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Aesthetics Finance Internet Culture

Day 128 and Financial Aesthetics

Humans have imbued money with so much significance over the centuries that financial spaces (merchants, traders, banks, trading floors, brokers, hedge funds) show us the style of their times better than almost anywhere else. Even when power centers have shunned money directly (democracies), and sometimes even because of it, money has dictated the soft powers of perception and relevance.

This makes investigating the styles of finance particularly fun as their signifiers tend to hum with unsaid anger, greed and resentment. Sexy stuff generally as we fixate on ever finer granular details to indicate that our taste shows us to be worthy of holding power (and hopefully money).

There is a reason popular culture loves the Hollywood treatment of Wall Street. Even if some of the most iconic touchstones like American Psycho were meant as dark comedies we didn’t perceive them at way. We were supposed to laugh at the business card scene not get turned on. When Gordon Gecko bellowed “Greed is Good” we were supposed to know he was the villain. We didn’t. We don’t particularly like watching these heros get their comeuppance. Giovanni Ribisi in Boiler Room ratting out the pump and dump scheme doesn’t leave a very satisfied audience but oh how we loved the second act when the gambling prodigy finds a way to go “legitimate” and become a millionaire. Just ignore the crash at the end.

Americans in particular love to fetishize our villains. Our media is littered with anti-heroes that over time become our actual heroes. We throw jealous narratives at the preppy alpha males but love it when their power is subsumed by someone who plays their games better than them. We are riveted when a protagonist emerges that knows how to best the alphas at their own game and emerges victorious. Just be careful you don’t overplay your hand and remain a villain (sorry Martin Shkreli you deserved better) as we need you to be seen as the good guy. It’s a delicate tension.

Think poor savant Bobby Axelrod in Billions becoming the titan of industry. Sure you know he didn’t start out as a classic alpha male (that hard knock upbringing) but I doubt you could tell at the end as he styles himself in the cashmere of his former enemies. Sure now it’s a hoodie but that’s a small inversion of the original sweater. The WSJ has an extensive shoppable feature on the style of the show. Now that’s cultural relevance. Turns out we do want cosplay Carl Icahn or Bill Ackman.

I’m particularly excited about the aesthetics of the next phase of financial heroes emerging from the financialization of cryptocurrency. Scrappy upstarts that want to make a more just and free financial system free of cronyism and accessible to the entire world is a beautiful narrative arc. The chaos of outsiders making the system their own has an ending we all know. You might start out in a tee-shirt and hoodie like Axe but beware the creeping encroachment of luxury goods looking to ride on your newfound wealth.

Turning doge gains into jokey NFT art is just a hop skip and a jump away from getting subsumed into the Art Basel scene. Lest you one day turn up and wake up in a new Bugatti. And while right now it may seem funny to buy a Lamborghini remember the narrative the world wants. You may just claim the mantle of a new kind of power. Or the Feds will come for you. Have fun out there!

Categories
Finance Internet Culture Startups

Day 119 and Status Narratives

I’ve mostly worked inside insular industries. There is something about disdaining a club and then slowly forcing it to adapt to me that I find appealing. My handle on Twitter “AlmostMedia” wasn’t actually meant to be a joke about the ephemeral nature of timeline driven content (though it is now) but was an inside joke about my first personal blog.

I wasn’t as comfortable being an outsider when I was younger so a common theme on my blog was about how I “almost” achieved insider totems and status but never quite did it right. I never felt like I was stylish enough, cool enough, rich enough or had enough status symbols. Now I kinda laugh at myself as I realize semiotics is as driven by the out group as the in group. I always had the power to be enough.

But thanks to this insecurity about being “almost” but not quite right I’ve achieved a pretty valuable skill set. I’m able to see what is coming, what will resonate, and most importantly what will have status. I’m not always great at the timing (I’m often too early) but I am very good at nudging narratives into the popular conception. I call this the Thursday Styles problem. Timing what is next is as much about knowing what is coming as when it will hit and doing what you can to control the pace.

I particularly like fashion and startups as as success is often a Thursday Style problem. Status narratives are driven by people who like to show off that they knew something cool was coming. Think of the trope of venture capitalists publishing a post about when they first met a founder timed with a company’s IPO. Music used to be like this too with snobs insisting “I knew them before they were cool” when a band blew up.

