writing well: a must-have skill that no one taught you

Forget that hip new technology! To take your career to the next level, learn... how to write well.

started writing because the generous community of programmers had helped me by sharing their knowledge freely over the Internet. I wanted to contribute to this incredible trend so I could be a part of something bigger than myself.

Little did I know that it'll be me who gets benefitted the most by pursuing this noble cause.

3 years of writing on the Internet has done more for my career than what 4 years of college education did.

I’ve published 14 articles in the past 3 years while I was teaching myself programming, data science and machine learning. These have allowed me to:

  • reach hundreds of thousands of readers around the world

  • make valuable connections

  • get my first job - a dream job at a company that didn’t care about my resume

  • work with people from multiple countries and make more money than I hoped

You signed up for this newsletter because you read one of these articles!

Now, I want to help you become a better writer because I believe it’ll improve your career in a similar way.

The Writing Revolution

We are living through a Writing Revolution where good writing skills can have an immense impact on the life of every ambitious professional.

In the past 30 years, our world has changed in a fundamental way - Internet has demolished the cost of distributing information.

"It turns days into minutes," Andrew Grove, the legendary CEO of Intel, commented on the arrival of email. "A lot more people know what's going on than did before, and they know it a lot faster than they used to."

Today we have email, Slack, Notion, Github, Twitter, Facebook and a plethora of Internet apps focused on written communication.

For 200,000 years of human history, speaking and listening was the primary mode of communication. But in the past 30 years, reading and writing has overtaken it as the primary mode of communication.

You are now living in the early years of a Writing Revolution that has changed the way humans communicate with each other.

Traditional education, however, has failed to recognise this human-scale revolution - good writing tuitions are still reserved for students of the liberal arts.

You cannot wait for it to catch up when being a good writer can benefit your career now.

Especially, with the remote-working revolution underway.

The Remote-Working Revolution

Some of the biggest companies of our generation like Facebook, Twitter and Shopify have recently announced a permanent transition to remote working. Inevitably, they have paved the path for entire industries to follow.

Therefore, it's highly likely that your next company will be working remotely.

In remote settings, with little face-to-face interaction, good written communication becomes the key.

Your competitive advantage in a tough job market:

Work-from-home means that the competitors for your next job are not just from your city, they are from your entire country and potentially the whole world. Add economic depression and rock bottom unemployment rates to the mix, and you have a saturated job market.

You need to find a way to stand out.

Being a good writer will help you.

When deciding between a few candidates to fill a position, companies like Basecamp hire the better writer. People of Basecamp have been working remotely for more than 20 years and great writing is a prerequisite for every single position they have.

3 ways writing online boosts the arc of your entire career:

Being a good writer helps you get a new job. A better job.

But more importantly, it helps you do your everyday work better, and therefore, changes the arc of your entire career!

Here are three ways good writing skills boost your career:

  1. Grabbing the valuable attention of people around you

  1. Finding better career opportunities throughout your career

  2. Improving your thinking

Writing articles on the Internet is an excellent way to acquire these skills.

“But I don’t know where to begin!”

I know all of this is probably not enough to get you to write your first article. You probably feel that you don't know enough to write just yet.

After talking to my college friends, I understand how intimidating it can be for students in tech to start writing online. Even when they understand the benefits of doing so.

So, I created a short email course to help them.

I'm sure it can help you too.

My course: Clear Writing, Clear Thinking

Clear Writing, Clear Thinking is a 6-lesson email course designed to help young developers start their writing journey.

I have purposefully kept the emails short and dense - each one being just 3 minutes long. There are 6 such emails.

As a subscriber to the Good Surfer newsletter, you will automatically be onboarded to the course for free.

You should get your first email within the next 24 hours.

Look out for one with the subject - “Grand Purpose: Why writing well is so awesome”. You will receive it from my personal email - `hi@nityesh.com`.

Let me know what you think about it by replying below.

Talk soon!

Expect "equal pay for equal work" at your remote job

Tough questions you can ask the HR of a remote company that offers you reduced Cost of Living (COL) based salaries

Almost all the knowledge jobs have become work-from-home in this sudden pandemic. Societies, companies, employees and job-seekers - all have been caught in this sudden shift in the way of working.

Big companies like Twitter, Shopify and Facebook have announced that they are adopting remote work for good. It's inevitable that this will pave the path for other companies to follow suit.

But along with this they might also make location-based compensation the norm.

Cost of Living (COL) based compensation: Remote companies often offer “competitive salaries” based on the “Cost of Living” in the employee’s local market. To understand what this means, imagine a remote company with 2 engineers who do similar work - one lives in California and the other in Panama. According to this philosophy, the company will pay the Panama engineer less salary than it pays the California engineer even though they have equal responsibilities.

I strongly believe that this is wrong. It disrespects the age-old slogan of “Equal pay for equal work”.

Companies can obviously save easy money using COL-based compensation scheme. Which is why their hiring departments have been trained over months, if not years, to defend it.

This puts YOU at a disadvantage as a future employee.

I’ve been doing some research on this subject for the last few weeks. And, I have come up with a list of tough questions that you can ask your future employer who offers you a reduced salary and cites the COL philosophy.

I compiled them into an article that you can find on my website —

You should expect "equal pay for equal work" at your new remote job

This newsletter contains 12 tough questions against COL-based compensation. Along with this, I’m going to tell you what inspired me to ask these questions so that you may go deep into them if you want to.


