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A Step Ahead: Alex Wilhelm
Hey everyone. It’s Mike Montgomery here on the A Step Ahead podcast, and today we’re joined by Alex Wilhelm from Mattermark. Hey, Alex.
Alex Wilhelm: Hey. Thanks for having me.
Really glad you’re here. Let’s start by talking about you. Is that okay with you?
I never get bored with myself, so I’ll go ahead and say, “Yes.”
All right. What is Mattermark?
Mattermark is two things. On the business side, it’s a corporation that collects and processes a bunch of data on private corporations, that people like venture capitalists buy from us on a recurring basis, to help them do deals and that sort of thing. It has a history in journalism, the company was actually founded as an add to journalism by accident. Back in the day our CEO, Danielle Morrell, wrote a long series of blog posts over a month long period, and in one of those she ranked a bunch of portfolio companies of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. She ranked them by traffic, and Twitter followers, and so forth to come up with kind of a ranking of their portfolio. That became a product, that product became a company, and Mattermark’s been around for three or four years now. That’s kind of one thing. Then my side of the company is the publishing arm. A little old journalism shop that does coverage of the intersection of finance and tech. You want to think about this model in more of the real world sense, Bloomberg is a data company and a media company. We’re like the micro micro micro version of that, if you will.
Got it, so your audience is like VC’s, investors?
About four people and my mom, so a small crowd.
No I think that’s it’s odd to see a niche topic like finance and tech, and kind of their collision point become more mainstream. There’s so much money inside of Silicon Valley in the technology industry right now, it’s quite a broad thing to talk about it. So my audience goes from people that are interested in tech, people that are into tech, to people that fund tech. Also I think a lot of people that may invest into VC portfolios and so forth. I have a relatively savvy audience, if you will. I don’t have to do a lot of re-explaining of issues and topics, which is fun, but it also means that I do write for a more narrow audience. Back when I was at TechCrunch I wrote for a much more mainstream set of people, which means that you have different goals, but over the last, I guess eleven months now, I’ve gotten to focus on kind of one evolving story, which is the state of technology in America, and that’s been a real blast. I really feel like I’ve learned a lot. I hope I’ve done a good job. I can’t really grade myself, but it’s been fun.
I have a question for you. You spend a lot of time as most journalists do, on Twitter.
How do you get anything else done, because Twitter seems to have the ability to take over people’s lives. How do you balance that?
Well it’s not a subtraction from productivity if you do it correctly. Often I will get off Twitter for an hour or two when I’m working on something that’s creative and I need to focus. If I’m writing or I’m editing I’m not usually on Twitter at the same time because I need to have kind of a singular focus, but a lot of the time I’m news gathering, or I’m reading, or I’m taking part in a conversation, and a lot of the things that I share on Twitter, that I see in Twitter, that I talk about on Twitter, find their way into stuff that I write about. That’s kind of the continuing conversation that feeds and helps me kind of hone what I think. It’s where you get a lot of good ideas, you see a lot of really bad ideas, you see hot takes, cold takes, medium rare takes, whatever.
You’re no different than Donald Trump?
I don’t watch Morning Joe on MSNBC and then tweet about what I saw and tank stocks, so no, not quite Trumpian. Also, his tweets are lame. His tweets are always about him. He’s actually really bad at Twitter. Imagine if he had no followers and tweeting out that same crap. I mean how ridiculous would it be. He’s only famous because he’s famous.
You’re kind of a pot stirrer, you like to throw shit occasionally, right?
I wouldn’t self-describe that way, I just think we’re all very snarky. I think that one fun thing about Twitter, kind of a recurring basis is that it gives us-
Go for it, sorry.
I was just going to say, is there any regrets with some of that snark, or is it all just usually in good fun?
Yeah, I think it would be unfair to say none. Not as much as you’d think. There’s a lot of people out there who, either due to their job can’t say much though they want to, a lot of people there have a bias towards positivity, which I find very interesting. They say, they default to the rule that if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything. Which is ridiculous. If you write, as you guys do, at least some, you understand that every sentence you put down is a declaration. If you’re always making judgment calls, why stop at the positive? Why not go on to the negative? I think the PR industry is so big and so powerful in a way, that you need an even more corrective dose of negativity just to get back to even. They’re paid to spin positive about everything. They’re much bigger than journalism, and they’re better funded, and they’re growing more quickly. The negative stuff is stylistic to some extent, I have to admit it’s fun, but it has a purpose too. It’s not just me, you know, I can’t say that in a podcast, what’s a polite way to phrase self-indulgent? I guess that’s a good enough.
