Thoughts and life updates
I write this newsletter to share some of the things I’m working on and thinking about. A little about me:
I own and manage a digital agency in Toronto called August, where we design and build websites and apps. We spend about 80% of our time on client work and the balance on internal projects. Most recently, we’ve been working on a directory of real estate development vendors called Buildstack (think: Builtwith for buildings). I also invest in and develop real estate with my two brothers.
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I love Toronto and think that it can be much better than it is. It can be more affordable, more dynamic, and more exciting. It can be home to more people doing more cool things across more fields of study and industry. It can and should be a truly global city, along the lines of a New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo.
In my own very small way, I try to influence its growth and development by talking and writing about things like housing and transportation policy, and by commenting on its governance and where and how I think can be improved.
Over the last few years, I’ve made many friends who share this love of our city and who also contribute their ideas for its improvement. One of those friends is Brendan Whitsitt, a real estate developer from Washington, DC who now lives in Toronto and is heading up delivery of Tricon’s Canadian purpose-built rental apartment pipeline.
Together, we’re launching a quarterly magazine called Urban Progress that’s intended to provide more of a structured platform for the exploration and distribution of these ideas. We think that this content and format will fill a void, somewhere in between the sort of high-level municipal affairs coverage provided by newspapers and the in-depth research of policy issues performed by think tanks. We also think that it can exert some degree of influence.
One thing I’ve learned about the machinery of government over the past few years is just how much power 25-35-year-old political staffers hold. The public doesn’t know their names or what they do, but they are the true changemakers. Not politicians. Or at least they can be if sufficiently motivated and if provided with some smart ideas.
We want Urban Progress to do a bit of that, to act as a manual for these staffers who, like us, love Toronto and think that it can be better than it is.
This is how you can help.
First, enter your email and street address here so that we can send you a complimentary issue. We’re picking up for the first few hundred issues from the printer this week.
Second, reply to this email if you’d like to contribute to future issues as a writer, or in any other capacity. This will have to be a team effort.
Finally, put some thought as to how you think a project like this could or should be funded. And then let me know what you’ve come up with. We think that we can run the operation on a very tight budget but will have to break even at minimum if it’s too be sustainable.
Ultimately this is a passion project, but one with a big ambition. We want Toronto’s future to be much cooler than its present, and think that getting some good ideas to the right people at the right time in the right format could help make that happen. It can change our world.
I hope you’ll follow along.
August: It’s been a good year for August. Our best yet, as I guess, it should be. That’s not to say that it’s been without its challenges but we find ourselves facing the new year with a solid foundation at our current size and plenty of thoughts and plans for growth and expansion. Those of you who’ve been following the journey for a little while will know that this is a welcome change from twelve months ago. (I talked a bit about that journey in an interview for Alex’s The Come Up newsletter.)
Some of those thoughts and plans revolve around the idea of niching down a bit more than we have to date. I’d like to do more work for governments, for example, and be recognized as a digital agency that does good work for governments. We’ve just last week won our first government RFP with a partner firm, which is a great start down this path.
Picking a niche is tough, as it comes to some degree at the opportunity cost of every other potential niche. But I think government work is a good one. For one thing, there is no shortage of government services—including intragovernment services—that could be improved through the introduction of better software. Low hanging fruit abounds. For another, governments serve a lot of people. And improving services to the benefit of a lot of people feels meaningful. It genuinely makes the world a better place. Governments also have the budget and mandate to do big things, so that we’re talking about—potentially—an abundance of big projects that serve a lot of people. That’s all right up our alley.
There are more thoughts and plans along those lines.
Ultimately, I’d like August to continue to grow and for each new increment of growth to be a bit easier than the last. That is, a bit easier to land good projects from good clients. A bit easier to recruit and retain great talent. A bit easier to manage project delivery. And so on. That mostly means maintaining a consistent rate of improvement. Things get easier when you get better at doing them.
Buildstack: We’re not where I want to be with Buildstack six months post-launch. The product is good and improving, the dataset is large (for the GTA) and growing), but traffic and traction remain elusive. So this is what I’ll be doubling and tripling down on this year. I think that balancing a new product with a growing agency business is a tough thing to do, as the former will often lose time and attention to the latter. It's like trying to maintain a non-work-hours gym routine when you have three kids. Or something like that.
This is my plan: no less than two hours of my time dedicated to Buildstack tasks every day. I don’t think that’s enough but it’s something. And it will increase as certain August milestones are reached.
I’m both inspired and haunted by Nathan Barry’s story of building ConvertKit. It’s been ten years since their launch and they’ve just passed a $33-million annual run rate (ARR). But it took the first two years to get to $2,000 in monthly recurring revenue, or a $24,000 ARR. Two years! The third year was much better, growing from a $24,000 to $1.2-million ARR.
