The Case for The EA Hotel

by mr-hire 5mo31st Mar 201926 comments

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Epistemic Status: I strongly believe all the things I’m writing here. These are mostly heuristics and mental models rather than hard data, which I think is necessary for a project so young. I’m trying to make a strong case for the EA hotel, not a balanced one (although it will probably be balanced by the $100 on the line for articles taking the opposite view).

The EA Chasm

There’s something broken about the pipeline for both talent and projects in the EA Community. There’s a space in which there’s a lot of talented people in EA who want to do good, and there’s a lot of people with ideas about projects that could do good. Finally, projects like Charity Entrepreneurship seem to indicate that there’s no shortage of ways to do good. What’s missing is a way to go from a talented EA—with no evidence behind your project, no previous projects under your belt, and little status within the EA community—to someone who has enough capital to prove that their project has merit.

This gap exists for a number of reasons, including strong risk aversion in the EA community, a lack of diversity in grant decision making processes, and a lack of manpower to vet hundreds of projects for the small amount of money they would need to prove themselves enough to move up to the “projects with strong evidence” category. A number of solutions have also been proposed to fill in this gap, including an EA projects evaluation platform and a suggestion for EAs to work on Non-EA projects in order to get a good track record and higher status (and thus be able to be hired or get grants). However, both of these suggestions miss out on one of the big reasons the chasm needs to be filled—strong vetting is nice, but there’s no replacement for simply trying many things and seeing what works.

Why The Chasm Matters

This Chasm is a big deal for the community. Organizations like CEA can work to guide the community towards a better future, and organizations like Charity Entrepreneurship can slowly work to allow more organizations that do good work. But by not tapping into the creativity and sheer variety of thought of the bottom two sections of the picture above, the EA community is losing out on a large number of utils that come from trying a lot of things from a diversity of perspectives, creating tight feedback loops, and seeing what works.

Silicon Valley is great proof of this concept. While it’s true that the standards for seed funding have been growing in recent years (and this may be another factor in the EA model, if they’re trying to copy Silicon Valley), it’s also true that preseed accelerators with extremely low vetting standards have still generated tens of billions of dollars worth of value. EA, with a surplus of ideas that don’t have capital to get off the ground, and a surplus of talented individuals willing to work on these ideas, should view this is a neglected opportunity to do a lot of good for the world. And they should view the EA Hotel as a wonderful proof of concept for an organization looking to fill in this Chasm.

The EA Hotel is More Effective Than Directly Sponsoring Individuals or Projects

One way to view the EA hotel is as a grant giving organization that pays for people’s living expenses for a period of time, while those people have opportunities to prove that their projects are good enough to get to the next stage of funding. For EAs who are still looking for projects, it provides a bridge to focus on gaining skills and knowledge while getting chances to join new projects as they circulate through the hotel.

When the EA hotel is looked at in this light, the question then becomes “does it make more sense to fund individual projects and EAs, rather than letting the EA hotel fund them for you?” The EA Hotel has several features that make it a more effective option.

No Rent

The largest living expense for most people (especially the large number of EAs in London, Oxford, and the Bay Area) is rent. When sponsoring someone yourself, most of your money will be going into that black hole. The EA hotel has done the efficient thing and bought the hotel outright. This means that rent is not something you as a funder have to pay, and the longer the hotel lasts and the more residents it helps, the more efficient this mechanism becomes over paying rent.

Cheap Cost of Living and Lower Standard of Living

One unique thing about the EA hotel as a grant-giving mechanism is that it forces the residents to move to Blackpool. While there are some downsides to this, I think there are two huge upsides from a cost-effectiveness perspective. The first is that the cost of living is extremely low. Just like with rent, funding the EA hotel here consistently makes your money go further than funding a random EA who would choose their own place to live.

Another important fact is that standard of living here is simply lower. While trying to be extremely frugal in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but notice that my standard of living and happiness was impacted by those around me. However, as a consequence of living in Blackpool, and a secondary consequence of only having my savings and a small living stipend, I’ve found that I’ve been happier with a much cheaper standard of living in Blackpool. There’s some data that shows that how standard of living impacts happiness is relative to others in your immediate environment, and is not absolute. This means that I can be happy and productive at a much cheaper cost at the EA hotel than at a group house in Berkeley, and your donation dollars can stretch further.

