tag:dg.posthaven.com,2013:/posts Daniel Gross 2018-03-18T12:37:42Z Daniel Gross tag:dg.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1086405 2016-09-04T00:07:32Z 2018-03-18T12:37:42Z Book Highlights: Titan

I recently read Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. I highly recommend it! It’s an enjoyable read of a driven and complicated personality.

Rockefeller was a careful, meticulous thinker who would turn into an unstoppable projectile once he had conviction. For example, in 1886 Standard Oil is confronted with the opportunity to buy what was considered “junk” oil in Ohio. The oil was far cheaper but produced an insufferable odor. Rockefeller immediately recruits a top scientist and instructs him to remove the odor. Simultaneously, he lobbies to buy all of the “junk” fields in Ohio and Indiana before he knows he can remove the odor. The board refuses the aggressive move. Surely we should wait until we know we can actually sell the product, right? No. Rockefeller commands a rhetoric that makes Elon Musk seem timid:

At one board meeting, after Rockefeller made his standard pitch for a Lima [Ohio] investment, Pratt lost his temper, threw back his head in agitation, and shouted “No!” Whereupon Rockefeller replied coolly, “I will build this improvement out of my own funds and underwrite it for two years.” He astonished his colleagues by pledging $3 million—about $47 million in 1996 dollars. “At the end of that time if it is a success the company can reimburse me. If it is a failure, I will take the loss.” Whether impressed by Rockefeller’s unflinching resolve or realizing that he had lost, Pratt capitulated. “If that’s the way you feel about it, we’ll go it together,” he replied. “I guess I can take the risk if you can.”

I think his extreme personal frugality helped him have a non-emotional relationship with money. This enabled him to place aggressive bets and broaden his empire. Below are some other highlights I enjoyed in the book.

His father (“Devil Bill”) has him pay rent after Rockefeller builds the house himself.

By one account, a dispute arose as to whether John would pay rent at the new house. He presumably felt that, having built the structure, he had earned the right to occupy it free of rent, but Devil Bill laid down his own arbitrary rules and overrode Eliza’s protests. “You bought your time, didn’t you?” he told John. “What you’re getting now is your own, ain’t it? Well, you have to pay me board.” Once again, one marvels at Bill’s barefaced cheek no less than his son’s fortitude in the face of repeated provocations.
On time management and work-life balance:
He scrutinized his daily activities and regulated his desires, hoping to banish spontaneity and unpredictability from his life. Whenever his ambition was about to devour him, his conscience urged restraint. Since he worked a long day at Hewitt and Tuttle, business threatened to become an overwhelming compulsion. 

Starting work each day at 6:30 A.M., he brought a box lunch to the office and often returned after dinner, staying late. 
One day he decided to throttle this obsession. “I have this day covenanted with myself not to be seen in [the office] after 10 o’clock P.M. within 30 days,” he wrote to himself. It is telling that the young man made such a pledge to himself and equally revealing that he found it impossible to obey.
Rockefeller’s initial musings on oil… not very visionary: 
Scarcely dreaming that oil would ever supersede their main commodity business, they considered it “a little side issue, we retaining our interest in our business as produce commission merchants.”
On being mindful: 
He once asked rhetorically, “Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things . . . fail because we lack concentration—the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?”
On dessert: 
“He could not understand why anyone would eat a piece of candy, if that piece of candy were not good for him, just because that person liked candy,” Junior explained.

Once, in an uncharacteristic moment, he had a craving for ice cream and humbly asked Dr. Moeller for a waiver from his prohibition against eating it. “If I had a license from you to eat a very little ice cream occasionally it would be a special dispensation which I would much appreciate, but, you are the Doctor,” he said meekly.
On capital efficiency: 
Later on, when Rockefeller asked what the society did with the [$100,00 donation], Gates said it went into a bank account that paid no interest. 

This so mortified Rockefeller’s sense of thrift that he borrowed back the $100,000 and paid the society 6 percent. “I can’t endure to see that money idle,” Rockefeller told Gates. “I feel about it as one does to come into a room, ill swept, with the corners full of cobwebs and dust. I want to clean up that room.”
Saving the US economy in a bathrobe:
As panic overtook Wall Street in late October 1907, throngs of petrified depositors lined up in front of banks to empty their accounts [...]

When Gates got wind of the Knickerbocker’s collapse, he telephoned Rockefeller at Pocantico in the early morning and said a public statement from him might restore confidence. 

