Rich and Paul talk about their willingness to be humiliated in a corporate context. It sounds just a little like they crave it. Especially Paul. Which is weird but whatever. Then they talk about how you can’t automate relationships—how you can’t remove interaction from the loop. They discuss what they learned this year, and what they hope to learn next year.

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E9

Startup Year in Review

December 19, 2023

Paul Ford: I’m Paul Ford.

Rich Ziade: I’m Rich Ziade.

Paul: This is the Aboard Podcast, brought—

Rich: No, no, we’re renaming it.

Paul: Oh no….

Rich: The Aboard Ziade and Ford Advisors Aboard.com Podcast.

Paul: Okay, we are not renaming it.

Rich: That’s a joke because we’ve renamed the podcast four times. On YouTube, there are some embarrassing videos—actually, they’re kind of great. We should leave them up there. We tried YouTube as another channel, even though we have a wonderful audience that listens to us on the podcast. I do appreciate one thing about us, Paul, in the year 2023.

Paul: What did we learn in the year 2023?

Rich: We are okay with shitting our pants in public.

Paul: Yes. 

Rich: I love it. 

Paul: You throw it over the wall and you humiliate yourself just like any idiot, and then you learn. You have to.

Rich: I think it’s great. 

Paul: How long have I been advocating? You actually, this is funny, because I think people think of you as the raging bull in this relationship.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And there’s a lot of truth in that, you are the raging bull in this relationship. But how, how long have I been advocating for us to go out and sell our product to companies so that they can just laugh in our face and spit on us?

Rich: You do like to go out there. And, which is…

Paul: And you’re like, hold on a minute, I’d rather not humiliate myself in front of people who might one day give us money. 

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And I’m like, no, I want to be debased like a worm and stomped. Well, maybe that’s a little too much.

Rich: Maybe, yeah we don’t wanna go that far, but I, I do, and we’re gonna meander over to, I think the one big thing that we both, I think learned in 2023, and I think the tech world is also learning.

Paul: Oh my God, can the tech world learn without a large language model?

Rich: Mmm…mmm. Uh, it, it, it’s been, even though AI sort of took the wheel, and showed this incredible second wind after the big, you know, crypto shit-stain of the last five years.

Paul: [Laughter] Can we just pause for one second about how rapidly, it is like they have a giant whiteboard that they used to erase history at, like a16z.

Rich: It’s, it, crypto is now the ex-girlfriend you run into sometimes at Trader Joe’s. 

Paul: Yeah, you know what, you know what she has in her—

Rich: And just avoid eye contact.

Paul: You know what she has in her arms? Your twins.

Rich: [Laughter] AKA 14 Dogecoins?

Paul: Yeah, I mean, it’s just, it’s just like, “Oh no, what? No, no! It was always AI.”

Rich: Yeah, yeah, uh, but I want to put AI on the side for a second here. It’s actually been a very, very rough year for tech. A lot of businesses, a lot of SaaS products, a lot of consumer tech products, uh, and mostly on the software side because that’s what we pay attention to, have been taking an absolute battering. They’re down 80%. The ones that are still private, their valuations, they’re running out of money. I’m hearing this from VCs. and um, entrepreneurs who have pretty healthy companies. It’s been a rough, rough go as soon as you lift the AI veil back. 

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: It’s been a rough year for tech, uh, besides AI. AI is just, rocket ship, but even AI got a little too frothy, and there’s all these startups riding on top of other startups that are doing AI stuff, so it’s gonna, I think it’s already overheated. But it is, it’s, it’s fascinating. We’ve talked already. AI is no joke. We’ve always thought crypto was kind of a joke. We don’t think AI is a joke. There’s something pretty magical going on here, and it’s interesting. But I want to talk about what I learned this year.

Paul: Okay, what did you learn this year?

Rich: And what I think a lot of people are learning this year, too.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: As a counter-narrative to AI.

Paul: Spanish with Duolingo?

Rich: We put out Aboard.com for public consumption out in the world.

Paul: Okay. Aboard is our data-management platform. 

Rich: Yes. 

Paul: We don’t always call it that in public. 

Rich: Yes. 

