How I got here, how it went, and what happened along the way.
I didn’t want to start a company. But I had no choice.
I was a SysAdmin after college, because I tried everything else and got fired from them all. I had seven jobs in two and a half years. I’m very fireable. System administration was just the chair where I happened to be sitting when the music stopped. More a safe, fun place than a source of deep passion.
By that point in my career, I was a little easier to keep around. More importantly, I had become worth the hassle. I did good work because I liked the puzzles.
I had a particular way of working. My boss would say, “You should do this thing, and you should do it this way.” He did not look at how I worked, only the result. That gave me the freedom that made the job worth it. When I told him I had finished he would say, “Great, how did you do it?” and I’d say, “Look, is that a bird?”
I automated everything I could, whether it needed it or not. Automation has a built-in reward mechanism. I would take this well-paying but stultifying job - Type this command 1,000 times - and I would reframe it: How about I tell the computer to type the command 1,000 times? It will work. I’ll watch. Bam! Now I can move on to other fun stuff.
Over time I did so much automation I kind of ran out of work. I was in Nashville at the time, while my wife was getting her PhD, so there were no interesting jobs that needed my skills. Hmm.
I could go to business school, but - sorry! - I don’t have any respect for the MBA. Everything I hear about business school is how valuable the network is. If I want that, I’ll take a cruise. I thought about going to law school, but it is so expensive you have to become a lawyer afterward. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I just wanted to change my career.
So I was like, I’ll find someone who’s doing what I want to do-building a product to help people like me-and I’ll go and help them.
Oh my god, that was miserable. I lasted five months.
Commuting back and forth between Boston and Nashville did not help. I also had the brilliant idea of commuting seven miles each way by bike. In the winter. In Boston. I gave myself permission not to ride if it was under twenty-seven degrees. Being on the road in Boston is dangerous in a tank. On a bike, in the snow, was a cruel joke.
But mostly I just hated our software. I hated what we were building. At one team meeting, a senior developer said, “What does it matter what our customers think? They’ve already bought the product.” Reaction to that statement - nothing at all - told me I was in the wrong place.
So I left.
I got home. I said, I have a little money saved up, and I’ve tried everything else, and now that I think about it, I guess my dad was kind of an entrepreneur. I mean, he did run his own business for thirty years. Technically. I suppose.
Maybe I should start a company?
I know everyone in the world who is building automation tools for sysadmins, and none of them are going to build a business. “I built this, so, obviously, it’s the best.” But they’re only interested in publishing papers and getting academic tenure. Their software was already perfect, so they saw no reason to listen to anyone’s reasons for not using it.
I thought, what if I build something? And then listen to the people who are using it? (And maybe those who aren’t?) Hmm. Could work.
I quit my job. Well, I quit my job first and said, “Eh, I should probably find a way to eat.” So after trying everything else, I started a company.
We lived on my wife’s generous graduate student stipend of $23,000 a year - the job I quit paid $110,000 a year - and, like I said, I thought I had some money saved up. At some point the IRS sent me a letter that said, “We disagree,” and it turns out when the IRS disagrees with you, well, you know how that goes. And even if you’re right, by the time you prove you’re right, “Ok, I had ten grand, and I spent ten grand on a lawyer proving I have ten grand, and…” Just send them the check.
So I was broke when I started my company.
As a sysadmin, you’re not a developer. People will tell you: In DevOps, everyone’s a developer. Those people are lying to you. Or selling something. Which, you know. So I had to become a developer. I had written some code before Puppet, maybe 5,000 lines total. But by the time I handed it over, it was 130,000 lines of code.
The people I handed it to regretted my learning experience.
I adored it.
I learned a lot. It was, to be frank, super fun. One of the densest learning periods of my life. Programming is the best puzzle. I find it harder to step away from it than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s been two days since I ate, I think my wife has been trying to get my attention for the past twelve hours, I should probably … and then I try to move, my legs don’t work. I’m lightheaded from hunger and my feet are tingly.
