#67 Mitch Lowe

James Altucher interview Mitch Lowe (@MitchLowe) to talk about founding companies, pursuing good (but ill timed ideas), and why working for McDonalds isn’t such a bad thing.

The interview begins with Altucher asking how Netflix got its start and Lowe tells the story that Netflix wasn’t started by Reed Hastings, at least not in the same way Apple was started by Steve Jobs. Jobs was like a force of nature, a black hole, pulling in anyone he wanted. Netflix was more like an asteroid bouncing around, requiring a critical mass before becoming something. For people it needed Lowe, Marc Randolph, and Reed Hastings came together. It also needed the breakthrough of DVD’s, which could be shipped in a first class envelope and DVD players, which was the biggest hurdle at first.

The Netflix team was confident in what they were doing, they just had one problem, not enough people had DVD players. Lowe and the others went to the DVD manufacturers and pointed out that “all consumers saw were VHS everywhere.” The Netflix people proposed that there was move value for the consumers if,  as Lowe says, “no matter where they live, they can get every single title that’s available.”

Netflix ended up having free rental coupons in 95% of all DVD boxes sold in the country. About marketing, Altucher says that even though all companies are different, “every company has its own unique way to market its product” and “often there is a giveaway.”

Ted Leonsis shared the same idea in his interview with Altucher, sharing how AOL came up with the idea to give a disk away that had the AOL software. In the interview Leonsis says, we assumed you had a computer and a modem and you wanted to get online.  We started mailing to your house.  You would get on a plane, and they would give you your peanuts and an AOL disk.  You would go to a game and people would hand out disks.  You’d buy an Omaha steak and the steak would come with the disks.” This was all inspired by a partner Leonsis had who saw the same thing happen with shampoo.

Free samples weren’t the only thing going for Netflix, they also had a strategic alignment. I recently finished the wonderful book, The Fish that Ate the Whale. The book is about Samuel Zemurray, the banana king and his conquest of Guatemala. In the 1940’s Zemurray was faced with a challenge in Guatemala, a new government was elected that wasn’t willing to have the same relationship with him. Kickbacks and bribes were out, power to the people was in. Rather than paying foreign politicians, Zemurray paid a lobbyist to hound domestic ones. The man to do this alignment was Edward Bernays, who shifted the question from one of bananas, to one of communism. Bernay and his agents lobbied, campaigned, and informed anyone who would listen that communism was taking hold in central America. Eventually the CIA got involved, and as where most places the CIA gets involved, murky waters get murkier. The essence though is the same, a small boat rides in the wake of a larger one. Both found more powerful partners that could help pull them along.


Lowe left Netflix in 2003 but tells James he learned 3 key things from Reed Hastings.
  1. To focus. Lowe says, “find that one thing you know you can be absolutely the best at it and drop all the others.” For Netflix this meant abandoning a DVD rental box (like those Redbox rental machines you’ve seen.)  
  2. How to use analytics. Lowe says that Hastings taught him not to look at analytics like a crystal ball but more like a weather forecast. If you can get a general idea from the data, take it. In the interview he tells James that for a time Netflix couldn’t’ pick out its core demographic because of so much noise in the data. Hastings helped Lowe find the trend of the data though and after keying in on this they grew their business even more.
  3. Double down on high performers. Lowe says he learned to cut out the average to low performers and keep the best ones. At Netflix this meant spending less on obscure movies and more on popular ones.
 
Around the midpoint of the interview Lowe tells Altucher about “Netflix Express” a physical location in Las Vegas that was shuttered before the IPO because Hastings didn’t want investors to think Netflix was going to be a brick and mortar location too.

Lowe eventually left Netflix as a full-time employee but continued to consult for Netflix as he worked more and more with McDonalds before finally leaving the former for the latter fulltime. There he was Senior Director and VP of Operation for two years before becoming CEO of Redbox. Even before Netflix, Lowe had built a vending machine prototype for VHS tapes and only now did he fulfill his vision.

