We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

post by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-27T17:34:21.538Z · EA · GW · 39 comments

Contents

  About Wave
  About Lincoln
  About Ben
  Some topics we can talk about
None
38 comments

Wave is a startup building mobile money—a way for people in developing countries to access financial services like savings and money transfer if they can't afford, or live too far away from, traditional banks. Lincoln is co-founder and head of product; Ben is an early engineer and CTO. We've both been part of the EA community since ~2011 (in fact, we met through NYC EA), and work on Wave for EA reasons.

EDIT: this originally said we'd start answering on Friday, but we're getting nerd sniped by the questions so will probably get to them sooner :)

About Wave

Wave is a spinoff of Sendwave, an app for sending money internationally from the US to Kenya. Sendwave used a mobile money system in Kenya, M-Pesa, to instantly deliver money transfers. Inspired by M-Pesa, we want to bring mobile money that works well to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Wave is a for-profit, venture-backed company, but our founders and employees work on it primarily for EA reasons: mobile money has a large impact on global poverty. For example, one paper estimates that M-Pesa in Kenya lifted 2% of all households—almost 1m people—out of poverty. For a deeper analysis of the impact of mobile money, see Jeff Kaufman's Estimating the Value of Mobile Money [EA · GW]. For our thoughts in favor of developing-world entrepreneurship more generally, see Ben's Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets [EA · GW].

(If this seems compelling to you, we're hiring! We have the most open roles for software engineers but are happy to chat about other possible positions as well. Message Ben on the forum or at ben@wave.com.)

Wave's mobile money system is based around an app that's similar to Venmo or Cash App, except that it doesn't require a bank account. Instead, Wave lets users directly deposit or withdraw cash at "agents"—local businesspeople (think small shops/corner stores) who use their spare cash on hand to service Wave users. With agents, we can reach many more people than banks: the biggest banks in Senegal have ~40 branches, while we have over 100x as many agents.

We also allow users to purchase airtime and pay bills directly from the app, and are building lots of other ways to use Wave, like for salary payments and loans. Our goal is for Wave to be the easiest way to do any type of economic transaction.

We currently operate in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire. In Senegal, which launched first, we've now reached over 1m users and are still growing quickly. We plan to expand to additional countries in 2021.

Wave is around ~400 people, of which ~300 work in our Senegal office, ~50 in our Ivorian office, and ~50 on a fully distributed remote team working on cross-country work (engineering, product development, finance, etc.).

About Lincoln

I'm co-founder and head of product at Wave. My role is to figure out what products to build and how to execute on them, mainly by leading the product teams. I’m also an engineer myself—I wrote a ton of the original code for Sendwave and Wave, but I don’t do much coding anymore (and I miss it). I lived in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Senegal for a combined 3 years and now live in the northeast US near where I grew up.

Outside work, I like cooking & baking, cycling, skiing, rationality and effective altruism. I have a personal website/blog, although my content is not nearly as good as Ben’s :P. Before Wave and Sendwave, I founded other failed startups: “Brew,” a dating app for students at NYU; “Chime,” a social/event-discovery app for college students at Brown & Yale; and “Newsbrane,” a social news app. I also worked in the video game industry. I became interested in effective altruism topics in 2011, when I discovered GiveWell through Less Wrong. I signed the Founders Pledge in 2016 to donate 10% of eventual sale/profit from Wave to charity.

About Ben

I joined Wave as the second engineer and am now CTO. I currently spend most of my time hiring and managing the team that works on our core engineering tools/infrastructure; in the past I've done everything from product work to accounting. I grew up in Boston, lived in the Bay Area for one year, spent a bunch of time in Ethiopia/Nigeria/Senegal as well, and am now nomadic.

Outside work I like to write blog posts. I don't write as much on EA anymore but some relatively EA-relevant ones include a review of Why Nations Fail, various ones on career planning / job searching (very old, old, recent, recent), and notes on running an EA student group.

Previously, I earned-to-give at a different early stage startup and cofounded Harvard College Effective Altruism. I found out about what would become EA in 2009 when Peter Singer gave a talk at my high school.

Some topics we can talk about

Obviously this list is not exhaustive—ask us anything you want—but here's some ideas to get started!

39 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by sella · 2020-10-27T19:51:19.729Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Lincoln and Ben, thanks for doing this! I would love to hear your perspective on the following topic:

Nonprofit entrepreneurship is a dominant career path within EA, with many people excited about the impact that it can achieve. Impact-focused for-profit entrepreneurship is rarely discussed or recommended by EA organizations, with a 2016 article about your startup being one of the only materials on this topic. I have also heard multiple people argue that for-profit entrepreneurship is an inherently less promising path than nonprofit entrepreneurship for various reasons.

