Mini-Obsessions as Self-Care

Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

This has been the most insanely difficult year. And that’s saying something, because a couple of years ago, I lost all my hair!

One of the ways I have tried to keep my sanity is by finding mini-obsessions. For me, a mini-obsession has to check two boxes:

  1. There are layers upon layers, and you can choose how deep to dive.
  2. The objects of obsession are relatively moderately priced. So no cars, or watches, or high-end anything.

The first mini-obsession that I picked several months ago was house plants of all sorts, including bonsai. I have never been able to keep a bonsai alive. Bonsai retailers should just rebrand to “we grow them, you kill them”—at least when they are targeting me with ads. And so I decided to actually take a mini-course on bonsai (and yes they exist, online of course).

My first bonsai was a jade, which I thought would be easy. And it was, until I decided to try to wire the bonsai to make it look like a “real” bonsai. I also decided to re-pot it with my newly found “skills” (what was I thinking?!). So, yeah… the lovely little tree is now a stump.

I then decided to hold off on the more advanced techniques of wiring and re-potting and got a lovely little Chinese Elm that is pre-shaped. All I have to do with this one is water it. So, fingers crossed. But during the course of this mini-obsession, I learned about bonsai, their history, the care (ahem), how to wire and shape them, how to water them, the differences between indoor and outdoor bonsai, and the various tools used to shape them.

Given my desire to not harm any more living creatures during the pandemic, I then decided to shift my focus to inanimate objects, where the most I could do was lose interest.

My friend Ellen told me about her shiny new mechanical keyboard, and the seed for a new mini-obsession was planted. Growing up, I used mechanical keyboards (b/c I’m old), but in the recent past, the joy of using one is something I’ve missed. And so it began.

As a Mac user, I found there were a relatively small number of keyboards that are made to work with the Mac out of the box. In this case, you get a piece of software to remap your keyboard. But after years of using the super-slim Apple bluetooth keyboards, I did not want to return to wired keyboards.

Voilà, the Keychron K2 was the perfect keyboard. The next decision was what kind of switches I’d want. Switches are the mechanism that lie under the keycaps and above the board. There are three versions, and I knew I didn’t want the super-loud clicky ones. So at first, I went with the linear Gateron reds. Lovely.

But soon, I realized that on some keyboards, the switches could be swapped out without any soldering. So then, I got the K6, which allows hot swappable switches. This time, I chose the tactile Gateron brown switches. But the whole world of switches was calling out to me. After getting a Gateron switch tester, I realized the ZealPC switches are even nicer than the Gateron ones, so… I had to get the tester for the Zeal switches. And then I fell in love with the Zilents, which are both tactile and relatively silent.

My K6 – removed the Gateron Browns and replaced them with the Zilents

So that’s mostly where I am, besides of course having ordered 2 amazing sets of keycaps (ABS, PBT, and Pudding are the major varieties) and a couple of custom keycaps, too.

Except, I have now realized that some of the keys, particularly the spacebar, backspace, and right shift key are not very silent, even with the Zilents. So, I’m off to learn about stabilizers, foam, lubing, band aids, and the like.

While looking into that, I came across this most beautiful video of someone rebuilding a K6 keyboard. The level of detail, the fantastic editing, and the sheer love is wonderful to watch. While the tests of the keyboard sounds before and after are aural ASMR, the whole video is ASMR for the soul.

I have no idea how long this pandemic is going to last, or how much anxiety the election will cause, but these mini-obsessions have given me a focus on learning in a sphere where there is no upside, no downside, no specific purpose besides curiosity and the desire to learn and relax. I love spaces where the more you dig, the more there is. There is also a joy in discovering a community that is passionate about something relatively obscure, seeing the love and work they put into sharing knowledge. In this particularly tough year, these obsessive learners, artists, and creators give me hope in humanity.

Gratitude to the Giants

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her confirmation hearing. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed, it hit me very hard. As I thought about why, I realized it’s because she fought for the things we now take for granted.

As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post tweeted:

So much of what I have accomplished would not have been possible if RBG hadn’t fought for herself and for everyone who deserves equal treatment.

While RBG’s influence is overarching, there are people in other fields who, by fighting for their chance to do the jobs they loved, fulfill their potential, or realize their view of a different world, created opportunity for thousands of people in the future.

In my own life, here are a few I’d like to stop and thank.

