Sunday Reads #141: Step by step, ferociously.
Looking back, and looking ahead.
Charlie Munger once said, "Take a simple idea and take it seriously".
Cedric Chin reminded me of this recently, through his article of the same name.
And there's no better time than my last newsletter of the year, to look back and ask:
What simple ideas have I taken seriously this year?
As I read through all my essays this year, I saw three common topics.
Three simple ideas that I examined from all sides, deconstructed, and tried to put back together again.
Idea #1: The silver bullet of management.
If there's one idea that has colored my thinking and writing this year, it's the Theory of Constraints.
I hinted at it in Jan's How to become stronger (not just at the gym):
As you build your career, focus on building on your strengths, rather than on patching your weaknesses.
Weaknesses are universal. Patching them is almost a commodity.
But your strengths are likely unique. The ROI on any effort in honing these will be much higher.
If you're a programmer, focus on becoming a virtuoso programmer. If you do that, then you're "it". There are very few showstoppers - you can come into work at noon and in shorts, for all anyone cares.
If your key strength is deal-making and negotiation, then build on that. Work on your attention to detail, sharpen your analytical rigor, and chase big partnerships. Don't spend your time in the nitty-gritty of ops.
If you're a hardcore numbers person, then focus on becoming better at analytics and spotting patterns. That's far more useful than learning to schmooze at dinner parties.
This principle also applies to how you hire and how you manage your teams.
Staff for strengths, not absence of weaknesses.
I didn't articulate it then, but what I was trying to saying was:
The biggest unlock on your potential is building on one of your strengths, not patching a weakness.
It makes far more sense to work on becoming stronger at something you're already uniquely good at. Versus repairing a weakness that's universal (and therefore a commodity).
That articulation came later, in May's The Grand Unified Theory of Management:
The Theory of Constraints is the closest we have to a Grand Unified Theory of Management. It cuts straight to the problems that matter, be it in business or your personal life.
It's a simple statement:
Any system with a goal has one limit. Worrying about anything other than that limit is a waste of resources.
So, solving any problem is a series of three simple (but not easy) steps:
Step 1: Identify the current most limiting factor
Step 2: Identify the most obvious way to improve this limit, and implement it.
Step 3: Go back to Step 1. Because there will be a new limiting factor. There is always one limiting factor.
This is a deceptively simple, yet stunningly powerful idea!
In fact, it was this very idea that was the biggest breakthrough for my startup in 2014.
(And 2 years later, it was also the final death knell. The reason why I shut my startup down, instead of flailing and floundering in vain).
I wrote about it in this thread:
Once you understand the Theory of Constraints, you start seeing it everywhere.
As I wrote in Can you sell a dollar for 80 cents?: Beyond a baseline product, the biggest constraint is always distribution.
Here's the thing: Distribution becomes the critical bottleneck, far earlier than you think.
Any work on the product beyond a basic level is an illusion, if you don't have distribution.
People and organizations (even governments!) struggle to give stuff away for FREE, never mind at a discount.
Without distribution, value is meaningless.
Writers understand this a little more viscerally than most. As we shout into the ether every week, it very often is a "tree falls in a forest but no one is listening" kind of situation.
You may offer a free lunch. But what if no one shows up to eat?
The Theory of Constraints also applies to startup investing.
You don't win [in VC] because of prescience about the future. You don't win due to an uncanny ability to pick winners. You don't win by building a tireless fundraising machine.
You win with access.
Persistent access to the best deals is the most critical leverage point in venture capital.
The hardest part is finding the best companies.
Even if you're almost psychic at picking winners, you can only pick winners among the startups you see (i.e., under your streetlight).
And in a power law world, one startup makes all the difference. What if it's one you just missed investing in? That one networking dinner you missed. That one week you were on holiday. The unicorn is just 5m away from your streetlight, but completely in the dark.
This is also why I've dialed down my angel investments a little bit. For every deal, I think hard: Am I a drunkard searching under a streetlight, just because it's bright here?
