Posts

Comments

Comment by lincolnq on New Career Guidance Organization: Probably Good · 2020-11-09T19:12:31.719Z · EA · GW

I read your Overview and several of the other materials and feel there is a lack of examples. Your idea seems large and abstract, and even after reading a bunch of your materials, I don't feel that I really understand what your career guidance is -- or especially what it isn't.

The only hook I have to compare this to is 80000 Hours, and the comparison you seem to be pointing at is "80k but for more kinds of people". Instinctively, this feels too broad: 80k is presumably doing well in part because they chose to focus instead of do everything. To help with this, it might make sense to answer strategic questions like: if you were to merge with 80k, would it be better or worse for the world? why did 80k choose their focus one way, and why are you choosing differently? What sorts of impact can you make that 80k will never be able to achieve?

Comment by lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-11-03T13:43:33.577Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-30T14:22:56.944Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-30T13:30:02.126Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-29T14:48:46.760Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-29T14:33:22.062Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-29T14:18:20.178Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-28T14:26:08.356Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-28T12:58:45.311Z · EA · GW

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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-28T12:54:03.353Z · EA · GW
  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 lincolnq on We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA! · 2020-10-28T12:45:56.801Z · EA · GW

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 on Burnout: What is it and how to Treat it. · 2018-11-08T10:34:54.891Z · EA · GW

Thanks Elizabeth, this is really useful. I'm happy you said such nice things about Wave, but I don't know that they're fully deserved; I worry about burnout (both in myself and our employees) constantly. This is great though.

Comment by lincolnq on Giving What We Can is still growing at a surprisingly good pace · 2018-09-14T09:30:33.745Z · EA · GW

I think you're right that hiring your first staff/online signup put you onto the exponential curve. And you didn't fall off of the exponential until you de-emphasized it -- if you fit the exponential from 2014-2017 and extrapolate to today, you might hit something like 8000 members. So if you think staying on-curve seems plausible if you were to have continued working on it, I would guess that de-emphasizing growth still cost you users, even as you continued to grow linearly.

Comment by lincolnq on Ask MIRI Anything (AMA) · 2016-10-19T15:54:15.208Z · EA · GW

What do you think of OpenAI?

In particular, it seems like OpenAI has both managed to attract both substantial technical talent and a number of safety-conscious researchers.

1) It seems that, to at least some degree, you are competing for resources -- particularly talent but also "control of the AI safety narrative". Do you feel competitive with them, or collaborative, or a bit of both? Do you expect both organizations to be relevant for 5+ years or do you expect one to die off? What, if anything, would convince you that it would make sense to merge with them? What would convince them it was a good idea to merge with you?

2) Assuming you don't merge, how does OpenAI's existence change your strategy if at all?

Comment by lincolnq on Is the community short of software engineers after all? · 2016-10-09T11:45:15.622Z · EA · GW

At Wave, we offer market-ish for a startup ($90-180k for engineers depending on experience, plus equity). That said, several of the engineers we've hired took a substantial pay cut in nominal terms (usually from Google) to join us. Hopefully the equity will equalize or exceed the cut over time, but that's always a risk. That said, I'm skeptical of anyone who says that an engineer "needs" a 150k salary to be happy; the marginal value of each extra $10k seems to drop dramatically around $70k and maybe more like around $100-120k if you have a family.

Comment by lincolnq on Is the community short of software engineers after all? · 2016-10-09T11:37:27.622Z · EA · GW

(I'm one of the founders of Wave.) Thanks for mentioning us!

We have indeed found it tricky to hire engineers. Our EA pedigree makes it easier though, since lots of people want to make an impact with their career; as does being a full distributed team so we can hire people from anywhere in the world. We're exclusively hiring via our networks right now and the EA community has been quite helpful for us. Most of the engineers we've hired had heard of EA before joining, although I think not all. I don't think many of them identify as explicitly EA (though a few do, myself included).

