Turntable.fm Reminds Me How Much Fun the Web Can Be

What happens when your favorite dead product rises again

Turntable 2021, pretty much the same product (for now).

Usually the first email I open in the morning doesn’t make me scream out “HOLY SHIT!” But “Hey! I plugged in the Turntable servers” will do that to you. It was Billy Chasen, Turntable’s OG founder and CEO, and the email included a password, which I immediately mashed into my web browser. You see, Turntable.fm was the Clubhouse of a decade ago: a bunch of social features that nailed the serendipity of being together in a novel manner while breathing life into a familiar format.

Music, as it became digital, also became lonely. The trade-off in having all the world’s recorded tunes up in the cloud was that a communal experience transformed into a solitary one. Single-player mode. Not because of consumer preferences but because of DRM, label negotiations, and dollars. Turntable immediately brought back the listening party. And it was super fun.

It was spring 2011 and the links started getting passed around. Join me here, now—a late Friday night with just some nerds spinning old-school hip-hop songs from our teenage years. Then some more people. And some more people. And some more people. And before you know it, Union Square Ventures is leading a round and I’m an angel investor in my favorite new product.

Music, as it became digital, also became lonely.

It didn’t work as a business. Labels were not ready to engage in a collaborative discussion. The team was not always rowing in the same direction together. And Turntable eventually went dark. Billy and I stayed lightly in touch as he, and I, grew older and saw and did more things. He has always been able to see around corners and turn human needs/interaction models into products. Sometimes just a bit early. But like with most fun projects, the relationships outlast the startup. (To that point, fun side story: Turntable was also how I met Sahil. He was this young kid who had just built Pinterest’s mobile app and there was an all-out effort to get him to join Turntable. Sacca sold him hard. So did I. He turned us all down because he wanted to do his own thing, which turned out to be Gumroad. Small world.)

Periodically there’d be a Twitter thread about Turntable nostalgia and we’d all reminisce about products long gone that haven’t been adequately replaced (Google Reader, RIP). Someone would chime in with a link to some collaborative playlist tool but that was never the magic of Turntable.

So now I’m hanging out in the iconic I ❤️ the ’80s room, just like back then. It feels comfortable, warm, lived in. The way a good consumer product can. Some startups struggle to find product market fit; Turntable had it, went dark for nearly a decade, and then just turns itself back on with the same PMF. Wow.

What now? Will Turntable become a “company” again? Is it just a joyous few weeks before the server bills become too expensive, or the code too janky? I don’t know and that’s part of the fun. Because right now it’s 2011 baby, and I’m waiting for a DJ spot to open. Gotta get my monkey avi back…

The Baddest Band In Town

In a pre-RATM band, guitarist Tom Morello was shamed by a musician friend about how his guitar strings ran long off the head of the instrument (a now iconic look for him).

“‘Cut your strings! What, you think you’re the baddest band in town?’

And I was like, I’m definitely not the baddest band in town so I cut my strings.

Years later, in Rage Against The Machine, I was in the baddest band in town and so I let my strings go”

A Year of Zoom Genitals, Bourbon Bottles & Child-Rearing

Five Memorable URLs from COVID Season One (aka the last 12 months)

March 11th was “COVID Day One” for many folks, or at least when it crossed from “will this be a big deal?” to “this is a big deal” for America. While much of Silicon Valley was already curtailing travel and starting to work from home, zeitgeist watchers note a perfect storm of the NBA suspending their season, Tom Hanks being diagnosed as positive, WHO declaring a global pandemic and He Which Shall Not Be Named implementing a travel ban (actually a good idea) as the starting point for “this isn’t just the flu.”

Reading Maya Kosoff’s ‘Lost Year’ essay as part of Medium’s Pandemic Reflections made me consider my own past 12 months. Because of my love for this thing we call the World Wide Web, I’m going to do my own reminiscing via Five Links.

The COVID Tracking Project

An oasis in a misinformation desert, the COVID Tracking Project started very ad hoc but was always authoritative and reliable in trying to understand the illness’ spread. Good data helped put so much in perspective: that this thing was running wild, that it was disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities and geographies and that outside of vaccines, the spread *could* be managed via safety practices.

