Since releasing my newest book The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors I’ve been continually getting the questions “Why Philosophy and Entrepreneurship?” and “Why Nietzsche?”
Dave and I cover this right off the bat in the book, so I thought I’d toss up an excerpt that addresses the question with part of my own origin story with Dave. It follows.
Nietzsche? For entrepreneurs?
It was the end of January 1988, about nine months since we had embarked on turning Brad’s solo consulting shop, Feld Technologies, into a real business. We were fraternity brothers and close friends and opened our first office directly across the street from our fraternity chapter house in Cambridge. We planned to use smart yet inexpensive software developers to build business application software. We employed half a dozen programmers, most of whom were undergraduates from our fraternity working part-time. We didn’t have any financing except for Brad’s credit card and the $10 with which we had purchased our common stock.
Dave walked into Brad’s office after calculating preliminary financial results for January. Up to this point, we had mostly broken even, but the news was grim: we had lost $10,000 in one month. We had not seen it coming, and it took some effort for us to untangle what had gone wrong. Dave had been spending most of his time managing the part-time developers, who were primarily working on future products, instead of billing hours to clients. Brad had been selling computer equipment, which had low gross profit margins, instead of billing hours to clients. Much of our revenue for the month had come from one highly productive though erratic undergraduate developer, Mike, who was working on a billable client project.
Before we had a chance to figure out what to do, Mike quit, citing a need to focus on his studies. Now we had no choice: we fired everyone, shut down our month-to-month office, sold all the office furnishings, and moved the business to our apartments in downtown Boston. It was gut-wrenching. Brad wondered whether we had failed just as we got started. Dave worried about paying rent. We had long discussions about the future of the business, including whether or not to continue.
But we did have billable projects. We no longer had to spend our time managing people and had figured out where our bread was buttered. Results were good enough in February to calm our nerves and even better in March. Just as important, we had learned some crucial lessons and settled on a very different idea about how we would move forward with the business. The experience of hitting bottom and the lessons we learned became deeply ingrained in our brains and our company culture as we more methodically and progressively built the firm.
Fast-forward thirty years, when we were in the midst of writing this book, and Dave was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He encountered a passage that said the highest mountains rise from the sea, and that fact is “inscribed…on the walls of their summits.” Because of our experience at Feld Technologies—and many times since—we knew immediately that this had to be a chapter in the book. We imagined the solace and instruction it might have offered us to have seen (and understood) this quote, to have read a short essay like the one in our chapter Hitting Bottom, where the starkness and promise of the situation are presented in black and white, or to have heard Walter Knapp’s story of the crash and rebirth of Sovrn, a genuinely disruptive company.
That is how we wrote most of the chapters and how this project began. In reading Nietzsche, we noticed ideas that reminded us of situations, questions, and concerns that frequently arose in our entrepreneurial and venture investment experience. Nietzsche had a way with words, and we found that some ideas were nicely encapsulated and phrased. We started playing with expanding upon his pithy aphorisms and gathering stories from entrepreneurs, and it clicked.
Feld Technologies never became a disruptive company, despite our ambitions. It plateaued at around $2 million in revenue before we sold it in 1993. Because we had built a solid foundation for a certain kind of success, we never again hit a deep low point, and consequently never again had the painful opportunity to rethink our premises. This point, too, is covered in Hitting Bottom and illustrates why we did not just skip Nietzsche, write some essays, and assemble some entrepreneur stories. Nietzsche—sitting or walking alone, in pain, almost blind—thought deeply and managed to share these thoughts with the world. We tried to follow his lead, thinking hard and pondering additional angles and situations to which the quote might apply. We want you to do the same, as you keep in mind that Nietzsche’s works have been highly influential throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
In business and entrepreneurship literature, inspiration is sometimes more helpful than instruction. Though there is plenty of how-to information in this book, we aim to give you food for thought from a different perspective. We address issues of leadership, motivation, morals, creativity, culture, strategy, conflict, and knowledge. We push you to think about what you and your enterprise are made of. We expect you to question and ponder these ideas, not just put them into action. If we are successful, you will sometimes get angry and at other times feel pride. At times you will wonder what you really know, and at other times you will charge forward. We hope that the combination of Nietzsche’s colorful language, our elaborations, and some stories from entrepreneurs will offer you intellectual, emotional, and entrepreneurial inspiration.