Tough questions against COL-based compensation:

Question: How will you know that all the lousy work doesn't get passed on to you because it is justified in terms of 'returns on investment'? Will you be okay if the coolest projects were assigned to your peer just because he lives in an expensive city?

Question: Even if there’s an HR Policy against it, how can you be sure that your extremely well-meaning manager wasn't thinking about it when they assign you a project that you don't like? Wouldn't they be making a wise decision that is justified in terms of returns of investment? Can you be sure that they won't?

Inspiration: Remote by DHH and Jason Fried and Basecamp’s compensation philosophy

Basecamp is a company that has been fully remote for more than 15 years now. They pay everyone at their company in the 90th percentile, or top 10%, of the San Francisco market rates, regardless of their role or where they live. 

They have also written a playbook on how remote companies can function. It’s called Remote: Office Not Required. I read it before I joined my first remote job 6 months ago.

Here’s an excerpt from it:

Your star designer out in the sticks is just as valuable (maybe more so) to the team as those working from the big-city home office. Make sure she feels that way.

By the same token, as a remote worker, you shouldn’t let employers get away with paying you less just because you live in a cheaper city. “Equal pay for equal work” might be a dusty slogan, but it works for a reason. If with regard to compensation you accept being treated as a second-class worker based on location, you’re opening the door to being treated poorly on other matters as well.

“Other matters” is important here. It can include the work that you do in your entire career!

Why you should dive deeper into this:

  • It amazes me to see how ahead-of-the-curve Basecamp’s founders have been regarding remote compensation. Check out their remote compensation article to understand how they handle other areas of compensation like bonus, raise, insurance and some juicy benefits!

  • Their book - Remote - is a must-read if you are transitioning to working remotely. Basecamp guys have been at it successfully for more than a decade and they shared their secret recipe in this book.


Question: How does cost of living based compensation take into account the differences in government spending accross countries? Shouldn't the employees be compensated for this difference?

Inspiration: Government Spending, Our World in Data

Public spending enables governments to produce and purchase goods and services, in order to fulfil their objectives – such as the provision of public goods or the redistribution of resources - like social protection, education and healthcare.

Recent data on public spending reveals substantial cross-country heterogeneity. Relative to low-income countries, government expenditure in high-income countries tends to be much larger (both in per capita terms, and as share of GDP), and it also tends to be more focused on social protection.

Large public spending means better public school infrastructure, better hospitals and lucrative social protection schemes like the following:

If you want to pay people to create an equal standard of living for all your employees, why not compensate them for the very significant differences in government spending too?


Question: What happens if I relocate to a lower paid region? Will I be compensated differently?

Question: What happens if I was living in a cheap city and decide to move to a more expensive one?

Question: What happens if I choose to be a digital nomad changing cities every couple of months?

Question: What if I choose to get an official address in some expensive city while I actually live in the suburbs?

Inspiration: My tweet exchange with CTO of Basecamp and CEO of GitLab

I replied to DHH’s tweet about Facebook that I included above -

And DHH retweeted it (!) -

And then I got a public explanation from CEO and founder of Gitlab -

(Frankly speaking, these were my greatest moments of using Twitter. :p)


Question: What's included in "Cost of Living"?

Question: More importantly, who defines it? Should it be the employee who is actually incurring these costs? Or should it be the employer who is paying the employee?

Inspiration: The following tweet thread -


Other tough questions:

Q: Who dictates the proportion in which I should be spending my money?

Inspiration: A Macbook costs the same throughout the world. The same NASDAQ stocks are priced the same on a global market. It doesn’t make sense to have my entire salary reduced based on cost of living if I want to spend it buying such globally priced items.

Q: Where does the leadership in the company live?

Inspiration: This article from the CEO of Help Scout. Leadership in companies that offer COL based compensation, often live and work in high-wage markets but they might feel differently if they were subject to lower pay for the same work.

Q: How do you account for the costs of reduced opportunities that employees, who don't live in primary talent markets, incur?


Unless a company is ready to give satisfactory answers to all such questions, it should default to “equal pay for equal work”.

Traditionally, large American or European companies have outsourced labour to cheaper markets in South-East Asia to cut costs. Countries like China, India, Bangaladesh and Indonesia have become the hub for cheap manufacturing and cheap software engineering.

Remote companies that try to go with COL-based compensation are simultaneously trying to hire from a global candidate pool and reap the benefits of outsourcing.

They are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Put simply, you should only accept the reduced pay if you are comfortable with being treated as outsourced labour by your company.


There are tough questions against “equal pay for equal work” in remote settings too. I have addressed them in my article and tried to give some thoughtful answers to them.

I have also speculated on how remote compensation and remote work will play out in the future, in my article.

I won’t talk about them in this newsletter because it has already become too long. You should check out my complete article to read more —

You should expect "equal pay for equal work" at your new remote job

Finally, please share this article with your friends and family because it might just help them negotiate a better compensation deal with the HR of their remote company.

Most of us will probably not get truly equal pay anytime soon but I believe that there's value in setting expectations.

That’s all from me for now!

I have started regularly posting my thoughts on LinkedIn and Twitter. So, feel free to connect or follow me there! :)

Untold lessons of tech trends in China

From "Silicon Valley's China whisperer" - Connie Chan

I have been intrigued by China’s progress ever since I read this Palladium Magazine article last year - The American Dream is Alive in China.

