Edition 4: Digital Natives

The physical world goes digital and technology goes human.

In this week’s edition of The Lobby, I’m thinking about two macro trends: the increasing accessibility and ubiquity of making a living online, and the ever-closer pairing of our bodies with technology. Hope you enjoy!

Born to the Internet, Grew Up Fast in a Pandemic

Ratatouille taught us that anyone can cook. In the internet age, anyone can run an online business.

When the pandemic hit in the spring semester, about a third of students lost their jobs, according to Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. Many of them have had to get creative, taking advantage of a digital economy that grew up around them while college was still a far-off dream.

This is an interesting profile on creative ways several college students are utilizing the internet to make ends meet. As our ability to work in person has been decimated by the pandemic, more and more are turning to internet earning platforms for new opportunities - selling crafts on Etsy, freelancing on Upwork, opening online stores via Shopify, trading stocks on Robinhood, even advertising by building viral buzz on YouTube and TikTok. These days, an internet connection is all one needs to convert their time and expertise into revenue.

Etsy and Amazon allow just about anyone to sell their products on an online marketplace, making their products discoverable by millions, sort of an evolution to the eBay model of personal commerce, and helping people avoid the costly overhead that accompanies physical storefronts. As analyst Ben Thompson describes in the Power of Platforms, platforms like Shopify take it a step further by empowering creators and merchants to craft a customized experience (with an ecosystem of apps and fellow creators), giving them the tools to differentiate their offerings.

Whatever the use case and level of commitment, now is every creative’s time to shine: people have more capacity than ever to produce goods and services of their own accord, and the internet provides an incredibly accessible and powerful method of distribution. The barrier to entry is the lowest it’s ever been.

In the past, you could only open a store if you made enough sales to keep the doors open. When location mattered, you had to appeal to a broad enough swath of your local demographics to stay in business. But with zero operating overhead, you can create and sell to extremely specific audiences - and given the vast reach of the internet, you’re just about guaranteed to be discovered by your target demographic. This means that, given near-infinite niches, pretty much any creator can sell to a particular demand online (there’s always money in the internet banana stand).

It makes perfect sense that a generation raised on the internet now turns to it for work opportunities as well. The pandemic is only accelerating an inevitable future where internet commerce is king, and business will be conducted online by default.

Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company

For years, my only metric of success was building a billion-dollar company. Now, I realize that was a terrible goal. It’s completely arbitrary and doesn’t accurately reflect impact.

This is a fascinating tell-all from Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad, about the story of his startup’s failure and subsequent conversion to a lifestyle business. Gumroad is a platform through which sellers can simply earn money by charging for creative content, sort of like a simpler and more generic Etsy.

Like the author, I sometimes entertain delusions of being a tech founder and self-made billionaire, before remembering that the glamor and glitz of the lifestyle largely lives in the public’s imagination. This post tells a realistic tale - beginning with grand aspirations and venture-funded expectations, experiencing the slowdown in growth and downfall, before finding the light at the end of the tunnel.

I failed, but I also succeeded at many other things. Gumroad turned $10 million of investor capital into $178 million (and counting) for creators. Without a fundraising goal coming up, we’re simply focused on building the best product we can for our customers.

There’s been a steady trend in recent years of startups avoiding venture funding, unless they’re tackling really hard problems that absolutely need to be frontloaded with capital. For example, there are over 25 self driving startups, and it’s conceivable that they all need to be flush with venture money as they won’t be making any revenue until a viable product comes to life.

For many other businesses, however, bigger is not better, and more money means more problems. Growth is the goal, not building the best product possible. And even the rapid growth Gumroad achieved was not particularly impressive when the stakes were so high. Venture funding is only about hitting grand slams, and anything short of that may as well be a strikeout. While this attitude may be good for identifying the next trillion dollar idea, it creates unhealthy growth incentives for businesses with ideas that are smaller in scale, but still valuable.

Elon Musk Unveils Brain Computer Implanted in Pigs

Musk has tried to stress the health benefits of this type of brain-machine interface technology… Someone who had a stroke and lost the ability to speak, for example, could simply think what they want to say, and their words could be said aloud by a computer or typed onto a screen.

Of course, Musk also sees more futuristic applications of these implants like the ability to create a high-bandwidth link between humans and machines. A la The Matrix, you might be able to download a language instantly or learn martial arts, Musk has suggested. The end goal, at least for Musk, would be to help humans keep pace with artificial intelligence.

Flipping to the other side of the coin, here’s another Musk venture that’s so far out from our current reality that it’s difficult to know what to make of it.

At face value, the idea of a brain implant that slots into your skull is frightening. There are clearly endless possibilities, and while we can imagine the really beneficial ones: helping the paralyzed walk again, fighting dementia at the source, even downloading skills and languages - we can also imagine some really dystopian possibilities where no one is really in control of their own mental faculties. If you can save and replay your own memories, what’s to stop the device from removing your memories entirely - or implanting falsified ones?

It’s all very sci-fi and far fetched, but Neuralink is making strides to show that this future is closer than we think. It does seem like a reasonable progression for the portability of computing: from mainframe to personal computer, personal computer to mobile phone, mobile phone to wearable, wearable to… brain implant? Musk himself referred to the “link” as a “Fitbit for the brain”.

Anyways, society will be watching this one with equal parts fascination and horror. We can always trust Elon to push us in directions no sane capitalist has ventured before.

Amazon Halo price, release date and what you need to know about the fitness tracker

Amazon frequently forges its way into new kinds of tech, with tablets, ereaders, smart speakers, headphones, TVs, and lots of smart home products, and now it's launched a fitness tracker too: meet the Amazon Halo.

This brand new tracker from Amazon goes on your wrist, not in your brain, but it still captures a really impressive amount of data, from normal biometrics to your speech, as it can determine your tone of voice to tell if you’re stressed.

It’s no secret that every major tech conglomerate at this point is interested in gobbling up every iota of your personal information, and Amazon is surprisingly late to the game with this in-house device. It does come with some interesting developments, particularly “Labs” - basically, apps created by “scientists and experts” that leverage your biometric data. Call it the app store for wellness, and your body is the hardware.

The humanization of tech, or rather, the merging of the human body and consciousness with technology, is practically inescapable at this point. The only questions are which companies are driving the integration, and how far we will go before ethicists can draw a clear barrier between man and machine.

On this device in particular, given Amazon’s history with consumer devices (see: Fire phone), I’m not particularly bullish. It’ll be tough to draw the fitness tracker crowd away from the better integrated Apple Watch, or incumbent and Alphabet-backed Fitbit. But if some particularly compelling Labs are released, unlocking some functionality that can’t be enabled by the Apple Watch, Amazon could still have its day.

If the Amazon Halo is Jeff’s secret to big biceps, put me on the waiting list.

On August 28, 2020, Chadwick Boseman returned to the Ancestral Plane. Though I only knew him for his work on Black Panther, the eulogies I’ve been reading paint the portrait of a man of incredible talent, grace, and humility - a real king on and off screen. We all have something to learn from him. Rest in peace and power.