Cities support smallness, suburbs support bigness

A city is by definition big (in terms of density) compared to the surrounding area. And yet, paradoxically, cities are better at supporting smallness than suburban and rural areas. 

A small employer in the city doesn't need to offer a parking lot, because the city has ample transportation. It doesn't need to offer onsite meals, haircuts, or help with taxes. It can focus.

Further away from the city the big one stop shopping experience is king. First came malls, and then walmart. 

This notion of big enabling small can also be seen with aggregators like Google & Facebook which enable individual niche publishers in a way that newspapers never did. But, unlike a city, the leaders at Google & Facebook aren't voted in by the people. 


The method of transportation influences coincidental interaction.

When an afterschool program ends I often see parents wait in their cars to pick up their kids. With cars lined up one after each other parents don't get the opportunity to see and chat with other parents they know. This problem simply wouldn't exist if everyone was on foot.

Imagine how much more connected a school or afterschool program might be with parents that have a chance to chat every day or every week rather than hardly at all.

Residential Bicycle Parking

Here in San Francisco it's common to see shops with bike parking, but rare to see bike parking on residential streets. 

Recently a home on my block renovated their garage and in the process added bike parking. I love it. What better way to tell guests and the public that bikes are welcome than to explicitly make space for them.

AM/FM Radio

AM/FM radio continues to be the most common way for americans to listen to content (source). It accounts for over 50% of the time that people spend listening, compared to only 2% for podcasts. This shocked me years ago when I first heard it, and it continues to amaze me today. 

I suspect a big part of this is due to how much time americans spend in cars. In the car, radio is simply so easy on so many levels. It's zero buttons away (cars turn on radio when started), and if something bad is playing, just tap the same button again and again to switch between the finite options. When the options run out, pick the best one found so far.

Compare that with a podcast or music app that presents an effectively infinite number of options and requires many taps to start playing, and it's easy to see why radio, with all of its flaws, remains the most common way to listen to content.

Working from home

At Google I experimented with working away from my team 1 and 2 days per week. I worked from home and from many Google offices around the world.  

While alone I worked on tasks that needed focus, like getting an idea out on paper. When I was with my team I spent lots of time working one on one and in small groups. This worked well.

Since leaving Google my schedule has been almost the opposite. I spend 1 or 2 days alongside other people and the rest on individual work. While it's necessary to have this much focused time at this point in my business, I really enjoy working with other people and I can't wait to have a schedule closer to what I had while at Google. 

Side note: I find most cafes awful for work, too much noise, and too many strangers coming and going. I prefer a quiet, comfortable home or office.

What would an Uber-killer look like?

Note: Today's blog post is much longer than my typical post. If you have feedback about the length, feel free to send me an email.

Much news has been made of Uber's sky-high valuation. This valuation rests on the assumptions that (a) Uber is much bigger than just taxis, and (b) it is very hard if not impossible for another company to beat them in their market.

What would it take for (b) to be false? In other words, what would an Uber-killer look like? First it's worth understanding the structural advantages Uber has.

Uber's primary advantage is the users they have. This aggregation of users who collectively start their trips on Uber means that drivers have little choice if they want to get trips. But similar to messaging apps, this advantage is surprisingly geographical in nature. For messaging apps, this is because people generally talk to people they already know, and people they already know are local. For driving, it's unlikely that an uber driver will drive 100 miles to find customers, and impossible that they will drive 1000 miles, at least in the short term. This means that even if Uber has many users in a given city, the network effects are limited mainly to that city.

Second, Uber is able to capture users earlier than taxicabs or public transit. For the former, you can get a ride from the comfort of your home, for the latter you need to venture outside before you know if you will be successful or how long you will need to wait. This certainty is valuable. However, it is at risk of users finding rides even earlier in their decision process, for example when they find a restaurant on Google Maps or Facebook.

