Marc Andreessen Answers Your Questions (Stripe Forums)

Here’s a great Q&A session online with VC legend Marc Andreessen.

It’s posted here on the Stripe forums but you need an account to read it. I figured it should get more eyeballs, so am posting it here, 1 month after the interview went up online. Thanks to Patrick McKenzie ant Stripe for setting this up! What follows is a copy-paste of the content.


Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz2 and one of the most well-respected VCs in Silicon Valley, took some time to answer questions posed to him by Atlas founders.

If you have a suggestion of someone you’d like to have interviewed by Atlas in the future, please let us know! We announce interviews in advance here on the forums.

Life of a VC

@dainis.kanopa asks:

How many investing pitches do you receive per day/weekly?

These numbers are approximately but directionally correct:

We receive about 2,000 inbound qualified pitches per year. By “qualified” I mean we already know people directly involved in the company and/or people associated with the company in some way (angel investors, other VCs, advisors, coaches and mentors, lawyers, or customers).

We think this is 2,000 out of a pool of approximately 4,000 startups that hit the bar where they might plausibly be able to raise venture capital in the year. (These numbers are US-only to simplify the topic.) We don’t see the other 2,000 either because we don’t know anyone associated with the company (probably a fault on our part) or because there is some reason we wouldn’t be a good investor for them (for example, if we have already invested in a competitor in the same space).

Out of the 2,000 we see, we will make somewhere between 20 and 40 investments per year. So around a 1-2% hit rate.

The very best VCs in the US collectively make perhaps 200 investments per year. Out of those 200, about 15 of them will generate 90%+ of the investment returns for the entire year.

So our job as investors is to try to nail as many of those 15 per year out of the 20-40 investments per year we make.

The very best VCs in the industry seem to be able to invest in maybe 2 or 3 of the 15 each. So by definition even the best VC in the business will miss most of the big winners. It’s a humbling business!

@rjph17 asks:

What do you think about the pet related market and startups working in that vertical? Is it hard to find a good market fit there?

I don’t tend to have a view on any particular vertical market, such as pets. I find that successful startups tend to be highly idiosyncratic — they combine multiple elements including product, market, team, business model, timing, culture, strategy, and tactics in unique ways. So I don’t believe in examining any single element, such as markets, in isolation.

That said, there’s no question that the pet market in general is very large and a number of very successful startups have been built in it. And I’m sure there will be more in the future!

@dainis.kanopa asks:

Did you ever pick up any investing proposal and invested in an unknown startup which contacted you via email first time?

I don’t think so!

At first blush this might seem insane — why would a VC only invest in people he/she already knows? Doesn’t that cut off original thinking from people outside of the existing network? Isn’t it a fact that many of the most successful startups come from founders brand new to the industry?

The reason is subtle but important. Getting a warm introduction to a VC is a basic test of networking skills.

VCs are dying for interesting qualified referrals from people in their network — angel investors, other VCs, advisors, coaches and mentors, lawyers, and customers. All of those people love giving qualified referrals to their favorite VCs. VCs are some of the easiest people in the world to reach via their networks.

It turns out that the skill required to network into a VC is the same as the skill required to network into a customer, into a supplier, into a distribution partner, into the press, into an executive search firm.

And so if a founder can’t navigate a network into a VC firm, it is unlikely that founder has the skills to navigate the other networks required to succeed in building a company.

Although this may sound harsh, it isn’t intended to be. The best startup advice of all time comes from Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” In this case, that means, be so good at networking that they can’t ignore you. The skills you develop learning how to navigate to VCs will pay off 1,000x in building your startup more generally.

@brettfarrow asks:

Have you seen any changes in either the background or personality of founders in new companies versus the previous 10-20 years? If so, what changes/trends have you seen?

I think there are two major changes, that are somewhat opposite of one another:

First, there’s no question a far larger number of very young founders are starting companies. The rise of accelerators, incubators, angel investors, seed funds, online funding platforms, and the like have made it much easier to start a company than 20 years ago, and so far more companies are being started, and by younger and less experienced people. This is wonderful because it is expanding both the number of experiments that the startup ecosystem can run each year, and the talent base of the people building startups.

Second, 20 years ago, most startups were what I call “tool builders” — they built tools like chips, operating systems, routers, or databases and sold those tools to business or consumer customers to use however the customers saw fit. But today, more startups are what we call “full stack” — instead of building tools, they are building technology and then using it to directly enter end markets in competition with incumbents. These full stack startups are more operationally intense and tend to require more experienced founders and executives. And so one sees older, more experienced, more operationally competent founders and core team members for many of those startups.

@jmontiel asks:

What numbers do you look into the most/are more important when investing at seed stage?

For us, at the seed stage, 90%+ of the decision is based on the pedigree and track record of the core team. So we don’t tend to look at numbers very much at that stage, we’re almost always betting on a particularly special team doing something new and interesting — it’s a qualitative evaluation, not quantitative.

@murphy asks:

How do investors evaluate startups which have done well in their home country and are looking to expand in the US market? Do they look at the past performance and decide or is traction in the US market a must before the startups start reaching out to investors.

VCs vary on this question. Some actively seek out companies that are successful outside the US, some wait to see if those startups can succeed in the US, and some don’t invest in startups based outside the US at all.

In our case, although we have occasionally invested in particularly special startups based outside the US, such as Transferwise and Improbable, we generally invest either in startups based entirely in the US, or startups that use what might be called the “Israeli model” of building R&D in their home country but building SG&A (sales, marketing, finance, legal, etc.) in the US. As suggested by the name, some of the best Israeli startups have been executing this model for the last 20-30 years; more recently, we are seeing founders from many other countries (Canada, China, Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, and more) pursue the same model.

