There’s a reason to expect criticism: Paul and Rich dig into the newest article from VC Marc Andreessen. In it, Andreessen exhorts Americans to innovate and blames our lack of preparation for the pandemic on a lack of desire to do so. We reflect on the current state of America and how apparent the holes in our social governance have become since COVID-19 (especially the education system). Is there a world where VC and startups can help us improve these old systems? Has social policy towards more privatization led us towards the wrong things being optimized? We look to other innovations that have come from crises and ask: How can you install that startup-style motivation outside of commercial profit? (Spoiler: Marc Andreessen doesn’t have the answer!)
Paul Ford I mean he’s blocked me on Twitter, so I’m not very inspired—
Rich Ziade You’re really hurt by this. You’ve mentioned this to me before. It really [Paul laughs] bothers you.
PF Well, it says—the guy who created Netscape blocked me on Twitter. I don’t think I agree with him on very much.
RZ Netscape blocked you on Twitter, essentially.
PF That’s exactly right. It’s sad.
RZ It’s ok, Netscape isn’t even around anymore [music plays for 18 seconds, ramps down].
PF Rich, it’s time.
PF It’s time, Rich.
RZ Time for?
PF It’s time—No. No, no. It’s time to build. It’s time to build, Rich [in dramatic low tone]. It’s time to make thing—well, I—
RZ No, Paul.
PF No, no. No, no, no. We need new—we need new startups.
PF That’s what we need. We need to build. Ok, so wait, did you read this? Did you read an article by Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, the famous venture capital firm?
RZ I did.
PF It’s called, “It’s Time to Build.”
PF First of all, what a lovely thing it says at the very end. It says, you know, “I expect criticism for this.” And there’s a reason to expect criticism which is that that essay says nothing and it’s pointless. [Chuckling] So, so like, you know, I think that we can come out there. What’d you think?
RZ I mean, I think I would’ve said—Can you imagine if someone dug this up because it was published in 2018?
PF Oh well then I would be like, “Woah, ok.”
RZ “Ah, what a genius,” right? I mean [yeah] you look at the Bill Gates—you know, the TED Talk that everybody’s watched now in 2015? Was it? A few [yeah, oh] years ago. He pretty much essentially laid out our future, exactly what was gonna happen and then it happened. So he—
PF He outlined the pandemic very thoroughly.
RZ [Chuckles] Very thoroughly, right?
PF There’s another—I mean, I remember there’s a—there was a story written in 2015 in a sci-fi magazine and it’s literally, it’s from the point of view of a food blogger, writing about how they have to figure out what to cook while they are inside during a terrible pandemic.
PF And it has the word social distancing in it. And I remember reading it [wow] and just being like, “Oh, wow! Ok.” You know? And—
RZ Yeah, it’s—it’s—it’s kinda crazy. And so, you know, you do have thoughtful people out there who are thinking about, you know, sort of these outlier scenarios, right? And it’s actually not even that outlier. It’s gonna happen. Pandemics happen, it’s supposed to happen. But, you know, when you see essays like this which are after the fact and—I guess he’s trying to inspire rather than lecture. I think—
PF I know but he’s not—
RZ—he’s going for an FDR vibe here, I think.
PF I think it’s just—you know and of course everyone just—I gotta say: Silicon Valley just eats this with a spoon. A good, absolutely say nothing—I mean let’s just tear through it just a little bit [yeah]. Like—
RZ So the title is, “It’s Time to Build.”
PF Yeah, as opposed to before when it was time to invest in blockchains.
RZ Or groupon.
PF Or groupon. I mean that’s the thing [Rich laughs], man. Like, this thing—God bless Andreessen Horowitz. I mean they invested in Slack. That was good.
PF You know, Socialcam. Socialcam could’ve gotten us through this. [Rich laughing] If we had just paid a little more attention.
RZ Yeah. I mean look, here’s the thing: a lot of the essay is about how essentially our existing infrastructure or our existing resources, our systems are just antiquated. Just—we don’t bother with them. We don’t—they’re not in great shape. From education to transportation to all these things that sort of make society run are just—they’re run down. He’s saying.
