I woke up today and realised that as of summer 2016, I’ll have been doing VoIP & SIP for ten years. It was about ten years ago that I first connected an Asterisk 1.2 server to my home landline via an FXO card, registered a Snom 190 to it and got down to business with my copy of O’Reilly’s Asterisk: The Future of Telephony.
I know that 2006 isn’t exactly old-school by the standards of Asterisk early adopters, and especially not by those of butt set-wearing colleagues who think E&M Wink is too newfangled and won’t drive cars made after 1975 due to all those new anti-pollution requirements. If you did Dialogic IVR programming on NT boxes in the 1990s, or rolled out AT&T WATS lines in the 1970s, you won’t be impressed. However, this field encompasses a third of my life span and nearly my entire adult life and career. So, from my perspective, it’s been a minute.
I was never an early adopter. At my small ISP job of the time, several people were tinkering with Asterisk from 2003 onward with varying degrees of commercial implementation success. I was introduced to the notion in 2005, and at first responded with relative indifference. In fact, if you had told me I was going to be doing anything with voice or telephones before 2006, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.
As the modem boom rapidly wound down and our ISP floundered desperately in search of a new business model, the connectivity side became a strictly Layer 3 proposition, a kind of sales channel for the ILEC. They owned the network and transport we sold. Do you remember the brief window in which independent ADSL providers were allowed to exist in the US, in the early-mid 2000s? That was us.
Nevertheless, I had a burgeoning interest in the technical and business side of networking that grew out of my deepening responsibilities at work. As I aggressively pursued that curiosity, I plumbed down the protocol stack and became intensely interested in how all these circuits worked at the physical level (which was out of our reach as we did not own the network). T1: A Survival Guide was a very enlightening tome that I literally could not put down. Anyway, as one slices through the OSI burrito, the subject matter rapidly converges with the history of voice and the Bell system, through the pathway of digital trunking facilities and digital loop carriers, multiplexing, etc. Now I was interested in voice. The whole Asterisk and open-source IP PBX phenomenon was not central to my interests, but critical to pursuing them; at the right time and place in this developmental process, it pushed down telephony from the mystical realm of the proprietary into commodity hardware and closer to the application level, which meant I could actually afford to get my hands dirty with it.
Speaking of commodity hardware, my foray into voice was, as my forays into many things as a twenty year-old, chaotic and irresponsible. I took a PBX PC with a Digium quad FXS/FXO card home from work and impertinently formatted it into a fresh Debian install. Why not? It seemed to be sitting downstairs doing nothing for a few months, give or take. Spare hardware, right? As it turns out, its disk contained–well, had contained–the only copy of a home-spun Asterisk PBX CD distribution project into which my immediate supervisor had invested many months of work. There were no backups. Oops. I still feel terrible about it. Granted, there were no change control processes, asset tagging, version control, or project management systems, but common sense might have invited one to ask first.
Anyway, I returned the hardware, built my own Asterisk server, got my own FXO card, and plugged into my land line. Those who frequented the 24/7 coffee shop Hot Corner back in Athens, GA in those days (summer 2006) might remember me sitting there with a telephone plugged into my laptop, which I was using to bridge it onto the WiFi network. Making calls out of my home landline from the coffee shop! How cool was that!
Here, my career took an interesting turn and perhaps suffered from a bit of confusion. I’ve never been a so-called visionary for innovation, but my twenty year-old self was especially impaired as a barometer of industry trends. I didn’t really realise that the classical TDM stuff was on its way out. I saw Asterisk as a pedestrian and entry-level window into the Really Serious Stuff, a stepping stone to the exalted heights of multiplexers, DACSs, and big-iron switches. Instead of stopping for a moment to wonder why the O’Reilly book was called “Asterisk: The Future of Telephony”, I was suddenly enamoured with things like ISDN, SS7, and SONET. I wanted to get into hardcore CLEC operations–interconnection, switch translations, the works.
So, instead of getting deeper into VoIP per se or taking an overly active interest in the new >= Layer 5 capabilities Asterisk opened up, I spent a few years investing in that career direction, rather the opposite of where things were going. I was a bit of an enigma; a guy who got into VoIP and discovered his love for the CSU/DSU.
I kept up my Asterisk skills and used it frequently, and I also started to get into OpenSER around this time. However, it wasn’t really what I cared about the most. Real excitement came at moments like when a colleague of mine set me loose on his Cisco AS5300–the first time I encountered the voice side of IOS–to get a few inbound PRIs working and routed to a SIP server. That was living!
Besides the fact that my core areas of interest were not so much hot topics in 2006-07 as they were moribund, there were a few other things I didn’t understand in my very early twenties:
- TDM & physical-layer stuff didn’t pay, for the most part.
Back at my ISP job, I thought the BellSouth CWAs who came in to reprogram our building mux in TL1 via the craft port were highly-paid, highly-skilled, in-demand demigods, true engineering luminaries, practitioners of the dark and recondite arts. Anyone can do good old IT folk traditions; few can program a fibre mux!
I didn’t realise they’re actually considered kind of blue-collar, not especially well-paid, and that their work consists largely of fastidiously adhering to procedures that are labouriously articulated in three-ring binders.
- Engineering vs. operations.
Diving into the voice service provider and CLEC world from the angle that I did, I ended up tracked for an “operations” career for a while without realising it. It took me some time to learn that this was a thing, and moreover, that I, as a developer historically, more belong on the engineering side. It dawned on me when I ended up a senior NOC tech at a mid-size company (a few hundred staff) and I noticed that only “engineers” actually get to implement things or change code; “operations” people just do things like server administration and monitoring.
Coming from a small-company background (our ISP was ~5 people), I certainly didn’t know that Corporate America makes a distinction between “engineering” and “operations”. As you might imagine, in an environment of half a dozen or so, everyone did everything, and owned their responsibilities end-to-end. In that sense, it was a fairly seamless transition from how I grew up doing things at a hobbyist level to a professional environment. I was already accustomed to having to know all aspects of what I was doing.
That’s why I was so confused when the word “DevOps” first popped up. What the hell is “DevOps”? It sounds like just “how we normally work”, right? Are there really developers who think their work ends when the IDE closes or whatever? All of us had to both write the code and cultivate the skill set to deploy it in the real world, secure it, etc. Are there really sysadmin that throw anything involving for loops and if statements or SQL over to the Programming Department, because that’s not really “operational”? Our sysadmin back at the ISP may not have been professional software engineers, but if they couldn’t write their own utilities and script glue, or execute the odd inner join, they couldn’t do their job for more than five minutes.
So, nobody was more surprised to learn than I that I was apparently in something called “operations”, where we had to get three “engineers” on a conference call to fix that one Bash script called from the one cron job. Shouldn’t I just do that for them? I thought I was in the get-things-done department? Bumping up against that division of labour caused me some problems both as an employee and as an employer.
- The misery of proprietary platforms.
I grew up breathing open-source like air, so I kind of took the culture, values and skill set that it brings for granted. I got a rude awakening and a newfound appreciation for it when I ended up in a role where my job was to be the Broadsoft specialist, deal with Metaswitch and Acme Packet, etc.Suddenly, no O’Reilly books, no conferences, no mailing lists, no forums, and, worst of all, no Google and no source code. Operating these platforms required an entirely different skill set; strong-arming the vendor and playing political games.
What little documentation existed was not conceptual in nature; it read like a reference manual–fine if you already know what you want to find out and how to express that in the vendor’s proprietary vernacular, but completely useless if you don’t know what you should want or what it’s called. Worse yet, it’s very clear that a lot of these platforms aren’t seriously designed for their users to run them, but for large operators who rely on the vendor’s consulting to architect, build and maintain their networks. That gets really fun if you don’t have official vendor support, but that’s another story.
It turns out that bashing my head against the CLI of various black boxes to see what the autocomplete turns up and fruitlessly pleading with vendor support people for answers is not my cup of tea. I was really bad at that job and didn’t get a lot done. I know for a fact that there’s a certain kind of personality out there that is very good at amassing this kind of knowledge by more oblique means, and those people are indispensable in the enterprise world. However, I’m not one of them. If you give me a box under whose hood I cannot easily look and which is not augmented by a user community or freely available literature, I’m pretty useless.
