If a huge company wants to “partner” with your small business, can that ever be a fair partnership? Paul describes a recent mentorship dilemma to Rich, and they discuss the dynamics that make the position of the smaller player in that scenario so challenging. Plus: Musings on public-spectacle trials past and present, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang, and the existential dread prompted by even the most innocent Slack notifications.

Listen Now

See all episodes


When Giants Want to Befriend You

Paul Ford: Hello, friends. I’m Paul Ford, the co-founder of Aboard.

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

Paul: Rich is the CEO. I’m the president. And welcome to our podcast. Aboard is a software platform. It tries to manage your data the best it can, and it tries to do it faster and more visually and nicer than anybody else. How’d that go, Rich?

Rich: Good job. You might get a promotion one day. To CEO.

Paul: [laughing] Co-CEO.

Rich: [laughing] Co-CEO…

Paul: Nothing worse than two CEOs. Just means you can’t make a decision.

[intro music]

Paul: Aboard is a great tool. Check it out at aboard.com. Let’s talk about the product for a few minutes, because people who are listening do like to know a little bit about what we’re up to, and then we’ll talk a little bit more about what’s going on in the world and share some exciting mentorship advice that we were talking about earlier. Heading into it, Rich, new version of Aboard has been out. How is it going?

Rich: It’s going really well.

Paul: Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?

Rich: I would say that. Look, you know, when software comes out, you immediately want to go keep working on the software. That’s like how you tend to the baby. It’s like, “Oh, you had a baby. Congrats.” And then you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this thing shits four times a day.”

So your inclination, and it’s the right one, frankly, is to take care of it and make it better and better. We are going to make the onboarding experience a lot better because it is a wide-open expanse of a platform that can do anything and people need help. And also, we’ve been having some big, lofty marketing conversations. We want to tell people stories about this tool and how it helps you. Also talking to partners, some really, really interesting partnership ideas have been floating around, and I’m excited about those, too.

Yeah, I mean, we could hijack this entire podcast and talk about which kind of company we want to be, but we’ll discuss that over the next 22 podcasts instead.

Paul: I mean, and also, why don’t we just, why don’t we decide that in person before we share?

Rich: You want to talk about it first, you mean?

Paul: Yeah. Let’s not launch real-time strategy on our podcast. We’re figuring it out like any startup.

Rich: Yeah, but response has been really good.

Paul: Well, to share the news with the world, right? Like thousands of new users. Many of you are listening to this podcast. We’re glad you’re here. We really like feedback. The direct, transparent tone you hear right now, you can email hello@aboard.com. We’ve gotten lots of good news, lots of bad news in that, like many of the gaps that we see in the product, other people see. That’s a good feeling. You like that. To close up those gaps, we need a special someone. What is that special someone, Richard?

Rich: We need a product manager.

Paul: What’s a product manager do?

Rich: Well, there’s many flavors of them, and I’ll tell you the flavor we’re looking for, which is strawberry.

Paul: [simultaneously] Strawberry…

Rich: I’m kidding.

Paul: I knew it. I knew it. God damn it. We’ve worked together too long. We’re remote. We’re doing this, we’re doing this remotely, and I still knew you’d say strawberry.

Rich: My God. We’ve talked a lot about product managers in the past. I think there’s two kinds, honestly. One kind keeps an eye towards what you’re trying to build and is a very good interface with engineering and design, and is sort of just like they’re in the trenches with the team. Often they’re called a technical product manager for whatever reason, even though they don’t have to be entirely technical. But their job is to make sure that the craftspeople are coming together in the right way and delivering the right thing.

Then there is what I like to call the external product manager, and that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for someone that wants to see this thing succeed in the world and is listening very, very closely to how people are approaching it, and where the friction is, and where there are challenges, and then taking that information and letting that influence the roadmap of what gets built. “Hey, guys, there’s a friction point here. We’d love to make it a little more seamless. Let’s get that done.” And so it’s, you know, a lot of times, it’s called product marketing. They’re looking at, they’re looking at metrics. They’re looking at where engagement is going.

