Startups

What to Think About When Designing a Profile Page for Your Users

Photo by Ken Reid on Unsplash

Everyone wants network effects. A profile page can be an essential element to this—just imagine Github or Twitter without a profile page. Would people still join?

While it seems simple on the surface, there are tens (if not hundreds) of decisions that drive a profile page that will deliver value to your users, and therefore to your company.

Let’s dig deeper into some of the key choices and the behaviors they create.

1. What can the user control about her profile page? What does the company control? What can other people do via her profile page?

How much of the content of a user’s profile is self-determined? Some platforms, like Instagram, are all about user-generated content. There’s a lot you can control about what shows up there.

How much of the content is passive? Transaction-based sites, such as Lyft and UpWork, tend to include a lot of passive content—there’s a log of user actions and the feedback related to those. The profile page owner doesn’t control this information; it’s generated and placed there by the company and by other users.

Some platforms are all about allowing users to showcase themselves to the “outside” world. In the case of Behance, the profile page serves as your proof of work or portfolio:

On GitHub, your page is also like a portfolio, but the company automatically adds some cool visualizations of your contribution history:

Pinterest is curation vehicle. It’s not a portfolio of your own creations, but it allows users to curate their choice of images and content from around the web:

Once a user starts filling their page, the next step is to think about whether the page can serve as a resource for others as well. Once a profile page starts being a resource for others, everything that is added to the page adds value to the network. This starts to compound pretty quickly.

On the other hand, there are sites where the user can’t control the profile page very much at all. For example, on eBay, the original profile page was a purely factual log of interactions and transactions. It was created while you interacted on the site, and you couldn’t curate it. This served a very important function: laying out the buyer’s or seller’s trustworthiness by listing every single transaction and the feedback that came out of it. It’s an enabling page for the whole site (much more so when eBay started at the early stages of the internet). The user didn’t choose how the page was presented to others—it was all controlled by the company, like this:

More recently, eBay made this page into a tab and made the main profile page into something that gives the user a little more control over how they come across:

eBay likely made this change in response to its competitor Etsy. The people who built Etsy understood that control has two elements: one is permissioning (what can you do?), which we have spoken about so far. The second is personalization. Personalization leads to an investment of time and effort, and, eventually, it leads to love for the page and the platform.

When a site limits personalization too much, it can start to to feel utilitarian. A segment of sellers viewed eBay as a business. But they viewed Etsy as a place they could infuse with their personality, vision, and dreams and communicate that to their buyers and their seller friends. This allowed a whole new multi-billion dollar business to be built (Etsy is now over half of eBay’s market cap with with only a handful of the eBay categories).

On Wikipedia, users have one profile page where they can describe themselves however they want, and another page called “User Talk” where other users’ comments and questions (e.g. about contributions that you made) are logged and publicly visible.

If you’re building a page which is the spine of the product, it’s important to think through what information you will include on users’ behalf. And what you will allow the user to personalize.

Small decisions can affect user behavior and user emotion, and have large consequences.

2. Should users be anonymous, pseudonymous, or eponymous? Is this a user choice or the company’s choice?

On Twitter, Reddit, Clubhouse etc., you can choose to use your real name or be pseudonymous. The reason I call these pseudonymous is that total anonymity (where the platform doesn’t know who you are) isn’t really possible on a platform that requires a cell phone number since cell phone numbers are usually traceable to a person. On many shopping sites like eBay, you use a “handle” or username, but the platform knows who you are because they require credit card and other information. On Facebook, you’re supposed to be eponymous and use your real name. (Same with Uber and Lyft).

Each of these will lead to types of behavior on the site. When someone is eponymous, most people stay within the bounds of socially acceptable behavior (most of the time). This is positive in terms of hate speech, but it also constraining if the user wants to experiment with creativity or new forms of expression without judgment.

To keep people from pseudonymously impersonating real/famous people, companies can choose to add an extra layer of verification to accounts that get a lot of attention or belong to a celebrity. Eponymous Plus, if you will. A verified account adds benefits to the site by ensuring that the users interacting with them know it’s the actual person and by giving these verified users tools like filters, advanced notifications, and views the plebes cannot access.

