Perspectives

Apollo’s Arrow

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

We’ve all been thinking about it: how the pandemic has affected us, which of the changes we’ve experienced will become permanent, and which old ways we will embrace (literally and figuratively) with open arms.

To get another point of view, I read Apollo’s Arrow by Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Yale. The book covers the first six months of the pandemic, before viable vaccine candidates emerged. It traces the history of prior pandemics and was a useful read to help inform what may come next.

I ended up with a lot of questions.

The Government and self-reliance
Many of us thought the federal government (most of the time, but especially from 2016-2020) and state governments are generally incompetent. The pandemic proved us right.

  • Will people trust government less? Or will trust be limited to certain domains?
  • If the answer to the first question is “likely”, then will people try to become more self-reliant or reliant on a smaller (perhaps hyperlocal) community? How will this trend manifest?
  • Have we lost so much faith in government that we will all become preppers in some fashion?
  • Will we build the capabilities to live off the grid (at least for a few days), grow our own food, know the basics of saving a life (CPR)? Is this progress or is this regression?
  • What will be the technological advances that helps make sure it’s progress?

Christakis talks about how mutual aid societies sprung up to help people. Volunteers shopping for seniors, stitching masks, staffing food banks, etc. These efforts likely had a material impact on thousands of people. Will this lead to more community self-reliance? In the NY Times last week, there was an opinion piece on mutual aid efforts in Chicago. While the piece has a political bent, this paragraph can stand alone, regardless of your politics:

In these projects we see glimpses of a society where we meet one another’s needs, not with shame but with the sense that contributing is an essential thing we do for one another. These are the practices that keep us safe.

Work and learning
Anyone who could work from home did. Those of us in that could are very lucky—those doing manual labor, delivery, medical procedures, basically all “essential workers”, ended up putting their lives in danger in order to get paid and do their jobs. No one believes that we’ll go back to “how it was before”.

  • Will work become more all-consuming and “always on,” or less? If work becomes truly flexible, for some types of workers (like parents), the flexibility could be invaluable and a competitive advantage to companies that offer this flexibility.
  • Will people who are capable for self-structuring thrive in this world?
  • Will more people spend time thinking through and defining the “proper place” of work in their lives?
  • Will (business) travel be reserved for special occasions versus the grind of “yeah, I’m in NYC twice a month”?
  • Will business conferences be hybrid, with more experiential attractions to get a small number of people to show up in person?
  • How will talent-driven globalization reshape companies? My partner Marc wrote about this.
  • For services that can be provided remotely, will States change licensing rules so that anyone in the country can provide services to others? Christakis talks about how this happened with the pandemic because the availability of doctors was so limited. This is a situation where the pandemic moved us forward faster than any government-led effort could.
  • Will some medical specializations move entirely online? For example, what’s to say my eye test cannot be completed remotely? And then with remote ordering, glasses and contacts just show up at home.
  • What will food retail companies do moving forward? Do we need to have grocery stores people can visit? Or can there be very efficient grocery warehouses for areas and robots deliver whatever we want, whenever we want?
  • Some manufacturing may need to be local again. When countries are rushing to save their citizens, everyone else comes second.
  • Adults who could work from home during the pandemic, often ended up exploring the world of online learning and courses, filling commuting time with learning instead. Will new models keep emerging as we iterate our way to figuring out what works best for each person?
  • Many children were forced to be completely remote, with no interaction with their friends, no in-person sports, or entertainment. How will this affect their view of education and what can be done remotely?

The pandemic showed us that despite all the talk about how education will be remote, all parents wanted kids back in school—for socialization, for effective learning (many kids struggle with remote), and yes, for some semblance of sanity for the adults. But now that schools and educators have figured out the benefits and limitations of remote, maybe we can find the most effective ways to deploy a hybrid solution in the future.

Much like learning, the way that work will change will also have nuance and complexity, and not everything will be obvious a priori. We can only see the very tip of the spear, in terms of how work will change.

Human connection & creativity
We have certainly separated the introverts from the extroverts! Even the introverts are ready for some socialization. But more fundamentally, we’ve adopted practices and tools as a species in a way that’s more widespread than before. This is bound to affect how we work and play together in the future. The prolonged isolation could also change our priorities in the short or long term, when it comes to connecting with others.

