Gold Medal Culture

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

After the Olympic games in 1996, where Britain finished 36th in the medal count, Sir John Major shifted some of the national lottery money towards sport. Journalist Owen Slot covered the team through this time and in 2017 wrote The Talent Lab. He told a crowd at Google, “If you just chuck money at it does that guarantee you success? Money equals medals? My answer is very much ‘No’.”

Money did not solve Britain’s Olympic issues but it did make the next steps easier – and there were many next steps.  By the 2016 Rio games, Australia spent more on their Olympic program but Great Britain won more medals. At the 2012 London games, Japan and Korea combined spent seven times what Great Britain did only to win the same numbers of medals.

In addition to the lottery money was a cultural shift that reprioritized what as important. In the past, athletes selected their own coach, facility, and process. Now the British looked for athletes for their coaches and plans. They looked at base rates and determined that rowers needed to be a certain height, taekwondo athletes needed to do thirty-five high kicks in a minute, and swimmers needed to live within twenty minutes of a pool and not be older than thirty-two.

The coaching system changed too. Athletes are benchmarked numerically and now coaches would be scored, tallied, and ranked too. Even on intangibles. Steve Nash told Bill Simmons that they track resilience in soccer. “How?” Simmons asked. Attitude, hustle plays, and teamwork Nash said. They point out when players do or don’t do certain things. The English problem was too much stress, too much pointing out flaws too close to the events.

Base rates and coaching changes weren’t a silver bullet. Slot said, “I had a massive struggle with that. I tried to please my editor, but if you’re writing about twenty some gold medals you’ve got twenty some different stories. I started telling him that we were kidding our readers if we were going to tell them there was one thing all twenty some of these people did for success. It’s not just your ten-thousand hours, or your leadership, or your environment, or your talent – it’s all these things….but that doesn’t give you the opportunity to put one simple answer on the book.” Michael Ovitz told Ben Horowitz that the CAA culture was like this, a composite solution.

With the mindset of improvement, the lessons kept coming. Someone suggested that injured servicemen would make good paralympians. Here’s a group, most with an athletic background who have already proven they will work hard and follow instructions. The serviceman to Olympian program was a bust. Why? “No serviceman who went to Afghanistan or Iraq ever had the dream of becoming a paralympian.” Motivation mattered.

For 2008, British engineers redesigned the cycling bikes and kits, but a bike can only be so light. By this point they’ve changed the physical nature (selection of athletes), the psychology (management of coaches), and the physics (weight of bicycles). ‘What else could we do?’ they asked the athletes.

They got a surprising answer. “The team found that riders were somewhat embarrassed to talk about them and they were staggered by the number of training days missed due to saddle sores. Because no athlete wants to miss a training session if they train their training isn’t as good. So instead of trying to make the bike faster, they worked on that problem.” Their solution was simple, decline the saddle angle a few degrees. Those people who face the winds of the real world often have helpful solutions.

Previous British Olympic culture was heavy on top-down expertise. Once that culture changed, the teams started to change too. Pete Carroll said one of his best meetings was when he was a young coach and went to the players to ask them what they thought they should work on. They gave him good ideas. Proud of this insight, Carroll went to the head coach, high stepping like a proud child only to be admonished to never do that again and leaving with is tail between his legs. These insights are only found when teamwork trumps ego.

Thanks for reading.

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PR for VC from a16z

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

Shannon Brayton (CMO LinkedIn) and Margit Wennmachers (SV spinmaster) spoke with Sonal Chokshi on a September 2018 a16z podcast. A Wire Magazine profile of Wennmachers wrote, “She has a sixth sense for communications strategy, which has helped her educate the world about the revolution technology is powering.”

Brayton and Wennmachers take Chokshi on an expedition of public relations. There were more types of PR than I would have guessed (pre-IPO, crisis management, media relations, consumer-facing, product reviews, executive comps, etc). But every company needs someone to tell their story. Ideally, it’s the founder, but that’s rare. One said, “If you’re a founder and don’t have the storytelling gene, you need to let the PR team in so they can discover those stories and tell them for you.”