As James and Lowe talk about the current state of Netflix, Lowe says that part of Netflix’s recent success is that they know what people like and how to promote it. About knowing what people like, their first two original shows Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards were created by first sticking their finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing and then typing out the scripts. In one interview Todd Yellin, VP of product innovation says, “We climb under the hood and get all greasy with algorithms, numbers and vast amounts of data. Getting to know a user, millions of them, and what they play. If they play one title, what did they play after, before, what did they abandon after five minutes?”  House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are based on other works, but only in the same way any original work is deviated. Netflix was in the same seat as Christopher Nolan when he made Batman grittier and darker. 

This data idea is true at the movies as well as who you are at the movies with. In Dataclysm, Christian Rudder writes about a blind date experiment on the site OKCupid. To test it, the engineers temporarily jumbled the site profile pictures and only matched people based on interests and location. Rather than looking at a picture, then the interests, a user got a message saying so-and-so has a lot in common with you and is nearby. With these blind dates people had a good time about 80% of the time, the same figure as when people were looking at photos. Rudder writes, “In short, people appear to be heavily pre selecting online for something that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem important to them.” Like a fisherman that can see the ferocity of the ocean, a good data scientist can find all sorts of things about you.

Another conclusion, might be what Steve Jobs once said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The interview ends with Altucher talking with Lowe about Quarterly.co, where Lowe had most recently served as CEO. Quarterly is “a subscription service for wonderful things” and some of the curators that Lowe mentions are; Tim Ferriss (who Lowe says is making north of six figures on the site), Pharrell Williams (who gave away a copy of The Alchemist), Nina Garcia, and Andrew Zimmern.

Lowe has an interesting journey and I got the sense from the interview he’s steadily moving forward. Netflix canned his pet project, oh well. Being CEO of Quarterly was temporary, that’s fine. Things that might seem like full stops, periods, ends to others are like commas to Lowe. Even at the end of the interview he says to James, “I’m just kind of exploring. I don’t have anything specific. I realized I want to get back into that business (of how people choose movies) again.”


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#60 Jim Luceno

James Altucher interviewed Jim Luceno to talk Star Wars, writing, and the persistence (and luck) it takes to succeed. I’m a fan of Star Wars, but the pair really get into the Tatooine weeds with some of the things they talk about. If you’re not a fan, it’s still worth a listen because there are some good lessons about writing and persistence, and not until the end do the pair talk all Star Wars.
Star Wars Cantina. Photographed by Colin Kenworthy

Jim is a franchise writer, and becoming one wasn’t easy. Luceno has written over 30 novels and 9 Star Wars books, but had very modest beginnings. His first exposure to Star Wars was going with a friend – Brian Daley –  to see A New Hope. Daley is one of the most popular Star Wars franchise writers, penning the Han Solo Adventures and adapting Star Wars for the radio.

After hearing about his connection to Daley, Altucher mentions that innovative groups inspiring and challenging each other is a thread woven through Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. I haven’t read that yet, but it was true about the Steve Jobs bio. Jobs could literally stumble into new discoveries because of the number of engineers that lived on his street. For Jobs this was incredibly influential, because these neighbors were the right mix of intelligence and technical know how.

In the book Jobs credits his father for teaching him the master craftsman mindset, sharing a story about asking his dad why they finish cabinets with the same wood on the back and not something cheaper. His father tells him that while the customer may never see it, he would know it was there.  Good groups also came up in Altucher’s interview with Brian Koppelman in their discussion of the Mayfair club, which produced a number of World Series of Poker top ten finishers before the club was shut down.

Luceno began writing when his travels led him to wonder if, “maybe there’s a story in there.” Building an actual career took a long time though, he tells Altucher, that after his first few novels he knew “I was going to have to keep being a carpenter.” During this time he built up his litany of work; writing more novels and then being invited to, and selling his first TV script in the late ‘80’s.  Even during the first few years of writing full time, he never felt like he had left carpentry behind.

