Libby is stuck between libraries and publishers in the e-book war – Protocol

Readers love the Libby app, but its newfound popularity is costing librarians more than they can afford.
Librarians depend on Libby, but they also worry that its newfound popularity could seriously strain their budgets.
On the surface, there couldn’t be a more wholesome story than the meteoric rise of the Libby app. A user-friendly reading app becomes popular during the pandemic, making books cool again for young readers, multiplying e-book circulation and saving public libraries from sudden obsolescence.
But the Libby story is also a parable for how the best-intentioned people can build a beloved technological tool and accidentally create a financial crisis for those who need the tech most. Public librarians depend on Libby, but they also worry that its newfound popularity could seriously strain their budgets.
Before 2017, e-books were still pretty niche, and checking out library e-books was torture. In 2016, just over a quarter of Americans had read an e-book within the previous year, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Not many people even knew their libraries offered digital books. Overdrive — the digital marketplace for publishers and libraries, and the creator of Libby — was (and still is) clunky, slow and unintuitive. Overdrive hit just under 200 million checkouts in 2016; in 2020, that number more than doubled, surpassing 430 million.

Few noticed when the cute, friendly virtual library app launched in 2017. Libraries are never very good at selling themselves, and neither is Overdrive. But the app’s seamless, user-friendly experience was so exceptional that it spoke for itself. Libby became a cult favorite for book lovers and dedicated librarygoers, and almost every public library in the country, already dependent on Overdrive for their growing digital collections, loved that they could make reading online a little bit easier. It was the public library’s best-kept secret.
And then in March 2020, when libraries closed their doors and books sat gathering dust, the Libby app became so much more than a cute reading tool. People turned to digital books and were delighted to discover they were so much simpler than remembered. You could access the web app anywhere on any computer, and everything synced to a phone app as well. You could download library books to Kindle. You never needed a password. You could use more than one library card. Libby downloads increased three times their usual amount beginning in late March. E-book checkout growth and new users on Overdrive both increased more than 50%.
Libby had helped to save libraries.
It had also accelerated a funding crisis. Public library budgets have never been luxe, and book acquisition budgets in particular have always been tight. Though it may seem counterintuitive to readers, e-books cost far more than physical books for libraries, meaning that increased demand for digital editions put libraries in a financial bind.
Because e-books are not regulated under the same laws that govern physical books, publishers can price them however they choose. Rather than emulate the physical model, where libraries pay a fixed cost for a certain number of books, they instead offer digital editions through a license that usually includes a limit on the number of times a book can be checked out, the length of time a library holds an edition, or both. Just like with movies, music and software, book publishers have moved from an ownership model to a subscription model for their digital products (none of the major publishing houses responded to multiple requests for comment for this story). Librarians sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to circulate one copy of an e-book for a two-year period, a number that could theoretically add up to thousands for one book over decades, according to a 2019 American Library Association report to Congress.

The librarians I spoke with celebrate Libby. They love that more people are reading digital books. But they can’t help but quietly curse the technological problem that brought them here.
“It is definitely problematic,” said Michelle Jeske, the city librarian for the Denver Public Library and president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. “You’re buying it in print, you’re buying it in e-book, and in audio e-book, CD, and in Spanish. With either a steady or decreasing collection development budget, it’s a serious problem.”
Despite Overdrive’s dominance, the company has escaped criticism for the funding crisis. Overdrive makes good money on the digital book-lending business; it’s the largest marketplace for publishers to sell to public libraries in the U.S., is expanding rapidly in other major publishing powerhouse countries like Germany and China, and offers a popular school reading app called Sora. More than 23,000 new schools and libraries joined Overdrive in 2020 alone.
“It’s important for us to have the same values and standards that the libraries do, protecting privacy and confidentiality, making information accessible in as broad a ways as possible,” said David Burleigh, the communications director for Overdrive. Overdrive also became a Certified B Corporation the same year it launched the Libby app, and it now leverages that status to avoid getting mucked up in the financial fight.
The ALA lobbying arm has been pushing Congress to consider regulating digital media to address this problem, and it’s no secret to anyone who reads Publishers Weekly that tensions between librarians and publishers have spilled over into public animosity. “Publishing is a tough tough world, and it sometimes has felt like librarians and publishers have been pitted against each other. They need to make money, and we need to be able to serve our public. There has got to be some place in the middle,” Jeske said.

