Per My Last E-mail #40
Focusing on the Inputs, MSCHBOX's Mystery Output, and so much more
|Feb 24, 2020|
Hi Friends 👋,
Happy Monday and welcome to Per My Last E-mail #40! We’re officially over the hill.
Here’s what we’re going to be covering today:
Not Boring Update: focusing on the inputs.
P.O.T.W.: MSCHFBOX is the reincarnation of Something Store I’ve been waiting for.
Links & Listens: pump & dump subreddits, Bernie as the inadequate response to postmodernism, how to write usefully, and making groups work.
I also wanted to write a memo on why I love Spotify as an investment, but when I started writing it, I realized that it was about more than just Spotify. It’s about the role of narrative, gut vs. brain, and humans vs. robots in investing.
Instead of rushing it today, I’m going to either send it in next week’s e-mail, or, in a Per My Last E-mail first, as a separate e-mail later this week. (Innovation, baby!)
Let’s get to it.
Not Boring Lessons
🚨 This is a new section 🚨
Each week I’m going to include something I’ve learned, am struggling with, or thinking about related to building the business. I have a couple of goals with this section:
Share what I’m learning to help other people who are starting or thinking about starting something. We’re all going to make mistakes, we might as well make different ones.
Four-hundred minds are better than one. If you have any advice or input on any of the challenges I’m facing or things I’m thinking through, I’d love to hear it.
This week, Nathan Baschez interviewed Hiten Shah about how he thinks about strategy, and his approach resonated with me.
TL;DR: Shah thinks about strategy formulation like a machine. You gather inputs (customer interviews, trends, what other companies are doing, feedback), run them through frameworks (five forces, network effects, moats), and spit out a plan. He believes that most people focus too much on the frameworks, and not enough on the inputs. If you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out.
That hit hard. For the first couple months, as I was thinking about what I wanted to build, I spent way too much time in my own head figuring out how to make a members club work at venture scale. I have like seven drafts of business plans in which I tried to guess at a value prop, talked about low-end disruption of graduate schools, worked out the network effects we’d achieve once we hit some number of members. It was so much “strategy” and not enough strategy.
I didn’t appreciate how big the shift from crafting a strategy for a going concern with real customers to crafting a strategy for an unborn company out of thin air would be. At Breather, I had customer feedback, data, and really smart teammates at my disposal. At [yet-to-be-named-twinkle-in-my-eye], all I had was ideas.
Despite hundreds of hours thinking about those ideas, I couldn’t answer the question: who is this for? I needed to focus on the inputs.
So I worked with a friend on organizing a series of focus groups, and we learned a lot:
adult life doesn’t have a good equivalent of college extracurriculars,
making connections is easy but building relationships is hard,
repeated interaction around learning and growth builds relationships,
the most curious people want to build networks outside of the field they work in,
people want a better answer to the question, “What do you do outside of work?”
Importantly, we learned that a clubhouse didn’t need to be the central focus and it didn’t need to be our starting point. While a clubhouse would facilitate a lot of the things our members want to achieve, what our members really wanted from us was a way to fight back against becoming boring as they grow up and become more one-dimensional.
That insight unjammed the machine. It allows us to start with the essentials - curious people, interactive learning-based programming, ways for members to build relationships in person and keep them going online. It helps clarify who this is for.
It also enables us to keep focusing on the inputs - through application responses, conversation, feedback, and observation - before locking into a strategy and business model.
I’m at almost the opposite place from where I started - from a framework looking for inputs to inputs looking for a framework - and it feels a lot better on this side. Inputs in hand, I’m working out what a community-first business looks like, which I’ll write more about in a future newsletter.
Biggest Learning: You need to focus 10x as much on the inputs at the early stage than you do later on, because you don’t yet have customers who are more than happy to give you feedback.
Question I Could Use Your Help With: What are some examples of companies that have built the community first before expanding into products? Glossier comes to mind, what are some of your favorite examples?
And of course, if you want to be a part of the Not Boring journey:
When I was in college, a friend told me about Something Store, a website on which you paid $10, and they sent you… something. It could be a watch, an XBox, a car, or a cotton ball. Of course I signed up, twice. I paid $20, and in return, I received a miniature magnetic chess board (value: ~$0.10) and a comb (value: ~$0.03).
Somehow, after an 11-year run, that beautiful business shut its doors last year. I thought that was the end.