What is your view on the value of for-profit entrepreneurship from an EA perspective? Do you believe this career path is undervalued by the EA community and its organizations today? If so, what do you believe people interested in for-profit entrepreneurship should do to found highly impactful organizations? Are there any specific opportunities you think are particularly interesting or exciting in this space?

Thanks in advance!

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-28T12:45:56.801Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From my perspective, for-profit entrepreneurship seems better than nonprofit entrepreneurship in terms of making an EA impact. The main reason is that the profit incentive gives you much broader access to capital, so it unlocks ideas that will only be impactful given enough money to get started. And I think there are a lot of ideas like this -- it's not hard to look at e.g. YC's Requests for Startups and see obvious, huge-impact ideas that seem worth working on. (Linked from that page is another page about what YC looks for in a nonprofit, also a good read!)

I recommend that anyone wanting to start a company but not sure what to do, try looking at the Requests for Startups first and try to find something you have leverage on -- but keep it small, your initial idea needs to start really "niche", you won't be able to solve a giant world problem from the get-go. Then read Paul Graham's essays and Sam A's startup playbook. Hopefully this literature will give you a better sense for whether entrepreneurship is for you. As you work on growing your business, don't over-index on trying to make an EA impact early on -- just focus on growth, like you would for any for-profit business. EA impact will come over time as you grow, and spending too much time worrying about the impact while you're small is likely to be a distraction from growing as much as you can.

From my perspective, I wish more people would start software companies in Africa (presumably this is true for other places in the developing world). There's a pretty wide appeal for lower-end tech optimized for consumers and businesses in these markets: low cost; Android-based; focused on mobile money.

(I also think nonprofit entrepreneurship is great in lots of ways, and in general I want to see people in EA putting energy behind all forms of innovation!)

All the above notwithstanding, it seems like it makes sense for EA orgs like 80000 hours not to spend much energy pushing people into for-profit entrepreneurship: there's a model going around that the best entrepreneurs are driven enough that you don't need to tell them to be an entrepreneur -- it's in their blood or something :). I am not myself too  convinced this should be the blocker -- I go around telling all my friends to start companies -- but if that's the working assumption, then they are probably acting correctly.

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-28T12:58:45.311Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One final thought: If you rank EA ideas on a continuum from "produces no value" to "produces a ton of value," it seems like the section of the continuum where nonprofit ideas are viable is quite small. Too low and your idea isn't worth working on. But once you start producing lots of value for the world, stakeholders start to be willing to pay for the solution, and then you can start a for-profit company to do it. So from this perspective, the best EA nonprofit ideas are weird and non-central examples of value-producing ideas -- they're ideas that produce a lot of value but you can't get anyone to pay for.

comment by Ben_West · 2020-10-29T20:50:04.627Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

stakeholders start to be willing to pay for the solution

Under some ethical theories, the vast majority of stakeholders (nonhuman animals, future persons) are unable to pay in any meaningful sense. Are you more positive about nonprofit entrepreneurship for organizations that serve these stakeholders?

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-30T13:30:02.126Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fair question, and your comment elsewhere (about the narrow slice being the only slice that exists if the market is efficient) was enlightening.

However: my philosophy for startups is that I would nearly always take a different approach to solving these sorts of problems in the world. I would prefer to start Beyond Meat, and try to solve the nonhuman animals problem in an oblique way, instead of attacking it directly by starting a nonprofit. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs think like this as well: look at Elon Musk's startup strategy -- he tends to go for something which has a business/profitability angle from the first version, but with a big long-term mission (Tesla Roadster, early non-reusable SpaceX rockets). And as Ben writes elsewhere, I think the startup market is highly and obviously inefficient, so efficient market considerations are not very relevant.

comment by Ben_West · 2020-10-30T20:42:24.313Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! Beyond Meat and SpaceX are great examples.

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-28T14:05:56.553Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hmm. This argument seems like it only works if there are no market failures (i.e. ideas where it's possible to capture a decent fraction of the value created), and it seems like most nonprofits address some sort of market failure? (e.g. "people do not understand the benefits of vitamin-fortified food," "vaccination has strong positive externalities"...)

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-28T14:26:08.356Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, that seems right to me, and is a good model that predicts the existing nonprofit startup ideas! My point is that it seems like a very narrow slice of all value-producing ideas.

comment by Ben_West · 2020-10-29T20:07:49.866Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To the extent that markets are efficient, that narrow slice is the only slice available (since the ways of creating value for which you can easily be paid have already been exploited).

