August 13, 2013
When I was 18, I was the third partner to join a startup called Connected Ventures. This company was never known by name, but our products were. We created Vimeo, CollegeHumor.com, and Busted Tees, all of which were a lot of fun and pretty successful businesses. I fell in love with the idea of a company as a close-knit tribe or a team. Almost like a family.
But in the startup world, people often equate “company” with “product”. Like, “Our company is called Stazzle.com”. They don’t distinguish between the organization and what the organization creates. These are two different things! Many big companies know this, because once you’re big, you naturally diversify. But I wanted to create a company with diverse products from the start. That’s the environment I wanted for myself, and the sort of environment that would appeal to the people I want to work with.
At Connected Ventures, we had a lot of failed projects. So I learned that for a company to be truly creative, it should be happily accepted that many things won’t go anywhere. This leads to a playful mentality that actually produces some of the biggest winners! But if you’re afraid to fail, if you try to make each project the “next big thing”, you lose that creative spirit. Of course, this approach may take a little longer, but I think it’s more likely to succeed. And I’m patient. I think we will really see Elepath come together over the next two years, around its fourth birthday. That’s like a pensioner in the startup world, where results are expected much sooner.
I think computing will continue to grow more intimate, until it feels like part of our internal mental life. Your devices will feel like they’re inside your brain, or perhaps physically be inside your brain. So “Elepath” is a play on “Telepathy”. Well-designed software feels like it’s part of your mind.
The second meaning is like a contraction of “elevated path”. I like to picture a swamp that someone is trying to cross. He’s trying to determine the best way to make it through the swamp. But really there’s a bridge just a kilometer away, and if he’d stop thinking about the swamp he could find it. The bridge isn’t just slightly better than the swamp, it’s 100 times better. It’s important to remember that those things are everywhere.
We are developing a framework for turning whimsical creative experiments into highly profitable businesses.
Most great software is born because someone imagined something that he or she wanted to use personally (as opposed to something that other people would theoretically want). You want to be really self-absorbed while building those first prototypes. Other people are a distraction from the vision. So, we say, “Every project starts with a hypothesis”. It’s inspired by the scientific method. You start with a hypothesis of something that would be fun to use, and you build an experiment. You don’t worry about the name or the business plan or the ‘lost password’ retrieval system. You just build the core user experience and see if you enjoy it.
If the experiment is a success, you ask some other Elepaths to join you, and start building a product. Now, you start thinking about other people a bit. You pick a catchy name, you polish all the details of the interface, you make it sellable. You make marketing materials, you do interviews about it. You release, you listen to feedback, you improve it. This process is not allowed to begin without a successful experiment whose results were “published” inside the company. I think it’s incredibly important to only build products from a great personal prototype, never from a hypothesis. It would be like booking a romantic vacation with someone you talked to for five minutes at a bar.
The final phase we call “maximize”. This is when the product’s identity is locked in and most of the creative work is finished. Then we can hand the product over to a more business-minded person who is trying to exploit it as hard as possible (while retaining its integrity). We haven’t gotten to this point yet, though, so I don’t have much to say yet.
I think we can develop this framework into something that not only produces amazing software that millions of people love, but that keeps our employees happy and supports us financially. Most consumer software is produced so haphazardly, but I think we can make a formal system that enhances not just creativity and freedom but also commercial viability.
I think that co-founders are one of the biggest liabilities in a startup. Many startups fail because of fighting and disagreement with the co-founders. I had a vision that was not open to compromise, so I couldn’t give someone else so much power. Of course, I listen to everything the employees have to say, and I consider myself an equal to them in all other ways. But I think there has to be one person who is the “driver” of a visionary project. That person is the keeper of the vision, and responsible for ensuring the whole thing has integrity.
Now, many people don’t have this option, but I did, and I knew I could be successful as the only founder, so I went for it. But my cousin Bryan Goldberg helps out a lot, especially with the stuff I’m not good at (legal, accounting, finance, etc). He is like a silent co-founder, there when I need him, but fully respectful that it’s my project.
I plan to run Elepath for ten years total, then leave the company. So I need to set it up such that it does not require me. This is a full-time commitment, and it consumes all my productive energy. This is my dream come true.
Several Elepaths wanted to live in Berlin for the summer. We were a little sick of spending all our time in the USA, and were sort of seduced by Berlin. Betahaus was a perfect choice because we could just rent a private room and pretend it’s our office! Everything worked out perfectly and it’s a defining experience for the company because now we want to travel all the time!