Rejection Is A Beginning, Not An End

In 2010, my then-co-founder and I flew to Seattle to participate in “Techstars for a Day.” For those who don’t know, Techstars is a prominent and selective startup accelerator. During “Techstars for a Day,” they host companies they’re considering admitting. It’s an unofficial finalist interview of sorts.

As we flew across the country, we were confident we’d be accepted. After all, we were finalists and we were awesome. How could Techstars not accept us?

To make a long story short, we were wrong; we weren’t awesome, and Techstars did reject us.

My co-founder and I were both pissed because… well… rejection sucks. However, while it felt like a crummy ending to an exciting opportunity at the time, in retrospect, it wasn’t the end of anything. It wasn’t even the end of my relationship with Techstars.

Nine years later, I was invited to be a mentor for companies in the Techstars Raleigh/Durham accelerator. Meeting the new class of Techstars portfolio companies — which I did last week — gave me an opportunity to see the ways in which my own knowledge of entrepreneurship has evolved. For example, here are four ways in which the companies I mentored know more than I did when I was applying to Techstars, and another four things they still need to learn:

4 Things the current Techstars entrepreneurs were better at than me:

  • Introduced themselves with concise explanations: Every company I met introduced themselves by telling me what they did in a few quick sentences that made their basic premise easy to understand. I mention this not just because they’d honed their elevator pitches in ways I wish I had when I was in their position, but also because it took me years to learn the value of explaining things simply, clearly, and directly.
  • Prioritized traction: After explaining what they did, most of the entrepreneurs I met shared stats about how many customers they already had and how many enterprise deals they were busy negotiating. Yes, I was skeptical of their numbers because early companies often misrepresent traction, but at least they knew to talk about it. I didn’t know that when I was at their stage. I was still in a naive “if you build it, they will come” mindset.
  • Pre-meeting research: Most of the companies made a point of referencing something they’d read about me online, which meant they’d taken time to do research before their meetings. In my early days of building companies, I rarely did that, and I’m sure it cost me opportunities.
  • Always follow-up: I’m writing this post within a week of my mentoring sessions and I’ve already heard from most of the companies. They’ve thanked me for my help and asked if they can add me to their regular “progress report” emails. In contrast, I’m still terrible at following up and updating people… just ask my previous investors!

4 Things the current Techstars entrepreneurs still need to learn:

  • Customer acquisition is your product: All the entrepreneurs I met wanted to spend the entire time explaining their products. I had to interrupt them to ask questions about their customer acquisition strategies, and none had good answers. But they had plenty to say about their “amazing” user interfaces and “revolutionary” features. Uggg.
  • The customer wasn’t the user: My personal startup motto is: if the person paying for your product isn’t your end user, it’s a bad business model. And yet, more than half the companies I met were selling to people who weren’t their end users. For example, they’d be pitching a medical device that insurance companies would pay for, doctors would prescribe, and patients would use. While I realize these kinds of models exists (i.e. prescription drugs), they’re particularly challenging and require tons of startup capital..
  • Making it about them instead of their customers: Too many of the entrepreneurs I met wanted to tell me their personal stories. They shared why they were building their companies, how they’d gotten started, and what motivated them to keep working. In contrast, none of them mentioned their customers or their customers’ needs without my asking. That’s selfish. We don’t build startups for ourselves. We build startups for other people.
  • Having too many answers: The entrepreneurs I met answered every question I asked; none of them were willing to say “I don’t know.” They all either believed they knew everything or believed they had to appear as though they knew everything. In either case, they were wrong. As a Techstars applicant, I thought I had to know everything, and I was wrong. As a Techstars mentor, I realize I can’t know everything. A willingness to say “I don’t know” is critical for entrepreneurs because it helps us avoid making the kinds of false assumptions that often kill our companies.

