In March this year, William Hurley’s work with quantum computing put $24M to work in the company he founded, Strangeworks, with investment from companies and venture capital firms – Hitachi Ventures, IBM, and Raytheon Technologies, and follow-on investment from seed investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, GreatPoint Ventures and Ecliptic Capital. It was on his recent interview with Andrew Tull, here, that some sage advice about entrepreneurship and venture capital came to the fold; advice to important not to revisit and share. Henceforth, I’m going to refer to William as whurley, because well, everyone does.
“There’s this bullshit attitude with startups, that failure is good. Failure is horrible, it sucks. It’s no good. I don’t want it to be an option for my startups; having joined other startups that other people founded, I had the benefit of a unique advantage that they didn’t as a founding team, and that was, they’re stuck there. I’m not, right, they go out of business, I’m going to be employed, I’m highly employable. At that point in my career, it’s like, I’m gonna have a job that afternoon.”– whurley, Founder and CEO at Strangeworks
That segment of a recent Humanizing Software interview grabbed my attention like you wouldn’t believe because I’m a huge proponent of the word, “failure” in the context of the idea of failing fast; something with which many disagree. My experience has been in the context of what it means to fail and I’ve long advised that what founders must do is test and iterate quickly – that that’s what failing fast means. Be as efficient with your resources (time, money, and talent) as possible because you can only sustain yourself for so long as an entrepreneur while trialing things that may or may not work. And what we know of startups is that having runway is one of the most important considerations (everything takes twice as much money and takes four times as long). Failing, to me, is how we learn… meaningful failure is good; what’s NOT good is waste.
I’m on the edge of my seat listening to whurley.
“And so what that meant was that I took some really big risks on when I picked startups to join; things where there were inexperienced founders, but they had a different idea. They’re really smart. And they wanted to kind of go orthogonal to the market, right?”
Awesome, I did the same thing. But now I’m considering to myself, I’m not a computer scientist who distills quantum mechanics into children’s books. When I started working for startups, I didn’t feel easily otherwise employable. I was there for a job, and the difference in me was that I just couldn’t take working for the pace, bureaucracy, and inept (my word) leadership of companies where I had worked.
What struck me was a thought that it shouldn’t be like this; that founders shouldn’t take on all of the risks, create jobs employing people, and suffer and struggle through horrific odds.
“Situations where there wasn’t money in the bank, there wasn’t a lot of funding, but it seemed like a good idea. Maybe we could do it. I mean, I took a huge amount of risk. And I think that the lessons from the failures, you know, the real lesson is don’t fail, there’s no reason for you to fail the startup, this whole, nine out of 10 startups go out of business is the biggest BS pushed on startup founders, right.”
Listen to the show, this is where whurley’s perspective grabbed me in that I’ve arrived through my career teaching founders at the exact point – it is bullshit that 9 out of 10 startups go out of business. His experience arriving at that conclusion, different from mine, but decades later arriving at the same conclusions – that something is wrong when founders fail to such an extent and that rather than accepting it for what it is, and sure, helping founders, let’s instead recognize that as the problem in our economy – 9 out of 10 startups should NOT fail – what do we do about it?
Entrepreneurship, Failure, and Time Management
Failure sucks but it happens because founders are getting poor advice, working with the wrong people, and society is falling short of teaching everyone what it really takes. whurley was right, and I’d argue so am I, failure is horrible AND we should be looking at why it happens so we can fix that problem in our economy.
There is no more evidence of this conclusion than where Andrew Tull and whurley take us next, something I parrot constantly, that society has made the “entrepreneur” this era’s scientist, astronaut, pro athlete, or movie star; that media is celebrating entrepreneurship at the expense of hundreds of thousands of people who then try, or try to help, without appreciating the heavy toll it takes and the rare individuals who can take such a thing on, “Entrepreneurs in Fortune Magazine and Fast Company and all these are like romance novels for startup nerds has no story that you’ve read on the cover. And I know many people that have been on the cover some of those magazines, none of those stories are how I remember it happening at all.”
