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Craft and imperfection


As soon as we mechanize, measure and perfect something, it becomes far less interesting.

There’s not a lot of discussion about which factory made your can of Coke, because they’re all the same.

Implicit in the desire to have something handmade is that while it might be better than what you’re used to, it might be worse.

As we get better at industrialism, the variability of imperfection becomes even more fascinating.

Imperfect and proud of it.

How change happens

Slowly then all at once

For people who aren’t paying attention or actively involved, it can seem like cultural change is sudden. One big shift after another.

In fact, cultural change always happens relatively slowly. Person by person, conversation by conversation. Expectations are established, roles are defined, systems are built.

From the foundation

The people in the news and at the podium get all the attention, but they’re a symptom, not usually a cause. Everyday people aren’t the bottom, they are the roots, the foundation, the source of culture itself. We are the culture, and we change it or are changed by it.

From peer to peer

Change happens horizontally. What do we expect from others? What do we talk about? Who do we emulate or follow or support? What becomes the regular kind?

People like us do things like this.

Day by day, week by week, year by year.

Going to the protest of the day, performing acts of slacktivism, hopping from urgency to emergency–this is how people who day trade in our culture are whipsawed. But the people who are consistently and actively changing the culture are not easily distracted. One more small action, one more conversation, one more standard established.

The internet would like us to focus on what happened five minutes ago. The culture understands that what happens in five years is what matters.

Focused, persistent community action is how systems change. And systems concretize and enforce cultural norms.

If you care, keep talking. Keep acting. Stay focused. And don’t get bored.

Switching your search engine

Make the choice to upgrade from Google.

There are many good reasons to do so, and few downsides.

Do it for your efficiency, for the health of the web and for the planet too.

First, a quick clarification because this is confusing to many people: The thing you use to browse the internet is not a search engine. Chrome, Firefox, Brave, Safari–these are web browsers. A browser is software that allows you to look at any web page–and these companies often make money by selling your attention to the search engine that bids the most. Apple takes billions of dollars a year from Google in exchange for steering you to their search engine.

And the reason that Google bids so much is that they make an insane amount of money. Billions of dollars a year from serving up ads and harvesting your data from your searches. That money needs to come from somewhere.

You can switch your search engine in just a few clicks. See a short video and find the links right here.

Here’s what will happen when you switch to Ecosia:

  1. You’ll get faster and less cluttered search results, with far fewer ads.
  2. You’ll be diversifying the web, so SEO hacks can’t easily take over. Here’s Adam Savage ranting about this.
  3. You’ll be giving away far less data about yourself and maintaining more privacy.
  4. AND! You’ll be planting trees through a certified not-for-profit B corp… more than 100,000,000 planted so far.

If you don’t like the results, you can switch back in two minutes.

Faster, free, and more convenient.

If you switch and then you forward this to five more people who switch, we’re likely to plant another 100,000,000 trees in the next year. That’s a lot. If you switch and spread the word, search results will get better and Google will start to do a better job knowing that they don’t have quite the same scale of monopoly.

If you switch, we all come out ahead. Share a question or experience here and I’ll share in a future post. PS I wasn’t asked to post this or compensated to do so. I switched 9 months ago and I’m glad I did.

[Thanks for making this my most popular post of the year. Please share. And here are some of the comments and questions I got.]

Classical music and documentaries

Check the ratings, whichever magazine or website you choose: Classical music and documentary films almost always get more stars and higher ratings than pop music and feature films.

The reason is simple: The folks who like stuff like that like stuff like that.

The smallest viable audience for certain genres is very clear. That allows the creators of the work to be specific and to deliver on expectations.

The broader you seek to make your offering, the more likely you are to run into people who don’t care, don’t get the joke or are simply not open to being satisfied.

It’s not easy to record a symphony or edit Restrepo. But your work is more likely to pay off in audience satisfaction.

Looking at taxes

Ever since there have been taxes, people have been against paying them.

If we define a tax as a “non-productive burden on our activities,” then it makes sense. And a payment doesn’t have to be to the government to be a tax.

Is paying your electric bill a tax? Most people don’t mind paying for electricity, because it makes their lives safer and happier, and helps them do their job with dramatically more productivity.

So the payment isn’t what makes something a tax, it’s the non-productive part.

When industrial systems arrive, they’re usually embraced because the transactions they offer are so productive. When Walmart comes to a town, everyone gets a short-term raise, because the cost of buying the things we want and need goes down. When a new technology or system offers to save people time and money in the short run, it’s often embraced because it’s a free choice and productive.

But then the rules start to change.

Monopolies are a tax. They limit choice and raise prices. As a result, we pay “taxes” on a regular basis for things like broadband and spare parts because there are no options.

Loss of vibrant markets is a tax. When local businesses are upended, then jobs are lost, choices are diminished and the essence of a community fades away.

