The Physical Realm

As expected, layoffs are starting to hit many of the larger tech companies, particularly those that are built around local businesses and in-person engagement.  These are second-order effects as a result of social distancing and quarantine measures.  There will be more layoffs coming, as we're still at the beginning.  And from this wave, there will be third-order effects, too.

In terms of software, we'll probably see less investment in this area over time, or a hesitation to re-commit to this space because of future uncertainty.

It's unfortunate, because it will also result in a further cultural and economic gap between white-collar knowledge workers and blue-collar neighborhood businesses at a time when there are already macro-level changes contributing to a larger divide.

Starting Orbital was a huge learning experience on all fronts, primarily because it showed me how disconnected I was from local merchants and the service industry.

When you're an employee, the costs of operating a business—both the financial as well as the emotional—are abstracted away.  It's not your job to worry about the costs and cash flow. It's someone else's job and you need to, rightfully, focus on and perform the specific duty for which you were hired (which tends to come down to knocking out things called "todos" and finding ways to maintain or elevate your position in the hierarchy).

The downside of this is that you become less affected, and even out of touch, with the narratives of those who work in a completely different environment like local merchants, especially if you haven't really had significant day-to-day exposure.   (Ironically, my parents started and ran a local neighborhood business—but not in the neighborhood where they raised us— and it took running Orbital for me to better understand the sacrifices they made.)

As a business owner, however, particularly one who runs a physical space—your lens is completely different.  It's a bit easier to relate to the local merchants because you're exposed to the costs, and how your ability to affect cash flow is going to scale with your time and energy rather than finding a growth hack.

Further, you don't get access to the affordances and conveniences we're used to working in technology companies.  For example, you can't pursue strategies that take advantage of scaling up and cherry picking the markets you want regardless of where those people are because you are, for the most part, limited and dependent upon foot traffic.  You have to make the business work exactly where you are.  It's a huge constraint.

I've often said that if you want to learn interaction design, you should start with designing in-person events rather than user interfaces, largely because it puts you in closest proximity possible with the implications of your design decisions.  It's immediately clear to everyone whether things are working (or not), and you are forced to act.

Similarly, being in touch with the challenges of local, in-person, experiences is so critical to a well-functioning society, especially one that is increasingly bifurcating. We need more investment here—less of the digital serfdom variety—not solely to encourage a cohesive society, but because these critical businesses, which we often describe as "what makes a neighborhood", and which represent a livelihood for so many, are going to need it.