If you have two car dealerships, and one of them offers financing… which one do you think will sell more cars?
Many start-ups are match-makers that become irrelevant as soon as the buyer and seller party are acquainted. There is value created in these “marketplaces” but founders are stumped when it comes to capturing any of that value for themselves.
My proposal: make it possible to finance the purchase of goods via instant approval financing, presented as a first-class option alongside Visa and PayPal.
Let's say a founder is passionate about something enough that they create a directory of every place to obtain it, complete with recommendations and reviews. Blood, sweat and tears are emitted and a community emerges. They make no attempt to cheapen the experience through advertising, bait-and-switch membership requirements or elaborate tracking schemes.
The founder can approach every vendor listed in their directory with an opportunity to expand their customer base to include people who don't have cash in hand. They would be paid instantly and never have the hassle of dealing with financial institutions themselves. In exchange, they would agree to give up some percentage of their gross profit on the transaction.
Of course the vendors don't have to agree to participate, at the expense of implicit second-class treatment in the directory. There are many people who simply can not complete a transaction unless the option of credit is on the table.
This kind of system already exists: Pay4Later is a successful company providing this service to UK retailers today. The company was covered on TechCrunch back in 2010, and my [admittedly cursory] investigation into their developer documentation suggests that they are the real deal.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence is that they have competition: Hitachi offers PaybyFinance and there are others.
Sadly, there's no comparable service that I can find for US or Canadian companies. It's a tightly regulated industry and a legitimate company would have to spend millions of dollars in legal fees to get the regulators to consider a new way of doing things. Regulators don't see the glow of opportunity through the fog of unknowable risk.
Toronto's FinanceIt would seem to be poised to offer instant approval financing online, but they have no intention of doing so thanks to the rigid inflexibility of the powers that be.
Technically companies like Wonga (260% APR) and MoneyMart (up to 599.64% APR) could get into this space, but nobody should want that. You can't care about your users and send them into the jaws of sociopathic usurers in the same breath.
How do large middle-men stay relevant in the Google era? Usually through banding together and hiring lawyers and lobbyists to intimidate and pay off politicians that will uphold protectionist laws. You can see the fear Uber puts into the taxi industry, and the laughable, red-faced rage of car dealerships throwing temper-tantrums when Tesla only sells their cars online.
The trade organizations that exist to keep anti-competitive laws in place aren't suggesting that their member companies are doing anything precious or special. They can only rely on making sure that people are afraid of change.
Somehow, it's sanctioned behaviour for certain kinds of companies to demand legal protection from competition. This is nepotistic counter-innovation in it's most ugly state.
Stifling competition to ensure profit? Legal.
Lacking the monopoly scale of eBay or Craigslist, any attempt to introduce additional process overhead to an existing, well-understood flow — whether it be brokered communication, transaction fees or even just a simple account creation — is often a disaster.
The web has done an excellent job of purging the world's bottom-feeding middle-men. The travel, real-estate, and used vehicle industries will never be the same, thank goodness.
This market efficiency has come at a terrible cost to those who would seek to make a profit in benevolent arbitrage. Those brave souls who want help someone find what they are looking for are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Advertising makes your site look cheap and generates pennies a month unless you're operating at a large scale. Few visitors will complete even a free account creation process and fewer still would dutifully report successful financial transactions made. Once the potential customer leaves to go to a 3rd party site, you're unlikely to hear from either the buyer or seller ever again. There's no mechanism for oversight.
Instant-approval financing would be one possible way for a marketplace to add value. Too bad: it's not legal.
Without substantial progress towards dismantling the status quo, most value-added listings directory founders would be best advised to keep their day jobs.
When “Invitation to Svbtle” showed up in my Inbox, I did a little happy dance in my living room.
My quiet return to blogging after many years happened last Fall, on Tumblr. I purchased a theme that I really liked, and got comfortable with the WYIWYG editing environment there. I did my best to embrace the constraints and get into the flow of things by following some interesting folks and watching how they used the platform.
