Moving on from Cognito Mentoring

Back in December 2013, Jonah Sinick and I launched Cognito Mentoring, an advising service for intellectually curious students. Our goal was to improve the quality of learning, productivity, and life choices of the student population at large, and we chose to focus on intellectually curious students because of their greater potential as well as our greater ability to relate with that population. We began by offering free personalized advising. Jonah announced the launch in a LessWrong post, hoping to attract the attention of LessWrong’s intellectually curious readership.

Since then, we feel we’ve done a fair amount, with a lot of help from LessWrong. We’ve published a few dozen blog posts and have an information wiki. Slightly under a hundred people contacted us asking us for advice (many from LessWrong), and we had substantive interactions with over 50 of them. As our reviews from students and parents suggest, we’ve made a good impression and have had a positive impact on many of the people we’ve advised. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and grateful for the support and constructive criticism we’ve received on LessWrong.

However, what we’ve learned in the last few months has led us to the conclusion that Cognito Mentoring is not ripe for being a full-time work opportunity for the two of us.

For the last few months, we’ve eschewed regular jobs and instead done contract work that provides us the flexibility to work on Cognito Mentoring, eating into our savings somewhat to cover the cost of living differences. This is a temporary arrangement and is not sustainable. We therefore intend to scale back our work on Cognito Mentoring to “maintenance mode” so that people can continue to benefit from the resources we’ve already collected, with minimal additional effort on our part, freeing us up to take regular jobs with more demanding time requirements.

We might revive Cognito Mentoring as a part-time or full-time endeavor in the future if there are significant changes to our beliefs about the traction, impact, and long-run financial viability of Cognito Mentoring. Part of the purpose of “maintenance mode” will be to leave open the possibility of such a revival if the idea does indeed have potential.

In this post, I discuss some of the factors that led us to change our view, the conditions under which we might revive Cognito Mentoring, and more details about how “maintenance mode” for Cognito Mentoring will look.

Reason #1: Downward update on social value

We do think that the work we’ve done on Cognito Mentoring so far has generated social value, and the continued presence of the website will add more value over time. However, our view has shifted in the direction of lower marginal social value from working on Cognito Mentoring full-time, relative to simply keeping the website live and doing occasional work to improve it. Specifically:

  • It’s quite possible that the lowest-hanging fruit with respect to the advisees who would be most receptive to our advice has already been plucked. We received the bulk of our advisees through LessWrong within the month after our initial posting. Other places where we’ve posted about our service have led to fewer advisees (more here).
  • Of our website content, only a small fraction of the content gets significant traction (see our list of popular pages), so honing and promoting our best content might be a better strategy for improving social value than trying to create a comprehensive resource. This can be done while in maintenance mode, and does not require full-time effort on our part.

What might lead us to change our minds: If we continue to be contacted by large numbers of potentially high-impact people, or we get evidence that the advising we’ve already done has had significantly greater impact than we think it did, we’ll update our social value upward.

Reason #2: Downward update on long-run financial viability

We have enough cash to go on for a few more months. But for Cognito Mentoring to be something that we work full time on, we need an eventual steady source of income from it. Around mid-March 2014, we came to the realization that charging advisees is not a viable revenue source, as Jonah described at the end of his post about how Cognito Mentoring can do the most good (see also this comment by Luke Muehlhauser and Jonah’s response to it below the comment). At that point, we decided to focus more on our informational content and on looking for philanthropic funding.

Our effort at looking into philanthropic funding did give us a few leads, and some of them could plausibly result in us getting small grants. However, none of the leads we got pointed to potential steady long-term income sources. In other words, we don’t think philanthropic funding is a viable long-term revenue model for Cognito Mentoring.

Our (anticipated) difficulty in getting philanthropic funding arises from two somewhat different reasons.

  1. What we’re doing is somewhat new and does not fit the standard mold of educational grants. Educational foundations tend to give grants for fairly specific activities, and what we’re doing does not seem to fit those.
  2. We haven’t demonstrated significant traction or impact yet (even though we’ve had a reasonable amount of per capita impact, the total number of people we’ve influenced so far is relatively small). This circles back to Reason #1: funders’ reluctance to fund us may in part stem from their belief that we won’t have much social value, given our lack of traction so far. Insofar as funders’ judgment carries some information value, this should also strengthen Reason #1.

What might lead us to change our minds: If we are contacted by a funder who is willing to bankroll us for over a year and also offer a convincing reason for why he/she thinks bankrolling us is a good idea (so that we’re convinced that our funding can be sustained beyond a year) we’ll change our minds.

