Latest posts

Automated Personal Finance

Today I’m finally switching off of Capital One because of their broken integration with Plaid. For those who don’t know, Plaid is a service that makes it easy for apps to connect to your bank account. So, if you want to do anything interesting that your bank doesn’t offer (spending analytics, smart transfers, etc) and you want to use a cool app to help you with that, you need Plaid to do it. Capital One has been notoriously bad with its Plaid integration, and people (including me) are frustrated.

I have been a long-time Capital One customer, from back when the online savings product was with ING bank. I originally joined for low fees and better than average interest rates. But I ended up staying because of how easy Capital One makes it to open and manage multiple accounts.

It has been a long journey for me to manage personal finances. For a long time, I had jobs that didn’t pay very well and managed to rack up a substantial amount of debt in my 20s. For the past 10 years I’ve managed that down, and a key tool for doing that has been breaking my financial life up into separate buckets, for various saving and spending goals, and automating as much as possible. This is a trick I learned from the amazing Ramit Sethi and his I Will Teach You to be Rich blog, which I read regularly back in the day.

The way I set it up is roughly this:

Paycheck comes in, gets split 3 ways (this is handled at the Justworks layer): 1/ primary spending account, 2/ overflow spending account, 3/ recurring bills & savings account. Each of these three accounts are at different institutions.

From there, all major bills (mortgage, insurance, car payment, utilities, childcare, etc) are paid from the recurring bills and savings account. And further, that account (until recently at Capital One) splits further into a bunch of smaller savings accounts for dedicated purposes (vacations, home improvements, certain kids activities, general savings, etc — I have about 8 of these I use regularly, and the transfers also happen automatically. I also auto-stash into my Stash account on a weekly basis.

The overflow spending account is for non-recurring large items (for example, some kids activity or a medical bill).

The regular spending is for things like groceries, eating out, random purchases. Essentially, what is left over after big things are handled.

It has been a lot of work to set all of this up in a way that makes sense. But it has been worth it, because now we have a system that keeps everything organized — not just in terms of budget categories and analysis, but in terms of actual accounts which we can spend out of and save towards.

And even so, using additional tools to help (like Personal Capital for overall analysis, or Zeta for couples-based tracking, or Astra for smart transfers) has not worked because of the broken Plaid integration with Capital One. So enough of that; goodbye Capital One.

The broader point is that financial analysis isn’t enough. Moving money is a core part of managing it. I don’t know how typical a setup mine is, but I have accounts at 5 different institutions just for basic spending and saving, not counting credit cards, investment accounts or crypto. I heard recently that the average consumer has accounts at 4+ financial institutions — I don’t believe this is a high-end phenomenon.

When I look out at the landscape of personal financial products, so many of them focus either on analyzing money or managing/moving it, but not both. Doing this in a holistic manner is difficult, especially with accounts across institutions. But it seems to me that it is the key to having an actually organized and manageable financial life.

Write, and Go Outside

I am feeling reflective at the beginning of this new year, as often happens to me. Today and yesterday especially so, as the kids are back to school but USV is still on break, so I have a few really free days to catch up, reflect and think.

I’m about to go out on a walk with Frannie, as we did yesterday. There is something so simple and helpful about just getting outside, getting some fresh air (especially in New England in the winter, but it really works anywhere), and moving the body a bit. Just the simple act of going outside is surprisingly powerful.

I am reminded this morning of our dear friend Sam who passed away nearly 13 years ago. Sam was a person who felt the world more than most people, both the beautiful and the painful. I remember from his service a story about the importance to him of the concept of “Write, and Go Outside.” I don’t remember perfectly, but I believe it was a teacher of his who gave him this mantra as a way to help when things felt tough. The idea has really stuck with me.

Write, and Go Outside feels especially important at a time in the world where it is so easy to “consume (read) and stay inside”. Both the “write” and “go outside” parts are about choosing a singular focus and a physical act, unplugged from other distractions. Both tend to make you feel good, for that reason and others.

Yesterday, I mentioned the Volt Planner, which I use every year to make long-, medium- and short-term plans. One of my goals for 2019 was to spend more time outside, in particular with my family. I have done a decent job of that and will step that up this year. One of my goals for 2020 is to focus more on writing, in all of its forms.

