It’s the start of a new year and a new decade, which means that the internet is awash with hopes, plans and resolutions. I don’t have anything specific to share here, but I have taken the opportunity to think about goals and achieving them. I was interested to come across two different approaches of the same name – Working Backwards.
The first is the more intuitive way to Work Backwards, which is to simply think about a large goal, and the time by which you would like to achieve it, then work backwards to identify interim goals and checkpoints along the way. To take a potentially lofty goal and translate it into more short-term actions.
The second way to Work Backwards is also known as Inversion, which I came across by way of Farnam Street (a generally excellent resource). A favourite of Charlie Munger, this involves thinking about the things that might stop you achieving your goal, or of achieving the opposite:
“Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want” — Charle Munger
Pithily described as “avoiding stupidity” (which is “easier than seeking brilliance”), this simple change in perspective can make a problem seem more addressable, and less effortful.
Neither way of Working Backwards is a silver bullet, of course. But as I start 2020, I am glad to have both.
I found a nice notebook the other day, in amongst a cupboard of papers. I thought it was unused, but when I opened it I found a couple of pages of notes clearly written in one sitting, entitled “What I’d like to be in 2012”. A personal historical document, presumably written at or near the start of the new year, when I was approaching my final two terms of university and recovering after an ankle operation.
It is interesting to see what I was focused on. An ambition to be better read, perhaps natural for a young person about to strike out into the world of work. Music and languages were two things I wanted to do more of, the former has waxed and waned in my life, while the latter has fallen mostly by the wayside. Then vaguer interest in being “better prepared” and “more focused”.
The latter point of focus is given a bit more detail. I worried about the time I was spending on “Facebook and blogs”, or even “sitting doing nothing”, the latter of which has now become de rigueur with the rise of mindfulness. Oh to remember that time before smartphones (I had a Blackberry for my sins).
I am uplifted by a few sketched notes about “using the ankle injury as an opportunity… you will never have this opportunity again”. The primary manifestation of this was becoming Sports Editor of the student newspaper for a term, a first foray into writing, an activity which brings me joy to this day.
I finally entreated myself not to “spend your time writing things like this”. On this point, I must most heartily disagree.
A foundational premise of this blog post is that jokes are better when you explain them in excruciating detail, so can we all get on board with that please.
If you are denizen of tech Twitter, you have probably heard of Superhuman. For those of you fortunate not to spend time on the Hell website: it is an email client, self-proclaimed “the fastest email experience ever made”. It has achieved its Twitter fame through a combination of invite-only exclusivity, high profile advocates and admirers (mostly proclaiming via Twitter), some noteworthy quirks (one-on-one onboarding, a $30 per month pricetag, beautiful pictures when you hit inbox zero), as well as what is apparently a genuinely transformative email experience.
I say apparently because I wouldn’t know – I am an Android user for my sins, so even though I managed to wangle a coveted invite (I know right), I was rebuffed at the final hurdle: there isn’t an Android app yet. My email signature will not indicate that I am Superhuman, at least not for a while.
In a fit of pique, I wondered whether maybe, just maybe, $30 was a bit much for just, like, sending email? Did I even want to see nice pictures at inbox zero? Why would I want an onboarding where someone else critiqued my emails? Was it actually all just about getting a golden ticket, and telling the world about it?
And thus, NormalHuman was born: the email experience you already have, just with a sprinkling of exclusivity.
I know what you are thinking: this is kind of weird, why are you explaining this quite shoddy attempt at satire? Cool your jets, I’m getting there. Because this post is actually an ode to the internet.
Everyone knows that the internet has revolutionised and democratised access to information blah blah blah. All manner of entities, from individual hackers to not-for-profits to big corporates have brought us products and services that are almost like magic, achieving a mix of fortune and fame along the way.
What I think is less well understood is how easy it is in 2019 for a person with an idea to bring that to the world at speed, with internet scale (even if that idea is a half-baked internet parody), thanks to a mix of tools, community and a little bit of luck. Let me break this thing down for you.
I’m not suggesting that Normalhuman.net is a groundbreaking thing. It is actually quite simple: it is a single page website, with a sign up form, some nice pictures and transitions, a $5 card payment option, and some analytics tracking in the background. I guess what is significant is that ten years ago, that would have been quite an undertaking, requiring a chunk of time and at least some custom development. Today, it took a couple of hours of messing around with some user-friendly point and click tools.
