Best Brands of the Decade and their Key Strategies

“I don’t know what you do, but you do it well.”

Duffy, “Mercy”

The appeal of companies that have taken over the zeitgeist can sometimes feel like Duffy’s “Mercy” – you get sucked into their orbit, and suddenly find you *like* them, inexplicably, like a trusty companion. Looking back at a decade of big winners, winning product strategies that turn consumers into tribal advocates have common threads that fall into three categories. All can land a company on the map, but only some of have resilience in the face of change. The three strategies are:

1. Think in an ecosystem
2. Define the category
3. Make it more than the ordinary

Think in an ecosystem: Apple, Tesla, and Amazon

Source: Insider Monkey

Having a good product is, well, good. Having many good products that complement each other with smooth interoperability is even better. That’s ecosystems-thinking: figuring out how to make synergistic products that seamlessly integrate, to drive market domination.

Seamless like Apple

Apple was among the earliest companies to develop a suite of products that talk to each other. From Mac to iPhone to iPad, each could airdrop files to each other and sync your favorite music. Now with Airpods and iWatches, it’s simply a pain for Apple users to add non-Apple devices to the mix. As a consequence, success in one category – the iPhone – begets success in other categories – iPads, Macs, and iWatches. As users become enmeshed, switching costs rise. And as Apple stays cutting-edge in their leading category, there is even less incentive to switch.

Synergistic like Tesla

Tesla takes ecosystems-thinking to the next level, because they are deploying complementary products at massive scale. It started with their electric vehicles (EVs) and Supercharger stations. Next were Powerwalls and solar panels, allowing people to charge their cars at home and also supply their own day-to-day electricity. Most recently Elon Musk broke ground with the Boring Company to start a high-speed underground, EV-only tunnel to circumvent Los Angeles traffic. Tesla’s products are so well integrated and high quality that it will be hard for any competitor to take a piece of Tesla’s pie anytime soon.

Ubiquitous like Amazon

Amazon is not just the “everything store” anymore – they’ve also become the everywhere store. With the acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon gained 450 stores in 42 states to offer pick-up lockers for Prime Members. Whole Foods has also become an ever-present marketing channel. I am regularly asked at checkout if I’m a Prime Member, and flashed deals for consumer staples as bait. Further, with Prime Video, billboards and subway ads remind me that I can’t watch Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel without Prime. I have a strange sense of “missing out” without a membership. The reach of Amazon’s ecosystem makes me want to join the club!

Whole Foods is in 42 states. Source: Inverse

Creating a full ecosystem is a highly defensible market strategy if you can pull it off. But most companies just have one thing they do very well. And a single concept can drive a winning strategy, as the following two examples show.

Define the category: Uber and Starbucks

One of the biggest signs of market domination is when a company becomes category-defining, providing standard-setting leadership that make it a reference point for any similar enterprise. Most big winners have done this by creating a new market where none existed before.

Ground-breaking like Uber

Uber has changed the way businesses think by creating a market-clearing platform where none had been conceived before. They achieved network effects that set the standard in their category — so much so that people say “let’s get an Uber” even when they mean Lyft here in NYC. Calling your startup the “Uber of X” is universally considered a selling-point. Startups are invoking Uber’s ability to capture first-mover advantage in a scalable, profitable way.

Benchmark-setting like Starbucks

Nowadays, “Let’s find a Starbucks,” is a common refrain in any airport around the world. Starbucks has defined a new minimum quality expected for a coffee, so much so that people are willing to spend $5 on what used to cost 50 cents. By carving out a masstige segment in a previously commoditized category, Starbucks opened the door for artisinal “hipster coffee,” shops, expanding the culture and experience surrounding coffee. Yet even as boutique cafes have emerged across NYC, many people still go to Starbucks! Because they have defined their category. Their first-mover advantage has allowed them to build a permanent association in consumer’s minds with consistent quality.

Of course very few companies can be a first-mover in their category. A few companies this decade have figured out how to be a great late-mover, as the final examples show.

Make it more than the ordinary: Allbirds and Away

Even a commoditized product can be a huge hit — by being more than just a product. Powerful brands can make everyday items feel extraordinary, as Allbirds and Away figured out how to do.

Sustainability with Allbirds

Allbirds came on the market with a message of sustainability at a time when the Paris Climate Agreement had been junked by the U.S. “Buy our comfy sneakers, and you can help save the planet,” was the implicit message. And it seemed to work! A quarter of my office had a pair at one point, and their brick-and-mortar store in the West Village is brimming with shoppers.

Wonder-lust with Away

Source: Away

Away quickly carpeted the NYC subways with images of chic travelers and a simple anecdote that many could identify with: arriving after a long journey with a dead cell phone. Their image of the tech-forward, boundless traveler struck a cord that has left them ahead of many “me-too” suitcases with battery slots.

Winning Big vs. Staying Big

When looking at the decade-defining brands above, they each represent something quintessential about the modern consumer economy and what works. Ecosystems of products are convenient to the point of become part of a lifestyle. Single products can also be powerful by carving out brand-new categories, or by digging down to a purpose beyond the product. My prediction is that the order of the categories above will reflect their. Making an ecosystem creates the stickiest customer relationship. Defining a category also guarantees a long company life, though with low switching-costs. And being more than ordinary will certainly give you a grand entrance to the consumer market, but perhaps not sustainably.