Status narratives often revolve around being first. Much of crypto is obsessed with showing off how early they were while also insisting to everyone that “it’s never too late” as they need to drive a status narrative that brings in more adoption. Being early generally only matters if you are also still around when it’s “late” and you always need more people to push you further into early. Even if most of the benefits are seen by late adoption we all want to feel like we won the status game of being early. But it’s important to remember we are all a little too early or too late. We are almost right. Which is enough for plenty of success.

Categories
Finance Startups

Day 96 and Founders Who Don’t Want to Be CEO

My Twitter has been going viral with reply guy friendly topics like taxing high earners and public vaccine demand so I needed to get some niche startup content in today to clear my palette of the reply guys. So I’m going to think about founders, professional management teams and venture’s role in supporting founders. You know, a topic that won’t have strong feelings.

A non zero number of my founder. friends would probably pay to be extracted from certain stages of startup growth, especially later stage scaling, but somehow being founder friendly has come to mean keeping these founders in charge all the way through. Many excellent zero to one founders have to actively change their entire style, skill set and value proposition once they get a company past about employee 25. Obviously there are many inflection points in startup growth and many founders relish the opportunity for constant skill growth. But plenty of early stage founders hate stuff like Human Resources and operations. Shit a good chunk hate sales and marketing too.

Early stage work is a speciality. It’s a professional niche and hard to train folks for as it’s part personality and part dysfunction. I think we should value early stage founding for its disproportionate impact on value creation instead of forcing these early stage specialists to train to become generalists, great managers or scaling operators. Of course it’s more likely they will fail once you take them away from the stage where they are genius.

Recently a friend of mine who works in venture said of another investor “oh that VC is old school” and clarified it meant they like to bring in executive teams for their B rounds companies. Which honestly sounds like a dream to me. There has to be a middle ground between firing visionary but scattered founders once they’ve raised and trying to coach a mediocre manager into great growth CEO.

I think we should normalize founders being churned in on new ideas rapidly and churned out on scaling quickly. Let them get back to founding. Let them create more faster. Great scaling venture funds can provide more value by bringing in a scaling leadership team and easing the founder out to areas where they can focus on vision and direction. I say let the professionals run your team.

Obviously some founders dream of going from idea all the way to IPO but I don’t know if it’s the dominant path they desire. It could just be one of many. I have very little interest personally in shit like operations, process and scaling. I literally married a COO rather get good at it (insert joke about literally anything to avoid therapy). However it shakes out the “founder friendly” venture firm will remain. What it means to be founder friendly may need to be rethought.

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Aesthetics Chronicle Finance Internet Culture

Day 89 and The Real Fake Fendi

What is real? Do originals exist? Can we determine the source of creative genesis when we stew in the folklore of cultural memetics? A knockoff has its own reality steeped in the accretion of culture.

I was once was asked by a tourist for direction’s to find “a real fake Fendi” when I lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I was honestly stumped by this inquiry. Was there a fake that had inherent realness that other knockoffs did not possess? Was there a vendor who sold the most authentic mimicry of Fendi which the tourist wished to find? I had no clue how to answer. Did they mean the realness one sees on the catwalks overseen by RuPaul? But which kind of realness? The creation that evokes the spirit of its inspiration? A realness so over the top and yet absolutely true to its essence. Or perhaps the blunt direct feedback that no construction no matter how convincing is the original artifact. Is is serving realness? I honestly didn’t know. I just told them Canal was one block north.

But perhaps authenticity isn’t the issue. In drag authenticity is manufactured. In fashions’ knockoff districts the question of authenticity is a layered confect of replication adhering to the aesthetics of the original. In some cases it actually is the original conveniently lost from some faraway inventory count. The real fake Fendi might in fact be real.

I bring this all up because in Illegal.Auction’s second collection we have curated a selection of the most outrageous instances of authenticity being the commodity sold in the NFT space. None of what we have posted are originals. They are all knockoffs. But like the real fake Fendi how can you tell? What makes something original in digital spaces. All is perfectly replicable. And no we have no new answers from Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction either. But maybe you will. You can buy a token of these real fake NFTs. Like the real Fake Fendi realness is in the eye of the beholder.

