How to be Absolutely Awesome. How to optimize for growth. How to manage your career path. And how to to have a long term career plan.
How to optimize for growth
In this economy, most people are lucky to find one job. But a select few have multiple offers of interesting opportunities. If you are one of those people, picking the right opportunity can be difficult and stressful. Here are some easy heuristics to help you make the best decision.
First, let’s think about what you want to get out of a job. Very few people are trying to maximize their short-term compensation. If you are trying to do that, no need to read further. Just take that job at a top hedge fund (or, better yet, get drafted by the NBA). But read on if you are trying to maximize growth, learning, and long-term success.
Long-term success requires massive growth. Most smart people out of college grow an average of 10% per year. Which means they are roughly twice as effective 7 years after graduating college. That makes sense as most 29 year olds make double what they did their first job out of college. But growing at 10% per year is way too slow if you want to accomplish great things. You should be aiming to grow at a rate of at least 25% per year for your first few years out of school (like all things, your rate of growth (the second derivative) will slow over time).
To grow quickly, you need a job with the following criteria:
Find a company where at least 30% of the people are smarter than you
You will grow the most through the people who surround you, so make sure those people are really impressive. Because people tend to hire those they know, many of these people will likely be your colleagues for the next 30 years. So pick your colleagues wisely. One simple heuristic to determine how smart the people are at the company are is how selective they are in hiring. You want to pick a company that has a really hard (and often long) recruiting process where you need to meet a lot of people, complete a project, and have some grueling interviews. While not perfect, at least you know that everyone else the company hired went through the same process.
Opportunity to fail
You grow the most when you have a 33-66% chance of failure. To improve, you want to be in a position where success is not guaranteed. When success is difficult to attain, people push themselves much harder. Too often, people (especially recent grads) are put into jobs that they will definitely succeed at. I will not improve my tennis game playing against by 22-month old daughter. If you are playing chess, you’ll learn the most playing people within 100 points of your score (in the chess Elo ranking, a 100 point difference means a 2-to-1 advantage). And while definite success initially feels good, it doesn’t help you grow. You should find an organization that will give you projects where there is a high chance of failure.
Opportunities for massive responsibility
Assuming you are an ambitious person that wants to have continued growth, you want the opportunity to be promoted and to be given continuously greater responsibility. The companies that are most likely to promote you quickly have a history of doing so and are experiencing high growth. Find people that joined the company with a similar profile that you have and see if some of these people were given outsized responsibility in the company. If your abilities warrant it, you can also be given the chance. But if you have a hard time finding people, there will be little chance the company will look to promote you quickly.
These three criteria are heavily weighted towards the selection of start-ups (fast growth companies with under 200 people). And it is not an accident that the very best grads over the last few years are choosing start-ups over traditional choices like Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, and McKinsey. In fact, so many great people are joining start-ups that traditional employers have been forced to massively increase salaries to attract students with the promise of short-term compensation.
But not all start-ups are created equal. Look for the ones that have a really hard interview process, where they give you an opportunity to fail, and have examples of people just a few years older than you that have been given outsized responsibility.
This was originally posted in MediaPost.
CMOs are getting smarter and taking control
Limited by the indefinite and imprecise results of traditional marketing, CMOs of the past could not realize meaningful metrics to measure success. But today’s technology has ripened, enabling sophisticated and precise decision-making. CMOs have adapted and thrived accordingly, so much so that they will soon lead not just marketing, but companies in their entirety.
The CMO as Billy Beane
Michael Lewis’ Moneyball chronicles how baseball teams evolved to embrace new and more sophisticated metrics to achieve success. Traditionally, teams looked to antiquated statistics (e.g., batting average, stolen bases) to determine a player’s worth. Around the year 2000, the Oakland A’s realized that advanced stats like slugging and on-base percentages were far better indicators of value. Building a roster with these new metrics, the A’s became one of the best teams in baseball despite one of the smallest payrolls in the sport.
