My guest today is Jeff Morris Jr., the Director of Revenue at Tinder. We begin this episode talking about the future of education. Jeff recently completed an MBA at UCLA and wrote his thesis on the future of Lambda School, the San Francisco based education startup. We talked about the transition from marketing funnels to marketing loops and how Tinder is growing its average revenue per user. We also explore Hollywood's transition from movies to television, and the letter Jeff received from legendary UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden. We also explore some career strategies for sparking serendipity. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Find Jeff online:
1:18 What Jeff learned from working with Lambda school on their Outcomes team, why the incentive structure for traditional colleges is broken, and why Jeff got an MBA despite believing in the future of education looking like Lambda school?
7:43 How Jeff had to scale himself up by becoming a lot more quantitative as the Director of Revenue at Twitter, how marketing at startups has changed from funnels to loops, and the cultural power of the Tinder swipe.
12:54 How average revenue per use has come up at Tinder over the last two years, how to build a successful social product that is low in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how Tinder balances perceived coolness and utility.
18:11 The historic geographical limitations of dating, the evergreen trends in dating, and what has Jeff learned about compatibility between people through his time at Tinder
23:17 How Jeff thinks about inequality in the Tinder ecosystem, how movies and TV have set up a false idea of how people meet, and what Jeff learned about romance from film school.
30:08 The switch from Hollywood to TV for film school graduates, why TV is uniquely suited to the subscription model, and why David thinks that exporting cool is LA’s core competency
44:34 Retraining in the Lambda school era, high growth jobs that are easy to retrain for, and dynamics of proving competence and expertise
52:26 Why Jeff sent a letter to John Wooden and other celebrities, what he learned about outbound emails, and how to find the ‘underpriced assets’ when it comes to talent
1:00:55 How Jeff got a job at Zaarly ahead of hundreds of other candidates, how that experience expanded his worldview, and what you can do to set yourself apart in the job search process
1:04:47 David and Jeff give the listeners a challenge, what Jeff learned from Brian Norgard about products, and how Jeff thinks about disruption
1:17:17 The verticalization of LinkedIn and other incumbents, and why Jeff thinks being on Twitter is the reason for his high growth career
So congratulations on graduating from your MBA, you wrote a thesis on Lambda School. I want to hear about that.
I did. Yes. So I had the pleasure of working with Ryan Holdaway, the VP of Outcomes at Lambda in February. I put out a tweet saying we were looking for a company to work with. We had 100 different responses and Lambda reached out. It was a very easy yes. The interesting thing about Lambda is they have so much top of the funnel growth and they're trying to figure out how do we scale the outcomes team. So a lot of what we did was trying to make recommendations for just improving outcomes. Lambda socially and on the internet they're perceived as being a very big company. I think they've just crossed hundred employees. But they have six engineers on the team at this point so its very small. I'm sure they've grown it since since I last checked. But that means the outcomes process for Lambda right now is pretty manual. So a lot of what we did was spend time with the team, trying to figure out what the future of the outcomes process looks like at Lambda. I probably can't divulge the exact conclusions we got to but the process of working with Lambda, while I was at UCLA was really interesting to just because they're very different educational philosophies. Sitting in an MBA classroom, when Lambda is disrupting a lot of what higher education has built for the past hundred years was just a very interesting contradiction. The professors at UCLA were very interested in what we were doing, because I think some of them are just as interested in disruptive educational companies, and it's very clear Lambda is the company right now that's doing the most to change education.
So you talk about outcomes. And the way I interpret that is I graduated from college three years ago, and my alma mater has no idea what I'm doing. I never update them. They haven't even asked, and that seems bizarre that at colleges, the incentive structures aren't about outcomes. When isn't that what an education is for? So what is it about outcomes that really interests you?
Yeah, as you mentioned, your college probably hasn't done a great job of tracking you. And a lot of it's because of the financial model. You paid your tuition up front. So the incentives to help you post graduation is only because you end up getting on a better career path and you decide to donate or give back to the university. But for Lambda, their business relies on you as the student having a great job within some time frame. So for them, they're working on outcomes at that time frame. But it's pretty quick the rate that students are getting jobs. They want to see you have such a great experience, post graduation that you'll refer students to your company. So a lot of the what they're working on is building network effects. As you can imagine, Lambda is being distributed their students all across the country will be all across the world. Imagine that network effect, relative to a UC educational environment where I don't know the exact number, but I think it's 90% of students who go to UC schools are based in California. So that's a very concentrated group of students whereas Lambda will have this global network of graduates who have higher than most NPS scores and they would would refer students to their own companies. So when a student gets placde, that's kind of the magic moment where the network will continue to grow. I think the network effect is just starting. Now you can imagine every cohort similar to a Y Combinator, it becomes a more powerful moat and it will be very hard for other companies to catch them over time.
Absolutely. That's fascinating. What you're saying here, this is the future of education, but you also just got your MBA. Why did you go get an MBA if you clearly have a lucid high resolution, high resolution sense of what the future of education is gonna look like? And it's not going to UCLA Anderson.
Yeah, I think like the best in class universities and programs will still exist. And for me, I really love the in-person dynamics of learning. Especially in an MBA program, a lot of what you do is group work. Things like the case studies, etc. and being in person actually really helps for that. I joined the program in 2017 and Lambda really got public attention in 2018. If you look at Lambda's curriculum, it's very vocational and very technical. And who knows, maybe one day they will have an MBA program. I think there still will be a desire for people to go to business schools but you can see that admissions across the country are down in terms of applications. I think when you look at who Lambda will disrupt, it's probably going to be the lower tier of universities. I still think we will have the brand names – UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, etc. Those will still exist. But as I was doing the thesis, I was questioning at times, why am I doing this? And I think the answer for me is I work on revenue at Tinder and it's a highly quantitative job. I studied English in college at UCLA. So I didn't come from a formal finance background. And as Tinder scaled, my job became much more quantitative. So it became clear to me that doing this on the weekends and at nights would be really helpful for my job.
Awesome. Well, you have woven a fascinating tapestry of jobs from Zaarly to Tinder and then adding to this tapestry with an MBA, but want to hear about the tapestry of skills. And let's dive into that with what is it about building a revenue team that makes it so that you go from qualitative to quantitative?