Strangeworks was a startup in every sense of the word because they aren’t merely inventing, they aren’t quantum physicists working in this technology and with concepts that seem foreign to us; they realized an emerging problem in the sector and set about creating value by fixing that. Strangeworks doesn’t host the quantum computers with which it works, it has established a virtual network that connects users to quantum machines worldwide. It’s a platform, or SaaS, or whatever en vogue term you want to use to appreciate the work they’re doing – their online portal grants access to over 90 such computers, encompassing nearly every quantum machine on the planet. IBM alone has around 40, and Strangeworks is the sole portal facilitating developer access. The industry’s value is already estimated at approximately $800 million, with expectations to surpass $5 billion by 2030. Time magazine dedicated its February 2023 cover to quantum computing.
It was the revolutionary potential of quantum computing that initially captivated whurley in 2016 “I wished, when I was younger, I could have been there when Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit or Bob Metcalf created Ethernet. I saw quantum computing as the future of science fiction unfolding in the present.”
whurley believes that these machines, utilizing physical matter to emulate the real world rather than simulating digital information, will be instrumental in maximizing the benefits of artificial intelligence. He has shared many of the same concerns about AI’s potential dangers that are often discussed; however, he offers a more optimistic perspective, envisioning quantum computing and AI as essential tools for addressing a range of critical global challenges, including food scarcity, diseases, and climate change—a cause that holds particular significance for him. He is confident that these problems have solutions, and technology will play a pivotal role in discovering them.
Leading the way to Strangeworks, in 2018, whurley really did take write children’s books. Quantum Computing for Babies is a simple introduction to the quantum computers. Babies (presuming yours can read) discover the difference between bits and qubits and how quantum computers will change our future.
What is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computers perform tasks 150 million times faster than today’s conventional computers and once this technology gains widespread adoption, it will make a significant portion of our digital infrastructure obsolete. In the sense that we’re today wrestling with the implications of AI doing much of the same, making jobs and platforms obsolete, one of the most important questions we should ask of making software relatable is what it means for all of us in the not-so-distant future.
Instead of adhering to the binary digit model (a zero or one), quantum computers employ qubits (quantum bits), enabling them to handle immensely more complex calculations by simultaneously considering exponentially more possibilities. Importantly, qubits aren’t digital; they are tangible objects, typically a single electron. “You take this electron; you either suspend it with lasers, or maybe you cool it down [so it’s stable], and then you manipulate it with microwave pulses, so you can rotate it on the W, Y, Z, or the H axis.”
Sizeable quantum computers harness a few hundred electrons and leverage entanglement, a mind-boggling phenomenon in physics that has been used to successfully teleport matter.
And it’s in that piece of whurley’s story that the crux serving entrepreneurs and helping society change the rate at which founders became evident in my attention to this podcast – we have to teach, better.
“Right time, right people, and right place is awesome. But also needs the right idea and the right support. Because none of us can grow a company alone.”
We can teach what that looks like and how startups approach that, and must approach that, differently from established companies. Startups for Babies?
“That’s not just familiar support. That’s like the right investor support, right? And the right investor support to me is probably usually not a venture capitalist, right? There is there’s no venture anymore, it’s really growth. And the thing entrepreneurs forget is that, you know, venture capitalists have a product, and that’s you.”
The product is you.
What a profound statement because Startup Development Organizations are too often misunderstood as the founder therein being the customer. You’re not, founders, even when and if you’re paying for workspace, office hours, or access to a network – your venture is the product that the ecosystem is working with to create and deliver value. In doing so, creating jobs, solving problems, and delivering investor value – and none of us want that product to fail. None of us want you to fail. Together, we can give voice to teachers, as Humanizing Software does, we can teach better, and we can guide founders to mitigate risks and stave off failure by knowing better what might work best.