Authors Patrick McKenzie
For technical founders it is irrationally, obscenely hard to reverse years of programming (ba dum bum) that sales is a value-destroying activity. Sales is CLEARLY a value-creating activity, contingent on you have a value-creating product.
The world will not drop what they are doing to adopt your work. This is particularly true in B2B, where simply building a better mousetrap won't overcome the activation energy required to get people with additional non-mice problems to prioritize changing mousetraps today.
This is very non-obvious for founders because founders are not often people who *want* to be sold to. We often come from a background where trying out tools is a bit of a fun hobby. We like looking at all the options, making charts, and ripping out partially complete tests.
"This week I unsuccessfully trialed four software options for automating that thing that has been killing us. Our actual production process remains the same as last week. Don't worry; this was a great use of time." is not a thing you want to write in a progress report to manager.
In that spirit, here's some quick Things Many People Find Too Obvious To Have Told You Already.
Your idea is not valuable, at all. All value is in the execution. You think you are an exception; you are not. You should not insist on an NDA to talk about it; nobody serious will engage in contract review over an idea, and this will mark you as clueless.
Technologists tend to severely underestimate the difficulty and expense of creating software, especially at companies which do not have fully staffed industry leading engineering teams ("because software is so easy there, amirite guys?")
Charge more. Charge more still. Go on.
The press is a lossy and biased compression of events in the actual world, and is singularly consumed with its own rituals, status games, and incentives. The news necessarily fails to capture almost everything which happened yesterday. What it says is important usually isn't.
Companies find it incredibly hard to reliably staff positions with hard-working generalists who operate autonomously and have high risk tolerances. This is not the modal employee, including at places which are justifiably proud of the skill/diligence/etc of their employees.
Fun going down this list and thinking: "Hmm, plausible at a well-run modern software shop", "Hmm, possible, but requires implausible tradeoffs", "Literally disallowed by languages", and "If you were to attempt doing that our test suite wouldn't let you merge."
I think we as an industry celebrate (not quite the right word) failure too much and don't celebrate success nearly enough. There is no DailyWTF for competent execution, word of which generally stays pretty local to the source while incompetence passes into legend.
Alrighty let me try to thread the needle on being the change I want to see in the world while not giving away anything that will get me in trouble:
Ruby has wonderful developer ergonomics. Typed languages are easier for machines to guarantee the correctness of. We built a type checker for Ruby (and I believe it is slated for OSS release sometime).
If everyone was holding bitcoin on the old x86 in their parents basement, we would be finding a price bottom. The problem is the risk is all pooled at a few brokerages and a network of rotten exchanges with counter party risk that makes AIG circa 2008 look like a good credit.— Greg Wester (@gwestr) November 25, 2018
The benign product is sovereign programmable money, which is historically a niche interest of folks with a relatively clustered set of beliefs about the state, the literary merit of Snow Crash, and the utility of gold to the modern economy.
This product has narrow appeal and, accordingly, is worth about as much as everything else on a 486 sitting in someone's basement is worth.
The other product is investment scams, which have approximately the best product market fit of anything produced by humans. In no age, in no country, in no city, at no level of sophistication do people consistently say "Actually I would prefer not to get money for nothing."
This product needs the exchanges like they need oxygen, because the value of it is directly tied to having payment rails to move real currency into the ecosystem and some jurisdictional and regulatory legerdemain to stay one step ahead of the banhammer.
“Why do people care about stablecoins then?”
A mix of “they encourage dollar-denominated liquidity in the cryptocurrency ecosystem and discourage withdrawal of the same” and “they’re good for money laundering.”
“But they make value transfer between exchanges much faster!”
This was a solved problem in traditional finance, too, mostly through the extension of credit. (It doesn’t matter how long settlement takes if there is sufficient trust to enable credit.)
The Bitcoin ecosystem is *positively allergic* to credit, so you have to call it a coin for them to accept it. And after you call it a coin they ignore everything the world has learned about credit, like risk management.
“Stablecoins aren’t credit!”
They’re pretty much exactly credit? A tether is a zero-coupon Bitfinex bond with a non-functioning call option. I
Here's how I'd measure the health of any tech company:— Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror) October 25, 2018
How long, as measured from the inception of idea to the modified software arriving in the user's hands, does it take to roll out a *1 word copy change* in your primary product?
How long does it take, measured from initial expression of interest through offer of employment signed, for a typical candidate cold inbounding to the company?
