Paul Katsen of Blockspring

Founder Coffee episode 025

I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this twenty-fifth episode, I talked to Paul Katsen, co-founder of Blockspring, an automation tool that pulls data from different APIs to automate reports, lists and landing pages.

Blockspring actually started off as a data visualization tool, which pivoted into a serverless platform right after joining YCombinator and talking to its co-founder Paul Graham. And about a year later, after Amazon had entered this exact space, they had to pivot again. After lots of iterations, they ended up with the Blockspring platform we know today.

Finally, a few months ago, Blockspring got acquired by Coinbase. We talk about that, about their stint in the restaurant business while pivoting, how it is to be working for a big company now, and why games may be better than reality.

Welcome to Founder Coffee.


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Jeroen: Hi, Paul. It’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Paul: Hello, thank you. How’s it going?

Jeroen: It’s going well. You’re a founder of Blockspring. For those who don’t know what you guys do yet, what do you do?

Paul: Blockspring has a very long story. We actually started in 2014, but what we do now is help marketers, salespeople, and recruiters connect to different APIs and data services to automate their reporting, enrich list, and build lead lists. And finally, actually pull all that data into landing pages and live websites. We basically index a bunch of APIs and make them easy to use and access for business people.

Jeroen: Can you perhaps, because it kind of sounds all abstract, give a concrete example of something you can do?

Paul: Sure. Automating reporting, that’s one of the use cases. Essentially, marketers spend a lot of their time logging into Facebook Ads Manager, that whole UI, Google Analytics, Google ads, YouTube ads, stuff like that, and exporting data from it all into the same dashboard every week or month. That’s manual reporting. It takes a bunch of time.

Paul: We have a bunch of integrations into all of those different services, and plugins into tools like Excel, Google Sheets, Tableau, so that a person can select a bunch of these different data sources, click “pull in data”, and then that report is automatically kept up to date. How that works is that it uses the same API platform that we developed, except it has a plugin interface that works within reporting tools, versus some of our sales use cases. They use that same platform, but they plug into other tools.

Jeroen: To repeat what you said, you can basically get information, for instance, from Facebook ads, from YouTube, whatever. You can get it all in a Google Sheet. That’s something I could use Blockspring for.

Paul: Yeah. That’s definitely one very common use case. Another use case which salespeople and recruiters use is to build a lead list. But a lot of this data comes from maybe Clearbit, Hunch.io, Google Maps or all these other new data services that you might not realize are actually good for sales or recruiting. So they might actually want to pull that data into a Google Sheet or some other tool as well. The common thread across this platform is making it easy to access APIs and data from a business tool. But the use cases range from automating reporting to building lead lists to a bunch of other stuff.

Jeroen: Got it. It makes it much easier to basically pull data together.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeroen: You mentioned that it’s been a long story with Blockspring over the last five years. What specifically happened?

Paul: When we started out in 2014, my co-founders were actually building a data visualization product, which was very different from this. I know the phases of this company basically started with data visualization product, getting into YC and a bunch of other crazy things that happened that actually ended up committing us into being one of the first serverless computing products. Then there was this phase around how we got pummeled by Amazon and went through a large series of pivots to try to find our way. Then finally, we got to a phase where, hey, this is a business that isn’t what we started with. But it’s a good business, it’s making money, and we’re growing it. Finally, that led into actually taking a lot of the stuff from what that product had built and learned, and having that join Coinbase.

Paul: So, yeah. There’s a bunch of different phases. But we actually started in a very, very different place than what we ended in, which I know a lot of founders are going through right now. So, I’m happy to dig into parts of that story, as it was a pretty big learning experience.

Jeroen: Yeah. Which parts of the story were especially interesting or challenging?

Paul: Well, there’s different challenges at every stage. In the first part, it was just, hey, we fell in love with this data visualization idea. How it started, actually, I was in Chicago, and I remember going to YC Startup School, which was a one-day conference where you saw all these super crazy tech people, like Marc Andreessen, Jack Dorsey, Balaji Srinivasan, et cetera. I remember leaving that being like, holy shit. I’m super inspired. I want to go start something.