Marketing is experiencing a similar revolution now. In the past, no substantial feedback loop existed to tie customer choices to marketing activity. Marketers had to do things by touch and feel, often betting their careers on the black-boxed “genius” of creative agencies or the fuzzy results of focus groups. Ultimately, CMOs simply had to hope that correlation was causation; that an uptick in sales was actually attributable to them and not some confounding factor.
That’s all changed. With the plethora of analytics tools, big data platforms, and precise tracking methods available today, marketers can see inside the black box. Like in baseball, sophisticated metrics have emerged to enable better decision-making.
Enter the Moneyballer CMO.
Today’s Moneyballer CMO plans her marketing initiatives the way Billy Beane built the Oakland A’s.
She uses streams of analytical data and relies less on subjective focus groups or simplistic measures. Her analytics are acute and precise; the impact of every marketing and branding initiative is quantified. She leverages granular data on customer actions to expand beyond the traditional CMO role, influencing product strategy, customer service, and optimized sales pitches.
The Moneyballer CMO still uses smart agencies and consultants, but insources the core marketing strategy using the increased visibility her technology allows. She also insources her company’s data, employing it across multiple platforms and applications. Silos are the enemy of the Moneyballer CMO, because connected data means more holistic and measurable results.
Moneyballer CMOs and Technology
The rise of the Moneyballer CMO is both a symptom and a cause of marketing technology growth. As data becomes more integrated and accessible, smart marketers demand better analytics, so companies respond by spawning countless marketing applications.
Analogous to Moore’s law, the number of marketing applications doubles every two years. Just think of all the platforms that have emerged in the past 12 years: search marketing, social media, cloud applications, site analytics, mobile devices. With so many new technologies to manage, CMOs have had to become smarter, shrewder, and data savvy to stay competitive. It’s little wonder that they have become some of the smartest people in the room.
Residing on the cutting edge of technology, the Moneyballer CMO is often the most forward-looking executive at an organization. She’s always scanning the horizon for the next platform that will complement her technology stack, improve leads, or lift conversions up another fraction of a percent. That foresight is key to keeping an organization modern and relevant across all departments.
The CMO’s Touch
Business is just starting to experience the positive influence of the Moneyballer CMO. Marketing technology companies are in their infancy and we should anticipate an explosion of new tools that will yield massive returns for marketers and customers alike.
The CMO is moneyballing everything that touches the end customer. That’s why the CEOs of the future are the CMOs of today.
We will soon own a lot less stuff
The next few decades will witness a massive decline in ownership. Renting, not owning, will become the primary way people in the first-world consume.
The last century saw an enormous increase in ownership. This change was spurred by a few factors:
And thus, we have way too much stuff. In fact, everyone, even the some of the poorest Americans, have tons of things we don’t need and no longer want.
But this will change. We will soon become a nation of renters. We might still own the very essential things (like our smart phone) or things that are used very often (like underwear), but there will be little need to own things we use only occasionally (a fancy pair of shoes, most jewelry, or that really nice pizza-making set).
The things we might want to rent fall into three categories:
2. Things we need for a finite period of time, like baby’s clothes. We might want to hang on to one or two cherished items, but most of our baby’s clothes go to waste after the child grows.
3. Things we need only once, like a hotel room. When I go to Kansas City for two nights, I am not going to buy a house.
Paradoxically, some of the same forces that have made it so easy to buy will soon make it much easier to rent.
Technology: Much of the newest technology in the last decade has focused on renting rather than owning. It is no longer smart to buy music – you can rent every song in the world from Spotify. Instead of buying movies, you can watch them on demand on Amazon Prime or Netflix. ZipCar gives you the flexibility to drive whatever car you fancy at the moment – sometimes you’ll want a sports car and other times you’ll want an SUV. Attending a ritzy party? You can rent that designer ball gown from RentTheRunway.com instead of spending a fortune to own it.
Unpredictability: Our world is now perceived as more unpredictable than it was a generation ago (especially for Americans). A hard-earned asset like a house was once a sign of stability, but in the past ten years owning a home became a ruinous liability for many. Without certainty about the future, ownership is high risk.
