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Ineffective entrepreneurship: post-mortem of Hippo, the happiness app that never quite was

 

60 word summary: I spent two and half years trying to start a startup I thought might do lots of good. It failed. I explain what happened, how it went wrong and try to set out some relevant lessons for others. Main lesson: be prepared for the fact you might find the experience mostly stressful and have nothing particularlly useful come of it.

Contents:

Introduction
What was Hippo
How did we get started? How did things fall apart?
What would I do differently?
Potential lessons for aspirant effective entrepreneurs
Conclusion

Introduction

It’s often said EAs should be trying new things that probably won’t work but will pay off dramatically if they do. If we’re not failing, then we’re not trying enough new stuff. One thing that’s been mentioned quite a few times, although less so recently, is altruistic entrepreneurship: starting companies as a high-risk, high-reward strategy: you might build something that solves an important problem and acquire oodles of cash you can give away afterwards. I tried this and it didn’t really work out for me, so I thought I’d share the story. I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while – I called time on Hippo back in October 2017 – and seeing Joey Savoie’s rather optimistic post on the value of starting charities has prompted me to finally add my own less optimistic data point about starting companies.

What was Hippo?

Hippo is/was a happiness tracker-training app, which I used to try and describe as a ‘FitBit for the mind’. The idea was you could track what you were doing, thinking and feeling, get a better understanding of how your life was going and use that to change how you live. The way it worked – or rather, was supposed to work – was that it would randomly ping you in the day, you’d enter your data, the app would display your data and you could learn what was driving your emotions. We never got as far as selling it, but we were considering our potential markets as (1) consumers, particularly the sort of people into mindfulness and the quantified-self (2) an emotional support/employee satisfaction tool for companies (3) a mental health monitoring/self-care app paid for by health providers.

If you have an android phone, you can still download it.

What was Hippo supposed to be?

I had grander plans than tracking happiness. The goal was to build an app that would ‘solve’ happiness. The idea was to create something that would monitor how you were feeling over time, let you understand that better, then analyse your data to give you the support, guidance and tools you needed when you needed them. In practice, this would mean combining subjective data (i.e. self reports) with objective data (location, movement, etc.) to learn what was associated with your mood scores, and then give you flexible, tailored guidance.

As an example of how the guidance might work, suppose you reported an unusually low happiness score. Hippo might then suggest you go for a walk, watch a TED talk, practise mindfulness, write down your greatest achievement and how you achieved it, phone a friend, etc and would try to intelligently offer the best option. I’d compiled a list of 40-odd evidence-based activities and re-thinking exercises, i.e. behavioural and cognitive interventions, that I’d come across during my research, and hoped we could use machine learning to give people ever more useful recommendations over time. From speaking to hundreds of people, I’d found there was a huge gap between the things that were shown to increase mood/support mental health and what people either knew about or did.

As I saw it, there was a neat and obvious way technology could help people live happier lives that no one else was trying. It was perhaps, in tech jargon, a 'moonshot': an ambitious, unlikely-to-succeed attempt to use new technology to solve a huge problem.

How did we get started? How did things fall apart?

TL;DR version:

I became sad. This gave me the idea for the app. I found someone to help me build it. We worked on it part-time for 2 years. We never quite built anything that worked. Eventually everyone left.

Longer version:

I got the idea for Hippo back in Spring 2015. I was working on another business idea, which also never got off the ground (a happiness-behavioural science consultancy). I felt I was generally failing at life when I suddenly, unexpectedly discovered I was very depressed. At the time I looked round for an app to help me - this was back in 2015, when apps were new and the sexy solution to everything - and couldn’t find anything. I threw a bunch of things at my depression - antidepressants, CBT, mindfulness, gratitude journaling, etc. - which were, in my case, really successful. After I recovered I was left with the abiding frustrating that the technology that would have saved me could exist, it just didn’t exist yet. Armed with my own experiences and my utilitarian hat firmly on my head, I started thinking seriously about how to create a happiness app which could, in theory, end up spreading around the world and changing lives. It seemed like the most good I could be trying to do.

