I love that feeling that when you discover a new local product. Be it a restaurant, vineyard, farmer, café or retailer, I really enjoy discovering & shopping local. On top of that, it feels good! You’re supporting a local merchant or producer and not one of the big faceless corporations. This topic has taken on new meaning during the pandemic with governments rushing to create buy local initiatives. I’ve been thinking of what it means for the local tech sector and how it can be better supported, not just by the government but by the entire community. It raises a few questions.
Should we stop using their products? This one sounds crazy to me. Better products win especially when distribution costs so little in software. It’s not just the mass consumer tools like search and social. Think of all the productivity tools that startups/techcos use that come from abroad. We can’t force people to use other platforms or attempt to change the rules of the game to benefit local players. Just look at the mess in Australia as an indication of what not to do.
Should people avoid working for foreign tech companies and work for local ones instead? Haha, what a hypocrite I would be if I advocated for this approach. Going to work for a big tech company has an important benefit to the local economy. Local tech can benefit from people that leave big tech. It’s not just tech companies but many other traditional companies can learn something from foreign tech; alas, that is a subject for another day. This is unequivocally a good thing as long as the playing field is fair. Big tech should not receive special subsidies to open offices or grants on talent.
Is there an ultimate solution? The answer should be obvious by now, we need to compete. Competing to build a stronger and more vibrant ecosystem has been the life’s work of many people in the city. This is an ongoing endeavour and one that has picked up a lot of momentum. One of the great projects in the city is FounderFuel that has their demo day this week. My only gripe with them is that it needs to be even bigger!
What we need are more shots on goal. We need more companies being formed all the time trying to solve real problems. Of course this process is messy and many startups fail. But building a flywheel of companies / founders / investors takes time. Successful entrepreneurs go on to start new companies or invest in new ones. Their investors back them the next time and the cycle continues. Over time, the quality bar gets higher and the companies formed compete on a bigger scale.
So attend demo day, work or invest in a startup (if you can), go work at a big tech company for a few years and always support the community. Helping local isn’t just about feeling good, it’s about getting better.
For the past four years, I’ve been hosting a super niche podcast about business strategy at the intersection of technology. The guests are mostly local CEOs and investors where we talk about their careers, their organizations and their thoughts on the industry. It started as a way to promote what we’re doing at my company and has become a marvelous learning experience along the way. I want to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned so far.
Analytics and distribution
First, to start with the numbers. I’ve had 137 incredible guests. The show has almost 25K downloads which ranks in the bottom quartile of podcasts. The episodes are also uploaded on YouTube (audio only). YouTube has garnered 5K views and 500 hours of watch time. It’s syndicated via Libsyn which distributes it across all platforms. The service is pretty neat and easy to use but my biggest gripe is in regards to the quality of the data. I’m still amazed at just how poor the analytics in the podcast space are. You get a number of downloads which doesn’t provide much insight if people are listening, where they are dropping off, etc. The main reason is that Apple doesn’t share much of the data mainly because they don’t care. It’s just too small a space for the company to invest in. Though it has improved recently, there’s still a huge opportunity for more robust metrics.
Something I’ve really neglected is distribution. My main strategy has been to share on social media when an episode comes out and ask for guests to do the same. I have not spent enough time trying to figure out or experiment with other distribution channels. Deep down, I dislike self-promotion and find it icky.
I know this is likely misguided and will look to get better at spreading the word.
The objective for the podcast was never to generate new customers. I didn’t believe it was going to be a lead gen driver for consulting mandates. It was always about creating awareness by a) having great content, b) exposing super smart people in our network which in turn spreads the word. That being said, we have obtained a few customers as a result but it is not a repeatable revenue pipeline. It has raised the profile of our firm and helped us punch above our weight despite being a small shop. For myself professionally, it’s been a great learning tool. The recipe is quite simple. Get smart people on the show, be curious, ask good questions and get out of the way.
The biggest area of improvement is diversity with my guests. I have a horrible track record on this. Only 21% of the guests have been female. Though it’s been more even lately, it’s still pretty bad. I’ve made it a focus to come back to a more even split. The main reason is that my network is mostly male (which isn’t an excuse). What has helped is asking female guests for recommendations and they made great referrals.
Some overarching principles
Asking good questions is such an underrated skill. It has served me way beyond podcast interviews. It takes time to build this reflex. Instead of asking the obvious question, I try to dig deeper to get a better sense of what the person was thinking when they made a particular personal or professional decision. I’ve learned *so much* by talking to people and just asking questions.