As the numbers got larger and we almost numbed to the milestones, I stopped focusing on the quantitative and transitioned to the qualitative, namely how to emotionally support my family and my community. The COVID Tracking Project will discontinue updating on its first anniversary (March 7, 2021) but it was one of the URLs that defined my first year of COVID.

When Casey Newton & I Got Zoombombed

Early on this whole WFH thing was kinda silly and fun in the tech industry. People were adjusting to a life of video conferencing (remember when dogs and babies jumping into the frame was novel!), and along with my friend Casey, there were two weeks we ran 5pm Zoom Happy Hours with guests and fun and surprises.

One memorable happy hour involved a Zoombombing where, because we’d left the event link public, some troll took control of the screen and started showing really graphic porn videos. Subsequently Zoom ended up changing a bunch of meeting defaults to prevent this sort of misbehavior and I turned down all the news requests to come speak about our experience. My mantra is “control your first page of Google results” and I wasn’t sure I wanted my above-the-fold vanity search to produce evergreen dick pics.

Now a year later, it’s clear why virtual event platforms, gathering spaces like Clubhouse and other social apps have boomed. We’re primates and we need to be together!

Raising a Kid During COVID

This is my own post from last April, about what lessons do I want my daughter to learn from this last year vs what do I not want her to overlearn. We’ve been so fortunate to have resources and be in a personal situation that supports the flexibility to work from home relatively easily. And while I know this has protected our family from certain hardships, I don’t pretend that it’s an impervious shield against socio-emotional distress. When a quarter of her school-age existence has been spent in lockdown it would be nuts to assume there’s no impact. So we focus on resilience, and expressing our feelings, and being kind to each other. And being very excited for when she can act upon the desire to see and hug her friends without flinching and stopping herself.

The K-Shaped Recovery

“The stock market is not the economy.” I heard this a lot in 2020 when trying to reconcile the overall growth in the public markets, and hypergrowth in tech, compared to the pandemic reality for so many Americans. I got to say things like “I’ve never ordered so much Goldbelly!” while others lost paychecks and family members. My friend Nikhil summarized so many of my thoughts in his essay A Widening Gap.

A widening gap. A gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” between those with disposable income and those that don’t have jobs. A gap between fact and fiction, between those that have access to the truth and those that are fed lies non-stop. A gap that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, certainly, but also by the forces of technology, media, and politics, not just in the last four years, but for the past decade.

It will take considerable work, across technology, media, and government, to reverse this course. There isn’t a simple solution that will be the next big thing in 2021; instead, it’s going to take years of effort.

What I appreciate about Nikhil’s blog post was that it’s not just about tech’ing our way out of this dynamic, but about empathy, caring and even some sacrifice. “Do Things That Don’t Scale” is classic startup advice and I feel the same way about the beginnings of what it takes to reverse these inequality dynamics. Beyond structural change, if we each just cared for a handful of other people in a way that extended beyond our immediate circles, we’d make so much progress. It’s why I love direct action nonprofits such as Human Utility.

My Virtual Drinking Buddies

For years when people asked what my hobbies were I’d kind of shrug my shoulders. There were activities I enjoyed (movies! friends! work!) but nothing that I’d consider a ‘hobby.’ Maybe I’d been overly influenced by the people around me who, when they pursued something, did so with a focus that turned “jogging” into “complete marathons on all continents” and “cooking” into “I’m spending the summer in France as an apprentice pastry baker.” If a hobby equated to something you spent too much time and money on, then my only hobby was therapy!

But I’d gotten tired of not having an answer and started telling folks my hobbies were coffee and notebooks (the paper note-taking kind). These were honest answers as I do enjoy researching, purchasing and consuming both of these, but there’s only so far you can go with notebooks and on the coffee front, I cared more about good beans than necessarily experimenting with every prep method, which meant the subreddits were a bit too much for me.