Its author, Jean Fan, is of Chinese origin but she grew up in the US. She goes to China every year for a few weeks to visit family.

Talking about the dystopian side of the Chinese government that we are all familiar with, the author writes how -

“this discourse, though often correct, has felt increasingly disconnected from my personal experiences in China and the more fundamental problems at hand. In particular, it fails to comment on the larger, more important context: how much better life has become for many Chinese people, China’s new self-confidence, and America’s struggle with development, optimism, and sovereignty.”

The American Dream is Alive in China, Palladium Magazine

This success of China is difficult for most of the world to acknowledge, much less adopt, because China -

"has succeeded beyond expectation, despite consistently contradicting all the wisdom of our public worldview. The Chinese are becoming increasingly wealthy and developed, but aren't democratic and aren't about to become democratic. They aren't really capitalist the way Americans mean it, but do have markets and entrepreneurial billionaires. They don't have political freedoms, but do have a fairly responsive government. They don't do free trade, but they do more trade than anyone else."

The Problem of China, Palladium Magazine newsletter

It is unfortunate for the curious minds that the Chinese way of life is mostly a mystery to people outside of China. Language barriers, strict censorship and our own media prevent most of us from tapping into what’s happening in that country.

That’s why I was ridiculously excited when I discovered this Andreessen Horowitz (aka. a16z, one of the best venture capital firms in Silicon Valley) General Partner who has been given the title of “Silicon Valley’s China whisperer”.

How cool is that!

What follows is an account of my journey as I dived deep into Connie Chan’s thoughts on tech in China and what the rest of the world can learn from it.

Here’s what became a cool (web) surfing story:

"After looking at the broader ecosystem, she decided that we needed to understand the innovations in China much better if our companies were going to compete, so she took that on personally. Yes, you read that right. She took on China. And, as with everything Connie did, she quickly became the best at that."

Connie Chan by Ben Horowitz

This story started last week when I was looking for ‘product management’ articles to teach myself the basics. I decided to search for the term on a16z’s blog because knew that a16z writes high quality articles related to everything startup. Now, I’m going to tell you how that search ultimately led me to learn a tonne about startups and innovation in China.

Outgrowing Advertising: Multimodal Business Model as a Product Strategy

This was the first article that I read in my journey.

Written in late 2018, this article talks about how most of the big tech from the US have either one of the following two sources of revenue -

  • Ads - for companies like Google, Facebook, Snapchat

  • Transactions/Subscriptions - for companies like Amazon, Netflix, Uber, Spotify

Is such a singular focus on one model for a revenue stream the best long term strategy for growth? And perhaps more importantly, does this lead to the best product for customers?

Connie then talks about how China skipped the PC and credit cards because they couldn’t afford them. This has led to companies building products that aren’t just mobile first, but mobile only. This, in turn, has led them to innovate to business models that use a hybrid of the 2 revenue streams mentioned above.

In part because a mobile ad is much more annoying on a small screen, the emphasis on advertising vs. other revenue streams is very different in China today than it is in the US.

This has led businesses in China to create some novel, creative user experiences in the familiar industries of books, podcasts, videos, music etc.

Expanding sources of revenue not only pushes us to think beyond what we know, but forces us to create the infrastructure to go after new opportunities. After all, revenue is simply a proxy for how you are serving your customers. As you diversify and experiment in generating revenue in new ways, you are effectively honing in on your ability to give customers what they want, how they want it.

Why you should dive deeper:

  • To learn more about the online books industry (Kindle) in China:

    “Books are also sold as bite-sized snacks. Readers pay per 1,000 words, for often-serialized works… Because authors can publish chapters piecemeal, they are also able to incorporate reader feedback to quickly change plots or even kill off characters.”

    “In China, purchasing books is not about a one-time transaction for the platforms. There are elements of social media, gamification, and enhanced discovery — ultimately creating an experience that drives more sales. It all seems to be working. In China the ebook industry grew over 35% from 2016 to 2017; the same industry in the same time in the US trended the opposite direction.”

  • In the year of 2019, we have seen significant growth of the podcast industry. It seems to me that this customer trend might have been predicted by looking at China.

    “The entire podcast market in the US in 2017 was $314 million, all from ads. Estimates for paid podcast in China, on the other hand, are $3-5 billion”.

    “The audio platform Dedao (“iGetGet”) essentially takes the MOOC format and applies it to podcasts. Below are two economics professors from Peking University. Xue Zhaofeng, the professor on the left, actually resigned after making $8 million in one year with his economics podcast series.”

  • To learn more about video streaming (YouTube) and music streaming (Spotify) industries in China.

    “In China, Baidu spinoff iQiyi, one of the bigger video players, uses AI and machine learning to figure out what’s happening in the content, and play relevant advertising.”

    “In Tencent Music’s other flagship app, WeSing, users can livestream their own karaoke room or open up the floor to anyone who wants to sing karaoke. Singers keep 30% of the tip revenue. It’s fun, social, and makes a lot of money for both platform and customer.”

A Whirlwind Tour Through Tech Trends in China

I was super excited after the last article. That’s why I went digging through Connie’s bio, her Twitter and eventually her personal website as I tried to find the goose that laid that golden egg.

I came across this video on Connie Chan’s personal website. Connie walks us through the different tech trends that are happening in China using screenshots and photos.

