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Allen Pike

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6 Months in the Closet

Permalink - Posted on 2020-09-28 16:00

A famous notion in the business world is the “Curse of the new HQ”. The theory is that companies tend to build out a swanky new office just as their success peaks, at which point a fancy space full of potential becomes an expensive millstone.

I saw this happen up close when I was first starting out in technology. I watched a growing company design and build a beautiful new office building, only to lose a client that was too big to lose. Within a year, I was helping them move out to a much more modest space. Although there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for this being a statistically significant phenomenon, I’ve long been cautious about building out any kind of office for Steamclock.

Eventually though, after ten years in business, last year we finally committed to building out an office space that fits our needs. A place we could call our own. It’s nothing monumental, but I think it’s a nice place to work. By February 2020, we’d settled in.

Working from home every Wednesday was already tough for me with a 3 year old bouncing off the walls, so with the impending arrival of our second child and a pressing bedroom shortage, I decided I was done working from home. I sold my home desk, assembled a crib in its place, and poured one out for remote work.

Oops.

Within a month, our entire industry was working from home, as we waved goodbye to ye olde precedented times. Like everybody else on earth, I started searching for small desks online.

On account of our new space limitations, I didn’t have a lot of options for where to put a desk. Initially, it seemed there were no options. But as they say, “Desperate times call for removing the wire shelving from the closet near the baby’s crib and cramming a tiny standing desk in there.” A standing desk, not just for ergonomic reasons, but because there wasn’t room for a chair.

So there I was, six months ago today, wiring up a bedroom closet. Half CEO’s office, half sundress storage. Population: me.

At first, I resented it. It had no ventilation. Standing all day was tiring. The nearby breaker panel interfered with electronics. My elbow would often hit the doorknob. Getting in and out of the “office” was a mild feat of acrobatics.

This was all just slightly more annoying due to the fact we had literally just finished building a wonderful office that I loved to work in. Depending on our local advisories and statistics, I am still able to work at Steamclock from time to time, which was nice for a change but didn’t make the closet any more comfortable.

In time though, I came to terms with it. I made it nicer over time. I set up lighting and art so it wasn’t totally obvious I was working from a closet. It started to actually feel like a productive place where work gets done – a key station in my Spaceship You.

And work did get done. Our one-day-a-week working from home culture adapted to the new world. Since the initial “reorient and refocus” period, we’ve been productive and effective. We lost business in the travel sector, but gained more business in e-commerce. We kept the band together, and even have a new employee starting next week. Our work is far from over, but so far Steamclock’s doing well for a company in a world of turmoil, run from a closet office.

Still, it’s a very small office.

It’s so small that after a couple months I noticed out of the corner of my eye that I could see myself in the doorknob. Often, polished doorknobs get dull from frequent use, but this was the inside doorknob in a closet so it had rarely been touched over the years. Not only could I see my sorry mug in the reflection, I could see the entire 9 square feet I was working in.

I could see the tiny desk, and the various things I’d raised above it so there was enough space for a keyboard. I could see the lights in front of me, and the art behind me; the sundresses beside me, and the luggage above me. A 360° view of where I spend 30-50 hours a week.

Today, six months from the day I wired it up, is my last day in the closet. Like many people around the world, my family is moving to a new place that’s a bit bigger and a bit more suited to spending time at home.

As grateful as I am to be leaving the closet behind, there is a part of me that still feels the need to kind of say farewell. This space wasn’t what I wanted, but I’ve been very lucky to have it.

It was here that I learned how to work remotely, and how to make any space into a productive one. It was here that we turned lemons into lemonade. I almost feel like hiding a little commemorative plaque somewhere, tucked behind the clothing rack.

In this spot in 2020, somebody steered a business through a pandemic. It was dumb.

But it worked out.


The Case of the Missing Tuna

Permalink - Posted on 2020-08-31 16:00

Fairly often, when I order food from DoorDash, I find that an item is missing. Of course, this should not be surprising, since DoorDash is a bizarre capitalist Rube Goldberg machine where every party – the restaurant, the driver, and DoorDash itself – seems to be having a bad time. It’s only fair that by patronizing and enabling this system, I should have a bad time too.