And if there's one venture investor who has razor-sharp clarity on this topic, it's... Tiger Global.
As I wrote in Stop trying to hit me, and hit me! (yes, there's a Matrix reference in there):
At the first level, all VCs have the same insight about returns:
Access to deals is the single biggest source of leverage for a VC.
But very few jump to the second level of insight:
Once you solve for the biggest constraint, the constraint moves elsewhere.
So what is this new biggest constraint, once you have solved for access?
It's not value add. VC support can do as much harm as good. The biggest value creators are unlikely to be clever hacks / extra sales resources.
It's not strategic input. The founder has a vision, which drove the traction that got your attention in the first place. Makes sense to get out of the way. Don't fix what ain't broken.
It's not expert networks. The best entrepreneurs HUSTLE, in all caps. They will find connects to whoever they need, without your help.
No, it's none of the above.
The new constraint, once you have the access you need, is: Deal Velocity.
None of the others matter.
And Tiger grokked this new constraint well before anyone else.
Tiger's entire infrastructure is geared towards deal velocity.
Speaking of Tiger and its ferocity takes me directly to my second simple idea of 2021...
Idea #2: Speed is a competitive advantage. Maybe THE competitive advantage.
I've been circling this idea since 2020. I started with July 2020's canonical article, Speed as a competitive advantage.
But it was only in 2021 that I started exploring how to make that actionable.
What looks like blinding speed from the outside is often just heads-down, unwavering focus on the inside.
Step by step, ferociously.
As I said in How about "Move fast but don't break things"?:
"More so than most companies, Amazon thinks about creating value for customers, focusing specifically on how they can create unique and distinct products. Many companies get tripped up and think about innovation as something where they need to come up with ideas, quickly get them out and test them, in the sort of agile method of iterating quickly," says Carr.
But time and time again in Amazon's story, they went in the opposite direction. "Take AWS. …What's remarkable is that they didn't get there by forming a team, writing a lot of code, and then testing and iterating. In fact, it took more than 18 months before the engineers actually started to write code. Instead, they spent that time thinking deeply about the customers they were trying to serve and forming a clear vision for what AWS should be," he says.
Read that again: 18 months before a single line of code. Analysis paralysis, some might say.
But here's the output: AWS reached $10Bn in revenue in less than a decade.
And in general, Amazon absolutely smokes the other FAANG companies, when it comes to speed of execution.
When the cost of errors is high, breaking things isn't equal to moving fast. The more things you break, the slower you move, as you get stuck in a morass of customer complaints, service requests, and PR fires.
But if you move with caution and prioritize not breaking things, a year later you look back and can't even see your more startuppy competitors on the horizon.
As Bezos says, "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast."
Communication is a defect.
I dug into Amazon quite a bit this year, trying to figure out how it moves so fast.
I found its secret, in July's The Fast and the Ferocious:
Amazon wasn't always so fast.
Oh it was when it started, but then as it grew, it slowed down.
Like every other BigCo: employees scale linearly, dependencies scale exponentially. Suddenly, coordination is a drag on the system.
This became an existential problem for Amazon.
We know they solved this problem - today, Amazon is consistently faster than the other FAANG companies. But how did they do it?
Better coordination is the wrong solution.
One of Bezos' most surprising realizations was that communication is a defect. As he said, "We need to eliminate communication, not encourage it."
Why did he say that?
Because better communication is like a band-aid for a bullet hole (channeling Taylor Swift, another eminent monopolist of our time).
Interdependencies are the reason organizations become slow. You need to remove them, not minimize their impact through better coordination.
TL:DR: To increase speed, remove dependencies.
I dug into this further in Why every organization slows down to a snail's pace.
OK, but what if you're not Amazon? What do you do then?
You whip the slack out of the system.
September's How this guy built two $100Bn+ businesses in 10 years was a step-by-step playbook on moving faster. Learning from Frank Slootman, who has built two $100Bn companies (and one puny unicorn).
