Investing in Ahoy

Several months ago Jordan Cooper introduced me to two entrepreneurs, Ben and Spencer, the co-founders of Ahoy. When I first spoke with them, I was instantly enamored by their vision. The thing that stood out to me is that they were exploring a practical use case for crypto that bridges the digital and analog world while making the internet fun.

Ahoy enables anyone to create a Bounty, which you can think of like a GoFundMe for something that you want to see happen in the real world. People anywhere can create a financial incentive for someone or something to take a desired action. Want your favorite band to collaborate with your favorite visual artist? You can create a Bounty that incentivizes them to do so, and the money raised can either be distributed directly to the artists (i.e. the “fulfillers”) or to a charity or cause of your choice. The Bounty is only paid once the fulfillers complete the action in the real world and all of the contributors (or “stakers”) vote on whether or not the fulfillers completed the bounty. It’s a democratic process end to end.

One of the things that I think will be particularly interesting is using Bounties as a tool to incentivize political action. Today, many politicians are bought by corporations and special interest groups via Super PACs. This all happens behind the scenes and in secret. Bounties can be a tool to enable the public to influence politicians. Imagine a world where millions of individuals contribute to a Bounty that pays a Mitch McConnell Super PAC if and only if he gets Congress to pass a defined set of common-sense gun reform legislation? The concept of buying votes feels very icky. I’m sure there is legal complexity to this and this particular example is definitely contentious, but if this type of behavior happens in private, why not bring it out into the open and let everyone participate in the system? Incentives drive behavior, and Ahoy is an experiment to let the public coordinate around the specific incentives it can deliberately create to drive the actions it wants to see. I’m following a project called DAOPAC that is exploring this idea within politics.

But there are so many more potential examples of Bounties that span the spectrum of super serious to super fun. You can probably dream up several things you’d like to see happen in the real world right now where money can incentive it to happen. The open-ended nature of a Bounty will unlock creative projects that I can’t even begin to fathom today, and I find that so incredibly exciting. It’s a tool that provides a blank canvas for online communities to create real-world outcomes. You can follow along here as people create more of them.

But why the blockchain? Ultimately, to most participants the Blockchain shouldn’t matter. In fact, it should and will be almost entirely abstracted away from the customer experience. Today, you can only fund a bounty with SOL and you must use your Phantom wallet (or a SOL wallet) to participate. That’s obviously a massive barrier for the average individual to contribute, so the team plans to enable normal fiat rails as well so anyone can contribute with their credit card or bank account. What crypto enables for Ahoy is two things that are important: 1) every Bounty is effectively a crypto-enabled escrow that programmatically releases or withholds funds based on the collective votes of stakers, and 2) it meaningfully reduces network extraction fees such that fulfillers can receive as close to the full Bounty amount as possible and each staker’s contribution is measured in full (as a counter-example, GoFundMe takes 2.9% of a transaction and also $0.30 for every individual donor). This is important because when a staker contributes $1, the entirety of that $1 is committed to the Bounty and received by the fulfiller. Micro-contributions become possible which means large-scale participation is viable and effective.

I’ve written before that most of what is happening in the crypto world is unimportant and counter-productive to fulfilling its promise. Ahoy is an experiment that, if it fulfills its potential, takes us a meaningful step in the right direction. It selectively uses crypto-infrastructure to deliver a superior user experience to non-crypto users across the world, while creating a tool that otherwise would not have previously existed. I’m quite excited to see where this goes.

Unleashing Potential

I am one of the luckiest people I know. I was born in the United States, my parents were doctors and I grew up upper middle class. I was raised in a household that was filled with love. My parents always supported and encouraged me to explore my interests. I went to private school until high school, and they paid my way through college. I was afforded opportunities to make mistakes, learn from them, and in many instances make the same mistakes again. I have a remarkably loving and supportive wife and two children who provide me with enough motivation and joy to last many lifetimes. 

Professionally speaking, I’ve started two companies which both had successful exits. This would have never happened had I not been gifted the opportunity to enter the tech startup world after college at tumblr. Which only happened because of the dumb luck I was born into. 