Convenience: While owning is often more convenient than renting, technology and business model changes have made renting really easy (and, in some cases, even easier than owning). For example, with car sharing services you don’t have to worry about obtaining insurance or finding a parking spot.
Population Density: More people are choosing to live in dense urban areas. This means we all have less room for stuff. Shrinking living spaces makes it increasingly impractical to own things like winter sports gear, larges tools like table saws, and other occasionally used items. Additionally, renting is much easier when there is a high concentration of people because warehouses and depots can reach high utilization.
Environmental Awareness: Creating stuff we own but no longer need is a big contributor to environmental harm. As some of the population grows more concerned about the health of the environment, many will consider renting a less wasteful way to consume. While recycling helps mitigate the damage caused by the things you own, renting leaves an even smaller footprint.
Over the next 20 years, we’ll see a huge movement toward a renter’s world. The second order effects of this shift will be both positive and negative. Positively, people will be able to have more choice, convenience, and opportunity to experiment. Negatively, the decline in ownership will undoubtedly hurt economic growth, with potentially catastrophic implications for countries like China that make much of the world’s stuff.
Like with many economic problems, change is dictated by our ability to solve market inefficiencies. The things we own that we don’t use regularly are wastefully underutilized, and it is only a matter of time until those inefficiencies were cured. That time, the time of renting, is nearly upon us.
Special thanks to: Kurt Tsuo and Michael Safai
You can’t learn to be a big winner without losing first. We would all love to achieve success on the first go, but the reality is failure often lays the requisite groundwork for success. As I discussed in my earlier post “Fail to Succeed,” failing hardens our resolve, gives us experience, and lights the way to achieving our goal.
In his almost manic Oscar acceptance speech for winning Best Picture for “Argo,” Ben Affleck illustrated this mainstay mantra in Silicon Valley. After a string of bad films, the reinvented and rebooted Affleck said, voice trembling with emotion: “It doesn't matter how you get knocked down in life; that's going to happen. All that matters is you've got to get up."
This maxim is best exemplified in politics. There’s no clearer referendum on success and failure than an election by popular vote. Throughout history, political losers have rose to become successful leaders. In fact, every elected U.S. President since Kennedy has lost a major election on their way to the top:
Beyond gaining experience, running a failed campaign can build up essential
and recognition for future elections. John McCain lost his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2000, but he gained the national recognition to win the nomination in 2008. Mitt Romney followed the same blueprint, losing to McCain that year but winning the nomination in 2012. Romney invested a lot of time in building a strong ground game during his first run, cultivating support in key states and setting up offices around the country. When he ran the second time, he was able to re-enlist those same resources. Building upon an already strong foundation, he handily won the nomination.
While I can’t predict who our next president will be, I can predict that he or she will have lost a significant election in the past. Losing is at the heart of winning big.
(Originally published as a guest on Nir Eyal's blog: http://www.nirandfar.com/2013/08/to-become-a-superstar-improve-your-strengths-not-your-faults.html)
To really differentiate yourself in this winner-take-all world, you should be focusing on improving your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Most people who set out to improve themselves focus on their faults. For example, here’s Bridget Jones’ list:
“Resolution number one: Obviously will lose twenty pounds.
Number two: Always put last night's panties in the laundry basket.
Equally important, will find sensible boyfriend to go out with and not continue to form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional wits or perverts.”
While I don’t deny that it’s good habit to place your undergarments in the laundry bin, it is not the best way to achieve greatness. People who focus on their faults can eventually improve them to a point where they are no longer obstacles, but doing so will not propel them to success. A better strategy is to focus on one or two of the things at which you excel and hone those skills or talents to the point of excellence. Working on your faults might help you make a living, but honing your talents may help you change the world.
We are all judged on a variety of traits. We might have four bad traits, another four mediocre ones, and one or two for which we are admired. We all recognize the four at bad ones; we make New Year’s resolutions to improve them.
The impulse to focus on your weaknesses is a vestigial remain of an outmoded era in our evolution. Indulging that impulse won’t lead to success because we are in a modern winner-take-all world. In this world, outsized returns go to greatness, so it’s better to focus on one or two things at which you truly excel and strive to become great at them.