That may be a polite way to phrase it.
Yeah I think we’ll just leave it there.
Yeah, your, all right, so you’re pretty young, are you a millennial?
I’m viscerally a millennial, yes.
Uh huh, okay, and you spent some time at The Next Web, right?
Yeah, I did.
What’s changed since your days at The Next Web? Like what, in terms of journalism, what’s different now than it used to be?
Well, I joined The Next Web probably, what, seven years ago, somewhere in there, and so back then I don’t think BuzzFeed was nearly as big as it is now, and BuzzFeed didn’t have the same high quality news team that it does now. BuzzFeed news is actually pretty good. Recode wasn’t born, BI wasn’t spun out and purchased. Washington Post had different owners. The Journal wasn’t doing as many buyouts. Newspapers sold more ads. The one thing about the journalism industry is that it continues to fall apart somehow and still exist. I don’t know how that keeps happening, but it’s strange.
What the future of newspapers?
I mean I was just at Starbucks for my 8:30 a.m., and I was reading the print copy of The Journal, and it only had two main sections to it. Made me kind of sad. It used to be a lot deeper. I don’t know man, there’s a lot of cool companies working on this. There’s a Dutch company that’s doing a lot of great work on micro payments for individual articles that I’ve covered actually for Mattermark, and that’s doing a lot of good work, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s been lost. I think as we all understand paywalls are not replacing declining ad revenues for papers. To me it’s a bad looking situation that won’t probably get better until the general public decides that it wants to invest in newspapers, or the government does. The government won’t, and people don’t seem to be willing or able to, so I don’t have any good news. Or even good hopes. Okay but same question back to you, what do you think the future of newspapers is, say in the next five years?
I think they’re a lot of smart people in the newspaper industry who are taking a second look at it. We’ve got Jeff Bezos who’s trying to revive The Post, and you’ve got some really smart people running the Times operation, and then I even heard that the Chronicle’s making money now, which is surprising given the fact that it seems like it’s not got a lot of news in it, so-
Well, I like The Chronicle, I have to protest. I have to protest big, my friend Owen Thomas is the Business Editor over at The Chronicle and I think he’s doing a very fine job. At least for in that desk.
That’s great, but it’s not a business newspaper. It’s a multipurpose newspaper. If you get past the great work of Owen, and you try to read the sports page or the front page, or the entertainment section, there’s not a lot left.
Are you a big fan of the entertainment section? Is that your go to?
No, I’m a sports fan.
Ah, okay, fair enough.
Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. But I’ll read it all. I’ve gone through a lot of years sitting on a Muni bus or whatever with some time on my hands, and something to read and I used to be able to fill that time well, and now it’s harder to fill that time because I can just blow right through it.
I guess there’s the beauty of this world that we live in now is that there’s a great mix, right? You can grab a newspaper, you can use your phone or whatever you want to read, anything from Mattermark to Reddit, wherever you get your news. There are more options, but this idea of micro payments per article is great. It may help everybody.
I recall the name of the company, it’s called Blendle.
Blendle, yeah, and they’re a big hit in Europe and they’re just I think in open beta here in the US. I’m hoping, just between us, that it does well, because if there’s a way to get more money from me to newspapers, that’s great. I’m a Post subscriber, which I’m actually pretty happy about, and I founded a company back in the day called Contenture. That was trying to do micro payments for online content, but way before it’s time, so it died. This is a space that I really care about, both intellectually and professionally.
I met somebody at a conference who was trying to do micro payments for porn. What do you think about that?
Well, given that it’s porn, why not do macro payments?
You know what? This is a topic that I find explaining working knowledge of will somehow out myself. I’ll just say that I think that’s there’s a number of online media formats that monetize at different levels, and pornography may be one of the more successful ones. Especially going back in the history of the internet, porn’s been at the forefront of technology. They were the first people to do online payments, video streaming, and so forth. It does matter, jokes aside, but given the advent of free porn, and here I am showing off my knowledge of the industry, I think that cat’s kind of already out of the bag as it were.