The early days (March to September 2015) are now a bit too long ago to remember. I started talking to lots of people about it to gather feedback, Lean Start-Up style. Through a friend’s introduction, I spoke to a major high street bank. They said they were interested in running a trial; the idea was we’d using anonymised mood tracking on employees then (1) provide a ‘temperature check’ of employee satisfaction and (2) analyse the data to tell them what they should do to have happier staff (and less absenteeism, churn, etc.). We were in!

Problem: I didn’t have a product; it was just an idea. I told them I’d get back to them in a few months. I couldn’t code - I still can’t - so I considered paying someone to have an early version created. Fortunately, I didn’t. That would have been a huge waste of money given I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled across an android developer, David, who was introduced to me through a friend. David agreed to start working for free in exchange for notional equity (‘sweat equity’), which was a huge coup. We started to try and design the app over summer 2015, which I found horrendously frustrating because I have no eye for design. But we were under way. Stardom and riches beckoned! I could practically see my face on Wired magazine.

In September 2015 I moved to Oxford to start a moral philosophy PhD. I was, and still am, researching ways to increase happiness, so there was some synergy. I’d been given a place in March 2015, just as I had about pulled myself out of depression. I didn’t find it a problem to work on a start up and do PhD research simultaneously. The work I was doing for Hippo – designing the product and talking to users – I was able to do much quicker than David was able to build the product (he had a normal developer job). I’d work out where I think we needed to go next, pass that on, and then get back to reading philosophy, psychology and economics papers. Switching between the two types of activity was hard because the skill sets were so radically different. The empirical work I did into happiness as part of the PhD did feed into the app, but nothing about start ups helped me write better philosophy. At the time I thought I could easily do both, but now I’m spending all my time doing philosophy I can really see how much more effective I am compared to when I was splitting my concentration between two things.

At the turn of 2016 we launched the first, extremely alpha version of the product to a few people. It wasn’t an instant success, but some people did use it and find it useful, which astonished me. I did a whole new set of user interviews and my co-founder and I slowly worked on improving the product. We iterated through this several times. I found the uncertainty of trying to work out what was the best thing to do next terrifying. By the time we launched the alpha it was 9 months since we’d had the expression of interest from the bank. We went back to them apologetically telling them “hey, we’ve built something” but they never replied. Too slow, clearly.

Around March that year started talked to a computer scientist from my college, who I’ll call ‘A’, about building a machine learning algorithm. Basic premise: you tell us how you’re feeling, we give you an evidence-based suggestions. You tell if it was good and it learns over time. Over the next couple of months, I designed a spreadsheet with all the inputs and outputs and an initial algorithm, which I handed it over to A who’d agreed to implement it. He was pretty enthusiastic but basically nothing happened for months and months. I’d get distracted with my work, then sometimes chase him and he’d always promise it would be just around the corner. I didn’t really have any bargaining power or other options, and I believed he would eventually produce something, so I chose to wait it out. In retrospect, there was no need to even try to use maching learning: we could have just randomly given people suggestions if they pressed a button; the suggestions were only text anyway. Ah, Captain Hindsight, the smartest man I know!

Throughout 2016, and doubtless to the frustration of my then-supervisor, I’d go through bursts of working on Hippo, then switching back to philosophy. The main problem with Hippo as a happiness tracker was that, fundamentally, it wasn’t that useful to people. Sounds obvious now, but took us ages to work out that was the problem. People seemed to like the idea, but didn’t find it useful and, where they said they found it useful, still didn’t stick with it. We ran into some key technical issues – it wouldn’t randomly send the notifications asking you for your data -  and never solved them, which meant Hippo never actually did what we wanted it to.

Despite all this, and clearly in grip of self-delusion, I pitched Hippo to Y-combinator in Autumn 2016. It seemed like a big, crazy enough idea they might go for it. At the time, I thought Hippo had a higher expected value than my academic research (which wasn’t going terribly well, in part because I was neglecting it to work on the app) and was contemplating the process of dropping out of university if we found funding to allow David to work full-time. I thought the gap in the market(s) and the solution was so obvious I was convinced that, if I didn’t get there first, someone else would.

