Mastering the Art of Failing
Mastering the Art of Failing Podcast
Nicolas Thorne: From the Ashes of NFTs Emerged an Entrepreneurial Guide

Nicolas Thorne: From the Ashes of NFTs Emerged an Entrepreneurial Guide

Season One, Episode Eight: Before NFTs and blockchain technology, Nicolas Thorne tried to build a business around digital scarcity. The concept didn't quite land its mark.

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Web 3, crypto… NFTs. You’ve heard of them. Some of these things have spun off new technology and concepts like blockchain, and others have completely dropped in value. Regardless, before the term NFT truly existed, there was a pioneer who followed a similar vision:

I started a business for, I'm not going to say the wrong or like bad reasons, but probably not the best reasons. I started it largely because I wanted to start a company. And I started around a concept that I thought was really intellectually stimulating.

I still think it's intellectually stimulating, which is. Kind of digital scarcity, which I suppose is what's at the heart of blockchains and NFTs and these things. And, and this kind of contrast of the digital world being abundant and pixels being infinitely reproducible. And yet that there was this feeling that if our lives were moving online, that scarcity was still this like amazing human construct and maybe there was a way to create it.

Those are the words of Nicolas Thorne, who is no longer trying to sell what would one day be known as NFTs and is now the General Partner at New York-based incubator Prehype.

This week on Mastering the Art of Failing, Nicolas shares his story about several instances of failure throughout his entrepreneurial journey, but he has overcome it and has since taken those learnings to help shape new founders and startups.


  • Visionary ideas can be ahead of their time, and timing is a crucial factor for entrepreneurial success.

  • Understanding the target audience is essential for developing a successful product or service.

  • It's important to be adaptable in business, as initial plans may not always lead to the desired outcome.

  • Entrepreneurship is a journey filled with both challenges and triumphs, and the lessons learned along the way are invaluable.

The Birth of a Vision

In the early days, Thorne recalls the challenges of being ahead of his time, selling NFTs before they were even a concept. "10 years ago, before the term was even invented, I was selling NFTs," he remarks. He also discusses the struggles of his venture, which, despite many obstacles, managed to pivot into a successful operation.

"During this time, many of the city-states, such as Athens, reached the height of their power. They became centers of trade, art, and culture. However, they also often fought with one another for dominance."

The Importance of Customer Understanding

Thorne emphasizes the necessity of understanding your target audiences. He shares, "Be very clear about who your customer is. From the start and trying to develop founder-customer fit with that person."

"It's something that I think, and, and it's actually something you can control, right? You, you actually have it in your ability to say. Is this someone I would like to hang out with?"

Timing is Crucial

A critical insight shared by Thorne is that timing matters in entrepreneurship. Although he was ahead of his time with NFTs, he admits that starting too early can be as detrimental as starting too late.

"There, I, I think there's this I don't know, I have this analogy in my mind of trying to catch a wave. And, and, if you don't start paddling before the wave gets you, you definitely won't catch it."


Mastering Failing uses automated tools to create a transcript of our show. Please excuse any typos and hallucinations that we’ve come to love from our new AI overlords.

Nicolas Thorne: 10 years ago, before the term was even invented, I was selling NFTs. No one wanted them. I had left a very good job. I had raised seed capital for a business that wasn't growing.

It seemed like everything we tried failed immediately. I'm Nicholas storm today. I'm better known as a general partner of the New York based. Incubator Prehype, and a co founder of Autos, the family of AI co pilots for entrepreneurs. I'm on a mission to help people act on their entrepreneurial visions. Alex, I, I just want to say, I absolutely love what's going on.

You are walking and have a baby. That's

Alex: I do, I do. Yeah. So this is this is Summer Love. She's two months old today and she's our co host. The funny thing is every time I get to be a guest, she'll sleep right through someone else's podcast. But the last two podcasts that we've recorded, she's insisted on being here. So this is our nap

Nicolas Thorne: I have two, I have two little ones. One is a COVID baby who just has therefore a zero concept of that. Video calls are not precisely meant for him.

Alex: At least she's cute, right? At least they're cute,

Nicolas Thorne: yeah, they're, they're adorable. No, for the most part, people, you can definitely get a feel for someone. If you're, if you're scroogey enough to give someone a hard time about having their kid pop into a zoom, you you're probably not someone I want to be doing business with anyway.

Alex: Besides, besides that thank you so much, Nick, Nicholas. We haven't decided, so we'll go with both throughout the podcast. So thank you so much for joining us today. We started in the intro that you, You invented NFTs.

Nicolas Thorne: I didn't say I invented them. I said, I was selling them

Alex: Okay. So let's go back 10 years ago, right?

You said that you left a really stable job to start to raise funds and seed rounds for this company selling NFTs before they existed. Take you back to that moment. What was the, the precipice for deciding, Hey, I'm going to go out. And tell us a little bit about what you were doing 10 years ago.

Nicolas Thorne: Yeah. And it's probably one of the main things I learned. I started a business for, I'm not going to say the wrong or like bad reasons, but probably not the best reasons. I started it largely because I wanted to start a company. And I started around a concept that I thought was really intellectually stimulating.

I still think it's intellectually stimulating, which is. Kind of digital scarcity, which I suppose is what's at the heart of blockchains and NFTs and these things. And, and this kind of contrast of the digital world being abundant and pixels being infinitely reproducible. And yet that there was this feeling that if our lives were moving online, that scarcity was still this like amazing human.