I admit that I was hoping that the Tumblr social graph would bring some new readers. I quickly realized that there was no golden goose. Most of the Tumblr sites that get thousands of likes and reblogs are run by attractive young women with disproportionate numbers of lurker followers, or genuinely funny themed blogs that people love to send to friends.
It's also fair to say that the generally technical topics I write about are just not a good fit for Tumblr's culture.
At any rate, as soon as Svbtle was announced, it seemed like a platform that I could get behind. Minimalist design, impressive company and an editorial strategy. Sign me the fuck up!
Yes, it's a bit exclusive. I'm proud to be amongst great writers that I respect, and I feel like I'm part of a club. I promise I won't let it go to my head. Mostly, I'm just happy that people seem to enjoy the things I write about.
Making the move
Getting set up on Svbtle was easy. In addition to entering my domain name I was asked to pick an icon from The Noun Project and an accent colour. I chose a Hasselblad camera and “Elle Etait Belle”, which was the most popular green on ColourLovers.
I then back-posted 4-5 recent posts from my Tumblr blog. I had to copy the body text and convert it to Markdown. This meant manually going through each post and applying all of the hyperlinks, bolding, lists and images. Svbtle allows you to drag an image file into the markup editor, and it will upload the file to a CDN and insert the appropriate Markdown directive to link to it automatically. Cool!
I set the dates back to the same minute they'd been posted on Tumblr, and verified that the vanity URLs were the same.
Of course, I didn't want to cut over the DNS A records to the new site until the conversion was done, so I had to resort to putting an entry into my /etc/hosts and having Safari open. This made previewing my conversions really difficult, because of course Svbtle is trying to load things up with my domain name which is still pointing to Tumblr. Changes to the way Mac OS 10.8 handle DNS cache flushing (short version: not well at all) made this a really tedious process, but I lived to tell the tale.
Eventually I pushed a new DNS zone update for my domain, and well, here we are.
The best for last
The main reason that I wrote this post was to share something that I thought was really great about my experience with Svbtle so far.
I realized early on that maintaining permanent URIs on my old posts was important to me. Broken links hurt the web, and even though I'm not an A-list blogger (yet!) I am a conscientious web citizen and I wanted to do the right thing.
This is because Tumblr supports reading posts on tumblr.com, and there's nothing preventing two or more people from having the same vanity URL. The number scheme ensures that there won't ever be a namespace collision.
Unsurprisingly, Svbtle does not allow writers to set up a vanity url that includes forward-slash symbols. Prepared for defeat, I emailed Dustin Curtis and told him what I was up against. I suggested that perhaps he could add the ability to set up some manual redirects. It wasn't a particularly good solution, as it would probably introduce all sorts of problems down the road.
I didn't really expect to hear back.
Several minutes later Dustin let me know that he had implemented a site-wide check that would test for a Tumblr-style URL scheme. Instead of returning a 404 Not Found, it would intercept the URL and issue a 301 Permanently Moved header that pointed to the Svbtle-style URL. All modern browsers silently redirect visitors to the correct location without any user interaction.
Aside from being grateful to Dustin for removing a blocker for me to use his service, I am struck by how awesome it is to feel I am a part of something made by real people. Knowing that those people are willing and able to take action on good ideas when they get them is a great feeling.
First, I'd completely blocked out how the show ended from my memory, because I think it upset me at the time. As an adult I am blown away at how you managed to create such a painfully authentic and decidedly un-Hollywood ending. I know that you had to fight every day to do “Roseanne” on your own terms, and that you likely got a lot of pushback. And Jackie was gay! Of course she was.
Second, I was struck by an obvious-in-hindsite realization about how significant a role you played in me establishing progressive values. My family wasn't so different from your “family”, and you really were the ultimate strong female role-model. There's no question that I'm a better person for your influence on my development.
Thanks for being so damn awesome, alright?
Pete from Toronto
[Yes, I sent this. I hope @TheRealRoseanne gets it!]
Most of my friends and clients are growing their companies while I am determined to reduce my own. This is the true story of my experience with building a successful shrinking empire.
There is no empirical evidence to prove that a large company is inherently more successful than a small company. Even though 37signals is no longer small by their own standards, Jason and David have long championed the upside of slow, considered growth.
