Check your Pulse #49

Letter to a friend who is thinking of leaving her job to do do something on her own

Welcome to the 631 subscribers since the last issue. I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 49th 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 each week. If you’ve been sent this email and you’re not a subscriber, you can join by clicking on this big red button below.

Happy Tuesday, friends.

It’s been a while since I popped into your inbox.  

Truthfully, I’ve tried dozens of ways to carve out time and energy to write. Turns out, no amount of coffee can help me parent two wonderfully exhausting children, run a fund, work on ongoing consulting projects, this newsletter, and a side project all at once. And it turns out, I’m not alone.

I can’t promise a consistent cadence, but I promise that when I write it will be worth your time. Respect for your time is my #1 priority. 

Today’s issue is a little different. A friend who is thinking of leaving her job to do something on her own recently asked for my advice, so I wrote this letter. As I crafted these thoughts, I realized they are relevant to anyone considering leaving their job to pursue a passion.


I know you’ve been thinking about doing something on your own. 

There are a lot of resources to draw upon to help you find product-market fit. There are less resources designed to prepare you for the psychological challenges.

The passion economy promises to bring greater alignment between your life and your work. And yet, in the passion economy, the real risk is that your job has to earn a living and meet the needs of your soul.

As you let the possibility of merging your career and your passion live in your mind, I’ve tried to distill the patterns that I’ve observed into a series of questions:

  1. Will you use this opportunity to grow and evolve or will you use it to beat yourself up?  

  2. How will you avoid insecurity work?

  3. Can you learn to enjoy the process as the end in itself, not the means? 

  4. Will you default to the norms of your industry, or will you be an original?

  5. What tools will you use to quiet your ego and see reality clearly?

  6. Do you have clarity on what kind of financial value you aim to create?

Will you use this opportunity to grow and evolve or will you use it to beat yourself up?  

Ideas start out small, weak and fragile. 

In order to grow, ideas need financial capital. 

But they also need emotional capital — good energy, positivity, and resilience. The best way to control your emotional capital is to fine tune your internal monologue and replace your hunger for approval with a desire to grow. 

Jeff Bezos has a wonderful quote about this: “Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. When you do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, for a long period of time, well-meaning people may criticize that effort. To sustain yourself over this time, you can’t look for accolades, and you can’t rely on being understood.”

The only remedy I know is patience. 

Stay the course.

How will you avoid insecurity work? 

When you’re anxious, there is no quicker relief than checking things. Checking your Substack subscriber stats, refreshing your inbox and order confirmations.

Scott Belsky coined the term insecurity work to describe work that does not move the ball forward, but is quick enough that you can do it multiple times a day without realizing.

Unlike insecurity work, deep work often feels elusive because it takes time.

It requires weaning yourself from distractions and being unencumbered by the highs and lows of the day to day.

Your ultimate objective is to ride the waves of your business with serenity.

Can you learn to enjoy the process as the end in itself, not the means? 

In the beginning, the dissonance between the scale of your aspirations and the reality of your days will riddle you with anxiety. You will be tempted to strip the unknown of its surprises and travel to the future: What if my customers churn? What if a competitor introduces a better product? What if I run out of ideas? 

But spending your time wrestling with the future is an invitation to ride on the envy trolley, to look at another’s peaks with jealousy and end your days in sadness.

Joseph Campbell’s words ring so true here: “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”

Looking back won’t serve you. Looking above won’t serve you. The trick is to look ahead, like a biker riding into the sunset, with lightness, excitement and humility.

Will you default to the norms of your industry, or will you be an original? 

Your business exists in the context of a marketplace, but also in the context of your lived experience.

Defaulting to the norms of your industry will shape your business to be similar to the rest, where the best entrepreneurs zero-in on their self expression. Do you have an eye for good design? Inject design into a tasteless industry. Do you have a knack for writing? Share your journey and commit to learning in public. Are you funny? Inject humor into your copy.

You have to be willing to overcome the defaults and orient your business around the things that define you, all the way down to your KPIs. The things you measure should reflect the things you value.

When you’re feeling small, remind yourself this is the artist’s struggle and find comfort in Anna Quindlen’s words: Once you've read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbirdand A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice.

What tools will you use to quiet your ego and see reality clearly?

In fear mode, your brain will bend reality to meet your prior experiences and vulnerabilities.