Even busy people want to give back. I’m always surprised when a guest accepts to be on the show. No one has ever asked for the reach or what’s in it for them. They just want to give back and share what they’ve learned along the way. If you have something to ask from someone that is in a more senior position than you, always consider how it makes them feel. Giving back is a good feeling!
Meeting people in person makes for a better discussion. Obviously, this is harder during the global plague we’re all living through. My preference is to talk to people in person. There’s something about the conversation in the same room. Most people (including myself) are more rigid at first but after 15-20 minutes, people start to feel more comfortable and open up. This is where the most interesting insights occur.
Sucking at first is ok. I don’t want to listen to my first interviews. I wasn’t that good and my technical set up wasn’t at par. But I still put it out there. The important thing is to improve and get better.
It’s been a fun experience and I’m not planning on stopping. I want to follow my own advice and keep improving. I’m planning on more deep dives on specific topics and interview series. Next month, I’ll be talking to up and coming leaders that are still early in their career. I want to get off the beaten path for a bit and give some space for different view points.
As always, thanks for listening!
p.s. If you happen to know any potential female guests, please let me know.
Is it said that the key to staying young is lifelong learning. If that is the case, then the internet is undeniably the fountain of youth. I distinctly remember the first time I used the internet as a young teenager and feeling this sense of awe. That feeling has worn off throughout the years but it still amazes me. As the technology has matured, this ability to learn whatever you want (for free) has been taken a little for granted. Anyone can now learn anything they want. Wanna start a company, learn a new language or develop a new skill? There are more articles, videos & resources that you can ever consume.
Of course this comes with awful things, like spreading misinformation, terrorist recruitment and hate speech. But ultimately, these are not caused by the technology, they are simply enhanced by it. These traits exist already in human nature. I look at the positive side of human nature which has this uncanny ability to continuously learn and evolve. This newfound learning capability to raise everyone’s skill level is a profound game changer.
The decentralization of everything
This free flow of information implies that every part of the economy is slowly being decentralized. The resources required to start new businesses or projects are essentially gone to zero. Chris Anderson saw this trend and discussed it in his 2009 book Free. Software is essentially encoded human language and its main attribute is its ability to be replicated at zero marginal cost. This implies that that software is radically reducing the cost of everything around us while connecting different parts of the world together (hello APIs!). The impact on the business world is essentially the story of the past 20 years. What does not get enough attention is how the fundamental nature of learning has changed.
Accelerating your career
When I meet someone earlier in their career today, let’s say early twenties, I’m often astonished at how stunningly smart and well informed they are. It’s not that people are somehow more intelligent. Rather, it’s access to relevant and timely information that gives people an edge. For the *motivated* twenty something (or sixty something!), there are no limits as what skill or subject can be learned. The technology, platforms and content are now completely at scale. This is by far one of the most exciting opportunities for education and skill development more broadly. It literally costs nothing. The only limiting factors are time & motivation.
Controlling the firehose
With the world’s best teachers and content, comes with a dilemma. How can someone learn and not be completely overwhelmed? There are many exciting and developing areas in this space. Two interesting startups come to mind, Notion and Roam research. I’ve been using Roam for a few months and it’s a fantastic tool to capture notes and ideas. There are going to be many more companies and opportunities to emerge.
The nature of education and dare I say universities will change permanently. The geographic and time boundaries don’t make sense in a world without these constraints. Not to mention the quality & timeliness of the content. Everyone should start using tools (or develop their own) to get better at learning and curating information. There is no one size fits all.
I’m part of the last cohort of people that distinctly remember life before and after the internet. That feeling of amazement is still with me and I now realize that I’ve underestimated its potential. How we learn and evolve will dramatically improve in the coming decades. We’re still in the first grade.
The one thing I’ve benefited the most from in my career is to start stuff. It’s easy to say that when you’re in a startup – it’s literally in the name. I believe this is just as important when you’re an employee in a bigger company. By starting something in a company, you’re taking initiative that likely other people aren’t taking but also learning a ton along the way. It can also serve as a great on ramp for someone to eventually start their own business.