Paul: I was like, oh, I can do this. These people are just normal people. It just so happened that I was having dinner with a good friend of mine in San Francisco that same night, and we both realized data visualization is hard. Let’s just build an easy app. It might not turn into a business, but something that makes it easier.

Paul: We ended up building something that. Super simply, you upload a CSV, a spreadsheet, and you get an interactive visualization, which is something that we spent hours and hours building ourselves at our older jobs. But we wanted to make it easier. What ended up happening was we got a call from the VP of data at one of the world’s biggest publishers. And he was like, hey, your product sucks but we’ve been trying to build this for the past six months. Can you fly out to New York, work with us for a few weeks, and then we’ll be your first enterprise customer?

Paul: So that was the start of that product. Actually, one of the biggest things that I learned from that was, one, when you build something, write good content so that people understand what you’re doing and what your mission is, because people can find you through that. Two, if you can get a customer to invite you to work from their office and gets super excited about you even though your product sucks right now, you’re probably onto something. So those few weeks were probably some of the most exciting parts of that business. Building for a customer, getting instant feedback, it was really exciting. That was one of the first big learnings for us just through that product, and then that ended up getting us into YC for the summer of 2014.

Jeroen: Yeah. So you actually built something and quite quickly had a first customer. How come you didn’t go through with this exact business, but went to another one?

Paul: That’s a really good question. Basically, first week of YC, we’re building this product, we have a customer, we have a bunch of other users for it that aren’t enterprise customers, but paying for it, kind of freemium. We’re trying to figure out what to do, and so we go to dinner, the YC dinner, which is a weekly thing where you get to meet other founders, you get to listen to speakers, and in this first dinner, Paul Graham was there, and this was after he was no longer leading YC. I looked at my co-founder and I was like, hey, let’s just go meet him. We love all his essays, he’s super smart. Let’s go tell him about our business.

Paul: He’s going through these lines, this line of founders that are pitching their thing and he’s giving them feedback, 60 seconds and then the next person. We told him about our business. The fact that we were seeing this other problem, which was basically, we had built this tool out for ourselves but basically every data visualization that we had needed a little bit of computation. So imagine a bar chart that needs to do a little bit of clustering or segmentation. We didn’t want to send that to EC2 and Amazon every single time we needed to run that computation, and it was really hard to do it in JavaScript on the front end.

Paul: So we ended up building this tool that basically lets us write code, click publish, and get an API. Now that’s called serverless. Amazon has this thing, Google, Microsoft now have this. But we told him about it in the pitch, and then he basically full stop went on a 20 minute monologue around how something like that could change the future of programming. He was like, if you think that you eventually want to do that, you should go do it today. That was this thing that I actually do really believe in. If you have a startup where you think 10 steps down the line, you’re doing something massive, why aren’t you just doing that right away? Don’t try and be super, I don’t know, don’t try and be a genius about it. If it’s possible, do it today.

Paul: So we came home and had this freakout moment, which was like, “Let’s just go do this”. This is such a big idea, we’re super pumped about it, and then we ended up doing it.

Jeroen: But you didn’t make it big in the service base. Other people started doing what you had done, I suppose?

Paul: Yeah. So basically what happened was we launched thousands of developers on it. We launched right before YC ended. Basically, one issue is that we didn’t know how to sell serverless computing into the enterprise. We were too early for that, because it’s such a programming paradigm shift. But the other issue is we were actually too late at the same time, because we ended up meeting with the Amazon CTO. We thought we were selling to him, and selling this product to Amazon so that they would use it. In reality, I think he was just like, what are these jokers up to, because they actually launched the exact same thing three to four months later, and they’d been working on it for years.

Paul: I think we were too late and too early at the exact same time, because for AWS, this was the next item on their massive trajectory towards the future. And we were just this small startup that figured out that this was actually a thing. But for them, they already had different relationships, et cetera. So within a few months of their launch, we realized, hey, we don’t really have a future in this. This is a future for all of the major cloud computing platforms. We’re not going to be able to compete with them. Amazon ended up doing it. Microsoft, Google, IBM, you name it.

