Work On Good Ideas

Despite what some people might want to believe, there is such a thing as bad ideas. In the context of building valuable ventures, bad ideas are typically bad in a few ways:

  • they’re trivial to implement — ideas that are easy rarely become valuable. Peter Thiel presents this argument as “Competition is For Losers”.
  • they’re wrong, either because they’re built on a misunderstanding of reality or faulty logic. For example, most recent ideas to use blockchain are based on a grossly oversimplified understanding of its benefits without understanding its drawbacks. The early-internet mantra of making up losses on volume (apocryphal though it might’ve been) is an example of faulty logic. Regardless, in this case, humbly remember that you don’t know everything and you could, in fact, be wrong.
  • they’re a marginal improvement in the best case. Even if successfully implemented, these ideas result in incremental improvements (measured in single- or low-double-digit percentages), often for a small audience (tech-literate knowledge workers and people with lots of disposable income are common examples). This is probably the most insidious and pervasive type of bad idea in the modern tech industry, especially because it’s often easy to hypothesize an ideal-although-unlikely world where the idea actually changes how something fundamentally works.

Last week, my team at work launched Disrupt Tech, a blog and community aimed at unsticking our industry from the allure of bad ideas. We see too much capital and talent wasted on incremental problems (like optimizing ad click-throughs) and also-ran products, while there exist big, real problems to be solved. While Trustwork is attempting to solve some of these problems, there are many more in the world, and we want to see more people working on them.

Disrupt Tech’s north star and manifesto is below:

Technology was supposed to make everyone more productive, unleash creativity, and bring abundance to the world. But at some point, we lost our way. As an industry, we’ve gotten caught up in our clichés and euphemisms and forgotten what it means to create real value.

The modern technology era began in the late 1960s, when popular culture collectively envisioned a future of space travel and valuable computation for everyone, and companies like Fairchild, Intel, and descendants kicked off the race to build that future. The subsequent decades ushered in a Cambrian explosion in hardware and software, unlocking world-changing innovations in communication, manufacturing, biology, and countless other fields.

The 90s saw the rise of the Internet, the foundation for an “information superhighway”, a nascent ideal that would’ve enriched the lives of every citizen. Instead, people decided it was more important to build warehouses to deliver pet food.

Since then, the internet has brought massive opportunity to more than 3 billion people, and fundamentally changed the lives for many of the 2 billion who carry access in their pockets. Yet we’ve seen massive amounts of capital and human talent directed towards incremental improvements, made-up problems, and tools for other techies. Our best talent isn’t working on real tech problems that could unlock massive value for most of those people — there is much more we can do with the internet than A/B test ad clickthroughs or build glorified chat apps.

We think our industry has gotten stuck in a rut. But we don’t think it has to be this way. Every day we talk to incredible workers who’ve figured out ways to work effectively and live abundantly. We see examples of human ingenuity, as well as people who want an outlet to express that creativity and build products for the rest of the world. We believe that technology can be a a life-changing tool for billions of people, and, in the hands of great people, we’ll figure out how to continue advancing humanity. And that is why we’re on a mission to disrupt tech.

Cover photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Tech Stacks are Overrated

In the process of interviewing dozens of junior and intermediate engineers, the questions candidates ask implicitly say as much about them as the rest of the interview. One question that comes up occasionally is some variation of “what tech stack are you using”? List some of the myriad Javascript libraries-du-jour and I get a murmur of approval; mention something mature and be met with silence or a disappointed “oh”. In fact, many outright say that they want to be working with the latest or “bleeding edge” technologies.

I get it, the “right” technologies are cool and shiny and have undeniable appeal. You feel invigorated when using them. For me, I’m excited about Elm, Crystal, and GraphQL.

But focusing on tech stacks and looking for the coolest technology during job interviews isn’t very valuable, and distracts from more valuable questions. Companies build software to reduce costs or capture value. Customers don’t care what tech stack companies are using, as long as they can get things done. A company using Node and bleeding-edge ES2018 doesn’t get to charge a coolness premium over a competitor using Rails; the shinier tech, by itself, doesn’t automatically create more value.

It can, however, increase costs. Mature technologies have a well-worn path to success: there are documentation or blog posts for everything you’d want to do, Stack Overflow questions for any issue you might run into, and a patch for every bug that might’ve existed in a v1. None of that might be true with the new and shiny, where any one of a dozen configuration options or plugins could break everything if you breathe the wrong way. There’s no clear path to a maintainable codebase and your ability to consistently create value in the long term.

Rather than ask “what’s your tech stack”, a more interesting question is why that tech stack makes sense for what’s being built. As a interview candidate, listen for a clear reasoning that makes sense — that’s a stronger signal of a company that’s more likely to be successful (and one where you can learn) than one that picked its technology based on what was cool at the time they started. To a good interviewer, that’s also a more impressive question.

It’s even more valuable to go beyond the technology and focus on the product and problem. What problem is the company trying to solve? How are they thinking about the problem, and what is their proposed solution? What kinds of problems do you want to solve? What kind of products do you want to build? As an interviewer, I’m looking for alignment between what we’re building and the problems and products you’re passionate about. As an interviewee, determine alignment around these questions first — and then you can ask about the technology, and whether that’s a reasonable choice for the problem. It’ll make for a much more interesting conversation for everyone.

If this makes sense to you, and you want to use technology to create value, I’m hiring a few engineers to empower every worker on Earth.

Photo by Jaz King on Unsplash

How I think about salary

Nobody gets rich from a salary.