Companies are like restaurants, they need sizzle and steak. Josh Wolfe said, “There are amazing credible people. And there are amazing salesman. And sometimes those two people are one. When they are you have an amazing entrepreneur. But often times they’re not.”

And the sizzle can really move the steak. Hit Makers is a book devoted to this idea. “Content may be king,” Derek Thompson told Barry Ritholz, “but distribution is the kingdom.”

CEOs that don’t communicate well need PR. Brayton and Wennmachers praise agencies because they feel the winds of the real world. Andy Grove inspired Ben Horowitz and wrote, “Our IT manager said, ‘Well, that guy is always the last to know.’ He, like most CEOs, is in the center of a fortified palace, and news from the outside has to percolate through layers of people from the periphery where the action is.” Agencies do this.

Agencies also remove the challenge of hiring well. Sam Walton wrote what many leaders repeat, “My role has been to pick good people and give them the maximum authority and responsibility.” Finding good employees is onerous, hence agencies.

There’s other advantages. Brayton and Wennmachers point out that they can act as touch points for the world outside the company. Brayton added, “Agencies can tell the CEO they look like a complete dweeb where the employees have a harder time landing that message.”

What kind of an agency does your company need? “It depends,” Brayton said, “what you’re trying to solve for.” To start, companies submit an RFP (request for proposal) to find an AOR (agency of record). Both women urge honesty, if their acronym alphabet soup is hard to digest, tell them.

In fact, tell them everything. Wennmachers said, “Lawyers will tell you if they don’t want to know about a thing – but PR people do… I cannot steer the ship story wise if I don’t know what to stay away from.”

When vetting, ask a lot of questions. Find out, for example, that holiday gift guides are compiled in July. For retail products, ask what kind of media the agency selects. “For a consumer-facing product, the Nirvana is to have a Today Show spot,” said Brayton.

A multinational company will probably want a multinational agency. But, Wennmachers explained, “No agency is equally excellent in all their shops.” Like Ben Thompson reminded Shane Parrish, each strength is a weakness and each weakness is a strength.

The key may be communication. Companies and agencies don’t need to talk all the time, but “You need to communicate enough that you’re in a groove.” Companies need to be clear about what problem they’re trying to solve and give an agency the raw materials to do so. “During the building phase,” Wennmachers said, “you’re trying to see stories that don’t exist.”

As an agency manages relations they need access to the CEO. They know the story best and their involvement demonstrates how important a PR agency really is. Wennmachers advised to, “take as much care as you take with your product and your first hires, take as much care to decide if you are going to take this function seriously or don’t bother.”

Bill Simmons noted that the best NBA teams have organizations in lock-step with each other.

A PR agency is not a silver bullet, nothing is. Rather, the company story is built like the company product; by good people with the resources they need.

Thanks for reading. (An initial version of this post spelled Wennmachers’ name every conceivable way, and only one correct one. Thank you to the reader who pointed this out.)

Ed Catmull

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

IMG_0862.jpegIn 2015, Tim Ferriss spoke with Ed Catmull, the computer scientist who leads Pixar and author of Creativity Inc.. In the podcast with Tim Ferriss, Catmull (briefly) lamented the IPO which christened Steve Jobs a billionaire. Catmull said November 1995 was the culmination of twenty years of work and “I felt a sense of loss, a curious sense of loss because I had just achieved this goal.”

Catmull spent the next year reflecting. He wondered why successful companies become unsuccessful ones. “I had a lot of friends that were smart, creative, and hardworking. So whatever it was that was leading them astray was really hard to see.” In looking around, Catmull found a way forward, big goals. Whether it’s Cal Newport’s vital few, Scott Adams’s systems rather than goals, or Tyler Cowen’s production function, everyone has a system for work. Companies too.

How Pixar works, Catmull said, is misunderstood by most people. “Most people think of art as learning to draw or some kind of self-expression. But what artists do is learn to see and the actual training is one of observation.” Pixar’s work works because they tell true tales. It’s not the characters that are real, but the stories.

Our problem is misdefining creativity. Tom Kelley, the founder of IDEO, wrote  “When you hear the word ‘creativity,’ what do you think of next? If you are like many people, your mind immediately leaps to artistic endeavors like sculpture, drawing, music, or dance.” Don’t do this. Artistry is not creativity, but artistry and creativity are both things you can learn.

