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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Paul Graham is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who writes thoughtful, brief essays about startup software companies. I read them partly because I have a degree in computer science and this sort of thing still interests me; but partly also because there are surprising correlations between computer science and showbiz. (For example, in a computer program, a mistake setting things up will produce a cascade of failures down the line.)

Let's look at Paul Graham's "Startups in 13 Sentences", proverbs about how to have a successful tech startup.
1. Pick good cofounders.

Cofounders are for a startup what location is for real estate. You can change anything about a house except where it is. In a startup you can change your idea easily, but changing your cofounders is hard. And the success of a startup is almost always a function of its founders.
Writing a script or pitch with a partner is sticky. You can't do what you want with your idea any more. If your partner wants to take it off in a direction, you're bound to follow that direction, or at least come up with something better that they like, too. If they get bored, you're stuck doing the heavy lifting, for which you won't see any extra money. Getting another writer off your project is an ugly, probably self-destructive process that creates bad blood.

Having an actual permanent writing partner cranks these issues up a notch. A great writing partner -- not necessarily a great writer, but a partner who brings strengths you don't have -- can make you both a significantly better writer. And a 25% better writer is likely to see 200% of the jobs. But the wrong writing partner can drag you down and make your life miserable. And divorcing yourself from your partner means all your material is now useless. You will need all new material.

The same goes for your partner in life, of course. The wrong life partner can screw up your writing career. The right one can save it.
2. Launch fast.

The reason to launch fast is not so much that it's critical to get your product to market early, but that you haven't really started working on it till you've launched. Launching teaches you what you should have been building. Till you know that you're wasting your time. So the main value of whatever you launch with is as a pretext for engaging users.
Don't send your scripts out to buyers until they are as good as you can make them. Don't send your scripts to your agent until they're ready to go to buyers.

But that doesn't mean work in a vacuum. You need to develop savvy readers. They don't have to be fellow writers, though forming a writing group is an excellent idea. They can be friends in the biz. I don't send anything to my agent until I've addressed Lisa's notes and my reader intern's notes. I find that after a draft or two, I've run out of notes for myself. I need someone else to give me notes.
3. Let your idea evolve.

This is the second half of launching fast. Launch fast and iterate. It's a big mistake to treat a startup as if it were merely a matter of implementing some brilliant initial idea. As in an essay, most of the ideas appear in the implementing.
This boils down to: be ruthless in your rewriting. You may realize after polishing your fifth draft of a script that your story would work better if the whole thing were told from the girl's point of view, not the guy. That means throwing out 60% of your scenes. You might find after writing your spec pilot that while you have a good show, it's the wrong pilot, and you have to throw out the entire script. A mark of a good writer is the willingness to rewrite radically.
4. Understand your users.

You can envision the wealth created by a startup as a rectangle, where one side is the number of users and the other is how much you improve their lives. The second dimension is the one you have most control over. And indeed, the growth in the first will be driven by how well you do in the second. As in science, the hard part is not answering questions but asking them: the hard part is seeing something new that users lack. The better you understand them the better the odds of doing that. That's why so many successful startups make something the founders needed.
This is why I encourage beginning writers to work in an agency or for a producer. The better you can understand your buyers, the more likely you can write something they want to buy. I wrote my first book, CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, after a decade as a development executive, because I noticed that 80% of the scripts I was getting had no chance at all of getting set up. Some of them were well written. But they didn't have a marketable hook.

"Understand your users" is also why you need to move to LA (or in Canada, go to the CFC). If you're in Kansas, it's very hard to get your finger on the pulse of the business. In LA, you get a sense of what people are like, how they talk about things, what issues worry them. Elsewhere, you're out of touch.
5. Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.

Ideally you want to make large numbers of users love you, but you can't expect to hit that right away. Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first. It's easier to expand userwise than satisfactionwise. And perhaps more importantly, it's harder to lie to yourself. If you think you're 85% of the way to a great product, how do you know it's not 70%? Or 10%? Whereas it's easy to know how many users you have.
If you have several ideas, try to fall in love with the best mainstream idea. The odds are that producers will not buy your gay-themed movie about the French colonists in Acadie and their relations with the Indians.

But once you've settled on an idea, pursue it where it leads you. Don't pull any punches. If you do have a gay-themed historical movie, don't try to make it a tad less gay or a tad less historical. You'll wind up with something tepid and useless. A movie or TV script can always be toned down; your job is to make it stand out.

