How to Make Wealth

There are a lot of ways to get rich, but this essay is about only one of them. This essay is about how to make money by creating wealth and getting paid for it. There are plenty of other ways to get money, including chance, speculation, marriage, inheritance, theft, extortion, fraud, monopoly, graft, lobbying, counterfeiting, and prospecting. Most of the greatest fortunes have probably involved several of these. However, the advantage of creating wealth, as a way to get rich, is not just that it’s more legitimate but that it’s more straightforward. You just have to do something people want.

If you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. Wealth is as old as human history, while money is a comparatively recent invention. Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.

Wealth is what you want, not money. But if wealth is the important thing, why does everyone talk about making money? It is a kind of shorthand: money is a way of moving wealth, and in practice they are usually interchangeable. But they are not the same thing, and unless you plan to get rich by counterfeiting, talking about making money can make it harder to understand how to make money.

Money is a side effect of specialization. In a specialized society, most of the things you need, you can’t make for yourself. If you want a potato or a pencil or a place to live, you have to get it from someone else. How do you get the person who grows potatoes to give you some? By giving him something he wants in return. But you can’t get very far by trading things directly with the people who need them. If you make violins, and none of the local farmers wants one, how will you eat?

The solution societies find, as they get more specialized, is to make the trade into a two-step process. Instead of trading violins directly for potatoes, you trade violins for, say, silver, which you can then trade again for anything else you need. The intermediate stuff—the medium of exchange—can be anything that’s rare and portable. Historically metals have been the most common, but recently we’ve been using a medium of exchange, called the dollar, that doesn’t physically exist. It works as a medium of exchange, however, because its rarity is guaranteed by the U.S. Government. The advantage of a medium of exchange is that it makes trade work. The disadvantage is that it tends to obscure what trade really means. People think that what a business does is make money. But money is just the intermediate stage for whatever people want. What most businesses really do is make wealth. They do something people want.

A surprising number of people retain from childhood the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world. When wealth is talked about in this context, it is often described as a pie. “You can’t make the pie larger,” say politicians. When you’re talking about the amount of money in one family’s bank account, or the amount available to a government from one year’s tax revenue, this is true. If one person gets more, someone else has to get less. However, those far removed from the creation of wealth—undergraduates, reporters, politicians—believe that if a few rich people have all the money, it leaves less for everyone else. This fallacy is usually there in the background when you hear someone talking about how x percent of the population have y percent of the wealth.

What leads people astray here is the abstraction of money. Money is not wealth. It’s just something we can use to move wealth around. So although there may be, in certain specific moments (like your family, this month) a fixed amount of money available for you to trade with other people for the things you want, there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history.

Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is—and you specifically are—one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell the car, you’ll get more for it. In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven’t made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie. And in fact, when you look at it this way, you wonder why anyone would think there was.

Wealth can also be created without being sold. Scientists, until recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created. We are all richer for knowing about penicillin, because we’re less likely to die from infections. Wealth is whatever people want, and not dying is certainly something we want.

A company—if it wants to continue to exist—must make money, and the way most companies make money is by creating wealth. Companies can be so specialized that this similarity is concealed, but nearly all companies exist to do something people want. And that’s what you do, as well, when you go to work for a company. But here there is another layer that tends to obscure the underlying reality. In a company, the work you do is averaged together with a lot of other people’s. You may not even be aware you’re doing something people want. Your contribution may be indirect. But the company as a whole must be giving people something they want, or they won’t make any money. And if they are paying you x dollars a year, then on average you must be contributing at least x dollars a year worth of work, or the company will be spending more than it makes, and will go out of business.

Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job, as if the important thing were becoming a member of an institution. A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that. A company is just a group of people working together to do something people want. But it’s doing something people want that matters, not joining the group.

For most people the best plan probably is to go to work for some existing company. But it is a good idea to understand what’s happening when you do this. A job means doing something people want, averaged together with everyone else in that company. That averaging gets to be a problem. One of the biggest problems afflicting large companies is the difficulty of assigning a value to each person’s work. For the most part they punt. In a big company you get paid a fairly predictable salary for working fairly hard. You’re expected not to be obviously incompetent or lazy, but you’re not expected to devote your whole life to your work.