How? However, you want.

Different forms have different norms where new understandings are born. Catmull never read poetry but loved to listen to Hagel’s Odyssey, which was “enthralling.” Ditto for The Great Courses and their “marvelous lectures.” It’s in history that Catmull tries to find the human experience that he uses for Pixar’s ‘Brain Trust’.

In his book and interviews, Catmull conveys curiosity. Steve Jobs was curious too, and he and Ed debated Pixar’s course. Sometimes Jobs would see Ed’s point. Sometimes Ed would see Jobs’s point. Sometimes Jobs would “just let me do it my way.”

Sometimes, Catmull wrote, Jobs would float out ideas just to see what people would say. Dwight Eisenhower, we saw, did this too.

Whether with Pixar CFO Lawrence Levy, or Catmull, Jobs would argue well. “Steve was incredibly intelligent,” said Catmull. The people who worked best with Jobs were the ones that focused on the issue, not the issuer. It was as John McCain reflected to David Axelrod:

Catmull ended his book with an afterword titled, “The Steve We Knew.” He wrote, “The outside world sees the mythology of old Steve and the success of new Steve (Apple iPhone) and doesn’t understand the arc that Steve went through.”

We get mercurial Jobs – and it’s always ‘mercurial’ – because that’s easy. It’s easy to understand, remember and caricature. But life changes and our stories should too. We have to avoid what Tyler Cowen called, “the philosophy of once-and-for-all-ism.”

Every story is an abstraction from reality. Sometimes it’s a large one, sometimes not.  Annie Leibovitz recalled being in Israel, on the front lines of a war, in 1982 and seeing photographers rearrange scenes. Ben Falk saw a version of this, with the media and Sam Hinkie. Every ‘Moneyball’ baseball book has a story of the media degrading a team because they were (at least) one step away.

This tendency isn’t malicious, it’s instinctive. We crave stories. When Brad Bird promoted Incredibles Two, interviewers would ask about the comic influences to the movie. Err, there really aren’t any Bird replied.

We want stories that go down easily. But…

How do we see what life is like? We feel the winds of the real world. That, Catmull wrote, helps Pixar. For Finding Nemo, people got scuba certified. For Ratatouille, they visited Thomas Keller. For The Princess and The Frog, they went to Mardi Gras. For Up, an ostrich visited campus. For Monsters University, they visited campuses.

 

Thanks for reading. More Pixar here.

Pixar’s Business Story

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

For your listening pleasure.

Here’s an ePub, a PDF, and here’s a sample:

Pixar’s business success is a good lesson, but not for the reason you might expect. It’s a story with a happy ending but it’s a cautionary tale; this is everything that has to go right.
At TheWaitersPad.com we look at podcasts, videos, and books to learn lessons. That’s what we’ll do here, Pixar’s history and lessons in under an hour.

First a warning. There are no heroes in this book, only people. Some will appear wiser than others, but everyone was locally logical. The ‘dumbasses’ had succeeded while the times had changed. The ‘visionaries’ rode the winds of luck and skill.

We’ll draw mostly from Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. and Lawrence Levy’s To Pixar and Beyond. Catmull co-founded Pixar and still works there. Levy IPO’d Pixar and has moved on to new projects. Between these two – and a scattering of other sources – we’ll see how everything broke right.

The history book on the shelf, Is always repeating itself. — ABBA’s Waterloo, 1974

In 1974 Catmull graduated with a computer science Ph.D. and “a nice list of innovations under my belt.” He worked in New York and got his first taste managing a group that wasn’t grad students. “Once Alex (Schure) brought me in (to the New York Institute of Technology), he left it to me to assemble a team. I had to give that to him: He had total confidence in the people he hired.” This early example of a decentralized command would go on to be something Catmull made central to Pixar. He wrote about New York, “giving a ton of freedom to highly self-motivated people enabled us to make some significant technological leaps in a short time.” David Ogilvy advised the same thing, suggesting people hire “gentlemen with brains.

