Ben Thompson

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Ben Thompson spoke with Shane Parrish on The Knowledge Project podcast. Their conversation covered Ben’s start, tech today, and one of my favorite topics – strengths as weaknesses and weaknesses as strengths.

This is not our first post with Thompson’s takes. In Exponent 108 we looked at technology and jobs, inverting problems and questions, and winners and whiners.

Onto Thompson’s podcast with Parrish.

1/ See it to believe it. “For me, the most obvious outcome was I would go work in academia. That was something that was visible to me and accessible, but even then, my world was very small.”

Thompson had a stable youth. But he never thought of moving to Taiwan (where he lives now) or applying to Ivy League schools. Thompson’s curiosity combined with a good education was enough of a glimpse to see what exists beyond the horizon. And sometimes a glimpse is all you need.

Lee Child was fired from television at the worst time, late in his career. The network said he was too expensive. He didn’t know what to do next. His wife joked that he could be a supermarket ‘reacher’, helping old ladies and small children get things from the top shelves. Luckily for us, that’s not what he did. Child become a writer because he saw it could be done.

“(John MacDonald) made me think it was possible. I could see how it could be done. I love to see how things work on a granular level.”

There’s a difference, said Paul Rudd, about recognizing something in the abstract and as possible:

2/ POVs “I think to the extent my viewpoint is unique, the starting point is different. I start from business models.”

New views show new news.

Thompson likes basketball so much he has a Twitter handle just for ‘no tech’, @notechben. In the same way that Thompson is insightful because his new point-of-view, one of the NBA’s most outlandish basketball players succeeded because of his literal point of view.

This player was so good, he often played against kids who were bigger and stronger. So our future NBA star played guard. In a book about his career the author wrote, “…and this was crucial to the breadth, depth and originality of his eventual style; he became the quick little man who brought the ball up.”

This experience was formative because, “Most big men in basketball have always been big, which means they have always played as big men and seen the court as big men.” They developed one point of view. But our player, “by contrast, developed a guard’s view of the entire court, and he could, as few centers could, see an entire series of moves even before they developed.” Our player? Bill Walton. Our author? David Halberstam.

These advantageous POVs are disadvantages too. Strengths have a weakness and weaknesses have a strength. Thompson, for example, reflected that he’s not so good with the granular.

“I’m a strong believer that anyone, their strengths are their weaknesses and one is the same. If you’re super strong, one day you’re inevitably going to be weak in a corresponding area. I think my talent, such that it is, is this ability to view things systematically and to see very clearly and quickly how a business model flows through to product decisions.”

Andy Rachleff agrees, “One’s greatest strength is always one’s greatest weakness.” Bill James (of Baseball Abstract) too, “Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form of weakness and every weakness a strength.” Jocko Willink advances flanking exercises, which exist as a weakness because of a strong front.

Here’s Thompson on Microsoft:

“They didn’t miss it (the smartphone). They just were fundamentally unequipped to compete in it, and that’s what happens. That’s how disruption happens, and the stories of companies moving seamlessly from one paradigm to another are basically nonexistent because all the things that make you strong and competitive in one paradigm make you fundamentally ill-equipped to be in the next one.”

3/ Where to work from? “…on a day-to-day basis to not be in San Francisco, to not be immersed in tech in an environmental basis, but to be living abroad, living in a different country, talking to people who mostly aren’t really interested, or don’t really care, that much I think is tremendous.”

Yes, there are downsides, Thompson said, but, “being on the outside looking in brings, I think, a lot of clarity and skepticism, probably more than anything.” This is another strength as weakness and weakness as strength.

Ken Burns said that he loves living, as Thompson does, away from it all. ” I live in a tiny village in New Hampshire, which permits us to do the deep dives, to do the necessary research and keep the sanity in the course of a 10-plus-year project.” Michael Mauboussin guessed that a smidgen of Warren Buffett’s success is due to being away from New York City. William Thorndike guessed this too, “This distance helped insulate them from the din of Wall Street’s conventional wisdom.”

Josh Koppelman said, “There’s a real benefit to not being in the valley echo chamber….to see how the rest of the world views technology is really compelling.”

Other times you gotta be where the action is. Jenna Fischer‘s advice is to get to NYC, Chicago, or LA if you want to be an actor. There are some things you have to do in person. There are some things you only discover in person. Poor Economics is a book about discovery. Esther Duflo wrote, “References to a certain old-fashioned sociological determinism, whether based on caste, class, or ethnicity are rife in conversations involving the poor.” She’s advocating for factfullness. It’s finding, what Jan Chipchase wrote, is Hidden in Plain Sight: “Every new technology put out on the market is introduced with assertions and assumptions about how it will be used, but it’s only through actual experience that “use” is defined.”

Thompson covers technology strategy. He’s not in Tawain to avoid San Francisco’s fog, he’s in Tawain to avoid San Francisco’s hot air.

4/ Rapid fire. A few more ideas and links.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Ketchup Conundrum. Thompson said, “Well, I think you just said it. I think the internet has a barbell effect where there are returns to the biggest and returns to the smallest, and if you’re stuck in the middle, it’s just a very dangerous place to be.” Heinz, he said, should listen to Warren Buffett and dominate the B2B areas. The barbell is a helpful mental model; whether it’s reading habits like Marc Andreessen or investing angles like Roz Hewsenian.

No one will dominate Google. But the next Google, “will come from someone being in a garage who latches onto the next paradigm shift that makes it impossible for the powers that be to compete.” It’s about being different and being right.

Why does Stratechery’s subscriptions work the way they do? “I wanted the feeling of paying to be a positive feeling, where you’re going, ‘This is such great stuff. I want more. Can I pay to get more?'” Our Rory Week was all about feelings mattering too.

What about writer’s block? “Well, I think the most common misconception people have about what I do, especially given the amount of things I write about, is it’s not like every day you’re starting from nothing and scratching together an opinion on stuff that goes on.” Robert McKee suggested a trip to the library to cure writer’s gap. Anne Lamont would agree, “The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”

Do give it a listen, the episode goes to 11.

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Ben Thompson”

  1. […] Ben Thompson’s points out that every strength forms a weakness and every weakness forms a strength. This applies to our point of view too. Apple and Amazon, Thompson writes, are different companies because of their point of view. College is great for one way of learning, terrible for another. […]


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