After about ten months I got my first paying customer.
I often advise other entrepreneurs. Much of what I tell them is to avoid what I did. I only had a vague idea for how to make money. I figured, “I’m confident I can make something valuable. I kind of have a plan, but I know my plan is stupid. If I bring my plan to people and listen to them, that could help make my plan less stupid.”
This is not that bad of a strategy! But it’s not exactly specific.
I didn’t really ask myself: What is my overall business going to look like? How will I get there? I started with services, because I’d been consulting for a while, and I was confident I could make enough money to eat. I know investors are down on services businesses, or anything that doesn’t look like a founder throwing themselves off a cliff with what they hope is a parachute. But you gotta eat. And services are a fantastic way to make money while you’re figuring things out.
I had a lot to figure out.
At the time - 2005 - there were a lot of open source companies out there. When I say a lot, there were four. I thought, “They’re doing well, I will copy one of them at some point later on.” That was not that great of a plan. Two years later Red Hat was the only one left. They’re a software powerhouse today, but they went public during the bubble as a T-shirt and mug company. There’s no copying that.
I did start making money, though. We consulted for three-and-a-half years. “We.” I was the only employee. About three years into the company, I discovered one day that I was incredibly burned out. This was the first of three major burnouts for me at Puppet.
I distinctly remember realizing I was burned out. I was standing next to my wife, at the doctor’s office, looking at an ultrasound. We just learned we’re going to have twins, and I get a sudden flash of insight: My life is unsustainable.
I personally can’t recommend, when you’re in a bootstrapped startup, planning to have a baby. I would work especially hard to avoid having more than one at a time. But that’s what we did.
(Speaking of which: All you people who had your babies serially, you’re lazy and you don’t know what you’re doing. You think you had it hard. We were tested. Y’all are amateurs.)
The technician said, “Oh, you are going to get scanned a lot.” Um. You’re going to have to explain that one. She told us we were having two. We laughed. She must be incompetent. Just because you have twins (she did) doesn’t mean you can recognize them in someone else. While using an ultrasound wand. Which is your job. Scan… scan… BING! The two fetuses clearly popped into view. My wife would have fallen over if she weren’t already lying down. My knees shook. I thought, I can’t do this anymore.
I had been working every hour I could. I counted once: It was about 72 hours in my busiest week. There are people who say, I work 100 hours a week. You might stand there 100 hours a week. I’m skeptical you’re working. Based on what I know about productivity, I hope you’re not.
I couldn’t do it anymore. Since February 2008 or so, coincidentally the same day I found out we were having twins, I haven’t worked more than 40 or 50 hours a week. No evenings and weekends. I might dabble sometimes, but I won’t let it become a pattern.
Don’t worry. I managed to burn myself out two more times without those extra hours. It can still be just as bad. Pack that intensity into fewer hours, and you’re all good.
So. I need help. How?
I had tried to hire people in the past. Both of them were misses.
The first hire was the most notable. In the three months it took to figure out he wouldn’t work out, the best person I could possibly have hired became available and then unavailable. This guy’s biggest impact was ensuring I couldn’t hire the person who would have been most helpful.
There’s one more crazy story about him. In the middle of his interview at my house there was a drive-by shooting next door. He had taken a bathroom break when the shooting happened. They weren’t trying to hurt anybody, just shooting up a car to send a message. One of the bullets ricocheted off the car, then my porch, and broke my front window. He came out of my bathroom, and I said, “Are you ok?”
I needed him to work in my house.
(Yes, I did actually tell him. Eventually.)
When he didn’t pan out, I concluded, I guess I just can’t hire. I’ll do it all myself.
Pro tip: Don’t do that.
Puppet worked in spite of these decisions, not because of them.
Things had changed, quite suddenly. I needed help, and now.
I hired the only people I could think of who might do me a favor: my college roommate and my best friend. Two separate people. Again: Don’t do this. I paid them full salaries.
