/ Writing
About  Now

Using evergreen notes in Obsidian has been the most impactful change to how I think.

Evergreen notes allow you to think about complex ideas by building them up from smaller composable ideas.

My evergreen notes have titles that distill each idea in a succinct and memorable way, that I can use in a sentence. For example:

  • A company is a superorganism
  • All input is error
  • Calmness is a super power
  • Cross the chasm
  • Everything is a remix
  • Writing is telepathy
  • You have no obligation to your former self
  • etc

You don’t need to agree with the idea for it to become an evergreen note. Evergreen notes can be very short.

I have an evergreen note called Creativity is combinatory uniqueness that is built on top of another evergreen note:

If you believe Everything is a remix, then creativity is defined by the uniqueness and appeal of the combination of elements.

Evergreen notes turn ideas into objects. By turning ideas into objects you can manipulate them, combine them, stack them. You don’t need to hold them all in your head at the same time.

The term evergreen notes was coined by Andy Matuschak and you can find more about this method on his site.

A camera for ideas

July 2022 1 minute read

Thoughts on new generative art tools such as Stable Diffusion, DALL-E and Midjourney.

A revolutionary new kind of camera was recently invented. Instead of turning light into pictures, it turns ideas into pictures.

The traditional camera replicates what your eyes do. It works by receiving millions of photons onto a light-sensitive material, processed into a kind of picture we call a photograph (from Greek roots meaning a “light drawing”).

This new kind of camera replicates what your imagination does. It receives words and then synthesizes a picture from its experience seeing millions of other pictures. The output doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ll call it a synthograph (meaning synthetic drawing).

Both kinds of cameras are tools that help us convert moments into pictures.

Pictures are powerful because they can be shared across time, space, and language barriers. Pictures allow you to travel back in time and see what someone else saw, at that moment, wherever they were.

Photography can capture moments that happened, but synthography is not bound by the limitations of reality. Synthography can capture moments that did not happen and moments that could never happen.

Taking a great photo is about being at the right place, at the right time, and pointing your camera at the right subject, in just the right way.

Taking a great syntho is about stimulating the imagination of the camera. Synthography doesn’t require you to be anywhere or anywhen in particular. The great synthographers will be great storytellers and great poets.

Photography is an important medium of expression because it is so accessible and instantaneous. Synthography will even further reduce barriers to entry, and give everyone the power to convert ideas into pictures.

Slash Packaging

April 2020 2 minute read

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To celebrate I brought together 30 ecommerce companies to launch slashpackaging.org, a movement to make packaging information accessible to all. I hope you will join too.

Most websites have a /about page, Slash Packaging is a growing directory of businesses that have a /packaging page.

A /packaging page is a place to share with your customers how your company approaches packaging. This is where you can explain your packaging philosophy, material choices, certifications, disposal instructions, progress to date, and how you hope to improve in the future.

Why should your company have a /packaging page?

Your customers are looking for this information. You need to make it easy to find. Standardizing around the /packaging URL helps set the expectation that packaging information is available from companies that make thoughtful choices about sustainability.

Packaging waste is one of the most important issues of our time. Every year, tens of millions of tons of packaging are being landfilled in the US alone. Non-renewable resources are being extracted at unprecedented rates and polluting our most beautiful natural habitats from our beaches to the top of our tallest mountains. 50 years after the first Earth Day, it feels more pressing than ever to consider this issue — and its broader implications for climate change — an existential threat to humanity.

People want to be part of the change. They want to support companies that are making sustainable packaging a priority, but can't find them. They want to correctly dispose of your packaging, but don't have the instructions. They are rethinking their own patterns of consumption but have never encountered your business model before.

I know this, because as the co-founder of Lumi, I speak to companies every day who are hearing this from their customers. The best companies are the ones that listen — and those companies are shifting their priorities. Yet, many times the supply chain and design teams behind these efforts, feel they go unrecognized.

I believe this is a discovery and matchmaking problem. We can solve it by standardizing access to the information.

Slash Packaging is about progress not perfection

Making packaging sustainable is hard. We need to recognize that our society is addicted to patterns of consumption that are not aligned with the long term health of our planet.

Too often, however, those of us who care about sustainability are critical of efforts that don't go far enough — and that can be incredibly counterproductive. We need to support the people and companies who are making meaningful progress in the right direction, even if they have a long way to go.

In my conversations with leaders who are joining Slash Packaging, I heard some ask if they should wait to publish a /packaging page when their new sustainable packaging initiatives launch. The answer is simple — no. There will not be a magical time in one year, two years or ten years, when your packaging is perfectly sustainable. You will always be working on sustainability improvements to your packaging. When you sign up to sell products, you sign up to keep improving them. If you are reading this, you are probably doing better than most other companies in the world, be proud of that. Share the fact that you are still working on it. Your transparency will build trust.

We have so much to learn together about how to make this monumental structural change. The best practices are always evolving. We need to learn together, and we need to be open about the learning process, so that we can all get better faster.

