Avicii and Iterative Perfection (Update #12)
February 3rd 2020, I wrote a business plan from my college dorm room. February 3rd 2022, we closed our seed round. February 3rd 2023, Footprint is live with our first customers. There is still so much work to do, but I think the one-year mark calls for a bit of reflection on how we got here.
The original idea for Footprint has changed a lot since that crisp, Palo Alto evening before COVID introduced itself to the world. The changes I see are mostly due to the brilliant people on our team, with whom I’m lucky to work with and see create brilliant tools to disrupt this space. We’ve made some decisions that were novel in the space. Some surprised customers, and others challenged the principles on which legacy companies in our space have been built. Footprint is definitely a very different product than what is on the market today, with a philosophy, business model, and offering that stands in stark contrast to our competitors. Some companies have unified KYC and KYB. Others have unified PII Vaulting and PCI Proxying. By the end of this month, we’ll have unified all four.
So I thought now may be a good time to explore our approach to product design and decisions. Why and how we hedged our bets. We are far away from seeing if they were right – and I’m not calling our V1 perfect. It isn’t. But we want it to be. And will keep working until it get’s there.
When I think of perfection, I think of Tim Bergling, better known by his stage name Avicii. Most people who know me know of my obsession with Tim. My most prized possession is a 1/1000 vinyl of his track Levels. I’m annually in the top .001% of his listeners on Spotify wrapped. I wear his logo on my sleeve. I’ve written probably every investor update to date to his music, and pretty much all of the first 10 business plans in 2020 and 2021 to his 2016 Ultra Set. (It currently plays on my Airpods.)
Tim’s music touches me. I love the genres of EDM he lived in, known for the euphoric emotion produced by combining beautiful, upbeat melodies with storytelling lyrics. The resulting song sings to my ears an idea that we will overcome the obstacles we face in life, and always brings a smile to my face. But to me, Tim wasn’t just a musician—he was an artist that personified perfection and greatness. Don’t take my word for it. I love this video of Avicii in the studio with Chris Martin of Coldplay, widely considered one of the greatest musicians of our time. Around a minute in, Chris remarks to Tim how talented he is. All Tim cares about is finding the right synths for their ballad “A Sky Full of Stars.” People hear a three-minute song. But that ballad is composed of years of work and hundreds of layers and synths to create the melody. Our first end-users see a sign-up flow that takes a minute to go through. Behind it is a year of work and hundreds of thousands of lines of code. They think of him as Avicii the musician. I think of him as Tim the creator.
To me, there were three core traits to Avicii: he followed intuition, he did not settle for anything less than perfection, and he was willing to break norms and fuse unrelated genres to create what he thought would move the needle. Tim brought together genres that others did not think would be possible—bringing innovative melodies to the world that people never would have asked for–or even known to ask for–before he wrote them. I find the result perfect. It is science and art. We can’t emulate the instinct he had to do so—but we can seek to unlock our own.
Wake Me Up currently has 1.8 billion streams on Spotify. It is the 44th most streamed song of all time. When it became the first song to reach 200 million views in 2014, it achieved the feat of being the most streamed song in history at that point in time. And yet, Avicii got booed the first time he played it. You can hear them a bit at the start of the video from his 2013 Ultra set when he debuted it. There was so much controversy that he had to put out an apology statement. Tim said:
"I really wanted to switch things up and do something fun and different...this album is about experimentation and about showing the endless possibilities of house and electronic music. It's about how to incorporate acoustic instruments from different styles and influences you wouldn't expect and still stay true to your own sound and musicality which for me has always been about the melodies and positive energy.”
I get why Tim bringing up a bluegrass band to do a live performance of a folk song at a festival with a hundred thousand likely inebriated people did not go over swimmingly. The song was so divisive at first because it was so unexpected. People wanted versions of better EDM that they had already been listening to—incremental innovation. Tim gave them better versions of the music, just in a completely different format. He brought together two genres—country and EDM—that no one thought had any business being together. Tim remarked “My album is certainly not 'country'. Every song on the album is a fusion with house and electronic music.” The result of this unexpected fusion is an all-time song that got booed the first time it was played. I am not calling the fusion of security and KYC the same level of breakthrough, but likewise, no one had tried it before. Tim spent years making EDM before discovering country music and making an all-time country song due to his roots in electronic music.
Most of my time iterating on the original Footprint idea I was focused on consumer privacy rights. Once I discovered the identity space, I realized that was the perfect place for privacy to play. Sometimes we may spend a lot of time on something only to realize our time is best-spent in an adjacent field, but I take great solace in believing that the original use of time was actually incredibly valuable. Wake Me Up is amazing not because Avicii spent 15 years making country music, but because he brought his experience in electronic music to this new genre to fuse them. I hope we can do the same here in bringing years of knowledge from privacy + Alex’s life in cryptography to the identity space.
One of my favorite Avicii songs is Freak. In the behind-the-scenes video, his collaborators note (around the 3-minute mark) that Tim added an old Japanese whistle to the melody they had begun making, seemingly pulling the notes from thin air. This was only possible because of the time Avicii spent exploring genres that were not his own. I spent probably 16 months of my life trying to reverse engineer AdSense and build a B2C company. Once I entered the world of KYC, I realized that the theses from that earlier time around – giving people control of their data – would work much better in this new world. Avicii taught me to be a curious tourist and bring worlds together.
