Perspectives

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

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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.

Who are you?

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

Every August, US filmmakers rush to make the Sundance Film Festival deadline. And in early December, Sundance announces its lineup. The day before, everyone is equal—all aspiring filmmakers. But the moment Sundance announces, the wheat is separated from the chaff. There are those who will have a film that “premiered at Sundance,” and… there are the other mere mortals. Both groups will now be treated differently as expectations start to diverge.

While companies are less of a lemming-like march to the cliff than film festival applicants, similar rules apply. After a company goes down in flames, or after you get fired, the same thing happens. The very next day, there’s a sense that you’re a different person.

In both cases, I see a similar pattern: people define themselves (and each other) in terms of their successes and failures. But both success and failure are transient and ephemeral. They can both be taken away, forgotten, or overcome. Successes and failures aren’t who you are.

Perhaps, instead of letting successes and failures define you, define yourself according to something no one can take away, something you cannot lose.

If you can lose your job, you are not your job or your job title. If you can lose company, you are not your company. If you always need permission to create or make a film, you are not a creator or filmmaker.

A couple of years ago, someone asked me if I would view myself as a failure if I failed at my job as a venture investor. My answer was yes. I explained that my job is a huge part of who I am, and if I fail at it, yes, I would be a failure.

Since that conversation, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of the world. I wouldn’t say to a founder, “If your company fails, you are a failure.” Quite the opposite. You are not your company, and regardless of whether you took it public or closed it down, you are separate from the entity that is your company.

So, if not by those ephemeral things, how can you define yourself?

  • Instead of defining yourself according to your job description, you can think about characteristics like persistence, compassion, and thoughtfulness.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to successes and failures, you can look at the chances you choose to take. There are second chances, there are third chances—but they only exist if you don’t give up on yourself, and if you actually take them.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to your ego, you can think of yourself as someone who’s always learning.
  • External validation is the bane of humanity. Fuck external validation.

Despite the transience, we let success and failure have such a huge impact on us. Depending on how we deal with it, they can change our life trajectories. But these things still aren’t who we are. Who you are is the amalgam of personal characteristics that make you up. It’s what you learn from success and failure. It’s how you deal with it, and what you go on to do with it. That’s what no one can take away from you, and that’s what makes you who you are.

Momentum vs Conviction

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Among the many reasons why it is challenging to be a founder, there is this quirk of the venture business — there are a lot of investors, and it is tough to figure out who is the right one.

One axis of the decision-making model is what I think of as Momentum vs. Conviction.

One way you can identify the momentum species is if they ask the magic question: “Who else is in the deal/round?”

Momentum investors are driven by the trend du jour. They often show up when:

  • The round is oversubscribed and the company operates in a “hot” space
  • Participating in the round will allow the investor to be part of an “in group” of “top tier” VCs
  • The investor missed the last hot company in this space and is prepared to do anything to get into the next one (this is one sad reason VC bubbles form)
  • There’s a great/famous VC leading the round
  • A great/famous VC led the last round

It seems obvious that this isn’t the kind of investor a founder wants. But in the moment, it is really difficult to say no to someone who is persistent, especially when you’ve been laboring away at your product on starvation wages for years. The attention can also be fun. For the moment, everything’s great, you’re hot, and dollars are flying at you. 

The question in your mind may be: So what? What if they’re in the company for the wrong reasons?

The answers unfortunately only emerge over time:

  1. In future rounds, they will be unable to come to a decision on whether or not to fund you based on how you’re actually doing. They seek external validation from the market and cannot think through the nuances to figure out where the market is going and how you can play a role in the market
  2. Their term sheets can often cause trouble. If the deal is hot, they may overprice it (and then later yank or revise it if the deal cools). High prices driven by the perception of being “hot” can often lead to downstream issues in future rounds (but that’s a whole different post).

Momentum isn’t the only way to make investing decisions. Someone could also invest in your startup based on the conviction that your company represents the best approach in a space they understand and care about. Here are some of the signals of conviction investing:

  • They want to learn about the company and the space
  • They admit when they are learning and how much time they need
  • Rounds can move fast, but these investors will want to do the work to get to comfort regarding the industry, the company, the founder, and all open issues
  • They almost never ask the dreaded question “who else is in the round”, because they’re basing their decision on their work.

