The dorm-room startup mindset

"Selling enough records to make another record."

Rick Rubin started DefJam in his NYU dorm. Steve and I built TSR in Curtis Hall, and I went on to build my publishing business in my wife's dorm at NYU. It happens more than you might guess, and the reason it works is something you can use, even if you're not in college or living in a dorm...

You sell enough records to make another record.

You're not trying to sell the company or to make a huge payroll or to make sure the stock options are in place. You're building something.

The only way to build something when you don't have money to invest is to make something so great that people will pay for it in advance, that they'll eagerly sign up to use what you're making. Now not later. Now when it's new. When it's useful and fresh and interesting.

Too often, we look at the serious nature of starting a business (and worse, our imagined serious implications of failing when we do so) and we forget about useful, fresh or interesting. We forget to do that thing that might not work, to expose ourselves to things that are generous and new and fun.

You don't have to quit your day job to start something, just as you don't have to drop out of college to do so. You have weekends and evenings and all that time you're online... 

Make another record.

       
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Flags and mascots

They are tribal symbols. They're a beacon, a way we know where to assemble and where to hang out.

But they are not us. They are not real. Just symbols.

Don't win the game for the wolverine, don't root for one side because of the orange stripes on their flag. That's obvious. But sometimes, a human being is a stand-in for a mascot, and when he misbehaves or disappoints, we confuse his role with what we stand for. We defend him as if we're defending ourselves, because he's a symbol.

Symbols don't do anything. People do. We do.

       
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Handshakes and contracts, the future and the past

If you lease a car, borrow money for school or engage in some other complex transaction, there's a contract to sign. It's filled with rules and obligations, and the profit-maximizing finance organization does everything it can to do as little as it can (and make you responsible for as much as it can). This sort of contract has evolved into a battle, an effort to get something now and deliver as little as possible later. Loopholes and fine print are there for a reason, and it's not to make you happy. Contracts like this are about the past. "We agreed on this, go read your copy, we don't care so much that you're annoyed, goodbye."

A handshake deal, on the other hand, is about the future. Either side can claim loopholes or wriggle out of a commitment, but the consequence is clear—if you disappoint us, we won't be back for more. The participant in a handshake deal is investing in the future, doing more now in exchange for the benefits that trust and delight and consistency bring going forward.

It might pay to write your handshake deal down, to memorialize the key promises in an email. If your goal is to delight and to exceed expectations, the more clear you are about the expectations, the more likely it is you'll exceed them.

But it also pays to hesitate when you (or your advisors) start pushing to transform the handshake about the future into a contract about the past. "I'm hoping to do this again with you," evokes a very different reaction than, "but you said..."

       
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Taking the plunge

Maybe that's the problem.

Perhaps it's better to commit to wading instead.

Ship, sure. Not the giant life-changing, risk-it-all-venture, but the small.

When you do a small thing, when you finish it, polish it, put it into the world, you've made something. You've committed and you've finished.

And then you can do it again, but louder. And larger.

It's easy to be afraid of taking a plunge, because, after all, plunging is dangerous. And the fear is a safe way to do nothing at all.

Wading, on the other hand, gets under the radar. It gives you a chance to begin.

       
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Biggest vs. best

There's not much overlap.

Regardless of how you measure 'best' (elegance, deluxeness, impact, profitability, ROI, meaningfulness, memorability), it's almost never present in the thing that is the most popular.

The best restaurant, Seinfeld episode, political candidate, brand of beer, ski slope, NASDAQ stock, you name it. Compare them to the most popular.

Big is a choice. So is best.

       
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