Jun 042015

Book Short: Blink Part II

Book Short:  Blink Part II

Years ago I wrote a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Blink (post, buy).  While my post has lots of specifics in it for entrepreneurs, for VCs, and for marketers, my quick summary was this:

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

I recently finished another book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which was very similar.  I’d call it the academic version of Blink, or that Blink is the journalistic version of it.  Kahneman breaks down our ability to think and process information into what he calls System 1 (quick and intuitive) and System 2 (slower, rational and logical).  As he puts it:

In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The book is rich in examples, and while it’s a bit long and sometimes slow going, it is an excellent read if you want to learn more about how the brain works.  The work applications are many – we do a lot of work at Return Path on understanding and avoiding Unconscious Bias at work – and this book gave me a bunch of good ideas around that.  It’s clear that it’s impossible to become a true master of your intuition vs. logic, but you can design some systems, or at least insert some checks and balances into other systems, to blunt the impact of faulty intuition or lazy logic.  The book also has an overwhelming number of labels it applies to common situations – great, but hard to keep them all straight (the priming effect, anchors, endowment effect, etc.).

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to ponder as an entrepreneur, though, was the section on Loss Aversion (another great label).  It turns out we humans are motivated more by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.  A poignant example in the book is that professional golfers make a higher percentage of putts (I forget the actual number, but a real one, like 3-5%) for par than for birdie, when the putts are like-for-like in terms of distance and difficulty.  Saving par is more of a motivator than being under par.  The application for work is interesting.  As companies get larger, it can be difficult for founders and management teams to maintain the same level of bold risk-taking they did as smaller organizations.  Having something to lose is harder than having nothing to lose.  And yet, as they say, fortune favors the bold.  Growth stage companies need to figure out how to institutionalize risk taking and experimentation, including putting enough resources into those activities that will generate future growth, rather than simply protecting what’s already running.  (Of course, what’s already running needs investment, too.)

Thanks to my colleagues Dragana and Richard for recommending this book, and to Jamie for facilitating our office book club around it this month!

 

Nov 262013

Book Short: Triumph over Adversity

Book Short:  Triumph over Adversity

In truth, Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, was a bit of a disappointment.  I thought his first three books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, were fantastic, and I routinely refer to them in business.  David and Goliath isn’t bad, it’s just a little light and hangs together a lot less than Gladwell’s other books.

I just read a scathing review of it in The New Republic, which I won’t bother linking to, mostly because the reviewer was on a total rant about Gladwell in general and was particularly insulting to people who read Gladwell (an interesting approach to a book review), essentially calling us self-help seekers who aren’t interested in reality or wisdom.  Nice.

Two seminal quotes from the book that get at its essence are:

To play by David’s rules you have to be desperate. You have to be so bad that you have no choice.

and

He was an underdog and a misfit, and that gave him the freedom to try things no one else ever dreamt of.

Those things are probably generally true in life, but also applicable to business.  A business book I read years ago called The Underdog Advantage: Using the Power of Insurgent Strategy to Put Your Business on Top, by David Morey and Scott Miller, brings this principle to life for work.

I also liked the concept Gladwell talked about a few times in the book about being a big fish in a small pond, and how that can sometimes be a better place to be than a small fish in a big pond in terms of building self-confidence.  That’s certainly been true for me in my life.

If you go back the premise of Gladwell’s books in general, as I heard him say on The Daily Show the other night — “to get people to look at the world a little differently” — then David and Goliath does that on some level.  And for that alone, it’s probably worth a quick read.

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Mar 142013

Luck Matters (and You Can Only Make Some of It)

Luck Matters ( and You Can Only Make Some of It)

There was a great article recently in the Financial Times that’s worth reading here.  (Warning – you might have to complete a free registration in order to read this article.)  The premise is that most outliers, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, achieve their super status at least partly through luck.  And once that status is achieved, the good things just pile on from there.  This concept is as much Gladwell’s as that term is.

I always say that “you can make your own luck.”  And to some extent, that’s true.  Hard work and persistence and creativity can eventually open up doors on their own, no question about it.  While this article doesn’t say there are limitations to that axiom, it does note that hard work, persistence, and creativity PLUS some good luck is the more likely path to being #1 in your field.

Think about it this way – why is the most gifted golfer of the last 15 years someone who grew up in Southern California with a father who loved golf, and not, say, someone from the sub-Saharan region of Africa?  The latter person might have the equivalent amount of raw talent as Tiger Woods, maybe even more grit and determination.  But he’s probably never even heard of golf.

