COVID-19: brought the anti bodies we needed for a more open internet

Before I move on to explain why I think there’s a silver lining for our society that comes from this pandemic, let me state the obvious: No silver lining would make up for the disenhartening death toll worldwide, the suffering, and the eventual economic downturn.

I’d take back any “digital acceleration” for less human suffering. However, this is something we can’t control. What we can control is how this tumultuous shift will change our perception of the world.

There are many changes to our economy that will become more apparent over time, but there’s no denying that this acceleration will open up several opportunities, too.

Back in 2010, Paul Graham famously said that we need to develop “social antibodies” to deal with all the unitended consequences of the internet – namely internet addiction. Nir Eyal has written about this, too.

Here are some areas where I’m very excited to see progress:

More secure: WhatsApp messages are now suspicious by default. One of the most scary future uses of technology, deep fakes, will have a harder time in having the nefarious impact and the global reach of conspiracy theories, as everyone now understands that just because something was shared on Facebook or WhatsApp, it doesn’t mean it’s true, and that you should check reliable sources for confirmation. Sadly, this positive anti-body behavior has been emerging naturally, as the world’s most dangerous sociopath continues to downplay its role.

More open: My (potentially optimistic) perspective is that we’re collectively seeing, in a transparent way never before seen, how science evolves, as thousands of scientists work together to gather strong evidence against this virus. People took science as a discrite, non-evolving study. You found out something, and move on to the next. Now, hopefully, people understand that science is proven and disproven, and that’s how we learn. Another important factor is that this path to state of the art science was firewalled by academy journals, and they were also forced to rethink how and what they publish, and no less important, how fast it should be published.

Less China dependent. Countries are looking to reinforce their local production chains on strategic areas like biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and renewable components. This re-evaluation of the world’s production capacity will hinder China’s Belt and Road initative, which the West has been adamantly ignoring. In the long run, the BRI was ensuring China controlled all production chains of most essential goods, while we only cared about getting the cheapest, wherever it came from.

Greener economies. No, the lockdowns worldwide did not reduce our emissions in a noticeable way. After the lockdowns ended, we were back to gas-guzzling driving. The argument for greener economies is the forced pit-stop for industrialization made us question which investments will pay off further down the road. So the plans, in the US, Europe, and to some extent, China to accelerate greener economies don’t sound that extreme left anymore. We’ve moved the discussion from the “why” to the “how”, and that’s great progress.

Sons of Apollo

In 1962, in one of the most famous speeches of all time, President Kennedy persuaded the American people of the importance of going to the Moon before the end of the decade. In July of 1969, the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed on the Moon. Today, we see that speech as one of the strongest examples of vision, determination, and an example of America’s golden era.

The Apollo program, all in all, spent 200 billion dollars (in today’s money). This is a very, very low price to pay for the incredible positive outcome we still benefit from today: There are many economic research around this, and the most common return on investment is 7 dollars for each dollar spent over 10 years.

Today, there is no discussion, from left to right, that this program was an anstounding success and established the US as the world leader.

There was another side effect that I found incredibly interesting: The generation that grew up in the 60s was deeply inspired by this feat, and saw thousands of students wanted to pursue Science and Technology careers. The average age of Houston control mission when we landed on the moon was just 26 years. After the program, these professionals went out to add even more value to the world economy.

These thousands of inspired, optimistic, science-driven individuals are now called the “Sons of Apollo”.

This week, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Comission, made a speech at the State of the European Union that launched the foundations for a recovery plan that plans on making Europe the world leader in Biotech, Renewables, Technology, and even democratic values. In total, Europe will invest 880 billion dollars . that’s right: 4 (!) Apollo programs and then some. Just on the Digital front, there is a plan to spend around 177 billion dollars.

This is a massive opportunity with the right foundations, and despite not having the aspirational, tangible vision of landing on the moon, has the scale to produce a new era of Sons of Europe.