Paul: But that’s for the listeners of this podcast. It is a data-management platform.

Rich: If you go to Aboard.com, you can sign up for free and try Aboard.com. We recently…

Paul: Thousands of you have.

Rich: Thousands of you have.

Paul: Thank you. 

Rich: You can also put out, we also put out the mobile app, which you can download and try for free. It’s a really cool tool. It does some nice things. And starting in about the fall, you and I came to realize the importance of talking to people.

Paul: Yes, this is real.

Rich: The dream, the Silicon Valley dream, the AI dream in a lot of ways, is that you can automate away relationships. And it turns out, whether you’re charging five dollars a year, or five million dollars a year, connecting with people somehow, some way, is key. And…

Paul: I think this is a, this, okay, let me pause you for a sec, because there’s a thing going on here, it’s a very, it’s very interesting, because it, it actually passes a lot of ideological and social and cultural lines. So, and it, it is the desire to remove certain kinds of interaction from the loop. It happens in the remote work discussion. It happens in the Silicon Valley where the, all the money’s gonna come from by getting people out of the loop. It happens in, then, you know, it, it, it, there’s all these different contexts.

Rich: A lot has been eliminated. I used to call a car service.

Paul: Yes. 

Rich: I don’t talk to people anymore. 

Paul: Yes. 

Rich: I used to, I used to call a restaurant to order takeout. I don’t call people anymore. I used to call a restaurant to make reservations. I don’t call people anymore. 

Paul: Well, let me describe that as, there used to be, we used to live in a world where kind of, you had to be close to something that was connected to a wire in order to do certain things.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Before that, you would have to run around with a piece of paper. Right? 

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So we got to a wire world, and now we’re in wireless world. And so what happens is, any job where, any job that was specifically like, whoop, the wire doesn’t reach that far. I’m gonna, I’ll call the car service where they have a wire, and then they will tell the other guy to go get you. Like, those jobs are gone. That world is gone. Not just those jobs, right? Like, no, and frankly, very few people really want to go back to that.

Rich: Yes, and I think there is, I think there is a, a direct correlation between the growth of automation and the importance of relationships. I’m going to give you an example that happened in 2023. 

Paul: Okay.

Rich: Um, we watch the SaaS product category a lot. Because we’re a SaaS product. 

Paul: Software as a service, you spend money every month to Slack, Airtable…

Rich: My understanding is that Airtable is one of the golden boys. 

Paul: Where billions and billions of dollars.

Rich: Billions and billions and billions of dollars.

Paul: Founded by ex-Google people. It’s a data-management platform that now is sort of like a low-code app platform. Do anything with it, run your business on it.

Rich: High-quality product by any measure. We had one of the founders many years ago, when Airtable was just a baby, on our podcast. Uh, I opened TechCrunch, which I often do at two in the morning on a Saturday. 

Paul: Mmm hmm, yeah.

Rich: Uh, and, uh I just get, I get, I’m floored. They’ve cut half their staff. And I’m always thinking, wow, everybody wants to be Airtable. And then you keep reading, and I think my interpretation is, is, probably stands alone in terms of what I read. 

What they said was this—”We’re going to cut half the staff. We’re going to focus on our enterprise customers.” Which, all I read was, we’ve rung the automated get-your-credit-card-out towel dry. And now what is left is humans connecting with humans. Relationships, right? And so here is the pinnacle of automated software bowing down to the fact that humans need to talk to each other for the real value to show up. 

And that, to me, was a lesson for us—frankly, for a lot of the world. I think that as AI rises, and I said this in a previous podcast, and I don’t think I articulated it well, as AI rises, the value of the relationships between organizations, between companies, between entities—human relationships is actually gonna mean that much more. DoorDash automated deliveries, but they have an absolute army of a salesforce that visits every single restaurant, shakes hands, asks you what you need, and it’s at the foundational level, you need plant food. And plant food, even in tech, is still relationships. 

Paul: Sure. 

Rich: And I think that’s going to be, for us personally, for Aboard, that’s going to be really important for us as we look ahead.

Paul: Well, look, we started October 2022, we launched Aboard as a kind of an enterprise-y product. We were going to take it to organizations. 

