4 Transcendent Startup Tips From Penn and Teller
Three years ago, I was just a programmer. I had made a name for myself as a programmer, having written a 900 page book on Ruby, a few popular Ruby gems, and built several successful startups like Mog.com from the ground up. Then something changed in me. I transformed into a startup founder, creating AppFog.com which was acquired by CenturyLink this year. But sometimes I still wonder if I should have been a magician.
My hacker handle is cardmagic. In 1996, I was 13 years old and in love with magic. I practiced every day for hours and would show my friends every new trick I learned. Middle school kids are super impressed by this kind of thing, I felt special and appreciated whenever I showed them something amazing.
But when I got to high school, kids would try to guess the secret, even when they had no clue how it was done. But they guessed anyhow, they did not enjoy magic any more, they didn’t want to be fooled. I felt very self-concious and stopped practicing magic for a newer hobby I also picked up in middle school.
But this story stays in 1996, when magic was still cool. One brisk autumn day at the beginning of the day before classes started, I experienced a totally mystifying trick first hand. When I saw it, I could not believe it, nor figure out how it was done. I had to learn more. I had to figure it out. What I saw was a simple index.html that I had created from a WebMonkey tutorial posted onto a free shared hosting website with my ISP. When I realized that anyone in the world could go to
http://my1996isp.com/~cardmagic/index.html and read what I had to say, I was hooked. My first web project was a magic site that let magicians share tricks with each other after passing a test to ensure you were really a magician.
Fast forward 13 years to 2009. I had held programming jobs writing PHP throughout highschool and college, but had discovered Ruby 5 years earlier and wrote the Ruby Cookbook just 3 years ago. I ran into a blog post that has stuck with me ever sinse. It is the kind of blog post that haunts you, that follows you wherever you go, that you think about fondly on occasion and look up to send to friends.
What I found was an amazing blog post by a magician named Brian Brushwood. You should read it, I will not copy it in its entirety because you should really read it all yourself, but I will quote from it. Mr. Brushwood had carved a niche and made a name of himself out of his unique style of Bizarre Magic.When he was 20 and had just started struggling with his career choice, he reached out to a titan of magic for advice. Raymond Joseph Teller (of Penn and Teller) responded with some advice that profoundly transcends magic.
Advice #1: Be Patient With Yourself
“I am 47. I have been earning my living in show business for twenty years. I have been doing magic since I was five, which makes it 42 years. And I had the good fortune to (a) meet Penn and (b) become an off-Broadway hit at the exact right moment in time.” —Teller
It is easy to be in your twenties, compare yourself to Mark Zuckerberg or Aaron Levie and feel like you are so far behind. But founding companies is not a sprint, it is a marathon. And being a founder is not a sprint either.
“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
The Unicorn Club of billion dollar startup successes tells us that the average age of recent founders of billion dollar startups is 34. The founders of Workday, the third-most valuable company on the list, were in their 50s. 80 percent of unicorns had at least one co-founder who had previously founded a company.
Advice #2: Have Heroes Outside of Startup-land
“Have heroes outside of magic. Mine are Hitchcock, Poe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bach. You’re welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons. Then they’ll push you in the right direction.” —Teller
Who are your heroes? Steve Jobs? Richard Branson? Elon Musk? Try again. Jobs, Branson and Musk are great, don’t get me wrong, but stretch yourself. Be interesting.
Some of my magic heroes are Ricky Jay, Derren Brown, Lennart Green and David Copperfield. Some of my non-magic heroes are Ingmar Bergman, Hitchcock, Honinbo Shusaku, Steve Martin, Hemmingway and Brahms.
“The best trick to being a successful entrepreneur is to try and be a well-rounded human first.” — Chris Tacy
Advice #3: To Pitch a VC, Surprise Them
This next piece of Teller’s advice is beyond brilliant. Imagine you are a venture capitalist. All day long, every day, you hear people begging you for money. You are a professional meeting taker. You sit and listen to pitches all the time. They all blend together. Many first time entrepreneurs don’t put themselves in the shoes of the VC before they walk in asking for money.
So how do you stand out? How do you make sure that your pitch is given a fair chance? How do spice up your presentation to make it engaging and fun while still keeping it professional?
Here’s a compositional secret. It’s so obvious and simple, you’ll say to yourself, “This man is bullshitting me.” I am not. This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it. Ready?
That’s it. Place 2 and 2 right in front of my nose, but make me think I’m seeing 5. Then reveal the truth, 4!, and surprise me.
Now, don’t underestimate me, like the rest of the magicians of the world. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that I’ve never seen a set of linking rings before and I’ll be oh-so-stunned because you can “link” them. Bullshit.
Here’s how surprise works. While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information. Feed it to me little by little. Make me try and figure out what’s going on. Tease me in one direction. Throw in a false ending. Then turn it around and flip me over.
I do the old Needle trick. I get a guy up on stage, who examines the needles. I swallow them. He searches my mouth. They’re gone. I dismiss him and he leaves the stage. The audience thinks the trick is over. Then I take out the thread. “Haha! Floss!” they exclaim. I eat the floss. Then the wise ones start saying, “Not floss, thread. Thread. Needles. Needles and thread. Ohmygod he’s going to thread the need…” And by that time they’re out and sparkling in the sunshine.
Read Rouald Dahl. Watch the old Alfred Hitchcock episodes. Surprise. Withold information. Make them say, “What the hell’s he up to? Where’s this going to go?” and don’t give them a clue where it’s going. And when it finally gets there, let it land. An ending.
This takes pratice. It is very hard. Teller says it took him 8 years to figure out how to do this for one of his tricks. If you can manage to weave this into your10-slide VC pitch, you will be heads above other founders.
Advice #4: Love Something Besides Technology and Startups, Preferably in the Arts
“I should be a film editor. I’m a magician. And if I’m good, it’s because I should be a film editor. Bach should have written opera or plays. But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint. That’s why his counterpoints have so much more point than other contrapuntalists. They have passion and plot. Shakespeare, on the other hand, should have been a musician, writing counterpoint. That’s why his plays stand out from the others through their plot and music.“ — Teller
This is such a simple and profound piece of advice, and so true. Blend your passions. Learn from other disciplines. Stand out. Be your own mashup.
I should be a magician. I’m a startup founder. If I’m good, it’s because I should be a magician.
About the Author
Lucas Carlson is a hands-on consultant, author and entrepreneur. He helps founders discover opportunities for growth, both for their companies and for themselves. He was the CEO and founder of AppFog, a popular startup acquired in 2013 after signing up over 100,000 developers and raising nearly $10M in venture funding from top angels and VCs.