Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Controlling Variable

The other day, something occurred to me walking back home from work: I once again have a controlling variable in my life.

Basically, my future is in large part controlled by one variable: How Xobni’s product works out. If it’s a hit, I’ll be rich, happy, and can go own that jet I’ve always wanted(*). If it’s not, I have maybe one more startup to try before I have to settle for a 9-5. Consequently, I now spend my days and nights trying to make the product great. It’s pretty intense.

For a while, there wasn’t really a controlling variable. In grad school, there was always a bunch of things to juggle. Back at Google, the outcome for me was controlled by factors beyond my control: Maybe some other project was working on the same thing. Or Larry Page wouldn’t have liked what we did and could have shut it down days before launching. Even if the project had succeeded spectacularly, a Founder’s Award wasn’t exactly within reach and the selection criteria were intransparent at best. Somehow, it was expected that you’d have to work pretty hard, but it was unclear how you could achieve a clear win.

Instead, what this situation reminds me of is my first year exams at ETH Zurich. As one of the Europe’s premier technical universities, they won’t just hand out degrees to anyone. But instead of having a US-style selection process with SATs and essays, ETH admits people based on having a high school diploma and taking a test. Then, we kick out 50% after the first year. At the end of the first year, you have the whole summer to study, and take exams at the end.

That summer after first year of ETH, I studied like a madman, 3 months straight. The goal was clear, the stakes were high, and having never taken exams like that before, I had no idea how it would turn out. After I passed with flying colors, I thought that I would never work that hard again in my life. I was wrong.

(*) Yes, I'm obviously kidding here.


Ed said...

Interesting that you recognize that Xobni's success is the controlling variable, and then immediately say you spend all your time trying to make the product great. You're assuming that there's a correlation between the product and Xobni's success.

There may be, but there may not be. History has many examples of amazing products that failed due to no demand, market situation, inability to sell the product, etc.

My point is this: when faced with uncertainty (Will Xobni succeed?) people often retreat to what they know best - in your case making great products. But it's worth questioning whether the quality of the product is the controlling variable in deciding the fate of Xobni.

Possibly, no doubt you know better than I do, but not certainly.

Work smart, not hard.

Gabor said...

Ed: Yes, our success is also dependent on the market, marketing, PR, positioning, revenue model, and a bunch of other random things such as whether or not Wall Mossberg decides to write an article on email overload the week after we launch.

But they are beyond my control, since my focus is the product. Matt and Bryan are the marketing guys. The general strategic direction of the company could be changed, but that doesn't make sense right now. For me, focussing on the product delivers the maximum expected benefit per time unit invested.

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