Anyway, hit us up. We’d love to talk if you’re looking for a product management role with a stellar design, engineering, and frankly, the C-suite’s not so bad itself, Paul. You’re the president. I’m the CEO.

Paul: No, we’re doing okay. Go to aboard.com. Scroll down at the bottom. You’ll see that careers link. Click on it. Do all this stuff. We would really like to hear from you. You know, I think all the regular stuff applies. It’s in that job listing but, you know, we want to build a proactive, positive, diverse culture. We’re doing that stuff. So check it out.

Last little bit is, you and I are going to move to Manhattan. Whole office. Whole office is moving to Manhattan.

Rich: Did you watch The Jeffersons growing up?

Paul: Yes. Movin’ on up. It was like, on the East side, right? They were in…

Rich: Upper East Side. I don’t know why anyone would move to the Upper East Side. I’m m kidding. I love our Upper East Side fans of Aboard. We hope you keep using the product. Funny story, Paul. When I first moved to the city out of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it was such a ridiculous thing to me, I had started a business in the city, signed a lease in the city. It all felt outlandish. And when I set up my first wifi in my apartment in the city, I called it Jefferson, just for that reason.

Paul: Oh, because you got to the apartment in the sky. I get this.

Rich: I’m movin’ on up.

Paul: Manhattan. Manhattan is very aspirational. And you’re coming from Bay Ridge and—setting up an office in Manhattan, I remember when we got the Postlight office, there was a definite feeling of, like, “Whoa, whoa, I’m on Fifth Avenue!”

Rich: And a bit of terror, too. That’s Manhattan, right? And so anyway, this isn’t about wifi SSID names, is it?

Paul: No, it is not. So anyway, lots of good news in the company. And you know, if you want to work for us, we’re okay. You might like it. You read or observed anything interesting in the world lately? Aside from the news about the former president being on trial?

Rich: I can’t look away, so let’s get that out of the way.

Paul: I don’t know what’s real. It’s a lot, man. It’s a lot.

Rich: You know what it made me think of? OJ passed away recently as well.

Paul: Yeah, yeah.

Rich: But I didn’t really specifically end up thinking about OJ or Trump. What I was thinking about was, like, the, you know, the media’s relationship with these spectacles and how OJ was televised, and it was just the most riveting thing anyone had ever seen, over ten months. It was the longest reality show. It had, like, 70,000 hours of content, culminating in, like, a final decision.

Paul: Right.

Rich: It was insane, right?

Paul: Do you think this one should be televised? As a lawyer?

Rich: I don’t.

Paul: I don’t either.

Rich: I think people have lost their minds. I think the media has been so weap—has been weaponized in such an ugly way that I don’t think it’s doing anybody a civic service to televise—

Paul: I actually think, like—

Rich: [laughing] Kind of ever. Ball games. We can watch ball games. That’s all I’ve got.

Paul: Regardless of what we think about the former president, the one thing we gotta count on, like, that you hope for in this country is that the judicial system is fair. There’s no way with cameras in there that you can keep this situation under control. It’s just too much.

Rich: It’s just, it would be a spectacle.

Paul: I mean, the judge is already, like, having to come down with a hammer every five seconds.

Rich: And so I think they’re letting others sit—the visual, maybe they will when the trial starts. I don’t know how it’s gonna be. It’s just, even just still photos look insane. It looks AI, AI-generated.

Paul: It’s too much. Less signal and more information about how our judicial system works getting into the paper? That’s a good thing.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: So anyway, that’s the world. The other thing also, oh, there is a good profile of Jensen Huang of Nvidia in WIRED.

Rich: Oh, I’d love to read that. He’s fascinating.

