Aim at Wealth not Money

This is slightly detailed unlike my other blogs though you should take your time because it has been one mis-understood topic lines for quite some time.

Money Is Not WealthIf you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. Wealth is as old as human history. Far older, in fact; ants have wealth. Money is a comparatively recent invention.Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.Wealth is what you want, not money. But if wealth is the important thing, why does everyone talk about making money? It is a kind of shorthand: money is a way of moving wealth, and in practice they are usually interchangeable. But they are not the same thing, and unless you plan to get rich by counterfeiting, talking about making money can make it harder to understand how to make money.Money is a side effect of specialization. In a specialized society, most of the things you need, you can’t make for yourself. If you want a potato or a pencil or a place to live, you have to get it from someone else.How do you get the person who grows the potatoes to give you some? By giving him something he wants in return. But you can’t get very far by trading things directly with the people who need them. If you make violins, and none of the local farmers wants one, how will you eat?The solution societies find, as they get more specialized, is to make the trade into a two-step process. Instead of trading violins directly for potatoes, you trade violins for, say, silver, which you can then trade again for anything else you need. The intermediate stuff– the medium of exchange– can be anything that’s rare and portable. Historically metals have been the most common, but recently we’ve been using a medium of exchange, called the dollar, that doesn’t physically exist. It works as a medium of exchange, however, because its rarity is guaranteed by the U.S. Government.The advantage of a medium of exchange is that it makes trade work. The disadvantage is that it tends to obscure what trade really means. People think that what a business does is make money. But money is just the intermediate stage– just a shorthand– for whatever people want. What most businesses really do is make wealth. They do something people want. The Pie FallacyA surprising number of people retain from childhood the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world. There is, in any normal family, a fixed amount of money at any moment. But that’s not the same thing.When wealth is talked about in this context, it is often described as a pie. “You can’t make the pie larger,” say politicians. When you’re talking about the amount of money in one family’s bank account, or the amount available to a government from one year’s tax revenue, this is true. If one person gets more, someone else has to get less.I can remember believing, as a child, that if a few rich people had all the money, it left less for everyone else. Many people seem to continue to believe something like this well into adulthood. This fallacy is usually there in the background when you hear someone talking about how x percent of the population have y percent of the wealth. If you plan to start a startup, then whether you realize it or not, you’re planning to disprove the Pie Fallacy.What leads people astray here is the abstraction of money. Money is not wealth. It’s just something we use to move wealth around. So although there may be, in certain specific moments (like your family, this month) a fixed amount of money available to trade with other people for things you want, there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history.Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is– and you specifically are– one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell your car, you’ll get more for it.In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven’t made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie. And in fact, when you look at it this way, you wonder why anyone would think there was. [ HYPERLINK “” \l “f5n” 5]Kids know, without knowing they know, that they can create wealth. If you need to give someone a present and don’t have any money, you make one. But kids are so bad at making things that they consider home-made presents to be a distinct, inferior, sort of thing to store-bought ones– a mere expression of the proverbial thought that counts. And indeed, the lumpy ashtrays we made for our parents did not have much of a resale market.CraftsmenThe people most likely to grasp that wealth can be created are the ones who are good at making things, the craftsmen. Their hand-made objects become store-bought ones. But with the rise of industrialization there are fewer and fewer craftsmen. One of the biggest remaining groups is computer programmers.A programmer can sit down in front of a computer and create wealth. A good piece of software is, in itself, a valuable thing. There is no manufacturing to confuse the issue. Those characters you type are a complete, finished product. If someone sat down and wrote a web browser that didn’t suck (a fine idea, by the way), the world would be that much richer.Everyone in a company works together to create wealth, in the sense of making more things people want. Many of the employees (e.g. the people in the mailroom or the personnel department) work at one remove from the actual making