Powered by WE, remembering more to extend perceived life, and the rise of insurtech
A lot of the writing last week celebrated 50 years of the moon landing. I am still fascinated by the turn Buzz Aldrin’s life took after it, and I feel it’s an important study in what could go wrong when you’ve met your wildest goals. I re-read this old profile of Aldrin, and if you want to read just one good story related to the men who first landed on moon, this would be my recommendation.
Apart from that, here are three key learnings from last week:
1. The We Company
A couple of years back, I stepped out of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof and right outside noticed this huge glass building branded with a big ‘WeWork’ logo. I had heard about WeWork in the passing till then, and mostly as a co-working space start-up in the US. I had not expected it to show up right in the heart of Berlin. That piqued my interest and I started learning about it. WeWork, branded as The We Company, provides chic, shared co-working spaces but has also diversified into education (WeGrow), health (Rise) and residential (WeLive). WeWork is touted as the most valuable start-up with a valuation upwards of $47 billion (the company started only nine years back), and is preparing for an IPO. Its business model is to lease large spaces in the centre of big cities, add a cafe, and other amenities — essentially, make it vibrant and appealing to the millennials — and then divvy the whole space into smaller segments which are then rented out.
What I find interesting about WeWork is its founder, Adam Neumann. Neumann grew up in communal living and that upbringing has inspired culture and innovation at WeWork. Neumann refers to WeWork as the first 'physical social network’. By sharing co-working spaces with other companies, there is a higher chance for unplanned interactions and mingling of ideas. Renting co-working spaces from ‘We’ is not limited to small companies alone, but some of the big players, such as Facebook and Uber, are doing so too. The driver for this, interestingly is, lower cost per employee that this setup results in (from $16-25k per worker to roughly $8k).
Despite his charisma, Neumann is seen as a controversial figure. Here is a long, rather scathing, piece on him that appeared last week (thanks Suchita Salwan for the recommendation). This piece is also a good study on how to write business profiles, albeit I wonder how and in what ways editors try to eliminate writers’ biases from seeping in. The piece is also relevant to understand how start-ups blitzscale, given the access to easy money, which in the case of WeWork came from Softbank (here is an educational opinion piece on the harm of blitzscaling). If you are looking for shorter profiles on Neumann read this. On Neumann’s recent controversies, this one (which is about him cashing out $700 million just before the IPO) and this one (highlighting Neumann’s potential conflict of interest) are useful reads.
WeWork is definitely a company to watch. In general, I believe the future will need more co-working options — and big companies seeking external partnerships should certainly place their scouts in these spaces. However, will WeWork be the main driver towards that? Let’s see. Also, after the flaccid IPOs of Uber and Lyft, it will be interesting to see how WeWork’s IPO fares.
2. Moonwalking with Einstein
Last week, I finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein, a book on memory I’d mentioned in my last newsletter. The book is not really about memory techniques. It mentions PAS and Major System only in the passing (if you have recommendation on good books on learning these techniques, let me know). However, I did learn about constructing a memory palace from it. Memory has two components: images and places. Images are what you wish to remember and places are where these images are stored. Key to remember therefore is to convert the content into images and associate them vividly with a place (memory palace, for instance). Also, the more we remember, the better we can process the world (for we have more context to analyse and that’s why experience counts). In return, the better we process the world, the more we remember about it. This makes me wonder why techniques to build strong memories are not taught in schools.
The book otherwise is an okay read that recounts Foer’s journey from a newbie to memory enhancement techniques to becoming USA memory champion. I wouldn’t have recommended it highly, except that it nudged me with one compelling thought that I am still pondering over: what if we could increase our ‘perceived’ life by remembering more. Our memories are ridiculously fallible, and we retain a little of what we experience. But by remembering more of the events that happen around us, by carefully paying attention to them, could we somehow expand our subjective time and trick our mind into thinking we have lived a longer life?
3. A new term that I came across:
Parametric Insurance. According to The Economist’s article, parametric insurance policies pay out a pre-agreed sum when a clearly defined parameter (often leading), such as rainfall, reaches a pre-agreed threshold (for example, payments made when amount of rainfall crosses x centimetres) rather than compensating full loss (for example, the real damage the floods cause to property, which at times is difficult to predict).
The article also captures how insurance companies are adapting data for better risk assessment (and surprisingly, Asian companies are in the lead), and use of data and tech has led to creation of a new segment — insurtech. Lemonade, a fintech start-up based out of the US and Israel, is already reshaping insurance with a far simpler approach to policy documents, shortening speed to get insurance, and using algorithms to detect fraudulent claims. All in all, seems like insurance is ripe for disruption.
A quote I heard last week:
Funnily, disruption was once considered a bad word.