“I had a false idea about what Silicon Valley was. The myth of Silicon Valley is about technical competence, but the reality is that marketing still makes a huge difference… all these guys are hucksters who really crossed the line to brilliance.”
-Julia Angwin, NPR
About two weeks ago, I debated this point with Marc Randolph.
Marc, you see, is the original founder of Netflix. Reed Hastings, who gets all the credit nowadays, was actually Netflix’s seed investor prior to taking over as CEO. Marc retired in 2004 and now, after a few years of chillaxing, has dipped his toes back into the game and taken to mentoring entrepreneurs like me and the guys.
Side Note: Don’t let anyone ever tell ya that messaging someone cold on FB won’t get you anywhere.
Now, although I never saw him in his prime, I can guarantee you that Marc Randolph is a world class bullshitter. To be an entrepreneur, especially a non-technical one in a highly technical field, you gotta be.
Maybe not every company or every person, but for most people in most situations, it’s my firm belief that you gotta fake it before you make it. Sell the sizzle first, create the steak later.
And yet, from one bullshitter to another, Marc bemoaned this sorry state of affairs. “Back in my day, it was all about the product, all about who could create the best algorithm and the best code––not about the marketing or this brand bullshit.”
“It’s a sad day when people like you and me take over Silicon Valley,” he sighed.
Side Note: I have not yet taken over Silicon Valley.
This is a common refrain.
Especially in retrospect, people want to believe that the world is a rational place where the best people, the best products, the best technology wins. But that’s simply untrue.
I called bullshit on the bullshitter.
The truth is that it’s really hard for any one person, any one user, any one buyer to know what product, what service, what technology is really “the best.” The information problem is huge and only growing.
Sometimes, and this is usually rare, the answer is obvious, as it was when Google first showed up in 1999. The product was free and practically sold itself. But those instances are an anomaly.
Engineers hate this idea, it goes against everything they’ve been trained to believe about the world, about how the merit system works––but people want to be sold. They crave a story, they crave simplicity, a narrative that they already understand, a framework they can use to understand these new, strange things we call technology.
And that’s the thing about technology: it is, by definition, new. New is hard to grasp, hard to understand. Why would I want this thing, this new gizmo, this new website that I’ve never seen before?
For some, the answer is obvious––but this group is small. They are the innovators, the early adopters, the near side of the chasm.
Most people aren’t engineers, they don’t have precise goals, they don’t know what it is they want per se, they don’t remember what it is you said two hours ago––the only thing they remember at the end of a long day is how you made them feel.
Knowledge transfer between humans is a fundamentally inefficient process. Its difficulty is an immutable part of life. In business, especially in the business of creating the new, advantage goes to those who can explain the new and make it seem not just memorable but desirable.
And that is where people like me and Marc and all the other hucksters-made-good who distorted reality first so that they could then create something of value later fit into this Silicon Valley world of scientific genius and technical innovation.
Though we create machines, we sell to humans.