Primus inter pares

June 18, 2018

I was the technical cofounder of my first business, Wishery. The company did OK: thousands of customers and thousands of dollars/month of recurring revenue toward the end. When we failed to raise capital (more on this tomorrow), my partner brokered a sale to Zenbox and the business was sold.

My partner and I fought a lot. I was young and arrogant, but honest; he was more humble, but also delusional. The company never had a viable business model. But there's another facet to it: our relationship as CEO and "technical cofounder".

What I've realized is, "technical cofounder" is a bullshit job title. This title indicates a CEO who doesn't want to share decision-making, but needs a strong technologist to check some kind of box, usually fundraising—though if they had their way, they'd prefer to hire an employee and be the boss. A relationship where one person wants a partnership (even if there's a leader) but the other wants to be the boss isn't going to last; that's what "technical cofounder" signals, and it's wise to avoid, whether as an investor, employeee, or otherwise. (Sidenote: Y Combinator is smart to require a video of the founders; firsthand experience has taught me most early startup failures happen due to bad team chemistry, and you can learn a lot about team dynamics from watching how people talk about each other.)

One better way: a single CEO with employees, the "Jeff Bezos model". This configuration is stable, but requires someone with a lot of business experience, usually an older founder.

The other model I've seen work is primus inter pares: first among equals. Many professional services firms (law, accounting, architecture) operate this way: a group of partners with one manager/leader whose decisions are final. This model acknowledges that a group needs an identified final decision-maker, but major decisions cannot be taken without support of the broader group. Primus inter pares is very hard to get right: it takes years, and requires people who know each other very well, with a high level of mutual respect. But I think it's the best model for professional services and technology firms, which are more similar than either realize.


Individual vs. generalized fit

June 17, 2018

Everybody hates the US News & World report rankings of colleges. Does anyone even read that magazine anymore? And yet, many Americans who don't work in higer education still consider it the authoritative "ranking" of colleges.

I used to think college rankings were silly intellectual fraud. That is the scientists's view: are we being honest with ourselves? Does the data support the model? Not really. But I learned two things thinking about it.

The first: the need for psychological safety is real. Americans don't routinely put down a quarter-million dollars on intangible goods like education; when they do, they want to know they're making a good decision. So US News is really selling the same thing as a financial advisor: certainty. "If you do this, even though it seems crazy and risky, you'll get a good outcome". A lot of professional services sell this, too: spend a ton of money, but it's OK, because we've done this sort of thing before, we're good at it, and you won't lose everything.

The other thing: I think we're going to have an intellectual shift in how we think about "fit" over the coming decades: less "the best", more "the best for you". It's already starting in precision medicine, where new drugs are targeting thin slices of the population, acknowledging that something as complex as drug delivery might need to consider the characteristics of an individual, rather than assuming every human is identical.

Maybe US News & World report will eventually develop an interactive tool that lets each person build their own ranking. But I wouldn't be so sure, because humans also love to compare, and university education has a big status component to it, too.

It's not greed that drives the world, but envy - Charlie Munger


The best, maybe not the biggest

June 16, 2018

Caroline and I visited Paris last year after we got married. We stayed in the city for two weeks, which was a different kind of trip than the hopping around I'd done on previous trips, where you go a bunch of places and stay in each only a few days. Staying in one place lets you see things you wouldn't otherwise notice.

Visiting Paris as an American is kind of funny. On one hand, they have a ton of national pride: there's world-famous art everywhere, literary cafés visited by Balzac and Voltaire on practically every corner, and entire museums dedicated to scientific advancements in mechanical and optical engineering. The French have a long and storied history and they're justifiably proud of it.

On the other hand, you can't help but chortle a bit at how this tiny little country thinks they're the hottest thing, with only 1/5th the US's population. They have Voltaire; we have Einstein and Google. They'd probably be a German colony if we hadn't saved their asses in World War II.

And yet, what does China think about the tiny little US? 1/4th its population. Maybe my attitude was a little short-sighted.

The United States takes a lot of pride in being the biggest. Even though we aren't. This sounds like some sort of national identity crisis in the making.

The French figured out how to be proud of themselves without needing to be the biggest. I think the United States could learn a lot from them.


Why I'm not a digital nomad

June 15, 2018

I have a couple of friends who travel full-time. These "digital nomads", as they're called, have built lifestyles where they travel full-time, working remotely from their laptops.

I understand wanting to leave the United States.

For one, there's a lot beyond our borders. Monuments, other places and cultures, other cuisines. Travel is a great teacher.

Whereas back home, it's nothing but high taxes and a bozo president who wants to put up walls and shut it all down. Unfunded pensions, 30-40% marginal tax rates, and $800/month property tax bills for decrepit schools and potholed roads.

I get it. So why stick it out?

Life today is good. You can hail car service from your phone, book hotels by the hour, get food delivered at 2AM. You can watch any movie any time of day without leaving your house, and talk to anyone in the world for almost nothing.

There's a darker side to this convenience, and that is that you become conditioned to see everything as some sort of convenient, on-demand consumption purchase to be had on your terms, whenever you want, only to be thrown away or put down when you've had enough. Just swipe left.

That's a fine way to treat soda straws and minibar bottles. It doesn't work so well with marriages, communities, or cities. These things have to be built and that takes time.

It's great to consume other cultures in small doses. But like many of life's pleasures, the real satisfaction isn't from nonstop consumption, it's from building something enduring with a community. For some that's a sports team, others a family, still others, a business. Peoples' ambitions are different. But the desire is universal.

Other cultures aren't my consumption item. That's why I'm not a digital nomad.


When does crime become art?

June 14, 2018

Living somewhere means stewardship. Whether a city, a condo complex, or a neighborhood park, you want to see people treat it well, maybe even improve it. All the better if you do it yourself.

So it's pretty upsetting when I see kids dropping Burger King bags, or grown adults going 40mph down residential streets, in Oakland. I see both practically every day. Oakland sees itself as some real-world Wakanda —"Oakanda"—people from Wakanda wouldn't trash their city. We shouldn't either.

Try riding the BART. Personal experience: I had a knife pulled on me in 2014. In 2017, someone tried to rip my laptop out of my hands and bolt (I held on). I can't remember the last time I rode from Oakland to San Francisco without getting a "dance show", where someone brings amplified sound equipment onto the train and blasts the entire car with music.

I hate BART dance shows. They're obnoxious and people can get hurt.

But it got me thinking. Art, as a whole, is a pretty rebellious enterprise. A surprising amount of art was highly controversial when presented. I don't think BART should tolerate dance shows. But it bothers me more than a little that I might be killing someone's ambition to be a performer.