Going from good to great is really hard. But so is going from poor to mediocre. And if you have a predisposition or talent for a trait it’s likely to be something you love to do and you’ll enjoy the process of refining it.
If one of your really good traits is that you’re good-looking, you should focus on being great-looking, because in your category the spoils will go to a few people. So spend the money and time on those expensive haircuts, the rigorous fitness routine, and the flattering clothes.
Suppose you are really good at developing computer algorithms and really bad at showing up on time. It might take an X amount of effort to become really great at computer algorithms and let’s say it takes X/4 effort to become average at showing up on time. Both are improvements that increase your value, but being great at computer algorithms will pay exponential dividends.
Or let’s say you’re ugly but hilarious enough that strangers pay you to make them laugh. Working on your comedic skills will go a lot further than losing some weight. Being the funniest person in town is going to make you stand out.
Have you ever noticed that all the most successful people have massive, glaring weaknesses? Think of Bill Clinton’s well-known faults. But he has one or two traits in which he is world class. That’s all you need to be a superstar. Same thing goes for Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and any other person that has changed the world. What does Tiger Woods do great? He hits golf balls long and accurately . . . and that’s what he will be remembered for. People -- all people -- have very obvious flaws. Instead of spending massive amounts of energy on those flaws, spend it on making yourself great.
Of course, it’s not as easy as I make it sound, or else everyone would achieve greatness. To be outstanding requires passion, dedication, and extraordinary commitment. The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein practiced as much as 16 hours a day at some point in his career. He said that if he missed practice for one day, then he knew it. But if he missed practice for three days, his public knew it.
For most of us it might be too late to be a concert pianist, a champion golf player, or a prima ballerina. However, we do have talents and natural abilities that, if honed, can propel us much further than remedying our faults.
Google may be the biggest search company on earth. But if you stop to think about it, Google actually owns a miniscule market share.
You might argue (after googling it) that according to comScore, Google has 66.9% U.S. market share -- that’s 91 million people a day. You might also point out that the very word in the Oxford English Dictionary to describe an Internet search is the transitive verb, “to google, ” added in 2006.
These indicators of monopoly may technically be true. However, the market in discussion includes only traditional search engines where Google, like a colossus, dominates the others. Yet these traditional search engines are just a fraction of what people use to conduct searches.
Just stop and think about all the searches you conduct daily. You look for a book on Amazon. You search for flights on Priceline. You connect with a friend on Facebook. You worry about your symptoms on WebMD. You pick out a nice bouquet at 1800Flowers. You recruit a potential employee on LinkedIn, and follow a trend on Twitter. You dig up that video of a bike-riding dog on HuffPost while look up a writer on the New York Times. You search for a song to buy on iTunes, and plan a movie night on Fandango.
There is an exponential growth of vertical search engines aiming to carve out a niche by catering to specific needs. The incredible fact that millions of people walk around with a smartphone has increased the demand for customized, localized information.
In addition to searching on the traditional web, you probably spend a lot of time searching through your own information. You look for a phrase within a legal document. You search for a contact to call on your phone. You search tomorrow’s agenda on your calendar. You rummage for a past email.
There are also searches in your life that are taking place automatically. Your car’s GPS is doing searches to help get you to your destination. Your phone is searching for the best connection it can get to a radio tower. Your social networks are seeking out the best contact suggestions for you to reconnect with.
And, of course, we’re constantly searching that classic search engine, the one used by the likes of Plato and Aristotle -- our own brain -- for memories and information. Like the vertical solutions above, our brain’s search algorithm is evolving and iterating with the times. A 2011 study by Harvard University concluded that we are “becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.
Google’s search engine is just a tiny fraction of the searches the average American does every week. This is why Google’s biggest initiatives are Apps (Calendar, Email, Contacts, documents), Android, and Google+. They want a much bigger piece of a lucrative and yet untapped search market. And guess what? So do Apple and Facebook, and every other self-respecting technology company.
