The Near Futurist

Lessons for Silicon Valley from Einstein

strange-albert-einsteinAlbert Einstein was a physicist who changed the world with his ideas. But he's often known just as much for the poignant and often funny quotes he left us with. Here then are ten (plus one) quotes from the scientific genius as applied to how we in Silicon Valley can learn from and put to good use.


"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Sure, knowing a lot of things can certainly get your far in your career. But true genius take that fount of knowledge, and imagines a new way, a different way. Imagination without knowledge is fantasy; knowledge without imagination is uninspired.


"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." and "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

One challenge more established companies have in the valley is to continue innovating once they have an established product and business. It is very easy and tempting to simply add new features to a product, thereby "improving it." However, it takes a truly innovative hand to improve a product by making it simpler, not more complex. Products like Microsoft Word suffered from this, and Google Web Search often threatens to fall off this precipice. Improve doesn't equal new features; improve means driving more user value.


"The only real valuable thing is intuition."

Many technological leaps coming from the valley are those where a person has been working on a problem space for some time, and suddenly has the insight into what could be the next great innovation. Einstein suggest we should trust that, because so much of what comes out of Silicon Valley is too "me too." Have an intuition to truly make a leap forward? Follow it.


"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

One challenge any founder has is to take their idea and explain it simply to others, specifically to potential investors. Often this comes, not from understanding their product well enough, but not understanding the user value they are driving. Yes, Facebook is a social network that provides photo sharing, comments, keeping up with friends and family, etc. But Mark Zuckerberg had it right: Facebook is about connecting people. Simple, and well understood.


"A person starts to live when he can live outside himself."

All too often, product managers, executives, and co-founders decide what to build by examining their own pain points. Better and more successful products can be built when they think instead about what others needs, and better yet, by asking and assessing what others need. See the world to solve problems, don't just see your world.


"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

Mantras like "fail fast" and "plan to throw one away" are tropes heard over and over in the valley, yet this lesson is hard to see put into practice. Try something new, fail quickly and learn to do it better the second time. Instead of being afraid of failing, look forward to it, knowing what valuable things you will learn from it.


"For an idea that does not at first seem insane, there is no hope."

Quotes like "Everything that can be invented has been invented" by the commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899 and "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home" by then-president and founder of DEC Ken Olson in 1977 remind us that the true innovations that catapults technology forward are those that initially sound ludicrous and impossible. But it is only in these ideas that we can really truly make leaps.


"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

As much as I hate this tired business buzzword phrase, it is true that solving problems often mean that we have to "think outside the box." Often by abandoning the kind of thinking that perhaps created the problem, we can start to see what might solve that problem. Doing the same thing and expecting different results isn't the definition of insanity; no, there are other words for that, like stubborn, unrealistic, misled, bureaucratic, etc.


"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence.

I've heard it said: mediocre, even good people, often end up hiring those that are similarly mediocre or worse, as they are threatened by those that might be smarter and more talented as them. The truly great hiring other great people, knowing that everyone brings something different to the table, and by putting together many intelligent people, you can rise about old patterns of thought to take things in a new and innovative way.


"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

The work that we do here in Silicon Valley affects people far and wide. Let us all take that responsibility seriously as we continue innovating. Do we need another service that helps wealthy serial entrepreneurs to connect with wealthy investors? Or a service that makes the process of finding your own personal chef marginally easier? Or should we understand that the "head of the cat" is meowing to people all over the world, often living far below our own standard of living, and the "tail pulling" we do here in the valley matters greatly.



So I’ve got this idea for a business…

We've all had that moment when we come up with the most awesome business idea that will no doubt change the world. Most of these ideas are shrugged off, as we move on to more pressing things in our lives right in front of us. But what if you decide that you do want to take this idea seriously and build a business. The first question that any potential entrepreneur has to be, "Is this idea worth spending time on to grow it into a business?" Put another way, a certain amount of cost is sunk to build a business (time, money, resources), so can we be sure that the corresponding revenue will be there sustain and grow the business?

This is of course the proverbially $64M question (or in Apple's case, as of Oct 2012, possibly the $640B question!). I've spent time thinking about this question over the last several years, as I encountered variations on this during my time at Google, StumbleUpon, and Media Camp (Turner). I recently spoke with an entrepreneur looking to build a business, and worked with him through the things he needed to know for himself to come up with a solid case for why he should (or shouldn't) start his business. I've collected and cleaned up the list that we went through, and have posted it here. Hope you find it helpful, and of course, I would love to hear your feedback! Also, it's worth noting that this is for a business that would primarily rely on advertising for revenue, and potentially include third-parties to partner with to help drive growth and revenue.

Who is our user or customer?

  • Who is the user or customer for this business?
  • What demographic is the business going after? Age, gender, location.
  • What is the value this user derives? Are they saving time, or spending time?
  • What will keep the user coming back?

Who is our advertiser?

  • Who will pay for this, and why?
  • How much are they willing to pay?
  • Is this additional cost, or cannibalized cost? (i.e. Are they pulling existing budget, or new line item in spend?)
  • What is the advertiser's value from spending on your product?

Who is our partner?

  • Who will integrate this, and why?
  • What is the revenue model with partners?
  • Is there prestige with the partner's brand association?
  • Is there value with knowledge/expertise that the partner brings?
  • What is the value proposition for the partner?

Advertiser segments

  • Size
    • Small (individuals, experts, celebrities)
    • Medium (SMB)
    • Large (companies, orgs)
  • Industry vertical
    • Media
    • Finance
    • Travel
    • CPG
    • Automotive
    • ...
  • Goals
    • Direct response (CPC, CPA)
    • Brand awareness (CPM, rev share?)
  • Budget
    • <$100/month
    • $100-$1000/month
    • >$1000/month

Publisher segments

  • Size
    • Small (individuals, experts, celebrities)
    • Medium (SMB)
    • Large (companies, orgs)
  • Type
    • Media publishers
    • Companies/orgs?
    • Celebrities
    • Bloggers, experts, tastemakers

How to gather data

  • Surveys
  • AdWords/FB/StumbleUpon ads
  • Focus groups
  • Conferences/networking events