Normalhuman

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.

The tools

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.

The community

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.

Interesting.

To Twitter!

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.

Spot the moment the newsletter landed

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.

Books the remix

Andy Matuschak put out a very interesting piece recently, “Why books don’t work“. While the title is slightly clickbait-y, the content is a substantive and thought-provoking argument that non-fiction books are not actually good tools for conveying knowledge. That the central premise of book-based learning – “people absorb knowledge by reading sentences” – is not generally true*. Instead, people depend on “metacognition” (thinking about what they are reading) to actually absorb and internalize what they have read, which is not something that comes easily. And even those books which appear explicitly designed to facilitate learning (e.g. textbooks) depend on context to actually act as useful learning tools, whether that context is a course, a classroom or a discussion group.

The prescribed antidote is fortunately not an accepting shrug, but instead that this is an opportunity to “make new forms… it is possible to design new mediums which embody specific ideas”. To improve on the book medium “so that its “grain” bends in line with how people think and learn”. Matuschak acknowledges that this is a tall order, but proffers Quantum Computing, an initial attempt with his collaborator Michael Nielsen.

Matt Clifford included the piece in his weekly Matt’s Thoughts In Between newsletter (subscribe!), with the salient observation that this is a bet on human design in the face of the evolved book medium (which is often a brave bet to make). But books are a technology that haven’t changed in millenia (even e-readers try to mimic paper as much as possible), while our means of information transmission have transformed and proliferated unimaginably. Now seems as good a time as any to reconsider this cornerstone of human knowledge. And while Matuschak’s piece says “it doesn’t even necessarily mean abandoning paper”, I do think if something replaces the medium, it will likely be dynamic and tech enabled.

With these thoughts fresh in my mind I was interested to come across Going Critical, by Kevin Simler, which weaves interactive simulations into a very interesting piece on diffusion through a network. The piece is interspersed by illustrative examples that deepen understanding of quite complex phenomena in a very intuitive way. I recommend you give it a read.

This particular approach worked very well, and was very memorable. But I think what struck me was how appropriate it was to the specific topic, but that it wouldn’t necessarily be generalisable. Which lead me to a general observation: I think that if something does replace books, it won’t be another monolithic medium, but a rich mixture of forms. Kevin shared a range of his inspirations. I look forward to seeing others’ explorations, and may even break out of the box myself.

*In a perfect and slightly ironic illustration of this phenomenon, I found myself having to revisit the original article quite a bit to remember the details, having read it a few days ago.

String of digits

I was travelling a few weeks ago in a place where my network’s fees for data usage were particularly extortionate, so I turned off data roaming for the weekend.

My phone was then quiet and unblinking for a few days, only coming to life when we came across WiFi. This added to my enjoyment of and immersion in my holiday, so that was good. But it also made me realise how little my phone was a phone these days.

Messaging was the first thing to go, losing out to WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger. Then calling my friends went too, as those same messaging apps added voice and then video calling. Meanwhile email, internet and other apps became the centre of gravity (including the emergence of a love-hate relationship with the Twitter app).

Recently the only thing I use my phone number for is contacting people or businesses I don’t know, receiving security codes from various internet accounts, being bothered by coldcallers and robocalls, and as the method of last resort when 4G isn’t playing ball.

It is a bit like landline telephone numbers, which went from being an end in themselves, to being a means to get internet access, to being a strangely compulsory add-on to internet access, to not being required at all. A mobile phone number feels increasingly surplus to requirements, and I wonder if they will go the way of the rotary phone.

Jeff gets it.

Yet for some reason I feel a strange attachment to my phone number. This may be a nostalgic function of my generation – I have had the same number since I got my first mobile phone in my teens. My phone number was my connection to the world and to my friends. It has been the most consistent way to reach me since then, as email addresses and social accounts came and went, and it would seem strange for that to end. It clearly serves some purpose, as a unique identity and identifier. It is my particular string of digits.

If it does go, I wonder what will come in its place.

Life Capital Conference

An Income Share Agreement (ISA*) is a personal financing instrument where repayments are determined as a percentage of someone’s income for a specified period, an equity-type alternative to personal debt for individuals. It’s something of a hot topic, having been adopted by some high profile coding bootcamps, and a lot of the interested folks came together on Wednesday for the Life Capital Conference, hosted by Slow Ventures, Village Global, The Information, and Cooley.

It was a packed agenda in a packed auditorium. It is still a nascent industry, so the discussions were mostly forward looking, and were variously practical (how do we make this work right now) and expansive (what is the possible future for this thing). It highlighted some of the progress already being made, as well as some of the challenges.