More importantly, I realised that it’s a dead end; should you choose to become (by way of rather expensive training and certification) a specialist in one of these platforms, your employability and fate will rise and fall strictly with the commercial fate of that platform. Knowing how to Combobulate the ANI Presentation Screen List on the Translations Profile of a Business Group is valuable, but it’s not Knowledge with a capital K, nor even a fundamental skill set per se–at least, not as I was accustomed to thinking of it. It’s just the privilege of carrying some part of the reference manual in your head. I wasn’t going to bracket myself into that. I’d rather be the guy who doesn’t know the answer offhand, but can Google it in 15 seconds, and has the strong fundamentals to be able to (a) find the answer in the results, (b) intuit that what he found really is the answer and (c) apply the information.
Anyway, the rest is largely history. In early 2008, I started a certain consulting practice and rapidly specialised in SIP service delivery platform development that heavily emphasises OpenSER / Kamailio. It’s been a slow, painful (ahem, “organic”) growth path that has taken far too long, but we’re well on our way to the product life, which is a generally positive development.
In hindsight, I don’t feel set back by the circuitous path I took to get here. Experience with development as well as infrastructure & operations goes far. Getting invested in the hard PSTN side of voice instead of viewing the world through the prism of open-source VoIP systems solely has empowered me to provide added value to my customers by being able to understand the migration path from “legacy” infrastructure intimately and to consult on intricate matters of PSTN-side economics. A lot of VoIP folks don’t really know what’s going on the other side of the fence; they just send their calls to the ITSP and provision DIDs without much of an inkling for how it works. One could argue that this sort of esoteric knowledge is obviously more useful so long as the PSTN is around and not as important in a world where voice is just another IP application, but, so far, even in 2016, the death of the PSTN has been greatly exaggerated.
Moreover, while there’s certainly a need to revolutionise paradigms and whatnot, being more deeply conversant with the folk traditions of telephony both allows one to play a more constructive role in bridging the gap and, with a little luck, might allow one to avoid some of the errors that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat in any scenario, circuit-switched or packet-switched. There’s a reason it took decades to engineer voice to the standard of reliability POTS users have come to expect. I strongly believe there are some lessons in that even for the WebRTC-in-The-Cloud enthusiasts out there.
It’s an interesting industry and, without a doubt, a very small circle of key actors. From a business perspective, that has its upsides and its downsides (small market). I’ve been fortunate to make many good friends and colleagues along the way, and the support has been both indispensable and deeply appreciated.
That’s the best thing about being in a small industry; like Cheers, it’s nice to go where everybody [well, some people] knows your name. You are too numerous to list, but I owe a debt of gratitude to all of my friends, colleagues, customers, hiring managers and bosses for helping me to learn where I fit best.
My upbringing and extraction unquestionably lie in the liberal arts and humanities. I’m moderately extroverted, and always leaned hard on the side of verbal, expressive and linguistic capabilities. For the time I was in university, I was a philosophy major with vague notions of law school. My parents are philosophy professors, and most of my relatives have an academic pedigree. I also had the unique intercultural experience of coming to America at age six with no knowledge of English and subsequently learning it in an academic social setting (my parents were graduate students). I carried that formative experience, and the globally conscious, relativistic outlook on language and people that it fosters, forward with me through life.
That doesn’t mean I’m a great writer, but I can write. Great writing, though, is really hard. As with many other things, if you plot a line from “can’t write at all” to “great writer”, you’d have to plot it on a logarithmic scale. Having a broad vocabulary, a firm command of language, and adroit self-expression will get you to the table stakes of “can write”, but that last bit, on the right, is a hundred, a thousand times as hard as what precedes it.
You know great expository writing when you read it; the thoughts and ideas are scrupulously organised, yet presented in a compelling way, with varied transitions and entertaining use of language, at once colourful and precise. Come to think of it, it feels pedestrian to anatomise it this way. You know great writing when you see it.
My writing is far too disorganised and repetitive to hit those notes. I’m verbose and can write a lot quickly and easily, but quantity is not quality; organisation has always been a struggle amidst my desire to relate a lot of details. If you read this blog with any regularity, you’ve seen that battle play out.
Though I’ve got better at condensing my thoughts and communicating ideas simply with age, I’ll never write like my friend Alan. His writing is incredibly brief and terse, but his gift is succinctness per se, which is not the same as brevity, though the two are very often confused in contemporary minimalistic fashions in communication. He can say much with little where many others merely say little with little.
As far as I can tell, the real gift there is the ability to accurately foresee the details and connections that the reader’s mind can work out for itself. Then you can say only what’s necessary to anchor the conceptual tent, cloth not included, avoiding most of the potential redundancy that makes verbose text tedious. This post would be about six times shorter if Alan were writing it, yet say every bit as much–if it’s truly important.
I tried, for a time, to emulate his style growing up, but the results were farcical, much more along the lines of saying little with little. Not everyone’s intellectual output can be compact and tidy. I have to ply my version of the craft, such as it is, differently.
Anyway, I lay out all these concerns not to be pompous, but rather to say that the kind of stuff I spend a lot of time worrying about doesn’t typify the STEM personality one commonly finds in the software engineering profession, nor the pragmatic, utilitarian–and often Spartan, at least when it comes to writing–communicators in the business world. There are exceptions, of course, but as a whole, my life experience is that it’s a valid generalisation about engineer types and MBAs thumbing out curt txt spk on their Blackberries. And this is the environment in which I’ve spent almost my entire adult life, having dropped out of university to seek the exalted heights of corporate America.
As you can imagine, this occasionally leads to amusing and infuriating conflicts of style and culture, and in general doesn’t make for an easy professional life. It’s not easy to talk to people when you have completely different psychological priorities than they do. The curse of being somewhat better-rounded is that my mind often takes detours not travelled by fellow Professionals. To their mostly utilitarian sensibilities, idle musings and the cultivation of an inner life beyond the immediate task at hand are, above all else, a waste of time. It’s not enough to just write this e-mail; it must be a good e-mail, at once brief and useful, but also poignant, articulate, maybe even with a dash of wit, or clever and original use of the English language? They’re thinking: get to the point, Alex, because business. There’s money on the line, or action items or something. Never mind the existential why! Business.
Being wordy didn’t make for an easy childhood, either. I don’t think I came off overtly as bookish, being mostly chatty and rarely seen with an actual book per se. All the same, I can’t remember how many times I was called “Dictionary” or “Thesaurus” in school, or otherwise suffered social opprobrium for… well, for using words like “opprobrium”.
Outside of the liberal arts wing of a university environment (which I forsook at age twenty), the rest of the world offers a pretty steady diet of hostility to aspirant wordsmiths, and, as far as I can see, more generally to broader combinations of the intellect. There’s the automatic, default hostility of idle, unemployed kids in school, and the studied hostility of busy professional grown-ups. It’s easy to get depressed shouting into a waterfall, or, more accurately, pissing into the wind. I often feel an impostor, not quite sure what I’m doing here donning the regalia of tech entrepreneurship. When almost everyone I mix with expects small talk, being the guy always keen to start some big talk is demoralising and lonely.
And yet, as I pass the thirty mark, I’ve noticed something interesting. As more and more friends, colleagues and classmates move up the career ladder or otherwise evolve higher-order life needs, they’re coming to me for help in formulating thoughts: delicate requests, polite demands, cover letters, biographies, dating profiles, admissions essays, crowdfunding campaigns, petitions. All of this and more has landed at my feet in the past year.
“You always know how to say this stuff just right.”
“I don’t know how to say this – help!”
“You can put it a lot better than I can.”
Every once in a while, I’ll even get a note from a customer: “We always appreciate your thorough explanations and your going the extra mile.”
So, good news from our own “It Gets Better Project” for fellow closeted English majors in their twenties and thirties: keep your head up. As folks who know you move up the value chain into managerial realms requiring them to flex their communication muscles for the first time, you’re going to be more in demand.
Moreover, through my own experiences in hiring and being hired in the technology sector, I’m firmly of the impression that the most valuable candidates in the long run are those who both possess raw skills and can communicate well. There’s a lot of bottom-line value in clear analysis, disentangling messy ideas, and presenting esoteric information in an accessible way to outside stakeholders. Wordy missives may always be ignored by MBA frat boys as a matter of course, but effective and engaging communicators have more influence and audience.
The point is, as you gain confidence on your professional ascent and increase your leverage, stop taking shit from philistines. Don’t shy away from selecting aggressively for employers, customers and partners who realise that better-rounded people bring more to the table and appreciate you for who you are. Much has been said about how the customer is always right, and while compromises are necessary in life, you don’t have to concede everything and always. The fibres most integral to your self-actualisation should be armoured. The rightful sense of self is not for sale.
