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Who Wants To Start An Important Startup?

41 Post author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 08:02PM

SUMMARYLet's collect people who want to work on for-profit companies that have significant positive impacts on many people's lives.

Google provides a huge service to the world - efficient search of a vast amount of data. I would really like to see more for-profit businesses like Google, especially in underserved areas like those explored by non-profits GiveWell, Singularity Institute and CFAR. GiveWell is a nonprofit that is both working toward making humanity better, and thinking about leverage. Instead of hacking away at one branch of the problem of effective charity by working on one avenue for helping people, they've taken it meta. They're providing a huge service by helping people choose non-profits to donate to that give the most bang for your buck, and they're giving the non-profits feedback on how they can improve. I would love to see more problems taken meta like that, where people invest in high leverage things.

Beyond these non-profits, I think there is a huge amount of low-hanging fruit for creating businesses that create a lot of good for humanity and make money. For-profit businesses that pay their employees and investors well have the advantage that they can entice very successful and comfortable people away from other jobs that are less beneficial to humanity. Unlike non-profits where people are often trying to scrape by, doing the good of their hearts, people doing for-profits can live easy lives with luxurious self care while improving the world at the same time.

It's all well and good to appeal to altruistic motives, but a lot more people can be mobilzed if they don't have to sacrifice their own comfort. I have learned a great deal about this from Jesse and Sharla at Rejuvenate. They train coaches and holistic practitioners in sales and marketing - enabling thousands of people to start businesses who are doing the sorts of things that advance their mission. They do this while also being multi-millionaires themselves, and maintaining a very comfortable lifestyle, taking the time for self-care and relaxation to recharge from long workdays.

Less Wrong is read by thousands of people, many of whom are brilliant and talented. In addition, Less Wrong readers include people who are interested in the future of the world and think about the big picture. They think about things like AI and the vast positive and negative consequences it could have. In general, they consider possibilities that are outside of their immediate sensory experience.

I've run into a lot of people in this community with some really cool, unique, and interesting ideas, for high-impact ways to improve the world. I've also run into a lot of talent in this community, and I have concluded that we have the resources to implement a lot of these same ideas.

Thus, I am opening up this post as a discussion for these possibilities. I believe that we can share and refine them on this blog, and that there are talented people who will execute them if we come up with something good. For instance, I have run into countless programmers who would love to be working on something more inspiring than what they're doing now. I've also personally talked to several smart organizational leader types, such as Jolly and Evelyn, who are interested in helping with and/or leading inspiring projects And that's only the people I've met personally; I know there are a lot more folks like that, and people with talents and resources that haven't even occurred to me, who are going to be reading this.

Topics to consider when examining an idea:

  • Tradeoffs between optimizing for good effects on the world v. making a profit.
  • Ways to improve both profitability and good effects on the world.
  • Timespan - projects for 3 months, 1 year, 5 years, 10+ years
  • Using resources efficiently (e.g. creating betting markets where a lot of people give opinions that they have enough confidence in to back with money, instead of having one individual trying to figure out probabilities)
  • Opportunities for uber-programmers who can do anything quickly (they are reading and you just might interest and inspire them)
  • Opportunities for newbies trying to get a foot in the door who will work for cheap
  • What people/resources do we have at our disposal now, and what can we do with that?
  • What people/resources are still needed?
  • If you think of something else, make a comment about it in the thread for that, and it might get added to this list.

An example idea from Reichart Von Wolfsheild:

A project to document the best advice we can muster into a single tome. It would inherently be something dynamic, that would grow and cover the topics important to humans that they normally seek refuge and comfort for in religion. A "bible" of sorts for the critical mind.

Before things like wikis, this was a difficult problem to take on. But, that has changed, and the best information we have available can in fact be filtered for, and simplified. The trick now, is to organize it in a way that helps humans. which is not how most information is organized.


  1. Please keep the mission in mind (let's have more for-profit companies working on goals that benefit people too!) when giving feedback. When you write a comment, consider whether it is contributing to that goal, or if it's counterproductive to motivation or idea-generation, and edit accordingly.
  2. Give feedback, the more specific the better. Negative feedback is valuable because it tells us where to concentrate further work. It can also be a motivation-killer; it feels like punishment, and not just for the specific item criticized, so be charitable about the motives and intelligence of others, and stay mindful of how much and how aggressively you dole critiques out. (Do give critiques, they're essential - just be gentle!) Also, distribute positive feedback for the opposite effect. More detail on giving the best possible feedback in this comment.
  3. Please point other people with resources such as business experience, intelligence, implementation skills, and funding capacity at this post. The more people with these resources who look at this and collaborate in the comments, the more likely it is for these ideas to get implemented. In addition to posting this to Less Wrong, I will be sending the link to a lot of friends with shrewd business skills, resources and talent, who might be interested in helping make projects happen, or possibly in finding people to work on their own projects since many of them are already working on projects to make the world better.
  4. Please provide feedback. If anything good happens in your life as a result of this post or discussion, please comment about it and/or give me feedback. It inspires people, and I have bets going that I'd like to win. Consider making bets of your own! It is also important to let me know if you are going to use the ideas, so that we don't end up with needless duplication and competition.

Finally: If this works right, there will be lots of information flying around. Check out the organization thread and the wiki.

Comments (407)

Comment author: AltonSun 19 August 2012 05:51:47AM *  31 points [-]

A Backwards Kickstarter

A crowdfunding & crowdsourcing platform where you go to post your problems that you'd like to be solved, products that you'd like manufactured, programs or services that you'd like to be made, and how much you'd be willing to pay for it.

This takes LSM validation principles and reverses it - don't waste time finding out what the market wants - have them tell you, then

* focus on fulfilling it.*

The closest thing to it that I'm aware of would be Quora , except every upvote on a question (idea) represents $10. Everything is editable a la wikipedia. This would enable you to view trending ideas in realtime. You can give unlimited upvotes to ideas because it is deducted from your 'bank' of credits that would be linked to your PayPal or Credit Card.

Alternatively, you can follow ideas for free, and optionally receive notifications on updates or immediately actionable items that match your domain of expertise.

On the fulfillment/programming/manufacturing side, anticipated trajectories of certain categories could create clarity as to what students could best invest their time and efforts in.

If you are interested, message me and I can share more details, mockups, etc.

I'd love feedback, remembering that 'criticism is the cornerstone to progress', and 'if version 1 isn't embarrassing, you've released too late.'

Other ideas that probably wouldn't make a lot of money

  • Welcome to the internet page

  • Accountability Engine - many have an easier time helping other people than they do themselves, why not trade tasks at 5 min, 30 min, and 1 hr intervals? Alternatively, everyone in your group has to post a series of 3 screenshots or images of the progress that they've made towards two publicly declared goals. I want to make inaction inexcusable.

  • Your liaison in XYZ - want something shipped to or from a friend? Need someone to represent you in another country?

  • Intelligent alert system - Hey, you've just spent 10 minutes on Facebook - how about you work on what you should be working on instead?

  • AnswerMe - Questions? Ask them via text or email, and it will automatically be posted to Quora, ChaCha answers, and just for laughs - Yahoo Answers. At the end of the day or week, the answers are forwarded to your email or texted direct. If you're a premium user, it costs cents to post to Amazon's Mechanical Turk (and they have an API!) and only a couple dollars to post on Odesk to get hours worth of research. (I regularly hire people at $3.33/hr in India, since standard of living is so much lower.)

Odd ideas:

  • Relationship advice hotline - text or call a phone number, direct connect with someone that can help

  • LevelUpLife - Lend a GoPro camera necklace to someone, have them wear it to a social occasion or work environment situation, then advise them specifically on how to be funnier, happier, or better in some way that they choose. This can also be done with a personal recorder or iPhone in their pocket for more seamless suggestions.

Self-selecting from an audience that took the time to read this is likely worth connecting with, if at least online. If you happen to be located in the bay area, I spend most of my time in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, and am happy to meet up for tea or join you during an event with anyone who is even slightly curious.

Disclaimer: You may end up with photos of your face,, learning how to card manipulate, contact juggle, or flip a butterfly knife.

Comment author: moocow1452 20 August 2012 12:48:36AM *  6 points [-]

YouZingIt and Fiverr have similar offerings, along with other invention contractors on the Google nets, LambertInvent.com offering a flat rate of $199 to look at your idea and tell you if they can do something with it. Get Satisfaction also has a similar idea for products and tech support, but I like the idea of posting bounties to problems, and actually getting things done by throwing money at it until it goes away.

Looking at this from the posting of concepts direction though, I'd be a smidge paranoid disclosing ideas to a third party where I pay them a buck to make one and they can sell the finished product for ten because they have the skills and resources to bring it into reality and I don't. I dunno if that's an unrealistic expectation or me being lazy and code illiterate, (too many words all over the place) but if who owns what is a barrier of entry, the idea of a marketplace for hire might go pear shaped if someone strikes it rich.

Comment author: windup 21 August 2012 05:59:12PM 3 points [-]

You'd be "a smidge paranoid" to publicly "disclose ideas" to a party you couldn't afford -- or couldn't find -- as a dev team, anyway? The goal of this ReverseKickstarter, in my eyes, is to get those ideas out of people before they die! The alternative to this marketplace is a) be a dev, b) pay a dev.

Those are both pretty high barriers to entry. They discourage a lot of people from contributing meaningfully or significantly to this revolution.

How can we lower the barriers to contribution? I think AltonSun has an answer.

Maybe I don't understand your ideas of "who owns what" , "marketplace for hire" or "pear shaped".

Comment author: moocow1452 21 August 2012 06:11:39PM *  2 points [-]

For the sake of argument, lets say I'm a somewhat greedy bastard who would like some compensation for bringing my spark to your kindling, and I am afraid of this system because while I can only give away my idea once on the internet for it to be infinitely copied and modifiable, you can package it hundreds of times to hundreds of different people to make a mint. Common good can wait for me to produce it myself and be the flamebringer to the masses, because If I give it to you, you get the glory, financial security, and reputation that means you can live to develop another day. How do you sell this to me?

EDIT: So we don't ninja each other anymore, I'll just leave it at "this is going to be a hard sell if you want idea people to play along." But for all I know, that may be part of the plan to get more people intrested in pitching in and being responsible idea parents.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 19 August 2012 07:26:56AM 6 points [-]

I like it!

A couple of people emailed me who I think might be interested - I want to send the introduction when I'm more awake, and I will be gone all day tomorrow, so ping me if you haven't gotten it from my by Monday night.

Comment author: Nisan 20 August 2012 06:49:33PM 5 points [-]

Cool! I'm wondering who will decide whether a project solves a given problem. Maybe automatically survey a sample of investors?

Comment author: AltonSun 22 August 2012 07:03:55AM 3 points [-]

Awesome question: I imagine after a threshold of investors approve of a given proposed solution, work is commenced at an agreed upon % rate upfront vs. delivered afterwards, on a per project basis.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 21 August 2012 07:32:48PM 3 points [-]

Responding to the Backwards Kickstarter: there's a subreddit called SomebodyMakeThis where people post products they'd like manufactured, and programs or services they'd like to be made. There's no monetary aspect, though. That would be a good subreddit to advertise this service on.

Comment author: Davidmanheim 24 August 2012 04:08:07PM 2 points [-]

Quirky is probably a better example of a startup that does this. It has the problems Quora does, but is a credible attempt.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 21 August 2012 10:36:03AM 22 points [-]

Better bra sizing.

It's an idea I've been kicking around for a few days. The technical and marketing-based obstacles towards getting it to work have turned me off pursuing it, but I figured it was worth sharing.

I work with operational databases for a luxury fashion retailer, and bra sizing as it currently exists (back size + cup size) makes absolutely no sense. I will sometimes ask female friends to explain how the size given for a garment can possibly be of any use in determining comfort and fit. Their answer: it doesn't.

Their actual answer tends to be a rant about inconsistency between product ranges and how contemporary bra sizing is next to useless. A couple have been both eloquent and insightful. A few times a year I'll have an idea I get excited about turning into some sort of web-based service, and in spite of its silly-sounding nature, this one is easily the one that's had the most philanthropic weight behind it.

The idea: a website containing a comprehensive list of commercially available bras. Users sign up, locate bras they own (or have tried on) and rate them along various measures of comfort/fit/support, etc. The service then locates clusters of users with similar preferences to them (exact method of analysis still up for debate, but a few likely candidates stand out), and suggests specific sizes and ranges that would meet their needs.

There are three sides to this. The first is users getting the service described above. The second is the option to license out the size/fit data to interested third parties, such as manufacturers and retailers, which would probably be the most sizeable revenue stream. The third is the possibility of using the data to produce a better sizing scheme that more accurately tackles the real-world problem.

I see two main problems with the idea. The first is encouraging user uptake (convincing women to spend time inputting details about their underwear into a website). The second, which is related, is giving them incentive to do so without the recommendation algorithm in place. I have no idea if k-NN or spectral partitioning or probabilistic classifiers or regression analysis will be any good at all in carving up the data appropriately, and I won't know until I get a sizeable set of data to develop against. There'd need to be an existing service provision for the users to encourage them to sign up and provide the data before the interesting work even begins. An existing comprehensive list of commercially available bras complete with a flat non-super-stats-enhanced rating system might be enough to get the ball rolling.

I should reiterate that I'm unlikely to pursue this idea. While I have a background in web dev, data analysis and technical fashion retail, I'm far from an expert in any of them. Still, if anyone wants to convince me otherwise, give me more reasons why it's a bad idea, or steal it outright, please go ahead.

Comment author: Alicorn 21 August 2012 05:07:15PM 6 points [-]
Comment author: David_Gerard 21 August 2012 11:47:09AM 10 points [-]

Anecdotal evidence from female friends suggests that if you can make bra sizing not suck, you will indeed make life quite a bit better for quite a lot of people.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 21 August 2012 02:42:37PM 9 points [-]

It seems to touch upon an incredibly raw nerve. Many of my friends are quite thoughtful and verbose people anyway, but I get the impression some of them could talk for hours about their dissatisfaction with bra sizing. If nothing else, it's given me a good heuristic for spotting potential consumer interest: follow the moaning.

Comment author: Strange7 21 August 2012 11:59:21PM 4 points [-]

You might be able to get a certain number of people to sign up just by making a credible effort to pursue a fully general solution at all. Work out ballpark figures for how much it would cost to construct a sufficiently detailed topological model, gather a starting dataset, etc., add it all up, put your proposal on Kickstarter.

Comment author: Strange7 01 March 2013 03:15:18AM 3 points [-]


When an idea is so brilliant you're amazed nobody has thought of it before, consider the alternate hypothesis that there's a specialized field of study you simply don't know about.

Comment author: moocow1452 21 August 2012 06:00:29PM 3 points [-]

What about a Maker-Bra, a CNC designed for rendering articles of clothing out of base fabrics and plastics?

Comment author: atucker 21 August 2012 04:41:59PM 5 points [-]

Oooh, great idea!

Something that requires less data to get off the ground:

Just try and figure out what reasonable bra size measurements might be, measure those, and tell people how to find their own measurements so that they can just buy bras that fit.

That presupposes that there's an actual set of measurements that would be reasonable, but I think that that's fairly likely.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 21 August 2012 11:38:32PM 4 points [-]

There's an underlying question to the whole endeavour: are conventional bra sizes doing a good job of a hard task, or a bad job of an easy task? Is it relatively simple to classify the shapes of women's bodies, and standard back/cup sizes are the wrong tool, or is aforementioned classification really hard, and standard sizing is doing a sterling job of it?

I suspect it's probably neither, and standard sizing is doing a terrible job of a hard task. I tried making a few simple topological models, and it turns out breasts are actually quite complicated, but there's no reason to assume the standard sizing scheme is optimal for the task, so gains can definitely be made somewhere. I don't think just trying to figure them out is an option, though. It's a question of how women's bodies categorise, and the only way to answer that is with the data.

Comment author: JoshuaFox 19 August 2012 08:54:18AM *  20 points [-]

A certification system to replace high-school and college.

With the explosion in independent study on all education levels, certification is the main missing piece. One solution is tests. For example, Pearson's is offering this service to Udacity students. However, certification-by-testing has had a hard time getting prestige. In the high-status parts of the software industry, getting Java/Microsoft/etc. certification is a slight negative on your job value -- i.e., one is expected to countersignal.

So, we need a certification system that succeeds at serving as a signal.

What successful examples can we find? The actuarial industry has a system of advancement with ten exams. There is no requirement to get a certain degree to take them. The top level is considered an intellectual achievement roughly equivalent to a PhD.

Perhaps the certification we're offering should test useless skills which require a long time to acquire, proving that one is not just smart but hard-working. Compare Latin in earlier periods, and the software language Scheme (a language used mostly for theory, not for product development) in the software industry today.

The usual trappings of signaling, like association with prestigious people, would be an essential part of the marketing.

Comment author: Emile 26 August 2012 11:59:49AM 4 points [-]

Isn't that a bit what Stack Overflow is doing with their careers program? "I have 10 000 points on Stack Overflow" is certainly a sign of quality (more than a degree in CS from an average school, or 10 000 points on Reddit or LessWrong); plus potential employers can verify how exactly those points were obtained.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 22 August 2012 03:24:12AM 3 points [-]

Perhaps the certification we're offering should test useless skills which require a long time to acquire, proving that one is not just smart but hard-working. Compare Latin in earlier periods, and Scheme (a language used mostly for theory, not for product development) in the software industry today.