Categories
Chronicle Finance Internet Culture

Day 74 and Unfinished Thoughts

First off I’ll admit that I don’t really feel like writing today but I’ve committed to “putting pen to paper” every day so I’m stuck with it. I have a dozen topics I actually want to discuss but I don’t feel like I’ve got it in me to be coherent.

I’ve been thinking about how the idea that all property rights are a gradient from violence to grift to institutional legitimacy and this is just how civilization codifies worth. I’m particularly interested in it because we’ve reached the NFT is a grift stage of the discourse but I’m not at all convinced that NFTs are a grift for the reasons people think.

And while I’ve made really elaborate jokes about NFTs, finance, crypto and semiotics with illegal.auction I’ve noticed people with vested interests in this category working out, really don’t want anyone to joke about it. It’s likely wise as we all have varying degrees of horror that property rights is always some degree of grift working towards legitimacy.

That we don’t like to touch on it amuses me. I suspect that the internal logic of wealth and money as always being abstraction guarded by state violence is just too much for folks. It hurts too much. It makes us angry. Surely money, wealth and inherent worth must exist in a moral framework? Good hard working people are rewarded with wealth right? If you want a truly excellent read on the subject of property rights, violence and investing I recommend this essay on emerging market investing and Deadwood by Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory

Another topic I also want to dig into is environmental impact of crypto and energy equity but I don’t think I’ve got all the facts. I’m still very much in a skeptic phase when it comes to moralizing over the energy usage of crypto. As if crypto brought about the carbon apocalypse on its own.

I’m sure “crypto used a lot of energy” is a valid criticism until you remember we subsidize monsoon crops in deserts (they grow rice in California ffs) and we ship plastic trinkets across the globe while a plutocratic elite consumes the majority of our resources. Maybe moralizing about impact should come with some caveats on how many lives it might improve? I haven’t seen much discourse on this topic as American media leans towards a generic tech skepticism stance at the moment which is making them lean in on attacks as it’s the wrong people who are pushing the crypto agenda. But we deserve more than “environmental impact bad” like maybe it’s a net good to use this energy to decentralize finance?

By allowing the global south and the unbanked to have access to capital instruments we actually discover this is the best use of our energy resources and may distribute wealth more equitably. I don’t know yet and I’m not even confident I can find relevant statistics that won’t overstate one tribal position over the other.

At any rate none of these thoughts are coherent or useful yet but I’m thinking about how we codify wealth and property and what energy usages might be valuable for a more equitable planet. Don’t cancel me please.

Categories
Aesthetics Chronicle Finance Internet Culture Media Startups

Day 62 And Who Can Make Art

My ego dislikes debate, but my heart leaps at tension.

Over the weekend, my friend Phil and I decided to make a functional art installation called Illegal.Auction. The premise is simple: we are selling Fungible Tokens (or NFTs) of Culture. 

Unsettled ideas of generation and representations colliding with abstractions like finance are important issues both culturally and practically.

Art is for itself, so who cares either way. A certain dogmatic insistence that “medium is the message” is pervasive in the critiques. Are movies different than books? I don’t think they have anything to do with the price of milk. It reminds me of the classic Annie Hall scene (speaking of artistic intent and harm) where Marshal McLuhan explodes on a chattering group “you know nothing of my work.” Woody Allen’s character concludes the scene if only real life were like this. Well on Twitter you can recreate this scene everyday!

It is funny because commentary is distinct from creation. And a lot of people have takes on McLuhan that he himself doesn’t agree with. But who cares right? Interpretation of art is ostensibly art.

It’s very interesting to see just how angry people get about the worth and value of culture in particular. As if it’s some monstrosity to comment on the abstract financial value of some creation with worth that cannot be extracted.

If it were so easy to make value judgments about art then we would trade it on the Chicago exchange like pork bellies and orange juice. Not that we don’t already sell art and trade it and frankly it has been a massive tension through the history of human creation how we value that work, but now many have decided to insist that art is non-fungible. Not interchangeable on a one to one basis like an apple. And yet we are acting like everything can be valued and traded so easily with NFTs. By making art tradeable on exchanges, we have made some thing inherently non-fungible, fungible.

