2020-Aug: COVID-19

COVID-19 is somewhat straightforward to understand as an intellectual idea. There’s a new virus out there, it can infect you, make you sick, and you’ll very likely recover. However, as you start to experience symptoms it starts to become a very different experience. A rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. I want to make a record of what my own experience has felt like.

I got back to India about 6 weeks ago on a Vande Bharath flight from SFO to BLR. It was a surreal experience to fly across the world with empty airports, no hot foot or entertainment on the plane, and being police escorted to a hotel to quarantine. It all passed by and I was back home to do what every other millennial is doing right now, live with your parents.

My parents run a small business which produces an essential commodity. Apart from a few people who can work from home, almost everyone in their business has to be physically present, including them. This meant, driving back and forth between two cities on a weekly basis. As I had recently come home, I tagged along with them for these journeys given I’m in a transition period in my own life and had time on my hands. We were aware of the risks of being out and about but weren’t really too worried as we were sticklers about wearing masks + face shields, sanitizing our hands, and maintaining 6+ feet in the instances where we had to interact with folks.

We did this trip 3 weeks in a row. Then on our last trip back, we all started falling sick one by one. Initially worried by this we began isolating almost immediately. However, we tried to keep our minds from the worst case scenario. Not just because the virus is a thread but more interestingly because testing positive comes with some amount of social stigma. We let a couple days pass and things didn’t really get better. I was of the opinion that since nobody had particularly bad symptoms that required us to go to the hospital we would just recover if we stayed at home for the next two weeks. Our fevers were mild, our SPO2 levels were not out of the ordinary, and there wasn’t serious bouts of sneezing / coughing. Plus, we were worried about rumors of local diagnostic centers marking people as positive because “incentives aligned”.

However, my sister insisted that we didn’t take this lightly and to get all of us tested right away. This is a point that I dwell on. I’ve read up so much on this. I knew it was the right decision to get tested right away, but I still managed to rationalize that we’d be fine at home without a medical opinion. I value having that outside opinion because we did get tested and all of us were positive.

Then came the first bout of despair, how bad could this get? Would we all recover normally? Would there be any long term damage? We still don’t know all the answers here but the next few days were filled with anguish and endless calls. Calls to family and recent contacts informing them, calls to doctors from across the country on their recommendations, and to our family doctor about our medication course and symptoms monitoring. Of course this also involved marking ourselves as positive in the arogya setu app (india’s COVID tracking app) and getting permission form the local municipal authorities to home quarantine.

We got started on some meds, taking lots of rest, and eating all the food the family began sending us. Now, a week in everyone is in positive spirits and recovering just fine. We’re now a little too happy that we’re recovering fine, buying us more freedom (likely) for at least a few months. Though very, very cognizant of the fact that re-infections are a thing.

Now come the interesting decisions we’ll need to make about continuing to travel regularly for work. What about in the neighborhood to go on runs? I, for one, cannot wait to go on a walk outside the house again. But what’s the signal we’re sending out there. Lots of decisions to make and we’re all making it up on the fly.

Stay positive, test negative!

Thinking about COVID-19

NOTE: THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD GET TESTED FOR COVID IF YOU CAN AND FOLLOW NECESSARY TREATMENT. THIS IS A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT AT THIS TIME OF WHAT HAPPENS IF THE SYSTEMS ARE OVERWHELMED. ITS A SCRIBBLE.

I’m thinking through my thoughts out loud – please tell me why this is absurd to even think about.

One of the top ideas that’s out there is to flatten the curve: which means that we should try and load balance to avoid overwhelming our health care system. This includes testing and treatment infrastructure.

One idea I’ve been thinking about given following information / constraints is if anyone

1) under 30 starts seeing any symptoms and

2) are not known to be at-risk, when

3) the country is lacking infrastructure:

COULD it make more sense for them to start following protocol as if they’ve tested postive to manage from home instead of heading to the hospital and keeping beds and testing kits open for older/at-risk folks?

To thinking through whether this a bad idea or not, I’m trying to find the following info / answers / account for these thoughts:

  • clearly defined symptoms:
    • read about body aches, fever, cough, runny nose, chills, and some more
  • what pre-existing conditions make you at-risk?
  • find data on mortality / recovery rate for <30 y/o folks
  • what happens when you test positive for COVID 19 and you get checked-in to a hospital? what treatment do they follow? when do escalations happen?
  • in the countries where they’re turning away people from hospitals, what’s the protocol of things they’re asking you to follow? eg. drink lots of water, stay away from people, take x,y,z medicine which are available off the counter
  • by when should you expect to recover? If not recovered by then, how to inform the hospital and get elevated care?
  • the template for informing people you’ve been in contact with that you’re taking precautions and self-isolating
  • what if this springs people who don’t even have it to start taking precautions and social distance/isolate preemptively?
  • will it cause a mass panic / hysteria if people start getting messages from people about their safety?
  • what else?