(This is one reason why I personally am usually more excited about nonprofit startups: the low hanging fruit is usually picked in the for-profit world, but there's a lot more remaining in the nonprofit space.) 

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-29T20:28:33.628Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agree that if you put a lot of weight on the efficient market hypothesis, then starting a company looks bad and probably isn't worth it. Personally, I don't think markets are efficient enough for this to be a dominant consideration (see e.g. my response here [EA(p) · GW(p)] for partial justification; not sure it's possible to give a convincing full justification since it seems like a pretty deep worldview divergence between us and the more modest-epistemology-focused wing of the EA movement).

comment by Ben_West · 2020-10-29T20:50:36.940Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That makes sense, thanks!

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-28T14:00:57.974Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with most of what Lincoln said and would also plug Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets [EA · GW] as material on this, if you haven't read it yet :)

Can you elaborate on the "various reasons" that people argue for-profit entrepreneurship is less promising than nonprofit entrepreneurship or provide any pointers on reading material? I haven't run across these arguments.

comment by sella · 2020-10-28T14:49:14.558Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you both for your thoughtful answers.

To clarify, I don't have a strong opinion on this comparison myself, and would love to hear more points of view on this. Sadly I'm not aware of any reading materials on this topic, but have heard the following arguments made in one on one conversations:

  1. For-profit entrepreneurship has built-in incentives that already cause many entrepreneurs to try and implement any promising opportunities. As a result, we'd expect it to be drastically less neglected, or at least drastically less neglected relative to nonprofit opportunities that are similar in how promising they are. This can affect both our estimate of how much we'd expect to find good opportunities still lying around, and also how we'd estimate our counterfactual impact (as if we hadn't implemented a profitable intervention, there's higher likelihood someone else would).
  2. The specific cause areas that the EA movement currently sees as the most promising - including global poverty and health, animal welfare, and the longterm future - all serve recipients who (to different degrees) are incapable of significantly funding such work. This could be seen as directly related to the first point, but even if the first point is false, one could still argue that it just happens to be the case that the most promising cause areas are not a good fit for for-profit entrepreneurship.  I think the case here applies more strongly to animals and future people (who clearly can't pay for services), but to a lesser extent can also apply to the extremely poor who can pay only very little.
  3. For-profit organizations may produce incentives that make it unlikely to make the decisions that will end up producing enormous impact (in the EA sense of that term). One variation of this argument is that the revenue/growth needs tend to always come first (I can't do any good if I don't exist), which means there ends up being little freedom to optimize for impact. Another variation argues that even if one could optimize for impact, these incentives alongside the environment can cause significant value drift, and many people following this path will end up not doing so.
  4. Finally, I've also heard from several people the claim that today EA has an immense amount of funding, and if you're a competent person founding a charity that works according to EA principles it is incredibly easy to get non-trivial amounts of funding. This is not necessarily an argument for nonprofits, but this potentially somewhat mitigates what is perhaps the strongest argument against nonprofits - access to capital. Somewhat like point 2, this is a more circumstantial argument than an inherent.

Finally, the fact that I listed arguments in favor of nonprofit entrepreneurship over for-profit entrepreneurship may give the impression that this is my opinion, so I want to clarify again that it is not and I am highly uncertain about this topic.

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-28T17:01:07.188Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Cool! With the understanding that these aren't your opinions, I'm going to engage with them anyway bc I think they're interesting. I think for all four of these I agree that they directionally push toward for-profits being less good, but that people overestimate the magnitude of the effect.

For-profit entrepreneurship has built-in incentives that already cause many entrepreneurs to try and implement any promising opportunities. As a result, we'd expect it to be drastically less neglected, or at least drastically less neglected relative to nonprofit opportunities that are similar in how promising they are

Despite the built-in incentives, I think "which companies get built" is still pretty contingent and random based on which people try to do things. For instance, it's been obvious that M-Pesa had an amazing business in Kenya since ~2012, but it still  hasn't had equally successful copycats, let alone people trying to improve it, in other countries. If the market were really efficient here I think something like Wave would be 4+ years further along in its trajectory.

The specific cause areas that the EA movement currently sees as the most promising - including global poverty and health, animal welfare, and the longterm future - all serve recipients who (to different degrees) are incapable of significantly funding such work

Similarly, this is directionally correct but easy to overweight—there are still for-profit companies working in all of these spaces that seem likely to have very large impacts (Wave, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, SpaceX, OpenAI...)

For-profit organizations may produce incentives that make it unlikely to make the decisions that will end up producing enormous impact (in the EA sense of that term).