This is ultimately where Illegal.Auction came from. These conversations are important and transformative. That we choose to represent the tensions with representations of reproductions of jpgs of art is part of the art installation. That it is a functional sale is in inherent to the tension.

There is a part of me that is really worried that because I am not a practicing artist that is paid for work or represented in a gallery, that I don’t have a right to comment on these issues. I am a technologist and I do work in finance and the overlap of disciplines makes this an inter-disciplinary question in my mind. It seems like some people disagree with my right to create art (and certainly the morality of remuneration).

But if we insist that only artists can make art I don’t have any right to make installations remixing software and representations. But I’m not sure anyone reading this is comfortable with that world. I am not.

I think people want there to be simple yes no questions to these things. Is it legal? Did you steal? Is it a transformative remixing of a cultural artifact? Is it worth $1 million? And the truth is is that there is no easy answer to what political system is best or how much some thing is worth. Trillion dollar industries are based around the fact that we don’t have clear answers. Irate commentary doesn’t help any of us understand the infinite questions of worth and creation. It is good to do and helps further understanding but its crucial to remember indignation and moralizing is a function of ego.

Personally I don’t think that wealth has any moral value. I don’t want to have to be wealthy in order to be valuable. Or if a piece of art I make does make money do you have a right to tell me it is objectionable because this isn’t how you make money? I guess you do. Whether you can stop me from doing it is a central questions for the ages and also literally why it is important to create pieces like Illegal.Auction in the first place.

This commentary I think is worth having. Not whether speculative infinite land grabs with financial instruments make you worth more to billionaires. They probably do. That’s fine! I think people are mostly offended by the idea that non-artists can make art. Especially if a transaction takes place. If we had stamped illegal on the jpgs and blocked out NOT ART on them would it have made it better? Conceptually I’m not sure that that’s true and probably reflects the viewer’s own sense of value and worth more than a legal, political or moral reality. Also I personally think it cheapens the point just to make concessions to dogmatic insistence on ownership in a space that isn’t settled because frankly it cannot be.

Much of the narrative and coverage around NFTs is that they delineate ownership, value and origination more cleanly. I’d argue that they are actually having the opposite effect. NFT’s are ripping away edifice and abstractions that we use to assign value and worth. And that makes people uncomfortable.

Categories
Finance Internet Culture

Day 61 and The Semiotics of Ownership

I wrote a lot today. Like a LOT. Over the weekend my dear friend and erstwhile cofounder decided to make an interactive art installation to explore our interest in non-fungible tokens. We’ve been watching the explosion of interest in digital art, sports memorabilia, and tickets. We had a lot of questions about how value is created, traded and ultimately decided.

We typically learn best by building and doing so we thought rather than get mired in spammy YouTube tutorials and long essays we would build our own minimum bid auction for a set of NFTs. Phil Leif thought a funny domain would be illegal.auction and we were off to the races.

We both share a love for Matt Levine and his running gag that everything is securities fraud. This leads to lots of funny discussions about reprehensible behavior that is totally legal and perfectly fine decisions that somehow end up being felonies. The American financial system!

It turns out that it’s relatively simple for a developer or even someone nominally technical to mint an NFT using platforms like rarible. Putting together our own site was the same basic stack you’d expect for a simple web app that sells e-commerce things. We thought a web 1 Craigslist aesthetic fit the bill.

The last step was what on earth would we sell. Too many jokes have been made a lot bad art, dumb art and meme art. In fact, the entire concept of art seemed less interesting than a discussion of what constitutes art and how removed we are from the source of creation in a financialization scenario where something that is supposedly unique is made fungible. So we thought screw it, this is clearly a meditation on art, representation and the semiotics of value. So why not go all in on the satire? Why not ask why finance is so keep to manufacture another esoteric asset class with some technically novel structure. Is this good? Is it bad? Who knows. We aren’t even sure if it is a “thing” or not the further you remove it from reality. It’s just all so abstract.

This the first unsanctioned sale of art representations was born. Featuring a diverse selection of copies of contemporary and street art for new and seasoned collectors alike. The sale includes unauthorized digital images.

We went pretty far down the semiotics rabbit hole in our artists statement.

