Startup books #2: Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky, by Sarah Lacy

Community, Continents, Innovators, Markets, Social enterprises, Startups



July 31, 2014

As we prepare our second year of travels to explore the startup ecosystems of the emerging markets, it’s the perfect timing to learn from previous explorers. “Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky – How the top 1% of Entrepreneurs profit from Global Chaos” (Amazon), is one of these post-exploration book which tries to wrap-up in 200-250 pages the […]

As we prepare our second year of travels to explore the startup ecosystems of the emerging markets, it’s the perfect timing to learn from previous explorers. “Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky – How the top 1% of Entrepreneurs profit from Global Chaos” (Amazon), is one of these post-exploration book which tries to wrap-up in 200-250 pages the whole experience of meeting emerging scenes.

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The author, Sarah Lacy, has founded and is still running US tech blog Pando Daily, and she was previously writing for Techcrunch and Business Week. She spent 40 weeks on the road in Brazil, Israel, China, India, Indonesia and Rwanda, where she met entrepreneurs and startupers alike, as well as decision makers, government officials and local tycoons. The book also starts with a convincing reflection on where the US stands in the fast-moving environment.

Silicon Valley vs. Rest of the world: is America losing it?

Sarah starts, and ends, with the place the US should have as emerging entrepreneurial and tech ecosystems are growing around the world. “The West has two choices”, she says, “partner with them of get shoved out of the way”. We are completely in line with this vision, even though it will take time to become a reality in some parts of the world. Being based in Singapore and having visited about 8 countries this year, we can only acknowledge this absence of the US tech giants which make most of the western media actuality.

BRICS countries are already accounting for some 15% of the global economy and 3bn of its population, and, led by China in the short run, it’s going to grow faster than the Western world. As we saw during our review of Picooc, a Chinese smart body scale, China alone already records 25% of the machine to machine connections, also known as the internet of things. During our trip to Kenya, we also saw how widespread was the use of Mpesa, with 31% of the country’s GDP already transiting via this mobile money, especially among the unbanked. Back in France or in Singapore, it’s still a pain to pay anything without a credit card or a Paypal account.

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And, beyond the fact that the developing countries are now awake and moving fast, Sarah Lacy adds that the culture of risk in the US is in a bad shape. “Over the 100 years after the firsy immigrants passed through Ellis Island, the concept of entrepreneurship in America would change pretty dramatically”, she says. Two ideas shows how America might be losing it:

  • First, because the invention spirit of “making things” in the US is decreasing. As Marc Andreessen famously said, “software is eating the world”, and if Americans are good at it, Sarah Lacy still asserts that “by not making anything anymore, the United States is losing touch with how to invent”. By outsourcing to cheaper countries the supposedly less valuable part of the business, to China for the hardware or India for the customer service, American companies have indirectly empowered a generation of entrepreneurs to toy with new products and ideas. As of 2014, the US seem to be back on the track, through the new rise of robotics or the maker movement. Still, her point is valid.
  • Second, because the amount of money held by the VC & angel investors industry distorted the notion of risk itself. Even when you take into account the dot-com burst, VCs have more money than they have actual opportunities to fund great ideas. Sarah Lacy suggests two consequences. The first one is that the management fee VCs take from too much partners directing their funds into the Valley makes them less dependent on success fees. The second consequence is that with so much money available, most entrepreneurs don’t need to bootstrap, spam their friends and families, and live in the risk to launch a startup.

Sarah Lacy concludes this introduction by asserting that “If Silicon Valley were a stock, it would be Microsoft”. Now, it’s time to visit the other countries.

How Israel, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Rwanda emerges as entrepreneurial hubs

The trip in the emerging markets then begin, with a succession of personal stories, insights drawn from the comparison of different contexts, and some amazing stats.

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In Israel, it’s pretty clear the nature of the state itself, lost in a ocean of hostile countries (from their point of view, at least), with a strong influence of the army in the society, makes hardcore entrepreneurs. Living like there’s no tomorrow, and being so well connected to the US and other countries through the Jewish diaspora are two key factors to understand the dynamism of the local tech ecosystem. As a consequence, Israeli companies are particularly strong in security and cryptography.