Construct and maybe there was a way to create it. And had, and I had been walking around my job on Wall Street, just telling people, Oh, if I, as soon as I have an idea, I'm going to get out of here. And I've said those words a number of times over the past, what have I'm going to age myself now, 15 years and like on the one hand, I think there is a certain entrepreneurial instinct in that, that I, that I certainly, think other people probably have and can relate to, or you just feel like, okay, if I can just get the right idea, I'm going to, I'm gonna go and do it.

Also like it's, it's not, Oh, I have this customer and I've. I really want to and think I can serve them and I understand them and understand the problem they have. And I'm kind of like driven to try to solve that problem. And least I've I learned a lot from that experience up front about.

The, the, the conditions around which you start a business and maybe not surprise, surprise. That's literally what I've spent the last decade plus trying to help people do in some format or another. But yeah so we started a company and, and the company exists today and still serves customers.

It just serves them in a very non venture capital. Way. And, and in a way that's very different from how we started. We were, we were ultimately able to pivoted into something that has served its purpose in a, in, in some way. But it was, it certainly was not what we hoped it would become.

It's not what we, raise money to try to create. In terms of a, like a big platform for what we called at the time, digital badges, but but the concept was very similar. It was something that you could own online and display to your friends as a way of, saying something about yourself.

We happened to again, cause we were pre, I guess the Bitcoin white paper had been written in 2009. So we're in starting this in 2010. But we were, we were not taking a, let's say technology first approach, if like blockchains and cryptography and decentralized and distributed kind of trust building worth these themes that really, drove a, an amazing technological, Revolution.

We were actually going a very old fashioned way of trying to build credibility in our otherwise completely centralized and therefore, very counter to the whole blockchain thing platform, which was just to have really credible organizations issue you the digital versions of the piece of the, of the offline rewards and recognitions that you would have long received.

So we had had New York University issuing digital versions of the piece of paper certificates that you got if you finished courses or programs at the, at the university. And that was all, yes, on the one hand, we wanted to facilitate that, and that's really where our business ended up.

Continuing to be, but we thought we could use that as a way of creating enough trust in our platform that then people might come and buy things that look just more like virtual goods for the sake of showing off or displaying themselves. And so when I say that we were selling NFTs, the reality is again, a, the word didn't exist.

But we were selling these images. We were selling, if, if the knock on NFTs, which I think is perfectly fair, is that they're like JPEGs that you, are, are fancy JPEGs. We were definitely in the fancy JPEG business. It was very hard business to grow. It was just a two sided marketplace.

And the one side we had to get in the way we were doing it. We had to get these institutions to be the, the issuers of, of these kinds of credentials and rewards and recognitions. And then we had to try to get people to come in and grab those things and take ownership of them. And then we had to try to sell that person this kind of virtual good.

And so it just was very complicated and, and we tried all sorts of things. And And, ultimately we've ended up with a business that's much more just in like the credentialing very much around that kind of academic and professional recognition category. And, and and that's great, but, but it was not, it was not at all what we hoped it would be or set out to be.

And so it led me to a place where, roughly a decade ago, it was becoming increasingly clear that this would probably not be able to be my life's work or I had to do something to around that or build from it and grow and move on. And fortunately one of my partners at the time in the business had been building this firm pre hype in parallel and pre hype which was basically like, couldn't have been a better place for me at the time.

Cause I thought I was going to just go start another company. And so that had become like the, the, the common experience that pre hype was trying to help people work through, which is if you'd had some sort of founding experience previously, where did you go to hang out while you figured out what your next.

would be because we found that people had this kind of been bitten by the bug. And even if they'd had a pretty successful outcome, it often meant that they, um, wanted just like time, they knew that they needed to buy a little bit of time to make sure they were jumping into the next thing as with as much kind of leverage as possible.

And so I thought I would be like almost like a client of that, service, if you will, that I would, that I would just hang out and, go off into orbit again and start another company. And I've just ended up spending the decade since basically trying to make up for what I think I didn't do that the first time and help other people not make that mistake also.

Alex: Yeah, you mentioned, while you're going through a complex multiple cell process and, to get customers in and then sell the things. Were there any moments in time that stick out that you're like, oh, man, this is exactly why this is not my life's work and any lessons that you may have learned or reasons why you decided to step away from that opportunity.

Nicolas Thorne: As I'm sure you all have experienced, like almost too many to remember, right? You go to these like conferences. I, I'll tell you a very dark one. I, I, I flew to San Diego on the basis that I had told someone a potential issuer of one of these credentials. I had told them that I was in town and that if they could just, spend 20 minutes with me for a coffee, that that would be great.

Cause I was just around the corner. They were like in the suburbs of San Diego. I was lived in New York. I got on a, they were like, sure, that sounds great. Let, come by tomorrow afternoon and we'll whatever. So I, I jump on a, on a plane, first thing on the morning of that thing, I fly out there, I guess it was at the time still wifi on planes was, most of the time, but not always.

So I don't think I had wifi the whole way there. And I get off the plane and the guy's I'm so sorry. My afternoon has gotten booked up. I, I don't think I can meet with you. And so then I'm in my flight back. I at least had scheduled a flight back that night to just take the red eye back.

And so I'm like, but I didn't want to, we were on like a, working off a very tight budget. And so I didn't want to spend more money at this point. And so I'm trying to figure out what to do. So I, I went to the church. Nearby where, they, they had an organization that I can't remember what they did, but they were at least on our list of like things that could be a potential client of ours.

So I walked from the airport, which I don't know if you've ever walked out of an airport before, but they're not really made for, the, the egress from an airport is meant for cars, not for walking. So you're like walking along, like the side ramps of these things, and you're just kind of like, what, what am I doing?