Nietzsche was not a fan of commercial activity or businesspeople. He saw the former as crass and the latter as lacking nobility. However, we suspect that if Nietzsche were alive today, he would view entrepreneurs differently. He adored intensity and fervor, deeply valued those who create things, and wrote at length about “free spirits” who do not feel bound to tradition or cultural norms. Nietzsche viewed his mission as the “revaluation of all values,” and he intended to disrupt the entire moral tradition of Europe in the late 19th century.
Last week I was scheduled to do a live interview with Eliot Peper about The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche. He opted to use Twitter Spaces and diligently tested it out a couple of days beforehand to confirm that it would work. Nevertheless, we immediately ran into difficulties, and after ten minutes, we decided to bail on the interview and reschedule.
This reminded both me and Dave about our chapter in the book, “Play to the Audience.” Nietzsche says:
It is not sufficient to know how to play well; one must also know how to secure a good hearing. A violin in the hand of the greatest master gives only a little squeak when the place where it is heard is too large; the master may then be mistaken for any bungler.
Our translation to contemporary English is:
In other words: Performing well is not enough; the audience must experience the performance well. If the venue has bad acoustics, even a great violinist sounds terrible. A virtuoso can be mistaken for a novice.
Our essay in the book discusses the importance of a speaker having empathy for the audience, not just in terms of the content but also in the communication medium. For example, is the phone connection clear? If you have an accent, are you speaking slowly enough for your audience to understand? Ben Casnocha’s excellent narrative emphasizes audience engagement and interaction, which is crucial in our era of short attention spans.
This was one of the first chapters we wrote, so it was before the pandemic and the enormous shift toward videoconference and online interviews. In keeping with our view that Nietzsche’s observations are mostly independent of time and technology, it can be applied here.
For example, if you are communicating, selling, interviewing for a job, or promoting a message, you need to make sure you will be heard. Your own preferences for technology platforms can get in the way of a successful meeting if the customer prefers a different system or is not set up on it. If you are getting a message out, using the newest or trendiest technology may draw listeners, but they will not hear the message if the system doesn’t work. Make sure your lighting, Internet connection, and camera angle are appropriately professional. Don’t walk around with your phone while you are on a videoconference unless the call is explicitly casual.
Feel free to disagree with these particulars, but think through your own version of “securing a good hearing.”
It turns out that Eliot and I are good friends, and I’m pretty patient with new technology, though those who tried to attend our interview may not have been. Eliot decided to try again, but with an upcoming interview posted on his website.
Most of the quotes we discuss in The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche we found by reading his work, but a few are well-known lines that you may have heard before. This is one, used in our chapter “Monsters”:
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
The quote leads quickly to questions of ethics. In the chapter, we discuss the fact that we each have our own views of what constitutes ethical or unethical behavior in business. It is a line-drawing game – there is no reference that everyone agrees on. The choices have both short- and long-term consequences for both the success of your business and for your own reputation. Further, once you choose an ethical approach, it becomes entrenched in your organization and is difficult to change.
These questions arise pretty much every day in business. It came up for us today with our own book promotion. Our publisher was excited that we had achieved “#1 Amazon Best Seller” status in a couple of categories and produced the graphic below for promotion. The thing is, the categories were things like “Existentialism” and “Philosophy Reference” where overall sales are lower – they are applicable to the book as categories, but not really our target market (for the record, the book is selling nicely in “Entrepreneurial Management”, where it was briefly #2.)
The question is, should we use it, or is it misleading and dishonest?
We expect that most of you will say that of course we should use it, because strictly speaking it is true, and it will help sell the book. A few might agree that it is a little uncomfortable, perhaps preferring that the language be changed a little. Others will say that the question is overthinking a simple thing, and why should one even worry about it?
This is indeed a simple example, and in isolation this is overthinking. It’s not going to show up as a scandal on the front page of the New York Times. But if you never examine such questions, the pressure of competition and the temptation of promotion can be an abyss that gazes into you. Eventually you may find yourself, or people in your organization, saying things like “A lot of people are telling me…” (where have you heard that before?) Such statements are strictly true, depending on one’s interpretation of “a lot.” How is this marketing image different?
Our book asks you to think harder about questions like this, and many others that may not have such an explicitly ethical component.
