Check your Pulse #38

something new and startup predictions

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 38th 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’re enjoying it and know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox, they can sign up here.

Happy whatever day of the week, y’all.

I didn’t know it was possible to feel EVERY. SINGLE. EMOTION. in the span of a few days and yet here we are. 

Starting with an important announcement, because I don’t want you to miss this:

I have not made a single dollar from this newsletter.

Today, I’m opening up a Classifieds section, and donating 100% of Classified ad revenue directly to hourly workers who are unemployed with no savings.

If you or someone you know (including your employees) is an hourly worker who lost their job because of Coronavirus and has no savings, click here to tell me about them and share their Venmo, Cash or Paypal account handle. I’m sending $200 to as many people as I can reach. I’m interested in reaching the most vulnerable, so please share the spreadsheet far and wide.

If you want to promote your startup, product or service, make an announcement, advertise a job opening, or promote your skills to a high-quality audience of >5,000 founders, investors, and other purposeful readers, click here to book your Classified Ad. Classified ads are $100 plain-text ads and will be shown at the bottom of upcoming issues. 

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It feels almost insensitive to write anything right now that doesn’t revolve around COVID-19. There is nothing to say that doesn’t seem out of touch with reality. 

But I also want to protect your time. The pressure to be on top of the latest is overwhelming and exhausting. Considering information overload and your precious time, I am transitioning to sending this email every two weeks-ish for the foreseeable future.

I’ve been quarantined for almost two weeks now. The first week was full of gratitude — for having the finances to weather these times, a spacious house for the kids to run in, and a job that can adapt to the shape of whatever is to come. My determination to slow parent worked. For a complete five days, I soaked my children in, and it felt like the universe had given me a meditation-like retreat I would have never volunteered for but changed my life. We went on long bike rides, neighborhood scavenger hunts, took out our rusty paddle boards, made homemade play dough and rainbow pasta. I’m not great at relaxing, but for five days, I managed to slow down and flip the script: this isn’t happening to us, it’s happening for us. Some perspective to my needlessly tense life.

But this week, the non stop stream of Whatsapp messages and my inability to stop the Twitter panic-scrolling got to me. 63 unread emails became 108, and then 154. Why does the ice cream shop I visited in Austin over three years ago have my email? And why does every business feel the need to email me about Coronavirus? And why do I feel the urge to be at inbox zero every second of every day? And why is my son not interested in any of the virtual classes every other kid seems to be enjoying? I can’t take the forwarded WhatsApp messages about how this is a Chinese plot to take Trump down, or the endless WFH advice with clickbaity headlines (turns out no amount of bulleted list will teach you how to live through a conference call when your toddler is having a meltdown), or every new take on the situation from the rising Coronavirus influencers, or the posts with hobby ideas. New hobbies? In this new era, there’s definitely a stark distinction between the people at home with kids and without kids.  

If you got all the way here, you probably want to hear the startup predictions. The only thing I know for certain is my grandparents will be “Zoom-ing” by Q2 20. I also know this will pass, but I do believe that we will see significant structural shifts in our behaviors. Some strong opinions, weakly held:

  • Acceleration of e-commerce is an obvious one. In general, the situation bodes well for DTC, especially food, health, cleaning, and wellness. Out-of-stocks from traditional brands like Clorox, Lysol, Purell have forced consumers to explore new brands, which are in turn acquiring new customers at reduced CACs. I believe when this is done, the TAM for DTC will be much larger, and include people like my mom.

  • Necessity is the mother of invention, and this week proved how much is left to be done. Zoom is where we work, do happy hours, sing, meditate, and dance. But the truth is, Zoom is best suited for video-conferencing desk workers. Other use cases need more - they need easy to integrate landing pages, email collection/ CRM, payments, built-in notifications, etc… Fitness in particular needs seamless music integration. I wonder if better tools, like AI to predict distraction/motivation and contextual cues would help students be more engaged in online learning. Is it too early to talk about the Unbundling of Zoom? Or perhaps we’ll see a wave of companies leveraging Zoom’s API to build vertical SaaS.

