Apr 30

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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.

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Comments: 6

  Dharmesh Shah [04.30.06 02:02 PM]

Thanks for sharing this. Was planning on attending, but couldn't make it.

Now, it's nice to live vicariously through articles like this.

I particularly like the notion of "big goals". I think such vision has more "internal value" (in helping drive the team) than "external value" (articulating to others). For startups, stating what their big goals are is difficult to do with credibility.

I'm sure it was an inspiring talk. Wish I could have been there...

  Janette Toral [04.30.06 11:18 PM]

This is a great article. Is there a suggested format or flow for those who want to shepherd the creativity among and future Alpha Geeks? I ask this for I agree with your perspective in this area but not all countries provide the necessary cultural/resource infrastructure that foster or rewards it. Thank you.

  Tim O'Reilly [05.02.06 04:08 PM]

Paul Graham just sent me a link to Niall Kennedy's photo of me, in "preacher mode" at the conference:

  Emmet O'Riordan [05.11.06 06:20 PM]

Thanks for posting this. I'm searching for strategies, and these ones are pretty helpful.

During my own feeble attempts at creating an online business, I've made tons of mistakes, and failed numerous times, year after year. The last straw was Googles "Florida" update, and I was finished. I had finally lost all passion to pick up the pieces and try again.

By accident, I stumbled across a set of CDs by one of your shopping channel style "all-American" success coaches. It was inspiring, and it had the effect of really motivating me. It uses a mix of techniques from traditional psychology to NLP, and allows you to break habits and patterns, and create new ones.

Now 2 years later, I'm pizza-free guy, I drink diet, I no longer work 17 hours on my sites and I don't smoke anymore. I paid all my debts back from taking a day job.

I'm starting over with my sites, but this time I know WHY I'm doing this. I have bags of strategies for every area, but the most important ones are related to motivation.

I realise that my own motivation to create is hugely important. Motivating my website visitors is also hugely important, and I have a few principles that I'm trying to develop and share with the world (Drop an email if you're curious).
I'm fascinated by the idea that there might be a hidden structure to these strategies - but that's a thought for another day.

Motivation is number 1. Without it, you'll never do anything.

I'm very encouraged that someone as successful as Tim values this type of strategic thinking, and even actively promotes it. It's commendable that he is willing to share his ideas with us. This generosity is a familiar characteristic I've seen in the biographies of successful people.

"Adding Value" is another great principle - almost a commandment. The principle of adding value to your products, is what put O'Reilly (the company) on top.

In hindsight, no other technical publisher has ever taken so much space under my Christmas tree. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Long May it continue.

  Helen, school teacher [05.20.06 02:39 AM]

This is a very interesting article that is helpful to anyone longing to promote an idea.
But I'm thinking of the last point: "Bring people together to tell your story". To bring them together we should interest or intrigue them. The easiest way to bring them together is to have them over the barrel and that's what advertizing does.

  NLP Practitioner [09.06.07 06:44 AM]

Emmet O'Riordan, I know what you are writing about - NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) and things related to it help one to solve problems and generally make life easier.

Motivation is very important, though implementation of strategies is the key to success. One may think of good strategy but then it has to be implemented correctly in order to bring the intended result.

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