Desirability, Viability, Feasibility, Sustainability
17 October 2018 | 7:45 pm

Building a product as part of any kind of business is risky. Most new businesses fail, for a variety of reasons. Your job in the early stages is to mitigate those risks and navigate your company to a point where you're building something that people actually want, that can serve as the heart of a viable business, and which you can provide at scale with the team, resources, and time reasonably at your disposal.

One of the things I learned while investing at Matter was that your mindset matters more than anything. The founders who were most likely to succeed were able to identify their core assumptions, test those assumptions, be honest with themselves when they had it wrong, and act quickly to course-correct - based on imperfect information. Conversely, the founders most likely to fail were the ones who refused to face negative feedback and carried on with their vision. The former wanted to build a successful company; the latter wanted to pretend to be Steve Jobs.

De-risking a venture is all about continuously evaluating it through three distinct lenses:

Desirability: are you building something that meets a real user's needs? (Will the dog hunt?)

Viability: if you are successful, can your venture succeed as a profitable, growing business? (Will the dog eat the dog food?)

Feasibility: can you provide this service at scale with the team, time, and resources reasonably at your disposal? (Can we build the dog?)

Building a product through an iterative, human-centered process means putting on each one of these hats in turn. Is this product desirable, leaving aside viability and feasibility considerations? If not, what changes do you need in order to make it so? And then repeat for viability and feasibility.

This is at the heart of the design thinking process taught by Matter and others. It changed the way I think about building products forever.

I used to believe that if you just got the right smart people in a room, they could produce something great together. I wanted to build something and then put it out into the world. That's both a risky and egotistical strategy: it implies that you think you're so smart that you know what everybody wants. It's also often undertaken with a "scratch your own itch" mentality: build something to solve your own needs. As a result, the needs of wealthy San Franciscan millennials who went to Stanford are significantly overserved.

Market realities usually bring people back down to earth, but if you've spent a year developing a product, you've already burned a lot of time and resources. Conversely, if you're testing on day one, and day two, and day three, and so on, you don't need to wait to understand how people will react.

It's a great framework. There is, however, a missing lens.

I was pleased to see that Gartner has listed ethics and privacy as one of its ten key strategic technology trends for 2019. The world has changed, and market demands for technology products are very different to even three years ago. In the wake of countless data leaks and a compromised election, people are looking for more respectful software:

Technology development done in a vacuum with little or no consideration for societal impacts is therefore itself the catalyst for the accelerated concern about digital ethics and privacy that Gartner is here identifying rising into strategic view.

The human-centered design thinking process is correct. But it needs a fourth step that makes evaluating societal impact a core part of the process.

 

In addition to desirability, viability, and feasibility, I define the fourth step as follows:

Sustainability: does this venture have a non-negative social and environmental impact, and does it respect the human rights of the user?

Of course, it could easily be argued that "non-negative" should be "positive" here - and for mission-driven ventures it probably should be. Unfortunately, in our current climate, non-negative is such a step up from the status quo that I'm inclined to think that asking every new business to have a meaningfully positive impact is unrealistic. It would be nice if this wasn't the case. A positive impact also leads to questions like: how can we quantify our impact? Those are good questions to ask, but not necessarily core to the heart of every venture.

If you're confused about how "human rights" are defined, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good resource. It was written in 1945, after the Second World War, and covers everything from equality through privacy, freedom from discrimination, and the right to a real court trial. There's also the European Convention on Human Rights, which has a broader scope, while being more narrowly focused on citizens of Europe. The purpose of including human rights in this context is to force questions like: are we discriminating against certain groups of people? And: can our platform be used to further genocide?

The technology industry used to have the luxury of operating in a vacuum, without having to consider the broader societal impact in which it operates. Its success means that its products are ingrained in every aspect of our lives. This brings new responsibilities, and the old days, when engineers and technologists could afford to be apolitical and apart from the world, are long gone. It's time that the ways in which we build products are brought up to date with our new reality.


Start with the spark, not the fire
27 September 2018 | 6:58 pm

It took me too long to realize I had my head in the clouds.

When I co-founded Known, I had a huge vision: a world where everyone had full control of their identity and content online. Anyone could create a stream of content anywhere - on a web host, on a device they kept in their living room, on their pick of services - and access it using whatever aspects of their identity they wanted to share. The whole web would become a collaborative canvas which would revolutionize business, creativity, and the internet itself. We wouldn't be beholden to these giant, centralized silos of data and value any longer.

It was an exciting vision - which led to a few obvious questions.

Like: where will you start?

How, exactly, do you get there?

How will you make money in the meantime?

Who is this for? No, not "content creators"; not "millennials"; certainly not "everyone". Who exactly will use this tomorrow? Two years from now?

We were lucky that Matter bought into our vision. Its accelerator changed how I think about building products, and literally changed my life (long before I joined the team). Part of the structure included a monthly venture design review, where we would pitch an experimental version of our venture, and a panel of experts (investors, founders, mentors) would give us their brutally honest feedback.

The first time we pitched our startup at a venture design review, we were eviscerated. We hadn't answered any of those questions. We did have working code, but we couldn't articulate who it was for, and how it connected to this bigger vision. It was the first time we received truly honest feedback, and it felt like a punch in the stomach.

