Archive for the 'Business' Category

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I’m a hustler baby

Out of StartupBus this year, I’ve seen some amazing hackers. It’s a culture I’ve tried to encourage since we first ran the event (and more on that below on what I mean by that). But what about the non-technical people, are they hackers? Yes, but no. I came to a new realisation this March that you need more than a hacker to be successful in a startup: you need someone who can hustle. And often that’s what the “business” person is in the founding team.

I’m not the first person to realise this and in fact, my friend Micah wrote an excellent post about this last July.

So what’s a hustler? And actually, what’s a hacker? Let’s start there first — Micah says the following:

A Hacker is more than a code monkey, who can quickly build software and find interesting ways to hack together code. Thats a developer. Thats someone who is definitely an important part of a startup, but not critical to its success. A Hacker is someone who looks the problem, and solves it in a unique and special way. A Hacker finds the process of problem solving exciting and interesting, and spends the majority of their time looking at the problem in multiple ways, finding many potential solutions.

Paul Graham wrote a great essay on it many years ago. I’m still trying to work out myself what a greater hacker is, but I would essentially define a hacker as someone who understands how to make the best decisions to prioritise their efforts on what has the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time. Meaning, a perfectionist will treat a challenge as a sum of equal parts, diligently working through all the work without regard of the higher purpose. A hacker, would think of the end goal and take shortcuts on the things that are not core to the long-term effect.

It would be like me saying I need something that looks like a clock, so that it fills a void in the background for a movie shoot I need to do. I tell you that you have 24 hours. There’s nothing you can buy, and it needs to be made by you from materials on a farm the shoot is occurring.
A perfectionist would get lost in the mechanics and the quest to build a functional clock, where the hands correspond to the actual time. A hacker would get a hamster spinning in a wheel, which triggers movement of the clock’s hands. Both work, it’s just the perfectionist will plan on work that will take a month building it, forgetting the fact he needs to do it in 24 hours or he fails; the hacker’s solution isn’t a long term solution, but that’s the point — it’s achieving the purpose for what is needed right now.

So what’s a hustler? I think it’s a different skill set. Micah defines it as follows:

A Hustler on the other other hand is a relationship builder. Someone who can build direct relationships with their customers. They arent really promoters, although they do a lot of promotion. They arent salespeople, although they do a lot of selling. They are passion people. They have the ability to articulate their passion clearly and in a way that gets other people equally passionate.

Unlike a hacker, the hustler isn’t required to prioritise their efforts. Instead, what they do is extract value from, say another person (like paying customers). It’s like saying a hacker is someone who smartly builds value of a product, while the hustler smartly builds value by selling the product. Hackers are good at products and process (the value creation), hustlers are good at selling and relationships (capturing the value generated).

These days in tech, they say a good designer is needed along with a good coder, but I think this is just talking about a specific skill set. Hackers might not know how to code or use photoshop: but they can get the job done. It’s a mentality. And likewise, a hustler can come in very different forms, depending on the industry and the team. But make no mistake, if you’re looking for a founding team, you need a least one hustler. Because without someone to hustle the customers, you have no real business in the long term.

Scouting Angel List

I’ve become an Angel List scout.

What’s Angel List? It’s a service that my good friend Naval Ravikant launched in February 2010 with the Venture Hacks crew, which is dramatically improving the process that is the tech fundraising model. Need high quality investors for a startup? All you need to do now is pitch it via a form.

What’s an Angel List scout? Someone that the Angels on Angel List can trust, who will help filter and provide social proof on startups.

Why am I an Angel List scout? I get a lot of people wanting to meet with me to discuss their startup and help them get introductions to people I know. This is partly due to my profile in building the Australian tech community, my involvement in the DataPortability Project, and my most recent initiative the StartupBus which I launched in 2010 as an entrepreneur development program and with its success I now hope to turn into a qualified community of entrepreneurs (more on that another time).

By being made a scout, I’m now going to be able to direct people to Angel List and formally provide social proof to the investors who want to know more about the startups applying. I won’t be investing in the startups that apply, but I can provide recommendations to people who will.

I don’t get paid for this. Actually, I don’t get any benefit from doing it, other than the satisfaction of helping people like future entrepreneurs and my friends at Angel List. But hopefully, I can now make my interactions with people more valuable as I have a direct connection with what I believe could transform Silicon Valley and consequently the world one day.

