Ben_Kuhn

I'm the CTO of Wave, where we're bringing financial infrastructure to sub-Saharan Africa.

Personal site (incl various non-EA-related essays): https://www.benkuhn.net/

Email: ben dot s dot kuhn at the most common email address suffix

Comments

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

I'll let Lincoln add his as well, but here are a few things we do that I think are really helpful for this:

  1. We've found our bimonthly in-person "offsites" to be extremely important. For new hires, I often see their happiness and productivity increase a lot after their first retreat because it becomes easier and more fun for them to work with their coworkers.
  2. Having the right cadence of standing meetings (1-on-1s, team meetings, retrospectives, etc.) becomes much more important since issues are less likely to surface in "hallway" conversations.
  3. We try to make it really easy for people to upgrade conversations to video calls, both by frequently encouraging them to do so, and by making sure that every new hire has a "get to know you" call with as many coworkers as possible in their first few weeks.

(Your mileage may vary with these, of course! In particular, one relevant difference between Wave and other remote organizations is that I think Wave leans more heavily on "synchronous" calls relative to "asynchronous" Slack/email messages. This is important for us since 80%+ of us speak English as a third-plus language—it's easier to clear up misunderstandings on a call!)

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

Agree that if you put a lot of weight on the efficient market hypothesis, then starting a company looks bad and probably isn't worth it. Personally, I don't think markets are efficient enough for this to be a dominant consideration (see e.g. my response here for partial justification; not sure it's possible to give a convincing full justification since it seems like a pretty deep worldview divergence between us and the more modest-epistemology-focused wing of the EA movement).

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

2. For personal work, it's annoying, but not a huge bottleneck—my internet in Jijiga (used in Dan's article) was much worse than anywhere else I've been in Africa. (Ethiopia has a monopoly, state-run telecom that provides among the worst service in the world.) You do have to put in some effort to managing usage (e.g. tracking things that burn network via Little Snitch, caching docs offline, minimizing Docker image size), but it's not terrible.

It is a sufficient bottleneck to reading some blogs that I wrote a simple proxy to strip bloat from web pages while I was in Senegal. But, those are mostly pathologically un-optimized blogs—e.g., their page weight was larger than the page-weight of the web-based IDE (Glitch) that I used to write the proxy.

3. Network latency has been a major bottleneck for our programming; for instance, we wrote a custom UDP-based transport layer protocol to speed up our app because TCP handshakes were too slow (I gave a talk on this if you're curious). We also adopted GraphQL relatively early in part because it helped us reduce request/response sizes and number of roundtrips.

On the UX design side, a major obstacle is that many of our users aren't particularly literate (let alone tech-literate). For instance, we often communicate with users via (in-app) voice recordings instead of the more traditional text announcements. More generally, it's is a strong forcing function to keep our app simple so that the UI can be easily memorized and reading is as optional as possible. It also pushes us towards having more in-person touch points with our users—for instance, agents often help new users download the app and learn how to use it, and pre-COVID we had large teams of distributors who would go to busy markets and sign people up for the app in-person.

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

The main outcome metric we try to optimize is currently number of monthly active users, because our business has strong network effects. We can't share exact stats for various reasons, but I am allowed to say that we crossed 1m users in June, and our growth rates are sufficiently high that our current user base is substantially larger than that. We're currently growing more quickly than most well-known fintech companies of similar sizes that I know of.

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

On EA providing for-profit funding: hard to say. Considerations against:

  • Wave looks like a very good investment by non-EA standards, so additional funding from EAs wouldn't have affected our fundraising very much (not sure how much this generalizes to other companies)
  • At later stages, this is very capital-intensive, so probably wouldn't make sense except as a thing for eg Open Phil to do with its endowment
  • Founding successful companies requires putting a lot of weight on inside-view considerations, a trait that's not particularly compatible with typical EA epistemology. (Notably, Wave gets the most of this trait from Drew, the CEO, who, while value-aligned with EA, finds it hard to engage with standard EA-style reasoning for this reason.)

Considerations in favor:

  • Helps keep the company controlled by value-aligned people (not sure how important this is, I think the founders of Wave will end up retaining full control)
  • If the companies are good, it doesn't actually cost anything except tying up capital for a while

Overall, I think it could make sense at early stages, where people matter more and metrics matter less (and capital goes further), but even at early stages there's probably much more of a talent constraint than a funding constraint.

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

Cool! With the understanding that these aren't your opinions, I'm going to engage with them anyway bc I think they're interesting. I think for all four of these I agree that they directionally push toward for-profits being less good, but that people overestimate the magnitude of the effect.

For-profit entrepreneurship has built-in incentives that already cause many entrepreneurs to try and implement any promising opportunities. As a result, we'd expect it to be drastically less neglected, or at least drastically less neglected relative to nonprofit opportunities that are similar in how promising they are

Despite the built-in incentives, I think "which companies get built" is still pretty contingent and random based on which people try to do things. For instance, it's been obvious that M-Pesa had an amazing business in Kenya since ~2012, but it still  hasn't had equally successful copycats, let alone people trying to improve it, in other countries. If the market were really efficient here I think something like Wave would be 4+ years further along in its trajectory.

The specific cause areas that the EA movement currently sees as the most promising - including global poverty and health, animal welfare, and the longterm future - all serve recipients who (to different degrees) are incapable of significantly funding such work

Similarly, this is directionally correct but easy to overweight—there are still for-profit companies working in all of these spaces that seem likely to have very large impacts (Wave, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, SpaceX, OpenAI...)