@blee asks:

The common narrative now is that the startup valuation peak was 2015 and since then fundraising has gotten tougher and the most profligate startups are going out of business. Where do you see things going from this year through the next couple years in terms of valuations? New highs or retrenchment?

JP Morgan was once famously asked if he thought the stock market would rise or fall, and he answered, “It will fluctuate.” Which is also my answer here :-). I think it’s impossible to forecast these things — think of the many people who began predicting a new tech crash starting in the mid-2000s and are still wrong more than a decade later.

That said, I would characterize the current fundraising climate in the US as vigorous, but somewhat discriminating. I think you are right that in 2015 the market became somewhat overenthusiastic in that virtually any startup could raise money and many at prices that in retrospect were far too high. Whereas today, high quality startups that should be able to raise money generally are, but lower quality startups may run into trouble.

Advice For Founders

@rjph17 asks:

What tips would you give to first-time entrepreneurs meeting investors in order to avoid (choosing to take investment from particular investors who would) not be good for the business?

That is a great question! Founders should reference check VCs just like VCs reference check founders. As a founder, I would talk to as many people who have worked with a particular VC in the past as possible — other founders, angel investors, executives, lawyers, etc.

As with anyone in business, any VC should be happy to give you a long list of people who he/she has worked with in the past who you can call. If a VC won’t do that, beware beware beware.

There are many questions you can ask references, but I would really focus in on how the VC operates under pressure. Everyone can be supportive and behave well when things are going well, but like anyone else, VC behavior varies wildly when the going gets tough, and that’s when founders tend to really regret their choice of investors.

@alex.circei asks:

In July we will launch Waydev (for non-technical entrepreneurs to track development progress) and if the things goes well we plan to raise our Series A by December. When is the best time to start this process?

I believe in an orchestrated process that doesn’t meander but nevertheless gives VCs time to make a proper decision — many VCs will simply back out of a process if they don’t have enough time to do their work. A good wag is to allow 3-4 months for the whole process, from introductions and first meetings through to closed contracts and money in the bank. So if I were you I’d probably start conversations around September, which is also when many VCs get back from their August vacations (sad but true!).

@orlando asks:

What do you recommend for pricing in SaaS before reaching product market fit. We want to release our product as a unique 1 dollar plan until we get out of beta. Thoughts?

Pricing is highly specific to the product and the market, so it is hard to give general advice.

But if I were to give general advice, I’d say that we see far more SAAS startups underpricing their product than overpricing.

The problem with overpricing seems obvious — we in our daily lives as consumers are more likely to buy products if they are cheaper, and so pricing higher is presumed to reduce sales.

But that’s not how business markets tend to work — in business markets, where customers make what’s called a considered purchase, the result of a reasonably objective and rigorous analysis of options, startups that underprice tend to have the problem I call “too hungry to eat” — by pricing too low, they can’t generate enough revenue per deal to justify the sales and marketing investment required to get the deal at all. In contrast, by pricing higher, the startup can afford to invest in a serious sales and marketing effort that will tend to win a lot more details than a competitor selling a cut-rate product on a shoestring go-to-market budget.

TLDR: When in doubt, double prices. :slight_smile:

@above.change asks:

When we talk to a potential investor, should we tell them about previous projects we had which failed?

There’s an old sales slogan, “If you can’t avoid it, feature it.” Tell a story about how you worked your way through different ideas before you got to the one that works — the one you have now. By doing so, you can convey your level of determination and ability to react to changing circumstances — both valuable traits in a founder.

The thing to definitely not do is “hide the ball.” It is a very bad idea to not tell potential investors about negative things that you know they would want to know. In addition to the ethical considerations, there is a very real practical consideration — investors almost always learn the truth, through their diligence work and reference checks. When an investor realizes in diligence that a founder has hid the ball on bad news in the past, it creates the concern that the founder will hide the ball on bad news in the future — that the founder can’t be trusted. It is much better to be the founder who is up front, crisp, and articulate on bad things that have happened in the past and what you’ve learned as a result!

@brian asks:

You have stated that a good market can compensate for a lackluster team or product. What markets do you feel are currently underserved?

I don’t tend to have a view on any particular market. I find that successful startups tend to be highly idiosyncratic — they combine multiple elements including product, market, team, business model, timing, culture, strategy, and tactics in unique ways. So I don’t believe in examining any single element, such as markets, in isolation.

That said, some of the markets that we think are particularly underserved by advanced technology and tech startups right now include health care, education, real estate, transportation, law, government, defense, and financial services. :slight_smile:

Life of the Mind

@antonija asks:

What are the books on your bookshelf with which views and statements you disagree and what’s the source of disagreement? How often do you revisit these books vs. those where you agree with the written content?

That’s a great question!

I’ve been influenced by way too many books to list, but here are a few that I keep coming back to:

  • The Sovereign Individual1 — written 20 years ago, this is the most thought provoking book on the unfolding nature of the 21st Century that I’ve yet read. It’s packed with ideas on every page, many that are now fast becoming conventional wisdom, and many that are still heretical. Two related books to read are The Twilight of Sovereignty and Cryptonomicon.
  • The Baroque Cycle — a work of rigorously researched historical fiction with only the slightest overlay of science fiction — tells the story of the emergence of the modern world and its systems (democracy, the scientific method, financial markets, etc.) in a way that is wholly fresh. These novels make me think about what a Neal Stephenson of 2300 may write about our times and us.
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma1, The Lean Startup1, and Zero To One1 are the defining trilogy of intellectual thought on the art and science of modern technology startups. Virtually every page of each is open to debate and yet as a whole they provide intellectual scaffolding for our endeavors that I wish had existed when I started in 1994!
  • The book I am most looking forward to is The Square and the Tower3, on the rise and fall and rise of networks and the eternal battle between networks and hierarchies at all levels of human life.

