Robust ThemeDec 09, 2019 2020-04-08 7:40
Investing in New Forms of Value with Yancey Strickler - Simon Severino | STRATEGY SPRINTS 154
In this episode, Simon and Yancey, the co-founder and former CEO of Kickstarter, will discuss about Yancey’s philosophy on Bentoism. Yancey Strickler co-founded Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform especially focusing on creative projects, in 2009. With his abundant personal experiences and philosophy, in 2019, he published the book This Could Be Our Future, describing the idea of Bentoism, a decision-making framework. Listen to the podcast to learn Yancey’s philosophy and advices.
Three valuable insights:
- Bentoism is a framework that your decisions fully reflects your self-interest: Future us, Now me, Future me, Now us.
- The goal of a meal is to be 80% full, that way, you're still hungry for tomorrow.
- Public benefit corporation is not that you apologize for money you make, but try to mirrormirror that with the core operations of your business
Welcome back to the Strategy Sprint podcast. I'm Simon Severino, your host, and today with us, co-founder and former CEO of Kickstarter, author of This Could be Our Future. Now leading a philosophy called Bentoism and the community called the Bento Society. Welcome everybody, Yancey Strickler.
What is up? Thanks for having me.
Hey, somebody who leads a philosophy. Now we talk, this is exciting. We will be deep diving into investing in new forms of value, how to ensure long-term relevance and the hard things about art things, super excited. Yancey, tell us about this philosophy, Bentoism, and the community.
You know, my experience as a CEO and a leader was wonderful, but one challenge I often came across as being a teammates of executives, or even a single leader, and facing one of those tough 50-50 calls where there's often like a clear financial outcome, but maybe a less clear, like negative community social impact of, say, a decision. And as an executive team, you're forced to choose path A or path B. And in those situations, the financial argument is legible. It feels rational. Feel it's grounded in numbers, or as any argument for social value or communal value is grounded in words, and like moral values. And those things feel irrational in that moment. And I came to feel like this was a challenge of like lacking the right language, and that we act as if like a financial value and moral values are greatly different things, but really, it's just like one is expressed in a form of a number or rational rules about how things should behave, whereas the other is like in the eye of the beholder. And in thinking about that challenge, and thinking about how can it be not easy, but how can it be not as hard to do the right thing as a leader? It made me think about redefining the playing field of our decisions. And the way we make decisions today is really based on a, like a hockey stick graph vision of our self-interest, going and getting what we want is about making that line go up into the right. But when you think about it like that hockey stick graph, where whatever it is that we want followers, money influence is just like shooting up. That's actually just a small slice of a much larger picture because the Y-axis that's measuring yourself interest and as it grows, so do your responsibilities. The difference between being a solo entrepreneur and having employees is enormous, or the difference of being an employee, being an entrepreneur is enormous.
Those responsibilities increase as your self-interest. And also on that X-axis of time, it also extends, you know, the hockey stick graph that's looking at like this quarter and most recent quarters, but that line extends all the way into the future. And I, one day, I drew these four boxes and like extended those lines and saw this larger map of self-interest. And so on here, very simple two by two graph of four boxes. Now me, what I, as an individual want and need right now, this is where hockey stick graphs live, how we think of self-interest today. There's also a future me, the older wiser version of me, that person becomes real or not real based on my decisions in this moment. There's also now us in the top left that people in my life, who I care about, who care about me. My friends, my family, the people I depend on…
And the finally future us and the top right. The world that everyone will inherit, you know, and some period down the line. And when I expanded this graph beyond the hockey stick and saw these four spaces, I realized this is truly our self-interest because every decision I make leaves a footprint, and now me, future me, now us, future us, like those things are a part of my decision all the time, but yet I am functionally blind to everything other than now me, right? All we really see is what eyes and individual one right now, this is the lens of the world that we're in at this second. And so, when I drew this graph and had this insight, I wrote a very simple description next to it that said, you know, what is this a graph of and I wrote beyond near term orientation. This is just a very simple graph, a two by two, that takes me out of the near term.
