Mid-year review September 2014

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This document is an update on the priorities we set in our May 2014 team plan, as part of our annual 2013 review, for the period June 2014 – September 2014.

Summary

  • We’ve made good progress on the priorities we set in our review. In general, we’ve exceeded our goals and are on-track to make the rest by the end of the year.

  • Some of our key achievements include: (i) published our expanded research pages, including 30,000 words of new static pages, (ii) completed our fundraising targets, and (iii) hired Peter Hartree as our part-time web developer, allowing us to exceed our targets on web development.

  • The main problem we face is that we’ve failed to hire someone to lead on research, which has contributed to a shortage of staff capacity in this area.

  • Over the rest of the year, we intend to focus on improving our online content and the research behind it, by (i) doing another round of work on the key web pages (ii) doing a round of coaching (iii) publishing a round of articles from our research backlog.

  • After February 2015, we’ll do our annual review, a hiring round, and our next round of fundraising.


In the rest of this document, we review in more depth (i) our big picture strategy and priorities (ii) how we’ve performed relative to the priorities we set in our last team plan (iii) the challenges we’re facing and (iv) our priorities for the next six months.

Table of contents

Big picture overview

How’s progress on our product?

I’m pleased with progress on our main product: the online content and the research behind it. We added 30,000 words of new static pages. Writing these pages highlighted how much our research has advanced in the last year, and the process of writing it out helped us to make several further improvements. I’ll explain some of the advances on our blog over the next few weeks.

We have lots of ideas (often part-drafted) in the pipeline to further improve the career profiles, which we’re confident will be useful due to our experiences coaching. Some examples include: never-done-before analysis of chances of success in entrepreneurship, the earnings of quantitative traders, and how to go into politics.

We also have lots of ideas to improve the key pages, such as adding summaries of our thoughts on some of the most important big picture considerations, including the relative importance of personal fit; who should do earning to give; how to prioritise making an impact now vs. later; and our current views on replaceability.

We’ll continue to focus on improving the key pages and career profiles over the next six months.

How’s our strategy?

We still think our strategy of focusing on increasing the quality of our product is the way to go, though since we’ve only really started to release new content in September, it’s too early for the approach to have been vindicated.

How’s our financial situation?

We made our key fundraising targets, so we’re in a strong financial position and don’t need to actively invest in fundraising for six months.

How’s the team?

We hired a part-time professional web developer, Peter Hartree, and the central team has enough capacity. Increasing the clarity of our strategy and not having any interns has boosted productivity per person, and allowed to focus on our top strategic priorities, such as fundraising, working out what the product should be and recruiting staff (addressing our key mistake from the last period).

Our key constraint is now that we’re short of staff to work on our online content and research, and have not yet been able to identify someone to hire to lead on our research before summer 2015. This is mainly because we’d like to hire another founder-level person, and these are difficult to find.

Fortunately, this problem doesn’t prevent progress – it’s just slowing it down. We’re prepared to wait for someone with great fit, while pushing ahead with our online guide.

What progress have we made on our key priorities since our last team plan?

Research and online content

We successfully wrote and published our expanded research pages, based on the plan in our strategic review, which we also expanded and took through several rounds of improvement. In total, we released over 30,000 words of content, and revised many the key elements (e.g. we updated our career and cause frameworks, the how to choose process, the profiles from our old list, our work on job satisfaction and more). I’ll explain some of the changes to our findings on the blog over the next few weeks.

In addition, we converted the site into WordPress, which is already saving us time, and improved the design. This wasn’t part of our goals, but we were able to make this achievement due to bringing Peter Hartree onto the team as a part-time web developer.

As part of the new website content, we developed a standard career profile and published 16 of them. We also have six profiles with attached in-depth research reports in progress, and have experimented with delegating some of the research to a remote worker. We also developed a series of seven ‘strategy’ profiles. This is helping to make our research process more systematic and delegable.

For new research, our target is to publish five substantial research reports and five exploratory career profiles. So far, we’ve published three substantial reports (here, here and here) and no exploratory career profiles. However, we have six exploratory or medium-depth career profiles in progress and significantly improved our 16 ‘career considered’ profiles (the difference between a ‘career considered’ and an ‘exploratory profile’ is that the ‘careers considered’ don’t have an attached research report). Overall, we have a good chance of making this goal by the end of the year.

To support our efforts on research evaluation, we publicly released our blog rating system.

Coaching

We’ve coached 32 people so far, though 21 of the sessions remain unfinished (meaning we still need to send them a follow-up email and collect feedback), which means we can’t yet measure the performance of these sessions. We also did rapid fire coaching with 14 people at the Effective Altruism Summit.

We’re behind our expectations on this front because Roman has been ill for over a month; however, we’re still on track to make our goal of 40 completed sessions by the end of the year.

Fundraising

We completed both of our fundraising targets, welcoming a new very large donor and two other donors who have given several thousand pounds.

We currently have about £160,000 of cash on hand, roughly 16 months’ reserves at current rates of spending, or 13 if we hired another person at current salaries. This means we don’t need to focus on fundraising again until spring 2015 in line with our goal.

Application to Ycombinator

We’ve decided to apply to Ycombinator in spring 2015 for the summer 2015 round. The main reason is that we’ll expect to have a much stronger team in summer 2015 than this winter. In particular, Will will be able to join us in California in summer 2015 but not this winter, and we have two strong potential hires who can start full-time in June 2015. In addition, we’d like to focus on research for at least another six months, and it makes sense to do this before applying.

Team building

We hired Peter Hartree as a part-time remote web developer, which has been going very well and has allowed us to exceed our goals on the website. He has been working two days per week, did an extra three weeks of full-time work for the website launch, and will be working three days per week for the rest of the year.