Rich: Yes. 

Paul: And then you and I looked at each other and we said, “Mmm, it’s not good enough yet, like we want to make it..”

Rich: That’s right. 

Paul: And the way that I put it is that it was built on the web, but not of the web. And that’s when we started with all the link parsing and the bookmarking and all that stuff right?

Rich: Also polished the product up a lot. 

Paul: Make it, make it pretty, make the cards visual, all of that, all of that. 

Rich: Yeah, yeah. 

Paul: Okay, so that ended up being frankly harder than we thought.

Rich: Yes. It’s a lot of work.

Paul: It turns out the web, we knew the web was a mess, but we didn’t know how much, and we didn’t want to do a lot of hand wavy stuff, like just say, hey, and slop AI all over it and be like, look at us. But ultimately, what are our roots? Our roots are in the agency world in New York City. 

Rich: That’s our bias, right? We like to go, we like to go get that meeting.

Paul: Yeah, so there’s an element of this. Now, I will say, I watched, I watched Slack try to say, what is an enterprise product, okay? A consumer product is, hey, can you get out your credit card and buy this? It’s, you can buy it like you could buy it at a store, okay? 

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: An enterprise product means someone else is buying it for lots of other people. They’re, they’re going to buy it for their team of 5,000.

Rich: Or 50.

Paul: Or 10, and whatever, right? But like still, there isn’t, what happens when you’re buying something for 5,000 people? You’re expecting to be able to make a phone call.

Rich: Absolutely.

Paul: You’re expecting for certain things to be customized. Your logo is gonna be on the top left. You might have a way that people sign on and the company is going to, the software product is gonna have to kind of, like, lean into that.

Rich: Yeah, yes.

Paul: They’re not gonna—unless it’s like Google or Apple, you’re gonna, we’re gonna bend to you not the other way around.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And I think you and I are, are looking in an interesting way for that compromise, and we keep looking for it. And one of the things that happened, we went out and pitched VCs at one point, and what was…

Rich: Not in 2023, in 22.

Paul: No way back, and what was funny about these conversations, God bless everyone, but they were like, oh, this seems interesting, you really have something there. First of all, they were like, go get thousands of users, and then get in touch, and we’re like, well okay. But, but second of all, what was clear to, clear to us is they kept telling us where they were going to add value, not just in the money, it was they were going to help us build out our enterprise sales culture, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And it was like, well, we have that. Like, they couldn’t, they were looking at us and we’re 2,000 years old, as far as they could tell. There’s two, two Methuselahs selling them software.

Rich: Yeah, we are already optimized for relationships.

Paul: And we’re like, no we’re gonna get there. We just have to make really good software first.

Rich: Yeah [laughter].

Paul: Don’t you worry about me selling to big organizations. I love it, send me into the bank. I love those guys, I’ll bring coffee.

Rich: Totally, totally. If anything, we’re sort of the reverse.

Paul: It’s, we’re the opposite of a startup.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: And that is, I think, it took us a minute. Here’s what I think is very frustrating about our industry. Is that what you and I said was, I want to build really good, kind of fundamental software. And I want it to be beautiful, and I want it to work well for everybody in an organization, and outside of an organization. 

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I want it to be something people can pick up. And it actually turns out, in a really weird way, there isn’t a lot of context for that. I gotta say, I feel like we are on our own path. We are stubborn men. I know us very well. We do pretty well with our stubbornness. 

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But we are on our own path. And we’re going to win or we’re going to lose based on our stubbornness here.

Rich: I think that’s right.

Paul: And so like, I refuse to acknowledge and believe that tools, that there is a special kind of tool that you have to use if you are a C-level person at IBM, and, like, they get a golden hammer, but it’s really ugly and heavy, and everybody else gets a little hammer, but you can only hit one nail.

Rich: Yup, yup.

Paul: I feel that, like, it’s software. We want to empower people and figure stuff out. Anyway, I’m ranting a little bit here, but it’s like, that was the lesson for me, which is, categories have seemed, the categories of the industry that we’re in just kind of don’t make sense with what we’re building.

