How Elon Musk Could Get You More Donors

Photo by  Steve Jurvetson

With a few minutes to spare, I was looking for a last minute gift for a friend and decided they'd love a donation made in their name. I picked a favorite nonprofit of ours here in Chicago, went to their website, clicked Donate, then, saw I needed to complete at least 28 form fields to make a donation.

So, I typed in a new URL. I filled 8 form fields. I was done.

I've been building websites since 1999, and one of the things I see over and over again are lost opportunities like this.

A huge culprit and opportunity for improvement? An organization's forms. Why do they get so large?

First, let me quickly tell you a story about batteries.

Batteries are expensive. When Elon Musk was in the market for batteries to power his first Tesla, he was told that the cost of batteries had reached a limit of about $600 per kilowatt hour (kWh) and things weren't going to improve past that limit. Afterall, that's what everyone else in the industry sees as the limit in battery technology.

But Elon knows a thing or two about the human condition. For example, he knows we're pattern matching machines. We do X because we saw someone else do X. Or we do Y because we did something a lot like Y before.

If we didn't live this way, it would be impossible to grow up. You'd have to learn everything from scratch rather than watching your parents. Or you couldn't leave the house. If you ever encountered a door, you'd have to relearn all over again how to turn a new doorknob you hadn't seen before.

The problem though with pattern matching is that while it's wonderful for efficient learning, it isn't always ripe for innovation. We get stuck with what we've seen someone else has do.

So when it came to these batteries, Elon recognized the trap of pattern matching. He instead forced himself to use first principles thinking, where he'd go to the absolute truths he knew about the problem and work up from there.

For example, without discovering a completely new kind of battery chemistry, batteries are made of cobalt, nickel, aluminum, and carbon. There's some polymers used as a separator between the anode and cathode, and everything is contained in some kind of container.

If you take that list of materials to a metal exchange, they can tell you exactly how much cobalt, nickel, etc. would cost you. That battery then is about $80/kWh. That's the limit of today's battery chemistry, not $600/kWH. We weren't close to achieving what could be done with batteries, which lead Elon to intelligently invest in making better batteries.

On November 20, 2018, Financial Times reported that Elon Musk's batteries were now being made for $111/kWh and was on track to reach $100/kWH by the end of the year.

Elon Musk is a stunning example of the power of first principles thinking.

Elon is also inspirational when it comes to thinking about even the small, but incredibly important details, of optimizing donations on a website.

Far too many organizations rely on pattern matching what other organizations do in their field.

I wish Watsi's dedication to optimization, testing, donation funnel analysis, etc. was the norm, but it's an outlier. A quick survey of my favorite nonprofits' forms show their saddling donors with dozens and dozens of form fields to fill out before they can make a contribution.

Many of those extra form fields are for full addresses. Billing, Mailing, even the Mailing address of my friend.

Now, I recognize that there are laws in place to identify donors and how much they've contributed to the IRS. It's the law! But if we apply some first principles thinking and read the letter of the law for nonprofits:

26 U.S. Code § 6033 - Returns by exempt organizations

Every organization described in section 501(c)(3) which is subject to the requirements of subsection (a) shall furnish annually information, at such time and in such manner as the Secretary may by forms or regulations prescribe, setting forth—

the total of the contributions and gifts received by it during the year, and the names and addresses of all substantial contributors

Substantial contributors is defined as:

A substantial contributor includes any per­son who contributed or bequeathed a total amount of more than $5,000 to the private foun­dation if the amount is more than two percent of the total contributions and bequests received by the foundation from its creation up through the close of the tax year of the foundation in which the contribution or bequest is received from that person.

One could surmise, you may only need someones address for the IRS if that person contributes more than $5000 AND that amount is more than 2% of your total contributions since your organization was started! That's a high bar for needing to collect an address. Potentially, you could save dozens of fields.

Now, there are other legal hurdles, for example, a state's guidelines on soliciting donations from within their state. You need to know where people are donating from so you can register your organization there. But this hurdle might be accomplished with a Zip code captured not entire addresses.

But please be aware, I'm not giving you legal or accounting advice. We aren't lawyers or accountants. You should absolutely consult with a lawyer or accountant for their advice on this topic.

And there's likely many other reasons why someone would still need address fields. For example, many nonprofits make very little online. Their direct mail outreach is what makes the impact.

What I do want to point out is that there are plenty of nonprofit organizations pattern matching on other organizations, without understanding how that original organization arrived at doing what they do. There are many organizations that haven't consulted with a lawyer to try and improve their conversion rates because lawyers are expensive! (Ugh, believe me. I know.)