Observations like the ones I’ve described above, and my ability to make them, help me recognize the kinds of things I’ve learned since getting rejected from Techstars. Even if, five minutes from now, someone successfully persuades me I’m wrong about all of the lessons I’ve shared, it doesn’t change or diminish the role my Techstars rejection played in my personal education and growth. Had Techstars not rejected me and my company, all the subsequent events in my entrepreneurial career that followed wouldn’t have happened — I got accepted to a different accelerator, I raised venture from different investors, I hired different employees, I moved to a different city, and so on.

Would I have been happier with the progression of my life and career had I been accepted to Techstars Seattle in 2010? I have no idea. Am I happy with my life and career now? Absolutely.

What that tells me — and hopefully tells anyone reading this — is that, in the moment, a rejection usually feels like something preventing us from reaching our goals. But we shouldn’t let it discourage us. After a bit of time we’ll be able to look back and see how our rejections were the starting points of new paths forward.

Imminent Death? Or Ultimate Growth Hack?

When people want examples of amazing growth hacks, they usually reference tech companies. Some of the canonical growth hacking stories come from Airbnb, Dropbox, and the classic example of Hotmail adding “Get your free email at Hotmail” tagline to the end of every email.

Sure, those are all good examples of growth hacking, but I’ve begun wondering why growth hacking only gets associated with tech companies. I’d argue some of the best growth hacks come from non-tech companies.

In today’s post, I want to offer an example based on an experience I recently had with Lexus.

I’ve owned a Lexus for eight years.

Every month for the majority of those eight years, I’ve received a glossy postcard with a picture of a shiny new Lexus and incentives meant to entice me into my local dealership for a test drive of their latest models.

Every month, for the past eight years, I’ve tossed those postcards into the trash recycle bin without a second glance.

However, about six months ago, I began receiving thick envelopes from Lexus with “URGENT SAFETY NOTICE” stamped on their fronts and postcards with giant red exclamation points.

The messages were related to a massive Takata airbag recall that’s been ongoing for the better part of a decade.

What struck me as odd about these recall notices was how persistent they were. Usually companies don’t want to encourage consumers to take action on recalls because the repairs cost them lots of money. But not this time. The more I ignored the letters, the more I felt like Vernon Dursley trying to stop Harry Potter from getting his Hogwarts invitation.

That’s right… I made a Harry Potter reference… I’m not ashamed.

Anyway, I eventually decided: “Clearly I’m going to die if I don’t get this fixed,” so I called my local Lexus dealership and scheduled an appointment.

Within a week, my “Lexus service concierge” was showing me how to work the nav console of a brand new, “complimentary” loaner car while explaining that my spouse is “allowed” to drive the car so long as we’re on the same insurance. I remember thinking, “I’m not sure why my spouse would need to drive this car in the next five hours while you fix mine, but whatever.”

A few hours later, I’m grading papers and waiting for the dealership to call when my wife comes home. She sees the shiny new Lexus in our garage and immediately asks: “Can I take it for a drive?”

In that moment, everything became clear. I was being growth hacked.

Lexus was using the recall — threatening me with the potential for serious injury or even death — in order to get me into the dealership for a test drive.

It worked. Plus, not only did they get me, they even got my wife whose lease is ending in the next few months.

No, I wasn’t mad. I was wildly impressed.

As someone who’s spent the past 15 years in the sales and marketing industries, I’m usually pretty good at sniffing out sneaky sales tactics, but I completely whiffed on this one.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t expecting Lexus to use the potential for death to get me in for a test drive, and, as a result, it worked perfectly.

In retrospect, the tactic makes a ton of sense. While someone can easily ignore a bunch of postcards with pictures of new cars, they’re going to have trouble ignoring the constant threat of death.

By sending dozens of letters convincing me I needed to get my car fixed as soon as possible, Lexus also guarantee I’d test drive a brand new car. The tiny cost of the repair was easily outweighed by my potential value since I’m someone who’s already bought one of their cars and they know my car is getting old.