In recent years, there’s been some fetishizing of startups. This isn’t a bad per se, more people starting companies is obviously a great thing. My one gripe with the startup mantra is that many people don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs and are not ready to take the risk. It can create a sense of anxiety, a fear of missing out in your career – at last this had been the case for me. What helped me was to start stuff as an employee and realize that the “risk” wasn’t really a risk at all. It helped overcome my fear and lack of confidence.
Inside of a company, taking one new initiative can be an amazing way to learn and develop new skills. It will also serve as a springboard for people that aren’t ready to venture out onto their own. The best way to do this is to take on more responsibilities. Do more stuff well and people will likely give you more stuff to do.
What’s neat about this approach is that it doesn’t need to be some bold project. Something starting stuff can be small initiatives that can lead to something bigger. It will also shake off the “employee mindset”; something that I had to wrestle with for a long time. The start stuff mindset always helped me even when I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.
Finally, just want to say hats off to the good folks at Startupfest Montreal that put together a great event this week despite a few challenges to say the least.
A few weeks ago, I asked a few friends if they were interested in writing an opinion letter together. The idea I had was to combine the ideas different backgrounds and industries on what we can do to improve our society as a result of this crisis (I’m glad they accepted!). We wrote some ideas on how Quebec can take advantage of the crisis that we’re going through and the importance of taking action.
Think local, act global
Since the 1970s, the ideology “Think global, act local” has guided world leaders, lulled by the thought that the prospect of a global market should also be anchored in local roots. However, in recent months, major social changes have occurred. On the one hand, we note a growing awareness of environmental issues (as evidenced by all the protests around the world) and an examination of the adherence to the principles of globalization. On the other hand, a virus, as unknown as unexpected profoundly transforms the social fabric and redefines the relationship of humans with their environment.
“Think global, act local” is no more.
Surely, globalization will remain a post-COVID-19 reality and the foundations of global economic principles will remain, for the most part, valid. Of course, no one is against this virtue and everyone prefers (at least conceptually) to favor their local ecosystem rather than a globalized and depersonalized economic structure.
The changes we are going through are profound. We are moving towards an era of Thinking locally and acting globally. It’s a way to build on our local strengths and customs in order to have a global impact.
It can also make a big difference for businesses here. For the past few weeks, we have been experiencing an evolution in attitudes and consumer awareness of the importance of the local economy – both to help each other and to combat the harmful effects of globalization. We must remain realistic, Quebec remains a territory of 8.5 million inhabitants. It would be unthinkable to imagine any form of economic and commercial isolation. However, it is clear that consumers’ ability to vote with their wallets could lay the foundations for a new local economy.
From a more structural point of view, thinking local, acting globally is a leitmotif rooted in a form of disruption. The latter requires a certain distance, a rebellious state of mind based on cultural differences; which is Quebec’s DNA.
Quebec is exceptionally well positioned to change the game and carve out a place for itself on the new world stage, both thanks to its culture and its unique talent pool. In the early 1980s, Quebec experienced a perfect storm of reinventions, which propelled several companies onto the world stage. Forty years later, it is in chaos that Quebec businesses can find opportunities to think differently.
Today, on this national holiday, we want to launch an appeal. Do we want to combine our know-how and our different ways of thinking in order to take advantage of the crisis we are going through? Do we have the ambition to seize this opportunity to see the birth in Quebec of new business opportunities to enrich ourselves collectively as a society?
To make this crisis an opportunity, we must find perfect synchronicity between businesses, consumers and governments.
1) Accelerate the digitization of businesses and the economy.
The current crisis is rightly perceived as the greatest catalyst that Quebec has ever known in terms of digital transformation or transformation of business models. To be competitive, the adoption of technologies should be at the heart of an economy that takes shape differently.
Adopt an agile strategy.
Given the increased speed of technological innovations, it is imperative to stop talking about digital transformation. Each organization must adapt to technologies constantly. To do this, the key principle of organizational success is to evolve quickly and adapt to the market. An agile strategy is therefore necessary.
The online shopping cart starts with each business.
We believe that businesses here can afford to compete against foreign giants. To achieve this, we must rely on elevating the customer experience and the uniqueness of our products. We need to bring out our strengths in order to stand out. Local merchants who master fast & easy online ordering, eco-friendly shipping have a better chance of satisfying their customers, who will remain loyal. Innovative business models like subscription will help merchants to create a local consumer habit.
Double down on startups and the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
No one can predict where the next successful business will come from. We know that the Quebec ecosystem of startups is performing at a high level. Several examples of global success have started right here in Quebec. So we have to bet on entrepreneurs and promote risk taking. It is crucial to help entrepreneurs to get started, to bounce back from their failures and to develop their businesses beyond our borders.
