Quote Thyself

I was looking through some of my Disqus comments and was pleasantly surprised at some of my replies to various discussions. Like everyone else, blog commenting is a mostly in-the-moment affair for me, and while I guess that quoting myself is an arrogant sort of thing to do, I believe that these quotes will make you think a bit, especially if you’re in a startup and/or the video game industry. Some light editing for context.

Apple is Launching Search Engine to Destroy Google — and You’re Already Using It

Is Google evil? Hell yes – it’s corporately impossible for them not to be at their scale. Apple is also evil at scale. Spotlight as an app-mining mechanism ultimately results in plenty of ads from apps, in addition to 80+% chatter from zombie apps. If Apple does evolve Spotlight into a full-on Google competitor (oh the irony, considering Job’s quote), their ability to hold off on ad-spam results is only possible because their revenue model doesn’t need/want it – yet. Privilege remains committed to the fantasy that the natural result of scale is diversification into non-core competencies through market consolidation/acquisition and wildly expensive internal development. The root of the root problem is that no large tech companies – certainly not Google or Apple – believe that their Scrooge McDuck money bins can ever be big enough.

Silicon Valley – Religion, Operating System, or Something Else?

Having traveled to Silicon Valley several times per year for two decades, lived there for seven years (99-06), and seeing my son’s experiences for the last three years since he moved there fresh out of college, the fundamental SV milieu hasn’t changed much. I still grok it as a theme park. In fact using religion as a metaphor, SV as a religious theme park hits home. It’s presumptuous, exploitative, shiny, kitchy, dogmatic and arrogantly opportunistic. And if you grok the concept of creating truly meaningful software out of nothing but your own mind and mettle, SV is like one of those big crazy Texas churches, except you may be the god that changes the world. SV is where art fucks science, creates a singularity, then rebrands it as a virgin birth and the second coming for the next generation congregation. Or something like that.

Do the Work, Skip the Party

In my industry (video games), from my perspective as a developer, things are a bit different from the bubblicious milieu. It’s more like a dunken orgy inside a rocketship to the bottom, where 0.01% landowner-publishers are in slave-heaven with developer-unfriendly disty deals and mini fickle-finger-of-fate awards in lieu of cash. Apple and Google changed distribution forever. Absolutely no one has any real ideas about how to deal with the scale of the market and the ever non-presence of discovery. Customers have been taught to expect crap for free. The industry used to be cutthroat and hit-driven — the good old days! Now it’s just a big lottery.

How Does A Small Company Make A Big Company Successful?

In the gaming segment, big companies (publishers) and small companies (developers) have undergone a big relationship shift. Prior to the rise of mobile and social games and the F2P model, developers were valued as reliable sources of content that would have a direct impact on publisher success. Today the developer has much less real value to the publisher – discovery is so difficult that most publishers can only afford a very wide net to catch distribution deals. Since production costs have only risen, developers produce less compelling content. The race to the bottom is getting so big that the starting line is elbows-to-elbows with out-of-shape runners. Hence developers only help publishers be successful to the extent that they incrementally increase the probability of a hit game in which profits are shared equally.

The Interview, Censorship, Terrorism, Dr. Evil, and Lots of Other Stuff

Large-scale organizations (of all kinds) appear more and more like big collections of entropic vagaries whose operational tools are over-confidence, short-term accounting, obfuscation, denial, deflection, disinformation and so on. These are old tools that cannot hope to be of any real use up against cyber-attacks. Limiting organizational growth would by definition limit the impact of a single cyber-attack. Of course this is blasphemy to all modern economic systems. Sigh.

Mix Strong Opinions With Big Open Ears

Something I’ve learned and am still learning is that communication is almost always about feelings and the needs behind them. If I’m mindful of this and realize that I’m co-authoring the story of the conversation then I tend to listen much better and not lecture and analyze so much; if not I’m just data without a soul, steamrolling everyone’s needs including my own.

Have We Passed Peak Surveillance?

