Helpful Lessons & Directions

Why is India a good place to walk, Tyler Cowen asks Paul Salopek as he retraces the steps of the first human migration.

India is good, Salopek says, because the people there have walked the walk.

“Whereas in motorized societies — and I’ve written about this — it’s pointless to talk to somebody in a car — if you’re on foot — about directions because the scale of their sense of landscape is limited to these strips of asphalt that are a few meters wide that wheeled vehicles can go on. Beyond that, it’s just this moving tableau that’s an abstraction.

“In India, people can tell you shortcuts. They can tell you where the best tree is to take a break, where the best temple is to sleep at night, where the next jug of water waiting the foot traveler lies ahead. India was marvelous. I felt among a brotherhood and sisterhood of walkers there.”

Paul Salopek, Conversations with Tyler

Our This Time is Different is about understanding this idea. Walkers and drivers travel through the same physical space but travel through different temporal spaces.

When there are different rules then this time is different.

ESPN’s innovation dilemma

One pant leg on is a local maximum. One problem is solved but the larger set is not.

Clayton Christensen’s series on disruption and innovation is about local maximums.

Money machine go brrr is a strong incentive to keep printing. Maximizing a profitable business makes sense, which is the dilemma! Organizations find themselves looking good in one pant leg.

The solution to local maximums is exploration. But this is costly – money, status (uh oh), time, reputation. Plus the stakeholder’s opinions.

The solution, Clayton Christensen writes, is separation. Different groups with different strategies, finances, and when possible physical locations.

Solutions via exploration are important because customer and consumer preferences – their JTBD – change.

“We are all under the Disney umbrella,” Brian Burke said, “ is a huge enterprise with an army of people and is a revenue generator in so many ways. It’s difficult to change course. FiveThirtyEight is agile, nimble, and experimental so (publishing there) was a great opportunity”. go brrr.

Which is the dilemma, and Disney/ESPN uses FiveThirtyEight as the exploration solution. Who knows if Burke’s writing approach is better, but the publishing strategy is a solution to the innovator’s dilemma.

“The next” will be different. Whatever is next will have a different business model than the current Great Firms (Christensen’s subtitle). Whatever is next will have a different maximum. It will be a short vertical video or the degradation of the sport monoculture or something we can’t predict today.

Or even an analytic forward analysis from Brian Burke.

Scar tissue/this time is different

The working model for ‘this time is different’ is that this time is different when the system changes. Our examples:

Usually TTID is used optimistically. Invest/do/act this way because this time is different! However, Marc Andreessen explains the opposite case. Someone learns the system’s rules but the rules change.

“One way to view your trajectory through life is touching hot stove after hot stove…a lot of people who work at startups that don’t work learn not to work at startups…It’s the most natural thing and it’s like scar tissue. So as you age you naturally build up this scar tissue of all these cautionary lessons and as a consequence your aperture of what you’re willing to explore shrinks.”

Marc Andreessen (The Knowledge Project, YouTube)

But things change! “What you see is that some kid shows up five, or ten, or fifteen years later and takes another swing at it and it becomes a gigantic success,” Andreessen added, “Webvan doesn’t work but now you have these giant successes in food delivery.”

It could be a sign of age, or just contrast, but throughout the talk Andreessen keeps calling them ‘kids’. Makes sense. What reveals more change than time?

Another, for Elon Musk, TTID was true for reusing rockets. But it is not true for traveling to Mars. Physics is law, everything else is just a recommendation, Musk noted.

This time is different: housing

Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. Warren Buffett 2014

The follow up to “this time is different” is to ask “Why?” Sometimes it is technology, the iPhone allowed location based apps. Sometimes it is the rules, like regulations. Sometimes it is the conditions of the system.

Conor Sen considered if the 202X housing market was like 2006 or if ‘this time is different’.

“The underwriting is so much better. We aren’t seeing the same construction as 2006 because of the supply chain issues. Builders are more conservative. The demographics are stronger. We have broader inflation. It’s harder to see what’s worse now versus then if you’re worried about a bubble situation. I don’t see it, yet. Maybe in a couple of years.”

Sen’s suggestion is that once the demographics change and there’s fewer people then the housing demand will change. The right framing for housing might be: what other ways is there a housing market collapse? We saw the 2006-2010 version:

TTID: Canadian software

Our this time is different examples have noted that when the overall system (airline regulation) or when the technology within the system (high jump pads) changes then this time is different. While confirming evidence isn’t a perfect indicator, it’s nice to note:

“If you have a mining business then base rates can tell you something. But over the past ten years there’s a new crop of businesses that have no historical analogs. This sounds like ‘this time is different’ but sometimes it kind of is. These businesses (software SAAS) grow fast, they grow organically. In a couple years they have global reach and no capital requirements. They can click a few buttons on AWS and suddenly they have more servers. They have expensive stocks so they can hire the best engineers, all around the world because everything is remote.” – LibertyRPF, Infinite Loops, October 2021

Often, TTID is used to support a narrative claim, and in general it pays to ‘short the narrative’. But sometimes TTID is right, the world changes. It’s a bit like finding a needle in a haystack (if there even is one).

The base rate for TTID is low. But when systemic rules or new technology allow the job to be done we can look closer.