There are 656 million smartphone users in China - twice the population of US! This results in very densely populated cities where the online world is connected to the offline world in ways we might not have seen:

  • Parents can check up on their kids when they are at kindergarden. They use WeChat for things like getting status updates on how their kids are doing and see the photo of the person who picked up their kid after school.

  • Hundreds of restaurants have QR codes pasted to the table. They enable customers to see the menu, order food and pay the bill. All of this saves a restaurant significant waiting costs.

  • QR code are printed on a piece of paper that vendors then paste on their shop walls to accept digital payments. No need to buy expensive Point of Sale solution (like the one shown in picture below) to accept digital payments.

    (This article by Connie covers 16 ways in which QR codes are being used in China.)

Point of Sale: Digital payments startup Benow sees opportunity in ...

Livestreaming, which, for us, is just a thing that Instagram influencers do during quarantines, is big in China. Almost as big as their box office industry! Over 46% of internet population used a mobile livestreaming app.

  • It provides social media influencers another way to earn money

  • Livestreaming is becoming an alternative to television. People livestream themselves while eating! Connie believes that this culture is born out of loneliness stemming from the one-child policy in China. Why eat alone when you can put your mobile on the other side of table and watch/talk with others?

Social media influencers in China are able to monetise their personal brands beyond just advertising. They sell merchandise to their followers… kind of like what Kylie Jenner did to become the youngest self-made billionaire. Except this phenomenon is not a one-off fluke in China- 5 out of the top 10 female clothing brands in China are run by female influencers!

Why you should dive deeper:

  • To see screenshots of various Chinese apps and how they are used in the above mentioned activities

  • To see how even the big premium western brands, like Starbucks, Sephora and Burberry, use the Chinese apps to do marketing and commerce. (They don’t need to create a separate Starbucks app or a Burberry app to engage with users. They only need to create an “official account” on WeChat.)

Beyond a zero-sum game

I came across this talk on Connie’s website too.

This talk begins with an analysis into our feelings for China.

"Everyone loves to see a good fight. So, these two countries are often pitted against each other. The media has trained us into thinking that the world is a zero-sum game - if the US wins then China loses; if China wins, the US loses. This is the narrative that we have been sold because of what sells magazines."

Connie is talking about how the media often pits the US against China as if they are two teams competing against each other.

Now, I believe that this media behaviour is even more prevalent than she tells. If I substitute “India” for “the US” in the above talk, it will describe the narrative of the Indian media. I’m sure, there are atleast a few other countries that we can substitute in place of the US and get the same conclusion.

In this video, Connie tries to make the case for why the US doesn’t have to fight with China. She tries to convince the audience that the world is not a zero-sum game where only one country can win. She calls the US vs. China construct an “artificial battle”.

If China is strong, it’s great for the US. We have more customers to sell products to. And the same thing is true vice-versa.

Why you should dive deeper:

  • We all get some feelings evoked when we hear the terms “Chinese company” or “American company”. Connie spends a lot of time making the case why this model of thinking is incorrect.

    What makes up a company anyway? Employees, customers or investors? Almost every global company, be it Chinese or American, has these entities spread across multiple nationalities. So, how “American” or how “Chinese” is that company?

  • She gives examples of some real-world companies to drive home the above mentioned argument. This was one of my favourite:

    One week before this talk was recorded, Alibaba (China’s mega e-commerce giant) sold 25 Billion dollars worth of merchandise on the Single’s Day in China. But interestingly, the top products that were sold that day were not Chinese… they were American! Products from brands like Adidas and Nike. It becomes even more interesting if you take a look at the tags these products- they say “Made in China”!


My Takeaway:

China has developed in a way that is very different from the western world. I see 3 factors that uniquely shape its development:

  • A mobile only society

    China has a smartphone penetration of 62% (that’s almost 1/3 of its population). It’s population has “leapfrogged” over the PC era directly to mobile. WeChat, China’s most popular messaging “superapp”, shows what’s possible when a country does that.

    “WeChat was not a product that started as a website and then was adapted for mobile, it was (to paraphrase a certain movie) born into it, molded by it.”

    This is unlike most consumer products that we use, like Amazon, Facebook or Spotify.

  • Dense population

    Being the most populous country on Earth, Chinese cities Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen are very densely populated. This has led to the innovation of new kinds of business models that can only work in densely populated areas using low-cost labour and economies of scale.

  • Increased appetite for social interactions

    Every person needs healthy social interactions to survive. But I suspect that the Chinese population, in general, has an unusually large craving for social interactions that stems from the one-child policy.

All of these have combined in a beautiful way to produce a futuristic tech-enabled society in China.

If we remove our blind spots for China, we can spot some these trends that have not yet made it to our countries. This might just allow us to seize some business opportunities of the future.

And what excites me the most is that a lot of the factors that are unique to China - mobile-first population, low cost labour, high population density - are present in other developing countries too! Countries like India (where I live) and Brazil.

This makes me think that China might be a better model for developing countries like India and Brazil than the US or the UK is. Maybe, if we see beyond the media narrative of China, we can see some opportunities for the future.

————

That’s all from me for now! I’ll send you another email when I find something similarly amazing in one of my web surfing sessions.

This is Good Surfer - an occassional email newsletter that shows you how to discover good, motivating content over the Internet.

If you liked it, please hit the hardly-visible heart icon below.

Also, please consider spreading the word by telling your friends about Good Surfer - that’s my only driving force to work on this newsletter. :)

A new startup model for ambitious people who want to improve the world

It's being pioneered by Ghost, the not-for-profit... startup!