Paul: This was another hard part we had to do. We realized that the business wouldn’t work. So we ended up having to let a bunch of the folks on the team go, move it down to just the founders at that point, and start to figure out, what is going to be the next step for this business, and what business do we want to be in?

Jeroen: How many were you before you downsized?

Paul: We were basically around six to eight, if I remember correctly, plus around three to four contractors at the time. So we were around 10. It wasn’t huge. But at that point, we had raised funding, pitched this vision to all these different folks, really liked everyone. Everyone was awesome, and it was incredibly difficult to turn that around. But I think it was something we knew that we needed to do, because it’s really hard, figuring out what the next thing is when you have folks that aren’t necessarily founders. They came there for X reason, and they might not want to be there for something totally different. It’s hard to go into discovery mode when you have folks that are waiting or being like, all right, what should I be doing next? There’s definitely a difference between folks that are working with you and folks that are founders and ready to be figuring out, okay, it could be any business, let’s go figure out what it is.

Jeroen: So you figured the best way to get to the next step is to let everyone go to take some time. How much time did you take?

Paul: It definitely was months. We were trying all these different ideas, and part of it was, okay, now it’s just founders. The other thing was, all right, let’s minimize our burn as much as possible so that we can try out different things, figure out what the next path to the business was. This was definitely one of the hardest parts – when you have a business, but you don’t know what business you’re in at a certain point.

Paul: That was a very, very difficult time, because now you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off and figuring out, how do I even go about identifying what the problem is. This is something that you can’t go to sleep with and not think about.

Jeroen: Yeah. Had you accepted any funding up then?

Paul: Yeah. We had raised, on this big vision of let’s go compete with AWS and take over the future. So now imagine having to turn that around. We have a really smart team, you guys invested in the team, but now we want to go figure out something else to do, and make it just as big.

Jeroen: Why didn’t you go back to the data visualization idea?

Paul: That’s a good question. I think at that point, we didn’t know if we were different. We wanted to do something. At that point, I think we had changed a little bit also in terms of the scope of what we wanted to do. We’d seen all these other businesses. We’d moved to San Francisco, we’d seen all these other folks that are super ambitious, working on these big vision products. I think at that point, we were like, all right, this data visualization product is exciting, it’s fun, it was the first thing that we came up with, we have customers for it. But we want to do something that’s going to affect millions of people, developers or end users. We’re super interested in this idea of enabling the super technical things that developers do every day, giving that to end users or making that much more simpler to accomplish.

Paul: We were in this emotional state where I think we were just ready for something different. We already had closure on the data visualization stuff. So we were trying to figure out, all right, what could be as big of a vision as what we have here with this platform that we could get out the door? What could be new and as big?

Jeroen: So you were looking for a new big vision. What did you see then?

Paul: We ended up trying a bunch of different things, and we ended up trying a bunch of different processes for finding a bunch of different things. A lot of them, in hindsight, were really, really hard. I have a lot of friends that are going through this right now – how do I find my next startup? We never figured out an incredible process for it. I could tell you about some of the ideas that we thought were really big that we ended up executing on, especially one I think was really interesting.

Paul: But basically, what we realized was the only ones that we could really get off the ground and make work is a mix of – how do we get conviction that this is something that we think is exciting and that we want to work out? At a certain point when you go through all these ideas, it’s hard to get conviction. I think at a certain point, we just got lucky, where we discovered Blockspring, which was already using 80% of the code base that we built. We felt the problem ourselves. We definitely knew that there was this big trend around taking productivity tools and integrating them into all the other productivity tools that are being built. So there was this exponential trend around more SaaS for everything.

Paul: I think we tapped into that. We ended up getting lucky and tapping into that trend and having all the stars aligned around problem, conviction and potentially a big market. Now we just had to figure out what the product is going to look like to make it happen. But there were a bunch of other ideas along the way. We ended up making the AWS for food in Chicago. We actually spent three months spinning that up, building that, and I think that’s actually going to be a really huge business. It just ended up not being for us.

Jeroen: What does that mean, AWS for food?