Yeah, when I joined, the revenue team at that tender, it was 2015. And a lot of the work we were doing, it was always quantitative, but it was much more zero to one – we were starting from scratch. So a lot of the early subscription products we were building was very much based in innovation and first principle product thinking. And then as you grow and you reach more scale, especially as we became a public company, the skill sets and requirements to do the job really, really well became much more quantitative over time. So I saw myself in a position where if I wanted to grow in the role and really scale with the company, I needed to level up my own skills. And so that was part of my decision to go get the MBA. But I would say any company, especially startups, just become more quantitative over time if you're successful. I think the skill sets that we look for in employees now is very different than 2015 and there is a heavy quant focus on the product side.
If I was look at what's happening on the marketing in particular aspect of these big tech companies in the past two years, you've seen a transition from most of the people talking about marketing in terms of funnels to now most people talking about marketing in terms of loops. What have those internal conversations been like for you? And how have you seen that develop?
I think funnels, especially for SaaS products, still exist. If you're trying to get a customer from the landing page to sign up to becoming a customer through some onboarding funnel that you've created. Loops for social products are kind of the lifeblood of your existence. So if you can build anything that gets people to invite their friends and increase the branching factor – the K factor that people like Andrew Chen talk about you, your growth will be more sustainable over time. I think in our category, especially dating, it's not a pure social product. So the loops are a little trickier to discover. But definitely, if you're building a pure social product, having those loops will just help you grow and be a lot less dependent on paid channels to grow which, for any company is kind of the dream.
What do you mean by the K factor? And how does that apply to the actual product?
Yeah, so Andrew does a really good job explaining this. The branching factor is looking at for every new customer who joins, how many people do they invite? And then of those people, how many people accept that invitation? And how many people they invite? So it's basically just a math equation that looks at virality for your product. If you have any kind of social invite flows, you'll want to measure that pretty closely.
Do you look at all at cultural relevance? In the same way that Facebook pioneered the feed, Tinder pioneered the swipe and that swipe theme is everywhere. How do you look at that?
Yeah, I think the swipe became just this universal gesture because it's built for the mobile era. It's this binary choice that you make. It's a very quick interaction. Tinder was the first of its kind to pioneer that interaction. Of course, in the world we live in now when anyone discovers anything that's effective on mobile, everybody else kind of powers in. I think we've seen a lot of people take inspiration from that and that's just kind of the social landscape we live in. You've seen that time and time again with Instagram and Snapchat. So then it really becomes about how do you just keep innovating and what's your next move. For us, the sqipe really struck a chord and it it became iconic for Tinder. And then it was kind of like, what's next? And that's what we've been focusing on.
In terms of what's next, the transition I've seen with Tinder is now gaining more average revenue per user. It seems if you look at that kind of cohort analysis, probably on the far right side of it, if you look at this on XY axis of usage and intensity with the product, I would bet that bar of how much money they're spending on the platform has doubled, tripled, or 4x in the last couple years.
I think that's been a big part of the revenue piece. We've just had more time to build more products. So as we've introduced a la carte products, of course the average then will go up, or at least you hope it does. And a lot of it is we've had a pretty small team, especially on the revenue side. We're at 24 engineers now but for a long time it was much smaller. So there were just limitations to how much we could build at any given time. On every tech team, you're always struggling for more resources. You want more resources, but we just we've had a lot more firepower the past year or year and a half. And it's really helped the company.
I think social just categorically is a very tough place to figure out how things are going to move and how things are going to shift. Tinder in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs – who you end up partnering with is extremely high. I was with a friend and I heard about a dating company that is for high end individuals, and people to join this dating app pay something on the order of $30K to $50K for placement services. But I think that it gets to this point that dating is at the bottom of Maslow's triangle. And is that something that you're looking for in terms of what it takes to achieve a successful social product?
I think so. I did this fun thing where I researched the history of online dating or just dating in general. In the 1800s, there were newspaper ads. And there were sections in newspapers where men could buy little little features where they talk about who they were looking, for what type of partner, and they would spend 25 cents. I saw this in the San Francisco Chronicle actually, and 25 cents back then is $5. Now if you adjust the currency and it just showed people have always been looking for ways to improve their chances of finding someone to fall in love with and like you said Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you can look at every social product that's been very successful since 2009 when kind of apps really became a big thing. They all check off one of those boxes. You can talk about Airbnb, Postmates. Instacart, every single one fits within those categories. It's just a lot easier if you can find a product that fits within those those needs. The hard thing now is we've kind of reached platform maturity for mobile in many ways. So there's a lot of debate about platform shifts and it's kind of still unknown what that might look like. But then you also look at pure mobile usage in terms of minutes per user and they can continue to go up. So maybe there's still room. I'm still very bullish on mobile and something I still look up. ButI think people know that every app has kind of some expiration date in terms of being cool and relevant and interesting. And so can you find these moments in time, especially right now, when you know, Facebook's taken a little bit of a beating in the press, like can you start to pick up little pieces of their application that you might be able to do better? I think we'll see that more and more.
So you mentioned cool and relevance. How much do you think of Tinder as something that's cool versus something that's a utility because the calculus of coolness versus utility factor, those dynamics play out very differently in terms of the long term implications of how an app then begins to move and evolve?
Yeah, I think ideally you want both. I think in the early years being a smaller application, primarily for college students, I think people internally worried a lot more about being perceived as cool. That said, you always want to be socially relevant. You always want to be at the pulse of what modern conversation might be. We don't think about it in the same way and in terms of we want to be cool, but you do want to build progressive products that people talk about. So when you're at a Sunday brunch with your friends talking about what you did that weekend, maybe one of the topics that comes up is you went on a great Tinder date. I don't know if we're not trying to be cool, but we want to be progressive and kind of challenge people's perspective on what Tinder might be.
You mentioned that paper that you wrote on dating since the 1800s. One thing that comes to mind is and I think this is from Aziz Ansari's book, Modern Romance, about how location and dating has changed. So it used to be that you would marry people who live within a couple miles of you or even a couple blocks. And now, if you were to graph the average distance of how far couples were born from each other, that has either probably a linear trend upwards, maybe even an exponential one.