Like clearly people don't want this. If I have to trick them to to do that. We just had lots of experiences in particular selling, we have these like magical experience on the one hand, where if we, if, if, if we sent out like 10, 000 emails to people who had, done something, finished a running race completed a, an academic program, whatever.

You see these things now on LinkedIn, you'll see someone say, oh, I've, I've I finished this, Course or whatever. I finished like I'm an AWS certified such and such, like that was, we were trying to basically ride a wave or a wave we're trying to ride a, like a, a tiny little swell of that to try to build momentum into a much more, broad based platform.

And it's not that people weren't ready to receive those things. Cause it was quite easy for them. If they got the invitation, it seemed credible. It seemed like it was done in the right way. They were really excited to take ownership of these things and put them all over their social media profiles.

And that part all worked. It just was trying to. Figure out a good business model through which you convinced an institution that this was mutually beneficial to them and the people that they were serving to pay us to issue this thing and whatever. There's just like a very small portion of people out there at the time who both had like kind of a desire to connect with their, their customers in that way.

We're willing and able to pay us for that. It just was too complicated, in that form factor and it needed more buy in and everything. And so we just were often felt like we were pushing, spaghetti into a hole. And, and that's just a tough place to be when you're a new business.

Alex: yeah, absolutely. So looking back on it with the information that you have now, are there any critical steps you would have taken? Now, if you were to start this business today that you didn't take back then.

Nicolas Thorne: Yeah. You're, you're asking the wrong person that question, just because that's literally what I've ended up like studying very carefully and then trying to codify into a set of processes that we then all the way through to have made available by AI to, would be entrepreneurs.

So I have lots of answers to the question. I think that the main one that I'll start with and that I, have become very passionate about is just being very clear about who your customer is. From the start and trying to develop founder customer fit with that person. And oftentimes that for entrepreneurs, that's, that might be themselves.

So they're starting a company to scratch their own itch or it's their mother, someone that they're very close to have a relationship with. I think in our case, we, we had this like view of a platform. And it's not that platform companies don't get started. They do. But even those, I don't know, to use a bad example, Mark Zuckerberg knew what the kind of condition of a Harvard freshman or sophomore, whatever he was at the time looked like and why that was a potentially really great product for them and why Ivy leaguers may be initially, like there was something very purposeful.

Obviously that's expanded to an unbelievably massive thing, there's a very tight relationship there between, who he was and who he started to serve, for example. And I think versions of this don't exist everywhere. It's certainly not the only way to start a company. Therefore is to.

Be clear on who you're cos who you're serving from the beginning, but I think it is a way to do it. And it's certainly a way that I think Is gives you a very good shot, or at least a better shot than an average of having your entrepreneurial experience be very fulfilling because a yes, I think it gives you a chance that it's commercially successful, but be a lot of folks I know myself included.

If you start something and you get 18 months or 12 months or six months or one month, it doesn't matter down the road. And you decide that it's,

Elliot: needed

Nicolas Thorne: It's not the right thing. It's not working. At least if you've been working to develop knowledge of a certain customer that you care about, and that you can look back and say I was trying to solve that problem for that person or that type of person.

I just think that tends to be more gratifying then. If you get down the path and, and you have what, what we have, which is I just didn't particularly, for example, care that much if that church in, in San Diego around the corner from the airport was, was using our I, I, the problem they had of marketing their service, it was interesting to me, but it wasn't like what I felt personally driven to try to solve them.

So it's something that I think, and, and it's, and it's actually something you can control, right? You, you actually have it in your ability to say. Is this someone I would like to hang out with? Do, do, do we laugh at the same jokes? Would I go for a beer with them? Would I get on a call with them at nine o'clock on a Saturday if, if I had to?

Because these are things that probably have to happen anyway. So you might as well make sure that going in, you have answered that question for yourself. Cause I think it, it's And then, and then if you can, you start speaking the same language as they do. I think you can anticipate their needs better.

There's just all sorts of very positive things that come from it. So anyway, that's, that's for sure. The main lesson for, in fact, in our case, not only maybe do we not have a huge passion towards our customer or even have it that precisely defined. We had multiple sides of the battle that we were fighting at the same time.

And so it just all led to a less clear, less kind of visceral connection. And um, there's therefore ways that I think we could have done a lot of what we were doing anyway. But with that in mind from the beginning, it might have failed. Had a different outcome. It might not have, by the way, because I think one of the things that, and maybe this is just what we all tell ourselves when things don't go to plan.

But I, but I think it's also very true in entrepreneurial things, timing matters, if I could show you the deck that we use to raise some seed financing in 2013, and you'd read it in a 2020 voice and now you can say what you want to say about like the NFT craze. And. Obviously, I don't think it's like necessarily doing a lot of good for the world, but but like you would have read it and you would have taken it very seriously at that time because you'd be like, wow, this is definitely a thing.

And and would it have been different if we just started six years later? Maybe and, and so there, I, I think there's this I don't know, I have this analogy in my mind of trying to catch a wave. And, and, if you don't start paddling before the wave gets you, you definitely won't catch it.

But also if you start paddling too, way too far before the wave arrives, you get tired by the time it gets there and it washes you over, and, and so these things are often so much about anticipating it. Yes, but also not being too far in front of it. And So timing does matter, of course. And so I think are these exogenous forces that act on a, on a given business opportunity that sometimes you have to be willing to just say, I tried, I, I, I, I controlled what I could control and then, and if it doesn't go to plan, that may just be because it wasn't quote unquote meant to be, and that's like a painful pill to swallow when you invest so much of yourself into something.