It’s fantastic to be a hot company, but if the music stops, and if you cease being the next hot thing — you want a conviction investor at the table with you. 

On Picking Tough Challenges

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No one would call Maynard Webb a pussycat. He joined eBay when the technical infrastructure was failing. He was critical to fixing it and making downtime a thing of the past. Anyone who has worked for him would say he was their toughest boss. He was full of pithy Maynardisms that all basically meant, “Stop whining and get back to work.” He was a force to be reckoned with.

Many years ago, in one of our ongoing mentoring sessions, Maynard said something like, “Whenever you’re faced with a career choice, pick the toughest challenge.”

He explained that if you choose an easy problem, you know you can fix it. But, many other people in the world can fix the same problem—there’s nothing unique about the accomplishment. If you choose a really tough problem, you may fail, but if you succeed, then you’ve done something pretty darn hard. That would be rare air.

This is one of those pieces of advice that sounds great. It’s aspirational; it’s the hero’s journey; it’s inspirational. From afar, it all looks and sounds glorious, but the daily reality can be painful. And the chance of failure is extremely high. You’ll work long, hard hours for years, put your lifeblood into something, and likely fail. Not easy.

Founders have self-selected into the toughest path in front of them. The alternatives abound. It would be so much easier to go work somewhere else—somewhere where you’re a member of a team, where many hands make light work, where a decision will not fundamentally affect the success or failure of the company, where the buck doesn’t stop with you.

But the small chance of success is alluring. What if you’re the one to pull it off? You crush that job, or you create that unique company. The highs of that are incredible.

And that is why we are all in tech.

Hoarding, Investing, and Diversifying Time

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When I was a child, I’d get a monthly allowance. In order to get the next month’s allowance, I would have to account for how I spent or saved what was given to me, down to the paisa (the Indian version of a cent). I had a pink spiral notebook that I would show to my father in order to get a fresh infusion.

Whether our parents teach us about money or we learn it elsewhere, the overarching message is all around us: “Be careful with your money.” What if we thought about time the same way?

Let’s take some of the concepts of money and try to apply them to time.

Hoard: When a resource is precious, we hoard it. This is to give us a sense of comfort that it is there when we need it most. Hoarding started off as a synonym for saving, but has now come to be viewed as excessive, with a negative connotation. Still, when I saw this quote on a writing blog, it resonated with me:

“In order to excel at anything, and this includes writing, you must hoard the time needed to accomplish that excellence.” DL Black obviously hoards that time. Just like Michael Jordan hoarded his practice time, Mother Teresa hoarded her humanitarian time, Neil Armstrong hoarded his preparation time for the moon landing, etc. I vote you hoard that time needed for your writing Franklin. Protect it. Coddle it. Savor it. It’s yours and you need it to finish your screenplay.

Unlike money, time exists mostly in the present. What does it mean to hoard time? Here’s how I try to do it – working backwards from my goals for the year, I block off time on my calendar to move the related projects forward. It’s working with some success (for example, writing is one of the goals for this year). When it is not working, you could look at your priorities and determine whether you are giving your most important ones the time they need.

Invest/compound: The goal here is for $x today to become $5x or $100x tomorrow. What can you do with your time to create more value later? If you’re a founder, it is worth thinking of what will give you that 5x return. Build those things that will make it harder for your competition to catch up and for your lead to expand exponentially. Here are some other areas that are an investment in yourself that could compound:
Writing from your unique pov makes you findable, and by creating value for others, helps you form connections with like-minded people around the world.
Learning and pursuing your curiosity in areas that may not be popular enriches your life, just because it’s worth spending time on things that pique your interest.
Thinking about things that may seem unrelated so that when the next idea come up, you can draw connections you might not have known existed.
Forming genuine connections with people who stretch your ideas, expand your horizons, and leave you energized.

Diversification: By holding different kinds of monetary assets, when one asset class suffers, you do not end up at a zero. Other asset classes can carry you through. There are many ways to look at diversification from the perspective of your time: You could choose to look at it from just the perspective of your career — the whole anti-fragile career movement is big right now, and rightfully so given the year we’ve had so far. You could also look at it from the different ways that you currently spend time — work, family, friends, exercise and health. Let’s say, for example that you’re going through a rough patch on the personal front. Having your work go well can help carry you through by giving you something positive to focus on during that time. Much like money, diversification could mean not letting one aspect of your life dominate.