Fast-forward to the beginning of 2020 and the whiplash we all experienced with travel stopping, restaurants closing and our homes becoming work, play, live 24/7. We’ve all adopted new coping mechanisms and found new aspects to our relationships. Some even used the time to reconsider where they work or move to new cities. Me? I got into whiskey.

Before sharing more I want to acknowledge that alcohol as a “hobby” can be jarring for many. People close to me have dealt with various addictions, including alcohol, and many more have removed it from their lifestyle in the interest of health, mental clarity and other benefits. Fortunately I’m not prone to over-consumption and my interest has been as much about the history, business and people around the spirit as actual consumption (I’m basically a 1–4 oz type of guy — for reference, the average 750ml bottle is roughly 25 ounces).

I’d previously been whiskey-curious, buying a bottle every now and then, trying different bourbons in a bar and so on. But about a year ago I joined a local Bay Area whiskey group that I’ve enjoyed learning from, sharing with and doing virtual tastings. It’s fun to have a space that’s not about tech, not about politics and just about guys and gals with a passion. Thanks also to Caroline and my daughter for giving up some shelf space in the basement for my “hobby.”

Ok, so those are five links that have been important to me through the first 12 months of COVID. Here’s hoping all the graphs continue to head in the right directions and we’re able to help and celebrate one another in-person soon!

Notes and More

The first two months of 2021 are gone! I’ve tried to be very intentional, greeting my family and friends with statements like “welcome to the third Thursday of February” (or similar). 2020 was such a weird blur of speed and slowness that I’m trying this year to be more aware. Probably as a coping tactic!

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Etta + Billie soapsSmartSweets Sugar Free Gummy Bears. Taylor Swift’s re-recordings.

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Plaid is a developer-first company making it easy for financial data to move between apps. They’re hiring in a variety of roles across US, Canada, Europe and Remote.

Why There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Startup Within a Big Company’

You will never be able to take the brand risks, the legal risks, or the partnerships risks that a true startup can

Noam Bardin of Waze. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

I’d exchanged DMs with Waze co-founder and CEO Noam Bardin a few weeks back to ask about learnings from his last few years inside Google. Waze is the $1 billion-plus acquisition that people, well, forgot about despite its size and growth. I mean, in all the “Big Tech” regulations discussions we regularly hear about Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram and Google/YouTube, but Waze just kind of flies under the radar. Bardin replied that he was leaving Google at the end of January and would do some sharing after. Boy, understatement.

Today, Bardin published a personal essay titled “Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?” and it’s a really telling, thoughtful, honest post. You should read it all but let me share a specific paragraph here:

I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could build out Waze within Google, breaking the myth about what happens to companies after being acquired by large corporations. Looking back, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every Western CEO thinks she or he will be the first to be a successful Western brand in China and many try and launch a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the Western CEO leaves with some China experience and the Chinese partner keeps the IP, money, business… You cannot fight the nature of the beast, this is China. Same thing happened to me in China pre acquisition… So, to complete the analogy, I was the naive startup leader believing that I can build out Waze within Google to its full potential and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is critical for a startup leader but challenging in the corporate environment.

There is no such thing as a startup inside a big company. There’s various leash lengths to your freedom, but you’re no longer a startup. You get a bunch of things in return and, for many people, it can be a wonderful outcome, but you’re no longer a startup. I love that Bardin took this challenge and stayed well beyond when he needed to in order to set up a management team who could carry the product forward, as a business unit.

I got to see the YouTube acquisition firsthand and I think, for at least the first few years, we were the best version of “independent” you could ask for. Two people are primarily responsible for this: Chad Hurley and Eric Schmidt. Hurley, and his co-founder Steven Chen, had gone through the PayPal/eBay merger so they were the proverbial “wise beyond their years” when it came to what being bought meant and all the trade-offs that came with it. Schmidt had promised a high degree of autonomy and kept his word. We did deals with Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. We hired people directly into YouTube. We made acquisitions. I even got to route around some of the stuff Bardin pointed out as being especially frustrating with regards to PeopleOps (firing folks, optimizing bonuses for high performers).

When Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013, I shared some of my advice with the team, first publicly in a blog post and then in a private conversation with some Yahoo folks who read the post and reached out. We all know what happened there and I’m glad Tumblr is now with Automattic.