If you don’t believe their tactics were intentional, how’s this for proof…

When I picked up my car later that afternoon, on the passenger seat I found a letter from the dealership with a faux-check representing the value they were willing to give me on a trade-in for a new Lexus. #GrowthHacked

Retiring The Doughnut Rule: Why I Began Allowing Phones In Class

When I first began teaching undergrads – 2007-ish, as a grad student – I would boast about what I thought was, at the time, a wildly creative way of removing cell phones as a classroom distraction. I called it the “Doughnut Rule.”

The Doughnut Rule had a prominent place on my syllabus, which read like this:

Cell Phone Policy:

Yes, these days everyone has a cell phone and they’ve become integral components of our lives.  As such, I welcome such technologies in the classroom, but if you have the need to use one (i.e. let it ring, send a text message, take a picture of your neighbor) I ask that you repay the interruption of your fellow students’ educations with enough doughnuts for everyone at the subsequent class meeting.

I got the idea for the Doughnut Rule from someone else who did it with cookies, but I figured cookies weren’t enough of a punishment. Students can fulfill a cookie requirement by stopping into the campus store on their way to class and picking up an over-priced box of Chips Ahoy!. But doughnuts – the Krispy kind or the Dunkin’ kind – require more thought and effort.

Whatever you do, don’t bring those cheap, tiny, store-bought powdered doughnuts. That’s a quick way to earn an F in my class. But I digress…

I would tell my teaching colleagues about the Doughnut Rule as a way to promote my pedagogical brilliance or my classroom management creativity or some other misguided self-delusion that wasn’t true because, back then, I had no idea how to teach anything. Regardless, at the time, I thought the Doughnut Rule, in all its cheeky glory, was an effective solution for limiting class cell phone usage.

To be fair, the rule did minimize cell phone usage. The first time in a semester I called out “You owe the class doughnuts!” to a texting student would usually be the last time I saw a phone in class. However, in retrospect, the Doughnut Rule wasn’t actually punishing students. I was punishing myself. I used the rule to delude myself into thinking I was a better instructor than I actually was. “My students aren’t getting distracted by their phones,” I’d think, “so it must mean they’re paying attention and appreciating my lessons.”

As I’ve gotten more experienced in the classroom, I’ve gotten more lax with my cell phone policy. You might argue it’s because cell phones have become a more common part of everyday life, but, from what I hear, most of my peers are as strict as ever about cell phones. Some are equally strict about laptop usage.

Many teachers – grade school and college – view digital devices as classroom distractions. While they’re not entirely wrong, by blaming the devices themselves, they’re shifting blame to the wrong place.

I know this is true because it’s what I was doing with the Doughnut Rule. While my use of the Doughnut Rule might have been a creative solution to a legitimate problem, it was also a pedagogical cop out. It allowed me to put the blame for distracted students on digital devices. Instead, I should have been asking questions about what I was doing – or not doing – in my lessons that caused student attention to wander.

If something else in my classroom is more engaging than the lesson I’m teaching, that’s not the fault of the thing that’s more engaging, nor is it a problem with my students.

It’s my problem.

It’s my fault.

I need to take responsibility.

Once I recognized the importance I play in whether or not students get distracted by their phones, I retired the Doughnut Rule and removed any sort of formal policy for digital devices in my classrooms. However, I still don’t welcome them. Instead, I’ve learned to use digital devices as a barometer to help me measure the quality of my lessons. When I notice more people paying attention to their Instagram feeds than what I’m discussing, I don’t punish my students; I punish myself. I force myself to sit down after class, review the lesson I taught, and identify ways to improve. And yes, if the lesson was particularly bad and I’m feeling especially depressed about how many students cared more about their phones than me, I might even make myself feel better by eating a doughnut.

A Pro-Grammar Nerd: Beautiful Code Makes Beautiful Language

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

For my birthday, my RocketBolt cofounder, Matt, sent me a $20.00 Starbucks “eGift” card.1 Take a look at the notification email:

Do you see the error? I noticed it immediately because, in addition to being a developer, I’ve spent six years teaching Freshman Writing, and it’s an error my students constantly make. Let me break out one of my giant red pens in the hopes that, just like my students, both you and Starbucks might learn to hate me appreciate my constructive criticism.

