[VIC – 71] Monopoly vs Monopsony. Metadata. He’s just hungry. Shower thoughts.

Business & Money

The monopolies of yesteryear were scary behemoths. They gained their power by putting a stranglehold on one or many points in the value chain. They controlled infrastructure (a la AT&T with phone wires), supply (a la Carnegie with US Steel), and retail/distribution (a la Luxottica with glasses).
Within a business environment as such, it’s fairly easy to calculate the costs incurred by society. These companies are famous for price gauging, limiting supply and other nefarious means to pad their coffers.
Today’s internet monopolies though are very different for a couple key reasons.
First, these are largely monopolies by self-selection. By that I mean that consumers actually have a choice of multiple options, but the choose the monopolist due to a superior experience. You could choose to strictly use SnapChat, but if Facebook offer the same features and all of your Friends are already on Facebook, why make the switch? No reason to build a brand new social graph. You could choose to use a search engine other than Google, but Google is better. They have far more data from more searches, which allows them to better optimize the experience. Thus, people choose Google.
Second, these monopolies happen to offer free products. So it’s much harder to calculate and implicit cost to society of their monopolistic position.
So, due to free products and self-selection, antitrust legislation has a tougher time sinking its teeth into today’s internet giants.
All that said, what might make sense here is to think about monopsony vs monopoly power. If you think about Facebook and Google as Monopsonies in relation to content producers, here things are clearly out of whack. Musicians, publishers, blogger, video producers, writers… all of these parties have one game in town if they want distribution. Thus their profitability can be seriously constrained when they have no choice but to distribute via these massive digital platforms.
I think regulators may need to spend more time focusing upstream towards suppliers instead of downstream toward consumers to get a clear picture of what’s happening.

Human Progress

I have no idea how many pictures are posted to social media sites every day, but I know it’s a lot. When many people may NOT know, however, is how much metadata you’re uploading along with the picture. You probably know some of the basics: location (GPS coordinates), date, and time. Not so scary right? But how about these: phone make, phone model, wireless carrier. Ok, slightly more creepy, but still not too worrisome. What really starts to freak me out is thinking about each photo in the context of every other photo. For example, if you compare GPS coordinates of all of the phones within a city, you start to develop a sense of which phones are going to which places, and thus placing people in groups. You’re much more likely to be Chinese if you are always in Chinatown. Now this data becomes valuable for advertising purposes. What about how fast your location is changing relative to other people. With speed, acceleration, and deceleration, perhaps this could have implications for your insurance premiums. What if you are a homosexual in a Muslim majority country. If you are frequenting a location known to be a gay bar, this might impact your employment status or social standing.
Next time you go to post, keep in mind that you’re uploading a lot more than just a photo.

Philosophy

A few weeks ago my fiance was on a short vacation to visit a friend that just had a baby. While we were catching up one night via FaceTime, she switched the camera angle to show be the baby. While adorable, he was in the middle of a temper tantrum.
“I think he’s tired,” I heard from his mom in the background. She swooped in to take him off to rest.
Why is it that babies always get the benefit of the doubt? Whenever they act up, we immediately assume they’re tired, hungry, or need a diaper change (which is usually the case). But at some point, while they mature, we stop giving them the benefit of the doubt and just assume they have ulterior motives. I guess growing up removes the innocence.
Once we become adults, all bets are off. You’re simply a rude/mean/(insert adjective here) if you are nasty to other people. And with good reason. As an adult, you’re expected to be able to be respectful regardless of your internal state.
But the funny thing is, not much changes in adulthood. Fatigue and hunger still cause people to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.
So the next time you get bumped in the subway or someone cuts you off on the road and yells some obscene phrase, just remember, they’re probably tired or hungry. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt.

My Latest Discovery

If you own an Amazon Alexa enabled device (Dot, Echo), then you probably know about “Shower Thoughts”. It’s an Alexa skill that offers of witty bite-sized morsels that one might ponder while taking a shower. On Saturday I was at a friends place when he decided to test it out.
“Alexa, play random shower thoughts!”
“In the age of Google, knowing the right questions to ask become far more important than knowing the answers.”
I thought that was rather profound.

[VIC – 70] Disagree and commit. Visit to the doctor. Sugar coating. Sea salt caramel.

