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An illusion of scale

Successful small businesses often stumble when they seek to get to an entirely different scale.

It’s easy to believe that things are dramatically better when there’s more.

More customers, more employees, more market share.

And it’s easy to believe that getting to the next sustainable level is simply the result of efforts similar to the ones that got you here.

But neither is true.

Between this level and the one you seek there may be a slog that’s longer, more difficult and more expensive than it appears.

Staying at a scale that’s working isn’t a cowardly copout. It might be the single best way to do work that matters for people who care.

And if you choose to get through the Dip, consider whether you have the resources, the patience and the team to get to the other side.

Effort

Insufficient effort creates work that’s wasted. If you do a slapdash job, then the roof leaks, the food is inedible, the car doesn’t start. Insufficient effort is a shortcut that wasn’t worth taking.

Sufficient effort is the goal of the industrial capitalist. Capture the most value with the least work. Build a house that doesn’t fall down, with components that last exactly long enough to avoid a claim. Explain that due to unusually call volume…

And then, perhaps, there’s a third option.

Expending more effort than most people think is sufficient.

This is attention to detail. Care in design. Follow through in customer service. This is an embrace of elegance and wabisabi and the opposite of laziness. This is bringing care (which is rare and precious) to work even if most people would look for a shortcut instead.

More effort creates beauty and magic and remarkability.

Perfectionism is a false hope and a place to hide.

Effort, on the other hand, is our best chance to do work that matters.

The hedonic buffet

Every day around 3 pm, my dog takes a nap.

As far as dogs go, he has a ton of available options. He could hang in the backyard, chase a squirrel, whatever. But in that moment, every day, the choice with the most benefit for him appears to be a nap.

We’re not that different.

Except times a billion.

In any given moment, you could read a blog like this one. Or watch a video. Or check your email. Or send an email. Or…

We choose.

We choose to see what Wolf Blitzer thinks is breaking news. We choose to have an argument or send a compliment. We do it largely out of habit, and our habit is grooved by countless choices in countless moments that came before.

Like the buffet, it probably won’t make you happier to keep loading your plate up simply because you can.

Our best path usually begins by acknowledging that we do, in fact, have a choice.

Zero percent market share

If you have a million Twitter followers, that means that 99.9% of the people on Twitter are ignoring you, which, with a little rounding, means you have 0%.

If you write a book and it sells a million copies, it will be one of the bestselling books of the year. It will also reach far fewer than 1% of the country’s population, never mind the world.

There are very few things that ever rise to 1% of the market. You don’t need everyone, in fact, the act of chasing everyone is probably keeping you from reaching anyone.

Zero (rounded) is enough.

Contagious commerce

Early adopters change the world.

While one person choosing not to eat meat will have a small impact on our climate, it will have a much bigger impact on the restaurants, groceries and food suppliers who notice what you’re doing.

They’ll change what they offer, and that will lead to a multiplier effect of other people changing their habits.

Buying an electric car or installing solar before they’re the obvious economic choice has the same impact. Because once marketers and investors discover that there’s a significant group that likes to go first, they’re far more likely to invest the time and energy to improve what’s already there.

The same goes for philanthropy. When some people eagerly fund a non-profit with a solution that’s still in beta, it makes it easier (and more likely) that someone else will start one as well.

It also happens in the other direction. If we buy from a spamming telemarketer, abandon a trusted brand to save a buck or succumb to the hustle, the market notices.

Very few people have the leverage to change the world. But all of us have the chance to change the people around us, and those actions change what gets built, funded and launched.

A future of retail

What do traditional retailers own or control?

  • The building
  • The inventory
  • The relationship with vendors
  • Data about who is shopping and how they shop
  • Trust with vendors, customers, employees and landlords

And now you can see the problem.

When retailers move online, the things they used to own are either eliminated or transformed.

And many retailers, in their eagerness to compete on price and their focus on selling things that everyone else is selling end up failing to build much of anything.

Permission–the privilege to deliver anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them, and the ability to work with customers toward something better–is at the heart of every retailer’s future.

But many are so busy spamming about this week’s promotions that they forgot to earn much of anything.

Swap the line

Here’s a business idea for you, feel free to build it if you’re interested.

Don’t waste a waiting list

The waiting list has value, and it’s also a source of frustration.

There are people waiting for delivery of a new car, or to stay in a popular airbnb or to buy a limited edition jigsaw puzzle. There are people waiting for an appointment or a reservation or a handmade luxury good as well. Or let’s say two companies are waiting for a shipment of computer chips. One has a few left in stock, the other needs them to finish a high-value product that serves people in life-threatening situations…

On one hand, it feels fair. The people ahead of us in line got there before we did. On the other hand, perhaps someone behind us needs or wants our slot way more than we do…

Swap the Line is a simple smart-contract-based system that makes it easy to trade your spot in line. Pay money to someone who wants the cash and you can swap with them. Sell your spot for more than you think it’s worth. Stay put if you want to.

