Adam Smith

Startup Advice and Lookup Tables

April, 2007

(This post is partially derived from some things I said at Startup School 2007.)

Startup founders really need advice, especially first timers. It’s like you’re put in a big dark room with booby traps, and your only hope of survival is to draw upon the wisdom of those who came before you.

The good news is that you’ll be bombarded with advice. It comes from everywhere – investors, advisors, blogs, books, users, and rap artists. [1] Most startup advice, though, is not relevant to your current situation. You might be thinking about finding a cofounder, but the blog you’re reading is discussing corporate bylaws.

What you’ve got to do is build up a hash table in your head to store the out-of-context advice. The hash table is a map from situations to what you should do in each situation. Hash table
The person giving advice has a hash table in their head, mostly built by learning the hard way. The point of advice is to copy their hash table over to your hash table. [2] This copy is very hard to do. How can you internalize all of that knowledge?

I can give you two hacks.

First, use repetition. Download the audio versions of Paul Graham’s essays, burn them on a CD, and listen to them over and over again. Read books once, identify the ones you like, and then read those again and again, every six months.

The second hack is to get the stories. Punch lines are harder to remember than plots like “We faced this problem, chose this action, and it blew up.”

My two favorite startup books are 100% stories. Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work is filled with interviews of successful founders recalling the Good Ole Days, in full color.

My other favorite startup book is High Stakes No Prisoners by Charles Ferguson. [3] It’s the story of Vermeer, the company that made Frontpage and sold to Microsoft for $140M. The book is only moderately insightful; it is a real win because Charles tells the story in gross detail. He names names, and trash talks everyone for their ugly actions, including himself. It’s remarkably raw.

No Storage

Of course, the real win is if you don’t have to do the hash table copy from books and other data sources. Instead, when you face a challenging situation, just ask your advisors. Essentially, do a lookup in their hash table instead of making a copy.

Having access to these kinds of resources is incredibly valuable. It’s yet another reason that you should be in Silicon Valley to start a startup: experienced advisors are at hand. [4]


[1] For example, Master P relates some wisdom: “Nigga told me, ‘C, leave that dope, cause rappin is yo thang.’”

[2] This blog post is an example of such a transfer. Most of my thoughts are unoriginal, though, so you’re getting a second hand copy.

[3] Used copies are available on Amazon for seventy nine pennies.

[4] Having great investors also helps. And, okay, maybe Boston qualifies too. : )

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