Publishers justify the increased cost of e-books because they say the new technology has reduced friction too much, hurting their sales. They have argued that Libby and libraries have made it too easy for people to read books without buying them. Macmillan, one of the big five publishers, placed an eight-week embargo on library sales of new e-book releases in late 2019 for just that reason, though it reversed its position in March 2020 because of the pandemic. “In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market. As the development of apps and extensions continues, and as libraries extend their reach statewide as well as nationally, it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy,” wrote John Sargent, Macmillan’s then-CEO, in an open letter to librarians justifying the embargo.
And though librarians like Jeske and Eileen Ybarra, the e-book coordinator for the largest digital collection in the country at the LA Public Library, vehemently disagree — they believe it’s still too hard for people to access digital books — they say that in one respect, the publishers are absolutely correct: Overdrive wants to make the e-reading experience as frictionless as possible.
“That’s the idea. It’s to make it as easy as possible for people to read as much as they like,” Burleigh said. “Ease,” “accessibility” and “efficiency” are his keywords: He repeats them over and over again in every conversation about his company’s app.
Overdrive doesn’t believe that frictionless library lending hurts publishers. In fact, Burleigh said, it actually can help.
While Burleigh wouldn’t directly answer questions about Overdrive’s role in reducing the friction — it would be awkward for business if he did, given that Overdrive mostly makes money through a cut of what publishers sell on its platform — he pointed to research that shows that increased library lending actually helps book sales. (Overdrive funds Panorama, the independent group that conducted the research.)

“Libraries are part of the ecosystem. They’re not competing necessarily with booksellers,” Burleigh said, adding that the research shows that when people read more, it creates a channel of discovery for lesser-known books.
Burleigh said that Overdrive advocates for a wide range of funding models and the best deals for libraries, but he also hesitated to describe an “ideal” solution for e-book pricing that would satisfy everyone. “It’s a good question. I don’t know that I have the answer. Publishers have different strategies. Libraries have different strategies.”
While Jeske wouldn’t say exactly how much she believes e-books should cost, she thinks the problem could be helped if Congress considered legislation to take the rules that apply to physical books and expand them to digital ones.
“It would be nice if the prices were analogous a lot closer to physical copies. It would be nice if they didn’t expire. That creates a situation where we are potentially spending a lot of money on one title.That just does not happen with physical books,” Ybarra said.
No one wants to blame the technology itself. While they might be worried about their budgets, at the end of the day librarians just want people to read more, and Libby is helping them do that. “We only see it as a positive,” Jeske said. “It has introduced the library to folks who weren’t using it before.”
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: [email protected]), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.
Adobe’s pending deal to buy Figma would remove a key competitor, making the battle to own the modern design software industry a two-horse race between Adobe and Canva.
Canva, co-founded by CEO Melanie Perkins, will go head-to-head with Adobe.
Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at [email protected] To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or [email protected]
Figma established itself as the anti-Adobe. The company even has a webpage dedicated to the superiority of Figma’s products. Then, CEO Dylan Field sold out to the sweet tune of $20 billion.
He really had no choice. Adobe was visibly struggling after it misread the market and had to make a desperate bid for growth. And when a company backs up a dump truck of cash that size to your doorstep — with reportedly no rival suitors around, no less — you say yes.
Now, with Figma set to become an “autonomous unit” within Adobe — one that doesn’t even report directly to the CEO — and Adobe signaling it will seek to move its products onto Figma’s cloud platform, all eyes are on Canva as the biggest roadblock to a total Adobe takeover.
“Whether or not Canva existed … this is something that, for the future, Adobe would have had to do,” Griffin Securities managing director Jay Vleeschhouwer told Protocol. “The question is: What is it about the Figma platform that makes so much sense for them to do it this way?”

