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Trying to build technology in service of a more equal world.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben.werdmuller

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ben@benwerd.com

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A reminder that you don’t become the richest person on the planet by being stupid, but also not by being ethical or kind.

 

The startup slump may be a blessing in disguise

Startupland is about to experience its first downturn since the 2008 recession. I realized today that many founders and startup employees were literal children when they last had to live through a bear market: for thirteen straight years, tech companies have been growing and growing. They’ve never seen or had to prepare for a slump.

It was a startling realization: to me, that feels like yesterday. (I’m older than I think I am.) I was at the tail end of my first startup at the time. We’d taken investment but had been cashflow positive for years first; because we were insulated from the worst of it, I had a panic-free front row seat. For a little while, funding dried up. Services consolidated or went away entirely. And in the meantime, free and open source projects - WordPress in particular - thrived.

The introduction of the iPhone catalyzed the consumer tech industry out of its trough. Rather than carrying on with business as usual, the companies that did well in 2009 were the ones who took advantage of the new always-on internet to create new kinds of services. They were differentiated from the failed dotcoms that came before: services like Flickr gave way to apps like Instagram. It was a genuinely new way of thinking. For a little while, even Facebook struggled to get to grips with the new web.

This week, Y Combinator sent a strongly-worded note to its portfolio of startups:

Regardless of your ability to fundraise, it’s your responsibility to ensure your company will survive if you cannot raise money for the next 24 months.

For a generation of startups used to spending money with wild abandon, partially because investors have implicitly encouraged the strategy of using capital as a moat, pivoting to business fundamentals may be too difficult. Even if founders can pivot their strategies, many of their employees were lured by lifestyle perks and the prestige of working for a growing company with name recognition in the community. If the startup hasn’t worked on a deeply-held reason to work there - something that makes the work meaningful; a nurturing community of people that values them as people - founders may find that retention is harder than they would like.

Still, I don’t think there’s any other way out. While the 2008 slump happened to coincide with the iPhone, I don’t see a similar paradigm shift coming for tech this time round. Crypto has already crashed, and although it will probably rebound, investment there has slowed. The metaverse is vaporware at best. The promise of an ambient web powered by augmented reality devices is years away.

So the biggest paradigm shift may simply be a return to reality: a vibe shift to profit. Valuations will be calculated based on revenue rather than hype. Some companies will make it; many more won’t.

In a world driven by revenue, the way to survive is to provide a service that people find valuable enough to pay for, aligned with their needs and interests.

Almost by definition, many of the companies that won’t make it through leaner times are the greediest: the startups created to feed their founders’ desire to make money rather than to deeply serve their customers or overhaul a predatory industry. Their coin-operated philosophies often extend to treating their employees like fungible resources who should be grateful to work there. I don’t think I’ll spend much time crying over them.

On the other hand, I’m excited for the companies who can double down on their customers and on their employees. The founders who can create real value for the people they’re trying to serve, and curate an empathetic community of thoughtful builders to do so, are the ones who are most likely to win. That’s what the tech industry is at its best, and that’s what will survive.

 

Tesla is toxic

When my mother was still alive, she was very concerned about her impact on the planet. She very badly wanted an electric car, and was interested in getting a Tesla. For lots of reasons, my parents weren’t able to buy one. So I put myself on the list for a Model 3: specifically so she would be able to get to and from her dialysis appointments in one.

It was delivered a month after she died. I could have canceled my appointment, but I decided to keep driving it. Honestly, although the self-driving capability is nonsense and the software is low quality, it’s a very nice ride. I really enjoy driving it.

The company’s CEO is making it less and less tenable to keep doing so. From Elon Musk’s will-he-won’t-he Twitter acquisition to comments about politics, social justice, and the media, he’s not an easy man to like. And now revelations that he offered to buy a SpaceX flight attendant a horse if she would perform sex acts on him make it even harder.

Teslas have great range and an excellent charging network. They’re not much more expensive than a Honda Civic and help wean drivers away from gasoline. But they also come with a kind of social baggage that is hard to look past. By association, I now appear to be okay with Musk’s actions. I am not.

