A framework for choosing what to do

A year ago, I left YC and felt a bit lost about what to do next.[1] A lot of people were pretty sure they knew what I should do. But...I didn't and most of their suggestions didn’t excite me.

As I thought through my possible paths, I realized that I didn't have a useful framework for making a decision. My gut wasn't helpful since too many things seemed interesting. I started asking friends for advice, and Henrik Werdelin gave me the structure I needed to figure out what I should try next.

As I worked through his advice and its implications, something odd happened - a whole lot of my friends started hitting the same confusing decision point through which I’d just gone. Maybe we're all going through natural career evolutions, maybe these are early onset midlife crises, and maybe a few years of inescapable existential dread about a never ending pandemic is just screwing up all our preconceived notions about how our lives should/need to work.

Whatever the case, I keep having the same conversation, so writing it out seems useful.[2]

The 1st, and most important thing to keep in mind is that no career decision is perfect, no decision without risk. Oh, and no one actually cares what you do. This is especially hard for high achievers to internalize, harder still for people who have succeeded publicly. Maybe this is hardest of all for people who feel as if nothing they've done has matched their self perception and internal expectations.

The next thing to do is to start making lists. In particular, three lists:

The 1st list is an amalgam of all the qualities you want in your next role and what you get from having that role. This is expansive by design. For instance:

  • Work with people who are actually funny

  • Easy commute

  • Do not work weekends

  • Earn at least x

  • Coworkers are the same in person as on social media

  • Build on personal expertise

  • Creates interesting future options

  • Other stuff

It is ok to have items on here that are intensely personal and maybe unexpected. Perhaps you want less risk or ambition than you've shown in the past. Maybe you know that you’ll never be happy with a boss. Write it all out.

List two is all the jobs that you think sound interesting. Try to go way beyond your existing set of experiences to things you always thought were interesting but never seriously explored. You're going to throw most of this out, but that's ok. You could write:

  • Get a PhD is American History

  • Run for office

  • Join a government agency

  • Start a software company

  • Be a baker

  • Hedge fund - work at or start

  • Start a nonprofit

Obviously this list will be informed by what you know and what you want. Some of it will be impractical. That's ok.

The final list is made up of people you know and with whom you'd actually work. Sometimes this list is long and sometimes it is short. There's no right answer here.

Once you have these lists, you start cross referencing them to see what mix of qualities, roles and people seem like the best trade.

There's no science here. You could decide that salary is the most important criteria of all and use that as the single lens. Usually, the balance is more nuanced. What helped me most was forcing myself to list all the options, interests, and criteria. I'd never done that and it required me to think more deeply about what I did and did not want.

This process took me some time, and I ended up choosing a set of what I enjoyed in a way that capitalized some unfair advantages I'd built in my career. I had come to an answer, but I was still too scared to try it. At that point, another friend, Omri Dahan, gave me the final piece I needed. He pointed out that I was still trying to optimize for long term perfection, and suggested that I should, instead, take a risk for six months. I hadn’t internalized the idea that very few career decisions are permanent. I thought I was choosing the job I’d have for the rest of my life, but I wasn’t. I was choosing the next thing to learn about and try. I was fortunate to be able to run that experiment. Eight months later, it's become clear to me that I made the right choice from the perspective of how much I've been able to learn and build. Perhaps more important to me, the problem set keeps getting more complex and interesting. Still, though, I know this is just another experiment that I’ll run it until it no longer makes sense.

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[1] I'll note that "what to do" and "job" here aren't necessarily the right terms. I'm using them as stand ins for the the thing you do that isn't family/personal life. Some people will go through this exercise and decide that there's nothing for them outside of personal/family life. I'm happy for them, but my wiring needs to have a balance of family and work.

[2] By writing from personal experience, I know that this process won't work for everyone and every situation. But if you find it useful, great!

Pots of Gold

Here’s a painful contradiction at the heart of spending time on startups: all the good stuff you can create is in the future, but all the patterns you look at to learn what to do are in the past. This makes your brain do funny things. On the one hand, you see how huge things can get, on the other hand, it’s easy to think “well, crap, all the huge things already happened and I wasn’t a part of them.” So you start a new thing, and it is tiny compared to the huge thing. That can start a recursive loop of pessimism. My bet is that this kills a lot of interesting new things before they can ever get going.[1]

And ok it gets worse. Maybe you had a chance to join/invest in that small thing that’s now huge.[2] You look at your non-existent alternate reality success and that hurts. Maybe you had many of these opportunities. [3] So now you feel stupid on top of discouraged!