So if you have a pitch, go ahead and fill out the form – add my name in the referred field and they will circle back with me for my opinion (currently free-form text, but it will soon be a drop down). Also, if you want to be visible to me when applying, you have to choose me from the “angel picker” when me apply. I’ll try my best to make coffee time for as many entrepreneurs as possible who stop by San Francisco, as I have been in the last year and a half since moving to America.

Update January 2 2011: I just got told that “as a scout, you can see, vote, and comment on startups that have chosen to be visible to you. So you do have some real powers in influencing the investors on the site and crowdvoting up the good startups”. So once again I can’t *do* anything that will get you funded, but I can help 🙂

Why the angel bubble is not a bubble but actually the missing link

Naval Ravikant has written a thought-provoking post on the growing “angel bubble”. His thesis is that there is no bubble because the total money amount of money being invested in venture hasn’t increased. What’s changed he claims, is simply that instead of bigger Venture Capital (VC) rounds that are fewer in number, we’re seeing smaller but many more Angel investments occurring. In other words, the VC industry — not the Federal Reserve — are the ones that should be worried about this “bubble”.

I actually think what’s happening is that the market is now more resistent to bubbles. Contrary to a previous post of mine where I hypothesised the seed investment bubble (which I’ve since reconsidered and I’ll explain later in this post), the Angel “bubble” is a externality of one simple fact: it’s now a lot cheaper to build a startup. To understand this, watch the presentation Naval gave a few month’s ago which is the best I’ve seen to date in this trend.

So as a consequence, angel investment has now becoming (and rightfully so) the dominant way for a company to fund a startup company, with the existing VC model being relegated to more of a latter stage role.

Why is this a good thing? Well first of all, a lot more startups are being funded — but with the same amount of money in the economy. Statistical theory will claim that this alone will be good thing for the economy, as there is a higher probability of home runs. By spreading risk among more bases, there’s a better opportunity to generate returns.

But something more important is happening. VC’s now have a better qualification of a business to invest in. The huge amounts of capital they can invest into a business, are now going to be done after having seen a more advanced startup’s potential future, pushed to that stage by the seed accelerators or angels that cover their startup cost.

What I mean, is that by the time a company gets to VC, they will no longer be a startup — which is a business searching for a business model — but instead a high-growth business that’s now executing on their newly discovered and high potential business model. The VC firms are no longer needed in the business of starting something in information technology; they are instead now purely in the business of growing a business (where already some of the larger funds exclusively focus on). And the capital they are putting at risk on behalf of the endowments and pension funds that gave them that money, now have a lower risk of achieving higher returns.

Better still, the VC’s funds can focus on the future of technology like clean energy, biotechnology, and nano  technology — industries that were what information technology was in the 1970s: high startup cost, low chance of return.

And while that’s all well and good for the VC’s, this new funding lifecyle actually opens up opportunities for returns for everyone (which is why this isn’t a bubble). The seed accelerators and angels have the ability to pass the baton and exit their investments to better capitalised groups like the VC’s, allowing them to focus on the earlier stage of the market. With the IPO market dead since the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, tech has relied on acquisitions as the sole form of return. But with earlier stage investors like the Angels getting exits to VC’s, and the VC’s having better qualified businesses that they can grow to a large IPO, this is actually going to see the IPO market reopen due to this focus.

All in all, that’s not a bubble: that’s called efficiency and a rejuvenation. The Angel bubble isn’t a bubble but a maturity and evolution of the technology ecosystem. This is actually the missing link in efficient information technology being built — the link which now connects the super-highways of the economy to sustainable growth and value, not bubble.

Billion dollar brainwaves

My Small Business | Tips & Advice For Small Business in Australia

David Wilson, a journalist for Fairfax, approached me the other month to give him my thoughts of Silicon Valley. The resulting interview appeared on Fairfax’s online mastheads (which include The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Brisbane Times). The article had more focus on me than I expected, but Wilson still captures some important lessons I’ve learned since moving here.