A consistent problem, with a single developer working in his spare time, was that we constantly struggled with the amount of development we could do. Late 2016 onwards I increasingly focused on trying find additional developers who would come and work for Hippo. This was a really hard sell: we weren’t growing, we didn’t have any money. Probably the most psychologically painful part for me was having to try and convince other people of my idea, an idea I was still struggling to articulate, to get them to join the project I was constantly frustrated with myself. Around the same point I started entering a few pitch competitions and going to entrepreneurship courses. I thought it would be useful to get feedback on the product and maybe find some guidance on what I should be doing. As far as I could tell this was almost entirely a waste of time. I did meet a lot of people who were slightly enthusiastic about helping, but almost no one who was genuinely useful, i.e. shared my dream and could tell me something I didn't already know. I was approached by an angel investor in early 2017; he’d heard about the project through someone I vaguely knew. This made the whole enterprise suddenly potentially serious: he was looking for a sort of HR-happiness-engagement product already but hadn’t developed anything yet himself. In the end, we couldn’t reach a deal. I wanted some investment so that David could work full time, whereas what the investor wanted was equity in Hippo in exchange for (what seemed to me) an extremely vague partnership arrangement and, possibly, some investment afterwards. To quote a current line from British politics, it seemed that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ and I turned it down.

We’re now in Spring-Summer 2017 and the final few months of Hippo’s life. A, the computer scientist, got conscripted into the Egyptian army, never ending up building the AI algorithm we’d been discussing, and disappeared. This turned out to be good thing in one sense. With him gone, I decided I should manually test the smart-suggestion system: I got people to send me messages on facebook, I asked them some standard questions and then sent them a suggestion for what they should do now. It actually worked pretty well and caused a brief burst of enthusiasm. After a philosophy talk I’d given, another developer, call him ‘V’, offered to work on the app and our fortunes suddenly looked up. But only briefly. We went our separate ways for summer, and when we came back V had found a job in San Francisco and was no longer interested. Around the same period, I saw CEA advertising a part-time role as Peter Singer’s research assistant. He was planning to write a book on overpopulation, a topic I’d accidentally ended up working on in my thesis. I applied, was offered and gleefully accepted the role (I know, odd twist for a start-up story...). I’d also done about 2 years of my PhD and it looked like finishing was both in sight and worthwhile. This series of events were significant because, for the first time (in my eyes) it seemed I would have a higher expected value by sticking in philosophy than continuing with Hippo. V’s departure or, rather, non-arrival, killed my enthusiasm for Hippo because I knew I wouldn’t be able to summon the energy to try and convince someone else to join David and myself. By contrast, having had a pretty shaky first two years of the PhD, getting the RA job made me much more confident I might find a position in academic philosophy afterwards.

I would, actually, have kept working on Hippo, even despite this. We were reasonably close to implementing the happiness-suggestions feature (‘instacheer’), at which point the app might have started being useful. David, my co-founder, ending up getting a different job and losing interest for his own reasons. Disappointingly, I never got to test my underlying hypothesis, namely: if we create a moodtracking app and use that info to give people people nudges on what to do, it will be useful enough that people and companies will pay for it.

And there I was, October 2017, two and half years later, the last one standing, and decided it was time to give up. So it ended. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

What would I do differently?

As I see it, our failure was that we never built the thing we were trying to build. It’s not that we built a rocketship, launched the rocketship and saw the rocketship accidentally explode into a million pieces. Rather, we had a blueprint for a rocketship and there are still a million pieces for it sitting on the launchpad awaiting assembly when we walked away.

Why did we never get there? I think my particular mistake was probably being too optimistic about how much development work David and A would and could do. I should have been more critical of our development productivity and not given them so much of the benefit of the doubt. That might sound indulgent (“my main flaw is that I believe in people”), but I've come to realise this is a genuine flaw of mine: you can be too distrustful and you can be too trusting. I am the latter. I don't think I was a very good manager.

To explain, if I’d realised H, the guy who agreed to build the machine learning algorithm behind the smart-suggestions feature, wasn’t really doing anything, I would have tried much harder to find someone to replace him. Or, I would have done what I eventually did, which was test the prototype feature manually. Really, I should have run that test months earlier than I did. Equally, if I’d realised how slowly David would be able to make progress - one guy working part-time sometimes - I’d have done one or more of the following: (a) tried harder find an additional coder; (b) learnt to code myself - which I might have done if I’d not found David; (c) looked harder for investment; (d) given up earlier. As it was, we sort of plodded along, making enough progress that it seemed better to continue the current course. If we’d gone much slower we/I would have changed course. If we'd had the development resources to produce our product, we'd at least have tested the product we had in mind. We probably have failed later too, but that would be for a different reason requiring different explanation. A major problem was that, as a non-technical founder, I couldn't evaluate how much was happening. Of course, if we'd been building a building, it would have been obvious...