Avicii would never settle. This video is emblematic of the many times he would be last to be in the studio, playing around with different synths until he was satisfied with a song others long thought was already ready for a Grammy. Tim believed that “one note can transform an entire melody.” My favorite Avicii song is Sunset Jesus. I have access to a google sheet of his unreleased music, the legality of which I’m unsure so will not link it. But I’m including a screenshot below of six earlier versions of the song (there are 14 total in the sheet). It amazes me that Avicii could test lyrics (he made his melodies before adding lyrics) on hundreds of different melodies he had created before deciding which one had finally found the right home. We had over 50 variations of our core Footprint embedded sign-up flow to lead to the one you saw today with Footprint live (and it is still changing!). We likewise want to play around with every variation we can and never say the job is finished.
That desire to never be satisfied is incredible. There is a monetary incentive to just release music. But Tim waited. This is an unreleased song of his with U2. This is one with Coldplay. The streaming numbers on either would be astronomical. But they didn’t meet his bar. Once it did, he would release them without fear of failure, as we saw with Wake Me Up. Because he knew it had reached that bar in his head. This isn’t me preaching waiting too long. I wrote before we came out of stealth about how important I think it is to put a product out and fail quickly. But moving quickly and producing quality work doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. There is a reason Avicii was the last one in the studio every night. Startups are hard work, and it is because we all understand that we are trying to mimic this production.
This section goes out to our entire team. The amount of time spent on the smallest details at Footprint amazes me. Each member is brilliant and questions each assumption. It’s how we’ve boiled down so much into five lines of code. Shipping this large of a product in one year was not easy. We both acted with haste and extreme care. We say we want to be like Stripe for identity. That’s the bar. And it is why it has felt so great to hear potential customers make the analogy when they see the product.
It is impossible to emulate Avicii’s intuition, but by following his first two frameworks from above you may be able to unlock your own. Tim wasn’t classically trained. He learned to play piano, but as Chris Martin said, he really just conducted orchestras in his head. I laugh at this video of someone trying to explain how Avicii made his music. It is the least scalable explanation I’ve ever seen. Tim didn’t follow a formula; he followed his gut, but his gut was based on his logic. There’s a beautiful quote from his journal in his biography about chasing something “Not because it’s a sweet idea, but simply because the logic is sound.” Condensing complexity into rational thought is brilliant to me.
I won’t compare us here. I’m not Avicii. But I look up to the decisions he made. He’s my inspiration. In his eyes, “Wake Me Up” was not controversial, because the song was beautiful. I don’t see a problem in saying we will remove the toggle between friction and accuracy because we found the logistical way to do it. Once you search the world for genres to fuse and endlessly iterate on how to do it, I think you then have to make decisions and build what feels right. I hope we delight our customers like Tim delighted his fans.
Let me make something very clear: Footprint is not “Wake Me Up.” I am not taking a victory lap with the mission accomplished banner saying we are en route to 1.7B streams/ PIDS with the perfect product. We’re quite far from that. But if we want to become that, we must look up to greatness. Avicii is who I have always looked up to. And if we’re lucky, we too can take the cacophony of surprise, innovation, and doubt, and funnel it into creating something like sound logic. Don’t wake me up when it’s all over though. The journey there is the best part.
Goals From Last Month
Company Top Focus
Launch Footprint Live — our first production-ready, hot data, version of Footprint capable of verifying portable identities
- Complete! You can check it out here and create your portable identity: https://live.onefootprint.com
- We'd love your feedback, and help in increasing the number of PIDs out there :)
- Doc + selfie scan coming next week
Other Product Goals
Continue to move ongoing data vendor contracts forward and integrate their APIs into the sandbox
- We are live with two, expect to be live with two more this month, and have two more in the pipeline which we hope to wrap up in H1
Build backend of Vault Proxy
Meaningful progress on PCI certification
- We should have this complete by February
- Bring in one knight in shining armor/frontend engineer
We’re very excited to have hired D M Raisul Ahsan as a product engineer. Ahsan was born and raised in Bangladesh, before leaving in 2015 to study petroleum engineering in Russia. After two years he departed Russia to come to the US to study CS. Ahsan graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the University of New Mexico in 2021, and is currently finishing up his Master's in Computer Science at Stanford University with a focus on Human-Computer Interaction. As a graduate research assistant, Ahsan redesigned a mobile app to improve the rendering performance of the prior version by 2400%. During an internship at Nissan's autonomous Vehicle Lab Ahsan built the first functioning prototype of a now patent-pending web application for teleoperation. We’re can't wait to welcome him shortly to the team!
Goals For this Month
KYB Early preview
- Finish scoping and start implementing our KYB offering. Goal is to get an “early preview” mode of KYB by end of Feb.
- Vendor Integrations
- Footprint flow plugin
- Data model + APIs
- Designs for Dashboard (Target: March)
- Continue advancing our core KYC product offering
- Redacted Data Vendor integration
- Iterate on early feedback and issues we discover via Footprint Live
- Take our initial early ‘alpha’ version to production-ready for customers
- Build dashboard based configuration +
- Footprint was featured in FastCompany this month, where they described our quest to build “Apple Pay for Identity”
- Our amazing founding designer Pedro won the Apple App of the Day on Jan 20th for his app Tangerine. Very casual side project for the brilliant Pedro :)
Where we could use help
- Always looking to meet rockstar frontend engineers. We met Ahsan as a referral from Belce’s former CS professor who leads HCI at Stanford. This means the naming rights to a penguin at the SF zoo are still up for grabs as we still look to hire more on frontend :).
- And would love to speak to the below companies :)
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