Our friends find themselves in a new, corporate co-working space, determining that this, finally, is the thing that will push their digital product over the edge. Then, in a typically wide-reaching (cough) conversation, Rich and Paul discuss the current status of free speech discourse, in the context of the drama around Substack, and—well, as Rich puts it—“Who the hell asked technologists to be the arbiters of free speech?” Paul confesses that he dislikes mess, which would deeply shock anyone who saw his office desk.

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E11

Bless This Mess

January 16, 2024

Paul Ford: Richard. How are you?

Rich Ziade: I’m doing well. How are you?

Paul: I’m good. We’re here at our co-working space for Aboard. Aboard is our startup.

Rich: Co-working with co-workers.

Paul: Exactly. My name is Paul Ford, by the way. I’m the co-founder of Aboard.

Rich: And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder and CEO of Aboard.

Paul: If you haven’t checked out Aboard, please check it out. It is a great tool for managing all kinds of links and data. Lots of new and exciting features coming. I’m gonna say two letters—you ready for those two letters?

Rich: Mmm.

Paul: AI. We’re not gonna talk about AI today, but AI is coming to Aboard.

Rich: In a very unique way.

Paul: In a really positive way. In a way where it actually—we use it as a tool and not as a way to just help itself to other peoples’ content.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: [laughing] I think it’s…it’ll be something that people will react to warmly. Anyway. We’ll get back to that. But I just, keep an eye on Aboard, subscribe to the newsletter, which you get if you sign up to Aboard. It’s free.

Rich: Aboard.com!

Paul: Free for now.

Rich: Check it out!

[intro music]

Paul: So Rich, two subjects. I’m gonna tell you about two things, and then we’re gonna talk about them real quick.

Rich: OK.

Paul: All right. One is Substack.

Rich: Mmmm. This is a newsletter service where you can charge money—

Paul: Giant newsletter platform. It came, you know, a couple of years ago, really started getting out a couple—a few years ago, really started to get big.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: Essentially you can sign up for free, publish a newsletter to a group of individuals.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And you can monetize that. They will, you can, people can pay you for the newsletter.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: So it’s a little bit of CMS, a little bit of paywall, a little bit of magazine, etc. etc.

Rich: It’s helping content creators.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: And writers make money. Good for them.

Paul: So it is an organization that likes a little drama, gets a little drama.

Rich: Really?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: I don’t know anything about this.

Paul: Well, I mean, rec—how many writers have you seen who are like, “I’ve gotta leave Substack. Gotta get off of this thing.”

Rich: I’ve been seeing that lately.

Paul: Yeah, so what happened is they have that kind of free-speech maximalist attitude where they’re like, “Well, if Nazis are gonna publish here, we’ve gotta let them publish.”

Rich: Right.

Paul: That turns out to, like, makes the other writers, the ones who have relatively large readership?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: They feel weird and bad about it. And so they’re like, “I guess I’ll go find some other place to publish.”

Rich: Yeah. Yeah. I, I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard about the Nazis. And I have opinions.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: About it.

Paul: Oh, that’s a shocker. [laughter] Tell me what you think, because I’m curious, because I know what I think, I’ll share it, but I’m curious what you think about this dynamic.

Rich: The free-speech maximalists don’t know what free speech is. In, like, literally in a classic legal sense. There are exceptions to free speech. Like, incitement.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: You’re not allowed to yell, “Fire!” in a theater.

Paul: That’s the classic example.

Rich: The classic—there’s like, about, I think there’s seven.

Paul: Well there’s also, like, you can’t yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You also can’t yell, “I’m going to shoot the president with this gun!” Right? There’s certain things that we really locked down on as a society.

Rich: Yes. But here’s, I think, what is most fascinating. Who the hell asked technologists to be the arbiters of free speech?

Paul: I’ll tell you, it is, something about using a computer makes a person absolutely certain—let us be grateful that the apps that got really big are, like, Photoshop, and not Surgery Doer. Because, like, if you had an app that let people do brain surgery and it was about as expensive as Photoshop?

Rich: [laughing] Yeah.

Paul: Everybody would be a brain surgeon on the freakin’ internet.

Rich: I mean, if we wanna—let’s dip into the legal side of it for a split-second here?

Paul: Please do.