When someone tells you who they are, the adage goes, believe them. The on-board software includes a boom box mode and a fart machine: stuff more at home in an adolescent’s fantasy arsenal than in a car driven by adults. As it turns out, this immaturity runs dangerously deep.

So what now? Surely the board at Tesla has to be considering having Musk removed. It would be the right thing to do. Otherwise, I’m going to get rid of the car (perhaps in favor of an ID. Buzz) and I’ll encourage other Tesla drivers to do the same.

 

A quiet morning in America

I pour myself another cup of coffee: two scoops into the Aeropress, a gentle pour of boiling water, a quick stir. I leave the plastic stirrer in the tube like a tombstone while the water percolates through the grounds.

Quiet mornings are hard to come by.

I had a conversation with someone recently whose entire family had contracted Covid. I found out like this: sorry if my voice goes, he said. I have Covid. I was helping him out with his work by answering some questions, but I quickly told him that he needed to rest. Give yourself the space to recover, I told him. I guess my Dad told me the wrong thing, he said.

I’ve been living in California for eleven years, and I’ve been an American citizen since I was born. There are still moments that make me wonder about the place I moved to. Some of the things that leave me wondering whether I’ll ever feel really at home here are relatively small - someone working through sickness instead of taking care of themselves, for example. And some are big.

While I was watching Ukraine win Eurovision, an 18 year old opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, murdering ten people. He live-streamed his attack on Twitch after publishing an 180-page manifesto in which he described himself as a white supremacist and an anti-Semite. He discussed replacement theory, and chose the location of his attack by researching the area with the highest percentage of Black people within driving distance. It’s a hate crime, fueled by hate speech. It was also the country’s one hundred and ninety-eighth mass shooting in 2022, on the one hundred and thirty-third day of the year.

I put on some toast and consider whether I’ll go for a walk or read my book. I just started The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel as part of a book group, and I’m also rereading Radical Candor. Outside, trees slowly sway against an unbroken blue sky.

Last week, CO2 levels exceeded 420ppm for the first time in recorded human history. I’m still thinking about a conversation where someone complained to me about having to take the bus. I routinely speak to people who believe public transport is outdated compared to road or air travel. The Cato institute says wanting to move people onto high-speed rail is “like wanting to be the world leader in electric typewriters, rotary telephones, or steam locomotives—all technologies that once seemed revolutionary but are functionally obsolete today.” It’s estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live under water scarcity by 2025.

I shop for wall sconces for the new house in Philly: something modern that will create enough light in the living room to offset the darkness of the walls. The walls themselves will have to be repainted white at some point, of course. But for now, there has to be something to brighten up the room.

We have too many 9-to-5-ers, someone told me about their startup a few months ago. You’ve got to hustle. I want to see people working evenings and weekends. Strangely, he was having trouble with getting people to stay motivated and complete their work.

The banality of the unkindness gets under your skin after a while. The first year, commuters stepping over homeless people seemed jarring and horrifying. By year five, it was inevitably part of life: there but not there. Someone once told me I was wrong to buy a Street Sheet from a vendor because it was begging. I make a point of carrying money to give to people who ask for it, but sometimes I forget to top it up.

A culture that is busy maintaining the base level of its hierarchy of needs has little time to spend worrying about other people. The through line between the mass shootings and the psychotic work culture and the disregard for climate and the disdain for the impoverished is a lack of regard for community. In America, we’re not all in this together, we’re all in this as individuals. Everyone is out for themselves. It’s not even about social safety nets or other legislation: those things are symptoms of a deeper distrust that seeps between people. It’s a society that has not been set up to be happy together: it is designed to leave you wanting to be rich alone.

I order some middle eastern food on DoorDash. The driver, on average, will make $15.74 per hour, which is far below the poverty line in the San Francisco Bay Area. DoorDash will take between 10-25% of my order from the independently-run restaurant, whose profit margin is often less than that. The order will likely come in plastic.

I take a sip from my coffee and wait.