Evaluating potential hires for “culture fit” is all the rage in human resources now. Why not evaluate them for culture fit? What’s the culture like at the new gig? Neverending arguments about last night’s Steelers vs. Cowboys and the impact on Fantasy Football picks? Spirited discussion of the pros and cons of sundry brotein shakes? A thriving marketplace of World of Warcraft items? Hackneyed memes about bringing democracy to Syria? Either way, fire ’em. Sounds like bad “culture fit”.
Finally, choose your cohorts and your spouses wisely. Your true friends will help, not hinder you in leading an examined life.
My twenties are coming to a close in a few days. Like many people in my position, I got to thinking: “What do I really wish I had known when I was twenty?”
I suppose I could recapitulate professional and business lessons in easily digestible form, but does the tech entrepreneur self-help genre really need my help to survive? I could write about the evolution of my politico-philosophical positions, but I do that already. When I think about the kinds of insights I most wish I had when I was twenty, I think about the harder pills to swallow–the ones in the world of life, love and people. So, I’m going to talk about those.
It’s not that age thirty is a snow-capped summit of shareable wisdom–no, indeed, one of the lessons from my twenties is how little I truly know. But another thing I’ve learned acutely in my twenties is that the road can end abruptly at any time, so if you want to write down some thoughts, don’t wait until you’re seventy and retired to write memoirs. It’s a cruel trade-off, because at seventy you’ll have a lot more credibility. But you may not get the chance to employ it.
Not all these thoughts originate in my direct experience. Some do, and I’ll own that. Some I’d rather disavow so as to not look like an idiot; you know, “asking for a friend” here. Some others are from observing the lives and fates of those close by, particularly where their experiences are more diverse. The ambiguity I’ve created here lets me steal a bit of their thunder and make my twenties potentially seem more interesting and original–or catastrophic–than they were.
1. The biggest advantage of youth is youth.
You only get:
- Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed excitement
- Huge amounts of physical and mental energy
- Low maintenance and high risk tolerance
once, and if you don’t use them, they’re gone forever. You’re never getting them back.
I’m going to frame this in tech entrepreneurship terms because that’s close to home, but it applies equally well to any hard endeavours: launching a substantive career, getting a doctorate, doing significant research, writing a book, opening a shop, becoming an expert.
We often talk about “working smarter” versus “working harder”, and surely, working smarter is an important evolution. But to attach to the value chain in the first place, there’s a lot to be said for working harder. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for raw hustle. The cruel reality is that not everything can run on “vision” and “management”; someone’s got to be down in the boiler room, and some problems can only be tackled with huge inputs of raw energy, high motivation and brute force.
When I was twenty, I could write code for twelve hours in a dark room without a care in the world. Nowadays, I’d say two to three hours is a banner day, and I might need a mental break tomorrow. If nothing else, my eyes and limbs can’t take it; I’ve got all sorts of little aches and pains I didn’t used to have.
Much is made of “a lifetime of learning”, and that’s good and fine, but the reality is that most of us do become more sclerotic with age and our habits become more ingrained. We get intellectually fatigued from seeing the same patterns over and over. We get physically tired.
From a competitive standpoint, it’s really hard to kill a “Ramen-profitable” 23 year-old rooming cheaply with some buddies. At that age and life situation, one needs almost nothing to survive. What’s the worst that could happen? He could fail completely and move back in with his parents for a while? A businessman like that is like a cockroach; you could drop an atomic bomb on him and he’d still be kicking. In contrast, a guy with two kids, a mortgage, daycare, medical bills and wifely lifestyle expectations is a sitting duck with a massive burn rate. If his income stalls below six figures, he’s going to have to quit and do something else.
Now that it’s become sociologically normal to view one’s twenties as an extension of high school, many folks let their twenties go to waste. I pissed away my twenties, too. I started my company at age 22, but by that point I managed to buy a downtown condo, incurring two mortgages and a car payment. That high minimal personal expense base doomed me to spinning my wheels for years on consulting in order to stay afloat when I should have been building product–effectively, the same kind of funding constraints as the 40 year-old guy with a family. And I didn’t hustle nearly as hard as I should have; I wasted a lot of time and money with stupid distractions.
Yeah, I’ve got some kind of “work smarter” play in motion, but the point is that I’m not getting my 22 year-old self back. If you’re lucky enough to still be in your early twenties, recognise that your time is now, and the world is your oyster. You may not have the wisdom and experience of older folk, but you’ve got 200,000 lbs of thrust and tiny gross tonnage; that’ll get you to space, if you really want to go. Stop watching Celebrity Apprentice and go do something real. You’ll never have the same opportunity again.
2. It’s important to build a real identity.
It’s relatively commonplace nowadays to see people in their twenties wile away some of their most socially formative and interactively significant years on an exterior of “ironic” or sarcastic hipsterism, or veil themselves in thick shrouds of pop culture inside jokes, movie references, or Internet memes. That’s about the only kind of conversation you can have with them.
The appeal is easy to understand; it’s lazy as can be, requiring little personal ethos and cultural literacy (of the non-pop culture sort), and only moderate brain candlepower. More importantly, it’s risk-free, since anything one says in this insincere mode of social operation is easily disavowed or denied. As Christy Wampole said in the excellent article Living Without Irony:
… irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Social capital is a game where one must pay to play. If you bring nothing to the table, you get nothing. Despite their occasional short-lived hit singles, the full-time “ironic” and “absurdist” are utterly discardable, forgettable people. When their black day arrives, nobody will come to their funeral, because they impressed nothing upon anyone worth remembering. Hopefully relieved of the naive invincibility of late teenage years, it’s time to give some thought to what would be said at your eulogy and written on your tombstone if you died tomorrow. Do you want your immortal contribution to the world to be that you had a kitschy hat, a snarky one-liner, or a Lolcat for every occasion?
To build real relationships, to learn and to grow, you’ve got to do the hard work of growing intellectual and moral backbone, and you’ve got to learn to defend it while negotiating bridges of understanding with others. It requires putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable. It requires applying yourself toward a directed purpose, an ongoing project of who you want to be when you grow up.
3. The pervasive current of truth about most of humanity is a conservative one — and that’s okay.
You can pick up on this most easily by observing the habits and lifestyles of white middle-class liberals in the US. You’ll notice they mostly have rather conventional and morally upright marriages, and aim to raise rather morally upright and conventionally successful children. Officially, they’ll pay much lip service to morally relativistic fashions and postmodern eclecticism, but that mostly concerns other people’s rights, not their own lives. Consider where they choose to live, which schools they send their children to, and the positions they take in zoning forums. Sure, they’re all for recognition of non-cisgendered non-binary pansexual genderbenderqueer whatever, but watch their reaction when their son comes home in drag and says he’s screwing a black guy.
In general, even these people tend toward those who are sociologically similar. They can be notionally against the death penalty, but not when it’s their sister’s murderer. They’re against militaristic foreign policy until someone flies a plane into their office tower. They’re against militarisation of police and martial authority until their neighbourhood is overrun by vagrant looters. They’re enthusiastically for affirmative action and equal opportunity policies to rectify historical racial inequity until a busload of Hispanic gangbangers is unloaded into their kids’ AP Calculus class.
They’re not hypocrites. They’re just trying harder than most to keep the politically correct cat in the bag, because that’s their shtick. But occasionally, fissures form in this elaborate fiction, and if you peek in and look around, you’ll see that they’re normal people, after all. There are some earnest progressives among the progressive–mostly unreconstructed flower children and their confused descendants. But when it comes to things like family morality, sexual mores and sociocultural dilution, most liberals agitate for rainbow causes on the implicit theory that other people can “live and let live”. While other people deal with the consequences, liberals trumpet their progressive, tolerant values without their own skin in the game, and everyone walks away happy. This is great news for people living at the margins who used to be actively persecuted and just want to be left alone, but it can give a very wrong idea about what people think privately.
Still, in our highly individualistic and politically correct age, it’s comme il faut in all but the most parochial circles to belch out at least a nominal paean to social liberalism–that is, unless you want to taint yourself with some kind of retrograde Republicanism and its populist dog whistle, conservative Christianity. This leads to the misapprehension that most of people are quite liberal, but it’s a siren song. Taking it at face value in one’s twenties means ignoring the realities of people’s private judgement, and it can lead to some harsh consequences.
