Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Making license plates

I have half a dozen bad ideas a day, but every once in a while I get a good idea. An idea that could probably make me a bunch of money if I'd actually sat down and wrote some software. But when it comes down to it, I'm pretty lazy...

But some of the ideas are pretty fun, and I usually write some tinkertoy examples that proved, at least to my own satisfaction, that if I put in a whole bunch of effort I could probably make it all work, but as I mentioned before, I'm pretty lazy. I'm bad at making license plates,
With any job, there's some creative work that needs to be done - new technology to be developed or whatever. Everything else - ninety-nine percent of it - is making deals, raising capital, going to meetings, marketing and sales. We call that stuff making license plates... -- Neal Stephenson, in Cryptonomicon
After hearing him speak at OSCON 2004, Paul Graham became one of may favourite dispensors of wisdom. Paul is pretty good at making license plates, at least he's good enough that he made a bunch of money doing it, although it's interesting to see that like a lot of people who aren't really business men, once he made enough license plates to not have to worry about money every again, he stopped doing it. That probably tells me all I need to know, if I didn't already know enough, about making license plates...

However over the last couple of years Paul has started to think about start ups and venture capital. This almost certainly has nothing to do with making license plates, and everything to do with the fact that he'll now see lots of cool tinkertoy level ideas from smart people before anyone else. The fact that he might be able to persuade some people to make enough license plates so they can stop worrying about money as well is probably incidental. Paul is more interested in hackers than license plates,
If it is possible to make yourself into a great hacker, the way to do it may be to make the following deal with yourself: you never have to work on boring projects... -- Paul Graham, in Great Hackers
The boring bit about being an academic is writing things up. After all, you've already done the research and proved whatever it was you wanted to figure out. In programming terms, you've scratched the itch already, but unlike programming the thing you did to scratch the itch isn't usually releasable as is, this is painful and usually leads to making license plates to justify your existence.

What's the solution to this problem? I think they're usually called graduate students, although depressingly the further you progress as an academic, the less cool stuff you get to do, and the more administration and teaching ends up on your plate. The real problem with academia is that the system forces the smart people, the great hackers, to make license plates. That isn't really a good idea.

Fortunately for me, I'm still working on fun stuff [1, 2]. Although this means I probably haven't progressed very far in the academic food chain, it does mean I'm having a good time. So what happens when I stop having fun? I'll probably have to sit down and make enough license plates so I don't have to worry about that stuff again...

Update: Russell Beattie's thoughts [1, 2] on startups...

Update: Paul Graham on how to fund a startup. If you're thinking about going the startup route and you haven't read this article, then I think your're an idiot...