In 1977 Star Wars premiered and by 1979 Catmull worked for George Lucas in Marin County California. It was one hour north of Silicon Valley by car, and one hour north of Hollywood by plane. Lucas moved there because “he thought there was something a bit unseemly and inbred about it (Hollywood).” There, Catmull was able to continue his work. “The resulting environment felt as protected as an academic institution.”

Having space to focus helped Ken Burns too, who told entrepreneur.com, “I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York City. 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.” Some paths require someone to be in a place; New York for finance, Silicon Valley for computers, Detroit (formerly) for auto. Other times the insidiousness makes doing new things hard.

In 1983 George Lucas was going through a divorce and sold the company in 1986 to Steve Jobs for five million dollars and a promise to invest five million more (it would go on to be fifty million more). Catmull reflected that his conversations with Steve Jobs were like the Maxwell Cassette commercial. Steve Jobs was the speaker, everyone else was the guy.

Pixar’s product was the Pixar Imaging Computer and Catmull was president of a hardware company. “There’s nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.” Today we can ‘Google it’ and Catmull did the 1986 equivalent, he visited the library. However, the needles of good advice were buried in haystacks of platitudes. Simple questions like ‘What to price our computer for?’ “had distracted me and kept me from asking more fundamental questions.” This led to one of the most valuable lessons from the early days of Pixar.

 

Seinfeldia

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

Seinfeld the show and Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld the writers, succeeded because of talent, luck, and culture. In her book, Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong takes us to the set, through the history, and into once in a lifetime experience. What are the chances that another show’s finale will have commercials that cost more than those for the Super Bowl?

Seinfeld got his XMBAs at comedy clubs in college. Armstrong wrote, “He used his attendance at Manhattan comedy clubs as a kind of independent study. He analyzed comics’ approach to their material and even wrote a forty-page paper on the subject.”

David too took his turn on the stage, though he was more petulant. He needed Jerry as a ballast for the ship known as S.S. Televisionvision Show. Roz Hewsenian warned Ted Seides about brilliant grouches, “Do they recognize their own shortcoming and do they pair themselves with somebody who’s is sane?”

David, Seinfeld, and the show also benefitted from great talent around them; Julia Louis Dreyfus with her SNL and acting experience, Jason Alexander and his classic training, Michael Richardson and his physicality. Like Bryan Mills, they had a very particular set of skills.

On set, the culture was good, but tough. Culture isn’t about great craft food’s tables, it’s about great work with great people. Mike Reiss said about The Simpsons (who were almost network mates with Seinfeld) “Maybe that’s the key to the show’s longevity – there’s no drama at our comedy show. The Simpsons keeps rolling along because everyone gets along: the cast, the animators, and the writers all respect each other.”

Like The Simpsons, Seinfeld was mostly left alone. In Bill Belichick’s words, it was a do your job set. This surprised Alexander. “As soon as Alexander got the full pilot script, he noticed a major difference between The Seinfeld Chronicles and other shows he’d done. The pages contained few to no behavioral cues or stage directions; they had nothing but dialogue.”

NBC network executive Rick Ludwin, Armstrong wrote, “was known for protecting the creative talent behind the shows he supervised.” He told another executive to let Larry and Jerry make the show they wanted, “even when the network didn’t understand what the producers were doing”

This decentralized command was even celebrated. Armstrong again:

“In this spirit, Seinfeld celebrated its hundredth episode with a one-hour retrospective special on February 2, 1995. At the hundredth-episode party stood a centerpiece, a ten-foot-tall blowup of NBC executives’ list of requested changes to the pilot way back when. Almost none of them had been made.”

Seinfeld and staff needed this support because they were doing something different. Jerry said that early pitches for writers were, “all these sitcom ideas. I tell them we don’t want sitcom ideas. I tell them what we don’t want to do, but it’s hard to explain what we do want.”

Great shows are different. A network executive, Jeff Sagansky, agreed, “All hits are flukes.”

After the show finished, Seinfeld said that uniqueness came from newness – in the people writing and running the show – “this is a model that all networks subsequently ignored and never did again, except for HBO. That’s a network that hires people that they like and says that’s the end of their job.”