Pseudonymous interactions allow more direct, but sometimes harsh or mean, interactions. However, on the positive side, if an artist is exploring a new genre, they may want to experiment pseudonymously. Distancing from real life allows people to interact with others with shared interests without the burden of bringing your “whole self” and everything you have accumulated in your life with you. The site is the final arbiter of excess since they know who the user is and can track them down in cases of illegal activity.

True anonymity can be offered by a platform, but it can lead to a set of behaviors that the company needs to think about. There can be sinister consequences including things like school bullying, predation, and other terrible behavior. For example, Kik became a cesspool that enabled the trading of child porn. The real question is, “What happens if we enable users to do XYZ with no repercussions? And do we want that outcome?”

3. Does every user have the same kind of profile page?

In some communities, some users are faceless by design. For example: Cameo. Cameo is about many, many “normal” individuals who buy cameos from celebrities. The focus is on the celebrities. In Cameo, only the “sellers” have a profile page.

The sellers are famous enough where the people who buy from them are not a validation of the seller’s worth.

On the Seller side, there are reviews, so you know the quality of the work, but you don’t know and can’t see (rightly, in this case), what the final product was. There’s also no way to contact the buyer and ask them questions. User interaction is deliberately limited.

On a platform like UpWork, buyers and sellers have different, but complementary profile pages with a lot of parallels. And on social networks, all profile pages have the same features.

Can users unlock new badges or capabilities?

Sometimes users may be able to do different things on their profile page. This can be seen as a reward (you have been verified by being a good user on this platform, and so have more leeway), or it might be a function of safety on a marketplace. On eBay, you can earn badges based on how many items you’ve sold. Airbnb has “superhosts” who’ve met certain criteria to be labeled as such. This creates a different category of profile page.

Are there privacy settings, and what do they look like?

When it comes to seeing other users’ information, can users select groups to which they’ll reveal more, and other groups to which they’ll reveal less? Is everything public for “everyone on the web” to see, or are there “friends only” options?

There is usually an inverse correlation between how anonymous a user is and how much control they have over their page.

For example, on Facebook, where the user is pushed towards being “a real person” (let’s not get started on how this is violated), you can choose to use the strongest privacy settings. You have levers of control over who sees what information.

On Reddit, where almost everyone is pseudonymous, you need more sunlight to try your best to reduce bad behavior. So here, you can see everyone’s post history without user-set restrictions. Same with eBay, which, more than Reddit, needs a level of trust for you to interact with an unknown person, in an unknown part of the world.

4. How much interpersonal activity is displayed, if any?

Through the profile page, can you look at interactions with other users? On Clubhouse, the profile is a vehicle to interact at the moment that you want to interact, but there’s not much logging of the history of a person’s participation in rooms.

On Twitter, there is a fair bit of interpersonal activity on the site, but only if the user chooses to have the interactions publicly. They could also choose to have the conversations behind the scenes (in DMs). Clubhouse with their private rooms have also enabled this (which in their case, seems to have hurt app usage1 – wouldn’t you rather see people have spats in public and bitch people out to an audience of several thousand?).

Showing interpersonal activity can enhance trust. On a shopping site, repeat purchases are an indication of a happy buyer, but it could also be an indication of a behind-the-scenes relationship. Sunlight is a great disinfectant in these situations.

There’s a spectrum of the importance of the data. On one end is financial data. On the other is likes of photographs (for example). The more closely the site works with deeply personal data, the more user controls of visibility matter. The Venmo situation (where Joe Biden’s transactions were visible), is a great example of this.

The question du jour is does any of this apply to Web3? I’d say yes. Right now, your profile for a Web3 community is distributed between your wallet and your Discord presence(s). This feels pretty basic — if the whole point of many Web3 apps is community, it should be much stronger. And it will be. Tools will develop differently, but the principles outlined here are likely to remain valid.

All of these decisions are crucial because the profile page can become the centerpiece of network effects.

Why? Well, there are two aspects to it:

First — you can’t have a network without nodes in the network. Users are these nodes, and the profile page is how you can identify and locate them. It’s a way, potentially, for users to get introduced to each other and, in doing that, come together into a true network.

If you’re building a platform and aiming to develop a community there, this is especially important. The profile page might be the most essential part of that. It’s central to community as a way for people to understand who another person is and learn what they’re about before and after making a connection.