Because Matt Hofstadt is one person, he can’t be the antecedent of a plural pronoun like “they.” The sentence doesn’t make any sense, and the mistake is surely damaging the “high quality” brand Starbucks cultivates in order to sell $5 coffee. If Starbucks is lucky, one of its employees is reading this blog post and correcting the problem right now. If not, I can’t help but worry that poor use of the English language is causing Starbucks to alienate the pretentious-douchebag-grammar-nerd demographic.2

Speaking of pretentious-douchebag-grammar-nerds, allow me to explain the evolution of the “I’m going to refer to a singular noun with a plural pronoun” linguistic phenomenon. It’s a product of increased gender equality. People used to generically refer to everyone as males, but you guys probably already knew that, right? As women (rightfully) began to take offense to always being referred to as dudes, a writer could either refer to gender-neutral, singular nouns with a clunky “he/she” type of construction, or he/she could opt for a less-awkward-to-write but absolutely wrong “they” or “them” pronoun. If you’re wondering what option writers tend to prefer – even though it makes no sense – scroll back up to that image of a Starbucks email.

Despite what this post might imply, I’m actually not the kind of guy who believes writers should unquestionably adhere to every grammar rule. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, strict adherence to grammatical rules simply for the sake of following rules is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

I don’t care if you end a sentence with a preposition. I don’t care if you put periods inside or outside your quotation marks. And I certainly don’t care if you start a sentence with a conjunction. However, even in a digital world where text without professional editing is globally accessible and likely to have errors — including this post — I don’t think I’m being unreasonable by suggesting we maintain the grammar practices that computers actually make easier.

Luckily, we still have time to fix a grammar problem, and the programmers of the world can help. By using programmatic logic when we code dynamically generated text, we can determine which gender a noun is referring to and then fill in the pronoun accordingly. It goes something like this:

[if $person == female :  return she ; else : return he ;]

In a case like the generic email I got from Starbucks where the gender of the purchaser is likely unknown, the solution is even easier. Try this little programmatic trick:

[$first_name] [$last_name] wanted to make your day so [$first_name] sent you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to spend on your favorite beverage.

Wasn’t that easy? And yet, every day I witness discussions about the importance of beautiful, efficient, semantic code that never mentions outputting proper sentence structures. Why is it OK to harp on things like “semantic css classes” but it’s not important for dynamically generated text to use proper grammar? Let’s not forget that the end result of beautiful code is more than functionality and design. The code we write often dynamically outputs the words our users read, which means no matter how much you hated your Freshman Writing instructor, he or she probably taught you a lesson that could improve the quality of your code.


This post made the front page of Hacker News because people apparently have some very strong (and in some cases) strange notions about both grammar and morality. Anyhow, I should do what I always tell my students. If the structure of the sentence causes so much controversy that it distracts from the meaning, change the sentence. Allow me to offer an alternative that solves everything:

Matt Hofstadt wanted to make your day by sending you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to spend on your favorite beverage.

Wasn’t that even easier?

Breaking News: Edward Snowden Is a PR Manager for Google & Facebook

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

Amid all the outrage over the Edward Snowden, government-is-spying-on-us drama, something uncomfortably strange is getting overlooked. Sure people are angry that the US Government is secretly1 accessing our digital data. What I find fascinating is that no one seems to mind that all this data exists. Think about it: if governments can collect all sorts of personally identifiable data from the Googles and Facebooks and Verizons of the world, that means the Googles and Facebooks and Verizons of the world have that data. What do you think they’re doing with it? Do you think it’s digitally decaying on some remote server that no one ever accesses?