  • Everyone’s wondering what comes after mobile (AR/VR, voice, etc..), but this week revealed just how much is left to be done in software and user interfaces. So many businesses that had never taken digital seriously were forced to improvise with half-baked, clunky sites. I predict a renaissance of ‘Shopify for X’ coming.

  • Telemedicine has been waiting for its time, but it seems it’s finally here. Getting someone to use telemedicine the first time is very very hard, but once they see how convenient it is, my guess is retention is easier. This kind of behavior change is a very big deal for the health industry.

  • Lastly, look out for Quibi, the startup that raised $1.8B to build a Netflix for shows of 10mins or less. Many predicted it was doomed to fail. Launching on April 6th, they may have one of the best timed launches in history.

Right now, if you’re able, is the time to be generous, relinquish control, lower the (parenting) bar, and then lower it a little more.

Whatever you're going through, there is someone on the other side of the world feeling the same way. That’s weird, but it’s also beautiful.

Stay human 🙏🏼

Sari

Between $61 billion and $118 billion in food sales will shift from restaurants to home during the second quarter of 2020. That would translate into an estimated sales jump for grocery stores of 32 percent to 62 percent for the quarter.🥘

Yes yes yes 👇🏽

David Brooks on why The Nuclear Family was a Mistake was the best non-coronavirus related thing I read all week. It's an exceptional explanation of why big families aren't as common as they used to be. Ever since I started working on this article, a chart has been haunting me. It plots the percentage of people living alone in a country against that nation’s GDP. There’s a strong correlation. Nations where a fifth of the people live alone, like Denmark and Finland, are a lot richer than nations where almost no one lives alone, like the ones in Latin America or Africa… For the privileged, this sort of works. The arrangement enables the affluent to dedicate more hours to work and email, unencumbered by family commitments. They can afford to hire people who will do the work that extended family used to do. But a lingering sadness lurks, an awareness that life is emotionally vacant when family and close friends aren’t physically present, when neighbors aren’t geographically or metaphorically close enough for you to lean on them, or for them to lean on you. Today’s crisis of connection flows from the impoverishment of family life. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

I feel this 👇🏽

Just a reminder it’s ok to slow down and we’re all just doing our best 💕⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
#R29regram: @emmazeck_
March 20, 2020

Yale's most popular class ever is available free online — and the topic is how to be happier in your daily life. 🌈

This is beautiful 👇🏽

Feels like no one noticed, but YC Demo Days happened this week. Some of the startups on my radar: Visual One, Pilot, and Modern Village. 🧠

With lack of testing in the US, startups like Nurx, EverlyWell, and Carbon Health stepped in to fill the gap by mailing tests directly to consumers, but the FDA quickly stepped in to tighten guidelines, forcing them to pause these activities. 😮

tweetstorm from Lightspeed’s Nicole Quinn on consumer trends that emerged out of quarantine in China. 💭

Shipbop has great e-comm data on trends by vertical. 📈

28 moves to survive (and thrive) in a downturn.

Sweatcoin is a new kind of step counter and activity tracker app that converts your outdoor steps into digital currency - sweat coins – that you can then spend on your favorite brands or charity initiatives. The benefits of fitness are usually long-term, but Sweatcoin converts movement into currency which you can use in the present. I’ve seen variations of this idea in the past, but this one seems to be very well executed - from the brand partners they’ve brought on (like Harry’s and Tidal), to the user experience, to the way they’ve incorporated insurers and government in the business model. Their traction speaks for itself, they have more than 2 million WAUs on the app. I also like that this is a “crypto adjacent” business, a term that suggests there are non-crypto based applications that will deliver on some of the promises of crypto.

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 #37

the new social networks + an open thread

Hi, I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 37th 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’re enjoying it and know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox, they can sign up here.

Happy Sunday, friends.

What a week. It’s a strange feeling — waiting to see what will happen. 

Staying inside with two high-energy kids has me, well, a little overwhelmed. It’s not lost on me that there are so many people far more vulnerable than I am, and my childcare anxieties are trivial in comparison. If you are in a place of stability, I hope that you can quickly shift to think about what you can offer the world.

