Hugh MacLeod at Startup Empire: We’re So F***ed


startup_empireThe second-last speaker at yesterday’s Startup Empire conference was Hugh MacLeod, whom most of us know for his comics drawn on the back of business cards and his blog, Gaping Void. Here are my notes from his presentation:


  • It’s easy for an advertising career to tank, especially if you live in New York and drink too much
  • I started drawing comics at bars, on the paper that just happened to conveniently be around: the backs of business cards
  • I’m not in the VC business, nor am I in the tech business
  • I’m greedy — who here’s greedy? [Many hands go up]
  • What really drives us? The "C" word: creativity
  • The reason we work in this field is that we want to build stuff — fun stuff
  • If it pays the bills, so much the better
  • The "we’re so fucked" thing is pretty long term
  • What will get us out of the hole? Creativity. People like yourself, doing and building cool things
  • I’m in my 40s — what motivates me now is seeing bright ambitious kids coming out of the colleges
  • When I was a kid, there was no internet — not even computers! I had to write my term papers on typewriters
  • I want to talk about creativity to the young
  • I now present 12 little tips for you people just getting started


1. Ignore everybody.

  • When you come up with a really great idea and show it, people won’t get it
  • You yourself might not even get it
  • Imagine the early days of search: “Why would you want to do that?”
  • “Good ideas have lonely childhoods”
  • If you’ve had a good idea, you were probably called a fruitcake at the start
  • Good ideas alter power balances in relationships, which is why many people resist them
  • Your boss doesn’t want you to have a good idea that makes you richer than him
  • Good ideas will meet resistance – not because of the idea, but because of power and hierarchy

2. The idea you have doesn’t have to be that big.

  • Jewish proverb: “A rich man is one who can satisfy his wants”
  • I grew up on TV, watching shows about people who had more than us
  • Fast-forward 20 years later, I get to do what I want every day:
    • Haven’t had to set my alarm clock in years
    • Just me and a couple of pens
  • And yeah, I read Fast Company, BusinessWeek — “business porn magazines” – they feed greed
  • Anyone seen No Country for Old Men? I live in that town!
  • One of the locals is Harry, the master brewer, who moved out there and opened his own bar. He makes $500 a day and is the best businessman I know. He does what he wants and everything he does has some meaning to him.
  • Meaning scales!
  • We owe it to the generations to come to find meaning


3. Put the hours in.

  • Nothing happens overnight
  • People look at what I do "Aren’t you worried about people ripping you off?" or taking my idea and doing the same thing
  • My response: "I’ve already done 10000 cartoons and 7 years blogging"
  • Inertia stops a lot of people. Know anyone in a dead-end job? Ever been in one? They say "One day, I’m going to open that cheese shop. But right now, I have to write a report…"
  • I have a book coming up. Didn’t quit my job to write it; just woke up an hour earlier every day to write it and posted it on my blog. Penguin eventually contacted me. All I did was put the hours in.


4. If your business plan relies on you being discovered by a big-shot, you will fail.

  • I once got a book contract offer. The terms in the contract were terrible and I turned it down
  • The publisher, it turned out, was in the business of finding people so desperate to have their moment in the spotlight that they would sign anything
  • We now live in an era of cheap, easy, global media — we don’t need middlemen
  • I’m friends with Rick Segal…but probably because I don’t need venture capital!
  • Where I live in Texas, you can live really cheaply. Part of this is because you run out of things to spend on
  • When I hear about people talking about VCs, I think of people looking to have their sorry asses saved
  • Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to have VC, but it’s even easier when you get one because you don’t really need one
  • "If you’re looking for advice, ask for money; if you’re looking for money, ask for advice.”

