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The free market is elusive

Free markets aren’t particularly common.

At the baseball game, the snack vendors sell what the person with the concession tells them to sell. It’s a choice, but Hobson’s choice: take it or leave it.

Geography makes the idea of a free market difficult, because only one business can exist in any given spot. Fifth Avenue in New York seems like an epicenter of commerce, but long-term leases and the need for millions and millions of dollars in free cash flow mean that there are actually very few degrees of freedom and not much choice.

Free markets are a powerful engine to solve people’s problems, but free markets are difficult to ensure for the long haul.

The web cuts through the geography problem. Shopify is fine with a million or even a billion stores–they don’t take up any space.

And when the web was young, the free market in ideas was open to anyone with access to a library’s internet connection.

But the web rewards network effects and network effects have led to monopolies. Google doesn’t really want a free market in ideas (they hate blogs), instead, they want a market in which they’re the landlord. Facebook enabled a huge outpouring of voices from people who didn’t previously have a microphone, but their algorithms and focus on clicks led toward incentives for outrage as the voices corroded so many elements of our culture. This reinforces the idea that the public doesn’t always want a free market—they’d rather have a convenient one, a predictable one and a safe one instead.

And so we have Lyft, a ‘market’ in name only, because drivers can’t name their fares or produce any innovations.

Our culture has generally moved, in bits and pieces, from a totally free market (the open cry bazaar on the steppes of Mongolia) to one in which more and more interactions are fenced in due to market power and regulation.

We’ve gained a lot in terms of reliability and the management of side effects. But we’ve lost flexibility and speed as well.

Most people who bemoan the loss of the free market don’t actually want to live in a world where that’s all there is. At the same time, fighting market power in our quest for better solutions is a worthy effort.


TODAY is the first day for signups for The Podcast Fellowship. This is one of Akimbo’s most popular workshops, and for good reason. If you have something to say and need to be heard, I think you’ll find that a podcast is a great way to share your ideas. Look for the purple circle on the site for a significant discount (but it decreases each day). Hope to see you there.

The ones who disagree with you

It might be because they are uninformed.

It might be because they are misguided in what they seek.

It might be because they’re short-sighted.

It might be that they are controlled by demons.

It might be that they are demonstrably wrong.

Or it could simply be that they disagree with you.


PS today’s the last day to join The Creative’s Workshop. Bring your work to the world.

But what does “this” do?

If you hand an electronics engineer an amplifier, she can take it apart and tell you what it is capable of doing, without reading the manual or seeing an ad for it.

If you show a civil engineer the plans for a bridge, he can figure out how heavy a truck could drive over it, regardless of what the sign says.

Too often, we resort to hand waving and random hopes for the things we build, merely asserting that our hocus and our pocus will have an effect. But the artifact we leave behind might do little or nothing without the fancy packaging.

There’s nothing wrong with the cognitive dissonance that placebos cause. It’s effective indeed. But it works even better if there are actually active ingredients in the potion we’ve created.

Painting fakes and singing covers

When a pop band goes on the road to promote a hit record, they’re almost certainly re-singing a version of their work that matches what the fan expects to hear, not the daring, original work that they actually might feel like playing that night.

And when, twenty years later, they go on a reunion tour, the same is true, but even more so. The band make-up has changed, their tastes have changed, and they’re an oldies act now. Playing covers of their own work.

Every once in a while, Pablo Picasso painted a daring new work of art. But most of his 10,000 paintings rhymed with the ones he’d done before. In his words, “I often paint fakes.”

Fakes and covers are an essential element of the creative cultural economy. But when we engage with them, we should do it on purpose and not be confused about what we’re getting (or creating).

Toward perfect

Draw a perfect circle. Use a compass or a plotter.

Now, zoom in. If you zoom in close enough, you’ll discover that it’s not a perfect circle at all. In fact, anything we create, at close enough magnification, isn’t perfect.

It’s foolish to wait until you’ve made something that’s perfect, because you never will. The alternative is to continue to move toward your imaginary ideal, shipping as you iterate.