The Australia-based private design startup is gaining notable traction with businesses. In a sign of its growing prevalence, the company was last valued at $40 billion, according to PitchBook, compared to Figma’s estimated worth of $10 billion at the time of the deal. Canva’s private valuation, however, has likely dropped amid a wider market downturn.
In contrast to Figma, Canva’s product suite seems much more targeted at Adobe’s biggest money-makers, namely Photoshop. You just don’t need weeks to learn Canva’s program. And, unlike Figma, Canva doesn’t seem to have any hesitation about going head-to-head with Adobe. For example, the company allows users to edit PDFs directly, one of Adobe’s signature creations.
What’s frustrating about the Figma acquisition is Field had Adobe on the ropes. For the first time in decades, it appeared that users were finally going to benefit from greater competition in a sector long stuck in a one-vendor chokehold. That was of growing importance given the industry is poised for growth as more businesses look to give employees of all stripes access to design tools.
Now it’s on Canva to try to battle Adobe. But Canva’s market potential is limited by the fact that most professional designers aren’t going to switch to Canva. Still, the demand for easy-to-use design software appears to be growing. And it’s another area where Adobe is rushing to catch up.
The biggest risk for Canva is trying to do too much too fast, especially after the Figma deal.
The company recently launched a new word-processing product, along with enhanced collaboration tools. While that’s an industry segment that would also benefit from additional competition, it means Canva is taking on three of the sector’s biggest names: Microsoft, Adobe and Google.
Notably, Canva is missing email, an important pillar of most office software packages that Microsoft, and increasingly Google, sell. That means Canva is banking on large businesses being willing to buy such services separately, which would seem to be a major departure from the current purchasing model for most corporations. And Canva isn’t the only one that senses an opportunity to try to chip away at Microsoft’s dominance and Google’s growing presence in core employee software: Zoom is reportedly set to launch its own email and calendar tools.

Still, Canva’s strength lies in its grassroots adoption. If the company can replicate the success it’s had with individual users with the central IT department, Canva could prove irksome for Microsoft and Google. However, momentum would need to be big for a business to completely switch off Outlook. But design software isn’t as entrenched within companies. And from a user perspective, Adobe needs competition after years of angering customers by capitalizing on its stronghold over the industry.
Adobe made its money making design a specialized field. If you wanted to be a designer, you learned Adobe’s products. And with a vast enterprise business, those who landed a job post-college were likely to continue using Adobe every day of their professional lives. Like an Oracle database, most have to be trained on Photoshop or InDesign to get the full functionality. And like Oracle, Adobe gravely misunderstood the trajectory of the industry and the growing appetite for tools that are much easier to adopt and use.
A vast array of users — marketers, social media influencers, Wall Street analysts and small businesses owners, for example — want to do the design work themselves without having to master a complicated program chock-full of features they have no use for. For many, Adobe has the reputation of simply being too geared toward professional users, and too expensive as a result.
It’s why the company recently launched Adobe Express, its competitor to Canva. And while Figma is expected to top $400 million in annual recurring revenue by the end of this year, rival product Adobe XD has struggled because “it didn’t have great product market fit,” according to Adobe Chief Financial Officer Dan Durn.
Adobe isn’t the only tech boomer rushing to meet the new demands of hybrid work. Autodesk — which, like Adobe in design, has a stronghold over the market for engineering and architecture software — is also spending big to infuse new collaboration features into its signature products.

“We are targeting what needed to happen as it related to screen design with the desktop product. I think the much newer market that emerged, which Figma effectively both addressed and pioneered, was the ability to do this in a collaborative way,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told investors.
But Adobe is clearly facing a much more dire threat: A company doesn’t offer 50-times revenue in an economic downturn unless the situation is bleak. It’s proof that users want more options than Adobe, a company that has a checkered history with customers who complain about price increases and the lack of product innovation. But it’s also proof that demand could be slowing, which means competition will only intensify.
“Adobe does not take its market leadership for granted. It’s the culture that goes back to the founding,” said Vleeschhouwer.
With Figma gone, it’s now a two-horse race. That’s still bad news for Adobe, which is not used to any sort of competition. But it’s a consolation prize for those users decrying the pending Adobe takeover of Figma.
Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at [email protected] To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or [email protected]
Nancy Sansom is the Chief Marketing Officer for Versapay, the leader in Collaborative AR. In this role, she leads marketing, demand generation, product marketing, partner marketing, events, brand, content marketing and communications. She has more than 20 years of experience running successful product and marketing organizations in high-growth software companies focused on HCM and financial technology. Prior to joining Versapay, Nancy served on the senior leadership teams at PlanSource, Benefitfocus and PeopleMatter.
While there remains debate among economists about whether we are officially in a full-blown recession, the signs are certainly there. Like most executives right now, the outlook concerns me.
In any case, businesses aren’t waiting for the official pronouncement. They’re already bracing for impact as U.S. inflation and interest rates soar. Inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022 — the highest increase since November 1981 — and the Federal Reserve is targeting an interest rate of 3% by the end of this year.
Facing a volatile market and a largely grim outlook deep into 2023, executives are naturally focused on doing more with less and protecting their cash flow. As leaders look for opportunities to increase efficiency across the business, they tend to prioritize the invoice-to-cash process last.
In partnership with Wakefield Research, Versapay surveyed 1,000 C-level executives at companies with a minimum annual revenue of $100 million on their accounts receivable digital transformation efforts. Our research revealed that companies whose AR operations are most impacted by current indicators of the recession also have yet to make significant headway with digital transformation — and their customer experience is paying the price.

