Consider Phlebas

I'm currently reading book #1 of Iain Bank's Culture series, Consider Phlebas. I bought the 25 anniversary box set, so will make my way through the three books. I'm much better versed in fantasy than science fiction, so if you have suggestions - please comment. 

So far, Banks' work is delightfully weird and refreshingly written for what feels like deep genre. I also love the title, which is taken from TS Eliot's Waste Land:

               IV. Death by Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                   Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Consider Phlebas, indeed. Amazon announced in February that it has acquired the global television rights, making this a likely original series in a year or two. 

Music Saturday: Jazz and the 90s, my first ever Spotify playlist

Pär-Jörgen of Northzone and Fredrik of Creandum had great retrospective posts (here and here) on the Spotify story this week. I never saw Spotify at the Series A (I was at Atlas at the time - here's Fred Destin's Twitter thread reminiscing) and my current partners at Sunstone also passed on that round.

After Skype, ARM and Supercell, Spotify's debut (WSJ, paywall) is testament yet again to Europe's capability of building truly global, sustainable technology businesses. I am in awe of what the team there has built over the years - it just continues to be so much better than the offerings by Apple, Google, Amazon, Rdio, Napster and whoever else tried... (Jay-Z?). 

I went back today to see what my first ever Spotify playlist was (I joined in 2009) and it's "Jazz and the 90s", a slightly histrionic, cheesy but ultimately catchy jazz cover album of various 90s hits. Yes, I'm showing my age here. Best enjoyed as background music. Here's the embed:

P.S. If there's one thing I could change about Spotify, it's their tendency to do zero-rating deals. Please, please support net neutrality and don't let yourself be instrumentalized that way. 

What the US looked like before the EPA

Jason Kottke (happy 20th!) has a post today about what America would look like without the EPA. It has links to the interesting series about the EPA on Popular Science.

I share the Ron Swanson view on government ("as little as possible"), with a few key exceptions. One of those is the natural environment. It's actually a truly "conservative" cause and it baffles me that the GOP doesn't seem on board with that.

We haven't yet found a good way to give common goods real costs. It feels like that could be a blockchain application (though before government adopts something like that... look at the mess that is carbon credits). 

Anyway, some of these pictures of the US in the 70s are incredible. I am very thankful to the environmental movement of the 80s.

The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River, 1973 (Chester Higgins / EPA)

Detroit Lake the Dam, 09/1973 (David Falconer / EPA)

International Paper Company Mill at Jay on the Androscoggin River, 06/1973 (Charles Steinhacker / EPA)

Setting up a DTC Y Combinator in Europe - seed investment in direct-to-consumer brands (€100K-500K)

Ryan Caldbeck (Google Sippenhaft if you were going to say anything) has a very good thread on Twitter (h/t Deepka, Marius, Max, Sia) about figuring out the revolution of direct-to-consumer brands. Read the whole thread starting here:

Lower barriers to entry in supply chain (globalization) + zero barrier to entry in retail (direct ecommerce) + variable marketing costs (internet) = a Cambrian explosion of brands.

This is a big big deal, because the markets are huge (trillions) and the old brands are tired. Low R&D for years + stuck in industrialization mass media consumer advertising retail intermediated mindset = easy to disrupt.

We're currently thinking hard at Sunstone about setting up a program to make it easier for would be DTC founders to get started. A mini-YC or EF, we'd give you €100K to figure out whether what you want to do is viable and put together a team. Then another €500K cheque to test product-market fit. We could do ~10-20 of these deals a year.

UPDATE: Since this post, we have started making seed (€100K-€500K) and Series A (€1-5€M) investments in direct-to-consumer brands all across Europe. If you're running this type of company, we'd love to hear from you. 

There are two easy ways of getting in touch:

- you can put yourself directly into our dealflow CRM via this link (Typeform)

- or you can email me at (this is a bit slower because I get a lot of email)

Google bans crypto ads (this is good)

Have you accidentally turned off your ad blocker lately? Because you could be making $5,000 a day mining sh*tcoin on your Nexus 6.

Yes, this has gone too far. We're actively scamming the normies now. I told my dad about BTC at $300. Well he didn't care then and I really, really don't want him to start caring now.

So Google decided to ban cryptocurrency ads today. Which is an example of ethical capitalism or the consequence of US tort law, take your pick. It also banned a few other financial products, like spreadbetting or CFDs. 

When I looked at the numbers of spreadbetting company IG Index a few years ago, I saw that they were churning through their entire customer base every year. People would give them money, lose that money "trading", then leave. And IG Index would then go and reacquire a new customer base with the message that this is a highly-leveraged trading account. Which it wasn't - it was a casino where the house always won in the end. That's a fine business if you're an entertainment company and your customers are adults who understand that. But IG Index wasn't saying that and hence I've never owned IG Index shares.

To some extent, crypto (or at least what the loud parts of crypto have become) is worse. Don't get me wrong: I'm a full-on crypto anarchist. I love this stuff and I'm totally on board with going stateless. But please don't market crypto to my dad, because he doesn't know what you're solving for:

I think it's true that any investment that's driven primarily by advertising is a bad idea. If you've ever ridden in a black cab in London, you've seen those asset management firms. Or the private banks on the ski slopes in Switzerland. Both are really bad places to put your money. The same is true for crypto that's advertised on Google.

I'm happy that Google is joining Facebook in getting rid of these ads. Perhaps this will put a damper on the full-on scammers for a while.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords - let them do the work

Ironic: it is in nature, and in our nature, to strive. Nature itself is a challenge. It gives life, but it threatens death. Its inclemencies are exigencies: to defy it, we need the loincloth, the dress, the canopy, the hut, the house... and then tools - flint, fire, stone axe, the bridge, wheel, cart, road, steam, electricity... machines.