Rockefeller stood there in his bathrobe, mulling over the matter, then decided to call Melville E. Stone, general manager of the Associated Press. He told Stone, for quotation, that the country’s credit was sound and that, if necessary, he would give half of all he possessed to maintain America’s credit. It was an unprecedented statement: A single citizen had promised to bail out Wall Street. The next morning, as these sedative words were reprinted across America, reporters spilled onto the golf course at Pocantico. 

When asked if he would really give half his securities to stop the panic, Rockefeller replied, “Yes, and I have cords of them, gentlemen, cords of them.”
tag:dg.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1079114 2016-08-05T21:30:13Z 2018-03-18T12:37:42Z Management Lessons From Van Halen

Here’s an excerpt from Van Halen’s tour rider:

Van Halen’s sweet-tooth optics obsession wasn’t for silly reasons. The Smoking Gun reports:

If brown M&M's were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance--lighting, staging, security, ticketing--may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

Van Halen was generalizing from a proximate (immediate) failure about far broader issues at stake. Too often, it seems like leaders and managers forget to do this important step when they’re confronted with issues. Let me explain with an example:

Say you’re designing a rocket. After many months of careful design, you’re finally ready to launch. Your team excitedly gathers in the test site to watch. 73 seconds after liftoff, your rocket explodes. It’s now disintegrated into a very expensive fireworks show. Damn. 

You immediately begin an analysis of what went wrong. The team reports that a faulty screw came loose and caused the engine to combust. This is an example of a proximate (immediate) cause. As a manager, fixing the specific issue of the faulty screw isn't what matters. What matters is understanding the root cause. The root cause might be that you used a bad vendor. But what’s the root cause of that? You didn’t assess the vendor quality. Why not? There was nobody assigned to that job. Why not? Your VP wasn’t thinking about potential failure points. Why not? He hasn’t worked at a job where failure could lead to catastrophic consequences. Fixing this problem (re-training or re-hiring your VP) is what matters.

The differentiation between proximate/root isn’t limited to Muskian adventures in space. When you notice an incorrectly reported metric during a review, don’t think about fixing the number. What does the mistake tell you about the team? The process they have in place to collect metrics? Finally, what does that tell you about your culture? Does it not revere metrics enough?

Figuring out the immediate cause of issues on your team is an important responsibility, but solving the root cause is often where you'll make the biggest impact.

tag:dg.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1072599 2016-07-14T03:29:19Z 2018-03-18T12:37:42Z The Tech Tree

Elad Gil recently wrote a blog post about a possible “end of a cycle”. I wanted to offer a related view, inspired by many hours of playing Civilization. Instead of a singular “cycle”, I think about the budding technologies we have and the different “phases” they’re in.

Phase #1: A Research Technology

Many facets of cleantech, biology and AI are in this phase right now. We have a lot of promising ideas, but don’t expect any short term deliverables that you might capitalize on.

Phase #2: A “Recently Unlocked” Technology

Technology in this phase is defined by two characteristics: 

  1. A recent “tech tree” advance has happened recently. Something that was impossible has just become possible.
  2. Application of the technology is still hard and inaccessible to most engineers, since platforms to simplify it haven't been built yet.

Past examples include web development in 1994 (Amazon.com was written in C by “brilliant” engineers), 1.8” hard drives in 2001 (Toshiba showed Apple the drives hoping they could “find a use for that” - the iPod) or mobile development in 2009. Current examples might be VR or Deep Learning (ConvNets applied to images). 

Since applying the technology requires deep investment, broad use-cases are prioritized. This is the phase that presents an opportunity to build monopolies (Amazon, Uber). 

Phase #3: A Commodity Technology

Over time technology is simplified by better abstractions (Python, Weebly, Parse, etc). It becomes accessible to a broader set of engineers. I wouldn’t categorically reject commodity investments, but I’d want to see an alternative moat. Otherwise I get stuck on the “why now” question. Many humans have had the ability to make this product. Why haven’t they? 

Sometimes the answer is artistic creativity. Snapchat and musical.ly are like hit TV shows: anyone could make American Idol, but Simon Cowell thought of it first. Sometimes the answer is a downmarket focus (Innovator’s Solution). Gusto and Stripe were optimized for businesses that were too small to garner attention from ADP or PayPal.