Second — network effects will start to take off when the profile page itself becomes an asset worth owning. For example: it’s advantageous for a business to own its Google Business and Yelp pages, because people go to those platforms for information about businesses and companies. Even if the business owner doesn’t care too much about emerging websites, at some point, it becomes impossible to ignore the value of the page as an asset. Similarly, if you’re setting up any kind of personal or brand web presence, you want to own the same handle on each major platform (Shripriya.com, @Shripriya, medium.com/shripriya, etc). Even if I’m not active on one of these platforms, claiming my “location in the network,” via a profile page, is valuable to me.

Think a few years down the road. As your company grows, what will motivate someone to take ownership of their profile page and invest in it?

  • Do they make money?
  • Do they make friends?
  • Do they find shared interests?
  • Do they learn about something they care about?
  • Are they entertained?
  • Is there something in a user’s profile page that adds value to every other user (or to one other user)?
  • Is there a way for one user’s efforts to reduce the effort another user needs to put in to achieve a goal?

These are the situations in which value is created, and that value is attached to a profile page which represents the user’s place in the network. The more obvious this value is to users, the easier it becomes to nudge users onto your platform and keep them there.


TL;DR — these are the key questions as you build this important platform component:

  • What can the user control about her profile page? What does the company control? What can other people do via her profile page?
  • Should users be anonymous, pseudonymous, or eponymous? Is this a user choice or the company’s choice?
  • Does every user have the same kind of profile page?
  • *How much interpersonal activity is displayed?

This is crucial if you want network effects, for two main reasons:

  • 1. You can’t have a network without nodes in the network. A profile page is how you create and identify those nodes.
  • 2. Network effects will start to take off when the profile page itself becomes an asset worth owning.

Many thanks to Andrew Parker and Sara Eshelman for reading drafts and sharing thoughts on this post.


  1. I do not have access to any Clubhouse data, this is conjecture 

What’s Your Company Really About?

In That Moment
Still from In That Moment

My writing professor, the incomparable Mick Casale, would ask, “What is your film about?”

Once he got the answer, the follow up question would be, “What is it really about?”

In The Creative Habit, the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this “the spine.” Take my first short film from NYU for example—In That Moment (5 minutes, embedded below) is about a guy who’s working as a living statue in Central Park and and his encounter with a woman who piques his interest.

But what is the film really about? It’s about the regret chances not taken, moments when fear makes you pick the safe choice, and times when you instantly regret a decision you can’t take back.

If you’re a founder, this question is relevant because you should know what your company is really about. On the face of it, you might be a marketplace—but ask yourself, what is your company really about? You should know that answer.

  • Nana is “about” helping people get their appliances repaired, but it’s really about providing economic empowerment and agency to blue-collar workers
  • Uber is “about” getting from point A to point B, but it’s really about changing the way people travel, eat, and work.
  • eBay is “about” being able to quickly sell something to someone you don’t know, but it’s really about global economic empowerment.
  • Twitter is “about” sharing what you’re thinking, but it’s really about allowing people to learn, find friends, and challenge their worldview (although it is unclear if that ever happens).
  • Core is “about” meditation, but it’s really about taking charge of your mental well-being.

What the film is really about is its spine. For a company, the long-term vision is the spine that holds the company up, provides clarity and guides decision making around design, branding, expansion plans, who you’re counting among your competitors.

At the earliest stages, the spine of your company may not be visible to everyone. Tesla’s first expensive sports car was easy to dismiss for both consumers and investors. But what is Tesla’s spine? Making transportation sustainable for the planet while being joyful to the consumer.

The spine is the deeper intent behind what you’re doing. Not every customer needs to understand the spine to use and enjoy the product, but it’s important for everyone at the company to understand the larger vision.

With that, I’ll leave you with In That Moment.

Seats

Photo by Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash

A role, or seat, in an organization is filled by someone. But that person doesn’t own the seat. The seat is the seat: it’s a conceptual role that exists to make the organization succeed.

When a person who is in the seat excels, adds value, and grows with the organization, they get to keep that seat. They may be offered a different seat, with more responsibility where they can continue to thrive and grow.

But there are times when that does not happen—where the needs of the seat are bigger than what that person can fill.

