"Being in the World" Documentary

Last night I watched a fantastic philosophy documentary called "Being in the World" by Tao Ruspoli (and inspired by Hubert Dreyfus).

I've been on a learning kick lately. Our environment is highly structured to effortlessly push us entertainment (breaking news, gossip, pop culture) but we have to put in our own work to make learning just as seamlessly accessible. With that in mind, I recently created a playlist on YouTube of documentaries and lectures.

Also, I discovered the Libby app which allows you to freely check out ebooks and audiobooks where ever you are (using your library card).

Finally, I re-discovered Kanopy which lets you use your library card to freely stream top notch cinema and documentaries. This includes much of the Criterion Collection and I was also personally thrilled to see a huge selection of Iranian Cinema (which I highly recommend checking out if you enjoy serious film).

But I wanted to say a little about "Being in the World" because I think it has a relevant discussion for our current times. Here's what it says in my layman view.

The documentary largely centers around the philosophy of Heidegger who had a contrarian view of Being. The traditional western philosophy view initiated by Plato starts with rationality. This view gives primacy to logic, rules, and ideas. We as humans must strive to access these abstract truths. We shouldn't get caught up in the material world as its largely illusion – truth is in pure thought and ideas. Much of our history from the rise of Christianity to the Enlightenment and up to our Modern technological world is driven by this way of viewing existence.

Heidegger, on the other-hand, takes what I'd call a craftsman perspective. For him, the details matter. The particulars of our everyday experience, the way we work with objects in the world and gain mastery over certain skills; these are reality. Abstraction is the illusion and removes the important details that make up your experience. Throughout the documentary you get a grounded sense for this by meeting various craftspeople from cooks to musicians to carpenters and learning about their mode of living.

Leah Chase, called the "Queen of Creole Cuisine", summed up this perspective well. She talked about how she freely gives away her recipes and people question her all the time about this, as if she's giving away all her skills. But to her a recipe never captures the essence of cooking. To be a cook is to deal with the particulars, the specifics of your cooking tools and your ingredients. So someone with her same recipe could never prepare food similar to her. There is experience that comes from doing that can never be transmitted simply by reading and understanding rules.

Finally, I should note that Hubert Dreyfus' acclaim largely comes from using this sort of reasoning back in the 60s and 70s to argue why Artificial Intelligence is impossible. Back then much of the tech community believed we were on the precipice of unlocking general AI. Dreyfus ended up being right in that age as nothing approaching general AI was achieved. Right now we are again in an age of optimism around AI. While I'm still undecided on what's exactly possible, I think watching this documentary is very relevant as it gives you a necessary counter-perspective on the current zeitgeist.

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Our Tech Zeitgeist: The shift from design to insight

Over the last 10 years I've noticed a shift in tech. Well at the very least in myself, but as we are so much a reflection of our environment I can't help but believe this shift is more than just a personal one.

Namely, I feel we have shifted the central locus of our tech culture from one that venerates design to one that celebrates insight. Another way to put this is that we have tempered our obsession with objects and experience (the physical world) to make room for our insatiable hunger for thought and wisdom (the intellectual world).

Specifically, I am comparing today to approximately the years of 2007-2010. This was the heyday of the iPhone and mobile apps. Steve Jobs was unquestionably the cultural leader of our industry. Through him and Apple's success we learned the power that comes from a singular focus on aesthetics and user experience.

What I remember about these days is how "design thinking" was en vogue and became a primary lens for how we evaluated things. We were increasingly directing our attention to the form of things. This is true of physical objects like the phone but also in software -- particularly apps. Back then I would pour over design details of things as mundane as the Calculator app and gestures like the swipe to unlock your phone. There was even a big commotion over the "discovery" of the pull-to-refresh pattern. For someone too young to have been in tech during this time this may sound like the providence of #DesignTwitter, but really we were all thinking about these details.

A particular example that stands out for me is the app Path. In the first year or two after its launch, tech circles were fixated on each of their releases. This was especially interesting as Path never fully quite achieved the adoption that would warrant such attention. But they were clearly leaders in design. I remember people on Twitter gushing over the release of Path 2.0 and the animation they designed for picking your post type. We were all enthralled and many of us to this day have real nostalgia for this era -- I know I do all the time.

