General Magic is the documentary of the company of the same name. It’s the story of a special team trying to make a difference building products in the early 90’s technology industry. I didn’t expect it to encapsulate almost every modern lesson about building products and companies.

Some notes I took as I was watching:

  • The importance of an inspiring vision that can both motivate talented people to come work for you, but also doesn’t require you to over manage every part of how things are done. This is particularly true in early stages when a company is just taking shape.
  • The importance of bringing the right people in the room. General Magic employed the most creative and talented people in the industry - part of the reason why it was able to create such an innovative products.
  • Related to above - the product monoculture eventually led to their downfall, because while they loved to build, they did so thinking only of themselves as customers vs. their actual target consumer.
  • Ignoring the internet - just like Blackberry did when the iPhone came out, General Magic ignored important market signals like the advent and popularity of the internet.
  • Open vs. Closed - While General Magic’s downfall wasn’t attributed directly to this, the fact is they built a closed network at a time the world was going in the opposite direction.
  • The importance of shipping and learning - Towards the end, General Magic was struggling just to get a product out the door. They suffered from the quintessential problem that “perfect is the enemy of done.”
  • Building something nobody wanted - Ultimately General Magic failed because of the same reasons most startups today fail - they build something no one actually needed. Engineers ignored user research and built for themselves. Which is why the 3000 devices that were sold were mostly friends and family of General Magic employees.
  • Believing your own hype - Inspiring vision can wake you up in the morning but beware of getting too caught up in your own PR. At best it’s a distraction, at worst it creates a reality distortion field. The latter happened to General Magic.
  • Good Management matters - Related to the lesson around shipping - General Magic were great creatives but poor managers. Dates kept getting pushed because of scope creep that didn’t add any meaningful value.
  • Market Timing - Probably one of the most important lessons. General Magic as a company was a failure but the team and the ideas definitely were not. Ultimately the same team manifested the same vision but at a different time.
  • Public failure, mental health, and the personal attachment to work. The best part of working in an environment like General Magic is it feels like your life’s work. The worst part is how closely your identity becomes tied with the success and failures. This can create great anxiety and personal trouble that are hard to recover from. This is true now more than ever.
  • The valley’s signature qualities that make it a great place to start companies - acceptance / celebration of failure, and paying it forward to the next generation.
  • The importance of shipping fast and iterating - the iPod shipped a new generation every year (the iPhone is following suit) - a complete departure from the General Magic approach of waiting until everything was perfect.

General Magic was one of the original tech ‘mafias’ - the team went on the found and lead some of the most important companies in modern history. All of these lessons ring true today, which is an amazing legacy in itself.