Often the answer is less satisfying: specialization. The company is focused on delivering the technology to a long-tail market (“software eats the world”). While valuable, these companies often don’t produce the type of return profile VCs seek as they don’t build a monopoly.

Keeping Tabs On Phase #2

When VCs can't find anything in phase #2, they often fund #1 and #3 by accident.

Ideally you’d like to set a Google News Alert on tech that has recently become “unlocked”. A good way to train yourself what this feels like is to review past examples: 

  1. Oracle. "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks", the paper that inspired Larry Ellison: https://goo.gl/FNsge8
  2. The Atom Bomb. Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt upon realizing that a bomb is possible:  http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Begin/Einstein.shtml
  3. Photo Recognition. In particular, the “search inside the photo” functionality. Much of the recent advancement in this area can be traced back to a paper from 2012: http://image-net.org/challenges/LSVRC/2012/supervision.pdf.
  4. The World Wide Web. Many examples here. One favorite is the article that motivated Jeff Bezos to research Amazon (see growth curve on second page): http://www.quarterman.com/pictures/1991-1994--mn/SCAN0418.html

Thanks to Elad Gil, Chris Dixon, Chris Howard and Christina Cacioppo for reading drafts of this.

tag:dg.posthaven.com,2013:Post/912943 2015-10-05T00:56:20Z 2018-03-18T12:37:42Z The Frequently Overlooked Path to Happiness

I’ve found that one of the most controllable aspects of my happiness and acumen is the people I spend time with. Because many of us are in a good-not-great situation in this regard I suspect many might not realize how deceptively important it is. I’ve split my interactions with others into three: 

Routine People. Those that you interact with without planned effort. Your spouse, co-workers, neighbours and family fall into this bucket. Do you enjoy being with them? Do they motivate you to be better? Think smarter? Be kinder? Most of your life will be spent with these people. You should have extremely high expectations of them. If they aren’t stellar, you should treat that as an urgent problem.

Out-of-routine People. Planned social interactions. For example, dinner with a friend or a trip to see family in a foreign city. Key questions to think about: Do you have a list of people that you’d like to spend time with? How often do you try to meet them? Not sure where to start? Think about qualities you want to have. Then think about the best person who excels at that virtue in your extended friend group. Want to become more empathetic? Spend more time with very empathetic people. 

Once you find people that you really enjoy being with, you might figure out how to turn them into Routine People. For example: move near friends so that you can see them causally without the overhead of scheduling.

Out-of-reality People. While not as good as being surrounded by (living) fantastic people, I’ve found that reading about inspiring individuals (Benjamin Franklin, Gandhi, Shackleton) to afford similar advantages. For example, I found I was thinking about leadership principles much more in the week after reading about Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

Think carefully about who you surround yourself with. Your time on Earth is a valuable resource - it might merit optimizing.]]>
tag:dg.posthaven.com,2013:Post/912902 2015-10-04T22:22:05Z 2018-03-18T12:37:42Z Hollywood Will Fix All Our Problems

I saw The Martian recently. It’s a great movie. Worth seeing, even if you haven’t read the book. What was especially exciting was the realization that we will see this reality in our lifetime. Martian-nauts might be in the audience with you!

As the closing credits played, I reflexively checked the news on my phone. Going from a movie about humans conquering space to reading about the latest Twitter client made Silicon Valley innovation feel incremental at best. Of course, not all startups can be accused of this. SpaceX is trying to reach Mars. Cruise is building a self-driving car. I sure wish there were more startups that felt truly ambitious.

This got me thinking: could Hollywood be the strategy to spawning more SpaceX’s? Hollywood is really good at making things seem cool. The Sopranos makes mobsters seem cool.  Entourage makes loquacious talent agents seem cool. Friday Night Lights makes tough-love coaches feel cool. House of Cards celebrates foxy politicians.

What if all of the movies and TV shows you saw had a hidden agenda: to inspire people to solve today’s Big Problems? Olivia Munn plays a scientist that cures cancer. Kevin Spacey plays a politician that brings nuclear energy to the world. Ben Affleck is a genius engineer that figures out how to make nanobots that connect the human brain to the Internet.

Rather than trying to usher kids to read more (and lose that battle to Call of Duty), should we be focusing on making really compelling movies that celebrate science by portraying fictional solutions to mankind's greatest challenges?

The key metric for the “Definite Optimism Production Company” might be measuring what kids answer when asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?”.

Consider a world where the predominant answer is: “scientist.”