PF I tend to feel the kind of Reagan era social policies towards more and more privatization led towards the wrong things getting optimized. And that we’ve ended up in this situation where [sure], you know, it’s just everything is way too tight. It’s run for too much profit [mm hmm], and things that should be social goods aren’t taken care of. How do you see that part of the world?
RZ I think that if you peel back motivations, a business person or an entrepreneur is seeking to exploit. And that sounds evil when you say ‘exploit’, but really they’re looking for inefficiencies, they’re looking for opportunity to disrupt the way markets work in places. You know, there are obvious examples from—
PF You know, sometimes you just gotta say ‘exploit’, too. Just, someone once pointed out that all management is manipulation. And it is like, yeah, it is.
RZ Yeah! No, I mean, look: [stammers] I mean, the invention of Uber was like they make phone calls to get a car to come to your house, meanwhile the internet’s everywhere and everybody has computers in their pockets. That’s all it was.
RZ It was just like, “Ok, I can eliminate about 11 hops and I will turn this all on its head.” Rather than saying, “Education software is really bad, we can make it better.” The temptation to disrupt there is just not—it’s not as—First off, I don’t wanna come in and negotiate with that. I don’t wanna negotiate with what exists. I want to blow it up. I wanna just show up and actually turn everything upside down, right? That’s typically the disruption model, right? That so many startups go after, right? Like, they—you’re not gonna do it just a little bit better, you’re gonna actually eliminate those five or six middlemen in the middle of the whole process, right?
PF Well but see middlemen is the key concept, right? And I think people—this took me a long time to understand around VC. And for whatever reason, VCs don’t talk about it this way. But the truly effective VC is someone who’s able to create a new marketplace. Like—
RZ Oh yeah.
PF Yeah. Like, what is Uber? Uber is not about cars. It’s purposefully not about cars. It’s not about employees. It’s about having the transaction processor in the middle.
PF So that when I want a car and a driver wants to give a ride, Uber gets like probably, you know, a buck.
PF And that happens enough billions of times and Uber gets billions of bucks but how much does it spend? Well, that scales in this beautiful way where it costs you less to scale it over time.
RZ Yeah, exactly. And so when you look at—I think that—That’s why I think—again, I think the essay isn’t meant to be a research paper but rather to inspire and motivate people.
PF Yeah but [I saw—I saw] Marc Andreessen, the FDR of Silicon Valley.
RZ [Laughs] I saw—
PF Oh but God knows the last thing they wanna do is be compared to FDR. This is not—this is not FDR town.
RZ Yeah, yeah. Exactly [stammers] and you look at ed—he mentions education in the article, right? And, you know, my kids are home now and we’ve seen this mad scramble in New York City cuz all the teachers have to use essentially a collection of cobbled together tools to teach kids, right?
RZ There’s Google Classroom which I didn’t even know existed until this, right?
PF Google Classroom! That’s a product worth talking about for a minute. That is like one web page.
RZ With links!
PF Yeah. And it’s like if you and I sat down and wrote h1 Google Classroom.
RZ I just—it’s blowing my mind that this existed. I mean, it has to have been . . . one of those 20%, you know, a week projects or something. I don’t know. Anyway, it’s terrible.
PF They invested about 145,000 dollars in Google Classroom.
RZ [Laughs] But now everybody’s using it, right?
PF You know, actually, to the point of infrastructure, right? And like seeing this stuff. I think that this is—this is where this essay probably bugs me more than anything else which is like, ah you can see the—you can see how badly we’ve done. Ok? You can. At the same time, what you see is that the public schools were holding together a part of society that wasn’t being served in any other way. Literally feeding people, right? [Yeah] Especially in New York City. And when you break that apart because you have to to save lives in the pandemic, that gets exposed too. And what I hear is a lot of, like, “We need to build a better learning system.” Which we do. This is a mess. But we also need to figure out why the public schools are responsible for feeding all of our children because that—that’s a huge inefficiency to me. That’s a terrible job for public schools to have.