Saying the problem was misunderstanding how slowly development was occuring might also sound indolent ("why didn't you just build it yourself?"). Hardcore techies will probably be thinking I should have just dropped the PhD. I thought about that a lot, but as no point did that seem like the right choice. My objective was and is to increase worlwide happiness. Start a start up seemed like a means to achieving that end. But so did my PhD research, which is on the topic 'how do we maximise world happiness?' Given I had a technical co-founder but no programming skill myself, it never seemed like my comparative advantage would be to drop philosophy research in order to become an novice coder.

Potential lessons for aspirant altruistic entrepreneurs

This is a bit tricky, because I don’t know how much I learnt that is also useful. My main reflection on Hippo was that I felt that I spent a huge amount of time to achieve not very much. I would consider that the cautionary tale. Here’s my list:

Startups do not necessarily teach you useful skills, particularly if your alternative option is to work in a different field. My expectation was that, whatever happened, I would learn loads to take to what I did next. As an aspirant philosopher, almost nothing I learnt from about entrepreneurship is directly applicable.

Failing unremarkably can happen and is something you should consider as a possibility. If I were to claim I had built career capital as a result of my 2.5 (mis)adventure, I would be deceiving myself. As it is I walk away with no cool story, no CV points. At least if I’d blown some money (mine or someone else's) and failed spectacularly, then I would have a story and I’d have felt that I’d really tried and failed.

You will likely learn things about yourself you didn’t expect to learn. In my case, I think this was (a) I put too much trust that people will do the work they say they will(/I have no idea how to manage people); (b) I don’t like working under great uncertainty; (c) I cannot stand trying to sell or ‘pitch’ commercial ideas (pitching philosophical ideas are fine); (d) I’m not very good at practical details (conceptual details are fine); (e) probably, most usefully of all, I improved my ability to be self-critical. Start up methodology (e.g. Lean Start-up, the Mom test) teaches you how to discover what people really think when they’re being too nice to tell you your product sucks. (e) does have psychological downsides (see below).

It’s not enough to try to build something you think the world needs. I started Hippo because I thought it might do an enormous amount of good. Yet, to make a successful product, you need to build something which is useful to people, not just something you think would to be useful to them. I potential danger with an EA start-up is that you might, as I did, find a hypothetical solution and try to retro-fit a business case.

If you try to start something, loads of people try to help you; unfortunately, many of them will be useless. I was honestly impressed at the fact people (well, mostly 1 other person) were willing to spend their time working on my crazy project and do so for free. Loads of people offered to help out: they gave advice, were willing to let me interview them to talk about the app, etc. Admittedly, lots of the help isn’t very useful, and a relevant challenge is to sift through all the different perspectives people give you and make your own decision.

The uncertainty can be terrifying. The constant experience of not knowing what to do in start-up life was, for me, anxiety-inducing and something that didn’t seem to get much better over time (if only there was an app to help people with their moods, oh wait…). 

While failing is very common, it can still be psychologically very hard. In theory, I should feel glad that I dedicated a considerable amount of time to something I thought would have the highest expected value. As it happens, my abiding psychological response, when I think about Hippo, and which is probably irrational, is one of frustration and shame with only a glimmer of pride. Frustration that we never built what I wanted to test. Shame that I feel, in some sense, I wasted my time and should have known better. A glimmer of pride that I, at least, stuck with it for so long. The tragedy, as I feel it, is that I never found out if my hypothesis about an ideal piece of happiness-inducing tech was correct. I haven’t seen anyone else build it (yet) and I feel sufficiently burnt out by my experience I lack the motivation to try again.