You have to free your mind of the narrative that the world is out to get you, and notice the difference between imagination and reality. When you catch yourself saying “nobody likes my work”, witness your thoughts and replace them with “I am struggling”.

I’ve found a useful way to develop a relationship with the truth is to step out of yourself and consider your circumstance from a cosmic perspective.

Do you have clarity on what kind of financial value you aim to create?

Do you have enough savings to sustain yourself during a ramp up period? If it takes longer to ramp up, how will you gain financial security? Is your significant other on board? Will 1,000 fans paying $10 a month satisfy you? Is your goal to build a sustainable business or are you willing to spend 10 years building a business on a lottery chance to take it public? Are your financial goals truly yours or are they borrowed from somebody else?

I love this quote from marathoner Dick Collins: “Decide before the race the conditions that will cause you to stop and drop out. You don’t want to be out there saying, ‘Well gee, my leg hurts, I’m a little dehydrated, I’m sleepy, I’m tired, and it’s cold and windy.’ And talk yourself into quitting. If you are making a decision based on how you feel at that moment, you will probably make the wrong decision.”

Friend, I hope you can see that what will propel you to thrive has a little to do with your skills and a lot to do with your mind.

I hope you get to know your inner world. I hope you thrive financially while living your values. I hope you focus less on what you achieve and more on who you become. I hope you learn to be kind to yourself. I hope you fall in love with the process. I hope you see the point of pursuing passion work is not to drain yourself to create work that eclipses your life, but rather to create a life you are proud of. I hope this new venture takes you far away from conformism and enables you to make a life and a living on your own terms, with your spirit and creativity unhindered.

And I hope you share your journey so you can inspire me. Because I, too, have been thinking of doing something on my own.

🙏🏽

Sari

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A great list of the best single operator newsletters, featuring yours truly. (Thanks, Eli!) ✍🏻

What a smart approach to marketing Iceland! 🏞️

Michelle Obama interviews Barack Obama in her new podcast! 💯

So much wisdom in this podcast interview with Charlie Songhurst, former head of strategy at Microsoft. I love this line: If you survive long enough, maybe greatness eventually becomes you. One of the things I think that sort of is perhaps underestimated, is if you want to live forever, maybe don’t start thinking about studying centenarians, instead, work out how to not die of a DUI or drunk driving or anybody else smoking 20 cigarettes a day. 💭

This is funny. 😜

With $30bn in GMV, Shopify surpassed eBay last quarter $30bn. 😮

Jeff Bezos’ written statement for the anti-trust committee is a great piece of writing and storytelling. At Amazon, customer obsession has made us what we are, and allowed us to do ever greater things. I know what Amazon could do when we were 10 people. I know what we could do when we were 1,000 people, and when we were 10,000 people. And I know what we can do today when we’re nearly a million. I love garage entrepreneurs—I was one. But, just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do. I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact on important societal issues. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact on important societal issues. 🛒

An important read on cancel culture, contamination by association, and bogus “safety” as grounds for repressing ideas. A generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable … opens the door—accessible from both the left and the right—to various forms of authoritarianism. 🧠

If you’re feeling trapped, Windowswap lets you look at the world through other people’s windows. 🏠

The Black Creative Directory is a soon-to-launch community-sourced list of Black artists, freelancers & vendors for hire. Get Early Access. (sponsored) 📋

An awesome piece by Li Jin on how creators are unbundling work from employment and opportunities for new companies to power micro-entrepreneurship. 🔮

A new wave of consumer brands is throwing “palatable” out the window. 🎭

If you liked my previous issue on the forthcoming participatory economy, you’ll enjoy Jesse Walden’s writing on the ownership economy. As the barriers to professional connectivity have fallen dramatically, so too have the hurdles for more equitable distribution of economic value. This is a future I can get behind! 💥

The RFS100 newsletter compiles startup ideas from top investors, founders, and operators - it’s worth your time. 💡

Cool startups on my radar: Glimpse, Jemi, House of Wise, Kibbo, Moment, and Dance. 👀


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

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, and early stage startup investor at Level Ventures and Rokk3r. My mission is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business.

Want more?

Follow me on TwitterMedium, and Instagram.

Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

If you're enjoying this newsletter, I'd love it if you shared it with a friend or two. You can send them here to sign up.