Last month, I made a productive use of my quarantine time - I created my personal website!

https://www.nityesh.com/

Here’s a tour in this Twitter thread:

Twitter avatar for @nityeshaganityeshaga @nityeshaga
1/ Hey yall, I made
nityesh.com - my personal website!! 🎉 It is my attempt to dump as much of myself as I can, out into the world. Its a library of my brain. If you want to glance through the books or understand what I'm all about, you're welcome! A tour. (THREAD)Nityesh AgarwalReading, Writing and Teachingnityesh.com

I made this website by self-hosting Ghost on a Digital Ocean droplet (with the help of this amazingly thorough guide).

“What is Ghost?”

Simply put, Ghost is a Wordpress alternative for people who want to build a website to publish articles.

By self-hosting Ghost on my own (rented) server, I was able to reduce the monthly cost from $30 to $6!

“How did I do that?”

I was able to do this because Ghost is open-source. Meaning that all of their software is available for free to anyone who wants it. People are free to copy it, use it, even commercialise it for their personal gains.

“But then, how is it a startup? What’s their business here?”

It might seem as if they are giving away everything for free but, no.

They are only giving away the product for free. And product isn’t the only thing that you need as a customer. For this product, you will also need to host the software on a server. You’ll want to keep it up-to-date. You might also need technical support when things go awry once a while.

That is the service that Ghost provides for a fee of $30/month (basic). They provide managed hosting for their paying customers.

They have built a sustainable business around a free core application, funded by a premium platform as a service to run it on. So, it’s something like software-as-a-service model with the software available for free to anyone who wants it.

But that’s not all. Ghost does all this because it is a “non-profit foundation on a mission to make free, open source publishing tools for independent publishers.”

Startup + publishing + non-profit - not a common combination, right?

It got me super intrigued to learn more.

That’s why I decided to dive deeper into understanding Ghost. Now, let me show you what I found…

————

Here’s what became a cool surfing story:

I started by checking out different pages of the Ghost website, starting with their home page which quickly took me to its About page -

About Ghost - The Open-Source Publishing platform

I have found that the “About” page of a website is the best place to start your dive. This time it told me the story of Ghost.

We're a proud non-profit organisation building open source technology for journalism.

It is a 7 year old company, its annual revenue (ARR) is ~$2 million and it is growing at a rate of 50% per annum!

I think it would be a sweet deal for a lot of investors but alas…

“Our legal constitution ensures that the company can never be bought or sold, and one hundred percent of our revenue is reinvested into the product and the community.”

So, all this fast growth and revenue can only be used to drive one purpose - create better publishing tools for the world.

Now focus on this part - “one hundred percent of our revenue is reinvested into the product and the community.” - does this sound familiar?

There’s another company whose founder is known for being singular minded about customers. It’s not a non-profit or a startup. It’s a publicly traded for-profit tech giant.

It’s called Amazon! This was a startling similarity to me. I’ll talk more about it towards the end.

Why you should dive deeper:

* To see the section that has the people behind Ghost - their roles, their photos, their mix of nationalities. It’s especially interesting considering that the Ghost Team is fully remote, spread all over the world, covering 4 continents, 5 nationalities and 6 languages!


Announcing Ghost 3.0 - The story behind raising $5m

“About 6 years ago we came up with an unconventional funding idea. We decided that rather than selling share capital and control of a business in return for money to operate, we would instead sell goods and services in return for money to operate. As a result of this choice, we were very fortunate to attract some of the world's most forward thinking investors to help steer the company: Our customers.

To date, Ghost has made $5,000,000 in customer revenue whilst maintaining complete independence and giving away 0% of the business.

Hahha, that was clever! (Note to self - that is one genius marketing brain)

I stumbled upon this article when I was checking out the Ghost website, trying to learn more about it. It’s their recent announcement of a new major version release - Ghost 3.0.

What strikes me is how ambitious this release is -

“We'd done a reasonable job of creating a new publishing tool which was much better to use than the alternatives, but we felt like we were missing out on solving a real, pressing need of modern publishers.”

Solving big, real problems for customers - that’s something I’ve heard in podcasts of VCs and startup founders. It was surprising to see how similar Ghost is in terms of ambition.

This release tries to solve the problem of letting struggling publishers create viable business around their content.

“Ghost is the first totally independent product out there with publishing<>subscriptions deeply integrated at the core, allowing anyone to build a recurring revenue subscription business.”

Why you should dive deeper:

* To read about the tech behind it. The article goes to great lengths in describing how they are following what seems to be a major revolution in how web based products are built - the JAMstack movement. If you are interested, this article is a great reason for you to educate yourself on this.


Ghost 3.0, An Interview with Ghost CEO John O’Nolan, Stratechery

I found this interview linked to in the announcement article that I talked about above.

Their conversation is centered around the latest release of Ghost that allows subscriptions and is flavoured with Ben Thompson’s (the interviewer) curiosity about Ghost’s unique business model.

The interview starts with John O’Nolan explaining how he used to be a core contributor to Wordpress (which is open-source, too) and how it led him to develop the vision for Ghost.

What I noticed back in 2012 was that WordPress was evolving more towards the site builder space, but my interest has always been very closely in the publishing space. 

This led John to build Ghost by forking (copying) Wordpress and iterating on a light-weight Wordpress clone. He was able to do that because Wordpress is open-source (benefits of open-source, right!?).