Now he no longer worries, but tells James each Star Wars book takes “about a year of work.” In the interview Luceno explains that the procedure is much less structured than I would have thought. In my mind, Luceno would enter a secret vault, deep underground at Skywalker Ranch, where a war room with dozens of employees monitor the master plan. Los Alamos for the Star Wars universe. Not quite. Rather Luceno spends months “thinking and research” and then makes an outline for the people at Lucasfilm (now Disney). There they might make a few minor tweaks or suggestions. It’s quite hands-off.

It’s a similar story to the one Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez tell on NPR’s Fresh Air about writing the music for Frozen.  Robert might seem a bit of an odd choice for Disney’s next musical juggernaut considering that his last writing assignment was for The Book of Mormon, about as a non-Disney collection of songs as you can get. Rather than being strong armed, the pair say they had almost complete freedom, the only constraint was not being able to say god. In the interview Kristen explains a double entendre I had missed.  In an early song when one of the sisters is opening the castle doors to outsiders for the “first time in forever” she sings with joy;

“The window is open, so’s that door.
I didn’t know they did that anymore.
Who knew we owned eight thousand salad plates?
For years I’ve roamed these empty halls.
Why have a ballroom with no balls?
Finally they’re opening up the gates”

Once Luceno completes his research and outline – maybe a few months without writing – he begins. He writes in the afternoon and says that each book is like the first book. “There’s always that period in that first couple of weeks  of writing where I’m going I don’t know how to do this, I can’t remember how to do this. But that’s where the sweat comes in to it you just have to stick with and break through that initial period of uncertainty.”

A common theme to the interview is how much Luceno persisted in his writing career. He started very slowly, gathering his material from his personal travels and not until many years after did he pass the point of not having to worry about returning to carpentry. Luceno defeated what Steven Pressfield calls resistance, and writes, “we’re wrong if we think we’re the only ones struggling with Resistance. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.” This is the force that tells you not to do something, that keeps you on the couch rather than writing or running. It’s the force that Luceno squared up to and bullied out of the way so he could write about The Force.

That there is no Star Wars master plan makes sense, as the universe has grown since the 1977 release of the movie. As a Star Wars fan, but not a Fan, there was surprisingly little I knew about the actual Star Wars movie, and what a history it has. United Artists, Walt Disney Pictures, and Universal Pictures all passed on financing the movie, calling it “a little strange.” The written script took a number of major changes. The Wikipedia page gives a complete telling that I couldn’t justly summarize here.


One great things about Star Wars, is the fan works exist, like this video version about the  influences to Star Wars:

If you want to Nerd out a bit more:

#59 Brian Koppelman

James Altucher interviews Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) who ruined Altucher’s life. While, maybe not exactly, but he did influence the path when he created the movie Rounders in 1998, which was based on the Mayfair Club in New York City. The NYTimes wrote about the club in 1984 as a place to play backgammon, but warned, “This is an establishment where a lot of money changes hands. Players here are experts and they have a predilection toward huge stakes.” Five years there was an attempted robbery where the police burst in, guns blazing, to a a group of sixty and seventy year old men trying to get away with $20,000. It seems like Koppelman wrote one of many possible scripts about the place. In 2000 the club was shut down, but before that the police opined it was an illegal gambling club.  When it was shut down Koppelman wrote; An Elegy for a Carpet Joint.


In the interview, both Altucher and Koppelman comment on eating at the club, and loving the meals. “There was a historical film that almost settled across the club.” Altucher says, it this probably has tinted the rose wine glasses he’s remembering. In Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink summarizes more research on the psychology of eating than a Cheesecake Factory menu, showing that where we eat matters as much as what we eat. If your cafeteria has Rodeo Ron Chili you’ll probably like the food and venue more than places that don’t have the same name. Part of the “good food” that Altucher and Koppelman remember (and admit to in the interview) was from just being there.


The Mayfair Club was also a high dollar poker club and at first Altucher felt like “There was like a vacuum cleaner on my money.” Considering that club member finished 11th, 6th,and  5th, in the 1987 World Series of Poker, and have had other successful showings, it makes sense. Koppelman mentions that he’s started playing again, but Altucher doesn’t want to, saying it would take six months to get back to the level he was at. Though he tells the story about hoping his wife and newborn would fall asleep so he could sneak off to the club where Ingrid Weber told him, “I’m not letting you in here.”