Latin was far from useless in 'earlier periods'. It allowed educated people from all over Europe to understand each other and contribute to a unified body of knowledge, much like English does today (but for much more than just Europe).

Comment author: JoshuaFox 22 August 2012 07:37:30AM 2 points [-]

Yes, but I'm thinking of the time period of roughly the first half of the twentieth century.

Comment author: clgroft 22 August 2012 03:08:04AM 3 points [-]

The actuarial industry has a system of advancement with ten exams.

Perhaps this is the key. Instead of coming up with our own replacement certification system, maybe we need to make it easier for companies and industries to create their own. They're the ones who know what matters for their own fields.

As an entry point, one might create an online job application builder. Questionnaires are easy (and probably not worth a startup), but if the application could have "code this" questions, and the answers were checked on the server, that could be a killer feature for tech companies.

Comment author: DaFranker 21 August 2012 05:36:14PM *  3 points [-]

This, do-super-want. Perhaps a more specific version/implementation/tactic would be compulsory education alternatives. Of course, the signalling part remains a major problem.

One other possible element of the signalling problem is to counter a particular subset of common responses that seem particularly available: "What makes your special certification any different from all those bogus sham 'buy-a-high-school-degree-online' diploma mills?"

Establishing trustworthiness is also made more difficult by the trend that employers don't really seem willing to verify and learn about nonstandard accreditations. If someone has qualifications that they don't expect and don't immediately recognize as a good signal, it'll be dismissed without further investigation. Targeting employers seems like it would be a requirement of an optimal certification system.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 August 2012 10:18:43PM 3 points [-]

In the high-status parts of the software industry, getting Java/Microsoft/etc. certification is a slight negative on your job value -- i.e., one is expected to countersignal.

Why is that? That wouldn't have surprised me too much if it had been about about academia, or about the free/libre/open source software community, but software industry... why?

Comment author: bcoburn 20 August 2012 05:53:05AM 5 points [-]

Because it signals that you're the sort of person who feels a need to get certifications, or more precisely that you thought you actually needed the certification to get a job. (And because the actual certifications aren't taken to be particularly hard, such that completing one is strong evidence of actual skill)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 August 2012 08:50:09AM 2 points [-]

And because the actual certifications aren't taken to be particularly hard, such that completing one is strong evidence of actual skill

OK, I get it now. I don't list my ECDL (which I took in high school) in my CV because i think it's so basic that potential employers (who have any kind of clue) would think "huh? so what?", but I assumed that Java/Microsoft/etc. certifications were nontrivial to get.

Comment author: DaFranker 21 August 2012 05:30:02PM *  4 points [-]

There's that, and there's also (from personal experience) an element of superhero bias (or bias overcompensation? I forget which way this one goes), where basically someone who does not have a certification but can code something optimally is de-facto superior to someone who does have a certification and codes the same thing just as optimally.

Additionally, there may be some reciprocate signaling involved; if I look for certified programmers, people will see mere certification as sufficient to get the job, which is not what I want - I want people who have the actual ability. Thus, I should hire people with ability but no certification, which signals that the certification is "useless" or "not what we're looking for" relative to other criteria.

This seems to even out to a reflective equilibrium where official certification is a net negative.

Comment author: shminux 21 August 2012 08:37:38PM 2 points [-]

certification-by-testing has had a hard time getting prestige

What are the reasons for it?

Comment author: sinak 14 August 2012 09:21:35PM 15 points [-]

In addition to my last idea, here's another thing I've been kicking around:

* Anki-as-a-Service *

Problem: Anki is great, but the user interface is mediocre and it acts as a standalone application on the platform of your choice (desktop, mobile, etc).

Solution: A hosted version of Anki accompanied by a mobile application that allows users to enter items manually, capture items from the browser via a javascript bookmarklet, or allows third parties to submit information for users via an API. In essence this would amount to "learning as a service" and could eventually be extended beyond the feature set currently offered by Anki by including customized tests for different content types.

Current development: Very much in the idea stage. Interested in hearing what ideas people have around this.

Comment author: Micaiah_Chang 17 August 2012 12:56:05AM 6 points [-]

I imagine this would be very hard to monetize and get customers as-is. The below is merely a brief list of problems that I've thought about

The average user needs to be sold on the effectiveness of a product very fast, on the first usage (or perhaps even sooner!) in order for them to continue using. However, SRS software in general are almost by definition antithetical to that goal: Their benefits do not come until far into the future, worse still it's an undefined time in the future. Sure you can use arguments about the benefits of SRS and the psychology of memory and <insert gwern.net FAQ here>, but it would appear to be an uphill battle to make the benefits immediately relevant and immediately relevant to the people who wouldn't already be using Anki and other free equivalents.

In addition, before you can even start using the product as advertised, you have to learn how to make cards that are easy to memorize or download a deck which is already well made. The first is "Wait so you want me to learn all these tiny rules before I can even start learning? <browser back button>". The second presents a chicken-and-egg problem. How are you going to have high quality decks that teach things? By having users! How are you going to get users? By having high qual- oh, darn.

It would appear that your general idea is going in the right direction; to make the best SRS program as painless as possible and to extend it to be more powerful. Your emphasis though, would appear to be more oriented toward existing power users of SRS. So there's the matter of getting them to switch which... I have no idea how hard that would be. (Sample size of two; you'd obviously build something you'd want to use; I'd jump on board instantly if I could transfer my existing Anki decks).

One possible solution to the adoption is to piggyback it on an existing service; if users get to use it as an additional option on something they already use habitually then getting consistent usage wouldn't be as much of a problem. I believe Khan Academy has expressed interest in including SRS in there. Another is to try and "gamify" it (argh I hate that word) by either making the entire application a sort of game or incorporating cow clicker like features in there to get the user hooked (IT'S NOT EVIL IF THE ADDICTION IS GOOD).

The making your own decks feature can be mostly hidden from the normal user, with a gradual introduction to it as they use the product more (paid feature?). As for having high quality decks; you can try porting the entire Anki library of downloadable decks, filter them in some way and use that to bootstrap up to a much higher standard of quality.

Of course, any and all advice here means absolutely jack compared to the behavior of actual users; release a minimal version, see who bites and check to see what the users complain about before even thinking about what I said here. Making money is and should probably be a distant 4th or 5th consideration behind making a product that you would use and making it easily extensible.

Comment author: Persol 17 August 2012 01:29:20PM *  7 points [-]

I think Micaiah_Chang mostly nailed this. I actually wrote a site that did this a few months ago. I had about 4000 users who had actually gone through a complete session.

it would appear to be an uphill battle to make the benefits immediately relevant

As guessed, the problem is that I couldn't get people to start forming it as a habit. There is no immediate payback. Less than 20 people out of 4000 did more than one session.

you have to learn how to make cards that are easy to memorize or download a deck which is already well made

This one is easily solved. The Anki decks have a (weak) rating system, and allowing people to import anki decks was easy.

Additionally, there are at least 18 competitors. Here's the list I made at the time. Very few seem to be successful.

I shut the site down about a month ago. There are numerous free competitors which don't have any great annoyances. I wouldn't suggest starting another of these sites unless you figured out an effective way to "gamify" it.

Comment author: gwern 18 August 2012 01:33:21AM 3 points [-]

As guessed, the problem is that I couldn't get people to start forming it as a habit. There is no immediate payback. Less than 20 people out of 2000 did more than one session.

Wow. You did a spaced repetition site which had 4000 people try, 2000 finish a session, and <20 return for a second review session?

Comment author: Persol 18 August 2012 02:43:42AM *  3 points [-]

Sorry, typo. ~4000 people finished a session. Many more 'tried' than 4000... I just couldn't determine which users were bots that registered randomly vs users that didn't finish the first session.

  • Tried: lots (but unknown)
  • Finished 1 session: ~4000
  • Finished >1 session: ~20
Comment author: arundelo 17 August 2012 02:29:09PM 6 points [-]

incorporating cow clicker like features in there to get the user hooked

For anyone who doesn't know it, here's the (really interesting) story of Ian Bogost's "Cow Clicker".

Comment author: sinak 18 August 2012 02:02:44AM *  2 points [-]

MIcaiah, thanks for the detailed and well thought-out response. I'll try and respond to some of your thoughts:

I imagine this would be very hard to monetize and get customers as-is.

As far as monetization goes, I think the best route would be to charge online education providers on per-API-call basis. The end goal would be to become something akin to the "Twilio of online learning." With a sufficiently developed system, I think it'll be possible to convince companies in the online learning space that this is a worthwhile value proposition for their users. End users who have committed to a particular online learning program are much more likely to be willing to use a spaced-repetition learning system to aid in their progress in a particular course.

Your emphasis though, would appear to be more oriented toward existing power users of SRS.

I think I gave the wrong impression here, I think I'd much rather target non-users of SRS. Building something simpler but more accessible seems like a more viable alternative. Gaining traction with average, non-SRSing users, and then later adding best-of-breed features to tempt online learning providers seems like a more reasonable approach.

The average user needs to be sold on the effectiveness of a product very fast, on the first usage (or perhaps even sooner!) in order for them to continue using. However, SRS software in general are almost by definition antithetical to that goal: Their benefits do not come until far into the future, worse still it's an undefined time in the future.

I've thought of a couple of simple use cases for this sort of platform that I think seem easy to build and quite compelling for an average non-SRS user:

  • Vocabulary expansion - For People looking to expand their vocabulary - a simple javascript bookmarklet that would allow users to learn the definitions of new words that they come across.
  • "Remember what you read" - It seems that given the number of things that an average person might hope to learn in a particular day, but which are instead soon forgotten, having a simple way to record those items would be quite immediately valuable. For example, as soon as I found Instapaper, I began saving documents that I wanted to read later. I could see a simple javascript bookmarklet for "things I've read online and want to commit to memory" being used in a similar fashion. This implementation would be a very, very crude version of SRS, but I think it could help get users on board.
  • Name-Face Identification - A tool that helps users learn the names of all the contacts in their LinkedIn or Facebook friends lists. Forgetting the names of acquaintances is a common problem, and an SRS program is an ideal solution.

Beginning with a simple, self-curated deck like the ones described above would also help to avoid the problem of not having good content for first-time users.

Very interested to hear feedback on the above.

Comment author: Kindly 19 August 2012 08:52:21PM 3 points [-]

Congratulations; you've motivated me to decide I'll use some sort of SRS to remember the names of my students, the next time I have to TA a class (most likely in January).

I'll find something to use one way or the other, but if you manage to provide a working alternative by that time, I promise to use it.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 August 2012 11:28:38PM 8 points [-]

I used SRS to remember my student's names. They thought I had superpowers.

(I didn't have the TA facebook until after the first session, and so I introduced myself and shook the hand of every student, and then got the facebook and memorized the names with SRS before the second session. It might be similarly impressive to know their names before the first session without them telling you, but that runs the risk of seeming creepy.)

Comment author: gwern 19 August 2012 11:39:51PM 2 points [-]

I always thought that memorizing faces and personal details would be a good use of SRS, but I never really had any opportunity where it was worthwhile. Glad to hear it works!

Comment author: orthonormal 09 September 2012 04:16:28AM 4 points [-]

The July minicampers made an Anki deck for learning faces/names/bios before camp. We didn't get quite enough time to train properly, but it was still a massive help compared to learning 30 names in real time.

Comment author: Micaiah_Chang 19 August 2012 08:23:38PM 2 points [-]

All three look promising. However, you might be pidgeonholing yourself by trying to go back to the "SRS as generalized learning tool". For most people, it would appear as if that's too abstract. You may be much better off focusing on the most generally appealing use case (The name-face ID one sounds the most promising; I can't imagine any people who weren't already self-motivated autodidacts using the first two). In fact, it might turn out to be much better than than the original Anki-as-service app; it appears to me that many more people view "oh god what's her name I just met her a week ago THINK" as a problem than "Oh, hm, it appears I've forgotten how to say 'praying mantis' in Japanese".

To extend the Name-Face identification concept, you could also add things such as people's birthdays, dates of important events such as anniversaries into it; although I'm not sure how many of those things aren't problems anymore because of calenders etc.

I can't comment too much on the "Twilio of online learning" idea; I don't know the interest level of online courses such as Udacity, Coursera and Codeacademy on something like that. Although I will warn that there's a real risk that it'll be treated as "just another complicated feature that I don't need to use" by the average student. But if you get a hardcore userbase who are happy with the product and willing to give feedback then you're in much better shape than trying to arbitrarily design for the "average" user.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 21 August 2012 02:18:52AM *  5 points [-]

Just a word of caution: this seems to be the idea almost every geek I know thought of doing (including myself, had a prototype going 4 years ago). You can draw some conclusions from this.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 August 2012 07:37:02AM 3 points [-]

Just a word of caution: this seems to be the idea almost every geek I know thought of doing (including myself, had a prototype going 4 years ago). You can draw some conclusions from this.

Another here. A group of four of us got as far as releasing a beta version of such a product.

Comment author: sinak 21 August 2012 04:38:30PM 2 points [-]

Interesting. Thanks for pointing this out. I'm not sure whether this is necessarily a bad thing, but it's good to know that it is a known geek archetype.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 21 August 2012 04:46:02PM 5 points [-]

It implies that its a problem a lot of geeks have and that there's a market. Sounds like a problem that is easy to solve moderately well but has not yet been solved with excellence.

Comment author: sinak 03 October 2012 09:08:23PM 2 points [-]

Hey everyone - I made an initial version of this at the TC Disrupt Hackathon, see here: Memstash. It was build in 20 hours so it's obviously very very MVP, but we ended up winning trips to Paris as well as getting over 50k visitors and 5k signups (mostly via a Hacker News post).

I think that the response generally proves that there are definitely people interested in this sort of thing - but return traffic hasn't been great, which is understandable given how basic the functionality is. Anyway, would love to get your feedback on what I've built thus far.

Comment author: gworley 19 August 2012 11:41:02PM *  13 points [-]

Let me just toss out some caution here.

I'm all for getting excited and making stuff happen. Maybe it really is that there have not yet been any LW startups because we all just failed to coordinate on it and in hindsight we'll all say "why the hell did we all wait for so long". That said, let's not forget a few key things here.

  • Most startups fail
  • even when the principals are smart and motivated
  • even when the idea is really good
  • even when [x] is [y]

And, as I already said, for some reason we haven't already had a bunch of successful LW startups. It's certainly not for lack of smart people, entrepreneurs, or technical skills.

If a LW startup is going to succeed, I think we would benefit from understanding first why we don't already have successful LW startups (not even one).

Comment author: gworley 20 August 2012 12:07:15AM 9 points [-]

Just to toss in my own strongest suspicion. Among LWers under 25, they probably see themselves as young and still learning and not yet brave enough to throw themselves all in to something. For those over 25, they (myself included) probably see themselves as already busy doing something and would need some pretty strong motivation to do something else, even if it does align with core values.

Comment author: toner 20 August 2012 02:38:12PM *  4 points [-]

Quixey is incredibly successful. Also, LessWrong is still young. Give it time! There may be a bunch of startups out there we haven't heard of yet. For example, I'm doing a startup with 3 other LWers, but we need a little longer before we're successful ;-)

Comment author: Bruno_Coelho 24 August 2012 01:18:35AM 2 points [-]

I don't feel LessWrong young. OB 2006 posts are extremely past to me, even if a different site.

But If we consider LW a internet startup, the site is doing pretty fine, since the failure rate is 25% for US. For the first three year, the rate of sucess is 65%, 51% for 5 years. Besides having a core content written in a unusual language.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 20 August 2012 03:00:18AM *  8 points [-]

Thanks for voicing this. A lot of people said similar things to me privately before I posted the article. Apparently a lot of people have tried similar attempts to this article and had them massively down voted and go nowhere. I'm very thankful that these people shared their concerns with me, because if I hadn't gotten that feedback, I would not have put nearly as much effort into editing and honing, and almost certainly would have bombed as well.

I have a lot of thoughts on this - I'm currently just finishing a course by the Rejuvenate people that teaches coaches and holistic practitioners how to create successful businesses. I've been inspired both by the workshop and the comments in this article to switch niches from working with people who are depressed, to creating a program that combines what I'm learning with Rejuvenate and my knowledge of Less Wrong types and futurists in general. (what they teach totally worked for me - I took their program "Double Your Practice in 90 Days" and quadrupled my (small) income in a month, after coaching for years) Working on this problem of helping people in the community implement their ideas successfully is so much higher leverage than anything else I can think of that I could do.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 20 August 2012 03:38:06AM *  4 points [-]

Also worth noting - there have been many start-ups in the Less Wrong and extended community already, some of which are very successful, such as Quixey. it just seems like from what I've seen talent wise in the community, there should be a lot more start ups than there are, and a relatively high percentage of those should be extremely profitable compared to the average start-up.

Comment author: spoutdoors 16 August 2012 09:43:11PM *  13 points [-]

Hi folks - long-time reader, first-time poster here. I'd like to share my new startup, formed over the past few months. In short, we use human computation to create employment opportunities in the developing world while enabling new types of data analysis for solving complex problems.

Some background and justification: extreme poverty is bad. I won't say too much to justify this point, other than that human suffering and the lost potential for individuals to do great things are two of the big things that make it bad. And just to be clear, by "extreme poverty" I am referring to the "living on $1 per day" kind (though that's a not a very good definition, it's at least in the ballpark). One way to combat extreme poverty is by creating employment opportunities so that people can help themselves, rather than giving them free shoes, or corn, or wells, all of which are suboptimal for meeting their varied pressing needs. So our approach is to hire them to do human computation work.