But, many of us, myself included, could benefit from a little more first principles thinking. Maybe an 8 field form could replace a 28 field form, if we made sure we had our legal obligations fulfilled with our counsel. And just maybe after those kinds of optimizations you could see things like a 500% improvement on conversions like we've even seen with our own organizations. And when you see huge improvements in conversion rates like that, spending a few hours of time with your lawyer going over IRS law doesn't sound so expensive anymore.

P.S. Hope you've enjoyed the article! Stay tuned for the next, which will cover even more concrete ideas on optimizing online donations.

And would you like a free marketing design review?

I've been optimizing web designs for over a decade. A couple recent examples, improving the Highrise conversion rate 35% and the conversion rate of Rockstar 500%. Here's a great example of the review I've done for others: Markd.

Happy to look over your site for free. Please reach out. (As long as slots are open. My free website review queue can get oversubscribed.)

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of GoodFolk. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

Feature Creep And Why It Really Exists


I create a lot of stuff on a regular schedule. A daily vlog. A weekly article. And when I'm managing a software product, I often encourage our teams to release features every two weeks. We don't know what's in those feature release ahead of time, all we know is something is going to ship, as loud and public as we can.

But it can be tough to keep those schedules going. One big reason is feature creep. We keep seeing more things added to a release or a feature is made even more complicated than we originally envisioned.

So what? Why not take an extra couple weeks to get it done "right"? These deadlines are arbitrary afterall. Self imposed.

What can hurt skipping this week's launch?

First, let's explore another question. How do you perform in front of an audience? The answer is more complicated than you might realize.

It's called the "audience effect". And it's been the frequent study of psychologists since the late 1800s. What many agree on is that, in general, when performing a simple or repetitive task in front of an audience, people tend to do better. But, if the task is complex or unfamiliar, people tend to do worse.

In 1996, 3 psychologists (Charles Bond, Adnan Atoum, and Marilyn VanLeeuwen) wanted to explore this theory even more deeply. How does the effect change if the audience is evaluating your performance? What happens if they are in the same room with you, watching you?

So they devised a verbal learning task in which participants memorized a list of word pairs. Then, single words from the list were played aloud on a speaker, and participants were to recite the second word they had memorized.

Not a simple or familiar task for most people. Overall, participants, when by themselves, could only recite the correct word 49% of the time. And, as you'd expect, when an audience was brought in to evaluate the participants and their performance, the number of correct answers deteriorated drastically. Instead of the 49% of correct answers in the alone group, the group with the super critical audience only had correct answers 29.83% of the time.

That's a 20 point drop. If you were a C student, you'd now have a fat F in front of an audience.

But here's where it gets really weird. These failing participants weren't choking in front of the audience by getting a ton of answers wrong.

They just weren't answering.

63% of the time the participants who had an audience evaluating their performance and watching them, just didn't answer. They wanted to avoid possibly embarrassing themselves, by doing absolutely nothing.

63% is a staggering number to me. It points to the ridiculously intrinsic concern we have of avoiding public displays of messing up. We'd rather do nothing.

What's also interesting to me is how public our careers really are, especially endeavors like entrepreneurship and creating content. These are occupations defined by doing them publicly. It's hard to sell things to yourself and stay in business. And writing privately in a journal is a great practice, but if you want to become the next best novelist or journalist at the New York Times, you're going to be putting an enormous body of likely less-than-stellar work out there for the public to evaluate. And now with the web, we have comments, profiles, avatars. People can evaluate your performance, your vegetarianism, your complexion. Then they can tell you and all their friends what they think about you.

If Bond, Atoum, VanLeeuwen reproduced their experiment online with the kinds of conditions we have on the web, I wouldn't be surprised if non-answers went up another 20 points.

Let's look at my vlog. It was a daily schedule at first, then occasionally, then daily again, then occasionally. Now it's daily again. But all those times when I'd fall off the daily schedule, getting anything published at all became an even harder struggle. I'd sit on a video that I'd work on for days. Decide it's not good, throw it away, and look for the next one. What used to take a single day now took weeks.

I see my product teams get the same way. Feature creep is an all too frequent ailment. But the cause often has nothing to do with what the product really needs. It's the fear of releasing something that might embarrass ourselves. We'd rather risk constant procrastination then our customers judging us poorly.

And so that's why I force myself and my teams into arbitrary schedules. There's an incredible psychological pressure to keep on procrastinating product launches or publishing content, so I add an equal psychological pressure to "not break the chain." To keep a habit going instead of disappointing myself of breaking a promise to my customers and followers.