One area is friendship and reputation. I’ve lost good friends over some unhealthy lifestyle choices in my mid-twenties which telegraphed flimsy constitution and poor impulse control. It’s one of those things where everyone is superficially very tolerant and accepting–democratic live-and-let-live and all this–but one day I woke up and realised that, while they do speak to me, they’re not really my friends anymore.
It’s astoundingly easy to fling yourself clear out of respectable society if you don’t see past the veneer of tolerance–if you actually allow yourself to believe that people don’t believe in respectable society anymore. I don’t know what’s worse, falling for that scam or never having been taught that there’s such a thing as respectable society. The latter is the stuff of bad education from unreconstructed sixties hippies, who never quite got over their sentimental attachment to the idea of disestablishing the whole thing. It’s poetic, but it sets up your children for failure.
“Don’t judge me!” is a facile bit of sloganeering, a thumb-sucking fantasy. Of course people will judge you! Judgment about others’ character is part of the basic inductive reasoning integral to our species’ survival. We live in a socially and morally interdependent universe, and the painstakingly evolved mechanics of social cohesion and shared morality–the stuff of anthropology–predate the latest fads and nouveau projects in sociology by what, a few millenia?
The consequences of my actions in this area are entirely mine to own and live with. I wish I could go back and give myself a blunt reminder that the world works more like my parents and other elders said it does, and less like the ostensibly freewheeling Bacchanalia of mass-culture would have us believe.
Also, because I’ve seen it happen to others around me: sleeping around for both genders robs them of valuable experience and skills of relationship-building, since sloppy, drunk sex requires none of them. I’ve seen far too many peers come out of a Lost Decade like that with no capacity to relate to another human being. It’s common for twenty-somethings to conflate quantity and quality in talking about the much-prized “life experience”. A decade on heroin is knowledge, but not good or useful knowledge.
4. The quality of the people with whom you surround yourself is of paramount importance.
One of the fallacies of the Anglo-American penchant for individualism is that it is given to paint one’s journey through life as that of a free electron, associating incidentally with various atoms from time to time in a kind of undifferentiated way. This is amplified by the American national mythos of the socially mobile, implicitly classless society, as well as the value of “diverse experiences” to “broaden horizons”.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my twenties, it’s that this is a grand, epic lie. Life experience is good, but not all diverse experiences are worth having, and not all horizons need to be broadened. We are social animals, and we adapt to those around us. It follows from this that if you surround yourself with bad people, they will slowly pull you down to their level, no matter how clever you are. Your choice of friends and partners is a powerful signal to other people whose opinion is important to you, just like anything else. There’s no judgement-free zone.
To advance through life productively, it is important to take a page from the social rules of the Old World and acknowledge the existence of social strata and concepts like “level of cultural development”; your friends and your loved ones must embody the values in which you would like to commune. If you aim to conserve a cultured upbringing, you must be around cultured people. If you would like to live a healthy life, you must do it with healthy people.
I’ve also come to appreciate that shared values are the single most strongly indicated prerequisite for a successful marriage or long-term relationship. When I was younger, I would have said that the most important thing is intellectual parity and intelligence. This is not exactly correct; a couple with disparate intellects but with a wide base of common inner-cultural understandings and unspoken agreements on what’s important, right and wrong will be a lot more durable than two brilliant people who are what you might call “civilisationally incommensurable”. It just happens that common values among intelligent people tend to necessitate common intelligence; if education, literacy, and higher-order self-actualisation are important values for both of you, it will logically come to pass that you will get together only if you’re both smart.
The iceberg to watch out for here for is falling out of the bottom. This is easier to do in a large, highly individualistic society largely bereft of traditional drip pans. You’re free to fall through the cracks, and in the name of official tolerance, everyone will let you. However, as I said in #3, your fellow human beings aren’t actually as fluid, bendable and tolerant as the brochure advertises.
I said above: “It’s astoundingly easy to fling yourself clear out of respectable society if you don’t see past the veneer of tolerance…” The meaning here is that if you lose your connection to the people who are truly important to you and let the aspects of life you most value slip through your fingers, it may be hard to get them back.
Here, too, the folk American sociology tells some lies: people are forever saying it’s easy to make a fresh start. Perhaps. But while the world is large, the parts of it in which you’d want to hold membership are much smaller. They talk. The most important lesson of all in my twenties is that this culture wants for a resurrection of the pedagogical primacy that used to be placed on the concepts of reputation, word, pride and dignity. If someone had informed me that most of the world still believes in these things, I would have made rather different choices, as would–hopefully–many of my peers.
I’m one of those people who just hates working at home.
Oh, it seemed incredibly cool when it was the forbidden fruit. Back when I had to make a bleary-eyed, tedious commute to some cube at 9 AM and put cover sheets on TPS reports or listen to coworkers’ incessant sports talk, working from home was a rare and coveted treat, the stuff of dreams. Imagine, saving the world in my bathrobe, all the fine things in life at my fingertips: refrigerator, snacks, couch, coffee table, a breather on the balcony!
However, after I went out into the reputedly exciting world of self-employment around this time eight years ago, the novelty wore off after a week or two and the bleak reality set in. I’m an extrovert and I don’t handle extended loneliness well. Not leaving the house was depressing and unhealthy. It was not conducive to a routine; I quickly developed a chronically dispirited mood, exquisitely strange and shifty sleep rhythms (even by my nocturnal standards), and eating habits worthy of a bulletin from the Surgeon General.
Oddly enough, this was unrelated to whether I lived alone, with a long-term romantic partner, or family and friends. Certainly, I can’t work at home these days in a small apartment with three young kids, but for most of the eight-year history of this business, I lived alone or with an adult partner no less busy than I. Also, I spent a few years living overseas. In all cases, I was dysfunctional working at home–or whatever place served the role of home–and I hated it. To stay sane and produce consistently, I need some kind of routine, a commute, movement and walking, coworkers, water-cooler talk, lunch meetings, and the overall psychological compartmentalisation that comes with a distinctive work-space. If I don’t have that, things go downhill fast.
I had to go somewhere to work routinely, even if it was just a coffee shop. And so began a long journey through half a dozen or so workspaces, whose evolution somewhat tracked the growth and increasing sophistication of my company. I’m going to talk about a few of them here before I get to Industrious, my happy home for as long as they’re willing to have me.
Coffee shops and open-area coworking spaces
I’m pretty sure coffee shops are part of the workspace lifecycle of just about every freelancer. Freelancer suitably describes the state of my consulting business in the first two years (2008-2009), and I spent untold hours at Starbucks or its local-colour alternatives in Atlanta and Athens, GA.
For putting up with my tiresome hunched-over-laptop presence over the years, big thanks go out to:
- Jittery Joe’s (Athens, GA)
- Two Story Coffee (Athens, GA)
- Aurora Coffee (Atlanta, GA – Little 5 Points and former Virginia-Highland location)
- Cafe CK (Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany)
- Sankt Oberholz (Mitte, Berlin, Germany)
- Segafredo (Yerevan, Armenia – the Tumanyan St. and Abovyan St. locations)
- The Green Bean (Yerevan, Armenia – the Amiryan St. and Cascade locations)
I can only hope that all the money I spent made up for the annoyance of me bumming around endlessly.
The basic problems of working out of coffee shops are fairly well known. They’re noisy, so phone calls are tough to impossible. Seating is not guaranteed, and is far from always comfortable or ergonomic. There’s always the awkward economic aspect of earning your keep; even if you’re not frugal (I’m not), there’s only so much stuff you can buy while sitting somewhere for the better part of a day, and depending on how much foot traffic the coffee shop has, the owners may or may not love you as a semi-permanent fixture. Even if they love you, it gets socially weird showing up at the same retail food service outlet every day as if you live there. It’s a coffee shop, not an office.
But the real problem for me was that I needed an office, not a table. Much has been written about the importance for developer productivity of having a room with a door that closes, and I won’t belabour it here. More critically, I’m not one of those people that can live out of his laptop. If nothing else, my poor eyes and limbs can’t take it. I need peripherals, a real display (or several), a quality desk phone, and a place to store files, documents and gadgets. In other words, I need an actual workplace, not an ephemeral seat at a table.