And I realized that made an acronym for bento. And I thought, Oh, the bento box, the Japanese packed lunch with different compartments and a lid, lets you have a variety of dishes, a balanced meal without too much of any one thing. And the bento box honors a Japanese dieting philosophy called Hara Hachibun, which says the goal of a meal is to be 80% full, that way, you're still hungry for tomorrow. So the bento and Bentoism is a very similar idea. It is a framework, a way of seeing your life and your decisions that fully reflects your broader self-interest and allows you to make decisions that are not just about what you want in a second, but actually considering the other people in your life and what your future self wants you to do.
Stay hungry and look long for a long game, beautiful. I’m curious that you’re the co-founder and CEO of Kickstarter. How did you grow in that role?
Yeah, I mean I spent years trying to solve for this. We did this a few ways. One is that we reincorporated Kickstarter to become a public benefit corporation. We're one of the first PBCS and this is a legal structure where the company is required, legally required, to balance maximizing shareholder value with producing a public benefit to society. And this is different than, like say, you know, JP Morgan makes, you know, trillions of dollars and then they have a corporate giving program that gives away 20 cents a year. You know, it's not like that where you're apologizing for how much money you make by doing something good, you're actually trying to mirror, you know, mirror that with the core operations of your business. So we did that, we created the legal change, and then we… you have to define what are those public benefits you're going to provide.
And so those are things that we defined and some of those had metrics tied to them. And I could definitely feel, as a leader, the difference in being a classic C-Corp and being a PBC, where as a C Corp, our values felt to me like things… they're like things you might bump into. If you want to stray, they're like keeping you on the path. But as a PBC, our values felt like things I had to do every day that like part of my job as a CEO was making sure these other things happen. And so it definitely changed the energy where you're, you know, especially in companies deciding are we going to play in the social space or we're going to be political at all? There's this constant question of, do we or don't we, and so that sort of simplified that question, but this larger discussion of like, how do we know if we're doing well? What does it mean to grow at being a better run company? What does it mean to grow in terms of having an impact on our users, and especially what does it mean to create an organization that is fully empowered to pursue this mission?
And you know, and so I was always searching for creating a, kind of a compass, like a playbook, that people could carry that will let them know what they should be doing each day, like where the opportunity was for the company. I imagined creating something like a post permission organization, where it's so clear what everybody, what the job is to be done. And it's such an entrepreneurial and an open environment that everyone is empowered to go and do that. And so I had multiple iterations of trying to get there, none of which totally landed. Like I think all I'm learning things, getting some things right.
And then the bento, which came to me, it was about a year and a half after I stepped down the CEO. To me, this is that furthest expression of that idea, where you're trying to encapsulate your values in a way that they are an actionable interface. Like when I use my bento, I'm looking at it right now, hanging in front of me. Like I I'm using it to make decisions. It's guiding me for what is wrong and in a right way of thinking for me, and this works for an organization or for a company or an individual.
Can you walk us basically like a decision that your customer… Can you walk us through an example of a position that you took recently using that model?
Yeah. I mean, so you're, I'll just take my bento off the wall. So here you go. Very simple. Four boxes. Bottom left is now me, bottom right is future me. So in here I have written down just a very simple phrase that encapsulates, like, what am I about? So my now me, I went through and wrote down, what are all the things I do on a day-to-day basis? Like, what am I best at? And I came to feel that showing people the matrix, connecting the real world to the world of ideas is something that I'm great at. My future me, the older wiser version of me, it's always telling me to create harmony. I'm a child of divorce, so I try to bring people together and then to not sell out, to not abandon my values for money is very deep.
My now us, it's about a core group of family and friends and having deep hyper-focused time with them. And my future us, I want a world with a better matrix, more generous, sustainable, and fair. And so a real example is, you know, I get asked to do talks for companies, and I got asked to do a talk for a company that I don't particularly like, and this has happened often in the past, and I've always said no to these things, and I've also felt pissed off when I even get asked, which is funny. And I got asked one of these to do one of these shortly after coming up with the bento. And so I asked it to the bento and that was, I was fascinated to use this. You just simply ask each box what it says.