Rich: Most of the free-speech rationale has to do with government not restricting your right to free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. There’s freedoms that I think actually are amazing, and what make America unique. I really believe that. Because we see what happens when people try to control information and control peoples’ ability to gather and talk to each other in other countries, and it’s sad, and terrible, because humans love to express themselves.

Paul: Well, people get out, they go out and they express themselves, and tanks roll in.

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: The deal in America is, like, you’re gonna get out, if you express yourself, and you don’t fire a lot of guns, we won’t roll in tanks. We don’t always keep to the letter on that, but that is the fundamental deal. That’s the understanding of the First Amendment that you’re kind of like, that I have have.

Rich: I mean, when Trump was president—and frankly, when Biden is president, the criticisms that a president takes in the United States are just absolutely brutal, right? Like, withering insults and just horrible, like, I’m not even talking about analysis. I’m talking about just mean memes that are, like, insulting and degrading to whoever you happen to hate in the White House, right?

Paul: If you do that in China, you’re off.

Rich: You’re kinda done, right?

Paul: They don’t want—you can go to jail.

Rich: Turkey has a knob that turns off the internet.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Like, there are other countries that are like, “We’re not having this,” right? In America, you don’t have to worry about that. Again—

Paul: So far… [laughing]

Rich: Again, there are laws. Libel and slander are laws, etc. etc.

Paul: Well and also, this gets, there are issues of interpretation, there was, you know, Supreme Court cases about pornography and so on. It’s very subtle. A lot of this is subtle. But the fundamental deal is if you have a strong statement to make about the world you live in, and you get up and you say it, you will not go to jail in America.

Rich: I’m gonna say something that is gonna be a little, I mean, might get read the wrong way.

Paul: OK.

Rich: If a for-profit business has decided to keep someone on—or not keep someone on—that’s on them. And what happened with Platformer, which is this very popular newsletter—

Paul: Casey Newton writes it, yeah.

Rich: Casey Newton writes it. On Substack. Is that Platformer was like, “I see what you did,” and he kind of implies, you kind of have a right to do it, because you’re not the U.S. government. You can do whatever you want.

Paul: You wanna publish Nazis.

Rich: You’re actually a for-profit business. It’s not even a non-profit. It’s a for-profit business, and you decided you wanted to keep a couple of Nazis on, just to kind of keep things interesting. And that’s your choice. But I also have choices, and markets work the way they do. And so I actually think you can hate Substack, but don’t tell Substack that they can’t have Nazis on there, because they can. But there are implications to it, which means that other people may be like, “Uh…I don’t want my storefront next to that storefront.” And they leave. And that’s OK, too.

Paul: That’s not them saying they don’t respect free speech, that’s saying, “I don’t want to be in the Na, the store—” If you, if you’re in the mall, and you were—

Rich: I just don’t wanna be nearby that!

Paul: Let’s say you’re in the mall, and you have a Spencer’s Gifts, right?

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: A pretzel store! Orange Julius opens up next to you, OK? And then Der Stürmer opens up next door and sells only, like, special—

Rich: Nazi memorabilia.

Paul: Nazi memorabilia and, like, special combat boots that are made by Nazis, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And then you start to see people coming through the mall.

Rich: I don’t have to be there!

Paul: I’m gonna really—first of, I’m gonna talk to mall management. I’m gonna be, like, “I’m paying rent here. I don’t feel good about that. Like, you’re letting Nazis in.” And if they’re like, “Listen, they have as much of a right to open a store—”

Rich: Freedom of—

Paul: But notice the metaphor I’m using is the mall, not, like, some great, like, you know, assembly.

Rich: Well, look, I mean, here’s the thing. And you see, you know, Musk has gone through it, too. Because Disney doesn’t want to deal. They’re like, “You got some weird shit on your platform, dude! I got Mickey Mouse and I got Frozen 2 and maybe 3 is coming out, I don’t know.”

Paul: You know what’s wild is that they seem to assume—like, Musk, I mean…

Rich: He takes it personally, it’s like, what are you talking about?

Paul: Well, no, but I don’t think it’s just that he takes it personally. He seems to feel that he is asserting his interpretation of the law, and that that should be binding.

Rich: He is not the law.

Paul: You know who else is doing that now? Is that, there’s a, there’s that guy Bill Ackman, who didn’t like that his wife got called out on, on plagiarism.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: Right? There’s all these, like, people who are kind of getting up and being, like, “Hey, hold on a minute. That’s now how it works.”