My first move up the chain from retail coffee shops was to classical coffee shop/open area-style coworking spaces, then a relatively new idea. In late 2009, I tried the new and experimental (and since defunct) Ignition Alley collective near City Hall East here in Atlanta. It was a good concept and I admire Tim Dorr and Mike Schinkel for trying it, but it was just not viable from a physical perspective. It was one of numerous hipster-type urban renewal projects, a valiant effort to rehabilitate a dilapidated, grungy industrial building. There wasn’t enough money behind it to actually do that. It was a cold, damp, and clammy winter. Like many projects of its kind, IA wasn’t a place I would have brought a customer or a colleague to.
The fundamental deficiency in this type of coworking space, rather popular now globally, is that it’s not much of an improvement over a coffee shop. You’re still expected to come in and find a seat with your laptop–there’s no persistence. They’re better than a coffee shop because they’re quieter, understood to be for working, and you can stay there all day without feeling guilty or awkward, but in the best case it ends up being something like a library study room.
Some coworking spaces offer rentable dedicated desks to address this, as Ignition Alley did. I also spent a few months in spring 2013 renting a desk-spot (with no entitlement to any particular desk) at the quirky Sankt Oberholz in Berlin, which has both a coworking-oriented downstairs coffee shop and a dedicated members-only coworking space upstairs. It’s all situated in a fascinating 19th century building off the Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn station in East Berlin. I also spent a month or so at Roam Atlanta in Dunwoody in late 2014, having just returned to the US and not yet found my new working home. They have created a nice members-only coffee shop with lots of nooks and crannies, but it’s still just a coffee shop.
I was content with these compromises while travelling abroad, but I can’t run a serious company–one-man or otherwise–out of a coffee shop. It clearly works for a large category of freelancers and so-called “digital nomads”, but not for me. I needed to step up to something real.
Regus and other offices
Commercial office space is expensive, and, as anyone looking for a small amount of real estate will quickly discover, generally rents in large increments (suites or entire floors) over multi-year leases.
One option is to sublet an office from someone with extra rooms. A colleague and I did this for a while in 2008-09, renting an office attached to a telecom company and data centre in Atlanta’s west side (near the Georgia Tech area). It was nothing special, but comfortable, access-controlled, and compatible with techie sensibilities.
We went the barter route on this instead of paying cash, since we could offer consulting that was notionally of value to our landlord. I advise strongly against bartering tech services, because this will lead to one of two outcomes:
- The landlord exploiting you mercilessly, given their relatively high leverage;
- You feeling guilty and/or landlord feeling screwed because you’re not really providing them much value.
In my case, it was the second scenario. The landlord was a very kind person who was much too honourable to meddle, impose or demand, and so the guilt that I wasn’t doing enough to earn the barter equivalent of market cash rent gnawed at me. However, I’ve known plenty of techies who fell for the first scam, and ended up doing thousands of dollars of free work per month to pay maybe a few hundred dollars’ rent.
Another option is to find a small, privately owned office building where space can be had in smaller increments. They do exist. I was in a four-room suite rented in a two-storey building owned by a nice middle-aged couple in downtown Decatur for a while, and the rent was quite reasonable for the square footage. However, four rooms was about the smallest they could offer, so if you’re like me, just looking for a room and not a whole suite, you’re going to have to band together with some others to get space in buildings like this. Moreover, as a general rule, I would say that such buildings are not fancy; this is Class B real estate territory, the reality of which can vary from merely somewhat drab all the way to bombed-out urban warehouse conversion.
Small sidenote: if you find yourself living in the “developing world” for a while, you may be tempted to think, as I was, that you can get a decent office cheaply. While “cheap” is a relative notion, my experience suggests that you’ll get exactly what you paid for. I rented an office in a Soviet-era building in Yerevan, Armenia for about a year at about ~$200/mo (allegedly expensive, if you listen to the locals),
and I can say that as a spoiled IT brat, I would have been better off paying closer to mainstream First World prices at fancy new business parks. I had to fight for air conditioning in 40C summers, never got particularly viable Internet access, and found the place uninhabitable in freezing winter temperatures unless I were willing to daisy-chain a bunch of space heaters like the other occupants. In talking with other people who have rented space in notionally “cheap” countries, I get the impression this is not an unusual experience. Unless you come from an expensive place like NYC, London, SF, Tokyo, etc., you should expect that comparable levels of creature comforts will cost more or less… well, comparably… anywhere. Have you noticed that Starbucks-style lattes cost no less than a few dollars everywhere, in poor and rich countries alike, even if the specific amount of dollars varies? Think of good offices the same way.
(Disclaimer: Opinions mine, based solely on my subjective impressions at the time of service, and not in any way fact-checked with the rigour of the scientific method or the fastidiousness of investigative journalism.)
Back to matters stateside, though. Now we come to Regus, a UK-based company that provides, along with several smaller competitors (including HQ, which Regus acquired), the canonical answer to the small businessperson’s demand for individual office space. Regus and its ilk are specifically designed to meet this need, occupying entire floors of “Class A” office space in skyscrapers and premium office towers and parceling them out by the room. Regus has a seemingly unparalleled global network of these facilities; if you live in something like a city, you’ve probably got at least one “Regus centre”, if not a dozen or more.
I’ve been in three different Regus facilities in Atlanta — two in high-rise Midtown and Downtown office towers (2010, 2011), and one in the Perimeter area (2014-15). The first two were split with a colleague, and the third I rented on my own. I’ve probably spent more time with Regus than I have anywhere else.
The good thing about Regus is that the space is truly “Class A” and the service offering is complete. All centres are in premium office parks or downtown skyscrapers and high-rises. If appearances are important to you in your business because you meet customers in your office, e.g. you’re an attorney or an accountant, this is your cultural home. If you want to be in the same kind of upmarket, well-appointed office building as a large ex-employer, Regus will get you in there. Needless to say, it’s not cheap; don’t bother with dollars-per-square-foot arithmetic, it’ll make you cry.
For most young tech companies, the value proposition in “Class A” office space is probably quite poor. Most of my customers, for product and consulting alike, are not local to Atlanta, and I hardly see them face-to-face. I could work in a single-wide trailer in rural Alabama and they’d be none the wiser. I also found that the aesthetic of “Class A” interiors becomes quite bland after a moment–depressingly cookie-cutter and unimaginative, if undeniably clean and comfortable.
The bad side of Regus is virtually everything else. Candidly, they’re probably one of my least favourite companies.
The first thing you’ll notice about Regus is that it’s an entirely sales-driven organisation. It’s almost like it’s really a sales company with the actual provision of office space as an afterthought. The managers of the facilities had titles like “Area Sales Manager”, and this really reflects the Glengarry Glen Ross character of the place. Those guys are always closing. The entire experience is numbers-driven, and you’ll feel very nickel-and-dimed for a la carte items that you probably figured were just included in the rent — the $100/mo Internet access (any alternatives require paying far more to bypass Regus), the $40/mo “kitchen fee” (so you can drink their Keurig-type coffee), etc. Faxes and copies are $X/page. There’s a lot of tax, title and tag beyond your base rent. They’ll try to upsell you on phone service and answering service, sell you on marked-up office supplies — always be closing. Nothing’s free or included. The conference rooms are scrupulously monetised. Remember Dwight Schrute as Dunder-Mifflin’s new landlord? Think intensely capitalistic thoughts.
Then there’s the nature of the rent itself. One-year lease agreements are mandatory and there is no early termination option, which is anathema to the realities of a young company, whether struggling or growing. Regus lease agreements emphasise that you do not receive a tenancy interest in any particular office, just that you are entitled to an office of a certain area. It’s more like a hotel, as they’re fond of saying. Although it’s not too common, they can and will move you to a different office if it suits a commercial objective of the moment. This is probably fine for people that need little more than a desk and a laptop, but not so good for those of us who nest with equipment, files or books in our workspaces, and more generally, build nontrivial attachments to the aesthetics of particular rooms. On one occasion, we were bumped (well, strictly speaking, priced) out of our then-current Regus centre altogether to make room for a client who wanted lots of short-term offices clustered together and was waving a lot of money around. You’re just a number.
Speaking of numbers, prices seem to be continually adjusted to reflect “market conditions” (i.e. a salesperson’s sense of how much you’re willing to pay) and proposed annual rent increases can be jaw-dropping. It’s a lot like sitting on a plane, knowing that every single passenger paid a different price for their ticket, a price that should be (in the view of the airline’s revenue management department) specially calibrated for every individual’s unique needs, so to speak. Traditional corporate landlords will wheel-deal and negotiate within a certain band that tracks average rental trends in a given market, but Regus have the flexibility to negotiate at the individual office level, so all bets are off.