With customer retention doubly important during a downturn, B2B companies can’t afford to neglect their buyers’ experience in the billing and payment process.
Accounts receivable has the most immediate impact on cash availability. So, it’s not surprising that CFOs are feeling the brunt of the current economic climate’s effects: inflation, rising interest rates and labor shortages topped CFOs’ list of the biggest headaches facing their AR.
| Libby is stuck between libraries and publishers in the e-book war - Protocol
When inflation soars, cash in hand today is worth more than it will be tomorrow. Rising material and production costs put pressure on profit margins, and growing interest rates increase the cost of borrowing. Any delay in receiving payments has a powerful effect on operating capital.

Companies that have not yet completed their AR digital transformation (our research finds this is most businesses) leave money on the table by not doing so.
Companies that are early in their AR digitization efforts are more likely to be impacted by the effects of the recession, and our research confirms this.
Among executives who identified supply chain disruptions as a source of strain for their AR team, 53% said they have a great deal of work left to do in digitizing their AR. This was substantially higher than the average response across all executives (at any stage in their AR transformation journey) of 32%.
Similarly high, at 49%, was the proportion of executives who identified rising interest rates as a source of strain for their AR team stating they’re still early on in their AR digitization efforts.
Companies with higher rates of automation in their invoice-to-cash process are better equipped to face economic headwinds simply because they can bring cash in faster.
But, slow internal processes only account for one part of why businesses get paid late. The other — larger, I’d argue — reason why B2B companies get paid late is due to customer disputes and dissatisfaction. This is a challenge that automation alone can’t solve because it requires suppliers to foster more collaboration and transparency with their buyers.

For this reason, companies trying to optimize cash flow during the current downturn should make customer experience in the invoice-to-cash process their focus.
Invoice disputes are typically caused by issues such as missing or damaged goods and conflicting expectations around credits and discounts. What we found, however, is that the culprit is often not the goods or services themselves, but human error and miscommunication during the payment process.
| Libby is stuck between libraries and publishers in the e-book war - Protocol
A customer’s negative experience during the payment stage can have more consequences for a business’s bottom line than one might think. Most executives we surveyed said miscommunication in the payment process has led to their company losing future revenue or getting paid less than they’re owed (82% and 85%, respectively).

But poor customer experience is too often part and parcel of B2B billing and payments. And executives are aware of the problem: 72% of C-level executives willingly admit their AR department is not customer-oriented enough (CFOs understand this even more, with 81% agreeing).
In the absence of tools designed especially for accounts receivable (on the supplier’s end) and accounts payable (on the buyer’s end) to collaborate, finance departments must rely on traditional methods of communication like email and phone. This makes it difficult for customers to get clarity on important information like payment terms and deadlines, creating a disconnect between suppliers and their customers.
This confusion ultimately delays payments, directly impacting the bottom line. Typical AR automation tools don’t solve this problem, instead they focus only on improving back-office tasks like invoice creation and cash application. Even where artificial intelligence excels, like matching incoming payments with their corresponding invoices, exceptions will still emerge and those require human collaboration to resolve. These are important and powerful digital tools for AR, but unless they consider CX, they only go halfway.
A Collaborative AR Network addresses the root causes of delayed payments by making it easier for AR departments to collaborate with their customers over the cloud.
Versapay is the first AR automation solution designed to address the human side of AR by empowering buyers and suppliers to work together to solve challenges in real time. Our Collaborative AR Network is what you get when you combine industry-leading AR automation, a next-generation B2B payments network and all the collaboration tools we’ve come to expect from modern cloud-based apps.