I know a few young people who’ve had the symptoms, tried to get tested last week and couldn’t, went home – slept for a few days, some some fever & cold medicine, plan to stay isolated for 2 weeks, but feel like the worst is gone and are making a full recovery. Now, of course we don’t know if they had it or not, but it’s encouraging that they feel fit enough to stand up again. could young people staying at home even when sick save lives because nearly all of them will recover anyway assuming we have a protocol for when they escalate and head to a hospital?

Update: It looks like the Ohio Government is recommend this policy as well. and here’s a lot of relevant links to this idea.

Symptoms: https:/ /themillennialmind.substack.com/p/what-to-look-for

Potential Startup Ideas for 2020

Some thoughts on Christmas from a coffee shop. A lot of these are problems I’ve been thinking about or directly encountered.

International Visa Management 

  • If you’re North American/European, this might not be as big a problem for you but if you’re not the process of getting visas is terrible.
  • If anyone is building a plaid for legal identity/visas, please save me from this hell of entering the same basic information, the set of documents, credit card information, references, etc. 
  • Tourism across the world continues to grow and making this easier to unlock a whole lot more travel. 
  • A key challenge here will be intercepting the monopoly of VFS over this process but do think it’s possible with a few countries to test a pilot with. 

Notes/Documents + Task Management + Links

  • The context for tasks resides in documents. Documents are filled with links. Links are websites or resources/assets in other apps. Making it all work together I think remains a very real opportunity.
  • So far, dropbox paper & notion come closest to the best. There’s one or two smaller co’s (Roam & Pine) which could potentially become the defaults here.
  • P.S I want to write a longer note doing some research on the future of productivity

Privacy & Security Management 

  • I’m relatively paranoid and more people should be, especially in the wake of multiple scandals. However, it is cumbersome and very hard to get new people started on the path of trying to secure themselves and do any kind of ongoing monitoring. 
  • Here’s a list of some things I’ve done and I’d love to see tools to simplify this: 
    • Phone Numbers: I maintain a public and private number to reduce attack vectors
    • Credit Cards: Use privacy.com to generate credit card numbers for payments on shady websites.
    • Settings on phone / laptop: around notifications, location, sharing, background refresh, camera/microphone, ad limiting etc. 
    • Regular audits of platform apps: removing unwanted apps, disabling web & location tracking on google, etc. 
    • Password management: Continues to be a challenge to get users to adopt. (Either this needs to be done by OS providers or we need to get rid of passwords completely and move to magic links + otp verification)
    • VPN: Quite valuable for somebody who uses public wifi’s frequently. 
    • HaveIBeenPwned.com: Set up account alert monitoring for various email addresses 
  • One co. that’s interesting for some parts of this is Jumbo which launched earlier this year. 

Venture Debt Financing in India

  • Spending time here in the last few weeks here, there’s a clear opportunity to build a fund focused on venture debt in India. There’s only a companies focused on this (innoven, alteria) and none of traditional banks have any plans to doing anything in this space. 
  • Especially in a world where’s there’s more D2C & SaaS companies being built in the country, the demand for this product is only likely to continue to grow.

OS for SMBs

  • Growth for small businesses, especially in traditional sectors, remains hard as it’s hard to operationalise and become process driven. In a world where they are not used to paying for SaaS subscriptions you’d likely need to make money in adjacent ways (first: financing) but better tooling 
  • I think of Square doing this well for retail companies (stores & restaurants) but think there’s an opportunity to build in 100’s of other kinds of small businesses including real estate, real-world 1-3 person shops around specific skills (plumbing, furniture makers, etc.), freelance tech talent, etc. 
  • Enabling the sustainable GPD growth via better ERP tooling and process management (eg. Bringing in better metrics visibility, okr accountability, task delegation etc.) 
  • & Freelances?: do think there’s a some overlap with this and helping freelancers manage themselves and their businesses. 

Home Financing Products

  • Homes are getting harder to buy for a variety of reasons in the cities that people want to live with. 
  • Additionally the primary way of purchasing a home remains the 30 year mortgage. I say this caution but do sincerely believe there’s likely many places to innovate here. We’re starting to see the rise of equity sharing/downpayment assistance, fractional ownership, rent-to-town, rent/mortgage splits, etc. and am excited to see the adoption of some of the above services but also many new ones. 

Family Account Management

  • Over the last couple of years, I’ve moved to all things Apple: from music, to storage, to devices, for the entire family as it’s really helped do account management much better.
  • However, it’s still complicated to get family members onboard on new services, organise the billing, and manage the subscriptions. 
  • I think there’s an opportunity to build an Okta for Families. One that I would pay for but also could be a great way for subscription apps to increase conversion & retention. This one’s a personal problem more so than anything else though. 

Unroll.me / Substack, Medium, Mailchimp Aggregator

  • In the last 3 months I’ve now subscribed to more than 10 Substack newsletters which has me thinking about so many different issues & opportunities. Brings back 2016 memories of medium publications and mail chimp newsletters. 
  • How do you better read the subscriptions without cluttering your inbox. What about unsubscribing and discovery? Does it make sense to integrate with emails clients, potentially? All TBD, but. if personal audiences are having a moment right now then it seems like an opprotune time to solve customer problems here. 

