One founder explains how studying fiction helped prepare her for life at her startup.
By Susannah Luthi (Co-founder & CEO, Connu)
When my business partner Niree Perian and I launched our publishing startup, Connu, we operated like writers. We’d met while earning our master’s in fiction, and for months worked out of cafes. We edited each other almost to death. After fourteen-hour days, we found late-night energy in Hollywood piano bars. We slept on couches. And we went broke to create something we cared about enough to interrupt our get-up-like-everything-will-stay-the-same lives.
We learned Silicon Valley things—agile development, Lean Startup, design thinking, growth imperatives—and figured out what works for Connu and what doesn’t. But as I look back on 2013 to prepare for 2014, I’m grateful we started up as writers. Because a writing life can help it all make sense.
Writers and Coders Are the Same Breed
For one thing, it turns out, writers and coders are the same breed. They’re myopic and obsessive, and they start with grand visions that have to shrink way down in order to work. If you’re a writer, you need to be able to feel some pressingly personal thing that’s also big and sweeping; and then you’ve got to talk about it in such a simple and intimate way that everyone will think you’re a mind reader. If you lose your way, your words are worse than pointless; they’re noise. Coders work from the same binary. The other night, one guy told me that if he sits down to code before he’s grappled with the larger problem in his head and figured out his strategy to resolve it, he might as well not work at all. Even if he can get into his zone, he’ll create broken, useless code.
Never Waste People’s Time
Writing fundamentals also helped us with our product ideas. I’ll paraphrase John Trimble’s Writing with Style: What you build (or write) should be worth people’s attention. Never waste people’s time. Offer variety and delight. And remember that nine-tenths of product design is design tweaking, just as nine-tenths of writing is re-writing. Most of all, a well-designed product keeps things simple. "One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple" (Jack Kerouac). One day we will build the right Connu, and it, too, will be simple.
The Bonfire of the Humanities
But the most important thing—the reason Niree and I are in this thing to begin with—is the same sense of urgency that drives us to write. Creative arts belong at the heart of innovation and business. We are still passing through what I’ll call the Bonfire of the Humanities, which are being sacrificed on servers to the gods of technology. (Every other week the New York Times runs another obit.) But a correction is coming. The humanities are the why and the what-for of humans, and we need them. Niree and I decided to start up in the publishing space because culture is alive and interesting and creative when people actually like tuning into it; when they love the art that’s being made, the books that are getting written.
Connu was born when we started asking people how they felt about fiction and how they wanted to feel about it. Since we’ve launched, what inspires us are the countless emails and Tweets and Facebook messages from users who respond to the stories we publish. They help us think both big and small. Writers see double—they see things as they are and as they might be—and so do the most interesting inventors. It’s not just science fiction: good writing and good technology challenge the way we live now and shape how we’ll live tomorrow.
Is there anyone else out there whose humanities background helped them become a tech innovator?
About the guts blogger: Susannah Luthi is the co-founder and CEO of Connu, an app that curates original stories by the best emerging writers. She has worked as a journalist, freelance writer, and communications guru for performing arts organizations. Tweet @readconnu for personalized reading recommendations from Susannah and Niree.