As a result, AR departments are able to bridge the divide between them and their customers and enjoy:
In this bear market, improving customers’ experience of the actual transaction process is a measure that businesses can’t ignore if they hope to preserve cash flow.
Nancy Sansom is the Chief Marketing Officer for Versapay, the leader in Collaborative AR. In this role, she leads marketing, demand generation, product marketing, partner marketing, events, brand, content marketing and communications. She has more than 20 years of experience running successful product and marketing organizations in high-growth software companies focused on HCM and financial technology. Prior to joining Versapay, Nancy served on the senior leadership teams at PlanSource, Benefitfocus and PeopleMatter.
Spoiler alert: None is good.
All of the options facing platforms in Texas right now are bad ones.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol’s chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol’s fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
The tech industry’s worst nightmare came true Friday when the 5th Circuit upheld a law in Texas that prohibits platforms from moderating content on the basis of “viewpoint.” The on-again, off-again law had been blocked from taking effect twice before — first by a district court and more recently by the Supreme Court.
But the 5th Circuit’s decision had been a long time coming, and it wasn’t hard to predict which way it would go. During oral arguments in the case, one judge seemed skeptical of tech platforms’ power to patrol speech and questioned whether Twitter was even a website at all. “Today we reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say,” the court’s decision reads.
Now, the plaintiffs in the case — industry groups NetChoice and CCIA — are hoping the Supreme Court will fix what they argue the 5th Circuit got wrong. And there’s good reason to believe the Supreme Court will be game: The 11th Circuit has already struck down a similar social media law in Florida. It’s the Supreme Court’s job to break the tie.

But it could be a while before that happens, leaving tech platforms operating in Texas with a slew of impossible decisions to make and questions to answer in the meantime. Here are just a few:
The Texas law — HB 20 — forbids social media companies that operate in Texas and have more than 50 million active users from censoring speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint. So, can those companies get around compliance if they just stop operating in Texas altogether?
Not so fast. HB 20 makes clear that platforms can’t censor users based on the fact that they live in Texas, meaning cutting Texas off from, say, Facebook or Twitter would violate the law as written. And in its decision, the 5th Circuit defended that provision of the law right along with the provisions related to viewpoint censorship. The court wrote that Section 230, which gives platforms wide latitude to moderate content and thus runs counter to the Texas law, “says nothing about viewpoint-based or geography-based censorship.”
All of which is to say: Platforms can’t just up and leave Texas without a fight. But as legal scholars have pointed out, it’s entirely unclear that a state can actually compel a company to do business in that state. “If Texas can do this, can Connecticut make In-N-Out finally open a local franchise?” Stanford professor Daphne Keller asked back in May, when the 5th Circuit first let the law go into effect. “Can states with harsh anti-gay laws penalize companies that close their local offices or cancel events?”
The most obvious argument against the Texas law is that it could compel platforms to host hateful, vile posts — and the people who post them — because taking them down might look like viewpoint discrimination. The 5th Circuit dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that they’d be forced to give space to Nazis and terrorists under the law by accusing the platforms of having an ”obsession with terrorists and Nazis.”

But if platforms like Facebook and Twitter do allow all that speech to stand in Texas in order to comply with the law, will they risk being out of compliance with app stores’ terms? After all, Parler got booted from both Apple’s and Google’s app stores over its failure to adequately police content after the Jan. 6 riot. More recently, Google’s Play Store kicked off former President Trump’s app, Truth Social, over similar concerns about content moderation. Would the same thing happen to more mainstream platforms, or would app stores have to adapt too?
For all of the restrictions the law puts on platforms’ ability to moderate speech, it does give platforms’ users the ability to restrict speech as they see fit. That, Keller also points out, could present an opportunity for compromise, where platforms give Texas users an unfiltered view but offer them easy ways to opt out of The Bad Place if they want to.
That, of course, would require quite a bit of technical investment to accommodate a law that’s still on uncertain legal ground.
Tech platforms are having a hard enough time keeping advertisers happy, now that new privacy settings are preventing them from tracking users. How will brands feel knowing their shampoo ads are running right alongside violence and hate speech?
We’ve seen brands stand up to this kind of thing in the past. In 2020, civil rights groups led a mass advertiser protest of Facebook under the banner #StopHateForProfit. Other major advertisers ditched Google in 2017, after their ads started appearing on extremist videos. If anything goes on social media in Texas, will advertisers still want to spend their money there?
All of the options facing platforms in Texas right now are bad ones. Maybe the safest option is to simply stay the course, continue moderating content as if the Texas law doesn’t exist, risk the potential lawsuits in Texas and hope that the Supreme Court acts fast enough to fend them off.
That seems to be the posture the plaintiffs in the case are taking. “We are disappointed that the 5th Circuit’s split decision undermines First Amendment protections and creates a circuit split with the unanimous decision of the 11th Circuit,” Carl Szabo, NetChoice vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. “We remain convinced that when the U.S. Supreme Court hears one of our cases, it will uphold the First Amendment rights of websites, platforms and apps.”