By being outraged at the US Government for looking at our data, but not being outraged at the companies collecting that data, as a society we’re essentially agreeing to the following statements:

It’s acceptable for Google to use my data to sell me this:


But it’s not acceptable for the government to use my data to sell me this:


We don’t mind if Facebook violates our privacy so they can sell our data to these companies:

But we do mind if the government violates our privacy to sell our data to these companies:

Verizon can track my phone usage to up-sell me on these devices:

But the government can’t use my phone records to protect me from dangerous devices:

Don’t mistake my heavy-handed photomontage as me condoning government data aggregation. I’m not. I’m trying to remind all the people outraged at the government to remember that governments are big businesses. Big businesses are obsessive about collecting as much customer data as they can in order to optimize their services and increase sales of their products.2

Because one of the most important services governments provide is protection, the best-selling product of a government is usually safety. By accessing user data, the government is doing what big companies do: its trying to maintain a product that satisfies customer expectations. As outraged as people might be to discover how the government is collecting its data, perhaps we can all take mild comfort in knowing that data collection efforts aren’t being hampered by government’s notorious bureaucratic slowness. The fact that government agencies know they should be looking at Google instead of the phonebook means they’re at least as tech savvy as my parents.

I bring up my parents not just because I enjoy any opportunity to poke fun at older generations (as I’m sure my some-day kids will), but also because people like my parents are the people I’m most worried about. As someone who has been in the web marketing industry for a decade, and as someone who has built custom data analytics engines, I’m fully aware of the Internet’s seedy data collection tactics.3 Are my parents? Are your parents? Are you?4

By focusing all the PRISM-related outrage on the US Government, Edward Snowden has orchestrated an amazing PR Coup. He’s made Google, Facebook, Verizon, and every other tech titan’s aggregation, storage, and sale of vast amounts of private user data an incredibly public practice. But no one cares because that’s not the story.

Apparently, no one cares that big companies track our every digital move so they can sell us more products and services in order to increase profits for owners and investors. We only care that governments are tracking our every move in the public interest of safety and security. How strange is that?

I’m not trying to convince you that we shouldn’t (or should) be mad at the government. I’m reminding you that, if we are going to be mad at the government for invading our privacy, we also need to be pissed at the companies who are collecting, storing, processing, and making money off our data. Otherwise, we should stop complaining. Or — option number three — we should be happy there’s an Orwellian government watching everything we do since, clearly, we can’t be trusted to make rational decisions on our own.

Dear Facebook: Please Stop Trying To Steal My Co-Founder

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

Dear Facebook,

I’m the backend developer for a growing startup called RocketBolt. As a startup, we have to overcome all sorts of hurdles like, you know, getting new users, improving our infrastructure, making sure we can pay our hosting bills every month — pretty much the usual. None of it bothers me because I was prepared for all the usual startup things. I was prepared to have friends and family smirkily asking me “So what new company are you building this week?” every time I see them. I was prepared for 48-hour, Adderall-fueld workdays. I was even prepared to start sneaking in and out of my fifth-story apartment via my four-story emergency escape ladder in order to avoid my landlord in case money got too tight.  But no one prepared me for the barrage of Facebook recruiters constantly trying to steal my co-founder, and it’s starting to piss me off.

Let me rewind a bit and explain what’s been going on. As I wrote before, I’m the backend developer for RocketBolt. That means I handle all the really tricky behind-the-scenes code that lets us generate a completely custom, fully-featured, dynamic application that then gets remotely embedded onto websites we have no control over via a single line of code. It’s not an easy task, but I love every minute of working on it because I’m either a masochistic idiot or… well… I’m not really sure what the other option is. I’m also lucky enough to be a backend developer whose childhood best friend became an extremely talented frontend developer and my eventual co-founder. That’s right — no Twitter Bootstrap for me! I don’t remember the last time I had to care what some ancient version of Internet Explorer does to my CSS, and I still produce great looking websites. It’s awesome.

But there’s one problem with the great working relationship my co-founder and I have, and, Facebook, it’s because of you. Not just you, of course. It’s also because of Google, and LinkedIn, and Groupon, and Twitter, and any number of other startup-dream-crushing goliaths. You all have discovered just how talented my co-founder is, and now your smooth-talking corporate headhunters are trying to hire him.

