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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.

Possibility is fragile

And that’s the paradox, because the closer possibility gets to reality, the more it engages with the unforgiving edges of the real world.

As we begin to imagine something better, it’s important to have some insulation, room to believe and a chance to fill in the missing pieces.

But then we have to allow the constraints of reality to intersect with our beautiful new conception.

And when that happens, it’s easy for all of our imaginings to simply evaporate.

But fragile doesn’t mean impossible. Possibility looms around every corner if we’re willing to bring resilience and iteration to the dance as well.

Yes, it might not work. But deciding that in advance undermines the value of the gift we intended to bring people.

The grandstanders

This is a common sort of feedback/criticism/brainstorming, and it deserves a name.

Show up toward the end, when most of the work has been done and it’s almost time to ship…

Make a suggestion that would require changing a great deal of what’s been done. It might even be a good suggestion on its face, but it’s hard to tell…

Contribute your suggestion without having built a body of work, without evidence of significant expertise and without being willing to take responsibility for what happens next.

It’s a form of yelling from the bleachers.

The fact that your idea is fresh or innovative doesn’t change the role of Resistance. This sort of suggestion is a great place to hide. You’re helping, aren’t you? And if they ignore you, well, that’s on them.

The grandstander wants to be part of things, but isn’t showing up to do the hard part.

This might be the guest who shows up half an hour before dinner and suggests you change the menu.

Or the publicist that wants to weigh in on the product’s design a week before launch.

Or the good friend who wonders out loud if you should marry him, right after your four-year relationship turns into an engagement.

The alternative is to get out of the bleachers and into the field. Do the training. Show your work. Engage early. Own the outcomes.

We need that more than ever.

Please share the extra with a friend

Krispy Kreme grew to become a doughnut behemoth in the US. The formula was simple: Scarce supply, high short-term taste satisfaction, and a dozen priced almost the same as just four.

As a result, most people bought a dozen. But few could eat a dozen, and you can’t really save them, so you realized that sharing a warm doughnut was the way to go.

Carmine’s restaurant in New York was the hot ticket for decades. One reason was that the only way to get a reservation was to come with five other people. So you needed to talk about it.

I’ve learned in sharing galleys of The Carbon Almanac that sending two is far more useful and beneficial than sending one. Because when someone gets two, they immediately decide to share the other one. Organizing around ‘please share’ is a choice.

We’re building a Wall of Fame on our website to celebrate companies that care enough about our future to share copies of the Almanac when it comes out. Small companies can easily find a good use for five or ten copies, and we’ve made it easy and cost-effective to pre-order. The form is to sign up is here. All participants get a link back to their site and a chance to make an impact in the world.

Please share with someone who trusts you.

ALSO! We’re inviting you to join our worldwide group of volunteers as we prepare to launch the Almanac in June. Our launch team is forming now, and it’s a chance to be part of something and make a difference. Please check out this page for the details. Thank you.

Newbies welcome

The paradox of most tightly-knit communities is that they have an internal culture.

And that culture often makes it difficult for a new person to join. It’s hard to have insiders if you don’t have outsiders. This is true for guilds of copy editors, fans of anime or branches of science.

The key transition point for any cause or tribe or movement that seeks to grow is to shift from an insular desire to keep things as they are to a willingness–or better, a desire–to water things down by getting bigger.

It’s hard to have it both ways.