Yeah, I love that book. First of all, I think it was probably my favorite take on just what romance is at this point. I mean, the title says it all Modern Romance. That specific section is looking at New York City and the amount of people who married withinn a one block radius. Now you look at something like Tinder, and we have a feature called Passport where you can swipe anywhere in the world. But I think the most interesting thing is the amount of diversity it creates. So if your marrying people within one block of your house, that's a very small set of people and they kind of look and feel like you. Whereas now if you can really explore your city and find people anywhere, I think it creates a much more diverse world which we're excited and proud about. But I think that's kind of the it's funny, because Tinder is hyper local in many ways. But it's also not because it lets you go anywhere you want to go. So I think it's an interesting thing to consider. I don't think we've had enough time to really look at it on a macro level at the change. But I think over time, maybe some MBA student like myself will do.
So I want to go back to that paper, what are some of the evergreen trends of dating that if you were to zoom out and take a bird's eye view, what would you see?
This wasn't as much in the paper, but just being in the industry I know this – people are waiting a lot longer to settle down with partners. If you look at categorically in the dating industry, you'd say the LTV or the customer lifecycle is very short. Whereas now people are being a lot more patient with getting married. And it's kind of extended the lifecycle of the category, which I think is really interesting. I think it's also that people are busier than ever and are much more career driven. And also people are okay with not getting married at all at this point where as I think it used to be kind of a knock on you, if you didn't want to have the traditional kind of family life. There's just a lot more acceptance of kind of choosing your own lifestyle. And I think that's pretty cool.
What have you learned about the factors that make partners compatible? So for example, I once read a study that if two people in a relationship both really like horror movies, that actually is a factor for a lot of different aspects of a personality. So if two people like horror movies, the chance of them getting together goes way up. What have you observed beyond just looks that are the things that make couples compatible? And I'm wondering if you've embedded that into the product.
Yeah. So I can't say I've looked a ton at that. I do know what the data shows. I think the most interesting thing I always am reminded of is you think you know what you want but who you end up with is a lot different than the person that might be in your head. So if I say I want my wife to be someone who lives in Silver lake, reads comics and loves sushi, the odds are it will be completely different from what you expect. I think part of what was beautiful on Tinder was we didn't have this long onboarding flow, where a lot of other applications would ask you, what are you looking for? Because that just narrows your funnel of choices to be those types of people. On Tinder, there's an element of surprise because you don't have that kind of application process. I think if you take them to the real world and not putting so much pressuring yourself to find the one person who you think you're destined to be with and just being open to many different options. Having a bit more flexibility in terms of what you might be looking would be my biggest thing.
Yeah, it's tricky. And I'm trying to figure out what my non negotiables are. I would probably want someone who has a lot of energy, who's intellectually curious and stuff like that. Whereas I think you're alluding to certain things like liking sushi, lives in Westlake, likes comic books. Those are things that maybe you think are non negotiable, but then aren't. But if I look at Tinder, it is very built around looks. And I remember seeing a study that showed that Tinder is more unequal than any country in the world. So right now Tinder is really built around looks. Is that the factor that we think is going to be the number one thing with dating is that due the constraints of the platform, or are there other ways maybe in your more premium products to expand the scope of Tinder beyond just looks?
I think mobile is such a visual format. So of course the profile photo is going to be what you see on the screen. But we're doing a very good job, I think in bringing in other elements. If you are swiping on Tinder, we actually pulled the bio, and place in front of your profile photo. So you don't have to dig to go a lot deeper to find more information about those people. I think that's really trying to pull just more information. We also have things like a Spotify integration that shows your music compatibility. We pulled an Instagram view so its just a different view of someone's life. I think we want you to go a little deeper. The human attention span on mobile is geared towards you want to make quick decisions on things such as how mobile is kind of formatted to kind of teach your brain to behave. But I would say we're doing our best to give you a holistic view of who someone might be. So I think if you just thought about the real world, and how if you go to a bar like that, that is purely visual. For the most part, if you see someone across the room, you don't have any context on that person most likely until you start talking to them. So I think that the beauty of what Tinder or any online dating platform does, is it gives you a little bit more background, so you have more context when you actually meet. I would argue the world is actually pretty visual and we're just kind of like creating the mobile format of that. And we're also trying to give you more information.
There's a song that I really loved by ODESZA called Across The Room. It's with Leon Bridges, and it's about exactly that. Leon is looking across the room and he's going home and I just think the lyrics are really powerful. And in terms of what you just said, there's an interesting resonance there.
Yeah, I think movies and TV have trained us to see how we might meet our our partner. Everyone dreams of having that spontaneous real world moment where they are sitting in a bar, and they see that person. That's just not normally how it happens. I think one third of marriages at this point in the US are started online, and that number is going up every single year. We live in a much different world now where how you think you might meet your partner is probably not similar to before. People have expectations about who the partner will be and where they'll meet them and it just normally doesn't work out that way. Which I think is great because it does create a little bit of a surprise. Being someone who just got married about a year and a half ago, I had known my wife as a friend for five years and suddenly we became boyfriend and girlfriend now we're married. That was unexpected. And I think it's kind of a beautiful journey to figure out who that person might be. But it just doesn't happen how most people think it will turn out.
Yeah, there's a lot in movies around the perfect one and love at first sight. I think that what you're saying is there's actually a lot more serendipity and unexpectedness and weird twists on this storyline that we call falling in love.
Yeah. So I went to USC film school long time ago, and I was obsessed with this genre of love movies. I think 500 Days of Summer as a great one where it's Joseph Gordon-Levitt just tortured himself over this perfect girl who he has idealized in his mind. Of course that doesn't work out and he goes to a job interview. He's waiting in the room before the interview and he ends up falling in love with someone else who's applying for a job at the same time. So I thought that just did a very good job of showing how that idealized person in your mind probably isn't the person that is meant for you and yeah, I love that genre of movies though. I love those those movies.
Have you always loved those movies?
Yeah, I think so. In my early to mid 20s I think I was kind of like a hopeless romantic in many ways. I was moving a lot and I couldn't seem to find a relationship that would work. I went to USC film school and I was being a little bit tortured at the time in terms of like, I don't know if I'm going to find that person.
It's my creative inspiration, man!
Yeah. And you know, I think great art and great technology products are built out of not a fear, but it's kind of an insecurity and that point where you do feel lost. Those are good moments for creating interesting products. I think a lot of tech products aren't created with those those moments of inspiration, but a lot of art is. Hopefully we will see more tech products that are solving like someone's angsty needs.
I mean, the willingness to pay in the dating market is about as high as anywhere else. Well, you went to film school.