As another example, Dave wrote this post after a quick back and forth this morning about the issue on email while I was on another call. I read it, make a few light edits, and posted it. One approach would be to just post this. Instead, I asked Dave how he wanted it posted since he was the primary author. As we went back and forth in email (his answer: “Either say we both wrote it or credit me, either is fine. I’d lean toward the first.”) just reinforced our own alignment, while being a nice self-referential example.
And … we both just looked and the book is currently selling at #1 in both “Business Management Science” and “Business Technology Innovation.” Ahhh, that feels better.
My newest book, The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors, shipped today. It’s available on Amazon in Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover. If you are so inclined, go buy a copy today!
I’m particularly proud of this book, as it is a more philosophical approach to entrepreneurship than my other books. I wrote it with Dave Jilk, the co-founder of our first company (Feld Technologies, 1987) and one of my closest friends for 38 years.
The book contains 52 individual chapters (hence the “Weekly” in the title) and is divided into five major sections (Strategy, Culture, Free Spirits, Leadership, and Tactics). Each chapter begins with a quote from one of Nietzsche’s works, using a public domain translation, followed by our own adaptation of the quote to 21st-century English. Next is a brief essay applying the quote to entrepreneurship. About two-thirds of the chapters include a narrative by or about an entrepreneur we know (or know of), telling a concrete story from their personal experience as it applies to the quote, the essay, or both.
Our goal with this book is to make you think, rather than try to tell you the answers. For example, here’s the Nietzsche quote from a chapter titled “Obsession” from the section on “Free Spirits”.
“The passion which seizes the noble man is a peculiarity, without his knowing that it is so: the use of a rare and singular measuring-rod, almost a frenzy: the feeling of heat in things that feel cold to all other persons: a divining of values for which scales have not yet been invented: a sacrificing on altars which are consecrated to an unknown God: a bravery without the desire for honor: a self-sufficiency which has superabundance: and imparts to men and things.”
Our interpretation is:
In other words: A noble man has exceptional passion, but does not realize just how unusual it is: he has high standards for success, enthusiasm for things that others find dull, a sense of what will be valuable in the future, intense but unexplained motivations, courage without the need for praise, and the ability to sustain and revel in this intensity without support from others.
And the chapter begins with:
You may have noticed that this chapter is titled Obsession, but Nietzsche seems to be talking about passion. For several years, Brad has written and spoken about the pitfalls of “passion” in entrepreneurs, distinguishing it from “obsession,” which is a quality he looks for. Dictionaries generally speak of passion as a strong emotion, while obsession is a preoccupation of the mind. We have a hunch that Nietzsche is trying to make a similar distinction here. The word “obsession” did not come into common use until later. Earlier in the text, he says, “What then makes a person ‘noble’?…Certainly not that he generally follows his passions; there are contemptible passions.” It is worth asking yourself whether you are obsessed with your business and the problem it solves for customers or merely passionate about it.
If you intend to disrupt an industry or change the world, you must expect people to see you as crazy, intransigent, and possibly sociopathic. Maybe you are. To sustain yourself and your efforts in such a climate, you must find your drive within. You must know your vision and why it matters to you. Importantly, you cannot feel that its correctness depends on your ability to explain it to others. You must be obsessed.
Each essay from us is two to three pages long, so they are easy to quickly consume and then reflect on. The narratives from entrepreneurs telling their story as it applies to the quote are also a few pages long.
For one more taste, here’s the Nietzsche quote and our interpretation chapter called “Attracting Followers” from the chapter on “Leadership”.
“Men press forward to the light not in order to see better but to shine better.—The person before whom we shine we gladly allow to be called a light.”
In other words: People are drawn to light because it shines on them, not because it shows them the way. A person who makes us shine is someone we gladly call a light.”
I hope this inspires you to get a copy of The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors. I’d love to hear what you think about it.
My newest book, The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors, comes out next Tuesday, May 25th.
This has been an on-again, off-again project with Dave Jilk that began in 2013. We were spending the weekend in Keystone with our wives (Amy and Maureen), which generally involved a lot of sitting around reading. Dave was reading On Nietzsche by Eric Steinhart. He read a quote to me and asked if I thought it sounded like an entrepreneur. Dave remembers me saying, “Hmmm, it sure does.” Then we both went back to our books.
At the time, I knew nothing about Nietzsche. Actually, I knew less than nothing since everything I knew about him was wrong.
