Ask Me AnythingOctober 13, 2017
My first book, The Four, debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction. Thanks for your support.
Ask Me Anything
I did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit yesterday (I’m so down with millennials). Below are some questions I found interesting. Feel free to ask more in the comments.
What’s the craziest thing you found in your research?
That these companies wrap themselves in a progressive blanket as an illusionist trick … to distract from their Darth Vader–like behavior.
Do you see any other technology brand being capable of successfully positioning itself as a luxury brand, or is Apple a singular case among tech brands?
Samsung could be the male version of Apple, but needs to take control of their distribution. A Porsche to Apple’s Vuitton.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give for anyone thinking about starting their own company?
Don’t, unless you have to. (Entrepreneurs are born, not made.) We romanticize entrepreneurship, but it’s hard … really hard. If you have no choice, then find super-smart people, throw nickels around like they are manhole covers. Find a business with recurring revenue that is 0 or 1 degree from tech.
What should startups do so that the Four won’t crush them with their money and resources?
Focus on unmet need, be fast, hire good people, raise as much money as possible, and sell.
Is starting a digital agency right now a dumb idea? Talk me out of it. Caveat — the agency has tech and web dev in-house.
All about the people you can bring together and the ability to get traction with clients. The services business is a young person’s game. Long hours, stressful. Ran a consulting firm for 10 years … exhausting. But yes … still a decent idea. Firms need shepherds.
Design a better mousetrap, or steal a well-designed mousetrap design and flog that?
Theft is the better business model. It was America’s model in the 19th century, and China’s in the 20th. Crime … I mean IP theft … I mean benchmarking … I mean inspiration is the best business model. Second mouse gets the cheese, not the innovator.
What do you think Tesla’s chances are of one day becoming as big as the Four, and if not them, will any car or energy company achieve similar dominance?
I don’t think so. Tesla is not an international firm, and they produced 80K cars last year. Most of the Four have hundreds of millions of customers, and are international. Tesla is a bet on the Thomas Edison of our generation.
What do you think is the biggest problem that no one is talking about?
That we now worship at the altar of innovation, vs. kindness and character. The gross idolatry of innovators and money is leading to a bad place, I fear. Deep thoughts ….
What company have you underestimated the most?
Netflix. Pivoting that company from DVDs in envelopes to streaming was bold / visionary.
What suggestions would you give to a 35-year-old with a background in finance and economics, who is looking for a new career that will last in our continuously automating world? What’s possible without having to give NYU Stern $150K? Or should I just suck it up?
Apply, see if you get into a top-20 school, and can get scholarships / financial aid, while looking for a better job. Let the marketplace decide.
What did your career path look like up to now? You speak from a place that suggests varied experience.
Being beaned in the face several times with episodic flashes of success.
Who have been the most influential people in shaping your career?
My mom, David Aaker (professor from business school), and several mentors.
Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple. You can only keep one in your life. Which one would it be?
Karsen and Indian Gold Eagles
My mom met her best friend, Karsen Evans, in the secretarial pool of the ITT office in Orange County. Karsen was funny and outgoing, and bore a striking resemblance to Ann-Margret. She married a successful entrepreneur, Charly, who owned a printing business. Karsen and Charly were dear friends to my mom. She stayed with them after she and my dad split.
In their company, as a nine-year-old, I registered several things for the first time:
— Karsen was the first woman I remember thinking was really “pretty.”
— I noticed they had nicer things than us: big house overlooking the Valley, German cars, fur coats, and fancy guns from Italy. Karsen wore a belt with gold hoops that encased 24 ten-dollar Indian Gold Eagle coins. Karsen and Charly were something I had never encountered or noticed before. They were “rich.”
— They also didn’t have kids, and had fun parties with groovy people who got drunk. They would dance to a live band whose lead singer Charly knew personally. They were “cool.”
In high school, Charly would take me to lunch at his firm, and I began to get a sense of work and what it meant to make money. I started to connect work with gold coins and groovy people who listened to live music, overlooking the San Fernando Valley.
Charly was ahead of his time and saw disruption coming, and made a bold bet on technology — computers that would replace typesetting. The technology was not practical and required him to change the entire operations of the company at huge costs. Within two years, his firm of 30 years was out of business, and Charly and Karsen were financially ruined. Like many marriages with financial strain, it spelled doom, and Karsen told Charly she was leaving him.
Soon after, Charly was admitted to the hospital with what was then called a nervous breakdown. The term “depression” wasn’t yet part of American vocabulary. After being discharged from the hospital, Charly asked Karsen to go the grocery store as they were out of Häagen-Dazs. Once she left, Charly went into the garage, put shells in an antique rifle, pressed the muzzle to his chest, and pulled the trigger. Four hundred people came to the funeral — he was loved. I remember the juxtaposition of more than a hundred people crying, his three grown sons (from his first marriage) sobbing uncontrollably, and Karsen wearing thigh-high leather boots welcoming everyone.
Soon after Charly passed, Karsen had failed back surgery and became addicted to opioids. She and my mom remained close. When my mom was sick, one day Karsen showed up unexpectedly on my mom’s doorstep. She had driven from San Diego to Las Vegas and announced she was here to take care of her best friend. I unloaded her canary yellow Corvette of its contents:
— 2 fake Vuitton bags
— A Maltese dog
— 7 one-liter bottles of Johnnie Walker Red
Karsen would help my mom with things I couldn’t — showering, changing — when she became really ill. She made Hot Pockets for us every night. She would also seduce thirty-something maintenance workers (my mom lived on a golf course) and drank a liter of Scotch every 3–4 days. By this math, I figured Karsen had given my mom a month to live, as that’s when Karsen would run out of Red Label.
After my mom died, Karsen asked that I look in on her. I called once a month for about six months, and then stopped calling. Too wrapped up in my own shit to call the woman who showered my mom when she was dying. So selfish.
I got a call two years later that Karsen had died. She was unable to get a ride to pick up her pain meds, experienced serious withdrawal, and her heart gave out. Her estate attorney informed me I was the sole beneficiary of her estate (using the term generously). Still, more than I deserved. Just like referred pain, this was love for my mom manifesting somewhere else.
I inherited the belt of Gold Eagles and decided to keep them in case shit got real — end of the world stuff — I could hitchhike to Idaho and begin trading gold coins for guns, butter, and a few days in someone’s underground bunker. You never know.
I hid the belt, which is a bad idea, as a third of the things I don’t hide I lose anyway. I hadn’t seen the coins in several years when my close friend Adam asked if I knew there was costume jewelry, a tacky gold belt, in the dresser I had given him. I told him it wasn’t costume, and that it was likely worth tens of thousands of dollars. Adam said his 13-year-old son had been wearing it to seventh grade every day, as a necklace, because it made him look like a rapper. He gave it back to me.
Karsen and Charly Evans were the most impressive people we knew, on top of the world, and they both died alone. Karsen was an addict whose only family or friend was my mom. Charly was too sick to register the love from his family. I’ve become an addict of sorts as well. Addicted to the affirmation and economic security that comes with professional success. I look at the belt and feel the need to invest in relationships in case they are all I’m left with, and to maintain the perspective that in the end, that is all we have, and all that matters.
Life is so rich,