough big stuff. They all have the same mortality rates. That’s just a waste, it’s a waste of intellectual capital.

I would say too many people building incremental, consumer-focused product features, and not enough people building really ambitious products in any category. In consumer, great. Do it!

In enterprise, in storage, in healthcare, in energy. I don’t know. The point is, that we’ve now fallen into this trap where it’s, again, en vogue to be an entrepreneur. You know it’s en vogue to live this lifestyle, run around in jeans and talk the talk. Blah-blah-blah. No socks. All of that is en vogue.

As a result, what happens is you get this long tail of folks who want to be there because of what it represents vs what it really is.

And when that happens, again, people get distracted. It’s about people having funding parties talking about the angel round that they raised. And blah-blah-blah. All these random people coming in, and investing dribbles and drabbles of money, and every random other person starting an incubator.

In my opinion, people do better if you spend a couple of years working around really good people, learning, and then going off and starting something. You can still start something from scratch, but I think you need the influence of some folks around you, and right now I just don’t think that the infrastructure is set up that way.

So for example, if you’re just, “I’m gonna drop out, I’m gonna apply to an incubator, I’m just gonna sit there with my other buddy.” Okay, you’re either gonna have a crappy idea, no offence, because I don’t think your ambition is that big. Maybe you’re like the 1-in-1 million thing where you stumble into something accidentally, but I really think it’s accidental. It’s not even like, “I have a really big vision, let me start with something small.” I think it’s literally accidental.

Okay, and, that’s great, but you could flip a coin and you could just as easily be hit by a car.

To Pinterest, Ben and those guys actually spent time working in places where they saw ambition. They then, themselves, became ambitious. They saw product quality, they saw code quality. Like, you can’t work at Google and land really, really, shit code. You really can’t. Not for a long time, maybe for a little bit.

When you spin out of a place like that, your bar is set here. You just came out of a company that’s worth $100 billion at the time. And so, you’re thinking big. But if it’s all of a sudden it’s cool to drop out of school with my buddy, and all of a sudden go to some stupid incubator, guess what?

You’re gonna work on something stupid, it’s probably not going to be that interesting, and you unfortunately see it, by and large in the results of these things. And so people then get disillusioned, they become acquisition fodder for a bigger company, and that’s a vicious cycle.

So, instead what needs to happen is folks need to say, “Instead of this, what about this other thing?” Or, why don’t you actually go work at Facebook or Google for a year. Find a co-founder there. And then spinout. And then when you land crappy code, he’ll basically say this doesn’t cut it.

So you just want stuff like that to happen more. Otherwise we’ll just be a bunch of really, really smart people working on really, really stupid things. And that is a huge waste of time for the world.

In general, the knock-on effect is pretty bad right now. Meaning: you see a few companies that do something interesting, at a point in time, and then you see n+1 copycats of that thing. That’s not a healthy environment to be an entrepreneur in.

You want to be in an environment where, by and large, you’re doing something that’s relatively unique. By and large, it’s technically challenging, which inherently creates some kind of a moat. By and large, you’re creating something that has a potential to scale, and have massive impact. And as a result it allows you to recruit better, the people that come work for you will do ungodly things on your behalf: they’ll work for zero pay…

It’s because you’re working on things that are ambitious. Ambition for most people trumps all the other superficial shit. Title, salary… none of that stuff matters for most people. And so how do you clarify what you’re doing in a way where you can get those folks? They’re everywhere.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDVDWNguPs4 (30:10)

Posted in: Entrepreneurship

Editor's Note

These are Chamath Palihapitiya's words. They are probably some of the best thoughts on VC, business, and life, but were scattered around the Internet. They live now in this archive.