Propinquity and Collaboration

By putting all of the projects together under the same roof, the EA hotel does an excellent job of fostering connections, encouraging collaborations, and creating a strong environment for serendipity and synergy among projects. In my short time here, I’ve seen a methodologist help an organization with designing their RCT, a coder help a different organization automate one of their biggest bottlenecks, and an organization which needed help on measuring impact get help from someone who had written an important paper on the matter. More importantly than these individual collaborations, I’ve seen people’s ideas grow and develop as they get exposed to critiques and new ways of thinking. This is an effect you simply don’t get if you sponsor projects separately instead of as a group.

Superconnecting and Status Building

The final thing I’ve seen from the EA hotel is that, while being in a cheap, out-of-the-way city, it’s enough of a unique attraction (and there’s always enough free rooms available) that it has become a ‘destination’ for EAs to check out when they’re in Europe. This is an important fact, as normally one of the benefits of being in a more expensive city (and one of the reasons most startup incubators are located there) is that it allows you to begin building connections with the people you’ll need to know when moving to the next stage of the pyramid. However, by having the “hotel” aspect, and becoming a destination, the EA hotel manages to attract a steady stream of individuals from all aspects of the EA community. It has managed to become an effective networking hub while being in a city with a cheap cost of living, and has achieved something for projects that merely funding them to live on their own could not.

The EA Hotel Is An Effective Incubator

Thus far, I’ve made the case that there’s a surplus of potential in the EA community, and a Chasm that needs to be filled to use the surplus. I’ve also made the case that something like the EA Hotel is an effective way to fill that Chasm. What I haven’t done is make the case that this particular team and project have done a good job of realizing that goal.

In the following section, I’ll attempt to give my inside view of why I believe the project and team are suited for filling the goal, as a 3-month resident of the hotel, and someone who has witnessed and created other teams and cultures.

Correct Acceptance Standards

One persistent criticism of the hotel is that it has too low standards for what projects it accepts. However, the standard that the hotel has (accept everyone when there’s space, and only prioritize when they’re over capacity) is the correct choice for an organization that’s trying to fill the Chasm like the EA hotel is.

Let’s return to our Silicon Valley metaphor, and the pre-seed incubator I alluded to earlier, The Founders Institute. The Founders Institute, while I don’t think they admit it publicly, has a similar policy of accepting as many candidates as there are slots, and trying to maximize the amount of projects rather than having some perceived quality cutoff. The Founders Institute knows two things.

  1. At this stage in their career, it’s very hard to vet first time founders. Without a track record, all they have to go on is charisma and clarity of thought, which is actually something that many first time founders will only learn only through the process of creating their first startup.
  2. Sometimes the best ideas look completely ridiculous. Consider the idea of creating a website where strangers can rent out their homes to other strangers.

So instead, the Founders Institute does something else—it implements a series of tight feedback loops and standards, causing founders to have to prove both themselves and their projects to graduate the program. While the acceptance rate for the Founders institute is very high, the graduation rate is only around 30%. The hope is that most of those 30% have achieved enough in their project to get them a more traditional seed round.

Similarly, the EA hotel has weekly check-ins to gauge the progress of their participants, and is working on implementing more stringent feedback loops for the people who enter the hotel. The goal, instead of trying to vet the people and projects up front, is to use the process itself to vet the project and the individual. As they pass increasingly high bars, they eventually cross the bar where they achieve good evidence for their project, and can then move on to the next stage of the pyramid. If it turns out they can’t meet that bar, they go back down to the previous stage of the pyramid, work on leveling up, and try again when they think they’re ready.

Removing Trivial Inconveniences

As a creator or early participant in a new project, focus is everything. Time and attention are wasted when put toward things other than those that directly work to impact your biggest metrics, or validate your biggest assumptions. Furthermore, the type of work you have to do to validate or invalidate these assumptions is scary, hard, and often emotionally draining. Every little bit of energy that you can save by not having to deal with trivial inconveniences is a blessing.

At the EA Hotel, my grocery shopping is taken care of for me. Dinners are cooked for me. Grab and go food for breakfast and lunch is restocked without my having to think about it. My dishes are done for me. My sheets are changed for me. All of this allows me to avoid an incredible amount of context switching that simply doesn’t have to happen because the EA Hotel recognizes the importance of focus. Furthermore, they’re always improving. A big portion of the managers’ job is finding trivial inconveniences and removing them. Areas get more organized over time, systems get refined over time, busy work gets removed over time. This is exactly the environment that I expect to be able to more effectively create valuable projects over time.

