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What's the future of remote work?

Interview with an angel investor, Michael Donohue
May 10, 2021
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Michael was one of the founding members of WhatsApp, who built the largest real-time messaging network in the world. Since his resignation as an Engineering Director at WhatsApp, he has founded a stealth mode startup and invested in 10+ startups. He is well known in the startup community for mentoring and advising high-potential entrepreneurs. ‍Michael has a B.S. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University, and prior to WhatsApp, he worked as a Software Engineer since 2000 for companies such as PayPal, Coverity, and QVT Financial LP.

What advice would you give to somebody who is starting their first startup?

People think their idea is what has value, and focus on NDAs, and keeping it a secret from others who are going to jump on it and copy it. But that's not true at all - the value comes from putting together a product and team that can deliver on the idea. And the people who might copy you aren't going to be interested until your business is successful.

What do you look for when you’re investing in a startup?

I love seeing revenue - those startups are easy to invest in. It means they're already delivering value, and monetizing it.

For mobile startups, my ears perk up when I hear the team is building for both iphone and android. It means they're looking at the global market, not just the US.

Tell us about your first job out of school.

I had an interest in compilers in my early career and joined a startup out of school. The core concept was "proof carrying code" and I thought it was really cool.

Unfortunately, cool didn't translate into revenue or profit,

and the company had to lay everyone off three months after I joined. I found a job as a research programmer at CMU shortly after that.


This was 2001, with the dot-com era fully deflated - it wasn't clear that tech jobs were going to stay in the United States, or be high paying at all. Weird to say that these days.

What’s one app not in your portfolio that you use every day?

I've been using Spotify and fitness apps more. I hadn't used Spotify until last summer, and now I'm using it all the time - mainly for music during the day, and to listen to podcasts at night. I like the curated playlists, as building one myself is just not something I enjoy.

What are your thoughts on remote work? (will it stay or would we go back to normal?)

If you read Hacker News with any regularity, you'd think remote work is about to tip the scales and become the default way of working everywhere. But I think that's because it's an online forum for tech workers, and the remote workers are more active there.

I think the snap back to in-office work will be much stronger than anyone is anticipating right now.  

Teams are able to do some degree of self-organization in an office, and it helps to have ongoing unstructured interactions with your teammates. Working remotely leaves you only with structured time to interact with your team. Everything is on a calendar, so there's no serendipity to grabbing a few people and heading to lunch or overhearing a conversation where someone has misunderstood how parts of your system work. It's difficult to make quick decisions. Doing everything via forums or chat windows makes even small disagreements look big.  

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