Join Slash Packaging

Big things can have small beginnings. The story of Earth Day itself is a great example that inspired me to start Slash Packaging.

If you're reading this and working at company that uses packaging, join the movement — all you have to do is add a /packaging page to your website with information about your packaging.

Here is a showcase of ideas from the pioneering members on how to create your own.

40 questions to ask yourself every decade

January 2020 2 minute read

Every year I ask myself 40 questions that help me make sense of what happened over the past twelve months. I love working through that exercise and discussing it with friends and family who enjoy too.

As we enter a new decade, I've been pondering what the 2020s will hold for us. I remembered that some time ago I had answered Proust's famous questionnaire, and thought I would try answering it again. While the yearly questions help me reflect on what happened, Proust's questions are more about personal philosophies and traits, and thus change less frequently over time.

Going through my answers to the Proust questionnaire, I was inspired to work on a new questionnaire that I could use for the next few decades. I tried create a set of questions that I would enjoy reflecting on in 2030. This list combines questions from Proust's questionnaire, and others I've been collecting ad hoc.

It will be ten years before I can tell you whether this worked well or not, but join me on this journey if you'd like! Please edit this list with questions you would like to know your own answers to in ten years. The questions are also available in Markdown format.

  1. What would you do if you had 6 months to live?
  2. What would you do if you had a billion dollars?
  3. What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
  4. What do you hope will be the same 10 years from now?
  5. What do you hope will be different 10 years from now?
  6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  7. When and where were you happiest?
  8. Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
  9. What do you consider the lowest depth of misery?
  10. What is your most marked characteristic?
  11. What is your greatest fear?
  12. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  13. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  14. On what occasion do you lie?
  15. What is your greatest extravagance?
  16. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  17. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. Which talent would you most like to have?
  20. What do people frequently misunderstand about you?
  21. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  22. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  23. What do you most value in your friends?
  24. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  25. If you could give everyone in the world one gift, what would it be?
  26. What was your greatest waste of time?
  27. What do you find painful but worth doing?
  28. Where would you most like to live?
  29. What is your most treasured possession?
  30. Who is your best friend?
  31. Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
  32. Which living person do you most admire?
  33. Who is your hero of fiction?
  34. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  35. What is your greatest regret?
  36. How would you like to die?
  37. What is your motto?
  38. What is the best compliment you ever received?
  39. What is the luckiest thing that happened to you?
  40. What makes you hopeful?

Stadium of selves

January 2020 1 minute read

How many days have you been alive?

Yesterday I found out that I have been alive for 12,431 days. If each day I split off into a new person those 12,430 previous selves would fill a stadium.

If I live to 90 years old, there will be 32,850 selves in that stadium. That’s 20,420 more of us than there are today.

The things I do today can meaningfully affect those 20,420 future selves, and hopefully many selves of many other people. But most of us won’t know if what we did will turn out to be important until much later.

For example, Stephan 8,297 met Jesse 7,571 on September 5th 2008, she is now my business partner of 10 years. It seemed like most other days at the time, but it changed the course of 4,135 of my selves since then.

By December 31st 2020 there will be 364 more of us. I am doing things today for all my future selves. What can I do today to make ourselves proud of this self?

The elusiveness of digital paper

December 2019 1 minute read

For years I’ve had a fascination with the idea of digital paper. It’s a concept that people have been working towards since the dawn of computing. Before the mouse was invented there was the aptly-named Stylator and the RAND Tablet.

Over time, we've gotten closer and closer to creating digital paper, which requires solving several problems:

  1. Resolution exceeding what the eye can see (200+ PPI)
  2. Instantaneous touch response (under 1 millisecond)
  3. High refresh rate (60Hz or above)
  4. Non-glowing, full color gamut, lit by ambient light
  5. Low power consumption, can operate for weeks without charging
  6. Thin, flexible, and ideally, foldable

We really do take for granted how magical paper and a good pen, pencil, or paintbrush can be. While we've made great progress, no display technology comes close to solving all these problems at once.

In particular, I'd like to dwell on my fantasy of a non-glowing display.

The look of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon was inspired by 18th century paintings

Shortly after the invention of the light bulb in the late 19th century, the first movie projectors came along. Movies were our first exposure to a medium for images and writing made of light. Up until then, from the first cave paintings, through stone tablets, papyrus, and the canvases of master painters, we interacted with writing and images on non-glowing materials.

Now we are accustomed to staring into rectangles of light for hours a day, and have been doing so for decades.

Imagine watching a movie like Barry Lyndon on a non-glowing subtractive color display. It would be like nothing you’ve ever seen before —  like watching a moving painting.

But science fiction movies tell a different story about the future of displays, a decidedly glowing future.

Neon and LED screens in Blade Runner, translucent HUD in Minority Report and holograms in Blade Runner 2049.

Our cyberpunk future is made of darkness and artificial light, but I'm not sure that's the only future I want.