This is definitely a risk, and something that we worry about at Wave. That said:

  1. In many cases, revenue/growth and impact are highly correlated. In the examples I can think of where they aren't, it mostly involves monopolies doing anticompetitive or user-hostile things.
  2. In the monopoly case, many monopolies seem to have wide freedom of action and are still controlled by founders (e.g. Google, Facebook) and their decisions are often driven as much by internal dynamics as external incentives. Uncertain here, but it seems likely that if these companies thought more like EA's they would produce more impact.

Finally, I've also heard from several people the claim that today EA has an immense amount of funding, and if you're a competent person founding a charity that works according to EA principles it is incredibly easy to get non-trivial amounts of funding

I think "nontrivial" for a nonprofit is trivial for a successful for-profit :) Wave has raised tens of millions of dollars in equity and hundreds of millions in debt, and we're likely to raise 10x+ more in success cases. We definitely could not have raised nearly this much as a nonprofit. Same with eg OpenAI which got $1b in nonprofit commitments but still had to become (capped) for-profit in order to grow.

comment by Carl_Shulman · 2020-10-31T18:29:40.518Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Same with eg OpenAI which got $1b in nonprofit commitments but still had to become (capped) for-profit in order to grow.

If you look at OpenAI's annual filings, it looks like the $1b did not materialize.

comment by evelynciara · 2020-10-30T21:21:05.639Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've been looking into doing entrepreneurship in the future, and I know that mental health is a big issue for startup founders. So I have some questions related to entrepreneurship and mental health:

  • Do you think it's possible to practice good work-life balance while working on a startup? If so, what might that look like?
  • How many hours per week did you spend when you first started Wave? How many hours per week do you spend on it now?
  • How do you take care of yourselves while running a startup?
comment by lincolnq · 2020-11-03T13:43:33.577Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I really like these questions!

I'll answer your middle question first. When we were writing our first version in 2014, I logged probably 60+ most weeks. When living in Africa, I probably also logged around that many hours, since I had little else to do :). But now I start work around 8am and end around 5pm daily and usually take an hour for lunch, and don't work on weekends, so probably close to 40 hours. I am vaguely thinking about reducing my hours even more.

Transitioning to your first question:

The stage of a company really really matters, and it also matters what you consider to be "good" work-life balance. My cofounder is fond of saying, "there's no such thing as too busy, just poor prioritization." And I think that is ultimately how all work-life balance questions should be answered. First, decide on your priorities, then act accordingly :)

Classic startup advice always says that startups need to "move fast", speed is how you beat much more established competitors. But "move fast" is what it looks like from the outside when you have good prioritization -- when you're writing only the code that matters to get the marginal increment of growth rate, so you can learn what you need to learn in order to keep that growth on an exponential trajectory. It doesn't have to mean work yourself to the bone: on the contrary, I've found that when I spend many hours writing code, I have exhausted my capability to do the prioritization work which could save me many hours writing code :). So, I would say that great work-life balance in a startup starts and ends with great prioritization, not just at work but across your whole life. The 4 Hour Workweek is a well-loved treatise on the subject, as is Derek Sivers' Anything You Want. I put in 60+ hours in the early days because Wave was my life priority (and was able to get away with it because Drew was able to take most of the prioritization work out of my head and leave me with just code).

How do I take care of myself: I see friends and family, I take vacations, I have a coach/therapist person, I cook dinner and light candles and drink beer, I have tons of bright lighting in my office :)

comment by Ben_West · 2020-11-04T17:47:00.587Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious about your approach to management: there are two broad schools of thought, one of which says that you should promote the best performers, and the other which says that management is a different skill, and therefore you should promote the people who you think will be best at management. (Some organizations have a "dual ladder" system as an attempted hybrid between these.)

Startups often face this problem more acutely than most, because the skills which made someone very successful in a 5 person company are quite different than the ones which make them successful in a 500 person company, so someone's previous job performance is not the greatest predictor of their future success.

I'm curious what your thoughts are on this. For most of my career I have been in the "management is a different skill" camp, but over the past couple of years I have moved towards the other camp.

(I'm not sure if this question is too broad. If it is, some specific some questions are: 1. To what extent does someone's ability to do a specific technical job predict their ability to manage others doing that job? 2. Does the implicit incentive structure of promoting people who are the best managers rather than the best at their jobs warp people's efforts so much that it outweighs the benefits of having better managers?)