Right on. Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about journalistic integrity and direction. When you worked at TechCrunch, TechCrunch was owned by a variety of a different companies. I guess first AOL and Time Warner, maybe now Verizon. Did that limit you in any way shape or form? Did you feel bound by positions that your parent companies had taken?
When I was there it was owned by AOL and then my last six months were the Verizon acquisition. I was there towards the very tail end of AOL’s independence and then the first bit of its non-independence. The short answer is not even slightly. I never had any pushback. I mean really the first thing I did when I got to TechCrunch was cover the implosion of Patch, which was AOL’s micro, sort of hyper local news startup. I was a jerk, because it was a horrible product, and a horrible business, and it lost tons of money.
My wife is offended that you’re saying that. Offended.
I mean Patch is a delectable, delightful, delicious thing that should have been kept going. With Patch, whether you liked it or not, it lost a bunch of money and AOL couldn’t afford it. I joined TC and that was one of the first things I worked on. I’m sure they read it, but they couldn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t control at all the newsroom at TC. This is a pattern that kept going. The only times that I ever really interacted with AOL staff in the editorial sense was when I needed legal backup. If I needed to have something read of mine that was let’s say breaking then about lawsuits, and you want to have your lawyers read it to make sure you’re not over your skis, it’s great to have institutional level resources to lean on. In terms of day-to-day, or even just month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter operations, zero pushback. Which is why TechCrunch works, and that’s why it’s stayed around. If there was any interference from above like that the brand would die, because it would lose all of its voice. TechCrunch really is just a voice. The Times has more reporters, Bloomberg has more reporters, The Journal’s bigger. TC only exists because it still has it’s own, I forget can we swear on this podcast, guys?
Okay, TechCrunch still has that “Fuck you” attitude, and that really does stand out in the mix of relatively milk toast reporting we see. No, it was great, and I’ve got to give them points for keeping the AOL stuff as far out of the TechCrunch world as possible. The only thing that ever really showed up that was AOL was my badge to get in the office and my AOL corporate credit card. Otherwise, there was no real AOL influence whatsoever.
Is that why you’re not there anymore? Because you ran up that bill pretty heavily?
I may have been late on my expenses once or twice. I will confess that paperwork is not my forte. No, actually that’s the thing I miss the most is having, well that’s a different story.
For another time. For another time.
Yeah, I think for the podcast it’s off recording. No I left because I had been doing that job effectively for six years, TechCrunch and I needed a new challenge. Taking over an editor role and doing things like writing style guidelines and ethics policies and hiring freelancers, and schedules and so forth was a whole set of new challenges that made me break out of my writer shell. I think TechCrunch remains the best place to write if you’re covering anything related to technology because it has the most support and the most freedom.
At Mattermark though now you’re going to start covering technology policy, right?
I don’t see a way around it. Yeah.
Is that because of the confluence of the issues you cover, they just kind of make natural sense, or is it because of the craziness that’s happening in Washington and New York right now?
I don’t see a difference between the two answers. The disaster force hurricane that is descending upon DC in the form of the crypto-fascist Donald Trump is the reason I have to write about it. I have a link pulled up right here from Recode from I think yesterday, that reads “Net neutrality faces extinction under Trump.” All right, that’s pretty interesting. That’s a political story that involves regulatory policy that directly impacts everyone here in Silicon Valley. Trump is bringing these stories essentially back into my fold. I haven’t covered tech policy much in the last year, but I don’t see a way that I can possibly talk about the industry without mentioning it and working on those issues.
If Hillary Clinton were President Elect right now you wouldn’t be touching on any tech policy?
Much less. I know Tom Wheeler a little bit, we’ve met a couple times and I interviewed him in New York, and I asked him when we were on stage, I was like “Are you going to stay in your role?” He said “She hasn’t asked me to yet.” His point was that if Hillary won the election and asked him to stay on he might have, and we would have had a continuance at the FCC which would have had a relatively stable regulatory landscape. Now with Pai probably taking over, that’s my guess, thankfully if it isn’t abolished altogether, it’s going to be a disaster. You know and a bunch of people are going to fight against it and it’s going to become again a Silicon Valley story.
Disaster, that’s going pretty far right? I mean it’s not like-
More effective in your life, man, disaster is polite terminology for what I might call it. That’s a two out of ten.
