Napkin sketches

The last time I was in the University Cafe in downtown Palo Alto was the height of the Dot Com era. The cafe has really large white paper placemats – it lays down clean new sheets of white paper every time another table of customers sits down to order.

Back in 2000, at the height of the internet mania, it seemed that every table was filled with very important looking people busily sketching business plans on those sheets of white paper – structured stock offerings, returns on investment, phased rollout strategies, and all of those other great Dot Com phrases. By the time any meal was done, diners would have filled their white paper placemats with lots of little diagrams and charts, scribbled profit/cost estimate curves and projected timelines.

And at the end of every meal there was the all-important ritual of folding up that piece of paper, no matter how coated it may have become with coffee rings or gravy stains, and putting it in one’s pocket. What had once been a clean expanse of white was now a road plan, a treasure map, a guide to the Holy Grail, the key to the next big IPO.

As we know, most of those placemats ended up not being worth the ink scribbled on them. Plans came to naught, companies went belly up, and a chastened Silicon Valley fell back down to earth with a resounding thud.

Today, sitting in that same cafe, my friends and I ended up discussing some cool research ideas. At some point I took out a pen and started to make sketches on the big white placemat before me. We all got excited looking at it, we brainstormed a bit, adding things here and there, and by the end of the meal we all felt that we’d really made some progress, and even had a kind of game plan for what to do next.

When we left, it never occurred to us to take the placemat with us.

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