This stuff all works in reverse, too: When someone tells you that there’s an opportunity to “build a startup within a big company,” don’t believe them. It’s just not true. You can work on experimental products in a mechanism that tries to counterbalance some of the gravitational pull and processes that a big company otherwise uses to manage itself, but it’s not a startup. You will never be able to take the brand risks, the legal risks, or the partnerships risks that a startup can. To paraphrase someone I know who tried to lead one of these projects at Google (and had done an actual startup themselves): It can never be like a startup so long as my team has the Google badge on their belt and walks into the fancy cafeteria every day.

This wasn’t a comment about co-location; it was a comment about the working style, the expectations, the flying without a net, that high performing startups require and the people they attract. It’s not that those Googlers were “better” or “worse” than startup hires, but just that startups are completely different.

You can find experimental groups within larger companies — Area 120 at Google and NPE at Facebook — but they’re not startups.

If you want to be at a startup, join a startup. As Bardin says, “I am confident that the Waze acquisition was a success. The problem was me — believing I can keep the startup magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing the opposite.”

Three Types Of Startup Advisors You Might Not Have Thought About (But Will Help You Win)

Advisors can be so much more than social proof and tactical advice

“Can we put you as an advisor in our deck? You don’t even need to do anything and we’ll give you equity. It would be a big help for our fundraise.” This was the proposition offered to me surprisingly frequently during my pre-Homebrew days. You see, the demand for “startup advisors” were going through a little bit of a boomlet.

AngelList had just started and their company profile page had a bunch of “Advisor” slots to populate that were displayed in the same visual design as investors and team members. This subtly started to create social proof pressure to fill out those available spaces in the most impressive way possible. Never underestimate the power of defaults!

Anyhow, fast-forward to 2021 and it almost feels like startup advisor roles have fallen a bit out of fashion as everyone scrambles to be an angel investor, a scout or solo capitalist. Many of the people who previously might not have had access to capital are now able to invest their own dollars, or someone else’s, and this has much greater social proof for both the company and the individual. Most of the companies we back figure out how to use advisors in compelling ways, it’s just not as public as it used to be.

That said, there are three types of advisors that I don’t see as commonly utilized by early stage startups — at least the ones we’re not advising 😉

The “I’m Going To Recruit You Down the Road” Advisor

Great founders are always recruiting. Often for open roles but also playing the long game, building relationships with passive senior candidates who either aren’t ready to leave their current job, or are more interested in the opportunity once you’re a bit further along. Rather than just making a note to ‘grab coffee’ every once in a while, I suggest looking to bring them on as advisors. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment on their part (or significant equity), but just start giving them some tie to your startup and some incentive to maintain the relationship. Obviously this won’t work if they’re current employed at a competitor but otherwise it’s a half-step in the right direction. Mutual try-before-you-buy and gives them a chance to better understand the company.

The “Set Up My Functional Leads for Success” Advisor

I’m a big proponent of startups hiring talented high-ceiling people who are earlier in their careers and haven’t necessarily yet done the job they’re being recruited for. For example, if you meet someone who has been a PMM at Google for a few years on a high performing team and is itching to get into a role that allows her to spread her wings more, grab her. Don’t worry that she hasn’t had a senior title or whatever. Just get her on board and set her up for success. And one way to help her is to make sure she has a mentor. Not just inside of the company but outside.

Ask her if there’s someone senior in her career that’s been a great manager, and if so, bring them on as an equity-compensated advisor to your company. Don’t make it her job to convince them to support her ongoing, give them some skin in the game. You’ll be setting the new hire up for success and this should pay off in multiples. I’ve also found that during recruiting process telling a candidate like this that they’ll get an ‘advisor equity budget’ to bring people closer to the company who can be useful is a signal of trust and agency that helps close them.