But I think it's, it offers a little bit of solace sometimes. Yeah,

Elliot: interesting that you put it that way because a lot of people say it's a money component but you're focused on the self in that picture. Obviously the other component is you're clearly ahead of your time. And while NFTs, there was like a mad dash gold rush kind of situation. And it's not quite the same right now.

So maybe even in a today

Nicolas Thorne: that might not have been the right thing either. Yeah. A hundred percent. Yep.

Elliot: but you would have, would have had five yachts and would have been onto the next

Nicolas Thorne: I, I was actually having a conversation with, I've had now a couple of people in the last couple of years who'd be like, you were the first person ever said the word like blockchain or Bitcoin or something to me.

And I'm like, yeah, man, I wish I, I wish I, I wish I had done something about that too. We have all sorts of funny stories about how we, I actually, we wrote in a board presentation a joke slide. In the May of 2013, and I don't know where Bitcoin was at the time, but, I don't know, probably a few hundred bucks, but that was up a lot.

And we wrote a joke that, Oh, we've taken all of our seed financing and we've invested it in Bitcoin. So don't worry. It's very safe and stable while we try to build this business. And of course, one of those things you're like, Oh man, if only we had done that, that would have been a very good decision.

Elliot: Oh yeah, totally. So I am curious. There's obviously a history involved into this, but there was also a transitional period where you decided this is not just, it's just not really there. It's not working for me. Your time and your investments not there. I'm curious if there was any focal point that you can hone in on when you just decided it's just not it.

It's time to switch over, make a change, or if you felt like there was more of a series of things. Transcripts

Nicolas Thorne: The visceral memory that comes to mind is I was sitting in a diner in New York with my, my older brother who, um, my best friend and and he, he was not in, he's not in the tech industry, not in a startup industry but as a very practical and pragmatic and, and careful and, high quality thinker, and so he I think he was using it as an, we were on our last legs and we were running out of money and, we were like reducing the team to try to kind of like buy a little more time. And, and I, I think I probably said to him in some way, I just don't see a way.

Around this. And I'm just losing energy. I think like a big part of what happens at these moments, and I've experienced this in other places, both firsthand and second or third hand, you just start to lose energy, energy for something and it just becomes harder, like you're convincing yourself for so much of many entrepreneurial journeys that like.

You're right when other people are wrong, and that's probably like the definition of what you have to be convincing yourself of for some period of time in order to try something because like we do live a while. Maybe not a perfectly efficient market. We live in a fairly efficient market, right?

If there are obvious problems to solve they often they tend to get solved. And so you have to have this kind of energy to keep like being both rational and honest with yourself about what's working, what's not working, and, and being self-critical there, but also believing in yourself and that, and, and peeling yourself back off and trying to kinda find the answer.

And so I remember sitting there with him and, and he, we were going through this and, and he's everything you're saying, it has like logic to it and, and there's obviously careful thought to it and you've spent all this time and and I think I just remember him saying, I'm just tired, I'm like this one specific thing.

I feel like. I've tried it and, and it's not that it won't work because I'm, in fact, there are other businesses that were starting to do versions of what we had pivoted in. And so it just felt like we had to come up with a better my, my business partner often says, us structures define outcomes, right?

I, I just think we were in a, in the wrong structure at the time for how I was going to be pursuing that. Concept going forward. And it felt if we could, but if we could restructure it in some capacity, if we could find some new way to do it, we could pursue the business, continue to serve our best customers in a, in a, in a, in a revised way.

And, and that's what we ended up doing, but it, but I, but I came to the grips with the feeling that it, it couldn't be my only thing. And that was a little bit of a self reflection for me. I tend to be pretty stubborn, pretty like dog on a bone about things. And and I just realized that if I couldn't let it go, that I might not actually even be able to be creative enough about right.

What the right. Next steps where, because you're just trying so hard to make it work, make it work, make it work. And, sometimes I think you do have to just be honest about like when you've, when you've given it a shot at that, and maybe just a different structure might actually lead to a better outcome.

And so for me, that was not having to be my only thing, that that was enough of a different structure to then allow the business to proceed and in a very different light. And, still want to get different things out of that business Then we probably have gotten yet, but we're still working it in different ways, but, but it, it was clear that we needed to, to realign how we were approaching it.

Elliot: All right. It's a

Alex: Yeah. You talked a little bit about not necessarily having the passion for the, for the customer, and your initial business that coupled with what you said, the stubbornness and the drive to succeed, I think is what fuels a lot of entrepreneurs. So let's pivot to what you're doing today, because I hope you found your passion.

You've landed somewhere

Nicolas Thorne: That's the answer. That's become the passion. And, in a weird way, my passion very much become that.

Elliot: He's very forward

Alex: Yeah. So talk a little bit about what you're doing today and, and, you said that you thought you were going to be a customer or a user of this space and now, you're still here

Nicolas Thorne: Totally. Yeah. So we so at the time my, my partner had, had started this firm pre hype through which we'd been incubating and investing in, um, ventures. And, um, I, I don't think I really realize even maybe it's a comment about how focused I was on what we were working on, like what was going on in the desk next to mine or the office next to mine or whatever for a number of years, which was that he, my partner, Henrik had just done a very good job of,

Elliot: And

Nicolas Thorne: I was facing was a problem that he, that he was interested in and interested in solving. And, and maybe because I felt it so acutely I became very interested in it too, and so I think we've therefore had the good fortune of spending. Most of the last decade trying to help entrepreneurs figure out what company they're going to start next.