@kennycollins asks:

In the ten years since you originally wrote that article on product/market fit1, have you developed any additional strong or weak signals that you use to determine if a company had product market fit?

We recently wrote two blog posts on exactly this topic!

http://a16z.com/2015/08/21/16-metrics/7

http://a16z.com/2015/09/23/16-more-metrics/5

@ab1 asks:

As a startup entrepreneur, especially with potentially huge impact on people’s life’s (like in our case, when we make a platform/software for multitudes of online communities), do you have to constantly try and assess potential ethical ramifications of business choices or just let things roll, focus on growth and let the market sort it?

I think that it is always important, in life and work, to have a sense of the ethical impact on one’s actions and output. Virtually all of the actually capable startup founders I know think deeply about the ethical aspects of their businesses, contrary to whatever outside commentators might say.

That said, history shows that it is particularly difficult to forecast either the benefits or downsides of new technology. The most classic example is nuclear weapons — many of the inventors of nuclear technology had justifiably serious concerns over how their work would be used. And yet, nuclear weapons not only helped end World War II and almost certainly saved lives on net for both the US and Japan, a case can be made that the existence of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence prevented a catastrophic third world war between the US and USSR that could have killed hundreds of millions of people in the decades following WWII.

I think based on this and many other examples, we should be very cautious at forecasting negative implications of new technologies — sometimes the forecasts are correct, but more often they simply show a lack of imagination and foresight as to the positive benefits to come.

@kunalslab asks:

What do you like to learn about? Do you have a framework for picking a learning technique given the subject?

As a born and trained engineer, I love to learn about how things work, at many different levels — science, technology, economics, finance, culture, politics, military affairs, revolutions, the rise and fall of empires, on and on.

I find that all of the important things I learn are either nearly timeless — revealed by patterns of human behavior over history — or of the moment — brand new thinking by the smartest, most aggressive experts working in their fields.

So for learning, I tend to concentrate heavily on books, particularly those with a strong historical component, or real time conversations with people on the leading edge.

I find almost everything in the middle compromised — either not sufficiently grounded in the sweep of time to get to universal truths, or too confused about new phenomena playing out in real time!

Business Models

@kaansorai asks:

Rovio tried a multitude of ideas before coming up with Angry Birds. Does it make sense to gather a decent team first, without an idea, and serially try new things until something works?

My framework is that there are two kinds of startups — “products that lead to companies” and “companies that try to create products”. The former includes Google, Facebook, and my own company Netscape — the startup only happens because the product already exists and has traction. The latter is the scenario you describe — examples include Hewlett Packard, Amazon, and Twitter.

The good news with the latter is that the teams tend to be better at the start — the only reason the company exists is because people who are qualified to start a company decide to come together to do it. The bad news, obviously, is that you don’t start with product/market fit, so you run against the clock to try to get to a good idea and product/market fit before funding and morale run out.

We probably fund half and half overall. They can both work, but it’s good to have a keen sense of the advantages and risks of each.

Software Eating The World

@brettfarrow asks:

Real estate is a concern for many businesses (especially startups), do you see any future disruption in that industry due to software? If so, what kind and to what degree?

I think it’s an absolutely huge issue, particularly for startups based in popular urban areas like the SF Bay Area, and it’s an issue across both commercial and residential real state (offices and housing). We are wide open for disruptive startups that can make an impact on either commercial or residential real estate, and we have a number of investments already, of which the most successful so far is AirBNB.

I think there are two broad categories of obvious potential disruption.

The first is disruption that makes commercial and residential real estate as it is currently understood better, cheaper, easier to access, or all of the above. I would include in this category disruptions in transportation that make real estate more generally accessible — for example, self-driving cars should make commuting time much more productive, and hence open up outlying areas to more housing for professionals.

The second is disruption that helps remove the need for geographic colocation entirely. A running joke in Silicon Valley is the Help Wanted ad that goes something like this: “Engineers wanted for startup building software to enable collaboration on complex projects online. Must be willing to relocate to San Francisco.” As funny and accurate as that is, I am a believer that telepresence and collaboration software will eventually enable far more remote work and virtual teams, reducing the importance of colocated real estate. It can’t happen soon enough!

@philip asks:

What has to happen before somebody like Toyota pays a vendor with cryptocurrency?

It’s hard to say, but my personal view is that the largest companies with the most highly evolved supply chains and finance operations are probably going to be the last companies to pay their vendors with cryptocurrency — they already have their entire ecosystem wired to pay with current technologies. I think adoption of online payments in business will happen in the more classically disruptive way — new businesses with new business models assembling new supply chains from scratch will go first, particularly those operating fully internationally from the start.

@Kiss7Medical asks:

Do you believe that disruptive, consumer-healthcare startups should engage policy-makers, who are often swayed by payer and provider interests?

I’d come at the question the other way around — due to the nature of the health care system, where the customer is generally not the payer, it is very important for consumer healthcare startups to know from the start how they are going to get paid. This generally requires engagement with the payer ecosystem up front, which can often include policymakers.

@brian asks:

Historically great technologies are adopted by great minds as hobbies. What hobbies trends are you currently seeing?

Great question! We call this “what do nerds do on nights and weekends”. This is the single most reliable source of new ideas in our industry that will ultimately be adopted much more broadly.

Right now we see huge nerd night and weekend energy in areas like cryptocurrency, biohacking, quantified self, synthetic biology, virtual reality, drones, and self-driving cars (!!).

@blee asks:

Do you see any opportunities, or downsides, in highly regulated fields like health tech and legal tech?

Yes! Both opportunities and downsides.