RZ I mean it is, obviously. And here’s, I think, what he’s missing, right? Which is—I was excited. I got all of a sudden excited because we have Postlight Labs and we do lab projects and I’m like, “Man, we could do some of these things better and just blow this all up.” And then I saw a tweet and what they said was the reason education doesn’t get disrupted is we have to sell it to the whole administration.
PF Oof! [Sighs heavily]
RZ I mean the thing about Uber, right? It was—I don’t wanna use a viral analogy but I’m gonna use a viral analogy right now. It was viral.
PF We’re among friends.
RZ We’re among friends. I mean, it was truly viral. They didn’t ask for permission it just sort of seeped its way into urban centers and then little by little the convenience was strong, the pull was strong, that motivation it gave people who weren’t drivers. These were people doing it part-tim—was strong. And all of a sudden it just started infesting cities. To the point where Uber had to shift gears and had to convince politicians to let it in. You can’t do that with education!
PF Right, right, they just simply didn’t—it’s not like they didn’t ask permission, they just didn’t. I mean they didn’t wait at all. They just did it.
RZ They didn’t wait at all.
PF And this is a fast ending move, right? When you are willing to accept the risk of litigation, the number of things that you’re able to do as a business is—it goes up exponentially.
RZ Absolutely, absolutely. Absolutely. And if you’ve got momentum—
PF And they were willing—they were willing to be sued!
RZ Yup. And so I guess the question I would pose to Marc Andreessen is: how do you install a different set of motivations outside of commercial profit so that that kind of innovation can happen inside of a school system or inside of a transit system or insid—How do you do that? And, you know, that’s what—you wanna write a killer essay? Write that essay, right?
PF Let me ask you a foundational question cuz I mean there’s no answer here. There’s this moment—there’s this set of moments, where world World War II is over; computers are rising; IBM is really big; sixties show up and suddenly there’s this focus on innovation and creating labs and environments in which people can do amazing work.
PF And out of that you have Bell Labs, and then you have the transistor becoming the computer, becoming Unix. You’ve got Xerox Parc and a lot of other ferment: Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab; MIT Lincoln Lab. Like, the first computers—like from first computer to Windows interface is like ten years. Like, it’s actually much less time than people think [mm hmm]. The first like home computer—not first computer but like there’s only a small amount of time between like, “Hey, what about word processing? And here, look, you can move the device!”
RZ Mm hmm.
PF And so then those things fade out. Like, Apple coopts a lot of the work that Xerox does, very legally. That’s always made out to be like they stole it but they licensed it and that’s how you end up with the Mac interface [mm hmm], then Windows. So, there’s always this fantasy of like why can’t we get back to it? And when I look at innovation labs today, when you look at contemporary innovation labs, I’ve actually made a study of this. I’ve looked at many of them. They never have true power. It’s almost like what they companies learned was the wrong lesson. The right lesson was: “We’re gonna get this the hell away from headquarters. [Mmm hmm] and we’re gonna put a lot of smart people in the room and we’re [chuckles] just not gonna expect anything.
RZ [Laughs] Right, it’s like a write off.
PF And the other thing is everybody came from somewhere else. Like, they came from biology or they were out of the military, like it was a weird bunch of people and they weren’t coming to do computers, they were coming to do the future of work and this was one of the means, right? Like [yeah], and we can’t get back to it. And we try and we try, right? And so I’m just sort of like, every mechanism you might set up to create, you know, the ultimate education platform, how the hell could you create that? Now VCs would say, “Well, we’ll just fund 50 startups.”
RZ Look, what causes us to move fast? In inside of essentially social organisms that are non-commercial: government, non-profit, and whatnot. But the only thing that causes it to move fast is some external event that just forces us to—I mean it would’ve 20 years to get telemedicine going! It would’ve taken 15 years!
PF Fear! And it’s not fear of the pandemic—
RZ Fear! Fear and necessity.
PF It can also be like fear of missing out on zillions of dollars. Fear of your dad not respecting you. Like, you know, fear motivates in a billion different ways.
RZ [Stammers] The Belt Parkway here in Brooklyn was built because there was no mechanism to get outta the city when the nuclear bombs were coming.