That tends to take the form of people say, I want to start a company. Or, I, I think the next thing I want to do is to start a company or another company. But I know enough to know that I want to take my time in thinking through that. And that problem has lots of different dynamics to it.

, but it's one that I think is super interesting because on the one hand, I feel entrepreneurial. Energy is like one of the great positive forces in the world. And the more of it, the better from my perspective. And on the other hand, you want to protect people little bit in terms of how they channel that energy so that they that they get the best out of it.

Outcome from that they can for themselves, and that's different for everybody that's different for even for the same person that's different at different moments in life. And that's the problem, if you will, the customer problem that we've been trying to solve. If you fast forward to today and.

What we've, what we are increasingly doing is actually trying to solve that for a much broader group of people than we, we could previously. And so the model through which we did that, in the, in the 2010s, let's call it was a very hands on, very, bespoke and boutique approach. And unfortunately, some of the companies that we helped start and got started out of our office have gone on to be.

Very successful companies. But I think what we've, what we've learned is that we would like to be able to help more people, navigate this kind of thought process of, I have an idea I have a desire to maybe start something. And yet either I'm not doing it, or I'm not quite doing it as well as I would like to.

Or, I feel like I'm starting to stopping. There's a, there's a bunch of different versions of this problem. There may be most easily statistically framed up as 60 plus percent of people will tell you they've had an idea for a business. And something like 8 percent of people do anything about it.

So there's a huge gap between what type of vision there is out there. And not to say that all of that is going to turn into like big business, much less, maybe not even like a business. But I just think that the world would be a happier place if more of that got acted on in some, some way.

I think it's like a really like everyone I've ever helped through that thought process and, and given like tooling to comes out of that experience saying I'm so glad that I like, I, I, I played this forward, I ran it to ground or I, I, I'm now more comfortable with it. I thought this thing that's caught in the back of my mind, or it's become something that they really are excited about and they keep working on, like the outcomes are, are almost always positive, whether it's that it becomes very obvious, very quickly that an idea that someone has is not a good one, or it becomes obvious that it is a really good one.

And so we've built a set of AI co pilots that help people do everything from, frame up their idea. R. A. I. Will create you your first kind of plan. We call it a customer delight plan. It'll look and feel a little bit like a a pitch deck, but it's, it's, it's much more kind of internal.

It's like pitching, frankly, yourself on the idea and on your kind of ability to help someone it will build you a landing page. It will give you the tooling to interview yourself as the potential customer of this product, but also anyone else, who might be a a customer and then, and then automatically and algorithmically.

Prioritize features out of those conversations. And it'll even go and build you your own AI just to be super meta that can help you on board customers Through lead acquisition and, and and that kind of conversational format. And and then it does a variety of other things too, but we're really just trying to create a really great tool set for entrepreneurs to, go from, we say zero to in business as quickly as possible.

Again, with the notion that, if you, if you judge these things before you even try them you're, I just think it's very hard to know what, what works and doesn't work. And so we want to like, as best as possible, put people in the kind of edit mode, put them into the mode of like default momentum is happening and and then see what happens as a result of that.

And but as you can tell, like that, that's really just like trying to help people maybe, not make the mistake that I felt like I made in the first go round, which is, if at all possible, start a company where. You are passionate about the customer you're serving. Again, not that there aren't other ways to do it and not that that couldn't maybe work in some form factor.

But that I think it's a, it's a, it is at least a way to give yourself a good chance of success.

Elliot: is really interesting. If I, if I heard that it sounds like this current concept, it really is. something that you experienced yourself. And that is always a fantastic founder story to be able to be like, I I've lived and breathed this, I know this exact issue. So of course I can speak to this.

I am going to work at solving it and try to make it as efficient as possible. Alex and I, we we, we built something before and it didn't really pan out. It lasted for a while, but the reality is if we had systems in place and we had structure and strategy as a whole I don't know. We were 20 something.

Yeah, we were young little ones building that if we had a system that already had the built ingrained knowledge that you're putting into it. Something like this, I would be pretty sure there's a higher success rate. So I can certainly appreciate that. But the fact that you have obviously lived and breathed it and your experience are being built into this, that is an entirely different layer.

Nicolas Thorne: Yeah it's taking,

Alex: on a yacht.

Nicolas Thorne: it's taking your own advice a little bit. You're a little hypocritical to if I, if I'm in the, not to try to um, solve my own problem. So or, or, or, take a problem that I understand well and try to solve it. And yeah, my, my customers, therefore I have realized over time are, are entrepreneurs I don't really think of them as customers per se, because.

Yeah, obviously a we try to have like relationship with them that stretch far beyond what a customer relationship maybe implies. But but I think that's a good thing to, we, we think a lot about this concept of kind of relationship capital in early business building. How much of the advantage that you can create for yourself can come from.

Just the fact that you actually have a customer relationship, that your customer trusts you to tell you, by the way, when things suck and when things, are, are pretty good. And and that that trust is increasingly in our view, an advantage. In business, because, the pace of change is so high that if you don't have some way of figuring out like what's what to do next that's better than your kind of competitor.

It's just very hard to keep up. And one way at least to do that is to just have a really tight relationship with your customers so that you like really feel what they need and see, and they trust you with, to serve them in new ways, whatever. Anyway. Yeah I have very much has tried to push Run, run the playbook on myself, if you will look at myself and say, what, what would I be a customer of if I were going through this again?

Or by the way just wanted to try to start something on the side and what advice would I take and what tools would I need? And but it's very much born out of the feeling that I didn't quite get it right, and, and that maybe I could help people. Yeah, I'll have a better shot at it.

Elliot: Okay.