China, a big double chapter of Lacy’s book, starts logically with Deng Xiaoping’s famous opening of the economy to the globalisation, back in the late 1970s, early 1980s. The case of Shenzhen, a fishing village 30 years ago, now a 15m strong metropolis of Chinese immigrants, hardware nerds and now at the heart of the maker/internet of things economy, is a living symbol of how fast things can go with a political decision and the classical industriousness of Chinese people. Sarah Lacy also shows that if the US are not yet very present abroad, the emerging markets have made the move already: “by the end of 2010, one quarter of all IPOs in the United States were for Chinese companies”. She also notes that Tencent owns 10% of Russian e-mail giant, and, we could add, South Africa’s Naspers has important stakes in both China’s Alibaba and India’s e-commerce success stories.

The visit of India is probably the most insightful chapter of the book, as it shows what Sarah Lacy names “the mighty micro-economy”. The concept tries to explain how it is possible for companies and entrepreneurs to reach a highly fragmented and poor market. Through SMS, missed calls, cheap and replicable infrastructure, entrepreneurs are able to distribute products, news, and “get in the villages”, the heart of India. Despite the amazing figures (more than 500m mobile phones in 2010 vs. only 3m in 2000), only 14m Indians work in the private sector, and a tiny 1 million in information technology jobs (this article of The Economist shows India creates too few jobs, and too few quality jobs, turning the “demographic dividend” into a “demographic challenge”.

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Mind these guys!

What are BRICS startups like? Find 5 *big* ones and a comparative analysis here


Brazil’s story is somehow more disappointing, probably because despite being more diversified, with a bigger share of middle-class than the other BRICS countries (with 50%), the growth is slower“While Brazil has gained attention from Wall Street investors for government-owned behemoths, very few early stage venture capitalists invest in Brazil”, says Sarah Lacy. We’ll be watching closely how neighbouring Chile is doing this year as one of our team member lives there.

Indonesia is, according to the author, “The emerging world’s big secret”, and, as we are based in Singapore, we could not agree more. With 250m inhabitants, it’s also nicknamed the social media capital of the world for its huge use of Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare. The country, with its 17 000 islands, a tradition for corruption and a lack of infrastructure, don’t make things easy, but it’s clearly a gigantic country with huge projections where you won’t see too many foreigners.

The trip of Sarah Lacy ends with the case of Rwanda, a country who decided after the 1994 genocide to position itself as the Dubai or Singapore of Africa. It’s now a safe place with a very positive track record for education, and a lot of tax incentives and support to become the Hub of the next fast-growing continent after Asia and India. Today, Africa’s collective GDP is equivalent to Brazil’s or Russia’s, says Lacy, but with a young population and fast-spreading mobile technologies, this is the continent of growth for the next 10 to 20 years

Key takeaway from Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: the role of culture, government and diasporas in entrepreneurship

All in all, the main takeaway we can read between the lines of these different stories is the role of culture in entrepreneurship. Without reducing the motivation of entrepreneurs to clichés, it’s still valuable to understand that protestantism in the US, hinduism in India, the survivalist spirit of Israelis all explain part of what makes people move and act when they start a business.

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That’s the role of a government: promoting entrepreneurship through a legal framework. Here, the 2013 Constitution of Kenya spares 30% of all public tenders to companies founded by below 25, women, disabled.

These stories should also help governments and cities who intend to nurture local tech & business ecosystems to understand nothing can be done overnight, and that changing the culture starts with education and role models. In Singapore for instance, naysayers will tell you that as the city-state has “nothing to solve”, it can’t be entrepreneurial. You can take a very different view on this by also showing which problems Singapore faces, from demographic unbalance to low happiness levels – at least in polls – and an ageing population. All of these issues are not as sexy as the latest social media app, but they need an answer from entrepreneurs. You can read Singapore-based VC Vinnie Lauria’s point of view on Forbes to have a better overview of the situation there.

Last but not least, it’s pretty clear migration and diasporas play a growing role in connecting entrepreneurs at home with money or opportunities abroad. Sarah Lacy shows how powerful are Indians in the Valley, as they invented the USB standard, Intel’s Pentium processor, and Hotmail, and have bred amazing founders such as Vinod Khosla (Sun Microsystems, now a prominent VC) and, for a more recent piece of news, Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella.

Definitely a book to read, be it only for the trip you can make from home and the comparative analysis anyone can draw of seeing different countries seen through the lens of entrepreneurship. To buy on Amazon here!