No bad habits, no gold stars

We know nothing about venture capital!

“Correct, we have no bad habits. We were total outsiders. And, we weren’t kids that went to ivy league schools and worked at Goldman Sachs, so we weren’t accustomed to getting gold stars for painting in the lines. We were accustomed to doing things creatively outside the lines.” – David Fialkow, September 2021

People enter situations with a culture which can influence how they act. In society, and wearing a mask. In conversation, as debate structure. In politics, or anytime there is leadership.

People enter situations with incentives which can influence how they act. In music, ship platinum, receive gold. In football, three star recruits. In startups, what OKR? In horse racing, to race or to sell?

One of the tricky parts of life that covid revealed is the heterogeneity in life. Like, A LOT of variation. This same effect exists in the more mundane world of organizations. There’s no set of incentives or culture that always works. But there is a culture and there are incentives and each matter.


Have a nice day.

Show the way or in the way

One common mistake in our understanding of “how the world works” is to think that lack of action is due to a lack of information. If people just knew how important X was they would definitely do it.

One form is seen in the social media question: What would you add to the high school curriculum? Answers tend to hover around statistics instead of calculus, personal finance, or decision making.

Those are well intentioned suggestions, and on net, students would be better off if we could download a stats module in place of the first derivative. But information is not action.

Orlando Marriott hand washing sign

Geez. We’ve looked at hand washing (twice!) and there’s probably a well designed study that notes signs like that, in bathrooms such as this, change a proxy for health in some-such-way.

But, there’s a better example. It’s a real life example. It’s been tested on thousands. It’s also in Orlando. Arrange hand sanitizers to be avoided. To hijack Ryan Holiday: the obstacle is the way. But after two days people watching in the theme parks it’s very clear, this works.

And the reason for signs showing the way and not sanitizer stations in the way is incentives.

Back to Twitter. Some schools offer personal finance. From Kris’s nephew.

“I have this assignment for school where I have to invest $1,000 into a company’s stock. And I know you’re a stocks person so I was wondering if you know a good company i should invest in. Because the winner gets a prize of who makes the most money.”

Just give every twelfth grader $200. But there’s no action in that. There’s no standards or benchmarks or assessments about net learning in the second quarter of the school year. So in a way, Kris’s nephew is getting exactly what the system incentivized.

This is the system. In education it’s hard to measure “financial literacy”. In public health it’s hard to measure “healthy place”. In these systems optics are rewarded. Theme parks are in the optics business too, but for them results like: Person Gets Sick at World Famous Theme Park matter more. It’s important to know the rules if we want to play the game.


In finance there’s paper returns and there’s “moolah in the coola”, that’s another analogy. Paper returns are optics. Money in the pocket is an outcome.

Ship Platinum, Receive Gold

Within a system like an office, neighborhood, or team there are two main levers which drive behavior: culture and incentives. Culture, says Ben Horowitz, is what people do when they aren’t told what to do. Incentives are the rewards from actions. Incentives are easy to create but don’t always get the intended action.

One incentive might be fines for thin plastic bags. One potential action is customers switch to re-useable bags. Hey look! That’s was the plan.
Hannibal Loves It
Another potential action is using thicker bags. In this case the incentives led to the opposite anticipated actions: more plastic trash.

A family friend pays his kids for good grades. It works, but it’s likely a combination of culture and incentives. This is an incentive system that could easily go awry.

Another incentive that goes awry is rewarding for gross figures rather than net. This was the case in the record industry said Will Page:

“They would ship a platinum record because shipments were what qualified a platinum record. It wasn’t actually sales, if half-a-million albums came back to the factory gate it was up to the CFO to deal with the cost of returns. Once you create rules to play by people will bend those rules. If bonuses are related to platinum status and platinum status is related to shipments, then what do people do? They ship a million records.” – Will Page

1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack was reported Platinum but was a sales bust. The following year the rules were changed and Platinum meant shipments minus returns within 120 days. That number has crept back down to thirty. It’s incentives all the way down!

A Platinum album is one million units. Gold half that. Album certification – ship Platinum, receive Gold back – feels like a thing of the past. But incentives are not.

Three star recruits

The success equation notes that results are combinations of skill and luck. Some parts of life have a larger luck outcome than others.

So, to improve, we look at the skill slice. Poker’s appeal is this idea. Play more hands with positive expected value. But not every sport is as clean as poker. Football, for instance, is messier.