5. Do it anyway.

  • You don’t know that your idea is the right one at the right time – no one does!
  • Do it anyway — that’s how great ideas start out
  • Seco0nd-rate ideas are all about the immediate "yes!" response because it keeps them alive longer


6. Everybody is born creative.

  • “Everybody gets a box of crayons when they’re young .”
  • We turn adolescent and for many of us, somehoe, “our colour gets turned off”
  • Suddenly, it’s not about coloring anymore, but concerns like “Got to get a 3.5 GPA, got to get that job…”
  • Then you get an idea that you can’t turn off
  • It makes you start avoiding your poker buddies
  • Most people get scared off by that idea. Doubt creeps in: "What if I get a bad publisher? What if nobody likes my idea?"
  • That’s not your idea, that’s your grown up boring self fighting that idea
  • Your idea came to you because your soul needs it
  • If you don’t nurture that idea, it dies. It also takes a lot of you with it.

7. The “Sex and Cash” theory.

  • If you have a creative life and you make money doing it: you generally bounce between two kinds of jobs:
    1. The sexy creative job
    2. The one that pays the bills
  • In movie stars’ cases, that means alternating between parts in popular hit movies and critically-acclaimed art films
  • For a photographer, that means alternating between doing work for indie art mages and paying the bills with photo shoots for catalogs
  • Consider Martin Amis: he writes critically acclaimed novels and supplements his income by teaching courses and writing newspaper and magazine articles
  • As for me: I do comics on the back of business cards, and I do work for Microsoft and Dell
  • It’s a balance of artistic sovereignty and making a living
  • “The moment you accept this is when you take off .”


8. Remain frugal.

  • This particular lesson took me the longest to learn
  • Living in New York City, I was in the top income bracket, for all the good it did. I had so much outgoing cash in rent and other expenses.
  • You can live like a king where I do, in Alpine, Texas quite cheaply
  • I now have “West Texas expenses, New York wages”
  • This is hard to do if you want to be seen in “all the right places”
  • Remember: we become creatives because we want freedom, and that includes freedom from avarice

9. I’m going to skip this one.

  • It’s too corny!
  • [He capitulated later; see the end of this article.]

10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need props.

  • At any advertising agency, it’s always the second-rate art director who’s the first to get the newest model Mac
  • If you go to any magazine office, it’s the second-rate writer keeps an old Remington typewriter on display
  • You see this at startups too: the loft office in the hip neighbourhood with the foosball table
  • Remember: the Gettyburg address was written on borrowed stationery!
  • We use props to hide behind or mask our inadequacies
  • I know a woman who recently IPO’d — she didn’t start in a fancy office, but on her dining room table
  • It’s not the props, it’s the good idea and the effort

11. The best way is not to stand out from the crowd, but avoid the crowd altogether.

  • Bartenders are the great social enablers of New York City
  • No under-50 bartender is really a bartender: they’re actors, musicians, whatever
  • They have plan to become famous photographers, musicians, whatever
  • The thing about the arts to me: what often drives people isn’t just the money or business, but the prestige: “I want to be like that guy, because he’s really privileged”.
  • Ever noticed how few really good writers have blogs? You don’t see literature, you see shit like what I write
  • A lot of authors are enamored of books and the prestige attached to them
  • The worst thing you can do as a creative is fall in love with a privilege model

12. If you can accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.

  • When my sister was born and my mom was in labour, the pain was unbearable — "Why is this happening to me?" she asked
  • The midwife replied: "You’re giving birth to a baby. It’s supposed to be painful."
  • Mom accepted that and got on with the birth
  • Trying to do something worthwhile and creative is really hard
  • As you get older, you realize that pain is part of the process


9. Okay, here’s point number 9, since you asked: We will fail, but we will be forgiven.

  • Failure is part of the process
  • The important thing really isn’t about reaching the summit, but setting out for it.


Rick Segal’s Advice at Startup Empire


“Never ever take the title of CEO,” said Rick Segal between speakers at yesterday’s Startup Empire conference. “We fire CEOs all the time. Be a founder instead.”


Terminated, Part 2: How I’ll Ride Out the Layoff and the Credit Crunch: Friends

[This article was also published in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.]

Friends: "Amber's being immature again, isn't she?"