The auction works. You can buy representations of art thanks to a non-fungible token. The token is legitimate and shows just how early you got in on this. And it’s pretty darn funny. Except for all the people who have some ideas about IP law. Even though it’s pretty clear we mean this as satire and they should really jump into the discourse on what it means to own a unique item that has been reduced to a hash on a blockchain. Financialization gets pretty weird and we would all benefit from a discussion of the cultural foundations of ownership.

Categories
Chronicle Finance Internet Culture

Day 57 and The Fungible

Finance commodifies. The value of one thing must be stacked against the value of another. We can put “a thing” in a ledger and trade it for another thing.

Making something that is not a commodity into a piece of property that can be valued, traded, sold, or transferred is the natural order of financialization.

Not content with turning food or labor into commodities, we have created financial products to divine literally anything into an asset that can be owned, traded, or hedged against.

We’ve decided on fancy vocabulary words like fungible to make the basics of human reality seem more exciting. Or maybe just to charge more for it. 2 and 20 requires a bit of song and dance I suppose.

Fungible is a funny word too. Interchangeable makes more sense. It has more inherent meaning when brought to the context of finance. Sure, we bristle at the idea that our labor, our time, our creations are interchangeable, but we assign values to them so human creations largely have value that are easily exchanged. Finance commodifies. Just because you are unique doesn’t mean your creations aren’t things.

This week we sell non-fungible tokens (nft’s). A financial person might stop and think “ok, but I prefer the fungible, as I myself trade interchangeable things”. And this isn’t, it’s right there in the name. And if I’m not, I damn well better be doing it with something that has a price we agree on like a dollar or an ounce of gold.

And yet here we are with the NFT. Art lands in this category. It is unique. It is non-fungible (say that at a party and see how fast people walk away). It is unique it and cannot be made interchangeable. And yet we sell set.

So how do we trade it? How do we assign value? This contradiction tickles the minds of thoses who have aggregated many interchangeable items with agreed upon values. The rich I mean. The rich enjoy the tension inherent in a thing not being a fully agreed upon commodity. A “not thing” can be worth more than a “thing” precisely because we don’t agree on it. Even if the process of assigning something a price can often feel like it is toeing the semiotic line of “not a thing” assigning value brings it into “thing-ness” by anchoring its reality to the present.

Signifiers are required. The semiotics of value. The desired exchange. And so we toss technical terminology on top like fungible and pretend these frameworks make it easier to turn a “not thing” into a “a thing”

The non-fungible token. It is right there in the name. It is not interchangeable. And yet it has an assigned value. It has been funged.

Standardization, interoperability. Tradeability, liquidity, immutability, scarcity. Amazing what finance can do to a “not thing” in no time at all.

Categories
Chronicle Finance Startups

Day 51 & Unwritten Rules of Startups

I’ve been shifting my working attention towards angel investing. As I talk with more founders, particularly those sent to me by my venture capitalist friends, I’m noticing how much bad advice is circulating in the discourse.

There has been a consistent trend of thought pieces and generalist advice in startup land that gets published by those that find attention helpful to their careers but don’t actually want the risk of sharing the unvarnished truth. Think TechCrunch thesis pieces and founder medium pieces. I’m guilty of engaging in it to a significant degree.

But it’s getting to the point where I feel bad that I’m not doing more to correct some of the bad advice or “true but not in your case” advice. It’s persistent and chronic and doing significant harm to certain communities of founders particularly those that are underrepresented. If you are a founder please DM me on Twitter or email me Julie dot Fredrickson at Gmail for further dish.

Founders regularly get terrible advice on fundraising metrics. Lower your CAC with blending channels (don’t please be honest about cost), you need to show faster growth so increase spend (growth is good but can kill you dead), organic growth is more appealing than marketing spend (it depends organic is hard to replicate and scales unevenly) and my personal favorite stack your MoM growth charts it looks sexier (so does a push-up bra but eventually you get seen naked).

