Trusted Brands

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Today is election day.  I’m on a plane today, so I voted early, a few days ago.  I cast my vote and it felt good. I marked my paper ballot with a marker (for optical scanning) glued it shut into a sealed envelope, and handed it to a volunteer who placed it in a secure case.  I left with a sense of confidence that my vote had been placed, and would be counted fairly.

Unfortunately, many Americans do not have the same confidence, often for good reason.  As Zeynep Tufecki wrote in the NYT last weekend in The Election Has Already Been Hacked:

“the legitimacy of an election depends on the electorate accepting that it was fair, that everyone who tried to vote got to vote and that every vote counted. Lose that, and your voting system might as well have suffered a devastating technological attack.

Unfortunately, in much of the United States, we are no longer able to assure people that none of those things has happened. A recent poll shows that 46 percent of the American electorate do not think their votes will be counted fairly, and about a third think it is likely that a foreign country will tamper with the results.”

Put more generally, America’s most important product, our democracy, is developing a trust problem.

I have been writing about trust for a long time. It is an essential ingredient for institutions (civic, corporate, etc) and also for technology platforms.  It is famously hard to earn and easy to lose.

In the most recent iteration of the USV investment thesis, we explicitly call out the idea of “Trusted Brands” as a key component.  This has been somewhat controversial, because — obviously — it’s premature to declare that any early-stage startup is a trusted brand.  But what we mean by this is not that it’s already a widely trusted brand, but that it’s architected to be a trusted brand.

“Trusted Brands” is also controversial because in startups, things change. For example, while for a long time many considered Google (or really, insert nearly any other large tech company here) to be a trusted brand, initially because of the super useful/helpful services it provides, and then through it’s mantra of “don’t be evil” — it’s safe to say that today, many people (both consumers and b2b users) may not feel the same way.  

So, “Trusted Brands” is both aspirational, and potentially fleeting. 

By “architecting for trust“ we mean two things: 1) a business model where the platform and its stakeholders are aligned; and/or 2) a technical architecture that makes tampering/hacking/meddling difficult or impossible, even for the creators of the system.

On business model alignment: this one gets trickier the more stakeholders you have, and typically as tech platforms grow and expand, so does the breadth and variety of stakeholders.  But core decisions can be made, early on, that align interests as much as possible — for example, see Andy’s post about our recent investment in Scroll, and how they are attempting to align interests in the publishing industry.

On technical architecture: most of the work in the crypto/blockchain space is based on this concept, and many have taken to a mantra of a “can’t be evil” as a counterpoint to the arbitrary decisionmaking that is possible in traditional platforms — this is at the heart of the “centralized vs. decentralized” debate.  But even in “regular” apps, technical design decisions, particularly around how data is stored/processed/shared/accessed, can go a long way towards building trust.

What we can safely say is that we are suffering from trust problems on a number of fronts.  On the tech platforms side, it’s things like data breaches, abuses of market power, shady privacy practices, harassment and abuse, etc etc.   On the institutional side, it’s relevance, capacity, efficiency, technological capability, corruption, and fundamental integrity.  Not a small or simple list of challenges to face.

The technology we build is really the foundation of our lives, and even the two “sides” I discuss here (traditional institutions and tech platforms) are getting blurrier by the day.  Given all that, what we mean by “Trusted Brands” is that establishing and sustaining trusted products / platforms / systems / institutions / brands is more important than ever, and we believe that the efforts that do manage to earn our trust over the long term will be the most important and valuable.

Suffering, self, and service

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The massacre in Pittsburgh is heartbreaking and awful, and another example of the extent to which society seems to be fraying. The Pittsburgh attacker spent a lot of time on social media sites that stoked his fear, isolation and anger.  I think about the internet a lot, and while the internet has the ability to… Read more »

Building a meditation routine

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I wrote recently about the challenge of turning plans into routines.  One of the activities that is the most impactful for me is meditation.  I cannot say that I have a perfect meditation routine, but I can absolutely say that when I do do it, it makes me feel great, immediately. There are a bunch… Read more »

Trauma

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Just about two years ago, my wife’s parents were hit by a truck while crossing the street. The past two years have been both difficult and wonderful.  Wonderful in that two people who were on the brink of death following the accident are still with us (her mother in particular has had a miraculous if… Read more »