If you’re building any of these, let’s chat me@varadhja.in. I’d love to help, if relevant, and invest 🙏🏽 More about me here

Misc collection:

  • B2B Marketplaces around commodities
  • Contract management tooling 
  • Real estate transaction management 
  • Better financial management at startups: budget, planning, forecasting, ap/ar 
  • Professional feedback & references library for personal growth (analogous to medical records which can be seen by any doctor)
  • Artist discovery -> TikTok now for music. What other creative industries mighty we be able to improve new talent discovery in a non-direct way. 

2019 Books

Reverse chronology order of books read this year. Goodreads here.

  1. The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company
  2. The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4)*
  3. Newcomer (Detective Kaga, #2)
  4. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power
  5. Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing
  6. The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.*
  7. Norse Mythology
  8. The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire
  9. Liar’s Poker
  10. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
  11. My Family and Other Animals (Corfu Trilogy, #1)*
  12. Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America
  13. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity
  14. The Outsider
  15. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland*
  16. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
  17. Propaganda*
  18. City of Thieves
  19. Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley money machine
  20. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
  21. Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco
  22. Stories of Your Life and Others
  23. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman*
  24. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption*
  25. The Last Days of Night
  26. To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
  27. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
  28. Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic*
  29. The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder*
  30. Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son*

Thinking Critically: My Time at Opendoor

Over the last couple of months I’ve moved away from leading a cross-functional team to doing IC work remotely (will be a separate post later). As I’m a little more distant from the business (geography & nature of what I’ve been spending time on for the last month or so) I was trying to articulate for myself why I believe Opendoor’s succeeded so far and why to be bullish / bearish about the co. especially as I exercise more options (commit $$ to the co). Harder to share what’s still to be done & what I think the challenges that remain are, I found this a very useful exercise. Particularly so as I’m spending more time with new companies and what’s the must solve hypothesis for them at their earliest stages.

Please note: This is my opinion based on observations. Sharing this but redacting parts that might be considered sensitive.

Company execution: 

  • Customer experience / Customer focus. NPS – word of mouth 
  • Capital markets 
  • Pricing algorithms 
  • Internal tools 
  • Product marketing – “sell your house hassle free”
  • Complex ops management 
  • Analytics – ops, pick markets, etc 
  • Home entry: Text to enter 
  • Ability to launch markets 
  • Recruit A+ talent. Constantly. 

Timing & necessary conditions: 

  • Low interest rates 
  • Macro up cycle 
  • MLS data open with history of transactions 
  • Repeatable housing 

Where the business is yet to succeed:

  • Adjacent Services (sort of already done but more broadly)
  • Survive a downcycle
  • Competition (welcome, public company)
  • Margins

Why I’d still bet on opendoor: 

  • Huge, huge, huge market. 
  • Truly a better experience for customer 
  • Margins at scale

Enduring moats: 

  • Flywheel
  • Brand equity & trust in the marketplace
  • Internal operations tooling ?

It was also an opportunity for me to take stock of where I think I excelled and had the greatest impact.

My impact at Opendoor: 

  • Solving complex problems at the intersection of technology and operations and regulated businesses. Always driving to simplify and using software and ops processes to drive better outcomes
  • I’ve been a general purpose human more than anything else
  • Had the chance to original support team in Phoenix: 0 -> 1 -> 5. Original playbook, scripting, tooling. Today team is 50+ people. 
  • Data analytics + bots to drive operational leverage
  • Brokerage: spec’d & lead building of transaction management platform & ops playbook for compliance in 1st state (AZ). Gold star from regulator.  Playbook scaled
  • Canonical work: winding down Opendoor Mortgage 1.0 (beta), strategy for 2.0 and scrapping, core team to launch 3.0. (Mortgages @ Opendoor needs to be a book, lol)
  • lFor 3.0: Leading cross functional growth team. 3 eng, pm, 1 pmm, 1 CX ops, and 1 analyst

Real World Experiences: Vallea Lumina

As a part of my nomadic journey across the world… I was recently in Whistler, Canada. While its usually known for its world-class slopes and pristine nature, one of the highlights was an immersive experience called Vallea Lumina. Initially, I wasn’t sure what it was or what to expect as it was marketed as a multimedia night walk but signed up anyway. It helped that there were little postcards about it all over the city. I didn’t expect much but who wouldn’t get excited by the word multimedia.

Selecting the last show of the night (9:40 PM, I think), I boarded a bus to get to what looked like a trailhead. At the entrance, you’ve got a solid camp vibe with s’mores and hot chocolates for before you get started (or at the end). It took about 45 minutes to walk through something of a cross between the museum of ice cream, a hike, an EDM party with the themes of camping (lights and music), and mystery. There was a projected skit, a preserved tent with artefacts, a morse code challenge, campfire music, talking trees, and immersive lighting. It turned out to be a unique and pleasurable experience unlike any I’ve experienced before and it was worth every $$. 

I think we’ll see many more experiences like this that are very interactive and novel. While people might scoff at the idea of the company that did the museum of ice cream raising $40mm, I’m quite bullish about experiences like that, Vallea Lumina, Dismaland (yes, I get it), and more. There will no doubt be so many new experiences that people of all ages do in groups together and I’m excited for all of it — whether out and about in the world or further into your computing devices(eg. Sandbox VR*).

