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Chasing The Rush of Creation
A Conversation With Alexa Kayman
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I'm working on a monster deep dive for Contrary Research into the world of open source AI. When we publish it I'll be sure to share a piece of it here. But with how much time that piece is taking up, today is just a brief piece on one of the most interesting conversations I've had in a long time.
I've written about parenting and family before. They've come up a lot of different times, but in particular I focused on more personal things when I wrote about having my third kid, prioritizing yourself, and finding quiet moments for personal reflection.
As a parent, its always pretty close to top of mind how intimidating the world can be. I see the complex, and often terrifying web of internet subcultures, meritocratic achieverisms, intense social peer pressure, technological explosions of progress, climate disaster scenarios, and geopolitic uncertainty. There are some people that genuinely think bringing a kid into this world is irresponsible.
But as an investor, you find yourself constantly telling stories of optimism. "What do you have to believe?" If you're a doomsday purist, then the only investment you're likely making is survivalist memorabilia. But I'm squarely in the optimist camp. Despite the complex web of terror we call life, I believe there are opportunities for meaning.
And parenting is the practice of projected ambitions. I don't mean just the stereotypical high expectations of success a lot of parents foist on their kids. I mean a deeper version of the idea that "I just want what's best for my kids." You want education, friendship, social development, and entertainment all to be the best they can be. As a result, you find yourself often asking yourself, "what is actually best?"
For example, recently my 6-year old son has been struggling with his school being a good fit for him. We found ourselves researching alternative schools and I kept feeling like I had no good basis for making that decision. So I started putting together a course on K-5 education (with the help of ChatGPT).
I find that same curiosity crop up whenever I meet a truly exceptional person, especially when they're young. I want to understand what circumstances helped them become who they are so that I might try and distill those lessons to offer to my children. That's what happened this week.
Introducing Alexa Kayman
As part of Contrary Research, we have a number of Research Fellows who help us dig into the 175+ private tech companies we've written about. In our latest batch of Fellows, we welcomed Alexa Kayman to the team.
Alexa is a self-taught coder, has helped rebrand a political strategy firm, and is Head of Operations at a seed-stage fintech company. All of that is impressive. But what makes the story even more unique? She's 17-years old. A junior in high school.
I consistently feel like we underestimate young people. From the rising age of politicians to movie stars, as a society we're consistently leaving a lot of opportunity with people way past their prime. One of my favorite books is John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. That guy was no parent to aspire to be, for sure. But one scene that always stuck with me is John Quincy Adams as an ambassador in Russia. He didn't have a lot to do so he spent a LOT of time with his 5-year old son, going on walks, and reading the Bible with him in both English and Latin.
People are far more capable at a far earlier age than we typically give them credit for. And Alexa is certainly evidence of that. In our conversation, it was clear that so much of what she found herself doing was "breaking the rules" that are typical for someone her age.
She started reading and exploring websites in 5th grade. Pretty soon she found herself fascinated by what websites could be. She also noticed that just about everyone needed a website. So, in 2016 (when she was ~11 years old) she started talking to small businesses in New York and, using no-code tools like Wix, would help them build websites.
As she continued to stumble on different businesses, she came across a political organization whose name was way too long, and she helped them rebrand. That was her first exposure to marketing and growth. Eventually, she stumbled upon Bloom, an investing app for teens, and started as an intern with them. As she helped with marketing, she helped generate 10K sign-ups in 3 months with $0 in marketing spend.
But she's not just impressive. It's not simply over-achieverism. Instead, Alexa is someone who is thoughtfully pursuing life.
Chasing The Rush of Creation
That phrase — "chasing the rush of creation," — is right from Alexa's personal website. And it was no surprise when I saw it after our conversation. When we first interviewed Alexa as a research fellow, she said her “biggest responsibility is to absorb and learn as much as possible.”
"I grew up in the internet generation. The boom of social media created a generation of people excited to consume information, but in 5th grade I was interested in researching and building businesses. I'm more interested in creation than consumption."
As we talked, I realized how true that is. The vast, vast majority of interactions that we have online are purely consumption. Inputs, with no desired outputs. Other than spending more time taking on more inputs. But Alexa isn't programmed that way.
She discovered YC's Startup Library right before COVID, and that became a self-directed course on all things startups. That was par for the course for Alexa. "Rabbit holes are definitely an accurate description of how I teach myself things." As an only child with two parents who work, Alexa found herself with a lot of time to, in her words, "ask stupid questions and then go find the answers." The internet acted as the perfect gateway for that.
"What about TV? Or TikTok?" I asked her. "Do you do anything mindless for fun?" She deleted TikTok because it wasn't a good habit, and instead focused on things like Twitter that felt like better places to observe and learn. She does watch TV, but she's watching shows like Succession. "I also enjoy watching the cinematic critiques that come with those kinds of shows on YouTube."
Along with her watch list, she also has her reading log with books like "Savage Inequalities" about America's educational system, or "The Intelligent Investor." Her natural curiosity always comes back to creation.
"There is definitely a rush when I'm making something, even if its small. The excitement of it. Creating things makes you feel in touch with the moments you're living."
Looking Forward To The Future
Since we launched the Research Fellowship early last year, we've reviewed 200+ applicants. Very few of them (if any others) have been under 18. We've had product managers, engineers, hedge fund investors, and marketers as fellows. We've seen some exceptional writing samples from a number of people. But for a lot of applicants, I've been surprised by the weakness of their writing. We'll have people who are 4-5 years out of school, working in tech, and the only writing sample they have is a paper on international trade they wrote in college. We also often have people who struggle to write about anything other than the industry they work in.
Alexa stood out. She studied our format across dozens of memos, and replicated it to write a memo about Skydio, an autonomous drone company. She's 17, and has worked in politics and fintech. But her natural curiosity pushed her to write about a hardware company and unpack use cases in defense. I couldn't be more excited to work with her as a Research Fellow. And I have a lot to learn from her intense curiosity that drives her to create.
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