Years later, I realized, “Wait a minute, if I was paying them full salary, they weren’t really doing me a favor, were they?”
Burned-out people make low-quality decisions. Your brain is gone, and you’re stupid. You work too many hours, you get burned out. You hurt your business doing this kind of thing. Get sleep, eat well, get exercise, step away from work. It’s good for you.
We were making a few hundred grand a year. And by “we” I mean “me.” I’m the only person consulting. I’m getting a little help with the code and stuff.
But now I’m going to hand all the consulting off to my best friend. “Ahh. I can see the light.” And by light, I mean impending twins.
The transition is bright in my memory. He was shadowing me. Μy last gig, his first one. “Hey, funny story, tomorrow this is your job.” We were in San Francisco, my only development gig fueled by Red Bull. I had made a promise to Stanford University, in exchange for some money. If I did not keep that promise by - I think it was - August 31, the Sunday after my gig ended, I had to give the money back. Of course I didn’t have the money anymore. I had to give them the code instead.
I’m at my client’s office during the day, and back in my hotel room at night pounding energy drinks and my keyboard. My kids are due any day, it’s my last flight, my last trip before they are born.
I finish it. I ship it at 1:00 a.m., send Stanford a note with all the details, and go to sleep.
My wife calls me two hours later and says, I don’t think it’s a drill, my water broke.
Well. I’m in San Francisco, and she’s in Nashville. You cannot get from San Francisco to Nashville fast enough to catch a baby. Everyone told me, “Now don’t worry, it’ll take 24 hours.” The kids had other plans.
I was a father before I landed in Dallas. Cell phone pictures in 2008 were terrible, but they were enough to make me cry in the aisle.
Once again, things not to do, but it mostly worked out. My kids didn’t even notice.
My mother-in-law is actually thankful. She got to be in the delivery room instead. She would have been staring through the window if I had been there. It was great for her, and a great bonding experience for them. It was just, you know, complicated for me. If I’m going to flail at fatherhood, I could at least be present for it. Absent bad father is just a step too far.
That was summer of 2008. We were a little over three-and-a-half years in at Puppet. Lots of change all at once. We added two people and two babies. The business was picking up. I was spending more of my time at events and out in the community than writing code. Mostly this meant that the code wasn’t getting written, rather than that I had delegated it.
Again, my wife was getting her PhD. Nashville is kinda my hometown, and so as a result I, you know, hate it. I always told her I wouldn’t be at her graduation, I would be in the U-Haul honking the horn.
But she was pregnant with twins when she graduated. I was running a bootstrapped startup. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere.
What it all means
The birth of our kids was more than a turning point for our family. It transformed Puppet. It forced me to acknowledge I could not do it alone. I brought in help before they were born, and by the time they turned one I’d raised a funding round and moved to Portland.
In the four-and-a-half years of bootstrapping, we went from zero to around $250k a year in revenue, and from one to three people. In the seven years after funding, we grew to five hundred people and more than seventy million dollars in revenue. More importantly, we had an impact on thousands of people and thousands of companies.
I think founder stories are important. They’re usually educational, and often inspiring.
But they’re myth. They are a specific version of what really happened, refined and presented. Often, the myth so obscures what really happened that the lessons are dangerous rather than helpful.
This is a key story in my founder myth. For better or worse, I’m not afraid of you making catastrophic mistakes by trying to emulate me.
They say you can either be a good example or a horrible warning.
A single drink perfectly captures the weirdness of raising money for the first time.Photo courtesy of Dylan de Jonge
I found myself at a hotel with some friends. I was visiting Portland for a conference. Puppet’s first investment round – and mine! – was closing. The money was being deposited.
Have you seen a David Mamet movie, like The Spanish Prisoner? They’re fantastic. But eerie. Disquieting. They build up a story, brick by brick. Then they yank a few bricks away, exposing the whole story as a lie. Only a hollow truth remains, unrelated to your built up belief. It makes you question everything.
