Smart People Should Build Things

One of the perks of being involved with Venture for America (VFA) and mentoring young professionals making a fresh start is meeting smart people who want to build things — and help others do the same.

It was the case last week when we had our get together at First Round offices to learn more about the VFA Accelerator progress and the Fellows who are building businesses in Philadelphia.

Smart People Should Build ThingsAndrew Yang, VFA founder and CEO, was in attendance and had brought copies of his book titled Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America. I am already more than halfway through it only a few days later. Building and making things is a profound desire and passion. Yang's definition of “building things”:

we mean forming and helping companies and organizations that are innovating and creating value.

Starting with outlining the problem in the introduction, the book follows a logical outline.

Part I: where our talent is going is a review of the prestige pathways and how we have too much of a good thing. In why professional training cuts both ways, he says:

In the startup setting and in most small companies, the output is action-oriented. You're not an analyst; you're the operator. You need to get things done and make decisions, often with limited information and resources.

[…] for most small companies the value is in the execution. You push in a particular direction and find out if you're right in real time, and then change approaches accordingly. Mistakes are acceptable if they're the result of moving forward (whereas in the professional services context mistakes are regarded very negatively.)

Small experiments teach us much more than what works. They also teach us about ourselves — our problem solving skills, appetite for risk, not to mention the oral and written communication practice in articulating what could work better to colleagues, peers, and (potential) investors. Says Yang:

If you want to solve a problem, you actually have to solve the problem.

We all could use better financial sense, opportunities to create, experience what it feels like to innovate and lead.

Part II is about building things. Until we experience it ourselves, we likely have no idea that building things is really hard. Contrary to belief, entrepreneurship is not about creativity. It's about organization building — in other words, about people.

People focus way too much on the inspiration, but,  like conception, having a good idea is not much of an accomplishment. You need the action and follow-through, which involves the right people, know-how, money, resources, and years of hard work.

He then proceeds to tell the stories of his own entrepreneurial ventures. What you need before you even get started is enough to discourage many. Chapters in this section include how to get better, running a company, and rent-seeking vs. value creation.

Part III is about solving the problem. The qualities we need, building a machine to fix the machine, how the future changes for at least a few, the teams of builders, the training camp, and notes from the field. See also this interview# on where can smart people have the greatest impact?

Appendix D of the book includes a very useful guide to determine what job traits are important to you. Starting with the two basic criteria summarized as “highly paid through work”, Yang adds a key question you should ask yourself before joining a company:

“Is this company on a growth path?”

My experience mirrors his. If the answer is yes, it will be a far more interesting and rewarding opportunity. The fifteen additional job traits to consider, also listed in TL;DR format, create a better detailed framework. You may not hit all, but a strong match with your top priorities will help you make a better decision.


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