How to Know Your Argument is Hitting the Point: The Reply Misses It

A while ago, a serial entrepreneur/writer Penelope Trunk wrote a piece on TechCrunch about why few women begin a startup. (Note: here, "startup" means a type of company, usually a technology company, aimed at dominating the world, like Google/Facebook/Amazon. It is different from family business or freelancing.) She says women are not wired toward making companies bigger because their desire to have children gets in the way.


Women are under real pressure to have kids, though. They have a biological clock. So women who are the typical age of entrepreneurs—25—need to be looking for someone to mate with. Think about it. If you want to have kids before you’re 35—when your biological clock explodes—then you need to start when you’re 30, allowing for one miscarriage, which is more probable than most young people think. If you need to start having kids when you’re 30, you probably need to meet the guy you’re going to marry by the time you’re 27, so you can date for a year, get married, and live together for a year before kids. If you need to meet that guy by 27, you are very distracted during your prime startup time.


A reply was soon posted from Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur turned academic and a frequent TechCrunch contributor. He debunks Penelope's account with an abundance of data, saying many women with children have succeeded in startups, while other successful entrepreneurs have chosen not to have children.


My research team systematically analyzed the backgrounds of 652 startup founders in the tech industry. We looked not just at the narrow slice of tech companies that gets featured most often on TechCrunch, but at the broader universe—those that economists, professors, and the general public would call high-technology companies. And then we studied the backgrounds of a sample of 549 company founders of companies in 12 industries that grow as fast as those in technology, and are equally important to the U.S. economy. Our research focused on “successful” startups—those that had made it out of the garage, had employees, and were actually generating revenue.


To summarize, Penelope Trunk told the truth* and Vivek Wadhwa counter-argued it with fact. I don't know who is right. Certainly I am inclined to believe Penelope Trunk's story more because she's been there and done that, and also because she is a master of persuasion (one of the most important characteristics of a serial entrepreneur). But in the end, maybe both are right, despite the disagreement. It is because they are talking about different subjects.


Penelope Trunk explores why women are not inclined to begin startups, while Vivek Wadhwa data highlights how many women have already done so. If we live in a perfect world where we don't have to do something we are not especially willing to do, then Vivek Wadhwa beautifully refuted Penelope Trunk's argument. Well, welcome to the real world; most of us work long hours, eat obsessively and break commitments to a long-time relationships. The connection between goal and action is always fuzzy. Sometimes it doesn't exist.

  • Q: Why are women not initiating startups?
  • A: There are many women founders in startups.

The reply might be correct, but answers a different question.


I remember a similar discussion regarding Microsoft's position in the technology world. Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and writer, wrote an article titled Microsoft is dead a few years ago. Don Dodge at Microsoft's Emerging Business Team (at that time) passionately retorted that it wasn't at all. Paul Graham then clarified the issue.


When I wrote that Microsoft was dead, I didn't mean it literally. I couldn't have. Companies aren't alive, so they can't die.


In fact "Microsoft is Dead" was what we in the trade call a metaphor. I meant something else. Over the last couple days there has been some disagreement about what I meant. Some people who were scandalized by the essay convinced themselves I meant something rather stupid: that Microsoft is about to go out of business. This they diligently refuted.


Paul Graham said Microsoft was dead as the leading influencer, and Don Dodge argued that Microsoft was alive because it made tons of money. Again they were both right, but again they were talking about different issues.


Here are the similarities between the two cases:

  • The main argument was controversial (Women don't join startups, Microsoft is dead)
  • The counterargument was equally passionate (replying by posting a full article)
  • The counterargument did not actually…argue (it talked about a different subject)

Why did the replies miss the point? They are both from extremely smart people with tons of credibility. But they still counter-argued the main issue indirectly. I guess they did so because they were afraid of the original article's influence. They knew the original argument was correct, and more important, real. They had to counter-argue, despite having insufficient ammunitions on their side. (From my editor: Or perhaps they read the article and interpreted it according to some pre-existing hot button, thus missing the article’s actual point.)


So I think it was fear that drove these two people to post full-length article with many pieces of pseudo-evidence to back up their claim. And of course, their attempts backfired and gave more attention to the original topic. I personally came to read both original stories from links in the discussion threads. I remembered, and was even inclined to believe, the original point. Not so much the counterargument.


On the flip side, we can apply this lessons of missed-counterargument-as-a-sign-of-anxiety to our own discussions. If someone passionately argues with you on an agenda but (slightly) missing the point, you know you are hitting the bull's eye.


*Maybe it was just HER truth. But isn't it always THE truth?


Let me just begin by saying that there are two sides to every story. And this is my side, the right one.