One that is mentioned is the importance of not planning. I’m a big believer that you can’t plan your life  (or your business). To put it simply, using yesterday’s information to make decisions about tomorrow is just not as effective as using the most recent information and reacting. Check out the very successful and intelligent Jason Fried of 37 Signals who says something similar:

So it’s not about the big plan, it’s about a day by day by day by day and seeing where things go and just kind of making decisions as we go.

And the main reason why I think this is important is because people often make decisions with the wrong information.  So they make decisions far into the future, based on information they have today.  You’re better off making decisions today based on information you have today because that’s when you make your best decisions.  You make your best decisions when you have the best information.  That’s always right now.

Another lesson I’m learning but which I didn’t mention, is that capitalism — effective capitalism — is brutal. It’s something I’ve observed with successful business people in Australia and America and I’m still trying to collect my thoughts about it. For example, employees and their termination — I’ve had several people explain to me the difficulty they’ve experienced doing it, which is for the better of the business.

To put this in context, loyalty and personality should not be confused as performance (which really, is the point of the employment). And if you’re not performing (or the broader function you are a part of), there’s the door. Brutal, I know — but what’s more brutal is a business collapsing and everyone losing their jobs. Effective capitalism isn’t about protecting an individuals ‘entitlement’ to a job; it’s about evolving the entitlement of an enterprise so that it can continue to sustain itself.

The secret to effective people management

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, talking and reflecting these last few months on a broad cross section of things. One of them is people management, which actually has been a competency I’ve spent years trying to understand: whether it was managing volunteers at non-profits, coaching junior staff in a work environment, or observing how other people interact with others and the impact it had. Today I came across something on Quora that Ben Pieratt wrote and which I think is very wise. He reflects on the work ethic:

I think it comes down to the fact that, for some people, work is personal. Personal in the same way that singing or playing the piano or painting is personal.

As a creative person, you’ve been given the ability to build things from nothing by way of hard work over long periods of time. Creation is a deeply personal and rewarding activity, which means that your Work should also be deeply personal and rewarding. If it’s not, then something is amiss.

Creation is entirely dependent on ownership.

Ownership not as a percentage of equity, but as a measure of your ability to change things for the better. To build and grow and fail and learn. This is no small thing. Creativity is the manifestation of lateral thinking, and without tangible results, it becomes stunted. We have to see the fruits of our labors, good or bad, or there’s no motivation to proceed, nothing to learn from to inform the next decision. States of approval and decisions-by-committee and constant compromises are third-party interruptions of an internal dialog that needs to come to its own conclusions.

Worth reading is also this interview with the CEO of Zynga (one of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley). He says what he does to motivate staff, which put words to what I’ve seen in my own observations of effective (and ineffective management).

You can manage 50 people through the strength of your personality and lack of sleep. You can touch them all in a week and make sure they’re all pointed in the right direction. By 150, it’s clear that that’s not going to scale, and you’ve got to find some way to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room…

…I’d turn people into C.E.O.’s. One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, “By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful.” And that way, everyone knows who’s C.E.O. of what and they know whom to ask instead of me. And it was really effective. People liked it. And there was nowhere to hide.

In case you miss the point, this is it: giving ownership is a powerful emotional state that can literally transform the perception someone has of their work.

Update 11 October 2010: My good friend Alisdair Faulkner — an experienced technology entrepreneur and executive — explains the spirit of the term “ownership” better with a clarification. Alisdair says it’s less so about  ‘ownership’ than it is ‘creative control’, which he says means “Authority and Accountability vested in the same individual”.

Why I like angel list

Feedback is now coming out about Angel list, a new service from the blog Venturehacks. It’s a simple concept: get a group of angel investors and promise you will send quality deal flow to them that’s been vetted; likewise say to entrepreneurs that all they need to do is fill out a form and they will get access to some of the smartest investors in Silicon Valley. It’s so simple that is hurts, and yet only people like Naval Ravikant and Babak “Nivi” Nivi would be able to pull it off as it takes serious credibility to get both groups involved. Venturehacks in my opinion is the number two blog on venture and investment in technology, after Fred Wilson’s blog.

Angel list is a special thing that I believe will transform Silicon Valley. Much like how Michael Arrington exploited the market dynamic to make TechCrunch the success it was, Ravikant and Nivi is doing the same thing by connecting entrepreneurs with investors. And not just any investors: the early stage investors that startups really need. Simply put, it’s reducing the costs of innovation in Silicon Valley – the ‘thing’ that has changed the world.

