The idea that there are no new ideas is not a new idea. But as the barriers to entry for tech entrepreneurs drop, it’s truer than ever. If ten people have the same idea for a piece of software, the one who succeeds will be whoever launches it fastest, then iterates as quickly as possible. “You have to be embarrassed by your first product,” says Lee, who helped create Geomon. “If you’re not embarrassed, you’re taking too long to get it out there.” As Feross puts it, “Done is better than perfect.”
This launch-now-iterate-later approach puts power in the hands of the doers rather than the thinkers. Business students with an idea but no tech background are often left twisting. The listserv of the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students gets a dozen e-mails every week from someone looking to hire a programmer. Very few hear back. “If you don’t have the skills, I don’t know what to say to you,” says Geoff Woo, the group’s former president.
Ideas still matter. But the ability to tweak and hone and hack and crack—to move fast and break things—is essential to the idea-formation process. Intellectual turnover is therefore high. “Fail fast,” the mantra of tech entrepreneurship, means everyone moves onto the next idea sooner, which in turn means there are a lot of ideas out there—many of them bad.
There’s a profound disdain among programmers for what one student called “Facebook for your pet”—that is, a lazy rip-off that doesn’t address a real need. Huang calls it the “cat versus zebra” phenomenon. Back in March, it was announced that a company called Color raised $41 million in venture capital from Sequoia Capital and Bain Capital Ventures. The idea sounds cool: It’s an iPhone app that lets you share pictures with everyone within 100 feet, which could eventually create a truly massive photo database. But, everyone wondered, is it really $41 million cool? Over-the-top rhetoric from investors—one said it could “change everything”—deepened the skepticism, and Color became shorthand for “Bubble 2.0.”
The Color buy fueled the sense that the race is on to create the next Facebook or to convince investors that you will. Yet among the companies I saw, many of them were pushing back against Facebook or at least trying to rein in its influence. For example, Path, a photo- and video-sharing service based in San Francisco, limits users to 150 friends. Most people don’t have meaningful interactions with more than 150 people in the world, Path figures. Why not focus your sharing on them? Path isn’t “pushing back” against Facebook, its founders say. (That, despite the fact that Path co-founder Dave Morin came from Facebook, where he co-invented Facebook Connect.) It’s just the next step in the evolution of social networking.
Some engineers are trying to throw off the shackles of Facebook altogether. “Facebook is now the issuer of driver’s licenses on the Internet,” says Michael Fischer, a Stanford Ph.D. student who bridles at the site’s power. He’s building a program called DeepSocial, which is basically a LIKE button with more control. Instead of sharing your likes with all your Facebook friends, it shares that information with a select group of people. And instead of tracking your likes centrally, as on Facebook, it communicates the information through your e-mail account, decentralizing the data. Of course, the odds that the next Facebook wins by being the anti-Facebook are pretty much zero. The whole point of paradigm shifts is you can’t see them coming.
One Saturday night, Feross and a few friends gathered in an unlocked lecture hall and screened the anime feature Howl’s Moving Castle. “In high school, I saw kids who watched anime, and I was like, I don’t want to be one of those kids,” says Feross. “They’d bring swords to school and fight each other during study break.” But recently he’s gotten into the genre, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki. He admires Miyazaki’s process: Instead of plotting everything out in advance, the director has to see what the animation looks like before he can finish the story. “Playing it by ear and just going with the flow—it’s kind of like what you do when you’re hacking on stuff,” says Feross.
That also describes Feross’s recent approach to life. This summer, he didn’t go to work at Facebook, or Google, or YouTube. He had an internship at Quora, a question-and-answer site started by former Facebook employees. He figured it would be useful to see how a start-up operates, in case he ever wants to launch his own.
Ever since YouTube Instant, Feross says, he’s felt the urge to create more—to wield his powers, in anime-speak. “It was a big wake-up call,” he says. “I now realize I have the power to make something people will use. I had the power all along.
“Successful people aren’t any different from you and me,” he continues. “They’re not inherently more brilliant. The difference is they had the wisdom to get their hands dirty and be part of the game instead of just observing it.”
Failure is an option—and it’s not even a bad one. “I’m not as afraid of uncertainty,” says Feross. “I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg knew what he was doing when he built Facebook.”
People like Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs surrendered to the process and changed the world before they really knew what they were doing. It can happen. A lot of kids in Silicon Valley are counting on it.