Human computation is when people do things that are easy for people but hard for computers. A good example is image processing/recognition (this is why reCAPTCHA works). By combining the things people do well with the things computers (i.e. software we currently able to write) do well, we can enable new kinds of data analysis. For example, we can mine figures from the medical literature for depictions of biochemical pathways, recreate many of them together (molecules = nodes, interactions = edges), and create a more complete picture of our biology.

So that's our approach: find an interesting, complex problem (so far they have been in the academic research world), collaborate with the domain experts to design human computation processes to enable the necessary data analysis and synthesis, and using our web platform, pay people in developing countries to do the work. Interesting problems get solved, we get paid, and people in Kenya get paid. Win, win, win.

Interested? We are looking for:

  • People with problems to solve using human computation. We are especially looking for domain experts here. Not sure if your problem is amenable to human computation? Let's talk.

  • Programmers. We've got a platform now but are continually improving it. Python/django. There's also a fair amount of cobbling together datasets for input and output that presents ever-changing challenges in many different languages.

  • Marketing/sales. Our concept is a hard thing to explain to people. People don't seem to be used to thinking about solving problems in this manner, so it's difficult to get people to think, "Oh yes! I have problem X and this will help me solve it!". We need to figure out some way to communicate this better in order to expand the problems to work on and increase revenue.

  • Funding. We need to pay programmers, marketing people, and us.

  • Other! Think this is a cool idea but don't fit into one of the above areas? Let's talk!

Comment author: woodside 22 August 2012 11:29:39AM 3 points [-]

Do you have any more examples of problems that have been solved or are trying to be solved using this approach?

This idea sounds very interesting and potentially a good business, but that rests completely on there being a large set of problems that would be cheaper to solve this way than by another method.

Comment author: OphilaDros 18 August 2012 02:41:42AM 3 points [-]

One way to combat extreme poverty is by creating employment opportunities so that people can help themselves, rather than giving them free shoes, or corn, or wells, all of which are suboptimal for meeting their varied pressing needs. So our approach is to hire them to do human computation work.

How are you planning to reach out to the poorest of the poor in developing countries? Will you be tying up with some agencies back there? Because you will not be able to find them over the internet.

You will also need strong mechanisms in place for quality control of the process so that the output is usable. I'm guessing a lot of the problems you will face will be similar to other crowdsourcing ventures like Mechanical Turk.

Comment author: spoutdoors 22 August 2012 04:59:56PM 4 points [-]

Great points. I have personal connections in some poor rural areas of Kenya already (and already in that place, people are always asking, "How can I join?", both of me and of the current workers). My colleagues also have connections in a number of other developing countries where we could plant "seeds". How to grow the "crowd" from those seeds is an interesting problem, but not insurmountable, what with ever-increasing mobile phone/3G penetration and a mobile interface to our platform (lots of people in Kenya, for example, have a low end mobile phone or internet-capable "feature phone" while still living in mud huts), a franchise model using netbooks and small solar stations, etc.

As for quality control, you're absolutely right. There are a lot of ways to approach that (none of which Mturk implements). There's some well-established precedent for methods that work, so we feel confident we can generate high quality outputs.

Comment author: RomanDavis 19 August 2012 08:29:03AM 5 points [-]

Yeah, the whole time I was thinking, "Hasn't the guy heard of Mechanical Turk?'

I guess he could be using MTurk as a platform to do this on, although I don't know haw much Amazon eats of your profit.

Comment author: spoutdoors 22 August 2012 04:52:41PM 6 points [-]

Yes, Mechanical Turk is another platform that enables human computation work. We looked a lot at that in our early research. It does not, however, implement any internal quality control mechanisms, and it also only allows payment in US dollars, Indian rupees, or via Amazon gift card. The interface is also clunky and difficult for people with limited computer/internet experience to understand (too many windows within windows, basically).

So there are a number of reasons to sidestep Mechanical Turk.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 21 August 2012 09:11:57AM 2 points [-]

How are you planning to reach out to the poorest of the poor in developing countries?

Could humans be also used for doing this? Something like: "If you find other people to join this system, you will get 10% of their reward."

Surely, this has a lot of negative connotations. This is what many scams do, because it is an efficient way to reach many people. To remove some connotations, perhaps the reward could be limited in time, for example you get 10% of other person's reward only for 2 years. (To make it certain nobody is promissing you to "find 10 more people, and then you don't have to work again, ever".)

Comment author: sinak 14 August 2012 09:16:02PM 13 points [-]

I'm an entrepreneur looking to found or join my next project, so I'm particularly in interesting what people are thinking about and working on.

An Improved Platform for Reading

Problem: We forget almost everything that we read. Current reading platforms (e.g. Kindle, Instapaper, Nook, web browsers) are very crude at helping us make the most of the time we spend reading.

Solution: A platform that uses the latest in efficient learning techniques to improve the quality of recall from reading. By adding interactivity and enhancing the reading experiencing using techniques like active recall and spaced repetition, I think we can build a considerably better interface for reading articles, books, and papers.

Real-world implementation: I think that this sort of platform could be very easily built as a browser plugin and/or mobile app for tablets. As users read a document, they would be able to highlight, add notes, and share these annotations. If users want to memorize a sentence-long summary of a particular document or a particular quote, word, or note, they can select to do so. Summaries of the notes made during reading would then be emailed at the each of day, and push notifications would be used to aid users in memorizing selected text using spaced repetition.

Current development: At present this is very much at the idea stage. I'm an entrepreneur, developer and UI designer myself, and looking for people who'd be interested in helping me build this. I'm also very interested to know whether people would be interested in using such a solution, and any suggestions for improving the idea.

Comment author: nwinter 17 August 2012 05:11:44PM 2 points [-]

I talked to someone building the browser plugin version of this a year ago. Sorry, I don't remember what it was called.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 21 August 2012 07:05:39PM *  12 points [-]

I'm not sure if this is the kind of project you were thinking of at all, but a friend and I have been brainstorming about starting a restaurant that's optimized to serve, primarily, autistic people, and secondarily, people with other disabilities, particularly mental/emotional ones like social anxiety. Notable differences from a regular restaurant are that ordering will be entirely computerized (enabling nifty features like being able to have the computer remember and act on each diner's preferred/dispreferred/forbidden foods list) with an option but not a default of talking to a waiter, all tables will have built-in textual communication devices to allow diners to communicate with anyone in the restaurant (including waiters and management), the restaurant will have a silent section where even talking is forbidden and private rooms that can be reserved ahead of time, the menu will be optimized to allow for personalization of items in terms of content, size, order of presentation, and so on, and the decor will be designed to be sensorily inoffensive while also providing detailed descriptions of local norms via signage.

It will also make a point of hiring autistic people for all positions including management, and avoiding suppliers that donate to Autism Speaks while donating to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network as possible.

Our thoughts on the project so far are collected here - I'm sure I've forgotten some important things even given the length of the above infodump :). (Also, contacting me there will work better than contacting me here after the next few days - I'm not actually following LW anymore; I only knew about this because Alicorn told me.)

Comment author: Iabalka 16 August 2012 04:01:12AM *  10 points [-]

On how to realise it: What about LW-crowd sourcing? For a "month" ideas for for-profit start-ups are gathered. For a "month" the LW crowd ranks them (by for example committing real money) , for a "month" people interested in the 10 most funded ideas can apply for a job, the LW crowd has a month to choose which people will be "hired". Solves part of the funding problem and the team-makeing.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 13 August 2012 11:29:59PM *  10 points [-]


I’d like to encourage betting under this post. Zvi has agreed to advise someone on how to set up the market if a volunteer wants to take this on! Zvi is an expert on betting markets, and having him as an advisor is an awesome opportunity. If you think this sounds like something that you would like to capitalize on, and you are willing to commit to putting in the effort to do the project justice if you are chosen, please fill out the the form.

Bets could be on things like:

  • minimum number of projects that will get started as a result of this post and when
  • measures of success for various projects over various periods of time

Basically, whatever measurable aspects of success or failure people are interested in.

For bets, I encourage people to keep in mind the mission:

Let's collect people who want to work on for-profit companies that have significant positive impacts on many people's lives.

Thus, my request is that you only bet against a project if you think you can prevent yourself from sabotaging people’s efforts as a result. Negative bets are quite valuable, they help give people more realistic expectations and give people something to bet positively against!

The rules for bets that projects will succeed are different in this context than in a lot of standard games. Because the mission is to win the game of making humanity awesome, as opposed to a more restricted game, everything that is ethical and legal is fair game for influencing the outcome of your bets. You can offer resources to increase your odds of winning, such as personal time/money investment in the projects, counseling, connections, office space, or any other resources that seem like they might be useful.

Comment author: DavidLS 16 August 2012 07:21:08AM *  4 points [-]

I contacted Shannon about this yesterday and am told Zvi will be contacting me shortly.

I've heard a lot of LWers talk about a desire for more concrete ways to handle disagreement, and will be focusing on building a good way to have people to put their karma where their mouth is... not just for this thread, but for all threads.

Like so many 26 hour old projects, the code is very rough. I am not sure when it will be ready. If you are interested in being one of the first people to use the system, please shoot an email to info-market@empirestatemachine.com :)

Comment author: michaelkeenan 15 August 2012 08:11:29PM 9 points [-]

This article is a little old (July 2008), but Paul Graham has a list of 30 startup ideas he'd like to fund. With Craigslist turning evil recently, the 25th item about a better Craigslist seems timely.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 15 August 2012 08:42:52PM 9 points [-]

I love #23, about replacing Wikipedia. That's something I've been considering doing for a while; I would much rather have a comprehensive knowledge site than a mere encyclopedia.

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 14 August 2012 12:09:56PM *  9 points [-]

First off-the-top-of-my-head idea:

An organization that would fulfill a role similar to GiveWell, but for people looking to invest money ethically in businesses. Ethical Investment could evaluate companies on how much their business reduces x-risk, improves the human condition, as well as other factors like environmental impact. What would save this from outright hippiedom is that it's actually encouraging investment in worthwhile companies, not saying "boo capitalism".

Potential problems

  • I am pretty ignorant about business issues so I don't know whether this is even possible. Is this data available, and if so is it legal to publish it? Could publishing critical data count as defamation, or whatever the business equivalent is?
  • How to profit from doing this - doesn't spring to mind immediately.
  • May already exist.
  • Assassination.

I'm sure there are others.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 14 August 2012 12:32:10PM *  4 points [-]

Is this data available, and if so is it legal to publish it?

The job of this hypothetical business is to find these things out, and publish them. Answering this question yourself is therefore part of the work required to create such a business, but the short answer is that it's available if you can find it, and by and large, if it's true it's legal to publish (but beware of Swiss laws on business secrets).

How to profit from doing this - doesn't spring to mind immediately.

  1. Invest in what you're recommending.
  2. Publish a free web site and offer a paid newsletter.
  3. When you have built up enough reputation that people with serious money start asking you for advice, sell it to them.
  4. Become an investment company and invest other people's money for them.

May already exist.

Ethical investment.


Are you serious?

Comment author: zslastman 14 August 2012 01:12:04PM *  11 points [-]


Are you serious?

Of course he isn't. Nobody makes money in assassination these days, the market is oversold.

Comment author: XFrequentist 15 August 2012 02:58:26PM 6 points [-]

He was listing assassination as a potential concern for people pursuing this particular business idea, not as a potential business idea itself.

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 14 August 2012 01:33:14PM 3 points [-]

Thank you for the response!

The job of this hypothetical business is to find these things out, and publish them. Answering this question yourself is therefore part of the work required to create such a business, but the short answer is that it's available if you can find it, and by and large, if it's true it's legal to publish (but beware of Swiss laws on business secrets).

That makes a lot of sense, it would be hard to have a service that clarifies and presents already available material be illegal somehow. Defamation laws in Ireland are pretty stupid though.

Invest in what you're recommending. Publish a free web site and offer a paid newsletter. When you have built up enough reputation that people with serious money start asking you for advice, sell it to them. Become an investment company and invest other people's money for them.

Well beyond my (current) knowledge and abilities, but seems a solid plan.

Ethical investment.

Will investigate this further when I have more time.

Are you serious?

Not really. Only a tiny bit at most. I would not like to publish damning material on a very powerful corporation, but I guess one could focus on publishing positive material on good companies instead, if that was a concern.

Comment author: jacoblyles 17 August 2012 12:14:58AM *  23 points [-]

Tagline: Coursera for high school

Mission: The economist Eric Hanushek has shown that if the USA could replace the worst 7% of K-12 teachers with merely average teachers, it would have the best education system in the world. What if we instead replaced the bottom 90% of teachers in every country with great instruction?

The Company: Online learning startups like Coursera and Udacity are in the process of showing how technology can scale great teaching to large numbers of university students (I've written about the mechanics of this elsewhere). Let's bring a similar model to high school.

This Company starts in the United States and ties into existing home school regulations with a self-driven web learning program that requires minimum parental involvement and results in a high school degree. It cloaks itself as merely a tool to aid homeschool parents, similar to existing mail-order tutoring materials, hiding its radical mission to end high school as we know it.

The result is high-quality education for every student. In addition to the high quality, it gives the student schedule flexibility to pursue other interests outside of high school. Many exceptional young people I know dodge the traditional schools early in life. This product gives everyone that opportunity.

By lowering the cost of going home-school, this product will enlargen the home school market and threaten traditional educrats while producing more exceptional minds.

With direct access to millions of students, the website will be able to monetize through one-on-one tutoring markets, college prep services, and other means.

Course material can be bootstrapped by constructing a curriculum out of free videos provided through sources like the Khan Academy. The value-add of the Company will be to tailor the curriculum to the home-school requirements of the particular state of the student.

My background: I cofounded a company that's had reasonable success. I'm not much of a Less Wrong fan - I find the community to be an intellectual monoculture, dogmatic, and full of blind spots to flaws in the philosophy it preaches. BUT this is an idea that needs to happen, as it will provide much value to the world. Contact me at firstname lastname gmail if you have lots of money or can hack. Or hell, steal the idea and do it yourself. Just make it happen.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 August 2012 07:58:47PM *  13 points [-]

Modern compulsory schooling seems to have at least three major sociological effects: socializing its students, offloading enough caregiver burden for both parents to efficiently participate in the workforce, and finally education. For a widespread homeschooling system to be attractive, it's either going to need to fulfill all three, or to be so spectacularly good at one or two that the shortcomings in the others are overwhelmed. Current homeschooling, for comparison, does an acceptable job of education but fails at the other two; consequently it's used mainly by people with very strong objections to the curriculum or other aspects of the school system. That's a small and inelastic market, and you aren't going to enlarge it much without some significant incentives.

Socialization could be addressed by integrating access to hobby groups, sports teams, Scouting-like services and what have you into the program's structure; you'd probably have to push this hard to overcome the perception gap, but it ought to be doable. Some facility for students to self-organize into study groups might also help at the high school level, but it's unlikely to be practical at younger ages.

Offloading caregiver burden is a trickier problem. There seems to be a time/money tradeoff here: you can reduce or eliminate parental involvement during working hours if they're willing to pay for tutoring services and similar resources, but those aren't cheap, and both routes make homeschooling less attractive relative to traditional schooling. Study groups again would help here, but I don't think they can substitute for an expert human without some exceptional cleverness.

Comment author: DaFranker 17 August 2012 08:44:23PM 5 points [-]

The market is most likely still larger than sufficient for the enterprise to be worth it. I only have personal WAG estimates to rely on, but it's pretty hard to get market data on a currently-counterfactual service that people have never even seen.

Anecdotally, out of a sample size of over 60 high school students, at least 8 (including myself) had confirmed to me they would definitely jump right on any alternative form of education that would still be officially recognized, since here homeschooling is very, very difficult to get approved and recognized as equivalent to a standard education. A single institution that you just sign up, and work through the material, and perhaps attend meetings to socialize, but that isn't bogged down by all the problems of shitty teachers and teacher-politics and crappy coursework? That would have (and still does) sounded like an utopian dream by comparison to the dreary and painful system we were stuck in.

Of course, that's just the students themselves, and parents are a different problem to solve too. However, 10-15% of high school students is not a small market. I'm quite certain (.98) that there are at least twice as many people with strong objections to the curriculum or other aspects as there are who actually do use current alternatives, simply by factoring in the amount of people held back by legal / institutional restrictions that require the child to go through regular compulsory education. From what I understand, bypassing this hurdle is exactly the primary service of this hypothetical company.

Also, as long as you can keep the total cost of the company's services for one child equal or under the current standard costs of compulsory education without sacrificing superior education quality, the inherent scalability of the proposed teaching techniques will mean that as your clientbase grows, your ability to provide workspaces, study groups and competent staff increases, which would further expand the market and clientbase, and then...

Yeah, lots of optimistic and positive thinking there. However, I'd really like to do what I can to save other people from the depressive ugh field that I got stuck into throughout high school - an ugh field that eventually killed my hopes of "things getting better" by the time I got to cégep and realized that even there, perfect answers with clear, written reasoning on a math test was still only worth 75% if you didn't have the right passwords (though I didn't think of it in these particular terms at the time, but that's what it was).

