I started writing this post a couple of months ago, when the world was crazy, but much less crazy than it is right now with the Ukrainian invasion. When the macro level is this out of control, when people are forced into situations they didn’t ask for, it drives home the point of what extreme lack of agency looks like. War is a time when individuals lose their sense of agency—over their own lives, and also over the direction of the world.
Agency is the ability of your effort to first affect the condition of your life, and then the condition of the world.
Without agency, you don’t believe that your effort means anything. Agency is tied to your sense of purpose — you can’t fulfill your purpose without agency. At a basic level, you must be able to
perceive a choice
make a choice
act on the choice
believe that the choice has the possibility to give you the result that you want to see.
This is so fundamental to human potential and achievement that “agency” is a driving characteristic I look for in investments.
In 2020, Nikhil wrote a post on trends for 2021, and he asked people in tech what their thoughts were. My answer was simple: individual agency. I wrote: “The next big thing in 2021 is agency – where people can construct their lives, regardless of location, and find a way to build the career and lifestyle they want.”
Over the last few years, I’ve realized that agency is the unifying idea that underpins Spero’s thesis.
It’s about investing in the things that enable agency. The 3 different components of “things that make life worth living” are all related to people’s agency—their ability to choose what happens in their lives and the world.
Wellbeing: the agency to live your life with the physically and mentally capability that you choose. To be able to access your data, choose your path to wellbeing, as you define it.
Sustainability: the agency for people to have a positive impact on the planet, while also choosing abundance. The ability to make informed choices that reflect their values while thriving and enabling the planet to thrive.
Learning, work, and play: the agency to choose your path, learn what you want to, work on problems that energize you, build the life you want to have, and enjoy yourself with the people that matter.
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.
I do not have access to any Clubhouse data, this is conjecture ↩
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?
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.
“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!)
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.
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.
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:
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.
Oh, so you invest in mission-driven founders—that means you’re okay with sub-commercial returns, right?
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.
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.
This is a problem and it is exclusionary, but it is also how the world currently works ↩
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.
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!
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.