Landslides

One idea (Rory Sutherland and Nassim Taleb talk about it most) that’s perpetually interesting is that in real life 2 x 5 does not equal 5 x 2. One perk of Central Florida is the theme park day trip. Going to the theme parks seven days during the year is different from a seven day vacation once a year.

The heart of this idea is the balance of effect and time. Sun-skin damage is like this. It’s much worse to get sun burnt twice a year than it is to get the equivalent amount of sun spread over many days outside. Stress follows this pattern as well, and sleeping on it tends to always make things better.

This (via Reddit) is the best visual representation of the idea. The same amount of material flows down but it reaches the town at different times. We used to live in Athens Ohio which would periodically flood and it was the same idea: effect over time. Five inches of rain in one day was not equal to one inch of rain over five days.

Marc Andreessen commented on this too with regards to the culture of work: “I’ve never really got the water cooler conversation thing at the office. Maybe it’s because I’m too introverted but I always thought the water cooler conversations were so facile, light, and substance free…I wonder if the in-person setting of an off-site, over a meal, over a drink where we aren’t under pressure or in between meetings or emails, where we actually get to know somebody might actually create much stronger relationships than someone you see at the water cooler everyday.

If the mechanism is effect over time, we can consider how to extend, delay, compress, or shift some impact in time.

Liberty addressed this in edition #149 regarding self-driving cars: “If they’re all communicating at very low latencies, it’s trivial to make micro-adjustments to avoid animals, and all other cars around would know what your car is planning on doing before it does it…To a computer, it’s all happening in super-super-slow motion.”

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.

Earned or eligible?

“We were trying to motivate vets to take advantage of an education employment benefit that they were entitled to after returning to the United States after their time serving in the military overseas. The office of Veterans Affairs had very little budget and could only send one email to veterans to market this program…We changed just one word in the email. Instead of telling vets they were eligible for the program, we reminded them that they had earned it through their years of service.” – Maya Shankar, Inside the Nudge Unit

Another way: a vaccination dose has been reserved for you.

Behavioral scientists call this the endowment effect, all things being equal we value the thing we have more than the alternative.

Cade Massey observed (2018) this in the NFL. One year a team would refuse to trade down, noting the value of a high draft pick, but the next year refuse to trade up, noting the value of multiple lower picks. All things equal is never quite true so the question is how unequal is this case?

The first step to any problem is admission and articulation. We had a derelict iMac on our kitchen desk for a long time. A few times a year the kids played Roblox and sometimes it streamed music. One day I logged in to the Apple trade-in program and discovered it was worth $240. Click, fill, submit the form and three days later a box showed up. Pack, seal, ship. Ten days on I had an Apple gift card. There’s no way I would spend $240 on an old iMac and so trading it in was an easy exchange.

If that was the whole story.

You see, this was the second time I did this. Almost two years early I did the same thing. Click, fill, submit. The box came, I procrastinated and the return, recycle, and reward never came. Why not? The transaction costs.

The endowment effect is a helpful human habit because it shields the owner from transaction costs. Exchanges have middle-men, asymmetric information, ambiguity, and egos. But words like ‘reserved’ and ‘earned’ reduce some of that mental accounting.


Another way to think about this is to ask is this a compromise or a coin flip??

Creativity, Conflict, and Choice

One skill rising in importance is choosing when to use technology. Circa June 2021, it’s pretty clear that technology does two things really well: repeated calculations and reductions in space. Rory Sutherland credits the Covid pandemic with normalizing video calls, a service wrongly pitched as the poor man’s travel rather than the rich man’s call.

Covid has also highlighted scientific accomplishments. What used to take a graduate student (or twos) career, now takes minutes. Via the BBC:

“When I was a young scientist we did this manually and it was very laborious. To get the sequence of a Coronavirus it would have taken at least a full graduate student’s career and maybe more. Now we can do it in a few minutes.” – Marilyn J Roossinck

But just because we can use tehcnolgoy to reduce distance or make calculations doesn’t mean we should.

In the room or zoom we noted Jason Blum’s opinion that to support creative things it helps to be in the room. That’s true for movies-creative but also for technology-creative. Ben Horowitz said:

“One of the things that has become clear is that remote work is more efficient than in-person work. But, there’s kinda a couple of things it’s probably not as good at. One is creativity and the other is tough conflict resolution.”

Work from home is different.

