the world we make
Reflections on creating companies, products, and things that matter
Sunday, February 13, 2022
Monday, January 10, 2022
The beauty of raw and physical things
Over the years, my life and time have been immersed in increasingly abstract and complex topics. Data science, machine learning, and product development methods have taken most of my attention. I stare at computer screens constantly. I have craved a deeper connection with the physical world.
About 15 months ago, my wife returned home from a music trivia game with her friends, in which one of the topics was called "Men and Makeup." She crushed it. She intimately knew the works of David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Prince. Listening to her account, I found myself thinking about the beauty of cosmetics, not just the beauty created by them, and the unexplored spaces for men to beautify themselves. After years of MAGA-ridden toxicity, would not the world be better, if men did more to cherish beauty, and in part, made more effort to make themselves more beautiful? Don't those attracted to men, especially those who work so hard to make themselves beautiful in the eyes of men, deserve gorgeous men?
I began to poke at this slowly. I reached out to cosmetics experts and chemists. I also began to purchase cosmetics and experiment with them on myself. I found great joy in products by Tom Ford and Channel. I also benefitted from healthier skin and greater confidence in my appearance.
Yet I found little or no products specific to my wants and needs. I enjoy my appearance as a man. I do not want to look like a beautiful woman, but rather, want to improve my appearance as a man. Consequently, most products are not designed for me.
To explore this gap, I have set about making my own products. Initially they were simple, DIY projects in my kitchen, making lip balm or hand salve. But with time, I my experiments have become more methodical and complex. I have purchased professional lab equipment. I read books about organic chemistry and the molecular structure of common ingredients. I think about bonds, preservation, and shelf life.
I have also began to document my works. There is great beauty to be found in the material. The design of a skin product is a tactile experience, rich with colors and scents. There is much joy here to be found outside of computers, connecting us to each other through our senses.
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
Between the many realms of matter
For over a decade, I chased visions of a future life. I didn't want to watch adventure movies, I sought adventures. I didn't want to read about brainy problem solvers. I wanted to become one. I befriended authors, journalists, and humanitarian juggernauts. Now moving into my forties, I can't help but wonder what might be a better use of my time these days. Spend children with my kids. Have a great marriage. Be a good husband. Ignore all those insecure folks trying to show how smart they are. Just be alive and in touch. It seems like a better way these days.
I went to a concert last night and it was beautiful. Did everything go perfectly? Absolutely not. Was it better than stressing about some startup, publication, or certification? 10,000 times yes.
Saturday, August 28, 2021
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
How will the city of Kabul work under Taliban rule?
Now that the Taliban is in charge, images and videos are leaking out of Taliban representatives meeting with hospital staff, bank employees and government offices. The new authorities all promote the same message, "don't quit what you are doing, just keep working, we are not here to harm or disrupt you." This sounds okay, but if we think ahead six months or two years, what will this look like? After all, these institutions now function within networks of global finance and medical logistics. These are not isolated huts like they had in 1990s. If the Taliban does not participate within systems of global governance, these institutions will not be able to sustain themselves. So when we look at the city of Kabul, what is in store in the coming years?
For nearly 20 years, much of my career has been focused on the topic of urban planning and conflict cities. I lived in Kabul for three years, and during that time, I provided training on city management to nearly 300 members of the city administration. I sat at the big long tables beside the Mayor of Kabul, with representatives of the World Bank, USAID, and the UN to discuss progress and gaps in urban reconstruction. I provided GIS and research services to research organizations such as CAPS and AREU. I built data with field researchers and built technical assessments, such as this report for USIP. I also conducted novel research which I presented at the MIT Media Lab. In parallel, I travelled across Northern and Eastern Africa to bring the same expertise to problems of water distribution, conflict, environmental devastation, and youth militarization. When I see the Taliban take over, today I don't just see the present day, I see a pattern of events unfolding that will redefine daily life for everyone in Kabul.