The Index Card Summary of “Ultralearning”

Anyone in the working world today knows that life-long learning isn’t just an option anymore; it’s a necessity. From “new math” to new job categories, technology and bleeding-edge research will continue to keep any working person on their toes, lest we become irrelevant. (We all have that elder relative still using yahoo mail or, *gasp*, AOL…) Fast changes in tech mean we need to be fast to adapt, too. We need to be able to learn new skills pretty quickly. We need to be, in the words of Scott Young, “ultralearners”.

Building on the Deep Work concepts of intensity of time investment and focus, “Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career” goes into the an arsenal of tactics that, when deployed, can rapidly accelerate skill acquisition. These are boiled down below into five key steps.

  1. Make a plan
  2. Learn in context
  3. Drive retention
  4. Collect feedback
  5. Experiment

1. Make a plan

It is hard to learn in a targeted way without a specific goal in mind. Equally, it is hard to retain what you’ve learned if you don’t have a plan for exercising your knowledge. Thus, efficient learning requires you to have a clear picture of why you want to learn a skill, what your learning plan will consist of, an approach for how you will learn, and a plan for when you will exercise and maintain the skill once it is developed.

2. Learn in context

Young advocates for “directness,” or learning tied closely to the context you want to use it in. This method ensures that your learning will directly translate to real-life application.

3. Drive retention

Retention requires over-learning the most critical aspects of a skill, and then repeating exposure over time to make it stick. This will initially demand sustained focus, followed by re-enforcement with drilling and retrieval practice. Near-term learning is honed through drilling specific aspects that will aid performance. Long-term learning is enhanced by practicing retrieval of information, rather than passive review.

4. Collect feedback

Feedback can be outcomes-based, informational, or corrective. Outcomes, like a grade on a test, and informational feedback, like an error message when coding, fail to give corrective feedback on how to fix the problem. Regardless of which type of feedback you can access, strive to get immediate feedback, ideally via direct practice.

5. Experiment

Mastery requires originality, not just proficiency. Try experimenting with your techniques for learning, your style of application, and the resources or materials you draw on to find what works best for you.

Is ultralearning actually something new?

You might be wondering, how is this any different from what others, from Cal Newport in Deep Work to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, have been saying for years?

I think the emphasis on contextual learning combined with a detailed review of tactics places Young more in the realm of data-driven coach than thought leader. Contextualized learning has been trending in the education world, because it is linked to stronger learning outcomes and is seen as a mechanism for making youth and adults alike more work and future-ready than traditional classroom models. As someone who brute-forced her way through many a high school class, I wish I’d taken more care to optimize how I was learning as much as I optimized how much I was learning.

How to Split the Dinner Bill: Should Millionaires Pay More?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the Slate Money podcast where the hosts had an argument that really caught my attention. It was about who pays for dinner in a mixed income group, and it went something like this (very paraphrased):

Felix Salmon: You expect your friend to pay for dinner because she’s rich?

Emily Peck: Yeah, she has like 500 million dollars! Of course she pays. I offer to pay if she’s OK with going some place more affordable.

As I listened, at first I was a little surprised at Emily’s confidence in flouting what is an unspoken taboo at most dinner tables. Yet Slate Money’s extreme example of millionaires with thousandaires was actually one I have found myself in, and so it seemed worth taking a second look at my thinking and the beliefs underlying it.

In New York City, proximity creates cross-class interactions in every-day life. With Section 8 government housing opposite million-dollar mansions, and millionaires taking the subway with working Joes, we are organically a part of each other’s day-to-day. I’ve met every kind and class of person in the City, and have had the pleasure of meeting a few people in the “Two Commas Club” that have become good friends. And when I go to dinner with them, I want to pay for myself. Why is that?

Splitting the bill equally vs. equitably

On an interpersonal level, I don’t want wealthy friends to feel imposed upon or used. But Emily has forced me to ask, is a friendship really about equality, i.e. everyone paying the same, or equity, where each person contributes what they uniquely have to offer? If the latter, then in the dinner scenario that is purely about dollars and cents, shouldn’t the wealthier person pay more in proportion to their income? I’m surprised to find myself uneasy with the idea that my rich friends should pay more of the dinner bill when I have no problem with the idea of them paying more in taxes.

Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change

Dinner bill math as a microcosm of economic policy

Our current unease with wealthy friends picking up more of the dinner tab translates directly into the Republican line of thinking: that each person should look after themselves, and if they can’t afford to eat out, they should go without. Simply put, everyone should pay for their own dinner. This argument ignores context: it’s easier to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps if everyone has similar incomes and similar access to opportunities. Thus, it’s easier in single-class circles for each person to pay their own dinner bill. But that’s not the scenario many people find themselves in in New York City.

Getting comfortable with the idea of the wealthy paying more for dinner requires a more liberal paradigm. From a liberal perspective, there are different levels of economic responsibility for public goods, depending on your wealth. And sharing a meal with friends is, arguably, a public good, a microcosm of pro-social economic policy. At the dinner table level, the wealthy paying more for meals would lead to more diverse life experiences through cross-class friendships. These benefits, one could argue, ultimately pay for themselves in the form of a more functional society.