Natural needs drive research, technology. Subsistence first, and then its higher and higher derivations. Workshops become factories become industrial manufacturing zones with higher and higher output capacities. A product in high desire halfway around the world ramps production, displacing armies of workers - no longer artisans or craftspeople - machine operators, makers of parts-not-wholes. And thus labor separates from laborer; the worker, from the workmanship.

Industrial machinery estranges humans from their work and thus from themselves. I find it very important to note, at this point, that this has nothing to do with capitalism.

Mass production causes the separation of labor, and this costs the worker his dignity. As homo faber, she is little but cog, piece of the production line, material of the transformative process, subject to operations research and rightsizing. Such thinking and doing has been part and parcel of scientific and technical "progress" - unavoidable in Western factories as much as in the anti-capitalist combines and cooperatives.

Nature, which through its exigencies forces such progress, estranges humankind from itself. Anthropomorphically speaking, nature has begun to take revenge for the sins of such progress. Pollution, deforestation, increasing stress levels, competition, freedom limited to vacations and off-work. Somewhere and somewhen, man became guilty of overdoing progress as incited by his very nature.*

And now, with full automation and robotic processes just around the corner, our collective elites sigh and say: millions will be out of work! What a drama.

Let me say just this: rejoice! We may once again be free of the logic of the machine, of the reductionist view of what it is to be alive, free to apply ourselves beyond the horizons of the cog. Rejoice!

*The English language does not have a sufficiently poetic third person non-gendered pronoun. #metoo, if you will.

Damien Hirst and the Unbelievable Wreck of the Art Market

At dinner this evening one of my partners told the story of last year's Damien Hirst mockumentary, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. It sounded like a great bit of entertainment and I just put it on my Netflix list. I looked at bits from the Venice exhibition when it was trashed by critics and was blown away by the elaborateness of it all.

I like Hirst for how he makes me think about art, which means I appreciate some of the criticism, too. I think Felix Salmon really nailed the Hirst phenomenon in his piece in the New Yorker in December: The False Narrative of Damien Hirst’s Rise and Fall.

I'm a cynic when it comes to the art "market", which for me is a toxic cocktail of conspicuous consumption and opaque, frequently fraudulent behavior. And so I love that Hirst unabashedly creates high quality work and sells it at ultra-luxury prices, even if I don't like the aesthetics of much of it. He's the ultimate direct-to-consumer brand in the segment and he's retained a punk rock attitude to building authentic product. More power to him.

Redirect your inner critic to move forward

One thing a lot of high-achieving founders (and VCs) don't like to speak about is their inner critic. Everyone has feelings of inadequacy, of "I'm not good enough for this." Of course, lots of times those feelings are more specific - like a fear of public speaking, social anxiety, fear of failure, a need to fit in, etc.

I sincerely believe everything has a purpose - and so does your inner critic. Each particular message from your inner critic has a particular purpose. So, for example, if you were embarrassed as a kid in school, you created that inner message of not wanting to be embarrassed to protect you in the future. That kind of behaviour could have been very useful in the cruel peer culture of school life, but now is simply a conditioned response that may be holding you back from taking the risks you want to take.

Once you're aware of your inner critic's specific message and how it may have been created, integration requires acknowledgement, acceptance and sometimes redirection: 

- Why is the inner critic showing up today?
- What purpose is it trying to solve by holding you back / how is it trying to protect you?

Then you can give it a new job: since the old purpose is no longer appropriate, what could your inner critic be saying to be helpful today? I like to actually make this a little ritual: release the inner critic from its previous purpose and then affirm its new purpose.

Identifying, understanding, and redirecting your inner critic is an incredibly powerful method to move forward to become more of who we really are. 

Music Saturday: Just Dropped In (Mickey Newbury)

Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) was a big hit for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition in 1968, but the song was written by Mickey Newbury and I've always preferred his rendition (from the Winter Winds album). The man had a phenomenal range and feel. Incidentally it was Jimi Hendrix' favourite song and you may remember it from the Dude's dream sequence in The Big Lebowski. 

Yes, this is about the tough parts of an acid trip. The Newbury version retains more of the warnings that were intended, whereas latter versions become more of a drug anthem. 

Do you know your meme?

I'm a child of the internet post crash. In 2000 I was 22, sitting in the Greenwich offices of Paul Tudor Jones, working for a Tiger cub focused on cyclical industrials. We didn't own a single tech stock. We felt pretty smug watching the NASDAQ crash.

I graduated from business school in 2002 and started a post-graduate degree about marketing in recession. The twin towers had just come down, I hated all my job offers and kind of fell into helping start my first company, We were fans of LiveJournal and Metafilter and Neopets and, of course, Ev Williams who went on to do Odeo which became Twitter. The guy who started LiveJournal, Brad Fitzpatrick, eventually brought you OAuth. Which became "Sign up with Facebook", which started to make the internet suck. But that is Brad's fault as much as it is Ev's fault that Trump is President.  

We sold, my first angel investment, to CBS in 2007. I had joined Atlas Venture as an analyst just a few months prior. That was my first venture gig. Back then, if you wanted to figure out something about internet culture, you read Encyclopedia Dramatica. Unless you hung out on 4chan all day, it was hard to get all the references. 

In 2008, KnowYourMeme got started, and for the last decade it has been the place to go to understand internet culture. The Verge has a nice feature of Brad Kim, who has worked on KnowYourMeme from the start. Go and check it out if you care about how we got to and where we go from here.