PF Right. And in some ways I think the nuclear bombs would’ve been better than the Belt Parkway but [Rich laughs] it’s ok—
RZ For those that don’t know the Belt Parkway, it’s pretty bad.
PF It is not—it is not the greatest highway system.
RZ No, but I think we’re not good at selling and going into organizations. It’s a sociological thing. We’re not good at going in and saying, “Would you pull all those wires out and throw ‘em in the trash? This is ridiculous. We’ve been doing this this way for eight years.” It takes years [right] years to get out of that! They’re hiring COBOL programmers right now, right?
PF We’ve known—I think that’s what drives me bananas, right? Is when somebody shows up and is just like, “Listen guys, the answer is for all the parties to work together and for us to really knuckle under here and just get some good stuff done.”
PF That’s like the worst dad in the world.
RZ [Laughing] It’s true! I mean—
PF Yeah, just, “You know what? Buddy, I just think if you work harder, you’ll do better!”
RZ Yeah, and look: there’s changes that are happening right now that will be permanent, right? I mean that is real, that happens out of other pandemics and we won’t go back, we’ll just sorta keep ‘em around. It’s like, yeah, you know what? Do I really need to see my neurologist? He doesn’t touch me; he doesn’t check my body; he just asks me a bunch of questions.
PF Look, we never go back! It’s just—
RZ We never go back! Yeah.
PF It just got accelerated. Something changed and we’re never gonna go back.
RZ How else is that gonna happen, dude? How else are we gonna make telemedicine kick off and just go in a very aggressive way.
PF I mean that’s the question, like, what girlfriend did we just break up with, right? Or what boyfriend? Like [chuckles], what—who are we never getting back?
PF Look: there’s some interesting things, right? Which is—and this to me is what’s exciting, which is . . . Seamless and Grubhub are clearly taking too high of a task. And then when Seamless did that thing where it’s like, “We’re gonna defer payments.” Not like forgive or dramatically reduce, but like, “We’re gonna defer the payments that restaurants which are horrible low-margin businesses—are gonna give to us.” Like you want that world to get disrupted. I’m tired of my crappy—
RZ I’m gonna put a counter argument here. Seamless [ok] would’ve never been stood up in the first place had there not been a marketplace and a commercial motivation to build it. Who’s gonna build Seamless? The Restaurant Organization of the Northeast? Who is gonna—
PF Yeah, they woulda done it in Flash! What I love—
RZ No I mean you’re making a good point now, inside of the current—
PF No! Now—of course! No, no, no! But I mean that’s the thing, like—
RZ But who’s gonna stand it up?
PF Seamless wouldn’t have existed except in that context but now we can start to see where like Seamless doesn’t add—Some of the value that you get out Seamless is destructive. Meaning that like—
RZ Take Seamless out of picture.
PF Oh no! Are you kidding? It would’ve been Flash . . . on old web browsers [Rich laughing] and then you could call and someone would fax the restaurant when you called them. That’s how it would’ve worked.
RZ I didn’t mean technically take it out of the picture but like, if that wasn’t in place, if these systems weren’t in place, Instacard, Seamless, Fresh Direct—all of these like systems that were trying to be more efficient in many ways. My God, what would it be like? Just phones ringing off the hook?!?
PF You know what’s clear—Yeah, you’re right. [Stammers] There’s a thing going on here which is really tricky and this I think is—The challenge I’ve always faced in talking about this is that people put the technology platform and the social consequences together in a very specific way. So like, obviously the gig economy is very, very fragile in case of a pandemic. It’s fragile before the pandemic, right?
PF You have all these Uber drivers and Uber has this story about how great it is that they’re enabling this. Regardless of whether you believe that story or not, it’s not good for those drivers that they cannot drive and get paid for driving. And so like what you start to see—What I’m starting to see . . . and this is one of the things that’s becoming more apparent is that those systems need to be disconnected in certain ways. Like maybe gig workers need more rights or maybe there needs to be—like something has to give. I’m not even actually making an argument about how people need to be treated in a given moment. Like, I think that’s a whole different thing. But what I’m saying is like, we’ve put the two things together for very obvious reasons which is like Seamless is taking too much from restaurants that are low-margin and Uber has gig workers but they don’t have the protections of regular workers that are very vulnerable. And then you put this situation in place and it’s not good for anybody, right? Like I feel weird using Seamless because every restaurant—there’s a spreadsheet telling me, “Don’t use Seamless . . . in the neighborhood. Make the phone call instead because they really need the money.”