While I worked hard along the way, I don’t think I’m more deserving of this luck than others. Over the course of my career I’ve met countless people with incredible talent. They’re much smarter and more driven than I am. And the obstacles they’ve overcome to get where they are are unlike anything I’ve encountered or will encounter in my lifetime. They were not born into the same luck that I was. 

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is what the world would look like if all the talented and brilliant people in the world were afforded the same opportunities I was. It’s easy to take for granted the things that differentiate our upbringing in developed countries: we have education systems, healthcare, food, live above the poverty line, and aren’t fearful for our lives on a daily basis. While it’s far from perfect and there’s much room for improvement, for the most part we have security psychologically, physically, and economically. Tragically, a majority of the world experiences the opposite of this. 

But imagine if everyone had access to a similar set of positive circumstances. Imagine how much potential would be unleashed amongst new entrepreneurs, scientists, academics, builders, etc. Our rate of progress across virtually every vector would accelerate exponentially. If you’re reading this, the fortunate truth is that there are countless people out there that are smarter and more talented than us. But they do not have the opportunity to flourish the same way you and I do. But that can change, and it can happen within our lifetime.

I just started reading The Network State and on the first page Balaji reminded me of this once again: 

…all those people from the middle of nowhere, passed over by the establishment, with crazy-but-correct ideas, who could do great things if only given the opportunity.

What if they weren’t passed over by the establishment? What if those crazy-but-correct ideas were given the chance to flourish? The world would look a lot different. The world can look a lot different. And I’m increasingly convinced that this is one of the most profoundly impactful ways to make it so.

Polarization and the Crisis of Legitimacy

I just wrapped up Ezra Klein‘s book Why We’re Polarized. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you’re interested in why the political climate is so dysfunctionally stupefying today. I’m a big fan of Ezra. His podcast is the only one I really listen to somewhat consistently, and I think he does an exceptionally good job explaining things in a very digestible way. I generally agree with his worldview and I’m usually interested in the things he has to say.

The gist of the book is that politics has really become defined by our identities, and as a result it has led to a state of polarization that threatens the future of our democracy. I’m not going to spend time digging into the problems he very convincingly discusses. If you’re interested, Bill Gates has a good review of the book and here is another one from the The New Yorker.

It is worth noting that I am not a political pundit, nor am I an expert in politics. But I do have strong opinions and believe that national politics is a critical and defining instrument for making continued progress as a country and civilization.

I firmly believe that we are facing a crisis of legitimacy in the US government. The past two Republican presidents lost the popular vote. Mitch McConnell blocked Barack Obama from appointing a Supreme Court Justice because it was an election year, then proceeded to ram through three Supreme Court Justices under the Trump presidency, one of whom assumed her seat weeks before the 2020 election. Justice Thomas’s wife participated in the January 6 insurrection, he has refused to recuse himself from relevant issues, and is leading the Court to overturn established law that has come to define progress in our country (most recently with Roe and with near certainty more to come). The House is gerrymandered to oblivion, it is exceedingly difficult to vote in many states, and by 2050 roughly seventy Senate seats will represent 30% of the country’s population. Furthermore, the filibuster makes it impossible for legislators to do their jobs and too easy for a minority to completely obstruct any legislative agenda.

Today, we effectively have tyranny of the minority and for lack of better words, that is fucked up. It is not democracy. It makes me furious, it stifles progress, and it makes me to feel as if the current state of the government is a sham. Ezra notes that Republicans shouldn’t want this because you don’t want a majority of the country rising in revolt and disobeying the rule of law. But it’s impossible to believe in the rule of law when a minority imposes it upon a majority. A crisis of legitimacy is bad for everyone. The erosion of democracy is bad for everyone. And the most frustrating thing is it’s really difficult for me to believe that most elected Republican politicians actually care. I sometimes think there is a reasonable chance we are careening towards a Handmaid’s Tale type of dystopia. I would have considered myself crazy to publicly say that a year ago, but polarization in national politics and the way we operate as if national politics is an all-out war has convinced me otherwise. I’d give it a 50% chance that democracy survives.

Now I am optimistic that we get it together and continue our long history of making progress, but I am also realistic. If you were to ask me if there were “glory days” that exemplify the best of times, I’d still point to today. As Ezra says: “The era that we often hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent than Today…And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory. If we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before.”