I know I’ve fallen prey to this mindset. It’s the source of most of my worst decisions as an investor. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with feelings of anger and stupidity about things I didn’t invest in which other people did.[4] It’s a rough place to be, but I’ve increasingly come to rely on a different way of thinking about opportunity and success that’s been hugely helpful.

For lack of a better and more unique term, I’ve been thinking of this mindset as “pots of gold.” You could also maybe call it unbridled optimism, but it isn’t quite. The core of it, silly as this may sound, is to think about three things:

  1. The origin story of the big things around you

  2. Remember that the future is bigger than the past

  3. Have confidence that either you or the smart people you know can build something significantly bigger than seems reasonable[5]

If you can hold this in your head and actually believe it, you get set free from all kinds of things. All of a sudden, the stuff you missed isn’t bad, it’s validation to take more risk in the future. Even better, each miss gives you something to learn, input to iterate your model of the world. This frame of the world says that there’s always more opportunity in the future than the past, so trying to build new things has a higher expected value than you probably realize.

This is hard to do. Thinking about the world this way means that you have to objectively understand why you were wrong in the past. Most of us don’t want to do that because it is painful. It also requires a significant amount of imagination, which is tiring for most people older than ten. You’ll also need a near endless reserve of patience since compounding growth takes a long time to manifest a significant outcome.[6]

But even though - or especially because - this is hard, it is much more fun than feeling sad about what you didn’t do. Go do something other than staring at what other people did and brag about on the internet. Take a risk, learn about something new, invest in it, start something. Find another pot of gold.

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[1] For sure a corollary to the Innovator’s Dilemma, but happening inside the brains of founders.

[2] I wrote about this dynamic here: https://blog.aaronkharris.com/why-build-toys.

[3] A number of coins and tokens and NFTs means this applies to just about everyone.

[4] To be sure, I also got this right a few times, which is also kinda maybe the point here.

[5] I recently joked to a friend that I have total confidence in my friends and optimism for the things they do, and absolutely no confidence in myself and the things I want to build. He said he had the same mindset, which made us realize we should probably have some more confidence in ourselves.

[6] Zoom in on the early parts of even the most aggressive "hockey stick" and the growth and scale will look positively boring.


Thanks to Zach Sims, Adora Cheung, and Harj Taggar for the conversations that helped me figure out how to express this idea.


Pro rata is a bad term

For a long time, I was a strong believer in investor pro ratas. As a founder, I understood the trade and was comfortable with it. As a partner at YC, I thought it made enough sense that I helped design an entire programmatic pro rata system that covered every investment YC made. I reasoned that the usual mechanic of a pro rata let an investor continue to buy ownership as a reward for an early bet and continued help, and that founders could always use extra money.

I was wrong. Pro rata is actually a bad term for founders dressed up as a “business model” or “support” feature. I learned this the hard way, through many uncomfortable conversations with founders where I insisted on getting pro rata in tight rounds where the founder wanted to bring in new investors or limit dilution. I learned this through rough conversations with founders who expected a pro rata investment during a difficult fundraise and didn’t get it. I saw the warping influence of pro ratas in the way that founders communicated with investors around fundraising and needs.

This took a long time for me to see because, well, I had conflicted incentives. I spent most of the last ten years as an investor, and investors want pro ratas in term sheets because it is, essentially, an option on a future financing. In and of itself, this is ok. The problem is that the option is:

  1. Free

  2. One sided

  3. Unrelated to value

  4. Ignored constantly

The option is free because an investor does not have to pay more to get a pro rata right - it is generally called “standard” and left at that.[1] It is one sided because I’ve never seen a situation where an investor was forced to do a pro rata against her will, whereas I have seen, and have been a part of essentially forcing founders to take pro ratas that they did not want.[2] Pro ratas are unrelated to value because they do not correspond to the amount of work/value/help that an investor actually provides over time beyond an initial financing. There are investors who are incredibly helpful to founders that earn the trust of founders who are then invited to invest more - or not. There are investors who do a bit here and there and then march up to the table and demand their ownership when a financing rolls around. There are investors who request pro rata, and then, at financing, ask for what they can get. There are founders who say to particularly helpful investors: “Hey - your team is amazing. Do you want to buy ownership in this round?” On top of all this, the term is ignored so often in so many ways that it seems a bit like a strange legal joke.