Today’s post is a big longer than usual — skip through to the links if you’re not interested in my ramblings on emergent social networks and membership-driven communities.


Our collective idea of “community” has changed dramatically over the past few decades. When I was growing up, my community was made up of the people I saw physically— at school, in my neighborhood, or at my local synagogue. These days, when I think of community, I think of my childhood friends, the women in my article club, my children’s school. But I also think of Heymama, a working moms community I’m part of, the Women in VC community, and the people I’ve met through Twitter.

As commitment to religion wanes, people are looking for other forms of belonging.

This Bishop quote captures that shift:

“It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.”

Facebook is not going anywhere, but if you look more closely, you’ll notice that young people are retreating. Even if they don’t pitch themselves this way, Facebook built a powerful platform to connect people to businesses, but not necessarily people to people. 

And so people are looking elsewhere...

We don't know what the next platform shift will be (AR? VR? Airpods?) or when it will happen — but it’s impossible not to notice that people are getting tired of the highlight reel and the pendulum is swinging back to private, interest-specific social networks.

Anna Gat’s The Interintellect has taken off as a community of intellectuals/talent agency. Jeff Morris, who previously led product at Tinder, recently launched Study Club, a community for online professional support groups. Monica + Andy (a children’s apparel company I’m an investor of) has a 9-month network to connect and host classes for their pregnant customers. Influencers have also recognized this trend, and have started charging a monthly fee for more intimate interactions.

In FirstRound's 2019 State of Startups report, 80% of founders said that building a community is critical to their business. 

Chris Dixon famously said, the next big thing will start looking like a toy.”

It’s easy to see an online community for moms or intellectuals and dismiss it as a niche thing. But if we zoom out, the market for “third places” is massive — country clubs alone are a $24.5bn industry. 

Brands like Modern Fertility and Glossier are building communities. Small, interest-based digital micro-communities like Wana and Diem are being birthed every day. IRL member clubs like Ethel’s Club and The Wonder are growing. And a big wave of startups to support these communities is emerging.

Broadly speaking, I segment these into 3 archetypes:

With so much activity in this space, the question I keep coming back to is: are communities venture backable?

The most successful companies of the Internet era have been predicated on network effects —the product gets better as more people use it. When I think of the communities I’m part of (both the digital micro-communities and IRL member clubs), that’s not necessarily the case.

The more members Soho House accepts, the less likely I am to get a spot at the beach on Saturday.

And when I think of the best digital communities I’m part of, places like The Proof’s secret Slack channel, (where Adrian has hand selected a few people to join) stand out as generating the most value.

In contrast to traditional social networks driven by network effects, with emergent private networks, the reverse often happens — new users joining the community lower the quality of interactions and increase noise/spam.

So if membership growth is not the end goal, can these communities generate enough revenue per member to stay smaller?

In Backing IRL Social Clubs, Packy argues that some of these communities are acquiring highly-engaged highly-targeted members at low costs, and building relationships with them that they can nurture to generate revenue independent from growing square footage. 

Take The Wonder, a modern family club experience for kids and parents. Will brands like Nuna or Lalo see them as a viable acquisition channel when their potential reach is just a few hundred families? Maybe as a branding/positioning play, but these channels simply don’t have the scale and volume to be taken seriously.

Or take The Wing, which has an estimated 10,000 members, but over 500k followers on Instagram. They now sell merch to everyone. Can they build a big e-comm business for non-members? Maybe. But I worry this dilutes the focus away from serving their core customer: members.

Brand partnerships and scaling retail for non-members might work in some cases. But for the most part, member communities that generate the majority of their revenue from branded partnerships and retail will inevitably face tradeoffs between revenue growth and the quality of the member experience, which eats away at the purity of the community. 

On the software side, there’s a lot left to do. No one has built a great product to host a community, and every creator or brand is currently patching up tools.

For example, Duolingo’s users connect in Facebook groups organized by the language they are learning, while Modern Fertility runs a community on Slack for women thinking about their reproductive future. Many of the communities I’ve spoken to eschew platforms like Mighty Networks and are building their own.

