“No idea, no matter how good, is unique.” Entrepreneur Charles Ardai on what not to assume in business

Charles Ardai wore his best pair of shorts to his first job interview at age 13.
Charles Ardai wore his best pair of shorts to his first job interview at age 13.
Image: Katherine Finkelstein
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Quartz interviewed Charles Ardai, a managing director of the DE Shaw group, chairman of the board of directors of the computational chemistry company Schrödinger, founder and CEO of Juno (he took the company public); publisher of Hard Case Crime, pulp fiction writer, a consulting producer on the SyFy channel series Haven, and father of Evidence.

We asked him what advice he had to offer our readers; these are his answers. You might also enjoy reading the main interview, The banker who asked Stephen King for a blurb and got a book instead.

In Ardai’s own words:

The three things never to assume: The most important advice I got growing up was not to assume that just because something has never been done before, it can’t be done; that just because something is not normally done by someone my age, I shouldn’t; that the risk that I might do something badly is a reason not to do it. These three principles are responsible for most of what I’ve accomplished, and it started when I was ten. I decided I wanted to publish an article in the New York Daily News. So I wrote 300 words about a store called the Compleat Strategist that sold role-playing games and related paraphernalia; it was around the time of the Dungeons and Dragons craze in the late 70s. And the Daily News took it. It was the first published piece I had.

When I was 13, the first generation of videogames came out – Atari, Coleco, Intellivision. And suddenly there were a dozen new magazines covering video games. I had the insight that these magazines might want young writers. So I put on my best pair of short pants – God only knows why I thought that was a good idea, but that’s what I did – and I went to the office of one that was published near where I lived in Manhattan, and I said I wanted to speak to the editor. I think they must’ve thought I was someone’s child; otherwise why would they have let me in the office? But they did.

The editor was on the phone with someone and he said, “I have to hang up, there’s some kid in short pants standing in my doorway.”

Isaac Asimov was a mentor to the young Ardai.
Isaac Asimov was a mentor to the young Ardai.
Image: AP Photo / Mario Suriani

I told him, “I’m a good writer and I want to write for your magazine.” He said if I wrote a sample review for him, he’d look at it. I did, and he did, and I wound up writing dozens of reviews for him over the next year. Now, I don’t think there was a boy in my high school who didn’t have the fantasy of getting free video games and getting paid 50 dollars a pop to write about them — but I’m the one who put on the short pants and barged into the editor’s office. I wasn’t necessarily a better writer than all the other kids, but I put on the damn pants.

No idea, no matter how good, is unique. When I came up with the idea for a free email service, there was a competitor that had the same idea more or less simultaneously. Sort of like the way two people came up with Calculus simultaneously. Our service became Juno, which is still around, and the other company was called Freemark, and is long gone, but at the start, we were neck-and-neck; only neither of us knew about the existence of the other. The lesson here is, whatever idea you have, someone else has had it too. I’ve seen this over and over again with two people bringing me the same “new” business idea six months apart. And it’s not because the idea got stolen. That happens, but very rarely. What happens much more often is that two people faced with the same circumstances come up with the same idea. That leads me to another conclusion, which is that…

…Speed is very important. Always assume you’re in a race. And generally finishing second doesn’t mean getting half the glory, it means getting nothing. There have been other publishers since Hard Case Crime that have brought out pulp-style hard-boiled crime novels, but Hard Case Crime got all the publicity and the attention. Not just because our books were good but because we planted our flag first.