Brendon_Wong

770Joined Jul 2015

Bio

I'm a social entrepreneur and product manager that's been involved in EA since 2013! Right now, my interests lie in the areas of self/life improvement and societal transformation.

I'm the COO of Roote, an educational hub and startup studio focused on systems change to ensure humanity has a bright future. This includes reducing human and animal suffering as well as x-risks (see Roote's article on meta existential risks).

I'm also the founder of Better, a research organization and startup studio that is working on improving well-being and well-doing. We're specifically operating in the space of evidence-based self-improvement. Our theory of change is that recommendations we make can significantly amplify the efforts of EAs and EA organizations as well as improve people's lives in a highly cost effective manner.

Comments
155

Seems like both of you are working on similar things to what I'm working on at Cosmic and with a few other projects, will send some DMs!

Thanks Yonatan! Perhaps I should have made it clear in my comment, but I have already performed or am in the process of performing these steps, and am aware of this associated validation toolkit (which is one of many possible toolkits to follow when validating an idea) in my roles as an entrepreneur and product manager.

A few other examples in addition to the ones I listed are the Pineapple Operations talent directory and the EA Mental Health directory. I believe that going to publishers first, rather than users, is one way to overcome the network effects, since there is clearly demand on the publisher side, and people are consuming what known publishers are creating. Publishers are then connected with users and are aware of user concerns around information consumption. Going to the commenters reading EA lists is another way to reach users (and is also validation for the idea).

I'm a little worried that blanket statements like "This (meta idea :) ) comes up sometimes, my simplistic answer is that I think it solves a problem that doesn't really exist, or if it does, then I personally don't understand it." immediately discourage the adoption of ideas and could be unhelpful if the idea itself is useful. A similar idea with modest variations, or executed in different ways, could indeed be useful. I'm seeing promising early validation for this idea. I also think it's important to highlight that two people can try to validate the same idea and see drastically different results.

I think that it's incredibly difficult to add features like this to the EA Forum, but I do believe that working on others with this is highly valuable. I happen to be a user of this broad idea in many ways, including not having access to a shared directory of technical talent in EA to find collaborators. If you have any EA CTOs in mind for this idea, please let me know!

In terms of describing a concrete version of this idea, I have a large vision for this, but in short: it would be great to enable people and organizations to publish organized collections of information that are better structured, easy to access, and support a range of contribution systems (including voting and reputation-weighted voting to decide on adding entries). People and organizations currently use Airtable bases, Google Docs/Sheets, and the EA Forum. None of these systems are collaboratively editable, so they're poor for enabling community knowledge. They're also not great for structured knowledge (especially docs and posts) and they're not very user accessible (the broader post mentions easy filtering, for example, which could be better in published Airtable bases).

I believe that the users of this idea have repeatedly popped up, e.g. the many lists of everything that people spend many hours creating (coaches, AI safety organizations, etc.). The issue seems to be that the current tools to manage these things are not adequate. For example, all of these lists are not in a universally discoverable place so it's difficult for people to find. They are either uneditable, or editable by anyone, and both setups are not helpful. If it's uneditable, the content cannot easily be kept up-to-date, and if anyone can edit it, this introduces quality issues. I am not certain if the EA Forum or EA Forum wiki feature are meant for this sort of more arbitrary, less factual content, e.g. projects and projects ideas. This in in fact one of the reasons Golden exists as a competitor to Wikipedia.

Speaking for the US:

My understanding is that books and payroll/finance can in fact be outsourced, and this is common practice. In the US, there are charitable accounting services (like Jitasa) that do all books and file most/all required financial filings for charities (this still requires some work on the charity’s end). There are PEOs (like JustWorks and Insperity) that in some cases run all of HR (and are legally responsible for it). To my understanding PEOs can be used with charitable organizations.

I think there may be some efficiency gains from centralization, like covering fixed costs (such as ~$10,000/year to pay a legal firm to register to fundraise in all US states) but they’re small or insignificant when you reach a multimillion-dollar scale. I’d imagine the all-in gains in avoiding fixed costs to be in the low tens of thousands of dollars.

At a larger scale, becoming independent could even be a cost savings! Administering lots of tiny projects can be operationally burdensome for a fiscal sponsor. There are also benefits of being independent, like being able to use your own operational processes, having a separate legal existence, etc.

