Category Archives: startups

How to Not Waste Your Life

Tired of your career? Lost and confused about your next move and unmotivated on your current path? You’re not alone. The only mystery intriguing to modern man is modern man himself: a terrifying labyrinth that often leads nowhere interesting.

In theory, through our every action, we’re constantly continuously deciding our private interpretations of the meaning of life. In reality, humans rely on cached thoughts to avoid decisions. You can easily go your whole life without making a deliberate, researched choice. Big decisions are painful and difficult, so we avoid them unless the default becomes more painful than the agonizing confusion of deciding. Why deviate from what you’re “supposed to do” when you’re already outperforming most humans that ever lived?

People on Quora ask, “I’m 20 or 30-something and don’t know what to do because I haven’t found my passion yet. What is my passion?” As first-world youth, we’re not responsible for anything beyond our own enjoyment, so we think we should simply find a passion and then do that forever. People who excel do seem passionate. Steve Jobs is dogmatic about design; Rowling wrote doggedly for years while waitressing. Leaders and founders are passionate. How do we be like that? What is the meaning of life!?

“Make something people want.”

That is Y Combinator’s motto, and I think that is the meaning of life. Note that it doesn’t say anything about passion. “Make something” is fundamental – people whose work doesn’t result in creation feel they’re wasting their lives. So is “people want” – if no one wants your hand-knitted cat sculptures, you’ll also feel  life is a waste. “Make something” and “people want” are two things I knew before Y Combinator. The unspoken middle is where I learned something new: “people,” as in “OTHER people.”

Most of my life was spent not thinking about other people. I’m an only child, and my primary motivation throughout the first 27 years of my life was very individualistic – I wanted to challenge myself, increase my understanding of nature, prove my own awesomeness, etc. I imagined that if I could live life wandering through a forest of libraries by day, deriving all the secrets of reality by night, I’d be satisfied.

The change came slowly, but one day, I realized that my motivations towards being the best were self absorbed. I imagined being the best trader in the world, and realized I would feel like my life had been a waste of time. I imagined being the smartest person in the world – making scientific discoveries, writing treatises on Proust; winning Nobel prizes; listening to my ex-boyfriend Ryan Gosling beg for a mold of my body so he could always remember how hot I am – and I felt nothing. Was I just not imagining it correctly? Was there some art, like chess or painting, so pure it would make me happy? My conclusion was “No.” I looked at the people who are the absolute best at what they do and, although I admire them, being them doesn’t feel like something I want.

The key to passion and having a useful, non-wasted life is to look beyond yourself. Selfishness and self-searching, what we do to “find ourselves,” hinder us from getting what we want.

Startups are about other people, and successful startups are one of the more selfless things in existence. It’s not about what you want, it’s about your users. Make something OTHER PEOPLE want, however different they are from you. Be passionate about your users, not yourself. (Even in the “startup of you”.)

I no longer think of Superposition Nancy as the main way of motivating myself. It doesn’t seem ambitious enough. I changed my reference frame from Superposition Nancy to Superposition All-Humans-Now-and-Forever. How do I act to make sure we humans collectively outperform our superposition fate? How do we change the fate of mankind? All the things I could do easily would move the needle very little for humanity at large. Money (look at the trillions of dollars the US prints and spends) is nothing compared to an invention like the light bulb, or the Internet, or the kind of thought leadership that came from Martin Luther or the founding fathers.

First I think locally, about the debt I owe to my parents who sacrificed to make my  life possible. Then I think about the debt I owe my community, for making me safe. Then I think back farther: back to the inventors of electricity, of books. I’m sure Gutenberg could have spent his days drinking and loafing instead of inventing the printing press. Because he didn’t, all of us benefit tremendously from his work in ways we can never repay. When I’m sitting at home thinking, “I should lie in bed and re-watch the Matrix and eat pizza and swipe around on Tinder,” then I think about how Gutenberg will punch me in the face in the afterlife. I want to repay some of what I owe all these people, who got off their butts and did something that elevated the rest of mankind, whose genius and labor keeps me safe and snug in bed at night. My parents could’ve raised me by leaving me alone with a TV and boxes of cereal. But they gave me the right food and taught me to be healthy; they took me to the library and taught me to learn. How do you repay something like that? You can’t, but you can try.

Everything we have is because of someone who rose above their self-absorption. I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for people who valued adding something to the world above their own comfort. So when I’m not working, I feel a crushing sense of guilt. If I’m not helping out someone else, somewhere down the line, then I’m failing. Think of the people who are long dead, and those who might never be born. Look at the people around you, and the people on the other side of the earth. Do we leave the earth as if we’d never existed, or do we leave it better?