With both of those goals in mind, I’m hitting publish here and heading outside for walk.

Getting Right for What’s to Come

Fred and Albert just posted their annual posts on predictions and issues to tackle for the coming decade. Both are great, and thinking about all that we will need to do to in the coming decade is both inspiring and intimidating.

Before I can even think about those kinds of things and how to approach them, I need to look on the personal side and check in to make sure that I have as strong a foundation as possible, like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others:

Everyone has their own challenges and issues to work on, so here I will just note some resources that have been helpful to me, in no particular order:

  1. Getting professional help. I have written before that one of the breakthrough moments for me was when I realized I could seek and get help where I needed it. In my case, it was a great therapist and a great accountant. But the big idea is that it’s ok to get help. You deserve it.
  2. Dry January. For the past few years I have quit alcohol for the month of January and it always feels great. The holidays can be a bit much, and a lot of us consume more than we should anyway. Dry January is, at the very least, a good opportunity to explore the role of alcohol (or lack of it) in your life.
  3. This NYT piece on procrastination is great. I have always struggled with this, and I completely agree with the main idea here which is that procrastination is an emotional issue (avoiding unpleasant feelings, self doubt, etc) not a discipline or self control issue.
  4. James Clear and Atomic Habits. I’ve only skimmed James’ book Atomic Habits, but he’s great on twitter and seems spot-on to me with his analysis of how to create positive habits.
  5. Work Clean by Dan Charnas. In this book, Dan studies how great chefs manage their workspaces and apply those lessons to other forms of work.
  6. Alex Iskold‘s Self-care: 8 Tips for Founders to take care of themselves – great lessons here and Alex talks about this stuff from a place of real personal honesty and empathy.
  7. The Volt Planner by Kate Matsudaira. For the past 4 years I have used the Volt Planner, which guides you though yearly, monthly and weekly goal setting. I have found it to be supremely helpful in a world where there are a lot of things competing for your attention and it can be hard to focus.
  8. Brad Feld‘s mantra to Simply Begin Again – simple and really helpful.

Whatever issue you are tackling, I hope you can find the resources to help.

As I look out at the new year and the coming decade, I want to have all the energy and leverage I can to make good things happen, and that starts at home with building a strong foundation, whatever that means to you. A little better every day.

Adversarial Interoperability

As I make my way through the various predictions & reflections that accompany the new year, one stands out: the EFF’s 2019 Year In Review, entitled “Dodging Bullets on the Path to a Decentralized Future“. I have long been disappointed that there have seemed to be two separate and parallel conversations going on: the “traditional” digital rights / internet freedom community talking about “re-decentralizing the web” and the blockchain/crypto community working on the same thing. I like the EFF’s recent work because they are connecting the two conversations, and their year in review is a good place to start on that.

A key link in the EFF review is to Cory Doctorow’s work on Adversarial Interoperability, which studies the history of interoperability of technical systems and all of the commercial, legal and policy battles that haven ensued because of it.

In this post in the Adversarial Interoperability series, Cory details the different kinds of interoperability and the dynamics around them. His mantra is “Fix the Internet, not the Tech Companies” and I couldn’t agree more.

I believe, and we have said at USV many times, that driving interoperability is the best and most effective way to limit the power of big tech companies, and that in today’s environment we should focus on “breaking up the data, not the companies.”.

When I talk to regulators, lawmakers and policymakers, I often use this diagram (credit to Placeholder for the underlying graphic):

Which shows that from a historical perspective, these “open” or “interoperability” technologies have been the driver in breaking up each era’s dominant monopoly.

It’s the same today, and Cory’s and EFF’s excellent work on the subject adds a lot of depth to the analysis.

Slides: Crypto @ Harvard Kennedy School

Last week, as I have done for the last several years, I gave a guest lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  The class is DPI-662: Digital Government: Technology, Policy, and Public Service Innovation taught by my old friend David Eaves and the topic in recent years has been on Cryptonetworks and Blockchains.

I am always amazed at the people in the class — incredible diversity of backgrounds from around the world. And as we have discussed crypto over the past few years, the conversation has gotten better and better — whereas a few years ago it was a curiosity it is clear that people are paying close attention.  