Paul: One day I was still freaking out, like, what are we going to do next, what’s the idea that we’re going to be refocusing on. I was literally sitting in Chipotle. This is stupid in hindsight, but we’re sitting in Chipotle, and I was like, wow, I think there’s going to be an endless number of businesses that are like this, which is like these fast, casual restaurants. There should be a platform to enable them to basically scale out across the country without having to build their own real estate. My analogy was like, real estate and staff is like computing, and the code is the recipe and the ingredients.

Paul: What we ended up doing is we went to a bunch of breakfast restaurants in Chicago, convinced us to let them have their kitchens for dinner when they were closed for really cheap, and then we went to a bunch of fast, casual restaurants that are already really popular, and we convinced them to teach our staff how to make their food. Then we lit them up in ghost kitchens all across the city on UberEats, Postmates, DoorDash, every single delivery site, so that these restaurants actually had full market penetration coverage, and they only paid by the hour. So they didn’t have to have any staff or anything. They just scaled up based on their idea.

Jeroen: So they were not restaurants where you could go eat, but it was only delivery.

Paul: Yeah, only delivery. This ended up actually making money for us, it just wasn’t a good deal for the restaurants, and it wasn’t sustainable for them at that point, at that point of scale. But we also had the crazy situation where Uber Eats was coming over to the kitchens, Amazon was coming over, all these different delivery sites were like, okay, what’s going on here? It turns out that the model is actually something that I know, with the ongoing trend of delivery, that growing exponentially is something that’s already happening, and I think will continue to happen. I know the co-founder of Uber just actually started doing this too, but he went at it in a little different way.

Paul: So, yeah. For that, we found ourselves at a certain point building software, sitting at kitchens really late at night, being like, are we the only ones working on this idea? We lost conviction. We were like, we’re probably crazy here, and we’re the only people working on this ghost kitchens platform idea. Is this actually the future, or are we going to be sitting in kitchens the rest of our lives, just running up an uphill battle? So that, I think, was a place where we found a really big vision, found a product that I think could’ve actually made it happen. But I don’t think it was the right fit for us, and that’s it.

Jeroen: Yeah, it sounds like a really interesting idea. There’s these businesses that are built on top of Airbnb, because Airbnb is such a huge platform, and basically, it used to be like you were sleeping in somebody else’s place. But then people started buying places just for Airbnb. It feels like that in the sense that you have services like Uber Eats or Deliveroo or whatever they have. They are platforms with customers, and you can easily bring something new to it.

Paul: Yeah, like new supply. 100%. Yeah, it’s totally true. When there’s mobile, you ended up having mobile first apps. When there’s Airbnb, you might have Airbnb-first real estate happening, and property managers.

Jeroen: Right.

Paul: What’s interesting with delivery is that when you go into a restaurant and you end up seeing a ton of delivery bikers or drivers just waiting in line, crowding up the space, and their kitchens are getting overflowed with orders. It’s just a fundamental design thing. It’s like, should we build a restaurant for our customers, or like a manufacturing plant that also applies to delivery? And it turns out that most restaurants are not designed for delivery. So most of them are actually launching their own separate kitchens that just do delivery anyway outside of their actual restaurants, and the issue is that that’s a huge slog for them. When we came out with this model, it was just an immediate yes from restaurant owners, which I was super surprised by, because I knew nothing about food, nothing about restaurants. We hired a manager that was really, really good. That helped us start getting this out the door. But every restaurant owner was like, yes, I want to go do this.

Paul: So it was clear that there was demand there. I think the person that will actually make this work is someone that can raise a ton of money to buy the real estate and make it an even better deal, or someone that controls all of the demand. So, Uber Eats and Deliveroo, they’re already doing this. They know what people want to buy, and they’re feeding insights back to various restaurants to start spinning out food. Folks like Deliveroo are actually already launching kitchens and real estate for rental to do this now. I think that’s where the market is going to go, but it was one of those things where we started from first principles, saw something that I think was really big, but it just turned out not to be for us.

Jeroen: Right. Why do you think it was not for you?