Ben asks John about his motivation for building Ghost, something that I had been wondering myself!

Ben: So what is the motivation here? I don’t get the impression you’re going to get rich doing this, so what is the driving force to offer what seems to be almost a too-good-to-be-true deal for publishers?

John: Ghost is at the intersection of all of the things that I love. We’ve managed to create a globally-distributed company which gives us the freedom to live lives we enjoy, the ability to work on a product that feels meaningful, in a market [sic] feels like it needs us and to me that’s enough. So my long term goal is for this to be a company and a product which is around for fifty, a hundred years. I’ve deliberately structured it at every juncture in a way to try and prevent myself from becoming enormously wealthy from it because I feel like the more my interests align with the customer’s interests, the more likely the business is to serve the interests of its users and not just focus on whatever is necessary to raise the next largest round or get the biggest acquisition number. My personal interest is deeply in publishing, it’s deeply in journalism, it’s deeply in seeing independent voices be able to have something meaningful to say in the world and to be able to sustain themselves doing it, and that’s what we optimize most of our product and business decisions around.

This makes me wanna support Ghost, as well. The publishing world has just as much to gain with Ghost’s success as its founder does. I want Ghost to be successful because it translates into the success of publishing and… publishing only!

Why you should dive deeper:

* Stratechery, the publication that hosted this interview, has pioneered the subscription business model and is now cited as a role model by a lot of startups who want to disrupt this space. With Stratechery, Ben Thompson provides a high quality analysis of the strategy and business side of technology and media, and the impact of technology on society to his subscribers. This interview is no different.

* As Ghost tries to enter the subscription market, its direct competitors are Substack and Memberful (which hosts Stratechery!). They have both raised venture capital directly or indirectly. In this interview, Ben asks John some difficult questions around the sustainability of Ghost in this tough landscape and what makes Ghost better than the alternatives.

————

My Takeaway:

I see this uncanny resemblance between John O’Nolan’s Ghost and Jeff Bezos’s Amazon. They are both focussed with a similar spirit - reinvesting all profits back into the company to put customers first.

Rather than take profits and issue dividends, which Bezos specifies as Amazon’s “fundamental measure” of success, the company aggressively re-invests in new growth. Amazon’s value has climbed as investors have rewarded this strategy, enticed by the promise of even greater dividends when the company’s greater ambitions are realized. Management has been characteristically secretive about what that might be.

How Amazon is Beating Antitrust Before it Happens, Palladium Magazine

The difference between Amazon and Ghost lies in the fundamental structure of the two companies. One is customer-focussed because of the will of an exceptionally visionary founder and the other, by default.

That’s why, I believe that along with innovating the publishing space, Ghost is also venturing into a new (or old, perhaps?) model for thinking about making a change in the world. It may just become a new role-model for the ambitious people who want to positively change the world.

It is a model that does not endow the founder with exceptional riches for their exceptional hardwork and risk-taking ability. It only endows them with the gratification for changing the world in a way they wanted to.

I think it’s a path atleast some future founders will prefer. And I think that the ones that do so, will get the faith and support of the world in them like no VC-funded startup can.

————

That’s all from me for now!

I’ll send you another email when I find something similarly amazing in one of my web surfing sessions. Only when I find something with a long half-life. So, you don’t have to worry about clutter in your inbox! ;)

Also, please let me know what you think of my website!

This is Good Surfer - an occassional email newsletter that shows you how to discover good, motivating content over the Internet.

If you liked it, please hit the hardly-visible heart icon below.

Also, please consider spreading the word by telling your friends about Good Surfer - that’s my only driving force to work on this newsletter. :)

The long view with a call for optimism

Information with a long half-life and figuring out the green in this unprecedented sea of red

My Twitter feed has become completely filled tweets on COVID-19. Tweets from people who are angry at the government’s response and others who are congratulating it, people being angry about the anti-maskers, the latest death figures for a particularly infected country, chats with doctors in the ER and more.

Sure it’s all informational and arguably valuable. But lately, it has started feeling a little too morbid.

Although useful, these pieces of information have a short half-life - Governments’ responses are changing every week, if not everyday. We see an unexpected number of new cases everyday because almost none of us are accustomed to exponentials. WHO and CDC are constantly working to tell us about their latest findings.

What I want to do is try to focus on things that seem to have a longer half-life. That’s what I’m trying to do with the Good Surfer newsletter. I write a newsletter to describe a surfing session that had me awestruck - whenever it happens (no weekly/bi-weekly publishing deadlines).

Here it is.


Cool, recent surfing sessions:

How will the coronavirus End by The Atlantic

I came upon this article when it was shared by Barack Obama on Twitter:

Talking about USA's delayed response to testing, the article says:

"If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases. None of that happened. Instead, a health-care system that already runs close to full capacity, and that was already challenged by a severe flu season, was suddenly faced with a virus that had been left to spread, untracked, through communities around the country. Overstretched hospitals became overwhelmed. Basic protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, and gloves, began to run out. Beds will soon follow, as will the ventilators that provide oxygen to patients whose lungs are besieged by the virus."

The article puts a lot of focus on the US in particular but statements like the above are also telling of how severely this virus can affect poorer countries like India and the ones in Africa - countries with a much worse health-care system.

