I crashed a defense conference
Does the military like memes?
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Sup nerds! Today’s post was delivered at the speed of light to 10,300+ of the best strategists across cyberspace. I’ve got a wild adventure for you today involving cold messages, the military, and a 36-hour trip to Washington, D.C.
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"You can tweet your way onto a yacht," says investor Jeremy Giffon.
Well, this week I tweeted my way into a top-secret location. I crashed a defense-tech conference in Washington, DC.
For context, I knew almost nothing about defense, but I was hungry to learn. Maybe it was the fact my grandpa was a sniper in the army or maybe it was because we’re in 2 big wars right now, but either way, I’m very curious about what’s going on in the defense sector.
So when I saw the conference announced on Twitter a month ago, I knew I wanted to find a way in. On October 10th, I sent a message to the conference host Mike Slagh. Mike sent me a code and boom, I, the dropout dumbass internet hustler, got a ticket to an exclusive defense-tech conference. The lesson: send more cold DMs.
Let’s fast-forward to the night before the conference.
On the train ride down to DC, I listen to Anduril founder Palmer Luckey talk with Mika Solana from Pirate Wires about new weapons he's building (re-usable missiles, uh wtf) and what he'd be doing if defense wasn't so important to the country (he'd be building super-fast racecars #respect).
I get to the hotel with my fiancée and I'm a bit nervous for the conference. I'm a memelord and go viral for stupid stuff like reading a book about how to cope with having a very small penis, and there will be very serious people there from venture capital and the military. My fiancée calms me down. "You can start a conversation with anyone," she tells me. That makes me feel better. She's right. I'm quite good at starting conversations with strangers.
I’m lost. I can’t find the entrance. It's not even 9 AM and I'm walking in circles in some government building’s parking lot. Ok pretend you’re on a military mission Jason, you got this. Nope, I’m definitely going to get shot. I ask the very armed security guard where to go and he smiles and points the general direction of the conference. I walk over to where a long line of well-dressed people are. Maybe I’ll be ok.
I stand in line and overhear a woman in her 20s behind me on the phone talking about raising rounds for her portfolio companies. Ah, I’m in the right place where 20-year-old knucleheads are playing with millions. She gets off the phone. I strike up a conversation, I ask "What fund are you at?" She tells me, I’ve never heard of it. She asks me what I do. Do I tell her I’m a memelord? Or maybe a writer? No then she’ll think I’m a liberal journo. I tell her I’m a creator and I want to try to make fun defense content. “Isn’t defense already fun?” she asks. “Yes, but I think there needs to be more memes and satire, somebody needs to make defense content that is funny and approachable.” Alright, I’ve done it, there’s no going back, I’ve revealed my jokester self. And surprisingly, despite her pantsuit and $400 Prada glasses and contact list full of millionaires, she laughs and agrees. We walk in, I get my nametag.
Ok, I made it. I’m inside. For the last month, I had been worried that my goofy online presence would get me kicked out of a conference that a lot of people from 3-letter government agencies are at. I made it!
"How many spies do you think are here?" Brandon says to me.
Well, that's not the first thing he said to me. That'd be a funny first thing to say to someone—especially if you're not at a defense-tech conference, like I might just say that at a CVS to someone although I guess that's how you get sent to the mental hospital. So maybe not.
The first thing he actually says to me is "You like to go to conferences and sit in the back?" Hey buddy don’t judge me. It was true. I was sitting in a quieter area with tables with people doing work and Brandon sat next to me. So he was in the back too technically. "Yes, I'm a writer, I like quiet spots,” I tell him. “Oh you’re a writer, that’s cool.” We start chatting.
He's 24 and flew in that morning from Ohio. He’s looking at starting a company in the bio-tech x defense space. Brandon asks me about the whole writing thing and I tell him about my newsletter and how I ghostwrite for founders and VCs. “Wait, there’s ghostwriters that do that, I’ve always wondered how busy founders have the time to write posts all day.” I feel like I’ve just given him the red pill. He knows the truth.
Brandon follows me on Twitter and I see his bio which is “Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius.” He tells me it means "Sin bravely, but believe more bravely" which is basically the most badass thing I’ve ever heard. We start talking about moral relativism and Nietzsche and how there is a good and evil in the world, and he was sick of working for boring software companies not doing much and he wanted to build in the defense industry so he could help the forces of good.
We are ushered into the conference auditorium at which point an entrance video turns on. Words and images flash across the screen along with EDM music. We see weapons from Anduril, supersonic planes from Hermeus, the logo for Founders Fund, and then the words "American Dynamism". The music silences and the creator of the term “American Dynamism” walks out.