Nathan blames his lack of a singular focus for ConvertKit’s slow growth in the early years. He was still consulting and selling infoproducts on Gumroad back then. He reached a point, two years in, where he was ready to shut it down. He chose instead to shut everything else down. All the other things that were actually working for him and paying his bills.
And it worked. ConvertKit had that great third year and he’s been off to the races ever since.
Anyway, you get the point, I get the point, we all get the point. Focus wins. Usually.
real estate stuff
FH1*: As I mentioned last month, our working drawings are being reviewed by the City’s Buildings department and we’re standing by for our building permits. We’re hoping to get these by February or March, to then begin our foundation work. In the meantime, we’re getting our construction budget updated as the last version is now about half-a-year old. My sense is that construction prices peaked sometime around mid-2022 but we’ll see what comes back.
MR1**: We have not received confirmation from the City that our Official Plan Amendment (OPA) and Zoning Bylaw Amendment (ZBA) applications, which were submitted in November, are complete—that is, that they include all required drawings and reports as outlined in the Planning Application Checklist we received from the Planning department following our Pre-Application Consultation. This matters because a clock starts when a complete application is submitted, and 120 days after that clock starts on an OPA application and 90 days after that clock starts on a ZBA application, if we haven’t received a decision from the City, we can appeal this absence of a decision to the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT). That appeal can help motivate City staff to pick up the pace, and as we very much know by now, time is money.
*Forever Hold 1. A proposed four-storey multiunit rental building in Toronto’s west end that we plan on holding forever.
**Midrise 1. A proposed nine-to-twelve-storey multiunit residential building (tenure to be determined) in Toronto’s west end. We’re starting with a rezoning and will see where we take it from there.
stuff I’ve enjoyed
This is some of the content I’ve come across over the past month that’s worth sharing.
Article: I always enjoy reading Sam Hammond’s writing, and this piece ruminating on the future of AI is no exception. Unlike your typical tech commentator, Sam tries to think through the impact of AI on our institutions, and the risk we face if we don’t adjust to this new technology quickly enough.
Book: I didn’t get much reading done in December but I did manage to read Fat Joe’s new biography, The Book of Jose. It was ok. His stories about growing up in the south Bronx in the 70s and 80s were pretty wild. One thing that I appreciate about Fat Joe is his continued relevance 30 years after he started rapping, despite not being a very good rapper. That’s his superpower.
Podcast: This will be a plug for my own appearance on my friend Davelle Morisson’s podcast. We talked about some of the recent Provincial legislative changes that should affect the rate of new housing development over the next few years. Among other things, I come out as not being overly committed to Toronto’s Greenbelt, which is a somewhat heretical view among people who talk and write about these things.
Video: This tour of Helion’s facilities and interview with its founder and staff is fascinating. As far as I can tell, Helion is the most promising of the most recent crop of fusion energy startups. Among other things, I learned about the trade-offs of including or not including a steam turbine in the reactor design. OpenAI founder Sam Altman and major Helion backer Sam Altman predicts we’ll have commercial fusion energy generation by 2024. Even if he ends up being a decade early in that prediction, that’s pretty exciting.
I think this is just the second or third time I’ve included this section in the newsletter. It’s a space for startup ideas I have, as I have them, intended to get them out of my head and down in writing. This helps me free up some of my limited headspace for other thoughts. Some of these might be good and some bad. You be the judge!
I’m calling it 311GPT.
It’s not quite a startup idea, though it could be. Instead, it’s something that I’d like August to take on with a partner firm that has good relationships with Canada’s many municipalities.
Here’s the short version.
311GPT would be a GPT-enabled app that would act as the primary point of contact for municipal 311 services. For those of you who aren’t familiar with 311, this is the phone number you dial to report graffiti or a pothole or to request a new garbage bin and that sort of thing. It’s your city’s customer service line.
Some cities, like Toronto, have launched 311 mobile apps to better facilitate this sort of communication. But most haven’t. Of Ontario’s 444 municipal governments, I don’t think there are more than 4 who have launched a 311 mobile app.
I think they all should, and that they should design it as a chat interface. This would help municipalities improve their service levels while saving money on call centre labour costs. It would also get much better over time, as it got more and more usage, and could expand horizontally to different service lines (think: scheduling swimming lessons, etc.).
Here’s how that might look in practice.
It’d feel as familiar as texting your friend or neighbour, but you’d be texting an AI. One that is always available, 24/7, responds immediately, and has a wealth of relevant knowledge to draw from to answer any question you might have.
Surely that’s the future.
And that’s all for now. Here’s to a good and productive December.
Feel free to reply to this email with any comments or questions. I love chatting about everything mentioned above.
Thanks for reading Chris’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.