Hackers, Hostels, and Floating Hotels

In the few months leading up to my wedding, a number of really fascinating articles and stories piled up that I wasn’t able to address. Digging back into the files, I came across one NYTimes article from July that definitely wants to be shared. It covers the Silicone Valley phenomenon of “Hacker Hostels.”

These hostels offer cheap lodging and nerdy community for the waves of would-be entrepreneurs who flock to tech-mecca each year. And with a spot on a bunk going for $40/night, they’re a pretty savvy piece of entrepreneurship themselves. Overhead is low (wifi and a roof), and the residents – typically techie men in their mid to late 20s – don’t want much more than to be left to their work.

Cramped living conditions aside, these hostels a pretty popular idea. After all, cramming into tiny spaces is a time-honored tradition in the hacking community: HP was famously founded in a 12′ x 18′ rented garage, and early coders at MIT slept in their offices while waiting for time on the mainframe. When it was acquired in 2012, Instagram was still shoveling pizza boxes out from under the employees in a cramped SF office.

Keeping things cozy does two things. Continue reading

A World Without Walls

“If the Ivy League was the breeding ground for the elites of the American Century, Stanford is the farm system for Silcon Valley.”  -Ken Auletta

This quote appeared in a New Yorker story from last April. While “Get Rich U” doesn’t exactly wax eulogic on Stanford’s educational priorities, it is a fascinating exploration of what makes the university the innovative powerhouse that it is. Stanford has quite a track record, after all, claiming credit for some five thousand companies including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Netflix, Electronic Arts, LinkedIn, Fairchild Semiconductor, and Google. What makes the article particularly noteworthy, though, is how thoroughly the author walks through the themes discussed on this blog. It reads as a recipe for creativity.

1. Community Builds Creativity. The campus itself was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as an open environment with no walls, broad avenues, and vast gardens lined by palms and California live oaks. Central plazas allow large gatherings and encourage chance encounters.

2. Diverse People = Diverse Ideas. The school cultivates economic and social diversity: caucasian students are a minority, 17% of Stanford’s undergraduates are the first member of their family to attend college, and if an undergraduate’s annual family income is below a hundred thousand dollars, tuition is free.

3. T-shaped People. There is an overwhelming emphasis on interdiscplinary education. From the article: “[interdisciplinarity] is the philosophy now promoted at the various schools at Stanford — engineering, business, medicine, science, design — which encourages students from diverse majors to come together to solve real or abstract problems. The goal is to have them become what are called “T-shaped” students, who have depth in a particular field of study but also breadth across multiple disciplines. Stanford hopes that the students can also develop the social skills to collaborate with people outside their areas of expertise.”

4. Dream Big Dreams. Stanford has a “bias towards action”, and students profess a “sometimes inflated belief that their work is changing the world for the better.” The culture emphasizes learning-by-doing.

I’d highly recommend that anyone interested in creativity or education give the article a read. And there’s an interesting hook for the Stanford community as well: the article discusses the possibility that Stanford’s current emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation threatens the fundamental mission of the university itself. From former university president Gerhard Casper, “Stanford is now justifying its existence mostly in terms of what it can do for humanity and improve the world.” All well and good, but what about learning for the sake of knowledge?

Check out the full article at the Newyorker.com.

Yet Another Excuse to Cut Out Early

In the mood to start your weekend early? It might not be a bad idea, according to an article in Sunday’s New York Times by Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of a Chicago-based software company called 37signals. In it, he discusses two experiments that his firm has used to improve creativity and productivity:

1. During the summer, the company runs on a four-day workweek. Rather than cram forty hours into four days, they actually switch to a 32-hour workweek. This creates helpful pressure without introducing creativity-crushing stress, just as we discussed in earlier posts (Creativity Under the Gun and You Should Go Home Early Today).

2. Every June, employees use their non-essential time to explore projects and ideas of their own. As Keith Sawyer points out in his excellent blog “Creativity and Innovation“, this is actually a technique commonly used at companies like Google (20% time) and W. L. Gore (dabble time). The practice dates back to 3M, which initiated “15% time” as early as the 1940s. The basic idea, as always, is to encourage divergent thinking and allow employees to find the products that might become the next big thing.

It’s a short article, but it’s exciting to hear about companies that are exploring creative new ways to get work done. Creativity may not be a primary consideration in every profession, but I wouldn’t mind seeing our society place a greater emphasis on those in which it is. After all, taupe walls and square lines survived through a period of amazing economic growth and revolutionary innovation over the past half century, but it’s arguable whether those environments have been good for the people in them. The same holds for the length of the American workweek, which has been climbing steadily over the past decades and is now one of the longest in the world. Three cheers for the managers that see happy and healthy employees as a key part of a healthy (and creative) company.

Check out Jason’s op-ed at NYTimes, and thanks to Keith Sawyer for tipping me off.

China’s Creative Copycats

Whether you view China’s shanzai workshops as clever innovators or outright bandits, there’s no denying that they’re good at what they do. Shanzhai cellphones accounted for about 20% of the global 2G mobile market in 2010, and shanzhai companies like Baidu and Tencent are now emerging as world-class players in age of internet commerce.