Maybe the most ridiculous piece of the whole thing is I have yet to meet an investor who has said “We looked at your cap table, we see you have promised pro ratas. Of course we will honor each of those perfectly and adjust our terms to account for your early investors.” This simply doesn’t happen. Each new investor does their darndest to get as much ownership as possible, previous contractual terms be damned.[3][4]

I spent a long time trying to build continued value for founders in order to make the pro rata more of an even exchange. But in the past, I never actually made that trade clear and two sided. The way this should work is as follows:

  1. Investor wins deal to invest money at time A for ownership B.

  2. Investor and founder hit it off. Investor works butt off to help company as requested by founder.

  3. Company raises a new round. Investor is helpful in this.

  4. Founder asks investor - or investor asks founder - to buy more ownership.

  5. Negotiate, decide, move on.[5]

Or, maybe this better:

  1. Investor wants to invest, makes offer. Investor wants pro rata.

  2. Founder says “cool, I like you, if you want pro rata, you’re going to have to sweeten the offer by x.”

  3. Investor agrees to change in price/dilution some other trade and gets pro rata

  4. Pro rata is now a mutually agreed, purchased, more weighty term

  5. Sure, founder could still try to reduce pro rata later since any contract can, technically be broken. However, this would be a valid place for an investor to go to war.[6]

This would align founders and investors in a far better way than a contract. Contracts aren’t worth spit.[7] Relationships are what counts. Working with people who value good work matters. Pro ratas ignore those nuances and are out of step with how startups and venture capital work. There's a way for pro rata to become a good term, but the term will have to evolve to get there.


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[1] Crazy! This is valuable term! Investors should have to pay more to get it.

[2] There’s a lot of ways to make this argument. The arguments aren’t morally wrong, they’re in fact the right argument in situations where a founder has signed a contract to do something. But here’s the thing - the contract shouldn’t exist in the first place.

[3] Allowances here are sometimes made for “good friends.” Incidentally, “good friend” is my favorite term in venture. It almost never means actual friend. Real friends rarely talk about how close they are to third party business associates.

[4] When founders do say “hey, we have pro ratas we want to honor,” the response is generally “ok, for sure, go ahead, but the post stays the same.” This is another way of saying “Dear Founder - you take the dilution!” One could argue that this is a fair response, that the founder made the commitment and has to honor it, but it would be nice to see some give and take in the conversation.

[5] This is certainly complicated. This model would imply that there are gradations of help provided by investors to founders, and that a founder who declines more ownership would receive less help over time. Of course, this is true. Some founders in a portfolio do, in fact, get more help than others. I also get that this also applies a fiercely mercantile lens to any interaction between investor and founder. But I’ll also argue that that is, in fact, a primarily mercantile/capitalist relationship. The relationship does sometime morph into an actual friendship at which point there are wildly different and more complicated rules because emotions.

[6] Or court, since that’s how business usually works.

[7] While I do think that contracts have value, I’ve seen enough lawsuits and renegotiations to know that the contract isn’t what keeps people from doing what they promise to do.

20 Years Later

Twenty years later, I can’t remember what I saw and what I think I saw. I remember listening to the news with my mom, Judah, and Mimi as the anchors casually mentioned that a small plane seemed to have hit a tower. We were on I-95 - or maybe the Garden State - headed south to visit Penn ahead of applications.

I looked out the window and could see some smoke. A tree broke my sightline. And then a flash of fire and a jet of smoke. Bigger than a small plane but what did I know? Also, the small plane had already hit, right?

There was still nothing on the news. Then maybe it was another small plane but something seemed wrong. And then the reports started that a big plane had hit? Or maybe two? And then we were on campus. Mostly, there was some confusion, but the day was on a crumbling routine. We checked in at the tour area. We didn’t have smartphones. There was no information. We started the tour, and soon we started to sense that hell had broken out 80 stories above lower Manhattan.

Walking into Hillel, the TV was on. The tower fell. The towers fell. My mother started to cry. My father had been there the day the van blew up. He’d left already. I was 7 then and didn’t know what it had meant.

No one knew what was going on, but the tour was over. We wandered for a short time and then got back in the car.

I-95 was empty. Not empty, just us and humvees, olive and tan trucks. It seemed that every armory in every county in all of New Jersey was empty and on the highway. Jets were overhead. Calls started going out and in to see who wouldn’t be coming home from work. Then we saw lower Manhattan. Or maybe we saw just a plume of smoke. We prayed, but didn’t cry. It was too shocking.

My sister lived, then, not close but maybe too close? She’d heard a jet accelerate overhead, she ran outside and saw another. My brother walked to his apartment. A friend’s father missed a meeting because a broken shoelace led to a missed bus led to a missed train meant he came home that night. A friend’s brother didn’t. 

The tower of smoke was bigger than those of glass and steel. Much bigger. The flags tried to blow it away but couldn’t. It cleared itself over time.