Despite the high quality of the office space and the professionalism with which it is managed, all this makes for a rather user-hostile experience. If you don’t like the slimy feeling of constantly being sold to, you won’t like Regus. On the other hand, if money is not a key object and you like let’s-make-a-deal, you can find a nice office in the best buildings damn near anywhere in the world. If that’s important to you, might be worth a look.
One more thing: most traditional office space of any kind isn’t going to solve the solipsism of the solopreneur. I’ve never met anybody in Regus or other conventional spaces. Everybody scurries to and from their opaque offices and doesn’t socialise much. I imagine many folks like it that way.
The first time I saw Industrious’ promos, I knew I wanted to be there. Finally, there’s an office company that really gets it! I’m obviously not the only person to have come to that conclusion, as their occupancy in Atlanta is high and they’re expanding aggressively nationwide.
Since September 2015, the Atlanta Midtown location is Evariste’s new home, and we’re not going anywhere. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever said that with certainty and conviction about any office space.
The Industrious model combines all the social virtues of coworking with the critical realisation that private offices with closing doors are critical for serious companies. It’s real office space, but it’s also Gemeinschaft. When you want to hang out, you can come to the common areas, and when you want to hide in your office, you can do that. When you want to be a freelance hipster, you can do that, and when you need your business to grow up and be taken seriously, it lends itself to that as well.
Open-area coworking spaces don’t necessarily provide socialisation or collaboration opportunities consonant with the sales pitch. In places like that, people are trying to carve out their cocoon of concentration, siloed off into earphone-wearing atoms. At Industrious, there’s a real feeling of collective, which I think is an underappreciated key to the psychological health of the solipsistic entrepreneur or isolated small team.
All the coworking spaces push this angle strongly, but it’s only at Industrious that I’ve really seen it work. Some of that is just blind luck, I imagine; I was fortunate not to end up in another sea of SEO Creative Catalysts and Twitter emoticon visionaries with whom I had zero professional overlap. But some of that is because at Industrious there’s real balance, just like in a residential community; sometimes you want to go to the festival, but other times you just want to have a quiet evening at home. Industrious lets you do both.
I never made any friends at the open-area coworking spaces I’ve been in, but here, I’ve already done business with one neighbour and am getting ready to enter into a long-term contract with another! No collective setting can guarantee that one will make friends or strike up fruitful professional connections, but I think that Industrious’ claim is more substantive. They’ve got the facilities to situate non-trivial companies and groups of people engaged in higher-order business, not just individual professionals, so I think there’s a better chance of finding someone you’ll want to talk to.
The physicality is unique, original and well thought-out: all-glass office walls and front windows, a well-lit fishbowl in keeping with the latest architectural fashions in startup land. It’s very pleasing on all levels, and the ability to see into everyone’s office lends a surprising additional visual diversity to the interior, as the decorations, creature comforts, and the occupants themselves become part of a living, breathing décor. The glassy, transparent style of the place is oddly addictive. It makes me feel like I really want to be there. The transparency probably takes away privacy in the eyes of some, but it seems to me that the upsides greatly outweigh that. Overall, they’ve done a good job of skimping on things that the incorrigibly entrepreneurial don’t really care about; there’s exposed HVAC pipework, lots of concrete and a slightly industrial feel. However, they’ve been scrupulously attentive to design concepts for things that do matter, and I really like the values and priorities expressed in those choices. Having been through my share of projects with an “urban renewal” take on this, I know that’s hard to find.
The transparent, glassy anatomy is also an ingenious way to increase the ever-troubled value of interior (no window) offices, since daylight still finds its way into them, and one can see other people. Interior offices at Industrious are not depressing, isolated dungeons.
The common area is a pleasant place to relax, and there are frequent low-key social events. That appears to be consistent across all the locations.
Did I mention that you can draw on the glass?
Industrious provide a variety of room sizes, too, ranging from a small single-person office to rooms that can support five or even ten people. You can grow a team quite a lot before you outgrow Industrious. Upsizing or downsizing is trivial, subject to availability.
I wouldn’t say it’s cheap per se, and pricing does vary by market and facility. The larger rooms can stretch into the thousands of dollars monthly. However, all rent is strictly month-to-month; there are no leases. When you consider that none of their rental revenue is under contract, you can’t expect it to be cheap. There’s no slimy, high-pressure sales atmosphere; Internet access is included, as are snacks and coffee. There are no games. You can print things without anxiety.
I think the concept is a clear winner. This is unquestionably the right way to do a la carte office space for freelancers, startups and small companies. I think they’ve succeeded in redefining the category and anchoring a trend.
(No mention of my positive experience with Industrious at Atlanta-Midtown can be complete without a shout-out to Mary Catherine Hardage, the location manager. Aside from being a genial personality and pleasant to work with, she’s highly organised, diligent, and scrupulously attentive to detail. She takes excellent care of the place and is a huge asset to the company. Say I’m being gushy and saccharine, fine, but in bottom-line terms, I can’t tell you how much this stuff matters when you need something.)
In general, pedantic nitpicking isn’t one tenth as insightful as it might seem. In a pointed critique, it’s best to think holistically about big, central ideas and refute on that level.
It’s harder work, since it requires a close reading to truly grapple with and comprehend the idea one aims to dismantle. It’s also more risky, because there’s more “skin in the game”; big-picture theses necessarily depend on advancing certain generalisations, summations and interpretations of opposing positions, exposing the critic to accusations of having failed to properly understand what they’re assailing.
As with many gambles in nature, however, there’s a risk-reward ratio here. Fortune favours the bold. Engaging at a high level is lot more efficient, effective and persuasive, but you’ve got to put yourself out there. That is why taking small pot shots at ideas from the sidelines is a more popular sport; guerilla warfare from a sniper position, ensconced in the foliage, is a lot safer. It’s a common refuge of intellects too feeble or cowardly to wrestle with the main corpus.
However, not everyone whose criticism operates on technicalities is feeble or a coward. Some simply don’t understand that it’s not generally insightful. I’ve commonly encountered this in two areas.
One is in academic disciplines in the humanities, where bright-eyed, bushy-tailed graduate students, often young, uninitiated and not capable of much original thinking in their field, fall prey to great institutional pressures to “publish or perish” into the sizzling carousel of
spam cite-able research work. A seductive, intellectually lazy cop-out for them is to bring a little of the quantitative “rigour” of the hard sciences to the reputedly equivocal headspaces of their fields by “troubling” broad claims with pedantic caveats. And so, conference papers and entire dissertations are built on the dubious notion that there’s something meaningful to be illuminated in demonstrating that yes, Virginia, there do exist exceptions to generalisations!
Another bastion of notionally insightful pedanticism is techies, and more broadly, technocrats. The kinds of left-brained–if you’ll excuse the pop psychology–people who are stereotypically drawn to mathematics and computer science often seem to have an axe to grind with the humanities and “soft” sciences. Many programmers get into software in part because they are powerfully drawn, at an aesthetic and psychological level, to disciplines with finite, deterministic, and self-consistent systems of deductively logical rules. Such systems are not only elegant in their eyes, but appeal strongly to their sense of justice and fairness. Clear, distinct, binary, black-and-white right and wrong answers leave little to whims, tastes, customs and habits.
And so, aggrieved and slighted by the “subjectivity” of some literature, arts, history or philosophy professor in their past–fields for which they did not show exceptional aptitude–they find in pedantry a personal vehicle for restitutive vindication. If they can just show that not all truisms in sociology apply to everyone, they’ll expose the whole field for the colossal tower of bullshit that it is! There are powerful currents of vicious contempt circulating in the technocracy for anything not “user-friendly”–that is, problems which threaten to burden the thinker with consideration of relative meaning and varied interpretation. As most crystal balls into future of private sector employment in the developed world prophecy demand for human thought processes and skills that are complementary to machine intelligence, I do worry about what this means for the already imperiled state of the liberal arts.
Anyway, there are certainly some claims where small details matter or whose foundations can be invalidated by singular exceptions. Such quality control is table stakes for the design of satellite guidance systems and aircraft engines, for the teaching of open-heart surgery, and the certification of medications for sale. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Still, before being “that guy”–ever quick on the draw with the “actually…”–it’s wise to ask onesself in an honest and open-minded way: if I pull this block out, will the whole tower collapse? Or have I spun my wheels, emitting a lot of heat and light into the cold emptiness of space, in committing a disposable, utterly forgettable act of superficial vandalism?
