Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Some wisdom gained

From time to time, I capture my thoughts by writing a blog post. It's not about readership, since I have low numbers (136 views yesterday for example), but rather, to put my ruminations "out there" and to create an immutable running record of sorts through the Wayback Machine. It gives me clarity and adds a sense of finality to certain thought processes.

I began a journey ten years ago when the idea for it first occurred to me. My wife and I were on a ski trip North of Toronto at the time. Being back in the very same hideout this week -- although we are sheltered in place due to the pandemic and only venture out to walk in the forest -- a retrospection seems à propos.

I have been self-employed my entire work life and have built a lifestyle business over time. Since 1996, I've explored ways to pop out of my bubble and re-invent myself. This helped me morph my business into something better but still left me wanting more.

Fast-forward to 2010, and I intuitively reasoned that I should do something that can scale, although I would not have known how to articulate that concept. I was even oblivious to the term "startups" at the time. My conclusion was I should build a "website".

I came up with an idea, that even then, I knew to likely be 10 years ahead of its time. I was trying to build a friend discovery platform, which is today a fast-growing category within the social app ecosystem, with the likes of Itsme, Irl, Hoop, Wink, and others.

My journey did not include succeeding at that endeavor, but it has led to a fair dose of personal enlightenment. Not initially knowing what I didn't know, I was searching for clarity and understanding above anything else, which in turn led me to develop a voracious appetite for content related to the tech ecosystem, including venture capital. 

I'd like to think that, luckily, I was self-aware enough to realize that I was unfundable, and therefore put several (if not many) tens of thousands of dollars of my own money to work. I first hired a crew in India, and later, in Ukraine. I did teach myself something about product management and learned to interact with developers. I got way too little sleep during that period, running my business by day, and communicating with my team over Google Chat by night. By Fall of my first year of effort, my immune system had a glitch and I came down with the shingles. No matter how painful that experience was, I kept going, joking that I wouldn't give up even if it killed me. Well, by the end of 2014, something more serious happened and I did face death squarely in the face. That did change everything as it became plain to me that if you're dead, you ain't making your dreams happen. And that's a fact. The net result is, after discussing it with my second half, I prioritized creativity, enjoyment of the time I have left on this planet, and my marriage over committing ten + years in a high risk / high reward activity. It later turned out that, having invested early in crypto (which I only discovered when I did because of my startup pursuits), has provided me with an exit, so the effort wasn’t wasted from a financial perspective.

What I value most is perhaps the appreciation I have gained for the following facts:

1) To pursue doing a venture-backed startup and therefore likely relinquish control and governance of my "baby", I would have needed to be consumed by the outcome I felt I ought to create, and I would have had to be uniquely qualified to do so. 

2) When a social media startup in the consumer market is pursuing a high growth path, there's the risk that VC dynamics will help create another monster that monetizes user attention in a zero-sum game of attention capital allocation on the part of the users. Thanks in part to thinkers such as Albert Wenger, I have philosophically come to believe that humanity deserves to retain its attention capital and invest it in activities and learnings that will enhance its survival potential and the quality of that survival.

3) Venture capital, at its core, is a beautiful instrument that can foster innovation, but it can also be a double-edged sword, particularly in the current fed-induced fiscal environment trending toward negative interest rates. In a Sci-Fi novel I wrote as a result of letting my creative instincts loose, I highlight that venture capitalists who take to heart the legacy their industry leaves behind could be put in a position where they feel they have no choice but to take heroic (or at least dramatic) actions to do what they must in their view to safeguard the future. Chamath Palihapitiya could be perceived to be a contemporary example of that when he pivoted his career in 2018, stating that venture capital had created a "bizarre Ponzi balloon" -- something he no longer wanted to be associated with. (He’s now having a “SPAC-tacular” time instead). And then there are the transparent, sincere, and friendly VCs. But on the flip side, the need is there on the part of institutions, such as family offices, university endowments, sovereign wealth funds, etc., to produce a 7% return, which has had the net effect of pushing more and more money toward the VCs. And so the show must go on to create companies that undergo high growth (if not growth at all costs) with the ever-present goal in mind of the obligatory liquidation event. And we end up with today’s stock market. Whereas a viably profitable Microsoft went public in 1986 with raising a mere $62 million, now we have companies going public raising several billions at valuations over a hundred billion dollars in ways that inflation can never account for. Therefore it’s a pressure cooker that one enters at their own risk, and preferably only when one knows in their heart of hearts that they are likely the better-poised individual across the globe to push forward their obsession for a given product or service to exist in the world. Otherwise, it may be better to steer clear.

I've also come to more fully understand that the biggest obstacle that would freeze my ability to iterate on my ideas was the fact of being non-technical. When changing a comma on your website costs you $100, you think twice before pivoting to the fourth iteration. In 2010, the startup environment was still heavily skewed toward technical founders. This was before the no-code and low-code movements. Being non-technical, in my forty’s at the time, without a meaningful network, without a college degree, (never mind the lack of Ivy League school pedigree!) without a deep knowledge of the tech ecosystem, there were many challenges to be overcome. This coupled with the fact that I wasn’t willing in the first place to risk OPM when I hadn’t earned the right in my view to take that risk. But being non-technical was the biggest hurdle. And becoming technical is not something I'm personally wired for, then or now.

In the same last ten years — to let my creative urge thrive — I have taught myself sound engineering and music production. And in addition to writing my Sci-Fi novel, I made a high-quality guitar, and I'm currently mid-writing, arranging, and producing a Prog Rock album with a 20-minute-long song on one of "the sides" (for those who are familiar with vinyl records).

As I reflect on my journey in the last ten years, in full view of what I now know, I find myself still captivated by the notion of someone creating a service that enables its users to discover deep friendships unbound by geographic restrictions. I can see a potential path forward for a social app in the friend discovery category segment -- one that enriches its users' lives. It would contrast with the emotionally unrewarding, sterile experience of current social network giants that intellectually neuter the up-and-coming generations. It would need to be pulled off — in my case — on a no-code or low-code basis and without raising capital other than by bootstrapping. And that is tall order. So, I'm not considering doing that.

But as I am getting near completing my list of “things to do while I still roam the Earth,” there remains the item of creating (on my own) an app of some relevance and utility. While I know myself well enough to realize that learning to write code proficiently is not for me, I am excited that the future has caught up with us sufficiently that no-code and low-code options are now enabling non-technical founders to get started, unhindered by the inability to quickly iterate on their ideas.

Software is not only eating the world, it's eating code too!

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