Every successful company reaches this point. Usually, it’s when the organization is growing so fast that the people can’t keep up and scale their skills with that growth. This is an opportunity, both for the company and for the employee. The CEO/leadership team has to look at that the seat and the person, and ask themselves “is this the best person I can have in this seat?” If the answer is no, there is room to bring on an experienced person to fill the role—someone who can have a dramatic positive impact on the role and the organization.

For the person being replaced, this is hard. But even for him, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If he’s intrinsically talented, he can look up to his new manager and learn from her. It’s all about the mindset and the framing. In a fast-growing company, new opportunities will keep coming up and people who show they are open to learning and growing will be given new, different, and often more responsibility.

On some occasions, it may be time to part ways, and that’s okay too. Organizations work best when people are well suited to their roles. And people work best when they’re positioned to apply their unique skills to the fullest, and thrive.

I encourage CEOs and leadership teams to revisit “seating arrangements” once a year, often combined with an annual review process. When you do this, you should put the organizational needs first. Not only is it your fiduciary duty, it’s also the best way to build the company. People will perform better when they know there’s a yearly appraisal, and the best employees should relish the opportunity to get thoughtful input on their areas of growth. Making these decisions is part of the CEO’s job. When the right people are in the right seats, the organization can sing.

The board can play a role by helping the CEO see their own development areas (often done using annual reviews for the CEO). When the CEO ends up modeling behavior of learning and being open about development areas, it can set the organization up with a culture of lifelong learning.

55 Questions for Mission-Driven Co-Founders

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Early on, when Tesla was still Tesla Motors and hardly anyone had heard of it, co-founders Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard were approached repeatedly by large companies that wanted to throw significant money at them, so they could work on solving their problems. Marc and Martin always said no.

They turned down those offers because they were both clearly aligned around the mission of the company, the product they were building, and their personal goals and ambitions.

They also knew each other really well. Not only had they already co-founded an e-reader company together, but even before that, they’d been meeting for coffee every Wednesday (and to this day, they still do that). They had a mutual understanding that extended beyond the practical aspects of working together; they had shared values and a shared mission.

Not everyone has the opportunity to meet a co-founder serendipitously—but no matter how you meet, you have to establish that same chemistry that existed between Marc and Martin. You need to be united around your beliefs, values, and mission. You’ll have lots of decisions to make, and you’ll change your mind many times along the way. But there are some things that you need to get right from the start—specifically, what the point is of doing all this, and what will make it worthwhile.

Earlier this year, when I was looking for a new partner, I used Jordan Cooper’s 33 Questions to really determine who I was, what I wanted, how I wanted to build our venture firm, and what I was looking for in a partner. It’s a great list of questions and helps people get to the heart of the things that matter.

I realized that a similar list for co-founders could be useful. I started with Jordan’s list, organized it a bit differently, and then added in questions that are more relevant to co-founders of a startup, rather than a venture firm:

Absolutes:
1. What will you never do and never tolerate from anyone on your team
2. What will you always do and demand from everyone on your team?

The idea and the mission:
3. Describe what the mission is, to you.
4. What’s at the core of this company?
5. In the ideal world, describe what this company looks like in 5 years, 7 years.
6. How much does the mission behind this idea matter to you?
7. Pivoting:
— a. If we don’t get traction and have to pivot, would you be okay with that?
— b. How far of a pivot are you willing to make?
— c. Are you willing to wait and come back to the core idea once the pivot is successful?
8. What is the timeframe within which you want to see the mission come to life?
9. What if it takes longer than we think? What options will you consider?
[Note: Sometimes you pick your co-founder before you decide on an idea. In that situation, this whole conversation about the idea could be had more generally, instead of about the specific company you decide to start]

Understanding each other:
10. What is your life’s mission?
11. What is a life well-lived?
12. How do you define success? How do you define failure?
13. Have you failed before?
— a. How did you feel about the experience?
— b. How did you react to the experience?
— c. What did you learn from the experience?
14. What stresses you out? How should I help you handle stress?
15. Who are your closest thought-partners and collaborators and why?
16. Who doesn’t like you and why? Who would you consider adversaries?
17. Who are your mentors?
18. Who are CEOs you look up to and why?
19. What major life events do you envision over the next 10 years?
20. How do you imagine your frame of mind evolving over the next 10 years?
21. What are the life events that have shaped you that I need to know about?
22. How do you learn?