Alex: now, right? Having the passion, making sure you have customer fit and those relationships, you can't replace it, especially in this digital world.

So how are you helping to build trust?

Nicolas Thorne: It's a place where I think AI, maybe oddly enough, and we're actually writing a book in public that we hope to publish in the next couple of months called me, my customer and AI. And and, and the premise of it is, is very much oriented around this concept that AI is actually going to help you if you use it to do stay close to your customer. It'll make it more important to stay close to your customer, I think. But it also. Help you do that. And the, maybe the, the one to hawk for the moment, cause there's lots of methodologies to how to do this, but I think, part of the way I think you can use new technology to develop that trust is is one to kind of like go through and practice infusing an AI with your own knowledge base and personality and, and, and see if you can get it to talk like you do.

And so an easy way to do this is you can go and make a custom GPT on chat GPT, or you can come use our services for that matter. But but, I think there's something interesting about if you, if you try to get one of these chat based tools to talk like you, you learn a lot for yourself, actually, about what do you care about?

How do you talk? How do you think? Who do you like to talk to? Who do you have permission to talk to? And so I'd say 1, it's like this kind of out of body moment where you try to figure out like oh, I wouldn't say that. Why would you not say that? And how do you get it not to say that? And so it serves as this kind of.

Training ground for figuring out a little bit about yourself and how you talk to customers. And then I think more importantly, it also just allows you to do it at slightly more scale, starting out at least, I would say that the key thing is to like, talk to people and I know that that's so trite and, and everyone says that.

But I mean it like to an, to an absurd degree, right? Like literally do everything in your power in the first, however many days or weeks that you're doing something to, you Literally get on the phone with people as much as humanly possible because or, or at least chat by DM or, or text, or, we, we've spent a lot of time starting companies that start from a place of texting with people.

And, and I think the interesting part is you just learn a lot more. You, you like. If you are, I think con what chat GPT has done for entrepreneurs in a, in a weird way is, or among many things, is that it's made people much more comfortable with a, with a conversational ui. And if, we could all, I'm sure you all feel this, like if you, if you could have spent less time like figuring out where the forget password button belongs on your website and more time on like actually helping the customer do the important thing, that would be to the benefit of the business. And so the interesting part about conversation is you don't have to update your landing page every time. And you don't even have to guess. You don't have to watch where like the heat maps of where, like we used to do all these things 10 years ago.

I feel like everyone's done these things where you're like trying to like make, heads or tails of what someone's doing when they're on your website Oh, they highlighted this word. Does that mean that that's a good word? Or that means they don't know what the word means, and then you do these user research to hear people talk about it. It's this very slow feedback loop relative to. What we all probably know if you've ever tried to sell someone something in like a traditional sales. Yes. That tends to be expensive as like a business tactic. And so you don't do it for a consumer product.

You probably wouldn't ever have a sales force trying to sell I don't know what, like water bottles that just the math doesn't work. But but, but you do know that if you had someone doing it, that feedback they got. The process they went through the, the information they had to convey in order to make the sale, that that would all be a much higher, like bandwidth kind of conversation.

And so long before ever making the landing page, if you will at least one that's beyond just like a super simple, this is our mission. Sign up to be notified when we launch or whatever. I think that, people just need to talk more, try to sell more like directly, do some traditional salesy type stuff, either by text or by email.

Voice just to hear the feedback, get into kind of the exchange, like relationship implies an exchange. It's not, it's not, it's not how often are you talking to your customers? It's how often are they talking back to you? And and I think that utilizing these tools and the, and the, and the, and the popularization of chat based kind of UI to the advantage of an early entrepreneur, I think is very powerful.

And then I, lastly, I think that, AI, the interesting part is I think more people will want to do business with a human being, they'll be very happy if all the background work is done by AI, but I think they're going to want the lead singer, if you will to still be to still be someone that they can kind of like know and trust and, and call up by the way, when somebody is not working.

And so I think that creates a very interesting. Kind of future for, entrepreneurs to be working through. But, but I think it's net net very positive. If you can kind of like get yourself into it,

Alex: So as a marketer, obviously I am a strong user of chat GPT and those sort of AIs. Cause as you said, it does take a lot of the manual processes and first drafts and other things out of my day. There are certainly a lot of naysayers about AI and technology. So how are you dealing with some of that maybe negative press where people who are not, not buying into, the movement, if you will.

Nicolas Thorne: it was funny. What a quick aside, which is one of the ways you get your customers to trust you on average, is you just don't spend a lot of time with the ones who don't. And so dumping your cuts, like a deselecting some customers is often like not a bad thing. Firing some of your customers is sometimes not a bad thing because.

There are people who, maybe sign up for what you're doing, but they, they want something that's different than what you're selling. And it's often a difficult thing for, I find for entrepreneurs, myself included, it'd be like, Oh like maybe I need to break up with that, that customer, if you will, because you, you they're so precious early on that you don't really want to give any one of them up.

But I do think that, Who you hang out with in the early days really shapes where you're going. So on the one hand, one option, by the way, for us is to just say, that's cool. We happen to be really into it. And so we're just not going to spend a lot of time with folks who don't worry about, I think the interesting part that being said about AI is I think the reality is it's scary.

It scares me, I, in fact, the more you spend time with it there's a professor at Penn, Ethan Mollick, and I was listening to him on a podcast the other day, and he was talking about how. Once you've spent 10 hours or that his test, I think it was, he said, for whether you've spent enough time with Chachi Petee is have you had a really existential crisis as a result of have you really gone down the rabbit hole enough that you're like, oh, man, this is this is scary.