Paul: We ended up going down the wrong path partially, which was to be this middleman between a delivery company and the restaurant. When in reality, we should’ve become the smarter real estate, and we never tried that. I think at a certain point, we were like, are we just crazy here? And we lost conviction, because it’s just so different than everything we’ve ever tried. We’re still in this mode of, all right, we’ve got to find the right idea. So we might have killed that too earlier, but I think it wasn’t necessarily for us, because we honestly thought it was so wacky, that we were probably just barking up the wrong tree.

Jeroen: Did you feel comfortable in the restaurant business?

Paul: Not in the restaurant business, but definitely in operations. I’d never really done stuff like that before. It was actually super fun. There were just certain parts of it, like building software for real-life scenarios to improve workflows, having a business that you could easily tell everyone about, and all of your friends just might end up using it. Having something where it just passes the toothbrush test, day-to-day use case, you’ll end up doing a business that’ll be around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Long. But we figured out a totally new way of doing it, and the why now makes sense. The exponential trend makes sense. Everything aligns. So with that part, everything combined to be super exciting.

Paul: The sitting in a restaurant, watching delivery orders come through, dealing with people stealing stuff that you just hired, dealing with people relationships, especially at that income level and how quickly we were hiring, that’s a crazy world. That’s very different from SaaS. It comes with its own set of problems that you have to get really good at to the point where you’re thinking in the clouds for how big this thing is, but on a day-to-day, you’re dealing with these issues. You’re always thinking how will this ever have an impact?

Jeroen: Are there any other ideas you worked on during that time?

Paul: There were a few that were super exciting. But I think what was most critical was we ended up and I started doing some queries on some of our old products. I basically just found this very simple product problem, which was like, I’m trying to do some data analysis on Google Sheets, all of my data is in a database or in some API, and I basically just had to start writing scripts to integrate that information.

Paul: That brought me back to my first job, which was in consulting. I remember this idea that I would spend a lot of time on. I was an engineer and I had gone to school. I learned how to program, but I’d started out in consulting, and I’d spent a lot of my time on Excel Sheets. I realized that everyone that I knew were doing things on Excel. They were actually just programming with APIs. You’re putting in a few numbers as input and you’re getting something as an output. A lot of folks, especially when they are in consulting, spend a lot of time going to different websites, apps, collecting data, bringing it all into the same place.

Paul: A lot of those services that were getting that data were starting to have APIs. So this big vision that I started to realize was, why am I spending all this time copying and pasting stuff from one place to another, keeping it in sync, when in reality, all these things are going to have APIs? There’s going to be way more and more SaaS tools. They should somehow be synced together and connected. The big vision is end user computing. Folks in business are getting to a point where they’re understanding how to use APIs, how to bring data from one place to another, and there should be an easy way to do that.

Paul: We looked around at what products existed, and there was IFTTT and Zapier. They were all event-based, moving small pieces of data back and forth, and they didn’t get the job done. For instance, how do I go into a Google Sheet, pull in a Google Analytics report, keep it up to date, and then run some computer vision algorithm or run some NLP algorithm through some other API, and then throw my data through that, and eventually just use APIs to program in a way that a developer might as they write a script?

Paul: That was actually a weekend hack of just building this Google Sheets plugin that actually integrated into this serverless platform that we had built, and called all these different APIs that people had worked with. Then I showed it to my co-founders, and I was like, this is actually really crazy. We all agreed, the problem makes sense, the vision was kind of there. The real thing was just, how do we make this a product that we can start having people use? And the open question was, what are all the core use cases that people would actually use this for? That’s something we ended up working through and figuring out until we got to something like here are the three use cases, here’s how we make money, and that’s when it really started to grow.

Jeroen: How did that go for you guys? In the end, how many employees did you scale to?

Paul: What ended up happening was, we launched the product, didn’t have a good sense of the use cases. It took a while, but we started just getting it out the door, letting folks in, listening to what they were trying to accomplish, and then started to figure out what this platform would be about.