The hub of the whole thing was built on Carrd. For those who don’t know it, Carrd is the world’s simplest one-page website builder, by one-man powerhouse AJ. I have been using it for a couple of years, and I have huge respect for how the platform has developed in that time – it has added some great new functionality, but it has done that while remaining incredibly simple, staying true to its core use-case (easy to make single-page sites). If you have never made a website before, and want to put something of your own on the internet, I can’t recommend a better place to start – it was my first port of call, and I was off the mark.
I wrote some slightly irreverent copy. But a few word jokes does not a good satirical website make. I needed to beef that sucker up.
Superhuman has an access request form, so Normalhuman had to have one too. The act of a couple of minutes in Carrd, linking up a dusty old Mailchimp account I once set up. The internet doesn’t need another wax lyrical about bootstrapped Mailchimp, so I will simply say: it was easy to do.
Given the wonderful aesthetics of Superhuman, I had to make sure my stock photo game was up to scratch. I hadn’t come across Unsplash before, but their photos were beautiful so I snagged a few for Normalhuman, plus their simple embedding API was just what I needed. I got some nice transitions going, and the whole thing started to look kind of professional. We were cooking on gas.
I wasn’t sure what to do about the endorsements from high profile people, a compulsory component of every wannabe unicorn website – I didn’t feel like I could put real people’s faces up there. Fortunately I was reminded of the slightly chilling thispersondoesnotexist.com, an endless stream of AI-generated faces. I could put a face to a quote with impunity (sorry computers).
I talked to a friend of mine, who said I should add a card payment option in there. Carrd of course has a seamless payment integration with Stripe. I thought why not? And added a $5 widget (proceeds to go to Wikimedia). It was my first time using Stripe. Having worked on a couple of payment integrations for bank wires and credit cards in a previous job, it was kind of uncanny how easy it was to go from no Stripe account, to accepting payments. Truly a wonderful user experience.
Then, in a moment of optimism, I added Google Analytics tracking. Needless to say this was also very easy to do in Carrd.
Not going to lie, I kind of gave up when I got to designing the logo. It is the number eight. Don’t ask me why.
Having made a joke website, it could have gone the way of some of my previous satirical efforts – URLs passed on to like-minded friends, otherwise largely forgotten. But I thought I might as well prod it out into the world, so I did two things. Firstly, I created a Twitter account, and secondly I posted it on Product Hunt.
I’m by no means an active Product Hunt user, but I think it is an interesting community which surfaces some cool stuff (I read their daily email). I’d never “hunted” anything before, but thought it might get some attention if I was lucky – the VC Starter Kit (a masterpiece) had done pretty well on Product Hunt, so there was some precedent for joke websites. I Hunted it, pushing it out into the void.
Back to Twitter, where I have only recently started engaging and posting things on my personal account, having spent a decent chunk of time lurking. While I have some issues with the platform (not for now), it does spark some really interesting conversations, and I have really appreciated the fact that you can engage directly with people a world away. It was in the hope that I tweeted my Product Hunt page, and tagged @Superhuman.
A little bit of luck
So NormalHuman got lucky a couple of times. The Superhuman team saw my tweet, and they seemed to get it. A couple of them followed my Normalhuman account, and retweeted or liked or whatever it is one does on Twitter. The site got some traffic over a few days (~4K people!), some people gave me their email address to apply for access. I got a nice feeling that some people had seen the thing I did, and thought it was ok. Which is about all one can reasonably hope for. I was pretty happy with how it had all gone, and was trying to explain to my family what it was (“so if you follow Tech Twitter…”), when I checked Google Analytics – about 1,000 people were concurrently on the site.
It became apparent that Benedict Evans had included the link on his weekly newsletter, which goes out to >100K people, which explained the sudden influx of traffic. As a reader of said weekly newsletter, it was kind of cool to see my joke website included. I emailed Benedict, who informed me that it was one of the most-clicked links that week. Still not sure what to do with that one.
But I am sure that it totally obliterate my previous metrics, with a halo lasting for a little while as some other people picked it up. As of writing, >17K people have visited the site, >2.5K people have applied for access, and, in the most miraculous outcome of all, 18 people paid $5 for lifetime membership, with all profits to go to the Wikimedia foundation.
So that was all good fun.
Some miscellaneous thoughts I may unpack a bit more later: Twitter is an incredible place to spread information (or disinformation). Newsletters with large readerships are a powerful tool. People are pretty willing to give out their email address. People are mostly up for a laugh.