A good solution to those problems would have meant less time wasted in high school, and not dropping out of cégep, for this particular individual. Which, incidentally, also means I wouldn't have gotten this job with a ton of free time to read LessWrong, but that's another story.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 17 August 2012 07:44:48AM 7 points [-]

Related idea: semi-computerized instruction.

To the best of my (limited) knowledge, while there are currently various computerized exercises available, they aren't that good at offering instruction of the "I don't understand why this step works" kind, and are often pretty limited (e.g. Khan Academy has exercises which are just multiple choice questions, which isn't a very good bad format). One could try to offer a more sophisticated system - first, present experienced teachers/tutors with a collection of the problems you'll be giving to the students, and ask them to list the most common problems and misunderstandings that the students tend to have with such problems. Then attempt to build a system which will recognize the symptoms of the most common misunderstandings and attempt to provide advice on them, also offering the student the opportunity to ask it themselves using some menu system or natural language parser. (I know some existing academic work along these lines exists, I think applying Bayes nets to build up a model of the students' skills and understanding, but I couldn't find the reference in the place where I thought that I had read it.)

Of course, there will frequently be situations where your existing database fails to understand the student's need. So you combine this with the chance to ask help online, either on a forum with other students, or one-on-one with a paid tutor in an interactive chat session. As the students' problems are resolved, the maintainers follow the conversations and figure out a way for the system to recognize the new problems in the future, either automatically or via the "ask a question" menus.

In particular, the system would be built so that having e.g. forgotten some of the prerequisites in a previous course wouldn't be a problem - if that happened, the system would just automatically lead you to partially rehearse those concepts enough that you could apply them to solve the current problem. At the same time, it could be designed that all of the previous knowledge was being constantly drawn upon, thus providing a natural method for spaced repetition.

This method is naturally most suited for math-like subjects with clear right/wrong answers. But if one wanted to get really ambitious, they could eventually expand the system so as to create a single unified school course that taught everything that's usually taught in high school, abandoning the artificial limits between subjects. E.g. a lesson during which you traveled back in time to witness an important battle (history), helped calculate the cannon ball trajectories for one of the sides (physics), stopped to study a wounded soldier and the effects of the wounds on his body (human biology), and then finally helped the army band play the victory song (music)... or something along those lines. Ideally, there'd be little difference between taking a school lesson and playing a good computer game.

Comment author: cicatriz 17 August 2012 04:19:03PM 4 points [-]

There is an academic field around this called intelligent tutoring systems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_tutoring_system). The biggest company with an ITS, as far as I know, is Carnegie Learning, which provides entire K-12 curricula for it: books, teacher training, software. CL has had mixed evaluations in the past, but I think a fair conclusion at this point is that ITS significantly improves learning outcomes when implemented in an environment where they are able to use software as it's intended to be used (follow the training, spend enough time, etc).

As far as I know there isn't anything quite like this in a widely deployed online system with community discussion as you suggest. Grockit (http://grockit.com) is a social test prep site that is familiar with the ITS community and uses some principles. Khan Academy is continuing to improve, but I can't say whether they will reach the state of the art as far as intelligent tutors go. I'd say there's definitely an opportunity for more ITS in online learning now, but it isn't easy to build.

The Wikipedia article is OK. One example of a recent paper is http://users.wpi.edu/~zpardos/papers/zpardos-its-final22.pdf which also shows some of the human work that goes into modeling the knowledge domain for an ITS.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 August 2012 04:38:02PM 2 points [-]

This method is naturally most suited for math-like subjects with clear right/wrong answers.

Having worked with online homework systems in mathematics for the past three years, let me say a thing -- even in mathematics, there are only clear right/wrong answers in trivial cases. It may be mostly anecdotal, but there is weak evidence that the written correspondence between professor and student that manually-graded homework provides is important to the learning process in mathematics.

In general I'm heavily skeptical of gamification.

Comment author: abramdemski 17 August 2012 06:16:42AM 4 points [-]

This Company starts in the United States and ties into existing home school regulations with a self-driven web learning program that requires minimum parental involvement and results in a high school degree.

The nice thing about this is that it works on an existing market, while leveraging the successful tactics discovered through hard work by Coursera & the like to bring advances to the domain.

Of course, techniques designed for university courses may not precisely transfer.

I'm skeptical about 'leveraging' videos from Khan Academy for a for-profit education system. Makes it sound half-baked.

This idea may fit with the general spaced-repetition enthusiasm I am seeing in other proposals.

It cloaks itself as merely a tool to aid homeschool parents, similar to existing mail-order tutoring materials, hiding its radical mission to end high school as we know it.

...And you just blew your cover. :)

Comment author: DaFranker 17 August 2012 08:49:25PM 3 points [-]

I'm skeptical about 'leveraging' videos from Khan Academy for a for-profit education system. Makes it sound half-baked.

Some selected public or private schools are already doing this, with great results from what little data I've seen. The feedback from the children themselves, at the very least, is impressive - the vast majority of them allegedly report (in less sciencey words) a vast improvement in their reasoning skills and their enthusiasm, motivation and enjoyment of mathematics, sciences, and studying in general.

Unfortunately, this is still on an extremely insignificantly small scale, with only a handful of teachers spread out over 4-6 schools doing this, some of them with direct collaboration from Khan Academy IIRC.

Comment author: cicatriz 17 August 2012 12:57:54AM 4 points [-]

Your approach -- targeting home-schoolers who are "nonconsumers" of public K-12 education -- is exactly the approach advocated by disruption theory and specifically the book Disrupting Class. Using public education as analogous to established leaders in other industries, disruption always comes from the outside because the leaders aren't structurally able to do anything other than serve their consumers with marginal improvements.

ArtofProblemSolving.com is one successful example that's targeted gifted home-schoolers (and others looking for extracurricular learning) in math. I'm sure there are others. EdSurge.com is a good place to look for existing services, which you can sort by criteria including common core/state-standards aligned (you do have to register for free to get the list of resources). I also have thought about services that build on top of Khan Academy, but I wouldn't underestimate their ability to improve in that area. They just released a fantastic computer science platform. But they are a non-profit, so their growth depends, I suppose, on Bill Gates' mood and other philanthropy. To get to full disruption, it might take a for-profit with, as you suggest, monetization through tutoring and other valuable services.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 13 August 2012 11:42:20PM *  7 points [-]


If this post succeeds, it will create a lot of data that will be much more useful if it is organized. I’d like to follow it up with posts in the discussion section, or possibly main for big things, that are focused on more specific niches within the broad topic of businesses that make the world better.

It would be great if more people want to join me with optimizing the organizational end of this. I think the ideal would be to start a discussion thread for this once we see what sorts of responses come in. Perhaps a simple rule to start might be that if you feel inspired to start a new top level thread, post to the organizational thread first, and wait at least 24hrs for feedback before implementing. I think good, well-thought-out high level organization will go quite a ways toward productive discussion and ideas actually getting implemented.

It would also be nice to start a wiki, volunteers for this would be great, but I’d like some discussion about this for at least a couple of days on the organization thread before it happens, since the quality and implementation of the wiki will have a big impact on how useful it is, and it would be best to do it right the first time and not end up with multiple wikis.

For this post, I encourage people to start threads for things such as:

  • people offering physical/material resources.
  • people interested in working on projects in various fields.
  • people interested in leading projects.
  • people who have resources such as niche training or lots of money and a particular passion related to making the world better that they would be interested in making a certain project happen related to.

In addition to posting publicly if you are interested in working on a project, you can also fill out this form to be sent to me personally and not published on the web. I’ll do what matchmaking I can with the forms personally and only send them to people who I think have potential to be good matches. ) to be sent to me personally and not published on the web. I’ll do what matchmaking I can with the forms personally and only send them to people who I think have potential to be good matches.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 18 August 2012 04:25:08AM *  3 points [-]

x-posting comment from over here in case anyone else is willing to take this on:

Would creating a wiki for this page be the sort of thing that you'd be interested in?

Things that I think could be sped up with some a program would be to translate all of the comments over wiki format, and organizing the ideas - it would be really cool if posts for business ideas to be tagged and then organized ranked by upvotes, and updated with the upvote updates on the website.

What I'm visualizing is a page with a list of links of ideas that are ranked (people can manually title the idea summaries after the wiki is created), that links back to the LW site. I'd say that's the most important aspect and I'd love to see it done soon, although there's plenty of other organization that would be nice as well.

Comment author: woodside 22 August 2012 12:11:59PM *  6 points [-]

Rough Idea: Send brilliant, destitute kids to great schools from an early age in exchange for a percentage of their lifetime earnings.

Depending on the study you read there are up to hundreds of millions of children in the developing world that are in the primary/middle school age range that will never get the chance to attend a school. Some of these children have the genetic potential to be top tier in terms of intelligence and productivity but will never realize this potential.

Develop a cost-effective selection mechanism for finding these diamonds in the rough and present them with a deal. They are moved to a top-level boarding school in a developed country (This could be a partnership with existing schools or a school developed specifically for this program, maybe there is a year long english prep trial school they go to first, there are many details to consider). In exchange they commit to paying some percentage (10% feels about right as a gut-check) of their income to the company for the rest of their lives (maybe there is an option to buy out of the contract for kids that end up sufficiently wealthy, again, many details to consider).

Biggest issues I see:

  • The program will take many years, potentially 2 decades, to start generating revenue.
  • A host of legal hurdles
  • Social/litigious blowback from groups that don't like the idea of plucking third world children from their families and signing them up for what may be interpreted as indentured servitude
  • Reliably selecting the right kids may turn out to be prohibitively expensive
Comment author: PhilGoetz 10 September 2012 03:43:46AM *  2 points [-]

You don't pluck them from their families, because you can't do this in the US or Europe anyway. You build the schools in the other countries. You're not going to send them to Harvard. The point is not to get them hooked into the US old-boy network so they can win grants or get venture capital or work for Goldman-Sachs. The point is to get them an education, which is not what top-tier US schools are for anyway.

In the US, I think the law prevents you from doing this, unless you're the military.

Comment author: Desrtopa 10 September 2012 04:57:45AM 2 points [-]

Well, if it's for-profit venture, then the point isn't to get them an education, the point is to prepare them for lucrative careers, in which case social capital is of high importance.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 09:53:58PM *  6 points [-]

If you would like to help make these ideas happen, I highly recommend asking questions to the people who presented them.

Most ideas will get glossed over because they are not specific enough.

The easiest way to help people get specific enough that I know of is to ask yourself the question "What could this person say that would catch my attention and cause me to want to work with or invest in them if I were in their target demographic?"

If you use that for your compass of what questions to ask them to be more specific about, and they answer well, then much better odds of a match happening, if someone in their target demographic passes through. And if they end up getting more clarity through your questions and realizing that the idea isn't actually something they want to pursue, then that's not a bad outcome either - they can stop worrying about it and move onto something better suited to them.

In addition to helping them get clear about things you think you would want as an investor, also questions that clarify what they would be looking for in general, and especially as a next step, for the project would help. Have they answered the question "What/who does this project need?" very concretely and specifically?

If you ask the right questions, you just might be able to make the difference between someone getting their project funded or not. We can make bets about specifics of this assertion with David's market ;)

Also worth noting that even though I phrased the question about "what cause me to want to work with or invest in them" in the positive, often what needs to be addressed are peoples concerns to show that the project is actually realistic - so asking the hard questions, that could prove that the idea is not good if the person can't answer well, is actually quite important. Its much better to risk genuinely disqualifying a project than to not give it a chance to be noticed.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 13 August 2012 11:18:52PM *  6 points [-]


Negative: Negative feedback is valuable. If you think an idea is terrible, don't just downvote, also explain. The trick to giving good negative feedback is doing so with productive goals in mind, which means, rather than saying “this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard”, think about what specifically it is that you think makes the idea infeasible in its current form, and what would turn it into a good, or at least a better, idea.

Keep in mind that negative feedback is a double edged sword. It helps people refine their ideas, and can create success in place of failure. Unfortunately, even in its best forms, it also can easily sap a person’s motivation. It tends to do this on the monkey mind level, not on the analytic level, which is frustrating since negative feedback is such a beautiful tool for the analytic mind. I’ve seen how even the slightest negative feedback can have a huge impact, even stopping people from working on projects that are pretty decent on the whole. There is a minority of people who are relatively unfazed by negative commentary, but most of us can’t help but internalize it somewhat. Agentiness is rare, and something that can be cultivated or trampled with feedback. Being specific is the one of the most helpful things you can do to deliver the most constructive criticism, because the information tends to be more helpful toward solving the problems and less personal.

Another thing that helps avoid killing someone’s motivation is speaking with the assumption that the person you're talking to is an intelligent human being whose idea could be good if worked out a little further. This is often the case, especially here. When people sense that you anticipate that they'll come back with an intelligent answer, they often do.

Here's an example for making negative feedback more specific: Perhaps you think that a person is vastly underestimating the difficulty of raising funds for their idea. I would suggest phrasing it as a question: “How do you propose to get funding for this idea?” You don’t need to convey your doubt in the question, but if you do feel the need to bring it up, do it as specifically as possible: “When I’ve tried fundraising in the past, I found it extremely hard, and extrapolating that, I have a hard time imagining it working for this project. Can you please explain how you see this happening?”

In summary, I think that it is very much worth giving negative feedback, even though it does often harm motivation. Ideas need to be good if they’re going to work, and by giving negative feedback, you are helping people improve their ideas. Even if the person with the idea doesn’t get it or update, it might help bystanders. And there’s a decent chance that the person who you talk to will understand, and you might be able to help a project happen that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without your well framed remark.

Positive: Validation for good ideas is really helpful. You may think that people who have a good idea know that it's a good idea already. I know a lot of people, though, who feel a little better and more encouraged - and who are more likely to follow through when given validation. So if you see someone mention something great, be sure to give them a thumbs up. It will be even more powerful if you respond with a comment saying specifically why it's a good idea, with as much detail as you can manage. Not only will the person feel validated, but other people reading are also more likely to see the value that you see, so the idea is more likely to get funding, refinement, and resources. If this thread goes as I hope, any comment or up/down vote that you make might well have a impact on whether or not a world-improving project gets implemented.

Clarification: Sometimes someone will make a good point that is obvious to you, but not obvious to other people. If you understand a good point that someone has made and you think it's not likely to get across to others, it's super helpful if you can restate it clearly and succinctly so that the concept gets conveyed to everyone.

Comment author: AngryParsley 14 August 2012 03:38:11AM *  9 points [-]

I think the biggest problem with your proposal is that it's hard to do a startup with founders who don't know each other well. The founders and early employees will face long hours, stress, and possibly financial woes. Some background history and an interview aren't enough to ensure that someone won't flake. The best co-founders are friends who have worked together previously. As Paul Graham says:

And the relationship between the founders has to be strong. They must genuinely like one another, and work well together. Startups do to the relationship between the founders what a dog does to a sock: if it can be pulled apart, it will be.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 14 August 2012 04:12:49AM *  12 points [-]

Yeah, that's definitely tricky and a downside.

I think having the common philosophies of Less Wrong would go a long way. It would also be an upside if all people are passionate about the cause and have thought it through in a lot of detail before committing to work together. There is also nothing to say that people can't get to know each other well before embarking on a project together, even if they do hook up on this blog. Things like Skype and even planes are easy to use in this day and age - if people are truly motivated and taking initiative, they can overcome that sort of obstacle.

The Less Wrong blog already has a very strong filtering effect, plus the other filters just mentioned, so I think that if/when people get to the point of deciding they want to work together, they'll likely be decent matches. For example, ideas will get chewed on much more thoroughly in this context than most, so I think there is likely to be more consistency of vision between different founding members.

Obviously I'm quite biased having written this post, so I discount my enthusiasm, and am curious about what other issues are that people see.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 15 August 2012 02:13:16AM 9 points [-]

Looking at other comments, I want to be a little more specific about why I have more hope for this particular forum than an average group of people reading a blog post who could potentially be cofounders together.

As someone who is part of the culture, I find people who are hardcore Less Wrong types to be much easier to get along with than most people when it comes to conversations that might upset people. Having the common values of truth-even-when-it-hurts and clarity go such a long way toward making communication work and progress happen, among many other great memes. I've met a lot of the crowd in person at this point, living in the Bay Area, and find that even with someone I don't know at all, if they're coming through that filter, I can talk more freely and openly with them than I can with most people, without worry about offending them or other undesirable consequences.

It is my guess that a lot of the interpersonal conflict that kills start-ups comes down to lack of clarity and poor communication. Friends getting along better fits with this notion, because they would probably communicate better and have more shared values and ways of perceiving the world than strangers.

Comment author: Vaniver 14 August 2012 04:33:42AM *  9 points [-]

I believe there are results (linked by Hanson recently?) showing that cofounders do better when they're selected for merit reasons (i.e. this guy was the best coder we found) rather than identity reasons (i.e. we both went to the same university). It's also relatively easy to get to know people quickly.

Flakes as cofounders, however, is a critical error that must be consciously avoided. I like your mention of previous projects- whenever someone tells me they think we'd make a good founding pair, I try to look for a small project that we can ship in a few months that will give us a taste of how we work together. I've avoided a few mistakes that way.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 August 2012 03:16:42PM 9 points [-]

Something I learned from watching a nearby train wreck: The emotionally dominant person in a partnership should not be a compulsive spender.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 14 August 2012 09:21:36PM 3 points [-]

I'd be interested in meeting a co-founder on Less Wrong. I'd want to work on some smaller project first - some trivial website or web app, or a browser extension, that could be finished in a relatively short time. That would give me an idea of the prospective co-founder's skills and work habits. Of course it's not as much information as I'd like to have, but it'd be a good start.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 14 August 2012 04:41:27AM *  3 points [-]

Anecdotally, Dropbox was founded by two guys who had just met each other.

