Independent thinking, Startup Studios, and Developing Meta Skills
“Bold Takes” is a long-form interview series that surfaces interesting perspectives. Follow for more.
For those who have never met or spoken to Sar Haribhakti, he has a vibrant personality and a very unique background. This interview covers a wide diversity of topics, ranging from Sar’s upbringing to how he thinks about startup studios to much much more.
Tell us about yourself. What do you do? What are you excited about lately?
Short description is I am a guy who has lots to say on twitter. I mention that because you wouldn’t know me otherwise. I am not getting interviewed because I have accomplished anything exceptional yet.
Appreciate you thinking I am someone you should interview. Hopefully, your readers will find something interesting.
A longer profile is that I grew up in India with a very conservative view of life. I moved to the US five years ago. I studied, explored and worked in New York for four years, and currently live in California. My childhood obsessions with painting and photography somehow translated to a mix of pursuit of investment banking and exploration of startups, tech studios and venture capital while studying computer science and economics during my college years. Now that I have graduated, I do neither banking nor programming for a living but I am still very interested in both and that interest has manifested itself in a variety of ways while working in what’s commonly referred to as “tech” over past 3 and half years. Currently, I am unemployed. I recently left my job. In a very funnily contrarian fashion, I am not taking time off for a vacation or spending time with family which is what most do during their transition periods if tech twitter is our guide. After spending first few days of my unemployment on aggressively figuring out what’s next, I now spend my time reading and writing for the most part. I will announce what’s next soon. Please note that everything I say about my career and life is a carefully worded narrative of what I say when asked to summarize it. It appears to be more intentional and linearly descriptive than it actually is but is likely a bit more intentional than stories of my peers and friends. As always, there is a tremendous amount of randomness and luck involved in every step I took to get to where I am today (which is being unemployed!). I hope a major takeaway from this interview is not to listen to anyone pontificating confidently on pretty much anything.
I am not the kind of person who gets excited about things easily in the traditional sense of the word. But, I am enjoying a bunch of shows like Designated Survivor, House of Cards (new season) and Bodyguard right now. I am a TV show buff. I have seen more shows than I would like to admit. I spent last ten to twelve months diving very deep into the multifaceted and bizarre world of “crypto” that has a lot of potential in some ways and is very sad and delusional in many ways. I have too many intellectual interests and I go down many rabbit holes every month. I think my twitter feed and writing online gives a good glimpse of what I am thinking about. I am very much looking forward to what my next step is career wise if things work out the way I hope they would. Until then, I will continue spending time outdoors in sunshine, going on long walks and doing some photography.
What were you like in high school? How have you changed since?
I was nothing like I am today when I was in High School. It blows my mind how different I am now. I had a bias for playing it safe and taking a very conventional path. My entire worldview was shaped by my parents, teachers, close friends and the textbooks that I was assigned by my school. I have always been very hard working but I wasn’t curious in any way. I was into natural sciences and social sciences but decided to take “commerce” track in last two years of High School. In India, typically, students choose Science, Arts or Commerce tracks at the end of their sophomore year. My decision shocked all my friends and teachers since I opted out of Sciences. My decision at the time was driven by my becoming an accounting professional. All my friends took the Science track so I would learn a lot from them informally anyways. There was a time where I read Science textbooks more than the Commerce textbooks that I was supposed to since all the material regarding economics and business came naturally to me. Keep in mind, there are no appropriate parallels between American and Indian education system. A lot of calculus and statistics that are taught at American college introductory level was taught to us in school. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason! That being said, I took no pleasure in reading outside of school and couldn’t fathom why my brother read voraciously. I knew how to play the game so I did what needed to be done to stay on top of school work and extra-curriculars. I was pretty proud of myself at the time because the things I was really good at were culturally very valued in society and the education system in India. Today, I default to taking risks, being comfortable with uncertainty, not taking traditional paths, being curious, and questioning everything, for better or worse. My 17 or 18 old self was convinced I would be an accountant. My 20 year old self was convinced I would be an investment banker. While I still like income statements and banking, I think those would be a very boring career paths. I have changed in all sorts of ways in the social and personality spheres too. My current self basically wouldn’t like to hang out with who I was in High School. That being said, I miss my artistic side from time to time. I no longer paint or draw but I am happy with having replaced that time with reading for pleasure.
I went from someone not taking any risk and wanting to know exactly what’s next to someone whose parents have to now tell him not to be too risk taking and “settle” down. I can’t imagine my old self quitting a job without any plans. When I say risk taking, I am defining it very situationally to my life, who I am and the circumstances I was raised in and my immigration to this country.