The opportunities are massive — highly regulated industries like health care and law tend to be very large and very poorly served by advanced technology — in economic terms, they are both a high percentage of GDP and have low productivity growth, so the opportunity for startups is very large.

But the downsides, or risks, are also significant. These are markets that tend to have three difficult characteristics. First, they are highly regulated, meaning they are just hard to enter in general. Second, they tend to suffer from “regulatory capture” — the existing incumbent companies in these markets tend to have wired the regulatory system for their own benefit and to exclude competition. And third, they tend to have high levels of government subsidy for consumers, meaning that the government is a major payer and in some cases the only payer — and it can be very hard to get the government to pay for something new, even when it’s much better.

In short, these markets are very appealing for the very best founders who are prepared to deal with the additional complexity and difficulty.

Questions Of Particular Interest To First-Time Founders

@trentrevic asks:

How would someone best reach out with regards to investing in the first place? i.e. how do we get our material in-front of you. What material do you like to see initially? Just a pitch deck, or a pitch deck and PPM, any other important information?

and

@jmontiel asks:

For someone who’s just entering the scene, what strategies would you recommend to get initial introductions to VCs?

The best way to reach out to us is via a warm introduction from someone we already know.

At first blush this might seem insane — why would a VC only invest in people he/she already knows? Doesn’t that cut off original thinking from people outide of the existing network? Isn’t it a fact that many of the most successful startups come from founders brand new to the industry?

The reason is subtle but important. Getting an warm introduction to a VC is a basic test of networking skills.

VCs are dying for interesting qualified referrals from people in their network — angel investors, other VCs, advisors, coaches and mentors, lawyers, customers. All of those people love giving qualified referrals to their favorite VCs. VCs are some of the easiest people in the world to reach via their networks.

It turns out that the skill required to network into a VC is the same as the skill required to network into a customer, into a supplier, into a distribution partner, into the press, into an exsecutive search firm.

And so if a founder can’t navigate a network into a VC firm, it is unlikely that founder has the skills to navigate the other networks required to succeed in building a company.

Although this may sound harsh, it isn’t intended to be. The best startup advice of all time comes from Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” In this case, that means, be so good at networking that they can’t ignore you. The skills you develop learning how to navigate to VCs will pay off 1,000x in building your startup more generally.

@jmontiel asks:

Regarding marketplaces, when looking for seed money, is it enough to have the demand but not the providers? (Potentially need capital to properly onboard/sell/campaign providers into the platform at scale).

I recommend these resources:

http://a16z.com/2016/07/19/marketplaces-networks/1

http://a16z.com/2016/07/20/marketplaces-guide/1

http://a16z.com/2016/03/07/all-about-network-effects/1

@tawanda asks:

We provide development services to startups. How would one go about finding startups to sell to, scalably?

I would go to the places where startups tend to cluster. Accelerators, incubators, seed and angel investors, startup conferences, online communities frequented by lots of startup founders like Hacker News and Quora, etc.

@devscreencast asks:

How would I find someone who would be a good co-founder? How would I convince them to join my startup?

This is highly analogous to asking the same question about how to find a spouse, and convince him/her to marry you. :slight_smile: There is no formula. It has to be a special confluence of factors that causes people to want to bond so tightly that they can take on a massive challenge together through good times and bad, sickness and health, and so on and so on!

@t-bo asks:

What is most important for you / U.S. investors when they decided invest in a startup?

There are three different answers, for the three different stages.

At the seed stage, when a startup is brand new, the decision is driven almost entirely by the people. Who are they, and what is their pedigree and track record to cause one to expect that they can build something special?

At the venture stage, when a startup has a prototype or an initial product but not yet a fully functional business, the decision is some combination of the people, as with seed rounds, but also product/market fit — is there reason to believe that this product in this market at this time is going to take off?

At the growth stage, when a startup is fully in market and building out sales and marketing efforts to expand, the decision becomes far more about the financial characteristics of the business — particularly unit economics: can the startup profitably sell its product to each customer?

See also these two blog posts for a lot more information on these topics:

http://a16z.com/2015/08/21/16-metrics/7

http://a16z.com/2015/09/23/16-more-metrics/5

Selective Ignorance

Do you ever avoid reading a book because you don’t want it to pollute your thinking? Have a new idea and don’t want to read the “best in the industry” perspective, but want to read the basics to nurture your own seedling of an opinion without it getting obscured by better polished and refined thinkers?

I’ve been learning about climate change for the past year. There are already so many “big” opinions and “big” writers on climate change. Everyone “knows” what climate change is, how could I possibly have something different to say? There are times when I wonder if reading everything that’s out there is really the best path. My brain is soft and I risk parroting others ideas and squelching my own voice. So I try to stick to the basics. My friend Dan Walsh suggests reading tangential books instead. For example, if you’re interested in carbon markets, read a book about hedge funds and Wall Street, but NOT the book by an expert in carbon markets or the book with “Carbon Markets” in the title.

You can always go back and read those “expert” books any time. Give yourself space to form your own idea initially. Do you have books you avoid reading because of “selective ignorance”?

“selective ignorance” coined by Dan Walsh of Super Spark Media

No One Gives a Fuck About Climate Change

Why is the #1 Image on Google for “Climate Change Chart” a Cartoon?

Screenshot 2017-06-05 13.16.40

That’s right, the #1 image result for ‘climate change chart’ is “Earth Temperature Timeline” from XKCD, which though awesome and accurate, nonetheless, is a cartoon:

So where do I go to track CO2 levels in our atmosphere? I wanted to find out. What I found out is: no one gives a fuck about climate change. How do I know this? Because if people gave a fuck, there would be nice websites tracking the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The results of my search were abysmal. Take Google’s #1 result for “co2 tracker”, co2.earth

Screenshot 2017-06-05 12.37.25

Google’s #1 result for “CO2 tracker”

NASA: "Last Measurement April 2017"

NASA CO2 Chart: “Last Measurement April 2017”

HAHAHAHA, are you freaking KIDDING ME??? Am I browsing Alta Vista on an Apple II in 1995?