As Rebecca Kaden at USV predicts, increasingly, this community piece will be built into the platforms themselves rather than existing externally.

The challenge is every community is different, which makes it a hard design problem to solve.

Some tools, like Comradery, Upstream, and Circle have not fully launched, so it’s hard to discern what they’ve built. For others, like Palapa, it’s not evident in the first 60 seconds of navigating their site how they differ from Slack. There’s others - like Tribe and Disciple — but overwhelmingly, I’m left feeling none of them have gotten it exactly right.

One of the challenges of building community software is that communities are an important piece of many businesses, but it’s not the only thing they provide, so the ideal solution needs to blend in with the rest of the offering.

For example, many content creators distribute their content on Substack, which allows creators to monetize subscriptions. Wherebyus takes it a step further by enabling creators to make money not just from subscriptions, but with ads. These are great businesses building the back-end for content creators.

But as content and community merge, so will the demand for tools that allow interoperability between content and community.

So where does that leave us? The jury is still very much out there.  

There are a lot of businesses that shouldn’t be venture backable but should still exist. 

If I was building software to power these communities, I would spend a lot of time discerning different use cases and unlocking a unique insight.

And if I was running a community, I would focus on building something meaningful rather than building something fast.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this space. I’m trying out threads for the first time, and you can join the discussion here.

Stay safe and kind✌🏼

Sari

The teaser site for Ghia, a soon-to launch non-alcoholic social tonic founded by Glossier’s former Head of Retail is up. Also, this playlist they made is lifting my spirits. Full disclosure: I am an investor. 🍸

I can’t stop listening to this Shania Twain cover 🎤

Imo, this is the best and only important read on COVID19. 📊

Can’t get your kids to wash their hands? Show them this. 💯

If you’re worried, don't read thisIn 2017, researchers wanted to see how long it takes for a virus to spread in an office. They placed a (harmless) sample on a doorknob and on the hand of one volunteer in an office with over 100 people. Within four hours, the virus could be found on 50% of the office's surfaces. 😧

A high quality list of product designers and their portfolios 👩🏽‍💻

Ty Haney, the founder of Outdoor Voices responds to the Buzzfeed article condemning their culture. There is an unsettling trend lately to interview ex-employees of female-founded companies and report their claims either at face value or without any context. These are trends that will only serve to drive women back out of the board room. 😮

A handly list of community building resources 💯

Quarantine chats connects isolated people in serendipitous conversations. 📞

This take on the Parent Trap handshake made me smile. 🤣

I’m intrigued by Madefor, the latest venture from the founder of Tom's Shoes, which delivers monthly wellness kits to help you build better habits. 💯

Amazon launched Just Walkout to give any store the option to build a cashier-less store. 🛒

A list of all the shows coming to Quibi, along with their teasers. 🎬

I love this advice from The Secrets of Happy Families: have your kids pick their rewards and punishments. “By picking their own punishments, children become more internally driven to avoid them. By choosing their own rewards, children become more intrinsically motivated to achieve them. Let your kids take a greater role in raising themselves.”👨‍👩‍👦‍👦

Why all the Warby Parker clones are imploding Instead of disrupting Target, the company suddenly wanted to be sold in places like Target. 💣

Went back to review my highlights from Zero to One. This one feels particularly important now: “If your product requires advertising or salespeople to sell it, it’s not good enough: technology is primarily about product development, not distribution.” 📖

These days, startups can go from hot to not overnight. David Sacks shares some thoughts on how to avoid going off the rails. ➕

Kinnos, a maker colorized disinfectant products, raised $6m last week, while Touchland, a personal use hand sanitizer brand, raised $1.75m in funding. If you’re in the cleaning products business: this is your time. 🧼

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!

Are community startups venture-backable? What are the opportunities for founders building membership-driven communities and the software to enable them?

Brands like Modern Fertility and Glossier are building communities. Small, interest-based digital micro-communities like Wana and Diem are being birthed every day. IRL member clubs like Ethel’s Club and The Wonder are growing. And a big wave of startups to support these communities is emerging.

Broadly speaking, I segment them into three archetypes:

With so much activity in this space, the question I keep coming back to is: should community businesses be venture backable?

