Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Climbing Rocks

Really enjoyed this New Yorker profile of 14-year-old climbing extraordinaire Ashima Shiraishi.

On what makes great climbers (and specifically Ashima so amazing):

In terms of pure talent—climbers speak of “strength”—she is near the top, but she is not too keen on taking risks. Anyway, her parents won’t allow it. She has small, powerful fingers, a light but sinewy frame, and a seemingly effortless yet peerlessly precise technique. All this enables her to find holds in nearly imperceptible chinks in the rock. A rock climber’s key attribute is a high strength-to-weight ratio, but the ability to create leverage, with subtle geometric variations in body positioning, is the force multiplier. A civilian might think crudely of climbing as something like ascending a ladder—all reach and pull—but watching Ashima adjust the attitude of her hips, shoulders, or heels as she tries to move from one improbable hold to another gives the impression that the human body can arrange itself in an infinite number of forms, each of slightly different utility.

On how you rate different climbing routes:

Another standard is the rating regimen. Sport and trad climbs are given a degree of difficulty, according to the Yosemite Decimal System: 1 is a walk on flat land, and 5 is a vertical climb, or close to it. So actual climbs are rated 5.0 through 5.15, with additional subcategories of “a” through “d.” The hardest routes at the moment are 5.15c—there are just two. (The system is open-ended, so it’s only a matter of time before someone pioneers a 5.16a.) In northeast Spain, last March, when Ashima was thirteen, she became the first woman, and the youngest person of either sex, ever to “send” (complete) a 5.15. It is a route called Open Your Mind Direct, which was recently upgraded from a 5.14d to a 5.15a, owing to a handhold’s having broken off. She spent just four days “projecting” the route—that is, studying and solving all the problems on it by trial and error. The men who had done it before had spent weeks, if not months. Obviously, the rating system is also subjective, but for Ashima this feat was an annunciation. If she could send a 5.15 during spring break from eighth grade, what more could she do?

Related, I read this piece a few weeks ago on the history of indoor climbing and how bouldering problems get designed:

If you think about a climb as a sentence and each move as a word, the holds are individual letters. The most commonly used holds provide a horizontal edge that you can hang from. When the hold is extremely positive, which means it has a large lip or is otherwise easy to grab, climbers call it a jug. A crimp, by contrast, has an edge that’s so thin, you can fit only your fingertips on it. When that edge is oriented vertically and off to the side, it serves as a side pull. Closer in it’s a Gaston, which the climber pulls on with elbow bent, as if prying the lid off a coffee can. If the edge points toward the ground, then it’s an undercling, and the climber must pull up and out to stay on the wall.

January 13, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

Normalization of Deviance & The Growing Organization

A really interesting concept from this blog post on the recent very-avoidable crash of a private jet:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety. People grow more accustomed to the deviant behavior the more it occurs. To people outside of the organization, the activities seem deviant; however, people within the organization do not recognize the deviance because it is seen as a normal occurrence. In hindsight, people within the organization realize that their seemingly normal behavior was deviant.

This is a pretty good explanation for what happens inside organizations. At the small and relatively harmless end, you have the slow growth of meetings that happens in every organization (hence Percolate’s meeting rules) and in the large and dangerous end you have something like Enron or VW. The phenomena is essentially about feedback loops: The deviant behavior slowly slips in and over time becomes more and more acceptable, meaning that the intensity can also increase. In the case of meetings what starts as a one-off meeting to discuss something, becomes a weekly meeting for 15 minutes, eventually with more people involved, and eventually you have 15 people spending an hour together without any real sense for what they’re talking about or why.

This is a pretty good picture of what makes it so tough to scale organizations: It’s hardly ever the big stuff you’re watching out for, it’s almost always the small stuff that is built up over time. (As an aside, although I’m not crazy about him, this is also why Clayton Christensen’s boiling frog analogy is such a good one. It’s a perfect way to understand that it’s the slow rolling boil that kills you, not the big explosion.)

January 11, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Transparency and The Executive Review

Aaron Dignan had a nice little 2016 post titled “New Years Resolutions for the Organization”. In it he outlines 5 resolutions organizations could/should take advantage of. I was particularly interested in number 3: Ditch Executive Reviews.

Ditch executive reviews. We have noticed a disturbing trend lately — one where employees view a meeting with senior management AS AN ACTUAL MILESTONE for their project. Not a technical breakthrough. Not an initial shipment. Not a new retail partner. A meeting. A meeting where someone who has less visibility than they do (but hopefully more experience) can influence the fate of their most important project. This signals two problems: first, that the organization still believes in command-and-control decision making, and second, that employees have become so immersed in it they’ve assimilated it as reality. Instead of perpetuating this phenomenon, try asking your teams to work transparently, using tools like Trello and Slack, and share their learnings and metrics regularly (weekly?) in a public place — not just for management, but for everyone. You’ll be amazed what happens next. Not chaos, but true social accountability and a lot more progress. Your job as a leader is no longer about deciding… it’s about making (and protecting) the space for healthy self-organization.

This was particularly interesting to me for two reasons: One, I’m an executive and would love to be able to get away from these and two, the relationship between platforms like Percolate, Slack, Asana, etc. and the ability to make this happen. What I mean by the latter is that the transparency created by workflow tools and platforms allows for a more streamlined way of working. Because I can monitor the entire progress of a project (at Percolate we use Percolate to manage the product development process as well), ideally we can skip the big presentation (and more important the reveal) at the end. Instead, both managers and team members can contribute throughout the life of the project. What’s more, if they don’t contribute that is on them, not on the person who didn’t present the final plan. Obviously there are challenges with keeping up with every moving piece, but that’s kind of the point — keeping up with every moving piece is a fool’s game and the only way to be successful within the organization is to distribute decision-making and trust teams to work independently.

