Technology

Will People Pay for Just One Flower?

My friend Sanjay Subrahmanyan is one of the top classical vocalists of India. Before Covid, he regularly performed at South India’s equivalent of Lincoln Center, for crowds of almost 2,000. After countless delayed and cancelled concerts, Sanjay eventually decided to go rogue. In January 2021, he launched a YouTube channel membership—a direct-to-consumer plan.

I thought this was a fascinating move, especially for someone whose audience consists predominantly of Baby Boomers, in the relatively conservative industry of Carnatic music

Sanjay described the change to me like this:

“In the past, the Music Academy and 10-15 other organizations would come together to produce one huge music festival. It’s a 30-day extravaganza with 5 concerts per venue per day. This was like being one flower in a bouquet. People are used to paying for the bouquet. Now, I’m asking them to pay for just one flower.”

Sanjay has three tiers of subscribers, using YouTube memberships. The basic tier is free, and everyone receives access to hundreds of archived recordings that Sanjay and his wife Aarthi have been collecting since the early 2000s. There are thousands of hours of these, and he releases more regularly. The second tier ($1 per month) gets a preview of the new uploads before they’re released to everyone else. The top tier ($10 per month) gets a brand-new concert every month, released to them exclusively. Sanjay gets together his accompanists, heads to a recording studio with a video and audio team, and performs and records a 90 minute concert each month.

Before the pandemic, the online world and business was a hobby for him. From discovering usenets in 1995 on a trip to the US to releasing songs on mp3s in the late nineties, he’s been personally fascinated with using and discovering new technology and exploring what was out there for his profession. But he considers it just dabbling. He never looked at online as a full-time business proposition because he was busy performing 50 to 60 concerts a year, all through inbound invitations. He was an early user of Gumroad and had also been releasing albums on Spotify and making a lot of his performances free on YouTube.

“But over the last three or four years,” Sanjay told me, “I realized the trend was more toward video: people want to see you, especially during the pandemic. I picked YouTube partly for that reason, and partly because it was very simple for subscribers. Most of my fans are in their 60s, so they need something simpler than Patreon or Gumroad. That’s why I use YouTube, even though their cut is 30%.”

A few takeaways from this:

First, ease is important; fans will be more open to paying if it’s really easy for them to sign up and access their stuff, so a platform where they already spend time has an added benefit.

Second, existing networks compound; YouTube is a compounding engine for Sanjay’s subscriber base. He has ~30,000 basic subscribers on YouTube. Converting a few of these people to paying subscribers and providing the rest with fresh content will reap dividends over time.

Third, it’s so important to keep a record of everything, so you have plenty of content to share and choose from. For a performer, it’s obvious how to do so – record everything. But for a visual artist, don’t discard “work in process” or little day-to-day projects. For a writer, even snippets that show how you work can be valuable. It’s not a big, fully wrapped deliverable, but it’s work you still created.

Sanjay realized that he had to share his performances with his audiences to stay relevant. He also realized he deeply missed performing. Performers have to perform!

To go from singing 60 concerts a year—which included planning and preparing, coordinating with accompanists, experiencing the joy of the performance and the gratitude of having an audience appreciate it—down to zero concerts in three months is very hard for someone who performs at the highest levels. And to lose a year of performance revenue in his prime was not easy. But it was a forcing function that made him take the leap into developing a direct relationship with his audience.

Sanjay has had to evolve from a performer focused on his craft to someone who has to focus on the business side of the equation. To use his creativity and apply it to areas like logistics and business operations, to marketing and branding.

This has unlocked new forms of creativity for him. While he’s primarily a performer of existing compositions, he has on occasion arranged new compositions. But these were all still vocal arrangements that were delivered during live concerts. In the past couple of months, he’s explored how to use video more creatively. He recently created a new arrangement of a beautiful poem called “Tamizhan endroru inamundu,” which means “Tamilians are a tribe.” His collaborators filmed it and developed a visual treatment for the poem.

For creators, will the hybrid model will become the default? Will more artists go rogue like Sanjay? Who are the kinds of creators who will be able to do this? Sanjay is typically a performer of music that other people have composed, so it’s been a relatively low-lift for him to produce new content. What about filmmakers, who have to bring a much bigger team together with (almost always) a bigger expenditure/budget? What about writers or composers, where each piece may take months and many drafts before it’s ready to share?

The “creator” economy is a very broad term that covers creators who are so different from each other in terms of frequency of creation, complexity of creation, ability to share work in progress, and so many other dimensions. It’s in the nuance of the differences that opportunities exist for both creators and for the tech solutions that serve them. Where will we go next?

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!)

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.

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 

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.

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.