And if you come across anything interesting this week, send it my way! I love finding new things to read through members of this newsletter.

Thanks for being here!

Check your Pulse #48

creator economy to participatory economy ✨

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 48th 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 each week. If you’ve been sent this email and you’re not a subscriber, you can join by clicking on this big red button below.

Happy Monday, friends.

Every time I sat down to write today’s post, I came up with an excuse to do something else. That’s probably a sign of burnout. Four months at home with the kids has taken a lot out of me. All this to say, I’ll be taking a pause for a few weeks. I’ll be back in your inbox later this summer.


One recurring theme of this newsletter has been the transition from the gig economy to the creator economy and from large horizontal social networks to vertical, niche micro-communities.

In the gig economy, users who contribute time and data are rewarded linearly — to earn more, an Uber driver needs to drive more. The platform grows exponentially, while the platform’s most important asset — the driver — earns linearly.

In response to the gig economy, people are thinking about ways to leverage their skills and creativity and combine those with the unique qualities of the Internet — zero marginal cost of distribution — to earn an asymmetric return on their time.

In April, the founder of Teachable tweeted that 100 creators had made over a million dollars on their platform. Jack Butcher of Visualize Value sells a popular course titled: create once, sell twice. Patreon has well over 180,000 creators on its platform.

Our values are changing. And as large platforms get richer off their users’ personal data and time, people are trying to regain control and a new wave of companies is ready to speak to them.

Dumpling is a recently launched anti-Instacart Instacart alternative.
Reddit launches Community Points, a way for Redditors to earn a piece of their favorite communities.
Delphia helps users monetize their data by turning it into an investment advantage

There’s a lesson here for the emerging creator economy.

Just as drivers are Uber’s biggest asset, fans and community members are a creators’ biggest asset.

Today, an emerging class of creators is monetizing using subscription tools like Substack and OnlyFans. The problem with the subscription economy is there is no opportunity for fans to own assets, and further, subscription models don’t take into account the value that fans bring to their communities.

To illustrate with a real-world example: suppose you pay $20/month for access to a community of founders. Everyone is charged the same, regardless of their level of contribution. What if instead the community took a portion of the fee stream and distributed it to the members who most positively impacted the community?

With more aligned incentives, communities that give their contributors economic incentives grow faster.

While it’s still a nascent space, there are a few companies building in what I call “the participatory economy” — where fans participate in a creator’s success. Cent is a network for creators and fans to earn income together. Roll and Rally are building infrastructure for social money. And Foundation, which describes itself as a “stock exchange for culture” is bringing new revenue streams and forms of ownership to creative industries.

In many ways, the “participatory economy” is the promise of cryptonetworks.

As the use cases become clearer, my hope is that more companies in the crypto space speak the language of creators. There are technical complexities to overcome, but I suspect the key barrier to adoption of these products will be lack of language/market fit. Creators don’t care about buzzwords like protocols, governance tokens, minting, and native assets. What they care about is: how can I build a better relationship with my fans?

And increasingly, it seems giving fans incentives to help a creator succeed is the answer.

We're in a transitional world right now. The models by which creators get their work out into the world are changing. The old rules and assumptions are crumbling and nobody knows what the new ones are. It’s intimidating, but also liberating.

And while I’m hardly a crypto-enthusiast, the idea of cooperative economic networks really excite me because they’re such a hopeful twist on the tech doomsday headlines.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Stay human 🔮

Sari

I love this: raising other people’s aspirations is one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and your life. At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind.  It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous. This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life. 🔍✨

If you’re looking for gift ideas, I love this 4k weeks poster — a powerful reminder of how short life is. 🔄

Ryan Holiday’s list of 33 things he’s learned is full of wisdom 💭👇🏽

  • The best and most polite excuse is just to say you have a rule. “I have a rule that I don’t decide on the phone.” “I have a rule that I don’t accept gifts.” “I have a rule that I don’t speak for free anymore.” People respect rules, and they accept that it’s not you rejecting the [offer, request, demand, opportunity] but that the rule allows you no choice. 

  • Your last book won’t write your next one.” You are constantly starting at zero. If you think your past success guarantees you anything, you’re in for a rude awakening.