A Productivity Culture

I’ve been a part of several group houses in which a large portion of the people who lived there worked from home. I’ve been a part of at least one attempt to instill a strong culture of working hard when in the presence of your peers. There’s only one culture that I’ve been a part of that I think has more of a culture of productivity than the EA Hotel, and I’d say it’s in the top 5-10% of creating and sustaining strong organizational cultures, including both for-profits and non-profits (so much so that it has been called cult-like).

I think that the attitude towards trivial inconveniences is a big part of this. The idea that the management is clearing so much space for work creates a culture where everyone is simply working. I should note that when bringing this to the EA hotel, there was at least one person who said he doesn’t believe the EA Hotel has enough of a productivity culture. When polled, everyone else present agreed that they’re more productive here than they have been in any other context. This is a huge boon for an organization trying to vet projects as quickly as possible, and somehow the EA hotel does this better than any other co-living situation I’ve been a part of.

A Growth Culture

One of the big pushes the EA hotel has made in the last few months is to foster a culture of growth. There are weekly talks by members of the hotel that are highly attended. There are weekly opportunities for debugging bottlenecks in your life, and learning new skills to make that debugging more effective. A sizable portion of the hotel attends the local gym, and there is someone to go with almost every day of the week, at various times that suit you.

As important as these individual activities are, the most important thing is the culture that develops around them. Growth is accepted and expected at the EA hotel, and that’s important for people creating new projects and learning the skills as they go.

A Support Culture

Another big shift I’ve seen the EA hotel make in the past few months is towards a culture of support. In concrete terms, you can see this in the sizable population of people who participate in morning and nightly hugs, greeting each other with a strong hug the first and last time they see each other every day. It’s also strongly visible in the existence of a Hotel Guest Representative, whose main job is to listen when hotel residents are having a hard time and look out for their interests. It’s visible in the nightly group dinner, and the easy discussion that usually accompanies it. However, it’s more visible in the day-to-day interactions you have with guests, such as when someone offered to bring food up to my room when I was sick, or seeing the celebration when a guest got their paper published in a journal.

Creating a project from scratch is hard, first time startup founders often find themselves falling into depression and loneliness, failing simply because they don’t have the support to take on the demands of the job. The support culture of the EA Hotel goes a long way towards making it more bearable.

Consistent Improvement

A final thing that has impressed me about the EA hotel is the ability of Greg and the trustees to take feedback and improve the concept over time. I’ve already mentioned the changes I’ve seen in the past few months, but an even better sign to me is the way Greg listens to criticism and responds to feedback. Whenever he hears a good idea, it’s immediately written down, and the best ideas are tested and implemented over time. This gives me cause to believe that the EA hotel hasn’t just lucked onto the above aspects of its culture, but is likely to continue to develop into an even more effective organization over time.

Conclusion

I’ve made three major claims in this post. First, I’ve made the claim that EA as a movement could be doing a lot more good if it filled the Chasm in its pipeline. Second, I’ve argued that something like the EA Hotel is a good way to fill this Chasm. Finally, I’ve argued that the EA Hotel has functioned well as an organization dedicated to filling this Chasm, and that there’s reason to believe it will continue to do well in the future. While I don’t think it’s impossible the EA Hotel could fail at this goal, my inside view gives me confidence that it’s very likely to succeed. However, even with the outside view, I believe the models given in this post make the case that the EA Hotel, if successful, would be highly useful in expectation, and make a strong cost-effectiveness case for an EA Hotel like project if you think those models are accurate. I look forward to your feedback and comments.

About Me

I’m Matt Goldenberg. I’ve been living at the EA Hotel for about three months, and I’m due to leave in another three. I’ve been a resident at a number of EA and rationality group houses in the Bay Area, including a brief stay at Event Horizon, a stint at Milvia House, and as a cofounder of Gentle Mesa. I’ve previously run a number of small businesses, and one startup. While at the EA hotel, I’ve been working on my main project Project Metis, as well as writing a number of articles on the side for LessWrong.

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