And I, and I, and that really, that certainly, resonates for me. I think you just look at how much work, if you, if you start to use that tooling how much work can get done being average in a chat GPT world, I think is a very, is a, is a, is a very precarious position, right?

The cost of average is going way down. It's, it's going to approach the cost of, computing power. And and that's because. Chachapiti is definitionally average. It's really good at generating like what the average guess is at any given thing. And it's only going to get better at that and maybe therefore be above average.

But if you are doing kind of average work yeah, that's a, it's, it's a little scary. And by the way, a lot of us do average work on a lot of topics. And this is a little bit why I think entrepreneurship ought to have a, an amazing run here because if, if, if you get kind of like beat out of the job of something that you do at an average level and without a lot of passion you're going to be out of a job and then you're going to be trying to figure out what do you, what do you have passion about?

Where do you have knowledge and where can you apply it to serve someone in a, in a very like basic kind of entrepreneurial. And so anyway, that's, that's a little bit why I think we're going to have a whole wave of. Of entrepreneurs coming into the, into the kind of game and maybe the pressure to go from the 60 percent of people who have an idea and the 8 percent who actually do something will, will, will grow.

But I think it's part of the answer, but anyway, I guess I just to say, to answer the question more directly, I think it's scary. I get that. I, I, I'm scared by it. I think in fact, the more time you spend with it a little bit until some point, the more scared you might get yourself. And Maybe that is to say to people who are doubters, I got, I get it.

My only point back would be that I don't think it's like the type of thing where you want to not try it, not spend time with it, not work with it, utilize it, get a feel for it because it doesn't feel like you're going to put the cat back in the bag on that trying

Elliot: no, it's out there.

Alex: I had a really hilarious moment yesterday playing with Canva Magic Design, or Magic Slides, or whichever it was. And our tech team said, hey, can we take this playbook and turn this into a deck? And so I gave it some of the information, and then it came out with a slide with a lizard on it.

I don't know where the lizard came from. But my favorite slide of the deck said, on time, in scope, in budget, and there was just a truck. So I'm like, Oh, if you don't hit on time, your budget scope, you just get hit by a truck. And I was like, is that how I would frame it? Cause maybe that is that existential moment where I'm

Elliot: Very human.

Alex: the, the inner, inner me came out on that one and the bot got it right. But I thought it was a hilarious moment. So consultants are, are in a good spot. Slides. Still need some work on the AI technology, but I'm sure it will catch up.

Nicolas Thorne: I'm sure it will too, but you know what I think again, it's, it's definitionally average. And so I think If you can just make sure that you're spending your time using it to, help throughput, help output, but keep an eye on what you do best. I think that is gonna continue to be a very human job to do.

Elliot: Yeah, I totally agree. It's a force multiplier. And I saw a quote floating around. I'm sure it's been adapted in 30 different ways is that AI is not really here to replace jobs, but it's here to be more of a force multiplier. But people who use AI will be replacing those who are left choose to be left behind.

And I can definitely see that today because there are so many routine things that you can already do. There are, there are Levels of mediocre writing that I've replaced some, not great freelancers with I do not let it Give me direct content because as you had stated it's a it's it's just in the middle right now So you get a juice it up a lot.

You're gonna give a lot of input so I will say for those who are naysayers, especially on the content side because that is usually like the easiest example to see Out there is like you can't just give it a topic The whole big naysayer component is you got to know how to actually work with the thing and get the right information and feed it.

So I, I totally get your perspective on shaping it, making things talk like you think like you, and that is the big challenge of, these are not advanced enough and intuitive enough to just pop it open and it'll read your mind. Then it doesn't work like that. And then the day that happens, then we were all really in trouble.


Nicolas Thorne: was a real problem. Yeah. Yeah, totally. I, I had a very funny, I was, I was on a, on a Zoom with someone the other day and I had, we were screen, I was screen sharing and, and I. I said, Oh let's, let's go over to chat, you can work on this. And I can't really remember what it was, but we were working on some sort of document and I pasted in a big section of it.

And I said, let's like, can we work on how to improve this? Maybe you can propose a few ideas of how you might improve it. And then it said some things. And then I said I think number two is a pretty good idea, but let's expand it. And, whatever. And, and, and so I just had a chat with it, right?

As per the name And the person literally, we got to the end of 10 minutes of me chatting with it and saying no, I don't like that, do that again, try that with a little more of a Hemingway flavor, I don't, whatever. And, and the person was like, I have something really embarrassing to tell you.

And I was like, oh yeah, what's that? And they're like, I've never actually asked it a question. I've never said anything beyond the first response. I always just start a new chat and I was like, wait, what? And I have always treated a little bit like, Google and that you type in your question or whatever, and then you get your response and then you start a new one.

And I was like, yeah, but it's called chat GPT. Like you, you can chat with it and but then this was, this person was like being very self effacing. This is incredible. This is so much better. To do it like this, I'm like, yeah, I know. It, it definitely is. And, and I guess maybe the more, like the less like.

Joking version. Although that's humorous, but also I imagine they're not the only person who's doing that. Is that, there's, it takes a moment, I think, to realize that you can say you don't have to be, that polite. It actually, I've read is, is delivers better results if you're polite.

But you can really push it, and say, and, and, and really try to go back and forth and use it as like a kind of Socratic method. Thing of like let's, let's come up with more questions. Let's narrow them down. Let's broaden them out. Let's go this direction. Let's go that direction.

Then, so it's a, it's a thinking tool as much as it is a productivity. I, I think of it as productivity software is Excel or PowerPoint. It's something that if you know what you want to do, it gives you the tools to do that thing. I think of chat GPT is more often helping you figure out what.