Rich: Here’s what I can’t reconcile in my head. These are free-market advocates.

Paul: Yeah, no, and then, then they get—

Rich: Disney has an advertising budget, and if they decided to shift the money from X, formerly Twitter, to the side of a bus, that’s the beauty of free markets and capitalism, and that’s what you love, right, Bill Ackman and Elon Musk? Like, it made you billionaires. So what are you whining about? Like, I don’t, I don’t understand how that argument does not land for them.

Paul: I think that they, what happened, and this was part of tech culture. I was part of this, you were part of this, in a way, but you were always a little more, you came at it as a lawyer, so you were a little more suspicious, but when I came to technology as a kid, right, like I just felt, it was promising a new world—literally. It was saying, “We’re gonna overthrow government, and there is gonna be unfettered freedom of speech.”

Rich: Mmm hmmm. Yeah.

Paul: And it was this era where, like, you didn’t feel like you had freedom of speech, because magazines wouldn’t publish you. You had to go to Kinko’s and photocopy things you wanted to say.

Rich: Right. Right, right.

Paul: So here’s this new platform, and everyone was flabbergasted that you could hit publish and suddenly, a million people could come take a look at your thing, and that could cost you close to zero dollars.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That used to be utterly the province of billionaires, governments, large organizations.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And, and being faithful about human beings and feeling pretty good about humans in general, the assumption as that we’re gonna lift them up, they’re gonna open their voices, and we’re gonna have a better world because everyone’s gonna get their voice. It turns out, I don’t think we’re all garbage by any means, but it doesn’t take a lot of bad apples to spoil everything.

Rich: It doesn’t. And I think you’re touching on something here that’s really important. When people find success at scale, and they see massive numbers of people have showed up, they sort of assume that they have now inherited some sort of civic space that is actually impacting the world. The truth is, Twitter did impact the world. It has impacted the world. It has been the catalyst for revolutions in certain countries. So Musk bought this thing, and he thought he bought sort of the HOV lane into civic duty, and that he now has the platform where humanity can finally reconcile with itself, right? And it turns out, no, humanity watches 30-second videos and likes to goof around and the platform is optimized for attention and anger and frus—and rage, right?

Paul: Well, humanity, unfortunately, in aggregate, just has a tendency to say weird stuff about other ethnicities. [laughter] Right? Like, humanity, like, an enormous amount of humanity just feels, yeah. I mean—

Rich: Can I tell you my theory about the root cause of all this?

Paul: Yeah. Please.

Rich: Engineers are the root cause of all this. And the engineering mind is the root cause of all this. What I mean by that is this—

Paul: I know where you’re going. I agree.

Rich: It is intellectually neat—

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: And tidy to say, “Well, I have a utility. This is a utility. It is a platform. You put stuff in the box. The box pushes it back out to the world. And therefore the world should allow all boxes to be created equal, and humans will sort out the bad from the good.”

Paul: Engineers hate law. Because they think it should be logical.

Rich: It is logical!

Paul: No, not the way they think.

Rich: Not the way they think.

Paul: They think it should be boolean.

Rich: Yes, that’s right.

Paul: Law has its own logic. It is not boolean logic.

Rich: There is this false belief that terrible bad things, and I think the Substack founders said this, they’re like, “We know it’s bad. Humans will filter it out.” But here’s the thing. I don’t have to put Mickey Mouse next to a Nazi logo. You know why?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Do you know why?

Paul: Why?

Rich: It’s my Mickey Mouse.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: I can do whatever I want.

Paul: Well, it’s public domain now, part of it, but—

Rich: Well, yes.

Paul: Regardless.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Look, the thing here, right, is that I, when I was…younger, I was raised in this, like, very antiracist, very progressive household. We’ve talked about this before. And there are times when you’re in that culture, you’re like, you know, you kind of want to go see what the other side is saying, just to understand it, so I went and read a bunch of Nazi stuff. It’s dumb. It’s freakin’ dumb. It’s the same pictures of—

Rich: That’s classic—

Paul: Like, big-nosed, horrible—

Rich: Cultish, yeah.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah…Aryan…blah blah blah…

Paul: You’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. And so you know, and you’re kind of like, you’re like, “Oh boy, I’m gonna have a taste of this and see what it’s like,” and you’re like, “Oh, God, really?”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Having done that, I have yet to see a new idea in 20, 30 years, since I went and read that stuff.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: Right? It’s the same stuff, and so what Substack is saying is, like, “Hey,” what they’re actually saying to me as a consumer, I’ll tell you a Substack story in a second, they’re saying, “Hey, great news. We’re putting it all in front of you.” And I’m looking back and I’m saying, “I’ve seen it.” Like, I don’t need HBO to show me Welcome Back, Kotter. I’ve seen it.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’s at that level—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’s just like, I don’t need that garbage anymore.

