Hi, I’m Spencer!

Photo of Spencer

I’m an engineer, history buff, and economic development nerd. I previously founded Rent the Backyard (YCs19).

I have a degree in Statistics & Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University where I stayed up all night writing algorithms that arbitraged textbooks to pay my tuition. Before, I attended Phillips Exeter Academy where I stayed up all night writing 40-page history papers about the development of the Concorde. These disciplines seem pretty different but I view them on a continuum that informs and empowers each other.

While I’m not quite a geographic-determinist, my framework for understanding the world starts with geography, continues through history and economics, before being interpreted and empowered by statistics, computer science, and machine learning.

Geography → History → Economics → Statistics → Computer Science / Machine Learning

Choosing a college was a pivotal moment in my life and I made it an exercise in discomfort. Most people expected me to continue to develop as a historian or economist, but I worried I wouldn’t be able to make the impact I wanted without quantitative tools. I chose CMU and got those tools, but it felt wrong to leave history, economics, and softer contextual understanding behind. Today, I work to find balance between “provable” theory and messy empirical or intuitive “truths” — combining these skills to build and run technology businesses.

I have been building and running technology businesses since I was 14 years old.

Some of my core interests and favorite material from each include

updated December 2022

Economic development policy: essential to get right and perhaps the highest leverage work anyone can do.

How Asia Works (the Korea, Malaysia, and Philippines chapters are incredible)
Asian Godfathers
The political economy of industrial policy in Korea
MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975
Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Legal Systems Very Different from Ours

Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania
Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
The Gulag Archipelago
The Bronze Horseman — an 1833 Pushkin poem about a statue in St. Petersburg set atop the largest stone ever moved by humans and the power of the Russian state.

Automation & machine learning: a new industrial revolution

Becoming a wealthier world will enable humanity to earn our way out of many of our most basic problems.

Economic growth comes from gains in productivity (increased specialization and technology that enables workers to do more) and growth in the size of the workforce. As birthrates decrease and workforce sizes stabilize, technology will be increasingly responsible for growing the economy and increasing our standard of living. Our modern frontier is AI and machine learning systems that help augment human capabilities to produce, consume, and facilitate collaboration.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism I generally disagree that people will stop working but the Star Trek vibes are fun
Snow Crash

Housing policy & urban planning: the source of many of the West’s most serious problems

Reduced birth rates, political instability, reduced growth in real wages, and income inequality all have housing at their core.

If NYC, San Francisco, and San Jose relaxed their zoning rules, US GDP would be 8.9% higher. This means wages for every American would be nearly $9,000 higher per person each year.

The only way to fix this problem is to build more housing.

The Housing Theory of Everything
The Housing Crisis is the the Everything Crisis (video with very similar thesis as above)
BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

Military history: strongly correlated to technological progress

I think most people today misunderstand that most modern conflicts have been decided by technological progress which has subsequently transformed society. This effect is particularly noticeable after 1850.

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783
Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare
Cryptonomicon – fiction that touches on the impact of technology at Bletchley where the allies cracked the German’s Enigma encryption machine.

The airline industry: a really hard business to learn from

The airline business has some of the most technically difficult and costly questions to answer:

It is an incredible story of competition and markets that the industry is so poor at capturing the value it creates.

Fortunately, airlines found a real business with 50%+ margins to support all this airplane loss-leader stuff: selling a fake currency they create to companies who offer co-branded revolving lines of credit to make people more excited to buy new shoes since it might help them get a free trip to Jamaica.

The airline industry terrifies me but I can’t look away. Everything is so complicated, everything is so difficult, but it all works, and pretty well too.

Hard Landing
Cranky Flier.com
View from the Wing.com

Management, strategy, & company building: a craft you can learn

I’ve never really liked the term “entrepreneurship” — it feels too shiny and polished for the gritty work of operating a business. After running a few businesses, I have come to better appreciate the commonality they have shared and that management, strategy, and company building are crafts that I can develop and hone with practice and dedication.

The 7 Powers
High Growth Handbook
The Great CEO Within
Predictable Revenue

Commodity markets: powering the world from supertankers to Teslas

Oil 101
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power
Nuclear Power: A Very Short Introduction
Coal a Human History

Some new interests I am exploring include

updated December 2022

Personally

I’m very active. I cycle, swim, and ski. One of my favorite things to do is to walk and ride public transit around a new city.

I fly ~100,000 miles / year for approximately free using points and miles. My favorite destinations have been places with interesting economic stories: Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary, Ukraine before the war), Turkey, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, and Argentina. Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia are at the top of my list.

Best avgeek brag: I was one of the last passengers on the Concorde.

I’m very Bayesian at heart and see most of work / life as a constant hunt for the best version of the “truth.”

I’m fairly private and rarely use social media.

I grew up in New Hampshire all hiked all 48 of the state’s mountains over 4,000 feet (with my grandfather!)

I was a Boy Scout and earned the rank of Eagle Scout.