We’ve gone through a really interesting four years with Tom Wheeler. I would argue that what he did was pass a lot of highly partisan issues down three-two party lines where there was no willingness to work with the other side to get to a point where there could be compromise so that if something disastrous like this happened, some of these policies that would be in place wouldn’t be so controversial. Right now it’s very controversial. What we did at CALinnovates is we tried to look for third ways, right?
It’s not one way or the other, but let’s find a creative path toward a solution that works for everyone.
That was the first time we spoke, right?
Yeah yeah yeah, I recall.
I would argue that Chairman Wheeler didn’t take that path. He took the path of least resistance which is “I’m going to get what I want, and fuck everybody else.” Now what we’ve got instead of taking the CALinnovates way, which was “Hey on net neutrality we need legislation that we can lock into affirmative law. What we have now is a regulation that can be overturned.”
It’s not law anymore. It’s really hard to change a law, right?
Yeah, the term after parliament has a place in our shared language for a reason. I disagree a little bit. I don’t think there was enough political will through the means you’re describing to actually get net neutrality done in any strong capacity other than the way Chairman Wheeler did it. I agree that that would have been a much better option if possible. I just don’t think that that door was actually unlocked, at least in this last cycle. This is going to sound kind of dumb, and I’m not a fan of real politic in the morning, but if Trump’s pick trashes it, it may lead to a response from tech on a submission scale to actually drive legislation. I’m not sure if that’ll happen, tech so far has essentially, as I think we’ll get to, rolled over a bit now that’s Trump’s in charge, but I’m hoping they’ll find some back bones. On this issue, I mean it is cut and dry here, at least among all the investors, entrepreneurs and employees that I talk to. I don’t know a single person in Silicon Valley on a personal basis who’s not if favor of strong net neutrality.
To me the third option is more of a political point as opposed to a functional way to approach the issue. Again, Ajit Pai is not going to pursue a third option either, and I think he will work against that. There’s political will on the other side of the spectrum here, to drive that change forward.
In a perfect world, which we’re pretty well aware we don’t live in-
Yeah, the new Chairman would look for that compromise, would look for four one or five zero, votes, right?
We’re probably looking at another four to eight years of three-two party line votes.
Why do you hold four-one five-zero votes in such high regard?
Because that means that at least the other side is getting closer to what they want, right? It’s not just steamrolling the other side. Let’s look at net neutrality or privacy or any other number of NPRM’s that happened under Wheeler. The controversial ones were all three two votes.
What that meant was that, and again arguments that CALinnovates made, was there’s uncertainty in the future. There’s uncertainty with a new President, how’s it going to all play out? Those three-two votes that were really national stories-
Wouldn’t be as big of an issue today, because they would have been handled differently if they weren’t these three-two highly charged votes. A four one, a five zero, and we’re not talking about net neutrality or privacy any more because every side would have gotten closer to what they wanted. We may be moving on toward different issues. Net neutrality passed, right? All the sudden Netflix backs away from it. Cloudflare says “Whoa, whoa, whoa, be careful what you wish for, we didn’t mean what we just said.” There are groups that have come out and said, companies that have said “Wait a minute, hold on. Strong net neutrality, yeah, define strong and how that works and what that means.” I think we’re getting into a world where we’re going to stop talking about what things mean and how they apply. We’re perhaps entering a world where it doesn’t really matter.
You know I guess your call for-
According to the decision makers. I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter, because obviously all these things do matter.
For sure. I think the argument for centrism which we see a lot among the New York Times columnists, that are always calling for some sort of middle pathway, presumes that the winning group, in this case Tom Wheeler et. al., could’ve found in their opposition, I guess, to use a polite phrase, some willingness to compromise. In my experience talking to the people on the other side of this issue, there was no political will there. Or to use the old joke, there’s no there there. I don’t know.
We saw a long concerted effort by John Thune and Bill Nelson to try to craft legislation.
Inside of the GOP. When Ted Cruz called it Obamacare for the internet, that’s not a position from which you can argue a middle pathway.
That’s also Ted Cruz who didn’t have a lot of fans in congress, right?
Are you saying Ted Cruz is unpopular?
No, I would never suggest such a thing, never.
It’s amazing to me. Ted Cruz actually makes me feel better because at least when I wake up every day, I have at least one friend somewhere. Ted Cruz cannot say that and that’s one up on Ted Cruz every morning before I even have breakfast. I’m still beating Ted Cruz because I have at least one friend. So I smile. That does help on grayer minutes.