So how do we make tomorrow better than today and ensure this grand experiment of the US government continues to make progress? Ezra highlights a handful of solutions that I vehemently support. First and foremost, he recommends doing away with the electoral college. This is an obvious move that is a long time in the making. My favorite piece of literature on the topic is Let the People Pick the President by Jesse Wegman. One of the common misconceptions is that in order to do this it requires an impossible-to-achieve Constitutional amendment. It doesn’t. Under the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact states can agree to throw their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. It can be entirely controlled by state legislatures and advocates for democracy should be spending considerable more time and money trying to achieve this. Republicans may lament that they’d never win the presidency but that’s just not true. Two of the most popular governors in the country are in blue states (Maryland and Massachusetts). They’d just have to run on policies that more people supported. It’s been done before and will happen again.

The second solution is to “combine multimember districts with ranked-choice voting. Under this system, states would break into electoral zones represented by multiple members of Congress.” Ranked-choice voting is a tool that needs to be more broadly utilized. It gives a voice to more people and enables candidates who actually represent different interests and identities the opportunity to thrive. If there’s one political thing I think Andrew Yang is doing well it is advocating for this change. It’s also the reason Lisa Murkowski, arguably the least polarizing Republican in the Senate, is able to retain her seat and more effectively represent her constituents in Alaska. Ranked-choice voting increases the likelihood that national politics actually has proportional representation, and can ultimately foster a much needed multiparty democracy.

Improving the functionality of the Senate comes down to the obvious and commonsense move of eliminating the filibuster (here’s a more in depth case for it), and giving Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico congressional representation which is long past due. Rules should also be rewritten to make it easier for the minority party to bring full bills to the floor. The Senate is arguably the most dysfunctional legislative body. The fact that a minority of the members can filibuster virtually every piece of legislation is preposterous. Elected officials should be able to enact the agenda for which they were elected to office. If it’s unpopular, then they will be voted out of office and another party can enact their agenda. This is the way a well-functioning government should work. I also believe we need term limits for Senate members. Too much time is spent focused on consolidating and retaining power as opposed to serving the interests of constituents. If a President can only serve two terms, then members of the most important legislative body should be limited to two terms as well.

With regards to democratizing politics, we also need to make it easier to vote with tools like automatic voter registration and universal vote-by-mail systems. As Ezra notes, “Too much of American politics is decided by efforts to restrict who votes or, as in gerrymandering, to manipulate the weight those votes hold.” Suppressing votes is diametrically and ideologically opposed to Republicans’ love of free markets. Voting should be easy, not hard. That would encourage healthy competition.

Last but not least, the Supreme Court needs reform. Democrats who object to this notion should be booted from office and replaced with officials who do. One solution Ezra recommends is to expand the court to fifteen justices: each party gets to appoint five, and then the ten partisan justices must unanimously appoint the remaining five. Until all fifteen are agreed upon, the Court wouldn’t be able to hear cases. Also institute term limits here. Lifetime appointments are absolutely ludicrous.

All of these solutions are primarily focused on national politics (which is what the book focuses on), and don’t touch on local politics which are also critically important. I would like to see more time, effort, and money spent on these issues. I’d also like to see members of both parties unite around them, or at least every Democrat support them. They are worth fighting for and in concert with one another they very well may be the antidote the United States so direly needs to course correct the path we are on and steer us towards a future that is continuously defined by forward progress and experimentation.

Coaching and Therapy

Founding a company is hard and mentally taxing. There’s plenty of literature out there about entrepreneurship’s emotional toll. Not only are the odds forever stacked against founders, but they deal with a seemingly insurmountable pile of problems: people problems, market problems, product problems, customer problems, etc. There are always fires.

One of the ways I learned to cope with the highs and lows of the roller coaster was to simply become numb to it all. I’ve had multiple board members share that I never seemed happy when things were going “up and to the right,” and that I never seemed fazed when we were facing an existential cataclysmic meltdown. I don’t particularly think this is a good thing – it’s important to be emotionally present to acknowledge and celebrate wins (although I think I probably did an adequate job here since I was surrounded by people who were good at this). But I do think it’s fine when dealing with the lows. I’d rather a steady hand in times of turmoil.