CyberPlex was one of the three cool web consultancies in Toronto during the DotCom era. Big enough to be taken seriously — still an order of magnitude smaller than the big players — CyberPlex in the early days felt organic and home-grown. They were the hip, “agile” choice.
When I first moved to Toronto, I was employee number 42 at CyberPlex. It was 1999 and they swelled to almost 200 people within months through a combination of aggressive hiring and acquisitions.
I was immensely excited to be hired there, which made the fraternal environment I discovered a crushing disappointment. The constant feeling of growth was fun to be a part of, but I had no connection with most of the people I worked with.
After six months of office politics and falling asleep under my desk, I was fired for having a bad attitude. Humiliated, it was hard to see that my ejection from such a toxic environment was the best thing that could have happened to me.
I told people that I would start a new team of my own. A handful of elite talent working closely on interesting projects could run circles around a company like CyberPlex. We would inoculate what became Unspace against bullshit by staying small forever, like a Ruby on Rails A-Team.
Even idealistic companies grow. It's the entrepreneurial ego at work.
Hampton Catlin came to the first Rails Pub Nite in March of 2005, and he was such a mess. A confused student, transplanted from Florida by way of Manhattan — he was cocky and broke. He also was so obviously brilliant that we realized it would be crazy not to hire him.
Hiring Hampton was nerve wracking, mostly because we had no intention of growing beyond the founding partners. Unspace was a convenient umbrella; an excuse for three friends with complimentary skill sets to share a small office. To begin hiring was to vastly expand the potential ways that we could fail, and we knew that it was a one-way trip: once you start adding team members, there's always a clear route to adding more.
We couldn't get the image of a hungry baby bird constantly crying for worms out of our minds.
Win a client, grow the team. Entrepreneurs are constantly told that managing growth is what successful companies do. We congratulate ourselves on our restraint when we hold out as long as possible before organic growth becomes necessary.
Hampton met Nathan and together they created Haml, Sass and planted the cognitive seed for CoffeeScript. Later he was instrumental in helping build Wikipedia's mobile engine. It's clear that hiring Hampton was a singular opportunity.
A players hire A players and B players hire C players. Hampton's involvement led to us recruiting Jeffrey Hardy (now at 37signals) and Shawn Allison. What a powerhouse team that was! We made a few questionable personality fits along the way, but we never compromised on the quality of our people. The is the thing I am perhaps most proud of from my time at Unspace, which has never been larger than 13-14 people.
I'm looking out of the window of my new office now. I am seeing the snow-covered trees of the Rocky Mountains fly past. Soon the conductor will signal that we should make our way towards the dining car for lunch.
These days I'm flying solo, and it feels great.
I made three significant decisions in 2012:
If I don't become more healthy, I'm going to die… so it's time to shrink — literally. So far, I have lost roughly 60lbs. I cook most of my own meals, I work out six times a week, and I try to sleep like a normal human.
I love to code, but I'm tired of being a whore. From now on, the only code I write will be for my personal projects. I'm done with writing code for other people. It's just not fun, and I refuse to let something I love make me sad.
I'm not likely to ever take a traditional desk job ever again. I'm not going to participate in the 9-5 grind. Me sitting at a desk doesn't help anyone.
It's doubtful that I could have short-tracked this 15-year process of self-discovery. I'm glad that I've had the opportunity to experience working at every scale. Perspective is valuable because it allows us to appreciate where we've been and gives us the courage to make intimidating decisions about the future. What I am doing now would have seemed scary even two years ago, but it would have been impossible when I started.
Thankfully, I've managed to make more friends than enemies. I will always live in tech but my interests in music, photography, travel and even pinball have opened many doors. All of my work comes by referral now, and I have an agent: Ted Pearlman — a fellow who seems to vibrate on a higher plane when he makes a connection between interesting people.
The theme here, in case you missed it, is that the more I shrink from society's path to growth, the happier I've become. And each time I optimize for happiness instead of money, I have accidentally increased my financial returns as well. I'm happy to have some money because it allows me to work from sleeper trains, but it's not at the top of my mind. I suspect that I'll be comfortable when I'm old, but right now I've never felt younger.