I’m waiting for the closing in this hotel, and I order a Macallan 18 to celebrate. This was back when it was only expensive, not egregious. I lift the glass, and I think:
The money is being deposited into my bank.
I think it’s a real bank.
I mean, they had, like, a website. And websites are pretty hard to… wait a minute.
Who introduced me to the bank?
The investors introduced me. They specifically wanted me to work with this bank. They’re the ones giving me the money. They wouldn’t say they’re giving me the money then give it to someone else. That’s a silly kind of fraud. I just have to trust them.
I sit there. Sipping my whiskey.
I think it’s a real bank.
I think I’m getting $2.25 million.
I had never seen a bank account with that many zeroes - and I still may not at that point! I have no idea what to do.
So I sit there. Savoring that delicious, delicious whiskey.
I didn’t mean to raise money. I was just focused on running the company. We had bootstrapped for almost four and a half years. I figured we were going it alone.
I had talked to people in the past about raising money. It was like Groucho Marx’s joke about clubs: I wouldn’t take money from the investors willing to give it to me. “Wow, I would love them as an investor,” you get nothing. Or, “I would happily give you money and ruin your life.” Hmm. Not really the deal I’m looking for.
One day at an event, an investor tracked me down. He said, I’d like to invest in your company. I said, That doesn’t sound right. A lot of investors say, We should talk. He said: We should talk on Monday. That specificity made all the difference.
He made a very confusing offer: We would like to write a $1.75 million check into a $2 million round. I said, how can you be that bad at math and work in finance. He said, Go find other, rich people that you know to give you the rest of the money. I said, you are, literally, the only rich person I know. He said, I just joined this firm. I am not rich. Then we’re stuck, I said.
I lived in Nashville at the time. There are a bunch of rich people there. But they’re all musicians. They don’t do technology. We most emphatically did not hang out. We weren’t going to fill this round through my network.
Eventually, by connecting me to their network of rich people, I was able to raise $2.25 million. Mostly through luck not skill. I didn’t build a deck. I didn’t run a formal process. I didn’t pitch multiple investors to get competitive term sheets. I pretty much did the exact opposite of the play book. The investor who filled out the round turned me down at first, but I heard his wife persuaded him. I don’t know if she liked me or was cursing him.
Once all of the investors are in place, you wait.
The things you learn in your first round.
Closing takes about thirty days. Five rounds later, I have no idea why. It takes thirty days, and it costs $30,000. One of the terms in the term sheet you get from your investors states that you pay for closing. “We’re going to give you this money, and then you’re going to give some of it to the lawyers.” Investors cap the fees, and the lawyers coincidentally hit that exact number every time.
I honestly don’t know what the lawyers do at closing. The documents are massively long, but they’re pretty much the same. At a late-stage company, I can understand: There is diligence to do (although not by the lawyers), financial data to look through (done by analysts, not lawyers), customers to talk to (by the investors, not the lawyers). At an early stage, though, there just isn’t much information. I don’t know what they do.
But it takes thirty days. And costs thirty grand. Says so on the term sheet.
So you wait.
But when that waiting stopped, boy howdy did things move.
The money did get deposited. It was a real bank after all.
Within a month I’d moved from Nashville to Portland. Within two months, I had my next three employees. And within six months I had a team of ten.
Raising money set us off like a rocket. Bootstrapping for more than four years provided a fantastic foundation for quick growth.
Looking back, I’m glad we raised money. I only wish we had done it earlier.
I started a daily writing habit two years ago. If you look at my output since then, it’s a bit haphazard: Lots of advice to founders, discussion of venture capital and the blockchain, and a bit of telling my own story.
My own review of my writing is mixed. I think the writing is good, and in most cases I think the topics are important and my viewpoint adds something. But the writing style is painfully far from how I talk, and thus too far from how I think of myself. There’s little humor in it, as one example, which is counter to how I present, or even just talk with friends. I have found a voice, but not my voice, nor one I’m terribly fond of. Maybe I read too much fancy writing in college, and too many Serious Business Books since then, but not enough that didn’t take itself seriously.