Whether these are to be one-off co’s that are similar to art installations or true venture-funded companies is TBD but this location Vallea Lumina also appears to be a good business. $40 pp and 600-800 people per night on average is what I heard from one of the people manning the shuttle buses and it increases as the sunsets become earlier. This though does get me thinking what’s Disneyland 2.0?

*Invested in SandboxVR via an AL Syndicate

Challenging Oneself – Hiking 🥾

Some of you might be familiar with a monthly hiking group that I organized for most of 2018. As a part of organizing anything you tend to get a good amount of requests, comments, and questions. For the hiking group, one of the common comments / requests has always been: “this hike looks so hard, could we do a easier one.” Sometimes I would pick a shorter one or one with an easier elevation gain and sometimes I’d be like come anyway and if it gets too hard we can always turn around earlier / cut across to the other side of the loop. When choosing to do the latter, I don’t think we’ve ever turned around. The 1-2 people who were anxious challenged themselves and always pushed through to the end. Something I’ve always been fascinated by: giving yourself an escape hatch but not giving into it.

This past weekend, I was in Whistler with plans to checkout Garibaldi Lake. The hike is pretty daunting: 20km and a ~900m elevation gain. However, there’s another way to do it: go all the way up to Panorama Ridge and enjoy the lake from above. Only problem: 30km and a ~1600m elevation gain. Having not hiked for most of this year, I was anxious to even do the former but knew I could make it if I pushed myself. But getting to Panorama Ridge seemed too hard to even think about let alone committing myself to making it to the top. But the views from the top were too irresistible to not try. You know where this going…I gave myself the same talk: I’ll do the trail to the lake and at the fork between the two, I’ll make the decision on which way to go. I could choose to only do the lake or if I was feeling comfortable — I’d go all the way.

I ended up going all the way. It makes me think about two important things: splitting daunting goals into smaller ones and giving yourself an out (but rarely using it). Both have tended to be helpful tools for me. Though the cynic in me always wonders why I need to play these little games with myself but hey, it’s worked well?

How do you approach challenging tasks. Do you ever find yourself with some some tricks too?

Crossborder SaaS

For some time there have been Indian companies building SaaS products and selling it across the world (Zoho/Freshworks/etc.) but we’re now starting to see global companies thinking about how to sell and price their products in India.

While India’s nowhere near the next top destination for selling SaaS in terms of short-term revenue opportunities, rough ordering being the US, EU, ANZ, then rest of the world, it must be falling on folks radar to build a presence and more so a brand here. If India’s Slack and Segment are indeed Slack and Segement then there’s lower likelihood of a local company to having fertile grounds to build solid foundations in a relatively incubated fashion which could then leverage to compete with across the world.

What’s gotten me thinking about this is stumbling upon Slack’s India pricing. If your company is located in India, then you only pay 40% of their regular plans (60% off!). That comes out to to about $3.2/mo or about ₹220 per employee per month or ₹2200 per employee, annually. Even at Slack’s margins I cannot imagine this being “worth it” so to speak.

I look forward to seeing how this plays out in the next couple years. In which sectors do companies take the market in India and if Indian which markets do they take across the world. I have hunches on how this will play out but look forward to watching it closely.


Simple Advice for Good Health

The best advice is the simplest.

The simplest advice is the hardest to follow.

This has roughly been my take away from the last week where I’ve been in and out of the hospital 🏥 on what I need to do to deal with my situation but also most health related ones:

  • Sleep enough
  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise regularly

Story time:

Last Saturday night, my body broke out in rashes without an apparent cause. Something that I had never experienced before. It was annoying at first but eventually turned painful. I barely slept over the rest of the night attempted to temper the sensation by scratching my burning body.

On Sunday morning, we went to the hospital and got some shots for an allergic reaction which provided temporary relief.

By Monday, my body was going crazy and once again I felt extremely fatigued. Once again, I was back at the hospital getting more shots still treating it as an allergic reaction. Only this time, it made things worse.

Yesterday, Tuesday, I woke up with my entire body red in rashes and unable to look at myself in the mirror. Back at the hospital again, the doctors were beginning to suspect more and ordered many tests and then gave me more shots. I waited for the test results to arrive which would give us clarity on whether it was something worse (viral infection, bacterial infection) or still something more benign, an allergic reaction. By the late afternoon, the test results arrived and much to my relief the doctors went back to suspecting just the latter: an allergy attack. Specifically, being allergic to food colouring and certain additives combined with my body having a very high IGe levels (~388 vs the normal cutoff being below 100) which roughly translates to when you have a reaction you’ll have a severe one. What made it worse was likely a low immunity due to poor sleeping and eating habits, and being in a new environment.

The immediate change that was recommended was to eat only home-made food for the foreseeable future until we confirm the hypothesis and allow my body to heal.

However, the long-term recommendations from the doctor aside from double-checking for certain ingredients was to 1) ensure I sleep enough, 2) eat healthier (and at home), and ) exercise regularly, to lead a healthier life with reduced chances of allergy attacks in the future and better chance to fight them off.