Conclusion

Although I billed this a something of cautionary tale of failure, to be clear, I’m not suggesting EAs shouldn’t try to start start-ups. If you have a good idea, you should still go for it. In fact, I’m glad to see there are three other mental health apps being created by EAs - Mind Ease (Peter Brietbart, stress and anxiety), Inuka (Robin van Dalen, support chat app) and UpLift.us (Eddie Liu, depression) - and I wish them the best of luck. I'm also not suggesting I didn't learn anything at all. Rather, because stories of start-up failures are so often accompanied be tales of later start-up glory and vital life-lessons learnt, I wanted to add anecdata: it’s possible to fail in a deeply uninteresting way and not learn much. Further, it’s possible there’s something particularly galling about failing to start a start-up where your aim is to help other people and do good, rather than just make money, but I don't know any other failed asipirant effective entrepreneurs to ask them.

I hope my contribution here has been (1) to provide an example of someone who did try to start a company with the intention of doing the most good and failed and (2) to share what happened and what I did (or didn’t) learn along the way, and how I felt about it.

If anyone would like to chat to me about this privately, you can find me on michael.plant@stx.ox.ac.uk

 

Comments (30)

Comment author: MikeJohnson 23 May 2018 02:49:55PM 15 points [-]

I admire many things about this story, not least being your willingness to try & fail, and your brutal honesty in sharing what lessons you learned (or didn't learn).

There are many bad things about silicon valley, but one thing I think it gets right is giving partial credit for failed moonshots. Thank you for Really Trying to make this happen.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 23 May 2018 10:07:06PM 4 points [-]

Brutal honesty, the most useful and most painful start up lesson...

'Moonshots', great expression I'd not used! I edited the text to included that phrase, hope you don't mind the thievery.

Comment author: Jon_Behar 25 May 2018 05:59:23PM 9 points [-]

1)Thanks for writing this, it’s a very helpful case study for the community.

2)You absolutely earned career capital and I 100% disagree with your claim that you “walk away with no cool story, no CV points.” Let’s say you wanted to earn to give (because I can speak to that from experience). I’ve screened thousands of resumes and conducted hundreds of interviews for highly competitive finance jobs (consulting is similar too). Most of the resumes look very similar, and there are likely more philosophy and other humanities PhDs from great schools than you’d expect. I’ve heard hundreds of people tell me about their investment banking internships, which is as excruciating as it sounds. People who screen resumes and conduct interviews are desperate to talk about something different, and Hippo is a perfect example. So you do have CV points that will help get you in the door.

And you have a cool story too. You’ve reflected a lot, and learned a lot about your interests, strengths, and weaknesses. That is valuable to you, and to prospective employers. You’ve also taken the time to share it so others can learn, which speaks to your character. You just need to learn how to frame your story right (let me know if you want to have a quick chat about how to frame this experience in a job interview).

3) I’ve heard a lot of stories about various “EA apps”. A lot of them have had significant resources invested in them. And the vast majority never actually get finished, let alone widely used. My suspicion is that your experience is pretty typical. So folks with plans for an EA app may way to think about pooling resources and/or there may an opportunity to have a repository where failed EA apps can share experiences, code, etc. so that future efforts aren't starting from scratch.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 29 May 2018 11:38:04AM 2 points [-]

Hello Jon

Let’s say you wanted to earn to give

I agree, if I wanted to do that, my start up failure would be interesting. As it is, it's probably of very limited use. My appeal is to get people to consider what they would do if their start up failed and how useful that would be for their other line of work. Entrepreneurial experience is of basically no use in academia, as far as I can tell.

Comment author: Jon_Behar 30 May 2018 03:20:05PM 2 points [-]

Having the story to tell might not serve you that well if you stay in academia (though increased self-knowledge should help quite a bit). But I'd generalize my previous comments to say that you've picked up meaningful CV/interview capital if at any point in your career you end up leaving academia.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 23 May 2018 10:27:28PM *  8 points [-]

This pattern of slow decay with punctuated bursts of enthusiasm is pretty typical of how every failed project I've been on has gone. Thanks for a very useful case study.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 24 May 2018 06:42:07PM 3 points [-]

"I’d compiled a list of 40-odd evidence-based activities and re-thinking exercises, i.e. behavioural and cognitive interventions, that I’d come across during my research"

Have you made this list public anywhere? I'd be interested in seeing the list (and I assume others would be too).