As to how the city will organizationally operate under Taliban rule, we've seen this before. When ISIS was at the height of its power, thousands of civil servants drudged to the office everyday to do their jobs. They were not paid for weeks or months, yet they were expected to work with "business as usual." This maintained the facade of governance, but behind the current, was otherwise dependent on shadow markets. Al Shabaab operated in a slightly similar manner for many years in Somalia. This is not a true working government, it's more like the facade of a working government. If you've heard stories in the 1980s about the USSR factories creating forks, to melt them down, and create forks again - the metaphor is apt. Most of these continued operations will have little direction or impact on day-to-day life.
When the governments expect federal services to persist with no economic underpinning, creative do solutions pop up. ISIS became renown for the export and smuggling of of biblical antiquities. Shabaab was highly dependent on the export and sale of charcoal from the port of Kismaayo. In 2011, through on the ground research, I uncovered how Shabaab managed to monetize its presence within immigrant communities, acting as investors, educators, advisors, and security services. We should expect similar activities from the Taliban.
The export of heroin was a mainstay during their previous rule. The reality is that this crop just doesn't bring enough money. These men are likely willing to leverage the new institutions that have been built over the last twenty years, and thus tap into other forms of agricultural production and export already in use. Consequently, it is likely they can increase economic production far beyond the current rate within multiple sectors including animal husbandry, mineral exploration, agriculture, limited industry and banking. With China has an immediate neighbor and partner, the opportunity exists to build a thriving import/export market. China already has a footprint within Kabul for the supply of technical expertise, and if this grows, Afghanistan will awkwardly look like a success story under Taliban rule.
However, the new government may lack the expertise to mobilize and transition their economy. No doubt, they very likely have some PhD economists in their folds looking to introduce a new model of Sharia economics. This kind of vision is new and uncertain. The fusion of social policy with Islamic finance and global economics frameworks is nothing new - we can look to countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Qatar as proof. However, the revisionist interpretations of those policies in conflict with modern systems will create jarring outcomes.
Foremost, we should expect erratic pricing for housing in the near term, then rather static and stable market. Housing has long been a nightmare in Kabul. Conditions are poor and costs are high - for everyone. For the last twenty years, massive defensive walls have been built around the city, which additionally undermine basic business and movement. These will remain. The loss of international money may partially stabilize the local housing market by forcing the price range to shrink with an otherwise static supply, which will be seen as a boon for the local population.
As the monetary systems erode, the "government workers" are left to do with less, but continue operating and maintaining broken infrastructure. Yet without capital to invest in materials, replace parts, or upgrade machinery, these will rapidly deteriorate. Power outages are already common, but lack of power will become the standard, and access to electricity will be tied more heavily to bribing and relationships. Furthermore, we can expect the service sector to survive and the production of goods to drop, creating rapid inflation. Commodities like Redbull will become scarce, while locally produced goods such as vegetables and Wool will be in high supply.
In 3-5 years, new problems will emerge. Eventually, the existing physical infrastructure will erode if international commerce is not achieved. When this happens, we can expect that presently centralized services to get broken into privatized offerings. When Mogadishu lacked a government, there was no central power grid. There was instead a fragmented patchwork of electricity providers, entrepreneurs who had large generators and offered electricity within their social network. Kabul will likely see the same.
As an exception, we can expect some forms of infrastructure to succeed. Mobile phone systems and the mobile internet access will continue to grow and proliferate. Companies such as Roshan, MTN, and Etiselat will continue to succeed in light of limited regulation and high demand. Individuals with expertise in the creation and deployment of mobile towers and information networking will have a higher demand from a smaller number of clients. Afghanistan already has nation wide software running to negate the inflow of pornography, images of Alcohol, or other related content. These systems will continue to run, but will eventually fall into disrepair, becoming less effective over time. The use of VPNs will proliferate. Finally, we must recognize that very little new physical infrastructure will be created or it will be created very slowly. The network of roads, water and sanitation systems built in the last twenty years will likely not expand.