Nowadays, the digital acceleration of our businesses and our civil society is no longer a complex necessary evil to undertake. Indeed, we must seize the opportunity to reinvent ourselves in a world less focused on capitalism and more oriented on ethics, transparency and respect for the benefit of growth and sustainable development, and this, for the good of all.
2) Renew the relationship with consumers.
To make the crisis that we are going through an opportunity, the relationship that companies have with consumers must be transformed.
Listen to understand, not to respond.
As brands or organizations, are we really consumer-centric? Or are we just trying to convince ourselves? There is nothing new about putting the voice of the consumer at the heart of the decision-making process, but few companies are fundamentally attuned to their market. From a “think local” perspective, the ability of organizations to understand their markets is complex. We need to learn to listen more often, to share faster and thus develop the ability to quickly disseminate consumers’ perceptions and attitudes within the organization.
Act rather than speak.
The COVID-19 crisis is not just a health crisis. It is also a fundamental questioning of values, at an economic, environmental and social level. In the past few weeks, several brands have been severely punished by consumers due to the mismatch between their actions and consumer values. More than ever, it is essential for businesses here to focus on speaking out and showing their customers that their choices are aligned with their own values.
The courage to think bigger.
If there is one trait that distinguishes Quebecers from the rest of North America, it may be their humility or modest ambitions. However, we have the talent, the access to capital and the vision to make a positive impact on many more consumers than we can imagine. We have the means to become a force both on the local market and internationally. There are no more excuses for having much greater vision.
3) Government support.
In the wake of these profound changes that we are observing, governments also have a role to play in supporting businesses and consumers and helping to redefine society after the pandemic.
A long-term perspective.
The current crisis has exposed the weaknesses of short-term, partisan political decisions. To rebuild lasting trust in our public institutions, we believe it is essential to embed the major collective priorities (climate emergency, energy efficiency projects, investments in public health, relocation to Quebec of the production of essential goods and services, investments in sustainable public transport infrastructure, etc.) in a legal framework with clear objectives and monitoring mechanisms that transcend electoral cycles.
Reform the economic model.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the vulnerability affecting several sectors of the economy, notably the cultural and event industries, catering and bars. Why not approach the creation of the wage subsidy program as a first step towards a broader reflection aimed at overhauling our individual and corporate taxation and our mechanisms for redistributing wealth and reduction of inequalities? Without necessarily arguing for a universal guaranteed minimum income program, it is clear that many current tax measures could be combined and simplified.
Governments will have to be pioneers.
When it comes to public policies that promote diversity, inclusion, social solidarity and innovation, governments must lead the way. Incentive policies for employment and training, representation in decision-making bodies, structuring support for the creative and innovative industries and the social economy are just a few examples of possible areas of intervention for our public bodies.
The time to act is now.
Our collective choices define the next generations. The unique opportunity of this crisis is to rethink our past choices and not to adhere to past conventions. It is up to us to rely on our expertise and our unique positioning to rethink the dynamics of capitalism and use the current crossroads to propel us into a more prosperous, equitable, sustainable and inclusive world. In order to become the Quebec for which we aspire, the time for action is now.
Florent Bayle-Labouré, Co-Founder and Partner, Habo Studio
In my early twenties, my friends and I had a weekly ritual. We would get together, smoke some weed, watch the Chappelle Show and laugh our butts off. The show marked me in this moment of time. Not only because it was an amazing sketch comedy but also for the story of its star. The show got extremely popular after the first two seasons and Dave Chappelle was reportedly offered $50 million for a third season by Comedy Central. There was one hitch though, he had to partially give up creative control. What happened next is well known. Dave refused that fortune and went into hiatus. When he made his comeback nearly a decade later, he almost immediately rose back to the top of his profession.
What I wish to emulate the most in Dave, is not his career success but his complete freedom. He does what he wants, when he wants. He is famous for showing up at random comedy clubs and performing on stage. He’ll prepare huge specials with other comedians on a whim and sell out stadiums with only a few weeks notice. If you’ve seen any of his comedy, it’s an evolved art form. He is not only telling jokes, he is talking about how he sees reality and inserting jokes along the way. His last special which is not really a comedy show at all. The clip on YouTube is more of a rant about the current social upheaval in the US. Dave is poignant and powerful as he discusses police brutality and racism. It’s given me another perspective on the current issues and made me realize that we need more profound conversations.
