Orthodox Church of Startup Nation

“Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.”
-Nicholas Negroponte, Wired Magazine, 1998

I admit. I forgot. After all, are we non-technical users of today’s internet not blessed a thousand blessings every second? We have ease. We have gorgeous UI. We have clear copy. We have immediate satisfaction. Gone are the incomprehensible errors (404 WTF?) and, when they still crop up, they’re just awesome.

So you’ll maybe forgive me when I admit it: when we kicked off our startup (now TaskCurrent, a new content delivery platform for concise digestible advice style content) I got my ass handed to me: calls, repositories, JSON’s, passing, encryption, puts, gets, posts, parameters, APIs, Dispatchers, chron jobs, Java, PHP.

I tried to put on my best game face, and stay on top of things, but a few weeks in I woke in a cold sweat, finally coming to terms with the fact that I’d been lulled to sleep on the warm digital currents of decade 2 of the .000’s.  

Sure, for users, the digital aspect of their lives is hardly noticed anymore. Afterall, the ancien regime and the emperors who ground down progress are humbled, and the people are now living in freedom from stodgy old pages, bloated systems, and incomprehesible instructions. Even dictatorsmake digital life gorgeous. So true. So absolutely damn true.

Until, that is, you try your hand at being a creator. Then the digtial slaps you in the face again. Hard. The intricacy of what lies beneath it all come rushing in to fill every ounce of available brainspace. You can just look out over the horizon and see that beyond our little LAMP stack lies an incomprehensible expansiveness of human toil and genius. It’s positively awe-inspiring. It really all gets summed up in the fact that there are SO MANY questions, decisions, choices, and complications in really engineering code from the ground up.

This contrast got me worrying a bit about maintaing the chops to be truly creative. Because for sure: rediscovering the complexity and raw potential energy of the code that lies beneath our modern web apps–all that possibility!–is exhilirating and incredibly empowering. The digital world we have today was driven by cosmicly inquisitive minds who over the past 40 years tore down orthodoxies and erroneous assupmtions and built a stunning new plane for human interaction and creation. Literally a New World.

However, like all things almost too vast to comprehend, as time passes, doctrinal orthodoxy and oversimplification set in (often cataylzed by either highly brilliant synthesizing indiviuals or highly charismatic simplistic indiviudals). Religions and movements within religions spring up, with views as to how Digital Creation and the processes that take it to market must happen. There are Holy Lands, and Churches, and there are Rabbis, Priests, and Imam’s. We at TaskCurrent are based in Jerusalem, home to some of our world’s greatest religions, founded on complex, and complicated ideas that brought about revolutions in moral thinking. Diving into the complexity of the Talmud is an astounding experience — it is like reading code that’s so parsimonious yet so sweeping it hardly seems possible. But, as we know, the complex underpinning ideas of these religious systems–the very most basic being that we must think differently than what existed–have over the ages been effectively reduced to dogmas in most if not all circles. 

On the startup front, I notice in myself that in approaching the building of our startup, I’m full of pre-conceived notions that I’ve gleaned over the years from reading great sites like HN, TechCrunch, PandoD, and everything Lean Startup oriented. After all, we all now have templates for what a startup is, what its lifecycle is supposed to be, and what success means. 

When myself and my teammates and friends, (who are highly technical, but less hip to the latest and greatest) sat to plan, I started throwing out for consideration lots of the latest buzzwords, including the various tech frameworks and business strategies that get props on the web. This was helpful because, sure, there’s enormous best practice out there: Paul Graham’s and Mark Suster’s wisdom are like Revelations from On High. We’d be idiots not to learn from this. But I found that at times when my friend’s pushed back, I wanted to answer, “Well, we have to do it this way because that’s what X says; or this is just the way it’s done, go check out X site and X post.” I caught myself, sure, but wonder deep down if I’m already caught. My friends are brilliant, and flexible, but I still sometimes can’t help but feel sometimes that I, and even they (who after all became smart about coding in the presence of particular contexts and influences) are not seeing our startup on its own unique terms, but rather forcing it to bow in the direction of one “movement” or another.

It’s a concern that I’ve flagged for myself. We’ve now launched our startup. We have a few thousand users. The clock is ticking. Pressure is on. It’s tempting to grab onto the pre-defined paths, to rely on orthodox proscriptions. I think ultimately that will bring us somewhere, sure….but not to our maximum potential, which is the only place we’re looking to be. While we will end up walking the paths’ of those who walked before us, I want us to get there through our own learning, our own reflection; through talking, and asking others, to take us on our own terms. This is one of the things that struck me re-reading Jessica Livinston’s “Founders at Work,” the profound open-endedness and sheer inquisitiveness of so many of the great startups she profiles (Lord the chapter with Woz was amazing). 

We’re trying to build it into our culture, right now in little ways like: 

  • We read articles, and stay on top of new systems, but try to be highly reflective and critical as to whether something fits us and our needs, no matter how nice something appears
  • We debate alot, and in particular have one team member, Yehuda, who has taken the role of questioning assumptions that the rest of us barely even notice are there. This has been enormously helpful.
  • We try not to dismiss outright development ideas that may be unusual, that cut against the grain
  • Before I react to something that I disagree with based on my already formed notions of startup building, I always try to spend at least a day reconsidering why I’m objecting
  • We’re asking for advice about our startup not just from folks squarely in the center of today’s Valley culture, but also from people who’ve succeeded and failed in different contexts, regions, and industries
  • Once a month I try to read some mind boggling scifi (Iain Banks style) that throws open the possibilities again for me

We hope throughout the life of our startup to tap something deeper than the Orthodoxies, to spend time going back to the sources, so to speak, so that our minds are ever wider open to the possibilities that may come. To balance learning from the great accomplishments of the past decades, to not being afraid of trying something that turns the reigning wisdom on its head. We’re always looking for advice from teachers, peers and colleagues on how to keep our minds open. 

Wishing everyone a great week! 


….updates on Twitter: @taskcurrent

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