Anil and I have had a few conversations lately about building cool stuff for the internet, the Golden Age of the independent web, and how it’s increasingly hard to filter out industry noise. He posted a quote from Dave Winer and it reminded me of our “About” page for Ludicorp, where we outlined our corporate philosophy (kicking ass), which is akin to avoiding a tour of gas stations. I have a quote behind my desk from Freeman Dyson that I see every day: “There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.”
Anil worries that it’s hard to communicate this motivation to a new generation of entrepreneurs, and I agree. There are so many conferences these days, so many voluble, charismatic leaders, and so much noise. I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs in their 20s who are knowledgeable about the valuations various Y Combinator startups have attained, know the names of all the angel investors in the Valley, have in-depth knowledge of the Facebook diaspora and their doings, have opinions on various Zynga acquisitions, and know exactly how to get Andrew Mason on the line…it boggles the mind. These are good things to have in your tool kit. But I want to hear about things out there that they love. About loving the thing they’re building. There’s less of that. Nevertheless, Anil remains “optimistic that we can make this mindset the default.”
Just after reading his post, I settled in to read a book about homeschooling, by John Holt, and in it I found this heartening quote:
Leaders are not what many people think–people with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. The include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, determination, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head even when things are going badly. This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about.
And this made me think. People ask me who inspires me. This question often stumps me because I have been inspired in my work by stuff that people make. I fell in love with zines and independent radio when I was an isolated teenager living in the suburbs. Then BBSs, people’s personal web sites, Usenet, Entropy8, online zines (holy crap, the old Bitch magazine site is now a porn portal! And Maxi is squatted!), blogs, Excel, online communities, Amazon, Salon, eBay, O’Reilly books, Google, Friendster, Alamut, NQPAOFU, Metafilter, board games, Blogger, paper games, 1000 blank cards, The Mirror Project, 1000 journals, Moveable Type, 20 things, Google Maps, Flickr, Gmail, last.fm, iPhone, NaNoWriMo, McSweeney’s, Kingdom of Loathing, muxtape, vimeo, Etsy, iPad, Kickstarter …the people who make these things are my leaders. Most of the time I don’t know their names. Sometimes I’m lucky and do.