One way to work around the football outcomes is to focus on the football inputs. For instance, recruiting is important, how many highly rated recruits does a coach get each year? That seems like a nice input as the percent of “Blue Chip” recruits correlates well with wins.

Ah, but incentives are tricky.

“There are stories you hear, anecdotal but I’ve heard more than a few, about how different coaches may have a financial incentive to have higher ranked recruiting classes, and they may be involved in the process of lobbying to get guys higher stars.” – Bruce Feldman, Wharton Moneyball, September 2021

Incentives are like the weather. Just like a bunch of measurable aspects (temperature, pressure, wind, humidity) combine to form ‘the weather’, a bunch of measurable aspects of a job combine to form the incentives. A football coach has incentives to win, but also to pay his daughter’s tuition and take his family on vacation. And it’s not just football coaches, it is all of us.

What to do? Work is a combination of financial and non-financial rewards. Alchemy offers a way to tweak the non-financial rewards. Culture works well too, and that comes from the top.


Here’s a story on auto incentives (thanks Stephen!). Incentives were one of my favorite ideas, get all 62 as a daily email drip on Gumroad. Find them on Amazon too.

NFTs and Gary Vee

One way to support this time is different… is to say that the technology has changed. The smartphone’s GPS, camera, and chips all allowed a slew of businesses to serve customers in new ways.

Another way to see change is to ask the Bob Pittman question: is this another one of these? MTV followed from the idea of narrow-casting radio stations. If there was a rock station, country station, oldies station and so on on the radio shouldn’t there be something like that for television: a news station (CNN), a movie station (HBO), a music station (MTV)? This too was a technology shift.

“I believe there’s not a single sporting event or concert in ten years that the ticket is not an NFT. There’s no incentive for that organization or artist to launch it as anything but an NFT. A QR code or piece of paper means nothing. But if Luka Doncic drops a hundred points in that game it becomes a forever collectible. There’s a trillion-fucking-dollars worth of ticket stubs that have sold on eBay over the last twenty years.” – Gary Vaynerchuk, My First Million podcast, August 2021

A third way to consider change is to ask about the business model and the incentives. Sport is not a competition, sports is entertainment. Bob Iger wrote that he learned this lesson working the 1974 Olympics. “We weren’t just broadcasting events, we were telling stories.” There’s only one sport honest about this.

Are NFTs a new technology? Yes. Is this (NFTs) ‘another one of those (collectibles)’? Yes. Does the business model allow for this kind of innovation? Yes!

Local maxima

When stuck-at-home in 2020 my kids (12, 10 then) and I enrolled in the Marc Rober Creative Engineering course on Monthly. It was mostly above my engineering (and their in-depth interest) level but it was still great. We got to see Rober’s structure for brainstorming, more of the build process, and his thinking along the way. The hours of course video were like a documentary, a ‘Making of’ video.

One thing we saw was how Rober prototypes his builds. In the case of a making a candy launching device Rober made one using springs, one using compressed air, and one using hydraulics. The reason to prototype, Rober said, it to not get stuck at a local maxima.

Rober's sketches

We all have an idea for solving a problem and a lot of times we just do that. However in the situation we get more information. Rober suggests imagining a series of wooded hills. From the ground we don’t know which is highest (the best solution). So we need to hike up our best guess and look around from there. The hike up to, and the view from the top give us information on how best to act.

Rober’s process has come, in-part, from his years at Apple and NASA and making things like squirrel obstacle courses and glitter bombs. He’s a YouTuber with a very small staff, (no groupthink) so how might an organization avoid local maxima?

Rory Sutherland suggests following the bees. What’s great about Rory’s recounting is the structure. Organization direction is based on culture and incentives. Sutherland’s structure is one way to change the incentives.

“I think having two budgets, two sets of metrics, and two sets of incentives for exploit and explore. It would be utterly insane to learn something in a test and fail to exploit it by doing more of it. Make the most of what you know, but always invest twenty percent in what you don’t know yet. Bees do this where roughly twenty percent of bees ignore the waggle dance that tells you where to find nectar. The bees understand that if you don’t have these rogue bees the hive gets trapped at a local maxima and eventually starves to death.”

Part-of-the-question with a local maxima is the cadence of change: is a business more like Netflix or a pool construction company? Rober prototypes. Sutherland et al. ‘test counterintuitive things’. Some bees explore, some exploit. Each found a balance and designed a loose solution so not get stuck at the local maxima.