Paul: You should read it. I’ll just tell you, there’s a few things that really jump out. Like, he is, you know, the CEO of a big company. He can only say so much. But he’s very funny about one thing, which he’s like, no, it’s just absolutely miserable. Like, being an entrepreneur, like, running this. If I could go back and see what was going to happen to me, if I knew that Nvidia was going to take off, like, it’s did, like, obviously I would jump in and I’m real lucky. But if I’d known what pain was going to come to me as the leader of this company, I wouldn’t have done it.

Rich: [laughing] Yeah, yeah.

Paul: And it’s so the opposite of every other narcissistic CEO, like, “This is my domain!”

Rich: It’s honest, right? Like, we’ve seen success and it was, there was tons of pain along the way. You know what? It’s a nice—

Paul: Clearly this guy feel, he feels the personal pain, because he’s disrupted so many lives.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Building this company.

Rich:  Also, you just wake up, you think it’s gonna be a normal day, and it’s like, “Urgent” subject line, “regulators coming. They’re at, they’re in the parking lot.” [laughter] Right? Like, it’s just, it just doesn’t stop. Right? It’s kind of never ending. Like, I’m glad he said it.

Paul: You know what? Do you get this moment where, like, slack pings and you’re like, for whatever reason, you just kind of feel it’s bad news. It often isn’t.

Rich: [laughing] Yeah!

Paul: But now you’re like, you get, you get like the message on your—I get the message on my watch, and it’ll be like, “One thing:” or like, “Important:” And I’m like, “Oh God, here we go.” And it’ll be like, “Important: Try to remember that towel.”

Rich: Yeah. [laughing] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: “When you come over.”

Rich: You know what’s the best is like, you’ll see the first part of it in a notification. “Listen, I wasn’t sure if this was the right time to say this, but…” Click through to get the rest of the message.

Paul: Yeah. And it’s like, it’s a, it’s a meme of Tweety Bird.

Rich: Yeah, I I’m glad he said it. I’ll tell you why. There’s this goofy trend. I want to say something about X. I still go in. It’s a force of habit or whatever. But a lot of times you go into X and it’s like, “I made $1 million ARR in six months. Here’s how. Thread.” I cannot stand these, like, quick, back-of-the-envelope sort of advice threads about how you can be independently wealthy. It’s just the dumbest shit. What’s his name? The CEO of Nvidia’s counterpoint about pain is the most honest thing you’re going to hear from a CEO. It’s just, that’s just how it goes.

Paul: I also get the sense from this guy that, I mean, he wears the leather jacket, he’s got the Steve Jobs syndrome. He is so excited to ship enormous GPUs that do better 3D and AI processing.

Rich: Yeah, he’s a nerd. He’s a nerd.

Paul: Like, it is just, he can’t believe that he gets to ride this wave and it’s, that is actually, like, I look at him and I’m like, he’s probably the best we have right now in that kind of role in society.

Rich: Well, until the scandal next year where it turns out he was…

Paul: You know, I don’t think you got a lot of scandal with this one. Maybe. It’s always a surprise.

Rich: No, no, I’m being silly. X. So we’ve, we’ve shit on X in the past. It’s kind of a disaster. I don’t think, I think it’s a shell of what it was. And I still go in. You go in, you know why you go in? You go in because it’s like you used to go in all the time. Like, even though you don’t buying much from the bodega, because you got a new one down on the other side of the street, but you still go in. So I go in.

Paul: I still visit websites I visited 20 years ago. Like Metafilter.

Rich: Yeah. These are places you know. And I will say this, it is a sloppy mess, but it’s actually hilarious. It’s gotten very funny. It’s gotten funny in a dark, I’m not apologizing to anyone sort of way, but there’s a lot of, like, if a meme is happening, if you go to X, the humor there—I think it’s all that’s left, by the way. I think satire and humor, it’s all that’s left. Nobody is giving a heartfelt story about their ordeal anymore. Nobody is—everybody’s afraid to really have an opinion. So the only thing left is to tell jokes. So it’s kind of a ridiculous after the comedy stand-up show and everyone’s still around because they let the amateurs try, like, at 1:00 a.m. It’s like that now.