Big Silicon Valley capital is largely interested in consumer-facing, high-growth “world domination” plays, in anything that has the potential to become a household name. Naturally, the Valley’s startup-grooming tributaries (e.g. Y Combinator) aim to position tech entrepreneurs at an angle complementary to that criteria, since that’s how they make money.
A lot of the cultivated folklore and intellectual work-product of the cultural leaders of this space, as epitomised by the writing of Paul Graham, speaks the language of upward exponential curves, critical mass, and gargantuan user bases–all things Valley web economy VCs like. As PG says here and elsewhere, startups are, most essentially of all, about going big by building something lots of people want.
But what if you’re like us, making a foray into the “boring” world of intra-industrial business software or a product that is specialised deeply into a vertical-specific niche?
I don’t mean a “lifestyle business”, nor do I specifically mean the long-run, sustainable, bootstrapped approach for the advocacy of which 37Signals and DHH have distinguished themselves (although nonparticipation in mainstream tech investment is implied); 37Signals still have products that millions of people want. I’m talking about building something relatively expensive that almost nobody wants.
Think of some Byzantine water pump control mechanism for a sewage treatment plant, something you can elevator-pitch in two seconds to a very select audience but that you couldn’t easily explain in ten minutes to anyone else. We build something like that for the VoIP telephony industry.
We’ve been around for eight years, we’re tiny, and we’ve morphed into a product company largely out of a consulting heritage. We’re clearly not a startup as YC and Valley “VC-istan” would have it, and nobody would fund us. We’re in no danger whatsoever of a “rocket-ship trajectory”, do not leverage “network effects”, we’re not “going viral”, and our customer acquisition cost is pretty high. While we too have benefited from the structural decline in the cost of starting a technology company (e.g. cloud servers), we’re largely unable to benefit from some of the biggest shifts to a lower cost basis and barriers to entry: Google web ads don’t do us much good because that’s not how our typical customers find us, and we don’t have anything to put in a mobile app store.
It’s mostly old-fashioned relationship building, personal brand, conferences and trade shows for us. It’s boring, it’s expensive, it’s slow. Imagine an SEO-tweaked conversion funnel with low-touch onboarding. We’ve got whatever the opposite of that is: a trickle of leads that, when we get lucky, spool out into long, drawn-out, consultative sales cycles measured in months or even years. It’s not the stuff of compelling pitch decks.
And so, the question I’ve been pondering for a long time is: what is the size and location of the cultural and methodological intersection between the Hacker News flavour of startup lore and our kind of business model? Do we have still have something to learn and apply? Can any useful takeaways be mined from the corpus of essays and “thought leadership” that PG and YC have provided? Are there useful entrepreneurial insights to be captured from Hacker News?
I think the answer is yes. One must simply be careful to cherry-pick the right bits. Here are a few thoughts:
Making Something People Want
In the business software realm, this needs to be recast with a sharp emphasis on “solve problems people have”. The advice to solve one’s own problems, or at least problems directly relatable to one’s industry experience, is, at its core, essential.
I first had an idea for something like our present-day product in 2006. At that time, I was young, inexperienced and new to telecom, and conceived of the problem space in very a priori terms. Had I moved forward and tried to take the concept to market at that stage, it would have been a spectacular flop because it did not provide institutionally acceptable solutions to actually-existing problems.
It’s possible that, had I been in a financial position to commit to it full time and avoided being bogged down in consulting for several years, I would have realised a speed advantage from being able to “fail fast”, “iterate” and/or “pivot” in response to the negative feedback for my initial concept. However, in a small industry where personal brand and reputation plays an important role, I’m not sure the speed advantage would have outweighed the personal brand deterioration resulting from putting something out there that simply doesn’t work.
Thus, I’m moved to say that the emphasis on empiricism and really understanding one’s target user is triply important in business software. In particular, I would add that non-trivial domain expertise in the user’s industry is probably a must, unless you’re building something that is, at heart, rather broad and generic.
There’s a particularly ludicrous current of wishful thinking out there that presupposes “customer discovery” to be a free-floating skill set unrelated to any particular industry or sphere of expertise. There probably are some backward industries where daily workflows consist of mostly disposable paper pushing, and where an application with some commodity CRUD screens could make a meaningful dent. However, in our industry, having a JS/CSS-savvy “UX quarterback” shadow “everyday users” for a few days to “really discover their pain points” would be a hopelessly naive waste of time.
There are no shortcuts to knowing a lot about telecom by working in telecom. To make a good telecom product, you have to be deeply conversant with the history of voice and data, the supply chains, the acronyms, and the regulation–oh God, the regulation. This probably holds true of most industries you could build complex solutions for. If you think you can walk into property casualty reinsurance and “disrupt” the place with a month-long Ruby on Rails bender (how very Agile of you), the vertical niche business market is not for you.
In this light, the market validation provided by an organic, consulting-driven funding strategy–which PG is generally sour on–is highly valuable. It might be worth building your product that way even if you could go the fundraising route instead. You’ll learn a lot. I doubt our product would have any market traction if we had tried to leapfrog the several years of hard lessons learned about our target market from our otherwise tiresome and financially stressful consulting slog.
Making Something Users Love
Having said all that, if you read a lot of PG and Sam Altman, it’s easy to become discouraged by repeated talk of the importance of building something users love. Good products simply roll off the shelves, like those round-ish late-1990s iMacs. Marketing is just an optimisation for more eyeballs; the product fundamentally sells itself on a powerful wave of early-adopter enthusiasm, and if your product isn’t grabbing most people who come across it, the implication is that it’s just not a good product.
There’s a fine line there. You do have to know when to call it quits if nobody’s buying what you’re selling. It’s possible to sell at least one unit of something to someone, somewhere given enough time and effort; it doesn’t imply a good commercial prospectus. You should have some way of figuring out if your product isn’t really taking.
However, sales in this area is hard, and you should expect that; the idea that your potential customers are going to just want or love what you’re selling in a self-evident kind of way is complicated by, well, the complexity of what’s being sold. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your product isn’t good just because every sale feels like bruising hand-to-hand combat. You’re fighting against institutional inertia, the customs and habits of the boys at the country club, sclerotic management bureaucracy, combative purchasing departments, and the marketing stranglehold of big-brand competitors on risk-averse management. In our case, we’re selling something that requires the customer to remove core infrastructure in a growing, revenue-generating, and intensely downtime-averse business and replace it with our own. It’s easy to get everyone to agree it’s ultimately a good idea, but it takes political wherewithal. “We’re really in a hurry to do that,” said no executive decision-maker ever.
Many of our most loyal customers of today didn’t know they had a commercial problem our product could solve. The function of marketing becomes very important here: as a general rule for the world of capital goods, customers have to be educated. The “bounce rate” on eyeballs alone is going to be close to 100%.
The popular understanding of what it means to make something users love is often tied up in good user experience and front-end mechanics. This is a siren song. In the world of capital goods and the complex solution sales that go with them, the most important criterion is, “Does it make or save us money?”
That’s not to say a good UI isn’t a competitive advantage, but don’t sweat it. Users will put up with a pretty bad UI on a machine that prints money for their company. More importantly, a good UI won’t do a damn thing for a product that doesn’t have positive bottom-line impact or significant business-level differentiation.
It is indeed critical to hire the right early-stage employees, and hiring mistakes in the early stage will break your company with all the good products and marketing tailwinds in the world. Much of what PG and the YC crowd have to say on the importance of building a great team is directly applicable.
Early-stage hiring is particularly complicated in niche verticals because your customers are buying a vendor service relationship as much as they are buying a software system. Your staff will be engaged closely with customers who expect credibility and expertise from your people, and it’s the warm fuzzies from that collaboration that often close the sale.
That often means that run-of-the-mill skill sets found in the general IT population you can hire off the street simply won’t do. Entry-level people are especially pernicious hiring choice here, since there’s so much more background knowledge to impart. Your early-stage employees will need to be both technical and essentially fluent in the industry domain to which you are selling, which greatly reduces your hiring pool and makes candidates even more expensive.