Aggressive statement; it warrants some definitions. A salary, broadly speaking, is compensation for your labor — for your input into the machination of a company. The same is true for a hourly wage, except the relationship is more obvious there.

People join companies to magnify their efforts — to get leverage in the output. If you improve something 1% in your life, you might not notice it. If you improve something 1% for millions of people, that can translate into thousands or millions of dollars. Often, that’s real value creation, and, if the company is any good, it captures some of that value and translates it into wealth.

Wealth is freedom — the freedom to apply it to do something, and the freedom from having to do something you don’t want to. In the world of business, wealth comes from ownership. You can design and ship a 1% improvement, create millions of dollars of value, and capture it within a few days. Owning, say, 0.1% of the company that enabled you to do so allows you to personally capture some of that value. This compounds in many ways.

In general, a bump in salary leads to a commensurate bump in spending. On average, a higher salary lets you buy a more expensive lifestyle (which isn’t inherently bad), but it doesn’t create more value or more freedom.

Instead, think of salary as a tool to cover your downside risk. Sufficient salary allows you to avoid going into debt, and allows you to buy the experiences, environments, and things that bring you joy, keep you healthy, and drive your productivity. Once that’s met, optimize for finding a great company.

(All of this takes a backseat if you’re carrying debt with an interest rate. In that case, you’ll probably want to optimize for salary and pay that down first).

Evaluating Work Opportunities

Recently, I spoke with a friend about job opportunities. I briefly shared with him my framework for deciding between companies, which I developed during my job search last summer. I want to expand on the questions and the thinking behind them — as far as I can tell, this isn’t common knowledge, and perhaps someone else will find it useful.

The framework centers around three dimensions, two which look at the upside (trajectory and potential), and one to cap the downside (sustained damage).

As a example, suppose it’s 2018, and you’re looking at a (entirely hypothetical) company called Basebook — a social network for baseball fans. After a few rocky years, they recently raised a bridge round, hired a “professional CEO”, and are starting to find some traction. MAUs have been growing 20% each month for the past six months.

This post assumes you’re evaluating work opportunities that provide meaningful ownership or profit interests (via stock options, RSUs, stock grants, etc), and that you could live adequately on any of the offered salaries. This post is intended to be a thought experiment — it is not financial advice, and I’m not a financial advisor.

 

Prologue

This framework should be used in the final round of your decision-making, once you’ve made sure that all your opportunities address your table stakes. These might include:

  • Location
  • Team culture, and whether you’d enjoy working with the people there
  • A path for the kind of growth you’re looking for
  • Salary — enough to allow you to pay off debts and eliminate (or at least mitigate) existential anxiety

Trajectory

Trajectory looks at how well the company has been doing — it takes into account both the magnitude of the growth and how quickly it happens. Trajectory matters in both the growth of the business (customers/revenue/profit/cash flow), as well as growth of the product (shipping rate and value of what is shipping).

Interpreting these metrics will depend on the nature of the company. For example, strong growth in users may be a good thing if there is a clear path to monetizing users, or if there is a strong funding environment for user counts, but may be a neutral or negative signal if it comes with high CAC or a cautious funding environment. Similarly, a company might be generating little profit, but it’s collecting large amounts of cash up front (and presumably reinvesting its free cash flow). In the product dimension, a slow shipping cadence usually isn’t a good sign.

In Basebook’s case, the user growth trajectory appears promising. However, without other clear signals, it’s difficult to attribute clear value to that signal — MAUs on their own don’t necessarily lead to monetization. The rocky early years might be a negative sign for trajectory, if they were spent making bad decisions or pursuing misguided ideas.

If the trajectory on any dimension is flat or flattening, that’s a strong negative signal. Instead, look for accelerating progress. For smaller companies, it may be the case that many metrics are flat or humbly linear while one or two important metrics are accelerating. That may be a good thing — it’s a sign of focus.

Potential

How big is the company’s opportunity? This is different from asking how big the company’s market is — it should take into account the competitive nature of the market and the dynamics of customer acquisition. A market crowded with competitors, or one with difficult-to-reach customers, will likely cap the amount of the market any company could capture.

Alternatively, a company may be able to expand its market by rethinking the laws of economics and consumer behavior (example: Spotify) or the laws of physics (example: SpaceX). If the company can execute well enough to capture that growth, that can be massively valuable. A company may also be able to expand into other markets (usually adjacent, but not always) — Amazon is a classic example.

For Basebook, the market likely isn’t very large; the number of people who are baseball fans and want to use a dedicated social network is likely small. In addition, the fundraising market for social networks has cooled considerably, and user growth without profitability isn’t likely to be able to attract more funding.

Sustained Damage

I believe that companies sustain damage as they age. Most of it is self-inflicted; sometimes it’s external. Damage might come from specific decisions, faulty decision-making frameworks, or poorly handled events. Of these, faulty frameworks are the most insidious. It’s difficult to spot a systemic pattern of bad decision-making, except in hindsight (often when trajectory has already been impacted).

Signs of bad decision making include a lack of zeal or clarity, especially when asked about goals, direction, or the rationale behind goals or direction; a hesitation to make and commit to decisions; and problems that persist without apparent progress in resolving them. In fact, sustained damage, at first glance, usually looks more like systemic stagnation rather than outright negativity.

It’s possible Basebook sustained damage during the early years, especially if it wasn’t able to develop a strong culture and execution discipline (indicated by hiring a “professional CEO”). Furthermore, a bridge round usually leads to significant dilution, resulting in what you, as a potential common shareholder, would likely consider sustained damage as well.