January 8, 2016 // This post is about: , , , ,

Subway Uncertainty vs Coconut Uncertainty

From the MITSloan Management Review article on “Why Forecasts Fail” (2010) comes this nice little explanation of the different kinds of uncertainty you can face in forecasts (and elsewhere). There is subway uncertainty, which assumes a relatively narrow window of uncertainty. It’s called subway uncertainty because even on the worst day, your subway voyage almost definitely won’t take you more than say 30 minutes more than your plan (even if you are trying to navigate rush hour L trains). On the other end, there’s coconut uncertainty, which is a way to account for relatively common uncommon experiences (if that makes any sense). Here’s how the article explains the difference:

In technical terms, coconut uncertainty can’t be modeled statistically using, say, the normal distribution. That’s because there are more rare and unexpected events than, well, you’d expect. In addition, there’s no regularity in the occurrence of coconuts that can be modeled. And we’re not just talking about Taleb’s “black swans” — truly bizarre events that we couldn’t have imagined. There are also bubbles, recessions and financial crises, which may not occur often but do repeat at infrequent and irregular intervals. Coconuts, in our view, are less rare than you’d think. They don’t need to be big and hairy and come from space. They can also be small and prickly and occur without warning. Coconuts can even be positive: an inheritance from a long-lost relative, a lottery win or a yachting invitation from a rich client.

Knowing which one you’re working with and accounting for both is ultimately how you build a good forecast.

Also from the article is a great story into some research around the efficacy of simple versus complex models. A research in the 1970s collected a whole bunch of forecasts and compared how close they were to reality assuming that the more complex the model was, the more accurate it would be. The results, in the end, showed exactly the opposite, it’s the simpler models that outperformed. Here’s the statisticians attempt to explain the findings:

His rationale: Complex models try to find nonexistent patterns in past data; simple models ignore such “patterns” and just extrapolate trends. The professor also went on to repeat the “forecasting with hindsight” experiment many times over the years, using increasingly large sets of data and more powerful computers.ii But the same empirical truth came back each time: Simple statistical models are better at forecasting than complex ones.

January 6, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Trolley Dodgers

I have to admit I never thought much about why the Los Angeles (previously Brooklyn) Dodgers were called that. It’s just not high on my list of things to look into. However, in listening to the excellent Bowery Boys episode on Park Slope, they explained the origins of the name which were just too good not to share (the podcast is generally excellent — another recent favorite is on journalist Nellie Bly’s trip to a mental institution in 1887). The Dodgers, it turns out, were originally called the Trolley Dodgers. The name came from the danger Brooklynites faced in trying not to get themselves killed by the electric trolleys that crisscrossed the borough in the late-19th century.

The aptly named “Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog” has a pretty extensive writeup of the name and the dangers that surrounded trolleys at the time. Maybe the best quote comes from The Evening World in 1893 who articulated the danger of the trolleys by excitedly reporting that no accidents had been reporting as of mid-day on the opening of a new trolley line in Brooklyn:

The trolley system was put in operation on one more of Brooklyn’s surface roads this morning. . . . This is the first introduction of the system on Fulton street, and the swiftly moving cars attracted a great deal of attention. Up to noon no accidents were reported. The system will be operated on several other roads within a few weeks.

Anyway, seems like a good fact to impress both sports fans and New York City history buffs.

January 5, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

Why It Seems Like Everyone is Doing that Thing

Networks are endlessly interesting. They shape the world around us like almost nothing else, yet we spend very little time thinking about them or recognizing the non-obvious ways effects they have on our world. Because we tend to think in bell curves, we get tricked by networks pretty often. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like everyone is talking about something when it turns out to be pretty self-contained to your little group. Well, some folks at USC have spent some time looking into just how networks create that illusion, which they call the majority illusion:

The majority illusion occurs when the most popular nodes are colored. Because these link to the greatest number of other nodes, they skew the view from the ground, as it were. That’s why this illusion is so closely linked to the friendship paradox.

Interestingly, the majority illusion can even show up when a node isn’t globally popular:

That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.

As with most things related to how ideas spread throughout networks, the more popular something is seems to be the only reliable indicator to how popular it will become.

January 3, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

The Economics of Basketball Fads

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with basketball over the last few years. I’m not entirely sure why, though it’s a combination of it being on at a convenient time (I’ve found Sundays harder to swallow over the last few years) and some really interesting work going on around new approaches and analytics (a few years ago the NBA installed a series of motion-tracking cameras in every stadium allowing for some really interesting analysis of how the game works).

Anyway, my basketball interest has crashed headfirst into my new parenthood, and thus being awake in the middle of the night fairly often. As much as I’d love to be reading serious stuff while I’m waiting for a baby to go to bed at 3am, I just can’t make it work, so I’ve been reading some basketball books. This week it’s The Jordan Rules, which covers the Chicago Bulls 1991 championship season (Jordan’s first). It’s a fun and easy read for the middle of the night. 

Anyway, when I read this passage I couldn’t help but fast-forward to today’s conversations around “small ball” (some teams, specifically the Golden State Warriors, are going out and playing without a traditional center and instead running with 5 guys who can dribble and shoot and space the floor). In the mid-1980s the trend was “Twin Towers” (playing with two centers): 

But Cartwright didn’t get much playing time in New York after returning from those foot injuries. Patrick Ewing had come along by then, and Brown tried a twin-towers approach with Cartwright and Ewing. That approach had come into vogue when Houston, with Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, upset the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference finals; suddenly everyone wanted two centers. But Ewing didn’t care to play forward, and when Brown was replaced, Cartwright took a seat on the bench behind Ewing. He didn’t like it, but he started to get used to the idea. 

At the end of the day, part of what makes sports so interesting to me is that it’s a nearly perfect space for a bunch of economics theories. Advantages are won and lost quickly, new ideas spread through leagues nearly instantly at this point, and at the end of the day all the strategy in the world doesn’t replace talent.