The alternative for the wealthy is relative social isolation — which under our current paradigm is the path most often chosen. The rich feel more socially isolated today than ever before as income inequality has increased. On the flip side, the positive externalizes of the wealthy paying more for meals have actually already been measured: namely, through free school lunch policies. Free breakfast and lunch leads to stronger student performance and, thus, stronger long-term productivity for the economy.

Systemically better results

One might argue that there is a risk of creating reliance on the wealthy that undermines relationships and self-reliance. It’s why parents stop paying for their adult children, even while parent incomes are typically greater. Yet the liberal paradigm isn’t trying to put parental responsibilities on the wealthy. It’s simply trying to systemically produce the best result and best opportunities for the most people.

So this holiday season, as you catch up with friends over cozy meals, think about what norms you want to have. And share with me what you think: should rich people pay more for dinner the way we ask them to pay more for taxes? Tweet at me: @mbainthecity

Top 10 mental models for the workplace

 Source: Litmos
Source: Litmos

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

Mental models allow us to simplify our complicated world. They are abstracted truths that, in finding the through-line of many instances, despite losing detail they are actually more true than any individual instance. They are powerful drivers of our behavior that help us quickly choose what to focus on and how to make decisions. So it’s worth taking a conscientious look at the ones that have baring on our day-to-day, and consider how we want to employ them.

Based on the Farnam Street list of 109 mental models, I have selected the top 10 that I have most often needed to revisit in innovation and strategy consulting work. They roughly fall into the categories of planning, process, and people – the raw ingredients of any initiative or organization. Below is a brief description of each, and why they are perennially relevant.

1. Planning

Whether planning for your company or your client, managing complexity and collecting the right level of input to make informed decisions is a critical skill. And it is also a complex thing to try to optimize. Here are a few mental models that help guide my focus and sense check my thinking.

The map is not the territory

A map is intentionally designed to be a reduction of what it represents, and is not to be confused with a full representation of reality. As George Box famously noted, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” To preserve the utility of maps, we must guard against over-simplifications that loses touch with reality. For example, average is a myth when it comes to clothing or car seats – acknowledging this has spurred the universal design movement, which demands a much deeper understanding of users than summary data can provide. Which leads us to our next mental model…

Seeing the front

The military has a leadership norm of “personally seeing the front” before making decisions. When decision-makers establish a ground truth first-hand, they avoids losing touch by over-relying on data that fails to capture the nuances of real life. As Jared Belsky would put it from a business leader’s perspective, “Get out of your ivory tower and into the stores.” Then you can test and validate your ideas, assumptions, and plans directly.

Second-order thinking

Second-order thinking involves thinking beyond the immediate effects of an action to the knock-on effects. This kind of holistic thinking needs to be balanced against the typical interpretation of Occam’s razor, which posits that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. Occam’s razor is not a call to give up critical thinking, but does call us to put more weighting on simpler explanations.

Tendency to overgeneralize from small samples

Overgeneralization occurs when we take a small number of instances and come to a general conclusion from it, even if we have no statistically sound basis for it. This is tricky to navigate if you are in situations with naturally low numbers of instances. In these cases, I try to validate my conclusion from multiple angles, and am highly open to updating my thinking as new information becomes available.

2. Process

A plan cannot manifest without an effective process to execute it. At the same time, process has many opportunities for minor or major misalignment that can limit both team outcomes and progress towards larger goals. Below are several key process-related mental models that, if applied well, can drive task success, systems improvement, and individual growth.

Feedback loops

A feedback loop occurs when an input originates from within the system itself, not from outside the system. Feedback loops can be positive, negative, or neutral, and can often be greatly impacted by any one actor who decides to intervene by changing one of the key inputs. This means that you can change the course of a relationship, with a coworker or client, using the right strategic interventions. It’s also why first impressions matter so much, as that impression is easily reinforced.

Regression to the mean

In a normally distributed system, while you might observe deviations from the average, performance will tend to return to the average with an increasing number of observations. This is most visible day-to-day with unconscious habits. Say you want to break your habit of checking e-mail too often. You may make a short-term effort to look at e-mail less, but unless you learn a whole new habit (say, by having e-mail blackout periods or switching to Slack), you may find yourself drifting back to sub-optimal behavior patterns.

Tendency to want to do something

Most humans have the tendency to need to act, even when no action is needed or additive. Action can give the illusion of productivity and progress, perhaps shielding our ego from the fear of failure. At the end of the day, though, we are better off focusing on results. Which links to our next mental model…

Velocity

Velocity is how fast something gets somewhere — speed plus direction. An object that moves two steps forward and then two steps backward has moved with speed but with no velocity. Focusing on velocity can be a tricky disposition to manage in light of its competing mental model “Tendency to want to do something.” Thus, if you are uncertain as to whether actions will be additive, it is important to try to take considered actions that produce data that inform whether you are moving in the right direction.

3. People

All the planning and process in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans without getting people on board with you. Working well with people is most of the magic of successful initiatives. The following mental models are two considerations to keep in mind when getting in the flow with your team or client.

Influence of stress

Stress causes both mental and physiological responses and typically amplify our biases. Stress can also cause us to be hasty and revert to unhelpful habits. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to people’s stress levels, and to try to either reduce stress or introduce conditions that improve the quality of team engagement during stressful circumstances.

