Check your Pulse #28

👋🏽the final one of 2019

Welcome to the 28th 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.

This will be the final issue of the newsletter this year.

I’m off to Mexico tomorrow to wrap up my work travel for the year and then off to Colorado to spend a few weeks with my family (if you’re interested in seeing photos of me and my family, follow me on Instagram). I’m excited to recharge, ski, be with my kids and reflect without distractions.

The Internet has an extreme bias for the present moment — the feed format means the best content is essentially lost in time.

I think it was Naval that once said: “I don’t want to read everything, I just want to read the 100 greatest books over and over again.”

Which reminded me of this Oprah quote: 

“I don’t have any new lessons. But I often think that it’s not the new lessons as much as it is, really, learning the old ones again and again.”

For the final issue of the year, I’ve combed through my notes and memory and highlighted the best podcasts, books, people, articles, and ideas I’ve come across that have still stuck with me months or years later.

Because we should all read more of what’s stood the test of time.

Thank you to everyone who reached out, grabbed coffee, met me in a distant city, forwarded an idea, and chose to read this newsletter.

I’m deeply grateful for this growing corner of the Internet and am looking forward to more in 2020.

🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼

Sari


Morgan Housel’s writing

Every minute spent with his content is an investment in the person you want to become - he combines history, behavioral finance, investing, and storytelling to share timeless and broadly applicable life lessons. Here are some of my favorites:

👉🏽Ideas that changed my life.

👉🏽Financial Advice For My New Daughter

👉🏽The Advantage of Being A Little Underemployed

👉🏽Three big things: the most important forces shaping the world

👉🏽Why new technology is a hard sell

👉🏽 Great products vs. great businesses


I still think David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech, This is Water, at Kenyon College is the best commencement speech of all time.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.


Clay Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma, shares what he learned after 25 years of studying innovation.

✨What stuck: “Don’t reserve your best self for your career.”

Our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, get paid or promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your friends and family typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids, for instance, misbehave every day, and it’s not until 20 odd years later that you can say, “I raised a good kid.” 


Life is Short

I find myself re-reading these essays time and time again.

The Tail End by Tim Urban

I read about five books a year, so even though it feels like I’ll read an endless number of books in the future, I actually have to choose only 300 of all the books out there to read and accept that I’ll sign off for eternity without knowing what goes on in all the rest.

The Days Are Long But the Decades Are Short by Sam Altman

Minimize your own cognitive load from distracting things that don’t really matter.  It’s hard to overstate how important this is, and how bad most people are at it.  Get rid of distractions in your life.  Develop very strong ways to avoid letting crap you don’t like doing pile up and take your mental cycles, especially in your work life.

Life is Short by Paul Graham

Relentlessly prune bullshit, don't wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That's what you do when life is short.


Building Career Moats with Erik Torenberg

This podcast episode changed the way I view my career and I largely credit it with inspiring this newsletter.

  • Find the thing that looks like work to others, but feels like play to you, in order to gain a competitive advantage.

  • “Don’t play the rat race unless you’re the fastest rat. Play your own game where no one can compete with you”


The Work Required to Have an Opinion

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that
I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” - Charlie Munger


Slack’s Internal Memo

We don’t sell saddles here was the internal memo the founder of Slack sent his team two weeks before they launched and is one of my all-time favorite think pieces. It is not only a wonderful take on one company’s theory of value but a general commentary on how other companies should think about their value to customers.

We are unlikely to be able to sell “a group chat system” very well: there are just not enough people shopping for group chat system. What we’re selling is organizational transformation. The software just happens to be the part we’re able to build & ship.

We’re selling a reduction in information overload, relief from stress, and a new ability to extract the enormous value of hitherto useless corporate archives. We’re selling better organizations, better teams. That’s a good thing for people to buy and it is a much better thing for us to sell in the long run. We will be successful to the extent that we create better teams.


In a Big Craze, Be the Arms Dealer

✨ This phrase from a Josh Wolfe tweet has profoundly influenced how I evaluate companies:

Whenever there is a market fad/phenomena with low or no barriers and a flood of entrants—the best strategy is often: Be the arms dealer. The lowest profile players in high-profile, low-barrier industries are almost always the most profitable. Don't sell wine, sell barrels. Don't make movies, create animation software. Don't own restaurants, build the restaurant supply company.


Paul Graham’s essays

✨Paul is one of the best essayists of our time. And the best part is he’s not an essayist. He is the founder of Y Combinator. Two of my favorites:

👉🏽His most recent essay on our education system is very good. The most damaging thing you learned in school wasn't something you learned in any specific class. It was learning to get good grades.

👉🏽Maker schedule vs. Manager schedule introduced the idea that different types of work require different types of schedules. A manager’s day is sliced up into tiny slots for meetings, calls, or emails. A maker’s schedule is made up of long blocks of time reserved for focusing on particular tasks. When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.


✨ This epic tweetstorm by Naval will change how you think of wealth:

Also, Joe Rogan’s podcast with Naval is filled with ideas that will stir your mind.