Paul: Yeah, no, it’s open mic.

Rich: [laughing] It’s open mic.

Paul: It’s gone back to open mic. There was a funny thing that happened, remember when there was, like, the old Star Trek and then the new one showed up in the nineties with Picard and so on?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So the idea that was that there were kind of the captain and the first lieutenant, or number one, who was the Riker character, and that they sort of split the two parts of the William Shatner character from the first one. It was like this over here, Picard will be kind of like the stoic, serious leader, and the Jonathan Frakes’ Riker character will be the kind of louche goofball, a little bit.

Rich: Got it.

Paul: Into the ladies and not as stoic.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: And we’ll have two instead of one. And I sort of feel that that’s what’s happening with the social networks. All of the scolding and grumpy aspect—and some of the fun, and some of the technological nerdy parts have migrated over to Mastodon. Like, that is just…

Rich: All right.

Paul: It is exactly that part of the world. I’m there. I don’t participate much. It’s okay. It is what it is. Bluesky just picked up, like classic, t’s like a clone of older Twitter, and it’s just people almost like roleplaying classic Twitter.

Rich: Sounds…

Paul: “I’m going on book tour!” And you’re like, “Cool!”

Rich: Do you go in there a lot?

Paul: It’s like anything, you check in once or twice a week, just to kind of keep your hand in.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Threads is brand Twitter with conversation. Like, I mean, it’s still like. But it is like the brands are there.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Right?

Rich: Yeah. Safer. Much safer.

Paul: And then Twitter—

Rich: Threads, this is like, this is a chill place. You’re gonna be fine here.

Paul: Twitter is like, 4:00 a.m. hangover Twitter now.

Rich: Totally.

Paul: Like, it’s just like, it’s, it is just a… So I think they’ve all split off. They all have their own little roles, and it is very entertaining. It’s circling the drain, and it’s fun to watch.

Rich: Yes. Yeah, yeah. It’s fun to watch. Anyway, you were going to talk about mentoring, Paul. Have you been mentoring lately?

Paul: Actually, you and I got a call recently from someone with a startup, and I’ll be very, like, broad about what they did because they asked a question, and it invoked, like, it rang such a bell in my head, and it’s something we’ve never talked about, and I think it’s a really interesting one. Which is—and I just sort of wanted to bring it back to you. So this person, let’s say they make hats. They make a…or they make a better system for hat making, right? Like, it’s, you know, render hats out of CAD files.

Rich: You’re, you’re, you’re… Okay. You’re replacing the real names with fictional names, but go ahead. Yeah.

Paul: Totally fictional, right? Let’s say that’s what’s going on.

Rich: Okay. Okay.

Paul: And so they asked her, like, hey, wait a minute. This giant hat company just got in touch, and they’re interested in partnering with me because they don’t have my technology. I got to get some investment. I got to do all sorts of stuff. And this feels like a really good shortcut. Like, here they are. They want to take me to their customers. I’m talking to a guy. He’s really thoughtful. He knows how he’s going to slot me into the organization, walk this in, and I really think it could help my business grow.

Rich: So little startup, big player. I think I could talk to them. Because I think what I’ve built is complimentary to what they have. What should I do?

Paul: It truly makes sense. It truly does make sense.

Rich: Okay. Okay.

Paul: And I immediately panicked on this person’s behalf. [laughter] And I’ll tell you why. And I want to get your feedback. Because they’re going to go, the person on the other side really means it. They’re going to integrate this. They’re going to bring it into the systems. All of a sudden, every customer of the giant hat platform will have this new feature for accelerated hat making, and that’s going to be great and so on and so forth. That’s the promise. But now you have these fundamental problems that I think a founder is often really vulnerable to, which is one, the giant company, unless you’re going to change the balance sheet to the tune of billions? Actually just kind of wants a new dropdown in the menu, right?

Rich: Absolutely. Always.

