Why Philosophers Make Formidable Entrepreneurs

In my many meetings with fellow tech entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed that very few actually have a technology background. Even more surprising, I’ve found that a disproportionate number of them (especially the successful ones) majored in philosophy in college. It got me thinking, why is it that so many excellent tech entrepreneurs were originally philosophers?

Just to name a few of these folks so you get the picture, there’s Amol Sarva (Peek), Ken Reisman (TLists), Damon Horowitz (Aardvark), Patrick Byrne (Overstock), Josh Snyder (Treeline Labs), and of course Chris Dixon (Hunch). And that’s just off the top of my head!

Quite an impressive bunch! I’ve come up with a few hypotheses on how philosophy training makes entrepreneurs like these so formidable:

  • Philosophers seek to structure the world. So when confronted with all of the uncertainty and turbulence of a startup, they are able to structure a sensible plan that their teams can execute.
  • Philosophers are deeply analytical. Rather than run their businesses on pure gut instinct, they look for evidence. By applying their analytical powers, they are able to reduce business risk.
  • Philosophers strive to find deeper truths. To hire the best people for your team, you need a compelling vision. Philosophers try to identify these deeper truths, and they articulate them to attract the best talent.
  • Philosophers like to argue. Intense debate is a central feature of most philosophy classes. This gives philosophers an abundance of confidence in their points of view, which helps them raise money from investors.
  • Philosophers aren’t afraid of risk. After all, they chose to study philosophy in school! Anybody who goes into a field knowing there are no job opportunities must love taking a gamble.

Reading over my list, I almost wish I had studied philosophy as an undergrad! If you are still in school and want to be a tech entrepreneur, maybe it’s time to head on over to the philosophy department….

18 Responses to “Why Philosophers Make Formidable Entrepreneurs”

  1. 1 Greg Hills March 8, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    Don’t forget Reid Hoffman

  2. 2 Geoffrey March 8, 2010 at 8:00 PM

    Peter Thiel as well.

  3. 3 Roxanna March 8, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    Also the co-founder of Couchsurfing, Dan Hoffer

  4. 4 Scott Berkun March 8, 2010 at 8:40 PM

    I have a philosophy degree so I don’t want to go too far, but there are some basic oversights in your logic here. You’d have been much better off to qualify your points as “Entrepreneurs who studied philosophy” rather than generalizing to Philosophers in general.

    First of all, your sample size is quite small, and without thinking about the majority of philosophy majors who do not start companies (which I’d guess is the wide majority of them), it’s a mistake to assume the ones who are entrepreneurial represent the majority.

    Most philosophy majors I know, and I admit it’s a stereotype, are far from the profile you describe. We tend to be abstraction weenies – we love *abstract* arguments where taxonomies, inductive/deductive logic, and representation of the world (e.g. set theory) are the primary factors, rather than the realities of marketing, engineering and consumer whims. Even the more practical arms of philosophy, say ethics or aesthetics, work more as criticism of existing things in the world than creation.

    Philosophy in some ways is the most academic department in most American universities – it has the least practical application to the world given the way it’s typically taught and studied in most universities.

    I love the subject, I’m glad a majored in it, and there are things I’ve learned from Philosophy that definitely contribute to my career, but I’d never claim this was the general case.

    This is more a criticism of how Philosophy is taught in the U.S, rather than a criticism of the subject, or pursuit, itself.

  5. 5 Cedric March 8, 2010 at 8:43 PM

    Very well taken, very convincing – makes a lot of sense

  6. 6 Cedric March 8, 2010 at 8:46 PM

    (my comment was for the main article)

  7. 7 Amy March 8, 2010 at 8:56 PM

    Hi there!

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that the study of philosophy can enhance one’s ability to take on the world, including as an entrepreneur.

    But in the spirit of philosophical education, I have to point out that your argument as formulated is flawed to the core.

    You first make a selection bias. Instead of looking at the whole spectrum of entrepreneurs, or philosophers, you chose to find examples of what you were looking for and listed only them. We have no idea of what percentage of successful entrepreneurs studied philosophy, or failed philosophy, or how many philosophy majors never did anything entrepreneurial at all.