As with any relationship problems, I realize I can’t just blame someone else for everything. I realize I’m partially at fault, too. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I can see that I put myself in this position. I realize that when my co-founder designs an award-winning website like, no one cares that the little rewards tab in the corner of the page exists because I spent eight months of blood, sweat, and code building a script that could be seamlessly integrated into any website without causing a single JavaScript, CSS, or page load glitch. No one can view the thousands of lines of code needed to build a custom admin interface to manage all of the application’s functionality. No one can know how the dozens of layers of security infrastructure work in order to limit spam and fraud. No, the only thing people see is a pretty looking website. And since I’m not the person who made the website pretty, I’m not the person getting six figure job offers.

Honestly, I’m fine with that. I don’t need your job offers to validate my work. I know I’m good at what I do. But what I do need is for you to stop trying to convince my co-founder to become your next mid-level designer because, let’s face it, a cushy job at a multi-billion-dollar company offering a steady income and dental benefits gets harder to turn down after each and every bite of Ramen.

So please, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, and even Yahoo if you still exist, stop trying to steal my co-founder.

Or, at the very least, give me an office next to his.


Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Keyboard

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

Before my students begin writing their papers, I try to remind them of the importance of establishing their ethos. I also spend an entire class period discussing what the heck ethos is, but since I don’t have that luxury here, I’ll summarize by explaining that ethos is the reason your audience should care about what you’re saying. It’s why when Mitt Romney speaks, people listen (whether or not they agree), but when Sarah Palin speaks, everyone chuckles and thinks she’s backwoodsy-adorable. Romney has the ethos of being credible, intelligent, learned, and successful, Palin has the ethos of being… well… backwoodsy-adorable. (For the record, I’m using the Romney/Palin example not because I agree or disagree with either of their political ideals — that’s partially why I chose two politicians from the same party — but because, deserved or not, the mainstream media has assigned them very distinct brands.)

Why bring up ethos? Because I’m about to break the number one rule I tell my students: you should never have to explain your ethos; let your argument establish your ethos for you.

Now I’m going to ignore my own rule (and hope none of my students are reading). You should care about what I’m going to explain because before I retreated to the Isengard-like-safety of the Ivory Tower, I was a copywriter at a small Internet marketing company. I realize this professional claim is, to most readers, extremely dull and nowhere near as ominous as I’d like it to be. But to the few folks who read my former job title and thought “I’m not sure I like where this is going,” you’re damn right — that’s exactly where I’m going. As for the rest of you, I’m about to pull back a tiny sliver of the Internet’s proverbial curtain. If you don’t want to learn how the magic happens, stop reading now. Look at some adorable puppies instead.

In my seven years since graduating from undergrad, here’s a brief glimpse at the many, many, many expertises (my ethoses) I’ve shared with the World (Wide Web):

  1. Fitness Guru: I’m not necessarily fat, but the only successful diet I’ve ever created I lovingly referred to as “The Pizza Diet.” To be fair, eating one pizza a day and nothing else did help me lose 20 pounds; still, I hardly think it qualified me to be the lead blogger for a fitness website with thousands of users.
  2. Blushing Bride-to-be: You may laugh, but wedding blogs are big business. So when a client needed a wedding blogger, guess who wrote it. Oh-by-the-way… I’m a dude.
  3. Stock Analyst: Want to know an industry where you absolutely shouldn’t believe anything you read? Penny stocks. In this case, it’s not just because guys like me can do the writing. In fact, you’d be lucky to read something I wrote because I actually cared enough to make sure everything I produced was triple-checked by former SEC attorneys to avoid the potential for legal “actionability.” How many attorneys do you think are verifying “next hot penny stock” newsletters being written in Cyprus? Or India? Or Pakistan?
  4. Philanthropist: I’m actually proud of this one. I run a charity… we try to do good in the world. But still, writing copy for a charity is a far cry from the next example.
  5. Serial Dating Website User: If weddings are big business on the Internet, dating is HUGE business. Plenty of companies are trying to capitalize on all the online-dating traffic, and SEO-rich blogs are a key component. Someone has to create those blogs; can you guess who’s been one of those “someones”? Fun fact: I’ve never used a dating website and I’m married. Am I the guy you want giving you your online dating advice?
  6. Mommy Blogger: This time last year, mommy blogs were the new industry darling. As I posted about taking my kids to soccer practice and defeating diaper rash, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other mommy bloggers didn’t actually have children. Plus, like I wrote before… I’m a dude.