In some ways I find the Apple Pencil more sci-fi than what the movies prophesize. It is wonderfully minimalistic: no diodes, no ports, no charger, not even a clip. The product is the interface. Everything about it creates the illusion that what you’re holding isn’t actually electronics  —  just a pencil. It's finally reaching the mythical sub-10 milisecond responsiveness that has been sought after for years, eliminating the sensation of lag, further disappearing into the illusion of digital paper.

E-ink is getting better, slowly, but it is so far away from the color gamut and refresh rate that we have with LCD and OLED.

If science fiction does drive progress, we are missing stories about naturalistic technologies like digital paper.

Design is compromise

December 2018 1 minute read

When did the word "compromise" become vilified?

Compromise is neither good nor bad, it’s something we do every day. It’s decision making. Prioritizing. Deciding that one feature is more important than another. It’s finding the right balance between two competing desires.

Which compromises you make   — that's what matters. Choosing the right compromises is what defines good design.

Companies like to tout products as "uncompromising" or having "no compromises". That's impossible. Once you decide on an approach, you inherently decide against other options.

Another word for compromise is "tradeoff". The word "tradeoff" conveys the relationship between strengths and weaknesses. You are trading a weakness for a strength.

Having an opinionated set of tradeoffs exposes your approach to a set of weaknesses. The more you tip the scale on one side, the weaker something else will be. That's okay! Making those difficult choices is what people pay you for. You should be proud of your compromises.

My favorite products are opinionated. They make a clear statement about what they are not good at, in favor of being much better at something else.

Appealing to everyone is impossible. If you make something that aims to be good across a broad range of capabilities, you are choosing not to be exceptional at anything in particular. That might be the right compromise for your audience, but it's definitely a compromise.

Good design is opinionated. Good design is choosing the right compromise for your audience.

Getting encouraging feedback from lots of potential customers is not the same as having product-market fit. On the bright side, you’re probably on the right track. You may know what product market fit will look like, but you don’t actually have it yet.

You'll know you have product-market fit when any capacity you add is immediately consumed and you can’t add more capacity fast enough. By capacity I mean whatever your business sells: products, services, inventory, time, space, bandwidth. Demand far outstrips supply.

Product/market fit is when the "good problems to have" start feeling real bad, because you have way too many good problems. You must make a choice:

  1. drastically lower your quality
  2. drastically increase your price
  3. drastically improve your infrastructure
  4. do nothing

Most would pick the third option, but you can't do so fast enough, because you can't afford to, or you don't have time to. Doing nothing is the path of the artisan: don't compromise, just let people wait in line.

Having product-market fit is just as weird and hard as trying to find it in the first place.

Solving problem-finding

September 2018 1 minute read

Methodologies for problem-solving are fairly well established. The scientific method is perhaps the best problem-solving template we have. However, finding good problems to solve is a different skill altogether, one that we don't teach.

Problem-finding is about looking for an area that you can invest your problem-solving skills into. It's the intersection between problems worth solving, and problems you will be adept at solving.

Problem-finding is harder than problem-solving because there is no established methodology around it. It's a hole in our educational system because it leads to people dedicating valuable years of their lives to problems that aren't particularly important.

Common wisdom encourages us to solve the problems we see in our immediate surroundings — in writing it's distilled as "write what you know", but it can be generalized as "do what you know".

Without deep experience in a specific field, this approach rarely yields good problems to solve, usually for one or both of these reasons:

  1. The problem is very personal, it doesn't help very many people
  2. The gains to be made are small

Of course there are many big problems in the world that are well-documented.

What I've found is that most problems that are worth solving aren't immediately obvious, even if they turn out to be big problems. Often it's because everyone dealing with the problem has given up on solving it, or they've gotten so used to the problem that they don't notice it anymore.

Every complex system has problems. Most industries are complex and ripe for problem-finding. The challenge is knowing enough about the domain, yet retaining the beginner's mind necessary to actually see the problem.

If you are coming out of school, or embarking on an entrepreneurial path, it really helps to put in a few years in an industry. Anything you are interested in will do. Try to understand it from the inside out, and study the inefficiencies. Do the work yourself, feel the pain. Stay curious, and keep branching out until you can see the whole picture.

The problems you will be solving in your work are probably not the important ones to solve. The real problem will be more meta, it will be that you have to spend time solving these smaller problems in the first place.

The problem you should solve is the biggest problem you are capable of solving. Perhaps that is why problem finding is such a hard problem in itself — someone needs to care about the problem before it can be found.

A little bit every day

September 2018 1 minute read

When trying to jumpstart a new habit, the only thing that matters is making consistent progress.

It's easy to get in your own way by setting the bar too high. Instead, set the bar as low as possible. Any progress at all is a good thing. What is the smallest unit of progress you can make?

  • Do one push up
  • Read one page
  • Write one sentence
  • Take one photo
  • Draw one doodle

Just do one every day.

If you can only do one per day for weeks or months, it's more progress than doing nothing. Soon enough, you'll have done more than you could have imagined.