January 2, 2016 // This post is about: , , , , , , ,

Some of my favorite reads of 2015

Did a quick dig through my Instapaper favorites (which also have their own Twitter account, by the way) and picked out a few of my favorite reads from last year. Many were written in 2015, but a few were just read by me for the first time last year. So, without any further ado and not in any particular order, a few of my favorites:

  1. I find snooker oddly satisfying to watch. Every time I’m in the UK and can’t sleep at 3am on the first night I seem to find it on TV and get entranced. Not sure what it is and can’t seem to get excited the same way about pool on TV here in the US. I tried to play once in Ireland with a friend and I was absolutely terrible. The table is about 6 miles long and the cue seems to be about 1/16th of an inch. All of that is just a long preamble to say that I really enjoyed this profile of snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan from the New Yorker. (Two asides here: First, if you’re interested here’s a bunch of YouTube videos of people having perfect snookers games and second, I just ran across this profile of a darts champion Phil Taylor, which while obviously not the same as snooker, seems like a cousin.)
  2. I’ve always wondered about the East India Company, but have never really dug in much (mostly because I’m intimidated by the size of the books on the subject). As a result, this little Guardian primer was a great introduction into one of the craziest corporations in history.
  3. In the tweets I broke these up, but I’ll file this all here under marketing writing. My favorite marketing writing of last year (and probably favorite marketing writer as well) was from Martin Weigel and was titled “Marketing Crack: Kicking the Habit”. I actually enjoyed it so much I asked Martin to come speak at Percolate’s Transition conference in September (where he did an edited version of the talk). While not an article, my favorite marketing book of the year (and maybe of ever) was How Brands Grow (which I talked about to whomever would listen — sorry about that). If you’re not sure you’re ready to dive in and read it, the FT had a great writeup that built on many of the ideas (though so does Martin’s “Marketing Crack” piece as well as this one from 2010). Oh, and I haven’t read it yet, but there’s an update to How Brands Grow out now that’s on my must read list.
  4. Silk Road has all the components to be a movie you’d never believe. There’s “the dark web” (which movies and TV shows now all seem to love to reference), faked murder scenes, and lots of drugs being delivered by UPS. This two parter from Wired did a fine job telling the whole story (which, if you don’t feel like reading the 20-something-thousand words you could probably wait for a movie version of).
  5. Okay, now for some basketball stuff, which I continued my obsession with. First, a look at how shot arc effects free throw shooting. Second, an oral history of the greatest dunk of all time: Vince Carter’s insane leap over French center Frederic Weis in the Olympics (to be honest, the article isn’t even that good, it’s just so fun to relive and reread about this thing). Third, though not from 2015, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this look at how the Houston Rockets are experimenting with their NBA D-League team.
  6. Following on the sports theme, I’m not sure what it is about tennis that lends itself to great writing, but this Serena Williams profile from the New York Times was really amazing (as is my all-time favorite piece of sports writing: David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer).
  7. Now for a New Yorker trio that have nothing to do with each other: First, a profile of Ken Dornstein, whose brother died in the Lockerbie bombing (he is also the author of the excellent book about his search for answers The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky). Second, a crazy story of a college couple who murdered their parents. Finally, a profile of Judy Clarke who defends the worst-of-the-worst in court, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
  8. Now a quick trip back to the Eighties for these two: First, it’s Steven Levy on the possibly effects of the introduction of the spreadsheet (1984) and second, Peter Drucker on the organization of the future (1988). Both are pretty spot on.
  9. This one’s a little different, but I really enjoyed this short Upshot piece on the two views of the economy. The challenge with writing about the economy is that while the factors that may drive it are simple, the outcome is incredibly complex. While this piece didn’t blow me away or teach me something new, I thought the debate between himself was a clever way to present a nuanced story.
  10. Finally, and purely for fun, The Good Bagel Manifesto is full of bagel snobbery like this (which I appreciate): “Having tasted bagels around the country and around the world, I understand why toasting is the default for most bagel shops: It’s because most bagel shops don’t serve good bagels. If there is one Golden Rule for good bagels, it is this: A Good Bagel Shall Not Require Toasting. All Else Follows.” (Emphasis theirs.)

There was lots else, but this was a few quick picks from my list. Hope you all had an excellent 2015 and I wish you an even better 2016.

January 1, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Brand Management: Past, Present, and Future

Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a two part series around a talk I gave at our client summit on the history of brand management and the need to create a new system of record for marketing. Part one opens:

Late last week James wrote a post called Moving from Installation to Deployment, where he laid out a framework for thinking how technology moves throughout history and where our modern age fits into the puzzle. As part of his post he introduced some ideas from an economist named Carlota Perez, who argues that each technological revolution (of which we’re in our fifth) follows a similar pattern of installation, where we essentially lay out the new technology in the form of infrastructure, followed by deployment, where we finally get a chance to build upon that infrastructure and realize its value.

Whereas part two dives into the implications and a framework for building this new system of record for marketing:

To approach the problem of scaling marketing at the rate of technology to address the increasing complexity, we have to take a page out of the P&G brand management playbook, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble. It points out how “P&G recognized that building brands is not exclusively or even primarily a marketing activity. Rather it is a systems problem.” This is fundamental. When you’re dealing with a huge amount of change and complexity as tempting as it is to answer the question with a one off solution, the systemic path is always more powerful. This is where we have to start in solving the challenge of rethinking marketing for this new age.

Check out both parts.

February 13, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Becoming an Engineering Manager

One of the most amazing parts of starting Percolate has been the time I’ve gotten to spend with engineers. During that I’ve noticed some interesting patterns as engineers move from individual contributors to managers. I wrote up a thing for TechCrunch on some of those observations and ideas.

Here’s a bit on scale:

Essentially the job of being a manager, beyond the human side (which I’ll get to, I swear), is about building a system of people. As you’re growing a company you should absolutely be thinking about how to make this system scalable. On this point, specifically, you need to think about every decision and task you take control of and how that would work if you had 20 more people reporting to you. Micromanagement, in other words, is bad engineering on your part, not bad behavior on the part of the employee you’re managing (no matter how much you think you could solve that problem better or faster).

Read the rest over at TechCrunch.

January 27, 2015 // This post is about: , ,

The Complex Simplicity of Frisbee

I really like this frisbee explanation for how we handle complexity:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity.Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans.So what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple. Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the frisbee remains roughly constant. Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.

Good to add to the list of ways to explain complexity.

January 19, 2015

Simple, Complicated, Complex

Really like this explanation of complexity from Flash Boys by Michael Lewis:

“People think that complex is an advanced state of complicated,” said Zoran [Perkov, head of technology operations for IEX]. “It’s not. A car key is simple. A car is complicated. A car in traffic is complex.”

