FUCK THE STATUS QUO
Not all stupid ideas are good ideas, but all new ideas sound stupid at the start.
In 2002 I spent the summer pitching a business plan to rooms full of professional investors in Northern California. I’d just founded a company called Kidrobot, making toys for adults. The toys weren’t licensed from TV shows or movies — they were designed by me and my hoodlum graffiti artist friends, most of whom were living in New York City. Our toys were limited edition, collectable, and relatively expensive.
In my enthusiasm for such an obvious idea (grown-ups were into cartoons like The Simpsons, why wouldn’t they buy toys too?), I couldn’t understand why I was being rejected over and over. In retrospect I totally get why one prominent Silicon Valley investor (whose name I won’t repeat) cut me off mid-pitch and told me that my business plan was by far the most entertaining, and also the stupidest that he’d ever heard — and then abruptly left the room.
I ended up bootstrapping Kidrobot for the first three years of its life — maxing credit cards, mortgaging my home, and begging small investments from friends who ended up making a hell of a lot of money a few years later when Kidrobot became a global brand. When I sold Kidrobot (it was time for me to move on and do something new), we had retail stores on three continents, millions of toys all over the world, and a feature film contract in Hollywood. A dozen toys I designed are now in the permanent collection at MoMA.
I heard the same kind of things recently when we started working on Ello, our ad-free social network that commits to never manipulate users’ streams and never sell user data to third parties.
“A new social network... It’ll never work. Do you know how much money Facebook has?”
“No ads. No selling user data. Everyone knows that’s the only way to make money on the Internet. Are you insane?”
We launched Ello just 7 months ago with 90 artists and friends. Today there are millions of people on Ello (and growing) with some of the most compelling visual content on the Internet.
Ello doesn’t have ads because we can build a better social network if our community are our customers, not advertisers. On Ello, the social network is truly free: you never have to read (or pay for) boosted posts, and there’s no algorithm controlling what you see. That makes Ello a better platform for artists, designers, small businesses, and nonprofits — who can reach every person who chooses to follow them without paying the network. And those are the groups that have flocked to Ello.
Ello is a Public Benefit Corporation, a special kind of for-profit business legally required to adhere to our mission to never sell ads or users data — forever. We’ve raised $11 million on that plan, in a bidding war where I got to choose my investors (and we got the best ones in the world — good, smart people that agreed to let us keep control of our company).
Ello remains a largely positive network where people tend to be helpful, supportive, and actually nice to each other. I’ve talked with many other social media executives from Tumblr, Twitter, and even Facebook, and nobody can believe how few people-doing-really-bad-things problems we’re having on Ello. Most customer support needs are handled by a team of just three people.
This is just conjecture — but I think the negativity that many of us experience on ad-based networks is result of “casino mentality.” Casinos look fun from the outside, with lots of people playing fun games (some even have circuses), but once you’re inside, you become aware of a kind of negative energy— because everyone there is slowly, steadily losing to the house. It’s one reason casinos (and ad-based social networks) hire armies of cops and make tons of rules to keep order, and why you don’t find that at a free concert in a park — or on Ello.
And still, there are some “experts” that keep proclaiming that Ello must never, ever succeed. And they’re really, really mad that we keep thriving and growing. No, we’re never going to be as big as Facebook. Fuck that, we don’t want to be.
So, here’s the problem with experts.
Most of them read the same books & blogs, live in the same tech ghettos, eat at the same restaurants, go to the same trade shows, and repeat the same facts to one another. After a while there’s a tendency to think the same way too, because that’s what an expert is: someone that other experts agree knows what’s she’s talking about.
Statements like “you can’t build a profitable network on the Internet without selling ads” and “nobody can compete with Facebook” become memes that dismiss new ideas that have the potential to actually change the world for the better. Doing what everyone else is doing is not innovation, it’s iteration.
This is why experts also create market opportunities for those of us that are willing to give them the finger and walk in the opposite direction from the rest of the crowd.
When we look at the world and see that something is truly broken (and from my perspective, social networking became broken when people started hating it, even while they keep using it), and when everyone else is too “smart” to do anything about it — that’s usually a good time to start making something different.
When I opened the NYC Kidrobot store in SoHo in 2005, a Hasbro executive walked in, introduced himself, then pointed to toys behind museum cases and asked, “What TV show are these from?”
I replied that they weren’t from anything — they were works of art we’d invented ourselves.
“Yeah OK,” he responded, “but what are they from?”.
Several years later that same executive called me up, trying to buy my company from me — because we owned all of our own IP.
Being an expert with loads of experience has its limitations. The more you are sure about what you know, the less you’re open to what you don’t. Innovation emerges from the willingness to throw everything you know to be true out the window and be a beginner again — over and over — no matter how much experience you have.
So here’s my advice if you have a brilliant idea that seems obvious to you, terrifies everyone else, and you’re wondering how to get started because it goes completely against the status quo.
Fuck the status quo.
Whether you’re writing your first novel, or hanging your first solo show, or starting your first (or tenth) business, just remember that stepping out in a radical direction requires the willingness to be a beginner and the courage look stupid some of the time. And that when you stick your neck out, there’s going to be an expert with an opinion and an ax ready to cut your head off.
They’re going to be mean, they’re going to be cynical, and they’re going to do their best to shut you down. Not 100 percent of the time, but it’ll happen. I guarantee.
You have to be a certain kind of stupid to look that kind of resistance in the face and charge straight ahead anyway. That’s me. It’s also why when people criticize my ideas, I usually agree with them. After all, they’re probably right, and I’m probably wrong — but as a Zen master once said to me, “being right is the booby prize.” Being right is what you get at the very end of your life when you look back at the things you didn’t create, the places you didn’t go, and the interesting stuff you didn’t do — and know the very good reasons why.
It’s much more interesting to get out there and just do things. Even if I’m not sure my next brilliant idea is a going to work out, it’s much more fun to at least give it a try.
What’s the worst that can happen? I may look like an idiot for a while. I may go broke (again). At this point, I’m used to it.
And so, I’ve come to consider this my secret weapon:
To be willing to start from the beginning, knowing nothing (no matter how smart I think I am), to look at everything with a fresh eye (no matter how experienced I might be), and to ask myself what could be done differently to make things better (even though its hopeless from the start).
And move ahead anyway.
In the face of resistance, in the face of fear, and in the face of criticism that tells me I’m on the right track.
[Illustration by @jeremyville, used by permission of the artist. Check out Paul Budnitz' post on Medium, too.]