You need to do at all or what like angle you want to take or whatever. And so I, maybe if you had to come up with a word, it's like more like resourcefulness software. It's like we can all, and, and in as much as if you got to the end of a week and you had to give someone some feedback and you told them, Oh, you were really productive this week, you would know that that was a different piece of feedback than saying, Oh, you were really resourceful this week.

Like the resourceful person, figured out how to do something that. It would seem there wasn't an answer to maybe they set up some system for how to do it on a repeated basis so that you wouldn't have to do it again. That's what resourcefulness looks like. And productivity is like just raw output, right?

That says someone is just like incredibly created a lot of stuff, but you don't imply a lot of, Problem solving into it per se, but like that, that, to me, that kind of like distinction of what that type of feedback is that you might give an employee, for example, is like the difference between what type of feedback you give to like productivity software versus chat GPT, but therefore you have to think of it that way in terms of how you interface with it, just as you might interface with those two employees differently.

You got to interface with the software differently too.

Alex: Yeah. I love that term resourceful software. So we're going to steal that and move that on. So we've got a couple minutes left. You mentioned a book and I want to know what else is on the horizon for you and for your companies.

Nicolas Thorne: Yeah. The biggest thing for us, we, we are pushing really hard to continue to release many, many more tools under our. Autos, a family of AI co pilots. And so if you go to autos. com and actually the way that we start there is you DM with our, our, our co pilot on Instagram, which I know we'll see him a little bit at the end.

Weird to people, but that's that's a way to make sure that we're just being conversational. But we are launching more tools in every couple of weeks, it seems like we've got some really unbelievably exciting stuff coming in terms of when you use our tools the AI that our AI makes for you is just getting much more powerful and and, and I think will lead to some really interesting.

Situations where people will start companies where they where they have an AI that's serving their customers really, really quickly and in really interesting way. So we're very, very excited about that. And then, yeah, we have a book coming out and knock on wood. Either later this month, or I guess, I don't know when this will publish in either in April or in in May.

And that's me, my customer and AI. And it's really a place where we've just tried to sit down and, and take a lot of the thinking that we've actually discussed here both around the kind of founder customer fit concept of business building and how, how that works in an AI world and why we think maybe it's a, it's a good model for, for the after AI future.

And so we've just tried to put it, put it in paper. And so excited about both of those things.

Alex: Yeah, that's awesome. Looking forward to the book. Can we pre order it anywhere?

Nicolas Thorne: You cannot, I think you can go to, I'll send you a link if you put them in the show notes to me, my customer. ai and you can just request an advanced copy and, and we'll get you one as soon as, as it's ready,

Alex: Excellent. So I will toss you with our final, very stereotypical and very hard last question. Looking back 10 years ago, what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself 10 years ago?

Elliot: This is the

Nicolas Thorne: this is where the editor will be helpful.

Alex: The dramatic pause.

Nicolas Thorne: no, I wasn't trying to be dramatic. I was just trying to

Elliot: is the

Nicolas Thorne: little bit different.

I, I, I, I, You're right. It is a difficult question. Because I think when we got on this call and when we were in the pre conversation, we talked about this word failure that you all obviously spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about. And I said to you, and I, I, I've been thinking about in the back of my mind as we've talked what is, What is failure, especially if it's what teaches you these lessons and allows you to keep moving forward and new and different ways.

And so I think, the bad version of the advice I would have given myself is just don't worry, keep going, keep trying.

Elliot: Professor of biology. She

Nicolas Thorne: also keep trying, don't, don't sit still. Don't, don't don't keep making the same mistake. Change it up. And so there's, there's something about the, the willingness and stubbornness that I think a lot of entrepreneurs have in them.

But also channeling it towards, trying different things and not just repeating the same mistake. And so I don't know what the advice is that puts that into one sentence, but I think it's something like keep going, keep trying, but keep mixing it up. Because I think over time, what I at least have benefited from massively is that you're working on something and it doesn't seem at all.

You're, you're doing X and the benefit you get from it in a year or two years or three years is, is like way over here. But you would never have even opened up that angle if you hadn't. Kept trying the thing that you were hunting towards. And so there's a little bit of willingness to trust yourself that if you think it's interesting and you think it's, moving in a direction, do that thing, show up and, and push it.

Because the benefit you reap from it may not be what you're shooting at right now. But it, but oftentimes like the surface area of opportunity expands as you've like progress into the game. It's a little bit like when we were all kids Kids. I don't know if you played like Zelda or one of these games where the video game, the world like open, the map got opened up as you got to the edge of the map, and you don't know what's on the other side of the map until you get to the edge of the map.

But so this kind of frontierism thought of do things that are interesting, push them until the limit, and then see how the map opens up and try to take a moment to kind of like pick the right direction to walk in. Somewhere in there is a, is, is a message about trusting yourself, but also, being willing to admit when you're, you need to change directions a bit.

Alex: I'll butcher the quote, but it's something like, be stubborn about your goals, but flexible about your path or how you get there.

Nicolas Thorne: I like it. That's cool.

Alex: Anyway, so thanks so much, Nick. I really enjoyed the conversation. Happy to have you. I'm really excited to read the book when it's out.

Nicolas Thorne: Thank you both very, very much. I really appreciate it.

Mastering the Art of Failing
Mastering the Art of Failing Podcast
Join your hosts, Alex Love and Elliot Volkman, as we dismantle the stigma surrounding failure and empower you to transform these challenges into opportunities on your own journey forward.