Yeah, I went straight from undergrad to USC film school. It was called the Peter Stark producing program. It was 25 students, everybody was being trained to be an executive in film. And this was 2009. 24 out of 25 of my classmates studied film and the idea of going into television was almost like a second tier option. Everybody wanted to go in a film which flipped later on. So then I went back and talked to someone at the school last year and 24 out 25 students this year went to television. That all happened within 10 years. And so if you think about what we missed, I think it was that we didn't realize that content was just going to be Netflix and Amazon and everything else. The distinction between film and TV is very murky and unclear at this point. But we all wanted to have the Sundance Film Festival winner. All the best actors and directors were doing film and now they're all doing TV. So the format just shifted. But I wish we would have known because a lot of us would probably be still working in entertainment. A lot of my classmates are lawyers and yoga instructors, etc. because we graduated into probably the worst time in the history of the industry, when the recession was happening. Every film studio was cutting their budgets and everyone was going into these tent-pole releases based on pre existing IP. So for example, none of us woke up and dreamed of going to film school to make the Lego movie but and then you look at Netflix and HBO, and that's where independent film went and those are the stories that I think all of us would have loved to tell. These more gritty kind of real stories and that's why people love TV now because it really is the best moment in history of time for content. If you love storytelling, it's probably the best time to be alive.
Yeah, right. In terms of movies, there's Toy Story 4. I was on Sunset drive last night, there's like Superman 1000. All sequels. But what do you think as a growth guy? What have you seen? Or have you seen in terms of Netflix, they have their subscriber growth numbers and the way that they think about those loops and funnels down to a science. I think they grow, no matter what, I think 31% per year or per quarter, and they haven't dialed in. Whereas movies to me feels like a lot more like that famous advertising quote "We know half of our advertising works. We don't know which half." Movies also require a bit more common knowledge and are more based on TV and billboard advertising. Have you seen similar shifts now in terms of movie marketing, as with Netflix marketing? Or is that delta still there?
What Netflix has discovered is that TV is such a better format for subscriptions because you have this recurring relationship with the customer where every season – Big Little Lies just came out on HBO, we've been waiting all year to see the second season and you're willing to maintain your subscription. Because you have this extended lifecycle of content, whereas with movies you have 100-210 minutes to tell a story. And then you're kind of gone. Maybe you'll do a sequel, but most the time you don't. So in a subscription world, TV just makes a lot more sense. I think as a content creator, being able to do that for 5 to 10 years, that's a much better way to make a living. I remember when I was graduating, I was at one point trying to be a screenwriter. You'd sell like one script or you get a script option. And you just didn't know when you're going to get paid again. It was a very scary way to live. Whereas television, if you can get a show into production, and you can get especially syndication, that's where you make most of your money. But if you can get on a great show, and it goes multiple seasons, it's a pretty good. It's almost like joining a company. Whereas these film productions are have three month life cycles – you like launch a company, but you shut it down. Then once it goes, you have to bring it back. But it's just it's not a good business model in my mind.
Yeah, that's interesting, because Hollywood in terms of when I look at what the future of work is going to be like, there's a idea called the Hollywood model, which is exactly that Hollywood has done a very good job of reducing costs and transaction costs of everyone comes together, and then you can bring in certain people and the firm doesn't need to be as big as it does with something like an IBM, which looks very different. And I think that's something that historically Hollywood has done really well with.
Yeah, and I think the production costs have just gone down a lot more. So there was a really famous filmmaker – kind of more famous in the film school circuit – called Roger Corman and he went to Stanford, and he used to make films that were micro budget films. Mostly horror, and very specific genres. But he'd make them very cheap and he would spin them up within a week. So he would go from concept in almost like fast fashion for entertainment. You look at something like Jason Blum so he he's a very famous producer right now and he's kind of copied that model. They're doing movies that are not micro budget, but it's all like the Jordan Peele movies. They're $5 million horror films and they're very profitable which I think is interesting. I think Hollywood is very much about IP or you have to have very strong storytelling within a few different genres. And horror is one of those genres that plays really well internationally. Comedy is really hard because comedy is so location specific. A US comedy doesn't travel very well in India, etc. Whereas a movie that is scary or it's not and and humans can feel those emotions. But the evolution of Hollywood is fascinating. I think all the storytelling tools are available to everybody. The long format of storytelling, I think, is going to go away and what you're seeing with Meg Whitman's new companies is very interesting. They've already raised $2 billion to do short form subscription content. So I live in LA, so I'm a little bit in touch with what's going on. But I think a small part of me and the film school person within me who's like, well, maybe one day I'll want to make a movie or get back to doing content, but not right now.
It's funny, because when I look at LA, and I think of businesses as having have core competencies and so do cities. LA exports culture. I went to the night market on sunset last night and it's so hip. It's like this fusion Thai that has a cross as its logo. There's hot pink all over the wall. There's some music, but then pretty good Thai food, with some eclectic spices and, and all that sort of stuff. I'm just in there, and I'm looking at the people. This place is so cool! It is like the epitome of cool. And I mean cool in almost a stoic interpretation of that word. LA creates what's cool. Then I'm walking around West Hollywood, and I'm seeing all these people in tattoos and skateboards. LA's core competency is exporting cool.
That's very true. It's funny, because we're doing this interview, basically on Fairfax and Melrose. And so if you walk out my house and walk down the road, it's sneaker heads and it's the mecca of shoe culture, probably 300 yards from where we're sitting right now. So I'll wake up on a Sunday, and I'm walking my dog. I don't know what I'm doing. But I'll see a line at 7am of 300 high schoolers down the road, all waiting for what must be some big release. And so it's fascinating to be here and see that happening. I think this kind of touches on why maybe you'd want to build a company in LA and not San Francisco, especially if you're in consumer, you get a little more of that flavor of cool, and you see it a little bit ahead of when San Francisco might see things. You also very clearly see the distinctions between products that are cool for everyday consumers, as opposed to what's cool for people in tech. There's a very distinct difference between those two. I'll see people on Twitter from SF, we're talking about maybe some new direct to consumer product, and you're just you're sitting in Los Angeles, you're just like nobody in LA is going to think that's cool. And the consumer products that are cool in SF are almost like a cult which hurts them long term. Because people sense that the tech industry adopted that product and it's for tech people, and not for us. I think that's just really interesting to see.
What do you think San Francisco misses about being cool? I would say I grew up in San Francisco, and I go back fairly often. What I would just say is San Francisco is an outlier where the intuitive thing that you would build kind of steers you in the wrong direction.