So my now me says show people the matrix. So that box says, yeah, like talking to people about ideas is what we do, great. My now us wants deep time, focus time. It says, hey, you know, an hour and a half to present ideas, we're down with that. My future us wants a better matrix, it says, this is exactly where you should be. Like, you can't just preach to the choir. What are you doing here? Like this is the right place. And then my future me, my future me says, no, don't do it, you're selling out. Suddenly this don't sell out, pops out. And I realized that this voice that had been pissed off in the past when I even got invited to do something, like this was my future me, and then my future me was like a bouncer, like a values bouncer, a big dude standing outside saying like, nah, you can't get in.
You can't get in. But I had the right. I had the agency by having the act of awareness to see all of this that I could overrule that decision, I could overrule something that had felt core to me in the past, which I did in this case. I completely changed my mind that, actually, this is what I should do. And I was able to do that with a clear conscience and knowing that actually I'm doing some that in line with who I am and what is important to me, even though it is 180 degrees from the decision I was going to make five minutes ago. And all it is, I just became more actually aware of what was going on, and say that feeling I had that something is wrong, which I was listening to, which I was right to listen to.
Here I could interrogate that more and say, hey, oh, okay, so in certain circumstances, it's wrong, but maybe in this case, it's right. And so this is what I used to make every decision, it's also what I used to make my week. I'm just filled with things around me, but like every Sunday I make a weekly bento: I draw a blank box and I write how should I use my energy at the top? And then I fill out each bento. And so then now me is telling me, all right, here are the work things you got to do. Here's the errands, you know, the stuff that's already on your to-do-list. But my now us, my now us is telling me here's all the people in your life. You should reach out to you, you know, you haven't talked to this person in two months, this is the week you just call them.
And so you start to have a cycle of like how you bring people into your life. Your future me, I always imagined as like this older, wiser, salt and pepper version of me that it's just constantly offering just words of kindness. And reminded me of what matters in the longer term. And then my future us, there I'm picturing, okay, for the kind of world I want to see happening. What is it that I could be doing this actual week, these seven days to make that true. And what's fascinating things come up there, it's like I should read this, I should become more educated on this, I should talk to someone about this, I should try to share this spirit in my day-to-day life. And what I have found is that how I use my time and the degree of coherence in the things that I do, the way, the things that I do just sort of fit together naturally with who I am, has just significantly, significantly increased.
And the greatest moments for having the weekly bento are, you know, those moments where you just finished something, you have that second of downtime, maybe you would click over your inbox, you're going to go to social media or whatever, do your, whatever your loops are. Then instead you look at this, you look at your bento and you remind yourself of what did I write down in a moment of concentration as what actually mattered to me. And so you refer to them and you're like, Oh man, maybe I'll just call Simon right now. I have three minutes, what type of three minute phone calls? Sure. Why not? You know? And, it just shifts how you think about yourself and how you think about your time. And so this, this act of making the weekly bento is something that people do together on Sundays.
Um… there's a zoom chat I've been hosting all year and you know, so people get together and do this and, and ground their time and their activity. And in this framework, because what this is revealing is just these different dimensions of us that we all have, that we know are important, we know other people are important, we know our future selves are important, but these are things that, because we're human, we all struggled to keep in mind that at various times, right? And so I think of the bento as like it's a scaffolding, you know, it's an infrastructure that extends my brain, forces me, creates a muscle memory to account for the things that I know are important to me. But, you know, when I get into the daily grind, when I get into social media, all those things, like these are things that get pulled away, right? And so this, I need something like this to balance me and to let me be who I actually want to be.
These are super powerful. They help to see the future in the now. And it's really so applicable. And it helps you become intentional. I'm so curious about this and about your book. But first, we need…
If you can pick only one person that is doing things differently but right, who is it?
