Introduction by Infinite Loops host Jim O’Shaughnessey:
Matt is the Co-founder & CEO at Entrepreneur First, and Co-founder & NED at Code First Girls. We talk with Matt about:
- Internet in an era of “dampened variance”
- Increasing democratic participation
- Bull and Bear case for creativity
- What Matt looks for in people before investing
- Role of geography in entrepreneurship
- And MUCH more!
(Bold is mine)
- Variance dampening institutions
Matt flips Jim’s question by explaining that “weird” has been the default until the last few hundred years
Jim O’Shaughnessy: Why has the world gotten so fucking weird? So, I like weird. I’m an anomaly, I guess, and because I’m 61 and I love weird, but I’m super excited about what’s going on. I think that we are on the cusp of a golden age, not just in one sector, but in many, many sectors. But to get there, you have to go through some turbulence. You basically tell us that we are in the middle of this turbulence. And so what I’d like you to do is explain your thesis for what got us here, what should we expect?
Matt Clifford: That’s a big question. I think the way I would think about this is if you zoom out, maybe the first question should be, how did the world get to be not weird? Why should we take that the natural state of affairs is non-weirdness? One way of thinking about this is to say that modernity, however you want to define that… let’s say the last 250ish years, is really about the triumph of non-weirdness. It’s about constant or apparently constant, apparently unstoppable motion towards the reduction of variance in our lives. And if you want to get out of that Hobbsian nightmare, you need to find ways to reduce variance. Liberal democracy, incredible reducer of variance. No longer do you hand over power by having a war or an assassination, you have an election. It’s reduced variance. Monetary economics is a way to tame the business cycle over some period of time. Reduced variance, reduced variance… we’ve developed all these institutions, the rule of law, constitutional rights, all these things make life somewhat more predictable. And so for most of, let’s say, the second half of the 20th century post Second World War, anyone who lived in, for one of a better term, the west, had a life of far less variance than say 3, 4, 5, 10 generations before that. You could call that the triumph of modernity. And then something happened in the midst of these fantastic variance dampening institutions, we somewhat accidentally unleashed the mother of all variance amplifying institutions, and it’s called the Internet. And what the Internet does, is it selects the weird and amplifies it. And so I’ll stop talking, but I think the brief history of the last decade is that we suddenly introduced this variance amplifying institution right into the middle of our somewhat peaceful variance dampened lives and chaos has ensued.
- The internet as variance amplifier and ambition
Matt Clifford: One slightly provocative framing would be that the rise of modernity, the rise of variance dampening institutions was really bad for ambitious people. It was really good for the average person and if you’re a utilitarian, maybe on balance, that’s a trade that we want to take. But why is it bad for ambitious people? Because one of the main ways to reduce variance is to stop a Napoleon invading Europe every time they want show you how smart they are. Insert your favorite example here. And so the apotheosis of this, if you like, is the idea of the career. Napoleon, didn’t set out to have a career. He wasn’t looking to impress his boss. And yet if you look at what the 20th century was about from the perspective of work and ambition, it was really about having these more or less formalized tracks for ambitious people to climb. And it doesn’t mean that if you got to the top of that, you couldn’t be wealthy, powerful, insert your favorite adjective here. But what it did mean was that we more or less knew what someone at the top of that hierarchy could do and what they couldn’t do. In the age of variance amplifying institutions, what you see is the Internet selecting for people that are not willing to have careers. Like if you take Donald Trump, Elon Musk, these are people that were not built to have 20th century careers. They were not built to make their boss look good, to fill in the engagement performance review card at the end of every project and climb up the ladder. And so, one of the reasons… it’s a slightly different point, but one of the reasons I think there’s been such an enormous Renaissance of founding entrepreneurship. I mean, it was partly technologically determined. Partly it’s just that if you’re a super ambitious person today, you actually look back historically, I think, and look, well, actually it was possible to do more as an ambitious person. It was possible to find more leverage, to have fewer constrains in the past. It was then a period of about 50 years, like the great moderation, if you’d like, where a lot of that was constrained. And again, I’m not totally against that, despite both being an ambitious person and spending my entire career, trying to amplify the ambitions of ambitious people. I think in some ways it’s a good thing for the world, but we’re now in this new era where Elon Musk can tweet what he likes and send the pigeons flying and several regulatory agencies flying. Or Donald Trump can be the most powerful man in the world and do what he likes. And these are examples of the Internet as sort of a anti-career institution. An institution that breaks a lot of the assumptions of what ambition should look like.