Comment author: MichaelPlant 24 May 2018 10:18:05PM *  0 points [-]

Ah, I wondered if anyone was going to spot this Easter egg! Yeah, the list isn't public. This might sound outrageously petty, but having spend so long compiling it, I feel strange about giving it away or making it freely available for other people to copy.

I've trying to work out what to do with it and the rest of the algorithm I designed. If I wasn't so un-enthused about start ups I'd want to build something that just randomly gave you one of the suggestions (the suggestions are just text) as that seems to be the easiest version to do. Maybe that will happen at some point. Honestly I'm not sure what to do.

Comment author: Nicholas_G 25 May 2018 03:47:13AM 1 point [-]

Have you given any consideration to open sourcing what you do have?

Comment author: MichaelPlant 25 May 2018 12:31:48PM 1 point [-]

Can you explain how I might do that? You can just provide a link if it's easier. The source code for the current app is held by David, my co-founder, who seems to have dropped off the face of the Earth (at least with regards to my emails to him). The list of happiness-suggestions is just in a spreadsheet.

Comment author: Henry_Stanley 06 June 2018 09:46:43PM 0 points [-]

You'd make a repository on e.g. GitHub and upload the code there. Then other people can see it and suggest changes, or can fork (make a copy of) the repository and start their own thing based off it.

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 14 June 2018 06:13:09PM 0 points [-]

Pushing the code into the open is the easy part; if the technical cofounder was on board with open sourcing it that would be very easy for them. The hard parts are things like:

  • Does the code contain anything you don't have the rights to share?
  • Does the code contain any passwords, tokens, or other secrets? (It shouldn't, but this is common.)
  • Is the code a mess that they're worried would reflect poorly on them as a developer? (Very likely; I deal with this by just pushing things publicly anyway, but I also have a good enough traditional resume that I'm not reliant on my github resume.)
Comment author: glenra 04 June 2018 08:28:47PM 0 points [-]

If your goal is to make the world a better place, just making the list available seems like the most Effective and Altruistic way of doing that, no? Software developers tend to be way too afraid somebody will "steal their ideas" as the best ideas are HARD to popularize. Nobody but you sees as much value in YOUR ideas as they do in their OWN ideas. In practice, good ideas are cheap; what matters most is following through with implementation (and being lucky and having good timing...)

Keeping your ideas secret might prevent other people from stealing them but also prevents other people from IMPROVING them. Or sometimes even HEARING ABOUT them.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 25 May 2018 10:13:54AM 0 points [-]

If you want to make something to randomise the text suggestions, you might be able to do it pretty quickly and easily with Guided Track. Personally, I think I would find it more helpful looking at the whole list than being given a random suggestion from it. If you wanted to give people that option without making it publicly available for free, you could put the list on the private and unsearchable Facebook group EA self help, with a request not to share.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 25 May 2018 12:29:20PM 0 points [-]

you might be able to do it pretty quickly and easily with Guided Track

Interesting. Will think about this. Not sure I should prioritise this pre-thesis submission. The reason I wrote the post-mortem was so I could move on from Hippo.

If you wanted to give people that option without making it publicly available for free, you could put the list on the private and unsearchable Facebook group EA self help, with a request not to share.

Also interesting. I might be too paranoid/precious to do this, but will think about it.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 25 May 2018 01:42:19AM 0 points [-]

Maybe turn it into a quick self-published book or something?

Comment author: MichaelPlant 25 May 2018 12:26:27PM 0 points [-]

Can you elaborate? I'm not really sure what you have in mind. 'Quick self-published book' sounds like an oxymoron. I'd like to publish a book on happiness at some point, but would hope for it not to be self-published.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 25 May 2018 02:55:21PM 2 points [-]

Basically, you can sell an e-book for a small amount, like $0-5. The e-book is way more detailed than a typical blog post, but is way less detailed than a full book you'd buy for ~$30 at your local bookstore. You get a small amount of money and can also collect emails and use them to build a list for further marketing. This is a pretty common thing a lot of online entrepreneurs seem to do.

Comment author: Khorton 25 May 2018 06:57:12PM 0 points [-]

If you're short on time, you might be able to have someone ghostwrite it for a lump sum or co-write it with you for a share of the profit.