Ironically, in startups as in life, focusing on others lets you can gain the most for yourself. You learn the most, do the most, grow the most. So if you want to be awesome and productive, join a startup. Make something other people want.

Not unrelatedly, this is exactly what we at Apptimize are doing. What we’ve shown publicly is the tip of the iceberg and we’re looking for the missing members of our band! So, we want to meet the best frontend, iOS, Android, and backend engineers you know. We’re very picky, because it’s so important that we believe in our team, and believe that together we’re going somewhere worth going. By the grace of our Robot Invader friends, our office is on the Mountain View Googleplex, our board game collection is famed throughout the industry, and our technology is not too shabby either. Our investors and users uniformly say, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” We’re excited to be on this adventure together!

So, if you want to be part of a team working on something that affects a lot of people, invents new technologies, believes innovation, science, ideas, and culture can move the needle where material wealth cannot, and are frighteningly ambitious about where we’re going, then message me at nancy at apptimize dot com.

The Apptimize team minus Dustin, who's traveling!
The Apptimize team minus Dustin, who’s traveling!
Our Dustin!
Our Dustin!

PS. If you can guess our hack house wifi password, we will fly you out for a visit, plus I will tell you the rest of the plot of HPMOR. The network is chaoslegion. Hint: What house am I?

Thanks to Lucas Baker for reading a draft of this post.

YCombinator Summer 2013

The first day we all talked about our startups was called “prototype day” and presented as “a 2 minute way to introduce yourselves to your batch mates, talk a little about your startups, and tell each other what you could help with. Don’t stress about it at all, guys!” I made 4 slides with 5 words total, went up there and told our batch mates they should use our product if they had an app, and that although I used to be in HFT they shouldn’t ask me for investment advice.
When I sat down, PG said, “I’m going to say it again- don’t talk too fast.”
Geoff Ralston added, “And don’t drift off without a conclusion.”

After everyone was done, PG said, “You guys should notice that you guys, like investors, favor the serious startups that talk about revenue.”
I was like, “I thought this was a way to introduce ourselves, not a mock pitch towards investors! Why did everyone else clearly spend a ton of time on their presentations and assume their target audience wasn’t their fellow batch mates! Don’t they have companies to run!”
At the bar later, my drunk batch mate came up and said, “Hey, you did good, you rolled with the punches.” At that moment, I decided to win YC.
“What does ‘winning YC’ mean?” Jeremy asked.
“We’ll figure it out!”

A few days later, this resolution disappeared into the swamp of my mind along with everything that wasn’t frantically fighting to surface. There was so much shit happening that demo day nauseously oscillated between seeming ages away and then sickeningly almost upon us. Part of me had believed that if we got into YCombinator, all of our problems would be solved. Spoiler: this didn’t happen. While there were office hours where in a moment of intense optimism one might muse, “Should we be charging each user $400 or do more marketing and charge each one $10?” conversations with users that revealed they had no idea what 90% of your product did would quickly smack us down into realizing we didn’t have the luxury to discuss these types of problems.

Pre-YC, I’d wondered, “I’ve read pg’s essays. I can emulate him somewhat in my brain. Do I really need to give him 7% of my company so I can talk w him for 20 minutes about my company, which I’ve thought about a lot more than he has?” Yes, yes I did.  He really is that good. PG actually loves you and wants your startup to do well and is undyingly optimistic that it can succeed despite whatever dumb thing you’re doing. He cares about founders and developers and that’s the reason he’s doing it. Every time I’ve posted to hacker news, he’s emailed accusing me of gaming his algorithms: that’s passion. He’s a fountain of secret data no one else knows and is a genius when it comes to knowing what different groups of people like VC’s or users want. After YC ended, I was talking with pg, “How did you know x would happen?” and he was like, “Duh, I’ve seen more than 520 startups.”

Some people you talk with about your startup and it’s obvious they don’t care about you and aren’t really thinking and are just saying whatever knee-jerk thing the first google hit would say. The YC partners aren’t like that. They are excited / terrified for you and think about your situation. Each partner has their thing they’re amazing at. They’ll walk through your product with you and tell you where it sucks. Our main guy Geoff Ralston told me what to say to different leads. Mike Seibel and Ammon told me about their AB testing dramas. Sam Altman gave me his number and coached me through meetings. Kevin Hale user tested Apptimize and told us exactly what to fix. I still have screenshots of our first iteration that we were so proud of and now find quaint. It’s amazing to have some of the best and most well connected people in the world look at your disgusting fetus of a product and tell you their real opinion.

