Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Novel Idea

A Novel Idea
I spent this morning reading Agent to the Stars, a novel by John Scalzi, who may be best known as one of the main contributors to the Uncle John's Bathroom Readers series of trivia books. I myself am the proud owner of the 14th book in the series, which holds a place of honor in the bathroom frequented by visitors to our house.

The novel itself was great fun, especially for someone like me who grew up in LA and knows the peculiar nature of the movie industry. I'm a big fan of what may be the smallest genre in fiction: Satirical novels about the business implications of humanity coming into contact with alien life forms (Greg Costikyan's "First Contract" is the only other book I'm aware of in this genre, also highly recommended).

But what stuck in my mind, besides such memorable lines as, "I made her grovel like the she-dog she is," is John's introduction to the novel, which he makes available online for free:

"In the summer of 1997, I was 28 years old, and I decided that after years of thinking about writing a novel, I was simply going to go ahead and write one. There were two motivations for doing so. First, I was simply curious if I could; I'd had up to that time a reasonably successful life as a writer, but I'd never written anything longer than ten pages in my life outside of a classroom setting. Two, my ten-year high school reunion was coming up, and I wanted to be able to say I'd finished a novel just in case anyone asked (they didn't, the bastards).

In sitting down to write the novel, I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first that I wasn't going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a fun story. That way, if I screwed it up (which was a real possibility), it wasn't like I was screwing up the One Story That Mattered To Me. I decided also that the goal of writing the novel was the actual writing of it -- not the selling of it, which is usually the goal of a novelist. I didn't want to worry about whether it was good enough to sell; I just wanted to have the experience of writing a story over the length of a novel, and see what I thought about it. Not every writer is a novelist; I wanted to see if I was.

Making these two decisions freed me from a lot of the usual angst and pain that comes from writing a first novel. This was in all respects a "practice" novel -- a setting for me to play with the form to see what worked, and what didn't, and what I'd need to do to make the next novel worth selling.

It worked. I picked a fun, humorous story -- aliens from another world decide to get an agent -- and I just let it take me where it wanted to go. I banged out the chapters on the weekends, using the weekdays to let my mind figure out what to do next. The writing was fun, and for the most part it was easy, and in three months, the whole thing was done (and just in time for my high-school reunion).

Once the novel was finished, I decided, what the heck, I might as well try to sell it. This was not particularly successful. The agents I shopped it to liked the writing, but said humorous SF was hard place; the publishers liked the writing but said humorous SF was hard to sell. I wasn't terribly put out about this; this was a practice novel, after all. But on the other hand I thought it was good enough to let other people see it.

So in early 1999, I decided to put it online as a "shareware novel." The premise was simple: People could read it, and if they liked it, they could send me a dollar, or whatever sum they liked (even if that sum was zero). If they didn't like it, well, clearly, they wouldn't have to send me anything. It was a no-risk proposition for the reader. I didn't expect to see a dime from it, but as it turns out, over five years I made about $4,000 (well, I think it was about that much. I stopped counting after a while. I know I made enough to buy a laptop and lots of pizzas. More than enough)."

I think that John's experience should be inspiring, not just to aspiring novelists, but to entrepreneurs as well. If you want to write a novel or start a company, just do it. Don't worry about writing "Ulysses" or starting Google on your first try. Just see if you can do it, and more importantly, if you have a taste for it.

If it flows, it will probably be pretty good, and you may even make some money off of it. Heck, $4,000 is a lot more than a lot of folks see for their first novel!

I only wish that I had read this back when I was in college. Rather than wasting my time in summer school, I could have banged out a couple of novels! Or companies....

Attention VCs: Entrepreneurs Are Your Customers

Attention VCs: Entrepreneurs Are Your Customers

The often thought-provoking Fred Wilson posted an essay on how VCs need to realize that their customers are the entrepreneurs in whom they invest, not the LPs from whom they raise money.

Whether you view this as insightful or a clever entrepreneur relations play (comments are pretty evenly split), it definitely makes you go hmmmm.

I've been on the receiving end of the many infamous VC tactics that entrepreneurs hate so much--always having to wait for the VC to arrive at the first meeting, never getting a clear "No," the tendency for VCs to reach for the axe whenever something goes wrong--and I never thought to myself, "You know what? I'm their customer. And if I don't like what they're doing, I can fire them."

While I have a mental list of VCs I never want to work with (please don't bother asking me for the list--I'm not suicidal, you know!), it never occurred to me that I should consider that list from a position of power, rather than weakness.

To paraphrase Tolkien, the "Ent"repreneurs are waking up, and discovering that they are strong.