The age of we need each other is a powerful essay. Our culture validates and celebrates those who are out there with big platforms speaking to millions of people, while ignoring those who do humble, quiet work, taking care of just one sick person, one child, or one small place on this earth. 🌎

I don’t know who needs to read this, but 💯👇🏽

Brilliant! 💯👇🏽

I love the idea of learning in public. Nathan Baschez and Dan Shipper are documenting the process of launching their newsletter business in a new podcast, Talk Therapy while Packy McCormick’s is openly sharing the process of growing his newsletter, Not Boring. 💬

AirBnB’s Brian Chesky on the future of travel. There’s something interesting about the idea of people wanting to work from home - just not their homes. ✈️

Marketing is eating the world. For most software businesses in the US, the problem isn’t technical knowledge anymore. The problem is getting a wedge into distribution. 🚀

A great essay on failureship bias. One of the biggest mistakes we make in Silicon Valley is generalizing reasons why startups fail. Google was the 24th search engine. Facebook was the at least the dozenth social network. A company will come around one day doing what Theranos tried to and many will pass. Learning too much from the past given our cognitive biases is dangerous. 🧠

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

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, and early stage startup investor at Level Ventures and Rokk3r. My mission is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business.

Want more?

Follow me on TwitterMedium, and Instagram.

Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

If you're enjoying this newsletter, I'd love it if you shared it with a friend or two. You can send them here to sign up.

Thanks for being here!

Check your Pulse #47

Hey for X, Software with a Soul, Progress Studies

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 47th 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 each week. If you’ve been sent this email and you’re not a subscriber, you can join by clicking on this big button below.

Happy Sunday, friends.

I’ve been slow — my three year old son accidentally spilled a cup of tea on my laptop last week, which marked the end of my laptop’s life. I’m not proud of the way I managed the situation - I lost my temper. If you’re addicted to doing or having a hard time decoupling your identity from your work, I recommend this talk —from human doing to human being. I still have a long ways to go.


In a recent Invest like the Best interview, John Collison, the founder of Stripe, said:

When an industry, technology, or product area feels mature and "settled", it doesn't mean that it’s a bad space to build something new. In fact, such inertia or perceived product maturity may be signs of a huge opportunity. In these cases, you should build from the ideal experience backwards, as Stripe has done with its payments API.

Build from the ideal experience backwards.

That’s exactly what Hey, the new email product from Basecamp, did with their genuinely original take on email launched this week (tour here). 

It’s one of those rare instances where a product is so good it reveals how bad the rest are. 

People love describing startups as “X for Y”. A few years ago, Airbnb for X was all the rage, then Uber for X. These days, you hear about Lambda School for X.

I suspect we’ll see lots of Hey for X references in the coming years and I suspect the references will speak to the product philosophy rather than the product itself.

Designing from the ideal experience backwards.

When you design from the ideal experience backwards, you’re forced to focus not on features users need, but on how the software makes a user feel. 

You can see how this might apply to other categories. What is the ideal experience for digital file management? I want the system to organize everything for me — passively, without file structure, all based on metadata and OCR.

A focus on making things different, not better.

A complete rethink of the “Job to be Done” for schools might result in a school that pays students to attend in exchange for long-term financial upside.

Hey for Health Insurance might look like asking why you need insurance for primary care in the first place. I want the person I’m paying to be the one treating me. I’ll pay you a monthly fee to keep me healthy. If you keep me out of the hospital, you make more money. I’m oversimplifying, I know... The point is that when you break free of existing constraints, the replacement product looks nothing like the original.

Designers and purveyors of delight working alongside engineers.

In 1995, Steve Jobs said about Microsoft:

The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste, and I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their product.

Technology is easy to predict. Human nature is more complicated. We need more artists and designers working alongside engineers to bring soul, psychology, and culture into software. These products cannot be birthed in a boardroom and cannot be forced into existing incumbents. That would be like Sears building a website to become the next Amazon. 

That’s why, despite all the talk of incumbents, I’m optimistic about the opportunity for the next generation of software — there’s still so much good software to make.