Write what scares you. Write what upsets you. A memorable script that upsets people will get you further than a familiar romantic comedy or garden variety serial killer/detective story.
6. Offer surprisingly good customer service.

Customers are used to being maltreated. Most of the companies they deal with are quasi-monopolies that get away with atrocious customer service. Your own ideas about what's possible have been unconsciously lowered by such experiences. Try making your customer service not merely good, but surprisingly good. Go out of your way to make people happy. They'll be overwhelmed; you'll see. In the earliest stages of a startup, it pays to offer customer service on a level that wouldn't scale, because it's a way of learning about your users.
Take feedback like nobody else. Don't just take it; seek it out. And then take it to heart.

Keep in touch with your buyers. Take them out to lunch, or if you can't get lunch, coffee, or if you can't get coffee, chat them up at industry events. Schmooze as if it is your job to schmooze; it is. Volunteer to help with industry events. Be your buyers' friend. Above all, never send an email when you can get a call through; never place a call when you can talk in person. Too many industry people, especially aspiring industry people, treat email and Facebook as a way to avoid personal contact. Faint heart never won favor.
7. You make what you measure.

Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it. If you want to make your user numbers go up, put a big piece of paper on your wall and every day plot the number of users. You'll be delighted when it goes up and disappointed when it goes down. Pretty soon you'll start noticing what makes the number go up, and you'll start to do more of that. Corollary: be careful what you measure.
Put your page count up on the wall. How many pages did you do today?

Chart your projects up on the wall. How many pitches do you have out there? Cross'em off when they pass their sell by.

How many calls did you make this week? Put that up on the wall -- you'll make more calls.

Wasting a lot of time surfing? Install RescueTime and try to get your percentage of productive time up and your hours of surfing down.
8. Spend little.

I can't emphasize how important it is for a startup to be cheap. Most startups fail before they make something people want, and the most common form of failure is running out of money. So being cheap is (almost) interchangeable with iterating rapidly. But it's more than that. A culture of cheapness keeps companies young in something like the way exercise keeps people young.
I am frugal for my income bracket. We don't spend our money on fancy cars or expensive clothes or fabulous vacations. Almost all our luxuries are investments of one kind or another.

My favorite use for money is to buy time. I'm going into this recession with at least two years in the bank. That frees me to work on projects that forward my career (movies that might get made, TV that reinforces my brand) rather than diluting my brand by writing projects that will only bring in money. I'm always stunned to read about pro writers in Hollywood who can't make their mortgage payments. These guys make three or four times what I do, and they can't pay off their houses? Why? Because they overspend. Which means they have to take any job that comes along, rather than holding out for the right job.

You can buy surprisingly good clothes at yard sales in Santa Monica on Saturday mornings. I'm still wearing some shirts I bought for fifty cents in the '90's. And I still get my books at the library.

If you live cheaply, you can afford to take that internship. You can afford to take that job in the mailroom at CAA. The more money you spend, the fewer options you have. I took a screenwriting class once from Stirling Silliphant, Oscar-winning writer of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. His number-one piece of advice was: don't get divorced. He was carrying alimony from three marriages at the time. He hadn't written a spec script in decades. So he was writing things like THE TOWERING INFERNO. When you're writing from hunger, you rarely do your best writing.

(This doesn't mean don't pick up the check, or don't contribute to charity or causes. It means don't blow money on yourself. Be a mensch first, a writer second.

Also, it doesn't mean don't spend money on your career. Even a writer should spend a little money now and then to establish his or her profile, whether that means going to Banff or buying brand new "meetin' sneakers.")

10. Avoid distractions.

Nothing kills startups like distractions. The worst type are those that pay money: day jobs, consulting, profitable side-projects. The startup may have more long-term potential, but you'll always interrupt working on it to answer calls from people paying you now. Paradoxically, fundraising is this type of distraction, so try to minimize that too.
Don't take a job outside of showbiz if you can get a job in showbiz. Don't take a job working on a set if you can get a job in an agent's office.