Katherine Boyle is a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. She’s staked her reputation on betting on America—literally—she’s investing in companies that are building hard things in America. Katherine walks out to give her keynote. I wasn’t recording, so this is paraphrased. Any mistakes are mine, any good parts are Katherine’s.
Is that patriotism I start to feel? Something lost in this country for the last decade—or at least not allowed to share unless you want to be labeled a right-wing nutjob. Katherine explains that you can only win a war against America when “you crush weirdos doing weird things on the frontier." As a weirdo doing weird things on the frontier, I love that. It reminds me of a Kurt Vonnegut quote. “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center. Big, undreamed-of things--the people on the edge see them first.”
Katherine continues. "There is a meme in America now that we mock men who build hard things instead of going to therapy." Laughter erupts. She asks how we can let the kids at GWU flash messages on the walls saying they love their martyrs but we're no longer allowed to say the same about our veterans. Cheers fill the room. "We need to go back to being a nation of hustlers who like to work and win." Boom. Game, set, match. Katherine ends her talk by saying that when she meets with founders, she doesn’t just ask about product-market fit and how they’ll grow their business; instead, she asks what they believe in, why will people follow you into battle, what is your creed? Epic.
Next up comes John Coogan, the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Peter Thiel’s VC firm Founders Fund. For the last 3 years, he's been making mini-documentaries on YouTube about tech and history (dope videos like a deep dive into Anduril and the history of Xi Jinping). John’s presentation was about the history of the defense-tech industry.
The TLDR is: the need for defense-tech is what created Silicon Valley. The government needed extra help, so they started investing in civilian scientists. This would begin a long partnership between government money and civilian nerds to build new tech. The US government would go on to fund Apple, HP, GE, Lockheed Martin, and more. The CIA even has a venture capital fund called In-Q-Tel. I saw a guy with a nametag with In-Q-Tel on it, but I’m not trying to be on any government watchlists. I run away. At this point, I find out that Shyam Sankar, the CTO of Palantir is speaking soon. So I send out a quick tweet 😂
I'm about to see the CTO of Palantir speak.
I'm going to do it.
I'm going to ask the forbidden question.
"What the fuck does Palantir actually do?"
— Jason Levin (@iamjasonlevin)
Nov 15, 2023
Instead, I ask him a different question. I would love to work with a defense company and feel like I’m helping the world even just a bit so I ask him, “How can creatives get involved in the engineer-heavy defense-tech industry?” He assures me that there’s definitely a place for creatives and I’d be welcomed with open arms. Specifically, he says that creatives do very well on the product management and user experience side of things. First product idea: robot sharks with lasers. Boom. Where do I accept the job?
Last up, we hear from Blake Hall, an ex-military founder of ID.me (you might recognize the company name from the IRS website). Blake is a certified badass. He explains how the army was prep for being a CEO. “I would die before I quit,” he says he learned during combat training. Blake recounts stories of a near-death firefight in Iraq and then drops a Schwarzenegger impression worthy of SNL. And that’s it, the conference is done.
My biggest takeaway from the conference wasn’t fancy military history or even finding a new defense-tech client. It was the fact that these very serious, intimidating people still like to have fun and laugh. I expected defense-tech folks to be all serious buzz-cut and hush-hush and scream “AT EASE SOLDIER” anytime you smile. But I was wrong. They’re just brave normal people doing abnormal things to save the world.
Goal: be the #1 destination for creative cyberpunks
📕 Want to read about the history of technology? Check out Stripe Press. They’ve published 14 books and have a new one coming out soon. Tbh it’s so cool that Stripe (a software company) launched a publishing arm just because the founders are such huge book nerds. Goals.
👀 I actually went to a Stripe Press pop-up at a coffee shop this week. While I was there, I met one of the designers of the Humane AI Pin and wrote about our conversation. I fired it off on the subway and it has 150,000 views. Wild.
🚀 I found some sick cyberpunk software this week. It’s called Repurpose and it repurposes you content to other platforms for you. I post my videos on Instagram and then Repurpose automatically sends it to TikTok and YouTube. You can do the same with Twitter and LinkedIn. Software = Leverage.
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MEMES OF THE WEEK
Not gonna lie, there were some banger memes this week.
"yep that's me -- you're probably wondering how i ended up in this situation"
— stetson 🤠 (@stetsblake)
Nov 17, 2023
After Bin Laden was killed, a teacher told us they buried his remains at sea and another kid just nodded and said "Like Megatron"
— Ben Crew (@BenjaminCrew1)
Nov 16, 2023
Thanks for reading nerds.
Create some cool shit this week.
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