Getting better is the path to better.

You can’t say you can’t play

Lenny Levine was a great kindergarten teacher. And he ran his class by this one rule.

It means that if another kid comes along, you need to include them in your game.

That’s it.

It changes everything. It puts an emphasis on connection, not exclusivity. It changes the dynamics of belonging. It weaves together a foundation that crosses traditional boundaries.

It’s a bit like giving every kid in the class a valentine’s day card. Some say that it cheapens the sentiment because it’s not about selection, it’s about inclusion. I think we’ve got plenty of selection already.

In the adult world, open doors create possibility and that leads to insight and productivity.

How we do things around here

When you’re beginning a new engagement, a new job, a new partnership, it might be worth agreeing on a list in advance. You don’t have to include all of these, and you don’t have to agree with them (because you can always take the other side) but here are some to start with:

We always answer emails to each other within a day, even if it’s just to say ‘got it’.

You’re invited as a guest into a purpose-built room in our Slack.

We’ll pay your invoices before they’re due.

We agree that all of our interactions are off the record, unless we agree otherwise.

We’ll never use legalese or intentionally trick you with loopholes in our agreements. Instead, we’ll be as clear as we can and honor what we said, and expect that you’ll do the same.

If we’re not sure, we’ll ask each other.

We don’t miss deadlines.

We don’t sprint at the end, we sprint at the beginning.

We don’t make compromises simply because bad planning means that we’re running out of time.

We eagerly highlight the potholes ahead, but spend no time casting blame after something fails.

We are intentional and specific about the work. “Who is it for” and “what is it for?” are the two key design questions.

We don’t use semi-colons or animated emojis.

If it’s not working, we’ll say so, and do it with specificity and kindness.

We’ll pay a lot but expect to get more than we paid for.

No cilantro. Of course.

Borrowed time

All of us are on borrowed time. There are no refunds and there are no guarantees.

At some point, the only time you’ll have to worry about is the time you’ve wasted.


Coming soon: The Podcast Fellowship is coming back. It’s helped more than a thousand people find a voice. Sign up here for more details.

The bad client/clueless boss trap

“I’m doing this meaningless/damaging/banal work because that’s what the client wants.”

There are many variations of this.

The plastic surgeon who does hideous work on the faces of people who demand it. The marketer who’s still trying to get teens hooked on smoking. The teacher who blames the curriculum for the boring classroom experience because that’s what the state mandated…

It’s a trap, like all traps, because there’s a lot of truth to it. In fact, the client might be misguided or selfish or lazy. In fact, the boss doesn’t care enough.

Fine, that happened.

But what we do about it is the spot where we either excel or fail. If all we had were great opportunities for insightful clients and bosses, then important work wouldn’t be scarce at all.

As professionals, part of our job is to educate our client to keep them from doing something stupid, short-term or selfish. As linchpins, we get to choose our boss, and if you’re unable to persuade them to raise the bar, then the obligation/opportunity is to go do something else.

The winning sentence is, “Despite having a lousy client or uninformed boss, we were still able to do great work.”

There are two secrets to doing great work:

  1. Persuade the client to let you do great work.
  2. Get better clients.

They dance together every day.

You get better clients as soon as you act like the creator who deserves better clients.

Unaided awareness

Name a brand of sneaker. Name a flavor of ice cream. Name a dead rock star.

If you came up with answers like Nike, Chocolate or Prince, you’re not alone. This is unaided awareness, the ability to name a member of a category without having to choose from a list.

It’s tempting to want to be the Nike of your category. It really pays off in group situations, where someone wants to be sure to choose an option that ‘everyone has heard of.’

But unaided awareness isn’t a useful goal. Because most decisions that matter aren’t unaided. Most choices are made with some consideration. What people say about you is even more important than being on everyone’s notorious list.


PS Early Decision for the April session of the altMBA is tomorrow. Ask someone who’s done it. And the very first lesson of the Creative’s Workshop went live today. It’s a perfect day to join us.