August 14, 2023

August 14, 2023

Being Natural / AI Demo Nights

Being natural is one of the traits I most highly regard in life. The less engineered, the more appealing something is. Natural (behavior, expression, creation) is honest, never attempting to be what it is not, nor more than what it needs to be. To be driven by instinct, sometimes without explanation, exists by evolutionary design. The most impactful decisions in hindsight are often the consequence of intuition over calculation. The best ideas, writing, friendships, love – are the ones that are indescribably right. You don’t have to think about how they work, they just do. The writing flows, the product materializes out of what feels like thin air. These things are natural. And we don’t singularly experience the satisfaction (and freedom) that comes from the most pure expression of self. Acting naturally is more subconsciously perceivable to others than we acknowledge. On the surface, it’s what people are reaching for when they call someone cool.

Opposing what is natural is everything that is contrived. Sadly, much of our world today revolves around intensely manicured settings, interactions, appearances. What is real? I detest essentially everything with this tone – perhaps it’s personal preference, perhaps it’s basic instinct in itself to long for the most honest version of anything. Our aversion to acting naturally must be driven by fear of revealing the most real version of self and receiving the most personal form of criticism as a result. It is safer to do what others have defined as right, to make plans ahead of time, to avoid extreme feelings, actions, thoughts. Why value simplicity, self sufficiency? It seems sophisticated to consume many products / services, to have things taken care of for you, to wear clothing that is on trend. Yet ironically, trying too hard is what we ultimately reject the most aggressively… they say you can smell desperation. It’s hard to walk this line well.

I try to move naturally in the ways that I work. Rabbit holes driven by natural curiosity, interactions with founders that attempt to feel intuitive on both sides, with a respect that feels genuine and never forced. There is a style of deal evaluation that people refer to as truth seeking - this motion is something that I strive for. Things do not always happen this way, and of course not everything in the universe can be pure. Sometimes we question our own behavior and wonder why we deviated so far from our internal expectations of self.

Over the course of this summer I’ve been hosting demo nights for AI founders here in NYC. We have a great group forming and the energy seems to be building here around gen AI / open source. The point of these meetups is essentially to give people a format for showing the products they’re building, knowing that feedback from other engineers and potential users is probably the most valuable input for anyone at the earliest stages of product creation.

The normal format for these things is highly engineered. Get everyone in a room, screen up at the front, and have every person with a demo present one by one. I also defaulted to this format. After each demo, everyone in the audience submitted a feedback form with the product fresh in their minds. This way, we could at least guarantee that everyone who presented a demo would leave with solid insight from their peers. While this concept was sufficient, and feedback was positive (people kept coming back, some founders even used the feedback as material in their pitch decks), admittedly something never felt exactly right. I specifically disliked the idea of lining chairs up and forcing people to sit like they’re in an auditorium, but it was the only way we could fit a bunch of people in a room with a TV.

Last week we hosted a demo night with an alternative format, and you could immediately feel that the energy was right. It was natural, low stakes, and fun. A free for all experiment. Basically get everyone in a room, don’t necessarily say what to do, but for anyone with a demo (there was an application), bring your computer and show people what you’re working on. Down to the code if you want to.

The first floor of Pace was open (our office is a house, so technically it was in the kitchen and living room) and people set up their demos wherever there was room on a table. I made sure there was a good group of engineers / founders who solely wanted to come and see what other people were working on, so the split was even with more attendees than presenters. I didn’t really have to explain what was going on – people just sort of fell into place. For 2.5 hours the most natural flow of interaction occurred as people roamed around and spent meaningful time with each project and meeting each other. Instead of forcing the paradigm that people usually do for demos, an environment with little / no structure proved best.

I think we landed on something interesting and I'm going to keep this design into the fall as we continue to host open demo nights. I’d encourage anyone who is also hosting these sorts of things to experiment with this free for all / science fair style. I think it feels more honest to the profile of hackers / tinkerers anyway. There’s less pressure on giving a big presentation to a group, and more focus on showing what you’re working on and getting inputs from people that you trust.

Special call out to some cool demos from last Thursday @pasql, @peterthedecent, @twelve_labs, @enrique_goudet, @plexusearth and many more. If you want to be included in future demo nights, sign up here.

(art by Georgia O'Keeffe)