Rich: But, but I will say, I’m OK, it’s Substack’s prerogative to do that.

Paul: Yes. But I actually, I bailed on Substack more than a year ago.

Rich: Oh. Interesting.

Paul: Because I subscribed to all these newsletters, I was paying for a bunch of them, and then they, like, fired this editor, and they, it was sort of a nasty firing, where like, they didn’t like—

Rich: OK, see, I didn’t know this. Why does Substack have an editor? I thought they were just a platform.

Paul: Oh, they have lots of editors. They have lots of people—they, they tried to create a good content product.

Rich: I see.

Paul: And so some, some writer, like, bailed on them, and then they went after the editor, and they fired him for some other stuff, it was sort of spongy and bad.

Rich: OK.

Paul: And it just felt gross. I just—

Rich: OK, so it’s not actually a utility. The classic argument amongst technologists is like, “We’re just a utility.”

Paul: No, they don’t, I don’t think they edit the Nazis, but yeah.

Rich: No, but they do have compilations, they have notes, where they pluck content from different newsletters—

Paul: Oh, yeah, yeah, no, this is like a—

Rich: They’re in the mix, right?

Paul: It’s an editorial platform.

Rich: It’s an editori—and they have an edit—

Paul: They may not want you to say that.

Rich: Right. I think that’s where it’s harder for them to say, “Well, we’re just a platform. You publishing what you publish.”

Paul: No, it’s also—

Rich: Well, versus, like, you know, Cloudflare. [laughing]

Paul: Well, yes. We’ll get to that in a second. The—

Rich: Cloudflare’s hosting Nazis, too?

Paul: Actually, no, they went through that as well. All the hosting companies have. Because they had—

Rich: Interesting.

Paul: Occasionally they have to be, like, “Look, we’re not gonna allow that content on our platform.”

Rich: Interesting, I didn’t know that.

Paul: “We’re not gonna be neutral.

Rich: I didn’t know. What about Azure?

Paul: [laughing] Yeah, exactly. Azure, well then it gets tricky. So look, no, there was a point, I’ve talked about this before, it left such a bad taste in my mouth as like a writer-editor type that I was like, “I’m kind of done with this platform. I’m done with paying everything on it.” I just felt weird about it.

Rich: OK. You cancelled everything.

Paul: I cancelled—

Rich: Look, man. You have the right to do that.

Paul: I did—

Rich: I will say this, something else, they had a right to fire that editor. They’re a for-profit business.

Paul: Yeah, it was gross, it was gross the way they did it. That’s why I quit.

Rich: That’s your form of protest.

Paul: Yes. So then—

Rich: Platformer can leave! They can keep the Nazis!

Paul: And to their credit, I had a little mailing list there with, like, 1,000, maybe 2,000 names on it? They made it really easy to get all my stuff out. They were pretty good about that. Like, I was pretty happy with their cancelation product.

Rich: I also, yeah, I was reading the Platformer announcement, and they’re, like, they let them have all their subscribers back.

Paul: Yeah, they don’t, they didn’t make you, it’s not back, they don’t make you lock—you own your list.

Rich: That’s amazing.

Paul: It’s a good product that way. Look, Substack sucks, because it’s a good product that seems to be ruined by the dumbest public messy things. This is what I—this is the point I’m getting at, and I want to talk about Cloudflare for one second, too, but here’s what I hate. I hate mess. You know what drives me crazy about the New York Times? They sit there all day long and tell you what to think and worry about? And then they implode and just spew their own disasters about hiring, firing—

Rich: Wait? Did we just change topics?

Paul: No. No. Because it’s like—

Rich: Explain?

Paul: These large organizations that are, like, “Hey, give us your trust and attention.”

