Let Failures Be Your Guide

Five years ago I moved to San Francisco from Atlanta, starry-eyed and eager to change the world. The information superhighway would give way to the information galaxy. Datacosmos (I called it) was the future and I had some part to play in it… but I had no idea how.

Enter failure: that painful blessing that steers us towards our destiny. When we do our best and fail utterly in our goal, we uncover a little more of our truth. As great as we think our goals are, what drives us are not those goals… but the oldest question of all: What am I?

Take these 4 major efforts of my life over the past 5 years. Each was a failure in terms of not reaching my goals. Each taught me truths I couldn’t have learned any other way–truths about my place in this world.

Decentralized Internet

Someone had to build the decentralized internet, why couldn’t I? I spent a lot of time designing and coding. Then I started the Secure Open Social meetup and discovered IIW and lots of other decentralized and collaborative internet meetups. That’s when I learned that the platforms of Datacosmos were already being built in various manifestations by people way smarter than me. So I abandoned the code and charts and speeches of Datacosmos and set my sights on what I saw as the missing piece: its first killer app.

Truth: Worthy dreams are shared by others. Find those people, hear them talk about the dream, then ask yourself honestly: “Am I doing my part to manifest this dream?”

Data Portability

I pitched and built Pipe at the Singly hackathon. Pipe would help you reconnect with one person a day from your social networks. It used Singly’s aggregation service that was born out of the Locker Project (part of the solution to help people harness their data). Pipe won best customer validation, #2 on Hacker News, and some press. The following few weeks were a stressful mix of getting the app ready for a production launch and stumbling through odd team dynamics. Everything felt off: product, team, and potential market… none of it was a good fit for me. So I let it go.

Truth: If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Your gut is your greatest asset. You’ll be able to rationalize your gut feeling if/when you need to.

Data Ownership

I discovered Unhosted app architectures and built Gratzi, a gratitude app. I pitched it at the Personal Cloud meetup and launched a beta. We learned just how big a roadblock it was for people to connect another service (like Dropbox or Google Drive). Building a successful app AND architecting it in a way that doesn’t put us in exclusive control of user data… was like trying to go to the moon AND mars at the same time. Failsauce.

Truth: Focus. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Plus: if you’re making your users do work then you better give them a really, really good reason.

Sexy, Fun, and Deep

Then Becca, the muse, says why not build something that deepens human connection through fun? So we started work on an app that both goes directly at the problems of shallow social interactions AND is sexy and fun. Boom! We called it Pegg, attracted talented people to help us build it, raised a seed round, and launched dozens of betas. Each time we learned that we failed at getting the app right. We wanted it to rock people’s faces off, but what got was…

…not the face rocking we were looking for. But we kept at it nonetheless because we believed in the mission… and we were so close!

Truth: If all that’s in your way is execution, keep trying. You’ll get it right eventually.

And we think we have, finally, gotten it right. Pegg launches this year! I’m excited to put something of value out into the world and close this last chapter. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m certain it’s rife with great gifts of failure.

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Is your business colorful?

Life comes alive with color. We see color in bands of dazzling beauty. We harness color in the things we create, we identify with and connect with color.

So why not design a company with color? Why not use color as a language to help us better understand and balance the dynamics of an organization?

Two years ago my partner (now wife) and I both took the HBDI® test which claimed to be a “powerful psychometric assessment that defines and describes the way you think and process information.” Sounding similar to Myers Briggs and other personality tests, we thought it could help us cut through the ignorance, communicate better, and get shit done faster.

But with colors! HBDI® divided the diversity of human thinking types into 4 colors (blue, yellow, green, and red) across 2 axis. The system was simple, balanced and beautiful.

Then we got into practicing it. For two years we discussed everyone in terms of colors, especially ourselves. We used colors to help us make decisions and understand our motivations. “The blue in me says…” and “where’s the green when you need them?”

We learned about humans and our tendencies. It helped us empathize. It also gave us a language to talk about what we value.

Go, find balance. – Mr. Miyagi, Karate Kid

But it has also led me to wonder: does a balanced team foster success more than an unbalanced team? Is there something special that happens when all 4 thinking types combine equally? Like when all the colors of visible light combine into white?

My red brain tells me yes–we need all types of people. My blue brain says maybe–test it. My yellow brain imagines it to be true–just go for it. My green brain says the idea is too vague–plan it out.

Since I’m mostly Yellow and Red… I’m plowing ahead with this idea. Help wanted: Greens and Blues to keep the project on track and grounded in reality.

The future doesn’t have to suck.

“We’re at the crux of becoming a Star Trek or Star Wars society.” – Greg Chase, Pivotal Software, Inc.