Well put.

Reminds me a bit of how Nassim Taleb draws a distinction between robustness, or the ability to withstand disorder, and antifragility, which he explains as actually growing stronger when exposed to those same disorderly forces.

Linked, an amazing book on networks which I’m re-reading explains the difference between Swiss watches and the internet:

Understanding the topology of the Internet is a prerequisite for designing tools and services that offer a fast and reliable communication infrastructure. Though human made, the Internet is not centrally designed. Structurally, the Internet is closer to an ecosystem than to a Swiss watch. Therefore, understanding the Internet is not only an engineering or a mathematical problem. In important ways, historical forces shaped its topology. A tangled tale of converging ideas and competing motivations left their mark on the Internet’s structure, creating a jumbled information mass for historians and computer scientists to unravel.

January 8, 2015 // This post is about: , , , ,

Basketball versus Business

And I’m back …

Thought this was a really interesting comment from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo during the Grantland Basketball Hour in December. He was talking about the moves by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé (also known for Gladwell’s writeup of his all press all the time approach to his daughter’s basketball team) and generally what it’s like for these guys who have made a lot of money in the business world coming into sports.

New owners can’t help themselves because you think about how successful these guys are at amassing their wealth. They go, “I’m the man, and now I’ll just buy a team, I’ll apply the same analytics, the same principles … I’ll just go win.” But the model in business allows many companies to be successful, the model in sports only allows one.

I never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. Although many think of business as being zero sum, it isn’t really, especially in the world of technology where people are bound to use multiple devices and applications (that’s not to say within a specific category it can’t be zero sum). Sports is different in that there is only one winner. Of course the counter-argument here is that something can’t really be zero sum when everyone gets rich, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

January 6, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Is it or isn’t it?

Differing opinions (sort of) from the New York Times over whether technology is or isn’t what the science-fiction writers imagined. From a November article titled “In Defense of Technology”:

Physical loneliness can still exist, of course, but you’re never friendless online. Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun. Technology is not doing what the sci-fi writers warned it might — it is not turning us into digits or blank consumers, into people who hate community. Instead, there is evidence that the improvements are making us more democratic, more aware of the planet, more interested in the experience of people who aren’t us, more connected to the mysteries of privacy and surveillance. It’s also pressing us to question what it means to have life so easy, when billions do not. I lived through the age of complacency, before information arrived and the outside world liquified its borders. And now it seems as if the real split in the world will not only be between the fed and the unfed, the healthy and the unhealthy, but between those with smartphones and those without.

And now, in response to the Sony hack, Frank Bruni writes, “The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.” He continues:

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

But the New York Times doesn’t stop agreeing with itself there (by the way, this is totally fine, I have no problem with the contradictions and actually appreciate them). From “As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up”:

Yet there is deep uncertainty about how the pattern will play out now, as two trends are interacting. Artificial intelligence has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement. … At the same time, the American work force has gained skills at a slower rate than in the past — and at a slower rate than in many other countries. Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 are among the most skilled in the world, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Younger Americans are closer to average among the residents of rich countries, and below average by some measures.

My opinion falls into the protopian camp: Things are definitely getting better, but new complexities are bound to emerge as things change. It’s not going to be simple and there are lots of questions we should be asking ourselves about how technology is changing us and the world, but it’s much healthier to start from a place of positivity and recognition that much of the change is good change.

December 23, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Unanticipated Effects

I really like this story of the unanticipated effects of the printing press from Steven Johnson:

Once people started to read, and once books were in circulation, very quickly the population of Europe realized that they were farsighted. This is interestingly a problem that hadn’t occurred to people before because they didn’t have any opportunity to look at tiny letter forms on a page, or anything else that required being able to use your vision at that micro scale. All of a sudden there is a surge in demand for spectacles. Europe is awash in people who were tinkering with lenses, and because of their experimentation, they start to say, “Hey, wait. If we took these two lenses and put them together, we could make a telescope. And if we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a microscope.” Almost immediately there is this extraordinary scientific revolution in terms of understanding and identifying the cell, and identifying the moons of Jupiter and all these different things that Galileo does. So the Gutenberg press ended up having this very strange effect on science that wasn’t about the content of the books being published.

As I’ve established here, I’m a big McLuhan fan, and this is pretty good evidence that the effect of the medium is often much more important than the specific message. 

December 22, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

First Mentions

Part two of my strategy presentation is coming soon. In the meantime, a few months ago I went down a rabbit hole of looking for the first mention of various marketing terms and ideas in the New York Times archives. I particularly liked this first mention of brand strategy from 1955:

To eliminate confusion, an agency should set up a four-point plan when handling a product … The Plan would be outlined in a document known as a “brand strategy” containing a concept of operation; an analysis of the opportunities for the product or service; agreement on an immediate plan of action, and agreement on a long-term strategy.

Here’s what it looked like in the newspaper:

Also amusing was that in 1967 we were having problems we’re still seeing today. From coverage of a symposium of agencies and clients:

A couple of the ideas that seemed to get repeated were that both sides should cut through the red tape of advertising approval and that there should be more involvement of creative people in agency-client relations.

December 19, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Thinking About Strategy (Part 1): What is Strategy?

At the beginning of December I gave a talk at Google’s Firestarters event that built on some of the ideas I wrote up in my post about strategy as algorithm. Rather than posting the whole deck, which at some point I will do, I thought I would try to share the slides in groups of a few at a time and tell the story over a number of posts. This is a bit of an experiment and mostly because I’m trying to get all the posts I can out of the deck, so thanks for bearing with me.

What is strategy? Anyone who works in and around brand has run into something called strategy, but seldom do we step back and actually ask ourselves what it is and what it means. A few weeks ago I posted this definition from Lawrence Freedman’s book Strategy: A History (via Martin Weigel):

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Despite that, most of what we talk about when we’re discussing strategy is actually a small set of tools that were all developed before 1970:

  • Market Segmentation (1920): “General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan managed GM’s car models through loosely monitored “divisions,” which operated as separate companies with Sloan’s oversight, laying the groundwork for today’s corporation.”
  • Customer Funnel (1959): “The progression through the four primary steps in a sale, i.e., attention, interest, desire and action, may be compared to that of a substance moving through a funnel.”
  • Scenario Planning (1967): “The practice involves envisioning multiple future events and developing plans for responding to them. Shell first experimented with scenario planning in 1967, helping it navigate the oil shock of the 1970s.”