You then studied at the University of Rochester. What did you think of college? How was it valuable for you?
My view of college has evolved over past 5–6 years. I was the kind of kid who let his test scores define him. So you can imagine how much I must value credentials growing up. You can also sense some hints of that deep seated appreciation for prestige in my pursuit of investment banking during first one and half years of my college life. I wasn’t someone who grew up programming as something a lot of folks in tech tend to. College was a good forcing function for me to pick up those skills and the technical knowledge that I likely otherwise wouldn’t have aquired. That was partly why I chose not to study some version of finance even though investment banking was my primary goal. Based on my research on how to stand out as someone who does not go to a target or top tier school (from a Wall Street perspective) and the earning potential of computer science, I decided against picking a conventional major for someone with aspirations of making it in top tier banking. In hindsight, that was a fantastic decision. A plot twist here is that my diploma does not say computer science but I go around saying I studied it which is technically true and no one has been able to call me out on CS not technically being my major of study so far. That should tell you a lot about how our education system and job markets work.
College was valuable to me but not in the sense of what it taught me directly. I quickly lost faith in the story of scoring a high GPA in college fixing all our life’s troubles. It was pretty clear to me that scoring a good GPA at a second tier school won’t amount to anything in the real world and that I didn’t have the luxury of name dropping my college everywhere I go to build some instant credibility. I visited my college career center just once in four years. It was during the fall semester of my freshmen year. I quickly learned it was pointless. If I had the motivation and discipline to study applied computer science by myself, there is hardly much I couldn’t have picked up by myself. I picked up on finance because I had set my mind to figuring it out by myself. Going to a second tier school in the middle of nowhere taught me how to become self-sufficient and how to struggle and figure things out by myself when I couldn’t rely on brand name and connections to open doors for me. It was a frustrating process that taught me things I can’t imagine I would otherwise have in that timespan. I learned how to not take anything for granted, how to not rely on shortcuts, how to learn to project signals that are actually valued in a market, how to put in the work to beat others with better traditional signals etc. Turns out that the most rigorous way to become resourceful is to not be in an environment where resources are readily available for a prolonged period of time!
Overall, college was a good time where I grew and matured a lot. The social upside of it far outweighed everything else and I think the fact that I realized that during my sophomore year is ironically the greatest thing college did for me.
Do you disagree with lots of people? On what?
I think that depends on the timeframe and the environment. I actually didn’t disagree a ton with people around me growing up. I did what was expected of me and hung out with people I really liked. It isn’t that people around me lived, behaved and thought like I did, it is that I didn’t care enough to think much to disagree on much with anyone. As I mentioned earlier, I have grown a lot in past few years and I do find myself disagreeing a whole lot more because I now absorb a lot more information across a lot more domains, hold a very multifaceted and broader worldview, try my best to think for myself and feel comfortable enough to frame and vocalize my opinions across topics. There isn’t a static list of topics I can cite where I have disagreements with others because I evolve my views on topics very frequently and the people whose views I value either do the same or I stop factoring in their views in my own thinking.
Is there anything you *absolutely* believe in? What is that?
I believe in the liberating power of certain beliefs even though I am very well aware that those beliefs are not absolutely true. For instance, I absolutely believe in personal agency and that I have full control over my career and that I am responsible for the professional outcomes. Now, we all know that there are many variables that are not in our control. This is very obvious from the fact that we tend to attribute all success to our own effort while attributing failures to all sorts of external factors. But, I still choose to absolutely hold that belief because there are always more things than we think that are actually in our control and I would rather believe in that than believe how I am out of control and blame external factors. I am not prescribing this for anyone else and reasonable people can and do disagree with me. That’s fine. I don’t expect others to think similarly.
Having spent time at Betaworks and now with Science, what are your thoughts on “startup studios” in general. Do they work? What separates a “good” versus a “bad” implementation of the “studio” model?
I think this is a very complex topic and answering those questions literally would strip away a lot of nuances and that would be unfair to the those teams that took a chance on me over the years. I wouldn’t want to comment on whether they “work” since there are multiple ways of evaluating that. I have worked with two of the most prominent studios on both coasts so far and can confidently say that they work very differently on the inside and have different business models and hire different kinds of people. That eventually affects the nature and quality of their product. This sounds very obvious but it is actually surprising how different they can be despite the fact that they are all studios.
