As Graham whose hair has a boyish wave and whose shoulders slouch slightly, spoke, he didn’t look up much. He didn’t gesture. He didn’t boast or tell the sort of seemingly impromptu but actually extremely rehearsed stories the way folks who make a living appearing at college auditoriums like this do. He didn’t take questions. He just read, at a lively pace, from sheets of lined yellow paper, into a microphone.
You need three things to create a successful start-up: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most start-ups fail to do it because they fail at one of three. A start-up that does all three will probably succeed.
Huffman was in awe. His idol was talking — about the lives of Lisp programmers, about how college buddies should start companies. It was as if Graham’s speech was designed with him in mind; everything fit, and each bit of Graham’s reasoning seemed sound.
Parts of the speech resonated with Ohanian, too. He latched on to Graham’s extraordinarily simple description of how to create a valuable tech start-up: Do something better than it’s already done, at a lower cost. As Graham read on, describing himself back when he was a young Lisp hacker, Ohanian glanced over at Huffman — it was as if he was describing his best friend. There were glimmers of the inevitability of what they were trying to start back home, from the Shit Box. What Ohanian really loved was the frank, straightforward, indelicate way Graham articulated the basis of a viable business: “I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for start-ups, but most reduce to this: Look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t suck.” Grahan described online dating sites as ripe for disruption, because they “suck.” He characterized Google’s goal at the company’s genesis as to “create a search site that didn’t suck.” The simplicity made Ohanian smile.
In the auditorium, seated not far from Huffman and Ohanian, was a blue-eyed, sandy-haired Harvard physics grad student named Chris Slowe. He’d worked all day in the lab of Danish physicist Lene Hau, which was working on cooling particles down to a micro-kelvin-very-close-to-absolute- zero and conductexperiments on them. (The Harvard lab had already performed an incredible feat: slowing and then stopping a beam of light in these temperatures, a first, for which many suspected Hau would win a Nobel Prize.)
This is an extract from Christine Lagorio-Chafkin's We Are The Nerds published by Hachette Books