Here’s how it works (it’ll sound a little familiar, with a big twist):
MSCHF will send you a box containing something with a potential value ranging from $0 to $7,000 (like a Vespa, a pair of socks, 25 years of free Popeye’s Chicken Sandwiches, a stick of gum, a Rolex, or a bag of Dorito’s).
If you don’t open the box for 100 days, and send it back to them unopened, they’ll pay you $1,000.
I haven’t seen any case studies from previous MSCHF drops, but I’m hoping they do one when this is all said and done. I’m fascinated to see how many people have the willpower to earn a free $900 and how many give into their curiosity.
Don’t tell Puja, but I think I’m going to take my chances 🤫
Links & Listens
One of my favorite things that I’ve become aware of over the past month or so is the world of penny stock pumping subreddits. My friend recommended three stocks that the Redditors were excited about, and each is up an eye-watering amount. (See tweet for proof)
In his latest newsletter, Byrne Hobart shines a light on the same thing happening in another subreddit: Wall Street Bets. He highlights a recent poster who recommended Lumber Liquidator’s stocks and call options at 9:27am, right before the market opened, and sent the stock soaring nearly 20%.
This has all happened before. Between 1996-2000, another trader made roughly 10,000% with a similar scheme. You’ll have to read Byrne’s newsletter to hear that story, and find out how old the trader behind it was.
🚀 Progress, Post-Modernism, and the Tech Backlash | Alex Danco
How bout this: once all of you have proven to me that you’ve subscribed to Alex Danco’s newsletter, I’ll stop including nearly everything he writes in Per My Last E-mail. Byrne Hobart (of the Link & Listen right above this one fame) captured my feelings well in his newsletter last week:
Alex Danco is a frustrating writer, because he keeps publishing the definitive take on stuff I kept meaning to get to. I have a ten-year-old draft of a post about nepotism as a form of finance in my Dropbox. I’d been not-working-on-that-story for a decade, and he just… tweeted it out. That was a few weeks ago, and he did it again, writing a good take on how more venture-backed companies will choose debt over equity.
Byrne sent that before Danco’s latest essay. Then he did it again. (I’ve have a draft of an essay called Let’s Go Back to the Moon sitting in drafts for months, and am in the middle of an essay on conjuring Scenius, both of which touch on similar themes).
Danco’s latest essay is on the difference between modernism (progress) and postmodernism (innovation), and how that framework describes the current tech backlash. Modernism is the invention of electricity, air travel, and cures for infectious diseases, postmodernism is getting food delivered to you while you sit on the couch and scroll through infinite personalized content. Modernism is new technology that improves the human condition, postmodernism is arbitrage that allows some humans to reap massive rewards. The fact that we’re living in an age of innovation helps explain why people are so angry at tech billionaires, who get rich off of progress that benefits many people in small ways instead of every person in big ways.
Not to get all politicsy, but the essay left me thinking about Bernie. About how he might be getting the problem right, and the solution wrong. And about how an inspiring, modernist candidate might gain a major advantage by uniting the country around a bold vision of progress.
Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator and one of the most popular essayists in my corner of the internet, believes that essays shouldn’t just be persuasive, they should be useful. What does useful writing look like?
“Useful writing tells people something true and important that they didn't already know, and tells them as unequivocally as possible.”
The essay is full of actionable tips for writing usefully, including cutting any sentence that you’re not 100% certain is correct. I bookmarked the essay, time will tell if my writing becomes more useful.
⭕️ Making Groups Work | Oliver Sylvester-Bradley
Sylvester-Bradley is pulling on a lot of the same threads that I have been, but with more of a focus on open source software and trading. We’ve had a lot of the same thoughts on how to build strong, scaleable communities based on networks of small groups.
More eerily, the progression he describes from ghat groups to working groups to trading groups almost exactly mirrors the idea that we’re exploring for the Scenius essay that groups evolve from communities (gather and discuss) to micro-scenia (generative and novel) to macro-scenia (influential).
The Not Boring group chat is launching today 🎉If you’ve applied and haven’t heard back yet, not to worry. We’re starting with a small group and expanding it once we understand the dynamics at this size better. If you haven’t applied yet and you live in NYC, apply here.
There’s a tight race happening for which mid-March weeknight Debate Club #4 will be. If you want to give debating a shot, fill out the doodle here.
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Thanks for reading,