Not just OK OKRs

Sarah Tavel told Share Parrish:

“At Pinterest our growth team decided their OKR was monthly active users, a lowest common denominator thing. But if you choose the wrong metric you end up optimizing for the wrong thing, you’ll build the wrong features. Startups are incredibly resource constrained and you waste a lot when you focus on the wrong things. When the team realized this and changed the OKR to Weekly-Active-Pinners the entire roadmapped changed and we were able to serve the users much more successfully.” – @SarahTavel The Knowledge Project.

Tavel’s quote could be about 2000s baseball as well. The early days of baseball Moneyball were an era of what Tavel calls vanity metrics. At one point in the Michael Lewis bestseller, protagonist Billy Beane yells: We aren’t selling jeans! His point was that classic metrics like hits, home runs, or even body-type weren’t the optimizations he was looking for.

The problem that Tavel’s and Beane’s teams faced was a data collection problem. These metrics were mostly right and easy to collect.

“I have an allergy for vanity metrics. I can see a vanity metric a mile away. It comes down to intellectual rigor and being honest with yourself: what are you measuring and is it the right long term thing?” Sarah Tavel

Really wrong metrics push behavior in absurd directions. For instance, records used to earn certifications (Platinum, Gold, etc.) based on shipments not sales. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack (1978) was a Platinum album but was a sales bust. That’s what happens with an OKR based on shipments, not sales.

To their credit, the RIAA changed the rules for certifications in 1979. That’s what Beane did too. Tavel too. It’s a good reminder to ask: am I using this information because it is helpful or easy?


Moneyball might be the best way to win in sports but sports is a story and stories need narrative. I loved the Tim Duncan Spurs but the media didn’t. It’s why there’s only one honest sport.

Weekly active pinners? Hold my beer.

Incentivizing outcomes or optics?

These circles overlap to some degree in every situation. A minimal overlap situation might be the coder who wears sliders and hoodies and the banker who wears suits and slacks.

Outcome (noun): something which matters, is measured and measurable. Examples: sabermetrics, code, sales.

Optics (noun): something which might matter, however is unmeasured and unmeasurable. Examples: appearance, attention, cultural expectations..

Things which are difficult to measure will be evaluated by optics. In these conditions it’s best to maximize optics.

Things which are easy to measure will be optimized on their measured quantities. In these conditions it’s best to optimize.

Mister…Horse Racing

From, An Economist Walks into a Brothel.

“The incentives are different depending on if you plan to sell or race a horse. If breeders raced their own horses instead of selling them, they might pair two different mares and stallions to breed. Selling well takes having the right pedigree and characteristics of a sprinter, both of which encourage in-breeding, but maximizing the odds of producing a good horse is more complicated. Ideally, breeders would match the male and female characteristics, balancing out weaknesses.”

Allison Schrager

What’s remarkable about Schrager’s description is the homogeneity of breeding. If outperforming in investing is about being different and being right there’s not a lot of being different at the track.

And this kind of makes sense. There’s better ways to “WIN BIG” than racing horses, where the returns probably aren’t financial but social.

To sell well, a horse shouldn’t just be (lineage) fast but it should look fast too. Like Munger’s fisherman, sales is a question of incentives, metrics, and framing.

Tracking Tom Update.

Tom Brady passed for a paltry 196 yards this weekend and is now only ahead of pace by 36 yards. However, the combined record of the remaining teams on the scheduled is 13-24 (Lions and Falcons).

Bad teams plus a rigid playoff picture means that our framework seems to be holding: more unknowns will inhibit rather than enhance Tom Brady’s passing yards for the season.

Incentives for Marines

From Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away, and a reminder that incentives function in all kinds of ways. Yes, incentives are financial but that’s just part of the whole.

In his book, No Rules Rules, Reed Hastings notes that the best performers don’t work 5% harder after a 5% raise. Instead, the best performers work harder when they work on hard problems with other hard workers.

Incentives are the ‘internal funnel’. What kind of person do we want here?

There’s no answer but there are reward options. Put on your JTBD hat, and think of the decision train. Forget the engine, what people say. Forget the caboose, what most people think. Talk and talk and talk to find the destination where people want to end up. It’ll be a mix of colleagues, money, problems, commutes (to the right person), and more. Tinkering with the mix will bring in people who best match your problem.

And if in doubt, just find a Marine.

Good luck Spencer.