- Bull vs Bear view of the internet as a net good
Matt Clifford: You can make a bull and a bear case for where we are today in terms of how do we think about allowing each human to fully express all aspects of who they are as you were describing in this sort of internet age. I think the bull cases, well, actually, what you’re talking about, you already alluded to this earlier in the conversation you’re talking about. How do you let each person find hierarchies in which they are comfortable in which they can express who they are, but they have a chance to compete and to rise given that in the world at large, it’s very hard to do that. It’s most of us, if we constrained to the physical world, we’re just going to be in state hierarchies where we always feel unhappy. One of the great things about the internet is it allows these extraordinary niches of interests to come together where, I could be working minimum wage in a job that I hate, but maybe I’m in the top three, most celebrated commenters on this sub Reddit for this interest that I have. And I’m not trying to pretend that we don’t need to do something about the material conditions that person’s life, right. That’s clearly a different question, but there is an extraordinary, if you think about almost the equivalent of biodiversity for ecosystems of interest, genuine hierarchy, diversity, you can be someone within a particular group. I think the internet is the greatest force for that, that there has ever been. And you can even extend this idea into this very fashionable idea of the Metaverse. We can imagine and creating world, whole worlds in which people can fulfill their ambitions and like the fullness of who they want to be in a way that is less damaging to others potentially. I mean, again, like you could say, that’s a very bullish case. There’s lots to critique in that, but there is something about the idea of virtualization as a way to enable many more people to achieve what they want to achieve, because we move from scarcity to abundance or potentially to abundance. Again, lots of footnotes on that, whether actually the metaverse as it is to actually emerging will permit that. I think the bear cases well, actually what the internet does is exposes us to, as you’ve already said, like a global competition where previously there was a local one, it sort of amplifies inequalities rather than dampening them. And so, really, I think the question is, can we get to material abundance quickly enough that the sort of satisfaction of people’s holistic needs beyond the material world is enough where actually being, finding your tribe on the internet is enough because we have co selected, successfully created enough material, abundance that people aren’t worried about where the next meal is coming from. I think if we can, I actually feel very optimistic about the internet as a way of providing outlets for exactly what you’re describing.
- This bit reminded me of the efficiency vs equality trade-off in economics (see tweet)
Jim O’Shaughnessy: That’s just the way networks work. It’s not just human beings, it’s any complex adaptive learning system. The nodes that are finding the right answers, get the most connections and the nodes that are not finding the right answers die. And so, I’ve really had to sit and think about that one for a long time, because, so for example, I changed my opinion about universal basic income, because I think for the first time, really in human history, there is going to be a group of people, and the part I underline is through no fault of their own, who have a harder time adjusting and thriving in this new environment. And so your point that you just made, we can’t have them worried about where their next meal is coming from, because that human is a desperate human and desperate humans are destructive humans and violent, and listen, you don’t really even have to know too much about history to understand that [Kris note: notice this is a pragmatic not moral argument]. So there’s a lot of reasons why, universal basic income is not liked by both sides of the political spectrum in person. But I think that the term that I’ve often used is symbol manipulators. So I am a symbol manipulator. I don’t make anything with my hands. And so if you look at the Forbes 400, the list of the wealthiest people, if you look at the original one in 82, it was all physical things. That generated wealth, it was real estate, it was steel. It was, shipping and or inherited. In fact, I think the majority of the list was inherited sort of this dynastic wealth being passed down and down, which creates an aristocracy, whether you have a formal one or not. Look at the list today, there are, there’s virtually no one on that list who is not a symbol manipulator. Right. I personally think that’s great. You know what? I love Amazon. I love the fact that I can get any (beep) thing I want in at most two days. And if I’m in the city in 15 minutes, right. So I like that, but we do have to figure out a way, which, and I guess maybe it’s just like these conversations bleeding into higher conversations, bleeding in, because without that there could be chaos that we don’t come back from.
Matt Clifford: Totally. Well, I think its worth sort of thinking about what are the objections that we might have to growing economic inequality and I’m not going to be comprehensive because I’m sure there are people who would have others, but I think one is actually political as though with great economic inequality, be kind of calms, great political inequality. And most of us have an instinctive sense that how rich you are, shouldn’t be the measure of political power that you have. And most of us have a pretty intuitive affinity for the idea of one person, one vote. And so, I think there’s like a set of things that we should worry about as people gain wealth, particularly extreme wealth, does it mean too powerful? And there’s then like a sort of almost like aesthetic thing of what do we do about a world where, like Bezos can fly to space and there are people that can’t eat or whatever. I call that aesthetic because I think it’s, you could frame it as justice, but I think it’s just, for most of us, the idea of sort of waste or maybe that’s actually a bad example that, but frivolous consumption versus like people not being able to eat that feels wrong. And then I guess there’s a thing about sort of lock-in, does it get to the point where a sufficient level of economic advantage closes off the ability for others to ever compete. Because I think most of us have an instinct that dynamism is good and mobility is good. Now I think what’s interesting about all those three things is they’re not actually in my view, objections to economic inequality per se. They’re actually to the conditions within which it occurs. So if we can find ways to have our politics less influenced by economic power, if, as you’ve already said, we can get to the point of economic abundance that no one starves however many rockets, Elon and Jeff flying to space, whatever. And if we can figure out what are the rules of the game, that means that however wealthy people become, you don’t have to be them or be related to them to be successful. Now I’m not saying they’re easy problems, but I think that sometimes, you see people default, the idea that we have to break the underlying creators of variance, the underlying economic engine, that’s allowed people to build in Amazon or a Microsoft or an apple or whatever. I think that’s the wrong instinct. I think it comes back to this, how do we make sure error correction actually functions? Well, we can’t have any of these things that are irreversible, we don’t want to have a static society. And so I would, I think people like you and me should be using our energy to think about how can we craft the rules of the game, such that we still allow people to build enormous companies and therefore enormous fortunes, but they don’t break the system. And it’s the second bit that I think we sort of let go of and I think they’re, without getting too political, I think we are missing a trick. If we jump straight to the idea that there’s something intrinsically broken, if someone becomes a billionaire that that’s not what we should care about, what we should care about, or what are the consequences of that. I don’t think every billionaire is a policy failure, but I do think that if only the children of billionaires can become billionaires, as you were saying, if it, then that’s a policy failure. And so I think it’s how do we harness wealth creation in a way that doesn’t violate those things that we kind of, most of us in intrinsically care about.