When explaining the idea of jobs-to-be-done, JTBD, Bob Moesta asks his interviewer if they like steak or pizza. ‘Well I like both’ they respond. ‘Right!’ Moesta says. Sometimes the situation calls for pizza and sometimes it calls for steak. That’s the kind of mindset good technology use calls for. What about a situation makes it better for the room or using Zoom?

Compromise or Coin Flip?

“And so the general mathematical way of thinking about this,” explained Vitalik Buterin, “is if you have A and B, and you had to choose between a compromise between A and B or a coin flip between A and B, would you take the compromise or the coin flip?”

Convex situations are x^2 conditions. These are coin flips. War, says Buterin, is a convex condition. It’s better to fight at A or B rather than A and B (Jack Reacher style). Travel during Covid is another. Host Julia Galef adds another, “as someone who took only two thirds of her course of antibiotics for strep throat at one point in college, I can attest to the all or nothing approach.”

Concave decisions are compromise. Omnivores are concave. Iatrogenics is concave.

Concavity filters advice. Any really great idea is too expensive to pay for.

There are always trade-offs. A or B vs A and B won’t always work, but it’s another idea to add to the mental toolbox.

Anchor Skills

Bob Hamman is the greatest bridge player ever. So what’s his advice for learning how to play bridge?

“Similarly in bridge if you have some baseline to work off you’re dealing with a lesser set of problems. That doesn’t mean you can’t start from scratch, you can. If have an anchor it helps. If you have a few anchors then solving is simplified.”

Think of a sudoku board, says Hamman. The minimum necessary numbers is 17. Typical ‘difficult’ boards will have twice that many. The more numbers the easier the board, but not all numbers are equally helpful. A board full of fives removes fives but leaves a lot of ambiguity.

For bridge, Hamman suggests, start with a game of trick taking (euchre, hearts) rather than a game of bidding. If someone gets tricks first it’s easier to teach bidding.

Ben Horowitz offers a corollary to this: it’s easier to teach an engineer how to be an executive than it is to each an executive to be an engineer.

Hamman was mentioned by Bill Chen (mentioned in Kris‘s newsletter). Chen plays chess and some bridge but he addresses the same idea. When someone tells Chen he’s really smart he says that he’s not really that smart, he just gets math-and math is the best baseline, at least for what Chen does.

There’s a lot of names for this idea: first principles, baselines, anchors, foundations. What’s helpful in this advice is the idea that some fundamental ideas are more helpful than others.

Hamman has played with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Two “regular guys with a bunch of bodyguards.

Hurdle Technologies for Consumer Goods

“The truth was, we sold health and safety first, environment second and as an add-on, these products worked as well as traditional products,” said Jeffery Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation on HIBT, “We believed that in order to set ourselves apart, especially to new moms – health and safety was critical as well as the environmental benefits.”

In food safety there’s an idea called ‘hurdle technology’. Rather than a single preventative measure for keeping food safe, there are a series of ‘hurdles’ that pathogens must clear to make it into the human body. Preservatives, temperatures (extreme high or low), and acidity are all hurdles that can and are used.

The same idea applies to consumer products, though we don’t quite have the language to think this way. Each consumer has a series of questions they want answered before they decide to buy a product, though we don’t quite have the language to articulate this.

Winning wines, for instance, showed that people want something that tastes good (average), something with an interesting label, and some guidance about how to, or what to serve with. Every time I walk past the 19 Crimes wines I smile, they get it.

Rx Bars demonstrate that same idea. Are there grains? No, okay, next hurdle. Is it tasty? Yes, okay, next hurdle.

Framing a problem this way helps a lot because as companies develop products they can narrow down the issues. Also notable, like Barefoot Wine and JTBD of wine, there was a new set of consumers (young moms) that Seventh Generation served.

Jazzercise? Job-ercise?

“I was teaching in the morning, which tends to be a time when a lot of stay-at-home moms take a class. They would come and take a couple of classes and then I’d never see them again. I wondered what in the world was going on. I went and talked to some of them and they said they like it but they said I was teaching it like they were going to be professional dancers. They didn’t want that, but they did want to look like professional dancers.

That is Judi Sheppard Missett on the How I Built This podcast.

There are a few ways to find the JTBD. One is to talk to current customers. Another is to talk to previous customers. Bob Moesta says to talk to both. What the previous customers told Judi was that they wanted to look great and have fun doing it.