Comment author: Jbankman 17 June 2018 06:15:42AM 2 points [-]

I volunteer/advise (part-time) a non-profit, that develops and tests evidence-based apps designed to improve mental health. http://www.m2health.paloaltou.edu/

There are in fact a lot of those apps around, and a lot more coming on-line from for-profit start-ups. Of course, none would exactly match what Michael created. I personally love the idea that promises to increase happiness rather than remedy the absence of the same. That gives it a somewhat unique position, even if some of the evidence-based techniques are those used in, say, anti-depression apps. It sounds like an app I might recommend to clients (I'm a psychologist).

Sadly/interestingly, none of the general apps has really succeeded in getting widespread use and/or making money. This includes, so far, some apps which have used up millions of venture funding. The problem is not that the apps don't work, if used. It's that people won't pay for them and if given them, usually don't use them.

Despite the lack of success, so far, I believe that these sorts of apps offer enormous potential to improve well-being. The right app - an app that would get used, has an AI base and whose effects can be scientifically evaluated -- could enormously improve well-being.

EA'ers who are interested in this area and looking to get involved with others with similar interests should feel free to contact me: jbankman@stanford.edu

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 26 May 2018 04:10:22AM *  2 points [-]

We went back to them apologetically telling them “hey, we’ve built something” but they never replied. Too slow, clearly.

Companies drop the ball on all kinds of stuff all the time. With MealSquares, we've observed that it's difficult to get companies to reply to email inquiries about buying their products! See The Moby Dick theory of big companies. There's an entire science to selling to big companies which I don't know much about. This book might be a good place to start. Often in sales you talk about a sales funnel with leads, prospects, etc.--you try to gather as many leads as possible and then minimize the amount of dropoff at each stage (not 100% sure I'm using the correct terminology).

Hardcore techies will probably be thinking I should have just dropped the PhD.

My hardcore techie take on your post is: Now you know why Silicon Valley is obnoxiously elitist when it comes to hiring software developers :) I wouldn't have told you to drop the PhD; I would have told you to start programming as a hobby in your spare time, and if you were having fun & it seemed like something you were good at it, perhaps start a company (or maybe get a job as a developer for a while first--nothing like getting paid to level up your skills). As a nontechnical person, you were lucky to get technical people to work with you on a project for free, and you were taking a gamble on their skills and commitment. It's not at all surprising that the gamble didn't pay off.

Ending with a whimper not a bang seems to be a common outcome when I talk to other people who have started companies. Sometimes I hear about someone's project and I'm like "wow that sounds really exciting" and they're like "yeah but I've been working on it so long that it's no longer exciting to me". (Actually, that's about how I feel about your project too--it sounds like a good idea, although I'm not sure it would have been big outside of the quantified self market.) So it might be worthwhile to figure out exactly when it is/isn't acceptable to quit in advance before you start a new project. You want a way to differentiate temporary demoralization that should be pushed through from indicators that the project is legitimately not worth pursuing.

Comment author: WillPearson 23 May 2018 09:46:58PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for writing this up! I've forwarded it to a friend who was interested in the happiness app space a while back.

I would add to the advice, from my experience, pick something not too far out of people's comfort zones for a startup or research idea. There seems to be a horizon beyond which you don't get feedback or help at all.

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 27 May 2018 03:42:39PM 1 point [-]

It's a good story, thanks!

Some thoughts, in case other effective altruists, want to try something similar.

If you are more interested in changing the world than becoming a tech startup entrepreneur, it make make sense to partner up with a company doing something similar, and just offer them the idea (and expertise). In this case a reasonable fit could be e.g. the team of developers behind Dailyio, or behind Sleep as an Android, Twilight, Mindroid, etc. Their apps seem to be some of the more useful happiness interventions on Android Market, have millions of downloads, and plausibly big part of their users are the sample people who would be interested in your app.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 29 May 2018 11:49:18AM 1 point [-]

it make make sense to partner up with a company doing something similar, and just offer them the idea (and expertise

FWIW, I considered this and it didn't seem like a good idea. If I'd walked over and said "hey, here are some ideas, take them for free" I doubt they'd have taken them seriously and, if they had, I would have had no control over what they'd done with the ideas or their product and wouldn't have made any money if they'd be successful.

It might work if they'd given me equity in their company in exchange, but it would be crazy, I stress, for a company to hand over equity to a stranger on the vague promise of some good ideas!

