Weekend Briefing No. 317

Welcome to the weekend. Last week I mentioned that I have a couple friends that are launching books this month (turns out there’s a few more… but more on that in future briefings). This week I’ve been reading Colum McCann’s new novel Apeirogon. This is seriously one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. I don’t know much about fiction, but I believe this has a shot at the Pulitzer this year. I’m contemplating hosting a book club in NYC on this book. If you are interested, click here

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Prime Numbers

208m – US mobile operator sold their users’ location data for years, and the FCC is proposing a $208m fine.

100 – Beijing Genomics Institute claims that it can sequence a genome for $100.

61.2 – Renewable energy sources provided a record 61.2 percent of Germany’s net public electricity generation in February.

$70K

The right-wing radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, whom Dan Price had listened to every day in his childhood, called him a communist after he announced in 2015 that his company, Gravity Payments, would pay every worker at least $70,000. Two senior Gravity employees also resigned in protest. They weren’t happy that the salaries of junior staff had jumped overnight, and argued that it would make them lazy, and the company uncompetitive. This hasn’t happened. Dan, who grew up Christian, thought it was the right thing to do. He not only had to take a salary cut, but mortgaged his homes to make it happen. So… was it worth it?  Well… a third of those working at the company had their salaries doubled immediately. The headcount has doubled and the value of payments that the company processes has gone from $3.8bn a year to $10.2bn. But there are other metrics that Price is more proud of. Before the $70,000 minimum wage, we were having between zero and two babies born per year amongst the team, and since the announcement, we’ve had more than 40 babies. There was a little bit of concern amongst pontificators out there that people would squander any gains that they would have. And we’ve really seen the opposite,” Price says. The amount of money that employees are voluntarily putting into their own pension funds has more than doubled and 70% of employees say they’ve paid off debt. More than 10% of the company have been able to buy their own home, in one of the US’s most expensive cities for renters. Before the figure was less than 1%. BBC (10 minutes)

WeWork’s Yoko Ono

On Rebecca’s first date with Adam Nuemann, co-founder of We Work, she said “You, my friend, are full of shit. Every single word that comes out of your mouth is fake.”, these may have been the truest words she’s ever spoken. The Neumanns are currently in exile in Tel Aviv… somehow surviving off their $1.7B golden parachute. But what was Rebecca’s role in the rise (and fall) of We Work? If WeWork seemed like an heiress yoga instructor’s idea of a company — “redefining success to include fulfillment and sharing and generosity,” is how Rebekah explained it — that’s precisely what it was. She was written into the company’s history as a co-founder after the fact and was seen as the spiritual soul of the company. But as WeWork’s valuation exploded, Rebekah abandoned the Zen detachment from material possessions of more youthful days. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Neumanns’ real estate spending spree started in 2013 with a $10.5 million Greenwich Village townhouse they spent $6.5 million renovating and a modest weekend beach house in the Hamptons. They moved on to a $50 million-plus Gramercy Park project, converting four condos into a single ultra-penthouse replete with stroller parking lot; a $15 million weekend estate in Bedford; and a 7,000-square foot mansion in Amagansett that backed up to one of Gwyneth’s homes. There was also the $21 million Marin County, California, mansion with a guitar-shaped room they purchased in 2018. The Bustle (16 minutes)

Bitcoin Options Are a Thing

Given all of the ups and downs in the prices of cryptocurrencies, you might wonder why anyone would want to trade put and call options on bitcoin. Actually, it’s pretty simple: by using options effectively, it’s possible for crypto traders to magnify their returns and/or reduce their risk. But in order for investors to trade bitcoins effectively and securely, it’s important to put your money with an exchange you can trust. That’s where LedgerX comes into the picture. As the first federally regulated exchange to list and clear bitcoin options, LedgerX is no stranger to doing things by the book. In fact, it’s kind of their thing. Learn more at LedgerX. (Sponsored)

