networks, information, and learning

Elementary information theory suggests the most amount of information is in the least probable places (Shannon entropy). As I spent some of my summer talking to new contacts, new friends, and new acquaintances, I realized this simple lesson applies to information in one’s network as well. The most interesting information lies at the edges of my network. A friend Henrik Berglund pointed out on Twitter that social scientists Ron Burt & Mark Granovetter make a similar point with academic rigor. While the central part of my network are trusted, older connections which yield remarkably high fidelity of information; the new connections are the best sources of new (and therefore valuable) information. A good portion of the new contacts other than founders I met for True Ventures or angel investments were True Venture interns. While most of them felt that they learnt a lot by querying me on what I know, I think I learnt more by asking them basic questions about who they were, what they liked doing and what they wanted to do. 

My own interaction with potential founders, employees is centered around three canonical questions:

  • What did you make?
  • What are you making right now?
  • What do you want to make?

This simple set serves as a scaffolding for much of the discussion – software or hardware or even things not technical. Talking to our summer interns, it was clear that I learnt new ways of looking at things and in reminding them of survivorship bias, I got an opportunity to re-examine some of my own affinities and beliefs. Some common observations that stood out:

  • Big companies as they know them today will likely not be around in current form.
  • Experience, design, and marketing matters as much as the technology for startup products.
  • An insightful understanding of day-to-day micro-decisions and micro-conflicts within the startups they worked for.  Most often, these tensions were between technology choices and achievable features/performance.
  • Brilliant commentary on their macro market observations and how it fit or did not fit where they worked.
  • A clear sense of urgency (even after adjusting for their short summer stints) in how fast product was evolving to fit changing market needs.

I am purposefully generalizing these observations as they all involve current startups and people but I was impressed how quickly their observations linked the micro-realities with a larger market understanding.

I wish I was this smart in my 20s. 

A similar learning occurs in listening to founder pitches. Most of my time since October 2012 has been spent looking at seed or early stage pitches. This is a great lens for (re)examining current markets and current successes in the technology industry. In fact, each pitch meeting is a lenslet that adds to a composite framework for learning and examination. Each meeting makes me learn something new and get smarter about more than that specific product and its intended market. Of course I can get a trusted read on the opportunity from the core of my network by asking the partner next to me about their take, but I recognize I would never get ‘new’ and higher entropy information without these new edges of the network. 

So thank you founders and interns who shared their insights and experiences. Your time, your take on your selves and your ideas make me learn smarter, learn faster, learn better.