I could have offered myself to those other companies as a consultant, but I doubt they'd be interested either ("um, who are you?").

What might work would be to build my own app, get a bunch of users, then try to partner with other people on that basis. That strikes me as maybe useful and is something i would have considered had we succeeded.

Comment author: Lila 24 May 2018 05:46:02PM *  1 point [-]

Really interesting. I appreciate you sharing this and your attitude toward this. Good luck with your career in philosophy - epistemic honesty will take you far.

You might consider cross-posting this on a site like Medium to reach a larger audience.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 24 May 2018 10:03:51PM 1 point [-]

Interesting thought puting it on medium. Someone put it on Hacker News here were people were, um, not terribly nice about it, so I had some reservations about that.

Comment author: BenMillwood  (EA Profile) 25 May 2018 02:12:28PM 1 point [-]

I don't think you should update too much on people being unkind on the internet :)

Comment author: amb 24 May 2018 03:06:35AM 1 point [-]

Thank you for sharing! This type of critical feedback is much needed in the EA community (for many of the reasons you stated).

"A potential danger with an EA start-up is that you might, as I did, find a hypothetical solution and try to retro-fit a business case." This is a really important takeaway from your conclusion, and I'm glad to hear it mentioned. A good piece of business/entrepreneurship advice I'd heard thrown around in startup circles before is to fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Keeping a constant internal check to evaluate how a venture, whether it be a new startup or a non-profit working on a global health intervention, is tackling the problem as effectively as possible ensures that venture is on the right track and producing the right solutions. Optimizing for the solution itself can veer those ventures off course.

Finally, I'd like to point out that you did find success here, even if the mobile application itself was a failure. By starting work on the PhD and the app at the same time, you gave yourself much more career capital than if you'd worked on one alone. In this case, the capital was not transferrable across both sides, but there's an alternate universe that exists where the work on your app led to a industry career. You kept your options open, and that's led you to a place where you're more confident in the career you've chosen. If other EAs find themselves in a similar opportunity (i.e. working on a side business and academia at the same time), it's probably a good thing to gain experience in both for awhile. The incremental amount of improvements each individual project would see if you went at it full time (i.e. one more published research paper, a fully functioning machine learning feature) likely do not matter in the long term. If you take value from the experience, and not the outcome, I think there are many positives to be had from this kind of work.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 24 May 2018 11:23:11AM 5 points [-]

you gave yourself much more career capital than if you'd worked on one alone

I don't think this is true, and that's my main takeaway. It's true I gave myself two opportunities to acquire career capital - the PhD and the startup - but the latter never turned into actual career capital. In expectation, the start up looked promising (to my, possibly deluded eyes) but it turned out, in fact, to be much use to me. When i started it I thought "if Hippo works I'll be a tech billionaire. If it doesn't work, at least I'll have learnt loads" but in reality Hippo didn't work and I didn't learn much. That's the, somewhat subtle, cautionary tale.

The incremental amount of improvements each individual project would see if you went at it full time (i.e. one more published research paper, a fully functioning machine learning feature) likely do not matter in the long term.

I want to push back on this too. I can see how much more progress I'm making on philosophy now I'm just focused on that. I basically scraped through my first year review. One important thought is that you only get really good at X by focusing on X (e.g. see Cal Newport's Deep Work) and that most work is done by the top performers, e.g. 20% of academics get 80% of the citations, etc. Hence if you're not laser focused you're ruling yourself out of the top category where the real change happens. Again, I'm making a nuanced point: I'm not saying there is no value to exploration, but I am saying there is value to focus. I don't think I'd adequately recognised the trade-off. Would I have changed my choices? Not obviously, but this might be a useful lesson which could change what someone in a different position would do. Hence I'm sharing and hoping this is useful for someone else!

Comment author: byanyothername 11 June 2018 02:12:52PM 0 points [-]

Thank you for this data point!

I’m glad to see there are three other mental health apps being created by EAs - Mind Ease (Peter Brietbart, stress and anxiety), Inuka (Robin van Dalen, support chat app) and UpLift.us (Eddie Liu, depression)

There's also Moodimodo (Mike P Sinn), which I used for a couple of years after trying several other mood-tracking apps and disliking them. It was only later that I realised the connection.