Lobbying is a tax. As large industrial entities invest money to capture government control, each of us pay for this even though it only benefits the lobbyists.

Subsidies and duties are a tax. Last year, Americans spent 50 billion dollars subsidizing the beef industry. Constraints on trade aren’t called taxes, but they are.

Traffic is a tax. The time we spend waiting for a train or sitting in traffic is time we don’t get back, and unmade investments in mass transit infrastructure cost us far more than the ones we do make.

Lack of public health systems is a tax. The inability to find clean water, or the prospect of often getting ill is a real cost.

And climate change is a looming and sneaky tax. The money and loss of productivity that it already costs us, and the extraordinary amounts it will cost us are unproductive burdens on meeting our goals and living our lives.

There are no government taxes on an abandoned desert island. But it’s almost impossible to imagine living or working there.

Sharp language

The internet has provided all of us with an advanced class on using innuendo, piercing invective and anger to make a point with our writing.

Now, instead of simply seething or ranting, just about anyone can write an email or a social media post that absolutely destroys someone else.

To what end?

If the goal is to persuade, it’s clearly not working.

If we want to let someone know we’re upset, it might be easier to just say so.

The purpose of speech is to alert others to our point of view, and the purpose of conversation is to connect and to persuade.

It’s not clear that making language angrier or more cutting is helping much.

The smallest viable audience

It’s a stepping-stone, not a compromise.

The media and our culture push us to build something for everyone, to sand off the edges and to invest in infrastructure toward scale.

But it turns out that quality, magic and satisfaction can lie in the other direction. Not because we can’t get bigger, but because we’d rather be better.

One of the three best restaurants in New York only has 14 seats. With the right fan base and technology, that’s enough to allow the chef to build an experience he can be proud of. Down the street is an extraordinary cafe that pays a tiny fraction of the rent that a midtown neighborhood would require. It’s not about getting found by everyone. A focus on experience creates something that (some) people want to look for.

Eliot Peper writes books that his fans can’t get enough of. And the long tail of online bookselling lets him do that without having to get a movie deal or a fancy publisher to thrive.

Junior is able to run a successful appliance repair business without a fancy truck or office, simply by earning a reputation in a very specific lane on a very specific website.

A focus on the SVA can also enable a business to scale. PSAudio doesn’t reach many people… but the team’s focus is precise enough and deep enough that they’ve built one of the largest and most successful operations in their industry.

Or chocolates or software or baked goods or …

The strategy of the smallest viable audience doesn’t let you off the hook–it does the opposite. You don’t get to say, “well, we’ll just wait for the next random person to find us.” Instead, you have to choose your customers–who’s it for and what’s it for. And when you’ve identified them, the opportunity/requirement is to create so much delight and connection that they choose to spread the word to like-minded peers.

Not everyone, but someone. And it turns out that ‘someone’ isn’t as easy as it sounds. When you strip away the alternative mantra of “you can pick anyone, and we’re anyone,” then you have to lean into the obligation of being the sort of provider that people would miss if you were gone. That’s not easy, but people with this sort of focus wouldn’t have it any other way.

Specificity is the way. It has nothing to do with absolute scale and everything to do with being really clear about what hook you want to be on and setting a standard for producing work that people connect to and are changed by.

What could be better?

The department of bad behavior

What if organizations had a division that simply did the bad stuff? The people who were responsible for creating system updates that slow down old computers, that cover up bad behavior by employees, the people who dump pollution into the river when no one is watching…

If all the folks who invent dark patterns, lobby in secret, and gaslight whistleblowers all worked in the same department, we could watch them a lot more carefully.

After all, the lawyers have a department, and so do the customer service people. Couldn’t we have a VP of dirty tricks?

Alas, mixed incentives and short-term thinking mean that it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to narrow it down to just a few people…

Switch before perfect

In 1993, when I was raising investment for one of the first internet companies, there weren’t any firms that specialized in this sort of thing. They were VCs from a different era, looking for the next Fedex or pharma company.

I pitched dozens of them, and the answer was consistent, “get back to us when this is irresistible and then of course we’ll say yes.”

The same thinking is applied to many new products, from vegan burgers to online services. None of them are perfect at first, just as none of the things we’re reliant on today began as perfect.

And yet, some folks went first. Some, like Jerry and Fred, started a VC fund that had record returns because they invested in internet companies that weren’t perfect (yet). And some consumers bought things from the local store when version .5 wasn’t quite ready yet.

If you want to leap forward, you’ll need to ship things before they’re perfect, mostly to people who want to buy them before they are.

False metrics appearing real

Just because they’re easy to measure doesn’t mean they matter.

If they appear in round numbers and are easily compared to those from others, we’re tempted to compare.

But something that looks like a useful metric might not be.

If you’re working with people who say they care about measurement, it might not pay to persuade them to stop measuring.

It might make more sense to give them useful numbers to measure instead.