Not taking VC for the wrong reasons
22 March 2018 | 7:58 pm

I come from open source communities and bootstrapped my first startup for the first few years. I've also been heavily involved in the ethics of data collection and the implications of high-growth models. Although I am one today (albeit at what I consider to be an ethican firm), I understand why people choose to avoid VC.

I'm worried, though, that some people have decided that venture investment is wrong for reasons that don't hold up.

I often see this from first-time founders who are used to having a paid salary that allows them to build product all day. Often, they would like to continue to do the same thing, but on a product that they control. It's a nice idea: frankly, I'd like that too. I'd love to be fully in control of a product I spend all day making.

But there's literally no model that allows you to do this as a full-time founder.

Whether you're bootstrapping, doing an ICO, taking venture investment, crowdfunding or soliciting donations, you still have to do the hard work of actually building a business. The same is true whether you want to make a multi billion dollar business, or whether you want to create something sustainable that pays for you to live well (the dreaded "lifestyle business", which is actually a perfectly fine and honorable thing to build). It's also true, for what it's worth, if you're building a non-profit: how are you going to keep getting enough donations on an ongoing basis so you can make a profit and grow when you need to?

It forces you into some uncomfortable positions - particularly if you've never run a business before. Data-driven testing barely makes sense when you're starting out (how do you get to statistical significance?), but that's what most developers seem to want to do; in fact, a whole bunch of qualitative, real world understanding is required before you write even a line of code. And then you need to keep doing it, while you figure out your growth strategy, your pricing, what your user journey looks like, how you retain users, and so on.

Those aren't things that VC businesses need to work on. That's something every internet business needs to figure out. If you're sitting and building code all day, as fun as that would be, you're doing it wrong. The code exists in service to the business. You need to figure out your core risks and address them: your user risk, your business and financial risk, and finally, your technology risk. You need to be able to build something that people want and which will viably make money - with the time, resources, and expertise at your disposal.

Investors can give you not just the financial runway to figure that out, but also the expertise. They've seen most of this before; they can connect you to people who can help you. The wrong investors will absolutely lead your company to horrible places, but the right ones, who interact with you with a service mindset, will help you achieve your goals - whatever they are.

If you're doing something good, you need to make it sustainable so you can keep doing it. Smart, ethical investment can help with the money, and it can help with the network and skills to actually build your business. Sitting and building product all day absolutely won't.

A backdoor to democracy
17 March 2018 | 8:23 pm

In 2001, I built viral personality tests that for a while were the most  shared content online. In 2016, this same mechanism was used as a backdoor to democracy.

I wrote a piece over on Medium about how Cambridge Analytica created psychographic profiles for 50 million users:

Elections have become information warfare battlegrounds, fought using all of our personal details without our consent. Here, the weapons are vast data silos like Facebook and Twitter, alongside open, anonymous marketplaces for highly targeted advertising.

Read the whole piece here.

A day in the life of an engineer turned investor
14 March 2018 | 5:03 pm

When I talk to former colleagues about my life at Matter, and in particular how much of my day I spend talking to people. As an engineer, maybe I had three meetings a week; these days it's often eight a day. And I love it: as a former founder, I'm excited to meet with hundreds of people who are all working on things they care deeply about - and I'm excited to find them.

This is what yesterday looked like for me:

7am: I finished a blog post draft that will be published on Thursday. I'm excited about intelligent assistants and the shift to ambient computing, and I was able to back up my piece with sources from an internal investment trend document I wrote.

8am: Headed into work, listening to On the Media, my favorite podcast.

9am: Caught up with email. I'm still figuring out a process for this: I get more than I can really handle, and I don't feel good about sending one-line responses.

9:30am: A standup with the team, talking about the day, and any new developments.

10am: I welcomed a group of foreign journalists who were interested in Matter. We talked for an hour about new trends, how we think about products vs teams (hint: we invest in teams), and whether there's still a future for print.

11am and 11:30am: I jumped on the phone with some founders who wanted to learn more about Matter, and whether it would be a good fit for their companies.

12pm: More email, including outreach to some startups that I'm hoping will apply. There are a lot of people out there who don't think of themselves as working on a media startup, but who are exactly what we're looking for, and who could be substantially helped by the Matter program.

1pm: I joined in on a workshop with our Matter Eight teams, thinking about how to pin down the top-down trends that make their startups good investments. Key question: why is now the right time for this venture? Our Directors of Program are, frankly, geniuses at helping people think their way through these kinds of questions, and I'm always excited to learn from them.

2pm: I sat down with the CEOs of one of our portfolio companies to give them some feedback on how they're describing their venture to investors.

3pm: I spoke to another founder who didn't join Matter, but wanted to give me an update about where they were. It's always exciting to hear about how a team has progressed.

3:30pm: I took an audit of our application process on the web. Some applicants drop off while they're filling in the form, and I wanted to know where that might be happening. At the same time, I did some SEO work on the website. (SEO work follows me in every role, wherever I go.)

4pm: I have a personal goal of reaching out to at least five startups a day - so I spent more time doing research and uncovering both communities to visit and events to attend, as well as individual startups that I would love to see join the program.

5pm: Facilitated introductions for some portfolio founders who wanted to meet certain investors. I always do double blind introductions, asking the investors first if they want to connect. Then I turned to going over our applicants, reading through their decks, and doing some research on their markets and founders.

7pm: I went home to eat.

8pm: I caught up on my RSS subscriptions, reading about the various industries and founders I'm interested in.

There's no time for coding anymore - but there's a lot to do, and I couldn't be happier to support these amazing founders. If that's you, applications are open now.

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