The name that comes to my mind is Craig Newmark, the creator of Craigslist. You know, for Kickstarter, Craigslist was always a model platform for us, in particular the idea that you find that thing you do well, and then you don't deviate from it. Strangely the longer you go with a successful operation like that, the more the temptation and the drive is to change things up, to add a lot to, you know, to expand, which is sometimes the right move. But what I love about Craigslist is the resistance to that, and to provide a product that is just sheer utility, to operate it as lean as possible. You know, it's like less than I think, 30 Craigslist employees during their heyday. I have no idea what it is now, and to be still incredibly relevant, you know, almost 20 years after it was first founded.
I mean, how many companies can say that? And I feel like that if Craigslist had done, say what others had done the, you know, lycoses or cites or whatever of the early internet, where you just like stick a bunch of things on, you know, try to Frankenstein it, professionalize your platform, expand in various ways, I think Craigslist would be dead by now, but because it has maintained its same identity, its same utility, it remains a critical part of the internet infrastructure. And so I think of that, I think of Craigslist as being the ultimate success. And to me, that is the ideal to work towards.
Cool. Your book is called, This Could be Our Future. Why did you write the book?
Well, you know, my career before Kickstarter was, as a writer, I was a music journalist for 10 years writing for village voice and various magazines and newspapers. So part of it is naturally who I am, but you know, the same way I described the challenge of decision making as a leader of balancing between sort of financial and nonfinancial interests, I was really interested in understanding like, what is the history behind that tension? How did we get to where we are now? How is it that financial value became so central to all of our systems of decision-making? And so I just wanted to understand that, and in doing so, you know, began to formulate a different theory of value, which is basically that, you know, financial value is an expression of how much we value, how good something is, how beautiful something is, it’s a mathematical expression of like moral beliefs, beliefs to personal preferences.
But because it's a mathematical expression, it's universal, it's transferable, and it's just super convenient. And so financial values are past moral values, especially over the past century because it's simplified the math. It was like easier to think about. And so where we find ourselves is that all decisions that are made at scale, ultimately then become financial decisions because it's the most legible information. And when you're making a decision of significant scope, like you go for legibility, what can I best defend as my choice? But my feeling is that money is the first value that we've learned to empirically and mathematically define any in these ways, but it's not the last, and that especially in a world of digital systems where measurement and collecting data is so trivial that our ability to identify new forms of value and to put new metrics and new reasons at the core of our decision-making is just happening now.
And it's happening because it's available to have happened. So in the book, I write about an example of Adele using an algorithm that measures how loyal her fans are to her, as an artist, to distribute concert tickets, and this way, using an algorithmic approximation of loyalty as a way to try to undercut ticket scalpers and to remove price as the prior primary means that something is distributed. And so in these kinds of multi value transactions where you are, someone is satisfying a financial minimum while maximizing for a non-financial maximum, I think that's going to be a growing field. So, say buying a product that it is made, you know, it is priced well enough that the people make aren't losing money on it, but everything else about the product is geared towards maximizing environmental value in some way. And so in this way, we begin to combine these various forms of financial value and then non-financial values in these same transactions.
And also we will begin to find it's possible to make collective decisions based on these other forms of values. So this exists now in healthcare where there's something called a quality score, which is a algorithmic mathematical determination of like your quality of life. And if you get a certain surgery or procedure at a certain age, based on your health history, like this is how it's going to turn out. And this is a way that medical professionals try to approximate, what is the value of this service I'm providing? Is it worth doing or not? Because price doesn't make sense. In that case, they created another score to try to understand, is this ultimately good or bad for the patient? And so we're going to create similar kinds of scores that exists to measure the social space of how we interact with each other, that exists to guide the algorithms of social media channels.