Opportunity cost: With money, putting your money in opportunity X means you may have to turn down opportunity Y. If you think great opportunities are ahead of you, the rational person would wait for the better investments. Unlike money, you can’t create more time in the present, and there isn’t really “saved” time you can draw from. So the opportunity cost of time is much higher than money. Doing X right now means you cannot do Y. Time is the most finite resource. Consistently asking what the opportunity cost of a choice is may help in crystalizing what really matters and what the areas of investment should be.

Giving and gifting: This is important for many people with their money, and not just for the tax break. It’s important because they want to support worthy causes. But when the dollars get higher, most people research the chosen charities to make sure that the money is being put to good use. On this one, it’s very similar with time. Apply the same principles.

IRA: In most parts of the world, the government and businesses enable people to save for their retirement by taking some money from today and investing in for the future. This money, either in 401Ks or IRAs, is money you can’t really access, but you can choose how to invest it so that it fits your risk profile and can cover your needs once you stop working. With money, you can starting saving for retirement early, but with time, what’s the right time to start thinking about when you stop working? Is it in your 50s or 60s or 70s? Is it investing a bit of time to learn a new skill you might want to use? Is it thinking through what you enjoy and starting early? I have more questions than answers for this one.

Creating optionality: One of the biggest reasons people value money is that it gives them flexibility and optionality. Having money can create more money (through investing). One would think that time would be different, but this can be true for time, too. While we can’t create time in the present, you can create high value time (and therefore options) in the future. You can add healthy years to your life by making the right decisions in the present. I don’t do this well (yet), so it’s time to make it a priority.

None of these are easy and I struggle with them on a daily basis. But this lens helps me get over FOMO, say no even when I feel some guilt, and have chunks of time to work towards the goals that matter.

I’m sure there are some other great analogies out there. I’d love to hear which ones you use in your life.

Ignore the Requirements, Check the Proxies

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This past week, I talked to 10 candidates for our first round of summer intern interviews. It was awesome to see the enthusiasm and energy in the applicants, as well as the range of people who applied. On the job listing, we stated that “experience is preferred, but not required”—so we got a lot of MBA students, young professionals, recent graduates… and, to my surprise, one rising sophomore.

This young man, let’s call him Carl, realized there was no downside to having a conversation about the role. Because if he got picked to have a conversation, he could pitch why, despite how young he is, he’s qualified for the role. And if he impressed (which he did), he could put himself in a position to land future roles or be referred to other opportunities. He would also make a connection in the venture industry that he wouldn’t otherwise have had. Having spoken to him, I can put a face to the name, and I have a positive impression.

Because we had such fantastic candidates, Carl didn’t move on to the next round. But, he stands out in my mind for having the chutzpah and confidence to put himself out there. At Spero, we are giving some serious consideration to having ongoing, in-term interns, and Carl will be on the very short list of people I’d call if that opportunity opens up.

This story connects to the broader issue of how requirements are written and what they actually mean. Most of the time, a requirement is a proxy for a skill that people want to see so you can be successful in the role.

For example, in a job description:

An MBA is a proxy for analytical skills, basic financial skills, modeling basics, and an ability to evaluate businesses.

Experience in a specific role/industry is a proxy for the ability to hit the ground running versus needing people to spend time explaining how the industry works.

Years of experience is a proxy for maturity, the ability to collaborate with people, and the ability to handle the kinds of decisions the role will require.

And when raising venture investment, $1M revenue is often a proxy for product-market fit. There may be other ways to show PMF without being at exactly $1M.

This is not to say that every prerequisite is a proxy, or that you should fudge the facts. If you’re 2 credits short of your MBA, don’t say you have an MBA — but don’t automatically assume you’ll be rejected, either.

In our summer intern posting, we didn’t specify a single hard requirement, not even a college degree. I believe the whole professional world is moving towards tours of duty, which don’t depend on credentials like that. One of the smartest product designers I know doesn’t have an undergraduate degree. He is awesome and has accomplished a lot at some of the very best tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Next time you see one of those proxies, if you feel you‘ve demonstrated what the proxy is asking for, don’t hesitate to apply. I‘m fairly confident that Carl will do something interesting with his life. He recognizes that he is the asset and despite his youth, he understands the concept of proxies. He took the chance to put himself out there, and in nearly every situation, that’s better than not applying.