I grew up in the Bay Area too and lived there for probably 25+ years total in different time periods of my life. I think the problems that SF has as a city are much different than any other city in the United States, and probably the world. The amount of wealth and concentrated wealth is very different from anywhere else. You see the distractions of tech products that people build. For that customer, especially like consumer said, I think one of the most telling products was an ephemeral Luxe it was. And I use it a couple times, but it was basically a valet, who can park your car for you wherever you were in the city. And so you'd like pull up to Market Street. You didn't want to go to a parking garage and someone come home scooter and take your car, park it for you. Very well funded company, but like how many cities in the US? Is that actually a good idea. So I think a lot of the products in SF are built for very specific people and not necessarily the everyday consumer. I lived in Kansas City for a bit and that was just such a fun time period because my perception of what we call middle America was completely inaccurate. When I lived there and saw the adoption curve on tech products was way different from what I expected. A lot of the things that you think everybody knows about have just not made their way to middle America. I've also seen a cool flavor of tech companies who are building products and distributing their products specifically for that audience, which is kind of interesting. But I would challenge people in tech to not build products for their teammates and peers and try and step outside of their comfort zone and figure out what the everyday consumer is interested in because I think that's just a more interesting way to build products.
Do you think dating transcends that? I feel like dating is so low that on Maslow's hierarchy that it actually touches across every region.
That is true for dating and love and intimacy – that's just a core human need. Tinder speaks for a category that is so integral to our lives. The most important decision in my mind is who your live partner will be. So if you're building the application that helps you solve that problem, that's pretty damn cool. I think other interesting areas are employment. I put family above job but if you build a product that solves one of those three things. I think the job piece is why Lambda school is so interesting to me. How do you improve your skills and re-sell yourself to get a job in some vocational environment? And there aren't that many people who are helping you do that. So we'll probably see more abstractions of Lambda built which is pretty cool.
Yeah. Do you think that when we skip ahead 20 years, we will be surprised at how easy job retraining is or how hard job retraining is?
I think it should be easier and just much more diverse. So right now, retraining is pretty limited to technical. Vocational schools, especially Lambda, is mostly engineering, design, data science. But imagine a world where you could do that for everything and what skills would you want to have and if it really was 9 months to get the skill set to go pursue your career, something you really want to. And if it's a risk for you, I think a lot more people will take a chance on doing what they actually want. So many of our friends, I'm sure you see this too is they get caught kind of this career loop where what they thought they want to do when they are 22 is probably a lot different than what they want when they're 30. And it's really hard to like backtrack. It's hard to get that rescaling for a lot of reasons. Financially, it's hard. Psychologically, it's really hard. And I think in a world with Lambda, where it's just, "Oh, yeah, I'll go do that for nine months." And everybody's kind of doing that, it becomes a lot more socially acceptable to say, I don't like my job and I don't like what I'm doing my life. I'm going to go take nine months to learn something new, and pursue a new track. I think the caveat to all this is there needs to be some demand to whatever skill you're trying to learn. I want to learn how to be a poet, maybe the world doesn't need another poet, but I know the world needs engineers. The world needs nurses, the world needs plumbers, there's like this whole set of needs that there's still a lot of supply demand imbalances. If you pick a category within those fields, you'll be happy with the result.
Yeah, the world also needs construction workers. I'm so surprised that how few construction workers there are when I just talked to different people, that seems to be a huge need. And what I I've been thinking about what are the parameters of job retraining startups, what would they need? Because I was talking to a Navy SEAL this week, who wants to help Navy SEALs with job retraining. I think that'd be really interesting, because you he could have a negative customer acquisition cost, because I think the Navy could pay him to help graduates of the Navy to go into this. I would say what you want is two big things. The first one is you want a job that's easy to retrain for. So training people how to be supply chain workers or operations people is much easier to retrain for then certain other skills. And what I also advised him to do is say that, I'm not sure what the exact statistic is, but say that the American economy is growing at 2% a year in terms of average employment, what I would look for is a job that's growing between 4% and 6%, or at least double the growth rate of the American economy. And if you can find a 6% growth rate with a job that's easy to retrain for, I think you've struck gold.
That's really interesting. So what categories have you seen within that which are interesting?
Yeah, so I think that you could do something like designers and construction workers. There's something else there with construction workers which is I don't know how you would look at the supply and demand mismatches. I think it'd be really cool to model a heat map for the American economy, and then project how that heat map is going to shift over time. But I also wouldn't trust our intuition on these things. For example, a lot of categories, for example, rocket engineering, if you were to go back to the 60s and the 70s, we thought rocketry was going to be a much bigger part of the economy than it actually has been. And so a lot of students were pushed to go into there, and rocketry just hasn't been nearly as big of an industry as we thought. So I would want to build some models, but also look at the historical factors of where our intuition has gone wrong. And I'm not sure how you would model that.
Yeah, I think that's really interesting. I think location so important too. The beauty of the Lambda model in its current form is every country in the world is becoming a tech company, and every company in the world thus needs engineers. Let's think about oil and gas workers – that's very concentrated in Texas, and you think about a platform like RigUp, which is a kind of LinkedIn for the oil and gas industry. If you were to train workers in Texas to be oil workers, that model is very specific to that geography. So I think you also want to think about things that are very broad in terms of what the world needs. And you know, one thing I learned, especially from working with Lambda is, there's a lot of need in locations you would not expect. So even I talked to my research ClassPass, who just opened an office in Montana. It was pretty interesting to talk to them. They opened an office in Montana. I think they initially thought it was operations, and maybe some engineering. And then three or four members of the executive team all said, Hey, I want to move to Montana. That sounds pretty great. But then you start to build out your engineering office there and you can imagine, there's not a lot of local talent. I learned a lot about people go into these programs having a very clear idea of where they want to work and so really identifying people who are willing to move might be a big thing in any vocational school.
Yeah, I wonder if there's also certain dynamics around proving competence and expertise. So you would want something that is very objective. So it's easier to objectively evaluate a computer scientist and say, yoga instruction might be growing pretty fast. But it feels trendy, which I think is a negative in this. And also I think it's hard to objectively measure yoga instructor. For example, Soul Cycle instructors will all have friends who say, "They were the best Soul Cycle instructor!" and I'll go and I'll be they were fine. Whereas then there'll be other ones that I think are really good and my friends will think they were they were average.
