The Solution Space

The Metaverse Will Be Paved With New Communication, Not Payments Layers


I'm about to share some pretty unpopular opinions among the crypto/NFT/web3 crowd, so if you're deep in that game and are too uncomfortable with new ideas, here's your exit.

For those who are interested in sticking around, I'd like to start with a brief history of another technology. In 2011, three years after Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin and blockchain technology, the first WebRTC spec was introduced. For those unfamiliar with WebRTC, it's a free, open-source set of protocols that enables peer-to-peer, low-latency real-time communication over the web. Using it, you can link two users via web browser and allow them to share bi-directional streams of audio, video, and other arbitrary data in real time.

WebRTC (and related technology) has enabled a slew of new applications that have subtly become a part of our everyday lives. I'd go as far as to argue that without WebRTC, the global economy would have not been able to weather the Covid-19 pandemic with the (relative) success it did with the transition to remote work/learning.

In the last year and a half, I started building in this space. Most recently I launched Mantis. Before that, I built roundtable.audio. From it, I learned this technology is non-trivial. For certain applications which involve multiparty communication, it requires very sophisticated engineering. There are lifetimes of work to be done here. I'll take the opportunity to shout out the open-source Pion project, working to democratize and extend WebRTC technology, on which much of Mantis and roundtable.audio are built.

I believe that the next version of the internet (or at least part of it) will be the "real-time internet." That is, since static websites in the 90's, and more complex web apps through the 00's and 10's, bandwidth has only kept increasing and our lives have become only more coupled to the web. One would only expect that the packets will continue to fly faster and in greater volume. Pair this with the frightening improvements in video game graphics plus powerful cloud computing, and the ultimate end of this probably looks something like the "Ready Player One" fantasy metaverse that has launched into the spotlight recently.

This is where my path intersects with the crypto folks. I'm still not exactly sure what these people mean by web3, but I think that's okay because I don't think they really know what they mean by it either. A common answer to someone asking for a definition is "it's still too early to tell."

But from what I can tell, web3 is about:
- users of web apps "owning" the data they produce on the apps
- payments (in the form of cryptocurrency) and asset ownership (in the form of NFT's) being central to the apps
- virtual spaces for live work, play, and study where such data will be produced and payments/asset transfers will be conducted

I'm not here to argue against the value or truth of these individual points (although I'm tempted), but really about the backwards mindset of which point is clearly the most important with respect to the metaverse.

Discounting the strong possibility web3 will be a short-lived hype, the truth is that the internet of tomorrow will look very different than the internet of today. But if you look at the history of new means of communication, they came to fruition before people started thinking, or even caring about using them for transactional purposes. I actually think there is a great SNL skit in the making where Mark Zuckerberg steps into the metaverse only to find a giant NFT flea-market where an AI avatar is hounding him to buy an original jpeg of an ape for a trillion dogecoin. (He then naturally takes off his headset, throws it in the trash, and deletes all the code ever written at Facebook/Meta.)

This payments-second history will likely be as true of the metaverse as it was the internet, television, phones, mail, and most real-life places of gathering. If they were designed first and foremost as means of buying and selling, I'd suspect they'd have never seen mass adoption; they'd be absolutely repulsive.

On the other hand, if I can step into a virtual world that enables more productive and enjoyable work, learning, and play - that's a beautiful future. I not only think it can be, but has the potential to be perhaps the greatest, most fulfilling medium of all time for builders, engineers, scientists, artists, and more due to its unconstrained nature. And I most certainly believe people will be able to make immense amounts of money within it by providing real value to its users - and that's a great thing.

So if you're trying to decide what the future looks like - and consequently how to spend your time and money - I urge you to look at the spaces where people are building new things that enable other new things. I think by now it may be clear that I'm less than bullish on blockchain-based technologies, and that's because I've seen close to zero successful applications enabled by it that weren't cryptocurrencies, a derivative or cryptocurrencies, or means of exchanging cryptocurrencies.

I’m actually hopeful to be proven wrong in this regard, and somehow see the emergence of a bunch of decentralized applications that lead to better economic incentives and outcomes. But as a comparison, in a shorter amount of time WebRTC and related technologies has quietly enabled more change in your life than you probably care to know about, and may have been the only reason you were able to afford your NFT's (by keeping a paycheck, customers, or investors) in the first place. Yet for some reason few seem to care about this, and other more fruitful technologies relative to blockchain.

As always, I'd love to hear the adversarial views on my ideas. Tell me directly using Mantis, drop a comment, or send me a Tweet. And if you're reading this in 20 years, come find me in the metaverse and let me know how I did.

Automation != Leverage


There's a subtle but dangerous misconception about technology that seems to lead many business decisions astray. Worse, it paints a bleak outlook of the future. That misconception is that somehow automation always produces additional leverage in a business context. This is false.

First, a couple quick primers: A lever is a simple machine which, when you apply force, outputs a magnified force on the other end. You can think of the magnitude of leverage as how many units of output you get for every unit of input in a given system. For example, a walking human burns about 50 units of energy (kCal) to travel a kilometer. Give that human a bike, and they can travel roughly 2 kilometers with the same energy. Juice up a Lime scooter with that same energy, and the human can travel roughly 5.5 kilometers. That's technological leverage.

Automation is even simpler; it's the process of taking a system and removing (or minimizing) the need for human involvement for the system to function. Much of software is about automating tasks. That newspaper that used to show up at your door is now automatically delivered to your inbox in the morning. And it probably costs 1/1000th of what it used to for the newspaper company.