🙏🏽

Sari

This really resonated: Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority” and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person” and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay. 💭

Ghia is live! And in all honesty, it’s one of my favorite unboxing experiences, ever. 🍸

I’m intrigued and inspired by Bentoism, the latest project from Yancey Strickler, former CEO of Kickstarter - it’s a way of framing your choices with an eye to the future, beyond your own self-interest, and with consideration for your community and the next generation. (related video here) 🍱

It’s been exactly 21 years since a little known company called Google closed their first $25,000,000 round of financing. 🔎

A great collection of icebreaker questions you can use with your team, community, friends, or partner. 💧

Jason Crawford just launched Progress Studies School - an online course covering the history of technology and progress, geared towards high school students. I wish this was around when I was in high school! 📈

Lots of good thoughts on email, in one place. 📧

Uff, this thread, I really needed to internalize the dopamine trap. (related: Meera explores how startups can use dopamine for world positive change). 👇🏾

Brandless is coming back.♻️

Really thoughtful piece from Kevin Kwon on why Figma is dominating the design space. 🎨

An inside look at how branding is changing, using Supreme vs. Madhappy as an example - Supreme built its reputation on selling products that were exclusive, while Madhappy is promoting a lifestyle choice built on inclusivity. Aspirational brands -> Inspirational brands 🌀

Strong piece on the rise of social audio which makes the case for why Roadtrip (a new app that’s a cross between the couch, the radio and your friends) might eat Clubhouse’s lunch. 🎙️

Early and prelaunch startups on my radar 🚀:

  • Neeva: A new way to search founded by former SVP of advertising for Google

  • Walling: Another notetaking tool

  • Relate: Design & develop at the same time

  • Patch: An API to help your customers offset their environmental footprint

  • Spark Grills: Warby Parker for Grills

  • From your couch: Visit the world from your couch

This thread is everything I believe but didn’t have the words for 🔥


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

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, and early stage startup investor at Level Ventures and Rokk3r. My mission is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business.

Want more?

Follow me on TwitterMedium, and Instagram.

Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

If you're enjoying this newsletter, I'd love it if you shared it with a friend or two. You can send them here to sign up.

And if you come across anything interesting this week, send it my way! I love finding new things to read through members of this newsletter.

Thanks for being here!

Check your Pulse #46

real problems

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 46th 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 each week. If you’ve been sent this email and you’re not a subscriber, you can join by clicking on the big red button below.

Hi, friends.

For most of last week, I kept asking myself, what else is there to be said? What do I, as someone who has not finished unlearning white supremacy, have to say about racial injustice?

It’s a difficult time to be sharing anything. Most of the company statements I read this week, while presumably well intentioned, strike as performative activism. As an online critic put it, you can replace most of them with: “We at [Brand] are committed to fighting injustice by posting images to Twitter that express our commitment to fighting injustice.

Understandably, many question whether companies will put in the work when the hashtags are no longer trending.

Earlier this week, Scot Galloway wrote

It feels as if a key component of this dialogue is missing — civil debate. Simply put, it feels as though if you don’t subscribe to the entirety of a predetermined orthodoxy, you are risking your career and reputation. Either you’re a liberal and there is horrible racism infecting every area of life for people of color, and white people should be ashamed. Or you’re a conservative and people of color should shut up and deal, as a lot has been done already. If you question a line from the party handbook, you are shut down and subject to cancellation.

I revisited a podcast episode with Jonathan Haidt on The Knowledge Project, which feels especially relevant. Things that stuck:

  • People are on the lookout for things others say that they can criticize. Social media incentivizes people to find errors in the speech of others (even if it’s a single word) and take what they say out of context.

  • There’s a world of difference speaking in a group where you trust each other vs. speaking in a group where people could report you at any time to the authorities or shame you on social media.

  • If you have people who won’t give each other the benefit of the doubt, but take language in the worst possible way and assume the worst about each other, it’s very difficult to run an organization.

  • We’re all teaching, living, and thinking in a minefield.

The trifecta of a global pandemic, millions of people without jobs and protests across cities all being broadcasted on social media — where conversations quickly descend to Us vs. Them — should convince all of us of the need for a new empathy.

For tech, it also seems like an important time to revisit one of Silicon Valley’s mantras: solve your own problems. 

The organizations we build reflect the values, priorities, and lived experiences of the people who build them. White Indie millennial founders living in Brooklyn want productivity apps, tools for thought, adaptogenic mushrooms, and primary care centers with hip interiors and catchy branding.

Most startups rethinking primary care, like Parsley Health, monetize on consumer subscription models and overlook Medicaid, which spends $530 billion a year. Telemedicine for non-english speakers is overlooked. Nursing as an industry is overlooked, despite the desperate shortage of talent. Graduating people from gig work to professional work is overlooked. Vocational schooling is overlooked.