The collection and storage of data seems impossible to stop, given the ubiquitous commercial nature of the Internet. Rabbit’s been out of the hat since ’94 or so and it’s far easier to re-use that rabbit than to create another hat. The bigger issue may be Peak Abstraction. We’re all leaves in various trees with chains of nodes dumping us into super-groups, on up a given tree until we hit its root node. When nodes contain too many sub-nodes to evaluate logically/meaningfully and leaves are far removed from their nodes, yet power enforces any sort of algorithmically-motivated action toward the leaves, we hit some pretty scary peaks. If one of those trees is government, the air will be damned thin up there.

What Do You Do On The Weekends?

Most engineers, artists, designers I know have always had side projects — it’s the special stuff they “want” to do away from the normal stuff they “need” to do. Sometimes the special is an off-shoot from the normal, often not. If the special becomes normal then maybe it becomes a “thing” whose fundamental bits are mostly immutable. Maybe it’s a needy thing. It needs to impress, it needs validation, it needs to generate value, it needs to function beyond the sparky neocortextual passion that first formed it. Once normalized, the full expression of the original vector is lost, or hard to compute. So on to the next project.

The Ebb and Flow of Work and Life

Productivity purely as a function of time makes some sense where it’s clear that time is inherent to product[ivity], e.g. manufacturing when quantity is the primary objective, or old-school QA. But it starts to break down past the short-term. In software I see it generally as a violent process standing in for trust, a red flag with a herring logo on it, beating in the breeze over management’s head. If the objective is to serve your time then time is who you serve. You are timetive, not productive.

Simplicity, The Emerging UI, and Machine Learning

Android developers, in particular, try to remember that Google is run by the best and led by super-geniuses, unlike those wannabes at Apple. They know this is true because, well, everybody knows it now. And they remember it when they have to use lousy development tools and do battle with the Eclipse IDE and slow, buggy emulators. They remember it when they’re struggling with an over-engineered, clunky, dubious API, debugging in a black box or on any of the dozens of test devices they had to buy, and they realize Goggle has much more important things to do than write documentation. And they know that Google could spend more time with device manufacturers to decrease platform fragmentation, but they trust that there’s a strategy in place that must be beyond their understanding. In all seriousness, I totally agree that Google has an enormous amount of talent and they are on a steady march to innovative user experiences in several areas. Neural network-based voice recognition is exciting. But they have a ton of housekeeping to do, too.

MBA Mondays: Revenue Models – Gaming

Except for retail, these models are a predictable response to market scale, and the gaming industry is more creative and sophisticated in their use of them due to its history as a hit-driven business. But the fundamental problem is ever-present: Quality doesn’t scale. The non-traditional market is massive and getting massive-er by the day. The game shelf is a mile long with a handful of endcaps. Funding a high-quality game is very risky since it cannot be done on the cheap. So quality is the first thing to go out the door – it’s intuitive (and may be a fallacy) to diversify instead. Rather than betting your budget on one high-fidelity game, the platforms ask that you create many low-fi games with minimally viable mechanics and art then invest in creative monetization and cross-promotion to keep re-leveraging your players across the catalogue. And it makes some sense until you realize it’s not quite sustainable because customer expectations scale, too – especially new users you’ve transformed into gamers.

Are Entrepreneurs More Prone To Depression And Divorce?

I have mild OCD. I hate it when I’m meta-OCD and become OCD about my OCD as I seek to suppress rather than repress. Finding data specific to entrepreneurs as a class sounds tough. Looking at type a’s, highly creative types and super-driven product people and engineer types, maybe successful execs, makes some sense to me. Deconstruct the entrepreneur into component sub-classes, at least that’s a direction in which to head. Qualitatively, my own experiences with other entrepreneurs suggests that they — especially the product and engineer types — are prone to depression and OCD, manic behavior, excessive hubris and definitely divorce. They are also prone to remarkable displays of kindness, honesty, purpose, courage and genius, qualities I observe somewhat less frequently in others.

Be The First Mover

In my business (video games), looking for a segment where you can become the first mover is a little analogous to implementing a new or under-adopted game mechanic so well that you become the definition of the category. Others will follow your idea but wish they could follow your execution. Rovio, for example — they weren’t the first mobile 2D physics game, but their product execution was first-rate and their market execution was prescient (continual engagement with players through lots of content updates — few were doing this on mobile at the time — rather than feature updates and new skus). Now they’re scaling and evolving and so far doing a good-to-excellent job of that. IMO all software companies should study the video game industry in preparation for the massive markets that are coming our way over the next decade — at that scale practically everything will become hit-driven and a measurement window of six months may be generous.