of stuff. Not the programmers. They literally think the product, one line at a time. And so it’s clearer to programmers that wealth is something that’s made, rather than being distributed, like slices of a pie, by some imaginary Daddy.It’s also obvious to programmers that there are huge variations in the rate at which wealth is created. At Viaweb we had one programmer who was a sort of monster of productivity. I remember watching what he did one long day and estimating that he had added several hundred thousand dollars to the market value of the company. A great programmer, on a roll, could create a million dollars worth of wealth in a couple weeks. A mediocre programmer over the same period will generate zero or even negative wealth (e.g. by introducing bugs).This is why so many of the best programmers are libertarians. In our world, you sink or swim, and there are no excuses. When those far removed from the creation of wealth– undergraduates, reporters, politicians– hear that the richest 5% of the people have half the total wealth, they tend to think injustice! An experienced programmer would be more likely to think is that all? The top 5% of programmers probably write 99% of the good software.Wealth can be created without being sold. Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created. We are all richer for knowing about penicillin, because we’re less likely to die from infections. Wealth is whatever people want, and not dying is certainly something we want. Hackers often donate their work by writing open source software that anyone can use for free. I am much the richer for the operating system FreeBSD, which I’m running on the computer I’m using now, and so is Yahoo, which runs it on all their servers.Working HarderThat averaging gets to be a problem. I think the single biggest problem afflicting large companies is the difficulty of assigning a value to each person’s work. For the most part they punt. In a big company you get paid a fairly predictable salary for working fairly hard. You’re expected not to be obviously incompetent or lazy, but you’re not expected to devote your whole life to your work.Measurement and LeverageTo get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.Measurement alone is not enough. An example of a job with measurement but not leverage is doing piecework in a sweatshop. Your performance is measured and you get paid accordingly, but you have no scope for decisions. The only decision you get to make is how fast you work, and that can probably only increase your earnings by a factor of two or three.An example of a job with both measurement and leverage would be lead actor in a movie. Your performance can be measured in the gross of the movie. And you have leverage in the sense that your performance can make or break it.CEOs also have both measurement and leverage. They’re measured, in that the performance of the company is their performance. And they have leverage in that their decisions set the whole company moving in one direction or another.I think everyone who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes. A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure. Upside must be balanced by downside, so if there is big potential for gain there must also be a terrifying possibility of loss. CEOs, stars, fund managers, and athletes all live with the sword hanging over their heads; the moment they start to suck, they’re out. If you’re in a job that feels safe, you are not going to get rich, because if there is no danger there is almost certainly no leverage.But you don’t have to become a CEO or a movie star to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. All you need to do is be part of a small group working on a hard problem.Technology = LeverageStartups offer anyone a way to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. They allow measurement because they’re small, and they offer leverage because they make money by inventing new technology.What is technology? It’s technique. It’s the way we all do things. And when you discover a new way to do things, its value is multiplied by all the people who use it. It is the proverbial fishing rod, rather than the fish. That’s the difference between a startup and a restaurant or a barber shop. You fry eggs or cut hair one customer at a time. Whereas if you solve a technical problem that a lot of people care about, you help everyone who uses your solution. That’s leverage.If you look at history, it seems that most people who got rich by creating wealth did it by developing new technology. You just can’t fry eggs or cut hair fast enough. What made the Florentines rich in 1200 was the discovery of new techniques for making the high-tech product of the time, fine woven cloth. What made the Dutch rich in 1600 was the discovery of shipbuilding and navigation techniques that enabled them to dominate the seas of the Far East.Fortunately there is a natural fit between smallness and solving hard problems. The leading edge of technology moves fast. Technology that’s valuable today could be worthless in a couple years. Small companies are more at home in this world, because they don’t have layers of bureaucracy to slow them down. Also, technical advances tend to come from unorthodox approaches, and small companies are less constrained by convention.Big companies can develop