Projects will rarely happen - if they do, they will be done potentially with more efficiency than now because there are less obstacles to implementation under the totalitarian regime. These physical systems will become safer and more accessible as the political landscape is now simplified. There will only be one fee to pay for road access, with far less bribes, and far less complexity among stakeholders and actors. The growth in use could fund continued maintenance and expansion, but this will be dependent on the consolidation and growth of expertise. Via ties to Pakistan, the civil engineering expertise may be in place, considering that the majority of civil engineers who built the current infrastructure were from, or educated within, Pakistan. Shabaab and ISIS maintained very aggressive tax systems under their implementation of Sharia. I expect the same in Afghanistan. The question is how those taxes will be used.
In the end, we can expect consolidation, decay, and uneven patterns of rampant growth. Modern industries will likely thrive. Traditional industries - such as the local production of Coca-Cola - will die. Housing stock will typically not change, though access to housing will improve. There will be a massive reduction in social conflict. As the international community and experimental government of Afghanistan were never truly successful in rolling out modern legal systems for land use - such as deed and titles - we can expect there to be less conflict on these topics now, but simultaneously less documentation. The information layers - maps, records, audits - that drive modern software systems will dry up too. If the Taliban can broker working economic relationships with its regional neighbors, we will see some advances, but growth will be irregular from the combination of extreme cultural and social policies with inconsistent economic policies.
Thursday, July 1, 2021
Reflections on non-dilutive investment
I have many friends who build companies. Most of them need money. I haven't entirely mapped out the spectrum, but there are clearly multiple combinations of entrepreneur type and investment type that define a winning or losing business model.
For example, I know people who grew up wealthy, have innate access to informal and professional investors, and have direct access to good guidance. A holiday meal might include sage advice from a seasoned business executive or an offer to make introductions.
I never had this. Rather, for many years I lived on the other side, with no access to information or individuals beyond whatever I might find and create myself. I read dozens of books on the topic. I attempted to create companies with no input beyond whatever I found in those books. And through trial and error, I built a particular understanding about how you build a vision, then translate that vision into a physical business with a great team that makes great things. I frequently meet with and try to help other aspiring entrepreneurs who are also starting from zero.
Along the way I've met many people somewhere in the middle. Frequently these individuals have a strong technical skill. They get really good at creating software or designing products, and through hard work, eventually get access to opportunities. Maybe their product line get's deep investment from the parent company then spun out. Maybe they meet a combination of other investors and engineers and just happen to stumble into a new position. This has happened to me too, where I had network of talent and a body of IP, when someone else had the capital and a need.
More recently, though, I've begun to think about building investment capital without giving too much away. Kickstarter, for example, has helped many people launch a business. IndieGoGo has done the same. Now with the rise of platforms such as Shopify and tools like Hubspot, I wonder to what extent do those platforms remain necessary? Are there other ways to assemble non-dilutive capital to launch a company? I suspect there are, but what is offered in exchange? What is the threshold of this model? And how exactly would you do it? I'm not sure, but no doubt, the answers are out there.
Sunday, June 27, 2021
Build something that matters
Years ago I wrote an article about building something from nothing. Years later that doesn't cut it. It isn't enough to just build something. You have to build something significant and profound.
There many startups at Carnegie Mellon University, the world's leading institution for artificial intelligence. When you talk to the people building them, you'll quickly realize that these people rarely think about the business - they are thinking about the technology. These companies consist of a magical sensor, a web of sensors, or stream of data. These companies assume that customers exist who need such magical sensors. Sometimes it is true. Sometimes people really do need that missing piece of data. But many times, only one person needed it.