So what’s the lesson here for business leaders?  First, count your blessings.  You’re probably where you are for a bunch of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with you.  Second, look for other people to work with you who are lucky as well.  I read somewhere once that Tony Hsieh of Zappos asks every person he interviews if he or she is a lucky person – and that question pulls a lot of weight for him.  Finally, put your head down and work hard.  While this point is 100% valid, the thing is…you can’t do anything about it anyway, so you might as well push as hard as you can to do the best you can with what you’ve got!

Jan 272009

Book Short: Long on Platitudes, Short on Value

Book Short:  Long on Platitudes, Short on Value

I approached Success Built to Last:  Creating a Life That Matters, by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery, and Mark Thompson, with great enthusiasm, as Porras was co-author, along with Jim Collins, of two of my favorite business books of all time, Built to Last and Good to Great. I was very disappointed in the end.  This wasn’t really a business book, despite its marketing and hype.  At best, it was a poor attempt at doing what Malcolm Gladwell just did in Outliers in attempting to zero in on the innate, learned, and environmental qualities that drive success.

The book had some reasonably good points to make and definitely some great quotes, but it was very rambly and hard to follow.  Its attempt at creating an overall framework like the one used in Built to Last and Good to Great just plain didn’t work, as two of the three legs of the stool were almost incomprehensible, or to put it more charitably, didn’t hang together well.

This isn’t a terrible book to have on your shelf, and it might be good to skim, but remember that “skim” is only one letter away from “skip.”

Nov 162006

Counter Cliche: Connected at the Top

Counter Cliche:  Connected at the Top

Fred hasn’t written an official VC Cliche of the Week for a while, but his post yesterday on Connectors is close enough — in it, he talks about how he likes to be a good Connector between people and thinks it’s a quality of great VCs.

First, we should give credit to Malcolm Gladwell for a great definition of Connectors in The Tipping Point.  Gladwell not only defines Connectors as Fred has but also defines two other types of people who are critical in the social networking/buzz building arena:  Mavens and Salesmen.  I’d argue that a great VC has to have a bit of all three!

But in terms of entrepreneurs (the point of the counter cliche series), is being a Connector a prerequisite for success?  I think the answer is nuanced, but it’s probably no.  I’ve met great CEOs who are fairly introverted and whose brains don’t work in the Connector kind of way.  And they can be great at developing product, even running operations.  But if you’re an entrepreneur and not a Connector, you’d better have one or more of them on your management team (think sales or business development or marketing) to make up for that missing piece of the equation to make sure your company is connecting the dots outside the corporate walls.  Otherwise, you’re sure to miss out on opportunities.

The one area where I would say that being a Connector is critical for an entrepreneur is internally within the company.  If you’re going to lead the troops effectively, you do need to be able to make Connections between people within the company, especially as the business grows.  And off-topic a bit (literally if not figuratively), you also need to be able to connect with your staff members on a personal level and make sure that people are connected to the company and its mission.  I’m not sure these are things that an entrepreneur can delegate as long as he or she is CEO.

Jan 162006

Book short: Proto Gladwell

Book short:  Proto Gladwell

I’m sure author Robert Cialdini would blanch if he read this comparison, but then again, I can’t be the first person to make it, either.  His book, Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion, is an outstanding read for any marketing or sales professional, but boy does it remind me of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink (book; blog post).  Of course, Cialdini’s book came out a decade before Gladwell’s!  Anyway, Influence is a great social science look at the psychology that makes sales and marketing work.

Cialdini talks about sales and marketing professionals as “compliance practitioners,” which is a great way to think about them, quite frankly.  He boils down the things that make sales and marketing work to six core factors: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity.

Reciprocation – we hate being in a state of being beholden so much that we might even be willing to do a larger favor than the one done for us in order to remove the state.  Think about “free gifts” in merchandising as an example of this, or being in a negotiation where someone trying to make a cold sale on you offers a fallback, smaller sale.  For example, you don’t want to buy anything from the boy scout, but after you say no to the $5 raffle ticket and he asks about the $1 candy bar, you feel more obligated to buy the $1 candy bar because the boy scout has “given” on his initial request.

Consistency – once we have made a choice, personal and interpersonal pressures force us to back it up and justify our earlier decision – even more so when in writing or when declared to others.  This is why marketers love getting testimonials from customers; the testimonial locks the customer in emotionally, as well as encouraging others to buy the product.

Social proof – if others think it’s correct, it must be correct, especially if those other people are like us.  There are some scary examples in the book here, such as Reverand Jim Jones and The People’s Temple mass suicides.  Gripping, but creepy.

