"Marketing is something you do when people don't want to buy your product."
Part of a spirited lunch-hour debate, this quote from my sponsor (Richard Kotulski-Wakefield of AppFog) carries a lot of meaning. Hyperbolic, maybe, but the sentiment pervades many tech startups. If your idea is good enough, just give the beta of your product to the relevant bloggers and tech journalists, and it'll take off by itself. So the thinking goes. This somewhat romantic notion--software market as meritocracy, if you will--attracts the ambitious and the free-thinking in equal measure.
The successful are both.
This conversation soon turned to the stagnation of theater as an art form, performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and back to a former colleague's floundering startup. "He's in denial," Lucas repeated. This friend, who shall remain nameless, was in financial free-fall, unable to find investors. This illustrated another important lesson on starting a successful company: you have to believe your idea is great, but you can't ignore evidence to the contrary.
I don't want to give the impression that my whole externship experience revolved around lunchtime conversations. The most common topics of discussion, in fact, were the most salient or frustrating aspects of the day's project. We moved from market research--focusing on social media survey strategies--to pitching our ideas to "investors" (AppFog employees, instructed to be impatient and critical). Richard's experience managing financials (and much more) for the fledgling PhpFog, as well as his own projects, was indispensable in providing realistic exercises for our hypothetical startups. But he and Lucas, both Reedies, were also able to provide perspective on how a Reed education transfers to their industry. To be glib, it doesn't. But despite this, both think their college education prepared them for their careers in other ways.
Besides the often-cited merits of "learning how to think," Reed can provide an impressive writing skill set--something very useful in any tech field, but much rarer than you might think among professionals. So why don't more Reedies end up in tech?
Web design and architecture, software design, etc., are all things that Reedies have the potential to excel at. But Reed alone won't get you there. Basic occupational skills (coding comes to mind) are also necessary. Where Reedies fail, we speculated over lunch, is when they graduate expecting the world to recognize the value of their skill set. To contribute to society, though, is make or do something that someone will pay you for. More than anything, my week-long externship taught me that to succeed, I'll have to navigate the disconnect between my values and academic skills on the one hand, and the market on the other.