I expect one of the main reasons I struggle to include humor is that my jokes tend to be self-deprecating, but I still don’t feel comfortable writing much about my failures and problems at Puppet. I’m still involved, but can’t claim to be a spokesperson or any such thing, so a lot of topics aren’t available. Yes, these are my stories, but I recognize how much of an impact I could have on the company, its employees, and its community if I were flippant about my failures of the past. This was manageable when I was running the company, but doesn’t really work in this state. That can’t be the whole explanation, though, and I plan to do more experimentation this year to begin to suss it out.
I have mostly chosen topics by focusing on beliefs I have that others don’t. Some of this is insight I think is special to me, such as one of my favorite essays, Where Does Your Work Live, and some is straight disagreement, as in No, You Don’t Learn More From Failure. I still run into this last one all the time, and I love having a well practiced argument for how silly this popular belief is.
My series on VC was very different: An attempt to share with a wider world what I’ve learned about how venture works from the inside. Of course, I’m not inside venture in the normal sense: I raised a bunch of money, and spent a ton of time with investors, but have never been an investor myself. But my own learning over those years didn’t seem to be represented anywhere, and based on how often this is brought up, it seems people found it valuable. A year later, it’s a bit unclear even to me how much this series is an explanation of venture capital or an indictment. I truly do believe venture is totally broken, and it seems much of the rest of the world has now come to agree, based on the conversations I’m seeing. Even so, it is actually a fit for some people, and they should know how it works internally. Hopefully the series helps them.
I did a series on the blockchain, too, and this was much more an exploration on my part than an explanation. I had plenty of education and opinions going in, but I didn’t really know what unique insights or beliefs I had until I started writing. This is probably my best example of learning by writing. I started with the knowledge that the blockchain was primarily full of fraud and black market sales, and that I was more interested in the crypto legacy of git and BitTorrent than Bitcoin, but I learned a heckuva lot more in the course of exploring this area in more depth. I’m not sure anyone else learned anything; I’ve never had anyone mention these posts to me, nor seen them reposted anywhere. I am not sure what to take away from that.
My most frequently shared piece is Strategy is Culture. Even after all this time it still gets shared roughly weekly, which is more than all of my other pieces combined. This article took me more than a year to write; every week I’d try to write it, give up, then dash off something simpler and less important. I had to figure out a lot to get to the point where I could successfully explain how closely linked I think strategy is to day to day execution, and how that, in the end, is your company’s culture. It still feels like a fundamental insight that most other people are missing, something so important that my struggles at Puppet all make sense suddenly.
Unquestionably my most popular piece was Why We Hate Working for Big Companies. It was the only one I wrote that got mainstream visibility (albeit just a reposting on a sub-brand of CNBC), and it got shared far more often and widely than I could have hoped, especially given its length. Weirdly, after a big splash it has almost completely dropped off.
In addition to it getting the most reach, it also had the biggest impact on me. It forced me to express my weird combination of beliefs. In doing so, I realized how rare they are, and how important they are to what I do. It took a lot more work, but I eventually realized this essay introduces the topics I need to focus on, both in my writing and in my company building.
My interests today are at the intersection of economics, technology, and the individual worker. I’m educated and opinionated on each of them, but only by considering them together does a complete picture of my opinions and drive start to emerge. This piece on why it sucks to work at big companies is the first time I brought it all together, and I think that’s why it worked so well.
It’s also a longer piece than just about everything else I’ve published. I’ve tended to write articles around 1200 words, mostly because that’s right about what people recommend you write on a daily basis. But the success of this one began to make me think I might do better with longer works, and my struggles to get hard topics out over the last six months has helped validate that for me. It’s really hard to bring together a bunch of ideas into one coherent whole - it’s much easier to instead just write one article on each concept - but it’s more valuable and better work to do it all in one.
