I spent the last week in Banff and Calgary with my family. It was a fantastic time, and the stock photos you see online are not enhanced. It’s that good.
I come from a family of doctors - my parents are both physicians and my sister is a resident physician. For a while, I felt somewhat removed from conversations, many of which were mottled with medical slang and strange numerical prescriptions. Somewhat confusingly, I’ve also found my individual conversations with them to be some of the most enjoyable given their little exposure to startups or the tech industry at large. With fewer preconceptions or biases, their views give me the context that’s hard to find almost anywhere else in the Bay (where most crowds are either in tech or are closely aware of the space).
During the process of looking for and applying to jobs at startups, I would base most of my context and expectations on the content I was consuming + positive reinforcement from friends and family in the space. Especially then, startups were an amazing place to be for a recent grad. I was drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid before I even stepped foot within. But my parents were a grounding force in conversation - they’d ask beginner questions about my decision-making and process. They’d ask about the true risks of joining a startup. They asked what it actually meant to be granted shares and how much real value that represented. They asked about my confidence in moving to San Francisco without knowing too many people. While I wanted it to be obvious that I was making the right decision, I realized they were poking holes in my own understanding of the realties of the situation. They continue to ask questions that we oftentimes choose to ignore - including a recent one around the multiple funding rounds in a row in 2021-2022, but a large gap since the last one. What does that mean? It was obvious but a clear indication that something had changed, and they wanted to know why.
I realize this article touches on the same umbrella topics that most of my last three posts have, but the theme has been prominent in my mind! The last year revealed underlying truths about the software space and tech ecosystem that I had previously idealized and misconstrued. There was a tweet I read many years back that stated something along the lines of- to get into YC, build a product that a YC company needs. I don’t why this resonated, but 6 years later, it still sits with me as I learn where exactly the cornucopia of SaaS tools fits into our worldly developments.
Not all of these companies have gone through YC, and it’s a gross generalization of my current views, but at some level I’ve begun to see our space depicted like this:
It’s obvious why I never could or will work in product design, but hopefully, the point comes across. There is a sea of software tools out in the world today, many addressing the core issues that society faces (I regard these as foundational layers - infrastructure, healthcare, and education). But a vast majority are solving problems in a space that likely did not even exist 20 years ago. The software that is needed for a product manager at a growing tech company to manage his/her experiments. The Customer Success platform for consolidating account usage. Many of the companies shown above have absolutely proven real value for our world, which is why they continue to exist and operate. But there is a continually growing class of prototypes and tools solving niche, bespoke needs for a specific set of end users. Many of which I ask - what problem is this actually solving?
A recent screenshot from Product Hunt looked like this:
For one, too many damn tools in AI.
Two, what problems are they really solving? Is there a need for another travel planner? Does the freelance marketplace need an AI layer on top? Do we actually need another product to manage workflows on top of another CRM software?
It’s invigorating: the constant stream of new tools, and the speed and passion of the developer community. It’s non-stop. Every new space, problem, surface area opens an opportunity to penetrate and productize.
Every product is part of a system and serves as one of the many inputs. In the B2B SaaS world, many companies’ products are another input to their internal operating system. Retool is reliant on many vendors - Segment, Datadog, Bigquery, AWS, Node, and Atlassian just to name a few. We deliberately chose these vendors due to our trust in their products and ability to deliver (of course!), and they are necessary inputs to our own software offering.
But these decisions carry immense costs in the grander scheme of things. Nasim Taleb has written extensively about the concept of the Lindy Effect: it’s one that I continue to find extremely poignant and applicable, especially in the startup space. We live in a world that pushes for and champions innovation and growth. Venture Capital is solely built on enabling this through capital and advice. But in actuality, there’s a limit to the amount of new that can last. Most startups fail! Meaning most of these services (probably used by some class of customers) will cease to exist. We’ve seen that in the last year more acutely with products simply don’t have a foundational strategy to drive recurring revenue. Retool has proven to serve a need for many developers and companies, and we are working to ensure the longevity of the tool. But this doesn’t come easy - we must find ways to drive continued revenue to be reinvested into the company.
But when inputs to a system start to fail, the system itself will start to under-deliver. It will need to find new inputs or degrade. Small disturbances to any node can create very immediate ripple effects on downstream dependencies. Retool relies on generally trusted services that have proven their value and a sustainable business model. But in our own lives, we put so much investment and time into products that could very well just disappear after some time. We saw this with Yik Yak which was used across our student body in college. We saw this with Quibi, that grossly overestimated the demand and need of commuters. This concept also applies to products that may still be operating, but don’t have the investment to innovate or launch new products, leaving it in somewhat of a ‘graveyard’ state. I feel this way with Quora and Medium, two content platforms that I loved for much of my undergrad. I would find quality answers and thought on Quora, and great write-ups on tech throughout Medium. But both platforms have changed so significantly - in a not-so-positive way. Quora has quickly devolved into a platform full of low-quality, under-moderated questions. Medium has turned into a feeding ground of self-aggrandizement and productivity porn.
I look at this site where I write these posts. All of my homepage links are to somewhat new software services. Village is a friend’s startup that I love to use. I’m writing this content on Notion which was published through Super. I’ve added food reviews on Beli, another fairly new tech platform. All of these are providing value to me, though I realize I also don’t pay a dime for just about any (other than some menial costs for this domain and publishing). This also means, there must be (or I hope there to be) some very ardent community of users that ARE paying and funding the growth and sustainment that I continue to rely on.
I wrote about ‘seeing things as they are’ in my first post. I’m still bullish on and love all that’s happening in tech. But there’s an ephemerality to the majority of these. Many will not last or operate at the same capacity they do when times are good and money is cheap. It’s fun to be an early adopter and later a power user of any tool. But there’s always the risk of putting those eggs in one basket.
Derek Sivers seemed onto something when he wrote on this.
I had planned to mention my complete dependence on Evernote for life tracking. I have been a power user since high school, and every emotion, thought, and rant has gone into my journal.
As I was writing the section above, I couldn’t help but worry about Evernote, which I’ve felt a slowdown in support and iteration. I hope this movement longens runway, but a sad sight nonetheless 😟
Bay Area tech firm relocating to Europe, lays off most staff
A Bay Area company once heralded by Engadget as the “king of note-taking apps,” has...
Update - Aug ‘23
These posts give me chills. There are such real implications to the time and energy invested into any new technology or service. Goes again to show the importance of focusing on the fundamentals - writing, programming, accounting. Those ‘root’ level skills that aren’t dependent on potentially transient technologies.