But Seinfeld wasn’t too different. Derek Thompson wrote about the Most Acceptable Yet Advanced (MAYA) theory. He suggested that cultural hits are different but not too different. There’s a Goldilocks zone.

Larry and Jerry found the sweet spot with fresh faces. The writer turnover was high because Larry and Jerry used those personal histories like raw materials and their writers like an assembly line. Many of the stories germinated in reality. For example, when they hired Carol Leifer they tapped the reality of woman, an often overlooked part of the room.

After nine seasons, Jerry turned down an offer for five million dollars an episode. He reflected, “I didn’t want to twist a dry sponge.” The finale was the third most watched in TV history (MAS*H & Cheers). TV Land broadcast a static door during it.

tvland

Larry needed Jerry and Jerry needed Larry and while Seinfeld got his public praise early and often, David got less. But he was just as important. “People won a lot of acclaim and a lot of awards for Larry’s work,’ writer Alec Berg said of the scores of scripts credited to staffers but heavily revised by David.”

Fellow Larry – Bird – said something similar about LeBron James. “[Former Pacers’ GM David] Morway was trying to get me to trade for them [J.J. Hickson and a selection of other teammates of James], but I ain’t takin’ any of them fucking guys up there…I said ‘you don’t understand son. Them guys playing with LeBron James look a whole lot better than what they really are.’”

Conditions matter. In an FT conversation, Vitalik Buterin rants about Bitcoin Bulls, “It’s the luck of the draw, where everyone who won the draw seems to feel like they deserved it for being smarter, ‘I was loyal and I was virtuous and I held through and therefore I deserve to have my five mansions and 23 lambos!’

Seinfeld was one of a kind once in a lifetime creation. It might have been the last show to join the zeitgeist with staying power. But it worked because of the professionalism, creativity, and camaraderie of the people who made it.

 

Thanks for reading.

Steve Osborne

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

Steve Osborne is a former NYC detective, speaker at The Moth, and author of The Job. Osborne’s book should be a graduation gift candidate. When young people finish school and begin work I’d hand them this book and say, find something that makes you feel and think like this.

Ready?

1/ Find a job where you say, “I love this fucking job.”

“I really liked the Ninth. I really liked the salty cops that worked there and the station house that was crumbling around us. But more than anything I liked the neighborhood. It made you feel alive, and it made me feel like a cop.”

“I got to work early, found a safe place to park my car, and walked into the precinct. I had that spring in my step that said I was happy to be here. It may sound crazy but I didn’t want to be home curled up in bed, or out at a party somewhere.”

Osborne hated waking up at 4:30 but he loved the work.

Mike Reiss wrote that after leaving The Simpsons, “I couldn’t stop writing.” Tyler Cowen said, “I view myself as a prisoner of my passions so that helps me to be very motivated to do what I do.” Charlie Munger, who said, “The more you know about some topic, the more passionate you will get,” is aligned with Steve Martin and Cal Newport to be so good they can’t ignore you.

PassionSkill (1)

How? Reps.

2/ Reps and understanding.

“The trouble with rookies is, once you learn a little and start to get the hang of things, you get cocky.”

Osborne admits he was like this.

“In my overenthusiasm to catch the perp and make a nice collar, I never planned on the likely event the train would come. Now, I only had a few seconds to think of something before I became a hood ornament.”

“I realized (later that day) that in police work having balls is a great thing, but having brains and common sense is what keeps you alive.”

With reps, Osborne learned how to spot a drug dealer.

“They’re always walking, constantly moving, but they never seem to go anywhere, and they watch everything and everybody – just like cops do.”

And reading graffiti.

“To normal people, graffiti looks like some nonsense written by a two-year-old child with a crayon, but to the trained eye it contains a wealth of knowledge.”

Reps led to what Ben Horowitz calls “earned secrets.” These lead to win-win situations.

3/ Create win-win, avoid lose-lose. For Osborne, a streetfight was a lose-lose proposition. Winning meant paperwork and time on something (likely) inconsequential. Losing meant being punched, stabbed, or shot How does a cop avoid that? “The reason we start yelling like maniacs is to shock the shit out of you.”

