Phil Libin: Find a new way to ski

Recently I listened to a very inspiring and refreshing episode of “What I know” with a guest Phil Libin. He’s a co-founder of Evernote and recently mmhmm (yes, that’s the app name).

Since I liked it so much and convincing people to listen to another podcast might be problematic, I decided to make a short transcript of the main ideas.

Note: those are not exact quotes! It’s more of a retelling than transcripting. For the best experience listen to the original:

For the rest of you too busy to stick another 45 minutes into your schedule, here’s what I found inspiring:

Cheat code to entrepreneurship

Short iterations. If polishing a product takes a constant amount of iterations, then with 10,000 iterations you’d need 15,000 years if iteration takes 1.5 years. But with 20-minute iterations, it will only take 400 days!

On worthy problems

A lot of us (tech industry) make things for ourselves. But there’re many more deserving people who aren’t like ourselves who have problems that deserve to be addressed. We’re working on a pretty narrow set of problems, and frankly not the ones that are most deserving to be solved.

On Evernote

People back then were already really suffering from social media fatigue. We marketed Evernote as antisocial. I remember saying: it doesn’t care about your friends. It doesn’t care about your friend’s dog. It cares about you.

Since I left, it may have become a little bit less sexy for a few years, but, you know, ultimately companies can’t survive on being sexy. They have to be profitable, have to be strong businesses.

About working as a VC

It didn’t feel like I was contributing enough. I would hear a startup pitch, and I would get excited about what I would do with it. And it was difficult to say that it doesn’t matter. I’m just an investor. What’s important is what are the founders going to do with it.

How likely are you to get a top tier A round in Silicon Valley for a tech company (in 2015-2016)? There were six factors:

  1. if you were white or South Asian,
  2. male,
  3. between the ages of 21 and 27,
  4. with the computer science degree or computer engineering degree,
  5. from Stanford,
  6. and you still lived within 50 miles of Stanford.

Nothing that had to do with anything they were building.

If you were those six things, it was still hard. With each one of those things missing, though, your chances dropped by an order of magnitude. A lot of deals had all 6 things. Some deals had 5 out of 6, a few deals had 4 out of 6. I almost never saw a deal that had fewer than 4 out of those 6 things.

So if you were a 45-year-old woman from Japan, living in Tokyo, and you were an architecture major. You could be a Mozart-level genius about some product idea and you just didn’t have access to this whole ecosystem. You just would not get it.

And we at All Turtles believe exceptional talent is very rare, but evenly distributed.

Making products instead of startups

We’re not fetishizing making startups. The goal is to make a startup, the goal is to make a worthwhile product.

In any other profession, you don’t have to make a company before you do your thing. Let’s say you’re one of the most brilliant musicians alive in the world today. You don’t have to make a music company. You just play. If you’re a great writer, you don’t have to start a writing company, you write.

But if you’re a great product entrepreneur, you have to make a startup first. We have to tell you: here’s the Wikipedia page on 409A valuation, get a board of directors and figure out how to hire and fire people and become a mediocre CEO of a small vulnerable company BEFORE you can test whether or not you’re brilliant at this product.

What’s changed in the last 20 years

Much more technology is readily available, allowing you to iterate much quicker.

Logistic used to be very important, sometimes more important than the product you were building. You don’t have to print CD-ROMs anymore. Your only worry is making a great product.

Finding a new way to ski

You can ski great in your 20s, but in your 50s your body is worse, and even with all the added experience, nobody expects you to ski the same. Everybody understands that about the body: knees are like hardware, they wear out.

But people think the brain is not like that, it’s like software. It is the same! It gets harder as you grow older.

There is an accumulation of stress. Running a business is firing people. It’s getting turned down by investors. It’s dealing with angry customers. It’s the realization that no one else is going to take care of it. You’re the last stop, there’s no one above you. This is difficult.

If you want to continue running companies in your 50s, you have to get smart about it, compensate for what you lose with age. You need to find new ways to ski.

A lot of the bad habit is doing too much yourself. It is actually really difficult to be able to hire a team and to trust them enough so that you don’t have to micromanage, but it’s absolutely central.

Running a company

My absolute favorite thing as a CEO is when the team does something and it turns out great. And I had no idea that they were even working on it before I saw it. They just decided to do it and turn out great. Whenever this happens, I’m the happiest that I could possibly be.

What’s wrong with Silicon Valley

The business model being indirect revenue. It rewards keeping your users in a heightened, emotional state so that they hang around your platform for as many hours as possible, so they can click on ads.

The easiest emotional state to generate algorithmically is tribal outrage. It’s a simple and primal emotion. We, as the tech industry, have built a model that we make money when we piss people off. And everyone’s pissed off now, we’ve made a lot of money and people are like, what went wrong? Well, everything went exactly as planned.

In mmhmm, we only make money when people or companies choose to pay us because they want to use our product. We don’t make money any other way, because it’s the indirect revenue that leads to a lot of these problems.

About Americans’ opinions

The unique thing about America: we were all told that your particular opinions are special and privileged because they were formed in your brain. That your own preferences are important. That leads a lot to the echo chamber.

I have this model I call “my brain is not my friend”. I think of my brain as a doofus roommate that I live with. Just because my doofus roommate feels strongly about something, doesn’t mean that it’s right.

A thought that springs up inside of my own skull is no more likely to be correct or incorrect than a thought that springs up outside of my skull. And I should treat it with the same amount of respect, but also skepticism.


I’m Niki. Here I write about programming and UI design Subscribe

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