Business & Money

I’m working on a big deal at work. The kind of deal that, if it closes, could knock out 50-75% of your annual revenue target in one fell swoop. Us sales people call this type of deal a “whale.” Whenever whales present themselves, my best practice is to loop in my leadership team so it becomes a team effort. As such, I sent an email to our executives asking for thoughts and feedback about my approach. To my dismay, the response I got was that the deal was unlikely to close and the prospective customer likely wasn’t serious about wanting to work with us. At the same time, they offered any support and/or resources I needed to try to close the business. They basically said “we’re doubtful that this will close, but we we’ll support you in any and every way.”
For a while I was a little disheartened by the seemingly cold response. After thinking about it more though, I think there’s a huge leadership lesson hidden below the surface. It didn’t make itself truly apparent to me until I read Jeff Bezos’ annual letter to shareholders yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

“Disagree and commit.” It’s so powerful! In a simple three word phrase, he is acknowledging his disagreement, but simultaneously letting his team know that they have his full confidence and support.
It’s the same thing I got from my leadership team. They weren’t quite as excited as I was about the opportunity at hand, but also have enough trust and confidence in my ability to give me freedom and support for whatever deals I choose to pursue.

Human Progress

I went to the doctor’s office this week for the first time in a long time. When I arrived they asked for my insurance card. I had previously taken a picture and uploaded it to ZocDoc, which then aided me in finding a doctor and booking the appointment. My assumption was that my insurance information would then be shared with the doctor’s office. Wrong! Luckily I have the picture saved on my phone so it wasn’t an issue. Why is that, in the era of the internet and instant digital information sharing, insurance info can’t be sent quickly and securely between relevant parties?
Once I made it to the examination room, I was asked the same 1000 questions that we’re always asked at doctors offices. Any allergies to medications? Family history? Bla bla bla. Can’t the answers to all of these rote questions be stored in some central repository on AWS that’s easily accessible by certified medical professionals?
When I was leaving, I asked how I would receive my results? “The doctor will call you in about a week.” Send be an email for Pete’s sake! If the companies in this space won’t centralize all of my data (or perhaps can’t, due to regulatory red tape), at least give it to me in a digital format so I can do it myself!
You all know that I’m a techno-optimist, but sometimes I wonder whether the healthcare industry will ever catch up to every other vertical.

Philosophy

A few weeks ago I had a slice of pie from the local grocery store. It was incredible. The crust was baked to the perfect crispiness and it had sugar sprinkled on top.
This got my thinking about sugar coating in more general terms. In most cases that I can think of, sugar coating is a great thing. Take a delicious food item, sprinkle some sugar on top, and it generally gets better. There is, of course, one downside. Whatever you’re eating automatically becomes worse for you due to the added sugar. Moreover, if you think about most of the food items that have sugar sprinkled on top, most already offer exorbitant amounts of sugar in the first place. So it’s really just insult to injury.
I think this idea also applies to sugar coating in the less literal sense. That is, using indirect or gentle language to deliver a difficult or stern message. Sugar coating the message will make it easier to swallow for the recipient, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. There are times, when dealing with children or overly sensitive people for example, when it’s necessary to soften the blow. But in general, I’m a fan of being direct and blunt. It might sting a bit in the moment, but I find that people come to appreciate honest and forthright feedback. You actually build more trust and value into your relationships.
Best to leave the sugar coating for yummy snacks and desserts.

My Latest Discovery

This stuff is incredible!!! Go try it immediately!

Hasta la vista baby!

Jeremy

[VIC – Issue 65] The product + marketing symbiosis. No need to fear the machines. We’re failing our women. Raising brave girls. Know any eye people?

Business & Money

When I was in college, I completed a brand management internship at Johnson & Johnson. I worked within the baby products group. This was the first time that I became exposed to the fact that product development and marketing were integrated functions. It was astonishing how much research and planning went into the color of the box, the size of the text on packaging and how an open/closing system worked. Testing these things through focus groups and customer surveys was huge, then translating the findings into messaging and marketing activities.

With digital transformation, this becomes even more true. The lines between product and marketing continue to blur. One example I love is Dropbox. When you open a free account, you are encouraged to invite your friends. And this isn’t some random ploy to get users. Both the inviter and the invitee get free storage space within Dropbox, a clear mutual benefit. Here we have core feature of the user experience serving as an incredible marketing and growth tactic.

Facebook is another phenomenal example. Throughout the company’s lifetime, they’ve done very little paid user acquisition. The very use of the product constitutes all the marketing they’ll ever need.

As companies grow, it becomes harder and harder to maintain an effective interplay between product and marketing as functions become increasingly siloed. However, it serves those well that hold dear this symbiotic relationship.