Yeah. So you're having to build up that scoring metric through real world exposure. I mean, taking a look just at tech companies, there's some jobs that are very hard to quantify. Even Product Management, that's not always clear how you score and rank an applicant. Marketing, that's a very hard thing to do.
Venture capitals are slow feedback loops,
Very slow and so I agree with you. Like, how do you accurately score and iterate someone when they're in progress? That's a very tricky thing. I think maybe in nursing and more medical professions, you can do that. But I agree. It's very hard outside of engineering. I think that's the beauty of engineering. It becomes very clear, coming out of vocational schools, who might be ready for employment.
Absolutely. So I want to switch gears a little. So we're walking through your house, you're giving me a house tour and there's a letter from John Wooden. And you told me that as a kid, you used to write letters all the time to athletes and celebrities. What's that story?
I grew up in in the AOL era and there was a lot of information on AOL. We used to trade addresses of celebrities or public figures. You could go in a chat room and you kind of trade information. So I became obsessed with it. I was always a collector. I collected autographs, sports memorabilia, a lot of game use items, etc. And part of it was I would just write letters to athletes, because you know, when you're 12 years old, and we didn't have Twitter back then, that was the best way to talk to the people you admire. And so I'd fire off maybe 25 plus letters a week and my room at home looks like Canton, Ohio. It looks like a hall of fame. But it's the most bizarre thing so I have a Bill Gates's signed photo next to a Dick Vitale signed photo. Part of the process was that I would ask questions, like three questions, and some people would write back small notes. I was 13 and I wrote John Wooden a note and we just read the letter, but I asked him what he thought of Bobby Knight, I asked him about his greatest victory ever and then I think asked him who he thinks is the best player ever. So I didn't expect john wooden in his mid-late 90s to write a letter back. But he did. He wrote a two page handwritten letter back. They included five or six other autographs, but just showed me that John Wooden is, I think, the one of the best teachers in the history of the world. But he took a lot of time and care to respond to me, that really kind of stood out. And I try to do as good of a job as possible with actually responding to people when they reach out. It's pretty hard in just this world we live in. But if the greatest teacher of all time can respond to some kid, you should be able to do the same. But I think a lot of the lessons that I learned writing letters, I do now. So I'll email people who I shouldn't be emailing and sometimes I'll get a response. Like I email last year, I emailed Kobe Bryant, he didn't respond. But one good example is that I saw Lance Armstrong at my hotel in Hawaii and I jokingly tweeted him, "Hey, Lance, I'm at your hotel, do you want to go for a bike ride?" And he DMed me within a few minutes, and invited me to go for a ride with him the next day. This is maybe a year and a half ago.
That's so cool.
I mean, the lesson is that reach out to everybody. Maybe you'll get 1 out of 100 people response, but those little moments can be these epic stories that you tell people when you're at a dinner party, or the just a really cool life experiences. Everyone's available, you just have to figure out how to get to them and how to be creative in your approach. Another thing I learned was I would send something to them of value in hopes that they would respond. So you could buy batches of cards of athletes, so I could buy 50 John Stockton cards right? for pretty cheap. And I would send them and I knew they wanted these cards, because that's what they used to send out to their fans. So I just sent them a batch of their cards, and then I'd make the requests. But it was creating a little bit of value. And making them appreciate that you're actually giving them something as opposed to asking for something all time?
Absolutely, yeah. I have an online course called Write of Passage. And the sixth module is called Connect with Anybody, which is based on this premise that now that people have email, and you can often find people's addresses, either to their home or to their work. You can reach out to people in terms of the people who've reached out to you, what have the best requests had in common?
Yeah, I think part of it is that I want someone to offer just a unique perspective. The worst thing you can do is say, "Hey, can I pick your brain?" You've worked your entire life to acquire some point of view or skill set and that just feels like a very one way ask whereas you know, there's someone who I'm thinking of right now, because I just read an email a few minutes before the podcast. He sends me every week three companies that I should look at as an investor. I want to respond to that, because he's giving me value, and I'm happy to give them value in return. So I'd say think about what you can offer people before you make an ask. Another thing is just think about whether within someone's kind of like intellectual interests, what you're asking for makes sense? So someone reached out to help them with a product and it's in a space I'm interested in. So of course, I said, let's hop on a call. But if it was just completely unrelated, to what I might be interested in, it's less likely. So it really just comes down to doing your research on people. Before this podcast, you spend time digging into my background, and it creates a better context for this conversation. Think about doing that in real life with people you interact with you.
Absolutely. What as a kid, why was that what you intuitively did writing all those letters?
Yeah, I think so I was always really obsessed with basketball in particular. I love collecting things. I don't know how else to say it. I thought it was a thrill to reach out to someone and have them respond to you. It almost felt like you're playing a little game. I think the big part was that I had free time. It was also free. It was easy to do. It required a stamp really. I also did it with my brothers. So there was a little sense of competition. So I emailed Peyton Manning, when he was still a quarterback at Tennessee. And he responded with the same photo. And then my brothers, they tried to email him when he was already had been drafted into the NFL. And of course, you wouldn't get a response to that point in time.
It's like investing in people. You gotta find underpriced assets, who are going to have a high growth rate who aren't getting a lot of inbound. It's just like investing.
Yeah, so think about the real world, if you email Marc Andreessen right now, maybe he doesn't respond to you. But if you email – if you identify someone who you think is really smart – somebody and you email them and you kind of get them before that inflection point in their career. Maybe that's the best time to reach out to people. Maybe it's not worth your time. I grew up around Menlo Park so I got to know some people in the venture world. And if I email some of them, like, yeah, they'll take a meeting and we'll meet for 30 minutes. That might not be as valuable though as me reaching out to the associate or the principal who actually wants to grow their career with you. So maybe there's a lesson there of you don't need to meet with Elon Musk. But maybe if you have a way to meet Elon Musk's Chief of Staff, maybe that's a better connection.
I find it fascinating that this childhood obsession translated into a letter that you sent to Zaarly after you were at South By and it was one of the fastest growing startups at the time. What did that letter say? Tell that story.