What's his secret to repeatable, gigantic success?
Three (not) easy pieces.
1. Increase velocity: Push your org to move faster.
Set the organization's default speed to "Faster than we thought possible".
As Slootman says, when speed is all-important, people don't work faster. They do things differently. It becomes a "get shit done" culture.
2. Raise standards.
Move fast ≠ break things.
When stepping up the pace, inevitably excuses are made about quality. We can’t possibly move this fast, and maintain quality?
We would agree, because we are going to move faster and raise quality.
It has a compound effect on productivity. It’s not defying gravity, it’s beating reams of slack out of the system. Until the pressure is on, we don’t even know how much better and faster we can be.
3. Narrow Focus.
Most teams are not focused enough. I rarely encountered a team that employed too narrow an aperture. It goes against our human grain. People like to boil oceans. Just knowing that can be to your advantage.
At the company level and as a CEO, I worked to create blinding clarity and singularity of purpose.
So that's my second big learning of 2021:
You can ALWAYS move faster.
And by moving fast, you can conjure a defensible moat out of thin air.
OK, now moving to my third simple idea of 2021. I'm sure you can guess what it is.
Idea #3: Blockchains - Computers that can make commitments.
Recent subscribers to Sunday Reads may be forgiven for thinking this is a newsletter about crypto and blockchains.
But I was surprised to note that my first article about this was only in June! A new blockchain based Internet is coming:
Blockchain and crypto will bring this [science fiction Internet] to life. Through three fundamental paradigm shifts (I hate the phrase, but for once, it fits):
Today's Internet is a "fat application" Internet. The blockchain enables a "fat protocol" Internet.
The blockchain pays for itself (and pays you for the services you offer it).
The blockchain lowers transaction costs immensely.
If you take these three things together, the result is a foundationally different Internet. And a fundamentally different world.
Radical markets. In everything.
I also gave a detailed example of what this new "Web3" world will look like. And I hand-picked the most boring, the most staid industry: insurance.
croissant @CroissantEth1. @etherisc With $LINK oracles, $DIP offers a simple & elegant solution to the trillion dollar insurance industry Smart contracts automate claims, offering farmers coverage across the world They were mentioned by the WEF for their unique use cases in a paper on digital assets https://t.co/W8LsrH0TPE
The blockchain is a magic computer, that will revolutionize how businesses work.
It won't happen immediately, sure.
But 20 years from now, blockchains (and the radical markets they enable) will eat the world. I wrote about this in The future of the workplace.
Oh, and how can I forget! I also wrote about 13 ways to think about NFTs, in Why would someone pay $11M for an NFT!
Many told me it was the best article I wrote this year (thank you! I had immense fun writing it too).
I started the year with a bold proclamation: Tsuyoku naritai!
Quoting Eliezer Yudkowsky in How to become stronger:
Tsuyoku is “strong”; naru is “becoming,” and the form naritai is “want to become.” Together it means, “I want to become stronger,” and it expresses a sentiment embodied more intensely in Japanese works than in any Western literature I’ve read.
You might say it when expressing your determination to become a professional Go player—or after you lose an important match, but you haven’t given up—or after you win an important match, but you’re not a ninth-dan player yet—or after you’ve become the greatest Go player of all time, but you still think you can do better.
That is tsuyoku naritai, the will to transcendence.
The path of continuous improvement is not easy.
You will hit a dip, a plateau of stagnation, a "runner's wall". When nothing will work, and it will feel like a useless cause.
No matter. Re-dedicate. Push on and push through.
Remember the Golden Nugget rule (it's What I learnt from Shaan Puri's $1000 Course).
Lots of things changed through the year. But one thing stays the same. The will to become better.
I will take some time off (I hope you can too!) to rest, reset, and recharge. In the meantime, I wish all of us the same for next year:
That we continue to become better versions of ourselves.
Oh, and subscribe for free (if you haven’t) to receive new posts.
See you next year!