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-11-07T22:37:32.419Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I had a hard time answering this and I finally realized that I think it's because it sort of assumes performance is one-dimensional. My experience has been quite far from that: the same engineer who does a crap job on one task can, with a few tweaks to their project queue or work style, crush it at something else. In fact, making that happen is one of the most important parts of my (and all managers') jobs at Wave—we spend a lot of time trying to route people to roles where they can be the most successful.

Similarly, management is also not one-dimensional: different management roles need different skill sets which overlap with individual-contributor roles in different ways. Not to mention various high-impact roles at companies that don't involve formal management at all. So I think my tl;dr answer would be "you should try to figure out how your current highest performers on various axes can have more leveraged impact on your company, which is often some flavor of management, but it depends a lot on the people and roles involved."

For example, take engineering at Wave. Our teams are actually organized in such a way that most engineers are on a team led by (i.e. whose task queue is prioritized by) a product manager. Each engineer also has an engineering mentor who is responsible for giving them feedback, conducts 1:1s with them, contributes to their performance, etc.

Product managers don't have to be technical at all, and some of the best ones aren't, but some of the best engineers also move laterally into product management because the ways in which they are good engineers overlap a lot with that role. For engineering mentors, they usually need to be more technically skilled than their mentees, but they don't necessarily have to be the best engineers in the company; skill at teaching and resonance with the role of mentor is more important.

We also have a "platform" team which works on engineer-facing tooling and infrastructure. Currently, I'm leading this team, but in the end state I expect it to have a more traditional engineering manager. For this person, some dimensions of engineering competence will be quite important, others won't, and they'll need extra skills that are not nearly as important to individual contributors (prioritization, communication, organization...). I expect they would probably be one of our "best performers" by some metrics, but not by others.

comment by Ben_West · 2020-11-11T20:45:46.898Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Ben. I like this answer, but I feel like every time I have seen people attempt to implement it they still end up facing a trade-off.  

Consider moving someone from role r1 to role r2. I think you are saying that the person you choose for r2 should be the person you expect to be best at it, which will often be people who aren't particularly good at r1.

This seems fine, except that r2 might be more desirable than r1. So now a) the people who are good at r1 feel upset that someone who was objectively performing worse than them got a more desirable position, and b) they respond by trying to learn/demonstrate r2-related skills rather than the r1 stuff they are good at.

You might say something like "we should try to make the r1 people happy with r1 so r2 isn't more desirable" which I agree is good, but is really hard to do successfully.

An alternative solution is to include proficiency in r1 as part of the criteria for who gets position r2. This addresses (a) and (b) but results in r2 staff being less r2-skilled.

I'm curious if you disagree with this being a trade-off?

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-11-16T00:08:33.256Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I haven't had the opportunity to see this play out over multiple years/companies, so I'm not super well-informed yet, but I think I should have called out this part of my original comment more:

Not to mention various high-impact roles at companies that don't involve formal management at all.

If people think management is their only path to success then sure, you'll end up with everyone trying to be good at management. But if instead of starting from "who fills the new manager role" you start from "how can <person X> have the most impact on the company"—with a menu of options/archetypes that lean on different skillsets—then you're more likely to end up with people optimizing for the right thing, as best they know how.

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2020-10-29T09:19:21.257Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You mentioned some input metrics (number of staff across different countries). What's your main outcome metric (e.g., revenue, total transfer volume, etc.), how have you been growing, and where are you at right now?

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-29T15:07:38.779Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The main outcome metric we try to optimize is currently number of monthly active users, because our business has strong network effects. We can't share exact stats for various reasons, but I am allowed to say that we crossed 1m users in June, and our growth rates are sufficiently high that our current user base is substantially larger than that. We're currently growing more quickly than most well-known fintech companies of similar sizes that I know of.

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-29T14:33:22.062Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Unfortunately, it would not be prudent to share detailed stats publicly. However, we have over a million downloads of our Android app and are (or have been recently) #1 in the Play Store in Senegal. We still substantially trail Orange Money, our main mobile money competitor, in usage and volume though. We are still quite small in Cote d'Ivoire, though growing quickly there!

comment by akrolsmir · 2020-10-28T07:49:15.462Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for doing this! I have huge respect for Ben's blog posts (been telling my coworkers to read the "better video calls" article).

What advice would you two give to someone with a strong product & engineering background, about to transition to their first tech leadership role?

Maybe:

  • What are common failure cases/traps to avoid?
  • How much should I be directly coding vs "architecting" vs process management?
  • How do I approach hiring?
  • Just generally, what would you have imparted on past-you?
comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-28T13:35:00.907Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great questions!

What are common failure cases/traps to avoid

I don't know about "most common" as I think it varies by company, but the worst one for me was allowing myself to get distracted by problems that were more rewarding in the short term, but less important or leveraged. I wrote a bit about this in Attention is your scarcest resource.