Equity for individuals?

While “equity for individuals” is a catchy tagline, it doesn’t necessarily describe how ISAs are actually working at the moment.

From a practical standpoint, ISAs today predominantly provide funding for education in return for a fixed percentage of personal income (revenue) for a set period of time, where the income is above a certain annualised threshold, and where the total amount repayable is taxed. This is different to equity investment. I will leave aside the troublesome ownership implications of “equity” when applied to an individual.

Benefits of ISAs

The benefits of ISAs were well understood and articulated throughout the panel conversations. One of the core premises is incentive alignment: everyone involved wants the ISA recipients to do well. A significant benefit for the individual is risk reduction: if things don’t work out, they have to pay less back (or nothing at all). There are also opportunities for improved accessibility, affordability and outcome transparency not offered by conventional borrowing.

Happy even if it goes well

As a student attending a coding bootcamp, downside protection is a significant advantage, when compared to a conventional loan. Aanand Radia of University Ventures described an ISA as “a loan with an insurance wrapper”, which resonated, but Barry Cynamon’s “insurance where you pay the premiums afterwards” captured the behavioural challenge of ISAs, where if you have a good outcome (i.e. you earn a good salary), you have to pay more, after the fact. One of the core challenges with ISAs is this cross-subsidising across a cohort of students, where the more successful students pay more (often a lot!)

Ensuring people are happy “even if it goes well [and they have to pay a lot more]” is one of the key communication challenges facing ISA providers. In this case the successful students are paying for the downside protection they didn’t end up using, but it was pointed out by Ashu Desai of Make School that this was not an easy thing to put a value on. Multiple panelists highlighted the importance of students being well-informed and “bought in” to the collective nature of ISAs because of this dynamic, understanding that the ISAs work as a kind of income tax (Sam Lessin, who hosted the event, even noted that as taxpayers, we are already participating in an Income Share Agreement by another name).

This has lead to the natural concern that ISAs will suffer adverse selection, where students with a lower chance of success are more likely to take an ISA. Purdue University’s Mary Claire Cartwright indicated that their research showed that there was no adverse selection, having compared their ISA students and those taking regular student loans. I understand that this would be reassuring, but I find it quite surprising that this would be the case: companies that take equity financing are different (and often more risky, with more volatile outcomes) than companies taking debt financing. As an individual with predictable outcomes, a loan is probably a better option, while for someone with a bit more volatility, an ISA is a much more attractive option. If this is not being reflected by those taking ISAs at Purdue, it says something about human psychology, or a lack of appropriate information. Perhaps both.

Accessibility

ISAs are a significant enabler for accessibility, as they can be offered to people who otherwise might not be able to access finance (and might therefore be excluded if the ISA is for an educational course). This is an undeniably powerful benefit, particularly in the case of coding schools and the tech industry, which has an acknowledged problem with diversity and access.

Though a word of caution – while some credit checks used for conventional loans are exclusive (based on historic income and credit worthiness), affordability decisions on the basis of significant existing debt are still likely relevant for individuals taking on an ISA.

Incentive alignment

The incentive-aligning power of ISAs was much discussed throughout the day. It is definitely very powerful for vocational schools’ payday to be aligned to the paydays of their students. However I worry that it might drive a one-dimensional money-focused approach to student success. With a conventional loan, the lender’s concern is that the borrower has a certain threshold of income where repayment is affordable. Anything beyond that is just upside for the borrower. While for an ISA, higher and higher salaries are even more rewarding for the ISA provider. I wonder whether that might motivate schools with ISAs to focus purely on placing into positions with higher salaries, rather than thinking about other things that contribute to happiness and fulfilment in a job (particularly given research that indicates that incremental income above a certain threshold doesn’t contribute any more to happiness).

We do definitely understand the power of the outcome-based nature of ISAs. In the work we are doing at Vested we are excited by the possibility of an outcome-based loan, providing downside mitigation without requiring significantly more from the highest performers.

Headline risk and regulation

One of the prevalent concerns amongst participants was the risk of one or several bad actors taking advantage of students with usurious ISAs, and the associated headline (and existential?) risk for the industry. This likely drove the excitement over potential ISA regulation, a strange occurrence at a tech conference (as Austen noted on Twitter). Local and national legislators were represented on panels, in Adam Boman of California State and former congressman Luke Messer, who both indicated positive progress on that front. As a Brit, I am familiar with the quasi-ISA used for university financing by the government, and I definitely see the potential for state-enabled post-secondary ISA-funded education. I wonder whether legislature in the States will make moves in that direction, or remain focused on privately funded ISAs.