Third, Uber has benefited from the extreme focus on driving in the 20th century, at least in the US. Their drivers use cars bought for another purpose, on roads built by taxpayers, to destinations that are easily accessed by car, with a density and design that makes transit and walking unpalatable. Yet this isn't the only model of development, and it's unclear that cars will enjoy as much focus in the 21st century as they did in the 20th.

Anyways, back to the question. What would an Uber-killer look like? For today I'll just describe one form it could take. 

An Uber-killer would be branded as "local", supported directly or indirectly by the city, and would generally only operate in a one or few markets in contrast to Uber's global presence. The underlying technology would be powered by a white-label supplier. And the costs would be heavily subsidized by advertising, perhaps with a core partnership between a single advertiser and the transportation service. An experiment is already underway in Minneapolis. Notice that 75% of the cost of the ride is subsidized by the city, similar to the subsidy given to many mass transit systems. This is impossible for Uber to match.

Can this scale? Yes, at least for bike shares. One company in Canada provides the technology for the bike shares in DC, NYC, SF, among others. The bike shares are sponsored by large brands like Citibank and Ford. They enjoy special support from the city in the form of dedicated bike lanes and street space for their stations.

There are several opportunities here. For cities to retain their leverage by encouraging the creation of local ridesharing companies. For the white-label provider who can focus on the technology and enjoy dozens or hundreds of large customers. For the rideshare operator who can  compete with Uber in a way that was unthinkable before.

Cities still have leverage over the roads they build and who can use those roads. For example, a city can paint a road red and make it busses only, or paint it green and make it bikes only. It can build rail tunnels and subway stations, spending on infrastructure that Uber currently only dreams of. 

Innovators and executors

An innovator creates things that might not work, but when their innovation works it seems like magic. Innovations are risky, impossible to schedule, and built on faith. Don't bet the farm on an innovation if you can't survive when it fails.  

An executor creates something that has already been shown to work. She works to reduce risk and to prevent the project from being over budget, late, or incomplete. An executor can circle the date on the calendar when her work will be complete, and tell you how much it will cost.

We need both types of creators, yet it's best to know which one you are for your project. The good news is that you can pick, and that it's possible to be an innovator for one project and an executor for another.

If cars are private space, what is Uberpool?

It's ok to listen to an embarrassing audiobook in the car where nobody else can hear. Also ok to gossip about other people, have a loud cell phone conversation, and honk loudly at the grandmother crossing the road too slowly. Cars are private space. Except when they're not.

Uberpool is a car ride with strangers. Strangers typically make a space feel public. And so it becomes awkward to do some of the things that are perfectly ok when driving with friends and family. Furthermore, violators are weeded out through bad reviews.

How does this change driving? Do cars become more respectful of pedestrians? Does the city get more quiet? Do homes get less violent because people are less likely to return home in a rage?

On the contrary, do trips get slower? Do people feel less comfortable riding across town in their sweatpants? And are drivers fired simply because they don't have a good grasp of social norms?

Perhaps all of the above.


Dense Living

Raise your hand if you want your park, or your job, or your favorite restaurant to be closer to where you live. The way to achieve this is to live more densely. 

It's easy to imagine dense living as lack of personal space, as scary strangers, as expensive rent and a lack of peace and quiet. But it doesn't have to be this way. It could also mean more public space than one person could ever use, a vibrant community for every interest, less money spent on transportation and quieter vehicles that don't need the powerful (and noisy) engines required to travel long distances.

Imagine for a moment that we could take an entire metropolitan area and keep the population the same while doubling the density. We'd suddenly have hundreds of square miles of roads and suburban homes that could be reverted back into greenspace. And all of those millions spent on roads could instead be spent on education, other public services, or even lower taxes. 

Work/Non-work balance

So I've left my job at Google to build my own company. Stay tuned for more details. For today, some thoughts on work/non-work balance.

From the very beginning this will be a company for people who want work to be a part of their life but not all of their life. It's a delicate balance, especially when inspiration comes at midnight. At that moment it's worth remembering that we're building something for the long term, not something urgent. Better to keep non-work time sacred, so that work time can be sacred too.