Making of: Computer Show

September 2018 1 minute read

My good friend Adam Lisagor runs a video company called Sandwich Video. For a few years we shared a live/work loft space so I had occasion to see the creative process behind the fantastic videos and advertisements they make for their clients. Not only is his team creative and particularly attentive to detail, they are some of the funniest people I know. I remember frequently thinking (and suggesting) that Adam should do what Pixar does — make shorts for the Sandwich team's own amusement using the talent and resources they have on staff.

Our shared space was a duplex in LA's Arts District. Sandwich had their office upstairs, and I was living and working downstairs. (I was either living at their office, or they were working out of my apartment, we never decided.) One Saturday afternoon, Adam came over and shared his concept for a show in which modern day tech entrepreneurs would be somehow transported back in time to 1983 to take part in a public access TV show about computers. This sounded like a fun idea to me, and I was excited to see Adam delve into his own original creation. I don't remember his exact words, but the next thing he said was "Do you want to come and try improvising the show right now?"

"Right now? What do you mean?" I answered. It turns out Adam had flown in Rob Baedeker‏, the comedian who plays Computer Show host, Gary Fabert, for a character test. Coincidentally, I had been taking improv comedy classes at Upright Citizens Brigade during that time as a hobby. I think Adam saw me as a willing test subject and brought me over to ad lib some scenes so they could figure out what Rob's character would know and not know about current technology. It was very silly, in the best possible way. A lot of what ended up in this video was the result of that initial improvisational experiment.

A few months later, Adam had put together all the pieces and asked me and Jesse to participate in a full-blown episode. I couldn't have been more excited. Adam made the whole process a lot of fun, and as always, Jesse is a natural with these kinds of things. This was such a thrill to be a part of, it turned out better than I could have imagined.

The video was released October 14, 2015. Rewatching it in 2018, I enjoy seeing Jesse and I at such a metamorphic moment in Lumi's history. We were still shifting our thinking from Inkodye and the art supplies we were making and into what would Lumi would become, as a resource for custom manufacturing.

Behind the scenes of Computer Show with Adam Lisagor

Three years ago we launched Lumi.com to help e-commerce companies produce custom packaging. Today, Jesse Genet and I are thrilled to announce we’ve raised a $9M Series A.

In 2017, tens of millions of packaging items were produced using the Lumi platform. If you bought something on the internet recently, chances are high that it came in box or an envelope made with Lumi.

Online brands use Lumi packaging to ship everything from clothing to food, books, electronics, games, mattresses, cosmetics and medicine.

Many of our customers bring a new perspective to how business can be reinvented for the 21st century. They’re making commerce more inclusive, more sustainable, more accessible, more personal. They are challenging the status quo and are enabled by the internet to flourish more freely than ever before. We think Lumi can break down a few of the logistical barriers that still stand in their way.

Historically, the packaging supply chain was designed for companies that developed slowly and regionally, but today businesses are able to develop rapidly and globally. In the past three years, we’ve helped companies grow from branding their packaging with a simple rubber stamp, to producing hundreds of truckloads of printed boxes. We’re designing that flexibility into Lumi because your supply chain should be as scalable as your online store.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about online brands (aka DNVBs) and how their supply chain will evolve:

DNVBs sell physical things, atoms. But when it comes to making and moving them, DNVBs want these physical things to behave more digitally, like bits. They want their physical infrastructure to scale as easily as their AWS-powered site.

The magic behind Lumi is networked manufacturing, i.e. bringing factories online. Instead of managing communications with individual suppliers for each item, the Lumi Dashboard centralizes this process. Each item is abstracted into specifications and the best factory for each job is picked based on criteria for cost, quality and lead time. Our extensive network of factories allows us to locate manufacturing within 50 miles of almost any distribution center in the United States. If fulfillment moves to a different part of the country, production can be quickly re-located near the new distribution center.

As we learn a company’s usage patterns, individual optimizations can be made to improve sustainability, reliability and costs. As the entire system gets more efficient, major reductions in waste and carbon emissions can be achieved.

We’re often asked if our customers eventually outgrow Lumi — some might! But conceptually, we don’t see a limitation. Take the example of Netflix, which accounts for over a third of internet traffic in the US. In an excellent blog post, Netflix explained the four reasons why they rely on Amazon Web Services to host and stream their content. These closely match the reasons even big brands are switching to Lumi:

1. We needed to re-architect, which allowed us to question everything, including whether to keep building out our own data center solution.
2. Letting Amazon focus on data center infrastructure allows our engineers to focus on building and improving our business.
3. We’re not very good at predicting customer growth or device engagement.
4. We think cloud computing is the future.

Since publishing this article in 2010, Netflix has experimented with its own data centers but consistently returned to AWS for these reasons. Rolling your own hosting, much like building your own payment processor, checkout or email delivery system, is not only unnecessary, it has become less cost-effective and potentially detrimental compared to using a dedicated service — even at large scale.

Up until now, this level of flexibility was only available in the digital world. But the same challenges hold true for manufacturing and logistics. Lumi is all about proving that those constraints can be lifted in the physical world. That’s the idea we’re building upon every day.