The “Customer Council” Advisor

This works especially well when you’re selling into a non-tech industry because getting a bit of equity in a startup is even more novel and exciting. A sales and marketing tactic as much (or even more) than a customer development one, try setting up a Customer Council Advisory Board. For relatively small amounts of equity you can create a group of 3–12 folks from your industry who feel a mutual obligation to help make you successful. It’s a great group to use for networking, press quotes, product feedback and such. Of course avoid direct conflict of interests — i.e. these people can’t be your current buyers (most of the time) but they can certainly be from customer organizations (their own policies permitting) and from larger customers that you’ll be targeting a few years down the road.

So hopefully you can make use of advisors in new and interesting ways! Remember, the standard agreements are two years in length, have a 3–6 month vesting cliff (with monthly thereafter) and preserve right of either party to terminate. Have you had success using advisors in a nontraditional manner? Let me know!

Notes and More

Give everyone the vaccine! Try and prioritize the vulnerable first of course, but let’s focus on speed of rollout too. Everyone who gets vaccinated makes it safer for everyone else.

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Etta + Billie soapsSmartSweets Sugar Free Gummy BearsThis essay about the widening economic gap between tech and most everything else.

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Plaid is a developer-first company making it easy for financial data to move between apps. They’re hiring in a variety of roles across US, Canada, Europe and Remote.

This Is The Single Most Important Page On The Web (If You’re a Human)

Cognitive Biases Shape Us Beautifully And Tragically

If you could only access a single URL on the web what would it be? Not something like Google or YouTube but actually a single static url — so youtube.com/[some specific video]. I was thinking about this earlier today and my initial framing was “what page is performs the most complex task that I couldn’t do myself,” imagining that optimizing for absolute computing power would be the right angle. It took me a minute or two but I realized this was completely backwards and that I should be trying to figure out what content would be most impactful upon a different type of computing power, namely my own brain.

That flip led me back to a page that I absolutely love, and try to visit quarterly or so, when I want to laugh at myself: Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases.

Example from the Cognitive Biases Page

“A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them and affects the decisions and judgments that they make.” — VeryWellMind

Reviewing this list periodically (as well as reading Robert Cialdini’s Influence, one of my favorite books) always makes me slap my forehead at the ways we are beautifully and stupidly human. Anchoring Bias? Guilty (maybe this very post is an example!). Survivorship Bias? Twice last week that I can remember. And it goes on like that.

Then I shift to wondering about the role of technology in helping us with these biases, and two different paths to doing so. The first is essentially giving up more of our agency and outsourcing an increasing number of our decisions to AI. The second is some sort of listening device (our phone, our watch, our nerd AR glasses) that notices when we’re saying something that fits a cognitive bias and sends an alert to help us reconsider. Frankly *both* are a little freaky to me, but is it really any weirder than me frequently re-reading this Wikipedia list and trying to manually break myself of these biases?

I’m sure we all have a personal redline about things we’d automate and things we wouldn’t. Maybe we like the idea of control over the ‘last mile’ — for example, happy to let a dating app give us top 10 profiles they think matches for us, but we’d prefer to pick the ones we want to connect with versus the same app setting us up with one of the 10. I wonder if these ‘redlines’ are generational (ie younger folks trust the computer more or less than I do), cultural, demographic or more fixed. At the end of the day, we’re all the sum of our cognitive biases.

Notes and More

It’s inspiring to see vaccinations starting to roll out but part of me wonders whether the prioritization framework is actually slowing us down. Whether ‘risk group’ should be accompanied by goals for absolute number of shots given and fastest path to herd immunity. I’m not advocating for myself — I’d gladly be in the last cohort of shots if we could get there as quickly as possible.

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Finished HBO’s Watchmen, which was great. What should I watch next? Goldbelly is totally my social distancing MVP — we order BBQ from a different place every few weeks. These are the KN95 masks I’ve been using, although there’s now thankfully a bunch of different ones in stock. Mask up!

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Tia is healthcare designed for women from the start, combining IRL clinics with URL telehealth. They’re a well-funded post-Series A startup that’s growing quickly to meet the needs of their clients. If you’d like to join the Tia team and build the future of care, they’re hiring.

Don’t Just Stand With Someone Being Harassed. Stand In Front Of Them.