After the poker talk, Altucher says that Solitary Man (which Koppelman wrote and directed) as “beautiful.” The movies stars Michael Douglas as a once successful car dealership owner who is on the brink of a comeback. Its Tomatometer is 81% but only one in two non-critics enjoyed it.


Growing up Koppelman says he had a “different sort of ideal road for me, partially because I wasn’t a good student when I was young. When I was a kid I had pretty bad ADHD.” Koppelman says that he was able to hyper focus on some things, but not others. This disadvantage turned into an advantage is something that Malcolm Gladwell looks at in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell’s thesis is that some successful people succeed only because some constraint that causes another attribute to grow. One example from the book is the number of highly successful dyslexics. Gladwell suggest that because they had difficulty reading, they constructed alternate  skills to make up for this like; the ability to learn very well from listening, public speaking, or reading people and situations accurately. Another “desired difficulty” from the book is losing a parent, which seems to catalyze some types of people.  If you’re a skeptic of Gladwell, this idea has been shared in other areas; philosophically by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, analytically by Nassim Taleb in Antifragile, and educationally by Paul Tough in Grit. Having something that pushes you back seems to ultimately make you move forward.

Altucher asks Koppelman about his story meeting Tracy Chapman. It was an early story about Koppelman’s persistence when he “saw the matrix.” He would follow her to shows, repeatedly asked to manage her, and didn’t stop when other record executives turned the pair down. Soon after she did sign with his label, Chapman released Fast Car in 1988. The song hit number 6 in the US and 4 in the UK.


One idea Koppelman remember when he faces resistance, is to consider the “limiting belief” idea from Tony Robbins. Robbins likens these “Subconscious idea about what we deserve” to a mental thermostat, only instead of temperature it’s success. If our mental baseline is for a lot of success, and we aren’t there, then we’ll find a way to get to that place. If, on the other hand and as Koppelman suggests, we think we’ve had to much success, then we can self-sabotage. Altucher has hinted that Tony Robbins is coming up on his podcast, but if you can’t wait, he did a nice interview with Tim Ferriss.


Before his experiences with Tracy Chapman, Koppelman was instrumental in getting Eddie Murphy connected to his father for the comedy albums. The stand-up world has always interested Koppelman and Altucher. James even promised to do stand-up with co-host Aaron Brabham.  In a recent webinar Tony Stubblebine, CEO of Lift, suggested Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy as a good recent book. Koppelman says Allan Havey is very funny.


Altucher and Koppelman talk about the really great stand-up comedians, and Altucher’s friend from school Jim Norton, who Altucher says was “so far beyond everyone in humor even as a little kid.” I’ve played a lot of pickup basketball in a lot of places, and this is similar to the guy who was a college basketball player. No matter how small the school, the pickup player who played in college is leagues better than the best amateur at any club.


Later in the interview Koppelman tells a funny story about living in the same building as Philip Roth. He was self-aware that Roth would judge him based on what he was reading, so he hid his book as he went to and from his building. One day he got tired of secrecy and went without a book, and of course the subway got stuck and he had nothing to read. After that Koppelman didn’t care who say what. In his recent Rolling Stones interview Stephen King said much the same thing when asked about the Young Adult genre, “It’s just crazy. I read all of the Harry Potter books, and I really liked ’em. I don’t approach any books in terms of genre saying that “This is young adult,” or “This is a romance,” or science fiction, or whatever. You read them because you read them.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you read, especially if you live near Philip Roth, who told Koppelman later, “I know you try to hide what you read”  and he paid the doorman to find out.


They pair briefly talk about Koppelman’s Six Second Screenwriting tips on Vine.


While Koppelman doesn’t offer much advice for screenwriting, Rolf Potts author of Vagabonding does when he takes a turn on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Potts suggests; Writing Tools by Clark, Story by McKee, and To Show and to Tell by Lopate.