To help accomplish this goal we set out to find people who could finance the next phase of Lumi. At the very top of that list were two names: Spark Capital and Forerunner Ventures. We couldn’t be more excited that they agreed. Kevin Thau of Spark led our $9M Series A, with Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, and Satya Patel continued Homebrew's amazing support.

40 questions to ask yourself every year

October 2016 2 minute read

One of my rituals at the end the year is asking myself these forty questions. This list is modified from a set of questions posted by coppermoss on Metafilter. I've also made them available as a Markdown file which has been translated in several languages.

It usually takes me about a week to work my way through all of them. I find it to be one of the most valuable exercises to reflect on what happened, good and bad, and how I hope the year ahead will shape up.

What is more interesting than each individual answer are the trends that emerge after years of answering the same questions. I’ve shared this list with my family and closest friends, and always enjoy discussing answers as we reflect on the year.

Feel free to add or remove questions, and share your edits with me. This is first and foremost a personal exercise, so make it a tradition you can enjoy for years to come. See also my 40 questions to ask yourself every decade.

  1. What did you do this year that you’d never done before?
  2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions?
  3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
  4. Did anyone close to you die?
  5. What cities/states/countries did you visit?
  6. What would you like to have next year that you lacked this year?
  7. What date(s) from this year will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
  8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
  9. What was your biggest failure?
  10. What other hardships did you face?
  11. Did you suffer illness or injury?
  12. What was the best thing you bought?
  13. Whose behavior merited celebration?
  14. Whose behavior made you appalled?
  15. Where did most of your money go?
  16. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
  17. What song will always remind you of this year?
  18. Compared to this time last year, are you: happier or sadder? Thinner or fatter? Richer or poorer?
  19. What do you wish you’d done more of?
  20. What do you wish you’d done less of?
  21. How are you spending the holidays?
  22. Did you fall in love this year?
  23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
  24. What was your favorite show?
  25. What was the best book you read?
  26. What was your greatest musical discovery of the year?
  27. What was your favorite film?
  28. What was your favorite meal?
  29. What did you want and get?
  30. What did you want and not get?
  31. What did you do on your birthday?
  32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
  33. How would you describe your personal fashion this year?
  34. What kept you sane?
  35. Which celebrity/public figure did you admire the most?
  36. What political issue stirred you the most?
  37. Who did you miss?
  38. Who was the best new person you met?
  39. What valuable life lesson did you learn this year?
  40. What is a quote that sums up your year?

"Digitally native vertical brand" (DNVB for short) is a new term picking up steam to describe a kind of company we’ve all become familiar with — think Warby Parker, Dollar Shave Club, Everlane, MeUndies, Casper and Primary, to name a few from this rapidly growing list. DNVBs point to an important trend that is “reshaping the retail landscape”.

DNVBs are companies that are born online. They’re taking a fresh look at commoditized products (like razors and mattresses), neglected demographics (like women and people of color), and taking out the pretension behind luxury goods (like furniture and wine). They’re typically bypassing retailers, preferring a direct-to-consumer relationship which improves their margins while reducing prices. Most importantly, they’re able to do this because of new technology and consumer behavior that has emerged in the past ten years.

I find it helpful to map out the landscape of retail along two axes: offline-native versus online-native companies, and brands versus retailers. DNVBs fall squarely in the upper right quadrant:

Offline-native brands

H&M, Zara, IKEA, Uniqlo, Forever 21, Nike, Gap, Gilette, Nespresso, L'Oreal, Colgate, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Lululemon, Chanel

Online-native brands

Bevel, Blue Apron, Bonobos, Casper, Dollar Shave Club, Everlane, Glossier, Harry's, M. Gemi, MeUndies, Outdoor Voices, Parachute, Primary, Stance, Warby Parker

Offline-native retailers

Walmart, Target, Costco, Best Buy, Macy's, JCPenny, Whole Foods, CVS, Walgreens, Safeway, Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears, Staples

Online-native retailers

Amazon, Jet.com, Ebay, Etsy, Zappos, Newegg

A notable fact is that DNVBs are relatively new. Most of them are less than five years old. But DNVBs are a growing concern for companies that operate in the other three quadrants. A few weeks ago, Dollar Shave Club, founded in 2011, was acquired by Unilever for one billion dollars. Procter & Gamble, Gillette’s parent company, has litigated against all three of the big shaving DNVBs (Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s and Bevel). And recently, in a move to gain more web-savvy, Walmart acquired Jet.com. These are only the first signs of the impending sea-change.

As new vertical commerce brands emerge for every industry and every demographic, I’ve been asking myself “Why now?” What are the enabling forces that led to the first generation of DNVBs, and what will the next ten years look like? These are four of my ideas.

1. Online sales will continue to grow

It’s impossible to talk about e-commerce without mentioning Amazon. In 2015, Amazon captured nearly 40% of all online spending during the holiday season. To give credit where credit’s due, Amazon has changed people’s habits.