Google may seem untouchable in general search, but it is far away from perfectly fulfilling your every need. Innovative search services that choose their battles wisely will enjoy healthy freedom to grow.
We’re in midst of the last bubble. This bubble will likely go on for longer than previous bubbles and crash much harder. This current bubble is fueled by being the last chance for baby boomers to strike it rich.
Here is a recap of recent bubbles:
1990s – tech bubble
2000s – real estate bubble
2010s – govt spending and cheap money bubble
The following are a list of books that I think about regularly. These are the books I have read since college that have most impacted me. I highly recommend all of them:
Ultimate Auren Hoffman Reading List:
Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Road Trip
by Jim Rogers
Against the Gods
The Remarkable Story of Risk
by Peter L. Bernstein
Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority
by John McWhorter
The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000
by Niall Ferguson
by Charles Murray
Churchill: A life
by Martin Gilbert
by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
Economics Facts and Fallacies
by Thomas Sowell
The Effective Executive
by Peter F. Drucker
by Leon Uris
Fooled by Randomness
by Nassim Taleb
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069
by William Strauss & Neil Howe
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible
by David Plotz
How the Mind Works
by Steven Pinker
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
by Robert B. Cialdini
John J. McCloy: Chairman of the Establishment
by Kai Bird
Just and Unjust Wars
by Michael Walzer
by Mike Sandel
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat : And Other Clinical Tales
by Oliver Sacks
The Moral Animal : Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
by Robert Wright
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
by George Friedman
by Elie Wiesel
The Nurture Assumption
by Judith Rich Harris
by Malcolm Gladwell
Path to Power: Early Life of Lyndon Johnson
by Robert A. Caro
A Piece of the Action
How the Middle Class Became the Money
by Joseph Nocera
The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power
by Daniel Yergin
The Signal and the Noise
by Nate Silver
by David Brooks
Stumbling on Happiness
by Daniel Gilbert
Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
by Richard P. Feynman
Thinking Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman
Too Big to Fail
Andrew Ross Sorkin
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
by Philip Gourevitch
We the Living
Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping
by Paco Underhill
A World Lit Only by Fire : The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance - Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
The Right Brain Revolution
Over the next 100 years, the importance of creativity will trump systems thinking due to the rapidly escalating power of computers.
No, I’m not talking about an apocalyptic “Rise of the Machines,” but rather about the future ascent of people who excel in creativity, intuition, and the marshaling of original solutions, things that computers won’t be able to do for a long time. Tomorrow’s rewards will be won by creative people who contribute new ideas. Call it the Right Brain Revolution.
For the past few centuries, society has richly rewarded strong systems thinkers, logical, analytical, objective people such as computer programmers who build software, engineers who build bridges, lawyers who write contracts, and MBAs who crunch numbers. But as computers take over more of the pure systems thinking, people with only this skill set will find their importance decline. There are about 4 to 5 million engineers and computer scientists employed today in the US and few will be automated out of existence. But in the next 50 years, those that excel in creativity-- big picture thinkers, artists, inventors, designers -- will rise to the top. It could be as big a paradigm shift in labor market history as when tools made physical strength irrelevant, or assembly lines replaced the cottage industry. The illiterates of the future will not be those who cannot read and write or code, but those who cannot connect the dots and imagine a constellation.
From 1975 to 1994 only 0.5% of psychological studies concerned creativity, but now it’s a flourishing field complemented by an entire industry of self-help books on how to become more creative. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future (more than rigor, management discipline, integrity and even vision).
In the United States, the key predictive score to spot a good systems thinker-- our future leaders-- has been the SAT and IQ tests. Our universities have, for the most part, outsourced their admissions decisions to these tests. And that was probably a good thing. In the last few hundred years, systems thinking trumped all other talents. We needed to build bridges and understand complex matters. While creativity, emotional intelligence, and other talents have been important, they were relegated to second place in predicting a person’s success. But while high IQ is important, it isn’t very correlated to creativity.
That is going to change.