Technology, media and pop culture writer Douglas Rushkoff, who’s got a guest writing slot at the uber-blog Boing Boing, points to an essay titled Riding Out the Credit Collapse. Published in the spring 2008 edition of Arthur magazine, it:

  • Provides a layperson-friendly, non-drowsy explanation of how the credit crisis came about
  • Suggests the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself and your interests during the credit crisis (and in fact, any crisis, including being laid off during a credit crisis)

Don’t let the article’s apparent length scare you off — read it! Yes, it’s ten screens, but it’s set in a narrow column. If you’re still skittish about reading that much, shame on you, and here’s the part on which I want to focus:

Whatever the case, the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your interests is to make friends. The more we are willing to do for each other on our own terms and for compensation that doesn’t necessarily involve the until-recently-almighty dollar, the less vulnerable we are to the movements of markets that, quite frankly, have nothing to do with us.

If you’re sourcing your garlic from your neighbor over the hill instead of the Big Ag conglomerate over the ocean, then shifts in the exchange rate won’t matter much. If you’re using a local currency to pay your mechanic to adjust your brakes, or your chiropractor to adjust your back, then a global liquidity crisis won’t affect your ability to pay for either. If you move to a place because you’re looking for smart people instead of a smart real estate investment, you’re less likely to be suckered by high costs of a “hot” city or neighborhood, and more likely to find the kinds of people willing to serve as a social network, if for no other reason than they’re less busy servicing their mortgages.

I think Rushkoff’s got the right idea, and I’d like to torque it a little further. Forget for a moment the more fanciful ideas of printing your own “Canadian Tire Money”; when he says “local currency”, I want you think of these things:

  • Reputation,
  • Goodwill,
  • and most importantly, Luck.

Among the many things that I’m churning in my brain right now — along with updating the resume, finding a place to put all the stuff that I used to keep at the office and getting that eye appointment with Dr. Heeney before my work-provided insurance coverage expires — is real-world testing an idea and writing about it here. That idea rests on two principles, namely:

  1. Having friends and being friendly makes you lucky. I’ve always suspected it, and Marc Myers wrote a book on the topic.
  2. I’d rather be lucky than smart. It’s the mantra of my all-time favourite financial planner, whom I shall refer to as “P. Kizzy”. If I get even a tenth of P. Kizzy’s business acumen, I will be a very happy man.

Watch this space, ’cause I’m going to expand on those ideas!


Terminated, Part 1: The Very First Things You Should Do When Laid Off

[This article also appears in my personal blog, The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.]


Demotivational poster featuring dejected stormtrooper sitting on subway. Caption: "Unemployment: Sucks when your job is blow'd up."

Hello. My name is Joey deVilla, and I am unemployed.

Hmmm. Let’s try that again.

Hello. My name is Joey deVilla, and I am between jobs.

That has a much better ring to it. An optimistic, “this too shall pass” kind of vibe. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Hello, My name is Joey deVilla, and today is Day One of a new chapter in my career.

There we go.

The Credit Crunch and the Job Market

Many people are in the same situation.

Even if you take only my industry — the software and web industry — into account, a lot of people are feeling the same pain. The unemployment rate in our hub, Silicon Valley, has gone up for the fourth consecutive month and hit 6.6%, its highest level in four years. People who follow the industry are writing articles warning us that it’s not if you’ll get laid off, but when. Even Robert Scoble, who’s probably one of the most sunny and optimistic tech bloggers out there has recently written articles with titles like Surviving the 2008 Recession and What to Do if You’re Laid Off in the 2008 Recession.

Bailout protest march on Wall Street
The “Bailout Protest” march on Wall Street.

It’s bad all ’round. As I write this, a Google News search for the term “financial crisis” yields just shy of 200,000 results. There are articles with titles like:

When the news is filled with talk of credit crunches, bank bailouts and poorly-thought-out metaphors, you can be certain that every business is adjusting their plans to ensure that it doesn’t go under. Cutting spending is one of the most important of these adjustments, and since employee salaries are expenses, companies are laying off the employees they believe they can do without and slowing down (if not stopping) their hiring.

