Early Ideas

The last few weeks have been productive, albeit wide-ranging. I’m still in the research phase of starting a company, but my patience for research is running out. In this post, I’ll outline some ideas I keep coming back to, at least one of which I hope to pursue in the coming months.

The ideas vary in impact and difficulty, as well as specificity. Some are merely areas of interest where I feel opportunities will reveal themselves as I go deeper. As Paul Graham describes in How to Get Startup Ideas (also discussed in my last post), often the best strategy is to get to the “leading edge of some rapidly changing field”, then pay close attention to the problems that you and others are running into.

Decentralized Apps

The next evolution of the internet (often referred to as web 3.0, or the decentralized web) is in the works and will likely involve some combination of peer-to-peer networks (P2P), blockchain / crypto, a focus on privacy and security, and a general shift toward decentralizing anything that can be decentralized effectively. No one knows exactly how things will unfold, though many smart people believe the changes will be transformative and make for a much better future.

Most of the innovation to date has been at the infrastructure layer (e.g. Ethereum, IPFS / Filecoin, Blockstack), though we’re starting to see some interesting and useful applications emerge (e.g. Brave / BAT, Augur). I’m mostly interested in the application layer. Fred Wilson predicts the first killer decentralized consumer app (or dapp) will appear toward the end of this decade. Maybe I can help speed up that process :).

As an interesting side note, when Vitalik Buterin (creator of Ethereum) was recently asked what kinds of people are most needed in the crypto space right now, he said “product people”. I think that describes me (professionally) as well as any two words could.

Social Giving

There are many big problems in the world, some of which could be solved with more money.

For example, diarrhea kills 800,000 children every year. That’s more than 2,000 per day, making it the second leading cause of death for children under 5 (pneumonia is first). According to the CDC, not only are these deaths preventable using simple, low-cost interventions, but $1 invested in diarrhea prevention yields an average return of $25.50. Until recently, I was totally ignorant of this, and I imagine the same is true for most people living in rich countries where diarrhea is no more than a temporary nuisance. (For more examples—many of which correlate with extreme poverty—I recommend reading the book Factfulness.)

So why can’t we make problems like this disappear? I’m not an expert on the topic, but it seems to me there are a few barriers that should be removed:

  1. A general lack of awareness of where the highest impact opportunities are for giving
  2. Unnecessary friction between the decision to give and the ability to follow through on giving
  3. Individuals’ often unfulfilled desire to be recognized by others for their giving

I can’t help but wonder whether a mobile app could help to address all three of these issues by directing people to well-researched, high-impact charities, using the same in-app payments technology that makes it so easy to pay for other things on your phone (e.g. Face ID), and layering a social experience on top of it all so everyone you care about (friends, family, coworkers, etc.) knows when and where you give (think Venmo’s social feed, but actually useful).

This idea could be taken one step further by using gamification (or even cryptoeconomics) to incentivize certain behaviors.

Attention Economics

It’s never been easier to communicate with other people. This makes many things possible that were either impossible or inconvenient for previous generations, like collaborating with people across time zones or getting real-time updates on your best friend’s newborn. But it also means that each of us is inundated with constant requests for our attention, generally in the form of a vibrating pocket or purse—emails, texts, calls, WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

I believe one of the biggest problems with modern communication is that, while it’s easier than ever to send a message, there’s generally no cost to spending other people’s attention. The cost is incurred by the recipient of a message rather than the sender. This tax on our attention has dire consequences for our productivity, happiness, and even IQ. It seems to me that creating a more efficient market for attention could be the most effective way to mitigate this.

I could see this taking many different forms. For example, instead of someone endlessly “bumping something to the top of your inbox” by resending an email you purposefully ignored, maybe they should have to pay for the privilege so they are forced to weigh the importance of getting your attention against the financial cost of doing so. Or perhaps, instead of berating a colleague on Slack about an overdue task, you and others could “upvote” it on their shared to-do list (where each person is permitted a maximum of, say, 5 votes a day) and vice versa. The workplace is probably the easiest place to experiment with such systems, since most distractions are “friendly fire” and the returns on investment to reducing unnecessary distractions are high.

Meeting Analytics

We spend an ungodly amount of time in meetings and research shows that most are unproductive. Besides being a persistent waste of time and productivity, unproductive meetings are a drag on employee morale. Unfortunately, it’s rare for a company and its employees to collect and analyze useful data about meetings in an effort to make them fewer and more productive.

There are many questions to be answered. How much time are we spending in meetings as a company? How do the numbers compare across teams and individuals? Which meetings do participants consider to be most productive? Which are unproductive and why? For the teams that consistently have more productive meetings, what are they doing differently? As an individual, do my colleagues perceive me as being a helpful contributor in meetings? How, specifically, can I improve?

It’s fairly simple to answer these questions by creating a tool that integrates with, say, Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook, tallies up useful metrics, administers short automated post-meeting surveys, then presents everything in a dashboard that’s tailored for people at various levels of a company (individual contributors, managers, and executives).