Hi all. Other dark week. The simple truth is that we must stop selling guns to random citizens.
In 1727, 21-year-old Benjamin Franklin invited, as he put it“My most brilliant friend[s] to the Mutual Improvement Club. He named his new club “Junto” after the Spanish word for “join”. On Friday evenings, Franklin and a dozen members of the Junta (all men, of course) met in a Philadelphia tavern to discuss topics of morality, politics, or national philosophy, debating “in a sincere spirit of seeking the truth … without predilection for argument.” or desire to win.
Nearly 300 years later, I approached a study group inspired by Franklin’s conversations. It consisted of budding technology founders discussing Web3. The virtual participants were all young and very serious, and all seemed to have completed their assigned technical readings on topics such as token speed and liquidity mining project space. Despite the fact that the meeting took place just at the moment when the stablecoin Luna exploded, seminarians dismissed this crisis in the crypto world as a passing distraction. They agreed that it was important to create products that people want to use and not play games with tokens.
Such sober long glances can be a defining characteristic South Park Commons, an ambitious incubator program that has been running this ongoing workshop and many others like it for seven years, including fireside talks with tech luminaries, panel discussions and demo days. To date, SPC has had relatively little exposure to the public, despite launching over 150 startups and investing in companies totaling $35 billion. The low profile matches the high tone of the project: in a tech ecosystem where ideas and seed funding are almost simultaneous, SPC is focusing on giving its 450 members a thoughtful foundation in a particular area, as well as an understanding of societal impact, well before the first elevator pitch. “People come to SPC because they need time to be sure what they will do next,” says Samantha Whitmore, a machine learning specialist who attended the Web3 workshop and is close to using this knowledge to launch his own company.
The creators of the program are Aditya Agarwal and Ruchi Sangvi, who met and married as early Facebook employees — Sangvi was the first newsfeed program manager — and took on leadership roles at Dropbox. In 2015, taking a breather, Sanghvi recognized the void in the world of high-octane startups – a haven for talented tech entrepreneurs to gain deeper knowledge and experience in their field while pondering their next company. The couple decided to create such a startup incubator. They considered the Junto sessions as one of their models, as well as Franklin’s exhortation that “great haste leads to waste.” In other incubators, the number of founders quickly increases from zero to 60. The SPC focuses on prequel territory, raising members from -1 to zero in their free time. Along the way, the founders acquired knowledge that made them better leaders, perhaps even less obsessed with being the next Travis Kalanick or Adam Neumann. This is what Franklin could create if he were a venture capitalist.
“In the tech industry, everyone usually moves to another company or creates a startup and spins it in three months,” says Sangvi. “But deep technologies take a little time. It seemed like no one was allocating the time and space to create such companies.”
Like Franklin’s Junto Club, SPC started out small and informal, with about 10 people at the Sanghvi dining table. But the meetings quickly moved to a dedicated location near San Francisco’s South Park (hence the nickname) when the project officially launched in 2016. Now there is also an office in the Soho area of New York. Sanghvi and Agarwal have created a membership structure that requires idealistic, young and tech-savvy applicants to commit time and intention. However, they reject nine out of 10 applicants. In 2018, the SPC began funding some of its members, hoping that some of the money will go to a charitable foundation to support the project. The SPC also encourages its members, if they are accredited investors, to participate in funding. More recently, SPC launched a fellowship program that gives $400,000 to potential founders mulling over what might turn out to be a business plan; when and if they do, the money turns into an investment.
It might seem that the SPC approach implicitly rebukes the approach of fast incubators such as Y combinator. But these two models are not mutually exclusive. At a recent meeting at the SPC office in Soho – with a panel discussion titled “How to Build Trust and Build a Company” – I got to know the co-founder Company NFT who painstakingly developed the concept at SPC and then joined Y Combinator for a product sprint, unveiling it at Demo Day last March.