Liking – we listen to people we like, and we like people to whom we’re similar or who are physically attractive.  This section was especially reminiscent of Blink, but with different and more marketer-focused examples.

Authority – we have an extreme willingness to listen to authority, even when the authority isn’t quite relevant.  This is why celebrity endorsements work so well.

Scarcity – we have a extreme motivation of fear of loss, either or something, or of the opportunity to have something.  Who doesn’t like to keep doors open as long as possible?

The one place the book falls down a little bit is in the sections at the end of each chapter talking about how to resist that particular technique through jujitsu – the art of “turning the enemy’s strength to your advantage.”  While nice in theory, Cialdini’s examples aren’t super helpful beyond saying “when you think you’re getting suckered, stop — and then say no.”

Overally, though, the book is well written and choc full of examples.  Thanks to marketer Mallory Kates for sending me this great book!

Aug 082005

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

As an online marketing professional, I’ve long understood intellectually how e-commerce works, how affiliate networks function, and why the internet is such a powerful selling tool.  But I got an email the other day that drove this home more directly.

When I started my blog about a year and a half ago, I set myself up as an Amazon affiliate, meaning that any time someone clicks on a link to Amazon from one of my postings or on the blog sidebar, I get paid a roughly 4% commission on anything that person buys on Amazon on that session.

According to the email report I just got from Amazon on Q2 sales driven by my blog, I am responsible for driving traffic that buys about $2,500 worth of merchandise from Amazon every quarter, which yields about $100 to me in affiliate fees.  All I really link to are business books that I summarize in postings, although people who click from my blog to Amazon end up buying all sorts of random things (according to my report, last quarter’s purchases included a Kathy Smith workout DVD and a new socket wrench set in addition to lots of copies of Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

This is a true win-win-win — Amazon gets traffic for a mere 4% of sales, a relatively low marketing cost; I get a small amount of money to cover the various fees associated with my blog (Typepad, Newsgator, Feedburner), and people who read my blog pay what they’re going to pay to Amazon anyway – and maybe get something they otherwise wouldn’t have gone out to get in the process.

My blog is certainly not a top 1,000 blog, or probably not even a top 10,000 blog in terms of size of audience.  This is merely a microcosm that proves the macro trends.  If I’m driving $10,000 per year of business to Amazon, now I REALLY understand how there are now approximately 500,000 people who make their LIVING by selling goods on eBay, and how probably another 500,000 people are making good side money or possibly even making their living by running offers and affiliate marketing programs from their web sites.  I’m like a little ball bearing in the finely tuned but explosively growing wheel of e-commerce.

If my quarterly affiliate fees keep growing, I’ll find something more productive or charitable to do with them than keep them for myself.  But for now, I am covering my costs and marveling on a personal level at how all this stuff works as well as it does.

Jul 062005

Book short: Blink

Book short:  Blink

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a must read for marketers, entrepreneurs, and VCs alike, just as is the case with Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point.

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

Blink for Entrepreneurs/CEOs:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to entrepreneurs/CEOs?  It’s about bias in hiring.  Most of us make judgments about potential new hires quite quickly in the initial interview.  The symphony example in the book is the most painfully poignant — most major symphony orchestras hired extremely few women until they started conducting auditions behind a screen.  It’s not clear to me yet how to stop or even shrink hiring bias, but I suspect the answer lies in pre-interview work around defining specific criteria for the job and scoring all candidates on the same set of criteria.

Blink for VCs:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to VCs?  It’s about picking companies to back.  Even VCs who are virtuosos, as Gladwell would call them, can make poor judgments on companies to back based on their own personal reaction to a company’s product or service, as opposed to the broader marketplace’s reaction.  Someone poured a whole lot of money into Webvan, Pets.com, eToys, and the like.

Blink for Marketers:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to Marketers?  It’s the importance of multivariate regression testing.  No, really, I’m not kidding, although there’s no doubt a less math-y way of saying it — “test everything.”  The Coca-Cola Company thought they were doing the right thing in creating New Coke because they were losing the Pepsi Challenge.  But what they didn’t realize was that Pepsi (unintentionally or not) had suckered them into believing that the single-sip test was cause for reengineering a century of product, when in reality Coke was probably just being out-advertised.  Christian Brothers Brandy was going out of its mind losing market share to competitor E&J until someone realized that they just needed to change the shape of their bottle.

If you haven’t yet done so, go buy the book!  It’s a very quick read and incredibly thought provoking.  And if you haven’t yet read The Tipping Point, it’s a must as well.

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