That said, everyone has a different route. I was a development exec for years. That helped my writing. Who is to say that writing an animation script won't teach you something about writing science fiction? Or working on a reality show? One of the most useful classes I took at UCLA was a class in editing. One of the most useful classes I took at Yale was "From West Africa to the Black Americas: The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition," which taught me about using syncopation. If something rings your bell, follow the sound.
11. Don't get demoralized.

Though the immediate cause of death in a startup tends to be running out of money, the underlying cause is usually lack of focus. Either the company is run by stupid people (which can't be fixed with advice) or the people are smart but got demoralized. Starting a startup is a huge moral weight. Understand this and make a conscious effort not to be ground down by it, just as you'd be careful to bend at the knees when picking up a heavy box.
On a micro level, every script sucks at some point. Syd Field has his Turning Points. I have the Sucky Point. Most scripts suck when you're about 40% into them. This is also true of outlines and pitch ideas. You've lost your initial enthusiasm, but you're not over the hump yet.

I make a point of finishing everything I start, whether I like it or not. I don't take every idea to script, of course. But if I start writing an outline, I finish the outline. If I start writing a first draft, I finish the first draft. I only let myself stop when I've finished that particular step, and I can evaluate whether it's worth going to the next step.

On a macro level, do what it takes to keep your spirits up. Develop a support network of people who also love the biz. Don't forget to see great movies or great TV, ideally with your creative friends. It will remind you why you're putting yourself through all the crap.
12. Don't give up.

Even if you get demoralized, don't give up. You can get surprisingly far by just not giving up. This isn't true in all fields. There are a lot of people who couldn't become good mathematicians no matter how long they persisted. But startups aren't like that. Sheer effort is usually enough, so long as you keep morphing your idea.
Sheer effort is usually enough. Look at how long it took Stephen King to break into the novel-writing biz. If you take your feedback seriously, and keep writing, and take feedback to heart, and try new things, and write what scares you, and stretch your writing muscles by writing the sort of thing you don't write well, you will probably break in. Very few pro writers are truly brilliant. Most of us just love to write, and kept at it until we made it pay.

I read about a study of classical musicians, comparing which musicians had been identified as talented by their teachers and which succeeded in their careers. The study found that there was no correlation between talent and success. There was a direct correlation between success and numbers of hours the musicians practiced. The guys who practiced four hours a day didn't make it. The ones who practiced eight to ten hours a day made it.

I suspect that 95% of "talent" is "the talent for sticking with it." Sheer effort is usually enough.
13. Deals fall through.

One of the most useful skills we learned from Viaweb was not getting our hopes up. We probably had 20 deals of various types fall through. After the first 10 or so we learned to treat deals as background processes that we should ignore till they terminated. It's very dangerous to morale to start to depend on deals closing, not just because they so often don't, but because it makes them less likely to.
I try hard not to focus on whether things will go through or not. Generally I assume they won't. I've had my hopes dashed way too many times. I try to focus on what I'm writing next. That's what I can control. The ideal frame of mind to be in is, "Oh, I hope I don't get hired too fast -- I really want to finish my new spec first."

That said, celebrate your victories as they come. Getting something optioned doesn't mean it will get made. But celebrate getting optioned. Showbiz is so flakey that if you only celebrate when you're in principal photography, you'll never celebrate at all -- because by the time you're in p.p., you've had months or years to get used to the idea that this one might actually go. Most victories come in little pieces. Celebrate each piece as it comes -- not because of what it might lead to, because that's getting your hopes up, but in its own right. You have to figure out how to enjoy the process, not the results. The results are often disappointing. The process is kind of fun.
Having gotten it down to 13 sentences, I asked myself which I'd choose if I could only keep one.

Understand your users. That's the key. The essential task in a startup is to create wealth; the dimension of wealth you have most control over is how much you improve users' lives; and the hardest part of that is knowing what to make for them. Once you know what to make, it's mere effort to make it, and most decent hackers are capable of that.
Know your buyers, in every possible sense. Write something that you love that they want. Sooner or later, success will come.



Thanks Alex, this is exactly what I needed right now.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:16 PM  

Great, great post, dude. I'm linking.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 9:41 AM  

Fantastic stuff. I too, shall link you.


By Blogger Eric M, at 9:38 PM  

Excellent post. Thanks.

-- Paul Worthington

By Blogger Paul Worthington, at 10:36 PM  

thank you! last two or three points were especially germane to anything feature-sized...

By Blogger mark m., at 4:00 PM  

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