Why you should dive deeper:

If you are not from the US, you might want to focus on the non-US specific parts of the article i.e, mostly in the second half. For example,

  • It talks about 3 possible end-games to this virus' shenanigans:

    * one that’s very unlikely - every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003. Given how widespread the coronavirus pandemic is, and how badly many countries are faring, the odds of worldwide synchronous control seem vanishingly small.

    * one that’s very dangerous - the virus does what past flu pandemics have done: It burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors that it eventually struggles to find viable hosts. This “herd immunity” scenario would be quick, and thus tempting. But it would also come at a terrible cost: SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible and fatal than the flu, and it would likely leave behind many millions of corpses and a trail of devastated health systems. The United Kingdom initially seemed to consider this herd-immunity strategy, before backtracking when models revealed the dire consequences. The U.S. now seems to be considering it too.

    * one that’s very long - the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.

  • It also addresses the mental health issues arising due to all the isolation. “After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling.”

Personal comments:

I want to talk more about the three possible final outcomes that this article mentioned.

Actually, not giving any more thought to the very unlikely outcome, I would like to talk about the other 2.

It seems that the most dangerous path (herd immunity) is a one that no big country (except maybe, USA) seems to be considering. Almost all the highly infected countries have imposed some form a lockdown to curb the virus from spreading faster.

This brings us to the 3rd one - the very long outcome. The path leading to it involves social distancing and large scale testing. It focuses on "flattening the curve":

In my opinion, all of this means that we, humans, are going to live with this virus for a long time - until we develop a vaccine and develop an easy way to mass manufacture it.

"If this were a flu pandemic, that would be easier. The world is experienced at making flu vaccines and does so every year. But there are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses—until now, these viruses seemed to cause diseases that were mild or rare—so researchers must start from scratch."

"Berkley and others estimate that it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a proven vaccine, and then longer still to make it, ship it, and inject it into people’s arms."

So, we should talk optimism now!

It’s going to be a drastically new world for everyone now. If we focus on figuring out the green in this ocean of red, we just might become even better off than what we could have been before.

“Even the worst crisis creates opportunities”

This was the headline of AngelList’s last week’s newsletter.

I came across it in my inbox because I am a subscriber (it’s one of those newsletters that give me a FOMO).

This newsletter talks about how the pandemic has deepened reliance on services from the technology industry’s most prominent companies while accelerating trends that were already benefiting them.

There is an increase in the demand for cloud computing platforms. Increase in the usage of remote and collaboration tools. A surge in the demand of grocery delivery apps. Increase in traffic to video streaming sites and social media platforms. An increased usage of apps in general.

And a lot of it isn’t your normal growth; it’s crazy growth. Here’s a tweet from the founder and CEO of Slack:

Why you should dive deeper:

A primer on COVID-19 in the form of 100 short questions to an expert

I came upon this article when it was shared by Bill Gates on Twitter:

Now remember, Bill Gates is not just the Microsoft guy, he has also started The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates Foundation had a huge role to play in eradicting the polio disease from the planet.

Keeping this in mind, let me share some particularly “long half-life” Q&A from the article:

8. TEDMED: What is the difference between SARS-CoV2 and COVID-19?

SARS-CoV2 is the virus; COVID-19 is the disease which that virus spreads.

13. TEDMED: How many different coronaviruses affect humans?

There are 7 coronaviruses that have human- to-human transmission. 4 generate a mild cold. But 3 of them can be deadly, including the viruses that cause SARS and MERS, and now the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV2.

14. TEDMED: Why is it called the “novel” coronavirus?

Novel just means it is new to humans, meaning that this specific virus is one that we’ve never seen before. Our immune system has been evolving for 2 million years. But since our bodies have never seen this virus before, there has been no opportunity for humans to develop immunity.

15. TEDMED: How often does a novel virus emerge that we need to care about?

It’s rare… but it happens. Examples include the viruses that cause diseases such as HIV, SARS, MERS and a few others. It will happen again.

18. TEDMED: How is this new virus different from the earlier known coronaviruses that spread SARS or MERS?

SARS-CoV2 is different in 4 critical ways:

First, many infected people have no symptoms for days, so they can unknowingly infect others, and we don’t know who to isolate. This is very worrisome because SARS-CoV2 is highly infectious.

Second, 80% of the time, COVID-19 is a mild disease that feels like a minor cold or cough, so we don’t isolate ourselves, and infect others.

Third, the symptoms are easily confused with the flu, so many people think they have the flu and don’t consider other possibilities.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the virus is very easy to spread from human to human because in the early stages it is concentrated in the upper throat. The throat is full of viral particles so when we cough or sneeze, billions of these particles can be expelled and transmitted to another person.

23. TEDMED: How likely is it that scientists will develop a vaccine to prevent people from getting infected?

It is reasonably likely, but there are no guarantees that we will even have a vaccine. Failure is possible. For example, we’ve been searching for an HIV vaccine for 35 years and we still don’t have one. I’m optimistic that we will develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV2, but we will have to extensively test it for efficacy and safety – which takes a lot of people and time.

26. TEDMED: Have we made progress already?

The good news is that only weeks after the discovery and isolation of SARS-CoV2, which occurred in early January of 2020, vaccine development started immediately.

28. TEDMED: Can’t we develop a vaccine faster?

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. The human body’s immune system is complex and unpredictable. Viral mutations may occur. Children are different from adults. Women may respond differently than men. We need to be sure that any vaccine is 100% safe for everyone who gets it.