After two years of writing, my goals for the next year are, in no particular order:
Come closer to my real voice. This means being more funny, but also more relaxed. I feel like my writing style is too stiff, too formal, which is hilarious given how informally I speak.
Write more about what I think about. I have written a lot of things I believe, but mostly not written much about what’s filling my brain. I hope to do better on that this year.
Write bigger pieces. I think I’d worked through the bite-sized ideas that were fighting to get out, and now any effort to produce something easily digestible seems to require compromising the work, rather than making it better. I think it’s holding me back, not being a helpful constraint. I’m going to be a bit more willing to go long, and pull a complete thread together, even if it means plenty of people will skip it because of length or complexity.
Thanks for reading so far this time. I hope to keep you entertained this year, too.
Last year I decided to write more. Daily, in fact. One of my first actions was to ask Om Malik for advice. I had been following him since he was writing for Business 2.0, which was an actually valuable business magazine in the tech bubble. I am now lucky enough to know him through True Ventures.
When we talked, he shared a story about his first published piece. I did not find it helpful.
The magazine he was writing for (Fortune, I think) said his article was too long. He shortened it. A lot. It was still rejected. He compressed it more. Again. And again. I believe the original 1500 word piece became 300. Om’s punch line was that they told him it was their best-ever first contribution by an author.
I don’t think I’m cut out for writing 300 word articles. It’s not just that that kind of compressed writing is hard. It’s also about the missed opportunity: If you’re reading one of my articles, I want to take full advantage.
But my lack of desire to write short pieces is not why his story wasn’t helpful.
It’s one thing to say: “Write shorter”. Ok. I can see how that makes sense. Everyone knows the line, “I’m sorry this is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” It’s intuitive, implying that investing in the quality of writing somehow intrinsically shortens it.
But more than a year after this story from Om, I had still not found a way to put this principle into practice.
I could compress writing a bit. Programming taught me that shorter code is often simpler and clearer. Of course, it still took years to be good at it.
Stephen King had taught me that adverbs often indicate a problem. If you can get rid of them without losing meaning, your work is almost always better. One way to do this is to choose more expansive verbs.
I was able to translate my speaking coach’s advice into writing, too: She helped rid my talks of filler words. You might not think this is useful in writing - I never find myself typing out ‘um’1 - but I am over-fond of long phrases that can be easily replaced with a single word.
I tend to over-qualify. This is an opinion piece. You know that. I can skip all the incidences of “I think”. One “maybe” is enough, I don’t need “should maybe”. Two examples suffice; I don’t need three and an “etc”.
For example, in this piece, I replaced the phrase “was still not able to learn” with “had not learned”. “I had learned as a programmer” became “programming taught me”. Both of them are clearer, simpler, just… better. In particular, the verbs are much stronger.
Again, it’s not that I had learned nothing over the last year. I just… I knew I was using tactics. Simple rules. My writing was shorter, but… not short. The Hemingway app was still harshly judging all my failures.
It reads more like poetry than prose. I do not like poetry. Nearly every paragraph is a single sentence. Almost none grow to more than one line.
Many books on writing can be summarized as: Sit down and write. Seriously. Now. Keep doing that.
Not this one.
I can’t summarize it for you. It’s, it’s… dense. But I can share a little I have learned. And how it has cursed me.
I received a new term from it: Transitions. I knew what adverbs were long before Stephen King taught me that they’re suspect. Not to be entirely avoided, but hold your nose when you use them.
I already knew my sentences were too long. Even when I broke them up, I knew I relied too heavily on words that connect them (like the phrase at the beginning of this one). This knowledge wasn’t useful, because I wasn’t able to translate it into methods of fixing them.
The first thing Klinkenborg gave me was a name for these words: Transitions.
Like adverbs, they’re usually a sign that you’ve failed somewhere. That you were lazy.
This labeling did not magically fix my writing, but it gave me something to track. An easy measure for how I was doing.
