Check your Pulse #51

thoughts on trust, presubscribe, why curators are the new creators

Welcome to the 256 subscribers since the last issue. I’m Sari Azout and this is the the 51st 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 here.

Happy Sunday friends,

I’ve been trying to reconcile this idea that we’re losing trust in our institutions with the notion that we seem to be trusting people more than ever.

The loss of institutional trust is something I arrive at from surveying my own experience (I’d hire a freelancer over an agency any day, I much prefer to read a newsletter from a writer I love than rummage through pages of The Economist), but the data suggests I’m right

There’s a lot at play here, but I suppose many of us feel that old guard leaders are saddled by outdated value propositions and infrastructure, fighting complexity convection, all as consumers have evolved and set a new bar for trust, service, and access. 

The combination of declining trust in established actors and a redefinition of how people gain status is driving momentum toward a new world order.

In short, we are moving away from a top-down relationship with established institutions and toward a new, trust-based relationship with people.

Earlier this week, I posed this question on Twitter and Instagram. I realize there’s a lot of nuance that I’m omitting, but the combined 500 responses paint a picture for how LinkedIn is no longer serving the way we live, work, and think today:

In the Industrial Age, our brand, as economic actors at least, was derived from where we studied and the institutions we spent time in. “She went to Harvard.” “He worked directly under John Rockefeller.” LinkedIn ushered in an era of traditional employment, where today, for a growing segment of knowledge workers, creative expression and online influence are your defacto CV. Already, companies like Tesla, Google, and Netflix have announced you don’t need a BA to apply for a job.

What seems to unite the strands of discourse here is a feeling that the boundaries we used to define people are not reflective of the quality of their ideas, their ability to build an audience, and other signals that matter in conditions of trust scarcity. 

You can argue that this is relevant for a tiny sliver of the population, and you’re right, maybe it is. But it’s also true that times are changing.

People becoming brands is as old as time. But this isn’t about Michael Jordan creating a sneaker line or Lady Gaga launching Haus Labs.

What’s new is that the world is becoming a better place for intellectuals. As information becomes more abundant, the people who are into processing it, synthesizing it, and making sense of it are becoming more powerful, and growing less dependent on the bloated empires that birthed them.

What we’re seeing play out in venture capital, media, and education, gives us a glimpse of this new trust order.

Media has a big problem.

When you read the The New Yorker because it arrives in your doorstep every month, a writer can’t go independent. But when you read an article because it makes it to your Twitter feed, you end up following the writer directly. As writers get more powerful, they realize they’ve been left in the dark, they don’t own their email list, etc… and so Substack is born. Newsletters are not new. What’s new is the power social media has bestowed journalists and the growing dissatisfaction with the prevailing content delivery mechanisms - everyone’s an algorithm change away from obsolescence.

It’s no surprise, then, that we’re seeing tools like Presubscribe, which allow you to pledge your support to a creator before they’re independent.

Chris Dixon is famous for his line “the next big thing will start looking like a toy”.

It’s an appropriate reference here. 

It’s hard to tell if Presubscribe is mocking Substack or if something like it has the potential to legitimately decimate a media organization. 

Education has a big problem. 

As Scott Galloway put it:

Schools charging $50,000/year or more (Brown, NYU) have value propositions that have been rendered untenable overnight. The elimination of the university experience is similar to SeaWorld without killer whales. Yeah, we get it … free Willy, but I’m not paying $450 to see otters and penguins. Also, we’re not paying $54,000 for Zoom classes.

With the forced adoption of online learning, professors are realizing they can build online learning communities, broadcast their classes online to more people, make more money, and make students happier.  

It’s a matter of time before professors become unbundled from universities (Nat Eliason wrote a great post on what the role of universities might be in this scenario). The biggest hurdle will be the signaling strength of old institutions, but I’d argue that Y Combinator is a case study in how a new organization can build strong, alternative credentialing. And I suspect Write of Passage, OnDeck, etc… are on their way to do the same.

Incumbents can subsist for years on a business model that no longer makes sense. But there’s a reason to be hopeful, and I’m going to quote Morgan Housel here:

Innovations rarely occur when everyone’s happy and safe, or when the future looks bright. They happen when people are a little panicked, worried, and when the consequences of not acting quickly are too painful to bear.

Without Covid, it would have taken the higher education industry decades to correct. With Covid, the correction is happening now.

Harvard won’t let everyone access their courses online, just as the WSJ won’t let their top journalists start a newsletter and share equity and IP. These changes will come from the outside in.

That’s why, for all the talk of subscription fatigue, I believe the creator breakout is only just beginning.

Consider this:

The soundtrack to the last six months of pandemic parenting in my home has been the Hamilton album. The entire thing is stuck in our heads, and at odd hours my son will burst into singing Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now

Seems strangely fitting for 2020. It’s true that the disruptions of the past six months have been frightening. But it’s also true that history is happening right now and has opened a rare window of opportunity to create better alternatives.

Stay curious 🙏🏽


It took Apple 42 years to reach a $1 trillion valuation, but only two years after that to break $2 trillion.  😧

Seth Godin on a Zoom agreement The purpose of a meeting is not to fill the allocated slot on the Google calendar invite. The purpose is to communicate an idea and the emotions that go with it, and to find out what’s missing via engaged conversation. If we can’t do that, let’s not meet.  💻

I’ve been drinking MagicMind (a combo of matcha, adaptogens, nootropics) daily to help me focus and the energy lift has been incredible. The team there is hooking my readers up with a 20% discount - use SARIMAGIC at checkout. 🥤

A toolkit for responsible design of digital communities. 💭

You can get a custom puzzle made with the New York Times Front Page date of your choice. I love this! 📰

Samuel Arbesman, auhthor of The Half Life of Facts, had a fascinating interview on the Knowledge Project podcast. The key takeaway is that information has a predictable half-life (the time taken for half of it to be replaced or disproved) but we rarely consider that. Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true decades later. That’s why living without cars, or defunding the police, is unimaginable to so many. 🤯

My friends at TheVentureCity are running Product-Led Growth Week, a free program to help early stage companies build a repeatable playbook to acquire, retain, & grow customers. The team running the program is outstanding. Applications due Sep 4. (sponsored) 🚀

Alex Kantrowitz interviewed Casey Newton about the tech press and whether Facebook is good or bad. I love how nuanced the interview is, we need more media that acknowledges the world is gray and complicated 💯👇🏽

  • Facebook is so big that it is always going to be a thousand different things at the same time. There’s 500 places where it’s doing something really cool and interesting, and there’s 500 places where it’s doing something really scary and in need of intervention.

  • There’s a discrepancy between the internal and the external conversation around Facebook right now, because the external conversation is a lot of “Are these people good or evil?” And the internal questions at Facebook that Zuckerberg is getting during his weekly Q&As are all about remote work, how long is it going to last, who’s going to have to go back to the office, who’s going to get their pay cut, how much is my pay going to be cut if I move to Omaha or whatever.

Gaby Goldberg wrote a great essay on how curators are the new creators. 💯

A really good presentation on the move from search-driven to interactive commerce, and how new companies should focus on the recreational and emotional aspect of commerce. 🛒

A complete list of startups that are public about their metrics 🔍

Cool startups on my radar:

  • Behave: low sugar candy with all natural ingredients - my kids loved them! 🍭

  • Kumospace: An alternative to video calls that uses spatial audio to make it fun 💻

  • Virtually: Software to build and scale your virtual school 🎒

  • Carbon Chain: Accurate accounting for a company’s carbon footprint 🌳

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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