The Other Road Ahead

A few months ago, Akvo’s Gino Lee introduced me to the writing of Paul Graham. Gino and Paul were part of the small group that founded ViaWeb, a mid-1990s online shopping store system that ran entirely through an internet browser, with the software hosted online as a service. This was radically new, at a time when most companies still kept all their systems in their own buildings.

But what was even more radical was how you could build a different kind of team and business on top of it. In mid 1998 they sold the company to Yahoo for $49 million and it became the Yahoo Store. Since 2005, Paul has been one of the team behind Y-Combinator (notably along with Trevor Blackwell, another ViaWeb veteran and robotics genius that I’ve been fortunate to meet with Joe). Y-Combinator is a rare example of a successful incubator of startup software businesses. Based in Silicon Valley it makes relatively small investments in a relatively large number of startups (right now about 60). Crucially it works intensively with the startups to get them in great shape and help each draw in further funds as needed.

The best writing, in any field, stands just one test – the test of time. Paul’s 10 year old essays on computing and internet startups read like a testament. So much of the way we’ve built Akvo follows his thinking and if anyone wants to try and understand how we work – and why fundamentally the systems we build are different to what has come before – there is no better place to start reading up.

Any of Paul’s “Essays” are fascinating, but this piece is a favourite of mine – The Other Road Ahead. Written in September 2001, and a play on the title of Bill Gates’ book it’s full of great insights into how the computer industry was about to change radically.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“Selling web-based software through ISPs is like selling sushi through vending machines.”

“There is always a tendency for rich customers to buy expensive solutions, even when cheaper solutions are better, because the people offering expensive solutions can spend more to sell them.”

“A large part of what big companies pay extra for is the cost of selling expensive things to them. There is nothing you can do about this conundrum, so the best plan is to go for the smaller customers first. The rest will come in time.”

“The phrase ‘personal computer’ is part of the language now, but when it was first used it had a deliberately audacious sound, like the phrase ‘personal satellite’ would today.”

(in 2001) “if you manage to write something that takes off, you may find that you were merely doing market research for Microsoft.”

“Desktop software forces users to become system administrators. Web-based software forces programmers to.”

“There are only two things you have to know about business: build something users love, and make more than you spend.”

“It’s a lot easier for a couple of hackers to figure out how to rent office space or hire sales people than it is for a company of any size to get software written.”

That’s just a few – I could go on and on.

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