This summer, my brain was remolded into Apptimize CEO-shape. I started dreaming about Apptimize. Apptimize became the reason I was cutting my nails and working out. My whole life I’d viewed running as extremely boring but now I run 7 or 8 miles every time because it’s an incredibly efficient form of exercise for Apptimize. Apptimize lets me do anything, no matter how boring or painful. Every piece of food I eat is an energy source directed towards Apptimize productivity. Everything I do is because I did linear algebra in my brain and decided the vectors were sufficiently aligned in an Apptimize-beneficial direction compared to the other choices to merit incorporating. Every product, app, technology I see exists in the context of Apptimize and my first reaction is generally how much better it’s going to be once we get our Apptimize mitts on it.

Although these shoes "look gay," as my fellow batchmate informed me, my knees start to hurt after mile 5 so I wanted to try them out. Let me know if you have running tips!
Although these shoes “look gay,” as my fellow batchmate informed me, my knees start to hurt after mile 5 so I wanted to try them out. Let me know if you have running tips!

A week before demo day, we had the office hours with Paul Graham where you talk about your demo day outline and he yells at you while wiggling his toes. “Why are you going on and on about product features? You’re certain to cause vc’s to immediately start checking their email.” Despite this help, our rehearsal day speech was insanely bad. PG said, “I only remember 1 factoid from this demo,” before immediately proving he didn’t even remember it accurately (although Jessica did).

I have better UX now- I guess that’s another thing I learned at YC. Demo day was about having UX optimized for a particular kind of user that you don’t normally engage with- a herd of top venture capitalists. PG is a genius at demo day UX design. Every normal person is extremely bad at it (How could any normal person possibly be good at it?). Our presentations were sooo bad before PG got his hands on them. For example, I assumed VC’s wanted to know what our product did. Our product is complicated and technical with numerous benefits and applications which features I spent minutes giving examples of. PG put a stop to that and patiently listened to 10 iterations of our demo until it was pounded into something memorable. We learned to emulate PG better, which was good because we kept changing stuff until the last minute. On demo day, PG (and everyone) was seeing 20% of our presentation for the first time. Luckily, it worked out! He said our demos were “significantly improved even from yesterday.” More than 100 kick-ass investors came up to me and asked about investing, including MC Hammer who also followed me on twitter, meaning now a significant percent of my followers are celebrities named MC Hammer.

Hammer approved the posting of this photo.
Hammer approved the posting of this photo.

We almost didn’t apply to YCombinator because 7% sounded like way too much of my company to give away to a bunch of people whose blogs I already read. I felt I could get the benefit of the advice in other, cheaper ways than giving them a chunk of my company. Like, I already knew a lot of YCombinator alums from MIT so I was already quasi part of the network anyway, right? Wrong! The network is amazing. When we were going through a confusing situation, I emailed a few companies who’d gone through something similar asking for a quick phone call, and it didn’t matter that they were running companies worth hundreds of millions or billions- they called to give me the real story behind what went down.

A month after YCombinator ended, I missed everyone so much I ordered the hoodie and iPhone case and other schwag that I generally eschew. The bonds coalesce after the program ends- we all felt like we didn’t get to know each other well enough during YCombinator because there was so much going on, but now we chat online and meet up in Palo Alto. I feel so inspired every time I talk with my batch mates. If you have an entrepreneurial bone in your body, apply here. YCombinator is awesome and easily worth it.

PG and Nancy at YC

What to Work on When You Don’t Need to Work

The “need to work” has to do with responsibility. As a kid, my only responsibility was not getting too sticky from all the candy I ate, and my work habits reflected this. As an adult, I’m responsible for myself and my family, but I don’t have a bunch of bloodsucking kids yet and my work habits reflect this: I don’t do any work I don’t enjoy; if something pooped its pants in my presence, leaping into work mode is the last thing I’d consider.

If I view my responsibilities as only including myself and my family, then the amount of “work I need to do” is small, especially since almost everything I want money for is either relatively cheap or really expensive. The first time I realized this, it felt great! I felt like I had arrived. I could watch movies all the time and have my “work” be shopping and exercise so that upon my high school reunion everyone dies of jealousy when they see how my hotness has only increased with time.