Of course, I had another new reality about myself to live with but as I read that part of the the doctor’s advice on my way home I couldn’t help but sit astounded at the magnitude of the impact doing those three things have on one’s physical and mental health.

The advice sounds so simple but are relatively hard to follow. One part of me worries that the reason it is so hard to follow is because it is so simple. So easy to dismiss while looking for a more complex ways to achieve healthier outcomes. This week’s episode was a great reminder for me that sometimes the best advice is the simplest and must try hard to follow it.

As for me, I’m on medication this week and next to kickstart my body again and have been advised to only eat home-cooked meals. Excited to be back at full-health again and getting better at being looped into a healthier routine.


Also, I feel so lucky to have been at home while this happened because I am not sure things would’ve been so smooth without the support of my parents.

Switching from Audible to Scribd…^ Some Links Related to Audio

When somebody mentions “audiobook” there’s a high probability you’d probably think of the Amazon-owned entity, “Audible”. I, too, did for the longest time. I didn’t even think anyone else offered audiobooks. Plus, I’ve been on an Audible annual subscription for about two years now. Tweeting on something related to this, Jackson tweeted back basically saying: Scribd > Audible.

Scribd: My last memory of this site wasn’t much. My memory extended to needing to upload a document to get credits which you then used to download a different document…and it not having a great interface. That was probably back when I was in college. I didn’t know they did anything else. Visiting their website, it looked like they’ve added significantly to their offering: Unlimited books & audiobooks for $8.99? Plus a clean inteface? I’m intruiged.

Essentially if I read more than 1 book a month it was cheaper than the Platinum Annual plan (~$9.5/book). Plus, it would give me the flexibility to abandon any books I didn’t like. It made sense to sign up.

I signed up for the service last month (Jan) to test out the service and test the depth of the catalogue. About 70% of the titles I had previously purchased on Audible were available and the same with the next 10 titles I had hoped purchase, 7 of them were available. Good enough for me to switch behaviour and potentially unlocking some latent demand to consume even more…maybe more than 1 book a month.

Hence, I didn’t renew my subscription to Audible with the plan of using Scribd + purchasing any titles it didn’t offer directly from Amazon. The only downside to this remains not owning the title and being locked into the subscription for as long as I’d like to use their audiobooks — not dissimilar from the expectations you’d already have from subscribing to a Netflix.

If you currently subscribe to Audible, I’d encourage you to look into Scribd (#not-an-ad). They’ll even throw in an annual subscription to Pocket & Blinkist.

Scribd raised $22mm in 2015 from Khosla and other folks…they’ve had this available for a while. It should definitely drive up audiobook consumption https://techcrunch.com/2015/01/02/scribd-khosla-funding/. Here’s a recommendation of books from Scribd (and Opendoor) board member Keith Rabois (@Rabois) to get you started.

More on audio

All of this got me thinking a bit more about (non-music) audio in general. Here’s a loose collection of links/unstructured thoughts.

  • Audio drives consumption. Voice is the complement that drives creation.
  • We’re seeing audio become more and more mainstream as potentially the next big platform. We’re already seeing the growing numbers for increased consumption of audiobooks and podcasts and could extend further.
  • Audio – Demand:
    • One part is no doubt driven by the growing popularity of AirPods – personal consumption. See “AirPods Have Gone Viral” – LINK (High visibility, social signalling, and something different). “AirPods Are Now One of Apple’s Most Important Products” – LINK
    • Another part via the in-home voice assistants: Alexa, Siri, Google etc. LINK, LINK
    • Growing podcast revenue proxy for increased demand from consumer. LINK Efficacy of listening: NYT Op-ed LINK Industry report on Audiobooks LINK.
    • Dive deeper into Sirius to understand more about the biggest audio platforms of yesteryear: radio. Radio is a $40b ad business. LINK What’s the transition here. Maybe there isn’t one Sirius bought Pandora…x-sell users and maintain base?
  • Voice – Supply:
    • We’re also seeing an increase in creation tooling eg. Anchor acq Spotify (Podcasts) and Voiceflow (bots).
    • More picks and shovels will be built. including ad tooling, analytics, content moderation, user verification, etc.
  • Exclusive Supply:
    • As all of this happens: owning exclusive content and apps (skills) will start to become more and important. Ben Thompson (aggregation theory) has more which touches on this topic in his post about Spotify acquisitions LINK.
    • Audible has Originals already. Spotify has Gimlet. What’s the equivalent for Scribd?
    • Are original audiobooks similar to super in-depth podcasts like Hardcore History?
    • Would such titles ever make it to being in a book format? Will they become more interactive: either with the screen as the second medium or via interactions?
    • Certain skills will be available on one device and not another. I cannot find any good examples of this right now.
    • Will we see more dedicated production houses? Is Serial an equivalent to Game of Thrones for HBO? How many more podcasting production houses will we see?
    • There was the crazy $500mm deal for Howard Stern back in 2004 LINK when he joined Sirius. There’s Joe Rogan. Who’s next? Will they go to a platform?
  • Networks:
    • v1 is most obvious here: a social network for audio books (a la GoodReads) or for podcasts (a la Breaker).
    • v2 here will be native to the platform itself: For eg. TTYL (ex-UCLA folks) are attempting to build audio social network and Chai (ex-USC folks 😏) building voice chat for teams.
    • How will these v2 networks interact with the supply not from friends?
    • What’s after this? Will we see existing networked platforms build here? Twitter/Fb/Snap/Google/etc?