While design is still clearly important, in my opinion, it isn't in the cultural driver's seat as it was before. Today's tech culture has shifted its focus to knowledge. Today, when you open up Twitter or turn on a podcast you'll see references to philosophers and scientists, white papers and out-of-print books on sociology and economics. Perhaps this is largely just a phenomenon of "software eating the world" but our tech ambitions knows no bounds anymore -- every problem is a tech problem, and every discipline is being probed by tech. The focus is no longer on consumer apps and pixels but rather on protocols and incentives.

I don't think we have an obvious leader anymore like a Steve Jobs, but some of the more influential are people like Naval Ravikant and Peter Thiel. Last time I heard Naval give his bio he scarcely talked about his tech background -- he's essentially a philosopher now. And just look at the syllabus for the course Peter Thiel is currently teaching at Stanford.

I'm not trying to make a judgment on this shift, merely to point it out. I think spotting these shifts are a good reminder that there are different ways to make sense of the world. There is power in plugging yourself into the zeitgeist of the day, just so long as you keep perspective that there are many ways of seeing.

Also published on Medium

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Fundraising: Validation, Vilifying VCs and Optionality

Yesterday I met with a founder just starting out on a new company and towards the end of our chat she asked me about fundraising advice -- particularly with venture capital. I don't think I said anything earth-shattering but I realized that my advice has evolved quite a bit over the years so I thought I'd share it here along with a few other points.

The first thing I mentioned was getting a good grip on the psychology of the situation. What I have noticed in myself and others is that in fundraising there's a tendency to adopt a defensive posture that vilifies the venture capitalist. This is because of the power relation that exists, much of it real but some of it self-imposed. Here's my thoughts on this:

  • Fundraising often becomes more about validation than money. With startups, there are very few checkpoints for a founder to measure how they are objectively doing especially when they are pre-revenue. There are no grades from teachers, or performance reviews by managers. This tends to confuse the whole process. I often see companies raising without a real rationale for what they want to do with the money. It becomes a way to gauge that the company is on track. This is why hearing "No" hurts. We don't process it as "No it doesn't make sense for us" but rather "No I don't think you are good enough to invest in".
  • Seeking external validation is human nature and frankly generally a valuable signal, so as much as I'd like to just give the advice that the only validation that counts is your own, that's just not a realistic way of being. So this whole fundraising process for validation may be useful if it weren't for another problem. Namely, that there isn't a great mapping of Startup to Venture Capital. What I mean is that many (actually most) startups are not a good fit for Venture Capital.
  • This is where that famous refrain of VC really irks founders:  "We only invest in billion dollar outcomes". This seems ludicrous when you look at your own startup doing well, growing at a nice clip and maybe even profitable. Here I either see companies contort themselves in all sorts of odd configurations in order to become "venture-worthy" -- or they become cynical about the whole process as the validation they feel they deserve isn't being granted. But here I'd really suggest entrepreneurs study the structure of VC and the overall industry returns. Once you come to appreciate the game that a VC is playing you realize that you likely aren't a match (it really is "its not you, its me") and that you are seeking validation in the wrong place.
  • The biggest issue in my opinion is that startups don't have prominent sources of funding/validation outside of Venture Capital. This is what's so exciting about developments like Indie VC and Clearbanc. They are recognizing that in between the 0 (failure) and 1 (billion dollar business) of the venture world are a large swath of attractive companies that still need funding and still deliver returns -- they just require new structures to be invented.
  • The ideal from an entrepreneur's point-of-view is fundraising such that you preserve optionality. Usually it's not obvious to a founder whether their new company is a billion dollar opportunity or not. So in the earliest stages, you want to raise such that you can kick the can down the road on your commitment to a particular path (further rounds of financing or sustainability). This is why I like structures that can either be treated as debt or equity depending on how things play out post-investment. These arrangements are clearly good for the majority of entrepreneurs and the real unknown is whether these funds can be successful with this strategy.
  • Ultimately, founders generally need to spend more time making sure they are seeking validation in the right places. You have evangelists on either side telling you the right way to build: bootstrapping (from entrepreneurs) vs. venture capital (from VCs and the media). The truth, in my opinion, is less dramatic than the evangelists would have you believe. VCs aren't evil, and bootstrapping isn't a holy path. Most of us will be undecided on which path is best for our business, so raise with optionality in mind and make that decision when you are better informed.

