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Polywork: The Future of Work is Multiplayer
A deep dive into how Polywork aims to be a part of the cooperation economy
Hey folks, welcome to a special edition of The Discourse. In this piece, I deep dive into a hot new invite-only startup — Polywork. They recently raised $13M from a16z and are posing as a challenger to LinkedIn. You can skip the waitlist by using my personal invite code at the end of this essay.
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I have always identified as a generalist, and my career choices to date reflect that: first business school, which is a generalist course. Then product management, a generalist role which comprises a bunch of skills in which you're proficient enough.
But even besides being a product manager at an early stage startup, I am a writer (of this very newsletter), and a no-code maker with a bunch of side projects (Showw.Work, Mind Health), just to name a few.
The need to be multi-hyphenated comes from my experience as a failed founder.
In 2019, I attached all my self-worth as a founder, which meant if the company didn’t do well, I felt I personally didn’t do well. Through that, I had a realization that I needed to diversify my self-worth — not keep it in just one job, identity, or relationship.
This feeling accelerated during the pandemic when things became fragile. If you lost your job and you didn’t have a backup, you had to job hunt in a tough market. My intention was to become anti-fragile by creating on the internet.
Polywork, a new invite-only professional social media network recently invested in by a16z, lends space to these ideas. People aren't uni-dimensional anymore. They write, host podcasts and Clubhouse rooms, invest in companies, advise others, and generally engage in many projects that paint a better picture of their full selves.
The platform allows you to show your work more than your designation, create identity blocks, and collaborate with other creative people.
This is a sponsored deep dive into Polywork.
But before we get into what Polywork is, let's understand Social in 2021.
Social is dead, long live social
The landscape for social has evolved since the days of Web 2.0. But let's narrow this discussion to professional social media networks.
LinkedIn continues to be at the top — but is slowly losing relevance and credibility, especially among startup people and creators.
On LinkedIn, you will mostly find copied content, banal comments, and concocted stories. Under the pretense of automation and efficiency, the platform has lost its soul through a series of "Congratulations on the new job!" comments and automated LinkedIn Inmail outreach.
LinkedIn was also built for a different time. It was meant to be the Online Resume where your designation and company mattered more than the work you did. It was built before the creator economy when people’s professional lives were unidimensional.
Then there are vertical communities catering to different roles. Dribbble and Behance for designers, Github/Stackoverflow for developers, and ProductHunt/IndieHackers for indie markers/product people.
Twitter is the only other horizontal play to LinkedIn, and it caters to a more tech startup + creator economy audience. However, on Twitter, you have to dodge the landmines of polarization that are news, politics, and sports Twitter.
A gap exists for a platform that offers all kinds of creative people a place to showcase their work. The magic lies when these creatives cross collaborate.
And if you thought social was done, a16z has a counter take to it. And we've seen it with the rise of social apps like TikTok, Clubhouse, Discord apps that have become massive in the last few years.
With this backdrop established, let's get into what Polywork is.
Polywork is a fresh take on a professional network. Think of it as a personal website that's connected to a network of personal websites.
The first thing that stands out for me is the fun, playful, and futuristic design theme. It’s a delightful deviation from the dull interfaces we’re used to.
With Polywork, you can fill out your profile with badges, post highlights and tag them with activities, and get discovered.
Let’s unpack what these features are, what design decisions stood out for me, and how I am using the platform.
Profile and Badges
You are guided during the onboarding to create your profile by friendly AI bots. You get options to add all fun badges like Memer, Dog Dad. These form “identity blocks” — meaningful ways you can describe yourself.
The Badges explain the multi-hyphenated you. For example, I am a Product Manager, but I am also a Substack writer, no-code maker, and so on.
You can fill out the positions you work at, but in stark contrast to LinkedIn – the focus is on the highlights you post on your timeline vs the designations at the company.