In their defense, DoorDash has long had a system for handling missing items. In the early days, they’d specially dispatch a driver to bring you the absent dish. This was impressive, but rather slow and hideously expensive for DoorDash.

In modern times, they scaled back to refunding the whole order if a part of it was missing. This leaves you a bit hungry, but it’s easy to get over a missing dragon roll when you’re eating free salmon nigiri. And let’s be honest, those dragon rolls taste so good that eating them might not have been advisable in the first place.

Still I’d often wonder, after receiving a notification that my dinner would be free, “How can this be sustainable?”

The answer will surprise you: it was not sustainable.


If you’re the sort of morbid person that likes to follow financial news about food delivery and other “gig economy” companies, you might have seen that, like its competitors, DoorDash has a margin in the range of negative 50%. That’s Wall Street speak for “giant cash-fuelled bonfire”.

As you may know, cash is not the ideal fuel for a bonfire, and as such it was only a matter of time before things changed. This year, the inevitable happened: DoorDash switched to only refunding the missing item. This is patently reasonable – I can’t fathom how many orders it would have taken for them to make up the cost of refunding me $40 when they missed a single salmon roll – but it can still be a downer.

For example, a few months back I ordered two personal pizzas – one for me and one for my wife. Only her pizza came. They refunded mine, but we still paid the full fee and tip, and I ended up eating cereal for dinner. My experience was not five stars. (For those keeping score, the cereal was Nature’s Path Flax Plus® Cinnamon Flakes, which are five stars.)

So it’s not great, but whatever. I shouldn’t be using a delivery app anyway. This is reasonable penance.

Something’s fishy

This week, things changed yet again. As it happens, my latest order was missing a mango tuna roll. Whether it was due to a policy change, a magic threshold, or my stubborn ass being too willing to keep ordering from restaurants that leave out items, DoorDash’s system flagged me as a problem customer. Perhaps the algorithm found it suspicious that anybody really wanted a mango tuna roll in the first place. I really can’t say.

In any case, the app informed me that I wasn’t getting the roll, and I wasn’t getting refunded for it, and if I was unsatisfied I should contact support. Eyebrow firmly raised, I politely informed their support chat about this injustice. The agent apologized, offered to “check what happened”, then after 60 seconds closed the chat.

A second attempt led to a message that they would no longer compensate me for missing food due to my account history.

The nerve! After the dozens of times I’ve offered them the opportunity to deliver me food at a loss, after all the money they’ve spent on me, they just toss me aside. They clearly don’t appreciate what a critical part of their business I am. I can only hope my tuna went to a good home.

I must say that it’s hard to justify using their service anymore if they’re going to continue charging me for food I didn’t get. From here on out, Doordash isn’t going to get any more chances to lose money on me, no sir.

Now, in theory, I should start ordering our sushi directly from the restaurant, but there’s a little complication: our preferred sushi place doesn’t have their own delivery.

Luckily for me, there are other fish in the sea. Not other sushi restaurants – there are hundreds of those, but any Vancouverite knows that finding the right sushi restaurant is a serious undertaking. But there are a variety of other delivery apps, eagerly waiting for a chance to bring my family sushi using their VCs’ money.

So for now, I’ll switch to another app. Maybe they’ll have a better system for helping the restaurant ensure the whole order is in the bag before it’s picked up. Or maybe they’ll find a way to earn enough money to comp the occasional wayward tuna and still stay in business. Or, most likely, they’ll just implode, one by one, until my entire generation starves – or at least becomes tragically deficient in Omega-3 acids.

In any case, so long DoorDash. Thanks for all the fish.


Being Good at Roulette

Permalink - Posted on 2020-07-31 16:00

The first time I visited Las Vegas was on a business trip. I was 21. My official mission: train a large customer on our new software. My unofficial mission: try my hand at a Vegas table game.

Now, I’m a pretty logical person. Given that there is no such thing as luck, I knew that betting at a casino is irrational – unless perhaps you’re cheating, or you’re very good at poker. Still, I thought it would be fun. Pay $20 to say I lost some money in Vegas.

