Being smart isn’t always enough

Paul Buchheit has a great post up at his blog about startups and some of the criteria that can help to ensure success, and one point he makes is that many of the things you might think would help — things like, say, being really smart, or knowing a lot about technology or programming — may not actually help, and in many cases can make it harder. Paul is the guy who developed what would eventually become Gmail while at Google, and is now running a feed-tracking service called

As he notes in his post, Paul’s central point is similar to one of Marc Andreessen’s posts about entrepreneurs, in which the Netscape co-founder and Ning founder says that smart teams don’t matter as much as what the market wants. As Paul describes it:

“You can take the smartest, most experienced, most connected, most brilliant people in the world and have them build the most stunningly designed and technically advanced product in the world, but if people don’t want it, then you will fail. This is roughly what happened with the Segway, for example.”

This seems fairly simple when you say it, but I expect it’s harder for many teams to haul on board than they like to admit. If you’re a super-smart programmer and your team is the envy of startups everywhere, or your company or service is based on an incredibly cool and cutting-edge implementation of something, you would probably like to think that would help you succeed. But it may not.

Paul has a couple of great examples of the opposite ends of this spectrum. The Segway, for instance, came from the brain of inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who is ridiculously smart, and was backed by some of the most influential people in Silicon Valley — and yet, it was a complete flop because, well… people just didn’t want it.

YouTube and MySpace, by contrast, succeeded in spite of some obvious flaws, because people wanted them. Craigslist is probably not a bad example either — a flawed design, and yet it hit the sweet spot in the market with perfect precision, whether through sheer luck or brilliant planning. The market wants what it wants.

Note to Marc Andreessen: Better watch out, Marc — Paul seems to be going after the “long, thoughtful post on entrepreneurs” market 🙂

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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