Rich: Uh huh…

Paul: And we’ll tell you what to do and what to think. OK? And then, they have, like, an internal HR disaster and it is treated like an asteroid has hit the moon.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And we have to all pay attention to it, and the mess leaks everywhere. Substack is messy.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’s messy. I don’t like messy products. I don’t like messy leadership in organizations. Because I just wanted to read my freakin’ newsletter.

Rich: There is…

Paul: No, but, if you’re a good capitalist product, if that’s what you really want to be, don’t spew your mess into the commons. You need to keep your crap buttoned up.

Rich: Yeah, here’s why they don’t, here’s what they can’t help with. They can’t help with. When they reach scale, and they see that, when they hit, they, they tap the slightest signal, and it just resonates across the world? They confuse an executive of a company that has to take care of its audience and its customers with becoming these, like, elevated civic servants. That’s the confusion.

Paul: You know, that is completely real. I will say, the last five years didn’t make that easier.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: That’s right. That’s right.

Paul: But one of, I’ll, I’m gonna speak honestly for a sec, one of the things I’ve been doing, because I feel Aboard is very important, and I’m proud of what we’re doing, I think it’s good for the world, in funny ways. I don’t talk about that, it, it sounds like marketing, so I’m careful with it. But I’ve been winding down a lot of my public engagements, a lot of my writing—

Rich: Except this podcast, Paul, because it’s a good podcast.

Paul: Exactly. No, no, no. There’s a few, there’s a few exceptions. This is a constrained place where we have a lot of control. Because I really do feel, like, if I’m gonna lean in on this with you, and we’re gonna build this startup, I can’t have other things out there where I can be called to account for them as well as for Aboard.

Rich: They’re also incredibly time consuming—

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And energy consuming and emotionally consuming.

Paul: But what I’m trying to do is minimize the chance for mess.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I wanna build the least messy platform. It’s literally for cleaning up data.

Rich: Well…OK.

Paul: But culturally.

Rich: I, I’m happy you’re doing this, just by the way—

Paul: Yeah, yeah.

Rich: As your co-founder. I think it’s a good thing. I think, can we put a tool out in the world that makes life a little bit easier and a little bit simpler for people? Everyone’s trying to do that. I like, I bet the meetings for Substack, when they were first coming up with the idea, were incredibly positive, about how they’re gonna help writers, and help publishers, and—

Paul: They created a very good product.

Rich: They created a very good product. Where you lose the script is you’re like, holy moly. Important national figures around the world are writing on this thing, and incredibly influential journalists are on this thing. We have a duty. You have one job. You have one duty. Which is to make sure your audience and your customers and effectively your partners, all these writers and journalists are partners of Substack—

Paul: Feel really good about your growth.

Rich: Feel really good about you.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And you’re gonna hear them. Now, you do have every right, if you want to tilt this thing to the right, and have Nazis and whatever else you do, you can do that. I think you’re kind of headed towards more of a lifestyle business at that point [laughing], but you can do it.

Paul: Here’s what I would say about that. It’s mess. I hate mess.

Rich: It’s mess.

Paul: I don’t like mess. And so, like, I look at that, and that is my reaction. We’ve had this conversation before about, like, drama at the company 37signals, and other things where like, people will go out, and they will make political statements, and sometimes you and I will agree or disagree, but I think the one thing that you and I agree on is that I don’t like public mess out of the things that people are supposed to buy and participate in. I think it’s a bad sign. I don’t like to see it.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It makes me want to put my credit card deep back in my wallet.

Rich: You don’t want to spend.

Paul: No, because, and it drives me, it’s one of the things that drives me bananas about the New York Times. The New York Times currently is going through a nice quiet period where we’re not hearing a lot.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I feel good about it.

Rich: Yeah, I don’t know a lot about these HR disasters that you speak of.

Paul: Oh, I do. We won’t even go into them. We don’t have hours and hours. But anybody, if you just, like, watched on Twitter over the last couple years, you’ve seen a lot of stuff.

Rich: Yes, I’ve seen some stuff, yes.

Paul: So the other thing, I mean, speaking of this, like, there’s more mess out there in the world right now. You had something to show me this morning. What was it?

Rich: It’s kind of hard to watch, I’ll be honest. It was a Cloudflare account rep getting laid off on Zoom.

Paul: And she filmed the layoff.