Ultimately a strategy is an approach for solving a problem. In the case of marketing, a strategy is generally the formula a brand develops to identify the best mix of activities and messages to communicate the positioning of the product or company with the goal of driving growth (either in sales, price, or purchase occasion). Strategy, then, is not the activities, but rather the framework a brand uses for choosing (and not choosing) those activities. (We will come back to this point later.)

For strategy to live in the world it must be paired with execution. The problem with strategy is that it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Strategy without execution is just words on a slide. For our purposes, then, when we talk about strategy we are talking about two things: The approach to solving the business problems and the coordination of resources to execute on that approach.

In the next installment I’ll dive into execution, how it’s changing, and why that matters a lot for strategy. Stay tuned.

December 18, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Creativity Requires Networks

A nice explanation of how creativity requires networks from Esko Kilpi:

To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a popular, but misleading simplification. These breakthroughs would have been inconceivable without (1) the social and intellectual network that stimulated and advanced their thinking and (2) the people who recognized the value of their contributions and spread them further. A good, new idea is not automatically passed on. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. One cannot be creative alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition.

It reminds me a lot of scenius:

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

In fact Kevin Kelly, who wrote the piece on scenius that Eno quote is from, specifically calls out mutual recognition (he calls it appreciation) as one of the five nuturing factors of scenius: “Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.”

December 16, 2014 // This post is about: ,

How We Organize: Brain vs Society

I really enjoyed this whole post by Mark Burgess, founder of CFEngine, on the difference between the centralized brain model and the decentralized society model. It articulates a lot of core ideas about complexity theory and emergence by offering the simple brain/society analogy. As the article explains:

A brain model is a signalling model. Signals are transmitted from a common command-and-control centre out to the provinces of an organism, and messages are returned to allow feedback. … The alternative to a brain model is what I’ll call a society model. … There can be cooperation between the parts (often called institutions or departments, communities or towns, depending on whether the clustering is logical or geographical).

As he concludes, “Societies scale better than brain models, because they can form local cells that interact weakly at the edges, trading or exchanging information. If one connection fails, it does not necessarily become cut off from the rest, and it has sufficient autonomy to reconfigure and adapt.”

With all that said, though, what I found most interesting was this point about why big organizations get slower:

Our ability to form and maintain relationships (knowledge) with remote parts depends on them being local. Long distance relationships don’t work as well as short distance ones! Certainly, this depends on the speed of responses. If messages take longer to send and receive, then an organism can react more slowly, so scaling up size means scaling down speed, and vice versa. This certainly fits with our knowledge of the animal kingdom (another centralized management expression!). Large animals like whales and elephants are slower than smaller creatures like insects. The speed of impulses in our bodies is some six orders of magnitude slower than the speed of light, so we could build a very big whale using photonic signalling.

It’s a simple but vivid explanation. The answer, which many have realized, is to attempt to solve this by moving your organizational model closer to that of a society, where decisions can be made independently at the edges. Of course, as the metaphor illustrates, we’re intimately familiar with the centralized (brain) model, so it’s easier said than done.

December 15, 2014 // This post is about: , ,

Protopian

I was reading Kevin Kelly’s Reddit IAmA from last year and I really liked his definition of “protopian”. In response to the question, “As a radical techno-optimist, what do you think is something people believe technology can/will do that you think it can’t?” Kelly answered, “I am protopian, not utopian. I believe in progress, that things are getting better by a little bit. I don’t believe that we can eliminate problems without introducing new ones.”

Reminds me a bit of Adam Gopnik’s framework for how people think about the internet (and technology generally):

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others–that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

I’m with the ever-wassers and Kevin Kelly. I’m incredibly optimistic, but I am also realistic about the complexities of the world and the challenges that even the most amazing technologies can introduce.

December 12, 2014

The Link Between Brand Management and Product Mangement

Product management is a central discipline in just about every technology company in the world. The job, at least as we describe it at Percolate, is to own the strategy and roadmap for the team product/s and oversee the execution of those products. At places like Google (and Percolate) these jobs are held almost exclusively by people with an engineering background. The thinking here is two-fold: On one side the engineer’s approach to solving problems is generally pretty optimal and on the other, it’s hard to lead a team of talented engineers if you don’t understand what they’re doing at a pretty deep level. (While product managers mostly don’t actually manage the engineers on their teams, they are expected to “lead” the team and make choices around what they’re developing.)

What’s interesting about product management, though, is that it actually came from the world of marketing. The idea was inspired by brand management, which was originally introduced by Proctor & Gamble in 1931. I’ve read bits and pieces alluding to this connection, but this piece on the evolution of the discipline draws the line quite explicitly:

One reason product management has not traditionally been included in engineering curricula is because it did not start as an engineering role. Its earliest form was brand management, a term coined by a young advertising manager named Neil McElroy, who in 1931 wrote a memo to the executive team at Procter & Gamble proposing the idea of a “brand man”—an employee who would be responsible for a product, rather than a business function.3 The role had many similarities to modern-day product management. His memo called out the need to promote processes that work and outline solutions to problems. Above all, it called for the “brand man” to take full responsibility for the product.

December 11, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Planning For Your Next Hire

I posted this over on Medium as well, which I will probably do time to time when it seems relevant. Still experimenting with what it means to have so many places to blog these days.

I was writing something else earlier today and included a bit of an aside about an idea I talk about a lot at Percolate: Thinking about the employee of today and the employee of tomorrow.