Over the next 30 years, we are going to see a big societal shift that will give outsized rewards to creativity. Systems thinking, while still important, will move to second-fiddle in the talent hierarchy.
And here’s why...
Computers are becoming better and better systems thinkers every day. Besides beating us at chess and at Jeopardy, computers will soon be able to provide important functions such as medical diagnoses and designing structures. Every day computers are taking over more systems tasks once done by humans. The number of computer chip designers, for example, has stagnated due to powerful software programs that replace the work once done by logic designers and draftsmen.
The legal profession is already feeling the effects. There are some aspects of legal work that will always need the personal touch and top lawyers will always make the big bucks, but today many young lawyers are struggling to pay back their student loans.
It cost $2.2 million for a platoon of lawyers and legal assistants to examine six million documents in a 1978 Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS. In a recent case, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., an e-discovery and litigation support firm, helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. [see article on this in the NY Times]
Those contemplating becoming lawyers will want to pick a concentration where they can uniquely excel or one which will expect reduced competition from a computer. A good specialty to pick is one that is always changing and makes no logical sense – like international tax -- no human or computer will ever be able to figure that one out. But no one should feel overly secure. Systems thinking will attack any area of perceived inefficiency with automation and likely deliver an automated solution over time.
So what to do?
In a world where you need to be awesome or be outsourced, you should plan on a career where you can be awesome.
Education and parenting should aim to provide the conventional skills (math, problem solving, and test taking skills) while also encouraging creative, out-of-the-box type thinking. Computers are no match for the average fourth-grader when it comes to creativity.
Instead of making a resolution to learn how to code in 2013, you might make a resolution to learn how to draw. After a few months of lessons you might begin to observe the world differently seeing details, light and shadows, shapes, proportions, perspective and negative space.
Instead of encouraging your child to major in engineering, you might encourage her to study philosophy, ask smart unsettling questions and practice making unusual and unexpected mental associations.
Albert Einstein said; “I have no special gift. I am only passionately curious.”
Prediction: Twenty years from now, by 2033, Abraham Lincoln will have over one million children.
Starting in 2023, scientists will have mastered creating and manufacturing sperm from DNA. This will be a godsend for men unable to have kids and for female same-sex couples who want children genetically related to both parents.
Some B-list stars will start successfully selling their DNA and this will quickly start a black market for stolen DNA from movie and sports stars. Stealing DNA will become a capital crime but that will not stop paparazzi thieves from following around famous people grabbing stray hairs, skin, etc. to determine DNA. This will lead to celebrities always travelling with bags of remnant hairs gathered from barbershops to throw off the scent of those trying to steal their DNA. In fact, there will be four different DNA sequences on the market all claiming to be those of Justin Bieber.
Because of the confusion around whether a purported DNA strand actually belonged to the claimed person, few people will trust the designer DNA on the market. But a government FOIA request will make public the DNA of all former Presidents of the U.S. that are no longer alive. Millions of mothers all around the world will pay top-dollar for the sperm derived from the DNA of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, Kennedy, and (oddly) Fillmore.
Former President Lincoln, who had only one child who lived past 18, will quickly become the most popular designer “father” in the world. Over one million genetically related offspring will be born between 2023 and 2033 which will make him the most important contributor to the world’s gene pool since Genghis Khan.
Try this offline experiment this holiday season:
Walk into a Tiffany’s with a bag from JC Penney’s and see if anyone will talk to you. Next, go to JC Penney’s with a bag from Tiffany’s and watch the staff fawn over you.
Online personalization is an evolving and very dynamic space. The algorithms behind personalization sift through reams of data and supply us with tailored recommendations, advertisements and the most personally relevant and appealing results.
Because online personalization is on the cutting edge, we sometimes forget that we have been targeted for decades while shopping in the brick and mortar stores. Old-school targeting faces a similar set of problems. Old-school retail targeting is about visually sizing up customers:
Vivian, played by Julia Roberts in the movie, “Pretty Woman,” enters the posh shop where a day earlier, dressed in her “working girl” clothes, she was snubbed by the shop assistant. Now, wearing a beige dress, black hat and white gloves--the very image of elegance--she is loaded with shopping bags. The shop assistant smiles and asks if she needs help.