How much should I be directly coding vs "architecting" vs process management

Related to the above, you should never be coding anything that's even remotely urgent (because it'll distract you too much from non-coding problems). For the first while, you should probably try not to code at all because learning how not to suck as a manager will be more than full-time. Later, it's reasonable to work in "important but not urgent" stuff in your slack time, as long as you have the discipline not to get distracted by it.

Architecting vs process management depends on what your problems are, what kind of leader you want to be and what you can delegate to other people.

How do I approach hiring?

If you are hiring, hiring is your #1 priority and you should spend as much time and attention on it as is practical. Hiring better people has a magical way of solving many of your other problems.

Hiring can also be really demoralizing (because you are constantly rejecting people and/or being rejected), so it's hard to have the conviction to put more effort into it until you've seen firsthand how much of a difference it makes.

For me, the biggest hiring improvement was getting our final interview to a point where I was quite confident that anyone who passed it would be a good engineer at Wave. This took many iterations, but lowering the risk of a bad hire meant that (a) I wasn't distracted by stressing out about tricky hire/no-hire decisions, (b) we could indiscriminately put people through our hiring funnel and trust that the process would come to a reasonable verdict. After this change, our 10th-percentile hire has been about as good as our 50th-percentile hire previously, and we went from 4 engineers to 25 in a bit over a year.

I expect the exact same thing goes for investing in people once you've hired them, but I'm not as good at that yet so don't have concrete advice.

Just generally, what would you have imparted on past-you?

  1. You suck at hiring, get better.
  2. If you're worried that someone is sad about something (especially something you did), ask them!
  3. Org structure matters a lot; friction, bad execution, etc. is often downstream of a bad division of responsibility between teams, teams having the wrong goals, etc. (Matters more once you are responsible for multiple teams)
  4. Accept that you hate telling people what to do, and manage in such a way that you don't have to. (Perhaps specific to me.)
  5. Hiring.
comment by Peterslattery · 2020-10-30T03:49:52.079Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey Lincoln and Ben, thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge. I am on my phone so this is going to be a short question/post.

Based on your interest in remote work I wanted to ask if you have any suggestions for optimising the performance of organisations and teams who are all remote/hybrid workers?

Two reasons: 1- This will probably be more common post covid19. 2- It is already common in EA related collaborations and organisations.

Judging from some of the comments below there may be blog posts from Ben that I missed. If so, I'd be happy with a quick response and links to anything deeper! Thanks!

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-30T14:22:56.944Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, we've been doing remote work in some form since 2014.

Ben mentioned meeting cadence, but I would add to that, designing meetings to build relationships. With remote, voice communication is much more deliberate and only happens when people make it happen. And human relationships aren't really built over Slack, they are built via voice. So we're thinking a lot about how to make more of the right sort of relationships happen. Some examples of this would be:

  • focusing 1:1s on relationship building with your lead (mostly by being careful to avoid the 1:1 being a "status update" meeting)
  • having weekly team meetings which are small enough (<10, preferably closer to 6), with time designated for everyone to contribute and share something about themselves. we've done this by going around and asking each person to answer a question, e.g. "how are you doing really?" to "what fictional place would you most like to visit?"
  • randomized 1:1 cross team chat events -- we use https://icebreaker.video/ (if this looks lame, don't write it off, it was surprisingly fun)

Beyond that, simpler stuff we do around communications transparency seems to help: nudge people strongly to put their message in a public Slack channel in almost all cases they intend to communicate with someone else. If you have a call to clarify something with someone, post the summary in slack. @-mention people when & only when you need them to read the thing you are writing. (If you have some tough feedback it's fine to keep it private, but even tough feedback can often be phrased in a way which is easy to share with others). We chose these defaults of communication transparency for the remote team because we wanted Slack to feel as much like a collaborative office as possible, in the sense that "stuff is happening, people are here and you can listen if you want to learn, and contribute if you have relevant knowledge." Many Slack teams default to "locking things behind DMs" in a way which makes that feeling a lot harder.

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-30T12:34:46.241Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'll let Lincoln add his as well, but here are a few things we do that I think are really helpful for this:

  1. We've found our bimonthly in-person "offsites" to be extremely important. For new hires, I often see their happiness and productivity increase a lot after their first retreat because it becomes easier and more fun for them to work with their coworkers.
  2. Having the right cadence of standing meetings (1-on-1s, team meetings, retrospectives, etc.) becomes much more important since issues are less likely to surface in "hallway" conversations.
  3. We try to make it really easy for people to upgrade conversations to video calls, both by frequently encouraging them to do so, and by making sure that every new hire has a "get to know you" call with as many coworkers as possible in their first few weeks.