This addresses problems with our current scarcity due to the supply chain along with the trade-anything mindset of crypto.

Here’s how it works:

An organization with a waiting list enables swaptheline.com

They onboard with two simple steps:

  1. Uploading their waitlist (status and identifier) to the cloud.
  2. Alerting the folks on the waitlist that swaptheline is supported.

If you’re ready to swap yourself to a different spot on the list, simply enter how much you’re willing to pay to go how far on the list. Or enter how much you’re willing to take to swap with someone behind you.

Perhaps there’s a list of bids and you can grab one, or perhaps it’s done automatically.

Either way, the system simply updates the waitlist in the cloud and transfers the money.

Some percentage of the transaction goes to the host, and some percentage goes to swaptheline for running the smart contracts and user interface that makes it work.

There’s a popular jigsaw puzzle company that has a six-month waiting list for a chance to buy one of their $200 jigsaw puzzles. If they kept 15% of the swaptheline percentage, it’s easy to see how they could double their profit at the same time that they served their customers better–because no one buys or sells a spot on the line unless they want to.

Or consider the 50,000 people now eagerly awaiting news about their new Rivian pickup truck. The truck costs $70,000. The deposit to get on the line was $1,000. A person could swap their spot at #100 to someone who is #18,000 and probably make enough to pay for half the car. And if even 10% of the line did a swap at an average price of $6,000, Rivian would earn $5,000,000 in profit simply by giving their customers what they want. The rigidity of the line is a sort of tax that ignores the market.

Or perhaps it’s something more civic-minded. The organization could allocate their percentage, perhaps they set it at 50%, for a local charity. It could easily replace a fundraising gala or two…

This is one of hundreds of examples of the impossible things an always-on network can do, things that feel odd at first and then obvious.

Have fun.

Shift your tech time horizon

Ten years ago, if you were as good at using networks and software as you are today, most of your peers would have considered you some sort of wizard.

The question isn’t whether or not each of us is going to get better at using our tools, the only issue is: how soon?

We can choose to live behind the curve or ahead of it. It turns out that there are significant rewards for pushing through discomfort and getting (much) better at all the resources that are suddenly freely available in data acquisition, learning technologies, financial tech, marketing and networks.

What if instead of resisting until we had no choice, we decided to pioneer instead?

PS the same thing is true for our other skills, including leadership.

Life by anecdote

“What evidence would you need to see to change your mind?”

The honest answer to this question is usually: “I need a new story that’s more immediate, more vivid and most of all, more culturally aligned than the one I have now.”

It took humans 100,000 years to invent the scientific method. Before that, we lived our lives by stories, examples and the urgent.

We still do.

An anecdote is not evidence. But we often treat it that way.

“In it together”

That’s not what we usually hear. To have “us” we often need “them.”

To make a profit (or a commotion) in social media, the math is usually division, not addition.

And as media has crept into every corner of our lives, it often thrives on discord.

The irony is that the network effect that powers our culture (it works better when others are using it too) depends on connection.

When Stewart Brand put a picture of the Earth from space on the cover of the original Whole Earth Catalog, it was a revelation for many. The photo was new, but the image was also a timeless reminder of how futile it is to forget the very nature of our finite world.

Ideas can spread and multiply, creating new opportunities and new frontiers. But we’re still on the same planet, no matter how much a few people spend to go (almost) into orbit.

As we begin to move beyond a century of industrialism, all of us are coming to grips with the impact that the industrial engines we depend on have created. The chronic shift in the climate of the entire planet is going to be the most significant driver of change of the next twenty years. For all of us, not just a few.

Unlike current events or politics, this is neither local nor temporary. It’s hard to fight the weather, as it changes all of the inputs and the outputs of our life.

The first step is to realize that we’re in it together.


In the old days, when I was a book packager, I created a series of bestselling almanacs. Almanacs have been around since Benjamin Franklin, and even in the age of the web, they serve a useful function. Collecting relevant tables, facts, explanations, lists and history in a format that’s easy to reference and share gives us a chance to agree on what we agree on, a common foundation for moving forward.

I’m putting together a worldwide team of people who are interested in volunteering to contribute to the new Carbon Almanac. It’s a zero-profit venture, a group effort designed to create a print and digital document that fills the vital niche between the cutting edge and apathy.

There are currently 40 of us, from 20 countries, working on the early versions. If this is something you have the time and inclination to contribute to, I hope you’ll take a minute to fill out this quick form. We’ll be inviting some folks to join us next week. Thanks.