  • Will in-person / human / analog connections & experiences come roaring back, or will people want a hybrid?
  • In what ways will people change their perception or belief about what matters or what’s valuable? Will people become more philosophical? Focus on on spirituality? Embark on a quest for truth?
  • We’ve seen new forms of collaboration. Christakis talks about how the NY Philharmonic Orchestra each recorded their own contributions separately and it was joined together to share with the world. How will people continue to collaborate, perhaps around the world?https://youtu.be/D3UW218_zPo
  • How might philanthropy evolve, now that we know we can have an impact on every connected person on earth?
  • There were new forms of dating, and new forms of connecting. People felt more vulnerable since we were all going through the same thing. And that led to people sharing more. How will we maintain the vulnerability, honesty, and compassion as we move past the pandemic?

The roaring twenties, a century ago, were the outcome of a major cataclysm. Will we see that again? I’d argue that while we will see the extreme desire for experiences, I’m not sure we will see as much ostentatious consumption. We have a sustainability crisis on our hands — I’m hopeful that the consumption and excesses will be a bit more restrained this time around, perhaps more focused on human connection and the experiences that enable that.

Sustainability
One of the things that stuck with me was Christakis’ definition of cumulative culture:

Human beings endlessly contribute to the accumulated wealth of knowledge that belongs to humanity, and each generation is generally born into greater such wealth.

Part of why we have vaccines so quickly is because of cumulative culture. It has been combined with global collaboration from scientists who focused on sharing data quickly, with everyone who needed it, and global altruism from the armies of volunteers who have tried these vaccines early stages of development so that more vulnerable populations could receive something tested, stable, and safe.

  • Can we apply this level of collaboration and altruism to the problems of climate and sustainability? Or because it is a less obvious problem than a pandemic that kills hundreds of thousands in few months, will we continue to ignore the problem? How can we bring more urgency to sustainability?
  • We know that density of living is good for sustainability. How has the pandemic affected this?
  • Will cities remerge as the way to live after a year where many people moved out of the densest cities? Will cities make public spaces a priority and ensure that their citizens have a cornucopia of delights to experience when they leave their apartment buildings? What new services will emerge if this happens?
  • Will people pay more attention to the hidden costs of their actions and be willing to sacrifice? Will groups of people collaborate to usher in new norms of climate responsibility?

Much like the pandemic, sustainability needs everyone to collaborate, to look at how we live, and perhaps even sacrifice a little bit.

Christakis recounts that seismologist Thomas Lecocq noticed that at the very start of the pandemic, when almost all travel and industry came to a halt

“…the Earth was suddenly still. Every day, as we humans operate our factories, drive our cars, even simply walk on our sidewalks, we rattle the planet. Incredibly, these rattles can be detected as if they were infinitesimal earthquakes. And they had stopped. […] The coronavirus had changed the way the Earth moved.”

If companies and people change our behavior, just a little, those small changes add up to a bigger impact on our planet. We have to find a more sustainable path forward so that we don’t lead to the most vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of climate change.

While the book was useful in tracing the history of pandemics—the ones we’ve heard of and the less familiar ones—the most useful aspect of it was that it gave me some time and space to think about what comes next. More questions than answers, but perhaps a good place to start.

What questions are on your mind?

“Friend” is a noun

Photograph by: Shripriya

“Friend” is a noun. When it got turned into a verb, it emphasized the transactional nature of many relationships online. While the meaning differed across platforms, it usually meant it was someone whose updates you wanted to see on a regular basis. The platforms themselves then decided how much you would see, using every minor action of yours (intentional or otherwise), thereby controlling the relationship. The platform maintains the connection for you, and instead of sitting on a couch talking to one person, looking them in the eye, you are speaking to a crowd, none of whose eyes you can see, and hoping that keeps the relationship warmish.

That’s not a friendship. That’s a potentially useful exchange of information. The act of “friending” the person was a one-off initiation of this exchange. Building a friendship, making someone into “a friend,” takes more.

Friendships can be created online, but they require:

  • the ability to form a connection. One way to form connections is to have a shared purpose, goal, experience, or project/effort of some kind. That’s why we feel so strongly about Product-Led Communities.
  • a constructive alignment of values that allows collaboration.
  • getting to know the person, in a nuanced way—what they care about, their sense of humor, how they solve problems, how they spend their time, whether they are an asshole to people close to them.
  • a commitment to show up. Online groups where people intend to show up on schedule, and actually follow through, are much more impactful rather than ones where there is no firm commitment to show up and people float in and out as they choose. The decision to make this group a priority means a lot to the people in the group.
  • enjoyment of the interaction—an interaction with a real friend makes you feel better after than you did before.
  • relaxation, enjoyment, or learning. Interactions when you can be yourself, laugh, not watch every word, or walk away smarter, with a new perspective, are all interactions you will want to have again.
  • time, to develop all these dimensions of the relationship over many months.

As I look back at last year, I realize there were a lot of events, one-off talks, lectures, and hangouts. Some involved icebreakers, which are helpful. There were efforts at “community,” but did those result in real friendships, as opposed to “friending”? Real community, versus minor interactions that are easily forgotten?