Lessons on Allyship and Community

✅ IRL Friend. That’s the tweet I employ to signify that I’ve finally met up with someone previously only known to me online. Of course 2020 hasn’t had much of that interaction but I know that when we’re all hugging it out again, Danilo Campos is one of the peeps I’m looking forward to seeking out.

Danilo combines calling me out on my bullshit with a recognition that intent matters; we’re all learning; and the willingness to throw more than 280 characters towards our conversations. One such back and forth occurred on the day after the domestic terrorist attack on the US Capital. Much of the timeline was outraged and narrative was we all stand together. For Danilo that wasn’t the whole story.

I know when I see my DM indicator light up in the middle of a Twitter thread that something requires a backchannel. And this one came from him. And it came with links.

It shared a story that I was lightly familiar with but lost track of after its initial coverage. On Long Island, the region where I grew up, a Black woman homeowner, new to the neighborhood, started getting harassed in disgusting ways. Her reports to police went ignored and the threats became more severe. Authorities starting paying attention once the story went viral of course, but why did it take that sort of pressure?

Danilo also shared a DESUS & MERO clip where the homeowner told her story, including one young man who rose to the occasion. He came over each night and started watching her house, Periscoping the whole thing in case anything happened to her or him. The idea was, I’m here for you and willing to put myself at harm to prevent yours.

My takeaway was, sometimes you need to stand behind someone. Sometimes need to stand with them. And sometimes you need to stand in front of them. They’re all forms of help, but those of us who are most able and privileged can practice the “standing in front” more often (with permission and grace) if we’re going to be really friends.

I Just Got Paid For Work I Did 20 Years Ago.

Startups Should Work To Make Their Employees Wealthy Not Just Their Founders And Investors

Earlier this week a modest deposit appeared in my checking account, one I honestly never expected. You see, it was for work I’d performed from 2001–2003 at a startup called Linden Lab, the company behind virtual world Second Life. And when that company was acquired in late 2020 by another private party, my stock purchased in 2004 turned into cash. The transaction size was small compared to the IPO and SPAC headlines from the past few months, but I had the benefit of being an early, single digit employee, and hence a stock value of around .04/share if I’m recalling correctly. That low price was part of what enabled me to purchase my vested options when I left, a conundrum that exiting employees often face.

Thinking about this outcome, and jumping into a Linden Lab alumni Zoom over the weekend, swirled a bunch of feelings. So much has changed since those years trying to build an online community with a small group of people in Hayes Valley. I subsequently joined a larger startup that got really big and then cofounded a venture firm with a close friend/former colleague. I tried to outrun failure only to realize I need to embrace it. And I achieved ‘Silicon Valley Middle Class’ wealth status.

But the real takeaway was that if you want to work at tech startups and can find one you’re excited about that is both (i) A+ people and (ii) treats you fairly with regards to compensation, including equity, take the job. Don’t overthink it. This is also where I acknowledge we’re talking about being privileged enough to take a job with a startup in the first place, to have even a small amount of savings to risk on the equity and the structural issues which prevent many people from realizing these outcomes. Consider that an asterisk as you read forward and commit to creating opportunities for others, not just yourself.

While I’ve said before that one should approach these situations with eyes wide open [“Sorry Startup Employee #100, Your Equity Probably Won’t Make You Rich”] I also firmly believe ownership is the key to wealth. A career in technology is a very good path to financial stability and stock equity has been a meaningful contributor to that for me and many others. It’s always why, in my venture role, I get so excited when I see an outcome large enough to benefit an entire team, not just the executives and investors. It’s also why I support making early exercise available to your seed/A employees at the very least. And extending exercise windows for longer than 60 days to employees who leave on good terms. And why we work with the founders we back to make sure there’s enough equity set aside to make great hires.

FWIW, we also back up this belief with actions ourselves. Everyone on the Homebrew team receives carry in the fund. What that means is that in addition to salary and bonuses, when Satya and I get profits back from the fund, so do they. You can’t preach ownership mentality outside your firm and do something different internally.

Notes and More

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Here’s my annual recommendation for the easiest way to make hard-boiled/poached eggs. And I just started Watchmen on HBO — no spoilers please!