Those are some of the bigger projects I’ve contributed to, and while I could certainly list more, you hopefully get the picture. Also mixed in were things like nutritionist, extreme couponer, ticket broker, and, one of my personal favorites, neighborhood blogger (in six different cities around the country, none of which I’d ever lived in).

The point is, the Internet is big business. When there’s billions of dollars at stake, the only thing you can be sure of is that companies will do whatever they can to legally (and sometimes not-so-legally) get you to click a link, watch an ad, or, the holy grail of all web marketing, capture your credit card information.

To be fair, capturing your credit card information isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Online marketers aren’t outright thieves (most of them, anyway) and the last thing any successful online marketer wants to do is get a credit card chargeback. Too many chargebacks means losing the ability to process credit cards, and losing the ability to process credit cards means they can’t make money. However, it’s their goal (and it was my job) to convince consumers to take certain actions based on a website’s content. Who created the content didn’t matter so long as the readers felt like the content was genuine.

I realize for many readers my revelations won’t come as a shock. For the record, I actually hope they don’t. But there’s a difference between not being shocked by things (e.g. the media is biased, high fructose corn syrup is bad for you, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire), and having to be reminded to be aware of such things as you engage with them. The Internet is flooded by millions of websites and the barrier for entry to creating a website is incredibly low. I have no idea how to tell whether a website not belonging to one of the 500-or-so universally recognized name brands is actually a valuable resource, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. Sure, you can argue “that’s what search engines are for.” But I’ll argue back, “I used to get paid good money because I was great at tricking search engines.” In other words, trust search engines at your own risk.

Still not convinced? Consider my current ethos. I’m claiming to have a PhD in English literature who also happens to be an entrepreneur and have an extensive background in web development and Internet marketing, plus… I’m a dude. Regardless of whether or not that persona is true, you have to admit, it’s certainly not the same as being a mommy blogger. Unless I’m Chaz Bono, I physically can’t be both. Maybe I’m neither. The point is, you’ve never met me, so how do you know which, if either, is true?

Perhaps just as importantly, does it matter?

Some Real Paul Graham Bashing (Because No One Else Is Succeeding)

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

Over the past week or so, I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon at the top of Hacker News: There’s been an abundance of Paul Graham bashing. For example, one article attacks Mr. Graham’s recent essay regarding copyright because it “misses the mark in a big way.” Another article argues that because Paul Graham wrote an essay about “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas,”Y Combinator’s preference to invest in “startups making relatively small, iterative progress on existing idea spaces” is somehow disingenuous. And a third article goes so far as to map out the number of times, on average, PG resorts to verbal crutches like “uh” or “umm” when speaking.1

I’m not sure of the cause for this recent wave of Graham cracking,2 but, before I jump on the bandwagon, I wanted to come to PG’s defense. He is — and I’m not ashamed to admit it — one of my web-author man-crushes.

To the guy (or gal) who averaged Mr. Graham’s verbal idiosyncrasies, I’ll first appropriate an angsty teen comeback from my youth and tell you to “get a life.” Then I’ll… umm… defer to PG’s well-written response.