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What we've lost in having access to everything

Last night I watched broadcast TV for the first time in years. That's not totally accurate as I watch sporting events all the time but last night I just opened up the DirecTV Now app on my Apple TV and just clicked through the channels until I found something to watch. I ended up watching the second half of a Seinfeld episode.

Of course for those old enough, this is how most of our TV experience has worked. You had a limited set of content options that are out of your control, and you don't get to start/stop it -- the stream goes on with or without you.

In many ways, watching the last 10 minutes of a random Seinfeld episode interspersed with 5 minutes of commercials was a poor experience, but I didn't feel annoyed at all. I actually enjoyed it and felt something I'd almost call "warmth" from the experience.

The same thing happens when I turn on the radio. I listen to KEXP which is a local independent radio station in Seattle. About half of the time I don't know or particularly like the music they play but I like to hear local voices. Something as small as a comment like "its pouring out here" lights something up in me and gives me a sense of connection. Again there's this weird sensation of "warmth" in knowing I'm joining a stream along with thousands of others nearby.

Today we have much more control over our experiences. Be it TV or music, we can choose whatever we like from massive catalogues at any moment we please. Yet, we've all had that experience of endlessly browsing Netflix and giving up because we can't commit to watching anything. Control is a tricky concept.

This sense of control plays out in other facets of our lives like the things we read and even the restaurants we go to. I remember as a kid, going out to eat, while always exciting, was not overly thought through. My parents would just take us to places within a few blocks of our neighborhood and that was that. Today, finding a lunch spot involves pouring over hundreds of reviews and honing in on the perfect place.

Ultimately, it's hard to argue against the claim that we have improved the content of what we are consuming, but I wonder if we've truly improved the experience?

Today the onus of control is on us. Whatever we do, we have a clear sense of what other things we could be doing. We are the shapers of our reality. This is a truly new power which ends up weighing on us more than we may realize. The amount of time and energy we spend researching, browsing, trying, switching, optimizing each and every thing we consume is a massive amount of work and responsibility.

And there's no turning back from this freedom. Even when I was "stuck" watching half of a Seinfeld in the back of my mind I knew I'm technically free to watch practically anything else at that moment. You can put away your phone and try to live more spontaneously but even that is a choice. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to our freedom in consumption.

Still, I think we will increasingly crave experiences where our sense of control is (artificially) restricted. In other words we will opt into not having choice and remaining ignorant about our options. Increasingly, I'm realizing this very restriction is the core of what makes a community.

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Cody Acquired: Our First Years

I finally get to share some exciting news: we’ve been acquired by Alo Yoga!

You can read more about it here.

This is a big moment for our team and everyone who has supported us over the last 5.5 years. Thank you to the tribe of people who believed in us and made this milestone possible.

I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the first couple years of the company in particular, because it’s what my co-founder, Paul, and I go to in high and low times. In high times we always marvel at how close we came to shutting down on multiple occasions and in low times we remind ourselves that we’ve made it through worse before.

I recognize that these stories romanticize the startup struggle, and its always easier to share things like this when you’ve made it to the other side, but I ultimately think its best to share because even worse is people not believing that most success only comes when you’re lucky and persistent enough to survive many bad breaks.

I was looking through the first deck Paul and I ever made. Back then the company was called Nudge. You can barely recognize our current company in this deck, but I’m still drawn to our opening line:

“When you really want something, Nudge gets the world to help you achieve it.”

I don’t know if we’ve truly pulled this off as a product, but I can say that this sums up our journey well.

All smiles in our first week working on Cody

The first two years of Cody in particular were tough; nothing came easy and a lot went wrong.

Our plan was to get our first funding from Techstars Seattle 2012, just a few months after quitting Microsoft. We didn’t get in. Or into Techstars 2013 or into any of the YC classes or any second meeting with VCs either.

Paul and I sent dozens of emails asking former colleagues to campaign on our behalf after learning we were waitlisted with Techstars

We spent nearly 12 months living off the meager savings Paul and I had cobbled together. We worked out of Paul’s apartment and did everything including the coding and design ourselves (not bad for a couple of MBAs).