Rich: She didn’t film the other people, which was thoughtful of her to do. Though, you know, it’s, I think, you know, whether it’s wise to do that at all is a separate thing, but she filmed the whole layoff Zoom call. Yeah. And it was…and it’s…it’s resonating because there’s a lot of layoffs, there’s just a lot of white collar tech layoffs happening right now.

Paul: Yeah, there really are.

Rich: If you go to TechCrunch, they’re keeping a chart right now.

Paul: Mmm.

Rich: On a month-to-month basis of all the layoffs…is the economy bad? No. Is tech falling apart? No. I think we just, there was so much overhiring and people are trying to rein it in

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And a lot of people are getting laid off. So…

Paul: Which, I mean, when you say that, and you’re the person getting laid off, it feels very, very sadistic.

Rich: It feels very sadistic.

Paul: Like, how could you—you overhired because you didn’t value me in the first place? Like, what are you doing to me?

Rich: Yeah, yeah. And look, the economy’s humming, right? And the truth is, there’s this weird little, I call it, like, a sort of pocket of a job recession in tech white collar right now.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: Because there’s just such a massive influx of hiring—

Paul: I don’t know if people have ever seen it before. Have they?

Rich: It’s odd, right?

Paul: Right?

Rich: Because you can’t hire a truck driver right now.

Paul: Yes, that’s true.

Rich: Like, you can’t hire…

Paul: We actually know people who are in the business of hiring truck drivers, and its’ hard.

Rich: It’s hard. And—

Paul: Restaurant workers.

Rich: Restaurant workers, they’re, you know, and look, honestly? My, my, let me put the capitalist hat back on. That means you have to pay them a little bit more, and that’s not the worst thing. Pay the restaurant workers just a little bit more. It’s OK.

Paul: You know, it’s funny, is we’ve decided that that’s not capitalist? [laughing] But it actually is, right?

Rich: It is!

Paul: Their market is tight, so you’re—

Rich: It’s called supply and demand.

Paul: You’re gonna have to pony up, and give a truck driver more money.

Rich: That’s right. So yeah, this video’s hard to watch. At first, I was like, you’ve been there a few months. Relax. It’s not like you put 20 years of your life in. But then you just realize, this is a human being that’s just really hurt about what they’re going through, right? And, and it’s a company.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: And it’s a spreadsheet.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: We talk about spreadsheets on this podcast. Let me tell you something. This is advice for anybody who’s 30 years old or younger. Spreadsheets will rule your life.

Paul: Yeah, they do. You’re on—

Rich: You won’t see them.

Paul: You’re on five right now.

Rich: You’re on five right now, right? And that’s what running a business, especially at scale, is about. Sadly.

Paul: Actually, hold on a sec. Let’s—this is a good, because I, you and I had the same reaction, which is, I watched this person and I felt a lot of empathy for her. I actually felt some empathy for the HR people, because they were in over their heads.

Rich: [laughing] Clearly.

Paul: I didn’t like their script. There is a script you follow, which is basically—

Rich: It was not good.

Paul: You’re focused on communicating that this is over, and that you are going to follow up.

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: There is no conversation to have. Anyway. I think this is real, right? Like I actually think people should watch that video, as uncomfortable as it is.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because there’s a tremendous amount to learn about how to operate. What is, let’s, let’s close it this way. What do you think the five spreadsheets you’re on, that people don’t know about? I think there’s—I’ll mention two. Spreadsheet One is “office space.” Where you live and where you work inside of the organization. There is a spreadsheet that says who gets to sit where.

Rich: Yeah. That’s right.

Paul: Spreadsheet Two is “salary”. And it’s organized by manager, and it’s, and every year, or probably quarterly, they look at your salary and they think, “Is that too high or too low?” And they can’t take it down, so if they can’t, like, it’s really bad to take it down?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So if, if they don’t like that number, they might let you go. What are other spreadsheets?

Rich: Um…businesses, especially at scale, love to quantify. Performance, however way you measure it, and sometimes it’s through closing deals. That’s why salespeople can always di—if you’re good at sales—

Paul: See, I felt bad for this person, because she’d only been there a few months and hadn’t closed anything, she said that—

Rich: She hadn’t closed, she, and she probably would’ve, she seemed smart, I bet—

Paul: Oh she was gonna close—for Cloudflare? She—

Rich: She could close deals.

Paul: She can sell caching.