Sandi Sissel was one of the earliest female cinematographers. When she started, she couldn’t be in the union and she had to wear skirts to work. Skirts—for a cinematographer who might have to climb a ladder, or run along with an actor, or lie on the floor. But Sandi ignored the indignities and did exceptional work, making it normal for women to be fantastic directors of photography.

Lynn Reedy was CTO and the leader of the largest organization at eBay – all of engineering, product, and design. She wasn’t the “female leader.” She was the leader. Lynn and I have to thank Meg Whitman, who, back in 1998, became the CEO of eBay. And all of us have to thank Pierre Omidyar, who hired the best candidate to be CEO. The best candidate also happened to be one of the first women CEOs in tech.

In more recent news, Gavin Newsom just announced that in 15 years, no new gas cars can be sold in California. Every new car sold in California from 2035 on will be an electric car. It warms my heart that one of the people who made his possible is also one the nicest people I know, and someone I hold in very high regard: Marc Tarpenning, the co-founder of Tesla and a Venture Partner at Spero.

We are living through a period of great stress. California has been ravaged by wildfires and some dear friends have lost their homes. Americans have been devastated by the pandemic, shocked by the violence against our black citizens, and are worried about violence and chaos around an election. Stress and anxiety is off the charts.

During this insanity, taking a moment to recognize these incredible people gives me a sense of comfort. RBG, Sandi, Meg, Lynn, Pierre, and Marc. We stand on the shoulders of these giants—and one way of repaying them is to face the future unflinchingly, trusting in our values and our ability to move us all forward. And then doing the work necessary, like they did.


I’m going to take a break from publishing for a little while, but I’m looking forward to checking back in with you with some great stuff soon!

Misinterpreting “Mission”

Photo by Shaah Shahidh on Unsplash

At Spero Ventures, we’re a single bottom line venture fund: we measure ourselves by our return to our LP.

At the same time, our investment thesis is that we invest in the things that make life worth living: well-being, work and purpose, and human connection. That means we invest in mission-driven founders.

The idea that mission and profit can be tightly bound together is unfamiliar to some people. They ask one of two questions:

  1. How can you be a single bottom line investor and say you invest in mission-driven companies? You have to measure the “impact” the company is having with different impact metrics.
  2. Oh, so you invest in mission-driven founders—that means you’re okay with sub-commercial returns, right?

AAAARGH!!

The company, by performing its core function, should take you towards your mission. And if you have a mission, we believe you will be substantially more successful than if you were not mission-driven.

The words “core function” are doing a lot of work here.

eBay’s core function is to connect buyers and sellers to execute a transaction. By performing their core function, they are fulfilling their mission of enabling economic opportunity around the world. Every transaction on eBay contributes to the mission of giving buyers and sellers agency to live the lives they want.

Tesla’s core function is to manufacture and sell electric vehicles. By performing their core function, they are fulfilling their mission of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Every car they manufacture and sell is making the world better by being one more car that uses clean power.

WhatsApp — does this seem like an odd one? It’s not. By performing their core function, they are fulfilling their mission of letting people communicate anywhere in the world, without barriers. Every text, video, and phone call on WhatsApp, whether across ten thousand miles or ten miles, is democratizing access to human connection by making it free.

In contrast, a company like Toms Shoes might be making an impact, but their core function is to sell shoes. The fact that they happen to give to charity is a nice-to-have — it’s not part of their business model; it’s a marketing tactic. They are not a mission-driven company even if they use marketing language about “improving lives.”

Mission is not off to the side. It’s the very heart and soul of the company. It’s the product, it’s the marketing, it’s the company.

And because mission is core, the bottom line is the only thing you need to measure. Tesla doesn’t measure impact separately from its bottom line, because having more Teslas on the road is the impact. At a mission-driven company, when people buy and use your product, your bottom line is going to grow, and there’s a direct connection from mission to the bottom line.

At a true mission-driven company, the business model itself makes life worth living. And we believe those companies have the highest chance of success.

Here are three companies from our portfolio that exemplify this:

Skillshare’s core function is to allow teachers and learners to connect around their creative passions. By performing their core function, they fulfill their mission of inspiring and multiplying creative exploration that furthers expression, learning, and application.

Gencove’s core function is to extract valuable genetic information through low-pass sequencing. By performing their core function, they fulfill their mission of making whole genome sequencing a bedrock of decision making by making it accessible and accurate.

Core’s core function is to get people to stick with consistent meditation and mental health practices. By performing their core function, they fulfill their mission of cementing mental well-being as a pillar of our lives.