PF I have restaurants and book stores asking me to Venmo them which is a strange capitalist moment.
PF Just, “Venmo the employees!” And it’s just hard cuz it’s like, “For what?”
PF And so like—And then you have like—You know, I used to take at least a car or two a week. I haven’t taken one in a month.
PF Here’s where I’m going to—I’m going to sit next to Marc Andreessen for a minute and then I’m gonna come over and sit next to you.
RZ Ok, that’s good. This is a weird event but—
RZ [Laughs] “This gig economy you speak of? There is no economy. Without this venture, essentially, like a spear just piercing right through the status quo. The truth is that you don’t have any of this economy, you have none of it. What does the world look like? Delete Seamless from a timeline and from the novel, and what does the world like? I’m not sure what the world looks like but people are probably doing other stuff. But, guess what? They’re doing this. Right? And they created this economy and they created gigs. That is real. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not.”
PF No, these things exist. That’s always the hard part in the conversation is to just like get everyone to acknowledge that something exists. It does—
RZ Exactly! And they exist—and they exist and there are people who are benefitting from it and there are some that are benefitting much more so than others but the truth is they exist. And they exist in many ways in a net-benefit way. I think the TLC in this—in New York City and in other places was this . . . essentially, institutionalized mafia. And they shattered it. Right? And they shattered it frankly for their own self interest but they did shatter it.
PF People need to understand from outside the city: we’re not talking about some driver who has come over and is trying to make a living. We’re talking about Medallion companies that were utterly—like, as bad as real estate in 2008.
RZ It was bad. It’s exploitation, essentially.
PF Yeah, they ruined lives, they got people to take terrible loans, like, they were truly exploitative and bad and watching them fail has been nothing but a gift.
RZ Yes. Yes. And so as these ventures, as these endeavors take form and progress and continue to eat away at how things work, eventually reaching a point where they have enormous power concentrated in their hands. Right? Then you start to get into a different conversation that kicks in which is like, “Ok, you won. You actually took over here [yeah] and you have embedded yourself in such a fundamental way, such that it is now time for you to acknowledge the kind of impact you make, whether positive or negative, and effectively power—” You start to wrestle power away. And that happens in the most extreme through regulation, right? Like, essentially regulatory bodies come in and they start to eat away at how a thing can function, right? But I don’t wanna take away that first part cuz I think that—the real innovation happens cuz somebody feels like, “Oh my God, if I do this right, I think I could conquer that mountain.” Right? And that’s the only way it happens. If you think it’s gonna happen because you’re gonna give a good presentation to The Board of Education of some town or some state, good luck.
PF Ah, man. Yeah.
RZ It’s not gonna happen. It’s gonna die right there and then. I’ve seen people try it; I’ve seen people with good intentions go into the public sector, trying to cause change to happen only to have their hearts scooped out of their chests and dragged a few miles.
PF Where does that break? That breaks in two ways. And it’s easy to get really cynical but I think one is the outsider rarely has an understanding of the number of systems and subsystems and the scale of the challenge. Like, you know, Horowitz is in here talkin’ about the VA . . . in this essay.
PF And it’s just like, “Dude, when you meet people who’ve worked with or are connected to the VA, like it’s like you’re talking about Spain. There’s no single entry point. There’s no single organization called the VA.”
RZ Right. So, the chef—famous chef José Andrés, do you know who that is?
PF Oh yeah! That guy should get a prize. He’s amazing.
RZ Yeah, he has a non-profit called World Central Kitchen that right now is serving up millions of meals around the country cuz people are struggling, right?
PF And also like when Puerto Rico was—
RZ He went to Puerto Rico and he did a bunch of stuff and—
PF He’s an expert at setting up good kitchens that can scale out.
