Kenneth Ballenegger

Angel Investor, Engineer, Startup Founder

How do you want to change the world?

This essay is part two of my application to the Thiel Fellowship. It’s rare for an application essay to spark genuine reflection, but I think this helped me formulate and articulate what my beliefs and ambitions are.

Problem-solving ability is the key to making the world a better place. People need to be presented with more—and better—solutions to the challenges they encounter in daily life. Technology needs to be made easy to use and understand, and must help make people’s lives better without involving a compromise. I intend to make the world a better place by creating software that is well designed and that will have a positive effect on as many people as possible.

British philosopher and ethical theorist John Stuart Mill presented us with an interesting theory in the form of his Greatest Happiness Principle. The Principle is a doctrine by which to judge the ethicality of actions, and it states that the ethical course of action is that which will generate the most happiness for the greatest amount of people. I find that it is relevant when applied to the field of software. In that context, it states that what one should strive for is to build something which will generate great happiness for a great many people. Happiness is a loose term, in that it could refer to a game which will keep users happily entertained while waiting in line at the bank, or it could be an app or a service that can save lives, generating happiness on a much more profound level. The form does not matter, only that it has a net positive gain.

Some examples come to mind. A product that I use and respect a great deal is Mint.com. Its founders saw a deficiency in the way people dealt with their financial lives (mostly ignoring it because of extreme complexity,) and decided to harness the power of technology to come up with a radical new solution. Mint has been of tremendous help to me personally, and to millions of others. Another product I look up to is Tumblr. Taking a simple idea that already existed, Tumblr re-imagined what blogging could be, and presented their carefully redesigned solution to the world. Even though it does nothing to solve a fundamental life problem, it generates happiness and thus is a success in my books. Lastly, Instapaper is a highly underrated product from Tumblr’s ex-Lead Developer, Marco Arment. It was a side-product that Arment built to scratch his own itch, and that after polishing, he released for the public to enjoy. It has deservingly been enjoying growing success, and is a product that I use daily.

My software projects have kept this in mind. My first foray into the world of development, Exces, was an app that sought to make encryption easy to use and understand for anybody. Geared towards the novice user, the application simplified and abstracted the complexities of secure encryption by using a metaphor that people are already familiar with: bank vaults. My next big project, iLaugh, was a lighthearted iPhone app which entertained users with jokes and funnies, while being a joy to use and keeping users engaged through carefully considered design decisions. My next big project is a cloud-based notes-to-self app which lets people quickly jot down thoughts from anywhere, and deal with them later.

The feedback I have received from users show that I am already succeeding at making people’s lives slightly better. There is no better feeling than receiving an email from a happy user thanking me for my work. Though this is nowhere near the scale I envision eventually affecting people’s lives at, I see this as a step in the right direction. I moved from Switzerland to San Francisco in order surround myself with people who will make me better able to achieve that goal. I believe in taking every opportunity I get to learn something new and enrich my knowledge and world view. Because of this, I have gained various interest and hobbies, from graphic design, to languages, to software and business.

What I hope to gain from the fellowship is a network of people who share my way of thinking, and who will be able to mentor me and eventually make me better able to change the world. I’m looking for a way to kickstart my journey in the world of the startup.