Why? Because you need to have some form of personal experience that enables you to relate to the pain points experienced by these populations. 

Spend a few minutes going through this privilege checklist and you’ll get the point.

What founders do is a function of who they are, not the other way around.

By not promoting diverse founders, we are depriving our systems of leveraging technology to solve real problems. The kind that threaten the viability of our species. Hunger. Income inequality. Access to healthcare. Mindset inequality. Poverty. Linguistic privilege. Illiteracy. Climate change. Bigotry and discrimination.

These aren’t little problems that can be solved by giving a Black founder a 10k grant to start a D2C candle brand. These are the kinds of problems you can only really understand if you’ve been screwed by the system, and the kind that you can only really solve if you believe Black founders can return the fund.

By all means, our inability to hire and wire Black founders and talent is a matter of social justice. But we need to do this not only because it’s right, but because not doing so would constitute epic business and market failure.

🙏🏽

Sari

There are so many profound moments in this talk by Baratunde Thurston on How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time. (15mins) “We can change this, because we can change the action, which changes the story, which changes the system that allows those stories to happen.” 📰

Jowanza, a software engineer living in Salt Lake City, shares how racism has shaped his habits. You may read each of these encounters and think "this isn't so bad" in isolation, but a lifetime of small injustices is a massive boulder to carry. I shared a tiny sampling of racism I've faced in life, and all the wholesome experiences I've had don't change that truth. Having a successful career hasn't changed it, having two college degrees hasn't changed it, and embedding in my majority White community hasn't changed it. I still have a mortal fear of being pulled over. I don't wear a hat for an evening stroll through my neighborhood. I make sure you know we have more in common than you think. That's how racism has shaped my life, and I know that's true for many others. 👀

Woke cancel culture is not activism. 💭

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel's memo to employees on racial injustice is one of the most thoughtful statements I've seen from a business leader. 👏🏽

So much goodness in this directory of Black owned design businesses 💯

An interview with the author of White Fragility. This passage is one I need to sit with: “Most white people believe that a racist is: one, an individual, two, one who holds conscious and aware dislike of people based on race, and three, intentionally seeks to be mean to them. Individual, conscious, intentional. And by that definition, virtually all white people are exempt from racism. We do not understand that this is a system that is infused across all institutions, traditions, politics, practices, language, norms. It is the system we are all in and none of us could be exempt from its forces.” 🏢

A good thread on statistical and data-driven solutions to stop police brutality. 🚨

A super handy list of psychological biases that affect your UX 🧠

A collection of tools for better thinking . 💯

This 👇🏾

Patrick O’Shaughnessy interviewed Jeremy Grantham on Invest like the Best. Two big ideas: 1) The number of people employed in new enterprises in America that are one or two years old has halved since the late 1970s. 2) The degree of monopoly, particularly in the US has climbed, and so has the degree of corporate influence on government and regulation. Consequently, the returns have been above average for much longer than would have been feasible in the old days. 📈

Productivity apps are no longer utilities, they’re pop culture.🔮

Indie.VC on why Black businesses have been starved of the oxygen they need to survive. Even when they’re approved, Black and Hispanic-owned businesses found they’ve been required to produce more documentation, received less information about fees, and experienced less friendly service when working with a small business lender. This has led to a higher level of discouragement in seeking loans or being able to build productive financial relationships with lenders. If capital is the oxygen of business, then Black business owners can’t breathe. We’ve systematically starved them of the oxygen they need to survive, to create, and to leave their legacy on the technology industry at large. 💲

Interesting framing of startup opportunities. Takeaway: the social product always wins. 👇🏾


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

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, and early stage startup investor at Level Ventures and Rokk3r. My mission is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business.

Want more?

Follow me on TwitterMedium, and Instagram.

Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

If you're enjoying this newsletter, I'd love it if you shared it with a friend or two. You can send them here to sign up.

And if you come across anything interesting this week, send it my way! I love finding new things to read through members of this newsletter.

Thanks for being here!

Check your Pulse #45

the future of newsletters ✍🏽

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 45th 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 each week. If you’ve been sent this email and you’re not a subscriber, you can join by clicking on this big button below.

Happy Friday, friends.

Not a single day goes by without someone in my Twitter or personal network announcing the launch of a newsletter on Substack.