This is not a good time to look for a job nor lose one.

What to Do?

"Decision making in never really that hard" comic from Toothpaste for Dinner.

Losing your job is a shaming, stress-inducing, heart-rending, and even frightening experience at the best of times. Losing your job at the start of what some people in the media are calling the New Great Depression is far worse, even if you think they’re exaggerating for effect.

In the time since I posted the article in which I announced that I had been let go, I’ve received about a dozen emails from people who’ve said that they’re in the same situation. They have no idea what to do and asked me what I was doing and if I had any advice.

I have some observations and suggestions, some of it from my layoff experience back in 2002 and some of it from the past few days’ experiences, and I’ve written them below.

You Will Know When You’re Called in for “The Meeting”

"Spider-Man" comic panel featuring his Spider-Sense

I knew I was being brought in for the “your services are no longer required” meeting the moment I was invited to it.

Many people dismiss intuition, but in experience, I have found that a well-trained intuitive sense will often serve you well in those situations where the situation is murky or when rationality is following the wrong path. I susbscribe to the theory that intiuition is your brain doing some massively parallel processing, subconsciously “filling in the missing pieces” when you are presented with incomplete information. That’s why Poincare said “It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”

It might have been something in the Director of Tech’s voice or his body language. Perhaps it was that there’d been little for me to do in the past little while because of the overlap between our jobs. Maybe the fact that the meeting had been called up out of the blue with no explanation as to what it was about was the tip-off. All these hints would be clear to a detached observer, but to someone right in the middle of the situation, they might not be so apparent. Thanks (or no thanks, perhaps?) to a flash of intuition, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for.

A quick aside: I believe that intuition is not independent of learning and experience, but enhanced by it. When intuition “fills in the missing pieces”, it has to get those pieces from somewhere. Without learning, and even more importantly, the regular application of that learning, intuition is no better than flipping a coin.

You Have Moments to Get a Grip

Armed with that intuitive flash, I had the twenty or so seconds’ travel time between my desk and the meeting room to collect myself. At this point, I only had a vague sense that this was my termination meeting; intuition isn’t a straight-forward thing like a warning light on your car’s dashboard or a pop-up window on your computer:

Microsoft "Cliipy" dialog: "It looks like you're about to get sacked. Would you like some help?" Options are "OH GOD IT BURNS" and "KILL ME NOW"
“Clippy” dialog created using’s Clippy Image Generator.

Do whatever it takes to steel yourself for the bad news. Whether it’s deep breathing, couting to ten, reciting your own personal mantra or firing up your “poker face”, you want to get ready to conduct yourself at the meeting with as much grace, aplomb and professionalism as you can muster.

The Second Most Important Meeting You Might Ever Have with Your Employer

Levi Johnston meets John McCain as Bristol Palin looks on.
I’ll admit that my termination meeting wasn’t as uncomfortable as this one.

(In case you were wondering, the most important one is the job interview.)

I used to work as a DJ at a popular campus pub at Crazy Go Nuts University. Both the atmosphere and the vantage point offered by the DJ booth gave me the opportunities to witness many breakups from a detached third-party point of view, whether I want to see them or not. Even at their best, breakups are pretty rough; when they get ugly, you can’t help but feel shame for the couple.

No matter what you’re feeling at the meeting, you want your termination to be as good a breakup as possible. This means that you must handle the meeting professionally. The way you behave at this meeting will set the tone for your termination. If it is full of freak-outs and acrimony, they won’t be inclined to do you any favors. On the other hand, if you conduct yourself in a professional manner, you may gain some goodies such as extra negotiating leverage and a willingness on their part to do what they can for you.

If you can remember these questions through the stress of the meeting, you should ask questions like:

  • When is my last day?
  • What is my severance package?
  • How long will my company insurance coverage last?
  • When do I have to return the company laptop and Blackberry?
  • How long do I have to collect my stuff from the office?
  • What do you want me to do with my current projects and files?
  • Can I get a letter of recommendation and use you as a reference? (Naturally, if you’re being fired rather than laid off, don’t bother asking this question.)

