Check your Pulse #57

a pregnant pause, the erosion of place reflections > predictions

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 57th edition of Check your Pulse, a tech and startups newsletter designed to make you feel human. I try to make this one of the best emails you get every two weeks(ish). 

Hello, friends.

I meant for this newsletter to return the first week of January. But I’ll get right to it: I’m pregnant.

I found out about a month ago, and since then, have been battling constant nausea and extreme fatigue. I have struggled to get through Zoom calls — from bed with the video off, pretending my camera didn’t work, taking 30 second breaks to throw up in the bathroom.  Still, I have pushed myself to maintain an outward sense of normalcy, mustering a “great, thanks for asking” when greeted with the usual “how are you?” at the top of each call.

This is not what I predicted this year would look like. 

In January last year, I shared a bunch of predictions.

This year I’m ditching my attempts at prediction in favor of reflection. Less certainty, more inquiry. 

Here are some loosely related notes on things I’ve been thinking about.

  • On digital micro-communities. Scaling intimacy is the million-dollar question for digital micro-communities. I’m surprised by how under-discussed this is. We talk about digital communities being the next big thing, but rarely about how the community software options we have today make it impossible to retain the feeling of closeness and empathy at scale.  Over and over I’ve seen the signal-to-noise ratios of these communities suffer as more people join. It’s network effects moving in the opposite direction — as more people join, the experience worsens. All of this has me thinking about what happens when we focus so much on disruption, and not enough on preservation, on building products and services that can withstand and improve with the passage of time. 

  • On the work of maintenance. The ordinary work that keeps our world going — cleaning the parks, caring for small humans, writing documentation and standards, testing the code. This stuff isn’t glamorous and doesn’t scale the way tech does, but it’s valuable. It’s easier for localities to attract federal funding for new infrastructure projects than to get support for maintaining what already exists. We praise startups like Culdesac and Marc Lore’s ambitious project to build the city of the future while ignoring the many ways in which small shifts in our existing infrastructure could make our cities more livable. As it becomes easier to build new things and replace what breaks, it’s worth thinking about the cost of chasing the new while neglecting the work of preservation. Our idolatry of startups and innovation has meant the focus for the past decade has been: what do we want to disrupt? The limitations of this focus have become apparent: creating online spaces without moderation, luring customers into half-baked solutions in critical industries like healthcare, systems designed for growth but not able to sustain uncertainty. How might the outcomes change if we asked a different question: What do we want to preserve?

  • On work that doesn’t feel like work. In the industrial era, output was determined by hours worked. In the knowledge era, output is determined by the quality of your thoughts. To improve our thoughts, we need to give ourselves space to think and refuel our minds without a set agenda. In this economy, the most effective work often doesn’t look like work —but it is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible. An engineer or a chemist can have a successful career knowing only engineering. But the same cannot be said about most other professions. If you are building community software, connecting the dots between ideas in psychology and sociology is just as important as knowing how to push code. How can we enhance creativity, multi-disciplinary thinking, and the quality of our thoughts is a question I am committed to exploring in my work. (My new project, Startupy, is built on the belief in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of places and combine and recombine them to build new things.)

  • On what we think is good but is actually good marketing. For example, the fear-mongering literature on what screen-time will do to children has very little of it rooted in research. Fortnite is a game where people shoot each other, but it’s also an online club where leadership and teamwork develop. The latter is rarely talked about. Debt can cause more problems than drugs, yet drugs are illegal and debt is tax deductible. Our relationship to products is deeply cultural. How much progress could we make if we re-branded screen-time, masculinity, debt, drugs, meetings, caregiving?

  • On the things we assume are solved. “Data-driven” is the hottest buzzword in business yet it’s crazy to think how, after more than a decade of Data is the new oil we are fighting Covid with medieval measures — curfews, shutdowns, distancing. Where is the data to enable different restrictions for different people? We see terms like social commerce in Techcrunch headlines and assume it’s here, yet if I want to know what stroller my friends use, I just text them. We're still far from utilizing the power of people as true Multi-Level Marketers. There are many other examples. We are in the first inning of so many problems we assume are solved.