Some of this might sound awkwardly familiar to you. Perhaps it's time for you to shrink, too.
I'm currently sitting on a train in Ottawa on my way home to Toronto.
Literally sitting; the train hasn't moved in four hours. There's a blockade of the tracks which is part of a much larger solidarity protest across Canada. Native Canadians are demanding action in the form of access to the basic needs of life such as shelter, food, education and health care in Attawapiskat, an extremely remote First Nation in Northern Ontario.
There's no question that #idlenomore is a reaction to complex, nuanced issues. The problems are compounded not just by racist ignorance but a general lack of awareness amongst non-Native Canadians. Until these past few weeks and the #idlenomore movement's mobilization, Native issues were simply not on the minds of most Canadians. It's no Arab Spring (yet?) but it's a level of activism that we don't see often in Canada.
And our Federal leaders? They are being real dicks about it. Our Prime Minister is refusing to meet with Chief Theresa Spence, who is 19 days into a hunger strike.
As for me, I am still holding out hope that my train rolls tonight. In my gut, I think it will. Right now I couldn't be more comfortable, since I somehow managed to social engineer the VIA Rail folks into letting me into 1st class. There's one table on this train, and I told them that I didn't mind the wait but I'd really appreciate using the table to get some work done on my laptop. I've been fed and there's as much wine as I can stomach.
There's wifi on my train, in addition to things like heat, running water, power outlets and fucking servants. The people blocking my train are standing in sub-zero temperatures in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Attawapiskat.
Not only am I completely fine waiting as long as it takes, I am ashamed to be crossing what is essentially a picket line. What's going on dishonours my country, and until these people get the support we promised them I consider myself personally on the hook for this “misunderstanding”. It's not guilt that I feel — I didn't choose this outcome. What I feel is disgust at how this could have happened just hours from where I live, while I enjoy the full privilege of my Colonial lineage.
Democracy is hard, and I hope it's there for us all when we're the ones standing in the cold.
I'm really disappointed in the universally pessimistic and generally unhelpful answers this question received. Some people pitched some interesting ideas and helpful analysis, but most of the replies reinforced the notion that Hacker News readers are predominantly male know-it-alls and on the average, a bunch of snarky dicks.
I for one would love to see a site where all it does is break down what would actually be involved in trying to disrupt major industries. What a fascinating series that could be:
I want to start a new airline. How would I get started?
I want to launch a new courier service. How would I get started?
I want to create a fair insurance company. How would I get started?
I want to colonize Mars. How would I get started?
I want to be a mercenary for hire. How would I get started?
I want to start a cult/religion. How would I get started?
I want to become a cyborg and upload my consciousness. How would I get started?
I want to be a porn star. How would I get started?
Obviously the chances are stacked against a newcomer to any entrenched market. However, why does everyone assume that the inquiring mind is an idiot?
Let's use a simple example: Elon Musk.
I want to drop out of Stanford after two days to start a company that provides online content publishing software to news organizations. How would I get started?
I want to launch an online payment system, even though a half-dozen virtual wallet startups have failed. How would I get started?
I want to be the first private company to launch a rocket into space, legitimize private space travel as an industry, become a primary vendor to NASA and ultimately colonize other planets. How would I get started?
I want to start a company that makes economically and logically viable electric cars that can be recharged in half an hour for free at solar charging stations around the world, even though electric cars have failed to make an impact since the 1890s and the entire gamut of politics and finance will probably try to screw me out of existence. How would I get started?
Shame on any of you that wouldn't see this question for what it is: an amazing opportunity for some very smart minds to brainstorm around a puzzle that everyone else considers unanswerable.
We owe it to ourselves to treat an interesting question with more respect. Patronizing replies that assume something frighteningly ambitious is impossible lowers the civility of our discourse and limits its value to something far below what we say we aspire to.
Remember: after Friendster, Orkut and MySpace… does anyone really want to find their friends on another social network?
“The popular image of the visionary is someone with a clear view of the future, but empirically it may be better to have a blurry one.”