And basically, we're going to find that a world, where money has ruled everything, is going to quickly evolve into a world of multiple values driving the world. Right now, it's already switched to kind of… money and attention are now the values that everyone is chasing. But I believe that this is just like this massive revolution that's happening in this moment, and that there's an entire new frontier of value that the digital world makes clear. Blockchain and Bitcoin are an example of that, but that we are going to be able to make different kinds of choices and optimize for different kinds of outcomes as a result of the data, that's at our fingertips. And so I think the next 20 years, especially, are this transition and the way that we start to get a handle on climate change is through this process and the way that we evolve from our current place of shareholder capitalism to, I think what we will come to call post-capitalism is through this, it's through the elevating of new values, just because the digital age makes it possible for the first time in human history.
So powerful, great book, and it will find new metrics to measure what really matters in a better way. Before I ask you all the distribution part and how did you pick the publisher, et cetera, which is very hot in discussion right now in our masterminds. I thank you to our sponsors.
In our masterminders, we are widely discussing who should be the publisher, big publisher hybrid publisher, or go full set coding publish fully yourself. How was your decision process coming from that space?
I mean I'm somewhat of an institutionalist. So I did go to a traditional publisher. You know, it was interesting. I mean, it started for me with finding a literary agent and, you know, because of my background, there was a lot of interest. But most people I met with assumed I would write a “here's how to kickstart your business” kind of book. And I was instead coming in saying, I want to write a manifesto about how to reorder our value system. And, you know, there's one… So all these literary agents were very nice. There was one that was skeptical of me. And I really liked that. I really liked that. So I wanted to work with him and I ended up doing that. I thought if I can convince this person that what I'm doing, that I'm not full of, like that's a good sign.
And that lets me know I'm not making a fool of myself. So I wanted to have a skeptic be my partner. So I found this great agent and we had a great relationship. And as I made my book proposal, you know, I sort of let him be my filter of whether or not it was good enough. And the moment, you know, maybe six weeks later, two revisions later when he said, hey, this is worth sending, like, I knew that was true. I didn't have to doubt that. And then we met with people…
People listening right now are thinking, okay, how do I find the first three literary agents to pick from?
Well, even, I mean, I just asked around, I just asked people I knew who had written books, who did they talk to? But it doesn't have to even be an agent, but I think having a, having a skeptic that's part of your circle, you know, it can't be someone that's poisonous, but, you know, revealing maybe what you're not thinking about, I think is super, super helpful. You know, I met with a lot of publishers, there's one editor in particular that just, it felt right immediately. What was interesting was that at that point, my book was a, it was like a visual and text together. It was kind of an art book a bit… had some collages and a lot of graphs and things. And the publisher said, you know, we love what you're doing. It's cool. But we think that you're using this as a crutch because you're worried you're not in a good enough writer.
And so you're doing all these other frills, all these other things as a way to distract from that, but you don't need to do that. And in fact, it gets in your way and like, you are a good enough writer and your book stands on its own. So if you're willing to do that and go all the way, we'd love to work with you. And I didn't say yes immediately. I had to think about it because I was really, I really liked my idea of how I wanted to execute this. It created a certain feeling I wanted to, I wanted to create, but I just really loved that feedback. And it still, to this day, I look at it as like an exceptionally well done way to give feedback.
To like reveal what's falling short, but to do so in a way that like sees what the good you're bringing to it. But yeah, then I, you know, writing the book was a year and a half. I gave myself a tight deadline because I wanted the process to kick my ass. You know, if I like, if it worked out right, like signed a book deal, and then I could spend six months having lunch with people, telling people I signed a book deal, then maybe I would never write it. That's kind of dangerous. If you get the affirmation from being able to tell people, that's dangerous, that's dangerous. So, yeah, I just made it a job, you know, and I wanted it to be a job where I had an boss, and I felt like that kind of environment would be productive for me. And it was hard. But it was, it was, and it's definitely a process I will return to.
Okay, interesting. So you can pick your environment and you say, I want an boss. That's what I need to be productive.
