Tuesday, November 5, 2013, Hemant Taneja and I met for the first time.
We sat at the bar at Café Luxembourg on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He talked about why he’d invested in a couple of young companies that at the time were barely whiffs of smoke: Stripe and Snapchat. He got philosophical about why he invested in them. The companies connected to his beliefs about how technology was reshaping the economy and our lives.
That conversation was the first time I heard the word “unscaling.”
In my work writing about technology and society, I try to get at the meaning of technology. I get introduced to founders and venture capitalists constantly, and while they’re all smart and driven, most are focused on their particular thing. They don’t lift their heads and see the context – see the history behind them and the history they are about to make. Hemant seemed different. He seemed to want to understand the context first, and then look for a startup that might fit into it. So, I figured, he would at least be useful for some ongoing insights.
We next met at his General Catalyst office – the bland, could-be-anywhere-in-Silicon-Valley old office that GC occupied before it moved into classier digs on Palo Alto’s University Avenue. Over the next year or so, we met a few times more — a coffee here, a beer there. We kept coming back to the topic of unscaling, talking about the grand forces that were taking apart the old economy and reassembling it into something new. Hemant wrote a piece about unscaling for Harvard Business Review. And I wrote a couple of Newsweek columns that referred to unscaling, using it as a way to explain, for instance, the rise of Donald Trump.
At some point, Hemant said, “We should write a book about this.” It seemed like a good idea. I wasn’t sure he was serious. Turned out, he was.
The foundation for the book got started on a whiteboard in a conference room at GC’s office in New York City. We sketched out the idea that in the 2010s, startups are able to rent scale from platforms such as Amazon Web Services or Salesforce.com, compared to last century when corporations had to build their own scale. This allowed upstart companies to get into business quickly and compete head-to-head with established giants. Over time, the concepts anchoring the book would grow ever more rich, but they started in that room as we thought through the implications of renting scale.
From there, the machinations of creating a book took over. We turned to Jim Levine, who has represented high-caliber people like Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt and Bridgewater Associates Chief Ray Dalio, to be our agent. We eventually sold the book to Public Affairs Books. The editor who bought it was John Mahaney, who was the editor of my very first book, Megamedia Shakeout, published in 1995.
Over the next year, we met regularly either at GC in Palo Alto or somewhere in New York, brainstorming ideas and talking through how to write about our concepts. To get real stories that illustrate unscaling, we interviewed a constellation of startup founders and CEOs. Many are in Hemant’s portfolio, but quite a few are not. We also turned to great published works about the grand economic and technology trends of our time – books such as Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, by Carlota Perez; The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly, and Abundance, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.
It would be incorrect to say that I was the writer and Hemant was the thinker. We crossed into each other’s territory often. I brought some new thinking to the table; Hemant brought a terrific sense of clear thinking to the writing process. Chapter by chapter, the book emerged.
By the end, we both knew a hell of a lot more than when we started. We brought a difficult idea to life, and – we hope – made it accessible. We hope this book helps people understand their world a little better, and we hope it will inform and influence policymakers, who will have a lot of unscaling-driven issues to tackle in the coming decade.
— Kevin Maney