Ages ago when I graduated from MIT and told Junot Diaz about my uncertainty for the future, he shook his head and smiled, “You have nothing to worry about.” Since he’s super into the apocalypse and the injustice of inequality, I interpreted this as an allusion to our living in an illusory first world ivory tower, but now I think he also referred to how big my safety net is, especially considering the marketability of my degree. Working a white collar job was the default mode for me, not like North Korean prisoners for whom bathing means waiting for weather warm enough to allow standing in the rain. Working on Wall Street is beyond their greatest dreams, whereas for me it’s a backup plan. A poor person in another country takes a risk by experimenting with fertilizers, and if it doesn’t work out his family starves to death. If I take a risk that doesn’t work out, I’ll just feel embarrassed and delete some old blog entires. There’s no comparison.

I’m not sure when I realized my relative lack of responsibility was an illusion. Maybe it was from hanging out with altruistic friends or reading HPMOR that got me feeling it was a mistake and a sin to only claim responsibility for my own comfort and curiosity. Maybe it was when I saw Wall-E wherein through technology the humans have achieved a state of, “Well, I could do this forever: eat, grow fat, watch tv.” We laugh at the obese humans who can’t even stand up, but we are actually at that state now in our wonderful, first world, welfare society, incapable of starving to death no matter how much we lie around. Are we going to live like those hapless humans or are we going to exhume the Earth?

How can I go shopping and movie hopping all day if I’m responsible for my species? When I mentally tested expanding the scope of responsibility beyond my personal welfare to include my fellow man, my first reaction was to groan, “Oh no.” Because the instant you have that thought experiment, the amount of work we need to accomplish balloons up monstrously. If I’m responsible for more than myself, then the “need to work” morphs into a dauntingly huge problem with a totally different scope. Being responsible for another individual could include cooking meals for them or paying their rent, but you can’t take care of a whole species through chores or even money. To scale, we need to do bigger things, invent stuff, use our imaginations. I never cook and I’m still figuring out how to take responsibility for my family. How do I take responsibility for my species? This is the question I’ve been thinking about. What do you work on when you need to work for your species?

A while ago, I realized it’s mathematically irrational for people who can afford to take big risks to not take them, and who’s better positioned to take risks than us? Furthermore, if you claim responsibility for your whole species, it’s not just irrational to not take a risk- it’s irresponsible and morally wrong. Unambitious ambitions are false to my identity and potential: our ambitions have to match our abilities, and most people are not reaching high enough- because of fear, laziness, lack of imagination, etc, which is wrong. It’s like the Dalai Llama or someone wise was saying: if we have greater will and intelligence than flies, but we live the same as a fly lives, then the fly is more true and honest than we are. I have a duty to myself to monotonically increase in awesomeness, and I have a duty to mankind to do good in the world. From this perspective, there’s no end to the work I need to do. Which is sort of annoying and scary, but also fun and exciting! Just as we have a duty to pursue personal excellence, we have a responsibility to live up to our potential as a species. We humans could live off the land like flies, but we build structures and satellites because otherwise intelligent dolphins and alien civilizations would laugh at us.

So here’s the question that Elon Musk caused me to ask: What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing mankind? This question has led to many awesome discussions, so think about it. The only catch is that after you think about it, the follow up question is, “What are you doing to contribute to a solution?” If the answer is, “Nothing,” then we have to ask, “Why are we choosing to work on something we don’t consider important?” So watch out: a question can change everything.

The and My Future

“Why are you taking the 101? Can’t you see your iPhone 5 is lying to you? Its map was wrong in Santa Clara and it’s wrong here.”
“The 101 is the 280’s uglier sister. Clearly Steve jobs wanted us to take this route. Anyway now we can have a nice talk where you advise me on my finances.”
It’s funny how I’m the financial expert amongst my non-trading friends even though my opinions are almost certainly things no financial advisor would recommend to anyone.

When I first joined GETCO, I introduced myself to a new employee saying, “GETCO is my first job after MIT,” and the closest person I had to a boss interjected, “And your last.” At the time I sincerely believed and hoped that this would be true. In 2007, the company had 30 traders across 4 offices. Each trader did whatever they decided was optimal in a market that bloomed with opportunity: it was like the wild wild west- so much fertile terrain waiting to be conquered by a few explorers, populated only by some occasionally annoying but generally innocuous natives. I loved it. I never had someone telling me what to do, or really even anyone questioning what I was working on. I didn’t think about the future after GETCO because who would ever want to leave? The business was exploding, we were at the forefront of technology, and if you hesitated to size up your coworkers would make increasingly loud chicken sounds.

4.5 years later, after Singapore I went straight to my NYC desk to clean it out, then to Chicago to resign. I and everyone assumed I was going to stay in HFT because I’m a “world class expert in HFT,” plus headhunters were busy setting up lunches with billionaires with ambitions regarding their nonexistent/proto/growing/declining HFT operations. I was advised not to sign anything till the noncompete was up so I participated in some fantastic handshakes and told everyone I’d see them after my noncompete was over.