Dear GP: Why Are You Blowing Me Off?

Somehow people convince themselves that there is never enough time but it’s really not that hard to be responsive. The good will generated alone is worth the effort, and often there’s a business payoff — sometimes way down the line but it happens to me not infrequently (give people time and they will surprise and delight). In my industry (gaming) we often work with external teams. I only get to meet these guys in person once a year at best (usually at an industry conference), otherwise the communication is project-focused email/phone/Skype. When someone reaches out to me for other types of help or connectivity, it’s an opportunity to put something good out into the universe. The way I look at it, we’re all on the same team. Practicing trust and reliability is good work. It’s a chance to show quality. It’s a happiness-inducer and life-extender.

You Decide Your Life and That’s Lucky?

I’m in a stickler kind of mood. So flame-on and that’s where this post is coming from. I feel like deconstructing minor points, being over-analytical, so, grain of salt. Please, roll your eyes and I’ll roll mine back at you.

Henceforth and forthwith and so on, I recently caught this video. On one hand I really like it. It’s got a great theme, it’s funny, fun to watch and is a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy — totally awesome and I’m glad they did it.

On the other hand, it doesn’t resonate. I just don’t think most people — entrepreneurs or not — are going to connect with wealthy, successful people rapping about how lucky they are. I think viewers would have a far better chance of connecting emotionally if those in the video gave interviews and talked about the impact of helping Sandy victims, but they chose to go the more creative route (from the website):

This song is dedicated to the people who fight every day in the trenches of entrepreneurship. We brought together 25 of some of the world’s top entrepreneurs & investors to participate in this video. We feel super lucky to be building products that make people’s lives better, easier and happier (thus “Lucky Ones”). We’re setting out to raise funds for a few small businesses that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

The verses don’t quite jibe with the chorus for me. The chorus is:

We are the lucky ones,
We are the dream,
And we’ll see it all come true, yah,
Cuz we work all day, and we play at night,
Nothing can stop, nothing can stop,
The dream of the lucky one

The verses are all about persistence and staying hungry, doing something you love, staying the distance, working hard and so on — all great things, surely. The last line of the last verse is:

You decide your life and that’s lucky

Just. No. Really? The platitudinal thrust of it irks me. How are [the singers of the song] lucky? And while we’re at it, what is luck anyway?

So let me sing along. I’m lucky because I get to “work all day” and “play at night”. I’m “the dream” and “nothing can stop” me. So, on the surface, the hook fits the verse: it’s more or less a nice bit of colloquial fluff about how I’m lucky because I get to pursue my dream. I get to work on something exciting. Ground-breaking. World-changing. Do what I love. Follow the vision. I’m a ninja, a rock star (first verse), a “lucky one”.

Okies, so how did I get so lucky that I can be so lucky? What happened there? Let’s try to find cause without over-correlating. Presumably at some point I was at the right place at the right time. I think that’s a reasonable presumption. Circumstances were such, or some event happened, that I got my shot at ninja-rockstar-dream-lover-entrepreneur. And I was ready for it. My preparation met opportunity, right? Or maybe as Napoleon Hill suggested many years ago (by way of Wikipedia), I had the desire, faith and persistence to “reach great heights by eliminating negative energy and thoughts and focusing on the greater goals in hand”. Damn I’m awesome. 

And I’m kinda full of crap. Alrighty, now here’s a snippet of lyrics from another song (there’s a point, I promise!):

Triangle man, triangle man
Triangle man hates person man
They have a fight, triangle wins

Let me reskin this, first attempt:

Opportunity, Opportunity
Opportunity trumps preparation
They have a fight, opportunity wins

Or how about this:

Luck, Luck
Luck beats Work
They have a fight, luck wins

Is it possible that luck and work are not two sides of the same coin? That one is more crucial than the other? Think about it. It’s easy to want to group something that’s not arbitrary (work) with something that is (luck). But how many successful people attribute their success to their hard work? Remember Edison’s famous quote? It’s often misquoted but here’s the original:

None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.