That’s why fiscal sponsorship services , e.g. what’s provided by EV and RP, are usually offered to small/burgeoning or temporary projects in the broader charitable world, rather than being used by massive organizations. Accumulated funds at a fiscal sponsor can be easily donated to the new entity, although the later the spin out, the larger the operational complexity I’d imagine.

These days, setting up a company or charity is as easy as filling out a website, no formal legal firm required if it’s pretty standard. Stripe Atlas and Clerky are popular for for-profit startups, and Resilia is one such service for nonprofits.

I'd posit that non-technical entrepreneurship can also be a great way to learn operations, especially at a startup that is operating in some formal capacity (at minimum, is incorporated). A lot of the responsibilities perfectly overlap with operations; you start doing everything from filing corporate taxes, to setting up task management systems to track what everyone should be doing, to getting an ATS operational.

In addition to the four listed areas of mindset & interest, multitasking & detail orientation, learning quickly & thinking in particulr ways, and having prior experience, I think that there are a few other beneficial things:

  • Some amount of tech savviness. Nearly all aspects of running an org will require software, such as using digital banking and accounting to manage the organization's money. The organization's specific needs will also require procuring, setting up, and configuring roles and permissions for critical software, whether that's general purpose stuff like Google Workspace (for email, all documents, all storage, etc.) or configuring Swapcard without issue for EAG and Future Forum (I am reminded of how improper configuration caused the meeting scheduler to break during the last couple days of Future Forum, and I persuaded the operations team it was in fact a configuration issue, and someone finally caught and fixed it).
  • This was very briefly touched on in a couple phrases and the upstream thinking section in the article, but I want to strongly +1 having a "systems optimization mindset." This mindset involves: (1) understanding the current systems, including how they work and their short-term and long-term pros and cons for the team, (2) identifying the various ways to improve the design of a potential system or a currently implemented system, and (3) constantly exploring and keeping in mind the possibility space of all of the other possible systems (in order to determine whether and when to switch systems).

As an example of how a systems optimization mindset can be applied:

I once joined a startup that used a credit union as a bank. While the credit union was supporting the local community with its services (a pro) and was already set up (a pro to avoid switching costs) it had no multi-user access (a serious short-term con if we needed more than one person to be able to make many types of payments), paid low interest rates (lower priority near-term and long-term con), was inefficient to use for certain use cases like sending wires (short-term and long-term con), and switching costs would accrue over time if more accounts were connected to that account (a more and more serious long-term con). Based on this it was clear to me that we needed to switch banks within several weeks, and it was abundantly clear in hindsight that it was a good decision to do that earlier rather than sticking with the credit union.

An organization has many such systems and processes, and each of them have various ways they can be improved, and various priority levels for deciding which to take action on. This skillset is more useful when setting up an organization or managing operations for an existing organization; it isn't as helpful for repeatedly executing specific and/or recurring operational tasks (like running payroll, moderating an online community, onboarding new team members, etc.) which mostly require detail orientation.

Also, in addition to Anti-Entropy, my organization Better will soon be entering the space of launching online operations resources as well as doing operations consulting! Although this sounds similar, the actual focus of the organizations will be quite different; I believe Anti Entropy will mostly focus on sharing standard best practices (like their resource portal documentation on contractors) and advising on implementing those, whereas Better will mostly focus on counterfactually changing organizational behavior via non-standard, creative/opinionated practices, like which bank to use and why organizations should pursue corporate treasury management, and what the most predictive hiring practices are and which ATS to use to best enable that.

Your impression of the default framing aligns with what I've heard from folks! In addition to the benefits of changing humanity's trajectory, there's also an argument that we should pursue systems change for the factors that are driving existential risk in the first place, in addition to addressing it from a research-focused angle. That's the argument of this article on meta existential risk!

Roote views itself as part of a meta-movement including EA, and is interested in societal systems change (see Marriage Counseling with Capitalism as an example). We've been working on a few projects and are recently exploring granting to external projects. There are also a lot of tangential communities to EA like seasteading, charter cities, etc. with their own projects.

Hi Inga, thanks for commenting!