If you have interesting links on the audio space and/or are building something is this space, I’d love to chat: me@varadhja.in or @varadhjain.

P.S. Any good newsletters in this space?

Looking Back at a Succesful Project & Team

In H2 of 2017, at Opendoor we encountered a problem with came with a small threat: it could force us to shut down a market we operated in (low probability) but not nailing it might potentially disrupt or pause operations in all other states we were “live” in should it not be solved. It had to be a cross-functional effort between the brokerage, EPD*, and compliance teams to solve.


I stumbled upon the project largely because I think nobody else had said signed up for it 😬. The story of this project deserves a post in itself but the project ended up achieving its goal, against all odds. Given various circumstances including needing to staff up resourcing quickly, a hard problem, and a looming deadline, in classic Opendoor fashion we retro’d on why we thought the project had succeeded.

I think applies to any project whether it be for yourself, within a company, or even the early days of a startup. It reminded me a lot of how things were when all of us on the Polymail team were living together and doing YC in the summer of 2016.

  • Clarity – helps align everyone and convince people to join. Simplify how you talk about what you’re doing.
  • External Deadlines – force prioritization and a ship. (of course there’s caveats here)
  • Enthusiasm – this sh*t is hard, be excited for it and find amazing people to work with.
  • Tailwinds – always be able to answer the why now.
  • People, people, people 💙

This one turned out to be one of my favourite special projects at Opendoor because of the people I got to work with and learn from, the ownership over the problem, the ability to have a meaningful impact, and learning one more pillar of business complexity that we have. Plus it gave me a chance to do what I love doing the most: managing the product and the operations.

The project also ended up having a much larger than our initially scoped impact as we, hi Tim, Visnu 👋🏾, built a brokerage specific transaction management product (Broker Admin), and sped our path to move to our own contract management software (HelloRito) at Opendoor.

*EPD – Engineering, Product Design

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Looking Back: How Did I End Up at Opendoor?

It’s been almost 2 years since I joined Opendoor and what an incredible ride it’s been. Looking at my notes from Nov-Dec’16, here’s the story.


Starting things is my default, whether it was thinking about how to capitalize on the fish wire craze in middle school or starting companies with friends after college. So when I left Polymail after we raised our round post-YC, with no plan, the first thing to do was figure out what should I build next. I spent most of October 2016 thinking about would follow. My notes/sketches show me all the things I thought were interesting: another productivity app 💌, a food-related consumer brand, something blockchain-related, a smart factory, and new retail experiences.

While I was dreaming about the next big thing to build, I also had a constraint—my visa status— that I hadn’t fully grasped the impact until an international student counsellor at UCLA reminded me, in November, that I had under 90 days left on my existing F-1 visa.  I had only until Jan’17 left in the US unless I found a job that could sponsor my F-1 visa’s STEM extension. Because this threw a wrench in my plans to start something new again, I needed to find a job (and quick).

In general, job searches aren’t a particularly fun experience but I got started on mine. Back when I initially left Polymail I emailed a few folks asking, “If you see something interesting, let me know” but it was time to ping people again. I didn’t know what role I wanted…I didn’t have any specific career goals other than being entrepreneurial and having an impact. As I thought about roles, I had experience and was excited to work on products, analytics, and growth. However, a role itself didn’t seem like the most important pillar when looking for the next opportunity. Instead, I established criteria of what I thought was important to me knowing it would help me make a decision. I had narrowed it down to:

  • Joining a full-stack startup: Having grown up around operations heavy businesses in India, I wanted to spend time working on a project that would have the whole stack—build the software and use it too.
  • Talent & Culture: I wanted to work at a place where people I knew and respected worked. I wanted to learn from them.
  • Scale: I hadn’t worked at a place yet that found product-market fit, scaled, and needed real management. This was something I needed to experience first-hand. Reading books or medium articles were not a substitute here.

There were a bunch of companies with interesting roles, but nothing really matched all three. Serendipitously, Vedika, my sister, who was then working at Stripe told me she swung by the offices of a hot new startup where her friend Logan worked at a place called Opendoor. I looked up the company and at first glance, it appeared to meet my three criteria. On LinkedIn, I noticed that I knew a few folks who worked there, including Simon who I had last met in NYC when he was fundraising for his company at that time.

Some backstory: Simon and I originally met in 2014 when he was working at Robinhood doing PR and I was running LA Hacks where the founders ended up showcasing their app for the very first time publicly. You could say the demo was interesting—ask him about it.