Highlights and Activities aka Posts and Hashtags
Once you're done with the onboarding, you can post highlights and tag those with activities. Each activity is linked to a badge. In the above example, I posted one of my Subsatack posts and tagged it with the activity Published a Substack post which is linked to my Badge of being a Substack Writer. These activities are meant to signal your work - proof of work. It'll be interesting to see a Github-like representation of how often you've posted to keep the streak.
What’s notable is that Polywork doesn’t have any vanity metrics like ‘shares’ and ‘likes’, and doesn’t intend to. Research has shown that social media has a deleterious impact on our mental health and turns every post into a performative display (looking at you, Twitter and Instagram).
Having said that, I would like to see comments on posts to help people interact with each other publically rather than just in DMs. Commenting on someone's post has less friction than sending a DM.
DMs are opt-in, which means that you need to accept the request from the sender. LinkedIn doesn’t do this well with every message reaching the top of your inbox. Twitter does this better.
All these design decisions make it clear that it's not another Twitter or LinkedIn that’s performative. The real world value will come through connections, collaborations, and monetization.
To achieve that discovery is key, and that’s where Space Station comes in.
Space Station aka Discovery
Space Station is collaboration central. You get to select what kinds of collaboration you are open to. For example, I selected that I am open to contributing my writing, mentoring others, and collaborating on side projects. This is where you can monetize through collaborations, paid gigs, and so on.
The more you post highlights and tag them with activities, you will be featured in relevant lists. Anecdotally, I have seen that if I publish more updates and tag them with activities, they show up in the lists. Once Polywork hits scale, the team will have to prevent people from gaming this system and posting just to get discovered in the featured lists.
We live in the Cooperation Economy. Packy McCormick, who writes Not Boring, explains the Cooperation Economy best, saying:
“It’s easier and smarter than ever for talented people to work together. Transaction costs are decreasing. As the atomic unit of commerce gets smaller, there is more surface area for cooperation, more room for more people to pursue the same opportunity as a group. Individuals can cooperate with each other with much less friction than companies can.”
This rings true for modern professionals who work in startups or create on the internet. Polywork aims to bring this together.
So far I have been approached by three people through Polywork — one from Polywork for this post, one for a sponsorship spot for my newsletter, and another for a collaboration.
Since it has only been a month since I have been active on the platform, this is a good start. In total, the platform has had 4300 collaborations accepted. Once strong network effects kick in, I can see a collaboration boom.
How does Polywork aim to make discovery easier? I asked Peter Johnston, the founder of Polywork about this:
The more the AI bot gets to know you, it will surface relevant notifications to you on potential opportunities it thinks are a great match, like sending you a text saying ‘I think you’d be great for this speaking gig, wanna accept?”
Challenges and Future
The main challenge that Polywork faces is to get people coming back. In social metric terms, the DAU/MAU ratio is a metric that has traditionally been important. How many of the monthly active users come back daily. While in Polywork’s case, you don’t need to come back every day necessarily, you still need to visit often enough to create value.
The feed in legacy social media networks brings users back. But I don’t find myself scrolling through the feed, which has been validated by a few non-creator friends that I have spoken to. They like the concept of a profile timeline, but without any activity, it is hard to keep coming back.
Network effects, the AI bot sending you notifications, and the first connection – can be strong reasons to make this the network to build your internet home on.
It’s still early days for Polywork. Peter explained their vision of the future:
Democratization of opportunities to connect to people and opportunities. No gatekeepers, no friction. Just a platform with a level playing field that can help people connect to the kind of opportunities they want to, not the ones they have to.
While previous social media networks were built for the attention economy, new social media networks like Polywork are built for the creator and cooperation economy. With decreasing transaction costs and more virtual trust, Polywork could be the new place to meet people and do work together.
Where can you sign up?
If you're interested in joining Polywork, you can skip the waitlist by using my invite code:
📘 Read of the week: Curators All the Way Down — Gaby Goldberg (7 min)
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