Over the weekend Eric Feng posted an insightful piece detailing leadings from Unboxed.tv’s explorations around unboxing videos and the commerce they drive. A major part of this exploration involved building products. A lot of products, including four different iOS apps, three websites, two content studios, and one YouTube channel. Unboxed has raised nearly $10M from top VCs and is in the process of pivoting to other areas of exploration.
Contrast that experience with the above tweet from a few weeks ago that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since.
I got to know Austen while he was working on his prior startup and living in Utah- long before he started Lambda School, long before he was a Twitter Phenom and long before Lambda had achieved any sort of product/market fit.
Austen is no technical savant. If you look at his LinkedIn you’ll find the only education listed is his time spent at Y-Combinator. He can hack, but he is by no means a developer.
But what Austen lacked in technical chops at the outset of founding Lambda, he more than made up for with a cultural insight- the desperate need for trained developers and for how to scale funding for that training with no financial risk to the student. The cultural insights can be every bit, if not more powerful, than the tech stacks designed to support them. And, as his tweet points out, there was no need to develop a tech stack at all to validate the original insights behind Lambda. Only now, post product/market fit, is their native tech stack beginning to take shape.
4 years ago my friend Andy Weissman wrote a post detailing an emergent phenomenon that he called the “No Stack Startup”. Among their defining characteristics was to leverage existing infrastructure to validate and scale their businesses thus avoiding a massive upfront investment in tech stacks:
Some characteristics all these share is that they use other platforms and APIs (or protocols, in the case of SMS) to cobble together a service and in doing so rely almost wholly on those platforms and APIs for every function of the business other than the one they can be the best at.
One example he shared was The Shade Room, a media business built entirely on the back of Instagram infrastructure (who also happens to be an Indie.vc portfolio company). In the 4yrs since this article TSR has grown into an eight figure business with seven figures in profits having only raised $100,000 (and has already paid out a 5x return on that investment).
In the case of The Shade Room, what Angie was “best at” was capturing the voice of her community and packaging it in a way that allows them to participate in breaking news and cultural moments (go Roomates!). In the case of Lambda, not spending time building out a tech stack allowed them to focus on what they do best- creating curriculum, building out employment services and creating financial partnerships that enable their model to scale.
In the investment world of venture capital that is designed to race out to the frontiers of tech, I’ve been thinking much more about life back on the ranch. Back here, it’s not about the tech, it’s about translating insights into emergent behaviors and cultural awareness into real businesses.
The tools and services available to test, validate and scale a business in today’s environment are nearly limitless, and often free for anyone to use. What this should lead to is fewer hurdles for a wider pool of founders to turn their cultural insights, or what they can be best at, into thriving businesses with little, to no, outside investment required to validate and begin to scale.
The geeks may inherit the earth, but they’ve given us mere mortals the tools to shape it in ways they could have never imagined.