(Your mileage may vary with these, of course! In particular, one relevant difference between Wave and other remote organizations is that I think Wave leans more heavily on "synchronous" calls relative to "asynchronous" Slack/email messages. This is important for us since 80%+ of us speak English as a third-plus language—it's easier to clear up misunderstandings on a call!)

comment by Linch · 2020-10-27T20:46:44.505Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some logistical questions:

1. Do either of you speak French or other languages common to Senegal and the Ivory Coast? If not, is the language barrier significant?

2. My understanding is that internet speeds and packet drops in some parts of Africa can be quite bad, in fact so much so that tech blogger Dan Luu used Ben's internet speeds in Ethiopia as a baseline for horrible internet on his web bloat article. How do you guys work around this (eg is there good internet in national capitals)? Is this a serious bottleneck to either programming or online engagement (eg reading EA or startup blogs)? Why or why not?

3. Relatedly, what are some important bottlenecks and challenges in programming/designing for an audience that has slower internet, worse hardware, and is presumably less literate and tech savvy? 

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-28T12:54:03.353Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  1. Yes, I speak French, although not quite fluently. It's enough to interact with customers and agents in a pinch, but when I go out to do serious user research, I bring someone from our team who has better language skills. The language barrier is significant, and I would say somewhat hurts our ability to design the best possible products -- we've done a lot to overcome it though, and it's not one of our biggest bottlenecks at this point. Now our team is big enough that I don't even do that much user research on my own, and all the product managers I manage speak fluent or native French, so it's easier for them :)

    Before Senegal, we did a lot of our initial user research in Ethiopia, which had a greater proportion of English-speakers, and it was easier to get started there.

(I'll let Ben answer the internet-related ones)

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-29T15:57:05.284Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

2. For personal work, it's annoying, but not a huge bottleneck—my internet in Jijiga (used in Dan's article) was much worse than anywhere else I've been in Africa. (Ethiopia has a monopoly, state-run telecom that provides among the worst service in the world.) You do have to put in some effort to managing usage (e.g. tracking things that burn network via Little Snitch, caching docs offline, minimizing Docker image size), but it's not terrible.

It is a sufficient bottleneck to reading some blogs that I wrote a simple proxy to strip bloat from web pages while I was in Senegal. But, those are mostly pathologically un-optimized blogs—e.g., their page weight was larger than the page-weight of the web-based IDE (Glitch) that I used to write the proxy.

3. Network latency has been a major bottleneck for our programming; for instance, we wrote a custom UDP-based transport layer protocol to speed up our app because TCP handshakes were too slow (I gave a talk on this if you're curious). We also adopted GraphQL relatively early in part because it helped us reduce request/response sizes and number of roundtrips.

On the UX design side, a major obstacle is that many of our users aren't particularly literate (let alone tech-literate). For instance, we often communicate with users via (in-app) voice recordings instead of the more traditional text announcements. More generally, it's is a strong forcing function to keep our app simple so that the UI can be easily memorized and reading is as optional as possible. It also pushes us towards having more in-person touch points with our users—for instance, agents often help new users download the app and learn how to use it, and pre-COVID we had large teams of distributors who would go to busy markets and sign people up for the app in-person.

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2020-10-29T09:17:27.586Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd be curious about the financial aspects: How close is Wave to profitability, has it been difficult to raise money, how much have you raised so far, do you need more funding, do you think the EA ecosystem should provide more funding opportunities for for-profits?

comment by Ben_Kuhn · 2020-10-29T14:46:24.116Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On EA providing for-profit funding: hard to say. Considerations against:

  • Wave looks like a very good investment by non-EA standards, so additional funding from EAs wouldn't have affected our fundraising very much (not sure how much this generalizes to other companies)
  • At later stages, this is very capital-intensive, so probably wouldn't make sense except as a thing for eg Open Phil to do with its endowment
  • Founding successful companies requires putting a lot of weight on inside-view considerations, a trait that's not particularly compatible with typical EA epistemology. (Notably, Wave gets the most of this trait from Drew, the CEO, who, while value-aligned with EA, finds it hard to engage with standard EA-style reasoning for this reason.)

Considerations in favor:

  • Helps keep the company controlled by value-aligned people (not sure how important this is, I think the founders of Wave will end up retaining full control)
  • If the companies are good, it doesn't actually cost anything except tying up capital for a while

Overall, I think it could make sense at early stages, where people matter more and metrics matter less (and capital goes further), but even at early stages there's probably much more of a talent constraint than a funding constraint.