technology. They just can’t do it quickly. Their size makes them slow and prevents them from rewarding employees for the extraordinary effort required. So in practice big companies only get to develop technology in fields where large capital requirements prevent startups from competing with them, like microprocessors, power plants, or passenger aircraft. And even in those fields they depend heavily on startups for components and ideas.It’s obvious that biotech or software startups exist to solve hard technical problems, but I think it will also be found to be true in businesses that don’t seem to be about technology. McDonald’s, for example, grew big by designing a system, the McDonald’s franchise, that could then be reproduced at will all over the face of the earth. A McDonald’s franchise is controlled by rules so precise that it is practically a piece of software. Write once, run everywhere. Ditto for Wal-Mart. Sam Walton got rich not by being a retailer, but by designing a new kind of store.Use difficulty as a guide not just in selecting the overall aim of your company, but also at decision points along the way. Here, as so often, the best defense is a good offense. If you can develop technology that’s simply too hard for competitors to duplicate, you don’t need to rely on other defenses. Start by picking a hard problem, and then at every decision point, take the harder choice. [ HYPERLINK “” \l “f9n” 9]A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.Startups, like mosquitos, tend to be an all-or-nothing proposition. And you don’t generally know which of the two you’re going to get till the last minute. Viaweb came close to tanking several times. Our trajectory was like a sine wave. Fortunately we got bought at the top of the cycle, but it was damned close. While we were visiting Yahoo in California to talk about selling the company to them, we had to borrow a conference room to reassure an investor who was about to back out of a new round of funding that we needed to stay alive.The all-or-nothing aspect of startups was not something we wanted. Viaweb’s hackers were all extremely risk-averse. If there had been some way just to work super hard and get paid for it, without having a lottery mixed in, we would have been delighted. We would have much preferred a 100% chance of $1 million to a 20% chance of $10 million, even though theoretically the second is worth twice as much. Unfortunately, there is not currently any space in the business world where you can get the first deal.The closest you can get is by selling your startup in the early stages, giving up upside (and risk) for a smaller but guaranteed payoff. We had a chance to do this, and stupidly, as we then thought, let it slip by. After that we became comically eager to sell. For the next year or so, if anyone expressed the slightest curiosity about Viaweb we would try to sell them the company. But there were no takers, so we had to keep going.It would have been a bargain to buy us at an early stage, but companies doing acquisitions are not looking for bargains. A company big enough to acquire startups will be big enough to be fairly conservative, and within the company the people in charge of acquisitions will be among the more conservative, because they are likely to be business school types who joined the company late. They would rather overpay for a safe choice. So it is easier to sell an established startup, even at a large premium, than an early-stage one.Get UsersI think it’s a good idea to get bought, if you can. Running a business is different from growing one. It is just as well to let a big company take over once you reach cruising altitude. It’s also financially wiser, because selling allows you to diversify. What would you think of a financial advisor who put all his client’s assets into one volatile stock?How do you get bought? Mostly by doing the same things you’d do if you didn’t intend to sell the company. Being profitable, for example. But getting bought is also an art in its own right, and one that we spent a lot of time trying to master.Potential buyers will always delay if they can. The hard part about getting bought is getting them to act. For most people, the most powerful motivator is not the hope of gain, but the fear of loss. For potential acquirers, the most powerful motivator is the prospect that one of their competitors will buy you. This, as we found, causes CEOs to take red-eyes. The second biggest is the worry that, if they don’t buy you now, you’ll continue to grow rapidly and will cost more to acquire later, or even become a competitor.In both cases, what it all comes down to is users. You’d think that a company about to buy you would do a lot of research and decide for themselves how valuable your technology was. Not at all. What they go by is the number of users you have.In effect, acquirers assume the customers know who has the best technology. And this is not as stupid as it sounds. Users are the only real proof that you’ve created wealth. Wealth is what people want, and if people aren’t using your software, maybe it’s not just because you’re bad at marketing. Maybe it’s because you haven’t made what they want.Venture capitalists have a list of danger signs to watch out for. Near the top is the company run by techno-weenies who are obsessed with solving interesting technical problems, instead