The Boldness of Bezos

This weekend, I spent some time reviewing my notes on The Everything Store, written about the rise of Amazon – a story that’s inseparable from the rise of Jeff Bezos. Similar to Apple and Steve Jobs (through 2011, at least), the company and the founder are both one and the same. After having read Warfighting recently, one defining characteristic of Bezos that clearly resonates is his boldness. Bezos is nearly always willing to take risk to strike a decisive blow or innovate. This willingness is apparent in the very beginnings of Amazon; he left a high paying job at a quantitative hedge fund because he saw a massive paradigm shift – the rise of the internet – and decided he couldn’t be left behind. Not only does he decide he wants to participate in the rise of the internet, but he creates a vision of “The Everything Store”, with limitless selection and personalized service – a very small vision, indeed.

Examples of his boldness abound in the history of the company, on both the success and failure sides of the ledger. The Kindle (e-reader + tablet), AWS, Amazon Marketplaces, user generated reviews, personalized purchase recommendations, along with the core retailing business were all major successes. The Fire Phone, Amazon zShops, Amazon Auctions, the multiple massive distribution centers that were closed during the bubble, raising $2B+ of debt for poor acquisitions, and venture investing in a number of category specific e-commerce flameouts register as failures. All told, Bezos probably failed more than he succeeded. But his successes were orders of magnitudes larger and more impactful. AWS, which now pulls in $6B and growing in revenue, is proof enough.

Bezos is constitutionally unafraid to take big swings – the kind of swings that change the outcome of a battle, or drastically lower the costs of starting a technology business, and thereby enable a wave of innovative companies. The kind of swings that are exciting, both as an investor and a human being.

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Startup strategy – as taught by the Marines

While in transit to Gambia last month (24+ hours each way), I got the chance to catch up on some reading – including Warfighting, the US Marines’ manual / manifesto for conducting and preparing for conflict (recommended by Keith Rabois, a veteran operator from Paypal & Square). Though not written with startups or personal development in mind, the book ends up being very relevant to both. Startup and war analogies are extremely common (e.g., competitive battles, fighting to survive), but the application of military strategy to startups is, if anything, undervalued.

One of the concepts I found highly applicable was how the Marines deal with uncertainty.  Like operating in an emerging market or disrupting an old one, nearly all decisions in battle must be made with incomplete information.  Teams (and especially their leaders) must be comfortable operating and executing effectively, knowing that their initial understanding of the situation is missing important detail.  The marines try to mitigate this lack of information through four strategies, all of which sound similar to what has become standard startup advice:
– Developing simple, flexible plans that allow for disorder and uncertainty
– Planning for likely contingencies
– Developing standard operating procedures that allow for trust to emerge between commanders and junior officers, without explicit, top-down orders
– Encouraging initiative amongst their subordinates. More specifically – they expect their junior officers to use the informational advantage on the ground to make quick decisions and exploit enemy weaknesses.  This doesn’t mean junior officers aren’t held accountable for their decisions; but the graver sin is unwillingness to take action.

This is only the tip of the iceberg; the book is littered with insightful takes with clear applicability to an early stage business. If you’re looking for a short, good read I’d definitely recommend Warfighting.

Asking good questions

As I mentioned my recent post about Quora, I believe a lot of value is created by asking really good questions. It’s a skillset that’s not only core to my work as a VC, but one I think is important in nearly all facets of life, both personal and professional. In that spirit, I thought I would share David Jackson’s (CEO of Seeking Alpha, who maintains an excellent blog) post about how to generate them (excerpt below):

Step 1: Find a white board or flip chart where your team can do its question-centric work. (For what it’s worth, standing up seems to jumpstart better questions than sitting down.)

Step 2: Pick a problem that your team cares about intellectually and emotionally. Double check to make sure that the problem (or opportunity, for the optimists of the world) is one that you honestly don’t have an answer to.

Step 3: Question everything. Engage in pure question talk, with one team member writing down each question verbatim. This gives everyone the chance (especially introverts) to see each question, reflect a bit, and then create even better ones. Don’t give preambles to the questions and don’t devote any time or energy to answering them. Just ask as many questions as you can. Go for at least 50, perhaps 75. But don’t give up when your mind goes blank around question 35. Savor the momentary dead space and continue the search for even better, more provocative questions, which will come with patience and persistence. It usually takes 10 to 20 minutes to exhaust a group’s questioning capacity. Push for exhaustion.

