Ambitious friends: pros and cons

July 18, 2018

I ran into Sebastian yesterday. I only saw him for a minute but it was still nice running into him. Being an ambitious guy, he had his ear in his phone at 8am, and couldn't talk.

Ambitious friends are a mixed blessing.

On one hand, they're inspirational; they make you want to do more, to be more powerful. Their access—money, parties, social networks—can be useful. Many of them are happy to help, and they have great stories.

On the other hand, they can be insufferable, self-important, and a pain in the ass to schedule. Whatever plans you make, expect last-minute cancellation because "something came up at work". If they show up, they'll be at least an hour late; they'll say "sorry" but you both know they'll do the same thing next time, because work—their work—is always #1. I'm getting to an age where first marriages are starting to crack; without fail, one person feels their spouse isn't making them a priority. I can think of three cases of this offhand, one I just met yesterday, who lost a wife to work in his 30s (he's 46 now); he says it's one of his biggest regrets.

Those extra hours on the margin really matter. Going from 45 to 55 hours/week at work might give you an extra 10%. But the cost to your relationships and health can be enormous; just make sure whatever you're getting is worth the price.

I guess I'm not cut out for Wall Street; I want more than a dog for a friend.


Clarity vs precision

July 17, 2018

One of my biggest struggles with writing: hitting the right balance between precision and clarity.

My first drafts end up looking like this: I really enjoyed the book, with its blue cover, excellent illustrations, and four hundred twenty-one pages of suspenseful character-driven narrative. What a horrible sentence! So much detail, so much information, but it doesn't add anything.

All that detail seems like it would be useful, but it isn't; it's distracting. Be mindful that clarity is usually more important than extreme precision. The book's use of suspense enhanced the narrative.

I write a lot of text; much of it is computer code. Code, probably much like legalese, is the domain of extreme precision. Everyday English, not so much.

Another communication tip for engineers.


The Brand

July 16, 2018

Whenever I spend time around people in publishing, media, or other "New York" businesses, I'm surprised how much I hear about "The Brand". "Brands that trust us". "We love working with that brand". "Brand guidelines". "Brand development".

People in San Francisco don't talk like this. So I've been wondering whether we're ahead of the curve, or a bunch of brand ignoramuses. I think it's a bit of both.

There are some products where the brand is a proxy for quality; I think this is common in consumer packaged goods. I don't really care what name is on the label—Energizer, Pampers, Yoplait—just that it tastes good, or does what it's supposed to do.

I think these types of brands, which I'll call "functional brands", are tremendously vulnerable today. Why trust a proxy (a brand) when I can read reviews and buy based on firsthand knowledge from others? I'll gladly buy a no-name product with tons of positive reviews.

The emergence of reviews is a game-changer for private labeling. Nowadays, if a store sees something flying off its shelves, they can offer the discount version and if people like it, there goes the brand's pricing power. This is precisely Amazon's strategy with Amazon Basics, and they're executing masterfully. "Your margin is my opportunity".

Functional brands aren't the only kind of brand, though; there are other brands like Chanel, where the brand is the product. Buying a Chanel purse is as much about the name on the label as the product attributes. These types of brands are much harder to copy, and convey long-term stable pricing power, even if only in niches.

Maybe the difference is that functional brands appeal to your brain, whereas the other type appeals to your heart, or emotion.

Overall this is an area where I'm really unsure. I know data is a game-changer, and that reviews have the power to change customer behavior. But having so much choice in everything probably strengthens brands, because my time and attention is too limited to compare hundreds of items. Certain brands seem to be losing power (CPG) even as others, like Apple and Harvard, are becoming more important. I haven't figured this out yet.


Direct-to-consumer politics

July 15, 2018

Trump wasn't supposed to win the Republican primary. Despite never holding elected office, and lacking the party's endorsement, he sailed to victory over a dozen other candidates. Nobody saw it coming, even on election night.

A similar thing happened last month, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won NY14's Democratic primary running as a Democratic Socialist. Ocasio was perhaps even more of an upset than Trump, as she was out-fundraised 5:1 by Crowley's campaign; a margin like that, plus Ocasio's age (28) against Crowley's experience, put the safe money squarely in Crowley's column.