Liberty has a nice Substack.

TTID Restaurant

Restaurants are an interesting case study. In part because of the accessibility, everyone has can cook something. So much like making movies or winning wines there’s a fair bit of “I’ve seen that done so I could do that”.

But restaurants are difficult businesses. The pricing power belongs to the landlord not the chef. Staffing is brutal. Inventory expired expediently. Examples like Chez Panisse, Five Guys, McDonald’s, and In-N-Out provide great history through industry, but are outliers in business.

I’m reminded of Sir David Spiegelhalter’s (OBE FRS) comments about health news. Basically the Brit wants us budding Bayesians to not update. Health news, David said, is only news because it is novel.



This time is different.

One template for TTID is to ask if the technology has changed the system in an important way. For hobbies it was the internet. For air travel it was deregulation. For tickets it might be NFTs. For high jump it was the landing materials.

Another way to think of technology is: rules of the system.

For restaurants it might be robot. A restaurant rule of thumb is that food, labor, and real estate each tend to eat up 30% of the costs. Yet just with location is the issue of “wholesale transfer pricing“. It’s the same idea behind Netflix’s original content: Can my suppliers raise prices faster for me than I can for my customers? If the answer is yes then we don’t need Admiral Ackbar to note it’s a trap.

But the pasta robot changes that:

“The robot means Cala saves 60% on real estate costs, which it says it puts into spending more on the cost of food ingredients, allowing it, Richard says, to deliver higher quality meals at a better price. The company’s labour costs are similar to other restaurants — they still have staff serving the meals to customers.” – Freya Pratty, Sifted, October 2021

Cala, like ghost kitchens, has shifted the 30/30/30 economic equation. If the JTBD of food has changed then maybe the economics have changed too. Maybe future restauranteurs will feel a little more full.

Even TTID is subject to Spiegelhalters’s scorn. It’s attention grabbing to say that things really are different this time. Hopefully our series helps us figure out when it truly is.

The day the *hobbies* died. Bye, bye thanks-to-America-Online…. (To the tune of American Pie)

One way to notice change is to notice the words people use to talk about changes. The online shopping of the 90s became just shopping. The online banking of the 00s became just banking. The online dating of the 10s became just dating. The online communities of the 20s, well you see where it’s going.

“The Internet has just killed hobbies. They’re dead. They’re gone. The concept doesn’t exist. The concept of ‘having a hobby’ died at the exact same time as the concept of ‘going online’. This was a phrase you heard constantly from 1994 to 2005. You get home and you ‘go online’. The big company was AOL, America ‘online’. Around the mid-2000s people stopped ‘going online’. Why? Because we were online all the time. The idea of not being online is now the weird thing.” – Marc Andreessen, CSPI podcast, August 2021

I remember this! You got home from school and you signed into instant messenger and entered the Yahoo euchre room. Good times good times.

Having a modifier doesn’t mean something will become the new thing, but it does mean it’s different and may be worth our attention. A few others: autonomous driving, crypto currency, digital wallet, online learning, distance education, internet friend, gig economy.

This time is different happens with technology changes and the descriptions offer a cutting edge hint.

This time is different: 70s airlines

This time is different is an attempt to understand when this time is different rather than when it’s not. Our working model is that TTID when the system changes.

In the high jump, things were different because the landing area went from wood chips to soft foam, allowing athletes to land on their back.

In startups like Uber, things were different because the technology costs like AWS and GPS fell. Similarly is Ben Thompson’s question: what happens when marginal costs are zero?

A systemic change was the case of airline deregulation in the 1970s:

“Something else happens and you can see it in the airline route maps. Look at one in 1978 and you don’t see that many red lines but in 2017 it’s an explosion of red all over the country and there will be these spots where they’re very dark: Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis. These are hub airports. Hub and spoke activity really takes off after this (airline deregulation) legislation.” – Bruce Carlson, My History can Bear up Your Politics, August 2021

Prior to deregulation, the average flight was 55% full and a ticket from New York to Los Angeles cost $1482 in inflation adjusted dollars compared to $268 in 2021. Carlson points out too that a number of companies like Pan Am went out of business after the deregulation.

Pan Am

Those idyllic phots are temping. Those were the days. But that’s like someone fifty years from now looking at Instagram and thinking that was life. Hey, everyone was beautiful and always on vacation.

These posts are an attempt to categorize when TTID. So far it’s when a fundamental aspect changes how a business creates value and captures value.

In 2019 one billion people flew in the United States. One in six 2019 flyers were on a Southwest flight. One in twenty went through Atlanta.

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!

This time is different part 3, the high jump

This is 1958 (via Wikipedia):
1958 high jump

This is 1964 (via Getty):
1964 Getty

This is 1968 (via Getty):
1968 Fosbury

High jump has always iterated in style but prior to 1968 each iteration was limited by the landing. When participants landed in sand they landed on their feet. As the pit changed from sand to wood chips to foam the form changed with it.

Normally we focus on the stakeholders and reducing the restricted action section. Sometimes limits are malleable but sometimes they have to be structural changes. Technology, even just foam, is an external change that might mean this time is different.

This time is different: Part 1, ask what rules have changed? Part 2, use a coin flip or hurdle model, this time is different because only two heads, rather than three, are needed.