    Second up, and related, you fall prey to the error called “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” or in a language with a heartbeat, “after this and so because of this.” In other words, you didn’t present evidence that shows that philosophy education was related to those entrepreneur’s successes.

    Thirdly, you make a composition error. You talk about “Philosophers” as a broad category, as if they are all the same. Unfortuantely, that’s not simply not the case, as Scott’s post points out. Just knowing a few philosophy students will disabuse you of that notion, and fast.

    Not to mention – who defines success? As far as I can tell, none of those startups have made any money.

    I really don’t mean to rain on your parade; I’m a firm believer in the power of philosophy (and rhetoric).

    But by tackling these logical fallacies, you can make your argument stronger next time.

  8. 8 samidh March 8, 2010 at 9:02 PM

    I love how the philosophers have taken to my blog to point out all the problems with the logic of my arguments. Next time, I will conduct a three-stage randomized study before I make any assertions at all. If you want to provide me a grant to take up this topic, please be my guest! ;-)

  9. 9 Amy March 8, 2010 at 9:22 PM

    I’m not a philosopher, I’m an entrepreneur. I just happen to read a lot of books.

    It’s a luxury to convince yourself of something that isn’t true through bad logic. Lots of people fail because they’d rather defend their ideas, whether or not they’re right. Sometimes you luck out and your poorly thought-out ideas are right, coincidentally. Most of the time they’re not.

    On the other hand, if you had kept your post to observations as opposed to an explanation (that was really more of a justification / generalization), there would have been no flaws to pick at. :)

    Reality > Hopes. That’s what it comes down to. Cultivate a love of reality and truth and you are going to have an advantage over the people who tell themselves charming, pleasing lies.

  10. 10 Scott Berkun March 8, 2010 at 9:55 PM


    Since you’re pleading ignorance on philosophy, you might also plead ignorance of argument.

    Forget what degree I have – I’ll speak plainly. Your argument is lame, and your defense is worse :)

    First, you didn’t bother to ask any of the people you mentioned if *they* thought their philosophy degree helped them become entrepreneurs. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but your making a big guess. We’re asking questions about that guess.

    Second, Amy’s post offers you a bunch of simple ways to think about how to construct better arguments and think more clearly. Which ironically is what philosophers are supposed to be good at.

    Third, your response here deserves some attention:

    > Next time, I will conduct a three-stage randomized
    > study before I make any assertions at all. If you
    > want to provide me a grant to take up this topic,
    > please be my guest! ;-)

    To refute an argument by mockery doesn’t say much for your argument (And to be all philo-weenie on you, the specifc kind of pseudo-argument you’re making is Reductio ad absurdum).

    Here’s a real bet: If you read Amy’s post and then reread your own article with her points in mind, I’d bet you that grant that your thinking on this post, and future posts, would be improved dramatically.


  11. 11 samidh March 8, 2010 at 10:41 PM

    Apologies to Scott and Amy. I was just trying to be playful, not flippant. You are both absolutely correct that there are ways that my logic could be enhanced. The post was simply based upon my casual observations, which I hoped might be of some value to the community. But keep up the vigorous debate. I enjoy your insights.

  12. 12 Scott Berkun March 8, 2010 at 11:09 PM

    Hey, thanks for clarifying. All for playful :)

  13. 13 Robi Ganguly March 8, 2010 at 11:53 PM

    Wow. Scott and Amy (being a philosopher doesn’t require that you have formal training, btw) certainly exemplify points 1 – 4 above, don’t they? Samidh writes a short post that’s thought-provoking and it turns into a very analytical, structured, truth-searching debate. Nice.

    As someone trying his hand at entrepreneurship with a background in Philosophy (along w/ Politics & Econ..), I’ll add my voice to the discussion/debate by saying that my study of Philosophy helped me structure my thinking. Importantly, it taught me to always challenge my own perception, learning over time that my decisions and conclusions are just mine. In order to step outside of yourself and really collaborate with a team, to make something bigger than just you and your ego, entrepreneurs have to be able to step into the shoes of their teammates and their customers. For me, the study of Philosophy lasts your entire life and hopefully, assists your thinking, giving you an understanding about how to work most productively with groups of people in building something new.