Then he delivered the kicker: Simple guidance on how to eliminate them. Or at least, reduce them.
Knowing sentences should be shorter is not useful if you don’t know how to get there. What makes a great short sentence, vs a crappy long one?
His answer is incredibly dense. I have to slow down when reading it: You should minimize the distance between the period of your previous sentence and the point of this one.
Those long, complex sentences I like to write aren’t bad because they’re long, or because they have too many phrases. They’re bad because their point is so far away from their start. The reader is left to wander through it, holding out hope for a conclusion.
What are you trying to say? Say that. Immediately. Did you leave something important out? Say that. Now. Keep it up until you’re done.
Your old, complex sentence is now a series of short sentences, in order of importance, each getting right to the point.
Of course, that’s not how the book describes it. My description would likely horrify its author. There’s far more to it than this. But it’s a start. And a huge departure from what I was doing.
It’s also why I can’t write any more.
The topics I’m working on now are incredibly important to me. They’re hard to reason about, to capture. And while I’m sitting here struggling with the content, the writing itself keeps getting in the way. The form. The structure of the sentences. The line breaks.
Where I put paragraphs.
It’s not that I’m embarrassed. It’s that the process of writing is distracting me from what I am trying to write.
So please. Forgive me a little writer’s block. I promise I’ll get better.
When I do, I hope you’ll also tolerate experimentation and failure in how to put all this to work. Expect wild oscillations in sentence length. Inconsistency between sentences and paragraphs. Confusion across pieces. I’m in that ‘conscious incompetence’ phase of short sentences, and it’s going to be a rough path for a little while.
I’ll come out a better writer, though. And hopefully you’ll gain something from witnessing the process.
I recently updated Om on my progress, sharing how much his story confused me and these tactical lessons I’d just received. Thankfully he appreciated the note, and was happy to see I took his story as a challenge, rather than a judgement. And he didn’t seem fazed in the slightest that it took more than a year to make anything of his help.
Except, obviously, in this case. Not never. Just not usually. ↩
I did more writing in 2017 than I ever have before, probably more than I had done in my entire life. I stated at the outset my desire to write in order to learn, and publishing regularly has delivered. More importantly, it forced me to capture and share many of the results of my R&D. The writing topics were primarily venture capital, the software startup ecosystem, and founder optimization, but one of my weaknesses is a drive to the meta, spending time on the tools and systems rather than the work itself. Unsurprisingly, this ground is as fertile in prose as it is in code.
I have done all of my writing on Ulysses, which has been a good tool. I do miss much of the power of Vim for managing text, but the usability trade-offs are usually worth it. Plus, Vim is not exactly strong on wrapped text. Ulysses’s most important capability for me is that it transparently syncs between my phone , both of my iPads, and all three of my computers (yes, I know). I can open any document on any device with no worries (given my iPads are on LTE, and thus can always download updates). Second to that is the ease of getting data out. I was able to text a 5k word document directly from Ulysses on my phone to two different people, because it converts anything to PDF and can send out via the share sheet. It publishes directly to most platforms, so I used it to post everything to Medium. I do wish its backend storage was more visible, so I could version control everything in git, but you can’t have everything.
The only time I ran into troubles was publishing my travel writing - I was copy/pasting photos from Apple’s Photos app into Ulysses, then publishing into Medium, and it turned out that no part of this process downscaled the photos, meaning each was about 20MB. This is fine when you’re on solid wifi, but not so good from a campground in Yellowstone. The primary reason I did not write during the second month of my trip is it was just too painful to publish. Ulysses really fell down here, because when it works, it works great, but when it fails it is miserable. I’d just sit and stare at my iPad for ages, with no visibility of failure or success until the very end, and it would often manage to upload the text but not the photos. The only fix for this was to delete the draft from Medium and try again. Not so great.1
Over the year I became concerned, though. I heard about Andrew Chen, who built a following on successive publishing platforms (e.g., Blogger), each popular and well-funded, only to have the companies disappear (because that’s what Silicon Valley does to most companies). He eventually realized that the only way to consistently reach those who were interested was via email; it’s never going away, subscriber lists are easily portable, and of course everyone knows how to use it. He had to move from letting a platform own his audience to taking control directly, and email was the only real way to do that.