That’s true. Okay, so let’s talk about anybody who has ever made more money than everyone in America meeting up with Trump and his transition team to talk tech issues. What are your thoughts on that?
This is one of those moments in which I get to lean on my elders and betters. Kara Swisher, probably the best journalist in technology, she’s writing a column again over on Recode, and the headline, which I’m just going to read for you is “As Trump will thin skin, let’s down his hair for tech, shame on Silicon Valley for climbing the tower in silence.” It’s a great piece, everyone should read it. It’s Recode, there’s no paywall, you can just jump into it. She is taking a harder line against Trump than other people are and she is being as strident as she should be, and she’s doing it in a voice that’s much more authoritative and better spoken than I could ever muster, so I’m kind of enjoying her as my hero, as I’m her acolyte in this.
I think that there is an inherent complicity among big business, which is not a pejorative, to work with administrations. Which is great, and I think that shows a lot of maturity to work with people you disagree with. Then there are certain cases in which any sort of compromise is a form of appeasement. You have to decide is Trump an actual fascist, or is he just an idiot. If he’s an idiot go talk to him. If he’s a fascist and a threat to democracy don’t. It seems that tech is trying to have it both ways, and not discuss the moral applications of their move. For me, I think it’s sad that this is happening, but at the same time I do understand it from the shareholder perspective why they might do it.
Tell me this, what’s the difference between this meeting with these tech leaders and Trump, and the dinner that Trump had with Mitt Romney.
Well I think they’re great analogies. Mitt Romney looked horribly uncomfortable and then got shafted, so what’s the difference?
I think a better example there would be the discussion he had with media executives a couple weeks ago, that one of the media executives said was like a firing squad. He essentially brought in the media and then shot at them, the whole bunch and called them out for calling him out for lying. If that’s the tone of this meeting, and tech sits there and takes it, then they don’t have the moral fiber that we hoped they did. I think inside this industry there is some optimism that its leaders are in fact creating more than just short term profits. That they’re building technology that will improve lives and drive long-term improvements to human happiness.
That’s a big issue that I think perhaps people out on the West Coast didn’t realize bothered the rest of America. Think about the fact that tech is seen as a bunch of elites creating products and platforms for the elite.
Do you sense that that’s something that the greater tech community is going to focus on and rethink a little bit?
I don’t think you’re ever going to get the arrogance out of tech. I don’t think you actually really want to. Which sounds counterintuitive, but to be an entrepreneur is to be arrogant, because you’re saying “Here’s the world, it’s not good enough, I’m going to make it better. Or at least try.” Which is inherently a non-conservative statement. In a small “c” conservative way, not in a political conservative way. I do very much feel the point you make about how much technology and the industry can seem very odd to outsiders. Especially because all the stories they read are like “These tech kids, they’re on hover boards drinking green juice upside down in the office pool.” Or whatever. Which is not 99.9% of tech.
The hot tub, right? Yeah.
Hot tub, that’s what I was going for, yes. Upside down hot tub with a green smoothie, yes. Which Google has five of out here. I’m kidding. There’s a lot of money here, there’s no way around that. I think that if you look at the quality of life improvement that technology can bring to humans on a short term basis, I mean in the last ten years, smart phones, okay? Ten years before that, broadband internet access. Ten years before that, the internet. These are big things that are going to change the arc of human history, and are changing how politics works around the world and so forth. Yeah, people here can be pretty full of themselves, I just don’t see it changing, or there being really any force to change it.
Right on, okay, let’s talk about a couple issues here. Fake news.
Is this real? What should people be thinking about when they hear about fake news?
Oh man. That is a huge question. Let’s start with some facts I guess. Fake news, which I think for this we can define as news stories that are completely constructed to be sharable on social platforms that have no basis in reality and are not designed for a political point but are designed to generate clicks in ads, is an issue. It hit a, I think an apparent peak around the end of the election cycle as we’ve all seen. It’s not as big an issue outside of certain bubbles so far as I can tell, and finally there are some ethical requirements that social networks should answer to involving fake news. I’ll clarify that slightly, because it’s an odd statement.