To explain, we’re growing pretty fast. We were something like 85 at the beginning of this year and we’re right around 185 now. When you’re adding two or three people a week, like we have this year, you run into some serious challenges. One of the ones that especially struck me (and always surprised me wasn’t discussed more), is how you keep people engaged/educated as you’re growing so fast. So far in December we’ve added something like 12 people. We should add another eight or so before the month is out. That means 10% of the company will be starting this month. That’s obviously great from a growth and talent perspective, but it’s a bit of a pain when you consider that anyone who started in December missed everything that happened in November. That included an offsite, lots of product additions, and a bevy of other new ideas, processes, documents, and lots of other stuff.

How you keep an ever-expanding employee-based abreast of what the company does seems like one of the most important questions of company culture that isn’t really ever asked. Every time you send an email outlining a new idea or process you need to think about how the people that don’t work at the company yet are going to learn about it. That could mean it becomes part of training materials, is presented in a meeting to new hires, or (best of all) is coded into a product you use.

I suspect (though can’t prove), that ultimately this is one of the big things that kills companies operating at high growth. If you don’t keep this in mind you can’t possibly keep the culture feeling cohesive, and without that it’s quite hard to understand how you keep people and the company aligned around a shared mission and vision.

And in the end, that’s really what culture is all about.

If you want to learn more about the Percolate culture, we’ve written about it quite a bit over at our blog.

December 10, 2014

Tech plus Culture

Interesting point of distinction between Google and Facebook’s approach to the world in this long feature of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s approach to wiring the world. Specifically in reference to Facebook and Google buying drone companies as a possible approach to getting internet to rural areas:

Google also has a drone program—in April it bought one of Ascenta’s competitors, Titan Aerospace—but what’s notable about its approach so far is that it has been almost purely technological and unilateral: we want people to have the Internet, so we’re going to beam it at them from a balloon. Whereas Facebook’s solution is a blended one. It has technological pieces but also a business piece (making money for the cell-phone companies) and a sociocultural one (luring people online with carefully curated content). The app is just one part of a human ecosystem where every-body is incentivized to keep it going and spread it around. “Certainly, one big difference is that we tend to look at the culture around things,” Zuckerberg says. “That’s just a core part of building any social project.” The subtext being, all projects are social.

This is a pretty interesting point of difference between how the two companies view the world. Google sees every problem as a pure technical issue whereas Facebook sees it as part cultural and part technical. I’m not totally sure I buy it (it seems unfair to call Android a purely technical solution), but it’s an interesting lens to look through when examining two of the world’s most important tech companies.

December 9, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

The Link Between Brand and Utility

I like this thought from Andrew Crow, head of design at Uber, on the difference between being scrappy and shipping scrappy:

There’s no such thing as minimal viable quality. Each product iteration must stem from a principled approach of creating great experiences regardless of scale or milestone. If it’s a mockup, the level of fidelity typically indicates the level of “doneness”. If it’s a prototype, the level of detail needs to be appropriately matched to the sophistication of the hypothesis you’re testing. If it’s an MVP, the quality put into the product must be at a level that results in the maximum learning for that stage of development. The quality of product you finally ship reflects the caliber of your company and is a measure of the respect you have for your customer.

I think of this as being thoughtful. Every interaction you design should be made with care and respect for the user’s time and attention. Details make design and there isn’t a detail too small to pay attention to.

As Andrew points out, not spending the time and attention on details at early stages can be detrimental in unexpected ways as it might provide you with bad data back on usage (ultimately design choices and brand effect experiences). I think there’s an important lesson here that most people don’t consider (and came up in the old brand vs utility debate). Ultimately things like brand, utility, and design in products are entirely too closely coupled to disconnect. In fact, utility is actually a measure of the relative satisfaction a person gets from consuming something. Since satisfaction is about how much something fulfills your expectations, the utility and brand are inextricably linked.

December 8, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Percolate Product Video

I believe this marks two weeks of blog posts for me, which is a pretty major milestone. In celebration I’m taking the day off and instead sharing our new product video from Percolate. I’ve spent the last four years working with an incredible group of folks building out something that I’m very proud. This video does a really nice job not just showing that off, but also speaking to the Percolate brand.

Without any further ado …

December 5, 2014 // This post is about: , ,

P&G’s Strategy Algorithm

In response to my post on Strategy as Algorithm, Michael Migurski shared this image with me from P&G CEO A.G. Lafley’s book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

These are the five questions Lafley’s used for making major strategy decisions at P&G. In explaining why he uses this approach and why strategy is hard, Lafley explained:

In Roger Martin’s and my view, the essence of strategy is making 5 integrated — sometimes difficult — choices; so 5 choices to win. And a lot of us, a lot of human beings, don’t like to make choices, right? Choices are difficult, we want to keep our options open, choices involve taking risks, and not only risk to the business but personal risk. So I think there’s this sort of human resistance to making choices, and choices are the core of strategy.

Business Insider has a nice breakdown of what each step in the above image means and how they were used. Here, for instance, is how they explain the capabilities question:

What are my core competencies that are going to enable me to win? In order to make the above decisions work, they have to be based on and supported by the things that a company’s best at. For P&G, it was innovating quickly and understanding consumers.

Now that Lafley is back at the helm as CEO it’s interesting to take some of his more recent decisions, like the big one to divest a large number of brands, through the lens of this system.

December 4, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , ,

The Knowledge, Cabbies, and Nostalgia

While I’m definitely not a techno-utopian, I’m also not a big fan of nostalgia. Nostalgia, it turns out, doesn’t work all that well: Over time our brain acts like a game of telephone, memories become memories of memories, and we tend to gloss over the details that surround occasions for the big moments. This idea obviously extends to technology and progress, where often the world pushes back on new ideas because the old way had a certain glamour to it. Ultimately, we all can decide how we want to operate, and fear of change is a person’s right, but great progress doesn’t come without disrupting “comfortable” norms (this is true in technology, politics, and culture — see: email, the Civil Rights Act, and gay marriage to name a few).

One of the areas we’re seeing this fight over nostalgia is with Uber and London cabbies. The famous London black cabs protested en masse over the summer and have voiced strong opposition to the service that democratizes the ability to pick up passengers and drop them off at their destination. (Quick side note: Uber has taken lots of heat lately for their behavior. My points here are about the service and the idea, not a defense of the company itself.) London cab-drivers are famous for their incredible knowledge of one of the most complicated cities on earth. Unlike New York where all you need to get a taxi medallion is a million dollars, in London you need to pass a seemingly impossible test that asks you to memorize “all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.” (That’s from the official London taxi guidebook.)

