In August 2022, I wrote the following letter to my team at General Task. In it, I go into detail on why I believe we have a huge opportunity in front of us.

Dear Team,

For months, I have been trying to find more time to write, since I enjoy writing a lot and I believe I am more articulate in writing than I am in other forms. I have wanted to write a letter to the team for a while now, and luckily have found some time to do that.

In the early days of Robinhood, the cofounders, Vlad and Baiju, would write a letter to the company every few months to share ideas and perspectives that didn’t fit as well into the typical company meeting / communication structure. I always deeply enjoyed reading those letters, and that helped inspire me to write a farewell note to the backend product team at Robinhood when I was transferred to a different team. That note was so well-received that I was asked to post it on the company-wide Slack #engineering channel. Looking back at that letter now, it reminds me of the hope and limitless potential contained in the Robinhood mission and in the people who used to work there. To me and many of my former coworkers, Robinhood was much more than a job with upside potential. It was an opportunity to expand the massive benefits of the American financial system to millions of people who were left out of it. It was an opportunity to level the playing field, to put an end to the notion that investing is only for the rich. And that opportunity excited us, motivated us and energized us to work hard every day to push the ball forward, to get back up every time we were knocked down, and to, perhaps most importantly, ignore the odds. Because some things are worth fighting for no matter the odds. And there were a lot of times that Robinhood did not have the odds in its favor.

But the Robinhood of those days is not the Robinhood of today. In the couple of years before I left, I witnessed an organization I felt had boundless potential lose its way. Robinhood went from the maverick not afraid to do things differently to a company that was afraid to list new crypto coins even after Coinbase and many other exchanges listed them, to a company that removed confetti from its app, even when E*Trade still has it. And the people at Robinhood no longer believed in the mission. Every individual and team at the company began to act in their own selfish interests, rather than those of the customer, and of the mission. And productivity dropped. Like a rock. And no one seemed to care. I witnessed what I felt was a $500 billion opportunity vanish into thin air.

How did this happen? More than anything, I think Robinhood grew too fast. It transformed itself from a die-hard band of believers into a soulless, lumbering, bureaucratic corporation. And along the way, Robinhood lost everything that made it special. I wish I could say that this is a mistake only Robinhood has made, but you see it everywhere. Small, scrappy startups that are fun, exciting and inspiring to work for become successful and hire like crazy and then, all of a sudden, they’re no longer fun, exciting, or inspiring. The die-hard early employees leave for other startups. And the company’s mission dies, replaced by quarterly earnings calls and OKRs. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple have all achieved incredible financial success but they don’t innovate like they used to. Facebook buys or copies from whatever social media company is currently doing well (sorry Julian!), Google kills every mediocre product it launches (which is to say all of them), Amazon’s website hasn’t changed much in like 15 years, and Apple hasn’t revolutionized anything since the iPhone. Why is it that the most successful, powerful, rich companies in the world deliver so little value to society compared to when they were scrappy upstarts? Why can’t Robinhood seem to ship any seriously successful products anymore?

I’ve read there’s a point in a corporation where a “phase change” occurs. The flow of work and innovation rapidly changes from a liquid (free and flowing) to a solid (stuck and brittle). And that point is when the company gets large enough that each person, leader and team cares more about their own individual outcomes than the outcomes of the business. Many will say that this phase change is inevitable, that large organizations are fundamentally inefficient and slow compared to smaller ones. But I don’t think that’s the case. If individual outcomes are not tied to business outcomes, that is a failure of organizational design, not an inevitability. A failure that is, sadly, widespread.

Most modern corporations do not put enough effort into designing the right incentives and structures to foster innovation and productivity. Why help someone on a different team when it would take time from achieving your own OKRs? You would be punished by the performance management system for doing that, even if that person is working on a more important project to the company. Why take time to write documentation or help junior engineers if your performance review doesn’t count those things? Why work eight hours every day when you’ll still get “meets expectations” for working two? Why bother going above and beyond when the soonest you could possibly be promoted is a year from now? These are not problems with organizations being large, these are problems with measurement. These are problems with the performance review process. And I believe they can be fixed.

Imagine you worked at a huge corporation that could actually measure the real business impact of every piece of work you did, regardless of if it helps your team’s OKRs or another team’s OKRs. And imagine this corporation evaluated your performance based on your real business impact. And further, imagine this corporation could determine the business impact of each thing on your plate and prioritize it automatically according to its impact. You would act completely differently. You would work hard to increase your impact, knowing you would be recognized and rewarded for doing so. You would write documentation. You would help the junior engineer. You would drop what you are doing to help out on higher priority work when other teams need help. And you would do it all without a second thought, aided by software. Gone are the politics. In its place: shared purpose. The alignment that was previously only possible when you had a small intimate group of passionate people now exists here, in this huge corporation as well. Imagine if Robinhood accelerated its product velocity when it grew instead of slowing down. Imagine if Apple released groundbreaking new products every year that changed our lives. And maybe even, I dare say, imagine a government that efficiently served its citizens without long wait times, high costs, and slow bureaucratic processes. The benefits to society from such a boost in productivity would be inconceivably large. Trillions of dollars of economic output would be unleashed, and the standard of living would increase at rates not seen since the 1950s. And maybe, just maybe, people would start to believe again in a better future.

All of us here at General Task have a chance to help make that world a reality. Today, we are building useful software for other engineers at startups, but that’s just the beginning. Over the next several years, we will expand first to software engineers at larger companies, and then to all knowledge workers, while substantially increasing the capabilities of our software and its ability to make people more productive. If we succeed, the implications are huge. Our software has the potential to be a force multiplier on a huge swath of the economy and on human achievement in general. The implications are nearly impossible to comprehend. I’m not joking when I say I think it could be multi-trillion dollar opportunity in the long run. I find that opportunity incredibly exciting, even if the odds are low. Because some things are worth fighting for no matter the odds.

I hope you enjoyed this first letter. Please let me know what you think!

John Reinstra

And don’t forget to check out General Task!