 

Update: while I was writing this, there was another mass shooting at the Laguna Woods retirement community in Southern California. It does not and will not stop.

 

Contrarian opinion: market corrections that take the worst of the greed and self-centeredness out of tech are a really good thing.

 

I've taken to listening to BBC Radio 2 in my car via TuneIn, and I'm noticing how alien (and sometimes funny) the idioms and place names are for me now. All that used to be home, and now it's a universe away.

 

Copying a startup's playbook isn't going to make you the next Google.
A magical multi-part story for kids isn't going to be the next Harry Potter.
A multi-character, multi-platform strategy won't be the next MCU.

Do your own thing. Build what's right for you and your creation.

 

Freedom from centralization does not, and should not, mean freedom from legislation.

 

Accidentally booked a trip that runs over the one year anniversary of Ma's death. Which feels like progress in a way? To do that accidentally? It was sad to realize I'd done it, but also, I think she'd be happy that we're getting on with it.

 

Mother's Day

It’s American mother’s day.

They say nothing prepares you for losing a parent. Theoretically, I should have been prepared: ten years of pulmonary fibrosis, a double lung transplant, a rollercoaster of ups and downs that took me away from my life in Scotland and made me a part-time carer. From 2011 to 2021, her journey was my journey. Still, her loss ripped a hole from me. I’ve wondered if it was so profound because of that extra time; I’ll never know. Thankfully, I have nothing to compare it to.

I’m pretty good at putting on the appearance of holding it together. At best, it’s a sort of mask, but a magical one that only I know I’m wearing. I’m still not sure I know what grief is, exactly, and maybe it’s different for everyone: my flavor is a feeling of being untethered, like I’ve found myself in a parallel universe where everything is wrong. There’s no way back; no leap home. The only way through is forwards, and I resent it.

By far the worst part is the expectation of coping. Because I’m wearing that magical mask, I look more or less like an adult human being who is getting through his day. But because I’m untethered, because I feel this new distance between me and the world, I’ve been operating without a rudder. I’ve been alternately numb and in pain, and looking for things to make me feel anything else. I’ve been deeply unhappy with my life - all of it - but it’s hard to figure out what to change, or how, when a bomb won’t stop going off. I’d hoped to have time and space to breathe this year, a way to regroup, but there’s less than I’d hoped.

People expect men to cope; to be stoic; to just get on with it. And I am. But I want to disappear. I had this giant loss, and the world has carried on regardless, and I’m expected to carry on with it. I resent that. It’s driven a wedge between me and everything. Above all, it feels incredibly lonely.

I know my father and my sister feel their own versions of this, too, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with them. Family is powerful at a time like this. We understand each other.

Ma saw good in everyone and was able to cut through bullshit with a word. I can hear her say “oh for goodness sake” and tell me what I just need to go and do to give myself that space. I’m even doing some of them - I’ll write more about work in particular before too long - but there’s so much that feels askew.

My parents taught me to have wide horizons and not to be bound by the norms of the mainstream. It was an important lesson, but also one that ruined me for a “normal” life: I haven’t had a normal career, and I wouldn’t feel satisfied living in the same place forever. There are so many adventures to be had out in the world, both figurative and literal. We only get to live once, and life is fleeting. You’ve just got to go for it. Live big. Nothing is really that scary.

And maybe that’s the lesson. If everything feels wrong, if everything is askew, I need to spend the time to figure it out and forge a life that works for me. My worst tendency is to erode my own boundaries to make other people happy: self-destruction in kindness’s clothing. She was always worried about that, and I should have paid more attention.

I miss her. The usual platitude is that she’s right here, in me. But that’s only true if I live up to her; if I live up to myself. I’ve got to be my own tether and find my own happiness; build a life where there is no mask.

If your mother is still with you, I hope you can find a way to hug her and hold her close. If not today, then soon.

She was never really into Mother’s Day. It was a Hallmark holiday to her. But it feels like a good time to say that I miss her, and I miss everything she meant to me. And I’m still figuring out what happens next.

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