It's funny, I never connected those pieces, but Zaarly was building a peer to peer request network where you can name your price on anything. And I mean, anything. And people will go do it for you. So this is kind of pre-TaskRabbit. So I sent out a letter, I saw the CEO post on Twitter that they were looking to hire their first marketing person for a very abstract role. But I sent him a letter saying I would pay him two months of rent to work for him for free. So I kind of flipped the model. What I was really saying was, I'll pay you to give me a chance. And he responded the next day and said, Let's hop on Skype, we did a quick interview. I think it was half or a full hour, and it wasn't with him, it was with someone else. And they hired me. They said you have to move to Kansas City tomorrow if you want this job, because we have a lot of other people who want the job. And I had recently gotten our relationship with another girlfriend, I was in this John Cusack mindset where I'm going to go drive my car to somewhere where people can't find me. And I moved to Kansas City the next day, and started working as Zaarly. This is also a time when I was actually just starting my career in tech and I was having a hard time finding a job. So I really needed to take a chance. The irony is a week before I'd also emailed Uber. I was working at Rocket Space in San Francisco, which is a coworking space and I sat next to the Uber team, which was 10 people at one table. I sent them a 50 page PowerPoint about how they might think about expanding to Los Angeles. So Uber did not respond to me, but Zaarly did and, you know, we can talk about the outcomes of both companies. But I had an incredible experience at Zaarly and as I mentioned before, I love living in Kansas City away from San Francisco for a period of time. And that was probably one big moment in my career.
What about it?
I think before Zaarly I didn't take really big chances in life on myself. I lived in California my whole life. I went to UCLA, grew up in the Bay Area and this is me just saying like, screw it, I'm gonna go do something completely off the grid. So for me it created this framework in my mind where your life can be much more flexible than you think it might be. We get in these mindsets of I must live here and I can't leave here. But if you know, assuming that you have the means to do so. You can leave your current life and go do something new. Even like four years ago, I was live in San Francisco and I made the move to LA to work at Tinder. If I hadn't done Zaarly, maybe I would have thought that was going to be too hard to do. But moving from San Francisco to LA seemed really easy compared to moving from San Francisco to Kansas City. I think the big learning there is just do crazy things in your life and don't become so attached to how you think your career and life might turn out and you'll be rewarded in ways you don't know and you can't even quantify or expect right now.
I want to get in to lessons from Zaarly and lessons from Tinder and how they've influenced how you think about building product. But before that we're going to play a really fun game. So with the scale of this podcast, we are going to test the scale of the internet. Okay, here's what we're going to do. We have thousands of listeners who are going to listen to this. And we're going to come up with five ideas for reaching out whether for a job or cold emails. And then we're going to ask people to DM both of us and we're going to collect the amazing things that come from this. Okay, there's going to be like a couple hundred stories from this. Okay, so listeners, please reach out to people. I think example one is if you're looking for a job, you can do it. You did it so Zaarly. So we'll play ping pong. Example one, we can do what you did at Zaarly. Reach out to someone say I will work for you for free for one or two months. And I bet most companies might not even let you work for free. But the fact that you say that makes a big difference? I think that's a good place to start one.
So Zaarly, I should say ended up paying the for those two months. It wasn't a huge amount. But for most companies, I think you want to do things, especially with your cover letter or that first interaction that will just get people's attention and have them just say, "Holy shit, who is this person? I want to talk to them." And that was the biggest lesson. Be super creative, especially if you really want to work at a company. Really think outside the box and almost make your application something where they feel like they need to respond just because they want to. They want to know who did this or you spend so much time on that, that it's just the right thing to do.
So I have another idea, which is you go to the website, the homepage website of a company, and redesign the site in a way that would be way more productive for them. You could draw wire frames, you could code it up. You would probably get a really cool response.
I love that one. Because how long does it take to do that? Maybe it takes a day. And you're showing them how you think you're doing. We all have some idea of how we think product should function and just having an outside opinion is so valuable. So redesigning an existing feature, is probably a good idea or come up with a new product idea. I think it's probably a little bit easier to do the first because you can look at something and say that's not right as opposed to creating something new. It's just a little bit harder. But I love that one. So yeah, let's put down the list.
I really like the idea what is an equivalent of reaching out to you and giving you three investment ideas for somebody else.
So if you're thinking about emailing a CEO, and giving them three ideas to improve their business that you've seen, so showing that you're a customer of their product, or you've really thought deeply about their product, and just three really great ideas, maybe that gets somebody's attention. I think it was one of my classmates who emailed Jeff Bezos about eight things that were just terrible about being a merchant on Amazon. And Jeff Bezos sent it to like chief of staff who sent to their chief of staff. But it was very clear that Jeff Bezos had read the email and they took action. So I would say three very insightful. You don't have to be polite, by the way. But real pieces of feedback might be interesting.
I like what you said about surprising them in a way that makes it so that they feel like they have to engage with you. So many of the cold messages I get are just way too long in terms of introductions and not substantial enough in terms of pure action and insight.
I think that's a big thing. One of the old famous ways in tech is you find a security vulnerability on a website. I don't love that one. Because it's a little bit more, "Hey, I hacked your website. Hire me to help prevent this in the future." But I think like you said, if you take time to do anything in life for somebody else without that much of an expectation, I think most people will thank you or want to follow up with you. So there is a little bit of expectation, the situation because you're kind of asking for the chance to get hired. But if they have an open position and they want to hire someone so you shouldn't feel like that's like an inconvenience, it's maybe it's solving one of their problems.
There we go, that's fine. I'm really excited to see what people come up with, I think that there's gonna be some really cool things.
Yeah, I think so too. I think creating value for the company before you're an employee is a really easy way to get noticed. You set yourself up really well for being a great employee. I think by the time I arrived at Zaarly, I was almost like a legend before I got there. Because here's the crazy person who did this. And like, the Silicon Prairie News wrote an article about me, which was like TechCrunch in the Midwest. So I just like created a very warm introduction to work at the company.
Yet another thing you could do is write an analysis of a certain company and maybe dive into their financials. I just saw a long 10,000 word post on Uber's valuation. Just deconstructing their unit economics, their take rate, and all that sort of stuff. And that's just another way to prove that you're thinking about a company. Uber's actually a good example for this. One thing that really surprised me and learning about Uber who were friends who work at the company. And we've had a lot of conversations around how, for example, Ben Thompson's articles, actually taught them a lot about the company that they worked at but they didn't even know. I think that just that outsider's perspective, that customers perspective, is very hard for companies to actually know how a customer experiences what they're creating.