Circles of competence

Circles of competence are niche areas of specialization that people develop. Understanding your circle of competence enables you leverage your strengths, identify opportunities for improvement, and learn from others. Many a successful CEO has cited this as a top skill that enabled them to manage a global company. The same is true on a micro level, within a small team.

Leveraging mental models

The world can often seem very complicated because, well, it is! But not all of that complexity is relevant. Being able to more quickly filter out the noise and cut to the heart of the matter is a critical skill in an world of increasing information density. The mental models above provide tools to help evaluate plans and processes, and optimize how you work with people.

Shaping community in the age of Facebook: three success stories

 Source: Sagepub.com
Source: Sagepub.com

As American society is increasingly moving from towns to cities, and from meeting face-to-face to meeting on Facetime, we have had to re-imagine community. We are figuring out how to navigate the “iPhone Effect” on our social connections. And our choices about how we engage with others with technology have huge implications. Will our social capital die down as we withdraw from traditional community, as Robert Putnam feared, or will community simply take on a new form? What does it look like to create and maintain a network of reliable peers, to make meaningful connections in new ways that suit our modern context?

Three principles from three places

I have been a part of a few different communities – work, home, and church – and have observed a few features that have made each a place of belonging. I’ll share a story about each, and then explore why these features of community feel increasingly rare.

De-anonymize

It’s wonderful to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood.

— Ellen Degeneres

In hustle-bustle cities like New York, there’s a sense of anonymity as you walk the streets and peruse the shops. You may be having a bad hair day, but you’ll never see those people giving you side-eye again! It can be liberating. And isolating. And so when I walked into Abyssinian Baptist Church, I noticed the immediate difference in the environment. Famous for their role in the Civil Rights Movement, ABC‘s activist roots run deep and were laced through the sermon. But that is not what gave the church a palpable feeling of connection. Rather, it was their ability to lift their community members up and make them known to each other. The head pastor invested a quarter of the service in spotlighting congregation members, asking them to stand and share their two way relationship with the church. The children reading passages from the bible were introduced. A woman who leads a black women on Broadway group was announced and lauded for her contributions. With so many names and faces getting celebrated and supported, it de-anonymized everyone, made me proud of people I didn’t actually know. In other words, I didn’t just connect with the general experience of the church service. I felt I understood some of the people in it, and cared about their well-being.

But this sort of success in fostering connection doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be deliberately structured into the cadence of community interactions. The next principle and example share a great success story of building relationships in a group whose members were simultaneously complete strangers and close peers.

Build a support system

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Gathering a bunch of people who don’t know each other well in a room, even if they have a lot in common, can often lead to short, somewhat transactional exchanges. Yet that same room of people, with deliberate facilitation, can come alive together and seed the beginnings of lifelong friendships. I saw this arc in my company as we facilitated educator user groups, brought together virtually to develop free math resources online. At the end of the first user group, educators noted that, even with virtual summits and chat room discussions, they felt they’d missed an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with their peers. And so we designed more structured interactions into the next group’s architecture. We created peer pairings for ongoing support. We gave each educator two peer reviewers to provide feedback on the resources they designed. And we scheduled weekly discussion prompts for the chat rooms, giving educators a predictable rhythm of convening to exchange information and ideas. Engagement skyrocketed, and lasting friendships developed.

Providing structure to interactions led to shared expectations about engagement. This organically led educators to invest time into knowledge sharing above and beyond what the program required. Creating availability, it seemed, had been the key ingredient to relationship building. This has proven out in other communities, as I explore in the next example.

Be available

The more we can be in a relationship with those who might seem strange to us, the more we can feel like we’re neighbors and all members of the human family.

— Mr. Rogers

In many buildings I have lived in in New York, I never met my neighbors. My latest apartment is different. There are a number of retired folks who have lived in the building for many years, and they use their free time to be, well, neighborly. They have time to chat in the hallways. They knock on my door if they notice I have a package in the lobby. They offer to dog-sit. In short, they have time for me. And I, of course, have time for them. I offer to plant sit and pick up their mail when they travel. I have their phone numbers and know who their friends are in the building. We’ve inserted a bit of dependability into our network, by taking every small opportunity to be supportive of each other.

Where technology fits in

You may be wondering, why isn’t all of this obvious? Why is it so rare to know and support the people in your social circles in a reliable way? Why do we fail to consistently invest in relationship building?

Many would argue that today’s lower levels of community connection are a continuation of a multi-decade trend. Robert Putnam famously published a macro analysis in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, that identified a 58% decline in club meeting attendance, a 43% decline in family dinners, and 35% drop in having friends over between 1975 and 2000. Putnam identified changes in work, family structure, suburban life, and screen time, among other factors, as contributing to this decline in meaningful group relationships.

The solution to help buck this structural trend, according to the tech giants of the 2000s, was technology. Technology was supposed to bring us closer together. Facebook famously claimed that it could expanding the Dunbar number, the number of meaningful relationships a human can maintain. However, it turned out that the Dunbar number didn’t change. What social media has done is bring your outer circle of acquaintances in, rather than strengthening or growing your inner circle. Simultaneously, technology has increased our culture of distraction, competing for attention that could otherwise be focused on our close friends and communities.