First: I like the framework and the fact that you help to make impact vesting a viable option for the EA space. It indeed might open more opportunities for entering a multitude of markets and funding. Having a streamlined standard EA-aligned framework for this in the Global Health and Wellbeing Space could make the investment process more attractive (smooth), more efficient (options clearer and better comparable), and lead to better decisions (if the background analysis is high-quality). 

Thanks! I personally think that impact investing is an incredibly promising space for EA.

Might it be useful to add something like “neglectedness” of funding”? E.g. in the Mindease Case, I believe it was moderately likely (depending on the quality of the presented scaling strategy) that another investor would have jumped in to take the lead. There might be value in identifying and helping (1) ventures that have a promising impact prospect but low funding chances or (2) ventures that look like they might not have a promising impact prospect but since you have some rare specialists in the corresponding field, you know it is better than other options in the field. E.g. if Mindease had a really promising approach (evaluated by the specialists) to solve the low retention of users or the lack of sustainable effects of mental health interventions.

That's already included under "Investor Impact!" See  "funding probability." If I recall correctly, the 15% indicates that there's a ~1/6 chance this investment was counterfactually impactful, and that draws from the  much lengthier documents written by TPP that this writeup is based on.

The evaluation of neglectedness (of the solution/problem) seemed partly confusing to me. It is correct that lots of people suffering from mental health issues do not receive treatment. This is also true in HIC where digital solutions are widely available. The real neglected problem seems to be the distribution of these interventions and this has been hard for all companies out there offering services like that and is only possible if you adapt your service to the specifics of the different cultures and countries and then also tailor the distribution strategy. This means, that currently Mindease just does something in HIC that other apps such as Sanvello are offering already (maybe no additional value for people that in this calculation is added to the DAILYs) and does not have product or market strategy for LMIC - where it would be neglected. Convincing providers like Sanvello to offer their services in LMIC, and then just specializing in tailoring the product for people in a specific large country (e.g. Nigeria) as well as nailing distribution there, might be much more impactful. E.g. the UK-based charity Overcome does something along the lines of this. 

Did you read Hauke's analysis, or just our brief summary of it? Here's a direct link to the 3.5 pages covering neglectedness in Hauke's report. The extended TPP report covers several distribution strategies, which I personally believe to be very compelling and differentiated from existing apps, and some of them may resemble strategies you proposed. I do not recall if the full report is public, but Jon Harris would know the latest status.

Would it be useful also to add a “people’s time resources” needed to the equation? E.g. it is a difference if 10 or 30 EA spend their time working on this solution because they could also help to make an impact elsewhere.

I think that's an interesting idea! I haven't seen too many examples of that in EA analyses, but let me know if you find any on the EA Forum! I can think of a few difficulties associated with doing that and I'm not sure how people would overcome that, including establishing a counterfactual personal impact benchmark (what is the baseline impact of the EA that would have been hired?) and modeling the additive impact of additional team members (does going from 10 to 30 team members triple the impact? under what impact scenarios would that occur?). Also, not all team members would need to be "EAs" (what even counts as EA?), and I think that can also be hard to forecast and is somewhat dependent on the team and how things end up working out (whether people end up joining from within or outside EA).

I believe that governance is a technology. Thus, while there may be no "perfect" governance system, humanity's knowledge on it will improve greatly over time. That will improve the default governance models used (right now, representative democracy is a very common default with company shareholders, most developed countries, etc.) as well as humanity's ability to customize governance models to particular situation. Since representative democracy is so commonplace, I think making default models better will produce most of the benefit, rather than the adapting to the context as you mention.

Regarding getting there, as indicated in Holden's article, governance can be applied to many human systems, not just a government. Governments change, of course, but organizations change faster and emerge at a higher rate. Take public benefit corporations (PBCs) for example. Delaware (the most popular state for incorporation), passed  PBC legislation in 2013 and we already have PBCs IPOing.

There are also very creative ways to influence governments with technology. For example, in Taiwan, while the governance model hasn't changed, the government is deploying technologies like Polis to improve democracy, using it to effectively come up with policy proposals for potentially contentious issues that improve society and enjoy high consensus. I think that developing "add-ons" to entrenched governance models is a decent strategy, and it's one of the routes that our Civic Abundance project is taking.

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