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Tia is healthcare designed for women from the start, combining IRL clinics with URL telehealth. They’re a well-funded post-Series A startup that’s growing quickly to meet the needs of their clients. If you’d like to join the Tia team and build the future of care, they’re hiring.

Instagram, YouTube & TikTok Are Burning Out Their Creators. Here’s How to Fix That.

Creator Wellness Will Be A Key Goal of New Products

Being a modern creator is, for many, exhausting. The falling economic costs of production and distribution have been replaced by a new set of taxes — physical, emotional, psychological — as your community expects new content, accessibility to their heroes and open book authenticity. Paired with the social media platform algorithms, which in themselves reward frequency and engagement, this combination saps joy and agency from the creative process and burns out the creators. Having to perform 24/7 comes with costs, and that’s only dealing with fans let alone the trolls.

What’s a creator to do? I’d suggest a better question is ‘what can these companies do help creators?’ and that we’re about to enter Phase 3.0 of Creator Wellness, one where the products build in their own affordances to assist their supply-side participants.

Phase 1.0 was the earliest days of “user generated content.” Our understanding of impact upon creators was immature or unconsciously naive because the teams building the platforms often didn’t resemble (in all definitions of the word) the creators on the platform. At the same time the huge growth of these audiences meant that “being a creator” and “going viral” were phenomenons that quickly outstripped previous models in scale and volume. Creators were left to figure out their well-being on their own.

Phase 2.0 was the beginning of Creator Health initiatives. Most of these programs were/are one-off but well-intended — platform companies creating teams to work with high profile creators, build relationships that optimized for longterm commercial sustainability. It’s bad business for creators to burnout. The more scaled efforts, like YouTube’s Creator Academy, should be recognized as thoughtful and caring, but it’s unclear if the advice offered here is hard-coded into the platform’s incentives. If it’s not, then it’s like a school counselor preaching balance to student-athletes while also allowing the football coach to continue two-a-day practices through finals week.

So what do I hope Phase 3.0 looks like? It has Creator Wellness built fundamentally into the product itself, in a way which signals to both the creator and their community that this stuff matters. My guess is it’ll be different for each product, based on unique aspects of the medium, but here are three potential experiments:

  • “Seasons” — one aspect of seasons (tv, professional sports) is that they have [drum roll] off-seasons! That’s right! Rest and recovery time built into the meta-schedule, which establish their own expectations for fans as to when content will be available. If you’re a football fan you might wish the NFL played 24/7 but you’re not yelling at Patrick Mahomes for not suiting up on a Sunday in May. Products will experiment with this type of built-in publishing format as a template, vs something that creators are doing ad hoc.
  • Limiting Publishing Velocity — Imagine if the platforms themselves created scarcity and toned-down the “most post” overdrive by experimenting with their own versions of healthy rate-limiting (limited publishing windows, capped amount of content per day/week, etc). Could take lots of forms but potentially feels artificial if not built into the product from the start — ie I think this has to be fundamental product DNA and not slapped on later.
  • PTO — Ok, hear me out. What if each year, creators who cross X-threshold of success (views, dollars, whatever) were given PTO from the platform. You get to take a week off from engaging and (a) are not penalized in the algo and (b) you get paid the average amount of your earnings from the preceding 52 weeks. And when you take it, there’s a special “On PTO” account status visible to your community, which activates some feature like “best of content” or other system-provided interaction mode while the creator is on their break.

What else do you think can be done at a product-level to help support Creator Wellness? Hit me up on the Twitters.

Notes and More

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Finished the first three seasons of Ozark, and I just wish there was one episode where everything went right for this family (even if they don’t deserve it). And here’s my annual recommendation for the easiest way to make hard-boiled/poached eggs.

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Tia is healthcare designed for women from the start, combining IRL clinics with URL telehealth. They’re a well-funded post-Series A startup that’s growing quickly to meet the needs of their clients. If you’d like to join the Tia team and build the future of care, they’re hiring.