Plans vs. routines

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Sunday night over dinner, my son, parents and I were discussing the saving / investing system we set up for our kids in the spring. The idea was/is: set a monthly budget for purchases (in their case, mostly online movies, tv shows and games), and include a really healthy interest rate (20% monthly) to encourage… Read more »

The adjacent possible

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Dani and I have been spending a bunch of time recently thinking about the relationship between applications and infrastructure.  It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation.  You need infrastructure to build apps, but often times you don’t really know what kind of infrastructure is needed until you build some apps. For example, we… Read more »

Getting the chills

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One of the greatest things Frannie and I have in common is that we get the chills from music — typically at the exact same time, triggered by the same musical… something. For me it starts  at the back of my neck, and if it’s really good, it spreads all over my back, head, and… Read more »

The utility infielder

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My favorite baseball player is Brock Holt, and has been since his first season with the Red Sox back in 2013.  Here is me last month wearing my Holt jersey that I wear to every game (note the #26 that he started out with, before it was retired for Wade Boggs a few years ago… Read more »

Fear

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I have been helping my son, who is in 4th grade, with his math — specifically, multiplication.  He feels like he is a little bit behind, so we are working on it so he can get more comfortable.  It is going well now — we have gotten into a routine of spending 15 minutes per… Read more »

Form factor

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Over the past few weeks, I have varied up my computing habits a bit.  For a laptop, I have been using a Pixelbook, and I have also been spending more timing using an iPad Pro for work (vs my default of using a Mac laptop for everything). What I have discovered is that the form… Read more »

A little, and then a little more

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Back in May, I had what ended up being a major hand surgery — repairing a torn tendon and in the process reconstructing the end of my pinkie by grafting tendons borrowed from my ring finger.  As a result, I am now recovering from two injuries — the pinkie itself and the ring finger that… Read more »

Layers

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A central concept on the internet is Layering.  Each of the protocols in the internet stack talks to the layer directly above and below it — new protocols can be added as long as they speak the language of their layer.  Protocols at one layer can be upgraded so long as they don’t break compatibility… Read more »

Minimum Viable Economy

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One of my favorite things about the cryptocurrency / blockchain space is that our conception of “what it all means” is still very much in flux. Nic Carter just published a nice analysis of how the functional narrative around bitcoin has changed over time – (roughly) from e-cash, to e-gold, to private currency, to a… Read more »

The path to decentralization: self-destructing companies

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In June, the SEC gave some of its most concrete guidance to date that cryptoassets can start out as centralized projects, possibly initially sold under securities laws, and eventually become “decentralized” and thus no longer sponsor-controlled, and no longer sold or transferred under securities laws. It makes sense that a decentralized protocol does not fit… Read more »

Trust and fairness

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I was at an event last night, where the moderator, Preeti Varathan from QZ observed that there seemed to be a lot of cynicism in the blockchain / crypto space — in other words, that the whole thing was essentially premised on a distrust of existing systems (fiat currencies, large internet companies, etc). It’s an… Read more »

Compound interest goes in both directions

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There is no shortage of writing and punditry about the power of compound interest. As usual Naval has a pithy tweet about it: Play iterated games. All the returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge, come from compound interest. — Naval (@naval) May 31, 2018 I have been thinking about this a lot… Read more »

just_work = true

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One of my former colleagues, Rob Marianski, and I used to have a running joke — we would be building and debugging something, and he’d finally say, “Oh, so you just want me to set just_work = true?”.  That was over 10 years ago, but it still gets me every time for some reason.  (as… Read more »

Focus

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Ryan Caldbeck is on fire on Twitter right now.  Ryan is the CEO of our portfolio company CircleUp, and he just joined Twitter for the first time earlier this year and is, I may say, feeling very comfortable in the medium.  Over the weekend he put up a great diagram-oriented tweetstorm with a bunch of gems… Read more »

Digital scarcity

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As readers of this blog can tell, I’ve been spending a lot of my time recently focused on cryptonetworks and blockchains, and in particular, working through the complex legal and regulatory issues involved. Explaining what cryptocurrencies, cryptonetworks and blockchains are is hard to do.  As Naval recently said on twitter: It is the mark of… Read more »