In many if not most cases, automation does directly produce more leverage. It's probably the main driver of the massive creation of wealth in the software and internet industry. Because of this, when presented with an opportunity to automate something, software companies jump on it. This knee-jerk reaction can come at a serious cost.

Consider an email campaign. Your business has 1,000 current users, and you want to inform them of a new product offering to generate more ARR. Easy! Create a series of campaign emails, and set your preferred email tool to blast them out one at a time to all 1,000 over the course of several weeks. You obtain a 5% conversion rate, translating to an additional $30000 in ARR for the year for your $50/month offering. Couldn't be easier - great success.

Now consider this alternative approach. Instead of blasting the campaign emails to all 1,000 users, you choose the top 100 you think are likely to buy your new offering. You craft personalized emails to them about why you think this offering can benefit them and offer them a calendar time to learn more. 80 of them convert. You net $48,000 in new ARR for the year. Besides the $18,000 additional ARR, you may have had some very useful conversations informing future product ideas.

Oops. Your automation actually produced less leverage than the alternative. Yes, your super cutting-edge software company incurred a large opportunity cost because of technology.

Now, critics will cry "you've toyed with the numbers!" and "this doesn't scale!" The most keen observer might say, "you actually may have produced more leverage in the first case depending on how long each of these took, and you simply got better results from the additional effort." Perhaps for this example they'd be right (or perhaps not).

Regardless, the basic idea is that companies are often faced with the decision of doing N units of shitty work or far fewer than N units of great work. It's not always a simple calculus to determine which will yield better results; sometimes the unintended consequences of doing great work are not always clear (and likewise of doing shitty work). And sometimes it requires doing great work manually before you should ever consider automating the task. As someone who loves automating just about every mundane task I do, this idea definitely got me thinking about when I'm doing this appropriately, and when I'm not.

E-commerce and SaaS companies love the idea of putting their offerings on autopilot, and allowing self-serve automations to take care of their customers from A-Z. Don't get me wrong, I love this idea too. But theory is different than practice, and you'll be hard pressed to find a company of this type that strictly benefits from removing humans from their sales/support process. A good company knows how to automate all of their processes. A great company knows when not to.

I've been thinking about this a lot as it pertains to Mantis. I talk to a lot of businesses who feel they are too big, too small, or too busy to have a human taking calls from customers and prospects. Sometimes when I hear this I feel bad for myself because I've built something they don't want. But usually I feel bad for the business mistaking their "AI" chat bot, FAQ page, or "we'll get back to you in 1 - 2 business days" autoresponder for "solving" one of their most critical problems: making their customers happy.

Have a different opinion? Feel free to tell me about it using Mantis in the bottom corner.

SaaS on a Hunch


A few weeks ago I launched Mantis, a live-audio chat plugin that any business can embed on their website. It allows site visitors to speak with them directly through the browser, with a single click, from anywhere in the world.

Unlike some SaaS offerings which are built around the discovery of some problem, Mantis is built on an opinion, hunch, or hypothesis about how things ought to be. Taking this approach is a bit like rolling a boulder to the top of a hill; I believe it actually requires me convincing (some) potential users to view things from a new point of view instead of just solving some pain. Let me elaborate.

There's a longer story here, but in short Mantis came from an end-user pain. I'm someone who:
a) likes to ask get answers to multiple questions before buying basically anything online, and
b) actually prefers calling businesses to get these answers when possible.

In my opinion, text-based live chats and email support are way too slow, and frankly demeaning when you're given a bot instead of a human. Even if I get a reply, the clarity and throughput typically is almost always worse than a call. But if I as a user/customer feel this pain, it clearly must translate to pain for a business, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Even for similar businesses, there's a ton of variation in approaches to user/prospect/customer interaction. Some businesses have told me they intentionally try to produce friction for a customer to speak to them; others have told me their availability for prospects (let alone paying customers) has made all the difference in their growth and success.

I was going to originally title this post "The Cost of Facelessness", or "No Business is Too Big to Be Faceless", but I'm not ready to quantify the earlier, or make a claim to the latter. These are the answers I'm looking for as I grow Mantis, and confirmation of such ideas will only aid its success. I'm also not driving towards binary answers, but rather seeking to understanding the conditions under which a business can greatly benefit from enhanced user interaction.

My hypothesis is that offering a frictionless, high-throughput means of allowing someone to contact an internet business (especially customers), has a positive ROI in almost every case. The magnitude of that ROI is highly variable.

For startups, speaking to users and prospects to drive product direction is downright necessary, so the ROI could wind up being the continued existence of the company (see this YC post if you don't know what I'm talking about).

For growth and later stage companies, letting your paying customers come to you about any issues seems like it should be a top priority, and efficiently answering questions for prospects should convert more customers, or generate more qualified leads. To me, these things seem obvious, but maybe I'm overlooking something.

Obviously such opinions will be met with adversarial points of view, and I welcome those. Any and all feedback is welcome, either via comments where I post this, or directly to me if you want to use Mantis in the bottom corner.

But if you really want to help me answer these questions, give Mantis a try, and let me know what you find. Right now I'm pulling people off the waitlist and provisioning access. I encourage you to drop your email there. If you want access even sooner, just shoot me a note at now@mantis.chat, and I'll try to serve you as fast as I can.