Most of Amazon’s 22-year history has been about helping consumers get comfortable typing their credit card number into a website. One barrier at a time, Amazon has reduced skepticism by defining what e-commerce should look like, securely saving your credit card information, creating the expectation of free shipping, simplifying returns — all the things we now expect from any online store. With Dash buttons and Echo, Amazon continues to push the boundaries of what consumers are willing to trust when it comes to the online buying experience. This benefits DNVBs because consumers are more likely than ever to take a risk buying from a website they’ve never been to before.

To keep things in perspective, e-commerce still only accounts for about 10% of all retail sales in the US. According to data from the US Commerce Department, the past six years have seen a consistent average of 15% year-over-year growth in e-commerce sales, growing to $341.7B in 2015. For comparison, Walmart’s offline sales alone were around $300B (US). Only in the past five years has there been enough consumer demand online to make this many DNVBs viable. There is still a lot of room to grow.

Over the past 10 years the overall size of the e-commerce pie has grown about 4X. It’s also worth noting that during this time, broadband adoption grew from 30% to 70% and millennials entered the workforce. Not only are millennials avid customers of DNVBs, many of the companies were founded by millennial entrepreneurs who applied their digital-native perspective to retail. What will Gen Z’s idea of retail look like?

2. Software will continue to reduce barriers

Ten years ago, many of the services that enabled DNVBs didn’t exist or were just barely getting off the ground. Here are a some services (and their launch dates) that come to mind:

  • Hosting: AWS (2006), Heroku (2007), DigitalOcean (2011)
  • Web stores: Shopify (2006), Spree (2007), BigCommerce (2009)
  • Crowdfunding: Kickstarter (2009), Indiegogo (2010)
  • Fulfillment: Shipstation (2011), Easypost (2012), Shippo (2014)
  • Payments: Square (2009), Braintree (2007), Stripe (2011)
  • Newsletters: Mailchimp (2001), Campaign Monitor (2004)
  • Customer service: Zendesk (2007), Desk (2009)
  • Social networks: Instagram (2010), Pinterest (2010), Snapchat (2011)

This list barely scratches the surface of the hundreds of tools and platforms that make up the backend of DNVBs. These tools have helped companies keep their staff small and focus on what they do best: making a great product and sharing their story.

Before payment platforms like Stripe, e-commerce companies had to apply with their bank for a merchant account (remember those?) and build an entire payments solution. That process now takes less than a day. Every one of these services has a similar story behind it. Software has reduced the time, capital, and staff required to get DNVBs off the ground.

Going forward, these tools will continue to improve and new ones will emerge. Falling in line with the adage that “software is eating the world”, new software tools will continue to spread into even more areas of business.

3. Modern logistics will help them scale

A defining aspect of DNVBs is what Andy Dunn, CEO of Bonobos, calls a “maniacal focus on customer experience”. To that end, DNVBs are looking to create a cohesive link throughout the entire experience — from the marketing, to the branding, the buying experience, the delivery, the product itself, and even to the final stage of its lifecycle through recycling programs.

As software tools continue to streamline the digital side of DNVBs, we are beginning to see possible improvements to the physical supply chain as well.

On the product side one can point to lower entry points in prototyping tools such as 3D printing and laser cutting tools which have helped even tiny companies design production-ready parts that can be turned into industrial-grade tooling. Likewise, affordable prototyping and manufacturing services are becoming more accessible thanks to marketplaces like Maker’s Row and Etsy Manufacturing.

As you may know from the (sometimes undeserved) reputation that Kickstarter projects deliver behind schedule, manufacturing and shipping is challenging — especially if you’ve never done it before. We are now seeing companies that have learned this the hard way turning into services to help the next generation of DNVBs. This certainly applies to my company, Lumi, where we help DNVBs with packaging and fulfillment supplies, but also to companies like Cards Against Humanity, a Kickstarter success story which is now launching a fulfillment service called Blackbox. Other fulfillment services such as Shipbob and Amplifier come from similar origin stories, solving a problem they experienced first-hand.

As you continue to move through the supply chain stack, you find young companies bringing a fresh pair of eyes to problems such as freight (Flexport) and enterprise resource planning (ERPNext) — areas that have historically been the domain of ossified giants.

DNVBs sell physical things, atoms. But when it comes to making and moving them, DNVBs want these physical things to behave more digitally, like bits. They want their physical infrastructure to scale as easily as their AWS-powered site. That’s coming soon, and it will allow DNVBs to compete head to head with some of the reigning analog players like H&M or IKEA.

4. Old-school strategies will come back

Finally, strategies that have worked since the dawn of commerce will continue to be explored by DNVBs, namely physical sales and portfolios of brands.

Many DNVBs are already experimenting with physical sales to help their customers experience products first-hand. Whether it’s through a pop-up,pop-in, showroom, kiosk, store-within-a-store, flagship, or simply a retail partner, the move has already earned the obnoxiously catchy buzzword “clicks-to-bricks”.

