Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

New incubators offer unending innovation

Posted by Richard Koman - May 30, 2007

James Currier calls his new startup Ooga Labs a "technology greenhouse." Which makes it seem like an incubator, but according to the Chronicle's Jessica Guynn, it's really something much more radical.


via SF Chronicle/Mike Kane

The first project out of Ooga is a progressive social network called GoodTree, which Currier was user-testing on the sidewalk of Market Street. The idea of user-testing by just setting up a laptop on the sidewalk and grabbing passers-by to test it is the sort of fresh thinking that is becoming part of the new culture of Silicon Valley, as already-wealthy entrepreneurs are funding their companies without venture money.

Currier made $100 million selling Tickle to Monster.com; Obvious founder Ev Williams made a bundle selling Blogger to Google. As Williams wrote in launching Obvious:

"Fun in work to me means a lot of freedom, and ton of creativity, working with people I respect and like, and pursuing ideas that are just crazy enough to work. I don't want to have to worry about getting buy-in from executives or a board, raising money, worrying about investor's perceptions, or cashing out."

Currier wants to apply that notion of having fun at building technology to the very structure of the company, Guynn says.

When I close my eyes and say the word 'ooga,' I see a bunch of people joined together by the same goal, jumping around the fire," he said. He has recruited an eclectic clan of nerds to become mavericks. He has done away with most other jobs and departments and made the geeks -- in the words of one Ooga staffer -- "first-class employees."

The small staff is organized into two-person speed teams, each pair an engineer and designer, who are the only employees working on one of the five businesses. They sit side by side in an open pit in Ooga Labs' Financial District office so people can get to know one another and what everyone is working on.

In a company with hardly any hierarchy, people talk and act freely, even walk around barefoot or perform backflips. They share everything: research, software code, bad jokes. Each feels empowered to make critical decisions. Everyone gets paid the same salary and gets equity in each of the five startups being incubated. And they all get the kind of benefits more common at major corporations.

Finally, here's Currier's open letter to '06 CS grads. It's a rousing call to action, to life, to sending engineers out into the world to create something rather than learning how to succeed in a corporation. An interesting question: where do you think Google is on this continuum between Currier's vision and say, working at Intel or Oracle?

Don't make my mistake!

So you're going to take a cube job with slow Microsoft, bureaucratic Oracle, or with some boring financial company?

C'mon! Do you want spend all of your life wearing modest habits of charcoal grey, driving your Volvo on the salty roads of the drab East Coast, paying 50% of your earnings to taxes, and hanging out with narrow minded people, congratulating yourselves on improving a feature of a widget of version 12.1b.4 of some software, or maybe improving the financial return of some rich bald dude in Greenwich, CT by 0.2% above the S&P Index?

Has no one taken you aside and said, "Wait! You're about to waste 10 years of your life figuring out the path you chose out of college is crap!"

No one did to me either when I went to Princeton, and it took me until I was 31 to get my ass out to San Francisco and do tech start ups. Don't make my mistake. Save yourself now. Even if you don't work for me. I mean it.

Out here, you think about the future. Out here, you are surrounded by colorful, dynamic technologists and entrepreneurs who are really making a difference, pushing the edge.

Most people think that working for a big or known company will give them good experience. That's kind of like saying learning to sit still for dental surgery is good experience. Sure, it's an experience, but there are life paths where you don't have to have dental surgery, or work for a big company, to have the best life. In fact, I would argue that you learn the wrong things working for a big company, and that it's actually not good experience. A good experience is when you really make something happen in the world. Big companies teach you how to work through layers of bureaucracy and how to solve problems in very risk-averse ways -- in short, how to make something happen in their organization. A big company is not the safe career choice. It's the risky choice. It risks your mind and your life.

Oh, and one more thing. Initially, your friends and family may not understand why you didn't take that "safe" cube-job with the company whose name they know, but in two years they will understand. They will love using the websites you build, and they will talk often with their friends about it. They will see you having a vibrant life, pushing the edge of what's happening, and they'll be proud to know you.

Take a few minutes and reconsider your first "starting point" out of college. It sets up a direction that takes some time to change. Aim yourself in the right direction. Again, you don't have to come to Ooga Labs, just get to the Bay Area and join a startup. You will never regret it.

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