If I don't, there's too much incentive to just NOT DO.

Now, it probably needs to be said, someone is going to come here and argue, "Come on, Nate. That's 'hustle culture.' And we need to prioritize things above work." Look, I'm with you there too. We need more sleep and balance. I don't take on these schedules in order to sacrifice my health or family. Right now as I write this I had to pause my daily vlog schedule because of a family health emergency. But these are extreme circumstances, and life isn't usually filled with the amount of stress and distraction I'm dealing with right now. More normally, if I'm up against a deadline I just find things to bend. The release gets smaller. Something gets thrown out.

When you make your release schedule a habit, scope doesn't creep anymore.

P.S. Free marketing design review?

I've been optimizing web designs for over a decade. A couple recent examples, improving the Highrise conversion rate 35% and the conversion rate of Rockstar 500%. Here's a great example of the review I've done for others: Markd. Happy to look over your site for free. Please reach out. (As long as slots are open. My free website review queue can get oversubscribed.)

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of GoodFolk. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

How To Be More Creative


We all know the more resources we have, the better our ability to create a successful company. More money, more talented employees, more connections => more better.

And like many people who have the ability to read this essay, I'm surrounded by abundance and resources. I've got the internet, computers, time. (Look at this time I have to write and read this.) I also have tons of connections from almost 15 years of running startups.

So why am I so stuck?

My daughter recently came up with a fantastic idea for a business to make an iPhone case that also contains a dispenser for lip gloss. She's 4, so let's take "fantastic" relatively. :) But her idea sounds plausible. Afterall, there's even some competition for it, which helps validate the market a little.

And while I've been running my own businesses since I was a kid going door to door selling Christmas cards (who remembers Olympic Sales club from their comics),


It's probably not a surprise I'm really excited about helping my daughter get her iPhone case off the ground.

Just one hiccup. This idea of hers is from a year ago. I've gotten totally stuck on it. Getting iPhone cases made, even prototypes, is really hard.

But what if there was some easy way I could become more creative...

In 2015, Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu, two researchers from the University of Illinois, wanted to test our common sense notion that the more resources we have = the better chances we have of creating something.

In one experiment a group of people were asked to solve The Candle Problem. The riddle is simple: affix the candle to the wall with this:


But a lot of people don't figure this out. They try tacking up the candle to the wall. They try melting part of the candle and using the wax. But those don't work.

Our problem is called "functional fixedness". We don't see the things already in front of us as creative possibilities.

The solution is easy once you take the tacks out of the box. You can use the box.


Mehta and Zue gave groups of people The Candle Problem. But one group they asked to simply spend 3 minutes on an essay about growing up with scarcity, and the other group 3 minutes writing about growing up with abundance.

The group who wrote about scarcity? Almost 3 times as many people solved The Candle Problem!

In another experiment, groups performed the same essay writing about scarcity or abundance, but this time they were to come up with new toy concepts based on a collection of building blocks. Again, the group primed to think about scarcity had statistically significant more novel toy concepts than other participants in the study.

Over and over again Mehta and Zue find that abundance is actually crippling to our creative abilities. We're fixated on the uses of what's already in front of us, and we miss the easy solutions.


An interesting story that crossed my path is of Boosted Boards, the highly successful electric skateboard company. Boosted is probably the most well known brand in the category and they produce (and charge for) a premium product. Going back to 2012, you can see the resources they had at their disposal raising $467,167 from Kickstarter alone. They raised $14 million from a Series A. They have 50+ employees. They are flush with resources.

But what I focus on instead is their prototype story. If you watch the founder talk at TED, you find they built early Boosted boards with motors and batteries from Remote Control planes at the toy store. The deck of the skateboard itself wasn't something they bothered to make. They used the deck from another company. The controller they prototyped with? It was a Nintendo Wii Nunchuck!

The origin story of Boosted isn't about abundance, it's about scarcity.

Going back to this iPhone case. Soon after learning Boosted's origin story of prototyping, I had a new lense to look at our problems. I realized we didn't need to build or 3d print a prototype iPhone case. There's already plenty of iPhone cases that can contain things like credit cards. I can just grab one of those and stick lip gloss in it.

As for the lip gloss, I was stuck on trying to figure out how to buy some flat packed lip gloss to fit inside this case. But then I realized, there's a ton of easy, cheap, fast lip gloss recipes on YouTube. We can cook up a batch in 5 minutes and just pour it into our cases to set.

Where I felt stuck in needing to hire CAD engineers, or spend thousands manufacturing a prototype, now our first iPhone cases are just a fun weekend project away.