Earlier this week, Lenny shared his experience running a paid newsletter, which got me thinking about the future of newsletters, and in particular, paid ones.

Relative to creative professions like music and the arts, journalists earn far less (~$5-10 per word), or a few thousand dollars a week, and as traditional media struggles, writers are looking for financially viable ways to do what they love.

The argument for creating niche newsletters that monetize on subscriptions makes sense then, at least on the surface.

But there are a few things worth considering:

First, do we want to live in a world where people pay for content?

I’m not sure. For one, it presumes the most valuable things should be closed, when the beauty of the web is that that zero marginal cost of production means the most valuable things should reach whomever they are relevant to. 

We’ve all benefited from the last generation of tech operators and investors making their content accessible. The people that should be reading Divinations are those that have the potential to build great companies, but may not afford a subscription, not the VCs.

Referring to subscription media, David Perell said:

Subscription publications will reinforce their readers’ perspectives because most people only pay for information they agree with. Thus, an increase in subscription-supported media won’t just fragment information sources. It will fragment society. 

There’s an uncomfortable truth here. The left and the right don’t need different pictures of the world, they need different perspectives of the same picture.  

Are we really trading quantity for quality? 

Few people can get away with starting a newsletter that is only paid. So unless you have a big following, you’ll need a free tier to build an audience. That means you’ll need to produce lots of content.

And having to write several posts a week may lead to the same trap of old media, which was once described by a reporter as, “My job is to type faster than I can think.” 

Creators want, should, and need to monetize. But given the option, my bet is they would want to make their content freely accessible to everyone and monetize in other ways. There are a few companies betting on tipping culture as a viable alternative, like Buy Me a Coffee. Other newsletters, like Dense Discovery monetize via highly relevant and brand-aligned Classified Ads and sponsors. 

There are other models that strike a balance between monetization and accessibility. One example that comes to mind is Tim Carmody’s newsletter where he included a smart feature: If he got to a certain number of paid subscribers, the newsletter was unlocked for all readers. He called it unlocking the commons.  There’s something here — maybe past a certain point, contributions are welcome, but not required.

Bottom line is: I’m not sure that a Free vs. Premium subscription is the right choice for most writers.

In conditions of abundance, information loses its value.

A few months ago, the average conversion rate from free to paid on Substack sat at around 10%. In his tweet, Lenny shared that his was closest to 3-4%. My guess is this is what it’s starting to look like for many publishers. And it makes sense. With infinite supply,  less people convert to paid. 

This aligns with my experience. I love Polina Marinova’s The Profile. She is immensely talented and her newsletter is a joy to read. But I can barely get through the links in the free version, so I don’t really need the premium version with “more content”. I also love The Diff, but I’m perfectly happy receiving one email per week so the premium option doesn’t make sense for me. 

Paradoxically, I pay for Dan Frommer’s New Consumer. It’s once a week, and takes me about five minutes to get through. Relative to long, dense, newsletters with link dumps I’ll never be able to get through, with Dan’s newsletter, I get a sense of completion, and I like that.


Substack is at an interesting crossroads. They need to decide whether they arm the rebels or build an aggregator for consumers. 

Shopify vs. Amazon. 

Shopify chose creators, and Amazon chose consumers. The latter commoditized creators but gave consumers a great experience, while the former honored the creators but generated more friction in the consumer experience.

Platform

Essentially, this implies creating more tools for writers, and competing with the likes of Podia and Circle. For writers with an existing audience, like Ben Thompson, there is no incentive to switch to Substack and give up 10%. But if Substack introduced event management, infrastructure for merch, courses, one-off purchases, self-serve ad/sponsor bookings (unlikely given their anti-ads stance), design customization, and network features, the value calculus might change. 

By adding more features, Substack could enable writers to make their content freely accessible and monetize something else.

For example, Femstreet’s weekly newsletter is free. But if you want direct access to the community, you have to pay the monthly fee. Right now, a lot of this is happening outside of Substack. 

The philosophical underpinning here is - is writing a means to an end or the end in itself? 

It’s a fascinating question. 

Jarod Dicker wrote an excellent post this week where he argued the media companies of tomorrow will look like the record labels of today:

By pairing brand reputation with the ability to execute on a creator’s behalf the ability to help build audience, scale a business, administrative operations and benefits such as legal and medical, the next wave of media will be incentivized to have a heavy financial and philosophical interest in the individuals. And so will the talent."