Paul: They want to put a new drop down in the menu so that their sales guys can go out and give people little bobblehead dolls of their favorite sports personalities and go, “Check this out. We’ve got GPU-powered hat making.” And then the promise is that that will sort of sell through and you will get a cut of it, you know, or that, you will get more customers.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: But after that sales meeting, unless there is this incredible revenue flow coming from your specific thing that you have control over, they will forget you exist. They just want to close the next deal related vaguely to you. And so now the last bit is it took you six months to get integrated with their systems so that you could be in that dropdown. And during that time, you were spending less time on marketing, less time on your own product, less time building your hat-making community and man, and moderating the hat-making forums.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And instead you’re inside of this giant beast that really isn’t, doesn’t care about you, isn’t going to help you grow, didn’t buy you, and the only thing you have is that you can talk to their API.

Rich: Yeah. I would even argue that the picture you painted is far more optimistic.

Paul: Mmm hmm.

Rich: When I think about little guys strolling into the big glass office tower, saying, “I’ve got something additive and strategic that you could bolt on to your world.” You know what it makes me think of? The incredibly naive and optimistic new boyfriend or girlfriend that is meeting the parents for the first time and brings a pie that he baked, or she baked, and they’re convinced that it’s just gonna be the warmest, nicest evening. [laughter] And then they come in, and it’s cordial. Nobody, no fights, no drama. And over time that that new boyfriend or girlfriend comes to realize that there is the family and then there is them, and that the strangest, oddest gravitational forces kick in as you try to like, “Oh, I thought, you know, I’m just gonna join this family,” and your partner’s doing the best they can to make it all work? [laughing]

Paul: Oh yeah.

Rich: But there is, humans defend the status quo, and I could list 40 reasons why. They just do. And that is real.

Paul: No. And there are those moments like when your mother-in-law looks at your belt and you’re like, I don’t know what it is, but it just went real bad.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

Paul: Not my mother-in-law!

Rich: I’ve heard, I’ve heard people—my family is very all about, is very all about family. So you have to say a little prayer to the new person that’s coming in. It’s intense.

Paul: [laughing] And it’s somehow I got welcomed in. I would say it was like eight years, but it really, like, my God. Yeah.

Rich: Yeah, well, I didn’t marry you, Paul. That’s different.

Paul: Not yet. Not yet. We’re still working on it.

Rich: Yeah, no, but you—look, that’s a real thing. I had friends, I’m like, my dad would be like, “Nice to meet you, John.” And then he would leave and he was like, “Don’t ever bring him back here.” [laughter] So…

Paul: You know the actual secret to this? Because you and I are real close. We’re working together.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: I’m spending a lot of time with your family because you’re Lebanese and that’s what people do. But I’ll tell you the secret, the secret to all of it, because now I really do feel—like, I come to Easter dinner. Like, I mean, it’s just our families are very connected.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But the secret to all of it is, that’s your family. It’s not mine. And…

Rich: Yeah. That’s right.

Paul: And I never, yeah, I never played otherwise. It was just like, love you guys. You guys are great. And you’re an insular unit, and every now and then you have crazy family stuff. And I just, like, it’s not mine.

Rich: I had a good friend of mine who, he was so close to us that he’d be around a lot, and he would watch fights and he would just smile about the whole thing. He’s like, well, this looks normal to me. And it was very actually comforting—

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: To see him not look at us like we were monsters and be like, “I have mine. Happens with mine. And you have yours.”

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Anyway, we’re going on a bit of a tangent, but the point is the same, which is when you walk into these places, power is so tangible, man. It’s not called power, but you have no, you have nothing. That in-law, that girlfriend or boyfriend has no power in that setting. In fact, power asserts itself in so, such subtle ways in organizations and companies? Even if you have an advocate who’s like, “I want to meet. I want you to meet my boss.” But then you go in the room and the boss brought three others, and it’s just not warm in that room, right? And that’s power, right? That’s—

Paul: Right.

