0001: The Hard Fork

Twice in my life I’ve had the good fortune of getting exactly what I wanted, only to find that, once I had it, it wasn’t what I wanted at all.

The first was 8 years ago, when I was 25. I had started a brand of auto parts in high school, ran it through college part-time, and taken it up full time upon graduation. The 4-Hour Workweek was all the rage at the time; in it, the author laid out a methodology for outsourcing and automating each piece of a business in order to optimize for free time with which the owner could do whatever they pleased. What he had done with two SKUs I did with two thousand, and, a year or so later - when I was 25 - I had reached a point where I could run the business from anywhere. I moved to Buenos Aires. I planned to live there for a year.

The business, for the most part, ran itself. What the system I had built couldn’t handle was the unusual exceptions - exceptions that, given their definitionally-exceptional nature and the domain expertise required for navigating the (external) world of auto parts and (internal) dynamics of an integration-heavy ERP environment, could only be handled by me. I had no employees; my job, largely, was working through the few one-off customer service and troubleshooting issues that came up on a day to day basis - a set of tasks that took me, on average, 15 minutes per day to complete. It was a job that I had done for nine years at this point - I would go on to do it alone for five more before hiring my first and only employee, and then for another 18 months until it was sold to a private equity firm.

I had played video games when I was much younger - games like SimCity, SimTower, and Transport Tycoon. I was good at them, and, at the end of a long session, I had many billions of dollars of simdollars with which I could do nothing at all. With Proforged - my auto parts business - I had built a video game that made real money. I know that sounds funny, but it really was like a video game. I would open up NetSuite and run a report, seeing which products that I hadn’t yet sourced from my lowest-cost manufacturer had the highest sales volume, then email my fulfillment center and ask them to ship a sample to the factory in Taiwan. A few weeks later, the factory would send a quote - often 50-60% less than my lower-volume sources in the US - to which I would respond with a purchase order, and, six months and a few steps later, the bulk shipment would arrive in the warehouse and the improved margins would start to show up on my income statement. Magic.

There were dozens of other routines like that one. I had learned earlier on how to do product development and sales, accounting and finance, customer service and vendor management, software development and integrations. There was just nobody else but me to do anything, and, over time, I turned the intermittent, time-consuming projects in each of those areas into repeatable processes - processes that, once automated, took about 15 minutes per day to ‘manage by exception.’ Rinse and repeat for over 15 years - all great things in life come from compounding interest - and you end up with a physical product business with software-like margins (when I finally sold it, it was doing just over 6x the average auto parts company’s net profit on a multimillion dollar top line).

In any case, I was living in Argentina. Six months had passed. I had friends who said that if they were in my situation, they would train for the Olympics, write a novel, or travel the world. What I realized - once I was in the situation myself - is that what I really wanted to do with my free time was work more! Work wasn’t a means to an end, in other words; once I had an abundance of time, it made me realize that work - perhaps more accurately, business - is my hobby as well as my job.

The paradox of books like The 4-Hour Workweek is that if you are capable and motivated enough to implement the systems they describe, chances are that you probably love business so much that you don’t actually want to work less.

A more generic way of looking at this: assuming you are wildly successful in your current course of action, do you actually want the outcome you’re going to achieve?

Which brings me to the second - and much more recent - time that this happened.

For context: I left Twitter. Twitter is a funny thing to talk about - to people who are not on it, it sounds like a ridiculous subject, and discussing Twitter with (or in the presence of) non-participants comes across as, for some reason, cringingly self-important.

I suppose I’d react the same way if I heard someone talking about Facebook or Instagram with any level of seriousness, but something seems different about Twitter. Whereas other social networks provide common places for sharing things like photos or personal events, Twitter is a network sharing thoughts - rather than a social network, I think it is better understood as a massively-successful, real-time virtual reality world. Like early role playing games, Twitter is text-based, but, as you start to get immersed in it, the text interface falls away as what the literary world calls a suspension of disbelief begins to take hold.

Twitter, then, is a shared delusion experienced by many millions of people simultaneously. That shared delusion can be wonderful and powerful, which is why it is so difficult to explain to non-participants, but it certainly comes with tradeoffs as well: members of the Democratic field have recently discovered that running for President of the Twitter Reality seems to be mutually exclusive with being electable in the meatspace reality, which, at least today, still matters quite a bit politically.

These types of tradeoffs aren’t reserved for just politicians - the tradeoffs apply to humans as well.

Twitter has a powerful zeitgeist that pulls along all of its participants. One way to think about the Twitter zeitgeist is as a massive open-ish source codebase with many, many contributors. Aside from a 280-character commit limit, contribution guidelines are loose, though there are social norms and topics of relevancy to follow if you want your code to actually be invoked in production. Because each commit is so small in relation to the overall size of the codebase, and those commits are merged constantly into production, no one contributor has much control over the direction or quality of the codebase overall. It is a robust system.

Code reviews are involuntary, random, and not-infrequently orthogonal to the intent of the contributor’s contribution. A physicist making a contribution about physics might find a social justice advocate reviewing the contribution for social justice norms; a social justice advocate carelessly drawing a physics metaphor in a social justice contribution might find a physicist explaining technical inconsistencies in the metaphor that was intended to be casual. All happens in front of an audience, driving behavior that might play out differently in public. Participating in this process can be stimulating, but also frustrating or exhausting - it is difficult to foresee the various intersections of “expertise” to which a given contribution might be subjected.

All this to say: I had found recently that the topics I was discussing on Twitter had diverged meaningfully from the topics I was discussing with smaller groups. It isn’t so much that the offline topics were taboo, prohibited, or risky to discuss - it’s more that they required a different level of context than is feasible to convey in a 280-character commit. To continue with this analogy, you might say that deeper content is more appropriately submitted (and received) as a well-documented pull request [Ed.: a collection of many commits] than as an individual commit to master. But the reality is a bit further than that.

When you start off on Twitter, you are so close to the Twitter zeitgeist that your own reality and the Twitter reality is indistinguishable. As you get a bit of a following, those two things begin to diverge a bit more meaningfully, and, as it works with gravity, you are able to move the Twitter zeitgeist a bit in your direction - but the massive pull of Twitter will always move you more in its direction than you will move it in yours. I saw this same phenomenon with accounts many times the size of my own: either surface-level or repetitive content due to the restrictive nature of the medium, and an increasing divergence between subjects they discussed on Twitter vs elsewhere. Past the initial collection of 1,000 or so great thinkers in a given vertical, followings at scale become hero worship at best or troll wars at worst. Continuing to play has diminishing returns.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Derek Sivers: “when you start a business, you create a universe in which you control all the laws.” We talk about this a lot at Stedi. I think it is something that every founder grasps in the very early days, but, as the newness fades away and the pressures begin to mount, the power of defaults - the path of least resistance - leads to a universe that largely mirrors the external universe of business at large.

Another favorite quote is one I heard more recently (on Twitter, for a dose of irony): “building a startup is protecting your ugly baby from everyone who hates it until it grows up.” The same, I think, goes for the universes created around them.

This is all a long way of saying: this newsletter is my attempt at a hard fork from the Twitter zeitgeist that I’ve been participating in these past eight years - a way of bringing you all into the universe I’ve been building these past three, now that it’s pretty enough to start to share.

I hope you’ll enjoy your stay.

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