- Moral luck (a parallel to kindness as epistemic humility)
Matt Clifford: The idea of moral luck, meaning I think it’s very easy to go through life feeling that you deserve kind of various things, although you don’t deserve various things. Most of us have an intuition that we want to live in a world where people get their just desserts one way or another. But I think, we’ve talked a lot in this conversation about sort of epistemic humility, the idea that we don’t really know anything. I also feel there’s a kind of moral luck humility, which is like, we don’t really get to choose who we turn out to be in many, many ways. And I think if that makes us a little bit more humble in the face of the suffering of others, the success of others, the ups and downs, a little more tolerant of like, what are the, you know… Go back to this idea of error correction. What are the systemic things that we need to prevent anyone falling too far off the edge in one direction? I believe in a world where, to my innovation point, anyone should be allowed to try anything. And if they build something phenomenally valuable, they should be allowed to reap the rewards of that in a pretty unconstrained way. And I think the offsetting force of that is the reminder that the fact that they were the person that could do that, that’s nothing they deserved. And it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t benefit from it, but it should bring with it a humility that allows us to design institutions and systems that mean that none of us can fall too far. [Kris: Super resonant because you know how I feel about the word “deserve”].
The rest of the interview talks about qualities Entrepreneur First looks for when funding founders. The qualities themselves are not surprising but the list is surprising because of how mundane it is. And that is actually uplifting. They have tremendous data on founders and are quite certain it takes at least 6 months of close observation to actually know if a founder will be effective (even after 3 months the data is noisy!). The implication is you should widen the top of the funnel, make low cost bets on many founders which is in direct opposition to overly strict selection criteria. I’ve written about this idea and the math behind it in:
- There’s Gold In Them Thar Tails: Part 1 (13 min read)
- There’s Gold In Them Thar Tails: Part 2 (24 min read)
Part of widening the funnel is by expanding geographic search. Matt shares this story of Iranians in Singapore:
It’s an amazing story is that if you look at the list of nationalities by how frequently we’ve invested in people of that nationality, it’s quite surprising. I guess in some places, not that surprising. Like in Bangalore, it’s nearly all people who are Indian. But in Singapore, it’s quite surprising. So, actually in Singapore, the number one nationality we fund is Indian. The number two is Singapore. I think third might be Indonesian. I forget. But in the top four is Iranians, people from Iran. That’s kind of crazy, right? Because how come there are so many Iranians in Singapore? And the answer is there aren’t. I think there’s only about 250 Iranians in Singapore, and we funded about 50 of them. Why is that? Well, basically because if you are an incredibly smart, ambitious Iranian, the single biggest drag on your life outcome, sadly, is that you were born in Iran. And so getting out is very important for a certain type of person. And in particular, if you skew technical, which is a lot of what we do, good luck getting a visa these days to study, I don’t know, nuclear physics in the US or whatever. Maybe slightly facetious, but not very. If you write a list out of the world’s top universities and start to cross off the ones where Iranian grad students will struggle to get a visa, the number one university left in the world is the National University of Singapore, which is actually a very good university anyway. It’s top 20 globally even before you do the crossing out, but it’s the number one that’s very accessible to really smart Iranian science grads. And so there’s this very tight knit community of exceptionally smart graduate students from Iran in Singapore. And we’ve ended up funding as a sort of nontrivial proportion of them. Now, why do I tell that story? Because to me, it points to the ability to overcome geography without remote. Now, actually I’m very bullish on remote as an overall system. Lots of our companies are remote first. I think it’s very possible to do. But I think for the act of building, co-founding teams from strangers, which is the core of our IP, if you like, we really believe in the power of the physical for that, at least for now. So I think watch this space, probably some experimentation to come on that, but we think there are lots of ways to transcend geography while retaining the sort of physicality of what we do.