Vivian: I was in here yesterday, you wouldn't wait on me.
Shop assistant: Oh.
Vivian: You people work on commission, right?
Shop assistant: Yeah.
Vivian: Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.
The shopkeeper’s targeting mistake was fictional. But every day, millions of
dollars hang on sellers properly sizing up their prospects.
Never in my life have I been referred to the women’s department when entering a clothing store. The employees quickly surmise that I’m not looking for a dress. They might be wrong. I could like wearing dresses, or, I may be buying a gift for my wife, mother, or daughter. But they play the odds and refer me to the men’s section. Additionally, because I’ll never be confused with a fashionista, they are likely to recommend a new pair of khakis rather than the luxury cashmere hoodie made from the soft wool of Mongolian goats.
Online personalization is similar. When you visit that same clothing retailer’s online site, the algorithms attempt to determine something about you and customize the content. It’s all about probabilities – the better the data and the better the algorithm, the better the chance they will hit the mark and show you something you like.
Of course, just as I can cloak my identity online using a cookie blocker, I could also cloak my identity offline. If I do not want a store clerk to know I am a man, I could wear a large parka and mask (though they might call security to escort me out). If I cloak my identity online, I’ll get a less interesting experience or just be ignored.
Old school targeting happens everywhere. I know a single woman who wears a wedding ring when she travels because she gets better service from the airline and the hotel. Sadly, society still discriminates based on appearance. In old-school targeting, we sometimes receive wonderfully customized service, but are also vulnerable to unpleasant experiences due to our looks, what we wear, our gender, or the color of our skin.
Humans naturally react to others based on many factors – some legitimate and some not. Store clerks need a filter to triage purchase intent because they can’t spend equal time with everyone who walks into the store. They need to allocate time to people they believe are going to buy, so they develop heuristics, based on their own biases, to help them interact with customers. If you walk into Tiffany’s with a JC Penney’s bag, you might be a billionaire, but my guess is that the store clerk isn’t going to take the time to find out (unless it’s a great sales clerk who notices your brand of shoes or the wristwatch you are wearing).
Old-school personalization is supposition based on our five senses. When practiced well, it can be accurate. Online personalization lacks many of the cues one gets in the offline world, and, like store clerks, there are good and bad online systems. Good systems unify online and offline data and work on enhancing the experience of the customer.
Computers, like humans, have the same potential to do great good or cause harm. But unlike humans, computers can quickly digest millions of different interactions to make decisions. For instance, BestBuy.com can query its database to check if you are an existing customer and what you purchased in your last visit. It would be impossible for a store clerk to remember the faces and purchases of millions of customers.
Stores, both brick-and-mortar and online, want our business and try to seduce us for it. Except now, in the age of “Big Data,” it’s easier for the ones online to be masters of seduction. One hundred years ago, John Henry beat the machine at a severely high cost. Today, he wouldn’t even stand a chance.
Vivian tells Edward: “The stores are not nice to people — I don't like it.”
This is after she was snubbed.
Edward responds: “Stores are never nice to people. They're nice to credit cards.”
Special thanks to Ken Treske, John Battelle, Caitlin MacDonald, Brad Justus, and others for their inspiration and advice on this piece.
Haircuts are interesting.
Before last week, I'd never spent more than $22 for a haircut. When I got married, I went to my go-to local barber (then it was $12) and got a good cut because I didn't want to trust my hair to a newcomer.
When I'm in San Francisco (where I live) I now go to a place that is one block from my house and open on Sundays. I got there primarily for the convenience and that the cut takes approx 10 minutes. Also, the price is $5 ... and even with a 60% tip, the final price only sets you back $8. I get more joy bragging about the bargain than from the haircut itself.