To the author of the article telling PG and Y Combinator to “put your money where your mouth is” and invest in ambitious startup ideas, I’ll suggest you re-read the article. Mr. Graham never indicates an overt interest in investing in such ideas. He seems to be implying the opposite. He describes the phenomenon of people applying to Y Combinator with frighteningly ambitious ideas, and, in doing so, he seems to be explaining why he, and other investors, get frightened and tend to shy away. If anything, I read his article as reminder not to apply to Y Combinator with a frighteningly ambitious idea, even if my ultimate intention is an ambitious goal. Instead, he specifically advises the opposite when he suggests, “If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I’ve discussed, don’t make a direct frontal attack on it.”

Finally, to the author of the article concerning copyright, if you read up on your history of intellectual property, you’ll probably discover that PG isn’t too far off base. Sure, his opening metaphor might be a little shaky if you poke too hard at it, but that’s the case with any metaphor. However, historically, intellectual property, as we currently abuse it, is a relatively new concept dating to the mid-19th century. It derives from 18th century Romantic ideals about originality that eventually began to produce our modern fear of plagiarism. However, back in the not-too-distant past, imitation (i.e. copying) was one of the primary tools for learning. For example Ben Franklin, that bald dude on the hundred dollar bill, was a big proponent of copying other people’s work. In a discussion of Franklin, Peter Stallybrass, a UPenn professor and IP history aficionado, explains that:

For Franklin, ideas were a common treasury to be shared by all. The problem is not imitation or even plagiarism but the claim to intellectual property, a claim that justifies itself by producing plagiarism (i.e. the possibility of shared knowledge) as its moral and legal antithesis. Franklin argued that the immorality lay in the fences that intellectual property erected, which, preserving knowledge for the rich and powerful, prevented its free circulation.3

Now that I’ve come to Paul Graham’s defense, I feel entitled to (lovingly) question what appears to be one of his biggest intellectual contradictions. Mr. Graham, if you ever happen to read this post, how do you explain the seeming contradiction between your well-documented adoration of hackers and your unabashed, capitalist VC pursuits?

As someone who literally submitted his Y Combinator application less than 24 hours before the writing of this post, I should note that I personally applaud your capitalist undertakings, but then again, I’m not someone who runs a website called “Hacker News,” nor do I have a book called Hackers and Painters.4 You, however, do. As a result, your profession and your intellectualism — to me — continue to seem at odds.

Allow me to explain. The foundational beliefs of what we’ll go ahead and call “hackerdom” seem to stem from a Marxist-Hegelian perception of the Internet that Richard Barbrook, one of the earliest theorizers of the Net, describes as “anarcho-communism”.5 If I didn’t lose the last of my readers with that bit of pretentiousness, I’ll describe the concept less-snootily by explaining that it’s that concept of free-exchange of information and ideas in which hackers take so much pride.

What’s at issue, for me, isn’t the idealism of the hacker subculture. Instead, I have trouble rectifying Paul Graham’s obvious adoration for hackers with Y Combinator’s blatant, capitalistic commoditization of hackerdom.

Again, I want to reiterate that I, personally, don’t have a problem with it. I just want to point out that, if folks want to get to the top of Hacker News by writing hostile posts about Paul Graham, perhaps they should be discussing his most problematic actions.

To be fair, Mr. Graham does offer the occasional justification for Y Combinator that suggests money isn’t his top priority. In a brief essay called Why YC, he claims, “We didn’t start it mainly to make money.” Instead, according to Graham, “The real reason [they] started Y Combinator is one probably only a hacker would understand. [They] did it because it seems such a great hack.”

Speaking of hacks, Mr. Graham,6 would a true hacker intentionally deploy a hack that, by commoditizing the subculture itself, violates the very principles on which hackerdom exists?

The very existence of Y Combinator, Hacker News, and the highly-cultivated persona of “Paul Graham” reminds me of a great description I once read about the movie The Matrix,7 so I’ll re-appropriate it here. Y Combinator exemplifies “the capacity of late capitalism and its mass media to commodify everything, including messages of subversion.”

With a little luck, this article will help convince Paul Graham to commodify me.