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How Shopify, Stripe, Zapier, and Lambda are fulfilling Steve Jobs' Dream.

colinplamondon profile image Colin Plamondon ・4 min read

I strongly believe that products like Zapier are extremely early versions of transformational future products. 

Friendsters to the Facebooks, Newtons to the iPhone.

The big question, as someone looking at startup opportunities, is what that mature descendant might look like. I'd sure as hell like to start in on it today.

Here's my read right now:

  1. Programming productivity is becoming more broadly accessible, though no-code products like Airtable, Coda, Zapier, and Retool.
  2. Stripe and Twilio serve as Jobsian "Bicycles for the Mind". Each of these companies is essentially a Code-Block-as-a-Multi-Billion-Dollar Public-Or-Soon-To-Be-Public-Company.
  3. If Lambda School succeeds, programming will become a trade. As liquidity of programmers increases, and there's more enormous Code Block Companies, programmers-as-electricians will be able to do incredible things.

Programming Productivity 📈

Zapier, Workato, n8n.io, Parabola, Clay.run , Darklang- there's a lot of em, all driving. They're all roughly equivalent, with more recent offerings giving a "canvas" UI that looks like marketing automation software. 

The key thing that seems to be missing: they're all isolated ecosystems, and walled gardens

Most of these services leveraage the "canvas" metaphor for actual programming. You drag and drop widgets onto a big board, connect them up, and off you go!

Or, at least, that's the marketing pitch. There's a hell of a lot of futzing to get most workflows to work, and small automations in Zapier or Workato can require significant debugging. Serious friction. 

Fortunately, each of these companies are doing their level bests to reduce that friction, day by day, release by release.

So let's assume that one of these apps works, really works, at any point in the future. Assume a platform for Code Blocks operates at a Stripe or Twilio scale.

That'd have mammoth implications:

(1) "Bicycles for the Mind" for a new era. 

Jobs' idea of computers as "bicycles for the mind" assumed everyone would learn to program, conceptually.

That was true, to a point. Anyone who's an expert at Excel is doing low-level programming. That's an innovation from 1979, however.

Transformational next-generation productivity apps like Lotus Improv failed to gain traction. There just hasn't been much movement on letting non-programmers be as productive as programmers.

Today, a very small percentage of computer users actually know how to code. iPhones and iPads are addiction engines moreso than engines of creation. 

Somewhere along the line, computers were hijacked from "bicycles for the mind" into "ad dollar bingo". The internet that pre-AdWords Google enabled was one of thousands of sites, with information spreading through passionate fans of individual topics. It was human, personal, and gloriously unprofessional. 

For computers to be bicycles for the mind once more, we're going to need creation to be more central than consumption. Bicycles for the mind failed in the first few iterations. Programming is hard af, and fiddly as all hell. 

(2) Tumblr-ize programming. 

Go back to the late 90's or early 2000's, and having a blog is a vaguely geeky, technical thing. It started with deploying code to your own server, going through a fiddly setup process, initiating a database, and all kinds of crazy stuff.

You didn't see any Halseys or Grimes or Taylor Swifts building audience on Moveable Type. The barrier to entry had to be reduced so that the experience was one of creation, instead of configuration. 

Tumblr gave rapid, instant feedback on design changes, tons of expressive post formats, and a built-in community. It's probably the greatest truly social platform ever. 

Because it was truly social, it also undermonetized. The less you can extract tightly segmented personal data from your users, the less you can fit them into neat boxes for advertisers, and the less CPMs you can charge for your audience. The more personal a social site, the less targeting information, and the more 

What would Tumblr for Programming look like? 

Something where the feedback loop of coding is so tight, it feels like an act of pure creation, instead of one of configurations and toolchains. 
Feedback from friends is instantaneous, and followings of 5–10 friends can grow into hundreds, thousands, or millions through reposts.

What would happen if creating an app became more art, and less engineering? Apple famously resides at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology. What would happen if building apps became Liberal Arts? 

(3) Deliver far more Stripe and Shopify-like platforms.

Stripe and Shopify enables thousands of businesses that otherwise wouldn't exist.

There's so much value delivered by Shopify. Before Shopify, setting up an online store involved hiring a developer to mess around with Magento, so you could have a meh looking, cookie cutter site that was slow as hell. 

Shopify sites are beautiful, performant, work out of the box, take care of card processing, offer financing terms, integrate with shipping & fulfillment... it's insane.

Similarly, Stripe removed the entire concept of "merchant accounts". This stuff was pure pain in the past. 

With my first startup, we had to apply for a merchant account. 

We didn't have a meaningful operating history, so the rates were stupid expensive. 

The processors would hold back a lot of your money. You'd get absolutely killed on fees. After all that, then you had to do a ton of boilerplate code just to use the merchant account that was bending you over.

Stripe just… fixes it. 

The Real Bicycle for the Mind

The more platforms that exist at the quality bar of Shopify, the less people re-invent the wheel, and the more net-new productive time people can allocate. 

The Shopifys and the Stripes of the world are the modern "bicycles for the mind". They cut out 99% of the effort around critical workflows, "just handling it". 

The more of these platforms that exist, the easier creation will be, the more small business will be created, and the more we turn programming into a broadly accessible trade skill.

My read on the situation, in short:

  • The ultimate expression of Bicycles for the Mind would Tumblr-ize programming. 
  • It'd enable thousands of Shopify/Stripe like platforms, for acceleratingly niche needs and use cases. 
  • These platforms would be tied together, on a single network, with a tight feedback loop between creation, money, and reputation.

That'd enable a world of small businesses, and be a far more aspirational future than one of MegaCorp walled gardens. 

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