What is the *theoretical minimum* for *any* candidate?
How long does it take, as a developer newly hired at the company:
* To get a fully credentialed machine issued to you
* To get a fully functional development environment on that machine which could push code to production immediately
* To solo ship one material quanta of work
How long does it take, from first idea floated to "It's on the Internet", to create a piece of marketing collateral.
(For bonus points: break down by ambitiousness / form factor.)
How many people have to say yes to do something which is clearly worth doing which costs $5,000 / $15,000 / $250,000 and has never been done before.
I have some thoughts:
As somebody who bootstrapped ~4 companies, I feel like I had to make some clearly suboptimal decisions early in them for lack of what is, in hindsight, not all that much money. But there's a huge gap in the product space for investment options.
It's weird: you can get $25k from Amex trivially, and angels are very willing to write a check for that much, but you have to make representations about your goals/ambitions/market/etc which don't really apply to everyone.
And so you see the traditional angel/VC ecosystem fund companies where honestly the returns are probably not there, and this is knowable pretty early, but the chase of them will wreck what could have been a perfectly happy business.
(To make the math work for traditional VCs the company has to at least have a market-appropriate shot of $100 million a year. There are a lot more $10 million a year companies than $100 million a year companies. That is *not* a bad terminal outcome for founders/employees.)
Maybe more geeks need to meet someone who says “My job is teleporting value across time and space.”
Financial engineering is sort of a squishy term. I don’t primarily mean payments infrastructure or financial rails, although both of those involve substantial engineering.
I mean more “We took a thing and performed some alchemy, and now have a new thing.”
Except instead of alchemy it is generally quite a bit of math, a huge amount of contract law and due diligence, often an impressive amount of ops work, and a dusting of technology that web devs would recognize as such.
For candidates: evaluate prospective employers accordingly.
For startups employing e.g. engineers: given that your candidates should evaluate you accordingly, be *extra special* careful to operate like professionals with regards to e.g. interviewing, offers, and negotiation.
"Can you be more explicit about 'abusive' here?"
Not without violating a confidence, but as someone who has been on hiring side of table and is a capitalist, there are *clearly* things you could do which would be "sharp operating, but we're all sharp operators" in some contexts.
Hiring employees is often not one of those contexts. The nature of the relationship, the asymmetry in power, and the social contract strongly counsel you to be a lot better there than you are minimally required by law / contract.
A thing which aesthetically frustrates me is that a lot of the things I've heard companies do here serve *no legitimate business purpose.* In some cases it's getting tens of dollars of advantage. TENS! On an engineering candidate!
Here's their CFO describing their agreement (which we know from other litigation was never contractualized because, presumably because money launderers hate paper trails):
Bitfinex's CFO was shocked, shocked to learn that the money launderer they engaged to provide money laundering services while I-swear-to-God-this-is-an-actual-quote "we learned to bank like criminals" may have from time to time lied to banks.
"Institutional constraints" means, here, "We were attempting to avoid velocity checks placed by our banking partners to detect fraud and money laundering, which would have detected our fraud and money laundering."
Money at the speed of code, yadda yadda yadda, the Bitcoin economy is surprisingly blasé when several hundred million dollars is in an interstitial state for months.
In a situation never before encountered by a financial institution: the check was not, in fact, in the mail.
On a serious note, it's interesting to observe that you can build a decent business charging $20 - $50 per month for something that any good developer can set up. This is one of those micro-saas sweet spots between "easy for me to build" and "tedious for others to build"— Jon Yongfook (@yongfook) September 5, 2019
Every year at MicroConf I get surprised-not-surprised by the number of people I meet who are running "Does one thing reasonably well, ranks well for it, pulls down a full-time dev salary" out of a fun side project which obviates a frequent 1~5 engineer-day sprint horizontally.
"Who is the prototypical client here?"
A consulting shop delivering a $X00k engagement for an internal system, a SaaS company doing something custom for a large client or internally facing or deeply non-core to their business, etc.
(I feel like many of these businesses are good answers to the "how would you monetize OSS to make it sustainable?" fashion, since they often wrap a core OSS offering in the assorted infrastructure which makes it easily consumable.)
"But don't the customers get subscription fatigue?"
I think subscription fatigue is far more reported by people who are embarrassed to charge money for software than it is experienced by for-profit businesses, who don't seem to have gotten pay-biweekly-for-services fatigue.
Me: Write a million words.