I really hope the industry rallies around this and collaboration opportunities with other high profile angels continue. Jason Calacanis for example is doing something equally impressive with the Open Angel forum, and I sense they both have equal motivations due to their annoyance at how other investor groups have abused their position in the industry. Even though I see them adding different value to the startup scene (they’re similar but different – and should stay different for maximum value creation), all I can say is “awesome – I want more”.

How to build a billion dollar company

Matt Mullenweg made an excellent comment on a topic I’ve often thought about. The comment was made in the context of the anniversary of wordpress.

Has it really been seven years since the first release of WordPress? It seems like just yesterday we were fresh to the world, a new entrant to a market everyone said was already saturated. (As a side note, if the common perception is that a market is finished and that everything interesting has been done already, it’s probably a really good time to enter it.)

WordPress not only has become the most popular blog software and one of the most amazing content management systems around, but its become an amazing platform for innovation. (For example, Ron Kurti and I the other day tried to think outside-of-the-box for employee expense reports at Vast. So we hacked a wordpress blog to do so – and we could do it in minutes of effort.) Not only that, but the wordpress.org founder built a company around the software and it’s become a very successful company on the web. Thank God he entered at a time of market saturation.

But it doesn’t stop there. Consider the following stories as well, which highlight lessons in building amazing companies.

  • When Google launched as a search engine, everyone though the space had matured and had little opportunity. Google has now become one of the most influential companies in history.
  • When Apple launched the iPod, the MP3 player market had been well established. No one at the time would have thought another product from this yesteryear company, would be the product that help it reinvent the company to become the second largest US company today.
  • When Facebook launched, it was yet another social network well after Friendster (the inventor) and MySpace (the populariser). In fact, I remember analysts calling 2003 the year of the social network – a year before Facebook was even invented. And now, Mark Zuckerberg has created a company that will transform online advertising, has helped contribute to the new billion dollar virtual goods industry, and is going to lead the charge for the semantic web.
  • In 1990, hyptertext systems had saturated the market since the 1960s when Ted Nelson coined the term. That didn’t stop Tim Berners-Lee, who that year invented the web – yet another hyptertext system. The Web is not a company like the ones above, but the Web is in league that few inventions in the history of the humanity have ever achieved.

Naval Ravikant has told me that in the consumer web space, the first mover advantage is so great that a company can own the space – the logic being they are so far ahead in execution and their brand is synonymous with the industry, that they become impossible to topple. This fact is why I think a lot of entrepreneurs in the Internet space seem consumed with creating a business that introduces a new concept product, as opposed to a better product – which is what the above companies did..

I think there is something to be to be said about the last mover advantage: monitor the patterns of something new, innovate on the implementation, and then out-execute the guys that invented the concept. And out execute you can easily, as the inventors are probably caught up in organisational inertia due to conflicting innovations, not to mention a misunderstanding of what actually made them successful in the first place.

As it was said once: the guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot; but the guy who invented the other three was a genius.

Do entrepreneurs have an expiry date?

Startup’s that are built-to-flip (ie, sold early on) may be the best and dominant way to sustain innovation. How so? Because through observation of the brilliant people I’ve met in technology startup world, I’ve come to realise an important lesson: entrepreneur’s have an expiry date.

I just don’t care any more
I started writing this post sitting in my parents living room last week in Sydney, where I visited for the Christmas break to spend time with family. Chatting away with my parents, my father said something very startling but also very relevant. He was talking about his 73 years of life and the 47 years he’s had as a lawyer. Once a fiery dragon in the courts and of life, he’s now an aged playboy winding himself down. He said he’s thinking of giving it up and going into retirement, as he has been working these last few years purely for the passion. Why quit now, I asked: “I just don’t care anymore”.

I’ve got countless anecdotal examples (but none I can share specifically here, sorry). People I thought that were pushing to create global businesses, are now giving way to other priorities and looking to sell their very valuable company. People who have been involved with a startup for over four years, that’s only now exploding in growth, but feeling fatigued and ready to move on.