That “when,” of course, is more like an “if.” But if history is any indication, this is precisely the fight at least some justices on the Supreme Court have been waiting for.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol’s chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol’s fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
Can you live a lavish lifestyle and still retire young? FatFIRE folks think so.
FIRE stands for “financial independence/retire early.”
Megan Morrone (@ meganmorrone) is a senior editor at Protocol Workplace. Previously, she was a senior editor at OneZero, Medium’s premier technology publication covering technology’s effects on people and the planet. Prior to that, Megan hosted and produced several popular video podcasts at This Week in Tech and was an on-air contributor for The Screen Savers, a daily live television show about computers. She is currently the mother of three teenagers and the president of her dog’s fan club.
Just when you thought the viral onslaught of “quiet quitting” might be dying down, the internet has birthed an annoying alliterative trend that is neither new nor representative of the feelings and actions of a majority of workers. But like “quiet quitting,” the fatFIRE movement is sure to cause controversy and disagreements among the “extremely online.”
FIRE is a financial acronym created in the 1990s that stands for “financial independence/retire early.” Traditionally, this means making frugal decisions early in your career so that you can save and not spend the rest of your good years working.
According to the fatFIRE Reddit (the definitive source, I guess), fatFIRE means FIRE, but fat, as in you make a lot of money, you spend a lot of money and then you retire with a big fat stash of cash. “If you want to pursue early retirement, but don’t want to live on a tight budget, the Fat FIRE approach may be what makes the most sense for you,” writes Nick Wolny of NextAdvisor. Because cost of living varies so much, there’s no agreed-upon number that officially constitutes a big fat stash of cash. But many experts agree that fatFIRE folks live on around $100,000 a year in retirement.

A user on the financial independence Reddit claimed to have “FIREd” last July after only a 15-year career in tech. He lives in New York City, is married, has one kid and says he has “$2.3M in investments, zero debt and a paid-off place.” Here’s a calculator that will help you figure out your fatFIRE number. Protocol does not recommend you quit your job if you reach this calculated FIRE number, especially since the calculator is from a guy named Andrew who describes himself as “a 27 year old living in the SF Bay Area that is passionate about fitness, design, and personal freedom.”
FIRE and fatFIRE have entered the workplace conversation lately because we’re tired of talking about “quiet quitting” and we want to swing wildly in the opposite direction. That’s what we do. But the connection between fatFIRE and quiet quitting is hollow at best. “Comparing quiet quitting to fatFIRE is like comparing buying a house in California to buying a house in Narnia,” Ed Zitron, CEO of EZPR and writer of the tech, culture and labor newsletter Where’s Your Ed At, told me.
In case you’ve been without internet access for the last few months, quiet quitting is deciding to work fewer hours or care less about your job in order to combat burnout. FatFIRE is the opposite — sort of. The idea is that you work as hard as you can at a job (whether you like it or not) as long as you’re making a ton of money.
But as Zitron insists, comparing the two doesn’t make a lot of sense. “FatFIRE suggests that the amount of effort you put into your job or your work is directly correlated to the amount of money that comes out. People are suggesting that you simply aspire to your ‘FIRE’ number — which can be $150,000 to $2.5 million to whatever you dream — and somehow in the numerous articles I’m reading I do not see a single person saying, ‘Hey, it’s pretty hard to make that much money!’” he said.