Of course, if I were to describe Google Maps that way you wouldn’t be particularly surprised. Technology is great at holding a database of locations. In fact, that’s probably just about the most simple thing Google Maps does, after all it’s just a lat-long point and a name (ideally connected to a website for more information like open and close times, menu, etc.). The challenge for Google (and the cab-drivers) is in the routes: Getting from point a to point b isn’t all that hard a problem for either, but getting there in the “best way” is nearly impossible. That, ultimately, is what the London taxi drivers study and what the Google engineers constantly refine (buying Waze is quite clearly a push in that direction as “best” could easily be defined as least traffic). It’s also one of the places where you could argue humans can still outperform machines (for a lot of the same reasons people are still better than machines at certain parts of chess).

Anyway, I’m writing all this because for all my issues with nostalgia, I really enjoyed the New York Times piece on “The Knowledge,” the test every licensed black cab driver in London must take. Here’s a little snippet:

It is tempting to interpret the Knowledge as a uniquely British institution: an expression of the national passion for order and competence, and a democratization of what P. G. Wodehouse winkingly called the feudal spirit, putting an army of hyperefficient Jeeveses on the road, ready to be flagged down by any passing Bertie Wooster. But the Knowledge is less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape. To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are. Every London journey, even the most banal, holds the threat of taking an epic turn: The guy headed to the corner newsagent makes a left where he should have gone right, blunders into an unfamiliar road, and suddenly he is Odysseus adrift on the Acheron. The problem is one of both enormity and density. From the time that London first began to spread beyond the walls surrounding the Roman city, it kept sprawling outward, absorbing villages, enlarging the spider-web snarl of little roads, multiplying the maze. Take a look sometime at a London street map. What a mess: It is a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster.

The article argues, and I agree, there’s a benefit to this vast knowledge and if you need to get somewhere complicated in London very quickly, it’s hard to beat hopping into a black cab. However, the technology is catching, and will continue to do so, and that’s fine too.

December 3, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Why was the Paypal mafia so successful?

I was having a conversation the other evening about Peter Thiel’s theory on why the Paypal mafia (all the people that came out of Paypal and started 7 $1 billion+ companies in Silicon Valley) succeeded as much as it did. I couldn’t remember where I read or heard his answer, but basically his point was that Paypal wasn’t so easy as to trick people into thinking building a successful company came without hardship and wasn’t so hard that they failed and wrongly thought it was impossible. After some Googling I landed on this James Altucher podcast with Thiel, which I’m pretty sure I’ve never listened to, but definitely has the answer I was looking for (if you know where else he said/wrote this, please let me know).

Anyway, his answer to why was the Paypal mafia so successful:

Paypal was probably the single company in silicon valley that produced the most entrepreneurs, the most startups … There have been something like 7 companies started by ex-Paypal people worth over $1 billion … I think we had a lot of strong personalities, we found a way for it to work. I think the learning at Paypal was that it was a tough business to build, we had a lot of competition, it was a lot of regulatory challenges, but we sort of figured out ways to overcome them. The lesson of Paypal was that you could build a great company, but it was hard. it was not easy, it was not impossible. I think that when people come out of super successful companies like Google or Microsoft, they’ve often experienced business as too easy and they’re set up to fail. Whereas if you come out of a company that has completely blown and failed, you often learn to set your sights lower and your expectations lower … I think Paypal was this intermediate case where people learned that it was hard but possible to build a great business.

December 2, 2014

Thoughts on India

In October I took my first trip to India. It was absolutely amazing and I came back incredibly excited about how the world is changing. I wrote down a few observations (which I also Tweeted) that I thought I would share here:

  • Driving and crossing streets is amazing: Seems to work against all odds. What seems like chaos is actually reasonably well organized.
  • In a country of 1 billion+ even smaller locales (<1 million) take on city dynamics (local small shops > large chains, heavy traffic).
  • Anecdotally, the smartphone penetration was much lower than I would have thought. Most people haven’t upgraded yet.
  • When I asked why not more smartphones, most people said data services weren’t there. (Slow 3G/no 4G)
  • Really interesting mix of optimism and pessimism. Optimism for growth and world status, pessimism for government and infrastructure.

While I’m on the topic of India, I ran across the interesting article on Uber’s success there. India is Uber’s second biggest market, but it’s currently having a bit of a headache there due to laws around storing credit card numbers. From the article:

India has stringent rules on recurring payments using credit cards: For a “card not present” transaction, as in most online or in-app payments, the RBI requires a mandatory two-step authentication system, with a verification code that is sent to a customer via text message or email. The customer then enters the code to finish the transaction.

I bring this up mostly because these sort of country-specific regulations never really occur to us as we imagine how businesses will scale. It’s not to say Uber won’t get over this (they’re already working with a payment provider to get around the issue), but it does present interesting realities to global scaling that aren’t often discussed.

December 1, 2014

Virtual Luxury Goods

I’m pretty fascinated by this story of watchmakers going after pirates who are copying their faces and giving them away for people with smartwatches.

It’s not so much the lawsuits I’m interested in as the idea of luxury goods in a digital world. It’s interesting to think about watchmakers, who for so long have separated themselves by not just the physical design of their products, but also the mechanics of the movements, starting to become software companies. After all, what better way to know there’s interest in your products than people seeking them out for their own devices. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a company like Rolex or Patek Philippe move into the software world and start selling faces for these new devices?

November 28, 2014

Culture as Algorithm

After a good reception, I decided to build on my strategy as algorithm post from the other day over at the Percolate blog. Specifically I tried to answer what it meant for marketing and culture. Here’s a snippet:

At Percolate we talk about culture as the internal manifestation of brands (more about this in a future blog post). One of the things I talk about with everyone who starts here is that the reason we believe in investing in the culture of the company is that culture is how we teach people to make on-brand decisions. Basically, as the company grows we know we need to distribute out decision-making as much as possible. The goal, of course, is for the decisions people make to be good ones in the eyes of the brand. The way we make sure of that is by ensuring that everyone has a clear understanding of the values of the company.