Mission can be very beneficial to your company:

  • Your mission is your north star for decision making. Any time there’s a big strategic question, asking yourself whether it takes you towards or away from your mission can help you answer it.
  • It attracts people who believe in the mission: whether it’s co-founders or employees, these are people who are also driven by wanting to see the world be different and to have a direct hand in making this company come to life. It has some side benefits where you don’t have to pay them big company salaries in order to attract them because they are passionate about what they are building and will be more than a cog in the wheel of a large enterprise.
  • Every startup is a rollercoaster. Regardless of how much we want to believe it’s all up and to the right, there will be moments of intense stress and existential angst. When everything is going to shit, you can hold on to your mission and know why you are doing this and use this to motivate yourself and everyone at the company.
  • Customers have started to care about which companies they patronize. If you think about your customers as co-creating the company with you, they will become part of your “cult”.
  • Board of directors: If you’ve had a choice on who funds you and who joins your board, then you could pick investors and directors who are aligned with your vision of where you want to go and what you want the company to become. A clear mission gives you a stronger way to unify them. This is important since they can have a big influence on the strategic choices you make.

At the same time, it’s important to know the place and role of mission in the company.

A great mission without a great business model means very little. Do you have an exceptional business model? At the end of the day, this is the most important aspect of any company. If your business model doesn’t work, the company is going to fail.

This means you shouldn’t put mission ahead of money. They walk hand in hand: If you don’t have a good business model and cannot generate money to survive, you will go out of business. If you go out of business, you won’t accomplish your mission. Game over.

I’ve seen some mission-driven founders treat making money like it’s a bad thing, or making the mission primary and delaying coming up with a revenue-generating model that is sustainable. Mission and business model have to be developed in concert. Fulfilling your core function should generate revenue and move you towards your mission.

In pursuit of that successful business model, you may need to redefine your mission—or achieve it in a creative way. “Purity” of the mission is a false god. You can keep your priorities intact while changing what you do about those priorities. Much like how a film is rewritten when it’s edited, the details of your mission will morph as you find the best way forward.

So ask yourself: Do I care enough about this mission to work hard for the next 10 years? Missions are motivating. Companies are slogs. There is no company that just grows “up and to the right.” Most are nauseating rollercoasters where the highs hopefully compensate for the lows.

But, if you have a mission, with a fantastic business model, where the core function of the company is going to make life worth living, then that is a jewel.

Founder-Market Fit Matters More Than Ever

Photo by Tekton on Unsplash

These days, practically anyone can start practically anything. If you have a sliver of pedigree1, like experience at a reputed company, it becomes even easier.

But as tech permeates everything, people are starting companies in industries they don’t know. In other words, they’re founding companies as outsiders, without strong founder-market fit.

And that’s fine. A fresh perspective is often a huge help. But many industries are complex. The incentive structures, local laws, and nuances about who wins and loses are not obvious from the outside, or even after several conversations with those in the industry. Today, there are over 1,000 seed funds—capital is flowing freely. You will get funded, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find product-market fit, and then get to scale. At any given time, there may be 5-10 companies tackling a similar problem. This is where a founder’s knowledge or experience in the industry is a real advantage.

As my colleague Jonathan Kroll put it:

“The bar has never been lower to build a product. 10 years ago, you’d need millions in investment to have some sort of rudimentary machine learning or computer vision capability. Now, this is all off-the-shelf.

This is amazing! Right?! Well yes, it is—but as a result, building a cheap product with amazing functionality is at everyone’s fingertips. So while amazing products with amazing features could have been the major source of differentiation in the past, today, that’s just not enough.”

Founder-market fit is an advantage because:

  • These founders get to asking the right questions quickly.
  • If they don’t know the answer, they know who to call in the industry to get the answer.
  • “Founders who know exactly what their market needs,” in terms of leverage to move the needle, “might meet those needs faster and in a more capital-efficient manner, therefore extending runway and giving themselves more time to experiment,” said my colleague Sara Eshelman.
  • They understand the incentive structures, and so know how to position their company in the most appropriate (read: unthreatening and helpful) manner to the relevant constituents.
  • They know local laws and where they can push and where they can’t.

Founder-market fit is not developed only by having worked in the industry. You can also be obsessed with a problem in that industry and immerse yourself in it before you find a solution that works.