But at least it’s updated every day or two…

The #1 result for “climate change chart” is from NASA. NASA’s “Latest Measurement” is freaking 2 months old…April 2017…WHAT? Barely interactive, a little widget squeezed into a corner.

The Winner:

Screenshot 2017-06-05 13.38.41

@Keeling_Curve on Twitter is the best place to track CO2 right now

The best I found was @Keeling_Curve on Twitter, piping fresh hot data right out of scientific measurement spots atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii. @Keeling_Curve’s profile references a data page from Scripps that scientists scramble to update within about 24 hours, though Scripps’ data looks embedded in a machine-unreadable PNG format :\

These charts are all pretty sad.

Compare to Bitcoin Charts

While atmospheric CO2 has been measured since 1956, Bitcoin has been around for only 8 years. But Google has bitcoin charts for dayyyyyyyss. They’re beautiful, they’re useful, they’re interesting:

Coinbase, gorgeous!

Screenshot 2017-06-05 12.29.25

Bitcoin eye candy from Coinbase

99bitcoins.com tags historic events! Bitcoincharts.com showcases beautiful visualizations of daily price ranges.

Climate Change Needs a Beautiful Chart and Tracker

In conclusion, no one really gives a fuck about climate change. If they did, there would be a reasonable tracker, charter, and map of historic events that was easily discoverable with a simple Google Search.

So it’s your opportunity to give a fuck…even for someone with just some basic HTML and CSS skills. Seize this opportunity!

Who will build the world’s first Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide tracker to:

  • #1 on Google for “climate change chart”
  • updated daily
  • visualize intra-day minute-by-minute data
  • call out interesting historical data points
  • bootstrap-powered / beautiful

Hit me up in the comments if you want to work together on building this.

Join Us

Join 3 8 of us working on github making this real!! Join in! https://gitter.im/giving-a-fuck-about-climate-change/Lobby

About this post:

Katie Patrick has an awesome online course on “How to Save the World” on how to apply data, behavior change and game design techniques to your cause for the epic win. Katie says to “make sure to include the concept of disclosure, which is that just making measurement data public naturally catalyzes change without requiring heavy handed legislation. The numbers just naturally effect us to move in the right direction”.

The wonderful Matthew Eshed is co-founder of Impossible Labs and we have lots of conversations like these.

Any good, smart, level headed parts of this post are 100% thanks to Katie and Matthew. All fucks  attributed to me.

Journey to Mars (2030): Lessons from the Mayflower’s Voyage (1620)

I just took a 15 hour flight to Portugal on Friday. It got me thinking about a voyage to Mars, what would it be like?

Will it be like climbing aboard a regular ole airplane? Plunking my butt down for not 15 hours but 270+ days? I have lots of questions about what it’s like to go to Mars, and beyond that what it’s like to colonize Mars.

The first voyage I understand. It’s
proving it can be done. It’s ego and structure. There’s a captain and everyone is paid to be there.

The second voyage, the third voyage is more interesting. It’s a symbol of colonizing. It’s a symbol of “We’re not the first, but we’re here to stay.”

Questions:
My questions are: How long is the voyage to Mars, what is the population like, why do people go, what are the facilities, what issues pop up, and how do people pass the time?

Flying to Lisbon, Portugal got me thinking about Christopher Columbus, who lived in Lisbon for a decade. From the European perspective, Christopher Columbus was kind of like the “first voyager” to Mars. And a century later, the Mayflower was the first to send colonists over from Europe. (Even though they thought they were sailing to Asia!)

So I thought I’d answer these questions by writing what happened on the Mayflower, and then asking what might happen on a Mars ship.

Who makes decisions?
On the Mayflower: The captain was in charge. The crew carried out his orders. The passengers were along for the ride. If there was a problem, it was the captain’s job to solve it. It was their job to protect the ship, the cargo, the crew, and the passengers (probably in that order, since the captain owned 1/4th of the ship).

To Mars: Have there been 15 month experiments in isolated governance? I can imagine something like this aboard a submarine, though as a military vessel everyone is crew. Or perhaps some lessons from temporary societies like Burning Man are relevant? Love to hear your thoughts on this.

How long is the voyage?
Mayflower: 2 months (60 days)
Mars: 9 months (260 days)

Side note: colonization might take awhile after the first voyage. Columbus hits America – 1462; Mayflower hits America 142 years later – 1620

What’s the population like?
Mayflower: 130 people, 100 passengers and 30 crews. A lot of these were families or single men. The captain and crew ran the ship and in case of emergency, for example once when the mast broke, the passengers helped out to fix it.

To Mars: I imagine passengers are going to need to be handy. I think there’s going to be people who are smart and able to help in tough spots. Maybe it will all be crew, but given the idea of colonization you don’t need massive crews, there can be a lot of people who hang out, artists, poets, photographers.

Why do people go?
Mayflower: The main reasons behind the Mayflower were Religious persecution or to make money/needed to make money as endentured servants. “I’m going to this new area farm, make money, grow crops that are profitable.”

Mars: What people would consider themselves so persecuted that they need to go to another planet? I’d be curious to hear about any of those groups on Earth right now. There are a lot of views that aren’t accepted on Earth. Might be very attractive to someone who wants to leave and start something new.

The flip side is servants. Is it more like a job? Are Mars colonists kind of like Deadliest Catch where I can clear $1,000,000 a year as a salary to send back to Earth? There are a lot of people who find that worth considering.

What else is on the ship?
Mayflower: Cargo, tools, food, no latrine, people fend for themselves.