As you might guess, cryptocurrencies are a big topic in the SPC these days. The company has even created a decentralized autonomous organization to manage some of its investments. Sangvi admits that even some members of the SPC wondered if the operation was becoming too focused on the blockchain. But she considers it a normal part of technology cycles. “Technology comes in waves,” she says. “Now it’s the wave of crypto, but in 2017 it was the wave of AI.”
Still, it is interesting that the author Poor Richard’s Almanac made from crypto. One hint from 1733: “Fools make feasts, but smart people eat them.” As for Junto Franklin’s club, he suffered from growing pains that the SPC could learn from. As rumors spread, friends of the members continued to push for them to join. Franklin was against expansion, but offered an alternative: each member of the team should create their own club, adhering to the principles of Junto without branding. This had mixed results, as many minor clubs failed.
Sangvi says that while she hopes South Park Commons will make its mark on the world, she doesn’t want to spread too thin even as it expands from San Francisco to other cities. “I want SPC to stay individual,” she says. “To make sure it’s not a transaction or a machine. A key legacy will be giving technologists the space and support to think about problems and solutions at a deeper level.” As the tech world faces a possible recession, slow start-ups may be just the thing.
South Park Commons was out of the picture until recently. In 2007, this was still the case for his now-famous Y Combinator antithesis, which seemed new when I wrote about it for Newsweek. At that time, YC hosted a dozen startups as part of a three-month program. There are now over 400 in the lot, with each company at stake for $500,000.
Y Combinator is an American Idol and WIRED magazine. The inspiration came from Paul Graham, an energetic 42-year-old who himself had a monumental start-up experience, selling his company Via-web, an e-commerce app, to Yahoo at the height of the boom, enriching himself and his friends. In the spring of 2005, he gave a talk at Harvard that was Horace Greeley’s broadband update (“Get Started, Young Man!”), then realized he could help make it happen for others. He rounded up his former partners—Trevor Blackwell, who is now building robots, and Robert Morris, who briefly rose to fame in the 1980s as the author of a virus that nearly shut down the Internet—and hired another friend, an investment banker named Jessica Livingston. They mapped out a plan of operation: out of hundreds of applications, YC partners selected the top 30 prospects, held idol-style auditions to select about a dozen companies for the program. Each startup is given $5,000 plus $5,000 per founder (a startup with two founders will receive $15,000). This money covers accommodation, meals and equipment during the program. In return, Y Combinator (named after the math function) gets a cut of the startup, usually 5 or 6 percent.
Some critics scoff that Y Combinator’s investment is minuscule for this amount of capital. But this is an unparalleled opportunity – a full immersion in Silicon Valley startup culture, Graham’s advice and a fast track to the best angel investors and venture capital funds. When Graham names the winners, the founders have only five minutes to make a decision. “If people turn us down,” he says, “we think they failed an IQ test.”
Konstantin asks: “What will happen to the world if we run out of electricity?”
Thanks Konstantin. As I suspect, you know that electricity is not the same as butter or infant formula – it just doesn’t end there. Because we get our electricity from multiple sources — mostly fossil fuels, but also nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar — it appears that even if the oil market collapses, we will eventually be able to replace it. I suspect you are asking what can happen in that time. How did the people of Texas know when their power grid broke in 2021, even a brief outage can have catastrophic consequences. Phones won’t charge, air conditioners are useless and toilets don’t flush. We might even skip the This Is Us season finale! A few days later, life takes an apocalyptic turn, and we wonder how much our supposedly advanced civilization hangs by a thin thread.
Could a century of progress be reversed by some sort of throwback scenario where electricity is not available for an extended period? The fate of most of us, and perhaps all of us, will depend on society as a whole working together to ensure that everyone has access to basic services in our new primitive civilization. Given our current state of division, nativism, and, at least in the US, people armed to the teeth, it doesn’t look all that great. But an optimist might suggest that, like electricity, human kindness is not something that just “dries up” and that people will rally during the catastrophe you envision. If you want more speculation on this, check out hundreds of recently published novels that envision a dystopian future. Many of them include green sprouts of hope.
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Credit: www.wired.com /