Here is the deck I used for the talk.  Like many of my presentations on crypto, it is geared towards newer technical audiences with a deeper policy slant.   Makes less sense without the narrative, but I have included speaker notes which you can see in the Google Slides version.

Enjoy!

The Butter Thesis

At USV, we talk a lot about our investment thesis.  The USV thesis is a set of ideas that has guided our investing over the years.  It is a tool we use to help ourselves know what to look for, and to help companies who fit into it to find us.

Despite all of the writing we have done on the thesis over the years, some parts of the it remain understood, but unwritten.  One of those is what I like to call “The Butter Thesis”.

“Butter” is the term we use to describe interactions & experiences that are just so smooth.  Rich, easy, delicious.  Hard to define formally, but you know it when you see it / feel it.

Butter can apply to dev tools, enterprise/b2b products, and consumer products.  

Classic examples of Dev Butter are the Stripe API and the Twilio API.  Tools that are just so simple and fun to use (and useful!) that you just can’t help build with them.  Or, the first time you install Cloudflare and your site just gets fast and the DDOS just stops.  OMG Firebase. Takes my breath away.  Or before that, Ruby on Rails and jQuery.  The category-defining tools of each era of development have succeeded in large part because of their Buttery-ness.

B2B Butter is Airtable and Slack (and really, Google Docs, though that’s less exciting somehow).  Or in narrower vertical, Splice.  Or, in a hidden horizontal, Carta.  Tools that make working together so so much easier — like, hard to imagine what it was like before they existed.

On the consumer side, Butter means end-user experiences that are frictionless and joyful.  For example, I recently went to China and was blown away by the QR Code experience — straight butter wherever you go, linking the real world to the online world.  Duolingo is Butter for Learning.  Nurx is Butter for Health.  Coinbase is Butter for Crypto.  Amazon Prime is Butter for e-Commerce.

Building for butter means understanding that every step of the experience can be honed, smoothed and improved, to the point that it’s so good you just can’t take it.  Butter is deceptively simple. A single ingredient that yet does so much. 

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!  Maybe this is obvious and isn’t that deep. But it is hard to pull off, and truly extraordinary when it is accomplished.

CoinAlts Chicago: Fireside Chat w Sam McIngvale of Coinbase Custody

A few weeks ago at the CoinAlts conference in Chicago, I did a fireside chat with Sam McIngvale, CEO of Coinbase Custody.  CoinAlts is a conference focused mostly on the institutional infrastructure around crypto assets — legal, accounting, custody, etc.  So we started out talking about the evolving role of custody in the crypto markets, and also talked generally about what we’re excited about in the next few years.  It was a lot of fun.  Here it is:

Saying Sorry

As I turned to write this, I was in the middle of reviewing a document a friend had asked me to look at a little while ago. In somewhat typical fashion, I had not done it right away, and had basically forgotten about it until he pinged me again, and even then I didn’t get to it right away.  

I feel terrible about that, and as I reflect on things as part of Yom Kippur today, I realize that one of the things I feel the worst about over the past year is being a bad communicator. I have let things drop and haven’t been responsive.  At the end of the day, it’s a matter of respect and I have not done a good enough job.

So for the many of you out there (including readers of this blog — notice no new posts for about 5 months…) who I’ve done this to, I am sorry. I will do better.

How to Read a Pitch

Yesterday, we had a team offsite at USV, which included a “presentation party” where a bunch of us gave 3-minute presentations on a variety of topics. It was actually a perfect window into everyone’s personality — Andy gleaned lessons about venture capital from music lyrics (of course), Albert talked about beauty in math focusing on the Fibonacci sequence, Bethany talked about her early entrepreneurial adventures with Beanie Babies, Gillian walked us through the fun things you can find in a proxy statement, Matt introduced us to Kayfabe.  That’s just a few, but suffice to say they were all great, and were totally on-brand with everyone’s personalities.

Not surprisingly, I decided to talk about the beauty I see in Baseball, focusing on just one small thing: the way the batter reads the spin on an incoming pitch.  Here it is — enjoy (I recommend holding a baseball while you watch, if you have one):

Nick Grossman

Get new posts by email