Mars ship: I imagine it kind of like a plane. No guns (no such thing as space pirates, yet, but seems like an obvious emergent property when you have vulnerable ships floating about). Cargo, lots of food. (The Mayflower got caught without enough food and that was hard.)

What are unexpected emergencies while on board?
Mayflower: The biggest killer was disease. In the first winter the Mayflower got hit hard. Killed half of the crew and half of the passengers, 50 passengers and 15 crew.

Another issue is when the mast broke and the passengers had to pitch in to help repair the ship.

Mars ship: Disease and food aren’t well understood, and they can wreak havoc. Think about where bioengineering is relative to mechanical engineering or agriculture. We need fundamental biotech advances to get to where we need to be.

A lot of people get sick when they’re on a plane for awhile, the dry air, the recirculating particles of gunk. Maybe this has been studied aboard submarines, so there are solutions.

Food is important. Things get really hard when you don’t have any food (luckily AirFrance kept me well fed). I hope the Mars ship has excess food.

What do people do to pass the time?
Mayflower: Reading, playing cards, cooking their own food

Mars: Mayflower sounds familiar. I’d read, play cards, watch Twitch, chat with my buddies, make my own food or buy it at the ship’s food court, work from my laptop (with a delay in my internet connection up to 4 minutes)

Conclusion:
I think this is an interesting framework for thinking about what going to Mars might be like and what if it were like the Mayflower. Similar to ocean travel in the age of the Mayflower, space travel is a technology we understand, but not perfectly, in terms of ship building, ship captaining. Some are crew, some are passengers. A big journey requires a big commitment. Religious persecution or making money. People end up doing pretty ordinary things like reading playing cards.

I found this fun to think through. Thanks for reading!

Climate Change 2.0: How to Hack Your Way Into The Climate Change Revolution

I read a great question from acabal on HackerNews today:

Does anyone have ideas on how a mid-career software developer can switch gears into the clean energy/climate change industry, to do something to help?
-acabal

To help answer acabal’s question, I found 9 technology ideas on Quora that sparked my own curiosity.

Climate Change is at a tipping point. Climate Change 2.0 is an opportunistic, solutions-driven, civilization-scale approach to climate change. Heroes, this is a call to adventure!

Let’s get curious and dream big about climate change!

9 Thought-Provoking Climate Change 2.0 Ideas

1. What is the cost per square kilometer to turn a desert into an area with full tree/vegetation cover? And how long does it take?

2. What are the best strategies for sequestering atmospheric carbon?

3. If all the used cardboard boxes were folded flat and simply buried, how much carbon would be captured and sequestrated?

4. Is a “space sunshade” a feasible solution to global warming

5. Why don’t people use the new ways to combat global warming like green algae, artificial icebergs, carbon filters, etc.?

6. Why can’t carbon emissions of diesel cars be filtered out?

7. What if we make solid blocks of CO2 and dump them into space? Will that decrease the greenhouse effect?

8. What is the difficulty of technologically using the CO2 in our air for practical use?

9. Why don’t we genetically modify crops and trees to collect more carbon and reverse climate change?

I also wrote “A Biohacker’s Guide to Climate Change” with curiosity in mind. It starts with my 5 favorite books and articles on tech opportunities in climate change.

Interested in meeting other like-minded people working on climate tech solutions?

Join the new Google group: Climate Change 2.0: A Call to Adventure

Question to you: Do you know of any active Reddit communities talking about climate change as an opportunity? Would love to find one!

Let me know if you liked this or have suggestions. Collaborators welcome, this is a planetary adventure!

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air: Food and Agriculture (by David MacKay)

Chapter 13 Food and farming

Figure 13.1. A salad Niçoise.

Figure 13.1. A salad Niçoise.

Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food.- Albert Bartlett

We’ve already discussed in Chapter 6 how much sustainable power could be produced through greenery; in this chapter we discuss how much power is currently consumed in giving us our daily bread. A moderately active person with a weight of 65 kg consumes food with a chemical energy content of about 2600 “Calories” per day. A “Calorie,” in food circles, is actually 1000 chemist’s calories (1 kcal). 2600 “Calories” per day is about 3 kWh per day. Most of this energy eventually escapes from the body as heat, so one function of a typical person is to act as a space heater with an output of a little over 100 W, a medium-power lightbulb. Put 10 people in a small cold room, and you can switch off the 1 kW convection heater.

Figure 13.2. Minimum energy requirement of one person.

Figure 13.2. Minimum energy requirement of one person.

How much energy do we actually consume in order to get our 3 kWh per day? If we enlarge our viewpoint to include the inevitable upstream costs of food production, then we may find that our energy footprint is substantially bigger. It depends if we are vegan, vegetarian or carnivore. The vegan has the smallest inevitable footprint: 3 kWh per day of energy from the plants he eats.

The energy cost of drinking milk

I love milk. If I drinka-pinta-milka-day, what energy does that require? A typical dairy cow produces 16 litres of milk per day. So my one pint per day (half a litre per day) requires that I employ 1/32 of a cow. Oh, hang on – I love cheese too. And to make 1 kg of Irish Cheddar takes about 9 kg of milk. So consuming 50 g of cheese per day requires the production of an extra 450 g of milk. OK: my milk and cheese habit requires that I employ 1/16 of a cow. And how much power does it take to run a cow? Well, if a cow weighing 450 kg has similar energy requirements per kilogram to a human (whose 65 kg burns 3 kWh per day) then the cow must be using about 21 kWh/d. Does this extrapolation from human to cow make you uneasy? Let’s check these numbers: www.dairyaustralia.com.au says that a suckling cow of weight 450 kg needs 85 MJ/d, which is 24 kWh/d.

Figure 13.3. Milk and cheese.