I wrote a post about it here and would love to hear your thoughts on the future of communities, IRL member clubs, digital micro-communities, and any related thoughts (including the long-term impact of COVID19 on IRL communities).

View 15 comments →

Check your Pulse #36

multi-hyphenates, the gist, consumer trends

Welcome to the 36th 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’re enjoying it and know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox, they can sign up here.

Happy International Women’s Day to all the women and the men who cheer for us.

I went down a podcast rabbit hole this week and caught up on a ton of episodes in between commuting to work, calling my mom, a day-trip to Atlanta, and waiting in carpool lines (more on the podcasts in a sec).

As women, the focus is so much on the labels. People want to know if you’re a stay at home mom or if you have a career. They want to know if you feed your kids pre-packaged foods or organic homemade meals.

The truth is, women are a lot more than one thing.

Some days I am in a yoga class at 10am and a soccer game with my son at 4pm and other days I’m having back-to-back conversations with some of the most interesting minds in business.

We need to stop listening to those that force us to prescribe to labels and singular identities and instead look at the multi-hyphenate women who are building lives on their own terms and embracing their many layers.

I jotted down some of the thoughts/ideas that stuck from the podcasts in a section I’ll occasionally include in this newsletter which I’m calling The Gist.

I’ll be back next week with some thoughts on digital micro-communities and the creator economy. My inbox has exploded with startups building businesses in this space.

Stay human ✌🏼

Sari

  • Avoid reading breaking news, there’ll almost always be a more detailed and better story about the event the following day or week. (Robert Cottrell on The North Star Podcast)

  • Putting in more time doesn’t mean anything other than putting in more time. You’re not guaranteeing yourself a better outcome. (Jason Fried on The Petter Attia Drive)

  • So much of white collar work is just thinking, so visualizing our work for our peers becomes mandatory. The vacation isn’t real until you Instagram it. The baby isn’t real until it’s on Facebook. The finishing touch of all the projects of our lives is the public demonstration of it. The problem is the pressure of having to externalize your life takes away the pure act of enjoyment. Thats the implicit crime of social media, it forces us to be out of the moment. (Derek Thompson on The Ezra Klein Show)

  • No matter what situation you’re facing, incentives will always play a role. When you know the incentives of everyone involved, you can try to align them and create win-win situations. Get in the habit of asking yourself what people’s incentives are. (Shane Parrish on The North Star Podcast).

  • Keep your product simple and easy to use. This prevents you from having to educate your users, they should be able to educate themselves. People should be able to use your product in a state of “no-mind” (Brian Norgaard (ex-CPO of Tinder) on Off the Chain)

  • The current advertising model requires making an ad to capture someone’s attention. Kevin Kelly has a different idea: What if companies paid audiences directly for their attention? For instance, what if you were paid $0.25 every time you watched an ad or read a promotional email? If it’s true that attention is the only scarcity we have in this world of abundance, how come you and I are giving our attention away for free? (Kevin Kelly on the A16Z podcast)

The Dixie Chicks are back with their first new song in over a decade 🙌🏼

It can be hard to see the gradual improvement of things over time, so here’s a wonderful list to remind you that our lives have gotten better since the 1990s. 📈

The Minimum Wage Machine is a unique way to get more people to feel the grinding futility of those jobs. For as long as they turn the crank, the user is paid in pennies as time passes. For example, if minimum wage is $7.25/hour, then the worker is paid one penny every 4.97 seconds. 💰

A great question bank for better 1:1s by First Round Review.❓

These architecturally rendered spaces are going on my life mood board. 💭

Jason Kottke shares observations from a trip to Vietnam, Signapore, and Qatar. But the main observation I came home with after this trip is this: America is a rich country that feels like a poor country. If you look at the investment in and the care put into infrastructure, common areas, and the experience of being in public in places like Singapore, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin and compare it to American cities, the difference is quite stark. Individual wealth in America is valued over collective wealth and it shows. 🏞

Panera’s new unlimited coffee subscription is brilliant. ☕

Move over influencers. Here come curators. Modern aspiration is not about having money to buy things, but having taste to know what to buy. 🔮