Warren Buffett looked for opportunities he called “two strings on a bow.” If an investment increased in value, Buffett’s stake would increase. If an investment decreased he could take a controlling stake and adjust the companies course. Buffett was like a pirate. If the captain did his job well, the profits would be shared by everyone. If he didn’t, then the crew would vote a new captain in and chart a change of course. That new captain would be Buffett.

Win-win is also theme in Scott Adams’s book Win Bigly.winbiglywin

4/ Opportunity costs.

“We could all collar up the first five minute of the tour, but then there wouldn’t be any cops left out on the street.”

After a homeless woman took a piss on his car, “I thought about chasing her – but why? What the fuck for? I didn’t want to catch her…And if I did catch her, then what? Tie up a sector car for a couple hours while they sat on her at the Bellevue psych ward? We only had three sectors working that night, and crime never stops in the Ninth. It would be a total waste of manpower.”

Opportunity costs can be difficult to tabulate…

…but Osborne succeeded.

 

Thanks for reading.

Stephen McKeon

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

Stephen McKeon joined Ted Seides for a podcast about drones, (block)chains, and wine. Most of the second half is about McKeon’s articles about tokens, compliance, and liquidity. We’ll focus on the wider ideas. Ready?

At the peak of the dot-com bubble, spring of 2000, McKeon took a job at a tech startup. “I had nothing to lose. I had no dependents. Making rent was my biggest concern.” This is a great time to act because of the limited stakeholders. Though the startup failed, “It felt educational in some ways.” Like Jenna Fischer, McKeon turned a failed outcome into a helpful experience.

His next job was at a winery in Napa Valley. Shortly after joining, the winery relocated nearer to McKeon and he found himself doing more because he lived closer. McKeon worked his way up to CFO as people more qualified than him steadily exited. He got the job, “largely just because I was there.”

McKeon’s early career is the success equation. He advocates for active serendipity at the end of the podcast and emphasized that yes, luck plays a role in every outcome but there still preparation we can do. Like Annie Duke’s podcast with Seides, this humble point of view is crucial.

Ed Catmull writes that without considering luck, we trick ourselves into believing false causality. “We must acknowledge the random events that went our way, because without acknowledging our good fortune – and not telling ourselves that everything we did was some stroke of genius – leads us to make more realistic assessments and decisions.”

Not wanting to harvest grapes forever, McKeon headed to Purdue for a Ph.D. It was a “non-traditional path (but) I took those experiences from the winery and they served as the basis of most of my early research.” The boots on the ground experience often guides us to better information for decisions.

Andy Grove advocated we feel the breeze of the real world. Jan Chipchase wrote, “The best way to understand how a culture adopts (or doesn’t adopt) an innovation is to go there and see it for yourself.”

After his graduate program, McKeon got a job and met a pair of students who would start a drone company. Like his other startup, McKeon spent this time “being close to emerging technologies.” In addition to drone regulation, McKeon started thinking about blockchains.

As he talked with Ted, the second half revolved around Josh Wolfe’s question and solution; Ask what’s a huge pain in the ass and solve for that. McKeon explained how blockchain might change 24/7 trading, settlement time, fractional ownership and liquidity issues.

In the same way eBay allowed people to sell baseball cards, blockchain may allow people to sell anything or even parts of anything. “Blockchain offers us protocols that are specifically built to move value,” McKeon noted.

But why does it have to be blockchain? The interview is pleasantly devoid of buzzwords and McKeon thinks it’s a Gordian Knot. Microsoft and Google are incentivized to not agree to a common protocol, which is the dirt solutions grow in. It’s why Master of None was ten episodes on Netflix. “There’s no reason for twenty-two episodes of anything,” Aziz Ansari said. New tech lets people start fresh.

There’s still work to be done. “Wallets are still kind of intimidating to people,” McKeon said, but “Coinbase is like logging onto Fidelity.” ‘Design matters’ is an echo we hear from the IDEO team, Rory Sutherland, David Ogilvy and Dan Ariely.

This was an inspiring episode. Whether any of McKeon’s ideas will transpire no one knows but learning the thinking behind them has already been helpful.

 

Thanks for reading.