Last week, a friend of mine publically called me out as a Huckster. I think the exact term he used was “world class bullshitter”.
Well, he was right. In fact, I’m happy to go on record as saying that the ability to create a “Reality Distortion Field” is right up there alongside optimism as an entrepreneur’s most valuable weapon.
It has certainly worked for me! It has helped me to convince superstar hires to leave comfortable positions, get huge multi-nationals into co-promotions with my tiny startup, and get A-list investors to bet their real-cash-money that my company might be the next big thing.
But even though my friend is right . . . He’s only half right. It is certainly important to be able to talk a good game, but you’ve got to have the goods too.
Fourteen years ago, when Netflix was only a few months old, I needed to choose a codename; something to use for our test site, our email, and our legal documents. As I was struggling to come up with something catchy, one of my mentors gave me two great pieces of advice.
“First”, he said, “pick a name that’s so bad, that you won’t even be tempted to use it when you run into difficulties finding your real domain name.
“Second, pick something meaningful. It’s a great way to start aligning everyone around what you think is really important.
So I called it Kibble. Kibble.com. Like the dog food.
Unlaunchable name? You betcha!
But ultimately I choose Kibble for a more important reason: it was to remind me (and everyone else at Netflix) never to forget that old Madison Avenue chestnut:
“No matter how good the advertising, it’s not a success if the dogs don’t eat the dog food”.
In other words, you have to have Product and Promotion. Steak and Sizzle. Substance and Spin.
It hasn’t always been like that in Silicon Valley. When I first arrived here in the late 1980s there was no question about the hierarchy. Engineers were king. Product uber alles.
At that time Silicon Valley was the closest thing this country has ever had to a true meritrocracy. If you were an engineer, it didn’t matter what you looked like, dressed like, or smelled like for that matter – the only thing that mattered was the quality of your code. And that was transparently visible to everyone. There was nothing to hide behind. You could be the most awkward dork in the room, but if your code was good, you were revered. Bullshit got you nowhere.
It got to the point that at Borland International, the software company where I worked in the early ‘90s, that the engineers were the ones who got the big offices with windows and balconies on the third floor. Us marketing and sales guys were in the airless cubicles below.
I was living “The revenge of the Nerds”.
But slowly and surely the pendulum began to swing back the other way. One year for instance, we got the great news that one of our products had won PC Magazine’s Technical Excellence Award. Flushed with excitement, we rushed to see who some of the previous years’ winners had been. As we read the list, you could feel the excitement draining out of the room. Who? What? Didn’t they go out of business two years ago? Oh my god! This award is the kiss of death!
As software began to be sold to people who would never consider themselves technical, it suddenly became clear that you needed people who spoke their language. It became fashionable to hire product managers from places like Proctor and Gamble. Or Clorox. And even the data-driven engineers had to admit that this marketing stuff might have something to it.
It drove them crazy. It was best when you had iron-clad test data demonstrating something purely ridiculous; like that software in the blue box sold twice as well as the exact same product in the red box. It made their head explode. On the one hand, they knew with absolute conviction that there was absolutely no reason why the color of the box should make the least bit of difference. But on the other hand, they also knew with absolute conviction that data didn’t lie. After puzzling over this paradox for a few hours they had no choice but to conclude that maybe us marketing people had some value. Or practiced a kind of black magic. Or both.
These days, the soft bigotry of anti-hucksterism can be seen every day on Hacker News. And there are still plenty of Hustler’s not quite getting how important their technical co-founder actually is to their success. The truth of the matter is that both sides need each other. We always have and we always will.
When it comes right down to it, being a world-class bullshitter doesn’t mean anything if all you ever spout is bullshit. Eventually you have to deliver. Pitching a concept well is certainly important, but ultimately you have to build it.
So be confident. Spin some dreams. But be prepared to back them up.
Back in the early days at Netflix, it wasn’t unheard of for me to tell prospective hires that I could see our stock going to a hundred dollars some day. I was telling this story to an interviewer a few years later when he asked me, “don’t you feel a little funny? bullshitting people like that?”
I had to think for a minute. Then I said, “It isn’t bullshit if you really believe it yourself”.
Even less so if it eventually comes true.