12 life goal categories to maintain balance. ⚖

I love this advice on entrepreneurship from the founder of Masterclass: Don’t do it. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done. You will for sure lose friends, cry, sleep less, gain weight, lose self confidence, earn less money, and probably fail. But if you still really want to do it — it’ll change your life in the most amazing ways. You’ll see how much impact you can have in the world, spend time with people you would have never thought you’d ever meet, learn a tremendous amount about everything, feel emotions you never have, and be surprised every day. 💯

This, on writing 🔥👇🏽

I hate trend reports, but this recap of consumer tech trends is worth your time. 🔮

IAB releases a list of the 250 most disruptive U.S. D2C brands and services 🛍

This is so true. Companies share whatever information’s convenient to them — ranging from cash profits to being voted the best place to work in a city👇🏽💯

Jesse Beyroutey of IA Ventures on dominance friction. One thing that might surprise you about dominance is how companies get it. You might think it comes from rapacious win-at-all costs business practices, or from raising large amounts of money to snuff out competition. But we’ve found that the primary source for a company’s dominance is whether it designs its product and business model to be perfectly aligned with its customers’ interests. 💥

If you’re not convinced capital is a commodity… 👇🏽

Eliqs creates custom, designed-forward craft beverage cans for any occasion worth celebrating. They transform what would otherwise be a “generic” beverage option into a beautiful canvas of custom art, targeted messaging, and ultimately, a photogenic conversation piece. While they serve weddings and private events, they’ve expanded into the B2B world, as brands and companies in industries such as hospitality, entertainment and tech desperately try to find new ways to amplify their brand in creative ways. I love design-forward businesses that introduce a simpler and more tasteful experience. This isn’t about slapping your brand’s logo on a can of craft beer and calling it a day. It’s about pushing boundaries through design. They’re pretty under the radar, but I was drawn to how simple it is and I think there’s a lot of room to grow and expand beyond beverages to places like branded merch (there’s a lot of money here and most of it sucks).

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 #35

corporate speak, language market fit, and trick mirror

Welcome to the 35th 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’re enjoying it and know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox, they can sign up here.

Happy Sunday, friends.

Last week, Molly Young at NYMag published a worthwhile read on the epidemic of corporate speak.

Here’s an excerpt:

In 2011, I was dropping printouts on a co-worker’s desk when I spotted something colorful near his laptop. It was a small foil packet with a fetching plaid design.

The front of the plaid packet said UPTAPPED: ALL NATURAL ENERGY. The marketing copy said, “For too long athletic nutrition has been sweetened with cheap synthetic sugars. The simplicity of endurance sports deserves a simple ingredient — 100% pure, unadulterated, organic Vermont maple syrup, the all-natural, low glycemic-index sports fuel.”

It was a packet of maple syrup. Nothing more. Whenever I hear a word like operationalize or touchpoint, I think of that packet — of some anonymous individual, probably with a Stanford degree and a net worth many multiples of my own, funneling maple syrup into tubelets and calling it low-glycemic-index sports fuel. It’s not a crime to try to convince people that their favorite pancake accessory is a viable biohack, but the words have a scammy flavor. And that’s the closest I can come to a definition of garbage language that accounts for its eternal mutability: words with a scammy flavor. As with any scam, the effectiveness lies in the delivery. Thousands of companies have tricked us into believing that a mattress or lip-gloss order is an ideological position.

In Oversharing, Alison Griswold made the observation that “this garbage language is key to how so many not-tech companies become, in the popular mindset, tech companies.”

Why was Casper treated as a “tech startup” while Purple was just a mattress company? Is it the VC funding? The Red Antler branding? The podcast ads? Or is it the fact that they look and talk like a startup?

In language market fit, I argued that “in a world with free information, abundant data, and virtually no barriers to entry, companies will succeed by selling purpose, not a product.

I continue to think storytelling will be the most differentiating business skill of the 21st century. A good story will get people to want to work with you, customers to want to buy from you, and investors to invest in you. It’s a lot easier to do this if your mission is to “awaken the potential of a well-rested world” than if you’re just another mattress company.