Accordingly, your success and failure depends on your ability to get people with some vertical-specific industry background in the door. You should expect to make even more compromises here than typical in Valley web startup land as far as equity grants and so on. You’ll want to be mindful of the regions and labour markets around the country that concentrate IT people with particular domain knowledge above and beyond table stakes technical skills: if you’re doing something in energy, get comfortable with Houston, and if you’re doing fintech, think Chicago or New York.
There really are no pre-revenue business models in enterprise software; at least, there shouldn’t be. All talk about building “critical mass” user base and figuring out how to monetise it or render it profitable later is irrelevant and should be summarily ignored. Your first customer should be paying.
There are, of course, some strategic API and platform plays out there whose primary purpose is to set up for an acquisition. These often don’t have paying users or don’t generate a lot of revenue. However, as a general rule, acquisitions in the business market are more rationalistic and quantitative, so bringing more revenue to the table redounds to the benefit of your valuation and bargaining power. This is a bit different from the voodoo valuation process of mass-market startups, where irrational investor exuberance can sometimes be maximised by removing the constraint of concrete, earth-bound revenue and encouraging the acquirer to “really dream big”. All this to say: book revenue. You’re not going to get more for less by letting a freemium cat out of the bag and into the open market. More revenue is always better.
Otherwise, in a market with a low volume of high-magnitude transactions, every customer counts. Arithmetically, price segmentation of some description is usually required to make a product economically viable. One of your biggest preoccupations early on should be to delineate the needs of your “lite” users at one extreme, versus your “enterprise” or “platinum plan” users on the other, and to tier your product accordingly. Joel Spolsky’s classic Camels and Rubber Duckies, dated though it may be, still comes highly recommended as one of the best introductions I’ve seen on this subject.
You come to pick up my sofa — still in original packaging, never opened, offered as-is on Craigslist. Naturally, your first thought is: “What’s it cost?”
“Don’t worry about it, man! Take it home, then we’ll run the numbers later today.”
“Very well”, you say, figuring it couldn’t be more than what you’d reasonably expect a really basic, small-ish new sofa with cheap fabric cover to cost, less depreciation once it left the showroom — maybe $500, maybe even $700? You’ve got about $1200 in your checking account, you’re good to go.
“What the hell?! Who pays $13,860 for a sofa?”
“Oh, no worries,” I tell you. “I offer a generous 85% discount for same-day on-the-spot payment. For today’s charges of $2079, are you paying with Visa or MasterCard?”
Your face is awash with total astonishment. “Who the hell pays $2079 for a sofa?”
“Well, that’s a very generous prompt payment discount of 85%.”
“A discount off of $13,860? Where the hell did you come up with that?”
“Um, that’s the Standard Sofa Charge, sir.”
“Standard? Based on what? Do you know of a single person, business or other entity who would pay anywhere near $13,860 for a sofa?”
“$13,860 is the Standard Sofa Charge for anyone,” I say, handing you a short itemised bill with a line item “SOFA”, quantity 1, unit price 13860.00.
“Come on, you and I both know nobody pays $13,860 for a sofa!”
“Well… will today’s charges of $2079 be on your Visa or MasterCard?”
Your first inclination is to return my sofa, but it’s a little late for that. Your kids are in love with it, you’ve already spilled Corn Flakes on it — it’s yours now. It was your mistake not to have agreed upon a firm price before hauling it away, anyway. With a heavy sign of resignation, you accept your fate and the cross you must bear of your expensive mistake:
“Okay, fine. I’ll pay $2079, although — just for the record — that’s ridiculous. I can get a tiny little two-seat fabric-covered sofa like this in any other developed country for less than half of that, new, right from the furniture store. It’s going to take me a week or two to come up with two grand, though. I’m going to need to borrow some from my friends and family. Can you give me about 30 days? I’ll pay you $500 now so you know I’m good for it.”
“Sure thing,” I answer helpfully. “Actually, you can pay off the remainder over four months, in four easy payments of $741.25.”
“WHAT? That’s a total of $3465.”
“In this case, I can only extend a 75% discount.”
“So, you’re asking me to pay $3465 instead of $2079 now. That’s an extra $1386.”
“That’s correct, sir. To extend terms you must pay an additional 10%.”
“10%? What are you talking about? That’s an extra 66% on top of the $2079 I’d otherwise have to pay!”
“Well, no, you’re only paying 25% of the Standard Sofa Charge.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I’ve seen your other Craigslist ads, and I have a really hard time believing anyone would pay you more than about $800 for any of your other entry-level sofas. I could see a really good one going for $1000, but that’s tops!”
“Hmm, well, actually, many people pay the Standard Sofa Charge. You’re getting a hell of a deal.”
“Can you show me at least one person who has paid anywhere near the Standard Sofa Charge? Even half of the Standard Sofa Charge?’
“I am not at liberty to disclose that information, I’m sorry.”
“Why am I being asked to negotiate against this bullshit, made-up Standard Sofa Charge figure, when there is not an iota of evidence that it, or anything remotely close to it, clears the market? If you can show me at least one person or organisation that has paid anywhere near the Standard Sofa Charge for a sofa of this class…”
“Well,” I say smugly, “obviously, some of my repeat buyers have negotiated volume discounts due to their market-moving power – resellers, secondhand furniture stores and so on.”
“I’ll bet! And I have a pretty hard time believing any of them are paying more than $2000 for even the best, most premium fabric starter sofa. $2000 will buy me a leather L-shaped sectional.”
“I can’t disclose that. But you’d be surprised how close we get to the Standard Sofa Charge. If you worked for Foolhardy O’Toole’s Pre-Owned, you’d get to see the bills and get an idea of how much they pay.”
“Look,” you say, “I don’t really care how much O’Toole’s pays, although may a vengeful God smite me where I stand for I know it sure as hell isn’t $13,860, or even $3465. $2079 is already beyond the pale, but I figure what’s done is done. However, there is simply no way I can afford $3465! I came here looking for a Craigslist deal!”
I clear my throat and shift in my seat slightly uncomfortably. “Well, we do offer financial aid for those who may have trouble paying. We may be able to get you a discount of even more than 85%.”
“What the hell? Why didn’t you say that before?”
“Here’s a four page application. You’ll need to disclose your gross income, itemise your expenses, and provide three months of bank statements and last year’s tax returns.”
“That’s a lot of work”, you figure. “It sounds like the kind of work someone with a very low income would find worthwhile to do.”
“Mhm…” I mutter.
“… it almost sounds like a price segmentation and revenue optimisation strategy, designed to extract the highest price possible, in the most opaque and duplicitous manner imaginable, for one of the most price-inelastic goods or services in existence, from every patient, according to a scrupulously calibrated sense of their maximum ability to pay…..”
“Please return the last three pages of the form to me by e-mail or fax at your earliest convenience.”
By now, you’re visibly frustrated:
“Look man, I just have a cash flow issue because I was not even remotely prepared to have to fork over two grand for the sofa in one day. I can get you the full $2079 in 30 days. I don’t need a multi-month installment plan or what amounts to a 66% financing charge.”
“You’d be surprised at the range of incomes of qualified applicants.”
“But there’s one thing I still don’t understand. You and I both know that the Standard Sofa Charge figure is bullshit, that it has absolutely zero attachment to market reality, and that nobody pays anywhere near the Standard Sofa Charge. So, why is the Standard Sofa Charge even a thing? What on God’s earth is the least bit ‘Standard’ about it? And why are all of your ‘discounts’ with reference to it as a negotiation anchor when you and I know damn well that you can’t sell a sofa for $13,860?”
“That’s the Standard Sofa Charge, sir.”
“And why in the hell did you come at me with the financial aid offer only once I threw enough of a shit-fit?”
“Well…” I chuckle nervously. “That’s not exac–I gotta get to a meeting…” I trail off as I beeline for the door.
My son Roman was born on Thursday via C-section. We had a four day hospital stay afterward and just got home. We are uninsured cash payers, and this is more or less the conversation I had with the hospital’s finance office today. The only difference is that the Standard C-Section Charge was $24,790¹, the cash payer discount was 75% (to $6197), and the giant middle finger installment plan was at a 65% (+40% premium, or +$2479 = $8676).
Welcome to the only developed country where this is possible. You can’t make this stuff up.
¹ This $25k is just the hospital fee for four days of hospital stay, nursing, as well as use of the operating room and assistance; it does not include several thousand dollars in additional obstetrician-gynaecologist and anaesthesiologist fees for the actual operation.