For-profit organizations may produce incentives that make it unlikely to make the decisions that will end up producing enormous impact (in the EA sense of that term).

This is definitely a risk, and something that we worry about at Wave. That said:

  1. In many cases, revenue/growth and impact are highly correlated. In the examples I can think of where they aren't, it mostly involves monopolies doing anticompetitive or user-hostile things.
  2. In the monopoly case, many monopolies seem to have wide freedom of action and are still controlled by founders (e.g. Google, Facebook) and their decisions are often driven as much by internal dynamics as external incentives. Uncertain here, but it seems likely that if these companies thought more like EA's they would produce more impact.

Finally, I've also heard from several people the claim that today EA has an immense amount of funding, and if you're a competent person founding a charity that works according to EA principles it is incredibly easy to get non-trivial amounts of funding

I think "nontrivial" for a nonprofit is trivial for a successful for-profit :) Wave has raised tens of millions of dollars in equity and hundreds of millions in debt, and we're likely to raise 10x+ more in success cases. We definitely could not have raised nearly this much as a nonprofit. Same with eg OpenAI which got $1b in nonprofit commitments but still had to become (capped) for-profit in order to grow.

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

Hmm. This argument seems like it only works if there are no market failures (i.e. ideas where it's possible to capture a decent fraction of the value created), and it seems like most nonprofits address some sort of market failure? (e.g. "people do not understand the benefits of vitamin-fortified food," "vaccination has strong positive externalities"...)

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

I agree with most of what Lincoln said and would also plug Why and how to start a for-profit company serving emerging markets as material on this, if you haven't read it yet :)

Can you elaborate on the "various reasons" that people argue for-profit entrepreneurship is less promising than nonprofit entrepreneurship or provide any pointers on reading material? I haven't run across these arguments.

We're Lincoln Quirk & Ben Kuhn from Wave, AMA!

Great questions!

What are common failure cases/traps to avoid

I don't know about "most common" as I think it varies by company, but the worst one for me was allowing myself to get distracted by problems that were more rewarding in the short term, but less important or leveraged. I wrote a bit about this in Attention is your scarcest resource.

How much should I be directly coding vs "architecting" vs process management

Related to the above, you should never be coding anything that's even remotely urgent (because it'll distract you too much from non-coding problems). For the first while, you should probably try not to code at all because learning how not to suck as a manager will be more than full-time. Later, it's reasonable to work in "important but not urgent" stuff in your slack time, as long as you have the discipline not to get distracted by it.

Architecting vs process management depends on what your problems are, what kind of leader you want to be and what you can delegate to other people.

How do I approach hiring?

If you are hiring, hiring is your #1 priority and you should spend as much time and attention on it as is practical. Hiring better people has a magical way of solving many of your other problems.

Hiring can also be really demoralizing (because you are constantly rejecting people and/or being rejected), so it's hard to have the conviction to put more effort into it until you've seen firsthand how much of a difference it makes.

For me, the biggest hiring improvement was getting our final interview to a point where I was quite confident that anyone who passed it would be a good engineer at Wave. This took many iterations, but lowering the risk of a bad hire meant that (a) I wasn't distracted by stressing out about tricky hire/no-hire decisions, (b) we could indiscriminately put people through our hiring funnel and trust that the process would come to a reasonable verdict. After this change, our 10th-percentile hire has been about as good as our 50th-percentile hire previously, and we went from 4 engineers to 25 in a bit over a year.

I expect the exact same thing goes for investing in people once you've hired them, but I'm not as good at that yet so don't have concrete advice.

Just generally, what would you have imparted on past-you?

  1. You suck at hiring, get better.
  2. If you're worried that someone is sad about something (especially something you did), ask them!
  3. Org structure matters a lot; friction, bad execution, etc. is often downstream of a bad division of responsibility between teams, teams having the wrong goals, etc. (Matters more once you are responsible for multiple teams)
  4. Accept that you hate telling people what to do, and manage in such a way that you don't have to. (Perhaps specific to me.)
  5. Hiring.
Weird Wealth Creation ideas - Mobile Money

Sorry for the minimalist website :) A couple clarifications:

  • We indeed split our businesses into Sendwave (international money transfer) and Wave (mobile money). Wave.com is the website for the latter.
  • The latter currently operates only in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire (stay tuned though).
  • In addition to charging no fees for deposits or withdrawals, we charge a flat 1% to send. All in, I believe we're about 80% cheaper than Orange Money for typical transaction sizes.
  • We don't provide services to Orange—if you saw the logo on the website it's just because we let our customers use their Wave balance to purchase Orange airtime.

For the focus of this concept, I am more concerned with providing Mobile Money from the most relevant and fair company available (whoever that is) to areas and people that so far did not have that service, rather than promoting movements from one company to the other which might be more efficient but will have a much smaller effect in poverty reduction. 

This is our goal as well; to quote myself in another comment:

Despite the fact that M-Pesa started in 2008, mobile money in most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa is kind of crap by comparison (much more expensive, worse service, smaller agent network, etc.) because most telecoms have not even been able to copycat M-Pesa effectively. By executing better, you can speed up the adoption of mobile money.

Even Orange (which is fairly widespread in Senegal) has only gotten 25% of their own userbase onto mobile money (source) because they, like most mobile money systems, are executing really badly compared to what's possible. There is a lot of room to make mobile money more accessible even in countries with already-existing mobile money. (Which at this point is nearly all countries AFAIK—it's easy for a telecom to buy an off the shelf mobile money service from something like Ericsson or Huawei—much harder for them to actually execute well on rolling it out.)

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