Ethics and Behavior:
23. Have you ever had any issues in the realm of sexual harassment, inappropriate work behavior, legal issues, or has anyone ever challenged or questioned your integrity in a way that might come into focus in the future?
24. What, if any, policies or infrastructure would you want to create to ensure a healthy and ethical work environment?

Values:
25. What are the values that you want to define your company?
26. What will the company and its people stand for and live by?
27. Are there clients or industries you’re morally opposed to entering or serving?

Motivations:
28. What role does money play in your ambitions?
29. Why are you doing this, versus working for a different company?
30. What gets you out of bed each morning?
31. Is winning important to you?
32. How do you measure the impact of your work?
33. Whose opinions of you matter and why?

Compensation:
34. What kind of salary will make you happy and comfortable?
35. What’s your threshold for an exit? Would you be open to being acquired? If yes, how much would you need to personally make in order to accept the offer?
36. How do you think about equity between co-founders? Should we always have equal equity?

Investors:
37. What kind of investors do you want to raise $ from? (values, brands)
38. Who do you already have good relationships with? Who are aspirational?
39. What is the ideal relationship between us and our investors?
40. Is how much money we raise a badge of success?

Roles/how we work with each other:
41. Who is the CEO? It’s got to be one of us.
42. What are the kinds of decisions we need to agree on, and which decisions can the CEO make without consultation?
43. How will we stay connected? What processes should we put in place to be in sync as we move fast? (15 minute phone call/zoom at the end of each day?)

How the team will operate:
44. What are your superpowers, and what do you perceive as mine? How can we accentuate and build around them?
45. What are our strengths as a team?
46. Which responsibilities do you want, and what do you actively not want to own?
47. What are our operating agreements? What standards do we commit to, how will we resolve conflicts?
48. How do you want to build the company, geographically? Where should the office be, or will the company be remote?
49. If it is remote, how will we build culture?
50. What is the culture we want for our company?
51. Where do you think you are weak, where do you think I am weak, and where do you think we are weak as a team? How can we buffer these weaknesses?

Concerns / worries:
52. What do you think is going to be hard, both initially and down the line
53. Based on time together so far, does anything worry you?

First 365 days:
54. What are the most important things for us to accomplish?
55. If we do x, y, and z, what will a great first year in business look like?

This is a long list, but working with a co-founder is a big decision. This process only works if each person is herself. It’s like making unique jigsaw pieces fit together. Pretending to be a differently shaped piece won’t help anyone.

These are the things you need to get right from the beginning, if you’re going to start a successful mission-driven company. This process will take time and it won’t be easy, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.

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.

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 

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.

Being Messy

Photo by todd kent on Unsplash

Chanel Miller said her New Year’s resolution for 2020 was to fail as much as possible.

“Making things that are really crappy and undeveloped until maybe they can be good. I’m way too young to confine myself to one lane and lose the ability to openly experiment.”

This is exactly how a the first draft of a film script develops. Characters and ideas float around in your head, and one day, they’re done with the floating and demand to live on the page. The script gets written, and when you’re done… it’s shitty. It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to show it to anyone, and you wonder how on earth your magical characters and ideas amounted to this pile of doodoo on the page.

But, it’s really important to have this first draft. Because as Miller said, yes, it’s crappy and undeveloped, but you need the crappy and undeveloped to have hope for the good and the great.

Struggling, wrangling, failing, crying, working, pushing forward allows your characters and your story to breathe, thrive, and for the bones to slowly emerge from the pile. Experimenting openly, taking the story in unexpected directions, adding or removing key characters, and messing around with no pressure allows the sparks of creativity that makes the script sing.

Every creator needs that messy time.

The same is true for startup creators. Ideas for a product form in your head over time, sometimes over years. Then one day, you’re ready to put it on the “page” — to code something, to craft something. And it may be a sloppy, messy ball of hair, mud, and hope. Don’t clean it up, polish, and shine it in order to raise money too early.

Love your messy stage, because it is so important to relish that stage. You can only do it once for each startup, and it’s when experimentation, ideation, hanging out, and trying weird things is entirely possible. It’s where ugly is awesome.