Sam Lessin was one voice in favour of a considered approach towards regulation, thinking carefully about any legislation that is too prescriptive based on ISAs as they currently exist, for example mandating caps or minimums or terms. “Let’s not make short-term trades that might handicap us in the long-term”.

Bundling and unbundling

The ascent of Lambda School has done much for the profile of ISAs. Austen Allred’s discussion with Will Quist highlighted the interesting way in which the Lambda School model is both an example of bundling and unbundling. Austen acknowledged that traditional universities layer in things that Lambda does not (the housing, the extra-curriculars), while Lambda School just focuses on the “I want a job” part of the university experience. The best choice for the student depends “which bundle is the student choosing”. In this sense, Lambda School is an example of unbundling education, but at the same time, Austen described their vertically integrated “underwrite, teach, place” model as key to their success – bundling up three pretty distinct competencies.

Must be the money

Given the (relatively) embryonic stage of the ISA market, it is not surprising that source of investor capital was a common topic, with schools from Holberton to Lambda talking about funding ISAs with their own equity. Tonio DeSorrento of Vemo described the outside capital evolution that almost all ISA businesses would go through, from philanthropy to novelty to impact to hedge funds to municipal money, based on the evolution of rate of return and track record. University Ventures are currently the largest provider of ISA financing in the world, but as they themselves noted, for the success of the industry that couldn’t remain the case.

Future for ISAs

A lot of participants were clear that ISAs were not a replacement for student loans, and both would likely co-exist in the future. There was a prediction that in 5-10 years, ISAs would be the same size as private loans, in dollar terms. Richard Lee of Leif predicted $500M in ISAs originated in five years time. Austen suggested that, however guaranteed their outcomes became, they would never switch to debt (“Debt is fundamentally opposed to the lambda model”), and will instead just work to drive the cap down.

At least offering an ISA was expected to become table stakes, in terms of offering affordable post-secondary education. “300 universities will offer ISAs in five years time” per Andrew Platt of Vemo. “If your vocational school doesn’t have an ISA, you are dead in five years” per Austen. We are certainly currently seeing a chain reaction in coding schools that is a move in that direction.

It will be interesting to see if that continues to other vocational skills – sadly Austen and Will’s discussion didn’t have time to fully cover Lambda’s ambitions beyond bootcamps, which are substantial. Austen did note that the model would likely look similar but slightly different in nursing, for example.

There was general agreement that growth of ISAs in the future could contribute to much improved outcome data for educational institutions, to enable applicants to make better informed decisions about their education.

The focus of the day was very much on educational financing, though the “Imagining the future” session took a more expansive view, with Dani Grant, Sam Lessin and Erik Torenberg. Were current models “too practical” – why have a cap on repayment? Why can’t individual teachers be motivated and remunerated in this way? What if individuals in a cohort or community (Stanford grads, say) cross-invested in one another to normalise our outcomes? This is apparently something which apparently already happens in high-stakes poker games. Dani Grant of USV wondered wether we would we be kinder to each other, if we were cross-invested. But there was general acknowledgement that we maybe were not ready for the “out there” version quite yet.

So what, for the future of ISAs? Tonio DeSorrento was optimistic, anticipating “a Cambrian explosion of ISA businesses”, though he wryly noted that the Cambrian explosion took 25M years. Those in the room seemed hopeful it might all happen a bit sooner than that.

* British readers will be confused by this acronym, which in the UK refers to tax-free Individual Savings Accounts

Scorecar

Amir Efrati of The Information has an interesting piece on Waymo robotaxi customer satisfaction (or lack thereof). The article highlights existing services (Uber, Lyft) as a key benchmark for automated vehicles, and suggests that the comparison is currently unfavourable:

“Waymo rides received five-star ratings for 62.6% of 2,498 rides it completed in the first 10 weeks of the year… By comparison, as of 2017, users of Lyft’s ride-hailing service gave a five-star rating in about 94% of rides”.

I am not sure this comparison is a perfect one. When rating my Uber rides, five stars is my default. That is sadly not because I anticipate a blissful ride every time I ride with Uber, but because I am aware of the importance of a driver’s average score to their continued employment, and maybe livelihood, thanks to Uber’s policies and algorithms. I am therefore willing to put up with a swerve or two (or three), and still select a five star rating. I know I am rating the driver, not just the ride.

I am sure I am not alone in this. I expect that a lot of the riders in Waymo’s automated vehicles had a lower “default” score in their minds, once you took the humanity out of the car.

That being said, the article also highlights some specific customer feedback. My favourite: Jan. 16 “Mr toad’s wild ride! Go left then right then right then left then left the to far then not far enough……”