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-29T14:48:46.760Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Wave business is currently unprofitable, although Sendwave is profitable and has been propping up the mobile money business. We have plenty of runway at this point, but we are likely years away from becoming profitable: mobile money is a very expensive business to start, mainly due to investing in the agent network.

In terms of what EA ecosystem should provide: the best thing would be better support for entrepreneurialism. Support from others probably comes in the form of social encouragement -- I think Founders Pledge is one notable EAish org working on this, as they don't just get people to pledge but are working on building a network of founders who can support each other in various ways.

I think the ecosystem needs a more coherent theory of corporations doing good with their mission -- in particular, there's a dominant cynical ideology on e.g. Hacker News, where people see that the purpose of a for-profit corporation is to "create shareholder value" and then they assume that the leadership must be sociopaths. In fact, the bulk of companies are trying to do something great for the world and a ton of them succeed at it. I don't know how to change this perception quickly, but maybe an army of social-media commenters would work :P

What about money? EAs giving founders a little money to quit their job and get started makes a lot of sense to me as well, but I recommend capping "free EA money" to for-profits around $50k or so: money is fungible, and you have good reasons to be in the competitive investment markets by that point -- those markets create useful feedback loops for both startups and investors that it doesn't make sense to diverge from.

comment by harriet · 2020-10-29T01:22:37.764Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Lincoln and Ben, thanks for doing this!

I'm interested on your perspective on the magnitude of the cost of 'learning to do business in Africa', relative to the potential impact of a start-up like Wave. Was ease of doing business a consideration when you were thinking about whether this idea had legs? Was it a factor in choosing which countries to operate in? 

I think private sector development in Africa seems quite promising from an EA perspective, but non-financial barriers to entry make this path significantly less accessible (especially for non-citizens). I am a foreigner working for the government in Ghana, and my impression from friends in the private sector is that improving transparency and simplicity of regulatory processes (business registration, paying taxes etc.) is super important. 

However, I don't have a good sense of how important 'ease of doing business' is relative to other barriers (eg. access to capital), or whether these barriers are significant enough to prevent start-ups getting off the ground in the first place. I realise this is all quite difficult to quantify but I'm keen to hear your thoughts! 

comment by lincolnq · 2020-10-29T14:18:20.178Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good questions.

Regarding general startup barriers:

Ultimately, there are very few barriers to getting started doing the things that you want to be doing anyway: for most countries, if you are from a developed country, you can fly there as a generic visitor and start talking to people. (once COVID is over anyway. note: I definitely do not recommend violating any visa laws.) My first trip to Ethiopia to investigate mobile money's potential was only a week long -- stayed in a hotel, made a few connections, talked to a bunch of people in a marketplace. A subsequent month-long trip was a bit more involved, but still required no special visa, just a longer stay in some kind of temporary housing.

Once you are pushing up against the limits to generic visitors (often 3 months or so), hopefully you've learned enough to know whether it will be worthwhile to invest further, at which time you probably need to hire a local lawyer to start investing in figuring out how to do whatever's next most important (maybe your visa; maybe creating a local company, etc).

I want to emphasize that startups are hard. Entrepreneurship of any kind is going to put barriers in front of you. The question is, do you want to let these random barriers block you? Cross-border paperwork is one example of such a barrier--but so is getting a bank account, getting licensed, negotiating an IP deal, or whatever junk you need to do to get started in almost any industry. Paul Graham writes about this in Schlep Blindness -- in some sense, value is created when you decide to plow forward and solve the problems in front of you, despite them looking annoying to solve.

So yes, I think these barriers are a blocker for many, but they don't have to be a blocker for you :)

Stepping back to our experience: we started in Ethiopia, which is not an easy place to do business by any metric. And we got very far before we had to stop (it's a place that is unusually hostile to foreign companies) -- far enough that we had learned significant lessons about how to start mobile money which we were able to port over to Senegal (which we chose partially due to "ease of doing business"). So while I wish we had not decided to spend so much time and energy there, I also don't 100% regret it. Plus, it was a lovely place to be and I have some wonderful friends from that era.

I think if a given place is the best place to get started, you should just go to that place and try not to over-index on "ease of doing business". However, if you have many similar-looking places to start, it will likely save you quite a bit of energy choosing a place where it's easier to do business!

Oh, and in terms of raising money, I think you should go to Silicon Valley for that (if you have a scalable enough business anyway) unless you have strong local connections.

comment by harriet · 2020-10-30T10:40:56.231Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great answer, thank you!