Retailers are beginning to catch on by offering space for rent inside their stores. New retail experiments such as B8ta in Palo Alto, may further suggest that renting space in a store is a more appealing business proposition to new brands than traditional retail sales.

As more DNVBs emerge, we are likely to see the kind of consolidation that made P&G, VF, LVMH, PVH and other acronymed conglomerates successful. With its sister brand Ayr, we’ve already seen Bonobos move in that direction. Labels such as Matt Alexander’s Edition Collective suggest that a portfolio of small brands may be more effective in today’s climate than one big brand, and DNVBs are the perfect vehicle for that idea.

The Cambrian explosion of vertical commerce is still in its early stages, and Dollar Shave Club’s acquisition is only the first bit of evidence. At root, it’s the idea that there can be a brand for everyone. Consumers demand it, technology enables it, and incumbents will feel it.

Scars are beautiful

November 2015 2 minute read

I was recently at the Getty Museum where I saw a wonderful exhibit of Ishiuchi Miyako’s photography. Her series titled “Scars” particularly struck me.

"Scars" by Ishiuchi Miyako

The images are hard to look at without wincing. The oversized prints were even more painful to witness in person. But after the initial shock washed over me, I began to appreciate the photography itself. There is beauty in these shapes.

Like a path winding through a forest, I get lost in the meandering edges of these scars, the delicate unevenness of each wrinkle. As I separate myself from the pain, there is an intriguing nature to these photographs that is undeniable. I find it impossible to look at these images without questioning the Western fetishism of perfection ingrained in us since youth.

For years I have been fascinated by a Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi. It’s a worldview and aesthetic centered around the beauty of transience. An example of it is kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by joining the pieces together with gold lacquer. By doing so, the cracks are accentuated rather than covered up or discarded. The object becomes more valuable as it loses its sense of perfection.

Example of a kintsugi cup

Cracks, like scars, tell a story. They are not only beautiful to look at, they are also lessons in survival and perseverance.

There’s a quote by Neil Gaiman I like, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton:

“Fairy tales are more than true  —  not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

There is no learning, no victory, no good story without a share of failures, scars and the perseverance it took to overcome them. Western culture hasn’t translated that idea into its perception of beauty.

It’s important not to mistake wabi-sabi for a fatalistic view of the world. The appreciation of imperfection is not an invitation to let things break down and dilapidate. In the book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb rejects the notion that the opposite of fragility is resilience, thus he coins the word “antifragile”: things that become stronger or better when they are challenged or exposed to chaos and uncertainty.

Many things in nature are antifragile. For instance, the muscles in your body are adapted to become stronger as they heal from being torn by physical exertion. Likewise, products and systems can be designed to not only withstand aging but actually improve over time.

I find that much anxiety can be alleviated by finding beauty in transience, imperfection, and scars. Too often society judges us for our scars. This leads to a culture of fear. People follow the path that results in the least amount of pain, rather than the path that leads to the most amount of learning. Whether they are literal or figurative, do not fear the scars — be proud to earn them. Gild them like a kintsugi tea cup.

We are all participating in creating the mythology of our time. It is our responsibility to create a future where people, objects, systems  —  anything — can be allowed to thrive not in spite of, but because of imperfections.

Default to empathy

November 2015 2 minute read

There’s a saying you may have heard called Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.”

The word “malice” is perfect because it says nothing about the severity of the act. It could describe anything from someone cutting you off in traffic to an accident that blows up the Earth.

On the other hand, I find that “stupidity” only describes a narrow band of human behavior. The saying works just as well if you replace that word. For example:

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by…

  • a rough day at the office
  • a family emergency
  • an ill-fitting pair of pants
  • not having coffee this morning
  • a recent uptick in birds pooping on that person’s car

You get the idea.

Everyone has something on their mind. Something that isn’t going perfectly well in their life. A nagging issue that, however small, may affect your mood on any given day. We’ve all been that person who rudely cuts into traffic because it’s-been-a-long-stressful-day-and-if-we-could-just-be-home-right-now-we-could-finally-relax. And so yes, we will cut into traffic, because today we tell ourselves that we deserve to.

My secret weapon is my alter ego (well, one of my many alter egos, but we’ll get into that another day). I call him super benefit of the doubtman.

When someone does something seemingly malicious to me, I try to remember to summon him. Sometimes it’s hard to remember because my ego tends to bristle and roar: “Why is this happening to ME?”

But super benefit of the doubtman comes to the rescue and asks: what are the conditions that caused this person to behave that way? Usually it’s easy to come up with one or two maybes. Maybe they’re worried about losing their job. Maybe they’re upset about something happening in their personal life.

There’s no room to take it personally. Instead of becoming defensive, I try to either disregard the apparent malice or resolve the causes behind it.

I often catch myself marveling at the concept of streets  —  cars whizzing by each other, divided only by a thin strip of paint. Streets say a lot about the power of ego. What makes this crazy system work is that none of us want to die. At least not in a head-on collision. The inherent sense of self-preservation and self-interest that we all share makes society possible, but also causes a lot of what seems like malice.