Rich: Well, I think, uh, this may, by the way, outside looking in, this may sound like an insane podcast because if anyone is familiar with Aboard.

Paul: They all do.

Rich: That’s true, they [laughter].

Paul: They all do…

Rich: It looks like we built a glossy consumer product. We actually built a software platform and we built a glossy consumer product on top of it. That said, we are learning that professionals and other organizations are interested in how this thing can be useful for them. And that gets us excited. For most, for many people who want to automate revenue right into the bank, it’s not exciting. It’s burdensome to like, wait, you’re in Cleveland. 

Paul: Yeah, yeah.

Rich: Does that mean you want me to visit you? And you’re like, yes, I’m ready to commit to you, but come visit me, right? And a lot of the world works in that way, and I don’t think that’s gonna change, Paul. And I will say, I, I’m gonna double down on this. I will, I would even posit that it’s gonna require even more. If you think you’re gonna automate away a whole legal department with AI, you better go visit them.

Paul: Yes. 

Rich: You better go say hi. 

Paul: No, but this is, you know, you know how this works. I wrote about this for the Aboard newsletter. Everybody neglects that last 20 percent and they believe that it’s easy. And you and I are guilty of this, too. Everybody thinks everybody else’s job is easy. And so, what is a lawyer? A lawyer is somebody who moves contracts around. 

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Well, a large learning model can internalize a million contracts. And now I will have a statistical model of every contract ever. Okay, Well, what do I need a lawyer for? Right? That is the kind of logic that makes actually perfect sense if you’ve never met a lawyer.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Paul: Right? And it’s the same, the same is true of art, and the same is true of it that the desire to get the human out of the loop, frankly, is based on ignorance. And it actually neglects the fundamental truth that the whole point of human existence is to interact with other humans. There is no other point. There is no goal.

Rich: If there is one thing to take away from this technology podcast.

Paul: That’s it.

Rich: It is that people want to see people.

Paul: They want to see people. And what a tool is, what is the context of Aboard, right? And this is, again, I wrote about this, like, Aboard is our op-ed. It’s us saying, hey, because everybody’s like, wow, boy, you built another data platform. Who needs that? Right?

Rich: Right. 

Paul: And especially in the tech industry, everybody loves to be like, everything you do sucks and I hate you, so why are you doing it? And they’re like, and they act like you’re, they’re your friend. I kind of, I’m kind of tired of that attitude in the tech industry. Why would we build, let me ask you, why build another thing? Because the thing we do, the thing we do, you can do it with any other tool. You can go use Google Sheets and organize data. And you could, we can say like, ours is prettier.

Rich: No, I, I think I think that, did we build something… I know what we built. We didn’t build something that just rendered a whole category obsolete. We didn’t do that. We didn’t go that far.

Paul: Right. 

Rich: Did we build something that we can put under our arms and walk into relationships and talk to people about and, and, and show them why it’s good for them? I do believe we built that. We, there is a consumer or a turnkey story around this thing, and I do believe it can be useful for a lot of people.

Paul: I think we’re pretty close to something that is generally useful for lots and lots of users.

Rich: Our data is showing it. We haven’t slammed the gas on marketing spend yet, but the engagement levels are very, very good.

Paul: It’s true, if we could get a million people to use this thing, like that’s, that’s the actual goal.

Rich: No, no, I mean, for anyone that’s in the investment or VC world, like we’re in the, we’re in the like close to 10 percent engagement after 60 days. Once people lock in, it’s really good.

Paul: Yeah that’s real. 

Rich: Um, and I’m sharing that in full, you know, in the spirit of full transparency. However…

Paul: It’s nice to share good stats in the spirit.

Rich: It’s nice to share good stats. Now, how do you get people to latch on and commit? It’s that last mile. You’re calling it 20%, I call it human relationships. A lot of it has to do with going, visiting, listening, understanding what people’s problems are. By the way, I’m not saying, oh my god, they’re going to do enterprise sales again. We may be at an interior design conference, with a booth.

Paul: Showing that this is a nice way to organize sofas.

Rich: You’re meeting people. 

Paul: Yeah, but there is a non-trivial chance that we’re eating tiramisu in Detroit next year. That, that is just, get ready.