This week I was in New York, had an hour, and needed to get a haircut. I chose a place for convience (it was directly across the street from where I was staying) but it wasn't a place I typically would go to. They gave me a robe when I walked in. And they had a different person give a shampoo both before and after the cut. The total time was 45 minutes (was expecting it to be a lot longer) -- much longer than my normal 10 minutes in-and-out. And the price was $106 ($86 with a $20 tip) which is almost 5 times the price I have ever paid for a haircut.
Now objectively, the more expensive haircut is probably better. But because I paid so much for the hair cut (they call it a "salon"), I actually feel better. Which leads me to a theory:
The more you pay for your haircut, the better you think you look.
After doing an informal poll, there seems to be a direct correlation with how much you pay and how good you think you look (now how good you actually look). This seems to be the reason people pay so much for things. And it seems to be a good investment if it makes you more confident and happier.
For me, I enjoyed the experience of going to a higher-end "salon" but next time, I'm going back to my $5 regular.
A fast friend heuristic to determine who to marry, hire, or even invest in
The “pretty girl” is the object of desire, rare and easy to spot. For our purposes, the “pretty girl” (gender neutral here) can be a potential mate, a company where you may want to work, someone you may want to hire, or an entrepreneur in whose start-up you may want to invest.
But to weed out the great from the good takes rigorous due diligence, so, here is a simple friend heuristic that could make it easier to do the sorting.
Finding a soul mate
When looking for a mate, everyone wants that “pretty girl.” For some, that means good looks, for others it might mean wealth, and still for others, an Ivy League education. Most people looking for a mate are influenced by one overriding and particular trait over the rest. In fact, even if the other traits are negative, a person will likely go on at least one date with someone if that key trait is positive. And so, perhaps fairly or unfairly, these Pretty Girls have opportunities not available to the rest waiting behind the red velvet ropes.
But as experience dictates, not all “pretty girls” are created equal. Some beautiful people are ugly on the inside. Some rich people are vapid. Some erudites are emotionally stunted and Ivy League schools have their share of the lazy and entitled.
We are hardwired for friendships. Given the importance we place and energy we expend tracking and communicating with a particular set of close friends, the social web we weave says quite a bit about us as a potential mate (or hire, candidate, etc.).
So here is a fast and frugal “friend heuristic” to determine whom you might want to marry:
In my unscientific survey, this is true whether the overriding trait you’re searching for is looks, wealth, education, or some other quality.
Hiring and the “Friend Heuristic”
Hiring, like dating, is fraught with (frequently costly) errors. Depending on their culture, companies over-optimize one single trait: intelligence, hard work, hustle, experience, friendliness, pedigree, etc.
And that trait, like all pretty girls, is usually easy to spot. But, of course, you don’t want to hire someone that only has that trait and miss major flaws.
Just like dating, take a look at their close friends. If all, or none, of their friends are “pretty,” there is probably something wrong with this person. If they live in San Francisco and all their friends go to Burning Man, they might be living in a bubble. If they live in SF and none of their friends go to Burning Man, they might also be living in a bubble. Having diverse set of friends leads to out-of-the-box thinking and an ability to branch out of one's comfort zone.
This is also a good exercise when investing in a company
When meeting the founders of a company, it is really hard to assess if they are a non-linear thinkers. Can they go against the grain?
Again, here, the “friend heuristic” works well. If all their friends are of the same race, political party, religious group, shop at the same grocery store, read the same books, have the same phone, listen to the same music, laugh at the same jokes -- then stay away. These people are likely to be followers, not leaders. They might be smart, accomplished, and hard-working ... but they might be so worried about being popular that they are unlikely to do something which requires major risk.
Given a choice, most people will make friends with people who most closely resemble themselves. A recent study by researchers Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett, and Christian Crandall shows that students at large universities have less diverse friends than people at smaller colleges. The authors reason “when opportunity abounds, people are free to pursue more narrow selection criteria [in forming friendships], but when fewer choices are available, they must find satisfaction using broader criteria.”
This strengthens the efficacy of the “friend heuristic.” It takes a contrarian to have a diverse set of friends.
Charles Darwin, a contrarian of his time, apparently practiced a form of the “friend heuristic.” He said: “a man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.”