Who knows how our iPhone cases will turn out. (You should follow the project along on YouTube.) There's a ton of competition and lots of obstacles in our way. But this project, Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu's research, and the inspiring tale from Boosted sure does remind me where I can dig for creativity. It's in the few things already in front of me.

P.S. Free marketing design review?

I've been optimizing web designs for over a decade. A couple recent examples, improving the Highrise conversion rate 35% and the conversion rate of Rockstar 500%. Here's a great example of the review I've done for others: Markd.

Happy to look over your site for free. Please reach out. (As long as slots are open. My free website review queue can get oversubscribed.)

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of GoodFolk. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

Remote vs. Local. Funded vs. Bootstrapped. Let's Fight.

Remote teams vs local. Funded vs bootstrapped. Monoliths vs. microservices. These are just a few of the many strong debates we have in the tech business world.

And we're thinking about them all wrong.

First, a quick math lesson. (Actually more of a vocab lesson.)

Monotonic. In math, this means a function that either always increases or always decreases. My age is monotonic. Try as hard as I can I'm always getting older, never younger.


Or when we think about things we want in life: money, company growth, space, time to do what we want. Those things appear to be monotonic for most of us. We want more of them. Always.

Let's not forget about happiness. Who doesn't want to wake up even happier tomorrow. Happiness is monotonic.


Barry Schwartz and Adam Grant, two incredibly well credentialed psychologists (you've likely seen their Ted talks or books on display everywhere), published an interesting paper in 2011.

"Practice makes perfect" is something any kid has heard from their parent or coach. And as Schwartz and Grant reveal, that's what researchers who studied NBA teams found. Teams who practice more together, win more.


But only to a point. After 4 years of persistent practice, the effect dissipates and now over-practice means: "overconfidence, complacency, and routine rigidity."


Practice is actually nonmonotonic. Practice becomes too much of a good thing. It doesn't just keep making things better. It looks more like an Inverted U.

Schwartz and Grant reviewed hundreds of papers in dozens of different categories of life in which most of us assume things behave monotonically. Courage, positive psychology, volunteer work, gratitude, etc. Over and over again they found Inverted U's.

This was the basis of good chunk of Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath. Who doesn't want to be stronger and bigger? Well, Goliath for one. Gladwell also looked at schools. Who doesn't want their kid in the best schools with the highest teacher to student ratios? The more teachers to kids - the better.

That's not true either. At some point having too few kids makes it even harder for a teacher to teach effectively. The optimal class size is somewhere in the middle of too few and too many.

Even happiness can be too much of good thing, as Schwarz and Grant explain that life expectancy gets worse at extreme levels of happiness.

Over and over again Schwartz, Grant, Gladwell, researcher after researcher, we find most things in life aren't the monotonic things we think they are. We can really have too much of a "good thing." As Schwartz and Grant point out:

There is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits.

Unfortunately though, we often lead our lives like everything is monotonic. We single mindedly seek the extremes of a single variable. More = better.

Let's go back to remote vs local teams. Depending on your "politics" you might argue "remote, remote, remote". Or you're thinking, "dummy, it's local, local, local".

For me, I love remote work. I've been running remote teams since I could run my own company in 2006. I can avoid the commute. Control the noise around me. Get more done.

At Highrise, we had employees all over the US and Canada. You know what my favorite moments were? When everyone was together in the same exact location hanging out. And we had 3 employees near Chicago who could meet together in person on occasion. That was awesome and incredibly effective at decision making and team work.

Being "more" remote isn't just more and more optimal. There's a sweet spot in the middle.

Same goes for all these other debates we keep having. Monoliths vs. microservices? Or funding vs bootstrapping? Bootstrapping only leads to small lifestyle companies. Microservices are better for scalability. Bootstrapping leads to happier decisions because you have all the control.

Of course, the extremes play nice in the news and social media rants. But you're all a little wrong. There's an optimal place in the middle. There's too many services and too monolithic and too self-funded and too externally capitalized. You can raise money without giving up complete control over your business. You can create services without making a mess of complexity of your application. You can hire remote workers but enjoy the all the bandwidth of local conversations.

Now, it isn't easy. Optimizing things never is. But I think more of us would be a little bit happier (or should I say closer to our optimized point of happiness) if we realize things aren't so binary or monotonic out there.

There's a sweet spot to most of our decisions and it's not at the extremes.

P.S. Free marketing design review?

I've been optimizing web designs for over a decade. A couple recent examples, improving the Highrise conversion rate 35% and the conversion rate of Rockstar 500%. Here's a great example of the review I've done for others: Markd.