Last night I attended the Thrivable Future Salon hosted by Jean Russell and Mark Finnern. It was one of those times when I felt truly grateful for living in San Francisco and being a part of the magic here. I found myself in a room full of people doing amazing things, dreaming big, making their life’s work about building a better future for all. My people.

Topics covered

My big takeaway is this: huge groups of people will find themselves without jobs soon. The largest segment of the US workforce is Transportation… and if you don’t think self-driving cars are coming, you’re wrong. What happens when 4 million people are suddenly out of a job?

We need to rethink how people can survive (and thrive) in this new world. Life is already tough for far too many people, and unless we invent new avenues of value creation/distribution that are fair and transparent, and account for all the externalities, we will find ourselves in a more massively exploitative and impoverished world than even the worst dystopian fiction imagined.

Don’t fear it, fix it

Thankfully, the solutions are becoming more clear.

If we empower makers to invent novel uses for our data, we create jobs. If we consider users not as minable resources but as partners in this value creation, we help people earn a basic income simply by being themselves.

If we architect generative systems that enable massive groups of people to work towards common goals, we can tackle really large problems. Wikipolicy anyone?

If we educate people in practical and rewarding ways, guided by each individual’s own inner compass, we can unlock vast human potential.

If we foster strong communities that understand their place in the global narrative, we can create positive change that begins where it counts and then trickles up.

If we believe that the world doesn’t have to be a terrible place, doomed to resource war and total extinction of all life, then we can open our minds to beautiful alternatives.

If we build a thrivable future, then we can live in one.

Founding a Startup on Gratitude

When we started Gratzi, we really didn’t know much about the legalities of setting up a company. We took the generic advice of serial entrepreneurs and founded a Delaware C-corp. We split founder shares somewhat arbitrarily. We found an angel investor and signed Y-combinator’s SAFE docs, promising Gratzi shares at a discount when some sale-event causes a valuation. Sounded good… we shrugged and said, we’ll see if it works for us.

Those details out of the way, we focused on building our dreams. For a year we built, tested, dreamed, built, tested… rinse and repeat. But we put little action into preparing for what comes next. What will we do if our dreams for this little app come true? What happens when our startup grows? What kind of company are we?

Next year we come out of the workshop to show the world our little baby. So I’m preparing by putting this story together about who we are and why we’re the ones to do this… and why you might want to help.

Thanks for all the fish

Gratzi is short for gratitude, sort of. It comes from the Italian grazie meaning thank you. It was the name of our first app idea. Back in 2012 we set out to build an app for expressing gratitude. Months later we had a prototype built on a relatively novel architecture (unhosted) that put users in control of the gratitude data the app helped them create and share.

We wanted the world to say thanks more. And we wanted to say thanks to the world by giving people control of their data.

But something didn’t feel quite right. The goals were laudable and achievable. The path was clear. But somewhere along the way we lost that special joy in the product. It became depressingly clear that we just wouldn’t use it ourselves. It wasn’t fun enough.

Boom. FUN! That matters to us it turns out… Shocker, I know. ;p But it was odd to discover that something so innocuous could be so integral to our business. Fun is non-negotiable. We wanna laugh with our product.

If you know who made this, please let me know! I love it.

So we ‘pivoted’ or whatever the buzz word is today. We ditched the idea of gratitude as an app.

And we threw the unhosted baby out with the bath water. We still wanted to help solve the epic problems of data ownership, but even better solutions started to appear on the horizon: MaidSafe, Ethereum,Interplanetary File System, Sandstorm, among others.

The name still ruled, though. We couldn’t give that up. So after finding a mentor, investor, and partner in 2013 we were sitting around thinking about what we should call our fledgling startup… and the answer was there: Gratzi.

Gratzi is still a way to say thanks more. It’s just not an app. Gratitude was poking around in our minds for another reason: to be part of the foundation of our organization.

It’s time to tell our story

I’m a young idealist. Well, these days not so young and much more of a realist… nonetheless I’m still that young idealist I was when I was a 10. I’m still that kid who tried to build a weapon to help America in the Gulf War, and tried to learn hacking so I could bring down the real-world Gibson from that movie Hackers.

I’m just a bigger kid now, working on real solutions to real problems. I’ve a wide-eyed obsession with humanity’s big struggles and a fool’s belief in my power to do something about them. I’m also more humbled than ever by the great Unknown that lives between ideas and reality.

My name’s Augustin Bralley. I started a company in my head long ago. From that day in 2006 when I had a vision while napping at my parents’ house to today… I’ve been piling ideas on action on more ideas… churning the cycle of manifestation. Last year the idea became a startup, called Gratzi, and soon (next year) an app called Pegg.

This journal is about documenting the process of manifesting, the cycle of dreaming and doing, that I’ve been fortunate to find myself in. More importantly, perhaps, this is about telling a good story — a magic story that not just finds an audience but a cast of characters.

Hello world.