How the Internet is changing status symbols

People are status monkeys, and have always sought the most efficient path for maximizing social capital. Eugene Wei (@eugenewei) has written some incredible (albeit dense) pieces on how social networks have changed social capital creation:

👉🏽Status Update, and How Everyone IPO'd in the 21st Century

👉🏽Status as a Service

👉🏽Invisible Asymptotes

*His interview on the Recode Decode podcast is also very good.


The Powerful Habit of Profitability

For a while, VC funding has been the default or most desirable path for entrepreneurs, but many are now beginning to reject the playbook - why spend ten years building a high-risk business on a lottery chance to take it public when you can build a sustainable business from day one? The truth is VC is only appropriate for a tiny, tiny fraction of companies (typically those tackling highly technical problems that require significant upfront capital, those competing in winner take most markets, or network effects driven businesses).

There’s a few resources I would recommend reading to anyone trying to understand venture dynamics and whether VC is the right path for you:

✨ VC Math shows why VCs are almost exclusively focused on unicorns (or those rare $1B+ exits). “Small” $50 million or $100 million dollar exits do little for keeping their investors happy.

Sahil (the founder of Gumroad) reflects on his failure to build a billion dollar company in this excellent post. It took years for me to realize my pursuit of growth was misguided from the start.

Bryce Roberts is a refreshing voice in the VC community. He is the founder of Indie VC, a fund that backs businesses focused on revenue growth over raising another round of funding. Some of his most relevant posts:

👉🏽No more lost decades

👉🏽Bootstrapped, profitable, and proud

👉🏽Permisionless entrepreneurship


Simple but Profound.


Ira Glass on Taste

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."


You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

James Clear is one of my favorite thinkers and authors. I credit his book Atomic Habits for improving my productivity this year. My biggest lesson from his work: set up systems, not goals.

Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.


“More startups die of indigestion than starvation”

✨This David Packard line is probably my most overused quote. I say this to every founder I work with and my experience continues to prove that the worst companies do too many things and suffer from scattered attention rather than a sharp focus on what matters most.  


36 questions to fall in love

✨ The New York Times has a list of 36 Questions to ask someone if you want to fall in love or make your love even stronger. A beautiful thing to do with your significant other over the holidays.


A framework to set goals for the New Year

If you’re interested, this is the exercise I run at the end of every year to set goals.

I also like this approach to conducting an Annual Review of your life.


Books I read or skimmed this year that I would recommend:

Educated by Tara Westover. Tara grew up in the mountains of Utah with deeply devout Mormon parents with a deep suspicion of government and a boisterous group of siblings. She didn’t attend school until the age of 17, and went on to attend Cambridge and Harvard. These are incredible facts, but what makes this book so incredible is the uniqueness of her voice and her vivid depiction of her childhood.

Tribe by Sebastian Junger. Despite technological advances of modern society, we all yearn to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding--"tribes." Sebastian argues that this tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior. Raising children is terribly hard work. I picked up this book during a challenging time as a parent and it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. A timeless, brilliant and enlightening book about how human life has so consistently improved over the course of history, driven by specialization and the development of markets.

Reboot: I’ve been a longtime fan of Jerry Colonna (the startup world’s most in-demand executive coach) and his podcast for it’s honest exploration of personal and professional growth. This book is an achingly honest account of why you can’t grow a business without growing yourself.

Maybe you should talk to someone by Lorri Gotlieb is a funny and moving story about a therapist and the life crisis that led her to finding a therapist of her own. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a wonderful look at the universality of suffering, the stories we tell ourself in our pain, and how therapy really works.

The Second Mountain by David Brooks was one of my most enjoyable reads this year. This is a book about finding meaning in life by going beyond the “first mountain” desires of status, ego, prestige and focusing on making commitments—to family, community, a vocation, and religion/philosophy.


Listen 🎶

A winter playlist that won’t give you the blues made by the folks at Drink Ghia (one of the most exciting companies coming in 2020)

…and this Alicia Keys cover of Ocean Eyes by Billie Eilish  


Bonus: handy lists of some of my favorite people to follow:

to be a better investor

👉🏽 @eriktorenberg, @awilkinson, @bryce, @aashaysanghvi_, @HarryStebbings, @ljin18, @andrewchen, @briannekimmel, @conniechan, @sarahtavel, @drunkhippo33, @rabois @femstreet, @patrick_oshag, @fredwilson

to be inspired in business

👉🏽@tobi, @austen, @shl, @patrickc, @scottbelsky, @BrentBeshore, @jasonfried, @jmj, @emilyweiss, @audreygelman, @eugenewei, @thingtesting, @profgalloway

to be a better thinker/human/writer:

👉🏽@JamesClear, @naval, @paulg, @adamgrant, @jocelynglei, @stonefoxride, @david_perell, @morganhousel, @brenebrown, @cherylstrayed, @jerrycolonna, @farnamstreet

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

My name is Sari Azout. I am a design-thinker, strategist, and early stage consumer 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

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Thanks for being here!