Happy to look over your site for free. Please reach out. (As long as slots are open. My free website review queue can get oversubscribed.)

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of GoodFolk. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

What's holding you back? Not being as interesting as Casey Neistat.

I talk with a lot of new writers and creators, and one of the most common complaints about not being able to get any traction for their writing, vlogging or other creations is simply because their lives are so ordinary.

We look at the Casey Neistats of the world and we realize why he's so famous. His life is incredibly interesting. He constantly travels the world. He has supermodel friends. He risks his life dangling from helicopters or skateboarding through New York.

Our lives are mundane. And that makes it impossible to get the attention we need for our projects.

In 2011, Annette Ontell passed away. She was 93.

Annette's name probably doesn't ring any bells. She wasn't a famous movie star or Nobel Prize winner. She didn't command any attention around her political platform or ground breaking ideas. She didn't have a lot of money.

Her life was, as most people suspect, mundane. She lived in New Jersey, in the same small house all of her adult life.

And maybe oddly to you, this year, Annette's two grandkids, Elan and Jonathan Bogarín, bothered to release a documentary about their grandmother. They showcase all the possessions Annette accumulated over her 93 years. They share home video interviews they've been filming of Annette before she died. They show that boring, small house.

But here's what you might surprising. That movie, titled 306 Hollywood (the address Annette lived in for 67 years) has now gone on to screen at 40+ film festivals. It's already won 4 awards. It's nominated for at least a few more with award names like "Most Innovative" and "Unforgettable". Critics say the same thing. Monica Castillo at says: "In the world of documentaries, it is bold, if not a landmark."

A landmark!? Wow. So why is 306 Hollywood doing so well?

I remember an early blog post of mine from over a decade ago that finally got some attention for me around the web. That post told the story of how I got some free extra toppings on a sub sandwich during a lunch break from work. Can you get any more mundane than your regular, daily, lunch break from work?

But I've been so incredibly interested in how businesses market themselves for so long, I dove into this mundane task and why I didn't usually get the toppings I wanted on my sandwich. I explained how I finally experimented with some sales psychology from a book I read to get what I wanted at the sub shop. The post took off with people in marketing who found the story useful to understand a little bit more about psychology. It was my interests, not my interesting life, that started getting me the traction I needed.

To be interesting, be interested.
-Dale Carnegie

Some of the things that stand out even from the trailer of 306 Hollywood is how Annette's grandkids ask her deep questions about whether she missed sex or was afraid to die. They spent meticulous time arranging her clutter into Wes Anderson-like displays. The home video interviews with her? They spent 10 years recording those while she was alive.

These are efforts that come not from Annette being what we'd normally associate as interesting, but because her grandkids were so deeply interested in her.

You don't need to be jumping out of planes or risking your life to craft an interesting story. You simply need to place your lens of deep interest onto your subject.

Going back to Casey Neistat, I don't think his "interesting life" is at all why he's had so much success. I think what keeps us so glued to him is the remarkable interest he has in his subject matter and in filmmaking. Have you seen him spend time using arts and crafts to explain his sleep schedule? That's not "interesting", that's him being interested.

Like Casey, if you provide folks with what your authentically interested in, your enthusiasm will shine. Don't get me wrong though. This is still hard work. 306 Hollywood took years to make and a ton of inventiveness to get right. But Annette's grandkids had the passion of their interests to see them through those challenges we all have in the creative process.

306 Hollywood is an inspiring example I hope for all the folks out there struggling with their mundane lives. Your life is incredibly interesting, as long as you're interested in it.

P.S. Free marketing design review?

I've been optimizing web designs for over a decade. A couple recent examples, improving the Highrise conversion rate 35% and the conversion rate of Rockstar 500%. Here's a great example of the review I've done for others: Markd.

Happy to look over your site for free. Please reach out. (As long as slots are open. My free website review queue can get oversubscribed.)

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of GoodFolk. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

Should We Use Ruby On Rails In 2019?


I’ve been using Rails since 2005. It was still version 0.12 when I picked it up to create my first startup with Y Combinator. Ruby on Rails is old. Oy, I'M old.

So it begs to be asked, is Ruby on Rails still relevant? Should new students to software development bother learning it? Should we be starting new projects with it? Here’s something to keep in mind.


Ruby On Rails Security


We talk to a lot of folks about Rails, from VCs looking to staff their next company to new coding bootcamp grads. And one thing we see from newcomers and veterans alike is a lack of knowledge of web application and Rails security concerns. Here are a few of the big problems.