At some point, a screenwriter will have to share the script with producers. At some point, you have to share your startup with users and, if you want, with investors. If things go well, they love it, and you build an amazing company. Fantastic.

If you’ve grown your company into a wonderfully world-changing one, it’s worth finding ways to go back to being messy. Get into small groups. Make room for experimentation with ugly, creative things that may fail, because that can lead to new lines of growth. If you have the urge to start again, you could start another company and embrace the new ugly ball of mess. Whatever path you follow, the messy part of creation can be the the best part of creation, and the challenge of it makes your ideas and your company better.

Investing in Founders is like Casting Actors

On the set of “Waking Jed”, directing Jessica Chastain. Photo Credit: Anna Kooris

One of my early lessons in screenwriting was to focus on the character—motivations, personality, drives—and not external characteristics. It’s tempting to specify that the leading lady is blonde, petite, or whatever. And it’s okay to envision the character while writing, but we’re taught to avoid specifying detailed external appearance in casting.

The reason is that sometimes, the best casting decision is the one that’s least expected. You might have an image in your head of the character, but the best actor—the person who is most convincing and does an incredible job—might look very different from your mental image. Let’s say your character is written as a seductress, but the best actor for that role could be more of a plain Jane. That adds a lot to the nuance and depth to the story. A more regular-looking person being a seductress is so much more interesting than the hottest person on earth being a seductress. The film Snowpiercer was written for a mild-mannered man in a suit, but Tilda Swinton rocked the role.

During casting sessions, screenwriters and directors need to learn to set aside their mental picture, look at the actors in front of them, and reimagine the story with each person auditioning. That’s the way to cast the best actors.

Similarly, investors sometimes have a mental picture of who will be a good entrepreneur. It’s not based on looks (one hopes), but on the profile — the experiences a person “should” have had to be a great entrepreneur. VCs can sometimes be biased toward someone who’s worked at a hot company that went public, or is an engineer who can build it all, or a name-dropper who seems very connected in the ecosystem.

If investors carry around these biases in our heads, we will miss the best people. Like great actors, great entrepreneurs can come in all shapes and sizes, and from all backgrounds, all levels of work experience, ages, nationalities, and genders.

When casting an actor, the most important things to look for include:

  • Ability to live the character. Do you believe the actor is the character
  • Willingness to take direction. A director should never tell an actor “how” to play the scene, but the director can and should give her guidance on the mood of the scene, how the audience should feel, or the character’s motivation for a certain action. And the actor should be able to take that input and give the director a range of options.

    I remember when I had the chance to direct Jessica Chastain and James Franco. They gave me such a spectacular performance on the first take and then turned around, asked how it was, and whether I wanted to see it another way. My jaw was on the floor — I was blown away by their talent and their humility in asking for input from a student director.
  • Ability to go with the flow. Film production (especially in the indie world) needs to be flexible. Sometimes, a much-desired location might suddenly become available (for free!), and the crew might have to shoot there tomorrow instead of three weeks from now. This means the actor has to be ready for scene 56 instead of scene 18.

Many of those same characteristics apply to ideal founders:

  • Ability to fully inhabit the role of the CEO. This is about vision, tactical capability, ability to hire, and the ability to sell their vision and themselves.
  • Willingness to take input. An investor should never tell a CEO how to do their job, but a big part of the investor’s role is to see around corners, anticipate challenges based on their experience, and give the CEO input and feedback.
  • Ability to go with the flow. Startups need to be flexible. Sometimes, a new competitor might emerge, you might lose a key person on your team, a pandemic might unexpectedly sweep the globe. The best CEOs are those who can adapt and find a way to thrive in the new world.

Just like the success of a film depends on casting the person who is the best actor, the success of an investment depends on casting the best founder. It requires putting aside the mental preconceptions and focusing on the person in the room (or on Zoom). Despite her youth, can she be an amazing CEO? What gives you that confidence? Her knowledge of the space? Ability to be compelling? Authenticity?

The best casting decisions happen when we are open to allowing incredible actors to show us how much better the character can be. In the same way, I try to approach every meeting with a founder with a willingness to be blown away by their vision of the world.