I wonder what will happen if the majority of entrepreneurs come to the same realization? Fred may have started more than he bargained for....but if such a revolution comes, then the VCs who have been careful to cultivate an entrepreneur-friendly mindset will be well-positioned to make a killing.

18-Year-Old Mayor Shows Anything Is Possible

18-Year-Old Mayor Shows Anything Is Possible
On Thursday, Michael Sessions, an 18-year-old high school senior who lost when he ran for Vice President of the Student Council, was elected the Mayor of Hillsdale, Michigan.

Sessions, a write-in candidate, beat the incumbent by 2 votes.

And they say that one vote never counts.

While this may just be a bit of offbeat news, I think it shows that people are more willing than ever to embrace change. Here's what one respectable citizen had to say:

"Here's this kid talking about how there are grants to help towns like ours attract biotech companies," said shop owner John Spiteri, 49. "I'm friends with Doug [the former mayor and owner of the town's ice skating rink]. He's taught my kid to skate. But people here are hungry for anyone who can pump life back into this town. I had to vote for Mike."

I see this as part of an overall trend where people are increasingly willing to ignore the inner voices that say, "that's not how things are done," and just go for it. And I like it.

I only wish that I had realized this at an earlier age, like Hizzoner, Mayor Sessions.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Happiness Is Good, Less Government Spending Means More Happiness, Therefore Less Government Spending is Good.

Happiness Is Good, Less Government Spending Means More Happiness, Therefore Less Government Spending is Good.
Dennis Prager makes a very effective argument that evil is rarely associated with happy people:

"When you think about a Muslim suicide terrorist, is "happy" the first word you think of to describe him?

When you think about Nazis or Communists or Klansmen or child molesters, do you immediately think, "Now there are some happy people"?

Of course not.

It only takes a moment's thought to realize that while most unhappy people don't engage in evil, most evil is done by unhappy people."

All too true. Alas, rather than focusing on Gross National Happiness, most governments seem intent on the opposite. It often seems to me that happiness is one of the last things on the agenda of either the left (who wallow in guilt and self-righteousness) or the right (who revel in ignorance and self-righteousness).

In fact, there is even research that shows that life satisfaction decreases with higher government spending.

Not to go all Libertarian on you or anything, but if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really are unalienable rights, it seems like we should try to maximize them, rather that stamp them out. When the government tries to legislate morality or behavior (by banning breast implants or abortion), when it takes away our resources to give them to someone else (be they the poor or big business), it interferes with the greatest goods it should be providing to its citizens.

Guess what politicians, you don't know what I want, and you don't know what's better for me. So stop trying to tell me what to do and start focusing on giving people the kind of environment they need to pursue those American ideals.

Tagging is the next social networking

Tagging is the next social networking
It's hot, it definitely changes user behavior, and it's like to result in huge winners and big losers.

For example, I'm amazed by how Digg managed to escape my notice until the recent announcement of its first round of VC. Now they're in BusinessWeek! I definitely plan on investigating further.

I also read about the unveiling of TagWorld in an article by one of my favorite journalists, Susan Kuchinskas (thanks again for the great article on my company!).

It seems like only yesterday that I was hearing about some newfangled service named

Of course, content isn't the only thing amenable to tagging. The whole space of online reputation management is simply another way of tagging people.

I think that tagging will be big because of the way it taps into free brainpower and collective wisdom, but no one really knows what its most important uses will be...yet.

Is Your Life Portfolio Balanced?

Is Your Life Portfolio Balanced?
The Guardian writes about the concept of having a "portfolio life."

"Portfolio life was a term coined by the business guru Charles Handy in his book The Age of Unreason in 1989. Mr Handy explained the concept as "a portfolio of activities - some we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause... the different bits fit together to form a balanced whole greater than the parts"."

I totally buy into the concept. To say that one lives for a single thing, whether it be work, children, or pleasure, is a gross simplification.

However, living a portfolio life also means that you have to spend the time managing that portfolio, which includes trimming your losing positions. Alas, I think that may be the hardest part--I know I have a hard time letting go.

Back when I was a sophomore at Stanford, I actually woke up my roommate by screaming in my sleep, "I resign, I resign" as the strain of my many volunteer activities began to get to me.

I took that as a clear sign to cut back, which I did, but it's a little harder when some of your activities are your kids, or are the job you need to pay the rent.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The World's Greatest Real Estate Investor Is Getting Out

The World's Greatest Real Estate Investor Is Getting Out
What should the rest of us be doing?