To people who visited the site: I hope it made you smile (I know it’s not like ha-ha funny, we’re in wry smile territory here and that’s ok).
To people who applied for access: I am sorry that I don’t (currently?) have an email client to offer you. GDPR mandates that I let you delete that data if you want, just hit me up if that is the case @GetNormalhuman.
To the people who paid $5: you are absolute angels. I will be making a payment to Wikimedia forthwith.
To team Superhuman: kudos for being cool about it. If you will still have me, I’d love to give the service a try, even just on my old Macbook Pro.
To Benedict Evans: thanks for the boost, that was fun.
To AJ and all the people who made the tech I used: thank you for the leg up. Keep doing what you do.
I am conscious of course that this kind of wide-eyed one-eyed optimism has lead to all sorts of issues for technology companies big and small. There is much more nuanced and thoughtful reflection to be done. But I had an enjoyable micro-experience of the positive power of the internet, and I wanted to share it here.
I used to work with a man called Michael who changed the way I think about time. It was the first day of the second week of January 2014, and he observed that we were 2 percent through the year.
I had never thought of one week in those terms. A year is obviously a significant amount of time, while weeks seem to come and go. Two percent is little enough to make sense with how weeks feel, but large enough to make each week very meaningful and precious. It is daunting to think about a fortnight as nearly five percent (!), and I now can’t plan a long weekend without thinking about it as one percent of my days this year.
I think a decent amount about time (it is the only thing we have, but that is a topic for another day). Wait But Why‘s bits on the subject are particularly thought-provoking and terrifying, while my cousin’s edict to “max your days” is always ringing in my ears.
If I told Mike how often I thought about two percent, and by extension about him, I think he would probably find it kind of strange.
I have a habit of keeping quite a lot of browser tabs open. I know I am not the only one.
On my laptop, my tabs tend to be related to what I am currently working on. I can deal with that. On my phone they tend to be a mixture of things I hope to read in the future, and some things which I have read already and thought were good, but which I didn’t know what to do with. That is a bit more bothersome, because it is accretive over time, so now I have loads.
The good news is I now have a place to find closure, right here on the internet. Thank you for witnessing my decluttering, where I Shut It Down to browser-tab-zero.
This has been in my tabs for a while; it’s an article I have re-read a couple of times. The toy / hobby / weekend metaphor for good startup ideas is pretty well-known by now, but it is always worth revisiting. I like the idea of a good startup idea being predicated on a secret, and of moving from uncertainty to value creation. I feel like the transition of technology from bits to atoms is still pretty nascent, which is exciting. Meanwhile the market-size narrative challenge for startups is evergreen. The importance of getting rejected often is hard to internalize, but I see the value (in setting ambitious goals). While the parting message for entrepreneurs (“get ready to feel sick to your stomach for the next five years”) can certainly be considered fair warning.
A long one but a good one, a chimera of several talks Munger made in the early 90s, where he highlights biases which lead to bad decision-making. Far from an academic study (as he himself acknowledges somewhat gleefully), it nonetheless (or perhaps as a result?) is very thought-provoking.
He starts with the always underappreciated power of incentives (“I think I’ve been in the top five percent of my age cohorts almost all my adult life in understanding the power of incentives, and yet I’ve always underestimated that power”), before making his way via the biases of loving and hating, through man’s dislike of inconsistency and doubt, touching on the dangers of optimism, and loss aversion (“Deprival Superreaction Tendency”), as well as ways in which “leaders … display followership akin to that of teenagers” due to Social Proof Tendency. The Twaddle tendency has an entertaining bee-based comparison, but it all comes together with the “Lollapalooza Tendency”, which considers the potential dangers when many different tendencies are brought to bear at once. An irreverent waltz, and worth a read on a long train ride or equivalent.
Something of a classic, and certainly a phrase that is now part of Silicon Valley lore. People were presumably talking about Delight prior to 2013, but I like how it is described here (“You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy… existing conventions are not the upper bound on user experience”). Pithy warnings too, about relying on Big launches and partnerships
It’s interesting to see companies like Superhuman push the “do things that don’t scale” approach even further in 2019 (1 to 1 onboarding for a consumer internet product). Paul hasn’t written an essay since 2017, which is a shame (though he is alive and well on Twitter).
