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.

"Working on our Legacy"

You have two job offers.

The first says "You will be maintaining our legacy system and supporting our existing customers" while the second says "You will be working on our legacy. It's a great way to learn how our core business works and to form connections with our most important customers."

Which offer would you accept?

Designing a better survey: Ask about impact, not about the product


If you want to get people talking, ask them about themselves. [We asked] “What’s changed for the better since you started using Basecamp?” and, wow, impact came streaming in. Nearly 4000 people responded in just a matter of days — making it one of our most successful surveys ever.

This was also the case in my work at Google. When we asked questions like "What is your favorite feature of Google Play Music" or "What would you change?" the results weren't anywhere as insightful as when we asked about how people's lives were changed as a result of using our products.

Listening for learning and for pleasure

I enjoy listening to books, because they give my eyes a break and because I can do something else at the same time. Actually, I can't do just anything else, just a few things, and it depends if I'm listening for learning or for pleasure.

I can listen for learning when

  • walking to or from work, or anywhere else I have been many times before
  • cooking something simple that I have made a dozen times or more, like breakfast
  • waiting in line, waiting at the doctor's office
  • on a plane, train, or other transit

I can listen for pleasure in all of the places that work for learning, as well as when

  • cooking something new
  • walking or driving somewhere new
  • grocery shopping

If you need a book recommendation, here are three fantastic picks:

Check your library, because these audiobooks are often available for free.

Is it meant for lingering or for passing through?

Some things are meant for lingering, while others are just a means to an end, a hurdle to pass through. Some examples:

  • A highway is for passing through
  • A park or civic square is for lingering
  • The McDonalds drive-through is (quite literally) for passing through
  • A table at a restaurant is for lingering (usually, but not always)
  • Facebook is for lingering
  • Google search is for passing through

Unsurprisingly, things that are meant for lingering get better if lingering is made easier. The infinite scrolling and all-in-one nature of Facebook, benches in the park, and dessert options at the restaurant.

And things meant for passing through get better as they take less time. Google works to give you ever faster search results. McDonalds lets you pre-order before you get to the payment window, before you get to the pickup window. A highway passes above or below other roads, eliminating intersections.

If you're building something, it's worth deciding whether it's for lingering or for passing through. You get to choose.