But yeah, this is probably true in general. Maybe the best we can do is start making friends with people who we might like to start startups with later, as a preliminary step?

I'd like to make friends with a web designer, myself.

Comment author: AlexMennen 14 August 2012 04:44:37AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: AngryParsley 14 August 2012 04:56:07AM 4 points [-]

That study was about VCs choosing investments, not startup founders working long, stressful hours side-by-side. I realize there are disadvantages to working with friends, but I'm pretty sure the advantages outweigh them. Paul Graham seems to agree, and he makes a living picking founders.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 August 2012 06:37:32AM 3 points [-]


I agree and add my own personal experience as an anecdote. Business gives different incentives and prompts different applications of power. I no longer have several friends, for most part due to business related problems.

Comment author: Chroma 16 August 2012 07:06:54AM *  4 points [-]

Imagine that Hacker News beat us to the punch and had a "let's found important startups" thread. Would you be as positive and enthusiastic? HN is geared toward people who know about startup culture. People who have read PG's essays and spent significant fractions of their lives improving their ability to win at startups.

Compare the HN group to the people who will reply to your post. You're selecting against people who already have experience doing startups. (Those people already have the experience and social connections necessary to start another company. There's no reason for them to take a chance on people in this thread.) Also, fluid intelligence is great, but domain experience is much more useful in the case of startups. Finally, it's important to note that LW posters seem to suffer from akrasia. When the rubber hits the road, LW users seem to flee.

Of course, I have little experience in any of these domains. The LW akrasia correlation is simply my impression, not something based in empericism.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 18 August 2012 07:36:11AM 4 points [-]

They linked the article today! You can see their comments here.

Comment author: RomanDavis 27 August 2012 03:08:31AM 5 points [-]

Food Subscription Service. The natural extreme on the Just In Time pipeline applied to food. This means less wasted food at every stage, and gets you all the benefits of buying/ selling in bulk, meaning the potential for lower price and other gains from trade.

Comment author: Marcello 18 August 2012 04:31:05AM 5 points [-]

Short version: Make an Eckman-style micro-expression reader in a wearable computer.

Fleshed out version: You have a wearable computer (perhaps something like Google glass) which sends video from its camera (or perhaps two cameras if one camera is not enough) over to a high-powered CPU which processes the images, locates the faces, and then identifies micro expressions by matching and comparing the current image (or 3D model) to previous frames to infer which bits of the face have moved in which directions. If a strong enough micro-expression happens, the user is informed by a tone or other notification. Alternatively, one could go the more pedagogical route by showing then a still frame of the person doing the micro-expression some milliseconds prior with the relevant bits of the face highlighted.

Feasibility: We already can make computers are good at finding faces in images and creating 3D models from multiple camera perspectives. I'm pretty sure small cameras are good enough by now. We need the beefy CPU and/or GPU as a separate device for now because it's going to be a while before wearables are good enough to do this kind of heavy-duty processing on their own, but wifi is good enough to transmit very high resolution video. The foggiest bit in my model would be whether current image processing techniques are up to the challenge. Would anyone with expertise in machine vision care to comment on this?

Possible positive consequences: Group collaboration easily succumbs to politics and scheming unless a certain (large) level of trust and empathy has been established. (For example, I've seen plenty of hacker news comments confirm that having a strong friendship with one's startup cofounder is important.) A technology such as this would allow for much more rapid (and justified) trust-building between potential collaborators. This might also allow for the creation of larger groups of smart people who all trust each other. (Which would be invaluable for any project which produces information which shouldn't be leaked because it would allow such projects to be larger.) Relatedly, this might also allow one to train really excellent therapist-empaths.

Possible negative consequence: Police states where the police are now better at reading people's minds.

Comment author: AltonSun 18 August 2012 06:41:30PM 5 points [-]

Version 0.1 can be for Skype conversations. Imagine the heightened 'super power' ability to discreetly (or not so discreetly) pick up on this during your personal and business Skype chats.

I wear a GoPro camera around my neck for a life-logging project, and have tried it with a wifi (EyeFi) card. If you want live video or pics, the battery lasts around 1 hr for 1picture per 5 seconds. If you want video at 30fps at 960p, the interchangeable batteries last about 1.5 hours and records about 5.5 hrs on a 32gb card (max size supported)

The files are huge, cumbersome, and do little for me.

I have been entertaining the idea of a version that recognizes your mood throughout the day with your webcam, and plots it over time based on what type of tasks you were performing. Over time, your laptop could suggest transitioning from certain tasks to others based on your expressions to optimize for personalized productivity and mood.

Affectiva's Affdex is a company to look to for this, and has a great demo that plots your expressions over time while watching commercials: http://www.affectiva.com/affdex/#pane_overview

Another idea is to make lending out laptops free if the user agrees to having essentially no privacy - you'd sell the information and user expressions as they experience certain sites back to the companies that would pay for this program and reap a healthy profit along the way! (A part of which you'd totally send to me.)

This could be a sustainable way to get more internet enabled laptops into more hands and push people to become more contributing, creating members of society rather than the majority passive consumers that we experience today.

Version .1 of this laptop program could be lending out old/donated/extra laptops under the condition that the lendees who use the laptops create 1 thing a day of notable worth to themselves (or one project per every x hours). So everyone is held together by incrementally improving themselves and creating projects of value that are auto uploaded from a certain folder into a community of people who give each other feedback, etc.

Look forward to talking about this next time I see you in person Marcello. Also typing about this here for anyone else that happens to be reading, feel free to find me on Facebook.com/AltonSun to further the conversation.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 14 August 2012 03:00:00AM 5 points [-]

Topics to consider when examining an idea thread

Comment author: abramdemski 17 August 2012 03:40:39AM 3 points [-]

There are a few relevant posts over at The Rationalist Conspiracy. My take-away: sell something, to avoid falling for the online advertising fallacy.

Comment author: JenniferRM 15 August 2012 01:13:28AM *  13 points [-]

To sound a note of caution... I spent a number of years acquiring various kinds of non-monetary capital that are useful for startups. Looking back with my current state of theoretical knowledge and memories, I suspect I may come to see this period as involving too little caution. The key concept acquired between then and now is Kelly Betting.

I still haven't worked through the applications of this concept to startups in a way that I feel is "settled", but depending on the precise nature of the risks and rewards and the bankroll of the typical person accepting startup equity in place of cash, the Kelly Criterion may indicate that startups should usually not be more than hobbies for "normal" (non-rich, non-certainly-immortal, declining-utility-in-dollars) humans. Note that if startups are roughly as risky as a simple Kelly calculation says they should be, this might still be cause for concern because most people who raise theory/practice issues with Kelly say that it over invests in risks.

I'm still exploring ways that the theory might line up with reality, but even my limited state of knowledge has caused me to scale back my startup enthusiasm in the last year or so. The math might come out more positive if you value the knowledge capital gained through startup work in the correct way, for example, but that's particularly tricky to calculate. If anyone else has thoughts on this subject I would love to read or hear them.

For reference, Robin already wrote about Kelly betting to claim that the present era is visibly unstable because most investment firms, and the economy in general, seems not to be engaged in a Kelly strategy at the present time. In some sense, Robin claimed, a financial system not dominated by Kelly-following-financial-entities would probably be a system that has no significantly old Kelly-following-financial-entities, because in the long run they "win" at finance.

Another source on Kelly betting that is directly applicable to startups flows with the "invest in the team, not the idea" dictum. The post "Optimal startup burn rate and the Kelly criterion" is no longer available in the wild but is retained on archive.org and discussed the optimal team size and experimental product cycle given a starting bankroll. (The blog is LaserLike and is not itself down.)

For what its worth, I'm not totally bearish on startups, and sort of have one cooking... I'm just trying to pursue startup stuff with an eye on keeping a bird or 6 in the hand while pursuing startup stuff in parallel. In this vein, if anyone is or knows a solid hardware hacker with RFID experience/interest, especially if they are ethical, planful, world-savey, "rational", and/or live in (southern?) California, I'd appreciate hearing from you. No particular startup interest or equity tolerance is important -- just hardware skills, character, and an interest in educational conversation :-)

Comment author: Zvi 16 August 2012 01:26:30AM *  21 points [-]

I have extensive experience in this realm, including both independently re-deriving Kelly before learning about it and then working extensively with variations of it, in nominally Kelly-optimal conditions. Kelly is only optimal under a very strict set of criteria, and those criteria de facto do not occur in practice. It's a great guide to the landscape, but a terrible perscription in most situations. Common errors include misunderstanding what counts as a bankroll, inability to access large portions of the real bankroll, changing returns to investment size, the existence of limiting factors, having almost any real utility function, unknown unknowns and edge uncertainty which is almost always correlated, psychological impact and inability to precommit credibly to Kelly, outside perceptions and their impact on your bankroll or utility, not accounting for calculation errors, odds or outcomes that are impacted by bet size, and more.

I may write a top-level post going into more detail (feedback on this idea is appreciated), but here I will deal only with this particular case.

In a start-up, the bankroll definition and potential is one key. Your bankroll includes more than you think, and that's especially true in a start-up world where you can, even in failure, get more investment and start again, or join someone else's start-up, or just go back to a day job. Kelly assigns infinite disutility to going broke, and going broke is standard procedure in the startup world. Also, how you take your compensation is largely for motivation and signaling and to keep control of the company, all of which impact the result. In bankroll terms my investing in my own company, and taking $0 other than expenses from my start-up work was madness, but it was clearly the correct play and has paid off handsomely in numerous non-bankroll ways even if no money results!

Going full speed at a startup, even in failure, is often a winning play as you develop connections, reputation, experience, skills and other neat stuff like that, laying the groundwork for future success.

Comment author: Benja 16 August 2012 04:15:05PM 3 points [-]

I'd be interested in reading that post! If you do, could you explain more about the grounds on which you'd be applying Kelly to this problem at all, though? I'm somewhat unclear on that -- see my other comment in this thread for detail.

Comment author: Zvi 17 August 2012 11:42:54AM 2 points [-]

In this problem, you're starting a business, and you can consider that business as a bet, out of which you hope to gain a job, income, investment money from your equity, reputation, experience, and so on, all of which can be abstracted. Alternatively, you can look purely at the equity vs. salary trade-off in the context of Kelly, which as I explained above is deeply flawed. It's not a great scenario for such calculations, but they can still provide insightful context.

Comment author: Benja 16 August 2012 04:09:11PM *  10 points [-]

Your comment rings my "math applied incorrectly" alarm -- I may just be misunderstanding, e.g. you might be motivated by a logarithmic utility function in amount of money made, but that's a very different thing from the reason we would expect the financial system to be dominated by Kelly-following-financial-entities -- so just in case, let me try to explain my understanding of why Kelly is so important, and why it doesn't obviously seem to be related to the question of whether to start a startup. Any corrections very much appreciated!

Kelly and financial markets

Suppose three investment funds are created in the same year. Let's say the first fund is badly managed and loses 5% of its capital each year; the second fund gains 5% each year; and the third fund gains 10% each year. After 100 years of this, which of the three will be the most important force in the market? I didn't specify that they had the same starting capital, but the first fund is down to 0.6% of its start capital, the second fund has increased its capital 130-fold, and the third fund has increased its by a factor of 13,800, so if they didn't differ by too many orders of magnitude when they started out, the third one beats the others hands-down.

Of course, the growth isn't really constant in each year. Let's suppose your capital grows by a factor of r(i) in year i. Then after 100 years it's grown by a factor of r(1) * r(2) * ... * r(100), obviously, and we're interested in the fund whose strategy maximizes this number, because after a long enough time, that fund will be the only one left standing. We can write this as

r(1) * r(2) * ... * r(100) = exp(log(r(1)) + log(r(2)) + ... + log(r(100)))

and maximizing this number happens to be equivalent to maximizing

(1/100)(log(r(1)) + log(r(2)) + ... + log(r(100))),

i.e., maximizing the mean of the log growth factor.

Now, imagine that the growth your strategy achieves in a particular year doesn't depend on the amount of money you have available in that year: if you have $1 million, you'll buy N shares of ACME Corp, if you have $10 million, you'll just buy 10*N shares instead. Also assume (much less plausibly -- but I'm pretty sure this can be generalized with more difficult math) that the same bets are offered each year, and what happens in one year is statistically independent of what happens in any other year. Then the log growth factors log(r(i)) are independent random variables with the same distribution, so the Law of Large Numbers says that

(1/100)(log(r(1)) + log(r(2)) + ... + log(r(100)))

is approximately equal to the expected value of log(r(i)). Thus, after a long time, we expect those funds to dominate the market whose strategy maximizes the expectation of the log of the factor by which they increase their capital in a given year.

From this, you can derive the Kelly criterion by calculus. You can also see that it's the same criterion as if you only play for a single year, and value the money you have after that year with a logarithmic utility function.

So what about startups?

An important assumption above was that the same bets are available to you each year no matter how much money you happen to have that year. If each year there's a chance that you'll lose all your money, that would be terrible, of course, because it'll happen eventually, and then you are out of the game forever; but barring that, your strategy looks pretty much the same, whether you have $1M or $100M. But if you invest $100K-equivalent in sweat equity in a startup and cash out $10M, you do not tend to re-invest that return by creating a hundred similar startups the next year.

Conversely, suppose your startup fails, and according to some sort of accounting you can be said to have lost 30% of your bankroll in the process. For the above reasoning to apply, not only would you have to start another startup after this (reasonable assumption), but the returns of this next startup, if it succeeds, should be only 70% of the returns your first startup would have yielded -- because see, our assumption was that the return on a successful bet is a constant times the amount of money you've bet (dividends on 10*N shares vs. dividends on N shares), and you've lost 30% of your bankroll, so now you can only be betting 70% of the resources you were betting before.

It seems to me that this makes basically no sense. If you start another startup right after the first one, you've gained experience, you've gained contacts, and it seems that if anything, you should be able to build a better startup this time. Even if not, it seems strange to say that if in some sense you bet 30% of your personal resources in your first startup, then this should imply that your next startup will be exactly 30% worse than the one before, and the one after that will be worse by exactly 30% again. (And that's not even taking into account that you probably won't start enough startups for the Law of Large Numbers to become relevant.)

In conclusion, it seems to me that if the Kelly criterion applies to startups, it must be for a very different reason than why we'd expect to see Kelly-following-financial entities. (Zvi, who has clearly thought about this more than I have, seems to agree with you that it applies in some way, though.) Did that make sense, or did I misunderstand you somehow?

Comment author: rocurley 16 August 2012 10:30:03PM 3 points [-]

That was a very good explanation; I found it significantly more illuminating than Wikipedia's.

Comment author: gwern 15 August 2012 02:12:24AM *  4 points [-]

the bankroll of the typical person accepting startup equity in place of cash, the Kelly Criterion may indicate that startups should usually not be more than hobbies for "normal" (non-rich, non-certainly-immortal, declining-utility-in-dollars) humans.

I'm not too clear how we would apply KC to startups (as opposed to specific contracts in prediction markets).

Let's see... Somewhere Paul Graham says that >90% of startups will fail, so our Kelly odds are 9:1. What's the return on a won bet? Well, the recent Kaufmann Foundation report on VC funds puts the single best VC funds at an overall return of ~8x but that's not enough because that implies that we may not even break even if we lost ~9 investments for every 1 investment returning 8! (receiving 8 back on a 9:1 bet)

If startups are negative expected value, the KC is not useful: it presumes bets are positive expected value and the question is what fraction to bet at any time to avoid ruin. I suppose that treating them as lottery tickets and assuming you are risk-seeking might make it useful, but I don't know how to do that.

Maybe time-value will help. Thinking of a LWer I know, he received the rough equivalent of a year's salary when the startup 'won'. But the startup itself took years and naturally wasn't paying the salary a big competitor might, so it's not obvious that he was better off in the end, which brings us back to the expected value question.

Yeah, I dunno.

Comment author: cousin_it 15 August 2012 03:25:38AM *  4 points [-]

I don't understand your calculation. Even the best VC funds probably make some losing investments, so to achieve an overall return of 8x, the winning startups must yield more than that.

Comment author: gwern 15 August 2012 03:32:22AM 3 points [-]

I did say it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Comment author: DavidLS 16 August 2012 06:39:38AM 3 points [-]

KC does apply to negative EV bets. The formula emits a negative allocation (ie "take the other side").

Comment author: gwern 16 August 2012 02:20:41PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, but I don't think that really applies to startups! (What is 'the other side'? Are there people who offer shorts on arbitrary startups for less than millions?)

Comment author: Vaniver 15 August 2012 06:45:33PM 2 points [-]

If startups are negative expected value, the KC is not useful: it presumes bets are positive expected value and the question is what fraction to bet at any time to avoid ruin.

On the contrary, in some sense, that's when the KC is most useful. The correct amount of money to gamble on losing propositions is 0!

My estimation of startups in general is that startups are a good way for exceptional individuals to capture much of the value they create. The problem is that it's difficult to tell who is exceptional beforehand, especially if one can only measure sparkle and not grit, and also especially if one has not determined their own level yet.