The name “shanzhai” is a reference to historical warlord hideouts, nestled high in the mountains beyond the reach of government control, and today describes counterfeiters and gadget-makers with a similarly healthy disrespect for the law. To their detractors, the shanzhai are shameless imitators, selling cut-rate knockoffs under names like SQNY electronics, Bucksstar coffee, Blockberry, and Hiphone. To others, they are creatively borrowing and building on available ideas, improving products and adapting them to local markets. The “Nckia” brand name might be a blatant rip off, but the built-in flashlight could be useful in areas without reliable electricity, and who wouldn’t want a combination cigarette box and cell phone?

Continue reading

Friends With(out) Benefits

You’ve stumbled on an amazing opportunity, or maybe you’ve been working tirelessly to bring it to life. But now you need help. Who are you going to choose to help build your idea into a viable business? It’s a simple question without an easy answer: there are issues of expertise and availability, trust and goals, working styles. There’s also a wealth of research suggesting that choosing the right partners makes a world of difference for both firms and individuals.

And that’s what makes a recent study of the venture capital industry by three Harvard researchers so interesting. Paul Gompers, Yuhai Xuan, and Vladimir Mukharlyamov assembled a dataset of 3,500 early stage investors and the 12,000 deals they collaborated on. The goal was to determine what factors made investors likely to work with one another, and how that affected their financial performance.

Their first big finding is that investors prefer partners with whom they have something in common: having worked together in the past made them 60% more likely to co-invest, and having the same alma mater or belonging to the same ethnic group each gave a 20% boost. These findings are in line with a general theory in social networks known as homophily, which refers to the fact that we generally like spending time with people who are like us. Homophily governs a lot about everything from how people find friends to how firms make alliance decisions, and it makes sense: having similar backgrounds and cultures allows for more effective communication, increases the likelihood of having common goals, and cultivates trust between partners.

But it’s also dangerous. After all, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, diversity is a big component of creativity and innovation. Homophily, by virtue of pairing similar partners together, limits access to diverse information and skills. And that’s exactly what our Harvard team finds: the odds of a startup having a successful IPO are 22% lower if the investing pair are from the same university, and 18% lower if they share a past employer. Ethnicity has no impact on performance by itself, but when a pair of investors are from the same ethnic minority their startup is 25% less likely to succeed.

What this means is choosing partners is no simple task. On one hand, we need to find collaborators that we understand and trust. On the other, we need to find partners with complementary skills and diverse perspectives. Performing well, be it on a collaborative music project or a VC investment, means balancing these two factors. And that may take some creativity.

Check out the full paper here, or the brief Economist writeup that led me to it here.

T-5 Days ’til MAKER CAMP!

Want to have some fun from July 16th to August 24th? Well, MAKE Magazine has teamed up with Google to put on Maker Camp. It’s a free, open, online summer camp featuring a project-a-day for thirty days. Each week has got four days of projects, followed by a live-cast field trip to some crazy place like CERN, the Ford Motors R&D Lab, and the MakerBot homebase. Expert counselors will lead each project, and campers can tune in via Hangout to ask questions and share stories. It’s technically intended for teens, but nobody’s gonna tell me I can’t build a chemical rocket or a desktop biosphere. All you need to do to be part of the fun is sign up on Google+ (clever, Google, clever) and then check back in when you want to build something. The projects are all kid-friendly and can be built (mostly) from household supplies.

In the spirit of keeping this blog somewhat professional, I should probably say that this is an exciting event because it’s got potential to get kids thinking, inventing, and working with their hands. The opportunity to tie together a broader community of Makers and tinkerers is pretty cool too, given how important networks are for bringing creative ideas to life. At the same time, I could just be honest:

Rockets. Like woah.

To get in on the fun, head over to Google+ and follow MAKE.

You Should Go Home Early Today

I’ve been told we’re in the middle of “the most important five day weekend of the year”, but for the millions of us that are back at work this morning that won’t ring very true. And for the millions more who, like me, don’t have an office to be in but rather just the omnipresent crush of work to be done, that will sound decidedly unfair. Life is busy. Crazy busy.

Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing, had a great NYTimes Op-Ed on that subject earlier this week. “Busyness,” he wrote, “serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” And these hectic schedules are often self-imposed. We aren’t combat medics or case detectives; we’re students and consultants and coders and volunteers and athletes and a million other things, all voluntarily and often simultaneously. As a result, we’re busy. Crazy busy.

And the funny thing is, we don’t necessarily even want to be, but we see people around us working themselves to the bone so we assume that we should be too. We’re engaged in some sort of sisyphean arms race, keeping busy to stay busy. Who among us wasn’t a little bit jealous when France mandated a 35-hour work week? I find myself enjoying the occasional headcold, just because it forces me to slow down for a day.

And that’s admittedly pretty crazy. The effects of stress on the human body and mental health are well documented, running the gamut from headaches to heart problems to depression. At the same time, stress doesn’t do much for our creative lives either. As I discusssed in an earlier post, creativity takes time, focus, and freedom. We aren’t as creative under pressure, or in hectic, distracting environments. The space and quietness that idleness provide, as Kreider suggests, are a necessary condition for the “wild summer lightening stikes of inspiration.”

As we get busier, we get more done, even though we know that doing so may not make us any happier. I wonder how being so busy affects our ability to create, to creatively explore, and to find beauty in the world. Maybe today would be a good day to take the afternoon off.