If we rule our technology, and don’t let our technology rule us, it can still be a tool that builds community rather than undermines it. Use technology to make yourself available. Use the structure of a WhatsApp group to organize regular meetings. Carve out time in your group gatherings on and offline to hear more about the individuals that make your members. Abandon the convenience of liking a post, and actually speak directly to your friends, be it in-person or on Skype. Reject the loneliness of optionality and anonymity that big cities and infinite online interactions offer. Make your circles smaller and your world more personal.

Crisis in the streets of New York

As a native New Yorker now returned home for good, I feel it’s time to begin making my civic contributions, to start solving the real problems our city faces. Believe it or not, dear reader, I didn’t go to school just to summarize business books that are way longer than they need to be. I aimed to make a real difference in this world. And now that I have this platform of ten regular readers to amplify this message, I feel it’s time to combine my advanced degrees, my Public Policy bachelor’s and my MBA, to solve the real challenges facing the city that I know and love.

Let’s talk about the dangers of unregulated umbrella utilization.

 Source: New York Post
Source: New York Post

An unchecked weapon

Throngs of people in the most crowded intersections of New York are a norm. But on a rainy day, they become weapon wielding mobs devolved to basic instincts. Survivors duck-and-weave around errant metal supports. The more alpha types deliver full body-checks to fumbling pedestrians who stand in their way. In the worst cases, these incidents can be fatal (I assume).

My last brush with an umbrella in the streets left me changed. The first thing I remember was a wall of black driving towards my face, with only moments to dodge out of the way. I pivoted outward to the right, but too late. A metal prong scraped my chin as I tilted my head sideways to minimize the blow. I turned to see a five-foot-nothing Latina woman striding away with a gulf umbrella big enough for a family. The ratio of umbrella to human was like none I had ever seen. “Assault!” I shouted after her. “That’s assault! Umbrella assault! Assault with a deadly umbrella!” She paid me no heed. Neither did the passers-by. It was, Times Square, after all, where the standards of humanity are at their lowest. And did the police care? No. I was almost temporarily-permanently blinded by a metal spike that could have gouged out both of my eyes simultaneously (I assume). But the police didn’t even create a case file. There are certainly moments in New York where I wish for acute blindness, but this is not how I imagined it happening.

Umbrellas are intended for battling the elements, not each other. There’s only one solution that I can see. I mean that will literally allow me to see past the sea of umbrellas. And that’s umbrella regulation.

It’s a solved problem

Regulation has addressed the same cornerstone issue in the roadways that plague our sidewalks: capacity constraints. As early as 1652, New Amsterdam had speed limits for wagons and carts. Regulating behavior of vehicles makes our city’s pressured capacity more manageable. Providing basic guidance for how to properly use umbrellas, such as up-and-down etiquette and other fundamentals of urban umbrella wielding, could reduce accidents and unlock sidewalk capacity, just as road vehicle regulation has.

As it stands now, with no rules to give order to umbrella traffic, you take your life into your hands when you turn a corner blind on a rainy day.

There is literally nothing more dangerous than turning a corner in the rain in New York, according to recent statistics. Umbrella related eye gouges are up 14% since 2009 (I assume). The positive trend line below can only be umbrella traffic accident reporting, since no New Yorker actually drives.

 Source: newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneysblog.com
Source: newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneysblog.com

Setting standards

According to careful research conducted by NYAEG, New Yorkers Against Eye Gouging, umbrella accident incidence rates would be dramatically reduced if we introduced transparency and scale requirements.

Transparency

Regulation has a bad reputation because often there is a lack of transparency. But transparency is exactly what we need in New York. Specifically, we need transparent umbrellas. On a normal NYC day, you can see up and down city avenues for miles. But on a rainy day, visibility is reduced to legal blindness by a sea of black umbrellas. All because umbrellas are too freely distributed.

Scale

Short people usually get the short end of the stick. When it comes to umbrellas, that seems only reasonable. Yet like Napoleon’s land grab across Europe, the vertically challenged demand sidewalk space beyond normal proportions. It’s getting out of control. The other day I saw a four-foot tall woman carrying a circus tent. An actual circus tent. We need to bring reason back to how we allow sidewalks to be used.

A new licensing system

The automotive industry has solved the challenges of transparency and scale. Headlight standards ensure visibility for all drivers. Classes of license ensure that a driver can handle the size of the vehicle they are navigating. We can do the same with umbrellas. We must make transparent plastic the standard material. And we must limit umbrella sizes by mastery and height requirements.

Below is a simple system that could be implemented immediately.

Umbrella License Class Descriptions

Class Qualification Eligible to Use
Class D (the most common license) Stay to the right while walking; stop at lights outside of pedestrian crossing path Clear bubble umbrellas, wide enough for individual use only
Class A Same requirements as class D; also distinguish a fast vs. slow lane on the right half of the sidewalk (also known as, commuter and tourist lanes) Clear umbrellas wide enough for two to three people
Class G Same requirements as Class A; also implement up-and-down etiquette; top of umbrella consistently held at 6 feet or higher to ensure clearance of the average New Yorker Transparent golf umbrellas

Standard issue umbrellas for the average height would have the following dimensions.

Each standard deviation from average height would result in linear size increase or decrease to the umbrella issued, while maintaining the same aspect ratio.