The images of violence, protests and rioting are difficult to watch and hard to make sense of. There is undoubtedly systemic racism that needs to be addressed by reform. At its core, inequality (wealth, social status, etc. ) probably plays a large role in the underlying causes. We have many of the same issues in Canada albeit on a smaller scale. These are not simple things to solve. In a complex and interconnected world, we need to be able to think about how systems are created and propagated.
My biggest fear is that we’re losing the capacity to have civil discourse about the issues at hand. Abolishing the police sounds just as crazy as some of the ideas promoted on the right, yet both sides are unable to talk to another. This is of course amplified by the platforms on which the conversations are happening. The recent controversies about social media’s policing of language miss the core of the matter, filter bubbles. Media outlets and social media platforms are increasingly sharing viewpoints that only their audience will accept. Clicks drive revenue & engagement, nothing else matters. Negative externalities like losing our ability to have a civil conversation is not a consideration. We are only at the beginning of understanding the impact algorithmic media is having on us. On first inspection, the results don’t seem great.
Confronting the ministry of truth
In Orwell’s 1984, the ministry of truth was in charge of state propaganda. Your thoughts were subject to state control and this is the dangerous path we’re going down if we don’t course correct. The only way to truly think freely is to understand multiple sides of a complicated issue. If we’re only hearing the side we want, there’s little chance of reconciliation.
Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known”. This is not a post about how the Greeks invented everything (although I can make the case for it) but rather a post about learning and a mental model that is tremendously useful. Put more simply, reasoning from first principles is the act of breaking down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassembling them from the ground up. By building a strong foundation of a subject, you can reason up from there and create a good feedback loop.
Becoming part of culture
The term first principles has become quite popular over the past decade or so. Silicon Valley in particular has appropriated the term – just listen to any tech podcast. The most famous person advocating for first principles reasoning is Elon Musk. He’s used this form of reasoning to disassemble complicated engineering problems and convert them into world changing businesses. For instance, his rocket ship company SpaceX is successful, not only for its innovation but for its low cost structure. Elon looked at the supply chain of building rockets and saw enormous glut. There were many suppliers all taking margin over one another which resulted in exorbitant prices for rockets. The company centralized production and built a vertically integrated structure. Arguably, SpaceX’s biggest innovation was to bring down the cost of rockets. If you are a country looking to send a satellite in space, it costs one tenth less to hire SpaceX to do it for you.
Many of the world’s greatest innovations usually start with something hiding in plain sight. It just takes someone to look at the problem and deconstruct it.
How this has helped me
I’ve found that when I’ve tried acquiring a new skill that is foreign to me (hello corporate finance), I need to start with the basics and just learn them over and over again. It may sound simple but learning the foundations well of any subject is not as easy as it seems. Before moving on to more advanced material, I always try to relate back to the basics of the subject/skill at hand. I’ve also created cheat sheets with guiding principles on different subjects that helps me keep track.
At work, a useful framework we’ve been using is Wardley Mapping. You begin by breaking down something into its core components and place them along the value chain. It’s tremendously useful for being able to dissect almost any subject and formulate effective strategies.
Why it’s relevant today
As more variables get introduced into the equation, you can argue that increased complexity is becoming the norm. Reasoning from first principles can be a great starting point to identify original solutions to wicked problems.
Apart from building spaceships or saving the world, it’s also a great way to learn and get better.
In case you haven’t heard, this past week was a seminal moment for the work from home movement. Many of the most important technology companies of our era announced their plans to allow their employees to work from home indefinitely.
When the news made its way across social media, my initial reaction was to say *fuck this shit*. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be stuck all day at home without a break in between work and home life. Part of the frustration stemmed from being in forced confinement for the past two months. Yet, it wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. There was something else. Given that I’ve always worked away from home, I couldn’t imagine that not being the case. How much of this frustration was simply because I had never experienced anything else beyond the current pandemic?
There was something else I realized about my deeply ingrained habits, there are two illusions about myself – office and home. It’s not that I transform into another person in the office, it’s just that it made me feel that I *worked*. Maybe it’s the effort spent commuting, the sense of punching in or some nostalgic “honey I’m home” moment.
My thinking has completely shifted over the past few days. I’m super excited about what this means for the future of work and the new possibilities that come from decoupling work from the office.
