EOY 2021 update: We sold Uniwhere

December 2021 · 6 minute read

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Hey there,

This is Gianluca. You’ve likely subscribed to this newsletter because you read my blog, you’ve heard of me on Twitter, or you just know me personally. As you noticed, I rarely write direct emails — I try to be mindful of your time and the value I can provide.

In this email, you’ll find an important update on my professional life, a few projects I’m working on, and — more generally — interesting things I’m thinking about.

We sold Uniwhere

The biggest news of 2021 is that we decided to sell our company, Uniwhere. This is not 100% public yet, but it will be very soon.

As you might know, I founded Uniwhere a few years ago, when I was in college. I was set to help college students get better prepared for the professional world thanks to data and predictive models. Since then, many things have happened: we raised over $800,000, we joined a growth program run by early Facebook growth leads, we grew to more than 600,000 registered users.

One thing that became increasingly clear over time is that there’s a structural tension between EU ed-tech companies and VC-scale returns. If you want to deliver a 100x ROI to your investors, you have to scale internationally, but the moment you do, you start losing product-market fit: every country has its own legislation, rules, and culture when it comes to education.

See, ed-tech companies are usually of two kinds: either they want to overhaul how people learn (eg. Lambda School), creating brand new models (and thus markets), or they insert themselves into existing education systems and work from within. Uniwhere was the latter — in hindsight, a strategic mistake. Maintaining our product-market fit while, at the same time, scaling internationally was too hard. That’s why, after a long period of tests and experiments (like Revelop, in the US), we ultimately decided to sell our work to a local company interested in keeping the project alive, and offering us a fair deal.

This is an honorable epilogue to a great story.

We managed to build a product that became the best college app in Italy. It didn’t become the global phenomenon we all hoped for, but that’s ok. Next time. We made almost half of the Italian college population happy, and that’s the biggest win I could’ve hoped for when I started the project, back when I was 19. One college professor of mine once told me: “it can’t be done,” and “don’t even start.”

We proved them wrong.

Now what?

In the last few months, I’ve allocated part my attention on helping the acquirer with the transition. For the most part, though, I’ve been mostly focused on recovering from the nerve-wracking experience that is running (and selling) a startup. This essentially consists of learning whatever I can, as much as I can. It’s the thing I love doing the most.

This relentless learning process has taken many forms, but two more structured projects arose out of it: Rotonda, and generative art.

Rotonda when looking for an apartment in Berlin. It tells you when an apartment on the market is a good deal using all sorts of factors: comparison to the immediate surroundings is one, space is another, city open data another. It works out whether it’s likely to decrease in price, sell out in the next 6 hours, etc. Basically, machine learning applied to the metropolitan housing problem. Pretty cool.

I’ve written about the methodology here. The post went viral on Hacker News and Reddit — check it out if you’re into data intelligence.

I don’t expect to get much money out of it: the market margins are notoriously small while the signal-to-volume ratio is abysmal when compared to denser quant-finance strategies. But that’s not the point. This is my web2 learning playground.

The second big thing I’ve been into is generative art: my web3 learning playground.

The story is simple. One of my closest friends, Stefano, is one of the most successful NFT artists in the world. No kidding. Some of his mints have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars… each. He made quite some money, but more importantly, he allowed a lot of art curators to make a lot of money when reselling his work. Oh, and his art is fantastic. But I might be biased.

Stefano is the guy who literally taught me how to become a designer. We started working together a few years back when he helped us make the first Uniwhere design system. From then on we worked together on several other projects. Early this spring he convinced me to pick up generative art — knowing that I already had most of the right background. We’re now working together on our first collaborative piece. Watch out for it.

Interesting ideas

I’ve been playing with several ideas and concepts, in the last few weeks, from the computational complexity of NP problems to quantitative finance.

But the most fascinating topic I’ve spent time thinking about lately is the fiscal impact of global remote work. We live in an era where people think increasingly borderless, while nations are getting more isolated. We want to work wherever we want, but the Tax Office still thinks that we ought to live in the same place all year round. More and more are resigning because their employer is not offering remote work. This creates tension, and an increased — often nasty — competition between nations. The future of work and of skilled immigration will be interesting to watch.

From this tension, enthralling things will happen. It reminds me of other pivotal moments in History, like the Estates General in Paris in 1789, or the First International in London in 1864. Huge political and social changes lie ahead of us. Go check The Exponential Age from Azeem Azhar (whom I had the pleasure to chat with extensively a few months ago) to investigate the underlying forces at play here.

I’d like to explore this space more, moving forward. Probably writing about it, or more likely doing something about it. We’ll see — there’s so much that needs to be done to fully transition knowledge work to being location-less. Stick around if you’re interested. Happy to hear your thoughts too.

Let’s keep in touch

Please, do get in touch. Do you have an amazing project and you want my perspective on it? Do you have interesting ideas to discuss? Interested in investing in… whatever? Questions on something you’d like me to write about and cover? (I love writing.) Feel free to reply to this email.

I want this to be an ongoing conversation, not a top-down one-way monologue. I want to invest more on this channel: it’s a great way to meet like-minded people.

And if you think this was fun to read, feel free to forward it to anyone. They can subscribe here. I’m having so much fun writing to you. Who knows what can happen.

Happy new year! To an amazing 2022, for all of us.

Gian


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