RZ That’s right, that’s right. So, guess what’s happened: what’s happened is he’s gone to certain cities and he’s like, “I can’t do it but, you know what? I have money in the bank,” cuz it’s a very well funded non-profit. So you know what he’s doing? He’s telling restaurants in those areas, “I’ll give you ten dollars a meal, I just need a half a million meals.”
PF That’s great!
RZ It’s great and you know what he said? He was just interviewed on 60 Minutes, you know what he said? He’s like, “Why the hell am I doin’ this? There’s billions pouring out of the government right now to like, save these businesses—”
PF “Yeah, why am I funnelling five million dollars? Why don’t you put five billion dollars to keep all the restaurants moving.”
RZ And feed people!
PF And feed the hungry! Yeah.
RZ Exactly! So I mean, look, just to go back to Andreesen’s essay, I mean, innovation and building and whatnot, I think the blind spot here is understanding how organizations work . . . and how strong their inertia towards not changing really is. There’s just this like—the gravitational pull of just staying the same and keeping, you know, just continuing the same way is massive.
PF Look, let’s be real: this is a crisis and things will change as a result of the crisis . . . The absolute human focus is always to build a defensive system so that you can make money, take care of your family, which sometimes means—sometimes you need to be a billionaire to take care of your family. Human psychology is funny. And to do nothing after that.
PF There’s not an element to this—which is like, you really gotta question—I’m a writer, and now I’m a person who runs a company. And, when I was a pure writer, I wrote so that I would have the opportunity to write again—that’s the only reason in my twenties and thirties. I’d be like, “Oh my God . . . I hope I get to do more writing cuz this is exciting and I like having my voice out in the world.” It’s very different for me now. I can’t say anything I want and I write a lot of times and I communicate and I’m on podcasts to talk about Postlight and to talk about services and to help people solve problems. And I’m fine with that because a) it’s in my best interests; but b) it’s ok for me to be a little more general purpose and a little less a classic journalist and to still find a way to get a signal out into the world. But! Rich, do you know the phrase ‘talking your book’?
PF It’s a VC term. Like, a VC always talks their book . . . meaning that—their book of business. Like, they’re always out there no matter what they’re doing. And this—this includes some of the people I really like, you know, I really respect and if they’re like a counterintuitive, edgey VC who is very critical of the ecosystem, and that’s how they do their investments, they’re gonna talk about that too. Like, you can’t not talk your book as a VC. And so [right] you look at this and I’m just like, “Alright, he’s talkin’ his book. He wants to make some investments and get money to fund things from the government.”
RZ Interesting, you’re reading it as he put on—he’s wearing the VC hat.
PF Unless he’s running for office at which point, oh my God! That’ll be a rough scene.
PF But otherwise, yeah, no. No, I mean this is a person who has certain beliefs about the economy and that are gonna be. I mean for a VC to come out and say, “We need to start building things.” You know, meaning investing and fixing infrastructure [yeah, yeah] and doing stuff. I—I mean [chuckles] that’s not—like, “Oh, really?!? From you! What a shocker!!”
RZ Well, you know, I think he views—I think he views, you know, the public sector as wasteful . . . as slow.
PF I mean [sighing] Andreessen Horowitz—
RZ I think there’s more to talk about here, Paul.
PF There is! There is. There’s platform stuff to think about. There’s a lot I wanna say, frankly. It’s not really just about him, it’s just a jumping off point.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF I don’t really buy this—This is very low on concrete ways of improving society, frankly.
RZ It’s too simple. Yeah.
PF Yeah, it’s a little reductive and I feel that like you gotta unlock that but regardless! email@example.com [laughs] Right? Like we’re gonna keep working.
RZ Yeah, right, regardless . . . we do think it’s time to build and boy do we have the builders for you!
PF [Laughing, music fades in] Speaking of talking your book, right? [Rich laughing] It’s always—always time to build at Postlight.
RZ Alright, reach out. If you need anything, advice, talk to us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re a digital products studio. A talented group of designers, engineers, product thinkers. Based in New York City but all over the world.
PF And workin’ from home and workin’ hard.
RZ Have a good week [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].