Europe is, however, terrible at having a clear, strong message behind an ambitious goal. And this is more important than ever.

On Language

So far, I’ve been keeping in English only, but it’s certainly something that I keep thinking if I should have some content in Portuguese as well. As I think about what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so, I read a quote on Fernando Pessoa which really struck a chord with me on this topic:

While dreaming of the fifth Empire, Pessoa once said that he was “completely Portuguese in spirit but only half in grammar”. And he added that, “In the Empire, as in culture, we will have an inner and outer life. We will read in English because we want to learn, but will read in Portuguese because we want to feel. We will speak in English because we want to teach, but for those things which we really want to say, we will speak Portuguese”.

Lisbon – What the turist should see

Maybe there are things that I really want to say, and hence will do so in Portuguese.

Crisis Management Business Masterclass

It’s not a great time to be in the travel industry. The number of flights went from around 190k daily to 60k (less than a third, and many of those running at 1/3 or 1/2 of capacity). Airlines, Hotels, Taxis, Museums, Bars, and so many other businesses came to a standstill.

AirBnB is no exception: On May 5th 2020, Brian Chesky, the company’s CEO, sent a letter to all employees saying that revenue in 2020 is going to be less than half of what it was in 2019, and that they were firing 25% of their staff. Also, they had their IPO filing ready to go by 31st of March 2020.

Many companies had to fire a great chunk of their staff, and – many of you might disagree here – it is undoubtedly the right thing to do when a crisis of this magnitude hits so hard, so quick. However, the way you do it tells so much about what the company values. If you haven’t, you should definitely read the letter.

In a recent podcast with Kara Swisher, Brian Chesky has explained how they dealt with all of this, raised $2B in debt, cancelled many new business units and focused solely on their core business. He goes into minute detail about how they communicated to their board, customers, hosts, and many other stakeholders.

If you’re into business strategy, crisis management is one of the core parts of it. AirBnB will definitely be a case study on acting decisively, and yet be conscious of the impact of your decisions.

Attentive: What I’ve learned

In a time when many startups are hard at work designing and implementing a response to the current crisis, for better or worse, Attentive’s fate was already being decided – over the last few months, we explored the possibility of raising a follow-on round, and also explored the option of acquisition by a larger company. 

This was not an easy journey, and I wanted to give you my personal assessment of what we’ve done right, and what we could have done better.

In the several years I was leading Attentive, one of the most common questions I got asked by investors was “What is your end goal? IPO? Being acquired?”

My answer was, since day one: “I believe we have a vision ambitious enough to support an independent, high-growth company for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I have a fiduciary duty to analyse any opportunity that crosses our path.”

As this was my personal objective, and I wasn’t able to achieve it, no outcome could possibly be labeled as a success.

Was the vision wrong?

I’ve asked this question many times over the last few weeks, and I still end up with the same answer, no matter how I look at it. No, the vision wasn’t wrong. The vision isn’t wrong. It might have been the wrong timing or executed poorly, but I still believe in what Attentive was trying to accomplish at its core.

1: Product (2015-2017)

Since 2015, the concept of the product has changed a lot. Our vision of the world didn’t change much, but the product did. This is normal in the startup world, but we lost way too much time, especially in the early years, building the wrong things without much validation. When we added Yannick (you should follow his fantastic personal blog) and Cristina to our board, we moved from experimentation to execution. The main focus moved to sales.

2: Sales (Early 2018)

As soon as we landed on a Product concept that we thought had some depth (Attentive for CRMs), we went heads down. I think this was our best phase in terms of execution: We landed big pilots, like Hubspot, were having C-level conversations with strong companies and we closed our $1.2M round with Indico and Mangrove.

