Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

You can subscribe to this site via RSS (the humanity!) or .

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: , , , ,

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 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: , , ,