The whole episode is good because it highlights a systemic need: non-weight lifting exercise. People wanted a thing, and as is often the case, couldn’t articulate it.

Everything in our life seems obvious now but there’s always a change around the corner. Phil Knight wrote in Shoe Dog that runners were considered weirdos. Nobody exercised. There was a need there, and Knight and Missett both filled it.

Moesta says that he likes to see things as sets. Jazzercise then might be the set between fitness-fun-novelty-and-groups. Whatever your customer’s set is, follow Judi’s steps and go ask them.

CAC Pack

Patrick O’Shaughnessy asked about clever customer acquisitions. The replies are pretty good.

In college, I played ultimate frisbee. Recruiting was kind of difficult. The traditional method was to buy card stock table tents and litter the dorm eateries. That seemed cluttered to me. I took our marketing money and subsidized t-shirts to $5 each. One guy on the team bought four. Did they work? Who knows. Was it better than table tents? For sure.

Customer Acquisition (Costs) strategies are not so easy to organize. Marketing? Samples? Scrolling through replies I settled on five. The whole stories are in podcast form: Overcast, iTunes.

The highlights:

  1. McDonald’s Kid Meals were created in Guatemala by a struggling franchise. The thinking was: kids eat less and different food. The Happy Meal was created in Chicago when an advertiser Bob Bernstein watched his son eat cereal for breakfast and read the box.
  2. AOL discs were everywhere because AOL had previously sent boxes to homes and saw a staggering conversion. At the time people had computers, but not software the getting people to try AOL was like a lot of other consumer products. Steve Case had worked at P&G and gotten shampoo distributed the same ways. (At one point AOL was half of worldwide CD manufacturing).
  3. “PS I love you, get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” was the original email signature. VC Tim Draper was an ’84 Harvard MBA and studied Tupperware. The I love you was dropped and the line worked.
  4. Netflix used coupons in DVD players in 2000-2002, a lollapalooza of technology, selection, and customer demand.
  5. When Rich Barton launched Expedia he asked Bill Gates for millions to buy TV ads and Gates said ‘Yes’. When Barton launched Zillow he asked Bill Gurley for millions to buy TV ads and Gurley said ‘No’. The difference was the business model. What might work instead? The Zestimate.

The theme across these is that a business disrupted an incumbent (or itself) by taking something that worked in one area and applied it to another. The cleverer the angle, the less the financial cost.

How jokes, and all things, work

Here’s Jerry Seinfeld telling Tim Ferriss about an idea he’s got. It’s still early. We don’t know yet if it’s a joke. Seinfeld said, “I don’t know what to do with that”

“When you’re on a cell phone call and the call drops, and then you reconnect with the person, they’ll go, “I don’t know what happened there.” As if anyone is expecting them to know anything about the incredibly complex technology of the cell phone, they offer this little, I don’t know if it’s an excuse or an apology. They go, “I don’t know what happened there.”

After Seinfeld has an idea he writes it down (there’s a lot of good writing and creative tips in this episode) and he works at it. Seinfeld explores the idea like my mother-in-law explores the home goods stores. Is this a good decoration? Does this match what else I have?

Seinfeld writes on yellow legal pads until a joke is pleasing to the ear. Then, it’s time to see how it works. And to remember, nothing is above the laugh.

At a comedy club the joke thrives, it dies, or it suffers enough damage to limp home and recover to emerge stronger and better prepared the next time. The comedy club is feedback.

“That’s the paradise of stand-up comedy. You don’t have to ask anyone anything. Stand-up comics receive a score on what they’re doing more often and more critically than any other human on Earth.”

Jerry Seinfeld

All things work like this. From idea to iteration to feedback in the market. Stand-up from Seinfeld is the cleanest version of this. Jerry’s method is the IKEA instruction of comedy, down to the simple paper it’s printed on. A comedian can have a joke in the morning, work it over over lunch, and deliver it after dinner.

All creations follow this process, but comedy is the gold standard because it’s clear and clean and quick. Write a newsletter (neé, blog) and the feedback is slow. Create a product and after development, marketing, and distribution you might know if people like it.

Poker’s appeal is principally the same. It’s cause-and-effect world. It’s easy to see. We like that. Comedy too.

Life is messy. But this helps. Keep in mind that the same process underlies everything creative: idea, iterate, feedback. The loop may be longer, but the process is the same.