In that vein, I am cautious about finding cofounders in ways like this.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 15 August 2012 01:53:57AM 4 points [-]

This is beautiful, I really appreciate your giving it a shot to ask for what you want on here even though you're dubious about getting it. There are a lot of awesome people, some of whom I know about personally, who are browsing through this, and I think seeing these sorts of comments and requests that show someone who is really thinking and realizes how hard start-ups are and is very selective, is likely to bring forth more such people and quality.

My request is that if you do get emails from someone promising and anything good comes out of it, that you please respond back with at least a quick line saying so on this thread - whether or not I do more things like this in the future will depend highly on that sort of feedback, and other people will be much more likely to try what you're trying if it works for you. Thanks for trying it! :)

Comment author: JenniferRM 15 August 2012 02:06:20AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the support! I put the URL and a note in my calendar, so I will probably comment again here with an update on how it worked.

Comment author: patrickscottshields 14 August 2012 05:05:22PM *  12 points [-]

I started MyPersonalDev a year ago to develop a data-driven personal development web application. The minimum viable product I envision is a task manager for people who like to think about utility functions (give your tasks utility functions!) My long-range vision is to use machine learning and collective intelligence to automate things like next-action determinations, value-of-information calculations, and probability estimates. I've written most of the minimum viable product already and use it extensively to manage my own tasks, but I haven't released anything publicly because it's easier to develop the software without having an existing user base.

The downside of having no user base is that there's no revenue, which is a real issue for me as a cash-strapped college student. I'll graduate in May with a degree in computer science, and I've been thinking hard about what to do after that. My impression is that working for my startup post-graduation would likely involve a period of extreme financial difficulty that I'd like to avoid. Consequently, I've been considering shutting it down and trying to get the best existing job I can get, using salary as the base metric and making adjustments for things like quality-of-life and is-the-company-doing-something-worthwhile. While ideologically frustrating (I like the idea of working for my startup full-time post-graduation), that has seemed to be the most instrumentally rational thing for me to do.

Here are some options I'll throw out there:

  • If there's collective interest in MyPersonalDev as a vehicle for some of the positive impact we're talking about in this thread, I'm interested in working with people to make that happen. Anyone interested in sponsoring development of the software or otherwise making it more financially viable during its startup phase should contact me. For the next nine months before I graduate, it could help to have a small, cheap office space near campus, as I'll be living on-campus and can't conduct commercial activity there. I'll plan to put a media kit together with more information on the company for interested parties.
  • If other programmers want to work with me on MyPersonalDev, either now over the internet, or in-person once I graduate in May, that would be exciting! I'm not sure how we would work it out in terms of equity and salary, but I'm open to suggestions. Right now the company is a stock corporation, of which I am the sole director and shareholder. I like that because it's lean (I don't need to get permission from other people to make business decisions.) That said, I'd want collaborators to be fairly compensated. Some sort of funding or revenue seems necessary for this to happen.
  • If I don't end up working for MyPersonalDev full-time post-graduation, I'm available as a programmer and aspiring rationalist who wants to work on something important. Until May, I'm available online; after May, I'm available in-person.
  • If people want to form a startup together, maybe they should live together too! I started a roommate interest coordination thread two weeks ago for purposes like that.
  • Like I said in that thread: If there were several people interested in working for their own startups, maybe they could lease a building together, or utilize collective purchasing to lower the costs of bookkeeping or legal services. (Is anyone interested in doing that?)

Look at my history of posts for more information about me. Like I said in a recent post:

I'm especially interested in collaborating with other programmers, working in Python or Go, working on data visualizations in D3, programming rationality exercises, or working on something that qualifies as "data science".

I want to work on something important. I want to work on a team. And I want to make enough money to live comfortably. When I graduate in May, I'm very interested in moving towards a more optimal living and working situation. Could we be a fit? Get in touch!

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 05:00:03AM 8 points [-]

Colby (at the Berkeley LW meetup) is wondering about what your market is - people interested in utility functions are economics professors and Less Wrong readers. How do you envision reaching out to more people and who would you reach out to?

Group consensus: Advertise it to somewhere like Less Wrong, then if people say its cool and email you, go with it, if you don't get good feedback, let it go.

Comment author: ModusPonies 14 August 2012 04:18:42PM 12 points [-]

I have a resource that could help someone's project: my time. I'm a novice programmer looking to gain some practical experience, and I'd be willing to work, say, 20 hours a week for free, at least for a month or two. PM me if you think I might be able to help out.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 15 August 2012 01:58:16AM *  6 points [-]

What would be your ideal subject matter to be programming?

The clearer and more detailed you answer that, the more likely you are to get it or something similar. Also perhaps information about what languages you use and/or specialties and/or link to a Linkedin page or something like that.

Thanks for making this offer!

Comment author: ModusPonies 19 August 2012 02:02:40AM 2 points [-]

I'm not actually sure what areas I'd most like to focus on. A big part of why I'm making this offer is to learn what's out there so I can answer that question. Currently, Java is the only language I'm familiar with, but I'd love to branch out.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 18 August 2012 04:22:31AM 3 points [-]

Would creating a wiki for this page be the sort of thing that you'd be interested in?

Things that I think could be sped up with some a program would be to translate all of the comments over wiki format, and organizing the ideas - it would be really cool if posts for business ideas to be tagged and then organized ranked by upvotes, and updated with the upvote updates on the website.

What I'm visualizing is a page with a list of links of ideas that are ranked (people can manually title the idea summaries after the wiki is created), that links back to the LW site. I'd say that's the most important aspect and I'd love to see it done soon, although there's plenty of other organization that would be nice as well.

Comment author: ModusPonies 19 August 2012 02:26:50AM 2 points [-]

As cool as that would be, that's a bigger job than I'd want to accept on my own. I'd have to teach myself a whole lot of code, which would probably take more time than I could justify devoting to a one-shot project.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 August 2012 07:15:28AM 18 points [-]

Here's an incredibly brilliant idea for a rationalist startup! You know how it is when you've got too much food, like a cheesecake or something, that your guests didn't finish or whatever, and your brain refuses to throw it out because you don't want it to be wasted, but you don't want to have to eat it all either? This startup would have a registry of polite, well-dressed, grateful, hungry people in your vicinity, who'll come over and eat it for you - there in ten minutes or your money back! SunkMunch.com - "We eat your food, now!" YC '13, here we come!

Comment author: Kindly 16 August 2012 09:49:52PM 13 points [-]

A simpler solution: contrive to get on the mailing list for graduate students at a local university.

Comment author: JoshuaFox 16 August 2012 02:50:21PM *  11 points [-]

One case of food poisoning and you'd be sued to Kingdom Come.

Apparently it's even an issue for City Harvest, which distributes leftovers to the poor.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 August 2012 08:01:32PM 10 points [-]

Truly is it said that all real innovation is illegal.

Comment author: Raemon 16 August 2012 08:32:44PM 6 points [-]

In this case not illegal, just not terribly well incentivized.

Comment author: shminux 16 August 2012 09:34:37PM *  7 points [-]

polite, well-dressed, grateful, hungry people in your vicinity.

Dress for success! (Or at least dress for food. Right. "Undress for food" has been done before.)

Comment author: cousin_it 17 August 2012 12:04:22AM *  3 points [-]

Or you could have a 45-minute class on throwing away food. Doesn't seem like a difficult skill to train.

Comment author: buggy 21 August 2012 08:31:36PM 4 points [-]

Second, my concept ... essentially, borrowing money from your future self for something with a postive ROI expectation value.

Economists can (OK, do) roughly value certain life milestones, such as the increase in lifetime earnings for finishing high school (for the sake of this discussion, let's use $500K for that number). They also believe that certain goals (e.g. passing grades for a semester) can be cash-incentivized. So you let an individual borrow a portion of their future benefit (10%? $50K buys a lot of incentive from a HS student) in the present, with a promise to repay that over a very long time period at a very low interest rate (something that works out to about 20% in total repayments, before factoring inflation, if I had to peg it to something for the sake of argument). A website would have a schedule of incentive schemes, possibly scaled by degree-of-difficulty (passing grades being tougher for weaker students, e.g.), and upon meeting the short-term milestones of that goal, and the final goal itself, incentives would be paid out. This could apply to any process that has a {present value of all future returns} greater than the amount needed to repay: reduced medical costs for weight reduction and smoking-cessation, job certifications (passing a CPA or actuarial exam), time off from work to acquire a work-related skill, cost of improving a home/installing energy-reducing features, etc. Yeah, some of those may not work, but I'm sure there's no shortage of quantifiable processes or goals with a positive future ROI. & I can see that measurement could be tricky, but in the school example we could have schools sign on to the program, in the certification example we get a copy of the certification from the certifying body, etc.

There's an additional monetary multiplier, in that the younger version (the borrower) is almost certainly in a lower income bracket than the older version (the lender), and the money is valued more highly ... I'd happily give $20 inflation-adjusted dollars (a pittance now) to my younger self just to go have fun with (who felt $20 was a lot of money), even taking into account that I wish I'd worked/studied harder when I was younger so I could coast more now. And when it comes time to repay the loan, the fact that I am effectively repaying myself might reduce deadbeatedness.

Of course, not everyone will repay their loans, and the payoff in this venture would be very long-term. So who would provide the seed money for this until repayments match outlays? Well: - The same people who loan money to Kiva, not to make a profit, but because they believe incentivizing people is more effective than aid, and if they make a few dollars off it eventually, that's gravy - The same people who give gift annuities to schools (a similar mechanism) - Foundations with money to invest and an ethical dictate to do something with that money - People trying to solve long-term problems (eradicating diseases, improving the education system) who just want their money to do the best thing possible - Alumni of the program who see the value (the same way universitites have an easy time getting money from graduates who believe school was one reason they have high incomes) - People who see it as a Very Good Idea and choose to fund that instead of a non-profit (I understand you personally may not consider it a VGI, but weaker concepts have attracted more money)

Please proceed to poke holes/refine. thnx. -b.

Comment author: Larks 24 August 2012 03:22:46PM 3 points [-]

Is this very different from just taking out a loan?

Comment author: gwern 25 August 2012 01:27:51AM 2 points [-]

Isn't this just the same as Hanson's idea on investors giving out student loans in exchange for return from future income, but with caps on totals?

Comment author: Davidmanheim 24 August 2012 04:04:21PM 2 points [-]

I love this idea, in theory. (Are you willing to start devoting time to the idea?)

The question is how to run a trial for this. Do you start with high schoolers? Or college students? (There are some real advantages there...) If it's a couple of $500 loans, there are plenty of people who would fund them. The infrastructure would be harder. Perhaps in could be run through the college, or as part of a new type of college loan program. (Speaking of which, why are those loan rate so high? Could we do better - because 8% is not a good deal for a cash advance on future earnings!)

Practical questions: 1) Can a minor (High School age) sign a legally binding contract? Who would do so for them? 2) Are monetary incentives a good idea for long term incentification of learning? There are studies that show that when monetary incentives are used, they undermine other sources of motivation. 3) Would they misuse the money (I'd hate to incentivize a teen into buying a iPad so they can waste their time and ruin their academics afterwards...)

I would be thrilled to help with $500 pre-loan incentives for good grades in engineering classes: we need more engineers, and they make good money, even if they starve in college. But are those the students that need further motive to do well in school?

Comment author: buggy 21 August 2012 08:29:41PM 4 points [-]

First, a meta-discussion ... I think when a lot of people hear the word "startup" they think two things: long hours in an under-funded environment, and the hope of a short-term payoff (or at least an exit strategy). This may be incompatible with the idea of pulling a bunch of hours away from a bunch of bright people already involved in other things. It may also be counter-productive to the goal of benefiting people: one of the shortcomings of established corporations is the focus on near-term gains, even at the cost of long-term viability or benefits -- that mindset is exponentially worse in a time-accelerated enviro with a burn-rate that implies a near-future mortality for the corporate corpus.

Personally, if someone told me I had to do just 2 more years of what I went through with a startup in order to never work again, I'd say "no thanks". And while I'm happy to pitch in some time on concepts that either help humanity or personally enrich me (and am extra-eager if we can tie the two together), I'm not leaving my 30-hour-a-week, slippers-&-bathrobe-dress-code, commute-to-the-livingroom business any time soon (although I would if I got involved in something hugely beneficial and moderately profitable). So, I think some of the ideas already mentioned about marrying interests and abilities with different classes of start-ups need implementation if this is going to move from some sort of communal stew to a concrete business with distinct individuals making discrete contributions. [Aside: I think that's a start-up possibility right there ... a mechanism that allows arbitrary-sized contributions to a project (think open-source), but has some (community) basis for valuing those contributions, so when the cash starts rolling in, people can be compensated roughly in proportion to their contributions (yes, this is probably a harder problem than most of the startups suggested here). Thought exercise: if someone gave $1B "to Linux" (sic) for contributions to humanity, how would that money be doled out to contributors?]

Ideas with long payoff time frames are generally not good candidates for startups (unless the founders are willing to light their money on fire just because it's something they just want to see done), which limits the scope of things that can be done in a "non-philanthropic" enviro. I think you also need to delineate classes of businesses: some people will see the philanthropy angle as a mere selling tool to generate funding/interest; other people are interested in "doing good", and have ideas for companies that won't work any better as non-profits than for-profits.

So, for me: I'd like to contribute SOME time to a project with public benefit, and if I happen to get some money out of it down the road, I can decide to commit more time and/or consider that gravy. I've had a web design/hosting business (mostly LAMP) for about 15 years, and do a little bit of most things tangentially associated with that.

Comment author: moocow1452 21 August 2012 11:59:12PM 2 points [-]

Was going to make this it's own post, but what about a micro job placement center? A Job-Starter?

Based of AltonSun's reverse Kickstarter, this would be more of a converse Kickstarter or something on par with Craigslist or Fiverr, where people can be sign up to be notified about opportunities for PayPal cash, gift cards, or equivalent wealth for work done that they are skilled in. Unlike Amazon's Mechanical Turk, this would allow for a semi-sustainable income through bigger job prizes, and more variety of work then "transcribe this" or "take data from here to there" for pennies on the dollar, where the jobs can come to you and are further incentivized through gamification or whatnot in the name of prioritization. Maybe I'm asking for too much for nothing, but it is crazy insane hard to find a job where I live, let alone one that won't take a crap on you for minimum wage and you can easily be replaced as a crap receptacle by someone more agreeable.

Maybe take it in a different direction, something like Wealthy Affiliate where you can get the resources to self start, but instead of paying per month and letting it fall into Gym Membership Stagnation, make a bootable usb or an app on your phone that locks you into better productivity habits and out of bad habits, where you can pay your own bills, and toss away the key. About anyone who procrastinates has a market in that, either to make better use of their time, or to bully and coach people who aren't.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 22 August 2012 01:10:51AM 3 points [-]

My experience with the Rejuvenate people is quite different - basically, if you are someone like a coach who can generate high income/hour but doesn't work many hours, you just outsource everything.

Coaches (who have taken marketing courses) usually make $97+/hr, so in that position, if you can pay someone $10-50/hr, to do a few hours of work for you - usually they get more done/hour on tasks like cleaning, filing, and basic website development anyway, and then you use a fraction of the time they save you on marketing and doing coaching, and easily make it back while spending much less time working.

If you're someone who can make a lot of money consulting or programming, do a little contract work, and hire college students to do all the work you don't want to for your projects. Have them help you come up with systems that you can easily teach new people if they quit, and you save a lot of time and stress and work that is not what you want to be doing.

I'm working on developing a program with that sort of material for this crowd (decided it was higher leverage use of my time than individual coaching/counseling after seeing the response on this post) - I'd love to quiz you (or anyone else interested) about the topics you'd most like to see covered for making your life better, easier, and more successful when doing start-ups. If you're interested, email me - shannon dot friedman at positivevector dot com. I have a ton of information I've collected through that program and other sources already, so I'm trying to figure out which pieces are highest impact to focus on for this crowd.

Comment author: scottyah 19 August 2012 07:02:25AM 4 points [-]

I've been thinking of developing a way for homeowners to hire the local teenagers and children to do small jobs like lawn mowing, babysitting, dog walking and housesitting etc. A lot of people like to hire local kids, but don't know enough people in the neighborhood, and don't have time to search. It would be a way to strengthen community ties, and foster teen work ethic as well as give them an opportunity to get a start on financial planning and budgeting.

It would just be a way for them to get in touch, and help choose someone reliable. I still don't know how to avoid untrustworthy people preying on children, and I do not know how this would work with child labor laws. As far as I know though, teens have been hired for this kind of work for years without any problems.

Comment author: asong408 18 August 2012 06:53:26AM *  4 points [-]

Reinvent the Refrigerator. Since its debut in the 1940s, it hasn't changed much in design. Put a bunch of food in a large cooled box and hope you remember to eat its contents before it rots. There has been some lame attempts by slapping a LCD panel on the front with an RFID scanner, but you still have to remember where you store the food. I think automation and inventory management via mobile device is key. There is a lively discussion on quora right now, but I'd like to also invite people to poke holes and/or add value to my idea.

Basically it's an automated parking garage that is shrunk down to the size of a fridge. You can learn more here I apologize in advance that I'm linking to FB, it's just were the idea currently lives.

The benefit of the company is providing a greener fridge that helps people not waste food, which is a big problem right now. Americans waste 34 million tons of food waste each year. The amount of green house gases, labor, and transportation costs to produce food just to throw away food is maddening.

