If they didn't know what language our software was written in, or didn't care, i wanted to keep it that way.2 The people who understood our technology best were the customers. They didn't care what language viaweb was written in either, but they noticed that it worked really well. It let them build great looking online stores literally in minutes. And so, by word of mouth mostly, we got more and more users. By the end of 1996 we had about 70 stores online. At the end of 1997 we had 500.
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Our secret weapon was similar. We resume wrote our software in a weird ai language, with a bizarre syntax full of parentheses. For years it had annoyed me to hear Lisp described that way. But now it worked to our advantage. In business, there is nothing more valuable than a technical advantage your competitors don't understand. In business, as in war, surprise is worth as much as force. And so, i'm a little embarrassed to say, i never said anything publicly about Lisp while we were working on viaweb. We never mentioned it to the press, after and if you searched for Lisp on our Web site, all you'd find were the titles of two books in my bio. This was no accident. A startup should give its competitors as little information as possible.
It must have seemed to our competitors that we had some kind of secret weapon- that we were decoding their Enigma traffic or something. In fact we did have a secret weapon, but it was simpler than they realized. No one was leaking news of their features. We were just able to develop software faster than anyone thought possible. When I was about nine i happened to get hold of a copy of The day of the jackal, by Frederick forsyth. The main character reviews is an assassin who is hired to kill the president of France. The assassin has to get past the police to get up to an apartment that overlooks the president's route. He walks right by them, dressed up as an old man on crutches, and they never suspect him.
Somewhat surprisingly, it worked. We eventually had many competitors, on the order of twenty to thirty of them, but none of their software could compete with ours. We had a wysiwyg online store builder that ran on the server and yet felt like a desktop application. Our competitors had cgi scripts. And we were always far ahead of them in features. Sometimes, in desperation, competitors would try to introduce features that we didn't have. But with Lisp our development cycle was so fast that we could sometimes duplicate a new feature within a day or two of a competitor announcing it in a press release. By the time journalists covering the press release got round to calling us, we would have the new feature too.
We hoped that would save. Any advantage we could get in the software department, we would take. So you could say that using Lisp was an experiment. Our hypothesis was that if we wrote our software in Lisp, we'd be able to get features done faster than our competitors, and also to do things in our software that they couldn't. And because lisp was so high-level, we wouldn't need a big development team, so our costs would be lower. If this were so, we could offer a better product for less money, and still make a profit. We would end up getting all the users, and our competitors would get none, and eventually go out of business. That was what we hoped would happen, anyway. What were the results of this experiment?
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Now that you can use any language, you have to think about which one to use. Companies that try to pretend nothing has changed risk finding that their competitors do not. If you can use any language, which do you use? For one thing, it was obvious that rapid development would be important in this market. We were all starting from scratch, so a company that could get new features done before its competitors would have a big advantage.
We knew Lisp was a really good language for writing software quickly, and server-based applications magnify the effect of rapid development, because you can release software the minute it's done. If other companies didn't want to use lisp, so much the better. It might give us a technological edge, and we needed all the help we could get. When we started viaweb, we had your no experience in business. We didn't know anything about marketing, or hiring people, or raising money, or getting customers. Neither of us had ever even had what you would call a real job. The only thing we were good at was writing software.
But a startup can't do what all the other startups. I don't think a lot of people realize this, even in startups. The average big company grows at about ten percent a year. So if you're running a big company and you do everything the way the average big company does it, you can expect to do as well as the average big company- that is, to grow about ten percent a year. The same thing will happen if you're running a startup, of course. If you do everything the way the average startup does it, you should expect average performance.
The problem here is, average performance means that you'll go out of business. The survival rate for startups is way less than fifty percent. So if you're running a startup, you had better be doing something odd. If not, you're in trouble. Back in 1995, we knew something that I don't think our competitors understood, and few understand even now: when you're writing software that only has to run on your own servers, you can use any language you want. When you're writing desktop software, there's a strong bias toward writing applications in the same language as the operating system. Ten years ago, writing applications meant writing applications. But with Web-based software, especially when you have the source code of both the language and the operating system, you can use whatever language you want. This new freedom is a double-edged sword, however.
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You either get rich, or you get nothing. In a startup, if you bet on the wrong technology, your competitors with will crush you. Robert and I both knew Lisp well, and we couldn't see any reason not to trust our instincts and go with Lisp. We knew that everyone else was writing their software in c or Perl. But we also knew that that didn't mean anything. If you chose technology that way, you'd be running Windows. When you choose technology, you have to ignore what other people are doing, and consider only what will work the best. This is especially true in a startup. In a big company, you can do what all the other big companies are doing.
But there is a contradiction in the conventional wisdom: Lisp will make you a better programmer, and yet you won't use. Programming languages are just tools, after all. If Lisp really does yield better programs, you should use. And if it doesn't, then who needs it? This is not just a theoretical question. Software is a very competitive business, prone mother to natural monopolies. A company that gets software written faster and better will, all other things being equal, put its competitors out of business. And when you're starting a startup, you feel this very keenly. Startups tend to be an all or nothing proposition.
computers speak whatever language you, the programmer, tell them. So if Lisp makes you a better programmer, like he says, why wouldn't you want to use it? If a painter were offered a brush that would make him a better painter, it seems to me that he would want to use it in all his paintings, wouldn't he? I'm not trying to make fun of Eric raymond here. On the whole, his advice is good. What he says about Lisp is pretty much the conventional wisdom.
Another unusual thing about this software was that it was written primarily in a programming write language called. It was one of the first big end-user applications to be written in Lisp, which up till then had been used mostly in universities and research labs. The secret weapon, eric raymond has written an essay called "How to become a hacker and in it, among other things, he tells would-be hackers what languages they should learn. He suggests starting with Python and. Java, because they are easy to learn. The serious hacker will also want to learn c, in order to hack Unix, and Perl for system administration and cgi scripts. Finally, the truly serious hacker should consider learning Lisp: Lisp is worth learning for the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it; that experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually. This is the same argument you tend to hear for learning Latin. It won't get you a job, except perhaps as a classics professor, but it will improve your mind, and make you a better writer in languages you do want to use, like english.
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Want to start a startup? Get funded by, y combinator. April 2003 (This article is derived from a talk given at the 2001 Franz. in the summer of 1995, my friend Robert Morris and I started a startup called, viaweb. Our plan was to write software that would let end users build online stores. What was novel about this software, at the time, was that it ran on our server, using ordinary web pages as the interface. A lot of people could have been having this idea at the same time, of course, but as far as i know, viaweb was the first Web-based application. It seemed such a novel idea to us that we named the company after it: viaweb, because our software worked via the web, mini instead of running on your desktop computer.