Human Progress

With so much technological progress its easy to fall into the trap of thinking about problems far removed. Artificial intelligence is clear example that comes to mind. At the summit of the hype cycle, there’s a lot conversation about how machines might take over the world and how afraid we should be. The “paperclip maximizer” thought experiment is a great example of this. In this fictional scenario, a super intelligent machine is tasked with maximizing the number of paperclips in existence. While a seemingly harmless goal, the logic purports that, as the AI system continues to improve at an exponential rate, there would be an intelligence explosion of sorts wherein the system begins to self improve and constantly expand its paperclip acquisition capabilities. Over time, this system might get away from its human overlords and use all of the resources on planet earth towards solving its own narrow paperclip maximizing goals.

I find this kind of thinking to be stupid and quite frankly a waste of time. Clearly AI will have far-reaching implications in many areas of our lives, but we’re not anywhere close to artificial super intelligence. Just ask Siri a few questions and you’ll have an idea to where things stand at the present moment. Narrow AI systems are incredibly proficient within their areas of competence (think Facebook’s news feed, Netflix movie recommendations, IBM Watson’s Jeopardy performance, Google’s Alpha Go, etc), but we have a long way to go with more general systems.

What’s more, in the last 6 months, we have much more serious problems to deal with regarding technology and software. Forget about AI, what about human bad actors using software and technology for nefarious purposes. I’ll provide a few examples in case you missed them.

The most recent example is Uber with its “Greyball” software. Here the company used software to figure out who might be an undercover cop in cities where it was operating illegally. Whenever an undercover tried to summon a car, they would instead see fake cars on the map and be unable to secure a ride. As a result, the company could scale to new markets without interference from regulators and law enforcement.

Then we have Zenefits. This insurance tech startup wrote code that allowed employees to skirt the normal certification process for insurance brokers. Thus, the company could hire sales people rapidly who could, in turn, start peddling insurance products much faster than would otherwise be possible.

We can’t forget about Volkswagen. They used software to dance around emissions inspections. During testing, their diesel engines would automatically switch to “energy efficient mode” giving the impression that they were far more energy efficient than was actually the case. In this instance, there’s a real cost to society in terms of pollution and people that may suffer health complications as a byproduct.

With examples like these, it becomes clear that we need to focus more on the human beings operating in the realm of technology than the technology itself. Technology is a tool. How we choose to bear responsibility in the usage of these tools needs serious consideration.

Philosophy

I’ve largely been very lucky in my life. Despite being black, the number of times I’ve had to deal with overt discrimination have been fairly limited. Of course, the systemic problems and unconscious bias are always present, but those are par for the course.

I’m very sad to say that it is painfully obvious that this is not the case for women in the workplace. Following National Women’s Day this week, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why is it that, in 2017, gender discrimination is still so pervasive? Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber is just one recent example in what seems like a constant deluge.

To our female community members, I’d love to hear from you on this. What has been your experience? If (more likely when) you’ve been a victim, how did you respond? Did you say something? How did your leaders respond? Perhaps most importantly, how did you stay motivated to show up and perform at a high level? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like a catch 22. Say nothing and deal with it, or speak up and suffer retaliation, marginalization or worse yet have your words fall on deaf ears.

We’re failing our women and it’s disgraceful. While I’ve never been a preparator (not intentionally or to my knowledge at least), I feel ashamed to function as a part of a society where this is ok.

My Latest Discovery

Following on the thread above, I stumbled upon an incredible TED talk this week called “To raise brave girls, encourage adventure.” In case you can’t spare the 12.5 minutes, here’s the conclusion:

“Finally, when your girl is, let’s say, on her bike on the top of the steep hill that she insists she’s too scared to go down, guide her to access her bravery. Ultimately, maybe that hill really is too steep, but she’ll come to that conclusion through courage, not fear. Because this is not about the steep hill in front of her. This is about the life ahead of her and that she has the tools to handle and assess all the dangers that we cannot protect her from, all the challenges that we won’t be there to guide her through, everything that our girls here and around the world face in their future.”

Shouts to Tim Ferris for sharing this one in his “5 Bullet Fridays” email newsletter.

Question Of The Week

Huge favor to ask this week. Within your networks, are you close with any optometrists or ophthalmologists? Hoping to connect with professionals in this space and would be very appreciative for any introductions you can provide.

It’s A Wrap! Have a wonderful week everyone! ❤️️ ❤️️