There are two tools I wished I used more frequently to better manage myself and improve as a leader: coaching and therapy. I look at them as two distinct practices, but sometimes one may use a single practitioner for both. I’ve engaged with a variety of executive coaches, but my favorite has been Jason Gore from Neuberg Gore. I even brought in multiple coaches to work with our leadership team at Fundera which was an excellent investment and something I recommend other founders do if they have the resources.

In my experience, what has made coaching work for me, and specifically my relationship with Jason, is focusing on very actionable situations. When I had to prepare for difficult conversations with teammates I’d rehearse them with Jason. When I had to figure out how to customize my management style, or even whether to adapt it to certain people, I’d workshop it with my coach. He equipped me with a variety of super effective tools that made my life easier as a leader and manager. And having that sounding board that could advise me every other week or so while being somewhat embedded in my management/leadership flow and cadence was super helpful. You have to make so many decisions as a founder; it’s really comforting and useful to have someone to consistently dig into and help with the most important ones. In retrospect though, what makes for an effective coach, at least for me, is someone who can help me confidently do the things that I like least (i.e. having hard conversations, quickly) while strengthening the things I do well.

I never did therapy while building companies but I wish I had. I started around a year ago after a mentor I deeply admire recommended it. He had been doing it for decades. I asked him why and he said, “So I can understand why I feel the way I do, hone in on what makes me happy, and do more of that.” I liked that so I took the plunge. It was really hard for me to get into for the first couple months. But then something clicked and I started to pay attention to my emotions (which I had spent the past decade attempting to suppress in the workplace for the sake of my mental health and operating capabilities). Identifying emotions is difficult, but now I am getting better at being able to do it in the moment. And when I can identify how I feel and why I feel that way, I can better understand my behaviors and proclivities. That alone is an extremely powerful tool to have as an entrepreneur – the ability to recognize how you feel in the moment and how that feeling may influence your behavior. I wish it was one I was able to to consciously use, or at the very least even be aware of, over the course of my early career.

If coaching is about doing, then therapy is about feeling.

Coaching and therapy are expensive, but I think the combination of the two is a powerful one for entrepreneurs. It’s cliche to say you have to invest in yourself, but you really do. You just cannot do the job for an extended period of time without having a sound mind (and ideally a sound body, too), you will simply wither away and grow to resent the things that make life and building things beautiful and enjoyable. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to use these practices day to day. I think they make me better at what I do, happier, and a better person.

Foraging for Progress

I recently started reading Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil. The book begins describing the first forager civilizations. Being a forager sucked. You went around hunting with your tribe for food. If you killed an animal or caught some fish, you could eat and live another day to do it all over again. If you didn’t, you’d die. As I was reading this section, I went to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It’s amazing. If you haven’t been to Mexico City or the Museum of Anthropology, you should absolutely go if you can. In it, there was an exhibit that chronicled the evolution of Mexican civilization from foragers to an agrarian one. It reconfirmed my suspicion that being a forager totally sucked.

Life got better as humans developed the skills necessary to stay put and farm land. And then it proceeded to get even better as we found new ways to adapt to the world (or adapt the world to us) over time. We invented things – tools, medicines, technologies, governance, and more – and through centuries of trial and error as we accumulated knowledge these things interacted with one another, compounding to make life even better, faster.

Every day we are surrounded by chaos and proclamations that the world is heading towards irreversible catastrophe. There’s a lot to be upset and despondent over, but lately I’ve been forcing myself to zoom out and appreciate just how blessed we are to be alive right now. We’ve come unfathomably far over such a short period of time in the grand scheme of human history. It’s an absolute miracle and testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of humans. So while we face very real risks both presently and in the future, I believe they are surmountable, and that at the end of the day we will find a way to continue to progress.

Life is hard and can be unpleasant when you’re constantly reacting to the bombardment of “Everything is Fucked!” It is so much more pleasant and productive when appreciating and acknowledging our collective and continuous progress. The climate crisis, pandemics, the erosion of democracy – all of these things are very real threats to our existence and our ability to make progress – but we are well equipped to tackle them and continue on our trajectory of constantly doing spectacular things.