It goes without saying that this depends on the type of work that you do. If you run a restaurant, chances are that you will have to keep on going into work. However, if you run a chain of restaurants, do you really need to have all your administrative staff coming into the office every single day? Given that so many tasks are now performed on a computer, there are fewer reasons to lock people in a cubicle from 9 to 5. It’s clear that every single knowledge worker will see their routine change over the decade.
More human: What are your life’s priorities? Chances are that health and family are above work. If so, why spend so much time travelling to a location to do work when it can be done closer to your loved ones?
Less pollution: Needless to say the planet needs fewer cars and buses on the roads
Flexibility: The current confinement has given me more free time to work when I want to and not feel part of the rat race every morning. For instance, I used to wake really early to get in a workout before heading into the office. Now, I’ll lift weights after work and it gives me something to look forward to after working all day. I’ve also had more time for skillset acquisition by taking an online course.
Fewer costs: As a business owner, I don’t feel the need to be tied into a five year lease anymore. I will surely consider more flexible options moving forward.
Deep work: This is a big one for me. The ability to think deeply about important matters requires solitude and tranquility. Being in a crowded space with constant interruptions is not amenable to deep work.
Employee friendly: Some companies will surely see this as a way to pass off costs to employees. Lower salaries for instance based on location is already being thrown around.
Less human: what happens if you’ve never met your boss in person? Will they be as empathetic when you’re dealing with a personal issue? I strongly believe in a meritocracy but when you’re only measuring OKRs for instance, it will be difficult to be nuanced especially when working remotely all the time. My fear is tied to a scene in WestWorld where the actor Aaron Paul gets laid off by an algorithm. I don’t want to be fired by an AI!
Culture: Transmission of culture, both good and bad, will be hard to do over Zoom or email. For companies that have not been born distributed, the challenge will be to teach the technical aspects of a job and also the softer cultural ones. When I was at Google, there was a distinct camaraderie among the teams. And for those that argue that engineering roles don’t require an office, I don’t buy it. The engineers at Google had a strong bond and were also recognized as exceptionally performers.
Serendipity and problem solving: “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” This is a quote by Steve Jobs who insisted in designing the Apple office to create casual collisions as much as possible. People are social animals by nature. We like being with people. Being alone is not always the best way to solve a problem. Being with your team in a room (with a whiteboard!) creates a safe space to be creative and imaginative. This is the biggest reason why I believe I don’t expect most companies to be 100% distributed.
Decoupling the office and work
For companies that were born with centralized offices, it will be much harder to make the shift to being entirely distributed. They will surely adopt some kind of hybrid approach. What I’m most excited about is the new ways to work that will emerge for new companies that are not tied to this past convention.
This opens the door for crazy new experiments to emerge. Maybe Monday’s can be spent working from a Breather space as a team and the rest of the week remotely. Also, instead of working together, teams can get together more often for play and bonding. New types of work cultures will emerge which will give people more options to consider when looking for a new job. On top of everything else, a candidate will want to understand where and how their team works together. This opens up the door for new innovations and will make work better & more meaningful.
Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
Charlie Chapin, Dictator Speech 1940
There is something troubling about the predicament we find ourselves in today but for the obvious reasons. Today, what is indeed obvious is that man-made systems are fragile and imperfect. We only need to look at our most important institutions and realize that they are operating largely on old world conventions and norms.
If we look at health care for instance, there is no robust preventative approach in place for broad disruptions like pandemics. Education is still modeled after a taylorist approach and is not personalized to the individual student. Elections of government officials have become popularity contests leaving little room for deep debating of the issues; and the list goes on. Without trying to moan too much, the point I want to raise is that there is ample room for improvement.
If we can avoid stagnation, I’m fairly confident that there will be significant advancement in all human domains over the next few decades. It seems inevitable that these institutions will change for the better- such is human ingenuity.
Dataism (the worship of data) is quite evidently the path forward. We will implement measurement systems across many aspects of society. This will lead to longer life spans, better education and a stronger economy. If we look at the rapid progression of intelligent algorithms, the cost to implement recursive systems will drop drastically leading to important improvements. This should be all good right? Well, that’s what I find troubling. What if it’s not? What if we lose something along the way? Is there an agreed upon definition of what makes people human?