When we've rejected engineering candidates from the EA community, it's been mainly for technical reasons (not enough experience or velocity doing the things we do), followed by cultural homogeneity risk. To expand on the latter risk: we often reject people who seem "too EA" because we are afraid of importing too much cultural baggage from an existing community - it would feel outgroupish if you didn't know much about EA but there were all these EA memes flying around the slack channel. So far we've mostly avoided that.

That said, I don't think anyone should self-exclude from our hiring process for being too EA; we can decide that for ourselves. Get in touch if you might be interested.

Comment by lincolnq on $500 prize for anybody who can change our current top choice of intervention · 2016-05-13T08:38:18.010Z · EA · GW

I'm concerned about the SMS reminder thing for a weird reason: it looks too easy.

A number of reasons this is concerning -- not sure which apply in this case since I don't fully understand the process by which this list was created, but off the top of my head here they are:

  1. The idea is so simple and "obvious" (yes, I know, retrospect) that there are probably lots of people who have tried various forms of it.
  2. You may be subject to biases which cause it to look better than it is because you want the best interventions to be easy to execute.
  3. There are no (obvious) schleps, which may be a corollary of #1 or #2, but it still seems concerning. From Paul Graham's schlep blindness essay: "Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people's broken code. Maybe that's possible, but I haven't seen it." Swap "money" for "QALYs" and "startups" for "organizations". (http://paulgraham.com/schlep.html)

Again, this may indeed be a good idea despite the above. But my alarm bells are going off.

Edit: Further thoughts -- unsure if this ever could become a GiveWell top charity. It seems like the "room for more funding" isn't that high, because the impact of this project doesn't seem blocked on money.

Comment by lincolnq on EA Open Thread: October · 2015-10-11T02:45:01.549Z · EA · GW

I have a fear/uncertainty/doubt about excessive cause-prioritization as a focus of the Effective Altruism movement's message.

Let's say Tess goes to an Ivy League school and wants to make an impact through work in education. She does Teach for America and teaches underprivileged kids in the US for a few years, and gradually rises within the schools she works at until she is an administrator and can allocate resources for an entire district. Because she's very good at it and deeply cares about her work, she ends up making an enormous impact with her career, transforming a bad public school system into a great one, and substantially positively affecting the lives of thousands of kids per year.

I think the EA movement would disapprove of the early steps in this career path. So if Tess discovered the current EA movement too early in her career, she would either become disenchanted with EA, or "drop out" of TFA and instead go earn-to-give, or something like that -- i.e., follow a career path which is more approved by EAs, but ultimately less impactful. Of course, this would be justified since she would have no way to know that she has the "plot armor" to succeed at her original path. But by dropping out of something she is passionate about and doing earning-to-give, she is sacrificing her potential upside through the passion/resonance she has with her work.

I guess I worry about a lot of people saying such-and-such isn't really EA because it doesn't maximize a narrow ideal of "effectiveness", and that can either turn people off of EA, or turn them off of careers in which they might actually have real upside through resonance.

Comment by lincolnq on EA Open Thread: October · 2015-10-11T01:56:52.135Z · EA · GW

I think the default explanation is that it's surprisingly ineffective in practice to try for stuff that requires overcoming intelligent opposition. Obviously there are cases where this doesn't apply, but it does seem reasonably sensible as a default, both from a decision-theoretic perspective and a practical perspective. You quote a 50x impact multiplier; I suppose it depends on how smart you think the opposition is, but it doesn't seem unreasonable that a smart opposition would be able to reduce your impact by 50x.

Comment by lincolnq on Request for Feedback: Researching global poverty interventions with the intention of founding a charity. · 2015-05-13T14:26:45.539Z · EA · GW

But all those costs of RCTs are clearly worth it. Expensive? If your intervention is vaguely promising then EAs will throw enough money at you to get started. Time? Better get started now. Replication? More cost, EAs will fund. Outsource? Higher quality, EAs will fund.