Rich: That’s them looking at you as something so much smaller than them. And it’s hard. It’s really hard to do it. Can it happen? It can happen. You have to have your own gravitational pull to be respected. Good acquisitions are left alone. The only ones I can think of that are good after the fact are the ones that are left alone. Slack still functions…

Paul: But that’s acquisitions. This is even more dangerous. This is the partnership with the much, much smaller company.

Rich: 100%. It’s very tough. Very tough to pull off. Very tough to pull off. Is it impossible? I wouldn’t—look, partnerships is something we seek. Partnerships can build businesses. Right? There are a lot of partnerships out in the world. Is it doable? Yeah. But if there’s a, if there’s such a vast power and size difference between the two partners, it’s not really a partnership you need.

Paul: I think what’s tricky also, we’ve seen this. We’ve been in rooms where acquisitions are happening and so on and so forth. If you’re eager and you’re new, you don’t think to yourself that you have the ability to create a contract or a structure where the success would be more likely for you.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You’re like, I just got to get in here because I think maybe, maybe—it’s a tricky one, because there are moments—

Rich: It’s fucking scary, man. It’s scary.

Paul: You’re a big fan of optionality, but there’s a point where you’re like, “Okay, this will open up options.” But if you are beholden to one partner in any way, you’ve cut off most of your options.

Rich: You have. But it is tempting, because it’s clarity.

Paul: It is.

Rich: “Oh! I have some clarity.”

Paul: “I can see some runway here.”

Rich: “I can see something.” It’s hard.

Paul: And then they introduce you to IT, who says, “We’re going to help you integrate your system with ours,” and now your entire engineering department has been eaten alive.

Rich: Oh, yeah.

Paul: I just, like, I’ve never heard anyone talk about that before. The big, the little baby that, where they’re sort of are like, “Oh, we’d love to license your feature.”

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: And they drop you in, and we’ve seen it a lot, and it can hurt.

Rich: Let me close it with this. Anytime an advocate walks over what you built and shows it to their engineering group, they look at it, and they say, “We could build that in two weeks.”

Paul: Boy, they do. [laughter] That is, if you’re, if we’re getting to anything with this advice, it’s that everything, no matter how much work you put in?

Rich: Oh, it’s two weeks.

Paul: No matter how much they are lying.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: They will tell you it is just a feature that they could build.

Rich: Yeah. Always, always.

Paul: You will always be against that. We’re against that. Like, Aboard is out there, and there are people looking at it right now and going, “Why would we ever use this? We can build it ourselves.”

Rich: Yeah, exactly. So there’s that.

Paul: And yet the software industry exists. So I don’t know how to solve that puzzle. I don’t… [laughter]

Rich: All right, Paul, a little nugget of wisdom for the world. Check out aboard.com. It is an AI-powered, frankly, software-building tool that kickstarts what you need and then lets you customize it the way you want. It’s great for data management. It’s great for collecting stuff from the web. It does a lot of really smart things. Check it out at aboard.com.

Paul: I mean, it’s, you know, it’s kind of the AI-reverse mullet. Like, we got the AI up front and in the back, it’s a very nice, attractive, visual, data-management tool for groups.

Rich: That might be one of the worst descriptions of a software product. That’s the end of the company, folks. [laughter]

Paul: I’m glad we could do it together on this podcast.

Rich: Yes. All right.

Paul: Yeah, no, get in touch. Hello@aboard.com. Any questions for Rich and I. We definitely would love to hear from prospective product managers. You can apply, and that’s it. You know, soon we’re gonna get into, we’re gonna go to our office downtown Manhattan. We need to throw an event. It’s time for some drinks.

Rich: We’re gonna throw parties in New York City and maybe travel around a bit. Sign up. We have a newsletter, but if you sign up to Aboard, we’ll add you to that list. If you’re in the area, we love to meet people, so you’ll hear from us soon.

[outro music]

Paul: All right, over and out. Let’s keep it short and fast.

Rich: Have a wonderful week.

Paul: Bye.

Published on