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us
The coming symbiosis with machines seems inevitable today and will most likely be widely accepted – because it will make life better! Who wants decision making to be informed by imperfect systems rather than objective facts and data. We will surely start ceding control over to algorithms and machines all in the name in advancement. It has already started with biohacking. Would we want to have kids with a risk of Alzheimer’s disease? I know I wouldn’t. So let’s modify their generic code to avoid this nasty possibility. Now draw the reasoning out further and you can imagine where it’s headed.
Is there anything to do?
My concern is partially fueled by the fear of the unknown. I surely don’t want to be the one arguing that buggy whips are a better mode of transportation. Yet, deep down I know this isn’t such a fear of technological progress but of what it means to be human.
There are tantalizing new possibilities over the coming decades. We’ve moved beyond the probable and entered the realm of possible. Genetically engineered humans and connecting our brains with sensors are just a few examples. Shouldn’t we be a bit more worried? Why aren’t there more people talking about this?
I have no idea what is going to happen and I’m not offering any visions of utopia or dystopia. I just hope that this topic becomes much more important now rather than later. We need to think deeply about how these new systems will be built and what the potential impact will be. The future is not predestined and the choices we make will shape that future. I hope we figure it out before it’s too late.
Bad experiences make for good stories. I’ve always loved that quote. I like to add that bad mistakes make for good lessons. After five+ years of running a small business, I’ve learned a ton along the way- which is a nicer way of saying that I’ve fucked up a lot.
Post-mortems have been a great tool at work that we’ve used after completed mandates. I want to focus the lens inwards to see what I can improve. As a cathartic process, I want to share what some of those mistakes have been and hopefully help others avoid them.
You need a strong foundation at the start of the journey and I’ve been blessed with having two strong partners for the ride. But you have to be careful about the decisions you make at the start.
“A startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.” These types of errors cannot be undone. Choices of the product / service you’re building and type of culture are among a few things that will be very hard to course correct.
We chose to build a management consulting firm with a mismatch in our networks. The vision was to work with big companies to help them understand the impact of technology on their strategy. We were plugged into high level executives at big mega corporations but not at SMBs. This forced us to scratch and claw our way to work with smaller companies (ultimately successfully) but it took a while to get there. In hindsight, I should’ve spent more time understanding and researching the market. This seems like such an obvious and embarrassing point yet so it was not clear at the time.
A deeper observation on why this occurred makes me think about the pessimism/optimism scale. When dealing with a big & risky challenge, a natural defense mechanism I have is to be optimistic. Things will work out if I just work hard! This is of course not a bad thing. What I’ve been looking to improve is adding a healthy dose of cynicism; asking not just what but how.
Roles and responsibilities need to be clear in order for decision making to be fluid. When there are grey zones & overlap, tension can appear. It’s not to say that tension is bad. It’s the unnecessary tension that slows down decision making.
Positive tension = conflict over strategy, important decisions, decisions with uncertain & probabilistic outcomes.
Negative tension = operational in nature, shouldn’t be debated at the leadership level, opinions debated more than facts.
Another error of decision making is letting a point slide when I know I’m right. I tend to avoid conflict as a personality trait and when encountering push back, I tend to back down. Saying “I told you so” a year after a heated debate doesn’t help move the company forward. When you know you’re right, hold the line. Along the opposite line, when you know you’re wrong, let ego out of the way.
I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with conflict and fighting for my viewpoint. Avoiding a stressful conversation only pushes problems later down the road. You have to run towards the problem. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is key.
It would be a bit tone deaf to avoid talking about the crisis. Even though we’re still in the middle of it, I feel like I’ve learned a shit ton.
Clear communication is key right from the start of the crisis. I thought we were clear and it turns out that we weren’t. Given the added difficulty of remote communication, extra attention and time was necessary to let the team know what’s going on and how we’re dealing with it. There is a much bigger downside in under communicating rather than over-communicating.
Remote work is getting a lot of attention with the crisis and many people are correctly predicting the decline in commercial real estate as a consequence of this forced experiment. That being said, I believe that in person communication will actually grow in importance as a skill set. Strategy firms like ours won’t be able to shift to remote work entirely. There might be a mix of working remotely for deep individual work, but not 24/7.
The confinement has also provided the space to take a step back and reflect on what’s worked well and what hasn’t. I’m generally not a fan of fetishizing failure. But failure occurs when mistakes are repeated over time & not addressed. So if anything, I’m grateful for this crisis for the space to reflect and learn from them – even though it’s damn uncomfortable to look at them directly.