Rich: I like Detroit and I like tiramisu.

Paul: I know. Me too. That actually sounds fun.

Rich: I am fine with both of those things. 

Paul: I love a good short flight. I love a, one, like a, like a, you get there in the morning.

Rich: Actually I have never been to Detroit.

Paul: Detroit’s, it’s exactly what you’d expect.

Rich: If you could sum up what we learned in 2023, and I think what tech has learned, too, right, is that people matter. Even in the wildest of innovations, people still matter, and human relationships still matter, and you can’t shortcut it. You just can’t do it, you just can’t. And we learned that. I think the world is learning that. But I also think I’m going to make a generalization here, that maybe is a little controversial. I think that, I think we’re still kind of waking up groggy from the pandemic. I think we need to see each other more. I think it matters when we see each other. I think it’s healthier for us.

Paul: I’ll go right there. You know, there’s all these articles right now about what it’s going to look like when Trump gets the, the, um, nomination.

Rich: Oh you did go right there [laughter].

Paul: Yup and, like I realize I was just, I felt like I’ve been hit in the head with a brick reading these. I still do a little bit, but I realized what I was associating, I was associating the pandemic. Like those moments were so hard and he was such a horrible leader through the pandemic and I’m just like [laughter].

Rich: Yeah. It was a hard time.

Paul: I can’t go back. I can’t go back to someone telling me to drink bleach while laughing as the president of the United States.

Rich: It was banana cakes.

Paul: Right, and we might, we might have to deal with that as a society. So, okay, well, that’s a different podcast, but the, um—hey Jim—but the, um, but what I’m like, I know that’s like a lot to just sort of throw in the middle of this, what I’m saying, I think you are right. I think that the fundamental shift in reality from something that was going to be two bad weeks turning into like two of the worst years that we’ve ever known.

Rich: Yeah, yeah. 

Paul: Um, and now, you know, and then, you know, the vaccines happened. Everybody’s like, I’m going to the park. And meanwhile, like my kids stared at a screen for a year and a half. And like, I, it’s just like, there’s a lot to undo.

Rich: Let me share a piece of advice to close this out. We’ve been having a lot of calls with different people that offer services to Aboard, whether it’s an agency or a software product or…

Paul: Can’t do it all.

Rich: Ad spend, can’t do it all. Um, I have one piece of advice for all of them. 

Paul: Okay. 

Rich: Stop selling to me from your bedroom.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Come outside. Come on out, come visit. Some of them are in New York, by the way. I would always, general rule, if you were in New York City, I would come to, I would ask to come to you. 

Paul: I would tell you mean, it is easy to say no on a Zoom.

Rich: What do you mean?

Paul: It’s easy. You’re talking to somebody and you’re like, “Hey, we’ll talk soon.”

Rich: Exactly, exactly. 

Paul: But like once you’ve looked in their eyes, exchanged pheromones. 

Rich: You offered coffee. 

Paul: Yeah, you know pulled the, pull the hair off the side of their jacket. 

Rich: You know, it’s funny. We have been on both sides in pretty intense ways as sellers and as buy, as prospects, and it is the easiest thing to say, well, thanks so much. This is really great. We’ll get back to you soon. Because you’re just going to hang up, it’s like changing a channel.

Paul: Oh it is like changing a channel, it is. Presence is incredibly powerful, it shows intent. It shows all sorts of things. 

Rich: That’s right. 

Paul: Um, and, you know, I, I mean, if, if any of our agency friends are listening to this, like, you’re fine. We’re not, we’re not upset but I’m telling you, it is real, like, I am much more likely, because I’m going to feel bad saying no in person.

Rich: It’s, it’s meaningful. It’s just straight-up meaningful. And, and that is, that is, I think it’s, it’s, it goes back to what you’re saying before humans need to see other humans. 

Paul: Well, you know, just..

Rich: Also Zoom as a piece of software is one of the most surreal things in existence.

Paul: I do enjoy when it makes you install the whole new version every time there, when you open it. But anyway…

Rich: Its timing is always perfect. 

Paul: It’s so bad, you’re just desperately trying to get on the call and it’s like, “Hold on a minute! How about I sing you a song?”