Why I Worry About Venture-Backed Mental Health & Addiction Startups

And My Ask Of Investors In These Companies

It’s frustrating if you’re a customer of an expense report SaaS startup and the company goes out of business, but it’s potentially devastating if your tele-therapist or addiction counselor suddenly disappears because the platform that employed them ran out of money. This is my most significant concern about the wave of mental wellness startups being funded with venture dollars — what happens to the clients of the ones which fail?

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

Traditional venture capital models lean into what’s called ‘power laws.’ Basically the idea that you are backing risky new ventures, many of which will stumble along the way, but one or two of the companies you back will be such outsized successes that the investment gains from those will more than offset the others.

Venture capital is a great instrument for high growth companies, or those who are very early in their development but intend to pursue a high growth strategy. If a normal small business must optimize for unit economics and profitability early in its lifecycle, a venture-backed business seeks product-market fit in a big industry and then trades nearterm profit-taking for long-term marketshare, with the idea that profits can be extracted later. I’ll pause for a moment now to emphasize that I don’t believe there’s anything fundamentally wrong with this tradeoff, which shouldn’t surprise you since I am a venture capitalist. If you’re reading this post because you think capitalism is a fundamentally broken system or that venture itself is evil, I’m sorry to share that I don’t agree. But I will absolutely acknowledge that companies which take any outside capital implicitly and explicitly incorporate the needs and expectations of that capital into their business planning. And for venture-backed startups this tends to be “get them customers.”

Which leads us to the fundamental difference between, say, a small self-funded online therapy practice and one that has taken millions of dollars in seed capital: the latter can acquire a larger number of patients much faster using investment dollars for both customer acquisition and to subsidize the economics of serving those clients. That’s what always gives me a little bit of pause in this particular area — the scale ahead of the sustainability

This post is an open question, not a conclusion, because there are plenty of startups which are trying to grow this market using technology and new approaches. Their success will mean that many more people can access mental wellness and addiction services than were potentially able to do so before. And hopefully the efficacy of these programs is even higher when software can be used to support provider matching, behavioral nudges and other extensions to what counselors themselves can do with patients. If we don’t have mission-driven entrepreneurs believing there are opportunities to dramatically improve the service and outcomes in these areas then we tragically don’t move forward. And if 2020 taught us anything it’s how important mental health is to our lives and how many more people who suffer from loneliness, depression, anxiety could benefit from proactively engaging around their health beyond pharmaceuticals.

So when a founder pitches me a business (and please do! hunter@homebrew.co) in this market I’m simultaneously excited and conflicted. This is personal for me. Since 2011 I’ve been in therapy and seen great benefits in my life. I want others to have similar access ongoing or as needed and know that it’s difficult for many because of economics, time and access limitations. Startups can help fix these problems and we’ve seen a number who are solving infrastructure problems for therapists and clients (aka picks and shovels).

Whether you’re the platform providing the therapy or the software powering the therapist, entrepreneurs in this area should have their own version of the Hippocratic Oath. What I’d ask the investors in these companies is that they share the same values. Push for responsible growth and make sure patients are well-served. Realize that when you look at stats that involve quality of customer interactions, drug prescriptions, etc you’re talking about real people, not just percentages. And perhaps most essential, have a plan for what happens if the company doesn’t succeed. What does client offboarding look like, how long would it take and how much would it cost? The answer might be that in a failure-case you don’t use the remaining capital for one last growth hack but instead have a responsibility to get patients to a new provider. We, as investors, have to be very careful about unknowing exposing vulnerable populations to venture-risk.

Update: Coincidentally The Atlantic had an article out today about troubles at one such startup.

Notes and More

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Miley Cyrus’ new album Plastic HeartsHaus’ sampler pack of delicious, low ABV spirits, and OMG these ImmuneSchein Ginger Elixirs are so good — you just mix in some hot water and yum.

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Arthur.ai is a software startup making it easier for companies to manage and monitor their AI/ML models. This includes not just observability and explainability but fairness. A great, inclusive culture and team plus a brand new $15m Series A round means it could be your next job. They’re hiring lots of folks across engineering, product, design, marketing, sales and such!