Part of the reason Koppelman doesn’t suggest anything for aspiring screenwriters, is that he believes the core stuff is already out there. “You can find out online how to write a properly formatted screenplay” he says. Rather it sounds like Koppelman is encouraging people to find their own stories and begin to tell them. For Koppelman this happened when he read Awaken the Giant Within “in my 20’s” and he says he had to “dive deep.” He has also read The Artist’s Way and he meditates. 
 
A lot of times we want to find the superficial answers to the deep questions and that never works (I think that’s what Koppelman is trying to say.) In a recent episode of Cool Tools, Seth Godin is talking about the articles about building an online business and says that “most of the people clicking those links don’t want to succeed, and the proof of that is the internet has opened up this huge door for people who actually can work at home and make a living as a freelancer, as a researcher, as a writer, and huge numbers of people are doing it wrong. Almost intentionally sabotaging their work and falling victim to hucksters.”  Steven Pressfield says the same thing in his book, Do The Work.
 

These guys – Koppelman, Godin, Pressfield – are all echoing Altucher’s mantra to Choose Yourself. It’s not just the choice though, to really choose you must act.


Brian Koppelman’s success has largely been from persistence. He persisted when no one would sign Tracy Chapman, he persisted when no one would buy Rounders, he persisted when the creative avenue of writing was temporarily closed by moving to stand-up comedy. For a full list of his work see Koppelman’s IMDB profile, which includes the wonderfully underrated Runaway Jury.


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James Altucher interviews Dan Harris

James Altucher interview Dan Harris (@DanBHarris) about his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story and what it’s like to have a panic attack on live TV. The pair talk about mediation, happiness, and who exactly is that voice in your head, and how you can get it to calm down.

 The book and interview revolve around Harris’s panic attack, which you can watch below. When I first saw it I thought he was having a stroke or heart attack and describing it in the book he writes, “I was being stabbed in the brain with raw animal fear. A paralytic wave of panic rolled up through my shoulders, over the top of my head, then melted down the front of my face.”


In the interview Harris and Altucher both agree that mediation is good for anyone and the list of possible benefits include; reduced negative emotions, more empathy, treatment for anxiety disorders, less asthma, and positive cancer treatment among others. The Mayo Clinic has a comprehensive list but notes, “While a growing body of scientific research supports the health benefits of meditation, some researchers believe it’s not yet possible to draw conclusions about the possible benefits of meditation.” If the terms of a modern Buddha, YMMV.


Harris says that a big problem people have with meditation is the idea that it’s too spiritual, or for “people who live in yurts.”. He suggests that people who meditate need to come out and say they are meditators. Only when people begin to see and hear them – but maybe not their chants – will meditation become more normal. It doesn’t take much to start either. Harris began with only five minutes a day, where he sat down, set a timer, and focused on his breath. Once the alarm went off, he writes, “I opened my eyes, I had an entirely different attitude about meditation. I didn’t like it, per se, but I now respected it. This was not just some hippie time-passing technique, like Ultimate Frisbee or making God’s Eyes. It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind.”


Meditation practitioners are from a wide range of religions. Sam Harris is an active atheist who meditates, Tim Ferriss and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings both do it. Dan Harris’s book is filled with “Jew-Bu’s,” Jews who meditate. I meditate and I’m Christian. Saying meditation is only for Buddhists is like saying scuba diving is only for people who live in Florida. It may be easier that way, but it’s not limited to only them.


After promoting mediation for all, Altucher and Harris talk about what led up to his panic attack. In the book Harris explains he was snorting cocaine to get the same high that he had as a war reporter. He writes that being in a war zone was like “journalistic heroine.” When he got home he found his new high in cocaine, which can increase adrenaline levels in the brain and the odds of a panic attack. Harris’s psychiatrist prescribed Klonopin and this worked, until his job on the religion beat led to a meeting with Eckhart Tolle who Harris describes as “equal parts massively compelling and massively confusing.” Tolle served as the catalyst for Harris’s deep dive into mindfulness but like gas on a fire, Tolle didn’t have the long-term answers for Harris. He had to find those later, and on his own.