32. TEDMED: Which groups of people are most at danger here?

First of all, older people like me: I'm 71. The older you are, the higher your risk. Also at greater risk are people with underlying diseases such as diabetes, chronic obstructive lung disease and pulmonary disease or cardiovascular disease or immune deficiencies.

38. TEDMED: We often hear COVID-19 compared to the seasonal flu. What’s the right way to frame this comparison? For example, are the seasonal flu and coronavirus equally dangerous?

The seasonal flu typically infects up to 30 million people a year in the U.S., and fewer than 1/10th of 1% of the infected group will die – but that is still a big number. Worldwide, in an average year, a total of 300,000 people die from seasonal flu. But, on an average basis, the new coronavirus is 10-20 times more deadly, and in contrast to influenza, we cannot protect ourselves through vaccination.

46. TEDMED: Has mankind ever wiped out a virus completely?

Yes. Smallpox, which used to kill millions of people. And, we’re very close with polio thanks to the Gates Foundation and many governments around the world such as the U.S. Let’s not forget what a terrible plague that was in the world.

52. TEDMED: If I get infected, are there drugs I can take to make the virus less severe, or make it go away entirely?

No drugs have yet been proven effective as a treatment or what doctors call a “therapy.” A lot of different drugs are being tested in clinical trials, so hopefully that will change for the better soon.

53. TEDMED: How likely are we to come up with new therapeutic drugs, and how soon?

I'm quite confident that probably in a matter of a couple of months, we are very likely to find “off-label” uses of current drugs that help treat an infected person. In other words, we'll have a new use for existing drugs that were originally used against other viral infections such as HIV. It will take time and a lot of real tests to be sure though. New therapeutic drugs are being tested in clinical trials, particularly in China, but also elsewhere. It looks promising.

57. TEDMED: What are the advantages of masks when used properly and who should wear masks?

The best masks, carefully fitted and worn properly, slow down the spread FROM sick people coughing. Meaning, the mask is not to protect you from other people; it is to protect other people from you. It is a courtesy to others to wear a mask when you get what you think is a cold, and you start coughing. Masks have an additional benefit: they make it less likely that you will touch your mouth, so it becomes less likely that if you have the virus on your hands, you will transfer it into your body. Masks provide benefits for healthcare workers. If you work in a healthcare setting or in elder care, masks are mandatory.

69. TEDMED: What is the main symptom that people should be on the lookout for?

Coughing is the #1 symptom

70. TEDMED: Is fever a good way to identify infected people?

A high fever may be cause for concern and is worth getting medical attention. But screening for fever alone, at an airport or checkpoint for example, lets a lot of infected people pass.

71. TEDMED: What percentage of the people who tested positive in Chinese hospitals arrived without a fever?

About 30% of Chinese coronavirus patients had no fever when they arrived at the hospital.

79. TEDMED: Should I be worried that I’m going to get COVID-19? How worried are you, Peter?

If you’re not at high risk, I wouldn’t worry too much, but I would do everything I can to avoid becoming infected as you don’t know individual outcomes. Everyone is eventually going to be at risk for acquiring this infection in the next few years, just as no one avoids the common cold or the flu over time. So all of us should be ready to stay home at the first signs.

82. TEDMED: It appears that after people recover from the new virus, they may still be contagious. Is that true?

We don’t know, although it appears that may be the case for a while after recovery. We are not totally sure. More research is needed.

90. TEDMED: The greatest pandemic of modern times was the 1918 flu pandemic right at the end of World War I. In that pandemic, influenza simply mutated – it was not a new virus. How does SARS-CoV2 compare to that mutation?

SARS-CoV2 is just as contagious as the 1918 influenza pandemic and appears to be nearly as lethal, but time will tell. Remember, back in 1918 there was no medical system anything like what we have in the developed world, and there were no antibiotics to treat bacterial pneumonia, which was a major cause of death.

92. TEDMED: It’s hard to believe that suddenly a truly new virus that mankind has never seen can infect millions of people. When is the last time that happened?

SARS and MERS were new – but they did not reach scale. HIV was new to the world and has infected 70 million people – of whom 32 million have died from the HIV Pandemic.

99. TEDMED: Who are you most worried about?

It’s the low-resource countries that I am very worried about. Each death is a tragedy. When we say that on average, 1% to 2% of infected people will die from coronavirus, that is a lot. After all, 1% of a million is 10,000 people, and it is the elderly I am very worried about. But 98%-99% of people won't die from this. The seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of Americans every year and you don’t panic – even if we actually should take flu far more seriously and make sure we are all vaccinated against it every year. Just as we have learned to live with seasonal flu, I think we will need to learn how to go about our lives in a normal fashion, despite the presence of COVID-19, until an effective vaccine becomes available.

Why you should dive deeper:

  • To check out the other questions in here. They are probably all the things that you might have wondered about the virus. All in layman’s terms!


That’s all from me for now. I’ll try to dive deeper into the web more often. And when I do, I’ll be sure to share them with you in this Good Surfer newsletter!

Think that friend of yours might find it interesting?
- It would be awesome if you could forward this newsletter to him/her.

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This is Good Surfer - an occassional email newsletter that shows you how to discover good, motivating content over the Internet.

If you liked it, please hit the hardly-visible heart icon below. It will help in improving the visibility of this newsletter on Substack - the platform that hosts Good Surfer :-)

Until then - stay safe, tune out the misinformation and try staying optimistic!

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