Enforcement

Of course regulation is nothing without enforcement. And so I propose that the NYPD create a special task force, with the Rainy Day Fund, to ensure that people are wielding the appropriate umbrella for their license. Penalties for law breakers should start at 2 -3 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Objections addressed

Now I’m sure you’re thinking, what about advanced umbrella wielders? Why deny them the colorful expression of opaque umbrellas? We need to hold a high bar for such luxuries, considering the public risk posed by opaque umbrellas. These pedestrians need to be Formula 1 quality, people who can puddle-jump and pirouette like a Broadway dancer trying out for Singing in the Rain.

You also might think, what about mothers with children who don’t qualify for Class G licenses? There is no limit to the number of times adults can apply for licenses, for a low $20 fee, to cover the test and the cost of a street umbrella. Children can get a learners permit at age 16. We need to think about public safety above individual convenience. It may seem over the top, but that’s the point — to see over the top. I want to see over the top of everyone’s umbrellas. Those who just can’t meet the new city standards, will just need to invest in a good raincoat. For those folks, I can recommend a great one.

A vision for the future

Regulation adds efficiency when you’re at capacity, and New York sidewalks will always be at capacity. With such a longstanding problem, I have to wonder, where is de Blasio’s leadership? He’s too busy running for president. Too busy to imagine a world where rush hour swells at sidewalk intersections looked like lanes flowing smoothly rather than a fan of people taking both the right and left of the sidewalk. (I’m looking at you, New Jersey commuters at Penn Station.) This is the world we could have, with effective umbrella regulation.

Why Brazilians are burning the Amazon, and how policy has solved this problem before

 Satellite image 2019 Maxar Technologies
Satellite image 2019 Maxar Technologies

Nations across the world are lambasting Brazil for the rising rate of deforestation by forest fires. Images of the blazing infernos across the Amazon are viral on every media outlet. Surprisingly, most coverage frames the issue as a political one rather than an economic one. The focus remains on Bolsonaro’s right-wing politics, and the social injustice to indigenous communities being driven from their lands. Yet few ask why burning the rainforest seems to be the best economic option for so many farmers and ranchers. A candid look at Brazil’s economy and the nature of this classic policy problem point to both the central issue and some possible solutions.

One of the most unequal economies in the world

The Gini coefficient is the World Bank’s choice indicator of social progress. It measures income distribution, where 0 represents perfect equality (i.e., everyone has the same income), and 1 represents perfect inequality (where one person has all the income, and everyone else has no income). In May of this year, Brazil’s Gini coefficient rose to 0.627, just shy of it’s 1989 record of 0.633, when Brazil was the 2nd most unequal nation in the world. This marks a huge regression from their decade below 0.55, and it’s 2018 level of 0.51. In other words, more people are worse off this year than last.

 Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was declining over the past decade
Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was declining over the past decade

International pressure doesn’t put food on the table

The international community is doing its best to apply economic pressure rather than ease economic suffering as their chosen solution. And it doesn’t seem to be working. France threatened to scupper the EU – Brazil trade deal over the Amazon fires. Yet with the US – China trade war heating up, Brazil has another big market to sell its soybeans and cattle to.

So the EU tried offering a carrot with its stick: $20 million in aid to help fight the fires. To put that in context, the world’s richest nations just offered 1/6 of what Juicero raised to help combat the Amazon wildfires. It’s a literal drop in the bucket.

But none of this is surprising, because the benefits of burning the Amazon are concentrated and the cost are dispersed.

Concentrated benefits + dispersed costs = tragedy of the commons

Economic benefits and costs can be both concentrated to certain individuals and small groups, or dispersed to the public. Different archetypal social behaviors emerge with each combination of costs and benefits. The most challenging dynamic is the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource. It’s what causes over-fishing or drinking water pollution by factories. All the benefits flow to the individual or company. But the costs are so dispersed that no individual baring just a fraction of the cost has enough incentive to take counter action. Hence the richest countries in the world offering Brazil only $20 million to fight Amazon wildfires. That’s their willingness to pay as individual countries for the global benefit of mitigating climate change.

 The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource
The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource

How tragedy of the commons is (usually) solved

To overcome the tragedy of the commons, most policy makers try to emulate a market place. Governments try to create concentrated costs to match the concentrated benefits. They typically do this via privatization or regulation.

1. Privatize

Privatizing public resources is thought to create a sense of ownership that incentivizes long-term maintenance of those resources. This has worked for U.S. forests: privatization has led to sustained growth for about 50 years. Because loggers never want to run out of trees on their allotted land, more than 90% of U.S. paper comes from high-yield, rejuvenated forests planted for harvest. Fisheries have also tried privatization in the last two decades, with notable successes. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council privatized harvests of two species. This led to sustaining yields while cutting the number of boats needed by 90%.

Yet few critics trust privatization writ large. Standard market dynamics often continue to motivate destruction of the commons.

“Privatizing the commons may not work in a lot of cases. The incentive to chase a quick buck may outweigh the financial and social rewards of long-term stewardship. Ownership is not necessarily stewardship.”
– David Brodwin, cofounder of American Sustainable Business Council

The Global Landscapes Forum further sites how public land ownership optimizes environmental benefits. For example, many national parks would not exist without federal ownership.