It’s not just entrepreneurs
A good friend of mine who has worked for five years at a big bank, is now looking for a change in employer. Several other friends, who have been in long-term romantic relationships for around 3-5 years, are now feeling the pressure of making a decision: get married or stop wasting her time. And sometimes it’s not them making the decision – but it’s what she’s probably thinking.

Passion, fire and ambition is needed to start something – whether it be a new job at a big brand company, a new company that disrupts the industry, or a partner that reinvigorates your life. But like life itself, there is a predictable pattern that follows. What gets born will also mature – and will die, one day. It’s just how life is; what goes up, will go down as well.

Build to flip: it’s a good thing
Bringing this back to the point of this post, I want to highlight that the obsession to build a sustainable business is actually not a normal thing. And I said obsession, because a few years ago I made a naive plea that that was the only way. Now that I’ve seen more, I’ve realised it’s a way but not the common way.

People that create businesses are creative. The same reason that makes them creative, is also the same reason that has them get bored when a process gets repeatable. The types of personality that start a company and battle during its pre-revenue days, are vastly different from the ones that help grow and manage a profitable business.

So the next time people criticise a company that doesn’t stay the course towards an IPO, and let’s itself get bought out – just remember, that sometimes, it’s because the people behind them just don’t care anymore. And that’s perfectly alright. Don’t fight it – it’s how it is.

Is Twitter giving stock options to celebrities?

I’ve just watched Dick Costolo, COO at Twitter, at the Real-Time CrunchUp (on Nov 20th 2009). twitter-logo-smallMichael Arrington‘s excellent cross-examination skills and subtle pokes make it a thoroughly enjoyable interview (if not comedic) and in the process reveal some interesting challenges facing the Twitter team. The key one internally is about on-boarding, which makes me wonder: why are they incentivising celebrities and how are they doing it?

Let’s take step back first and break this down.

“On-boarding” is a Twitter management term, which is to convert a new user that signs up onto the service into a persistent and return user. With all the hype by the Ashton Kutcher/CNN race and the subsequent Oprahfication of Twitter, we’ve seen this little startup transform from an early adopter tool into a mass culture icon. The key to the transition, was the sudden onslaught of celebrities using it. And if you closely examine the Twitter documents, it’s clear there is a very strong relationship with celebrities and the management team.

Why do people start using Twitter?
I first used Twitter on April 15th 2007, which was about 4-6 weeks after I started meeting people in the tech industry. And then six weeks later, I gave it another ago and made a remark implying I didn’t get it. I subsequently starting using it because at a meetup in May 2007, Mick Liubinskas and Marty Wells both urged me to get on Twitter as everyone in tech was on it. I essentially forced myself because two people I highly respected in the industry and who held the most status, told me it was crucial for working in tech.

So that’s why I started using it. But what about my sister? She doesn’t get it. Neither does my brother. Both don’t use it. I look at my friends who have signed up and their girlfriends, and the people they follow are all celebrities. They Tweet status updates and don’t really engage in discussions which is where the real value of Twitter is. Facebook’s a much better environment to post your status with friends, which means watching the flow of Tweets is the only reason why non-techies would use it initially.

Twitter magazine
So it’s quite logical to assume the sole reason they are using it is to “stalk” these celebrities. This may be anecdotal evidence, but it surely makes sense: celebrities are key to the growth of Twitter.

Why are celebrities using Twitter?
I can understand it from a broader trend in society where many-to-many communication is how our world is evolving into. I can understand why brands are using it – what started as a defensive PR strategy is now evolving to this broader trend of personal relationships with customers ala Project VRM. But celebrities – really? Do they really want more attention?

Aren’t celebrities battling the paparazzi to give them some privacy in their lives? Of all the people who benefit from the trend that is lifestreaming, what do established celebrities have to gain from it? When Kutcher did his one million follower stunt, my Luddite sister claimed it was simply a way for him to re-emerge in the world (as pop culture she gets). But I don’t buy that – as that only explains Kutcher – something else is happening. And that something has to be a financial incentive, because giving up privacy is not something celebrities do.

So Twitter, who exactly has stock or options in your company? I know the answer to how you made yourself mainstream, but what did it cost you to get there?

