Twitter's Ev Williams: Startup Advice Is (Mostly) Wrong

Williams says doing, observing, and studying success is far more valuable than reading about it. Is he right?

Ev Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, has recently written a nonchalantly polemic post that, if entirely true, may put me out of a job.

It's title: All the Startup Advice You Read is Wrong. The A-list entrepreneur explains why.

To begin: "correlation is not causation."

Williams opens with (the way we mythologize) Google. To do so, he rolls out the following argument, which, for the sake of clarity, we'll break into bullets:

  • Google is one of the most successful companies ever.
  • Google gives its employees the ability to spend 20 percent of their time on whatever they want.
  • Therefore, 20 percent time is a great idea.
Or maybe it's an alternate case: Perhaps Google succeeded because they're brilliant despite the lack of focus that 20 percent time causes?

"I don’t know," he observes, "and neither does anyone else."

Why? Because businesses aren't "built in a lab," because there are too many variables to claim that if you do A, then B, then C, it will work.

Yet maybe there is something to the 20 percent rule. Maybe not in the rule itself, but the motivations that it exhibits: the value of autonomy, the efficacy of side projects, the quality of work that comes from not being bossed around.

Like Daniel Engber wrote for Slate last year, correlation doesn't remove the need to think critically about the way events relate, it focuses it:

No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can't tell one from the other; in that sense it's inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.

How you get better by studying the best

By observing their actions, we can infer the perspectives that lead them to greatness. It's not that grafting the process is the thing to do; rather, it's testing—and perhaps later internalizing—the principle that it expresses.

Later in the post, Williams talks about all the books about Bill Gates that he read. Their value was in stoking his entrepreneurial fire: In other words, studying heroic organizations and individuals can inform our implicit understanding of the way the world works, rather than ready-made prescriptions.

"There is wisdom to be gleaned, for sure," he writes, but "the value may be more in seeing a model for dedication, creativity, and hard work than applying any of their techniques."

And yet, as Mr. Buffett says, the people who are most successful tend to have the best habits.

What's the value that you get from reading about businesses and business folk? Please let us know in the comments. It will help us write.

All the Startup Advice You Read is Wrong

[Image: Flickr user Patrick Hoesly]

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1 Comments

  • Mblair

    Two points: (1) 80% of what we learn is from observation. (2) Cause and effect are not observable in complex situations -- and organizations are truly working in complexity. (Don't confuse complex with complicated. Complex is not just more complicated. It is a different animal -- one where cause and effect can't even be studied and understood with certainty.) I vote for lots of observation simmered with great amounts of reflection.