Reason #3: Acquisition of knowledge and skills

One of the reasons we’ve been able to have an impact through Cognito Mentoring so far is that both Jonah and I have knowledge of many diverse topics related to the questions that our advisees have posed to us. But our knowledge is still woefully inadequate in a number of areas. In particular, many advisees have asked us questions in the realms of technology, entrepreneurship, and the job environment, and while we have pointed them to resources on these, firsthand experience, or close secondhand experience, would help us more effectively guide advisees. We intend to take jobs related to computer technology (in fields such as programming or data science), and these jobs might be at startups or put us in close contact with startups. This will better position us to return to mentoring later if we choose to resume it part-time or full-time.

Knowledge and skills we acquire working in the technology sector could also help us design better interfaces or websites that can more directly address the needs of our audience. So far, we’ve thought of ourselves as content-oriented people, so we’ve used standard off-the-shelf software such as WordPress (for our main website and blog) and MediaWiki (for our information wiki). Part of the reason is that we wanted to focus on content creation rather than interface design, but part of the reason we’ve stuck to these is that we didn’t think we could design interfaces. Once we’ve acquired more programming and design experience, we might be more open to the idea of designing interfaces and software that can meet particular needs of our target audience.We might design an interface that helps people study more effectively, make better life decisions, or share reviews of courses and colleges, in a manner similar to softwares or websites such as Anki or Beeminder or Goodreads. There might also be potential for a more effective online resource that teaches programming than those in existence (e.g. Codecademy). It’s not clear right now whether there exists a useful opportunity of this sort that we are particularly well-suited to, but with more coding experience, we’ll at least be able to implement an idea of this sort if we decide it has promise.

Reason #4: Letting it brew in the background can give us a better idea of the potential

If we continue to gradually add content to the wiki, and continue to get links and traffic to it from other sources, it’s likely that the traffic will grow slowly and steadily. The extent of organic growth will help us figure out how much promise Cognito Mentoring has. If our wiki gets to the point of steadily receiving thousands of pageviews a day, we will reconsider reviving Cognito Mentoring as a part-time or full-time endeavor. If, on the other hand, traffic remains at approximately the current level (about a hundred pageviews a day, once we exclude spikes arising from links from LessWrong and Marginal Revolution) then the idea is probably not worth revisiting, and we’ll leave it in maintenance mode.

In addition, by maintaining contact with the people we’ve advised, we can get more insight into the sort of impact we’ve had, whether it is significant over the long term, and how it can be improved. This again can tell us whether our impact is sufficiently large as to make Cognito Mentoring worth reviving.

What “maintenance mode” entails

  1. We’ll continue to have contact information available, but will scale back on personalized advising: People are welcome to contact us with questions and suggestions about content, but we will not generally offer detailed personalized responses or do research specific to individuals who contact us. We’ll attempt to point people to relevant content we’ve already written, or to other resources we’re already aware of that can address their concerns.
  2. The information wiki will remain live, and we will continue to make occasional improvements, but we won’t have a time schedule of when particular improvements have to be implemented by.
  3. Existing blog posts will remain, but we probably won’t be making many new blog posts. New blog posts will happen only if one of us has an idea that really seems worth sharing and for which the Cognito Mentoring blog is an ideal forum.
  4. We’ll continue our administrative roles in the communities of existing Cognito Mentoring advisees
  5. We’ll continue periodically reviewing the progress of people we’ve advised so far: This will help us get a better sense of how valuable our work has been, and can be useful should we choose to revive Cognito Mentoring.
  6. We’ll continue to correspond with advisees we have so far (time permitting), though we’ll give more priority to advisees who continue to maintain contact of their own accord and those whose activities seem to have higher impact potential.
  7. We’ll try to get our best content linked from other sources, such as about.com: Sources like about.com are targeted at the general population. We can try to get linked to from there as an additional resource for the more intellectually curious population that’s outside the core focus of about.com.
  8. We’ll link more extensively to other sources that people can use: For instance, we can more emphatically point to 80,000 Hours for people who are interested in career advising in relation to effective altruist pursuits. We can point to about.com and College Confidential for more general information about mainstream institutions. We already make a number of recommendations on our website, but as we stop working actively, it becomes all the more important that people who come to us are appropriately redirected to other sources that can help them.

Conclusion and summary (TL;DR)

We (qua Cognito Mentoring) are grateful to LessWrong for being welcoming of our posts, offering constructive criticism, and providing us with some advisees we’ve enjoyed working with. We think that the work we’ve done has value, but don’t think that there’s enough marginal value from full-time work on Cognito Mentoring. We think we can do more good for ourselves and the world by switching Cognito Mentoring to maintenance mode and freeing our time currently spent on Cognito Mentoring for other pursuits. The material that we have already produced will continue to remain in the public domain and we hope that people will benefit from it. We may revisit our “maintenance mode” decision if new evidence changes our view regarding traction, impact, and long-run financial viability.

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