Designing the business is altogether different. In many ways, a great business doesn't require a great technology. Often the business model is really old. Buy low and sell high. Information arbitrage. If you can find the business model that has always worked then accelerate it with novel technology, it will probably work. Why? Because people are usually getting something they can't get somewhere else. They are getting something special. The transaction is faster, but the product actually matters.
So do that. Build things that matter.
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Emergent startups and concrete production
I started working at the age of 14. I was bagging groceries and stocking shelves at the neighborhood grocer. The place was kinda gross. Weird things happened. The butcher stole steaks. The stock boys smoked cigarettes behind the building. People slept in the doorway overnight. Daily, I'd have to wander the neighborhood searching for shopping carts, folks had used to transport their groceries home. But we all knew who the boss was. Ken. Ken was a bulky man with a larger mustache. He was in charge. It was a messy franchise, but it was his messy franchise, and he let you know it. Paid only $4.15 per hour, I worked my heart out for him.
As an adult, I've encountered many organizations including tightly coordinated military units, massive enterprise software providers, high tech cost centers, and horizontal startups. The last one, the horizontal start up, is tough.
For a long time, I figured horizontal was everything. I tried to practice it too. But I learned through trial and error that many this approach is the result of uncertain leaders. Individuals who never had to lead diffuse their power through others. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
When it does work, it is because you have the best talent on hand. Those individuals know how to mobilize, coordinate, and get things done. It works well.
When it doesn't work, it is because the talent isn't there. People work in shadows. People talk too much or not at all. Projects never have a clean end, but sprawl and never get truly finished.
Either way, a company must have the ability to draw a line, to a diagram, end to end how the widgets get fabricated. Maybe Ken designs it. Maybe the team stumbles until they figure it out. Either way, the company is only getting started when there is visible, universal alignment on the widget making.
If the process is only in your head, trust me, it is only in your head. Get drawing.
or reload the browser
Friday, March 12, 2021
How to Build Something from Nothing
The article was initially published on 1/27/16 at www.humanitarianspace.com. It has been relocated here for continuity.
Trying to explain my day job to the American Geographical Society at Geo2050. November 2015.
- No Ego. Any given person cannot be central or necessary to the operation of the entity or its continuation. If you design an entity according to the objectives, emotions, and expectations of one or two people - including yourself- then it will fail to succeed over time because it will forever be limited by the constraints that you alone carry or will carry. You can be a stakeholder in your own work but it should not be about or for you. It should not be designed to serve you (especially if this is to be a profitable business). For successful startups, this is often phrased in an epic mission statement... but it doesn't have to be so bold. It simply must serve others more than it serves yourself. If it cannot be justified as such, then it is not likely a worthwhile pursuit.
- Build Psychological Scaffolding. The components of the entity exist as a suspension - not a mixture -so that the tensions are just as critical to the success as the harmonies. For example, if building a business, you cannot expect everyone to get along, so your odds of success improve if the business is designed to leverage hostilities between people. You cannot expect to like all your employees. You cannot expect to always be pleased by performance or to hire excellent people. So what is the plan? You can rotate through a constant stream of people, but nothing will grow from this except your own frustration. To build something, you must expect have a range of personalities and capabilities, and many will conflict so build for that conflict, not to avoid it. Certainly there are times you need to ditch people, but typically, as long as they are reliable enough to show up, you can design the work in relation to their strengths and ask little of their weaknesses while leveraging the internal conflicts into new opportunities for the organization.
- Resources are Flux. You cannot plan to rely upon any given resource pools, but must draw from finite resources that shift as distributions, compiled from diverse locations, and all resources have expiration dates. If you design and build an entity to rely upon a specific person, idea, model, or finance strategy, and these variables are orchestrated to come together with the expectation of a particular timing, you might succeed once or twice but then it will fail. Don't bother with that. You are wasting resources. It is at least a great place to start as people are forever the greatest resource. According to "Lean Startup" you should design your product for a specific person with a specific problem - and I agree - that sensibility must drive the initial design. But people change, and you should expect that user to change as your solution is introduced, so you need to design for change over time, and not just for clients but also for investors, partners, and employees.