  • On the erosion of place. Covid made it harder to go anywhere at all, and then, removed the need to go anywhere. Today, less activities are constrained by place. At home, I can hang out with friends, work out, consult a doctor, collaborate with Internet strangers, start a company, sync with co-workers, build a community. Debates on our digital interactions typically assume a corresponding loss of real life, implying a trade-off between the virtual and the real. We see the online as authentic, and the virtual as fake. One of my contrarian views is that serendipity and authenticity can happen more online than in the physical world. Many of the communities I participate in digitally are brimming with energy and connection, democratizing access to opportunities that were previously only accessible in top-tier cities. That’s not to say there aren’t things we lose when we abstract our interactions into a placeless world. As sociologist Jay Bolter wrote, digital media appears to undermine rather than sustain our capacity to experience a common world. To be clear, to say that we ever had a real “shared reality” would be untrue. I like Erik Torenberg’s explanation: We’ve always disagreed, but at least we had the same coordinates by which we could disagree. Now we’re looking at different maps entirely.

I’ll explore these in more detail in future issues, but for now, I’m happy to be back.

Stay human 🙏🏽

Sari

Fascinating chart that shows if a job is widely considered immoral, you need to pay employees almost twice as much for them to be willing to do it. This is why even a billion dollars of capital cannot compete with a project having a soul. 💰👇🏽

This 8 minute commencement speech was the highlight of my week. The most radical act we can take is to make a commitment to a particular thing… to a place, to a profession, to a cause, to a community, to a person. To show our love for something by working at it for a long time — to close doors and forgo options for its sake. We often assume that some acute and looming threat — be it a foreign invader or a domestic demagogue — will be our downfall. But if we were to end, that end is just as likely to come from something far less dramatic: our failure to sustain the work. 🎓

The Ice Cream Principle states that if you tell 10 people to agree on an ice cream flavor, they’ll pick chocolate or vanilla every time. Groups of people don’t agree on what’s cool or interesting. “Consensus” is just another way of saying average. This made me think of how decentralizing governance can kill innovation 🍦

A hilariously sad website that speaks to the similarities between schools and prisons. I got a pretty bad score. 🏫

The benefits of being attractive are exorbitant. Beauty might be the single greatest physical advantage you can have in life and yet compared to other privileges that may arise from race, gender, or sexuality, we don’t talk much about it. 💄

A playlist from Startupy to you, for your listening pleasure. 🎶

The Startupy First Friends membership is sold out but CYP subscribers can access my second brain - a searchable database with thousands of early stage startups and incredible content (with highlights) - for $99 here. 🧠

I loved these rules for creators, especially the last one. 👇🏽

What an iconic performance of Iris by Goo Goo Dolls 🎶👇🏽

Startups on my radar 🚀

  • Together helps anyone organize or join a community focused co-living experience.

  • Tract: A for kids, by kids online community for student-directed learning founded by Esther Wojcicki (the mother of the CEO of YouTube and the founder of 23andMe)

  • Carro: A collaborative commerce network enabling zero inventory e-commerce cross selling.

  • OnGoody: Send a gift as easily as a text. No address needed. No payment up front.

  • Schoolhouse: A platform for families to kickstart their own microschool with other families they know and trust

Thought-provoking piece on the future of publishing and the opportunity to crowdfund publishing via NFTs. We imagine a world where writers on Mirror can publish an intention to research and produce high-quality writing, and receive crowdsourced funding. In this model, the contributors who fund the project also receive a stake in the future financial upside produced by the work, captured by subsequent sales of the NFT. ✍🏽

A good piece on the changing dynamics of how people earn prestige and what this might mean for traditional MBA programs. Schools are going to have a hard time adjusting to a world in which anyone in the world can now earn prestige from their desk. 🏫

If you’re wondering who’s behind this newsletter:

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, early stage startup investor at Level Ventures, and founder of Startupy. My mission is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business.

Want more?

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Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

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