One example of this is Filip Victor. Filip is the founder of our portfolio company Mati, which is focused on identity verification. He came to the US as a student and faced the challenges of an immigrant: not being able to get credit and not being able to verify his identity with many of the commercial entities that you need to live a life with agency. This led him to spend time learning about the space to try and solve the identity verification problem for people in the developing world.

Another example is David Zamir at Nana. During a tough moment in his life, he taught himself to repair appliances, going out to customers’ homes to fix their washing machines in order to have an income. This led him to create an appliance repair marketplace that trains technicians and enables them to craft their own livelihoods.

Founder-market fit is real when a founder knows enough of the market to see a real opportunity, while knowing how hard it’s going to be. At the same time, founders need to have a bit of rebellion, a bit of chuztpah, a bit of “fuck it, this may really work,” a bit of willingness to upset former colleagues, boldness, and the ability to envision how things could be. That’s when they can take the leap and build a company that could be amazing.


  1. This is a problem and it is exclusionary, but it is also how the world currently works 

Brave Space

The poem, An Invitation to Brave Space, was shared during Back To School night last week, and everything about it resonated with me.

I’ll call out the three sentences that spoke the most to me and why.

Together we will create brave space

By the very fact that we live, we collect baggage. Proof of life is found in your scars. Never all good, never all bad, but sure to happen. Physical, mental, emotional. And instead of shielding ourselves from the things that make us who we are, we show up with them, bravely.

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow

Authentically looking at yourself, figuring out where you are on all spheres, accepting it and determining where you need to grow is the most important thing anyone can do.

To do it well, we have to recognize that none of us know everything. And to learn and grow, we have to be willing to learn from those whose voices we don’t hear all the time.

I wrote a short tweetstorm about how creators need to turn down the volume of the outside world. It’s important to be able to hear your own voice to figure out who you really are.

We will work on it side by side

Nothing is ever perfect. What matters is the willingness to commit to your teammates and colleagues, to commit to moving things forward. To work towards a more accepting, demanding, understanding, exceptional, constantly improving space. Together.

The questions that matter

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

In my experience, the best leaders ask the questions that matter. And the questions that matter are the key to driving the organization forward.

As the founder or leader, you’re in a unique position with a wider, more all-encompassing perspective. You can see the vision of where you need to be in 3 years and in 5 years, the reality of your bank balance and fundraising, and the sense of the morale of the organization. You’re the only one with all this information floating in front of you as you chart a path forward.

What do you do with that?

The best leaders use their unique position not only to make objective observations on the state of the business, but to determine the right questions to ask the team. They use these questions to guide the organization towards the most important goals.

Imagine a product team that has spent the last few weeks designing a feature. They’re excited to present it to you. It’s a great feature — but based on where things stand, it’s not the highest priority. While you know that, you have to communicate it in a way that’s productive.

This is where you ask the questions that matter. By asking the right questions, you won’t just tell people what you see; you’ll help them see it, too. You’ll keep them on track while keeping them motivated.

A few of the questions that matter, in this example:

  • Is this the most important feature we need in our product to achieve our goals for the next 6 months?
  • And if not, why were we spending time on it?
  • Where was the gap in the communication that let these resources get get spent on this?
  • Is there a faster way to get this live (that may involve manual intervention) in order to get it out there?
  • Is there a more cost-efficient/scalable/robust solution?

Instead of command and control, questions help the team think for themselves. It’s the Socratic method for effective orgs. The caveat is that in an emergency or a time crunch, being directive is fine. It may be needed. But organizations that always rely on one person to make decisions end up paralyzed and ineffective.

I once worked with a senior leader who did exactly this. If someone came to her saying a deadline “could not” be met, she’d find the right people and ask the questions that mattered. By doing that, she’d help people figure out how to circumvent the bottleneck. She ensured that the things that moved the company forward, moved forward. It was amazing to see how “impossible” things, once she’d pinpointed the right questions, got done.

The same is true for investors. I find the best investors ask founders questions that make them think about the world differently, change the lens, expand the set of options in front of them with an interesting re-frame.

Asking the right questions indicates a level of thought, knowledge, and facility with the world you are dealing with. A leader asking the right questions can help an organization come up with creative solutions, hit their goals, expand their view of the world, grow to become more self-sufficient, and by doing so, move the organization toward that long-term vision.

Your Startup is an Improv Class

The Office Michael GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
From Giphy

These are some guidelines for an improv class.