So let’s suppose that privatization is off the table. That leaves us with regulation as a second option.

2. Regulate

Governments protect the commons by restricting resource extraction, using quotas, permitting systems, and bans. Brazil historically implemented restrictions on rainforest abuse, but enforcement has decline. Further, Bolsonaro signaled through his campaign and his environment minister selection that it is open season in the Amazon. The downward trend in government spending further suggests that environmental regulation enforcement will continue to decline.

Money talks

The likelihood of the current Brazilian administration using policy tools to solve this tragedy of the commons is low. But it’s worth remembering why the Amazon is being burned in the first place – money. Perhaps the west’s $20 million pittance needs a few more zeros behind it, and needs to be directed at those actually starting the forest fires. Money is a blunt instrument, but it seems to work for organizations like Kiva, a microfinance match-maker that has distributed $1 billion in loans to 2.5 million recipients. They create an average of 1.2 jobs per loan. GiveDirectly is another example of cash donations changing lives. Sustainable livelihoods and sustainable environmental treatment do not have to be mutually exclusive. We need to be more targeted in our interventions, by directing funds to those who need it most.

Buyer beware, dark patterns are everywhere

From Intuit to Amazon, dark patterns have emerged as an inescapable part of our our digital lives. A dark pattern, as Fast Company succinctly put it, is “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things.” And it’s different to bad UI. It’s the inviting blue button on TurboTax that leads you to a paid tax return form, next to a garish orange button that leads you to the free filing option. It’s the greyed-out, less expensive option on Amazon below the default selected, more expensive Prime option. In short, the default is the annoying thing.

Given the ubiquitous presence of dark patterns, consumers seem to be waking up and wondering “how did we get here?” Taking that question one step further, are there any redeeming qualities of dark patterns? And if not, what should we do about their rampant use?

How we got here

Dark patterns are largely the product of the capitalistic pursuit of money and the commodification of people’s attention. And we can probably thank the ruling doctrine of the day, the Lean Startup method, for this newfound efficiency of capturing money and attention. Lean Startup methodology asks a fundamental question of product engineers: when we make changes to a product, how do we know we’ve made it better? Lean Startup devised a means of fast learning about product efficacy through rapid testing. And Intuit, the owner of TurboTax, was the poster child featured in the book. Fast-forward a decade later after Eric Ries has transformed the speed of learning at Intuit, and they have deployed their newfound abilities to guide consumers to costly decisions: TurboTax ripped off troops with a bait-and-switch dark pattern promising a “Military Discount” and milked the unemployed with a misdirection dark pattern, obscuring the free filing option with obtuse language, convoluted website pathways, and wiping the free page from search results.

 Journalist Justin Elliott reported extensively with ProPublica on the nature of TurboTax dark patterns that guided users away from free tax filings.
Journalist Justin Elliott reported extensively with ProPublica on the nature of TurboTax dark patterns that guided users away from free tax filings.

Is it all that bad?

Intuit’s CEO fought back against the media bashing to say that their dark patterns were in the “best interest of taxpayers”. Many dark pattern architects might argue the same thing. Take the example of newsletters. Almost every online vendor has made newsletter subscription an “opt out” option at checkout, with “subscribe to our newsletter” checked as the default. Such vendors might posit that they want to deliver useful deals and information that you just don’t know you want or need yet. You can all but imagine the disembodied sales bot saying, “it’s not a trick, it’s a legitimate sales tactic in the best interest of the consumer.”

There are a few rare instances where dark patterns are motivated by consumer service priorities. For example, some cloud providers will provide a default option of using the regional data center with the most capacity, rather than the data center you most recently used. Most customers choose the default, and receive more reliable service as a result.

But for the most part, dark patterns are the evil twins of nudges. A nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. Think putting fruit at eye-level and candy on the bottom shelf. Or how the Austrian government makes organ donor the default status for citizens, resulting in over 90% donor status vs the US’s ~15%. The UK government loved the concept so much that they created a “Nudge Unit”, more formally known as the Behavioral Insights Team, to influence public policy.

Are dark patterns just nefarious nudges? Not exactly. The big difference between nudging and dark patterns is in the definition. Dark patterns, by definition, “trick consumers” to do something they wouldn’t want to do. It’s not simply that you make one option more top of mind; it’s making the desired option appear to be the only option, to the benefit of a private company, over the consumer body.

What’s a consumer to do?

Regulation is one possible solution to dark patterns. The Federal Trade Commission and local Consumer Protection Offices already protect against a number of aggressive and fraudulent sales tactics. If you’re in Europe, GDPR may be helping consumers out too. However, with today’s gridlock in Congress, we may be on our own as consumers for a time. But we do have our own power of the purse. So vote with your dollars! If you notice a company using dark patterns, don’t reward them with your patronage. Companies are using dark patterns because they work. If we show them that they don’t, then they won’t. Preference vendors who don’t use dark patterns.

Lastly, in researching this piece, ProPublica, who provided the deep dive on Intuits abuses of consumers, hit me with their own dark pattern.