Follow up: “Hah but seriously.”
Me: Start with 20,000 words. Everyone gets to that 50 times in their first million.
Follow up: “No seriously.”
Me: Nobody expects 10 Quick Tips To Play Violin At Carnegie Hall.
The Internet is so much better at teaching writing than the traditional educational system principally because it removes an artificial and limiting constraint on output imposed by ability of gatekeepers’ limited time to evaluate output.
(Interestingly in fields where we actually care about performance we’re good at encouraging students to practice when no one is watching but for writing we basically assume all the value is created by the teacher-minute of attention. Teacher-minutes are scarce and rationed.)
If you ever want to be deeply, deeply disillusioned about the state of the world, compare what we do where we care about output quality and what we do where we don’t, and which domains sort into which column by revealed preference.
APIs add new things to the toolbox. For example: Treasury, which lets an app/platform store, move, and track a business’
I've been a small business owner and can talk at length about SMB banking, and will later, but let's put on the software developer hat right now.
Lots of software talks about money, keeps records about money, does calculations about money, but can't *touch* money.
This is extremely frustrating when you're building SaaS apps for businesses, because you have total control over your UX right until your app needs to touch money... at which point all data about it lives in a silo you can't access.
So you generally push work to the operator.
For example, suppose you’re writing a business-in-a-box system for electricians, including an invoicing feature.
You need to be able to read bank transactions to reconcile. You probably can't. The owner can. So you ask the owner to do mind-numbing work a computer does better.
It sure would be great if your business customers had bank accounts you could actually introspect and operate on their behalves! You could just get the list of incoming payments and match against the invoices.
There is some software to write but it is not rocket science.
How to put this in regular finance terms...
Suppose hypothetically you have an account at a brokerage with some valuable asset in it. You take a margin loan against that asset to fund your normal spending, or pay a tax bill, or maybe buy something at another brokerage.
For reasons known only to the brokerage, they don't denominate your loan in dollars. They denominate it in shares of a money market fund, which are worth $1 +/- epsilon and basically never deviate from that.
And you think "Hmm, I have a large equity cushion against this loan."
One day, a computer system at the brokerage reports, sorta-kinda erroneously, that the value of the money market fund is actually $1.30 per share. The equity cushion is gone. Your valuable asset is sold, at timing you didn't choose, at wrong price, to pay an inflated phantom debt
And your recourse is... probably tweeting at patio11 saying he finds too much joy in this.
Which I don't; I just feel like this is why you don't trust a CPU built out of redstone to build reliable financial infrastructure on top of.
“Coffee? What does that have to do with payments?” I’m glad you asked.
Convenience stores are low net margin businesses, which sell some high gross margin goods/services but a lot of low ones, and have high fixed costs and a low ticket size. The typical transaction is under 500 yen ($5) and many are about $1.
They need repeat custom.
A few years ago, all of the chains had a good idea for increasing frequency of use: make a minor capital investment in automatic coffee machines. Sell access to them for the price of a cup / ice; customers self-serve with the machine.
The price point is $1 to about $2.
Coffee quickly became one of the most frequently repurchased items at convenience stores, in no small part because it’s the one thing they can sell which is phameceutically habit forming but totally unregulated. (Just telling it like it is.)
But the coffee is not very defensible
The problem, such that it is, is that competing chains are everywhere and *all* of them serve Thoroughly Adequate Coffee at similar prices, so you’re back into the brutal economics of “Who is 3 meters closer to 40 customers at 1 office?”
Enter payment apps.
I love the aesthetics of this category and they’re under remarked upon.
I think people underestimate QSRs in terms of social utility, but Sukiya et al describe themselves as mission-oriented enterprises. I believe this is largely sincere, and goes back to the 60s and 70s, when the clientele was primarily manual laborers who had migrated to work.
Japan was not a rich nation at the time, and day laborers in particular were both unlikely to be able to cook for themselves and unlikely to have much of a food budget, and so the chains sprung up offering an honest-to-goodness cooked meal delivered in under a minute for cheap.
This heritage continued over the years, even after Japan became a much more wealthy nation, and these chains function as social support and dignity for folks in diminished circumstances.
They also are a wee bit of a cartel, and I appreciate the aesthetics of the cartel:
Back when I was first in Japan, in the mid 2000s, there was an increase in the price of beef.
And the heads of the three chains got together, and decided that the price of the basic beef bowl needed to increase, but given the economic circumstances how could they hold the line.