3: Market Fit (End of 2018 – Early 2019)

With those early signs, we started structuring our sales process, and on that function we’ve made several small mistakes that tallied up to being farther from our market space. We started seeing these signs with a very slow sales process, difficulty in holding customers, attrition on product development, among many other things. After several weeks of struggling to hire experienced sales team members in Braga, I remember having the following thought: “If we can’t hire experienced sales people, we need to train them. In the few weeks we already lost searching for one, we could’ve taught someone!”. So we hired people with very little sales experience. They were all great people with a lot of potential, but we didn’t have time to properly coach them to be successful in their role, nor did we have the right expertise to do so.

Today, I feel that if we’ve done this very early in the process, the product would have time to keep improving based on customer feedback (as experienced sales people know how to talk to prospects). We ended up doing this in mid to late 2019, but it was too late. The product mindset took too long to get off the ground.

4: Financing (End of 2019)

At the end of last year, with the $1.2M round almost dried up, the team rallied around one last possibility, looking for any shimmer of hope that would allow us to extend our runway even if it was by a couple of months. Product-wise, this was probably our fastest period (We’ve redesigned our product just for Salesforce in record time), but even with this push we weren’t able to get additional funding. We started looking for an M&A alternative that would be good for everyone, and quickly some companies started to show an interest.

We explored these possibilities, and even though the pandemic killed several of those M&A conversations, we were able to find a solution that allowed us to end the Attentive chapter in a way that made us proud as founders.

Every person that joined the team had an initial conversation with me, as part of the interview process, where I lay down the vision for the company. I’ve been told by several team members that having this ambition was one of the key factors that made them join Attentive. At this stage, to keep Attentive running, we had to slash this ambition in half, slow down considerably, and try to re-adjust our priorities given that we didn’t have the financing that we wanted, certainly not in the terms we wanted.

For me, startups should be a “all or nothing” type of outcome. Yes, you can pivot to a services company that is lucrative and works on interesting stuff, but it’s not a startup. That was not what we signed up for.

So we decided, as a Board, that this was the end of the Attentive’s journey.

I’m feeling lucky.

We had great investors. I mean, top tier in Portugal, top tier in Europe, top tier in the US. They always had our back, took my calls and contributed to our execution very frequently, while at the same time leaving the decisions to the founders and supporting us, even when they did not agree with us. Any founder would be lucky to have them, and I’ll continue to recommend them as highly as I can.

I had amazing founders. During all our ups and downs, many startups talk about friction between founders, as they end up having different concepts of the company they want to build, or have different commitment levels. We did have our disagreements, but boy did we commit.

While we’re all still processing what happened, I can’t help but feel that I’ve grown a ton as a professional and as a person, and I have countless people to thank for that.

You’ve made this journey worth a shot.

Two tales of political fallacies

It’s a weird time to be a neutral spectator of international politics. Opinions are more factioned than ever, Facebook is the king of confirmation biases and conspiration theories, and people struggle to have a moderate, open debate about the lightest topic.

People are more fierce than ever in the defense of their views and beliefs – more than that, they take every opportunity to, using ever stronger language, to confirm their identity.

The truth is, if you hold any belief very strongly, you should question it. That’s why I love communities like ChangeAView.

Let’s take the left and right of the political spectrum as an example:

A fallacy on the Left

Marx was a political and economic genius. Even so, all his theory – and the several stages of it – laid on one premise: Capitalism couldn’t reinvent itself. In the early 1800s in England, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, it was hard to believe that there was another way for Capitalism to exist, other than exploiting workers so that owners could be richer than ever.

Turns out, that’s not the only option.

Capitalism has been reinvented, many times over: we now have worker protections, social security, and many other things. It’s far from perfect, there’s no question about that. But it has evolved.

What I mean by this is that the flaws we see today in our society are there not because we’re in a capitalist society, but because we haven’t addressed them yet. The left has a tendency to ignore that this path can, and should be made without the need to find another political system that could work better than capitalism. What we know so far is that Communism is not a solution, but every leftist struggles to explain what the alternative would be.