Obviously the first fridge will cost the same as a luxury car, since you're basically cramming a robot into a fridge, but so was the first computer. I can see this fridge being the next big opportunity where everyone throws out the dumb fridge just like everyone did with their CRT for an LCD.

That being said, I welcome your comments and questions.

Comment author: thetimpotter 19 August 2012 02:13:44PM 5 points [-]

What if facial recognition technology became food recognition technology? More simple than chipping all food items.

Comment author: Persol 19 August 2012 03:08:49PM 3 points [-]

I was thinking of this same sort of thing for a diet site. Rather than count calories, just photograph your plate with your hand next to it, and have the computer calculate for you.

The main issues I see with doing this in a fridge would be viewing angles and telling the difference between an old carton of OJ and a new carton of OJ.

Comment author: thetimpotter 18 August 2012 03:30:50PM 4 points [-]

How about repopularizing chest freezers? Inherently much more energy efficient, and freezing can help save food waste.

Comment author: lsparrish 18 August 2012 04:42:28PM 3 points [-]

The trouble with chest freezers is they are a pain to get things from the bottom of. What I've seen happen is stuff remaining at the bottom of the freezer for years on end, eventually becoming freezer-burnt. But if you can automate the stacking and unstacking of things, this could be a good idea. You wouldn't even need the entire top to be openable (or at least, you wouldn't typically open the entire top), there could just be a smaller port for pulling things out of.

Comment author: lsparrish 18 August 2012 05:03:09PM 2 points [-]

Another idea for encouraging more energy-efficient freezing would be a garage-sized (or bigger) freezer designed for community use. The bigger the better from an energy efficiency standpoint because that means less surface area per unit volume. I'm thinking fully automated storage and retrieval would make this work better as a community good (compared to a walk-in freezer), since there would be no need to employ a person to retrieve and keep track of things manually. You could basically just walk up to it, swipe your card, and tell it which items you want to retrieve, at which point they are deposited on a shelf for you to grab.

Comment author: Alicorn 18 August 2012 05:06:02PM 4 points [-]

Like ice cream vending machines only giant and with peas and raspberries in. Neat!

Comment author: lsparrish 18 August 2012 05:43:36PM 2 points [-]

It would be sort of like a vending machine, but stocked by the user and with basically whatever you want. However, suppliers probably wouldn't charge too much to do deliveries, especially if there is high volume. Also, if you have an entire neighborhood eating out of the same freezer, there could be significant discounts from making group orders.

Comment author: thetimpotter 19 August 2012 02:09:42PM 2 points [-]

Community freezer reminds me of a concept I like. Grocery stores hold effectively no food in case of emergency. With each sale, a percentage fee would pay for similar foods to be stored for you at an extremely secure facility. What if amazon orders would double spend a couple items per order and hold them for you?

Comment author: thetimpotter 15 August 2012 08:13:10PM *  4 points [-]

active browser history

I've noticed that more than a few people will have 20+ tabs open in their browser, for weeks at a time, while actively using only two or three tabs. These websites will occupy significant portions of the flash memory, using several gigabytes.

I call it active history because this is a management tool for tabs that you're not yet ready to search through your history for.

The browser plug-in would allow ' x ' recent tabs (or a memory limit), and kill the page for any older tabs. The url would be saved, the tab would still be there, and when the user opens the tab again the page reloads.

The point is that only the URL must be saved, and the system memory could be used for better tasks.

bits not gigabytes

Comment author: BrassLion 17 August 2012 12:29:47AM 5 points [-]

Firefox already does this. Options> General> Only load tabs when selected. It's just as good as you suggest it would be, particularly on slower computers.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 15 August 2012 09:39:45PM *  5 points [-]

The barrier seems to be psychological rather than technical.

Comment author: thomblake 20 August 2012 06:59:05PM 2 points [-]

It would be hard to know which tabs just represent a URL to remember, and which ones have important state information. One way of preserving a particular version of a web page is often to keep it open in a tab; this potentially removes that ability.

Comment author: Vaniver 14 August 2012 05:02:19AM 4 points [-]

Feedback on Reichart's idea given as an example:

The best advice is like the best shoe: it doesn't matter how much I like it if it doesn't fit your foot. Related.

And expressed a third way: the best answer to a question depends on both the context and content of the question. Who is asking, and why? What answers will be useful to them, and which ones useless? When someone asks me what computer they should buy, I respond with questions, not statements.

As for the bible functionality- there are few resources for atheists undergoing serious stress, compared to the resources available to Christians. I think that is something that will be fixed by a growing community of atheist writers, poets, and musicians, not a bereavement wiki.

But perhaps there is a gem buried there- wiki software is designed for a growing web of knowledge. What he wants is a single, sequential work which can be edited and adjusted by many people at once: the combination of version control and the tradition of oral epics. Open source community works are already common in music, I think, but the closest thing for text seems like fanfiction, which is far from the idea I'm discussing.

(Feel free to give feedback on this as an example of feedback, as well as the actual content.)

Comment author: Raemon 14 August 2012 06:59:54PM *  3 points [-]

As for the bible functionality- there are few resources for atheists undergoing serious stress, compared to the resources available to Christians. I think that is something that will be fixed by a growing community of atheist writers, poets, and musicians, not a bereavement wiki.

Hmm. I had not been thinking about this in a for-profit context (with possible exception of ad revenue when it becomes appropriate), but my current personal project is HumanistCulture.com, a site that will act as a community and curator for secular inspirational art.

For the most part, I'm doing it because I want the community and service for my own ends, and because it is fun. However, there are two extremely important functions it may serve. One is to create art and culture specifically tailored for atheist bereavement. The other is to create stories and songs dealing with the problem Peter Hurford recently addressed, which is that our intuitions about how and when to help people are horribly miscalibrated when it comes to worldscale problems.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality made a rational-approach-to-worldsaving a cool, approachable and salient idea. A better variety of stuff like that may be very valuable.

I'm developing the website alongside a real-world community of secular artists, who hopefully will end up providing content beyond my own work and what's currently available under creative commons licenses.

But perhaps there is a gem buried there- wiki software is designed for a growing web of knowledge. What he wants is a single, sequential work which can be edited and adjusted by many people at once: the combination of version control and the tradition of oral epics. Open source community works are already common in music, I think, but the closest thing for text seems like fanfiction, which is far from the idea I'm discussing.

This is an interesting thought. I have limited skill when it comes to the nuts and bolts of web-development. If anyone had thoughts on how to make this work and would like to contribute, let me know. I'm not optimizing for profit but if the content is good enough I think ad-revenue may eventually be non-trivial.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 14 August 2012 09:35:11PM *  15 points [-]

Business/website idea: OKCupid for jobs, or possibly just for co-founders.

Different workplaces have different cultures. There are probably a wide variety of cultures that work, but mixing different cultures in a workplace leads to conflict. For example:

  • Suits or jeans?
  • Hands-on management or delegation?
  • Flexible telecommuting or rigid office hours?
  • Work 60 hours a week or 35?
  • Prefer to keep social life separate from office or integrated? Office romance approved/disapproved?
  • Is highest status given to engineering or sales or management or who?
  • Is the focus on maximizing profit or creating value for the world or what?
  • Is the focus on an exit (like an IPO or acquisition) or a lifestyle business?
  • Risk-averse or risk-seeking?
  • In software development, programming-conservative or programming-liberal?

An OKCupid-like system of asking questions about one's preferred work culture might lead to good matches between co-founders and possibly between workplaces and employees. (Though, of course, there are many non-culture-related considerations that this kind of system doesn't evaluate. While that's true for dating too, it might be even more true for work, making this system less effective.)

Comment author: patrickscottshields 14 August 2012 11:19:02PM 12 points [-]

Path.to is a startup that appears to be doing a lot of this already.

Comment author: dbounds 15 August 2012 02:41:50AM 3 points [-]

Patrick, thanks so much for mentioning us.

Comment author: dbounds 15 August 2012 02:58:44AM 7 points [-]

Hi Michael,

Great suggestion! Like Patrick mentioned, this is really our focus, though I typically refer to it as 'eHarmony for hiring'. :)

We pair a more intimate understanding of a professionals education, experience, personality and interests with a deeper understanding of a company, their culture and what it takes to be successful in a particular role. We use this data to come up with the "Path.To Score" which is a 0-99 measure of how compatible a particular individual is with a specific role at a specific company, which we use to market positions to the right candidates and provide introductions between businesses and potential employees.

Without getting into too much detail we use a number of signals to inform and evolve the scoring. These range from basic Q&A to semantic analysis and natural language processing of local and external data sources likes Facebook, Twitter, GitHub and Dribbble.

It's been fascinating thus far and I'm really excited with the road ahead.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 August 2012 05:35:19PM *  14 points [-]

Idea related to peer-to-peer lending, and to increase returns on investment and decrease borrowing costs

Streamline the process of lending between users heavily invested in an internet community

One problem with P2P lending is the problem of scammers, dishonest people, and general "Parfit's Hitchhiker non-payers". However, if you have been involved in a forum or internet community, then you've built up considerable "community capital". That investment helps to establish credit among the community members, but not with formal banks. So if you could put up your community reputation/karma as collateral for the loan, you could provide stronger evidence of willingness to repay the loan, and of costs you would suffer from not doing so.

The role of the entrepreneur here would be to make it easy for intra-forum lending to happen, in exchange for some kind of fee. Services would include:

  • Administering the karma-reductions/deadbeat labeling
  • Providing pre-made, time-tested contract formats
  • Acting as certificate authority for digital signing of agreements
  • Having network of local people who can take the time to pursue legal action if someone wants to go that route.
  • Mediation and verification that payments happened

If you can provide a way to ensure payment through these community mechanisms, you would allow borrowers to pay a much lower rate than credit cards would charge, and lenders to get much higher returns than the market allows. (Incidentally, I recently just made such a loan to someone I had known for ten years only through internet forums, and I just got his final repayment.)

Edit: tl;dr: Basically, an internet karma pawn shop (although it's crucial that people not see it as simply a way of cashing in karma)

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 04:32:03AM 6 points [-]

Jedd (at Berkeley LW meetup) says that prosper.com you can get 16% lending, its unsecured. Before the defaults its 37% - the 16% is after defaults.

Shannon suggests having a company that arranges loans for you based on whatever information you give them to evaluate. Silas says this already exists.

Jedd asks what size of loans? He thinks smaller loans are more likely to happen.

Scott points out you can aggregate lenders.

Kaitlin asks about Linkedin networks of loans - chains of connections to establish trust through social networking.

Jedd suggests making an AI to optimize loans on Prosper.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 August 2012 12:30:16PM 5 points [-]

I'm not sure if this is implied by your bullet list, but security is going to be a challenge,and it's going to be worse if internet reputation becomes more valuable.

Comment author: Vaniver 15 August 2012 06:50:41PM 5 points [-]

The marketplace doesn't say "oh, you have a forum account with eight thousand posts somewhere? Here's some money," it allows someone on the forum with eight thousand posts to lend money to someone on the forum with six thousand posts, because the two have some shared social capital.

It seems very similar to Virgin Money, but with the emphasis on internet social capital rather than meatspace social capital.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 August 2012 04:54:06PM 2 points [-]

You mean in terms of keeping people's information private, or exposure of financial access codes, or something else?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 August 2012 10:48:01PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure what a financial access code is.

There have been cases of scammers impersonating ebay sellers with good reputations. If a good online reputation makes it easier to borrow money, I expect there will be attempts at impersonation.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 August 2012 11:00:40PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure what a financial access code is.

I just meant anything that would allow someone access to the target's online bank money.

There have been cases of scammers impersonating ebay sellers with good reputations. If a good online reputation makes it easier to borrow money, I expect there will be attempts at impersonation.

Good point. Fortunately, since this relies on the people being connected through the community, they can verify themselves through separate channels, which makes impersonation harder.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 17 August 2012 03:50:07AM 3 points [-]

Good point. Fortunately, since this relies on the people being connected through the community, they can verify themselves through separate channels, which makes impersonation harder.

If you actually start this sort of a business, I strongly recommend involving someone who's good at thinking about security. (Sorry, I don't know how to recognize such a person.)

If there's substantial money involved (not to mention opportunities for malice), there are going to be some very motivated people trying to steal reputations.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 14 August 2012 09:25:34PM 3 points [-]

This sounds a lot like a credit union.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 August 2012 10:53:09PM 3 points [-]

You mean in terms of it being a member-restricted lending institution, in terms of existing CUs using group social pressure to encourage loan repayment (which, if true, I didn't know), or in some other respect(s)?

Comment author: Hroppa 17 August 2012 10:38:42AM 2 points [-]

Group social pressure is a commonly used tool in microfinance efforts. Might be worth reading about them.

Comment author: Clippy 15 August 2012 07:19:11PM *  8 points [-]

I would like to redeem my karma for USD.

Edit: or a loan or whatever the term is.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 20 August 2012 08:53:38PM 2 points [-]

I have bought a small number of paperclips on your behalf

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 August 2012 11:33:31PM 17 points [-]

Some non-nitwit (actual-economic-value-generating) startups I've heard proposed lately by people in this or related communities:

  • Kevin Fischer is interested in identifying useful sub-chemicals in certain legal psychoactive plants. Anyone with biotech, chemical-identifying training would be useful to him.
  • Mike Darwin (not LW-style rationalist, but cryonicist) says that his research and numerous other papers show that melatonin, among some other chemicals, is very effective at preventing cerebral-reperfusion ischemic injury which is the real killer in heart attacks and strokes, and for which there are apparently not currently approved medications.
  • Zvi Mowshowitz is now trying to refound a startup to provide evidence-based, rationalist-filtered medical care - evidence-based doctors as opposed to just evidence-based medical research that often gets ignored by actual doctors.
  • John Schloendorn is the most competent biotech guy I know. He was literally trying to cure cancer - by trying to duplicate the abilities of a 100%-cancer-immune strain of mice, in humans - when his startup ran out of money; and he has a lot of other low-hanging fruits on his list as well.
Comment author: thomblake 20 August 2012 06:25:03PM 7 points [-]

Zvi Mowshowitz is now trying to refound a startup to provide evidence-based, rationalist-filtered medical care

What happened to the first one?

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 04:17:18AM 7 points [-]

About Zvi's business, what would constitute evidence that the medical practice should follow? -Asked by KatelynS at the Berkeley Less Wrong Meetup

Shannon - can you explain a little more about how the company works?

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 04:11:44AM 4 points [-]

Colby asks - can you elaborate more about meletonin? What is he thinking should be made? How can this be turned profitable?

Is he saying that we should look into melatonin's effects more? What are you getting at? Can you explain in more detail about how this could be a business idea?

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 16 August 2012 04:19:59AM *  3 points [-]

People at the Berkeley LW meet-up are very interested in Schloendorn's work at the meetup. It sounds too good to be true, is there a good summary link someone can send?

Comment author: SilasBarta 16 August 2012 04:12:22AM 3 points [-]

Kevin Fischer is interested in identifying useful sub-chemicals in certain legal psychoactive plants. Anyone with biotech, chemical-identifying training would be useful to him.

This non-nitwit, I'll grant, but this seems like a very capital-intensive idea which won't work unless you can get a lot of investment. It has to solve two subproblems:

  • Big Pharma-level biological research
  • Not getting shut down by the FDA. No matter how good your argument for why this might be legal to sell/distribute/teach, you will have to fight (it seems) lengthy court battles before you can start making significant money this way.

If they have the backers, great, but do they?

Comment author: Mister 22 August 2012 12:58:42PM *  3 points [-]

A web community where users gather relevant information/media about recent news

Problem The internet is huge now. Information or media about stories in the news is all around but not always easy to find, especially in one focused area. That video this article mentioned. Those photos that were reported on. That relevant information only people with expertise sits on, that the journalists hasn't found because they have a tight schedule. It's out there, you just don't know it.

Solution A dedicated website where users gather this information from all the corners of the web. A community where everyone focus on finding that photo and enlighten each other.

Progress I've actually created that website.

As an example of how the site works, a user saw an article about french tourists who got suspended jail in Sri Lanka for taking demeaning photos next to a buddha statue. The user then created a "subject" about it, found here: http://upnorthtimes.com/index.php?option=com_categories&view=popularsubjects&layout=subjectdetails&subjectid=248

Later, that user set out to find those photos. After finding them, he created a discussion thread within the subject where he posted the website where they can be found: http://upnorthtimes.com/index.php?option=com_kunena&func=view&catid=239&id=146&Itemid=267

Now users can see the photos for themselves and lay to rest the question of "wonder how bad those photos were?".

Obstacles We still have a few bugs to sort out. If you visit the site and the page loads everything to the left, just reload it until it loads correctly. There is also the matter of promoting the site correctly. If any of you have a good idea or want to help contribute/spread the site I would be thankful!

Comment author: buggy 22 August 2012 03:46:40PM 2 points [-]

I can see this expanding into news-like arenas, e.g.:

Friend of a friend had their dog pulled out of their car and tossed into traffic (you may remember the story). So friend starts a site to gather info on the suspect, and eventually they have enough of a profile and info that they handed the bolus to a private detective who busted the guy. (I have another friend with a stolen -- not lost -- pet, who would like to accrete info on the thief).

Or, a person was shot and killed in my neighborhood, and since people don't talk much 'round here, that crime will never be solved. But some people know his friends, some his enemies, some his work history, etc., and if you put enough of that info together, at a minimum when people google the victim, they'll end up on this site, where they might be able to add a datum or two. Eventually, maybe a clue forms.