Dave is one of my best friends. We met over 38 years ago, on my first day at MIT, right after the freshman picnic, when I ended up in a van that took me to ADP, the fraternity I ended up joining and living at for four years. Dave was a senior, and we became best friends. We started a company that year with Sameer Gandhi and Andy Mina called Martingale Software that failed pretty quickly. Several years later, we started Feld Technologies, which we ran together from 1987 to 1993 when we sold it to Sage Alerting Systems, which later renamed itself to AmeriData Technologies. We kept working together – him as an entrepreneur, me as an investor.
But “business” is only a small part of our relationship. For any close friendship that lasts 38 years, he has a better understanding of me than almost anyone else on this planet (Amy has him beat.) So, theoretically, he knew what he was getting into when we decided to start writing a book together. I expect there was a moment, though, where he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Brad, enough with the fucking commas.”
We made progress in fits and starts. Most of the fits were a result of me getting distracted by something else. Sometimes it was work. Sometimes it was another book that got in the way. Sometimes it was burnout – writing, work, or just general lassitude. Dave hung in there each time, giving me space, moving things forward without me, and then when I resurfaced, quickly kicking back into gear on his end to respond to whatever I was doing.
I’ll write plenty more about the book, Nietzsche, and why we think Nietzsche is so relevant to entrepreneurs, but I want to end with two paragraphs of appreciate for people.
The first is Ryan Holiday, who was an inspiration for me with his book The Daily Stoic. I read a page almost every day. Ryan inspires me at so many levels, but his ability to make stoicism accessible to entrepreneurs has been magical and transformative for many people I know, including me. I’m hopeful Dave and I can emulate even a tiny bit of what Ryan has accomplished, but this time with Nietzsche.
The second is Reid Hoffman. He agreed to write the foreword several years ago when I first told him about this project. He waited patiently, and he produced a brilliant foreword that captures the essence of what we’ve tried to do with the book. In addition, as a bonus, he used Nietzsche’s writing style for some of it. Reid is a great human, and I deeply appreciate his involvement in this project.
I’m working on a new book with Dave Jilk, my first business partner. It is titled The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors. We are in the home stretch (it’ll be published sometime in the second quarter), and I’m adding a little connecting tissue to the major sections this morning.
The third major section (of five) is called Free Spirits. Dave had already written the section introduction, which meant that I had 20% less writing to do this morning than I expected.
As I read through what he had written, I remembered the story of Nietzsche’s “The Three Metamorphoses,” which I’ve been using a lot lately to think about my own life. Following is an appetizer from the upcoming book.
For Nietzsche, the best human beings are what he calls free spirits. Early in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a section called “The Three Metamorphoses” describes three stages a free spirit must pass through in its full development: the camel, the lion, and the child.
The camel is a dutiful beast of burden, in a humble but not humiliating way. It is virtuous and willing to bear any difficulty to accomplish what is needed. But the camel is isolated from those who choose the comfortable and easy, leaving its spirit in a “desert.” In this desert, the camel transforms into the lion, which actively opposes tradition, taboos, and the status quo. In particular, the lion responds to the “Thou Shalt” of the world with a “Holy No.” The lion is a contrarian, an isolated iconoclast. But a spirit cannot create new values simply by saying “no” to the ways of the world. For that, it must become the child, which has a “beginner’s mind,” sees the world as play, a fresh start, as perpetual motion. The child speaks a “Holy Yes” which enables it to dictate its own will, not in reaction to the world but independently. As spiritualist Ken Wilber puts it, these transformations do not each supersede their preceding stage but rather they “transcend and include.”
It is not hard to see how this maps to disruptive entrepreneurship. The camel gets things done but is too embedded in the tasks of the moment to produce more than incremental change. The lion sees what is broken in the world and refuses to just go along, but has no way to find a truly novel path. The child frees itself of its attachments and starts fresh, enabling it to create an entirely new way of doing things that shakes an industry to its foundations.
If you are a free spirit, what stage of metamorphosis are you in: Are you a camel, a lion, or a child?
Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz has a beautiful post up titled The Struggle. He captures – in words – what many entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurial CEOs go through. I’ve heard variants of it many times over the years and have experienced it myself in several companies where I’ve been the entrepreneur and many companies where I’ve been the investor. Ben states that there is no answer to The Struggle but offers some things that may or may not help.