It turns out, though, that there are economies of scale in how much of your life you devote to your work. In the right kind of business, someone who really devoted himself to work could generate ten or even a hundred times as much wealth as an average employee. A programmer, for example, instead of chugging along maintaining and updating an existing piece of software, could write a whole new piece of software, and with it create a new source of revenue. Companies are not set up to reward people who want to do this. You can’t go to your boss and say, I’d like to start working ten times as hard, so will you please pay me ten times as much? For one thing, the official fiction is that you are already working as hard as you can. But a more serious problem is that the company has no way of measuring the value of your work. If you want to go faster, it’s a problem to have your work tangled together with a large number of other people’s. In a large group, your performance is not separately measurable—and the rest of the group slows you down.

Measurement and Leverage

To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things: measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.

Measurement alone is not enough. An example of a job with measurement but not leverage is doing piecework in a sweatshop. Your performance is measured, and you get paid accordingly, but you have no scope for decisions. The only decision you get to make is how fast you work, and that can probably only increase your work by a factor of two or three. An example of a job with both measurement and leverage would be lead actor in a movie. Your performance can be measured in the gross of the movie. And you have leverage in the sense that your performance can make or break it. CEOs also have both measurement and leverage. They’re measured in that the performance of the company is their performance. And they have leverage in that their decisions set the whole company moving in one direction or another. Everyone who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage (i.e. CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes, etc.).

A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure. Upside must be balanced by downside, so if there is big potential for gain there must also be a terrifying possibility of loss. CEOs, stars, fund managers, and athletes all live with the sword hanging over their heads; the moment they start to suck, they’re out. If you’re in a job that feels safe, you are not going to get rich, because if there is no danger there is almost certainly no leverage.

If you can’t measure the value of the work done by individual employees, you can get close. You can measure the value of the work done by small groups. One level at which you can accurately measure the revenue generated by employees is at the level of the whole company. When the company is small, you are thereby fairly close to measuring the contributions of individual employees. A viable startup might only have ten employees, which puts you within a factor of ten of measuring individual effort.

A big company is like a giant galley driven by a thousand rowers. Two things keep the speed of the galley down. One is that individual rowers don’t see any result from working harder. The other is that, in a group of a thousand people, the average rower is likely to be pretty average. If you took ten people at random out of the big galley and put them in a boat by themselves, they could probably go faster. They would have both carrot and stick to motivate them. An energetic rower would be encouraged by the thought that he could have a visible effect on the speed of the boat. And if someone was lazy, the others would be more likely to notice and complain.

But the real advantage of the ten-man boat shows when you take the ten best rowers out of the big galley and put them in a boat together. They will have all the extra motivation that comes from being in a small group. But more importantly, by selecting that small group you can get the best rowers. Each one will be in the top 1%. It’s a much better deal for them to average their work together with a small group of their peers than to average it with everyone. That’s the real point of startups. Ideally, you are getting together with a group of other people who also want to work a lot harder, and get paid a lot more, than they would in a big company. And because startups tend to get founded by self-selecting groups of ambitious people who already know one another (at least by reputation), the level of measurement is more precise than you get from smallness alone. A startup is not merely ten people, but ten people like you.

Steve jobs once said that the success or failure of a startup depends on the first ten employees. Being small is not, in itself, what makes startups kick butt, but rather that small groups can be selective. You don’t want small in the sense of a village, but small in the sense of an all-star team. The larger the group, the closer its average member will be to the average for the population as a whole. So all other things being equal, a very able person in a big company is probably getting a bad deal, because his performance is dragged down by the overall lower performance of the others. Of course, all other things often are not equal: the able person may not care about money, or may prefer the stability of a large company. But a very able person who does care about money will ordinarily do better to go off and work with a small group of peers.

Startups offer anyone a way to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. They allow measurement because they’re small, and they offer leverage because they make money by inventing new technology. What is technology? It’s technique. It’s the way we all do things. And when you discover a new way to do things, its value is multiplied by all the people who use it. It is the proverbial fishing rod rather than the fish. That’s the difference between a startup and a restaurant or a barber shop. You fry eggs or cut hair one customer at a time. Whereas if you solve a technical problem that a lot of people care about, you help everyone who uses your solution. That’s leverage.

Starting or joining a startup is probably your best bet at getting rich. It’s been a reliable way to get rich for hundreds of years. The word “startup” dates from the 1960s, but what happens in one is very similar to the venture-backed trading voyages of the Middle Ages. Startups usually involve technology, so much so that the phrase “high-tech startup” is almost redundant. A startup is a small company that takes on a hard technical problem. If you look at history, it seems that most people who got rich by creating wealth did it by developing new technology. You just can’t fry eggs or cut hair fast enough. What made the Florentines rich in 1200 was the discovery of new techniques for making the high-tech product of the time, fine woven cloth. What made the Dutch rich in 1600 was the discovery of shipbuilding and navigation techniques that enabled them to dominate the seas of the Far East.