A good story, then, lowers the cost of capital because it raises expectations.

The challenge is when those expectations are not met, when the distance between what the company is and how it defines itself grows ever larger. That’s when the language starts to have the scammy flavor Molly Young alludes to.

A recent example is the athleisure brand Outdoor Voices. Last week, BoF broke the news that founder Tyler Haney is stepping down from her role as CEO. The company also reportedly raised a “down round” from existing investors as the company continued to lose money.

Outdoor Voices’ stated purpose is to free fitness from performance. They were able to carve a space in a crowded category by going after people that felt alienated by traditional activewear brands. The OV brand, then, is about much more than selling activewear, and considering their purpose, it wasn’t hard to imagine them building tools, services, or experiences to connect people through activity. But their product innovation slowed and was no longer satisfying investors who expected them to become the next Lululemon or Nike.

Bottom line is the language works until it becomes just that - language. The story is important. But the story isn’t and shouldn’t be about the marketing. It has to be about the strategy. Otherwise, it becomes what Molly Young warns about in her piece, not just “annoying but malevolent — in that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.”

🙏🏼

Sari

The clearest, most approachable intro to carbon removal technologies I've seen 🌳👏🏼

I keep coming back to this 1999 Anna Quindlen commencement speech. When I quit the New York Times to be a full-time mother, the voices of the world said that I was nuts. When I quit it again to be a full-time novelist, they said I was nuts again. But I am not nuts. I am successful on my own terms. Because if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all. Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

Damn, the gaming addiction is real 🎮👇🏽

Little talk conversation starters are prompt cards that spark better conversations with your kids. 💬

I sampled several books on my Kindle last week and the only one I couldn’t resist was Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. She’s such a talented writer, and this book is feeding my millennial existential angst in all the ways I want it to. Here’s one of the lines I highlighted 👇🏽

A 2013 essay by Snapchat that predicted the shift in identity brought by the Internet. Rethinking permanence means rethinking this kind of social media profile, and it introduces the possibility of a profile not as a collection preserved behind glass but something more living, fluid, and always changing. 🔎

The 11 most recurrent cultural trends from studying 30+ trend reports 🔮

This line by Anis Mojgani (featured in the Good Work newsletter) stopped me in my tracks: Work will always be work. Some people work doing what they love. Some people work so that they can do what they love when they’re not working. Neither is more noble. 🎯

Tim Ferris on 11 reasons not to become famous. If I’ve learned anything, it is this: fame will not fix your problems.  Instead, fame is likely to magnify all of your insecurities and exaggerate all of your fears. It’s like picking up a fire extinguisher for your pain that ends up being a canister of gasoline. 🤯

The Brandless of Canada is called No Name and it’s very successful 👇🏽

Liquid Death (a canned water company I featured in the 14th issue of this newsletter) raised a $9m Series A last week, and the Internet had a lot to say. I recommend going back to read that issue - it was a good one. 🥤

If you’re interested in the digital health space, Nikhil Krishnan (one of my favorite thinkers on this topic) just launched Out of Pocket, a newsletter that presents healthcare research and analysis in a digestible and funny way. 😷

Holy moly 😮

Atolla is a personalized skin health brand. Their first product is a personalized serum that reduces wrinkles. Figuring out how to fix a skin issue is confusing and highly personal - it depends on factors like our genetics as well as lifestyle and environmental factors. There are several other players trying to build personalized, AI-driven skincare (Proven, Curology, and HelloAva come to mind). Most of these rely on quizzes, and it’s not clear to me what their datasets are based on. I love that Atolla has an at-home test (that you don’t have to send back!) instead of a long list of questions you may not know the answer to. Success in this space will require a unique combination of data science, dermatology, and design/brand talent. In a category that is so emotional, the winners of the last decade have been companies like Glossier and Drunk Elephant. I'm not sure today's consumer is ready for a "machine learning for skincare" pitch and the team that wins needs to not only have the best data and predictive modeling but also understand the nuances of speaking to a customer in a category driven by emotion.

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.

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Know a founder i should meet?

Drop me a note at sari@level.vc

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