  14. 14 McGee March 9, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    Scott and Amy,

    While I agree with your general contention that Samidh generalizes about what skills philosophers have, I think you are unnecessarily hard on him. Moreover, I think you commit another logical error which in technical terms I think is called “jumping to conclusion,” (forgot the Latin on that).

    Without getting into detail, Samidh doesn’t make an argument at all, nor arrive at any conclusions. He simply says that he’s noticed in his experience, that entrepreneurs that he has met have tended to have philosophy backgrounds rather than technical ones. This is a fact not in dispute. Nowhere does he then claim that all entrepreneurs are philosophy students, nor that philosophy students necessarily make good entrepreneurs (though some of them might, at least somewhat owing to the relatively non-controversial skills that Samidh claims philosophers have). He simply asks why so many tech entrepreneurs (in the sample size of people that he has met), were originally philosophers?

    He then offers some possible hypotheses (calling them hypotheses is an admission that they are simply educated guesses, not substantiated claims). For what? Not to claim why all philosophers make good entrepreneurs, but to show “how philosophy training makes entrepreneurs like these so formidable.” In other words, on why these particular people, who are already entrepreneurs (and for a variety of other reasons, including randomness), also have this set of skills that may contribute to being successful (though these skills/tools are by no means, nor are claimed to be, necessary or sufficient to be a successful entrepreneur, they are simply things shared amongst this set of people).

    Then looking at this set of skills/tools, I’d say they are pretty uncontroversial, with one minor exception (i.e. “philosophers aren’t afraid of risk” – Kant never leaving his hometown might demonstrate otherwise – though certainly philosophers must take risks in their critical thinking).

    Samidh actually does not imply that all philosophers would make good entrepreneurs.

    Of course, if Samidh had been claiming just that, you would be perfectly correct, and I do appreciate your commitment to precision in logic, it is a deep problem that is responsible for many errors in our thinking that then become too subtle to notice.

  15. 15 Adam March 10, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    As a hypothesis, I think Samidh’s reflections are interesting – especially to any of us who have studied philosophy and ultimately pursued entrepreneurship. Samidh’s first observation resonates with me, as I can see the connection between the pursuit of theories and structures to categorize and explain the unexplained in philosophy (resulting in new forms of meaning) and the need for an entrepreneur to do the same in identifying a relevant market need, establishing the vision for a new means to meet that need, and articulating and selling that vision to shareholders, employees and customers. Contrary to one of the comments above, it is precisely the penchant for abstraction and theorizing that I see connecting the philosopher to the entrepreneur – since the entrepreneur needs to identify, express and defend a vision that is not infrequently at odds with some of the mess of “facts on the ground” – adjusting to marketplace realities, while nonetheless maintaining some semblance of a unified theory of why his or her business makes sense. In that regard, I would imagine (based on pure speculation) that there’s a stronger nexus between those interested in Continental philosophy and entrepreneurship, than between the latter and students of Analytic philosophy. (The hard-core analytic types end up working for the entrepreneur in functional roles ironing out all of those inconvenient marketplace dynamics that don’t fit the entrepreneur’s vision:-) As for Kant, I think he was a hell of a risk-taker intellectually (by taking on and seeking to overthrow whole “markets of ideas” that had preceded him), even if he didn’t demonstrate the same fearlessness in his personal life (consistent with the idea that philosophers must at a minimum take risks in their critical thinking). Finally, as several of the comments have indicated, we’re inevitably going to run into a semantic issue when trying to speak generally about “philosophers” – which is why for Samidh’s three part study I would focus on the constituent attributes of the dreamers and truth-seekers who study certain types of philosophy (and theology) and then re-express these interests in an entrepreneurial business context (one of the few “professional” pursuits where dreaming and hypothesizing without a license are sometimes valued!)

  16. 16 Jeff March 18, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    Great post..

    Two years ago, however, I hired a Philosophy major. As it turns out, it could not have worked out better. Our resident Philosophy major was no stranger to hard work and analytical rigor.

    … elaborated at http://bit.ly/d5lSR8

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Welcome to the blog of Samidh Chakrabarti, which revolves around the topic of innovation (from technology to entrepreneurship to policy), sprinkled with ample doses of et cetera.

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