Facebook is a media company because they filter your news feed and they decide what you see. They’re making editorial choices about the products. While they do that, they are in effect a media company and should have an editor, a public editor, an executive editor or something, to help guide that process. If they just run a straight temporal based news feed, and not make editorial choices, not name trending topics and so forth, then I think they can get away with saying “This is not our problem.” While they’re an active media company that has editorial capacity, I think they have a moral requirement to keep blatantly fake news that is sold as news off their platform. It’s a big topic, it has a lot of different sections to it, but I think that we can’t let tech companies that are also media companies shirk half their responsibility just because they right a whole lot of code.
Let’s break it down. Is fake news an epidemic or an overreaction?
It’s a bad head cold.
You didn’t answer the question. Great, great answer.
It’ll pass, like you like.
Yeah I like that, I appreciate-
That’s the third option.
Okay, I can accept that. All right, so what about the idea of zero rating, or free data, or any variety of names that this zero rating process is given? On the one hand you have the argument that it’s great for consumers because it doesn’t affect their data caps, and they can use, enjoy, listen, as much as they want. On the other hand, you have the argument about competition, and the effect that it has on perhaps startups entering a space dominated by the big players. What do you think about this issue?
I would say especially in the era of increasing mergers among both content and distribution companies, in developed markets zero rating is an abrogation of net neutrality both in spirit and print, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed. The other side of that is, in developing markets where there isn’t capital to build out the same level of access, if zero rating and other forms of bent marketplaces effectively, can help people get online I’m in favor of it. Where internet access is hard, if this is the only way we can get people online, viva. In developed markets where that’s not the same issue, I think it should be privy to the same rules as wire line connections. I want to have my cake and eat it too, but here in the US, to bring it to a local issue, I think zero rating is a bad idea.
You don’t want your Spotify zero rated?
At all. Ever?
I do not want Verizon to decide that Spotify over other music providers is the way to go because one, they won’t choose Spotify, they’ll choose Verizon Music. Two, I don’t think I want to see that-
Wait a minute. Wait, hold on, hold on. Who chooses Verizon Music? A show of hands on this podcast. Who even knew that Verizon Music existed?
It doesn’t, I was making a point.
Exactly. Here’s the other piece of this. I think the idea behind zero rating is that it’s offered to all comers at the same price, right?
If they’re zero rating for an entire category of things, so if my mobile provider wanted to say all music services are zero rated equally, that’s slightly different to me. That’s not picking a single service or supplier, that’s taking a genre, and I would have less problem with that, but I’d still be I think intellectually opposed to it. I do think that’s an interesting way to approach the issue.
Okay, that’s fair. All right, so let’s talk a little bit more policy and let’s get into the brain of Alex Wilhelm from Mattermark here a little bit more, which could be equal parts awesome and scary, right?
Okay, yeah, fifty fifty.
Yeah, fifty-fifty, let’s roll the dice here. Do you have any policy predictions for the first hundred days of the new Trump administration?
Oh, man. Well, policy in what sense? Do you mean policy in the technology sense, or policy in-
I think that the only thing we’ve really got a good handle on is that he has no idea what to do with the NSA. He’s going to probably appoint people that will end net neutrality. I think those are the only two things we can pretty well know looking at what’s going to happen. He’s very unpredictable. I mean, say whatever you want about him, he does things on a very random basis, so I don’t want to over prognosticate, but I do think we have given control of our national security apparatus to the wrong person. As a privacy advocate in a small way, that terrifies me. Those two things are huge. Even though there’s just two on the list, at least in my mind, I’m scared. Same question to you. Are there things that I’m missing?
I think it’s going to be interesting to see how the Trump administration deals with immigration. I don’t know if that’s a first hundred days issue, but it was a hallmark of his campaign, it talked about immigration in general. I know that most tech immigrants aren’t rapists and murderers. How does that get dealt with? I don’t know the answer, but it’ll be interesting to find out how that-
What’s your stance on H1B, and high school immigration?
My stance on H1B, from a personal perspective is the more the better.
I think the US needs to be a magnet for pulling in the best and the brightest minds that we can, because they come here, they work at different tech companies, perhaps they fund a startup. The last thing we want to happen is for them to come over for a short while, create a platform that’s meaningful and creating jobs, and then you know what, they’re done. They’ve got to leave.
They’ve got to take that company somewhere else, they’ve got to take it to India, China, wherever. This country should be the place for the best and the brightest in tech, and we should open those walls and break down those barriers. Comprehensive immigration reform, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen in the Trump administration, but I’m hopeful, and perhaps maybe the Peter Thiel principle comes into play. I guess we’ll see how much of a voice he has with the administration.