I’m not good at vacation so I viewed this year as a rumspringa world tour- I just got back from New Zealand and am writing this while jetlagged, thinking about how my paid vacation will be up in 2.5 weeks. This year I zoomed my head out of focus to see what everyone else is looking at. Let me tell you: Other People are looking at some pretty crazy stuff. I met Verner Vinge and Ray Kurzweil at the Singularity Summit. Compared to these impassioned singularity people, I feel like an ape for mentally shrugging when they bring up existential risk and AI. Nevertheless, my main impression is it’s cool these people are contemplating and perhaps helping decide a vision of mankind as a species. Most people never think about that kind of thing, as individuals or as a species. What is the destiny of mankind? Who even asks this question? Shouldn’t we wander blindly towards our fates like all other species? Aren’t we just dominant, blessed by god to be gods among animals? Anyway, the Singularity Summit led me to go to Rationality camp. This post was originally about Rationality Camp but I guess I’ll write about that some other time (sorry to leave you as irrational as ever, although I can tell you that I made $280+ from poker, won a prize despite not being the most rational (Dilip had the most points in the whole camp but somehow lost his prize to me. Yes! Plus I beat him at some kind of augmented reality game, which victories are documented photographically)).

This year has been upside down: I’ve been paid to not work, spent more time in CA than NYC, and I realized I’m old- I think I’ve aged relative to my non-finance peers. I’m 27 and I’ve started finding younger people annoying. Those fools have no idea how lucky they are. At my age, people are suddenly so hard to impress. If I were starting a company at age 17 people would say, “Awesome.” Now everyone’s like, “Whatever.” Too old to be effortlessly impressive, too young to shove offending kids off my subway seat, I’m at an age when I don’t really notice anyone else’s age unless they bring it up, whereas for years I was conscious of even a year’s difference. Looking back at my childhood, the hours reading in the grass, the biking with friends, my main impression is that an idyllic childhood is a colossal waste of time. Yes, even the priceless hours bonding with family had diminishing returns, and no one really needs to read the collected works of anybody- very few writers have anything to say after their first real book.

Sometimes I see flashes of myself 10 years in the future, so clear it’s almost a memory. This year I started seeing what future Nancy would be if I kept going down the trading path, and I didn’t feel excited. In fact I felt bored. Because it’s basically the same as always, except I’d need increasingly larger sums to get the same level of stimulation. For someone who lives so much in the future, I hadn’t really thought about what I’d think about the future after (if) it already happened. When I’m 40 will I see my 20’s and 30’s the way I currently see my childhood- objectively successful by most measures but privately viewed by myself as largely a waste of time?

I feel ennui regarding the kind of stuff people are supposed to do in their late 20’s, early 30s: the house and marriage stuff. My mom was in constant turmoil over the fact that she was too sick to see me “settled” in my NYC apartment. Prior to NYC, she had “settled” me into all apartments I’d ever lived in. Perhaps out of a desire to do what I thought she’d want me to do, I went out and bought my first furniture since she forced me to buy my mattress 5 years ago when I first moved to Chicago and needed a non dorm issued mattress. I ended up buying a $5000 coffee table made from a single solid cross section of a gigantic tree. Maybe I thought my mom would rest assured in my competence if I showed her this coffee table and other furnitures, that I was a grown up and finally handling this kind of stuff. I think I even bought a house plant of some kind, which never would have occurred to me to do in my youth. Mom just wanted me to be happy, which might not be what I want for myself. Now that I know what it’s like to have the perfect set of plates, I never want to own plates again. That stuff is all at my dad’s house now, completely out of place with his ornate, plasticky furniture.

I think I might’ve reassessed my trajectory sooner if it weren’t for the parents’ cancers. Cancer put me in a mental state of martial law where I was single-mindedly attacking obstacles without considering the problems of philosophy- who cares about higher ambitions when it’s life or death?

Now I feel like there’s more pressure. Maybe this is true for us as a species too- just as we’re most successful, there’s the most danger. Humans have accomplished a lot relative to other animals so the universe is ours to lose, plus we have to decide the extent of our future ambition. Similarly, as a kid the difference between working a little and a lot was the difference between an A- and an A+, whereas now there’s so much at stake- it’s now the difference between losing money and making money.

I’m acutely aware of being the writer of not only my writing but also of my own life. It’s exciting and scary and writer’s block-inducing to decide the next act. But from my life there’s just one thing I ask: don’t tell me how it ends.