Fortunately there is a natural fit between smallness and solving hard problems. The leading edge of technology moves fast. Technology that’s valuable today could be worthless in a couple years. Small companies are more at home in this world, because they don’t have layers of bureaucracy to slow them down. Also, technical advances tend to come from unorthodox approaches, and small companies are less constrained by convention.

Big companies can develop technology. They just can’t do it quickly. Their size makes them slow and prevents them from rewarding employees for the extraordinary effort required. So in practice big companies only get to develop technology in fields where large capital requirements prevent startups from competing with them, like microprocessors, power plants, or passenger aircraft. And even in those fields they depend heavily on startups for components and ideas.

It’s obvious that biotech or software startups exist to solve hard technical problems, but it will also be found true in businesses that don’t seem to be about technology. McDonald’s, for example, grew big by designing a system, the McDonald’s franchise, that could then be reproduced at will all over the face of the earth. A McDonald’s franchise is controlled by rules so precise that it is practically a piece of software. Write once, run everywhere. Ditto for Wal-Mart. Sam Walton got rich not by being a retailer, but by designing a new kind of store.

However, if it were simply a matter of working harder than an ordinary employee and getting paid proportionately, it would obviously be a good deal to start a startup. Up to a point, it would also be more fun. Most people don’t like the slow pace of big companies, the interminable meetings, the water-cooler conversations, the clueless middle managers, and so on. Unfortunately there are a couple catches. One is that you can’t decide, for example, that you’d like to work just two or three times as hard, and get paid that much more. When you’re running a startup, your competitors decide how hard you work. And they pretty much all make the same decision: as hard as you possibly can. The other catch is that the payoff is only on average proportionate to your productivity. There is a large random multiplier in the success of any company. So in practice the deal is not that you’re 30 times as productive and get paid 30 times as much. It is that you’re 30 times as productive, and get paid between zero and a thousand times as much. If the mean is 30x, the median is probably zero. Most startups tank, and not just the dogfood portals we all heard about during the Internet Bubble. It’s common for a startup to be developing a genuinely good product, take slightly too long to do it, run out of money, and have to shut down. A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito. Startups, like mosquitos, tend to be an all-or-nothing proposition. And you don’t generally know which of the two you’re going to get until the last minute. The closest you can get is by selling your startup in the early stages, giving up upside (and risk) for a smaller but guaranteed payoff.

Letting the Nerds Keep Their Lunch Money

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally, these had a bad reputation. Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.

A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.

Remember what a startup is economically: a way of saying, I want to work faster. Instead of accumulating money slowly by being paid a regular wage for fifty years, I want to get it over with as soon as possible. So governments that forbid you to accumulate wealth are in effect decreeing that you work slowly. They’re willing to let you earn $3 million over fifty years, but they’re not willing to let you work so hard that you can do it in two. They are like the corporate boss that you can’t go to and say, I want to work ten times as hard, so please pay me ten times as much. Except this is not a boss you can escape by starting your own company. The problem with working slowly is not just that technical innovation happens slowly. It’s that it tends not to happen at all. It’s only when you’re deliberately looking for hard problems, as a way to use speed to the greatest advantage, that you can take on this kind of project. Developing new technology is hard. It is, as Edison said, one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Without the incentive of wealth, no one wants to do it.

Startups are not just something that happened in Silicon Valley in the last couple decades. Since it became possible to get rich by creating wealth, everyone who has done it has used essentially the same recipe: measurement and leverage, where measurement comes from working with a small group, and leverage comes from developing new techniques. The recipe was the same in Florence in 1200 as it is in Santa Clara today.

Understanding this may help to understand an important question: why Europe grew so powerful. Was it something about the geography of Europe? Was it that Europeans are somehow racially superior? Was it their religion? The answer (or at least the proximate cause) may be that the Europeans rode on the crest of a powerful new idea: allowing those who made a lot of money to keep it. Once you’re allowed to do that, people who want to get rich can do it by generating wealth instead of stealing it. The resulting technological growth translates not only into wealth but into military power. The theory that led to the stealth plane was developed by a Soviet mathematician. But because the Soviet Union didn’t have a computer industry, it remained for them a theory; they didn’t have hardware capable of executing the calculations fast enough to design an actual airplane. In that respect, the Cold War teaches the same lesson as World War II and, for that matter, most wars in recent history. Don’t let a ruling class of warriors and politicians squash the entrepreneurs. The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful. Let the nerds keep their lunch money, and you rule the world.