If Substack chooses the platform path, they will have to decide if they will operate as a record label (which implies being very selective about the talent they let into the platform, effectively becoming a modern media brand) or whether they offer the tools to let anyone build.

Aggregator

At first it seems ridiculous that people would switch attention from Facebook/Twitter and pay for it.

But as Adam Keesling wrote:

 If Substack can get a enough writers and subscribers on their platform, it starts to look like a high-quality, ad-free version of Facebook Groups or Reddit. The real power comes when a platform combines these communities. While some of us are a part of one-off communities now, if they were all integrated in the same interface, it could become our default online third space.

With an increasing number of newsletter subscriptions, a single feed with posts from each of my subscriptions is beginning to look like a much better experience than email.

In addition, there are a lot of things I want to be connected to but don’t need a constant connection to.

Today, Substack pushes things as they’re published. But with an increasing supply of high-quality content, Substack is uniquely positioned to improve the content consumption experience and solve for the “what should I read now.” 

Substack was built on the foundation that people don’t subscribe to content, they subscribe to voices they trust. In contrast, at Medium, it almost doesn’t matter who the writer is as long as the post is good.

The challenge for Substack, then, is to build an aggregator that improves the discovery and consumption experience for readers, while still honoring writers and staying true to their purpose.

It would be a shame though, if in the process of empowering writers, they didn’t improve the experience for the overwhelmed consumer. If not for me, do it for my husband and children — who are truly paying the price of my newsletter FOMSI (fear of missing something important).

Platforms vs. aggregators, paid newsletters, and the future of media. It’s such an interesting topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

🔮

Sari

More than half of $100,000-or-higher revenue Zoom customers began with a single employee’s free trial. Bottoms up Saas, y’all 🙌🏽

Archie Williams was wrongly incarcerated for 37 years and he just auditioned for America’s Got Talent. His performance will bring you to tears. 😢

The Canadian government sent out these guidelines for WFH. Talk about good leadership 👇🏾💯

This piece on being a working mother with schools closed made me feel seen. But during just the last three hours of my “work time” this morning, my girls came in eight different times to ask me a question or show off a tiny accomplishment. They are adorable; I am proud of their coloring and delighted by their hugs. But each of those interruptions shattered my concentration, setting me back far more than the handful of minutes they stayed before their dad came in to scoop them up. I started work on this newsletter days ago. I am now trying to finish it with a tiny person hanging on me, begging me to pretend we are both kittens. 👶🏽

This cafe in Japan is using stuffed animals to enforce social distancing 🐷👇🏾

Revisiting this post, because it was so good: For the love of God, please tell me what your company does.🤷🏽‍♀️

But trying to reconcile that with the fact that sometimes, mysterious copy works -> MyMind had me at “a new extension for your mind” 🔮

Other startups on my radar: Foundation (stock exchange for culture), Projector (a more tasteful version of Canva), and Rise Gardens (indoor gardening system for consumers). 🚀

Another excellent post by Julian Lehr on What Shopify and Amazon can learn from Mimetic Theory, the second post on his commerce series. You can read part one here. 🛍️


I'm donating all classified ad revenue to families hurt by the pandemic. Click here to book a classified ad - you’re supporting a worthy cause while being seen by an audience of over 5,000 high-quality subscribers.

🧼Touch yourself tenderly. Lower your stress levels. Keep it simple. Lauren’s All Purpose Salve.

🌈 ByLilla is the world’s first hair tie that doubles as jewelry. Rebel against the black elastic. 

🚀Dream Ventures - connecting founders to capital & strategic partnerships - $200 for 1 hr Zoom call (fundraise strategy). Email annie@dreamventures.co

🎵SoStereo helps brands & ad agencies gets real music by real artists, fast. Don’t let music be an afterthought, unlock the power of music for your brand marketing.

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

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, and early stage startup investor at Level Ventures and Rokk3r. My mission is to bring more humanity and creativity to technology and business.

Want more?

Follow me on TwitterMedium, and Instagram.

Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

If you're enjoying this newsletter, I'd love it if you shared it with a friend or two. You can send them here to sign up.

And if you come across anything interesting this week, send it my way! I love finding new things to read through members of this newsletter.

Thanks for being here!

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