Rich: Totally.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: [laughing] Totally. Totally. So…performance, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And that could be…deals closed. That could be…the CRM throwing….

Paul: Oh, ultima—

Rich: CRMs love…

Paul: Ultimately they start to subtract that business you bring in minus your salary. People are running that number over and over again.

Rich: CRMs love to spit out reports. [laughing] And that’s one of the big ones, right? “Who’s the performer?”

Paul: Oh, you know, another good one is the technology you’re allowed to access. When do you get a new laptop. Somebody’s always thinking about that.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Every two years you get to have a new laptop.

Paul: That’s four. What’s a good—what’s a fifth spreadsheet, Richard?

Rich: Bonus.

Paul: Oooh yeah. End-of-year bonus.

Rich: [laughing] It’s the worst one.

Paul: Aw, God. And it is, I’ll tell you what. As the last firm, the firm that you and I founded before this one, you know, that end-of-year bonus spreadsheet is pretty brutal.

Rich: Well, it was, I mean, there is no…more…enlightening sociological experiment [laughing] then the bonus…spreadsheet….

Paul: [laughing] Well you know what I called it, you know what I called it? There is a moment in any organization, and especially in New York City—everybody is a socialist until right before Thanksgiving. Like, everybody, literally, like, leaving red bandanas around the office, and then they come back from Thanksgiving vacation, and it’s Adam Smith all day long. It’s really amazing.

Rich: Until Christmas, until the holidays.

Paul: Two months of hardcore capitalism.

Rich: That’s really funny.

Paul: Yup.

Rich: Yeah, look—

Paul: And then January 10th, everybody’s “comrade” again.

Rich: Yeah. Spreadsheets are anti-relationship.

Paul: Boy, are they. They’re literally about quantifying.

Rich: They’re anti-relationship. If you, if you are loved by your manager—

Paul: It’s not in there.

Rich: It’s not in there. But they, they may fight, and you may survive, or you may get a better outcome than the spreadsheet says, because of that relationship.

Paul: I mean the ones that made this utterly transparent were Microsoft, where they had the stack ranking, and they would just kill a percentage at the bottom.

Rich: Yeah. I mean, you’re at a scale.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: That it becomes quantitative, almost entirely, just it’s too big. It’s too big.

Paul: I gotta tell ya. I don’t love that part of it. It’s not for me. As we grow this thing.

Rich: It’s humans, right? And that’s a hard—

Paul: I don’t like to quantify humans. It makes me feel gross.

Rich: Yeah. No, I hear ya.

Paul: I like to reward them. I like that feeling. But the, the quantification sucks.

Rich: Yeah. I mean, look, if there’s…quantification that is out, that is outputted from peoples’ judgment and read, like, “He’s a sharp one,” or, “She’s, she’s, she’s really got it together.” Is not great. What is inevitable is, “She closed this much money in 2023.” Off we go.

Paul: Yeah, it, it is inevitable. It is part of our future.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I accept it.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: It’s just, like…but you always have to look for a balance. You can’t—

Rich: I agree with that.

Paul: I do, I do think organizations become pathological when they go, “Well, that’s the only truth that matters.”

Rich: Culture is relationships.

Paul: Yeah, that’s right. And anyway. Mess. I don’t like mess. I don’t like TikToks about HR failures. I don’t like—

Rich: Bless this mess. What’s that from? Bless this mess.

Paul: Bless this mess. That’s like a little thing you put in the kitchen.

Rich: OK.

Paul: You know, like, “Bless it.” Because it’s a messy house, but you know what?

Rich: It’s life.

Paul: Bless it.

Rich: Living here together.

Paul: Bless this mess.

Rich: Got it.

Paul: All right, so I don’t like mess, but I do like chaos, so let’s go make some chaos.

Rich: I like chaos, too, and uh…I’m going to see Tool tonight.

Paul: That’s really—we just lost 500 listeners. [laughter] That’s pretty cool. Speaking of chaos, actually, we have a great tool. It’ll clean up your chaos—

Rich: Speaking of tools…

Paul: Speaking of tools and chaos…

Rich: Aboard.com.

Paul: Check it out. We’ll clean it up. We love to know what you think. Send us an email. Hello@aboard.com. If you think we got it all wrong about HR and Substack, you let us know.

Rich: Let us know. Have a lovely week, everyone.

Paul: Bye!

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