Alistair Croll, on creating what the future needs
Alistair is one of the YearOne Labs founding partner. He sits on the trailblaizing O’Reilly Media publishing company that delivered the first classics for the Lean Movement. Lean Analytics author and entrepreneur, he’s a visiting scholar at Harvard Business Reviews and founder of Fwd50, Canada’s digital government conference.
Back in 2013, Alistair Croll answered some of my questions on his hopes, childhood aspiration and future directions.
1. Your full name, age and occupation
Alistair Croll; 43. I’m an author, analyst, entrepreneur, and event organizer.
2. What was your dream job as a kid?
I didn’t have one, really. But I loved writing code and watching others use it; I was running a BBS (a precursor to web forums) on my Apple //e computer at 13, and the feedback loops—I’d change something, users would change how they interacted—was fascinating.
3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?
My wife is an incredible force in my life, though she’d be the first to deny it. I’m also lucky enough to have a circle of friends and mentors I’ve worked with over the years who point me at interesting things. My biggest motivation is curiosity; we’re here for seventy or so years, and there’s simply so much to do, see, taste and try that any day spent not discovering or debating something feels like squandering.
“It’s easy to say, “don’t build something nobody needs.” But people didn’t know they needed a Walkman, or a Dodge Caravan.”
4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?
In the late nineties, my longtime friend and co-conspirator Eric Packman bugged me to launch something (which became Networkshop, an analyst firm.) Then another friend, Thanos Moschopoulos, prodded us into turning it into a managed service provider (MSP) called Coradiant. And Ian Rae cajoled us into turning what Coradiant was doing into an appliance called TrueSight. So what sparked me was other people.These days, I’m more focused on what the world will be like in ten years. Paul Graham said that founders see the world as it will be and then build what’s missing. That’s the hard part—seeing what’s missing, and how people will use it. It’s simple to look at an iPhone or an Android today and say, “of course that’s how we take pictures, make calls, and manage our calendar.” It wasn’t so obvious ten years ago.
5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?
Any new venture has that “first day of school” feeling of clean binders and fresh pens. It’s easy to get swayed by that, and there’s certainly something cathartic about a clean slate. But if you’re starting something you know about, you spend a lot of time trying to separate your own cognitive biases from what the market really needs.What excites me the most is when I’m talking to people and I start to see patterns emerge. My Lean Analytics co-author Ben Yoskovitz and I are busy working on a workshop about Lean Analytics for Intrapreneurs. The first couple of phone calls with innovators at big companies were interesting—but by the sixth or seventh, I started seeing the “red threads” that tied them all together.That feeling of the market or problem revealing itself to you if you’re willing to dig, to be various, is thrilling.
“ I’d like to know I added more value to humanity than I took. Not sure what the metric for that is.”
6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?
Well, in Coradiant’s case, the answer is obvious: I’d have built TrueSight first, without the MSP business that got us there. That drained a lot of funding, patience, and energy from us. I have a general aversion to businesses that require humans to deliver services these days; Marc Andreesen says software is eating the world, and I think he’s right.The big lesson, though, is balance. It’s easy to say, “don’t build something nobody needs.” But people didn’t know they needed a Walkman, or a Dodge Caravan. Those products tested horribly, but met a need people had. It’s tempting to be a nay-sayer, and only build things the world needs today. It’s also uninspiring. On the other hand, it’s reckless to build something on faith—but most great startups began there.Ultimately, I learned that balancing data-driven tactics and a ruthless honesty with a big vision and a leap of faith is incredibly hard to do well.
7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.
That depends. If I’m building something new, which I may well be, I’d like to be talking to customers and diving deep into the minutiae of a product release, and fielding plaintive emails from people I’ve never met begging to try my new product.On the other hand, if I’m still writing, running conferences, and trying to predict where humanity will intersect with technology, then I’d like to be drinking decent wine with smart people late at night.Either way, I hope it will include a decent amount of time helping my daughter to find the same skeptical curiosity and awestruck enthusiasm with which I see the world.
“ there’s simply so much to do, see, taste and try that any day spent not discovering or debating something feels like squandering.”
8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?
I think there is a critical metric or number in every startup that became the most important number in the company. I’d like to know what that was, and how they knew they’d found the mystical “product-market fit” when the market just pulls the product out of you.
9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say?
That I finally finished something.Seriously, though: Tim O’Reilly has a great statement about adding more value to a system than you take away. I’d like to know I added more value to humanity than I took. Not sure what the metric for that is.