Yes, yes, yes, yes. I mean, I was very inspired. There's a woman, a painter who I read, a project I did is creating a site called the creative independent, which is an amazing website interviews artists every day. And there's one painter. She talked about when she goes into her studio, she can't just be herself because who knows what she's going to do. Instead, when she walks into her painting studio, she becomes an Amazon fulfillment services worker who has just like a boss who just loves to just rage at her and just be such an asshole. And, but she's like, I put myself in that mindset because that's what makes me produce the work I need. And so, especially as a, if you're working by yourself, you know, you have to create those dynamics. And sometimes it can all be internal.
Sometimes it's something like a bento, you know, some framework. And sometimes it's an actual person. I mean, even as I wrote the book, I, you know, I'm writing a book that's really critical of the financial system and how the importance we place on money. And I was very aware of how controversial that idea would be. And so I made sure among my early readers, I had two partners at wall street banks. You know, I had a very prominent, conservative economists people who I thought would probably dislike what I was writing, but I, that doesn't, you know, I think they might be right about some of the things that they criticize about. So I'd love to know those things upfront rather than after the book is done so I can change them. So I, definitely, I was scared to do these things, but, you know, a book is forever.
So my instinct is, well, if I'm going to, I might as well know this now where I can do something about it versus, you know, avoiding discovering the ways I'm blind to my own assumptions. So I really treated a lot of that process as, I mean, it's a battle with yourself and a battle to get ideas out of, a battle to stay clear headed, and in a battle to stay honest. And, you know, I felt like in the end it took kind of every trick at my disposal to get there, but it, you know, it's amazing to experiment and self-management in that kind of way.
I just read Steven Pressfield's Turning Pro, and he also says, forget authenticity and be yourself, it's not about being yourself. It's about becoming serious about what your craft is and showing up to do exactly that every day. And so it's a beautiful example. You create the environment that propels. Now what's up next?
Well, this past week was the first anniversary of Bentoism existing in the world, the first anniversary of the bento society. At this point, there's now hundreds of members of the bento society all around the world. There are retail workers, VCs, CEOs, professors, students, retirees, teenagers, you know, all kinds of folks from literally everywhere in the world coming together to use the idea to make daily choices. Year two of bento is working on this larger goal of new values, and we're going to be giving grants to researchers and scientists who are doing some of this work are going to be doing some of this work ourselves. And in this year, we're going to be creating regular monthly flagship events where be talking to super interesting people doing this work and starting to just build out this theory of the world and create that community.
In the book I write about how all this work is geared towards a 30-year goal. So the ultimate goal is for these Bento-ish ways of seeing the world to be the total normal default point of view in 30 years by 2050. I think this is a generational change that this is how changes like this happen. They take 30 years to happen. I believe this will be another one of those for it to be just fully embedded in how we see the world. And yeah, so it's being a leader in that fight and making the case that what's valuable, what we see as valuable is just a whole new frontier, a whole new frontier to explore. And that, especially for younger people, entrepreneurs who are maybe deciding whether to jump on board the existing system, or, you know, what kind of projects are worth putting themselves into, I believe that, you know, along with AI, and blockchain, you know, bios, kind of stuff I think that new values are those like kind of core deep tech, basic science kind of frontiers that can just have a large step change in how the world functions.
So I'm going to be grinding on them and working with great folks who are also on board with this mission. And folks can find me in this bentoism.org or ystrickler.com
bentoism.org. Beautiful. And this is where people can find also the bento groups and the bento community, all of that.
Yeah. Yeah. All of that. Yeah.
Beautiful. Who should be my next guest?
You know, I, one of my favorite newsletters I read is called the Sociology of Business written by a woman Ana Andjelic. She's a brilliant strategist researcher. And yeah, I always learn something when I read her Sociology of Business.
Thank you so much for being on the show, Yancey, and people, check out bentoism.org and the bento methods. It's the emergence of a new way of thinking more long-term and it keeps you hungry. So it's wonderful. Thank you Yancey for doing this and for sharing this with us. Thank you so much.