Don’t worry about memorizing these questions — just remember that you should leave the meeting with a clear idea of what they expect from you and what you can expect from them.

If they’ve given you papers to sign, do not sign them yet. Ask for some time to “look them over”.

Take a Walk as Soon as Possible

Walking towards the horizon down a very long sidewalk.

This is going to sound terribly touchy-feely new-agey, but I’m going to say it because it’s an important step: at your first opportunity, take a break, get out of the office and go for a walk.

When this first opportunity comes depends on the sort of place where you were and the conditions under which you’re being let go. In some cases, you’ll be asked to pack your things and leave immediately, sometimes with a minder assigned to you so that you don’t go pilfering office supplies. In my case, I was asked to say on for a few days to be debriefed and help with the transfer of responsibilities.

Since I was at the office for a few more days and since it was the sort of place where they’re pretty cool about going out for a break, I went for that walk at the first opportunity. (Besides, what were they going to do, fire me?)

The walk is important because it gets you away from the office and to clear your head. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m usually an easy-going, “go with the flow” kind of guy who’s seen and done some pretty crazy things, and even I needed that walk. I felt twitchy and drained at the same time.

The walk gives you a chance to come down from one of the most stressful experiences you’ll ever face in your working life and come to terms with what’s happened. It is not the time for figuring out what your immediate next steps are; it is the time to collect yourself for figuring out what your next steps are.

Don’t do the walk in a fugue state. Take note of your surroundings. Chances are you’ll see things that you passed by every day but never noticed before. This is good, because it’s preparation for what you’re going to be doing for the next little while: seeing things differently.

Deal with the Shame

No matter how good a job your were doing or how well you served the company, being let go will make you feel like thie cat pictured below:


It will feel as if you had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. In fact, that’s what probably happened. Perhaps you weren’t found wanting as a person or an employee, but when the bean-counters did the books, either you went or the company did.

Thanks to evolution, being let go feels terrible. It feels like getting dumped, which feels terrible because it means that you are failing your biological imperative to keep the species going. Without this feeling, we don’t have the drive to reproduce and thrive, and it’s “goodbye species”.

You deal with the shame, using whatever constructive coping mechanisms work best for you. In my case, I hit the gym, did a little writing, played a little music on the ol’ squeezebox and got involved in some very severe rocket-launcher-assisted altercations in Grand Theft Auto IV.

If you must, have a drink or two but don’t go beyond that. You want to take the edge off, not go on a binge.

You Must Come to this Realization

Crank up your computer’s speakers and enjoy the video below. It’s the Soup Dragons’ 1990 cover of the Rolling Stones’ I’m Free. Don’t be afraid to shake your booty if you feel the urge:

If you need to, play the video a couple of times just to make sure the song’s point soaks in: you’re free.

Once the initial shock of losing your job has worn off, consider this: the future has suddenly become a blank slate. That may sound scary, but you should think of it as liberating.

Think about it. That end-of-the-week progress report that management expects? Not your problem anymore! Getting a response from that contractor for the 50-page spec for that increasingly complicated e-commerce website that you’re responsible for? Somebody else has to deal with it now! Hunting down the bug in the credit card payment gateway? Rubbing an irate client’s belly? Putting new covers on the TPS reports? You’re free of all those responsibilities.

All the day-to-day stuff that you’ve been doing at work has just vanished. This frees you to stop worrying about the doing things for the company and start doing things for you. Without those things taking up your time and thoughts, both your calendar and your mind are free to concentrate on “You, Incorporated”.

In the Next Installment

The next steps, including what you can do with all that spare time.


Rules for Consultants

Chad Myers has put together a list of general consulting wisdom. My favourite rules: “Always Be Solving (problems). It’s better to solve a problem 80% correct and revise the 20% than wait for a 100% plan,” “You can’t win ’em all. Solve what you can in your time and leave things better than how you found them. That’s really all any of us can do,” and “There’s no crying in consulting!