Our perspective toward work has radically changed since 2020, and it has much more to do with whether we are back commuting to an office or remote forever. A few years at home made many workers reevaluate their relationship to work and their personal lives. And many Gen Z professionals who graduated from college and started working after 2020 have little or no experience of what work was like in the before times.
Cara Brennan Allamano, chief people officer at HR platform Lattice, has over 20 years of human resources and leadership experience. She told Protocol that from her perspective, “FatFIRE is really just the latest eye-catching name for one of the new employee pathways we’re seeing emerge as the impacts of the pandemic and new generations entering the workforce have created ways of looking at what a career can and should look like.”
“It’s hard for our data to determine if this is truly a trend or not,” said Rob Austin, vice president and head of research for HR consulting company Alight Solutions. According to Alight’s 2022 Universe Benchmarks report, a lot of folks are, indeed, stockpiling big fat piles of cash. But whether they’re going to use this cash to retire at age 40 and Scrooge McDuck it for the rest of their lives is harder to determine.
The percentage of people with more than $1 million in their 401(k) has more than tripled over the past five years. But it’s still only 3% of all people Alight surveyed. The percentage of people who save to the IRS maximum amount ($20,500 in 2022 for people under 50) has increased from 6.5% of all savers to 11% of all savers between 2016 and 2021. “Much of the growth of these ‘super-savers’ has been among people who are younger than 40 years old,” Austin told me.

Given that the major concern of many CHROs these days is managing and preventing worker burnout, an idea based on working as hard as you can solely for a big paycheck is a bit of an anachronism for many of them.
“While it may encourage hard work and strong engagement with the job, it also sets very high and possibly unattainable goals that could result in burnout and [mental] health issues,” said Jo Deal, CHRO of GoTo (the SaaS company that owns LastPass, GoTo Connect and Rescue). “Amassing a large amount of money when you are unable to enjoy it doesn’t seem like a sensible approach,” she added.
“Though it may be appealing at age 25 to retire in 10 years, it is hard to plan properly or precisely for a long life, with future family responsibilities or health requirements, while also anticipating macro and market factors too,” Deal said.
Traci Chernoff, director of employee engagement at workplace management platform Legion and host of the “Bringing the Human Back to Human Resources” podcast, agrees. “We all get one life to live; I couldn’t imagine taking that privilege and wasting it on something that doesn’t bring me joy outside of a high salary.”
But if an employee wants to work like this, it’s not the HR department’s business to say that they shouldn’t or can’t, insists Lattice’s Brennan Allamano. “An employee focused on making the most money in the shortest period of time is actually something that could work well for both parties — as long as everyone involved is clear-eyed on what that will look like.” Overtime or lots of travel for work “could be the perfect opportunities for fatFIRE individuals to own as an opportunity to push harder and stash more cash,” she said.
Brennan Allamano’s colleague Maurice Bell, head of people operations at Lattice, agrees. “It’s important to realize that stashing cash as quickly as possible doesn’t need to automatically equate to hating your work experience,” Bell told Protocol.
According to the 2022 Alight International Workforce and Wellbeing Mindset Report, workers between the ages 24 and 49 who make more than $105K were more likely to say they have high stress than people who make less than $105K (24% versus 20%).

“This stress doesn’t appear to be stemming from financial matters,” Austin said. “70% of higher-paid workers say they are in control of their financial situation versus only 33% of lower-income workers.” Higher-paid workers are also much more likely to describe their work experience as “awesome” or “great” than lower-paid workers (50% versus 30%).
And even if an outsized paycheck is all someone needs to be happy, that doesn’t make it great for a company’s bottom line. “While someone might find their paycheck rewarding enough to put up with a job they hate, the reality is that they likely won’t be producing great results,” Chernoff said.
Megan Morrone (@ meganmorrone) is a senior editor at Protocol Workplace. Previously, she was a senior editor at OneZero, Medium’s premier technology publication covering technology’s effects on people and the planet. Prior to that, Megan hosted and produced several popular video podcasts at This Week in Tech and was an on-air contributor for The Screen Savers, a daily live television show about computers. She is currently the mother of three teenagers and the president of her dog’s fan club.
The company is providing its 170,000 corporate clients information on their total rides and emissions in a bid to get them to track and lower them over time.
Uber is allowing companies to track emissions when employees take business-related rides.
Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email ([email protected]).
The first step to companies reducing their carbon emissions is measuring them. On Monday, Uber rolled out a new tool to do just that, allowing companies to track emissions when employees take business-related rides.
Roughly 170,000 companies rely on Uber to transport employees. They now have access to a number of sustainability insights on the Uber for Business dashboard that the company shared exclusively with Protocol. That dashboard can help corporate clients “track, report and act on their ground transportation impacts globally,” Susan Anderson, global head of the company’s business division, told Protocol.
The new features include information on how many low-emissions rides a client’s employees have taken, as well as the company’s total emissions across all rides and the average grams of carbon dioxide emitted per mile. As corporate travel returns, clients could use this data to get a clearer picture of the climate toll of employees’ hailing rides on work trips or to and from events — and set targets for reducing those emissions.