of making users happy. In a startup, you’re not just trying to solve problems. You’re trying to solve problems that users care about.So I think you should make users the test, just as acquirers do. Treat a startup as an optimization problem in which performance is measured by number of users. As anyone who has tried to optimize software knows, the key is measurement. When you try to guess where your program is slow, and what would make it faster, you almost always guess wrong.Number of users may not be the perfect test, but it will be very close. It’s what acquirers care about. It’s what revenues depend on. It’s what makes competitors unhappy. It’s what impresses reporters, and potential new users. Certainly it’s a better test than your a priori notions of what problems are important to solve, no matter how technically adept you are.Among other things, treating a startup as an optimization problem will help you avoid another pitfall that VCs worry about, and rightly– taking a long time to develop a product. Now we can recognize this as something hackers already know to avoid: premature optimization. Get a version 1.0 out there as soon as you can. Until you have some users to measure, you’re optimizing based on guesses.The ball you need to keep your eye on here is the underlying principle that wealth is what people want. If you plan to get rich by creating wealth, you have to know what people want. So few businesses really pay attention to making customers happy. How often do you walk into a store, or call a company on the phone, with a feeling of dread in the back of your mind? When you hear “your call is important to us, please stay on the line,” do you think, oh good, now everything will be all right?A restaurant can afford to serve the occasional burnt dinner. But in technology, you cook one thing and that’s what everyone eats. So any difference between what people want and what you deliver is multiplied. You please or annoy customers wholesale. The closer you can get to what they want, the more wealth you generate.Wealth and PowerMaking wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation.Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. [ HYPERLINK “” \l “f10n” 10] Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. [ HYPERLINK “” \l “f11n” 11] One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.Remember what a startup is, economically: a way of saying, I want to work faster. Instead of accumulating money slowly by being paid a regular wage for fifty years, I want to get it over with as soon as possible. So governments that forbid you to accumulate wealth are in effect decreeing that you work slowly. They’re willing to let you earn $3 million over fifty years, but they’re not willing to let you work so hard that you can do it in two. They are like the corporate boss that you can’t go to and say, I want to work ten times as hard, so please pay me ten times a much. Except this is not a boss you can escape by starting your own company.The problem with working slowly is not just that technical innovation happens slowly. It’s that it tends not to happen at all. It’s only when you’re deliberately looking for hard problems, as a way to use speed to the greatest advantage, that you take on this kind of project. Developing new technology is a pain in the ass. It is, as Edison said, one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Without the incentive of wealth, no one wants to do it. Engineers will work on sexy projects like fighter planes and moon rockets for ordinary salaries, but more mundane technologies like light bulbs or semiconductors have to be developed by entrepreneurs.Startups are not just something that happened in Silicon Valley in the last couple decades. Since it became possible to get rich by creating wealth, everyone who has done it has used essentially the same recipe: measurement and leverage, where measurement comes from working with a small group, and leverage from developing new techniques. The recipe was the same in Florence in 1200 as it is in Santa Clara today.Understanding this may help to answer an important question: why Europe grew so powerful. Was it something about the geography of Europe? Was it that Europeans are somehow racially superior? Was it their religion? The answer (or at least the proximate cause) may be that the Europeans rode on the crest of a powerful new idea: allowing those who made a lot of money to keep it.Once you’re allowed to do that, people who want to get rich can do it by generating wealth instead of stealing it. The resulting technological growth translates not only into wealth but into military power. The theory that led to the stealth plane was developed by a Soviet mathematician. But because the Soviet Union didn’t have a computer industry, it remained for them a theory; they didn’t have hardware capable of executing the calculations fast enough to design an actual airplane.In that respect the Cold War teaches the same lesson as World War II and, for that matter, most wars in recent history. Don’t let a ruling class of warriors and politicians squash the entrepreneurs. The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful. Let the nerds keep their lunch money, and you rule the world.

Charles Wahome
Is a Product Management Consultant


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