Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.
Jeremey Liew – partner at Lightspeed Ventures – talked with Kara Swisher on the Recode Decode podcast. Ever since hearing Kara Swisher talk to Ezra Klein I’ve noticed that her interviews stand out. She just lets the guests talk and doesn’t have a list of questions to ‘hit.’ That flexible mindset shows, and it’s something Liew suggests works for businesses too.
- Cyclical thinking.
- Sampling at Netscape.
- Know thyself.
- Chesterton fences at Snapchat.
- How to compete with Amazon.
1/ Cycles. “There’s this sway between walled gardens and content being brought inside to openness and then back to walled gardens. There’s definitely cycles as people think about that.”
Cycles are a helpful way to think about how things happen. Linear is easier, but cycles may be more accurate.
Evolution, for example, is one. The book The Beak of the Finch, Johnathan Weiner explains the cycles of finch sizes on the Gallopogos islands. It starts with weather (rainfall, temperature), which leads to plants (and the types of seeds), and then what size finch (and their beak) is best adapted to that environment.
Another cycle is the personal calendar. Jason Fried said “I think it’s important to optimize your schedule around your natural cycles…That people are running at full capacity all year round is not a natural thing.”
Finches, people, seasons – all instances where cyclical thinking can work.
2/ Experimentation. At AOL Liew was charged with content creation to see if it could be done on a larger scale.
“AOL had bought Netscape in in 1999. I dropped in to run Netscape in 2004 with the express mandate to see if we could build a standalone media business…what we discovered was that yes you could build a media business. That’s what gave AOL a little bit more of data to take the plunge.”
Brent Beshore said that only secret to business is experimentation. “Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t,” Beshore said.
I was talking with a friend who took Nassim Taleb’s course in NYC and he said a big takeaway was that once you eliminate the chances of destruction, you can and should experiment. Much like when Beshore explained it to Patrick O’Shaughnessy, this never clicked until I heard it over and over again.
When Danny Meyer was growing his New York restaurant empire he wanted to open an Indian restaurant, but he knew he had to be different from the existing ones. In Setting the Table he wrote that his head chef:
“(Floyd Cardoz) continually seeks sensible ways to innovate in the Indian idiom, demonstrating that you can experiment while remaining grounded in solid traditions.”
To rephrase that, Meyer hired people who would experiment with something that was just new enough.
3/ Why did Netscape have the same homepage for four days?!?
Liew says that after seeing the same homepage for four days he went to the manager in charge of it and she told him it would change when people stopped clicking on it. Liew continued:
“The thing that really stuck with me about AOL and Netscape was that the core user of technology is middle America. The things that we see in Silicon Valley are not representative of the way that things look in middle America…The point is that we use the internet different than normal people do.”
Part of A Field Guide to Lies focuses on the sampling bias and we get to see it here. If you ask SV engineers about a problem and the users aren’t SV engineers you’ve got bad data. We need to think about this stuff, Levitin points out, because no one is going to think critically for you.
Who was a Netscape engineer in the 1990s? It was male in Silicon Valley who studied computer engineering. That’s a small group.
Today Liew is looking for larger groups and he explains his process to Swisher:
“Right now I think about consumer technology as popular culture. If you think about popular culture the early adopters tend to be young women. If I see a product, service, or app that is really taking off among young women because of genuine word of mouth that gets me really excited.”
In addition to young women, Liew is looking for new places too:
“This is why I think you’ve seen an explosion of startups in New York and L.A.”
In just this one point we’ve pointed out the sampling slip up of not looking for a wider group of people like; middle America, big cities, anywhere not in Silicon Valley, women, and young people.
4/ Know thyself. Liew understands that he’s a better investor than operator.
“I think you really have to know what you’re good at. To be a great operator I think you need to have a singular focus and a level of leadership and management charisma that can make you incredibly successful. I’ve seen what good looks like and I’m okay, but I’m nowhere as good as the best operators and CEOs in the world.”
Our circle of competencies aren’t fixed, but they are limited. Liew could grow his ‘operator competency’ but instead chose to focus on his existing strengths.
Charlie Munger, for example, likes to buy moats rather than build them.
Tyler Cowen said this during a March 2017 AMA:
Under the heading of #personalproductivity and #lifehack we like to point out that people have inherent dispositions and skills. Knowing what they are helps.
5/ Chesterton fences for Snapchat. Liew said:
“A lot of this comes down to Evan (Spiegel, co-founder, and CEO of Snapchat) being a very special person. Most of us use these unconscious metaphors as we think about new companies, businesses, and products. Even the best product management visionaries rely on these unconscious metaphors. A good example might be Friendster doing reverse chronological order in the feed and ever since then, every social network has done reverse chronological order in the feed. Then Evan comes along and says, ‘How do people tell stories?’. Reverse chronological order is: end middle, beginning. That’s a great example where people didn’t question the metaphor and just did what had been done before.”
According to Liew, Spiegel, wondered why things were done in one order and not another. Asking questions like this can yield new answers. Danny Meyer asked why tipping was done in restaurants. Fried asks, “Why the Hell Not?” Kara Swisher praised Donald Trump for his ability to ask why.
6/ How to compete with Amazon. Amazon has become the 800-pound gorilla that seems to enter every conversation. Liew has one solution:
“Amazon is an extraordinary competitor and I would prefer not to be going head to head against them. I think the bigger opportunity in startups is for people who are building these vertically integrated online native brands.”
Let’s focus on the key part, vertically integrated online native brands.
- Vertically integrated, like Patagonia or In-n-Out.
- Online native, like, Harrys.
- Brands, like, Coca-Cola, a company that no amount of money could topple.
All you need to do is combine those companies. That’s why it’s so hard to compete with Amazon!
Thanks for reading.