- Embrace Suffering. Do not build an entity with the intention that "all will come together and it will be great." Instead, design and build it for the bad times. Imagine the worst possible scenario - what and who do you want by your side to manage that bad time? .If you created pathways for people to manage projects in different ways, to embrace different communication styles, and to maximize agility then you will be in a better position (see psychological scaffolding). But more importantly, seize the pain - its only temporary when it happens but those are the most important moments. Ben Horowitz likes to talk about "CEOs in times of war and peace." The times of war - budget cuts, lost contracts, massive layoffs - are profound human experiences and it is those moments that define the future of the organization. Build to suffer.
- Generative Action-Thoughts Win. Often a new risky idea is proposed and someone (sadly the boss) will shut down these new ideas, usually because they fail to understand one of the above principals. Many people also want to talk about a given idea or possibility for a long period of time. A better tactic - always - is to support a very small and rapid physical experiment on that idea. A pencil drawing on a piece of paper, a quick survey on the street, or a couple phone calls will typically pull in new information and ways of thinking about the problem. Physical things and processes change the conversation and stupid ideas become radical insights. Always veer toward physical things - not ideas.
Advancing New Economic Models by Design
The article was initially published on 5/2/17 at www.humanitarianspace.com. It has been relocated here for continuity.
A few weeks ago I had to opportunity to spend a couple days at the Urban Planning Department of Cornell University. I was impressed by the graceful way this group was able to move fluidly between rigorous quantitive analytics and participatory public processes. Yet for all the brilliance I found among faculty and students, it became clear to me how much urban planning education lacks sufficient focus on design methods.
I am not referring to design as urban design or architecture. I am referring to the ability to translate a series of complex social and technical processes into physical form. I am referring to the ability to translate ambiguity into action and to oversee the transmission of that action to generate results. This is not the same as project management or the mere practice of the profession. Rather, given the massive range of assets are available in urban planning for engagement and analysis, the discipline completely lacks a rigorous methodological framework for what actions to implement by consequence of the planning process. If the discipline of urban planning stops with pitching the plan - then planners deserve to be disappointed when their work does not reach fruition.
This realization explains much about the disappointments of the planning profession - such as the constant repetition of "off the shelf" solutions such as green roofs, walkable streets, and historic main street development initiatives. These tactics are fine - but why such a small range of possible outputs in a world of more than 2.5 million cities, towns, and villages? Basic statistical intuition suggests that a profession dedicated to building new futures and generating new economic development initiatives would capture a broader range of possible solutions.
To consider the urban planning process is to recognize that it remains rooted in a Waterfall design methodology - which has been proven to drive up costs and reduce stakeholder participation. Most socio-technical systems have long since discovered that Waterfall methodologies fail to consider the variability of human actors, and thus tend to fail. While organizations continue to search for replicable solutions utilizing scientific research designs and clinical trial models, the assets of localized place-based development go ignored or fail to scale.
Private sector technical sectors have shifted toward lean frameworks, agile methods, and other systems rooted in rapid feedback to avoid the high risk approach of waterfall planning. Unfortunately this understanding has yet to see the light in American politics where sweeping legislative action is the norm - not iterative improvement and variation. Urban planning, a field long aligned with design, has an opportunity to update to the 21st century - but it needs to start in education. Design is more than architecture, it is the execution of ambiguity into meaningful consequences.
The Art Academy of Cincinnati - Education to be Radical, Relentless, & Radiant
"there are three kinds of people you want to launch a business: the person with the idea, the person with the financial sense, and the person who makes you say 'what the fuck?' The last is the person who can rip ideas apart, remix them, and flip everything upside down to generate breakthroughs that no one else can see."
|Blackmoutain College w/ Buckminster Fuller|
|2017 Commencement Address|
|Art Academy of Cincinnati|