The original email

I swung by the office at 116 Montgomery on a weekend to meet with him. Once there, he introduced me to another PM who was also working the weekend and left us for an impromptu interview…surprise, surprise. To say that the interview didn’t go well would be an understatement. I was later told that the PM thought I was smart, but also thought I spoke too quick. I told him that if the PM I had met wasn’t interested in the next step, I’d still be interested in other roles. He referred me for a different, and more analytics-focused, role. I needed my visa and time was running out. I thought to myself, “Let’s get the job, get the visa renewed, and then see what to do next. I likely won’t last long at a company so big for more than 3-6 months anyway, but at least I’ll have my visa.”

The referral worked on getting an email back from Jac, a recruiter. We spoke on the phone and she sent me a take-home assignment which seemed straightforward enough to do.

22nd November
Email for the Take Home. My answers here.

One week later, 22nd of Nov, I had somehow forgotten about it in the midst of preparing for a slew of other interviews. I remembered only after I finished the on-site I had that day down in Palo Alto and decided to head to the Stanford coffee shop get this thing done before the end of the day. I finished by around 5 PM, phew. However, given the rush to finish, I didn’t expect a callback. Surprisingly, I heard back and soon found myself scheduling an on-site.

Even with a few offers on the table and the deadline for my visa continuing to approach, I wanted to hold out for Opendoor. Less than 48 hours later, I received a call back telling me more about the offer and the role. However, it came with a hurried deadline and a compensation package that differed drastically from the others. Pay didn’t make it onto the list because it was more of hygiene criteria as opposed to one you could pull the trigger based off of. This would be a bit of a bullet to bite but I was genuinely excited about the company which had satisfied the criteria I set out with and had the opportunity to have a big impact though.

I called back and said, “I’m ready to do this”. My boss-to-be at that time, Ryan Johnson, recommended coming in the next day.

The email exchange. Full thread here.  
Sunday, Dec 4th: RJ inviting me to Slack
I joined on my personal email account  

So on Dec 4th, I showed back up at 116 New Montgomery to start my first day at Opendoor. The first project was some product discovery work: call customers and see if they were interested in getting financing. Oh, boy! This was a sign of things to come.

Reflecting two years later, I’m grateful I made the decision I did. I’m lucky that the criteria lead me here to find each of three things I was looking for but also gave, and continues to give, me so much more. Also, the roles basically didn’t matter.

  • Full-Stack Startup: Opendoor really is a technology and operations business that builds software end-to-end and uses it too. Its fascinating problem set to have an opportunity to take on.
  • Talent: I’ve gotten to work with people I know, and made lots of friends with people I work with and respect. I’ve gotten also to recruit some amazing folk to come to join us too.
  • Scale: Opendoor has continued to grow and be successful and it’s amazing to work at a place where we’re impacting the lives of thousands of people every month during the most stressful transaction of their lives.

Thank you, Laura and Saige reviewing early drafts. 

Transparency at Startups: My Experience at Opendoor

When on vacation a few weeks ago I was reflecting on what are some things I love about Opendoor and Transparency as a value rose to the top. Transparency has always seemed like one of those things that’s a no-brainer to follow and I’m grateful to see the steps we’ve taken at Opendoor to put it into practice. More so as a recap for future me, I wanted to outline some aspects of it.

Transparency can be encapsulated into one of our “5 Core Principles”: Build Openness

Productive communication depends on a foundation of trust and goodwill. Approach difficult conversations with curiosity. Avoid hearsay, passive aggression, and snark. Give feedback early and often.

Some activities that enable transparency:

  • All-Hands Q&A: Ability to ask the leadership team questions that will be publicly answered even though the questions itself can be anonymously asked.
  • Windows: I didn’t realize the impact of windows until we moved from moved offices. Initially, all the meetings rooms came with frosted windows which added a strange layer of secrecy that felt unnecessary. Within a few weeks of moving in our workplace team unfrosted most of the meeting rooms barring a few which are in the corner of recruiting and legal, and a few private rooms which are understandable.
  • Public Calendars: Everyone can see anybody’s calendar by default. The onus is placed on the person to make an event private when needed. It also allows for easier scheduling of time with co-workers.
  • Slack/Company Updates: There’s a healthy default towards posting messages in public channels as more than half the messages are read in public channels. Weekly Update and retros for most teams publicly shared(email and to #meeting-notes)
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  • Documents: Not everything is searchable but if you come upon any link it’s likely that you’d be able to open it without needing to request permissions.
  • Metrics: Most metrics are now hosted on an analytics portal that everyone can access. Additionally, every morning a performance report of the business goes out.
  • Feedback: Various channels of customer feedback including reviews, NPS, twitter mentions, and more are automatically posted to slack channels which showcases the impact and experience of the service we offer. Additionally, there’s quarterly feedback from managers to direct. reports.
  • Financials: All numbers are presented to the entire company which exposes everyone to the ups and downs the business constantly faces. What’s been impressive is that even as we approach a 1000 people this information is held in the confidentiality that it’s shared with and my sincere hope is that this never changes(until the company goes public of course).
  • An Open-Mind: honestly, this is the real secret. We’ve got an amazing team.
  • Total Rewards/Compensation: Total rewards are still very hard to understand and I think we’ve gotten pretty good at this now. What makes it more complex is things like what’s the liquidation preference from the latest round, how much is my equity worth if to company exits at these 5 different valuations. I love how we’ve taken steps to create a rewards packet which better outlines this.