I’d like to take it one step further and explain the brilliance of The Struggle. And I’ll begin at the end, by starting with one my favorite John Galt quotes.
“It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt
When you accept the complete and total unimportance of suffering, you can actually enjoy The Struggle. It’s just a step along the way, another experience in life, of the cumulative experiences before we ultimately die. Suffering, The Struggle, disappointment, failure, and self-doubt – these are all part of being an entrepreneur. And that brings to mind the famous Nietzsche quote.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Remember always that we all will die. And it’s unlikely that The Struggle will kill us. If we approach it the right way it will make us stronger. Here are a few examples from my first company, Feld Technologies (1987 – 1993).
Hyperion: While Feld Technologies was a software consulting company, the companies that installed the networks that our software ran on (mostly PC-based Novell Networks) were so shitty that we set up our own small network installation group. Some of our clients wanted to buy everything from us so we also sold them the hardware. We made about 20% margin on the hardware so this was worthwhile, especially since we were able to bill by the hour for all the time we spent on this stuff. People liked working with us – all of our new business either was “random” or “word of mouth.” We ended up working for a bunch of Boston-based VC firms and several of them referred us to their biotech investments. In the early 1990’s, biotech was white hot – these companies raised tons of money and spent it on crazy wet lab facilities, which included lots and lots of hardware. I can’t remember much about Hyperion other than they were out on 495 somewhere (it was a long drive) and they bought a bunch of hardware from us. They paid intermittently and one day we realized they owed us around $75,000 and hadn’t paid us in over 60 days. For another 30 days I called and kept getting promised checks, which never came. I vividly remember The Struggle – I was lying in bed with Amy in our apartment at 15 Sleeper Street (Apt 304 in case you were curious). It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep. Amy could feel the wheels turning in my brain and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was worried Feld Technologies wasn’t going to make payroll because Hyperion owed us $75,000. I then went in the bathroom and threw up. It’s important to realize that it wasn’t that we were out $75,000, but the hardware had cost us 80% of this and we’d already paid our hardware vendor so we were really out over $125,000. We were a $1.5m-ish self-funded business at the time so this was a devastatingly large amount of money for us. After a sleepless night, on a totally empty stomach, I got in my car and drove out to Hyperion. They were still there (thankfully) – I then sat in the lobby until the CFO would meet with me, and I stayed in his office until he brought me a check for whatever they owed us. They went out of business a few months later.
Avatar: My parter Dave Jilk and I were at a gas station filling up his red Ford Tempo with gas on our way to Avatar in Hopkinton. We knew it was going to be a terrible meeting and each of us was incredibly anxious. We were in the middle of The Struggle. We’d taken on our first Mac custom software project and were using an RDBMS called ACI 4D which was new to us. It was one of the two choices on the Mac at the time (the other was Blythe Omnis) – each had their own version of suckage especially when compared to the PC-based 4GL called Clarion that we used for most of our clients. We we’re really struggling with 4D – performance on the Mac was awful, the networking dynamics were weak (and the Mac networking software was terribly slow at the time), and our understanding of how to really tune it was non-existant. We had heard of some successful 4D implementations but they were hard to find out much about. We knew this was likely our final meeting where we’d get fired, even though that rarely happened in our world. We were meeting with Tom Bogan, the CEO, and a few other people on his team. We liked Tom a lot – he was a very direct and thoughtful CEO and we knew we were failing him. Over the preceding months, we had tried extremely hard and worked many unbillable hours trying to get things working, but just couldn’t. I don’t remember the ACI folks being very helpful and I remember a number of conversations with Dave about “the fucking Macintosh.” We were deep in The Struggle. Tom eventually fired us (I don’t remember if it was at that meeting or not). He and I lost touch over the years (I’m sure he was glad to be rid of us) until I had breakfast with him in Boulder in 1997 when he was first looking at investing in Rally Software. I started out the meal by saying “hi – sorry we did such a crummy job for you at Avatar” and he responded, graciously, with “that was a long time ago, wasn’t it.”
I’ve got a lot more stories like this from Feld Technologies and several other companies I co-founded, including Interliant and Email Publishing, along with long stretches of time at Mobius Venture Capital. All of them share The Struggle and when I reflect on it from my perch at 46.5 years old, I recognize the unimportance of suffering.