I think Medium is pretty good, and at least for now it has no shortage of funding. Even last year, though, it made well-publicized efforts to retool its business, a clear sign that whatever it was doing before wasn’t working. It seems unwise to bet that a follower on Medium will have any meaning in a few years.
It just so happened that I ended the year with an experiment in their new business model. My series on Venture Capital, in partnership with NewCo, was published behind Medium’s paywall. While the experience was positive overall, and I got paid more for those pieces than I have for, um, all of my other writing ever, earning money isn’t my real goal in writing. Yet, paying writers is exactly what Medium has to figure out in order to attract the content and audience it wants. I appreciated the extra attention working within their paywall provided, but I came out thinking it’s unlikely to be the right path for me in the long term. My goal is to maximize the reach of my writing, and it’s more about the arc of all of it rather than a couple of heavy-hitting pieces getting the most attention, which means our respective goals are orthogonal at best, and in direct conflict at worst.
While I have not written about it, I spent a lot of last year fascinated by email, inboxes, and how we consume content. I’ve been a deep fan of RSS from the Bloglines days (Unread is my reader of choice these days), but RSS is mostly dead (thanks, Google!). The kinds of sites that produced great feeds back in the day grew too big for a hobby. They became either wildly profitable for a small team and thus got destroyed with ads and shitty content (hi Boing Boing!) or people had to back away because it was just too much. Mainstream publications like the NYTimes might still publish RSS feeds (I literally have no idea), but RSS is a poor fit for how much content they produce.
When I look around, it seems that the RSS feeds of ten years ago are now awesome newsletters. See how often your favorite sites talk about their newsletters vs their feeds. I’m pretty confident I’ve never heard a podcast ask me to sign up for a feed, but many casually mention their newsletters. (Well, to be fair, podcast feeds are just RSS, so in that sense it’s survived, but I think we can agree it’s a very different use case.) The market has moved.
This shift is not all peaches and cream. The superiority of email as a publishing mechanism has not brought with it a superior reading experience. Long form content from writers I follow does not belong in the same inbox as requests for coffee meetings, yet that’s where we are. (I asked the Feedly CEO if they would please please add newsletter subscriptions to their platform, and he could only say they were considering it. If you want to build the newsletter reading app, hopefully with an index of great letters to subscribe to, count me in as an early contributor.)
Even with its downsides, I’ve decided to move my writing to my own site via a newsletter-first publishing model. From now on, everything will be published first to that site and the newsletter (sign up now!). There will be exceptions, when publications offer enough exposure that I give them some period of exclusivity. I will also indefinitely duplicate each piece to Medium on a delay, to take advantage of the audience I already have there.
There are enough examples out there that I’m pretty confident this is the right long term answer, but it’s early enough that it feels like an unstable experiment. Like most, I love and hate email, and I am a bit bummed about the extra infrastructure involved in this system.
If you’re still an RSS person at heart, you can always just subscribe to the feed, and if Medium is your bag, at least for now you’ll be able to see everything there, too. Of course I can’t promise how this plays out in the long run - else it would not be much of an experiment - but you can bet I’ll work hard to find the right way to talk with the people most interested in what I have to say.
One note before I go: I could not have made this transition without the help of Mike Julian. He helped set up each of the services, mediated the hiring of a consultant to modify the site, and connected all of the services together. He’s got a great book on monitoring, and is available for consulting on monitoring and observability. I can’t recommend him enough.
Thanks for following on so far. I’m excited about another year of writing.
It’s worth noting that Apple’s iCloud Photo Library did wonderfully here; I could upload every photo to my iPad, and it would sync when it had good data, and sit quietly when it did not. I love asynchronous protocols. ↩