Read the whole thing over at the Percolate blog.

November 27, 2014

The Fun of HTML Standards

It’s pretty hard to write something interesting about the development of HTML standards, but that’s exactly what Paul Ford did in his New Yorker piece which goes through the history of the W3C and the development of the HTML5 standard. Go read the whole thing and in the meantime, here’s a few snippets.

On validation:

Validity, in this scenario, is an ideological construct. The promise is that by hewing to the rules put forth by the W3C, your site will be accessible to more people than would a less valid page. Both pages work fine for most people; browsers are tolerant of all sorts of folderol. The ultimate function of any standards body is epistemological; given an enormous range of opinions, it must identify some of them as beliefs. The automatic validator is an encoded belief system. Not every Web site offers valid HTML, just as not every Catholic eschews pre-marital sex. The percentage of pure and valid HTML on the web is probably the same as the percentage of Catholics who marry as virgins.

On how the web is evolving:

The Web started out as a way to publish and share documents. It is now an operating system: a big, digital sensory apparatus that can tell you about your phone’s battery life, record and transmit your voice, manage your e-mail and your chats, and give you games to play. It can do this all at once, and with far less grand of a design than you might assume. That’s the software industry: it promises you an Ellsworth Kelly, but it delivers a Jackson Pollock.

November 26, 2014

Strategy as Algorithm

Strategy, like innovation and lots of other business buzzwords, seems to mean less the more it’s mentioned. I thought this definition, from Lawrence Freedman (who I’ve never heard of) via Martin Weigel’s blog is a nice one:

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Fits with a thought I have had lately around how strategy is really about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions. Basically you’ve identified what you ultimately want to accomplish and strategy is how you drive towards that. The challenge, as outlined here, is that nothing’s ever quite as neat and tidy as we might hope. So rather than talking about strategy as a blueprint (or similar), which suggests everything is in its perfect place down to the millimeter, it’s better to think about it as an algorithm that helps you make the right decision as you traverse whatever landscape you happen to encounter. Algorithms are nothing more than a set of rules applied to any information or situation, which takes into account what you understand about the data and tries to find the best answer according to the ideas/ideals the programmer has set forth.

November 25, 2014

Secrets

If you’ve read the class notes from Peter Thiel’s Stanford class on entrepreneurialism or his new book Zero to One, you’ll know his take on “secrets.” Basically his idea is that every great business is built on a secret, something you believe that no one else does: The bigger the secret, the bigger the opportunity.

From the essay on his secrets class:

Some secrets are small and incremental. Others are very big. Some secrets—gossip, for instance—are just silly. And of course there are esoteric secrets—the stuff of tarot cards and numerology. Silly and esoteric secrets don’t matter much. And small secrets are of small importance. The focus should be on the secrets that matter: the big secrets that are true.

I mention this because I ran into a new McLuhan book I had never heard of called The Book of Probes, which is basically a collection of quotes designed to make you think. When I opened the book I turned straight to this page:

Maybe Thiel is a McLuhan fan?

November 24, 2014

Responsive Systems

Really good New Yorker story from James Surowiecki on the “performance revolution” and how it’s gone from sports to the rest of the world. I particularly liked the way he connected sports to business:

A key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same time. Look at what happened in American manufacturing, a transformation that also has its origins in the nineteen-seventies. At the time, big American companies were in woeful shape. In the decades after the Second World War, they had faced almost no foreign competition, and typically had only a few domestic rivals. That made them enormously profitable but complacent about quality and productivity. The result was that, by the early nineteen-seventies, American productivity growth was stalling, while American products were often defect-ridden and unreliable. One study, in 1969, found that a third of the people who bought a new American car judged it to be in unsatisfactory condition when it was delivered.

Reminded me a bit of a great piece I read a few weeks ago on the “responsive enterprise” and how software changes this conversation around performance and improvement. A little snippet from that:

Software promotes agility by dramatically speeding up the feedback loop between output and input. In the past, companies could measure their performance every quarter, making it difficult to adjust quickly to changes in the environment. In contrast, Facebook ships new versions of its product multiple times a day, with enhancements and fixes determined by realtime feedback from actual use of the Web site. Companies such as Amazon and Booking.com continuously perform A/B testing or multi-armed bandit experiments on users to optimize purchase rates on their Web sites.

November 21, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

An Algorithm for the Economy

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Brian Arthur’s writing lately. He’s a “complexity economist” from the Santa Fe institute and a pretty interesting all around thinker. Need to put together a bigger writeup of his ideas, but wanted to share his steps on how technology forms the economy around itself from his book Complexity and the Economy:

The steps involved yield the following algorithm for the formation of the economy.

1. A novel technology appears. It is created from particular existing ones, and enters the active collection as a novel element.

2. The novel element becomes available to replace existing technologies and components in existing technologies.

3. The novel element sets up further “needs” or opportunity niches for supporting technologies and organizational arrangements.

4. If old displaced technologies fade from the collective, their ancillary needs are dropped. The opportunity niches they provide disappear with them, and the elements that in turn fill these may become inactive.

5. The novel element becomes available as a potential component in further technologies—further elements.

6. The economy—the pattern of goods and services produced and consumed—readjusts to these steps. Costs and prices (and therefore incentives for novel technologies) change accordingly.

November 20, 2014 // This post is about: , ,

Computers versus People

It’s been a long while since I wrote anything here, going to see if I can get back on the horse.

Nate Silver on the parts of a chess match computers and humans excel at:

Both computer and human players need to break a chess game down into intermediate goals: for instance, capturing an opponent’s pawn or putting their king into check. In the middle of the match, once the pieces are locked in combat and threaten one another, there are many such strategic objectives available. It is a matter of devising tactics to accomplish them, and forecasting which might have the most beneficial effects on the remainder of the game. The goals of the opening moves, however, are more abstract. Computers struggle with abstract and open-ended problems, whereas humans understand heuristics like “control the center of the board” and “keep your pawns organized” and can devise any number of creative ways to achieve them.

November 19, 2014 // This post is about: , ,