At some point we gave up on pitching investors. We only had a few months of savings left and no real prospects of raising, but somehow we remained calm enough to keep coding.

Coding late into the night with a hookah

Our luck turned when I caught up with a former Microsoft colleague, Sohier Hall, at a coffee shop. When I gave him a demo of Cody, he suggested we meet his business partner, Ken Irving, who was looking to make investments in this space.

I’ll never forget flying down to San Francisco and meeting Ken and Sohier for breakfast, and Paul and I feeling like this was our last shot. Without this we probably would’ve re-entered the corporate world just a year after leaving it with our tails between our legs.

Site of the fabled breakfast

As you can guess the breakfast ended with Ken saying he was going to fund us. And the funding from Ken allowed us to make a lot of progress.

We spent the next couple months re-building Cody as a native iPhone app. Launching it was one of the prouder moments for me and Paul. We had really high hopes and started pitching ourselves as the “Instagram for Fitness”

Our app at launch. Cody was a robot fitness coach!

But the euphoria didn’t last long. No one was downloading it. We’d get like 20–30 per day. We tried, failed and eventually succeeded in getting featured in the App Store. Same with getting written up by TechCrunch. We iterated on the app like crazy averaging a new major release every 2 weeks. But ultimately after a year and a half, we finally accepted that our concept was flawed.

We were forced to admit it because our cash balance was down to just $30K. Even with our lean operations, we had only 4 months left before having to shut down. We literally sat around thinking about the quickest ways to make some money with what we had— and got it into our heads that selling workout videos was the way to go.

So we bought a handycam off of Amazon and started filming.

All we could afford at the time

Our first video plan was with a popular local yogi, Patrick Beach. He taught at a studio in the Greenlake area and Paul started attending his classes religiously and hounded him until Patrick agreed to film.

We filmed in Patrick’s apartment, the lighting sucked, and there’s even a cat running in and out of the frame as Patrick was teaching. We priced it at $20 and Patrick posted on his Instagram and we waited. And lo and behold it started selling, and in the first month we did $8K in sales.

Patrick Beach and cat

The next month we launched a plan with an Olympic weightlifter, Diane Fu, and did over $20K in sales. Then the next month we did $40K. Then $80K and over $1M in the first 12 months.

That was 3 years ago and it’s not like things have just been happily up-and-to-the-right since, but it sure has been less harrowing. Those first couple years were our “wilderness” years. Looking back now, we did a lot of dumb things. But mostly what I appreciate now is that we had enough grit to keep going — and sometimes that’s enough.

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Sunshine Sento Sake & the Senses

A couple of months back I discovered the Japanese TV series, Sunshine Sento Sake. I had read a small blurb about it recently in some philosophy book I was leafing through, and decided to give it a try. It’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime now.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was watching. The show is deliberately slow and formulaic. In each episode, the main character, Takayuki, a salary man, struggles in his sales job. He spends his time cold-calling businesses across different Tokyo neighborhoods, and each time stumbles upon a Sento – a traditional Japanese bath house. The bulk of the episode is comprised of him skipping work for a mid-day indulgence to the Sento and then enjoying a meal and a cold beer afterwards, before he inevitably gets pulled back into the orbit of corporate life.

In a way the show acts like a travel guide as you get to see different parts of Tokyo and develop an appreciation for Sento. But the hook of the show runs much deeper, hence why it was mentioned in a serious book. To me its a meditation on the sensual world. When we see Takayuki in the corporate world of quotas and competition he is constantly stressed and unsure – he is stuck in his head. But as he enters the Sento he becomes fully absorbed into his environment, appreciating and finding pleasure in all its detail. The tension in the show is the guilt he feels in allowing himself this pleasure – the shift from mind to body.

I think if you end up appreciating this show like I do, it means that to some extent you’re grappling with the same things. We may struggle to become fully absorbed in our senses, both out of being busy and also a sense of guilt that were being unproductive.

I’d definitely recommend giving the show a watch, and another similar one I recently discovered on Netflix called Samurai Gourmet. And then maybe afterwards treat yourself to a cold, mid-day beer.

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