Figure 13.3. Milk and cheese.

Great, our guess wasn’t far off! So my 1/16 share of a cow has an energy consumption of about 1.5 kWh per day. This figure ignores other energy costs involved in persuading the cow to make milk and the milk to turn to
cheese, and of getting the milk and cheese to travel from her to me. We’ll cover some of these costs when we discuss freight and supermarkets in Chapter 15.

Eggs

Figure 13.4. Two eggs per day.

Figure 13.4. Two eggs per day.

A “layer” (a chicken that lays eggs) eats about 110 g of chicken feed per day. Assuming that chicken feed has a metabolizable energy content of 3.3 kWh per kg, that’s a power consumption of 0.4 kWh per day per chicken. Layers yield on average 290 eggs per year. So eating two eggs a day requires a power of 1 kWh per day. Each egg itself contains 80 kcal, which is about 0.1 kWh. So from an energy point of view, egg production is 20% efficient.

The energy cost of eating meat

Let’s say an enthusiastic meat-eater eats about half a pound a day (227 g). (This is the average meat consumption of Americans.) To work out the power required to maintain the meat-eater’s animals as they mature and wait for the chop, we need to know for how long the animals are around, consuming energy.

Figure 13.5. Eating meat requires extra power because we have to feed the queue of animals lining up to be eaten by the human.

Figure 13.5. Eating meat requires extra power because we have to feed the queue of animals lining up to be eaten by the human.

Chicken, pork, or beef?

  • Chicken, sir? Every chicken you eat was clucking around being a chicken for roughly 50 days. So the steady consumption of half a pound a day of chicken requires about 25 pounds of chicken to be alive, preparing
    to be eaten. And those 25 pounds of chicken consume energy.
  • Pork, madam? Pigs are around for longer – maybe 400 days from birth to bacon – so the steady consumption of half a pound a day of pork requires about 200 pounds of pork to be alive, preparing to be eaten.
  • Cow? Beef production involves the longest lead times. It takes about 1000 days of cow-time to create a steak. So the steady consumption of half a pound a day of beef requires about 500 pounds of beef to be alive, preparing to be eaten.

To condense all these ideas down to a single number, let’s assume you eat half a pound (227 g) per day of meat, made up of equal quantities of chicken, pork, and beef. This meat habit requires the perpetual sustenance of 8 pounds of chicken meat, 70 pounds of pork meat, and 170 pounds of cow meat. That’s a total of 110 kg of meat, or 170 kg of animal (since about two thirds of the animal gets turned into meat). And if the 170 kg of animal has similar power requirements to a human (whose 65 kg burns 3 kWh/d) then the power required to fuel the meat habit is

170kg × 3 kWh/d per 65 kg ≈ 8 kWh/d

I’ve again taken the physiological liberty of assuming “animals are like humans;” a more accurate estimate of the energy to make chicken is in this chapter’s endnotes. No matter, I only want a ballpark estimate, and here it is. The power required to make the food for a typical consumer of vegetables, dairy, eggs, and meat is 1.5 + 1.5 + 1 + 8 = 12 kWh per day. (The daily calorific balance of this rough diet is 1.5 kWh from vegetables; 0.7 kWh from dairy; 0.2 kWh from eggs; and 0.5 kWh from meat – a total of 2.9 kWh per day.)

This number does not include any of the power costs associated with farming, fertilizing, processing, refrigerating, and transporting the food. We’ll estimate some of those costs below, and some in Chapter 15.

Figure 13.6. Will harvest energy crops for food.

Figure 13.6. Will harvest energy crops for food.

Do these calculations give an argument in favour of vegetarianism, on the grounds of lower energy consumption? It depends on where the animals feed. Take the steep hills and mountains of Wales, for example. Could the land be used for anything other than grazing? Either these rocky pasturelands are used to sustain sheep, or they are not used to help feed humans. You can think of these natural green slopes as maintenance-free biofuel plantations, and the sheep as automated self-replicating biofuel-harvesting machines. The energy losses between sunlight and mutton are substantial, but there is probably no better way of capturing solar power in such places. (I’m not sure whether this argument for sheep-farming in Wales actually adds up: during the worst weather, Welsh sheep are moved to lower fields where their diet is supplemented with soya feed and other food grown with the help of energy-intensive fertilizers; what’s the true energy cost? I don’t know.) Similar arguments can be made in favour of carnivory for places such as the scrublands of Africa and the grasslands of
Australia; and in favour of dairy consumption in India, where millions of cows are fed on by-products of rice and maize farming. On the other hand, where animals are reared in cages and fed grain that humans could have eaten, there’s no question that it would be more energy-efficient to cut out the middlehen or middlesow, and feed the grain directly to humans.

Fertilizer and other energy costs in farming

The embodied energy in Europe’s fertilizers is about 2 kWh per day per person. According to a report to DEFRA by the University of Warwick, farming in the UK in 2005 used an energy of 0.9 kWh per day per person
for farm vehicles, machinery, heating (especially greenhouses), lighting, ventilation, and refrigeration.

The energy cost of Tiddles, Fido, and Shadowfax

Figure 13.7. The power required for animal companions’ food.

Figure 13.7. The power required for animal companions’ food.

Animal companions! Are you the servant of a dog, a cat, or a horse? There are perhaps 8 million cats in Britain. Let’s assume you look after one of them. The energy cost of Tiddles? If she eats 50 g of meat per day (chicken, pork, and beef), then the last section’s calculation says that the power required to make Tiddles’ food is just shy of 2 kWh per day. A vegetarian cat would require less.

Similarly if your dog Fido eats 200 g of meat per day, and carbohydrates amounting to 1 kWh per day, then the power required to make his food is about 9 kWh per day. Shadowfax the horse weighs about 400 kg and consumes 17 kWh per  day.

