Lounging with Scoble and Lunchmeet

Special guest-star Robert Scoble came over to the office with famous vloggers Irina and Eddie for a Renkoo session of LunchMeet! First we lounged on bean-bag chairs in the 1970’s rec-room (aka our office meeting space), then I gave them a little demo of the new site.

Boy is my skull flat. And I talk with my hands a lot. And is my voice actually that girly-sounding??!??!! In my mind, I sound exactly like James Earl Jones.

Conquering cheapness

While plunking down a bunch of dough at Design Within Reach for a new dining table, I was disproportionately pleased to realize that I’m over being cheap. Or rather, I’m over what bothered me about being cheap.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hate waste and smugly enjoy the occasional display of thrift — for instance, I got some expensive scented soap as a party favor last year (in fact I more or less beat up a fellow guest and took her soap too) and I’m still using it with glee. And recently I’ve begun to nag people, especially younger women, about the advantages of investing in index funds rather than designer clothes (remember what Madonna said, girls: earrings don’t make you pretty… money makes you pretty).

But being a tightwad isn’t all fun and games. What I deplored in myself was a tendency to spend way more time than it was worth to “save” irrationally trivial sums of cash; and also the inability to enjoy the finer things in life due to my attitudes about money. There was a period in my life where I genuinely needed to engage in ferocious internal debate about whether I could afford to buy a bottle of drugstore makeup or a pair of sneakers — and let this be a lesson to anyone considering a PhD program in the humanities! — but I didn’t want to hold on to old habits from that unhappy time.

The funny thing is that frugality is actually less irrational than ever before. 20 years ago, inexpensive stuff was just shoddy and a rip-off and not even that cheap when you factored in the frequency of replacement. The difference in quality between what you could get at the low-end discount store and the high-end boutique was vast: the kitchen equipment we got as wedding gifts from Williams-Sonoma is all still working great (modulo reasonable care and maintenance), while the stuff we bought for ourselves from Woolworth’s (and on the South Side of Chicago at that time, there was nowhere to shop BUT Woolworth’s) had to be replaced within mere months. Companies like Land’s End, which offered T-shirts that might actually last a few years rather than a few washes, were a revelation at the time. But due to worldwide economic development and trade, it seems like the goods offered at discount stores like Target or Costco are now pretty much the functional equals of those at the specialty retailers like Williams-Sonoma or Marshall Field’s. And due to innovations in distribution, like Ebay and outlet malls, high-quality goods are cheaper than ever before.

But now that American mass-market consumer culture is a material paradise unlike any ever seen in the history of the earth… the fascinating thing is how relentlessly people’s tastes continue to march up-market. Remember when I bought that Coach purse last winter? Until that point, I wouldn’t have recognized a Coach purse if I’d been hit on the head with one; but after minutely perusing a whole shop full of the damn things, I became au courant with all the designs. And what I realized after my purchase is that literally every other woman I saw at Chevy’s or the grocery store or the movie theater had one! And most of them were significantly more expensive than the one I bought. And the owners weren’t Silicon Valley trophy wife (or trophy “niece”) types — whom I’m told carry purses worth thousands of dollars! — but ordinary-looking moms and office workers.

When did mass-luxury take over the world? I have that Rip van Winkle feeling… as a consumer I more or less went to sleep 15 years ago, and have awoken to realize that society has changed. So it could be that while I was working on becoming less cheap, standards for conspicuous consumption were skyrocketing… so despite my new dining table, I might be relatively cheaper than ever.

The Accidental Entrepreneur

I was flattered to be featured on Ramit Sethi’s popular personal finance blog, IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, as a Friday Entrepreneur… but I feel like I should confess that in my own mind, the whole entrepreneur thing is sort of a wild series of unlikely coincidences leading up to a totally unpredictable result which could still go horribly askew. Three years ago, I would have reacted to the idea of being an entrepreneur with horror or amusement: my dad is a lifelong entrepreneur, I’ve worked for a series of notorious entrepreneurs, I know very well what that life is all about, and at many levels (as many of them will admit) it’s quite irrational.

All of the associations people have with the term “entrepreneur” seem inapplicable to me, except possibly a certain innate lack of ability to fit into organizations of any size. To me, an entrepreneur — particularly a serial entrepreneur — is a very specific type of person, a type that is so common around here that you couldn’t throw a scone in any Starbuck’s within 10 miles of University Avenue without hitting one. He is a youngish male, white or Asian, a graduate of one of the more prestigious universities but generally only at the level of a bachelor’s or at most an MBA. He believes at the deepest core of his being that it is his destiny to be the CEO of a series of companies. He’s probably never really asked himself why it’s his destiny — but if he had, he would be forced to humbly admit that it’s because of his superior leadership ability. He loves the thrill of the hustle, the long days and nights of what other people would consider stressful labor or insane obsession. And here is the key point: he doesn’t need a great idea of his own to get in the game. He doesn’t need to ante up. If he happens to run across a great idea, awesome; if not, he’ll go with a good idea — or failing that, a mediocre idea.

I am the other kind of founder, the non-serial or accidental entrepreneur. Like Quentin Tarantino using the script of Reservoir Dogs to become a director, I am only in the game because I happened to produce a chip — a demo of a fully-realized product. Without that I would be a fat, happy team lead somewhere. I feel like I exist as an entrepreneur solely to serve a particular idea that I happen to have been struck with. It’s not even something I _want_ to do per se — as Naval Ravikant pointed out at 106 Miles last month, I could make a very nice living without founding a company — it’s more like I feel an obligation to others and to the idea itself.

Sorry to puncture the whole romance of the founder thing… but I thought I should keep it real…