Paul: I don’t know if that’s the best model for new platforms, but it’s what we ended up taking. Early adopters would come in. They’d be doing something with growth, like, hey, I want to pull in a list of our users from Salesforce, and then I want to send them all postcards from Lob, and then this too. Here’s my random project. And then all of a sudden there was a totally different project, which was like, hey, I’m a digital marketer, and I’m trying to keep this report up to date in Google Sheets or Tableau. How do I make this work with your product? You guys don’t have Facebook ads, can you add that? You don’t have this, can you add that?

Paul: So we realized that the key to this platform that we figured out was that we had built the serverless thing in such a way where we could just write a quick script, click publish, and all of a sudden, we had a new integration set up in all of our products. We could just move very, very fast in making sure that this next use case that someone had, could get accomplished. That’s when we started bringing people in the door to help us build those integrations, help fill out the platform so that we can accomplish some of these use cases, and get to a place where we knew that automating reporting was a thing.

Paul: Now there are a bunch of startups that focus on that segment. Lead enrichment, where it’s pulling from a bunch of different APIs. There isn’t really a good startup that does that, but people currently go to an endless number of services for lead enrichment individually and try to figure out which one’s better. So we aggregated all those APIs, and there’s a few more use cases, but those are the really big two.

Paul: A lot of our users had to really schlep to do this kind of stuff on their own and figure out what’s possible, and that helped us get to a point where we were like, here are the two, three main things that we should expose, onboard onto, and turn into real products. It started to grow. It grew into a good business, a profitable business. At a certain point last year, we were at the stage where we were like, all right, this is a growing business, but we started out with this vision of, let’s go stomp on AWS and create a multi-billion dollar business.

Paul: This is what ended up starting a bunch of the conversations around, where could this product land in terms of acquisitions, all this kind of stuff, and it turned out that there were a bunch of companies that actually had a need for accelerating their API roadmap, API platform, all this kind of stuff, that related directly to all the things that we had built with Blockspring and the product. That’s when we started having some of these conversations.

Paul: It turns out things went full circle. The guy that launched AWS Lambda in 2014, VP of engineering at Coinbase. A person we had known, Balaji Srinivasan, now is CTO at Coinbase. They have a bunch of different founders, their culture’s really awesome. There’s a really, really good fit for us there. So that’s where Blockspring ended up.

Jeroen: Right. Just to give me an idea, what is Coinbase planning to do with what you guys built?

Paul: Not a lot of that is public yet, but we’re there to work on APIs and platform, internal and external. There’s going to be a lot of exciting stuff that’s coming out the door. Yeah, we’re super pumped. I guess my personal belief is that if you go back to Facebook in 2007, they had tens of millions of users. Social was this brand new thing where they themselves didn’t even know what would become important after the feed. What are people going to want? How are people going to want to interact? They used the platform to help discover all the next killer apps.

Paul: If you were around building stuff in college in 2007, as soon as Facebook launched, you probably spent four to five nights trying to build a hundred different things that would take advantage of their social network and find your users and create a big product. I think that is actually where a lot of crypto is at today, where there are a few killer apps like Coinbase right now, and that’s around speculation. But there’s potentially a fairly big platform opportunity to help usher into the next wave of massive growth. Developers are into it, users are into it. I think there’s a big opportunity there.

Paul: We’re super excited about that. A lot of these new paradigms, their next killer apps get discovered by developers and third-parties and through a platform. So, yeah, we’re definitely excited about the potential there.

Jeroen: Cool. What is it that keep you up at night lately?

Paul: What keeps me up at night lately? Well, I think it’s very different now versus the past four years. The past four years, it’s been literally rethinking every single decision of just, are we doing the right thing? Is this the best thing we could be doing? Is this the biggest thing that we could be doing? We want to have the biggest impact on the world. Are we wasting our time? Is this the right business that we’re in? All this stuff, we’re all circulating, and the real key was how to boil all that down and focus on, what’s the next one thing that I need to do to put us in a position to succeed? And usually the answer was, all right, what do users want, how do we grow?

Paul: Now, I think things are very, very different, because I’m part of this big machine that’s moving forward with its own inertia, versus when you’re a startup founder, you are that inertia. If you stop, basically the machine stops. It’s a totally different world for me now and I think it’s been really great to start learning, meeting a bunch of super smart people. I think being in San Francisco the second time around is a 180 change than being here as a founder freaking out and trying to figure out how to do my job well.