Capitalism, I protest thee

I’m well schooled in the world of business, both from an undergraduate and postgraduate point of view. I’m no professor, but I’m a thinker. And having worked for some of the biggest companies in the world whilst at PwC, I’ve developed an insight into how the world works. And to put it bluntly, I think capitalism sucks. The problem though, is that I can’t think of a better system to replace it, so as I grapple to understand how we can improve it, I’m forced to participate in this game that I think is not having society achieve its optimum.

However, every now and then, I come across interesting books, articles, and have discussions that make me go “yes!”. Most recently this happened the other day, when I read insight by someone I least expected to, on a thing I’ve been thinking for years and am glad its been articulated so succinctly.

Jack Dorsey, the programmer who created Twitter – a business criticised for its lack of a revenue model but which is also disrupting the world of communications – was recently quizzed on stage, having to say words in free-association relating to a concept.

To quote the Wall Street Journal:

What about monetization? He laughed, then said, “I think of our users”, clearly avoiding more obvious Twitter territory. “I think of how people are using it, and how, based on that usage, we can build something that will sustain the company.”

Mr. Dorsey kept free-associating. “How does the network itself generate value? And what can you put on top of that to extend the network and make it an even better network”, he added. “monetization to me is just a way to sustain, and that’s the first thing I think of.”

Money, you see is just a way to sustain something. It shouldn’t be the end-goal of business, and it’s that point that fundamentally irritates me about capitalism. That being the whole focus on it being about returns on capital – not returns on humanity.

Twitter’s other co-founder and the current CEO clearly drinks the same water. As Evan Williams said several months ago:
Twitter / Evan Williams: There are basically two types of businesspeople: Those who see money as the ends and those who see money as the means

The entire premise of economics is to study how peoples needs and wants can be catered for, in the context of scarcity in resources. The implication of this, is that by satisfying our wants and needs, we are happy and by happy we have better living standards. Economics is meant to be about increasing our living standards. Yet we are so caught up on the measures that simplify our world as “earn more money, spend more, get rich and therefore you get happier”. We’ve let the economists bastardise our world in order to make their paper models work. And it’s created a consumerist society where value is placed on material goods, which may boost GDP but not necessarily happiness.

My friend and former colleague Charlie Perry, a Chartered Accountant and philosophy major at university, thinks the same thing. He recently proposed abandoning profit as a measure going forward and wrote a manifesto that had me say “yes!”. I introduced him to a book that after years of thinking about these issues, was finally articulated in a brilliant book by Clive Hamilton called “Growth Fetish“. And he now blogs regularly, with his evolving thoughts. As he says in his new about page (version 2):

I’m interested in mutualism. I think it’s the fabled third way.

In September 2009 I thought I’d invented mutualism and wrote down all my thoughts here.

Subsequently I’ve found that there is a long history of thinking around mutualism.

I think the time’s come to champion this economic theory as an alternative to the pointless to-and-fro of left-right politics. It’s time to end the sham of the liberal capitalist democracy. There’s a better way, a happier way.

We don’t need to capitalise or socialise; we need to mutualise. Let’s work together.

Don’t get me wrong – winning at the game of capitalism is awesome – making money out of air is great for the minority that have done it. But it’s an uneven distribution of the world’s wealth and it distorts the operation of our society. The Global Financial Crisis just proved this system is a joke, though I don’t think anyone has the answers. But I’m not giving up on this – I want more “yes!” moments to the point where we can evolve our society to its potential. What I do know is that it’s a mistake to make it the main way to measure our society.

I’m not advocating we abolish capitalism: far from it actually. It has some very useful concepts that can be incorporated into a new model. But just like trade unionism, too much can be a bad thing for a society (as can too little as well). While I still have issue with the way companies measure progress, I think that’s a harder problem to fix. But where we can start, is by getting our governments to change the way they view society. Wealth is currently defined by the amount people spend every year. We’ve used that for a few centuries now, and although it was a good attempt, it’s not right. There is more to wealth than proving we have capacity to acquired goods and services. And in this 21st century, things have changed too much to frame the world in a lens that was created hundreds of years ago.

So if that’s not the right answer, what is? Well let’s work backwards and think deeper about this. Let’s start with the assumption that we want everyone to be happy within themselves, not rich in material goods where we assume that is what generates happiness. If we do that, then we will have made one giant leap forward.