Harris and Altucher both mention that they’ve come around on viewing business as a zero-sum game. Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) wrote the very good Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success and he outlines the way that giving, rather than taking, is the better long term strategy. Grant proposes that givers build a larger network of connections, and that these webs will be helpful in the long term. A suggestion from Give and Take is to do a five minute favor for whoever asks, and expect nothing in return.


Back in the interview Harris also addresses that meditation shouldn’t make you a “punching bag” or someone who gets walked over – and he speaks from experience. In the book he describes his career slipping, and complacency entering his job at at ABC. He sensed it too and met with his boss who instructed him to, “stop being so Zen.” This kindly kick in the pants was the final piece to Harris’s puzzle, how to best leverage his newfound zen. He didn’t want to attend the rally of hippies, he wanted to be the first reported chosen to cover it.


Harris has found a happy medium. He still plans things, but only to the point of being helpful. One of his favorite mantras from the experience was asking, “is this useful?” If our thoughts don’t answer this in the affirmative then what’s the point of continuing to think it? For Altucher the thoughts have moved from worry to action.

“for instance, rather than worrying, oh my gosh, I went down in rankings today or what’s my number, what’s my ranking system, becoming more creative about right now what can I do, making a list for what can I do to market better, and that’s something – so I’m in control of what I can do right now, and as you said, I can’t control the future.  So I can say, okay, well, on Twitter, I’m gonna market a little better or I’m gonna build a Facebook page.” This is the ultimate epiphany that Harris finds, the leverage that mediation provides, it helps him direct energy toward the inputs rather than react to the outcomes. Harris still compares himself to his colleagues at work but rather than seeing what they are doing, he thinks in terms of “upping his game.”


In one scene from the book, Harris is examining himself on television, wondering what doesn’t look right. His wife comes in, and sits down next to him to show momement by moment what was wrong. For Harris it was an overall stiffness in the broadcast and he needed to relax. What applies to you and me though is how often we review ourselves. Shane Parrish – who writes the wonderful Farnam Street blog – suggests having a decision journal. You can write down the context, your thoughts before, and the outcome and then review how well the decision worked.  In Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland writes that teams should do the same thing. The Scrum philosophy is built around working sprints where a team tries to achieve a certain goal. At the end of the sprint they come together and ask what went well, what didn’t, and why. Leslie Perlow found this same idea cut down the stress and amount of work when she advised Boston Consulting Group for her book Sleeping with Your Smartphone.


In the interview Altucher asks how his work life has changed since the book came out. Harris was worried about how his colleagues would view his admitted drug use but,  “what I’ve found is that people are like, oh, okay, so you’re a human being too” and no one took that much notice. Psychologists call this the Spotlight Effect. The idea is that we often drastically overestimate how much people observe about ourselves. We notice everything, because we are the center of our own word, but we are never the center of anyone else’s.


Toward the end of the interview Harris explains the difference between mindful meditation and compassionate meditation:

“mindfulness meditation, just for anybody who’s gotten this far in the podcast and doesn’t know, you know, the basics of it is essentially the beginning practices you’re focusing on your breath.  You’re trying to feel the breath, and every time your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath, and that really does a couple things for you.  It boosts your focus and also builds this ability to see what’s happening right now in a nonjudgmental way without getting carried away by it.  Compassionate meditation is trying to boost a different muscle – or build a different muscle in your brain, which is, you know, empathy and compassion, and what you do, and this is gonna sound really dopey, but the practice involves picturing specific people and sending them good vibes, like may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe.”


If you like the interview, do check out the book. Harris approaches this question with a reporter’s eye and while he gets excited about many things, he never gets pulled into the “rah rah” nature that sometimes tags along self-help ideas.


In his book Harris suggests Real Happiness and Insight Meditation as good meditation books and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and Buddhism Without Beliefs as books about Buddhism and mindfulness.


Other books mentioned in the episode:


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