Another area that gets weird is how much bad advice there is in fundraising process. You get told to drive FOMO and excitement but no one tells you just how much investors talk. Founders inadvertently tell white lies that are so transparent it’s the source of constant back channeling. There are so many cliques and power structures you don’t appreciate till you are more entrenched. Startup land lives for it’s petty feuds and rivalries. Be careful trying to play funds off each other as it’s rare for anyone to be fully blacklisted (though it happens) and you don’t know how close to partners may be or if they hate each other’s guts. Some folks look nicey-nice on Twitter but fucking loathe each other in reality. We’ve got cliques for female founders, gay founders, Christian founders, libertarians, fitness freaks, data geeks, retail hounds, SaaS sluts, and yes some of these are just fun to say. Be careful with back channels. You never know who may actually be crucial to your deal or a significant power player. Or who vouching for you can turn an entire deal around. Many of the most respected startup folks don’t maintain social media presence at all. So don’t be rude if you can’t judge how important someone is from their bio. They might tank your deal or get you tracked to a partner who writes a term sheet.

Be carful about optimizing your raise for specific outcomes like valuation or time. I know fundraising sucks but it’s also your job. You will have to do it again and it gets harder each round. You go with a higher valuation and you have to grow into that number. Are you sure you raised enough to hit the metrics? If not you get recapped next round. That only hurts your ownership and the VCs don’t really care. Are you trying to get it done fast so you can move on with your life? Lol guess what now you are stuck with that board member for a decade or till your startup dies. And a bad board can kill you dead. Or make you wish you were. The chances of you slowly sinking because your board has a toxic relationship with you is much bigger than the chance that you will grow so fast you always hit your metrics.

A big part of startup life is accepting that your ego does you more harm than good. This life will humble you. And generally everyone just wants founders to succeed. We want to help you avoid the mistakes we made. But not everything will apply to you. So don’t take every bit of advice or you will constantly be at the mercy of others. Context matters a lot.

But you must learn to listen and adjust your course or you may end up chasing metrics that don’t matter with a board you hate and a valuation that you can’t life grow into.

Categories
Chronic Disease Finance Internet Culture

Day 46 & Time Value

My day went entirely off the rails around 5pm. A doctor with a very particular specialty that my current general practitioner wants me to see didn’t have any availability until mid April. I took the first available appointment and said I will take literally any cancellation you have. Well they had a cancellation for tomorrow at 11:20am and it’s now been 18 minutes since their email was sent as I was, ironically, in another doctor’s appointment (my therapist).

Upon getting out of my appointment, my husband (who is on my healthcare email since being sick in America is basically a part time job) immediately tells me to check my email as he checks how far the drive to Denver will be and if he can drive me as I frantically check calendars. We email another commitment we had saying sorry we have to cancel for a crucial medical appointment. We discuss if this drive is feasible as he has a 10am. Decide that it will be fine. Approximately 23 minutes since the email was sent have elapsed. We email to say yes.

They email back thirty minutes later telling me that someone else took the appointment. I literally scream. I tell them to again let me know if any other cancellations I will take anything available I am a 35 minute drive away.

Meanwhile I get an email from some global consulting firm asking me if I would talk to them about direct to consumer cosmetics companies for $500 an hour. I initially say yes sure why not. And then I see their questions.

Can you discuss the following: Key drivers to expand digital outreach?

I scratch my head. I mean I guess. Key drivers to what? For what purpose. Digital outreach to whom to achieve what ends? This sounds like management consulting drivel. So I look at the next question.

Can you discuss the following: Strategies to effectively utilize online+offline channels?

At this point I lose it. Utilize what channels for what ends! I’m an entrepreneur for fuck’s sake. We either deal in complete pie in the sky or incredibly detailed absolutes. We do not faff about discussing utilizing channels for …strategies. I email the recruiter saying these questions are better suited to a management consultant and I can’t be helpful. Sure $500 is a lot for an hour of my time but an hour of my sanity?

Meanwhile one of my absolute favorite human beings, who is also an investor, has emailed me to ask for help with an opportunity a founder I introduced him to has on the table. I tell him my entire afternoon is available to run the numbers and I’ll pull out my previous actuals for a similar situation so we can figure out a way to help her score this win.

This is all an elaborate way of saying that the time value of your life doesn’t have an easy dollar value attached to it. If it’s your health? Literally will cancel everything to get to a doctor. So will your spouse. Your friends will understand if you prioritize the doctor. If it’s relationships that matter to you then you will go out of your way to help someone succeed. But $500 to bullshit someone? I guess I’d take a pass on that.