It might be that the candidates' messages—both Trump and Ocasio—really resonated with the electorate. But I don't think that's the whole story.

It's also about how they campaigned: skipping traditional media in favor of Twitter, Instagram, and facebook. People do indeed advertise on social media, but influence—likes, shares, retweets—are the real currency of these platforms. Both Ocasio and Trump seem to have figured out the importance of social media, and how to use it; most of politics still hasn't.

I wonder what effect organic social media use will have on money's role in politics. A lot of people want money out of politics, but I don't think moving to social media is the panacea people think, as that means fake news and filter bubbles. But it does seem that political organizations of all stripes, from the NRA to Ocasio's campaign, are starting to punch "above their weight" dollar-wise, building platforms without dishing out truckloads of money to traditional media like TV, whose reach seems to wane with each passing day.


The missing salesman

July 14, 2018

Sales processes can be really irritating. It's 2018, and information about many products—accurate information, mind you, not the marketing-spin version—is no more than a Google search away. So I never understood why so many tech products require demos, webinars, and downloading the "whitepaper". Take my money, dammit.

I'm not the only person who feels this way, either: Alex Payne wrote a rant in 2012 that's every bit as true today as it was then. Don’t require that I waste my time on a sales call—or, worse, in a “webinar”—before I can give you my money. Preach on, Alex: Don’t make me read a whitepaper in order to get essential information about your product. Put it on your website. In HTML. Not in a PDF, not in Flash, not in Silverlight or ActiveX or whatever. What your product does, on your website, in HTML.

On its face, all these webinars and demos seem counterproductive; they stop me from buying. So why does everyone do them? I think I figured it out: all this stuff is there because technology used to be expensive.

Buying expensive things means purchase orders and expense controls. It means demonstrating ROI to the CFO. It means sales calls, and PowerPoint decks, and meeting after meeting with people in expensive suits about how "the solution" ("we sell more than just products"), delivers enough "business value" to justify the risk inherent in the large purchase.

It means salespeople. Armies of them, running around, who'd love to take me to expensive dinners and talk about sports. Just don't ask them anything about the product because they're "not really technical". Gee, do I love having my time wasted.

And there are lots of people that used to do this professionally. Many of them are in their late 40s and 50s today, struggling to adapt to a world that's changed from the one they grew up in, selling $250,000 SAN arrays and routers, one $20k commission check at a time. The entire tech industry used to run this way, dominated by salesforces selling to "the enterprise". Companies like Oracle, EMC, Cisco, IBM, all selling expensive things, slowly, one commission check at a time.

All was well and good until two things happened.

First, businesses really don't buy heavy infrastructure anymore. A lot of IT people will hold on to their SANs and Oracle databases just like they held on to their mainframes. But everyone knows the future is in the cloud. 99% of businesses have no reason to buy expensive disk arrays or high-end switches; they'd be much better off handing it off to Silicon Valley, where high-end ops talent keeps things running at 99.99% availability, even with better security and capacity utilization. Home Depot has credit card breaches. Google doesn't.

Second, once you're in the cloud, elasticity is the natural model for everything, and elasticity means you start cheap. Roll it out to 1 user, then 10, then 100. No need to decide upfront or fork over a huge amount of cash. Just start small, and if you like it, use more of it. That's how the fastest-growing companies operate today. Sales says it doesn't work because "you'll never get the big guys that way", but this view doesn't realize that a guy hacking on his side project for 21 cents/month nights and weekends is a director of engineering for Netflix in his day job; he'll be the internal champion because your free tier let him learn his way around, without the baggage of a formal PoC, or demo.

Most companies can't pull this off because they're too impatient. It's much easier to grow "inorganically" with a sales team shoving the product into lukewarm prospects' hands, even if they don't really want it. The real hypergrowth stories happen one customer at a time, when you build something so good, it spreads like wildfire, word-of-mouth.

That's how you go from $1/month to $250,000, which we did at my last company, on AWS.