IMG_0019Mythconceptions

I heard that the energy footprint of food is so big that “it’s better to drive than to walk.” Whether this is true depends on your diet. It’s certainly possible to find food whose fossil-fuel energy footprint is bigger than the energy delivered to the human. A bag of crisps, for example, has an embodied energy of 1.4 kWh of fossil fuel per kWh of chemical energy eaten. The embodied energy of meat is higher. According to a study from the University of Exeter, the typical diet has an embodied energy of roughly 6 kWh per kWh eaten. To figure out whether driving a car or walking uses less energy, we need to know the transport efficiency of each mode. For the typical car of Chapter 3, the energy cost was 80 kWh per 100 km. Walking uses a net energy of 3.6 kWh per 100 km – 22 times less. So if you live entirely on food whose footprint is greater than 22 kWh per kWh then, yes, the energy
cost of getting you from A to B in a fossil-fuel-powered vehicle is less than if you go under your own steam. But if you have a typical diet (6 kWh per kWh) then “it’s better to drive than to walk” is a myth. Walking uses one quarter as much energy.

Note to reader:
This is an experiment in formatting and Creative Commons publishing. The original text is written by the wonderful David McKay, ‘Sustainable Energy without the hot air’. The book is released under a Creative Commons license. The original site’s HTML is formatted for the early 2000’s, so I wanted to try bringing one short chapter into modern “Medium – like” formatting. It took me about 45 minutes start to finish to edit this (on iPad Pro). My next thought would be improving the images, theyy are low resolution and could use an update. The original text (and a whole book) is available her for free and on Amazon in print: http://www.withouthotair.com/c13/page_76.shtml

A Biohacker’s Guide to Climate Change

Climate Change: let’s dream about it, let’s have fun with it, let’s make it a cool adventure.

On that, here’s my 5 favorite articles and books that merge climate change and technology. These are the pieces I’ve found myself referencing over the past year when I meet hackers and geeks curious about climate change.

1. What Can a Technologist do About Climate Change? – Bret Victor

I like this because it’s so popular  in Silicon Valley. It’s been independently re-posted to Hackernews 6 times over the past year. Paul Hawken, famous environmentalist and author of Project Drawdown, cited it as proof of Silicon Valley’s curiousity about climate during the launch of his new book, a plan for reducing carbon dioxide. When I say “climate change plus tech” it’s the most common reference people here reply with.

So I love it, it’s written by a big name in the tech scene and it has some great perspectives. It’s the best place to start if you’re a hacker interested in climate change.

2. The Whole Earth Discipline – Stewart Brand

Now this kind of veers in the serious thought-provoking direction, because it’s by Stewart Brand, and he’s got great points and perspective. He says nuclear power is good, GMOs are good, geoengineering is good. He’s an environmental pioneer and in tech circles is known for his early work designing the WELL, an early computer BBS in Berkeley in 1985. And the book is shocking to me because there’s this mea culpa along the lines of ‘look sorry about that, when we environmentalists said nuclear power was bad, and GMOs were bad, yea we screwed up. My bad. Let’s make a better path and tech paves the way’. He writes “We are as gods and we must get good at it.” Nuff said.

3. Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

For me, this is basically biohacker bedtime stories. Three part story, terraforming mars and building the first Martian colony there. Tons of stuff about geoengineering, power sources, autonomous vehicles. Basically how would a planet run in the future. It’s a great book and if you like the first one there are 3 in the series.

4. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air – David MacKay

This one’s math-tastic. Not so opinionated as the Whole Earth Discipline, and it’s not fantasy like Red Mars. It’s numbers and fun calculations. It doesn’t have anything to do with politics or human nature. The guy who wrote opened with ‘look I’m trying to write a climate book that has nothing to do with politics’. So he sidestepped all the carbon crap and said let’s just talk about energy, let’s talk about electrons. I found it really cool to start thinking about that most fossil fuels are locked up solar energy. Not that I think fossil fuels are ok suddenly, but I think it is a good way to look at the energy balance of the earth.

100% of our energy comes from either the sun, the moon, geothermal, or nuclear power. Nuclear power is from the beginning of the universe, geothermal is from the center of the earth, tidal power and waves comes from the moon, and everything else comes from the sun – biofuels, fossil fuels, wind power (hot air). Anyway I thought it was cool to play with math. This was the first climate-y book I read and afterwards I saw climate change like Neo at the end of the Matrix. It’s just numbers, brah.

5. Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan – Elon Musk

Super cool, he rattles it out. Great piece to see the truth: climate change is an opportunity, let’s build some awesome new systems and technologies on top of it.

Have another favorite to add? Let’s get this list to 11!

On anxiety

I’m sitting on the porch at home on the Big Island of Hawaii. Our six black cats laze around in the yard. Birds are chirping, the sky is turquoise, and I can see the sapphire ocean through my neighbor’s palm trees.

The cats seem skinny. One is eating a lizard it caught. We really should feed them more than table scraps. I’ll pick up a giant bag of Meow Mix at Costco and then everything will be OK. Will the cats run off to join our neighbors if they’re not fed enough? What happens when they eat all the lizards?

I stand up. I’ve suddenly realized my ultimate destiny. I’m going to overthink and whittle away every idea and experience I ever have. I am a Nimitz-class nuclear battleship and anxiety is my uranium core.

If I’m going to chew the inside of my cheeks for eternity like some Promethean snack, why not think about something bigger than 6 black cats. Like I don’t know, work on climate change or run for president or something?

This was about a year ago, and I look back on the experience with a feeling of relief, purpose, and perspective. Are you lucky enough to have 6 black cats in your life?

(wonderful photo of one of the cats thanks to Shova Ale Magar)