One thing I would say is studios are in pursuit of minimizing the role randomness plays in how successful businesses get built and bringing some efficiency in how capital gets allocated. I have written a bit about this here. Feel free to skip what I say and click through the links I shared to get a good understanding of the studio world from folks who are much smarter and qualified than me to comment on this. I am currently reading the book Who Is Michael Ovitz. A lot of how he built CAA is actually very applicable to how tech studios can be built.
On that note, you also have gathered exposure to the world of venture investing. In your eyes, who are the best venture firms or specific partners? What makes them good?
I think it is pretty simple to find out the literal answer to that using the industry specific performance standards. The more interesting aspect of that question to me is that why does it even matter who the best venture firms are?
I tend to admire two kinds of venture investors. First, they have an indisputable track record. The outcomes speak for themselves. Second, they might not have made it yet per the industry standards but have an exceptional mix of humility and authority.
You are very active on Twitter and have garnered an influential following. Do you have a strategy for this? How would you recommend people get started?
I get this question a lot. More often than not, people are looking for tactics. If I had a strategy, I think I am a very unqualified person to ask this question to because I am clearly failing at executing on that strategy given how small my following is. So the best thing to do is not listen to what I have to say! If someone is looking to grow their following very rapidly, it seems like sharing platitudes all day is a good tactic. Turns out people retweet those like crazy!
That being said, while it might sound trite, it is very true that I don’t optimize for my followers count. In fact, I am not accomplished or popular enough to garner the kind of following influencers do. The kind of things I talk about on twitter will likely always have a small audience unless I become a tech celebrity of sorts or get associated with some venture that garners attention. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Nor am I aspiring for that. I am happy with the kind of people who have chosen to follow me and engage with me. I’m grateful.
From a mindset perspective, I think newcomers should think of Twitter as a public group texting app where you are talking with people you do not know in real life but would love to at some point. Or, think of it as a free conference where you get to pick both speakers and attendees. No one likes the person who keeps shouting into the void. A third way of thinking about twitter is that it is a way of creating filter bubbles (or knowledge networks) for yourself by hooking your phone to minds of what others are reading, sharing and talking about. I happen to be in the very small camp that believe online filter bubbles are net positives. A fourth way of looking at twitter is how Jack Dorsey sees it. It is a public square or a town hall.
If you are still looking for tactics, Nikhil Srinivasan at CB Insights wrote a piece that I thought was good and helpful for those starting out. I recommend checking it out.
Will we see a new massive social network come out in the next 5 years? Where will they come from?
Honestly, if I had a good answer to that, the rational thing to do would be to not disclose it here and raise a venture fund and put all my money to work! I hear pundits on twitter are exceptional at predicting unpredictable behaviors of millions of people :)
Who will be worth the most in twenty years: Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter? Least?
I like the often floated idea of Snap and Twitter merger. They have empherality in common. Regardless, most valuable social network in twenty years very likely won’t be Snap or Twitter unless something very radical happens. I wouldn’t comment on any of the other scenarios because I have no clue. I generally stay away from predicting things and if I were to, I look at it from a hypothesis testing standpoint. I try my best to answer what can be proved to not be true, not what could be true.
I don’t think it matters but I’m invested in Facebook and Twitter.
What are the most useful meta skills people can learn nowadays?
I don’t feel qualified enough to answer that. I tend to dismiss people who are overly prescriptive in counselling others. Most advice given to others would be incredible useful if humans were linear functions with inputs and outputs in a very static world!
That being said, I can tell you what I am trying to pick up on.
I, by no means, have come close to mastering these but here’s some on my list currently :
- Taking an epistemic and probabilistic view of things
- Thinking for yourself
- Figuring out what’s descriptive, prescriptive and normative
- Being comfortable with uncertainty
- Knowing how to make compounding, randomness and optionality work in your favor in various aspects of life and career
- Harnessing curiosity
- Knowing when to want to be right versus liked
- Pursuing intellectual rigor
- Understanding trade offs in everything
- Knowing when to focus on inputs versus outputs
- Best way to process neatly crafted narratives is with tremendous skepticism
If you could write a note in a time capsule and send it to your grandchildren to read when they’re 20 what would it be?
“Ignore most of what you hear people tell you about me to shape your thinking because the world is very different for you than it was for me when I was your age. Always have a moral compass, take care of our family and do what’s best given your circumstances.”
Hope you enjoyed this interview with Sar Haribhakti.
He is very active on twitter and always has an interesting perspective — follow him here!
“Bold Takes” is a long-form interview series that surfaces interesting perspectives. Follow for more.