Why Build Toys

I first wrote this essay a few years ago. A founder mentioned it to me over the weekend, and so I decided to re-publish it here. One thing that's bothered me in the time since I wrote it is the way in which toys, which are meant to be harmless and fun can become companies capable of wreaking havoc on the world. I mention Facebook below, which was quite fun when it first showed up on campus. I don't personally find Facebook fun now, and think it has caused a lot of damage in the world. Thinking through the way in which you build things, even toys, to create positive forces in the universe is hard, and maybe more important for that challenge.

Some of the biggest technology companies look like toys in the beginning.[1] From a classical business building perspective, this shouldn't happen. Toys are for fun. Businesses, especially huge ones, are for making money. Toys are small and of limited use. Large companies contain multitudes and perform a huge array of functions.

This trend does not fit with history either. Standard Oil, US Steel, and Boeing were all iconically huge companies that were built as businesses. None of them went through a phase where they looked like toys. Startups can be different, though, because of the expectations of them and the seriousness with which people approach them.

Expectations

If you give people a tool and tell them it will perfectly solve an important problem, any imperfection in the tool is going to make them angry. If you give someone a toy and say “Look what I made! Isn't it fun? It kinda does this thing.” then you've set yourself up for a positive reaction. It's much easier to beat low expectations than high ones, so you've materially increased your chances at having a happy user.

And “happiness” is an important way to think about early users. People spend more time with something that makes them happy, especially when they don't expect it. Happy users are easy to get feedback from, because they know that you can make the product better and make them happier. They're also likely to tell friends about the cool new product that they're using, which means you start to get users without having to dip into the dark arts of marketing.

When you look at something you build from the perspective of how happy it might make someone vs. how angry it could make them, it also becomes easier to experiment and put things into the wild. This isn’t just about low stakes, it’s about how seriously you take what you’re doing and how seriously other people take it, at least at first.

Seriousness

Business is about making money and working with customers. These are very serious and scary things. Toys are for playing and trying new things. This isn’t serious at all.

Maybe that seems bad if your goal is to make your toy into a startup, and your startup into a big company. That implies you have to be serious right from the start. But if you are serious right from the start, a number of things start to go wrong.

The first thing that goes wrong is you become unwilling to experiment with ideas that aren’t clearly aligned with making a big company. This means that people building serious things focus rapidly on revenue. They become risk averse and innovation averse. Companies built on new technologies have to capitalize on non-obvious ideas, ones that wouldn’t pass muster in large corporations. Otherwise, the large existing companies would do these things themselves.

Facebook is a great example of this. Early on, all users could do was look up people they’d met at parties on campus at Harvard from other dorms and poke them. This seems silly because it was. Very few people saw it as more than a toy, which is why they were willing to give it time. It was something to play with when not working. I don’t think we would have been willing to play with something that felt like a serious business, which would have meant that Facebook wouldn’t have gotten it’s early happy and engaged users.

The second thing that goes wrong when you take your toy too seriously is that you signal to the bigger and better funded companies already in the marketplace that you are onto something important and profitable. This is bad, because those companies will start paying attention to your toy too early and copy/buy/kill it. Airbnb looked like a doofy hipster thing to hotels for a very long time. And then, when it was too late, they realized that it wasn’t a toy at all. By that time, Airbnb had enough customers, revenue, and funding to survive the attacks of the incumbents.

The third thing that goes wrong when you take your toy too seriously is that you immediately start optimizing on the things that you believe serious businesses should - profit and margins. While these things are important in the long run, focusing on them too early injects an impossible set of things for an early startup to do.

Startups only have so much time and ability to focus. At the earliest stages, that focus needs to be on making things that users love and want to play with. A startup’s early and heavily engaged users are its only real base of strength and chance for growth. Focusing on anything else puts them at an immediate disadvantage to better funded, organized, and wide reaching companies.

When toys become companies

Not all big companies start out as toys, just as not all toys eventually become big companies.

This is just as often a question of motivation and goal for the creator as it is a question of whether or not the toy was good or bad. Most people who make things don't want those things to become companies, which is great - it would be unfortunate if every interesting thing made for the world had a commercial purpose behind it.

The founders who do turn toys into companies are generally the ones who relentlessly push what they've made to users and obsessively improve the toy in response to feedback. They then have to master a whole set of skills that are orthogonal to making things - hiring, managing, business building, fundraising, etc.

This is an atypical path, which is why it's so exciting when it happens. When we meet founders who we think are going to combine the toys they've built with the ability to build something lasting, we generally fund them whether or not we're sure the toy is actually a business.

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[1] Two examples: Facebook was a way for people to waste time while Apple helped hackers build home computers before there was any business case for it.