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a Clubhouse chat where an influencer told the audience we were all lucky to be on the platform this early because we could 100x our audiences if we did things right. And that would be very valuable. That’s our mindset right now: do this thing because it’s valuable. Hang out here because you can meet XYZ, who might invest in/hire/help you down the road.

There is a place for this and there is definitely value in this kind of transactional relationship. But the internet has skewed toward this worldview because when measurable value is created, it can also be extracted.

But how do you really make the online world less transactional? How do you enable the formation of deeper connections where people are willing to spend the time because they enjoy the company of the other person or group rather than find transactional value in it?

There is value in deeper, more meaningful connections and it behooves us to think about how to create these interactions online. The “value” may be harder to measure immediately, but over the long term, will likely lead to more valuable, resilient platforms, and  therefore a healthier internet.

I’m thinking out loud here. How did you feel about your online experiences last year? Do you want to repeat them? What would you like to see changed or improved? Please reach out—I’d love to discuss (in a non-transactional way!)

Time travel

A new day, Shripriya Mahesh
A New Day. By: Shripriya Mahesh

A screenwriter’s job is to capture the human condition and the fantasies and torment of the human mind. That’s why there are so many time travel movies: humans are constantly thinking “what if” and “if only.” Back to the Future is all about what would have been different if something small had changed in the past. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is about exploring what the world was like in different times. Terminator is about killing someone from the past so that a savior child is not born.

These movies are all artistic interpretations of thoughts we have all the time. For example:

  • What if things had gone differently?
  • What if I had done this, instead of that?
  • If only I could go back and fix this one thing…
  • What if I could erase all the horrible mistakes?
  • What if I could go back and do all the things I thought I’d do, said I’d do, and wanted to do, and therefore become the imaginary person I thought I would one day be?

In reality you cannot. You can only focus on where you are and what you can do going forward. You’re never too old, too young, too anything.

In a way, these are all comfortable excuses for not being who we want to be, living the life we want to have. Anyone reading this post has some level of agency. Believe in your agency. Instead of regret, imagine what you can do today to make your future self proud.

2020 was a really hard year. When I look at it in a certain light, it’s easy to beat myself up over a “lost” year. But, the achievement, in a year like this, is getting through it the best you can. We still have 16 days left of this year; let’s focus on getting out safely and with our sanity intact. There’s hope, thanks to hardworking scientists.

The best thing we can do is look forward, towards a better world where we are more aware, less naïve, yet more hopeful about the amazing things human beings can create. The amazing things you will create.

Where Do Missions Come From?

Clarity Sensor, Image Credit: Clarity

Almost every company has a mission statement, but not every company has a mission. For a startup, a mission is a perspective on how the world will look when they succeed. For example, Michael Karnjanaprakorn’s mission with Skillshare was to make lifelong learning and upskilling accessible to anyone—giving people the agency to craft a career that inspires them.

The idea germinated when Michael saw this problem up close: he had graduated from UVA, but he really wanted to continue to pursue new interests. He didn’t see a place where he could stretch, grow and practice lifelong learning in a deep way.

Michael was sure a solution was already out there. When it wasn’t, he realized that if he had this problem, surely others did, too. It was time for a solution—not just for him, but for everyone. That led to his founding of Skillshare.

Sarah McDevitt founded Core after suffering a debilitating panic attack. Over the next few months, she tried many things, and the only thing that worked was meditation. But none of the options in the market made it easy. With something that requires such a regular routine, the phone apps just weren’t cutting it. As a D-1 basketball player, she always loved coaching teens and so she decided that she would build a meditation product that the most difficult customers—teenage boys and girls—could use easily and effectively. This ended up becoming Core.

David Lu arrived at Berkeley for his undergrad and was astounded that every day, he could look up and see a clear blue sky. When he was growing up in Shanghai, this was rarely the case. As he continued his undergrad, he met fellow students, some from other parts of the world, who were also surprised at how the Bay Area seemed to have such great air (back then) compared to other places.

They realized that the first step in fixing a problem is to know there is a problem. They decided to build the most accurate sensor that could measure air quality. As they installed sensors, they learned that when traffic increased, the air quality got worse. David wanted to empower people around the world with data about their neighborhood, companies about the air their employees were breathing, and cities with information on how they could keep their citizens safe. From this, Clarity was born.

For all these entrepreneurs, a mission was born of a problem they had some connection with and cared deeply about—one they wanted to solve for themselves and also for others. Not every story is just like these, of course. But if you’re wondering where missions come from, look around you.

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.

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.