Paul: Now, I think it’s definitely a more relaxed learning period, meeting great people, working on big things, and getting excited about it, and enjoying this part.

Jeroen: Cool. Slowly wrapping up, what’s the latest good book you read, and why did you choose to read it?

Paul: Oh, that’s a good question. The latest good book. Okay, this was a recommendation from one of my friends. Let me just try and remember what the name was. Whoops, sorry. One sec. It was a book around game design, and it’s called Reality is Broken. The big question was, why are people spending so much of their life in games? How can we use what we learn about game design to help have an impact on the world? The reason I read it was because I actually strongly believe that the main components of what goes into a game, have evolved and been discovered, and they’re applicable to everything.

Paul: So if you’re building a dating app, and it’s not in some way using game design, you’re going to fail, and the ones that do use it end up building Tinder. Everything, I think, is becoming more of a game, and I think all games are actually becoming more of traditional software products and social networks and communication products and all that kind of stuff. All of that is converging, so for me, the reason I read it was just trying to understand it all. I’ve played games all my life, but trying to understand more of the science behind it, and what that says about ourselves, and how does that help improve how I would build products. It was actually an incredible book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Jeroen: What was the craziest thing you read in there?

Paul: I ended up taking a ton of notes on this one, but what was the craziest thing? This is a good question. The craziest thing that I realized was that basically, there’s this feedback loop where game designers are trying to build games that help you play more, get more value out of it, et cetera. The rules that happen in these worlds in the games are actually a big reflection of people and what motivates them. What gets them to do stuff and what gets them to go to their job but then still want to come home and spend all this time playing games.

Paul: I guess one of the craziest insights in this is that the reason why the book is called Reality is Broken, is because how we’ve designed games is actually better than the experience that we get at work and in our day-to-day in reality. In reality, you go to your job. A lot of things are unknown. You get no feedback. You don’t know if you’re winning or losing. You’re moving along and hoping you’re progressing in some way. But in games, there’s clear rules. There’s a clear feedback loop. You know if you’ve won or lost. There’s all these things that we want to have in our lives, and so that’s why people play games, is because they get the stuff in games that they don’t get in real life.

Paul: The things that we discover, I think, in games, are actually not just about how do we get people to play Super Smash Bros more. It’s actually discovering things about human nature and our emotions and the things we want out of life, and I think that’s why a lot of these worlds are converging. You can only build one society in the US, but you could build tons of societies in games, change the rules, all that kind of stuff. So it’s just this Cambrian explosion of, how do we operate societies, what do we learn about them? I think using that into other apps, other products, day-to-day life, is a really big thing.

Jeroen: Right. Cool.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeroen: Final question. What’s the best piece of business advice you ever got?

Paul: Best piece of business advice. I think it’s a mix of two. One is the same thing that YC says. Build for yourself, build something people want, go talk to users, that whole loop is true. I’ve failed at multiple angles of that at different times, but if you stick to that, you’ll end up building something that could work in some way, or makes money, or creates a good lifestyle for you.

Paul: The reverse of that is basically, once you run out of ideas, once you think it’s time for you to reset or try and work on something bigger, you don’t necessarily know what that is yet, then go reset. Don’t feel like you’ve failed or anything like that. Basically, people just are in different phases of their lives at different times. So I think the big advice is, if you know what you want to work on, go work on it. If you don’t, go figure things out. Go learn and go identify other problems through the course of living and talking to people, and all that kind of stuff.

Paul: If you’re in this third pool where you want to go do a startup and you’re trying to figure out a problem, that’s a really hard world to operate in, and that’s definitely something that I wouldn’t want to go do again.

Jeroen: All right.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeroen: Thanks again, Paul, for being on Founder Coffee.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeroen: It was really great to have you.

Paul: It was great to be here. Thanks for having me.


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Jeroen Corthout

Co-Founder at Salesflare
I'm Co-Founder of Salesflare, the simply powerful CRM for small businesses. I love growth, automating sales, and building beautiful products.

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