Meal kit cook off: a side-by-side comparison

As a youngish professional spending most of my time in Manhattan, I find myself in food deserts from time to time, or move to move as it were. Each new move can spur a renewed exploration of meal kits, which have proliferated as a consumer offering in the last 5-10 years. A lot of listicles like Reviewed.com rate the mail-and-cook kit options, without factoring in the changing face of grocery. Thinking outside the FedEx box means recognizing that Whole Foods is in on the game now, and it’s not just Weight Watchers selling ready healthy meals anymore. Below is a side-by-side comparison sampling one of each of the three mealkit styles:

  • Blue Apron representing mail-and-cook

  • Amazon Meal Kits debuting pick-up-and-cook

  • Freshly repping mail, heat and eat

Amazon Meal Kits: I’m impressed

Amazon always does everything a little differently. In this instance, they’ve priced each meal kit differently, ranging from $15.99 to $19.99. This makes sense when the ingredients range from chicken to shrimp, and departs from the typical meal kit practice of flat pricing.

Also distinctive is the short, simple instructions and minimal number of ingredients. This meant that the 30 minute cooking time was a true 30 minutes! I tried the pork dish, and appreciated the fresh crunch and flavors, likely aided by the fact that I cooked it the same day that I bought it.

Freshly: full of flavor

Freshly caught my eye with a promotion, and now they have me sold. Six single meals for $60 gets you imaginative dishes like “Aloha Chicken” and wild-caught mahi. I had my doubts about microwave dishes, but the spices and the fresh ingredients mean there is only a little added softness from the microwave steaming. It’s all a huge upgrade from the panini and chicken salad sandwiches of downtown delis.

Blue Apron: light on flavor, long on time

I gave up on Blue Apron last year. The long recipe descriptions and amount of chopping for a knife-skills novice meant that the “30 minute” prep times were usually more like 60 minutes – that’s 100% overage! Also, they seemed to think salt, pepper, and olive oil were all you need to make a dish pop. It got a bit boring after a short while. And even with all the cooking time, I didn’t become a significantly better cook. Hence my back-tracking to the simpler options above.

The final evaluation: price, time and flavor

So who wins the a battle of price, time, and flavor? I’ve conveniently plotted price vs. time performance of these three options below, and plotted flavor against prep time in a 2×2 below.

 Price vs. prep time for 3 types of meal kits
Price vs. prep time for 3 types of meal kits

When evaluating flavor against prep time, we see Amazon and Freshly are in the lead.

 Plotting each meal kit on the amount of flavor and the amount of prep time each offers.
Plotting each meal kit on the amount of flavor and the amount of prep time each offers.

Using the Net Promoter Score scale for each of the three, rating how likely I am to recommend each kit on a scale of 0 to 10, here’s where I personally land on ratings for Amazon, Freshly, and Blue Apron.

Bon appetit!

The Index Card Summary of “The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you”

The graveyard of Silicon Valley is littered with dead startups that launched based on false positive feedback. How does one avoid the misdirection of enthusiasts trying to avoid awkward hurt feelings? Rob Fitzpatrick offers a cheat sheet of cardinal rules of informational interviewing while refining your business concept in The Mom Test. Below is the index card summary of the Rob’s rules for collecting honest feedback.

The Index Card Summary

1. Avoid mentioning your idea.

2. Avoid the “premature zoom”.

3. Ask terrifying questions that force you to focus.

4. Lower the stakes.

1. Avoid mentioning your idea

We are a social species – we like to be liked! As a result, if you signal to someone that it’s important to you that they like your idea/product/approach, you are biasing that person towards positive feedback. But soliciting only positive feedback, even if this is not your intention, will impede your ultimate goal of improving your idea/product/approach. So how to avoid bias? Ask questions related to the problem you want to solve rather than the solution you have in mind.

2. Avoid the “premature zoom”

Fitzpatrick calls jumping to tweaking your idea before validating it the “premature zoom”. You need to validate that the problem you are trying to solve is a real problem. Validate that your interviewee cares about the problem before you collect feedback on the nuances. Ask if they like ice cream before you ask if they prefer chocolate or vanilla (and don’t assume strawberry is out of the running, intuitive, though it may seem). This may sounds simple, but it’s actually very hard. Because we all carry many implicit assumptions with us. To succeed in a new venture, we need to identify all assumptions explicitly, and test each one.

3. Ask terrifying questions that force you to focus

Pre-plan up to three key questions for each of the stakeholder groups that will affect the success of your idea/product/approach. These might include customer segments and investors, managers and teammates, etc. Many of these questions should be ones you’re a little scared to hear the answer to.

If you get feedback all over the map, it may mean you haven’t meaningfully defined the use case of your idea/product/approach. You should have a specific user segment in mind. If your feedback is scattered with no common thread, you may be trying to cover too much.

4. Lower the stakes

Not every conversation needs to feel super high stakes. If you have your key questions at the ready, you can ask them whenever you bump into anyone connected loosely or tightly to your idea/product/approach. Don’t save all of your key questions for one big meeting with one critical stakeholder. This would make you vulnerable to perfectionism and procrastination.

Making good feedback less hard to come by

From 360 reviews to side hustles, we all need feedback; we can’t operate in a vacuum. Yet it can be easy to do so, to stay in our comfort zone of wanting to think our ideas and our work are 100% awesome all of the time. Unless you care more about results than your ego. And the easiest way to get there is to start asking the right questions early and often. So go forth and solicit feedback!