It's not enough to have working code. It's not enough to have a vision. You've got to have a holistic, concrete understanding of your entire venture and the context it sits within.

Your vision can be a raging fire that might change the world. But you can't have a fire without a spark that takes hold.

So, I learned not to let go of that vision, but to take my head out of the clouds and bring myself down to earth. It's easy to have a big, romantic notion; it's much harder to put the actual nuts and bolts together to get a real venture off the ground. To do that effectively, you have to find: the real people you want to serve, get to know them personally and gain really unique insights about their needs, and then build the smallest possible thing that will meet those needs.

That smallest possible thing is probably embarrassing to you. It's almost certainly the grand invention you had imagined. But as Paul Graham once wrote:

Don't be discouraged if what you produce initially is something other people dismiss as a toy. In fact, that's a good sign. That's probably why everyone else has been overlooking the idea. The first microcomputers were dismissed as toys. And the first planes, and the first cars. At this point, when someone comes to us with something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.

Microcomputers, planes, and cars all started as something small for a very limited audience, but they've rewritten how all of human society works.

Conversely, take the Segway: a product whose inventor dreamed would change how cities were designed. It had a grand vision but failed to understand its core users or create a strong hypothesis of how it would grow. They're now the domain of mall cops and goofy city tours. The company now makes those electric scooters used by startups like Lime and Bird, which were created with a concrete human use case in mind. But they orginally started fire-first, rather than spark-first, and faltered.

You have to nail the spark before you can grow. I still speak to a lot of startups, and many of them fail to understand this. They want to go big first; the vision is the fun bit, and is the emotional core that drove them to found their venture to begin with. It's where a whimsical idea hits the road and becomes real work. But it might be the most important business lesson I ever learned.


The day I realized I was going against the career grain
25 September 2018 | 8:01 pm

One of the most surreal professional experiences of my career was going to work for Medium. It was a decision I thought long and hard about, and was a sea change in the way I worked.

For my entire career, I'd gone against the grain. I bootstrapped an open source startup from Scotland, determined that I wouldn't move to Silicon Valley. I was the first employee at another one, based in Texas, that was determined to be Texan through and through. And then I finally founded a company in the San Francisco Bay Area, but was determined that it should be open source and decentralized (at a time when almost all investors were against the idea). In all these cases, while I had equity, I had a pretty low salary. In fact, I had never made much money at all, because I had put the highest priority on maintaining my social ideology.

So when I came to Medium, I immediately earned double the highest amount of money I'd ever made. Suddenly I was in this incredibly slick work environment, with empathetic, thoughtful people who were at the top of their skills. There were high-burn frills like kombucha on tap, but much more importantly, there were real benefits. Vacation was encouraged, there was parental leave, and I could spend thousands of dollars on my own education without drawing from my salary. (Side note: a lot of fancy tech company benefits are things that every employee in Europe is entitled to by law.)

Most strikingly, the people I worked with had mostly never worked in low-budget startups. If they'd been involved in small businesses at all, they had very quickly attracted millions of dollars in venture capital - but quite often, they'd come from companies like Google, and had enjoyed these kinds of salaries and benefits for their entire working lives.

Only then did I realize that for my entire career, by going against the grain and trying to build my own environments from scratch, I had made life incredibly hard for myself. Honestly, I thought that this was just how work was. But it turned out there was this world where, if I could accept not being my own boss and coming into an office building every day (which had both felt like psychological barriers, but in reality were very minor), I could make good money, go home at a normal time, take decent vacations without worrying so much about the budget, and be a healthier human being. What?!

In reality, I became incredibly anxious. Because I was working with people who had just had the luxury of focusing on their skills for their whole careers, I had really strong imposter syndrome. And everything was so slow, methodical, and ordered compared to the bouncing-off-the-walls chaos of an early-stage startup. I was still a little bit addicted to the adrenaline, and adapting was tougher than it should have been. This was the cushiest job I ever had, with some of the most genuinely amazing coworkers. I was a highly privileged technology worker, making really good money in a lovely environment - and I felt guilty for not being as happy as I felt I should have been.

Over time, it got easier. Matter offered me a job at the end of my first year, which I couldn't say no to. I think I wouldn't have done as well if I hadn't gone to Medium first: I had become a team player, and a much better employee. Had I stayed, I'm certain the unease would have continued to fade over time. I continued this growth trajectory at Matter; it was like losing an addiction to radical independence.

Honestly, I think that kind of radical independence is oversold. Being a founder - or frankly, even just a sole operator or consultant - is lonely, hard work, and the pay is bad. It's a bit sad that it took me over a decade to understand this. And while founding something is something I don't want to downplay, you should only do it if there's a foreseeable path to a point where you won't be in survival mode. (Real investment really helps, but it's not appropriate for every business, and not everyone can raise it.) Doing what regular people do - which is to get a job, potentially move to where the jobs are, pull a salary as part of a much larger organization, and build a financially stable future - is not at all a bad way to live. And I wish I could go back and tell me 25 year old self about it.



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