  • Improv is a trial by fire.
  • Don’t deny the reality in front of you; react to the world as it is.
  • Ditch your inhibitions.
  • If you have a good idea, run with it. If you don’t, it could falter. Commitment matters more than the idea.
  • Take the initiative to develop your character; otherwise, someone else will.
  • Adapt your character as the improv session evolves. Don’t worry about what it looked like 5 minutes ago—that scene is already over. You have to react in the present.
  • Improv is about everyone contributing little actions and lines that make the scene killer. It’s not about who said the smartest line; it’s about the whole.
  • Figure out how to make others look good. Letting others shine gives them an incentive to let you shine.
  • Be in the moment. Don’t focus on who’s watching, on looking dumb, or on being wrong. Instead, focus on what you’re doing.
  • You have to take (a little) time to think—but then, be willing to own the spotlight.
  • If your performance is inspirational, the others will want to step up.
  • Improv teaches you that you control very little, except your performance and how you react. The rest depends on other actors, the audience, and a bit of luck and timing.
  • A situation may look bad or good, but every situation is an opportunity.

This is also startups.

Your startup is an improv class.

Zoommovies, Panpics, and Startupping

Mythic Quest’s Quarantine Episode

Human beings are amazing. A mere two weeks after the lockdown started, most people had adapted to a remote world. Kids were learning soccer on Zoom, personal trainers adapted, cooking and baking classes moved to zoom—but I really did not expect theater and filmmaking to adapt in this world.

But, adapt they did. Zoomtheater and Zoommovies are a thing now, 4 months into the pandemic—for example, Host is a horror movie, made on Zoom.

Are these pieces any good? Well, it depends — film, which is asynchronous (i.e. shot and edited before the viewer sees it), can be just as good. For theater, which is delivered in real time, the remote version is not as good as when the cast and crew are in the same location. But the ability to adapt, the ability to even try this, makes me optimistic.

An image from Mythic Quest’s Quarantine episode

For a polished spin on quarantine filming, look at Mythic Quest, which is on Apple TV. They were filming the second season when the pandemic shut things down. This article outlines what the crew and cast did to shoot a “pandemic” episode that is part of Season 1. They used iPhones with prosumer film software, mics, and shot in all natural light, since lighting is one of the harder parts of filmmaking. They then edited it together to make it look like it was shot on Zoom.

On the other hand, some of Princess Bride’s celebrity cast decided to make a fan fiction, and it’s very clear that it’s shot by non-professionals, embracing the reality of shooting in different locations, with no crew.

In a scene with Diego Luna and Jack Black, they create continuity from two different locations in amazing ways: Diego throws down a green rope tried to a tree in his house and Jack, who is lying on a set of stairs in his house, grabs a hose that is thrown down to him. Diego lifts, Jack clambers, until finally, Jack is back at the top of the mountain (stairs). It’s really well done!

Images from Home Movie: Princess Bride. Image courtesy: Quibi

This would never have been considered acceptable pre-pandemic, but with a new set of rules for the world, there’s a new set of expectations. All film-watching requires the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and for these pandemic-pictures (panpics?), the suspension of disbelief has to be extended. But they are so entertaining!

Theater, unlike film, is synchronous – everything is live. This makes it much harder to adapt to a remote environment. While in film, you can do an extreme close up to show the twitch of an eyebrow, theater acting is “bigger,” so that the person in the last row can have the same read of a scene as someone sitting in the front. So Zoomtheater and the innovations there are harder to adapt to the pandemic. But theater has adapted, too. And if the pandemic stretches out, theater will have to continue to adapt. Imagine if there was a plugin that:

  • allows a lighting tech to set the stage by adding a virtual background and virtual lighting to make people seem like they’re in the same room, with the mood lighting the director wants.
  • controls which person is “shown” to the audience during a live performance. That way, the tech can make sure the right face is shown at the right time.
  • enables a “prop” tech to develop a unique, dynamic set and background for each actor and upload it behind them as the stage changes
  • allows live mixing of the audio so that music can be woven in, like a play.

It’s entirely possible that this could happen. Because despite the insanity in the world around them, humans continue to create, continue to innovate, continue to live lives of hope and splendor. Constraints make them innovate in ways that they wouldn’t have thought to before.

The same is true for startups. Startups have to startup. And the first requirement of startupping is surviving. But the very best startups, like the best creators, use constraints to innovate and thrive, offering customers an unexpected, delightful solution that moves us all forward.