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Startup School 2007

This past weekend I took the opportunity to attend Startup School at Stanford University. It was an excellent experience, one that should push me to attend more regional “gathering of nerds” events. The presentations ranged from excellent to valuable to boring to offensive. That’s probably a good mix actually. It helps you appreciate those who were worth listening to and forget those who don’t grock the extent of their luck.

The best presentation was given by Hadi and Ali Partovi, the twin partners of iLike.com. These guys have had repeated success in the startup arena, and they were able to pass on a ton of information in a very short time. I had never heard of the Partovis before, so I was a bit surprised by the quality of their presentation.

Paul Buchheit, inventor of Gmail, also gave an excellent presentation. He was funny while also passing on some important technical tips about how to serve up data quickly. Coming from Google (employee #23), Paul was definitely of the opinion that fast is the most important UI feature. It will serve everyone in the audience to keep his points in mind.

Paul Graham was mostly entertaining. Some of the conference was simply designed to convince folks to pursue startups rather than “day jobs.” Graham’s style is typically novella length essays, so naturally his presentation came off as a tad nutty without the proper word count. At least Graham was nutty in an encouraging way.

Most, but not all, of the other speeches were worthwhile. Alexis Ohanian had a hilarious “evolution of Reddit” presentation to end the conference, leaving everyone with a smile on their faces.

A lot of the benefit was in talking to other folks attending the one-day conference. Bumming around with my brother deflected a lot of attention toward Google. The first three people we met were a competitor of Google Analytics, a grad student starting at Google in two weeks, and a Berkley PhD interviewing at Google this week.

Everyone else we met was working on, or giving the appearance of working on, a startup. The folks that I recall with actual web sites were Socster, Storm Pulse, and MEDgle. It was good to talk to them; to see where they started and where they are.

If you read about this whole startup thing long enough, you’ll internalize the conventional wisdom that pretty much every startup fails. This message is hyper-real, though, because the person passing along the wisdom is typically a person who has succeeded in the startup world. It was nice to hear the tens and hundreds of ideas floating around the auditorium and realize that, indeed, lots of those ideas aren’t very good.

This isn’t to say that working on those ideas is a bad thing. As Buchheit said, the secret for success is to redefine success as meaning “I learned a lot.” Still, the concept that most startups fail in a practical sense has become concrete for me. I’m sure those who learned of Scrawlers are thinking the same thing about my idea.

Startup School certainly could provide momentum to any projects you are pursuing. In the five months since I started working on Scrawlers, I have had a surprisingly consistent motivation factor. Maybe I’m not the best person to comment on Startup School’s catalytic effects in that case. But give it a try sometime. Mix it with a larger trip for added effect.

(An aside. Comparing my visit to Google to my other nerd experiences, I’ve determined that Google hires 90% of the competent female software engineers in the country. Of the just under 1000 folks at Startup School, there were probably 10-15 women. At the Ruby events I’ve attended in the Twin Cities, I’ve run into one member of the fairer sex. The vibe at the Google campus was much different. As Guy Kawasaki always says: “Ask a woman.”)