On zebras and transparent business models (January 2020 update)

On zebras and transparent business models (January 2020 update)

It's been five whirlwind months since we launched Lettuce, and so much has happened! We grew to a team of eight (EIGHT!) passionate humans. We added some of your most-requested features, like price history graphs. We rebuilt our entire codebase at least twice to make it stronger and more extensible. We learned a bunch of stuff about what our customers value in an investment app, and we're excited to build more of the stuff that you want in the year ahead.

Our little team! Not pictured are our 3 most recent hires: Roslyn, Braam and Greg.

Recently, we've been talking a lot about what kind of business we want to build. There's one familiar narrative about how tech startups are supposed to work: build fast! Find VCs! Break things! Disrupt! Scale! Become a unicorn! Exit!

That all sounds pretty stressful and destructive to us, to be honest. We have no interest in being that kind of business. We're more inspired by businesses like Ghost, Basecamp and Patagonia. These are businesses who think a lot about how they build things, and why. They create value for customers (rather than just for shareholders), and they support themselves through clear, transparent business models. They are all companies that have attracted the best people by building a great place to work, and they understand that what makes a company great to work for is autonomy and purpose rather than flashy perks and free snacks.

Some people refer to businesses like this as zebra companies, rather than unicorns. Here's how Mara Zepeda describes a unicorn business:

  • To state the obvious: unlike unicorns, zebras are real.
  • Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.
  • Zebras are also mutualistic: by banding together in groups, they protect and preserve one another. Their individual input results in stronger collective output.
  • Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive.

One of the cornerstones to getting this right is to make sure that your business model aligns the business's incentives with the customer's. Selling your customers' data or manipulating their emotions does NOT align. Something as simple as selling products that people want to buy... as old fashioned as it might seem... does!

So, our main focus for this year is to launch a paid subscription tier for Lettuce, and to be offering a product that's useful enough that subscriptions are worth paying for. We like the simplicity of this; the win-wininess.

We're starting this goal by working on a new sign up and onboarding flow. Getting this right has been crucial, because in our space, privacy is everything. Because we're trying to be a different type of business, our goal is different to most tech businesses: we want to know as little about you as possible. We've worked hard to build anonymity into our system from day 1. We know that with a product like Lettuce, you have to hard-code privacy, which is something we thought about a lot when we first drafted our Privacy Policy.

We believe that Sign in with Apple's "hide my email" feature is an excellent implementation of this idea, so that's the first way to sign in we're going to implement.

But, this isn't simple: it means a massive rewrite of our whole system. Right now, all of your data is stored on your own device and backed up in Google Drive (if you have an Android phone) or iCloud (if you have an iPhone). Now, we're moving towards syncing all of your data to a server on our backend. In time, we're really excited about the features this is going to enable: syncing your account across devices (or even on the web), creating portfolios that you can share with other people, and setting up notifications that can tell you about price moves and portfolio balancing.

For the technical amongst you, we've also decided to use this as a chance to rewrite our front-end in Flutter, to improve code reuse across platforms (and also because we really like Flutter).

We've also been working on some proof of concept API integrations with your favourite investing platforms. We know it's a pain to input all your assets manually, so we'd like to make it possible for you to connect directly with your investing platforms and let us get your data automatically. There are a lot of services that do that where you enter your username and password, but we don't like that (we think it's too much of a security risk for you) so we're sticking to integrations where we can connect via a secure API.

We'd love to hear from you what your favourite investing platforms are, so that we can prioritise linking up with those!

We're really excited about the next year, and looking forward to building a different kind of business with you.