For most companies, this information will be new. While an increasing number of companies are setting net zero targets for their operations, Uber found that ground transportation represents a blind spot for many. According to a June survey, just 28% of corporate travel managers based in the U.S. and Canada said their company formally tracks the “sustainability efforts” related to ground transportation, and 45% said their company is considering doing so. The report was commissioned by Uber for Business and the Global Business Travel Association.
Several of Uber’s clients, including Salesforce, have had access to the platform since early September, and Anderson said it was designed in consultation with many Uber for Business users and built with their climate goals in mind.
Salesforce plans to use the platform’s insights to incentivize its employees to use low-emissions Uber options — which include Uber Green and Uber Comfort Electric — in the future, according to Patrick Flynn, the company’s global head of sustainability. Salesforce has one of the tech industry’s more ambitious climate plans; it plans to halve its absolute emissions by 2030 and lower them to near zero by 2040.
“[A] major pillar of our business travel emissions reduction strategy is influencing employee behavior around mode-switching and to make the impact of those choices visible to all employees,” Flynn said.
Salesforce, which links executive pay to meeting ESG goals such as reducing air travel emissions, is already using its own internal booking tool to recommend lowest-emissions modes of travel for journeys across state lines rather than ones across town. This expansion of the Uber platform offers the company and others a chance to get even more granular about business travel-related emissions. (Uber did not respond to a question from Protocol as to whether it has estimated how much carbon could be abated if its clients switch to using its lower-emission ride offerings.)
Uber has committed to being a zero-emissions ride platform globally by 2040, with an interim goal of offering rides exclusively in electric vehicles in cities across the U.S., Canada and Europe by 2030. These are lofty goals for a company that is still highly dependent on drivers who predominantly use fossil-fueled vehicles; a 2021 study found that using ride-hail services results in roughly 20% more emissions per trip than simply driving your own car largely because of the extra time Uber and Lyft drivers spend on the road while waiting for a rider to summon them.

Uber has begun to expand its slate of no- and low-emissions offerings. The company launched Uber Green in September 2020, which offers rides in EVs or hybrids, and has since expanded it to more than 1,400 cities in North America. Just last week, Uber also expanded its Comfort Electric service, which offers rides in premium EVs like Teslas and Polestars, to 25 cities in North America.
However, for most journeys, options like transit or biking are the lowest-emission ways to get around. Uber offers both scooter and bike options (through Jump and Lime) as well, though they are only available in certain cities. The company has also integrated public transit into its API, recommending bus or train routes once users scroll past car-based offerings. While these lowest-emissions forms of transit are not included on the platform at the moment, Uber has plans to integrate at least its biking and scootering options in the future.
The company also recently pivoted away from its initial support of congestion pricing in New York, though, taking issue with specific proposals that could saddle Uber drivers and riders with high fees, a fact that reflects some of the tensions in its plan to lower emissions.
Anderson said expanding clients’ use of its low-emissions ride features is “very much an objective” of offering them information on their emissions, and that clients have suggested that information can “be a tool to change behavior.”
“For example, sending an email saying, ‘Please choose low-emission options’ won’t necessarily drive much change,” Anderson added. “But if you can say, ‘Hey team, last month 10% of our ground travel was in a low-emission [mode]; let’s set a goal to make that 20% next month,’ you can create engagement, excitement and achieve change.”

It remains to be seen how most companies will use the new feature, if at all. Flynn said Salesforce plans to integrate the data into its own Net Zero Cloud software to help the company “understand [its] comprehensive emissions picture and take action to reduce it.”
“Data and action will continue to inform our climate goals, so further visibility into our traveler rideshare data will be critical to driving progress across the entire travel journey,” he added.
Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email ([email protected]).
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