My Talk at Startup School

Yesterday at Paul Graham‘s Startup School, I gave a modified version of the Radar talk I started giving back in 2003, focusing not on what is on my radar now, but on how it gets there. I subtitled the talk “How to think about the future.” Most of the usual points, but (at least in theory — attendees will have to say whether or not it worked) a bit more backstory about how we’ve applied various principles in O’Reilly’s own history.


First I talked about the importance of passion, and having a big goal. Big goals, like Google’s “access to all the world’s information,” or O’Reilly’s “changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” aren’t just management or marketing hype. They are a compass for what we ought to do. I showed the strategic filters we use to determine whether technologies are aligned with our core goal. When we apply these filters rigorously to the technologies we cover, we do our best work. When we don’t, projects tend to fail, or at the least to be less interesting to us:

  • The technology is on track with a long term trend
  • The technology is disruptive
  • The technology uptake is accelerating
  • The technology has grassroots support – it’s bottom up
  • It inspires passion
  • It has deeper social implications
  • Better information makes a difference in its adoption and use

Next, I moved on to the subject of how we find things that turn out to be interesting, the material, if you will, that we pass through our strategic filters:

  • Watch the alpha geeks. Important new trends tend to show up first with enthusiasts, not entrepreneurs. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that it starts with a business plan. But it starts with passion. People who are tinkering with the way things work, and have the skills to make unsuitable technology do what they want anyway, are a great predictor of possibilities that are later exploited by entrepreneurs, who make the same things easier for ordinary people.
  • Pay attention to anomalies, “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” I gave as an example the 1996 publication of the second edition of Programming Perl, a book that Borders’ reported as one of their top 100 books in any category, while there was no mention of Perl in the computer trade press. That oddity led me to launch the first Perl Conference.
  • Look for patterns. When you see a lot of alpha geeks converging, ask yourself what it means, and don’t settle for the obvious. Once I realized that Perl hadn’t been noticed, I realized that the subjects of most of my other bestsellers were off the radar as well. That led me to organize the 1998 open source summit. But I also talked about how continuing to think about the relationship between open source and the internet’s killer apps led me to understand what I’ve called the open source paradigm shift and ultimately Web 2.0
  • Extrapolate the logic. I described how my conviction that Web 2.0 is ultimately a data-oriented system that would produce applications on top of key data subsystems like location and identity led me to start planning the Where 2.0 conference five months before the launch of and Google Earth made everyone realize that mapping and location services were about to explode. The technology announcements arrived right on time for the conference. But I also told the story of the 2001 P2P conference, which told much of the same story that ultimately resonated three years later at the Web 2.0 conference. If you have confidence in your convictions, keep trying. It doesn’t always happen right away. (The P2P conference was a hit, but 9/11 and the dotcom bust got in the way.)
  • Take the long view. I ended my talk, as I always do, with Kurzweil’s fabulous quote: “I’m an inventor. I became interested in long term trends because an invention has to make sense in the world in which it is finished, not the world in which it is started.”

On the subject of marketing, I gave the following advice:

  • “Find a parade and get in front of it.” This quote from Jim Barksdale of Netscape fame captures everything I learned from Brian Erwin, O’Reilly’s one-time VP of marketing, who joined us in 1992 after being the director of activism for the Sierra Club. People don’t care about products, Brian told me. They care about ideas and issues. So we didn’t market The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog; we used the book to help market the internet.
  • “Do the right thing. You will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” I used Mark Twain’s fabulous quote to introduce the story of my 2001 protest against Amazon’s 1-click patent, despite the fact that they are one of my largest customers.
  • Bring people together to tell your story. That’s what we did with the open source summit, and what we’re doing now with the “maker movement” exemplified by Make: magazine and the Maker Faire.