Yeah, I totally agree. It's kind of the beauty of hiring new people. I've seen some product teams a lot like you, you surround yourself with a certain group of people, and you become so sure that what you've built or the rules that you've created are what the product should be. Then you bring in new energy and a new perspective and someone comes and they don't break everything you've built, but they challenge and question everything to the point where you have to defend what you've done. I've seen this a lot with more like the executive level hires, having that new energy actually does really interesting things for the company, and I think those are really powerful things.
So you're talking about people, what has Brian Norgard taught you about product at Tinder? It seems like you guys are really good friends. Seems like you've learned a lot. What is it been?
Yeah, Brian is fantastic. He departed the company maybe six months ago, but I had the pleasure of working with him for about two and a half years. Brian is kind of a renaissance man. He's an artist in his soul. And a lot of what Brian taught me was just really having a strong point of view, and not hedging. Really having conviction, and taking a firm stance with what you're doing.
What's an example of that?
I guess going back his product philosophy, and it's to make things simple, fun and useful. And I just love that framework for product thinking. But in the context of of dating, it's really about like, being proud about what you're doing and not trying to build a product for everybody. So I think as products grow, you have this choice whether you want to be kind of have a very broad platform with no point of view, or whether you want to have a point of view. I know I'm talking about a little bit abstractly, but he would challenge you to have a very strong point of view and truly stand for something in terms of a product. I think there's some good examples. Snapchat is actually a pretty good example. They've gotten some just flak as a company because the public markets haven't treated them so well. But Snapchat is a very principled product. They really believe in privacy. They really believe in the core communication product they've built. And they haven't really deviated from that. In a couple years, I think they've become more of a camera focused company. But the Snapchat product is very focused. It's a very distinct personality. Whereas other products maybe don't. Time will tell what what that means for Snapchat. Another good good examples actually is Twitter and a lot of these situations, I think, Snapchat, Twitter, those are two CEO and Founder led products. Maybe that's a part of it. There's one person who curates the voice of the product and the soul of the product. Yeah, I think that has pros and cons, though. We could probably agree with that.
Yeah, absolutely. I don't want to let you go and I'm going to pull the leash a little on simple, fun and useful. Can you go into all three of those buckets? I love that framing.
Yeah. So simple, I think especially with a mobile product, is you only have so many pixels and so much real estate on the screen. You can only ask the question, we're going to do so many things at once. And normally, on every screen, you have a primary action, and the more features you build on top of that, the more distracting the product can become for that customer. I think this simplicity of Tinder that we talked about that as a product is kind of that binary decision making that the swipe enables. And you know, I think you can layer on more and more complexity, but at the core of the product, that's really what we're asking the user to do. But it's about reduction. Brian's a big reductionist and, you know as a trend, I think, like how many times do you open Facebook as an example on your phone at this point, and just not know what to do? It's a very feature rich product, but it's kind of lost a little bit of its simplicity. And that's clearly not a big part of the product. This one is similar to LinkedIn. It's kind of a jumbled product experience at this point. I think when that happens, you become more vulnerable to disruption. One of the most interesting trends right now, I think, in all of investing is the verticalization of LinkedIn, with different platforms that are just more simpler, more focused. So I think simplicity is really about reducing and not not trying to build too much.
You mentioned the word disruption. In kind of like this reflexive way, what is the future of disruption when everyone knows what disruption theory is? And how do you think that same idea where the managers who are running a business are doing the rational thing, and building for their best customers, but then there is a new set of customers in the case of classic Clayton Christensen disruption theory, there's the low end. But maybe what you're saying is that companies expand to become cultureless and feature rich, and then they become unbundled and verticalized. And then that is this new tech disruption.
Yeah I think that's right. I think we want to live in a world that's much more personalized. We want our platforms to be much more personalized. I love the example of LinkedIn, because it's just such a obvious target for unbundling. Would you prefer to interact with people and look for a job on LinkedIn or RigUp if you were an oil worker, what do you think would be a better platform for on both sides of the marketplace? It's pretty clear that LinkedIn just isn't focused. You know, I've tried hiring a lot on LinkedIn and it's just not a good experience. So in my mind, disruption really comes from identifying what might be a small market at first and really nailing that customer annd then expanding and I think that's happening a lot in the verticalized marketplace field right now. I heard Sarah Tavel at Benchmark, talking about Hipcamp as example. Who would have thought that a marketplace for camping would would become a thing? Especially benchmark is very, very particular about what they invest in. But if you think about, so maybe start with camping that becomes a marketplace for the outdoors? And how that expands pretty quickly. So I think disruption that comes from being more focused on other people for one customer segment and then expanding. And again, it's hard to pick one way to disrupt things, but someone's like, just about disruption by capital. So just raising a ton of money. And one example there is obviously Opendoor, and Sarah talked about this. You know, but to do that really well, you have to either the CEO or founding team that just can raise a ton of money. And there aren't that many people who can do that. So maybe fundraising as a moat for certain things becomes a way to disrupt.
Absolutely. So final question, I teach a online course called Write of Passage, which is just the go to place for people who want to start writing online. And I want to hear about your experience being on Twitter, and what have been the benefits for you of being as open as you are online?
Yeah, I think Twitter for me has been transformative, and to some extent, Medium too. Really putting yourself out there and you create a record of your thought process. People approached me all over and said Hey, I really love how you think. And if I wasn't on Twitter, how would anyone know what I think outside of maybe my coworkers, my family, and friends. But I think being vulnerable, really being honest, I try and share my thoughts just exactly as they're being formed in my head. And so trying to just be as transparent as possible within whatever industry you work in and having an authentic point of view. I think we're all in a world of so much bullshit. And so many different news sources, we're all looking for truth. So if you can be truthful and honest and have, as Brian might say, a very strong point of view, on things, you'll attract an audience and the number of times I have had job opportunities, or investment opportunities, or just friendships that have been made, just by sharing my thoughts, it's a very easy thing to do. It's really changed my life. And so if you have thoughts, and you think that they're interesting, you should share them for everyone else to see. I didn't join Twitter with the idea of I want to become a content marketer. Like there's zero of that. It's just maybe it's like the old screenwriter me, where I used to write a script, and it had like this huge chain to get release where none of those things ended up being seen by the world. On Twitter, there's no barriers to entry. You can have a distribution platform, simply by writing your thoughts down. And so I would encourage anyone who's looking for a job, anyone who wants to really just build any audience to do it. And it will become a very powerful thing for your career.
Write online baby. JMJ, thanks for coming on the podcast.