Not an article, but a collection of intro-to-AI notebooks. It recommends using Google Colab, which I had last used when it was very much an internal-only Google tool, so cool to see it in the wild. A few topics still waiting to be covered, but a nice starting point nonetheless.
Much is made of the importance of good decision-making. In this piece Joshua Rothman breaks down the things that make that difficult, with his decision to become a parent as a case-study.
Decisions are often more gradual than they are discrete (“it’s a momentous choice, but I can’t pinpoint the making of it in space or time”), are often are limited by past choices (so-called “bounded rationality”), and can’t be understood on a single scale. There is certainly scope to improve decision-making (“scenario planning … seeking out diverse perspectives on the choice, challenging your assumptions, making an explicit effort to map the variables”), as we “ask ourselves what we value, then seek to maximize that value”. But it becomes more difficult once you realise that what we value might shift over time in a way that isn’t always predictable (“Why should today’s values determine tomorrow’s?”).
This is probably why people “are in fact more casual and cavalier in the way they handle their big decisions than in the way they handle their ordinary decisions”, in the words of Edna Ullmann-Margalit. Certainly food for thought as you think about your own decisions and those you observe others making, both before and after the fact.
A bit rogue I suppose, but I am always interested by the sponsor-suggestions for hackathon-type projects, as it tends to capture what is top-of-mind in a given industry or companies. It’s been cool to see the evolution and growth of the MakerDAO stablecoin project, so I was interested to see their areas of focus – in this case wallets, lending and zero-knowledge proofs.
A well trodden path, but some good thoughts in this one. I particularly like “Tools inside a big company” and “Revisit ideas that were too early”. “Understand how teens communicate” is sadly probably beyond me at this point (I am not sure I was that in touch when I was a teenager myself…).
A tour de force. On the evolution of the retailer algorithm, from the “bounded” physical world of Walmart to the “unbounded” digital world of Amazon, and the importance of the third party-marketplace in the new world (vs the old world’s vendor selection model). On how Amazon’s need to grow at internet scale made it necessary for them to become a “platform; that is, an aggregation of resources made available through a series of interfaces“. On the edict from Jeff Bezos, for all teams to build as if for external customers, to enable the business to transform into, and scale as a platform (“Platforms became part of the algorithm”). A dissection of Ads, designated a misstep (but one that may be “impossibly addictive”, given the revenue). And a riff on the risks of its “Wild West for sellers”. I definitely share Zack’s parting sentiment: “I remain fascinated to see what will happen next.”
I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the future of work and closing supply-demand gaps in labour markets. Nesta have a bunch of interesting articles on the topic, and this one is right on:
“although 75.3 per cent of adults in the UK are in jobs, this headline figure masks some deep inefficiencies and problems of stagnant pay, social mobility and productivity and major failures in the transition to work”
The sell is for their Open Jobs project, which aims to address issues with data, policy and pilots.
Taken from a talk given to the Female Founders Conference, it’s all good stuff. Make something people want, know if you are default alive, keep expenses low, and more. YC content is pretty pervasive these days in startup-article-land, but that’s probably because they know what they are doing.
Fascinating dissection of the negotiations between the UK and the EU in the aftermath of the EU referendum, and how the UK were outmanoeuvred time and time again. Bloody red lines, cherry-picking and Barnier.
On Rawls and the importance of reciprocity in liberal societies: a proposal that American society has in recent decades seen “the failure to achieve—or even to strive seriously to achieve—an ideal of reciprocity”. A suggestion that this failure has contributed to the rise of Trump in a manner predicted by rather than contradicting Rawlsian liberalism, as “U.S. institutions have come closer to maximizing the position of the best-off group than to maximizing the position of the worst-off group”. Interesting, but definitely on the academic end of the spectrum.
I first came across Eugene’s Status-as-a-Service article in February, which I also recommend. This piece introduces Invisible Asymptotes, where a single factor limits growth beyond a certain point unless addressed appropriately (if it can be), starting with Amazon’s first: shipping cost (which people hate to “to literally an irrational degree”) . A whistle-stop tour through tech Royalty’s varied and different invisible asymptotes, some more practical words of advice, plus some reflections on the asymptotes in all of our lives (“In my experience, the most successful people I know are much more conscious of their own personal asymptotes at a much earlier age than others”). An interesting way to think about potential and future growth in all walks.
And that is that. My phone feels lighter already, thanks for closing down my tabs with me. Until next time.