Off the Rails

These days it seems that startups go from hot to not overnight. How can your startup avoid going off the rails? (1) Unit Economics. Nothing can give a startup the illusion of success like negative unit economics. This occurs when a startup is selling a product for less than its variable cost. Hyper-growth is easy when you’re selling dollar bills for 90 cents. (2) Customer Acquisition Cost. Remember, the lifetime value of the customer should be at least 3X the cost of customer acquisition. (3) Sales. Make sure you’re not unintentionally incentivizing your sales team to achieve the wrong goals. Craft (18 minutes)

Rice

At the pace at which technology changes, it’s not inconceivable to think that in a 20-year time frame everything in a cell phone could be put into a grain of rice that could be put into your head in a minimally invasive way, and would be able to perform the computations necessary to be a really effective brain-computer interface. That’s decades off, but currently a company called NeuroLutions is implanting a device in stroke victims that allows them to move paralyzed limbs. This article dives into the history and future of brain-computer interfaces. MIT Technology Review (17 minutes)

Big Week in Legal Tech

This week, both Atrium and UpCounsel – two of the leading tech-enabled legal service providers shut down. Atrium, founded by Justin Kan (the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who previously sold the live streaming platform Twitch to Amazon for $970 million) took in $75.5MM in venture capital, invested heavily in technology, but continued to lose money. Ultimately, investor decided that legal services were not venture backable. UpCounsel shut down due to a shareholder dispute (its financial performance is unknown) and is selling assets to Linkedin. I applaud both of these companies. I really admire their desire to use technology to challenge the traditional legal business model. We’ve quietly been doing the same. Our firm has been building a similar service – tech-enabled, subscription legal services for a flat monthly fee. But without the pressure of venture capital, we’ve been able to slowly test, tweak and build a product that our clients really love (and has been profitable from day 1). We call this General Counsel. I don’t talk about my firm much in the Weekend Briefing, but if you were using either Atrium or UpCounsel… or you’re just curious. You may want to check out our General Counsel. (4 minutes)

Bookshelf

Apeirogon: A Novel by Colum McCann. Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on to the schools their children attend to the checkpoints, both physical and emotional, they must negotiate. But their lives, however circumscribed, are upended one after the other: first, Rami’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, becomes the victim of suicide bombers; a decade later, Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, is killed by a rubber bullet. Rami and Bassam had been raised to hate one another. And yet, when they learn of each other’s stories, they recognize the loss that connects them. Together they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace—and with their one small act, start to permeate what has for generations seemed an impermeable conflict. This extraordinary novel is the fruit of a seed planted when the novelist Colum McCann met the real Bassam and Rami on a trip with the non-profit organization Narrative 4. McCann was moved by their willingness to share their stories with the world, by their hope that if they could see themselves in one another, perhaps others could too. With their blessing, and unprecedented access to their families, lives, and personal recollections, McCann began to craft Apeirogon, which uses their real-life stories to begin another—one that crosses centuries and continents, stitching together time, art, history, nature, and politics in a tale both heartbreaking and hopeful. The result is an ambitious novel, crafted out of a universe of fictional and nonfictional material, with these fathers’ moving story at its heart. Amazon

Last Weekend’s Most Read

Winners of the 2020 Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest – Pretty pictures. (I knew this was going to be popular!)

Lhotse – Harrowing video of a couple making the first ski descent of Lhotse.

Designing Your Work Life – Dave and Bill’s new book on finding happiness at work. 

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway – Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by Robert Bye.

Should We Work Together?

This newsletter is my passion project. I hope it helps you gain deeper insight and equips you to create meaningful impact in the world. Many readers have asked about how we can work together. I run a law firm for startups. We try to keep things simple by offering transparent flat fees. We structure our engagements in two ways: (1) Per-Project flat fee engagements. No billable hour means no surprise legal bills. (2) General Counsel – A simple monthly fee for all your day-to-day legal needs. It’s like getting a subscription to your own general counsel. If you’re interested, let’s jump on a call to see if you’re a good fit for the firm. Click here to schedule a call.   

Weekend Wisdom

The job of the writer is to look at where he is now and make some sort of emotional sense of it, not only for that moment but for years to come.Colum McCann

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