Comment by lincolnq on Effective Altruism Blogs · 2014-11-29T00:19:30.556Z · EA · GW

Yes, it should be http://www.roxanneheston.com

Comment by lincolnq on How a lazy eater went vegan · 2014-10-08T02:28:26.687Z · EA · GW

Currently, I beemind (using a Do Less goal) "non-vegan meals per week". This has provided the mild positive pressure for me to choose to be vegan for most of my meals but allow myself to eat a few meals a week with friends without paying a social penalty.

Comment by lincolnq on Brainstorming thread: ideas for large EA funders · 2014-09-30T05:07:00.102Z · EA · GW

Ok, fair enough.

Edit: I changed my mind. I think Harvard EA is probably a great example of low hanging fruit. I don't know for sure whether someone else would have started it if you hadn't, certainly not anytime soon, and it probably does make an impact (by increasing the "surface area" of EA).

(old comment which I no longer believe: "My tone came off wrong, didn't mean to accuse you personally of ineffectiveness in side projects. Maybe you're an exception -- I haven't been following your projects closely -- but in general, I tend to think that it's really really hard to do a really good job, the kind where one could hope to move the needle on a global scale, unless one is constantly obsessing over the problems.")

Comment by lincolnq on Brainstorming thread: ideas for large EA funders · 2014-09-29T21:13:37.404Z · EA · GW

I suspect you are not "really trying" / putting in an exceptional effort into your side projects. Nascent EA projects seem like entrepreneurship in that the low hanging fruit tends to be picked, so they consistently require an exceptional, devoted effort in order to actually make the desired impact. If the person who's working on an EA project is not devoting their life to it, I would generally expect the project to deliver average or below-average returns.

Basically, I think Ben Todd is right in that EA projects need devoted, exceptional management.

Further, I suspect some of these EA projects could be funded in a way which would generate a return for the fund. Many EA projects could be for-profit -- maybe you would require the project to demonstrate a plausible opportunity for profit, at least in the early stages of the fund?

Comment by lincolnq on Open Thread · 2014-09-16T14:51:00.471Z · EA · GW

Facebook is a terrible medium for discussion, so I hope everyone, or at least all the cool people, come over here and we have an active community. I don't know if this will happen. I think this forum would be a good place for links with discussion and not just blog posts.

Comment by lincolnq on Open Thread · 2014-09-16T14:49:20.537Z · EA · GW

Make an extra effort to upvote people who make good contributions. There are a lot of people who are below the karma threshold for posting (including myself).

Comment by lincolnq on Open Thread · 2014-09-15T19:27:48.259Z · EA · GW

Obviously, if I'm going to die unless I eat that apple in the next ten minutes, the apple has extremely high value now and zero after 10 minutes.

Extending that idea, you are integrating across all the probabilities that the apple will become useless or reduce in value between now and when you're going to get it.

Why is it exponential? Maybe stretching a bit, but I would guess that the apple changes in value according to a poisson process 1 where the dominating force is "the apple becomes useless to you".

Comment by lincolnq on Open Thread · 2014-09-15T19:11:48.258Z · EA · GW

Anti-aging focuses specifically on extending the "healthspan" of people (starting in the developed world, presumably) past the current point where age-related degenerative diseases start to eat into your QALYs.

It's different from disease prevention because it operates higher than at the level of individual diseases, hoping to solve the underlying reasons why age is so strongly contributory to those diseases.

Anti-aging also tends to have absurdly high RFMF compared to most disease research, since it's a "weird" idea that most people don't like.

It also seems high impact: it would serve as a multiplier for any earlier-in-life health improvements as well as allowing some high-skill people to keep contributing to society (e.g., researchers who have accumulated lots of valuable knowledge and experience).

Comment by lincolnq on What small things can an EA do? · 2014-09-15T16:21:17.402Z · EA · GW

Practice thinking about EA related stuff in your daily life.

Even if you don't always take the action, even just thinking about it can start to build the mental patterns which you will be able to follow later.

  • What food would I order today if I were vegan?
  • What job would I take today if I were earning to give?
  • How would a utilitarian analyze this ethical dilemma?