Upsides:

  • There’s transparency for transparency itself but it also allows for tangible value. A few upsides:
  • It helps builds trust much faster across the organization.
  • It helps collaboration happen faster as folks are exposed to more information earlier. It also allows ideas to flow across the organization even when people are not in the same business or functional unit.
  • It allows folks to have less postured conversations and as our core value describes, approach challenges conversations with curiosity as the information about what happened has already been shared.
  • It allows for a stronger muscle to handle organizational thrash.
  • It also allows for a stronger muscle to handle a few bad months or years as we’ve seen ourselves bounce back. In my opinion, this helps with talent retention.

Downsides:

  • Information Overload: As we get bigger availability of constant streams of data vs. synthesized information that’s most important to you might become a challenge. I’m curious on whether there’s a software solution here: AI for notifications.
  • Criticism: More people can be critical of other people’s work as you can see the short/medium term volatility.
  • Transparency vs. Oversharing: can introduce people to the sausage making which can be a bit hard on new employees & those with only a few years of experience.
  • There are some things you likely cannot be transparent about such as legal, recruiting, firings, etc.

What I think we can still improve on:

  • Context: allowing for a stripe-like email system so that most messages are available publicly. Most messages are still sent via email/DMs, especially as you go further up the organizational structure.

  • Salary Information: While there have been big strides mad here: I still have a desire to have all comp be on a public spreadsheet though I can understand why no company might ever do this.
  • Reducing Rumours: though I’ve never been at a company of this size and everyone tells me this is the least they’ve seen of anywhere else. I am definitely guilty if this too. The onus here primarily falls on the individual.

Overall, I think it’s very valuable and gets me excited about Opendoor. Future Varadh looks forward to sharing specific stories. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about transparency.

 

BCC Protection

 

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At Opendoor, there’s a healthy default towards transparency. While we are a Slack-heavy company, we still use email a good amount–especially for communicating with external parties. However, email and transparency aren’t something that goes hand-in-hand, unless you’re Stripe I II. Luckily, BCC can be used to build openness and keeping relevant internal parties in the loop when emailing external parties. I never really used to BCC or get BCC’d until I worked here but now it’s become indispensable. That being said, getting BCC’d or BCC’ing somebody has also become one of my biggest fears.

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DBX’s S-1: Bottom’s Up SaaS

The first companies that come to mind as one thinks about users as the gateway into an organization are Dropbox and Slack. While their individual mechanics are different, they’re very good at getting users to join orgs that then pay. In addition to building a 10x better product, they have the strong brand & community that it takes to be installed on day one of a new org; something which is incredibly difficult to nail down and continues to be a holy grail of the fabled land & expand distribution strategy.

  • Dropbox: Win the user in single-player mode and then become the first option as a user thinks about a service for their org (multiplayer mode).
  • Slack: Win the org on day one because there’s zero friction to start on multiplayer mode. Get users as the company’s get bigger and people move companies.

(More on Single-Player vs. Multiplayer here on CDixon’s blog)

Continue reading “DBX’s S-1: Bottom’s Up SaaS”

Keyboard Shortcuts: The Blue Bubbles of Apps & Websites

 

iMessage is a default messaging service on top of SMS on the iPhone where your messages to a sender appear in blue bubbles as long as the other person has an iPhone (yes, even if you don’t sign into your iCloud). If you message a sender who doesn’t have one, DISASTER occurs–your messages are now in green and you think of the counterpart differently. This stark call out of bad behavior in iMessage is probably one of the one biggest reasons of why people don’t move off of an iPhone. It forces you to think about the pain that the other person might feel when their message goes out in a green bubble should you make the switch away from an iPhone; making iMessage one of the biggest moats that the device has. The blue bubbles of iMessage help justify owning an iPhone as it’s probably your most used app.

Continue reading “Keyboard Shortcuts: The Blue Bubbles of Apps & Websites”

Catching Up Doesn’t Have To Suck

​One of the hardest things for me to do is playing catch up.

 

This doesn’t refer to something new that I am curious about or want to become good at–it’s about catching up on things that I used to be good at or something I have lost momentum on. I have always felt a sufficient drive and enthusiasm in making the time to learn, practice, and execute something new.  It’s been much easier to stay in the mindset of, this isn’t something I want to be good at any more” (but not always more on that later).

Continue reading “Catching Up Doesn’t Have To Suck”

Product of the Week: Wells Fargo Card-Free ATM

A few weeks ago, I saw an interesting billboard by Wells Fargo near one of the first few exit ramps of the freeway after crossing into San Francisco via the Bay Bridge. The billboard illustrated  Wells Fargo’s latest consumer experience/offering – Card Free ATM Access. I was excited because this was one of those product ideas everybody, including me, has probably wondered, “Why it isn’t this a reality yet?”
I believe the first time this thought crossed my mine  was right after the time I had encountered Venmo in college. I questioned why everything didn’t just work from my phone – the washing machine, the doors, the lights, the vending machine, the ATM, etc.
Continue reading “Product of the Week: Wells Fargo Card-Free ATM”