What is the Peter Thiel principle?
Ah yes, it’s Peter Thiel’s corporeal, okay, all right. What’s your take on Peter Thiel by the way, that’s a good segue. What do you think about him?
What do I think of him? He’s obviously very smart.
Mm-hmm. Now who’s not answering the question?
Yeah, right? That’s my answer to the question. He’s obviously very smart, I’d like to go to the horse races with him, he’d pick the right pony. Knowing that he’s a Libertarian, knowing that he’s gay, I think there’s a sense that he’s turned his back on a lot of the people who not only rose up through the ranks with him, but people that he works with, people he invests in, I think there’s probably a lot of distrust right now.
Yeah. Also a lot of confusion, if you will.
That’s been a notable thing. It’s also been really interesting to watch, and this is just as an observer. I’m not taking a side here. To watch how Y Combinator, the well known startup incubator and accelerator here in the valley that he is associated with, how they’ve handled this, and how they’ve tried to find a way to make their own individual political beliefs known, especially Sam Altman who’s roughly in charge of it, and also keep Peter Thiel in the fold somewhat. There’s been a lot of fire brand complaints about that, and again, and I’m not taking a side in this paragraph, but I think it’s driven a really interesting conversation among at least my peers around here, about what is an appropriate response. That comes back to what we said earlier which is “Is Trump a normal event,” in which case talking to and with his administration makes sense, or “is he a large enough threat that that will be collusion as opposed to opposition?” I don’t know I’m really excited to see how tech handles the next couple years.
Let’s say you’re walking down a dark alley on Friday night, and you walk past Peter Thiel. What would you say to him?
Can I have some money?
That would be my first thing.
How much would you ask for?
I don’t know about twenty bucks. I don’t want to owe him anything. It’s a cool question but I mean let’s rephrase it, slightly if I can, if we were having like dinner, so I had a little more time and it wasn’t creepy and rainy in the back alley, I would be really curious to get a better understanding of some of his politics. I would love to get into his mind a little bit and listen to him talk at length in a comfortable setting for him. The speech at the RNC was a bit brief. I’m really trying to get my head around what he thinks. I think that he is very much in a political mindset that I was when I was younger. I don’t say that as a slam, I haven’t been in the more hard core Libertarian head space for a while.
Let’s rephrase the question even a little bit more. If there was one thing you could ask him to do on behalf of the tech community, what would it be?
Ooh, that’s fun. I think I have an answer. This may not be my final answer, but it’s a good one.
There’s so many things you could ask him to say. I think on behalf of me and tech in general I would say, “Take the message to the government that there is no middle option on encryption. That if they are forcing back doors and so forth into encryption, it will be inherently weakened, and we will all be under assault from foreign actors. Encryption is binary in how it works, and we must have strong encryption, or the internet as we know it does not work.” I think the internet, ecommerce and all that stuff is very important, and so I’m in favor of strong encryption, and I think that maybe given that he has the ear of Trump, he could pass along that message. That would be, at least a good answer, I don’t know if the best one, but it’s got to be top ten.
I think that’s pretty good. With that Alex, let’s wrap it up. A couple important things for our listeners. One, how do we find you on Twitter?
I’m Twitter.com/Alex. A-L-E-X.
How did you actually get Alex, where you like the first Twitter user of all time?
Nope, I bought it off a guy in Mexico in 2008.
For how much?
All the money I had at the time which was $60 in my PayPal account.
That is really impressive. What should we be looking for from Mattermark here in the coming months, anything exciting that we should be aware of?
Yeah, a couple small things. One, it’s the end of the year so we’re going to be taking a really long look back at all the venture capital cycles we’ve seen this year, where all the money went essentially. All the bets that were laid. We’re going to take a look ahead at the IPO market, and keep reading because we’re going to start doing more posts on tech policy as this all starts. This conversation is effectively preamble to the next four years. If in the first hundred days stuff goes down, as it were, we’ll be covering that too. I hope we do a good job and if we don’t, shoot me an email. It’s in my Twitter bio, and I will hear all your complaints.
Awesome, well Alex thanks for taking the time to join us on A Step Ahead and we look forward to agreeing with you, disagreeing with you and locking horns over the next forever.
It’s going to be a blast. Fries are on me.
All right sounds good. Everybody give Alex a follow on Twitter, and stay tuned for the next A Step Ahead.