To solve the root cause of “malice”, it’s helpful to consider whether your environment is effective at converting self-interest into positive impact for the group. Maybe that environment is something you have the power to change?

Whether it’s true or not, I want to believe that most people are good people. I want to live in a world where we can all make that assumption. Call me an optimist, but I think that starts with defaulting to empathy.

Every app is a superpower

April 2015 1 minute read

When Google Maps first came out, it blew me away. It still seems like one of the most magical technologies we have today.

I wonder what Ferdinand Magellan would think if you showed him Google Maps on a phone? The entire world mapped in detail, with photos of every building in every city.

I sat in an airport listening to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on Spotify, wondering what he’d think if he knew that anyone can listen to high-fidelity recordings of all his compositions. Just a phone and a pair of earbuds  —  no matter where you are.

What if Johannes Gutenberg could hold the world’s knowledge in the palm of his hands, and search Wikipedia for anything he can think of?

Imagine showing Nicéphore Niépce and the Lumière brothers what images they could capture from a camera that fits in your pocket.

I would love to see Alexander Graham Bell wirelessly have a face-to-face conversation with anyone on Earth.

Within ten seconds, I can tell you what the weather will be like tomorrow or what the top five restaurants are, for any city in the world. I can have a chauffeur here in 5 minutes, or have my groceries delivered before dinner.

In our pockets is a portal to powers that even kings couldn’t dream of.

Be vanilla

July 2013 1 minute read

The term "vanilla" is often used to describe something ordinary, plain, or standard. In my book, there's nothing less vanilla than vanilla.

Vanilla beans are the fruit of a rare orchid native to Mexico. Their aroma and flavor comes from a compound called vanillin. Each vanilla flower blooms just one morning out of every year. The orchid can only be naturally pollinated by a small Mexican bee, and if it isn’t pollinated that morning, the flower will wilt. No bean.

Commercially, vanilla is delicately hand-pollinated one flower at a time. The labor involved in vanilla production makes it the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.

Vanilla flavor has been prized since Mesoamerican times, and can be found in every ice cream shop on Earth. It's the best-selling flavor in the world.

Vanilla's universal appeal is why it's the default. Is your default as good as vanilla?

Always learning, always teaching

April 2013 1 minute read

A professor of mine used to often quote Bob Dylan:

"He not busy being born is busy dying"

It's a philosophy of life.

Some are comfortable making the same thing the same way their entire career. If you're good enough, and the product you provide is timeless — say a great whiskey from a recipe honed by generations — you might make it. You'd be fragile, and susceptible to unexpected events, but you might make it, happy and able to care for your family and employees.

If there's one lesson I learned from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it's that even masters in their craft are constantly learning, constantly looking to improve, always challenging their own assumptions. In Jiro's case, at age 86 and beyond. Relentlessly.

A tried-and-true way to experience rebirth is to teach. Not necessarily in academia, but by giving away your knowledge and techniques to the world. To teach is first to distill what you know. You are forced to understand the theory of what you may have learned by instinct and practice.

By teaching you will know what you know better than you did, and by giving away your techniques you will empower your peers and competitors. You will be forced to compete creatively and to open new doors for yourself.

It's a bit like running from a pack of wild dogs while dropping behind you a trail of fresh meat. Scary, but the only sure way to keep on your toes and thrive.

Agents of chaos

November 2012 1 minute read

Stream of consciousness

A world where knowledge is captured and categorized, interpreted by the masses almost instantaneously digested, regurgitated, masticated, ruminated…. and immediately available to access, pre-chewed. We become increasingly eager to process and catalog everything, beginning with the superficial and slow-moving, but progressing deeper and faster to the constantly changing environment, incessantly updating our map of what is known. Our knowledge is decentralized, sourced with more or less certainty by billions of agents — human at first but increasingly animal and robotic. Our capturing methods become decreasingly invasive and our simulation, processing and storage capacity increases to such a degree that all knowledge becomes a singularly accessible resource, freely available, understandable, translatable.

Decision-making becomes relegated to algorithms, but agents of chaos and pioneers are constantly being born. Our free will is relegated not because of an omnipotent power or Universal order, but because of a system we ourselves created that reinforces the very course we have set. Our identities are constantly being funneled towards understandability, and yet something in us is unpredictable. Not because of entropy or serendipity but because of a bug, a malfunction, a short circuit that our brain always seems to find. A fuse that gets blown. We challenge the predictions and that chaotic force unbalances any possible calculation, even those calculations that attempt to correct for our unpredictability cannot fully understand the rhyme or reason of this odd gene. The fact that it can’t seem to be codified is what keeps us from truly falling into Singularity.

And so, we commit ourselves to travel the Universe in search of knowledge. Cartographers of galaxies and planets, bringing life and chaos to the Universe. A virus, a mutation that cannot be stopped… that consumes in search of what? The Ultimate… Knowledge? Creator? End? Answer.

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