So on my first night, once I was happy with my slides, I ventured down to the casino floor of our hotel. I observed the various games as I passed by, but I knew where I was headed: roulette. It seemed to me that there was no simpler, no purer a way to lose your money in Vegas than roulette. The nakedness of its terrible odds were part of the charm.

I approached a table, and watched the guy ahead of me play, studying the etiquette. When he cashed out, I sat down and turned my $20 into 4 chips, $5 each.

Nervously, I reached out and made the simplest bet I could. $5 on black; I won $5. I put another $5 on black, and again won $5. “Okay, I get how this works.” But I wasn’t there to try and beat the house. I was there to lose my $20. So I took $5, and put it on 17. And won $175.

Of course, I made the next logical move: I cashed out immediately. I had gotten temporarily lucky, and I cashed out feeling like king of the world. I bought a hideously expensive whiskey cocktail and felt proud for trying something new.

The next day, as I was gearing up to fly home, I found myself passing near that casino floor again. Remembering how much fun I had last time, I thought I might as well take a second crack at my goal of losing $20. I sat down at a different table, but this time went right to my patented strategy: I bet $5 on 17. And holy shit, I won $175.

Now, this is not a great thing to happen to somebody. I mean, in one way it was extremely great – sweet, another $175! And cerebrally, I knew that hitting two single bets in a row is an extreme fluke, a 1444 to 1 chance. But the emotional high from that hit, the endorphins and adrenaline, it messes with you. You can enter a casino a logical human being, yet next thing you know you’re asking yourself, “Huh. Am I… good at roulette?”

You will be surprised to learn that I am, in fact, not good at roulette.

After promptly losing $100, I cashed out and headed to the bar. This time I felt less like king of the world, and more just a participant in the human condition. Still, I suppose, $100 was a small price to pay to learn conclusively that I am not good at roulette.

Luck tends to cause problems. When I say luck in this context, I don’t mean the fostered luck that results from being open minded, observant, and keeping a positive mindset. It does seem that people who think of themselves as chronically lucky do have more positive things happen to them, partially due to how they approach life.

Random luck, though, that just happens. Random luck is something you stumble upon. It’s the privilege you were born into, and the coin flips that have gone your way since. While it’s certainly nice to receive random luck, it’s not all roses. When something goes your way, your instinct is to feel like you’ve earned it. Random luck can initially make people feel guilty, and that cognitive dissonance often leads to people reframing their good fortune as the product of skill or hard work. The next thing you know, people feel entitled to the spoils of chance.

Besides the thorny problems of entitlement, if you’re not careful random luck can also make you a less effective person. At best, an unearned windfall can make you less motivated, less hungry to make things better. More dangerously, a lucky success can make you overestimate your skill, leading to a kind of luck-generated Dunning-Kruger effect.

As it happens, most great leaders seem to intentionally stay mindful of the role luck has played in their successes. When luck comes up, Barack Obama is eager to acknowledge the factor it played in his life – skill and hard work were necessary, but not sufficient to achieve what he did. Meanwhile, if you ask his successor about luck, you’re more likely to hear about how luck just amounts to hard work, or that success is not due to luck at all. Such are the differences between a thoughtful leader and a lucky idiot.

In fact, the majority of the highly successful CEOs they study in the book Good to Great name luck as a key factor in their success. While that is kind of strange – the whole point of the study was to determine what objective factors lead to successful companies – luck-awareness seems to actually make people more effective. Correctly attributing some of your success to luck seems to inoculate you against arrogance, and foster that lucky mindset, which we know can itself be helpful.

So, it seems, that’s the formula. Next time you have an unexpected success, don’t let it rob you of your humility. Don’t let your mind trick you into believing you’re somehow good at roulette. But do try to be mindful of your good fortune.

I bet you can think of five reasons you’re lucky right now, and you can create even more luck just by adopting a positive and open perspective on things. All because you happened to read some blog post about roulette.

I suppose you’re just lucky.