"I feel totally safe playing polo on a field full of pros," says 58-year-old Tom Barrack. "But when amateurs are all over the field, someone can get killed. They have more guts than brains. They charge after every ball and don't know when to hold back." It's the same with the U.S. real estate market right now: "There's too much money chasing too few good deals, with too much debt and too few brains." The amateurs are going to get trampled, he explains, taking seasoned horsemen, who should get off the turf, down with them. Says Barrack: "That's why I'm getting out."

What's also very interesting is how Barrack made his money:

"If a potential deal is complicated or politically sensitive, so much the better. Barrack cherishes thorny situations because they scare off most other bidders. Auctions aren't for him. "How do you congratulate yourself when you've outbid eight of the smartest people in the world?" he marvels."

Or how about how his willingness to take risks paid off immediately:

"Over the next four years he bought package after package. It turned out even better than American Savings had. Owners who were eager to keep their properties bought back their debt for 70 cents or so on the dollar. Any loans Barrack couldn't unload he bundled together and sold on the public markets as mortgage-backed securities."

And how the bubble will end:

"The slump will show up first in speculative hot spots like Miami and Las Vegas, he says, where condo developers are preselling their projects for what look like big profits. When they actually build the units over the next year or two, he predicts, they will end up spending more than the units are now selling for. At that point, says Barrack, the developers will try to raise prices. "But most of these buyers are speculators," he says. "They will either sue the developers to get the original prices or get their deposits back and walk away." The developers will then put the units back on the market, and the glut of vacant condos will drive prices down. "It's the busted deals caused by construction costs that will cause a turn in the market," he predicts. ",15935,1117911,00.html

Two Weeks' Links

Now that we're truly becoming a free agent nation, Starbucks is the new office. Personally, I find it's soothing to have other humans around when I work, even if they don't say a thing!

Forget WiMax, now there's xMax. Run a wireless network for years on a watch battery! Tres cool if it actually works.

Amazon creates a marketplace for Web labor. I think this may be a little too granular; I'd prefer such a marketplace for slightly larger projects.

Words fail me when it comes to the wall of breasts.

Now this is more like it--a quiz that rates your life on a 1-10 scale. I scored an 8.5; the average person scores a 6.3. Of course, does that mean that my life is actually better, or does it mean that I'm just more optimistic? I encourage you to take the quiz and share your results!

Online Karaoke which allows other people to rate your performance...brilliant.

Why women leave top jobs behind....I think that they're just smart enough to realize that there is more to life than work! I wish more men did the same.,15114,1123540,00.html

Beware our gleaming, metallic overlords! Finally, someone who tells you how to fight back against the robot rebellion. And you think I'm joking, but I'm not.

Extremely useful tools. But this should be a wiki!

When it comes to consumer-generated media, a few people do the heavy lifting. Even the Wikipedia only has 3,000 people working on it any given day.

Woman Avoid Competition; Men Are Overconfident

Woman Avoid Competition; Men Are Overconfident
This may fall into the stating the obvious category, but I was amazed by how stark the gender differences are.

When offered a choice between competitive and non-competitive options, 73% of men chose to fight it out, versus just 35% of the women.

Perhaps this is because 75% of men thought that they were in the top quartile, and only 43% of women felt the same way.

Of course, the $64,000 question is, what should we do about it? I'll be keeping a close eye on my daughter's competitiveness as she gets older!

The Grey Bloggers

The Grey Bloggers
I was delighted to read this article about senior citizen bloggers. I'm planning to read as many of them as I can, both to learn more about people of that age, as well as to find some role models for when I become even more dinosaurian than I am now.

I think that you miss out on a lot if you spend time solely with people your own age!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Politics of Mindless Hate

The Politics of Mindless Hate
This Schwarzenegger/Sesame Street mashup has been making the rounds.

While at first I was pleased to see a mainstream politician (in this case, California Treasurer Phil Angelides) making use of new technologies and viral marketing, I was dismayed that the actual Web site was an exercise in the kind of mindless hate that now seems to characterize both major political parties.

Schwarzenegger Street could have attacked the Gubernator on substantive lines, such as his willingness to accept donations from big corporate donors despite his supposed stance as an outsider, his failure to fix California's fiscal issues, or even questioning whether he's taken the job seriously enough (given his other job as editor-in-chief of a bodybuilding magazine).

Instead, it simply paints Schwarzenegger as being in cahoots with the other Evil Republicans (TM), including George Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Bill O'Reilly.

This may very well be a winning strategy--California is heavily Democratic, and energizing the base a la Karl Rove may be enough to secure victory.

Yet I can't help but feel that stooping to smear campaigns and character assassination will simply increase the distaste that most voters feel towards all politicians.

Just because Rove's evil genius has been successful in previous campaigns doesn't mean that the Democrats should adopt the same tactics.