Basically crowd-source crimestoppers/solutions to individual problems (rather than answering a generic question whose answer can be reused ... that market is cluttered).

Comment author: KrisC 17 August 2012 07:11:07PM *  3 points [-]

I am developing a decision making app.

The user is prompted with the phrase "I want."

The user's request is matched against a database of peer-generated responses. But the search does not end there. The search results are a front end to the content which is also peer-generated. The content payload could potentially be any function of the smartphone, though it is usually screen output such a set of instructions or a link to a website. Request parsing and wild-carding is integral to reduce the number of database entries.

Should the user not be satisfied with the results presented, then the request will be broadcast through the network to peers with a favorable history. In the first pass, peer's database will be searched. If this is not sufficient the request will appear as an unanswered question to be answered by other users if they choose to respond. I shouldn't need to tell the LW audience that Bayes' Rule is used to evaluate the responses by peer. An optional milieu field helps to narrow down areas of expertise for individual contributors.

The program is integrated with phone's calendar function, allowing delayed and repeating execution of requests.

The application incorporates a screensaver which builds upon the individualized database arrangement to deliver peer-created scenes to a fixed storyline, which showcases emerging technologies. These stories display links for users to access speculative technologies, then the users are directed to open source projects (if they follow my links).

On top of all this, add the usual slew of social media options: upvoting, banning, groups, multiple user profiles, anonymous searches, recruiting incentives, et cetera.

My intention is to leave the code open source and offer free and paid versions of the app. The consumer version I am calling 'Hope' and the developer's edition I am calling 'Plan A.' Working on my own I hope to get this project to a working demo in December of this year. Currently the code is hosted at BitBucket. I plan on moving over to GoogleCode when I iron out some connectivity issues.

As a closing note, let me mention that this project was originally inspired by the question: "Why aren't more people putting 3D printers to practical use?"

Comment author: Epiphany 20 August 2012 02:16:03AM 4 points [-]

Critique of presentation:

I am developing a decision making app. The user is prompted with the phrase "I want."

This will be a frequent assumption: Decision-making app? On a phone? This can't happen.

The user's request is matched against a database of peer-generated responses. But the search does not end there. The search results are a front end to the content which is also peer-generated. The content payload could potentially be any function of the smartphone, though it is usually screen output such a set of instructions or a link to a website. Request parsing and wild-carding is integral to reduce the number of database entries.

I think what you're saying is "Once the user types what they want, the phone does it like a command. It can do almost any command this way." Really, what needs to be in place of this paragraph is an example. The example should either support the decision-making claim, or the decision making claim needs to be reworded.

Should the user not be satisfied with the results presented, then the request will be broadcast through the network to peers with a favorable history. In the first pass, peer's database will be searched. If this is not sufficient the request will appear as an unanswered question to be answered by other users if they choose to respond. I shouldn't need to tell the LW audience that Bayes' Rule is used to evaluate the responses by peer. An optional milieu field helps to narrow down areas of expertise for individual contributors.

Now I'm confused about what kind of question the user will input. Are they asking the phone to perform a command, answer a question, or make a decision? I have no idea at this point.

The program is integrated with phone's calendar function, allowing delayed and repeating execution of requests.

Okay, that sounds useful all by itself.

The application incorporates a screensaver which builds upon the individualized database arrangement to deliver peer-created scenes to a fixed storyline, which showcases emerging technologies. These stories display links for users to access speculative technologies, then the users are directed to open source projects (if they follow my links).

Ooh shiny! But... why is it included? I am questioning "what is the concept for this project"? Is there an over-arching concept that explains why all of this is under the same umbrella? Maybe these should be separate apps.

My intention is to leave the code open source and offer free and paid versions of the app. The consumer version I am calling 'Hope' and the developer's edition I am calling 'Plan A.' Working on my own I hope to get this project to a working demo in December of this year. Currently the code is hosted at BitBucket. I plan on moving over to GoogleCode when I iron out some connectivity issues.

How will the commercial version support itself? What is being paid for that's not available in the free version? If you don't answer questions about money immediately, people lose interest very fast.

I do not see a reason for the name "hope" or "plan a". I will forget both of these names, due to not making any connections for them. If people can't remember the name of something, it can really slow you down in marketing. I suggest that instead of explaining the name for the product, that you figure out a way to convey your umbrella concept so that people can remember what's included in this app, and then name it something related, so that they remember the name.

As a closing note, let me mention that this project was originally inspired by the question: "Why aren't more people putting 3D printers to practical use?"

I don't know why this is relevant. Is there something about this method of conception that makes your plan special? Point it out, or else leave that note out to respect the reader's limited time and lack of need to know this info.

We may have to go through this a few times to get out all the knots, then try presenting to a few people in your target audience as a test. If test fails, rinse and repeat.

My communication abilities are not good because I am able to magically present things well on the first try, but because I'm capable of figuring out how to present things after being persistent.

Don't know if I'll stick with this one - I'll have to see how it helps the world in order to invest significant time into it. You didn't include that in your post. That would be a good thing to include when you make your second version of this.

Comment author: Johnicholas 14 August 2012 07:24:29PM *  6 points [-]

There's a lot of similarity between the statistical tests that a scientist does and the statistical tests that auditors do. The scientist is interested in testing that the effect is real, and the auditor is testing that the company really is making that much money, that all its operations are getting aggregated up into the summary documents correctly.

Charlie Stross has a character in his 'Rule 34', Dorothy Straight, who is an organization-auditor, auditing organizations for signs of antisocial behavior. As I understood it, she was asking whether the organizations as a whole are likely to behave badly - though one way that the organization as a whole might behave badly is by sifting out or creating leaders who are likely to individually behave badly.

What I'm trying to say is that there will be a field of auditing an organization's 'safety case' - examining why it believes that it is a Friendly organization, what its internal controls entangling it with the truth are and so on, something like GiveWell for for-profits.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 14 August 2012 08:47:25AM 6 points [-]

I'm really excited about software similar to Anki, but with task-specialized user interfaces (vs. self-graded tasks) and better task-selection models (incorporating something like item response theory), ideally to be used for both training and credentialing.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 14 August 2012 08:59:17AM *  5 points [-]

If you're looking for an institution around which to organize people and projects, I recently created Kilometa Labs for that kinda thing. Will start promoting it in a week or so after we think more about strategy &c. We have a few cool projects in the pipeline as well, so you'd be associating with cool people and cool stuff.

I think you should talk to muflax and Zak Vance about the Anki-like ideas. Will email you with more info, I've already mentioned your ideas to them.

Comment author: cicatriz 17 August 2012 12:36:46AM 2 points [-]

I've explored using spaced repetition in various web-based learning interfaces, which are described at http://cicatriz.github.com I'd love to talk more with anyone who's interested. Based on my experiences, I have reservations about when and how exactly spaced repetition should be used and don't believe there's a general solution using current techniques to quickly go from content to SRS cards. But with a number of dedicated individuals working on different domains, there's certainly potential for better learning. I've been working on writing up a series of articles about this. Again, contact me if you want to be notified when that is released.

Comment author: thetimpotter 17 August 2012 06:54:41PM *  5 points [-]

Tacit Political Map

The condensation of informal community rules and customs in to a wiki. The urban dictionary of legal systems.

Enter a foreign community. What are the expectations? How would one surmise what they could offer? How to assimilate oneself?


Arrive at your personal paradise, mentally first. Look around, connect, coalesce.


Comment author: Vaniver 14 August 2012 04:41:20AM 5 points [-]

I notice you chose the word "important" rather than "altruistic" or making some reference to social entrepreneurship. Of course I want to start an important startup- but it turns out that importance is much easier to determine looking back than looking forward.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 August 2012 06:54:34AM 3 points [-]

For a while the working title of the post was "Profitable Altruism".

Comment author: temujin9 06 October 2012 05:59:54PM *  2 points [-]

I work for a start-up, and I've worked for a number of them over the years. While it's been some of the best and most fulfilling work I've done, there are several things you need to consider.

1) Real start-ups (as opposed to ordinary new businesses) are a strange kind of betting game. They are long-shots that pay off extremely well if they hit, such that investors can afford to fund a hundred of them to get five that survive and one that hits big. This is a very different economic landscape from the one that your average job exists in, and many of your hard won beliefs about how a business works will be wrong.

2) The pay-off is pretty much all at the end, when you (maybe) hit big, or (maybe) get bought in a tech-and-talent acquisition, or (probably) get another higher paying job on the back of all the experience you've acquired. Terms like "ramen profitable" and "remaining runway" should give you a feel for the high-risk, high-stress, and questionable reward landscape that you're entering. This isn't easy, and it's hardest at the beginning, before you get customers and traction. It's also difficult on folks with family: the combination of low money, high stress, and long hours can be hard on life outside of work.

3) Remember what I said about "long-shot bets"? Your venture is probably going to fail, or everyone would already be doing something like it. Have a parachute handy, and a backup chute.

4) You will be doing work you weren't prepared for. No matter how large your comfort zone is, a good start-up will try to push you outside of it. You will agree to (or be tricked into) things you find you cannot do well, and so will everyone else around you. Getting good at handling failure (yours and others) is the only way you'll survive in the job long enough to see that pay-out.

5) There is kool-aid, and you have to drink at least a little. Take small sips, and above all, learn how to make the mix more palatable. Yes, this will mean dealing with (at times) people who are more or less completely irrational. You're doing something good for the world, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty.

Further reading: Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator has lots of well-written ideas about (among other things) start-ups. There are undoubtedly others, but none leap to mind quite so readily.

(That all said: I'm a start-up addict. I will probably be working them, in some form or another, until I die. So if your start-up needs heavy back-end IT resource, I might be able to help you get tooled up . . . and if you want to work in an existing start-up with -- warning: kool-aid -- some of the hottest Big Data tools out there, let me know, because we're hiring.)

Comment author: moocow1452 28 August 2012 01:34:44PM *  2 points [-]

Wanted to save this one for the Reverse Kickstarter, but it's too important to be kept in my brain without a backup, so here's my ace in the hole.


This tech exists, it is out there, I have tried to contact some of the people at NASA to no avail. (Should probably give them a little longer than 24 hours, but I only found out about those experiments yesterday. I did email them, and that's what counts.) Make this a pick up for stream of consciousness logging, allow me to parse it, or add stuff to the calendar or draft up an email by thinking about it, <give my phone psudotelepathy,> and I would owe a blood debt, probably a couple digits or a limb to whoever brings it into reality, because I think a lot faster than I can verbalize things, and something that can take my wandering thoughts and let me put them together after the fact would be a quantum leap in organizational skills everywhere.

Free free to contact moocow1452@gmail.com or under the post, and I'll keep an eye on how to move forward.

Comment author: moocow1452 20 August 2012 11:30:23AM 2 points [-]

Lendle's for sale...


They're looking for low six figures afaik, but I figure I should at least bring it to the table.

Comment author: alexflint 17 August 2012 03:34:28AM *  2 points [-]

I'm working for a mid-size startup and have been gathering insight into successful startups for a couple of years. Here is what I think is important.

Create value. Make sure your idea actually creates value in the world. Lots of value. It should conceivably be useful to many of people, and it should conceivably be of significant value to them. Value means your product would be important enough that, if forced to, they would give up other things in exchange for it.

Don't focus on monetization. Startups are subject to all sorts of counter-intuitive economics; it's unrealistic to plan exactly how you will make money. Make sure you're creating value, and check that there's nothing that would prevent you from ever collecting any of that value. Then go back to creating value.

Iteration beats brilliance. The speed at which you iterate is more important that the brilliance of the initial idea. Trying out a product in the real market is an experiment: the feedback your receive entangles your startup with other players in the market. Each experiment steers you towards a local optimum. To win you need (1) to start in the general vicinity of a good local optima and (2) rapid convergence to that optima.

The quality of the team is key. Early stage investors invest largely in the perceived quality of a team, and so should you invest your time alongside great people. An early stage startup should never hire consultants (wrong incentives), should never live in different cities (bad communication). Entering into a startup is like a marriage: it's very hard to get out.

Choose investors cautiously. You're also "married" to your investors on the day you sign a term sheet. Pick ones that you trust, that share your goals, and that can help you in ways other than by providing capital.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 14 August 2012 02:42:56AM *  2 points [-]

An existing example of what Reichart is talking about (I think) http://examine.com/

Comment author: lincolnquirk 17 August 2012 02:57:51AM *  3 points [-]

Product Distribution in Rural Africa ("Amazon.com for the developing world")

Manufactured goods can improve the lives of poor people drastically at very little cost. Some low-cost frequent buys are already well-distributed, like soap and prepaid phones. But bigger-ticket items are not -- for example, hand carts and solar powered lanterns. Existing microfinance structures and NGOs can help farmers obtain these items, and the items' high utility quickly allows the farmer to repay any loan. However, the gap is distribution: the farmers don't know that the items exist, and if they found out about the item, they would still have trouble getting it.

The idea is to develop a distribution network. This is not an easy task. To help farmers learn about the goods, you could distribute brochures via NGOs and the microfinance system. To transport the goods, use group buys to lower the costs, and the bus network seems potentially viable for small deliveries. In a few years, the internet and smartphones will be widely distributed in the developing world, so the possibilities for a technology-based platform will start to come into play. This is a slow, long-term idea; there will not be any cashing out anytime soon, and it's going to be a painful grind. That said, I think it's an enormous business with a huge positive impact on the world.

Note: I'm working on another startup right now and don't intend to switch ideas until this one is done, so this is a long-term play. But I figured I'd post the idea anyway, see if people have interest or special insight. I know someone who's started an NGO to produce hand carts (http://anzacart.org) as well as some people in the optimal philanthropy community, who presumably have connections via NGOs to Africa.

Comment author: Epiphany 15 August 2012 08:38:21AM *  3 points [-]

I have unusual abilities that I would like to share for a cause.

My terms:

For short-term projects and consultations that I accept, I will consider a "pay only if I make you money" or "we have no money, tip you later if possible" agreement, basically "volunteering with the risk of getting paid". I do not have the ability to leap off the cliff and go full-time into the start-up world at this point. I do not have part-time hours available.


I'm a psychology enthusiast with a special interest in gifted adults. This specific focus is relatively rare and may be very useful at answering questions for people who are trying to find, motivate and organize multiple gifted people and to create a good environment for them to actualize their potential in.

Communication. Have no idea how to explain your amazing idea? Don't know how to get through to everyday people? Can't get people to get along? I'm good at figuring these out. Note: I am not saying I will instantly know how to communicate things, I'm saying I can figure it out.

Give me "impossible" problems - I love challenging my creativity and seeing whether I can solve them. Sometimes I seek it out just for the sense of challenge. Not everybody is even willing to try doing a challenge that hard. Give me a paperclip and some duct tape, ask me to do something impossible and see what happens - I relish that. (No, I will not attempt just anything. I have my own way of determining whether a challenge is worth attempting, but you can throw it at me and see whether I will attempt it.)

Inventing stuff. I love inventing! I'm especially good with visual-spatial tasks and systems. I program all day, and then to relax, I make 3-D models with the goal of challenging myself to build something that is practical in ten ways at once AND beautiful (read: visual synthesis tasks). That is a favorite kind of challenge of mine. I am excellent at fine art and design. Yes, the "3-D models" I'm talking about are Minecraft structures.

Graphic design - if I get to have enough fun, I may do your project just to have done it.

Marketing ideas. I come up with tons of them. (Example) They tend to be clever "purple cows" (a term from Seth Godin's marketing books). Aside from some amusing success, my purple cow abilities are untested but a "pay only if it makes you money" arrangement is especially useful here. I can just give you purple cow ideas, you thin the herd and only pay me if the cows pay you.

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 15 August 2012 04:04:24PM *  5 points [-]

Hi Epiphany,

Thanks for making these offers! I think you might get more interest if you give more information. For example, you don't want to share your current ideas regarding marketing, but perhaps you could share a past brilliant idea or two that you've had and implemented?

For reference, I've gotten a lot of backlash from friends in the community about even posting this post - it went through a lot of editing before I published it, because people are extremely skeptical about the values of business ideas in and of themselves at all. So for your purposes even with a promise to only request compensation if it works, potential interested parties will usually need a lot of convincing just to think its worth investing their time in talking with you.

Likewise, examples and data regarding other offers & claims would also be great. The feedback I've gotten that people, especially in this community want, is specific with concrete examples. You are better off being overly specific and potentially causing someone to think they're not part of your target market than under specific and having everyone just read past.

Best wishes! And please respond in this thread with any results you get from anything in this post, including if this advice helps you in another context :)

Comment author: shminux 15 August 2012 05:30:18PM *  7 points [-]

Solving quagmires. I've been in a lot of quagmires in my life. Like, imagine a quagmire that has quagmires for fingers and toes - and THOSE quagmires have quagmires for eyes! I have developed my problem-solving abilities to the point where I tend to get myself out of ugly quagmires. Give me a paperclip and some duct tape, ask me to do something impossible and see what happens.

BS detector going off like crazy... To start, have you learned to not get into quagmires in the first place?

Comment author: ShannonFriedman 15 August 2012 07:29:46PM 8 points [-]

If you're playing the biggest game you can, you should keep getting into quagmires by continually putting your limits to the test. A favorite quote of mine from the cofounder of the coaching school and leadership program I attended:

"If you're not failing half the time, you're not trying hard enough."