Step 4: Decide which questions on your list seem most “catalytic,” or which ones hold the most potential for disrupting the status quo. Focus on a few questions that your team honestly can’t answer but is ready and willing to investigate. Winnow your questions down to three or four that truly matter.

Given its importance, continually improving on what questions I ask and how is something that I’m constantly working on. Tweet at me @ablordesays if you’ve found other interesting ways (or relevant resources) to generate good ones.

The Next RSS

Note: this is a working theory that I’m hashing through – comments / thoughts / arguments welcome!

Since before the invention of the printing process, we’ve seen our content consumption largely curated by publishers.  Part of this (I’d imagine) has to do with the economies of scale associated with the distribution of content in the physical world, which continued on in much the same format on the internet (like many other offline-online transitions).   During that time, the way we discovered and obtained online content was quite simple – we went to the publisher’s website, and consumed what was available.

One of the most important early moves toward the democratization of online content discovery and curation (+ production) was the rise of blogging – which enabled a broader set of individuals the power to create and identify good content. With the vast landscape of publisher sites and blogs, RSS readers (e.g., Google Reader, Flipboard, etc.) and other content aggregators became valuable as a way of capturing the content worth consuming on an individual basis.  However, RSS is typically limited to receiving every post from a blog or a site – it allows us to bundle the publishers and blogs we like, but we then have to sort through a semi-curated firehouse to find the few items inside.

However, the social internet (today – Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Pinterest, and many others)  has fundamentally changed how we discover and interact with content.  Rather than publishers and bloggers deciding what is worth seeing, we use the hivemind of our friends and those we follow and admire. In other words, we’re in the process of seeing the curator role distributed to the crowd, in which the publishers and bloggers are influential, but less so.  Not only this, but the curation in this system is happening at the level of individual pieces of content (e.g., a single blog post, listicle, video) rather than at the level of the publisher or blog.

As much of the analysis around Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and their ilk has discussed, this shift toward crowdsourced curation has interesting implications for the required competencies of publishers going forward (and much spilled ink about whether this is “good”). But just as interesting, in my mind, is the opportunity this creates for the next RSS.  If individual publishers and their sites matter less as curators and destinations for consumers, RSS as a format and the reader applications on top of them also lose some value, as consumers see their networks surfacing the best content from those publishers, rather than needing to follow publishers blindly.

So what could rise in its place?  I think we’ve started to see a few services that have built universal content repositories (e.g., Pocket, Instapaper) – products that make it very easy to save and consume from any device, publisher, or service (especially social networks).  We’re also seeing services that mine that our networks to surface the most popular shared content (e.g., Nuzzel).  Both of these kinds of products help either capture or amplify the signal produced by our network.  As these kinds of services become more intelligent, I think they can largely do the curation and discovery “jobs” much better than RSS ever could.

Would love to hear your thoughts – tweet at me @ablordesays.

Note: H/T to HowToGeek for the image.

The relationship between excellence and simplicity

Earlier this week I listened to Alon Cohen, the co-founder of Houzz (via the Entrepreneurial Leaders Podcast I mentioned here), talk about his career experiences and lessons learned.  A core theme, as well as the title of his talk, was “Making Complicated Things Simple” – which I think is a characteristic of many great products (like Houzz), and also of mastery more generally.  Simplicity can be borne from ignorance or misunderstanding, of course, but the simplicity that results from putting in long hours wrestling with a problem is powerful.

Some of the major blessings and curses of this technological era are the explosions of data, information sources, and options.  Never before have we had access to so many resources to solve problems and learn.  The costs of this abundance are the ever increasing demands on our time – more choices and more noise to filter through.  Now, more than ever, simplicity is an important component of excellence.  Products and experts that help us focus on what matters create significant value – whether it be through interaction design (e.g., Uber’s two taps to book a ride), simplifying workflows (e.g., Mark43‘s tools for police departments), or creating frameworks to help us understand the world and make otherwise ambiguous decisions.

On the product front in Chicago, SMS Assist reduces the complexity of facilities maintenance for companies with a national presence, and Sprout Social helps companies manage social media presences at scale.  On the expert front, Warren Buffett’s annual letters lay out the frameworks through which he simplifies the world.  Clay Christensen’s Innovators’ Dilemma gives us a way to understand the complex topic of why incumbents often struggle to fend off disruptive startups.