Rich: Can I read you the specials?

Paul: No, I, I think, you’re getting at something very fundamental, which is that when you’re on a, when you present yourself purely digitally, you commoditize yourself. No matter how much you think you’re not, you are a two-dimensional rectangle.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: And that doesn’t mean that, like, some people can’t leave the house. I get it, okay. But that doesn’t mean that you can kind of say, well, I did my part.

Rich: I think that’s right. And I think, look, I think this is, uh, a remnant of the pandemic. I think for a lot of people, it is immensely convenient to like, not have to put on clothes and get on a train and…

Paul: The problem is there’s this big argument over remote work and empty offices and I don’t want to commute and so on and so forth. All of that’s fine. Have that argument all day long. But if, but like, if you want to make a compelling case and have people feel the consequence of saying no to you or rejecting you rather than feeling very low consequences.

Rich: This is very great advice for people.

Paul: You have to be present, and I can’t fix that because that’s what monkeys are like. 

Rich: [Laughter].

Paul: Okay, and if you want to get on a…

Rich: This isn’t a revelation.

Paul: If you want to do your own 90-episode podcast about how monkeys should be different, go for it. Get Mailchimp to sponsor.

Rich: They might sponsor it.

Paul: They should, but like, do that, this is, I find that this is, this is the struggle a lot of times, and we’ll talk about this in the future, but certain aspects of human reality have not changed in tens of thousands, millions of years maybe, hundreds of thousands of years and people see a state in which they could be different and it’s an attractive state where they, no one leaves the house unless they want to.

Rich: Yeah, I, I…

Paul: And they expect that culture will adapt to that big idea.

Rich: Yep. 

Paul: And culture moves even slower…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Than government technology. It just moves very, very to the point that if you look back at what it was like in ancient Rome, not that different. 

Rich: Yeah, I think this is a remnant of the pandemic. I think people are like, well, you know, these computers are incredibly powerful. I’ve got chat over here, I’ve got video calls over here. Um, and, uh, one last bullet point as to why you should do this. I actually think for that person that is in their bedroom or is in their dining room. It’s healthier. I think it’s just healthier to get out.

Paul: So what we’ve…

Rich: It’s good for you, too. It’s not just about closing the deal.

Paul: So what we’ve learned as a company is that it’s time to put on a belt and go talk to people.

Rich: You know, kt sounds like wow the big takeaway from 2023, but it’s kind of bananas that that’s it.

Paul: We also built an enormous amount of really good software.

Rich: It’s great software and we’d love to see you. We’re gonna throw parties in ’24, Paul.

Paul: It is party time.

Rich: Party time. 

Paul: Everybody listening to this is invited, by the way. We’re not that kind of company. We’re not coy. You come on out. We want to see you.

Rich: Yes, um, we hope everyone has a happy and healthy holiday.

Paul: That’s right, we’ll see you in the new year. I’m working on, I decided to not do resolutions, but to, like, identify the things I’m working on right now and make a board that shows, that allows me to track progress. So not, like, radical change…

Rich: Oh, okay.

Paul: But just like I’m trying to learn music theory, right? Like let’s get a syllabus in place.

Rich: Resolutions are setups for disappointment.

Paul: That’s right. No, this is just, I just want to be more of me. 

Rich: Yeah. 

Paul: That’s what I’m looking for and you’re gonna get more of me, Rich. More of me.

Rich: If you’d like more of us, please subscribe to this podcast. Give us five stars. Reach out at hello@aboard.com and please, check out aboard.com. It’s a very cool, very powerful tool to help you collect information, organize it your way, and share it with others.

Paul: On a personal note, uh, people have stuck with us through many different podcast brands, identities, all sorts of stuff. Just want to say thank you. We get, we get a lot of feedback from the audience and it is, you guys are wonderful.

Rich: It’s great.

Paul: You, you people are wonderful. 

Rich: We enjoy doing this. Have a lovely holiday, Paul. 

Paul: Yes, we’ll see everyone in the new year and, like, hopefully see. 

Rich: Yes.

Paul: All right. 

Rich: Have a great week. 

Paul: Bye!

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