This is commonly viewed as Edison saying it’s all about hard work. But I don’t read it that way. “Trial after trail until it comes” — that sounds more like luck than the scientific method.  And here’s an experiment: Pick some famous successful people and google them with the following pattern, [name] “I was lucky”. For example, Steve Jobs “I was lucky” or Bill Gates “I was lucky” or Andy Grove “I was lucky”. Yeah yeah this is just anecdotal qualitativity masquerading as me-blogger-authority-big-data-backmeup, but you get the gist. The point is, there’s much more to this than “you decide your life and that’s lucky”. The “you decide” part hooking up with the “lucky” part is so third grade, like, you know, “Do you like me? [ ] YES [ ] NO”.

Moreover, all this implies having a goal — keep the faith, dude. Have a vision. Follow your bliss (Joseph Campbell: “Remember the last line? [of Sinclair Lewis‘ Babbitt?”], ‘I have never done a thing that I wanted to do in all my life.’ That is a man who never followed his bliss”). And I think this has potential for being the real fallacy, that objectifying the “thing” or “things” is a primary key in the database of luck. Isn’t the process far more interesting, sustainable, rewarding — without any goal whatsoever? Who on their deathbed laments that which they were unable to accomplish in a material sense? Will I regret not having a bigger house or “owning” more property when I’m dying? Will I bitch and moan about not flying first class more often, not upgrading to the latest iPad, not splurging more often on holiday? Will I cry over all the stock buys I didn’t make? Nah. We all know that we won’t (at least most of us won’t — some of us might).

Maybe what bothers me most about the video, considering its participants, is the third-to-last line in the song:

You’ll never keep playing this game for the money

Hmm, on the surface I just wanna say, right on! But on behalf of those who are actually in business trying to make that business successful (by definition), I calleth the bullshit. Tell your employees that you’re paying with vision and spirit. Make your plans now to give all your money away — or better yet, just give it away as you go because you don’t need it, it’s not about the money. Oh, make your investors keenly aware of your new-found, non-profit altruism, too, and they will be sure to invest more– hold on, wait a tick, you don’t need investors, it’s not about the money!

Yes, yes of course I get the sentiment here: “I love it so much I don’t do it for the money”. Platitudes. Mostly people with enough existing fuckyoo capital say this shit (and yeah, I say it sometimes too). Sometimes certain artists or people with varying degrees of mental illness. But even if you truly, truly, truly aren’t in it for at least a little ROI, try measuring your business by bliss alone and see how long you keep living the dream. 

I’m sure the folks who contributed to the video had nothing but the best intentions — I’m a big fan of several of them! I’m sure that Undrip has the best foot forward on it. And at the end of the day, it’s groovy. But it’s also utterly simplistic and emotionally not-so-present. Did you, O Lucky One, decide your life and that’s lucky? Or — reversalism, please — did you luck into your life and that’s decided? As Forrest said to Jenny, “Maybe it’s both”. Either way, in a complex, multi-dimensional [entrepreneurial] world full of ever-changing perspectives and experiences involving luck, life and work, you’re displaying all the depth of a 2D orthogonal projection, which, I guess, since this is just a video we’re talking about here, is appropriate.

Made, not Born

Great post by Ben Horowitz today, called Making Yourself a CEO (makes it even harder to believe he also wrote this). I agree that it’s pretty common to subscribe to a more Hollywood kind of notion that CEO’s are born, not made. But that’s also true with most jobs, IMO. While individuals may have certain gene combos & talents that predispose them toward one thing more than another, it’s all about the effort and the practice — and Ben’s got some great comments on both those in the post. Good stuff.

A Good Place to Work?

I’ve been a fan of Ben Horowitz for years, certainly of his success as an investor and businessman and definitely of his writing. I’ve quoted some of Ben’s past posts to others, found many of his themes to be fabulous food for thought, and always look forward to reading his blog. And I usually learn something from his writing.

Alas, not this time. It was quite a surprise to read his recent post, A Good Place to Work. There’s some discussion about it here, including a response by Ben (which makes me feel a little better, but not much).

Purely selfish of me (after all it’s his blog, he can say whatever he wants!), but I hope Ben decides to write another post to clearly explain the choices he made in A Good Place to Work. Up until this point I’ve been a believer in Ben as an authority on leadership and management, and I want to get my warm-and-fuzzy back.