As we build products and careers, I think the question implied by Alon’s talk is a good one to ask ourselves – how am I helping to create the right kind of simplicity? Would love to hear your thoughts – reach out here.

H/T to Heinz Marketing for the image.

Questions about Quora

Quora is one of my favorite products on the internet.  So many times, learning new things is the product of asking the right questions – and Quora is a crowdsourced repository of really interesting questions and answers, from the tactical (e.g., what is a cool / useful skill that only takes five minutes to learn?), to the philosophical (e.g., “How can one make the most of one’s youth?“). The vast majority of the times I visit the site, I emerge 30+ minutes later, having clicked through so many related questions that I’m multiple degrees of separation from the initial topic (very much like Youtube’s related videos).  Most other people I talk to who have used Quora are also similarly impressed by how addicting and high quality the content is.

However, one common observation I’ve heard (and experienced) is that, despite really enjoying the product, people don’t find themselves headed to the site of their own accord very often (note: based off my own small sample size) .  I typically visit Quora only when I receive their weekly digest email (which, by the way, is incredibly well targeted).  I’ve done a bit of thinking as to why, and the answer I’ve arrived at dovetails well with two questions we commonly ask startups:

  1. What “job” is your product helping a consumer complete?
  2. What alternatives will your product displace and why?

I think Quora struggles to answer these two questions, largely because there are so many alternative ways to acquire knowledge and wisdom (from in person conversations, books, articles, podcasts, etc.).  For the first question, while Quora might answer with “Getting smarter”, this is such a diffuse need, with so many alternatives that it’s hard to create a strong association in a user’s mind for a particular goal.  Without that association, building and retaining a network of users that come back regularly of their own accord is a challenging task (part of the reason why focus is so valuable for a company).

These challenges are not unique to Quora – on the surface, Facebook had a very similar set of difficulties to overcome.  However, Facebook was an incredibly low-friction, reliable way to complete an emotional “job” – feeling connected to your friends and community.  Going to the site was much easier than texting, calling, or arranging time to meet up with that broad circle of people, and required significantly less commitment (and cognitive load, vs. Myspace) than the alternatives. In Quora’s case, it’s not clear that going to the product is much easier than cracking open a book (nowadays, opening your Kindle app), reading an article on Pocket, Feedly, or clicking on link from your timeline. Quora finds itself competing for time and mindshare with all of these alternatives, without an immediately clear advantage. And so, even for Quora-lovers like myself, I don’t think to use the product, even in cases where it might be relevant.

Though the questions seem basic, I think companies should devote the time to developing a clear answer to each – it’s often the simple things that are deadly.

Reach out with your thoughts – would love to hear other perspectives on Quora and the framework above.

100 ways of solving a problem

Part of my daily routine is to listen to podcasts – when I’m walking to lunch, or in transit without a seat, I usually open up Stitcher and load up my podcast list.  At the top of that list nowadays is Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series.  If you’re interested in starting your own business, or in high tech startups more generally, this podcast is a must listen.  Every week or so, this program brings in either a successful founder, executive, or investor in high tech related businesses to spend an hour sharing their story, lessons learned, and answer questions; guests have ranged from Ben Horowitz of Opsware and Andreesen Horowitz fame, through to Sal Khan of Khan Academy.

While ETL is a treasure trove of interesting lessons, one of the most interesting exercises was the idea of generating 100 ways to solve a problem, featured in Tina Seelig’s talk. What’s so brilliant about this is that it forces a deep understanding of both the problem, the mechanisms that cause it, and all of the levers one might pull to create change.  All of the simple answers and platitudes (which likely haven’t been implemented for a good reason), melt away in the face of the sheer volume and depth required to generate 100 different solutions.  This approach also forces orthogonal thinking, which leads to the kinds of disruptive innovations we all chase (along with many bad ideas).  The exercise achieves many of the same ends as Google’s 10x philosophy  – avoiding incrementalism, and being willing to reimagine the entire thing from the ground up, but provides a system to help spark the necessary frame of mind.  Definitely something I want to store away for future use.

Any other ETL listeners out there?  Would love to hear your thoughts on your favorite episodes.  If not, let me know what some of your favorite problem solving techniques are.