Zach's PEN #2: My Next Project

2020 Week 33

Hi PENpals,

The first week of my Personal Email Newsletter was more successful than I even thought possible. I was delighted to hear from people I haven't connected with in years and I'm so grateful for the words of encouragement (replies are lovely but totally not expected).

My Next Project

Today, I wanted to let you know about something exciting that I'm working on.

As some of you know, I spent a few years of my career as a designer/programmer, and at the beginning, Short Order (then the Kitchen) was also a web development shop.

After a client I had forgotten about emailed me to change a color on a website that I had built in another decade, I realized that I hated doing design/development as a client service. Film production is much better suited to me, most importantly because there's always a point at which a video project must be declared "finished." This is particularly helpful when you're a psycho predisposed to never feeling finished with anything.

For someone like me, designing/developing software quickly becomes a hellscape of never sleeping, tweaking an unimportant design detail deep into the night, only to discover five more things that must be tweaked, all while repeatedly ramming your head into technical brick walls and searching Stack Overflow 546,000 times a day.

But despite being unsuited to the job, I really did fall in love with software and the world of amazing people designing the tools we use every day. This is an area and group that I have followed fanatically ever since.

In my dream of solving big problems like some of my heroes, I built bits and parts of various software startups over the years, but eventually, I had to decide whether to keep pursuing the interest seriously or go all in on storytelling, because I was accomplishing neither.

So I gave up on the idea that I would ever play in the software space. I gave up with the same kind of certainty and finality that I had given up on ever playing basketball in the NBA. I was at peace with it. I would still continue to follow software as a fan and hobbyist and sometimes tinker with tool-building to scratch my own itch, but no more grandiose dreams of Disruption™️.

Meanwhile... to everyone I know, including some of my Fortune 500 video customers, I continue to be Unofficial Tech Support Nerd™️. When someone wants to know what is the best tool to use for something, they call me first, as they should, because I have already looked and spelunked and obsessed, and I probably know the answer.

And so, almost accidentally, I wound up finding myself designing simple and elegant replacements for egregiously hateful and disgusting enterprise software, because nothing existed that was even remotely acceptable and I couldn't let people I care about live like animals.

Importantly, I was not building it, just designing it, in some cases just describing the tech and how it should work. I formed a relationship with the best designer/developer I have ever met, Carlos Anaya, and together, we knocked out some solutions based on what (to me) is nothing more than a simple understanding of what's available and a basic respect for the dignity of human beings.

The customers loved what we made. It saved them money and was easy to use. It was also a good deal for us and fed our film production company new opportunities. Critically, thanks to Carlos, it took very little (almost none) of my time compared to my past software experience, so I could keep my focus on storytelling and running Short Order.

Then came the smart business people I referred to in last week's PEN. After helping me (sometimes by force) to get my little company whipped into shape, Craig Doig (Short Order's COO during that time) came to me to discuss ways we could diversify revenue with the looming pandemic (we had no idea just how much of a pandemic was looming). Craig brought up some of the software tools we had built, and I opened up my dusty drawer of half-built widgets and jack-in-the-boxes from years of tinkering and obsessing. After spinning up a prototype with Carlos to the immediate and shocking response from customers of "When can you please take my money?", we realized we had a viable virtual events platform on our hands that was different from anything else out there.

Fast-forward (very-fast-forward) and I'm a partner (and importantly not the CEO) of a software startup that has already made its first three hires, has a healthy number of customers and (literally) hundreds banging down the door, and is fundraising an angel round so we can scale to a thousand recurring subscribers in the next 18 months.

Carlos is now my partner, along with CEO Craig, the most talented operations person I've known, and CFO Dan Shapiro (fractional CFO and one of the other people who helped Short Order grow up).

I'm Chief Product Officer. Here's the coolest part: I'm able to do what I do best, and frankly would already be doing whether it was my role or not: Stay vigilantly annoyed at the software tools that are available and tinker and iterate ways to make them better. The difference is that now I can communicate my findings to a design/development team who is building The Internet We Deserve™️. And they really are...

I already live inside our app (called Markee, pronounced like "marquee") every day to do my meetings and work, because it does for me what Zoom and Google Meet/Hangouts/Whatever-They're-Calling-It-This-Week refuse to do (and can in fact never do, because these companies, at the most fundamental level, hate the people who use their products).

I'll tell you more about our progress along the way, but the one last thing I want to mention that's so, so exciting to me is that the whole premise for Markee's success is that Silicon Valley's corrupt/winner-take-all/monopoly-building/regulatory-capture/platform-lock-in strategy is inherently a customer-hostile dark pattern. Today's tech companies have nothing but contempt for their users. They view them as livestock to feed to their machine so that they can continue their project of crushing the populace and culture of the world into an undifferentiated odorless paste that owns nothing and has no agency to change anything until the inevitable heat death of the universe.

Markee is the exact opposite. More on that soon.

Film vs. Digital: Pictures of Babies in Sailor Suits

In the last couple years, I've fallen in love with photography again, largely thanks to film, and I'll talk about just how fun and inexpensive it is to get into in a future PEN. Here's Louisa and Wendell in sailor suits on digital and film.

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