The central team has delayed hiring a third staff member, because Roman and Marek, supported by George as an intern, decided they have enough capacity.

I’m optimistic we can find new staff able to coach or do outreach, and we have a strong candidate for a front-facing role who can start in June 2015, which fits with our timeline.

The main problem is that we’ve not yet been able to fill the key head of research role. All we have is a promising candidate who could start in June 2015, significantly later than we were hoping to hire. We’ve given two people trials (one through an internship, one through remote work). I’ve also spoken in-depth with several other promising candidates. Unfortunately, none of these leads has worked out so far.

Not filling this role contributed to a shortage of staff capacity working directly on online content and research. In addition, Roman has been below capacity due to illness, and we haven’t had any interns after June, which has left only me. Fortunately, this situation has also mean I haven’t had to do much management or fundraising, so I was able to make good progress on the research pages. Nevertheless, at this stage, we’re more talent-constrained than funding-constrained.

What else have we achieved?

How have our priorities changed?

Previously our plan with the online content was to quickly publish an update to the research pages, then do a research evaluation, then publish another update at the end of the year and do another research evaluation in spring. In the end, it seemed more efficient to publish a more substantial update a bit later (we did the first release at the start of September). That’s because so many of the decisions on the website were interrelated it was easier to do one big change. This means we’re only going to do one research evaluation, in sync with the rest of our evaluation efforts, in spring 2015.

What challenges are we facing?

Our main problem is that we’re constrained by staff capacity working on the online content, and research, which is slowing down progress. We want to solve this by making a co-founder level hire to specialise in research, but we’ve been unable to find someone so far.

The difference between a ‘co-founder level hire’ and a ‘regular employee’ is that a regular employee could carry out our research agenda if more defined and under my management, while a co-founder could lead the research program. That means they’d need to be able to come up with the plan themselves and personally oversee its execution.

We want a co-founder who’s a strong researcher because (i) we’re still working out what our research program should be, (ii) it would free up my time to do other difficult research or focus on everything else besides research (if I manage research, then we’ll have little capacity for anything else), (iii) we’re still in a startup phase, so it’s useful to have a flexible, generally able team, rather than hiring people to carry out specific tasks.

This person is really hard to find. They need to be really able, passionate about 80,000 Hours, and trusted by the rest of the team.

What are we doing to cope?

  • I’ve been telling everyone in our network that this is our main constraint and we’ve been approaching everyone we know who might be a good candidate (if you’re reading this and interested, please get in touch!).
  • In the next few months, we’ll put out a general call for applications and speak to recruiters We’ll consider raising the salary.

  • We’re also pushing ahead improving the website and publishing some exciting research, because we think this will be one of the best ways to attract the right people.

  • As a back-up, we’re planning to recruit part-time remote freelancers to do editing, literature searches, writing up conversation notes and so on. The aim will be to save as much of Roman’s and my time as possible.

  • We may also invest more in adapting the research to be easier to delegate or make it easier to accept user-generated content.

What are our best alternatives to hiring a head of research?

The two main options are:

  1. Hire someone to manage the rest of 80,000 Hours, while I focus on research. This seems similarly hard, but we might get lucky.
  2. Wait until the research program is more developed (using remote freelancers wherever possible), then hire someone who I manage. This would mean progress is considerably slower, and we’d still end up short of management capacity.

What are our priorities for the next six months?

Priorities until the end of March 2015: improving the research

We initially intend to continue to focus on our core priority for the year: improving our online content and the research behind it. We think building this into a solid product will be the quickest way to grow in the long-term.

We expect to focus on three key areas:

  1. Do another round of work on the website content. this includes (i) carrying out and responding to user testing of the new pages (ii) writing another round of pages (including updating our earning to give page, about us page and FAQ, adding a community page) (iii) experimenting with boosting some of our key conversions (especially people taking our impact survey, bounce rate from the blog).
  2. Do another round of coaching. I plan to lead a round of coaching (10-20 people until we hit our goal of 40 in total) so that I can see how it interacts with the new web pages (with an eye to working out how to make both better and more scalable). We’re also continuing to experiment with the potential for coaching to generate new donors.

  3. Release a round of new research. I plan to spend about a month clearing some of our research backlog. We currently have over 10 pieces in-draft – mostly career profiles or supporting pieces of research. Publishing some of these would significantly beef up the top careers section of the website. We’d also like to invest Roman’s available time into writing more career profiles.

Peter will also lead on developing an AdWords campaign and improving SEO, which we expect can boost traffic by over 20%.

Priorities March 2015 onwards

From March we intend to focus on:

  • Doing our annual review, including a research evaluation and applying to Ycombinator.
  • Doing another round of fundraising.

  • Hiring someone to lead on research (or if we can’t find someone, implementing one of the alternatives).

Additional time will continue to be invested in improving the online careers guide and the research behind it.

After the annual review, we’ll have a new set of priorities.

Other activities we’ll be working on

  • It’s the start of the academic year, so we’ll be giving advice to and giving some talks at our student groups.
  • I’ll be speaking at a TedX talk in November, and would like to use this opportunity to make a good online intro lecture to 80,000 Hours.

  • We’d like to reopen a members’ forum.

  • We’ll continue to speak to people who might be a good fit for the head of research role.

  • We may write up more of our content for a mass audience, especially on Will’s Qz.com column.


Appendix – who’s on the team at the moment?

  • Me – about 25% of my time is being spent on general management and fundraising, 50% on the product and 25% on other.
  • Roman – focused on coaching, with extra going into new research.

  • Peter – working three days per week on web development.

  • Will – mainly writing his book, but also advising me several hours per week and writing Qz.com articles.

We also have a ~40% share of the CEA central team, which consists of:

  • Rob – managing CEA, fundraising and operations.

  • Marek – assisting Rob.

  • George – a long-term intern working on operations.