A fallacy on the Right

If you lean right on the political spectrum, you probably agree with my argument above. That doesn’t mean, I’m afraid, that I believe the Right is correct in its analysis of what’s needed to have a more prosperous society.

The reason for this is that most right-wing arguments have an underlying premise that is, well, wrong. That premise is meritocracy.

I think everyone agrees that people that work more, should get more. People that have better grades should have access to more opportunities, and so on and so forth. This is the basis for the Liberal argument: Let meritocracy define who wins and who loses, instead of being the government to twist the system, making it inherently unfair (usually against the elites).

This is all well and good, if and only if, we all played by the same rules. If, as a student, you don’t eat well everyday, live in a dangerous neighborhood, don’t have access to books, or so many other issues, you have to run for much longer, and with much more effort, than a priviledged, rich student.

If we all had the same resources growing up, both intellectual and material (acess to the best resources, best schools, best tutors, confortable home, etc), then meritocracy was fair. In 2020, it means the same as Utopia.

These are just two quick examples of the complexity of the issues we have to deal with when we’re discussing what’s best for our society. If we start the discussion already on one of the trenches, our objective stops being to find solutions, but to confirm our identity.

And that makes all the noise we see less of a discussion, and more of attacks on political identity.

This is happening everyday on Social Media, TV, Radio, so many other places. We have to get back to a discussion that is open, well intentioned, and have a common goal: come up with ideas of how our society can be better.

What are economists for, exactly?

I’m a big fan of economics. It’s probably not the most popular thing be a fan of these days, with so many failed predictions, opposite interpretations on the same subject and so on and so forth.

There are a ton of economist jokes going around (most of them true, most of them funny), like:

Economic forecasters assume everything, except responsibility.

In your first economics class, you learn that you should assume buyers have a “rational behavior” that “maximizes their utility” – meaning, they’ll always pick the best price on something that gives them the highest value. All microeconomics depends that you suspend your disbelief and take this for granted, despite the fact that you see, everyday, contrary examples. People are quick to disregard Economics as useless because of this, but I couldn’t disagree more.

The important point is to understand that Economics works in models, and is not an exact science. When you work in models, you try to control as many variables as possible, but can’t control them all.

Think about weather forecasting – it can get close, but it’s incredibly difficult to predict how bilions and bilions of particles will move and interact with each other. With our economies as integrated as they are today, there are bilions of moving parts as well. This doesn’t make forecasting useless, but we should understand its limitations.

I’ve been reading Good Economics for Hard Times, from Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2019 Nobel Prize Winners) and they have a great quote on the job of the Economist:

Economists are more like plumbers; we solve problems with a combination of intuition grounded in science, some guesswork aided by experience, and a bunch of pure trial and error.

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

If only pundits understood that model prediction is never accurate, not by mistake, but by definition, we’ll all try to learn more from this field. Abhijit and Esther have been doing remarkable work in the developing world using RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials) and other techniques to test real economic policy that influences governments.

They are a great example of what Economists are for.

How to pick the right market for your new venture

The inception of a new venture is picking a problem / user need that you’re passionate about. After that, I’d suggest thinking on how you have an unfair advantage over others around this problem – do you have a lot of industry experience? Have the problem yourself? Have access to a wide, relevant network?

When you cleared the above two areas, I believe it’s incredibly important to think about where you will operate from a strategic standpoint – your industry / market.

It’s a common startup saying that the most successful companies did not disrupt a market, they created an entirely new one. Despite being a very good way to force yourself to see competition in a more expansive way, the needs of consumers don’t change as often as people think – they just hire different products to solve the same needs.

Given the above, I’ve been thinking of markets in a spectrum, using speed and dynamism as its unit of difference. Here’s a quick idea of what I mean:

I’m sure there are tons of other options, all of which are useful in picking an area of focus for your new venture.

When you do, you’re ready to start talking to other people to validate your assumptions, but that’s for another blog post 🙂