William Gibson, Startups and Verbs

3 minute read

So, I’m reading Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 20 years, Gibson is novelist who famously spawned the Cyberpunk movement and coined the term “cyberspace” in Neuromancer, 30 years ago. And gone on to write many thoughtful, wonderful books. While he’s inspired a generation of technologists, he doesn’t write much about startups. But Distrust That Particular Flavor (his only non-fiction book) has some interesting insights on the startup process (it’s packed with non-startupy insights as well!).

Why do serial entrepreneurs do it? Who puts themself through all that pain by choice, knowing the odds are they’ll fail? Gibson, although he’s writing about writing for a living, has the answer, which utterly captures the joy of a piece of working code or a business that’s starting to work:

The distinction I was making wasn’t between paid versus unpaid, exactly. It wasn’t about whatever sum might be involved. It was about a certain demonstration of agency. ….. Either someone whose rent was paid by their job of selecting stories, someone for whom it actually mattered, could be induced by my words on a page to buy my story, or they couldn’t. This seemed like magic to me, and still does. As if the right runes, scratched in the dirt, could produce a bag of groceries. Once you’ve managed to do this successfully, doing it again isn’t quite so much about the groceries as about the peculiar wonder of it.

So if we want to produce that wonder, we need a startup that resonates with people. That they readily associate with your service. I once advised a fellow entrepreneur that he needed to remove all the actions from his startup, except for one button. One key action. The ultimate in clarity for the user. That is what this thing does. Hard to achieve, but the right goal. Gibson has a take on that (this is in 1989, mind you).

A BBC executive working on another vision of interactive television offered me a tour of a small research facility in San Francisco. He was interested in having me ”do” something with this new technology. The lab we visited was devoted to… well, there weren’t verbs. I looked at things, watched consoles as they were poked and prodded, and nobody there, it seemed, could even begin to explain what it was I might be doing if I were to, uh, do, one of these projects, whatever it was. It wasn’t writing, and it wasn’t directing. It was definitely something, though, and they were certainly keen to do it, but they needed those verbs.

You’ve heard it said that startups are a search for a business model. And that’s not a bad way to look at it. But for a consumer startup, ubiquity is all. To become ubiquitous, people need a “verb” for you. Or at least a one word mental construct they associate with you. Google is famously a verb now. Foursquare is “check in”. Pinterest “Pins” things.

What’s your verb?

(btw: The Hawaii Project — the best way to find great books to read — is demoing at Mass Innovation Nights. If you like what we’re up to, we can use your vote, here: http://buff.ly/1hWR6Ay).