Images are of Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center. If you haven't seen Man on Wire, you really owe it to yourself to check it out.
I am a long-time reader of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools. Contributions from folks like Bruce Sterling and Adam Savage have helped me come to appreciate how awesome it is when someone cares enough about their tools to really nerd out on a domain, find the best solution and then share it with the world. You can feel the pride these people emit after discovering something that is demonstrably, repeatably better than other options. These folks are not afraid of expensive things, even though their picks are often the cheapest available.
I read Dustin Curtis' post “The Best”, which was about his decision to put effort into buying the things he uses. For better or worse, he used Yanagi flatware as an illustrating example. Dustin's got a lot of geek cred and a post like this exposes him to potential criticism, which arrived in the form of a rebuttal entitled “The Worst”. It was written by some guy I've never heard of and whose name I can't take seriously, so I'll affectionally refer to him as White Dreads from here on.
Dreads' post manages to be more pompous and elitist than Curtis' original post was never trying to be. It hides the author's implicit assertion that his value system trumps Dustin's by referencing consumerism, environmentalism and embracing simplicity. This is somewhat ironic given that Dustin Curtis is a talented interface designer who is known for kicking back against corporatism and advocating for uncluttered design.
It's amusing to read comments from people competing on how little their knives and forks cost — pennies per item! — and how little they would care if friends came over and broke everything in the cupboards. Personally, I chose to ensure that my own flatware is statistically average and instead of participating in capitalist consumption I prostituted my body to acquire everything through barter. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, right?
White Dreads is politically enlightened. He projects his righteous, ascetic radical lifestyle as the solution to the problem of bourgie celebrity hackers. They flaunt their success by surrounding themselves with objects that burden their soul and torture the planet. Curtis orders bottle service while Dreads is out dumpster diving for dinner.
I'm sorry, but that's just such bullshit.
Yanagi flatware is functional art, dipshits. It is sold by MoMA where it resides in their permanent collection. Sori Yanagi was a legitimately famous Japanese product designer, known best for his Butterfly Stool (1954):
So let me break this down for you: all Dustin Curtis did was buy some art — in this case, flatware that is cool to him regardless of whether anyone else agrees. He researched thoroughly and took the time to appreciate what he was getting before parting with his money. His sin: sharing something that he was excited about with people who can't see past their own likes and wants. Never mind that the journey of deciding on the outcome is a process of artistic expression in itself, Dustin is a rich, planet-hating sell-out.
Have you ever bought art? Did you take the time to learn about the creator of the art, why they made it and how it would integrate with your life? Congratulations, that's a legitimate reason to buy art.
Have you ever bought art because you think it looks nice and compliments your space? Congratulations, that's a legitimate reason to buy art.
Have you ever bought art because you want to support an artist or make a speculative investment? Congratulations, even this is a legitimate reason to buy art.
You don't need to justify why you like something, or whether it qualifies as art to you or White Dreads. Frankly, if you collect anything or even just like to have the latest smart phone, you don't have a leg to stand on in this debate.
The fact is, you don't know what you don't know about flatware.
As it happens, designing flatware is just as legitimate a creative pursuit as writing code. We argue over which languages and frameworks are “better” even though most people would insist that it just doesn't matter. Of course, if you told flatware designers that a bunch of programmers were trashing the pinacle of their trade, they would be justified in laughing at you, writing smug comments on your MacBook Air. Where the hell do you think Jony Ive draws his inspiration from?
The first night I met my girlfriend, I asked her what she was passionate about. Her reply was that she was really excited to design her own flatware. I thought that was really fucking cool. With encouragement, she soon accepted a contract as a designer at Ikea, and while she's not made her flatware quite yet, I challenge you to find a creative domain where people take attention to detail as seriously. We web types talk the talk but they actually craft iteration after iteration with their bare hands and simple, proven tools.
I wish more people would put in the time to research the things that they buy. Where stuff comes from and where stuff goes. It's okay to get nice things once in a while. What Dustin Curtis buys is his business, and ultimately is less interesting than why he buys it. I forgive White Dreads in advance if he ever finds himself wanting something nice.