(Don’t?) try this at home: DIY biotherapeutics are on the rise

Brinter, a modular bioprinter platform pending patent.

Last May, a YouTube video with a fascinating lede caught my eye: a biology student claimed to have cured himself of lactose intolerance through DIY gene therapy. He’d literally grown a cure, popped it in some capsules, and swallowed. Just a few months later, Stanford scientists posted the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine sequence on Github. And in the same time frame, Feles demoed their direct to consumer, all-in-one desktop science lab. Together, these puzzle pieces are building a picture of a more personalized and decentralized future of health. And COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend towards knowledge-sharing and accessible tools for biotherapeutics.

The DIY biology movement was already well underway before COVID-19. Curious students like Justin Atkin of the Thought Emporium wanted to take their health into their own hands. As a fellow lactose intolerant, I know such persistent health issues take a toll. I simply accepted my fate. But not Justin. He combined what he knew about cells and viruses to design a lactose intolerance cure — by growing a virus programmed to make the lactase enzyme. What makes Justin’s work powerful isn’t simply his success. It’s his commitment to making his insights accessible. He published a cheap, safe, and effective theoretical alternative on Creative Commons.

While bioscience knowledge is becoming more accessible through the open source movement, so are bioscience tools. While most scientific labs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit, a growing number of science-minded entrepreneurs are bringing equipment costs down. Feles developed a full science lab the size of a printer, priced at just $3,000. The accompanying software allows you to run reproducible experiments at the molecular level.

Feles was developed by biology students seeking to make biology experimentation accessible to everyone.

With the growth of the open source bioinformatics movement and the falling cost of scientific tools, Stanford’s publication of a reverse engineered Moderna vaccine sequence raised some natural questions: How many biology savvy people are as frustrated with limited COVID-19 vaccine access as I am with my lactose intolerance? How many self-empowered individuals would make their own vaccine? How feasible would that be now and in the future?

There is no question that COVID-19 has brought the future closer. Most notably, it has accelerated the trend towards open source scientific collaboration. The urgent needs to develop a COVID-19 vaccine unleashed a wave of scientists sharing their research. The Wall Street Journal reported a spike in publishing preliminary findings (prior to peer review) as researchers work to limit the number of dead ends their peers pursue.

Yet while the accessibility of knowledge has gone up vis-a-vis COVID-19 vaccine development, material costs are not trending downward as quickly. While Stanford scientists indicated use of typical biology lab materials for their reverse engineering, the vaccine production process is an entirely different matter. Unstable biological agents, like mRNA require careful handling, which does not lend itself to distributed manufacturing.

We also can expect some regression to the mean with scientific knowledge sharing. Solutions unvetted by clinical trials or peer review will continue to pose risks that the public may not fully appreciate. Yet the field appears to be becoming less risk averse. I expect a sustained shift towards rapid experimentation and sharing early insights.

While “nobody will be making an mRNA vaccine in their garage any time soon,” it may not be so far fetched in our lifetime. Just as 3D printers have become a household item, perhaps one day doctors will email us vaccine scripts that we run on our household bio-printer, eliminating all storage problems. When mutations arise, your doctor could email you a revised script. It may sounds futuristic, but Codex DNA could be as little a year away from going to market, and they aim to have their vaccine printer in every hospital, pharmacy, and doctor’s office. Then personalized medicine may know no limits. I look forward to seeing what Justin Atkin and the open source bioscience community do once this tech becomes direct to consumer.

Modern community: three levels being re-shaped by social distancing

Well before COVID-19 struck, the U.S. faced a loneliness epidemic: 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely prior to the pandemic. Compare this with a November 2020 study, where 80% of participants reported significant depressive symptoms. People have felt isolated because, well, they have been. Self-isolation and social distancing are our best prevention methods for mitigating COVID-19’s spread. While we protect our psychical health, people have also needed to find way to bolster mental health.

More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.

Elena Renken, NPR

In a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, with each social door that has closed, people have tested and tried a dozen alternative doors to open. I’ve seen social connection re-imagined at three levels: one-on-one, affinity groups, and the workplace. Below I share the trends that have warmed my heart to see, and my favorite examples within each.

Three levels of community

One-on-one

With space in our calendars, our collective memories have been stirred, to think of loved ones and old friends far and wide. We’ve felt the urge to connect with them using tools we almost forgot existed: telephones and pen and paper. Paper Source Inc.’s greeting-card sales jumped 1,200% following social distancing orders in March. And phone call volume surged more than internet use in the weeks following lock-down, as people wanted to hear the sound of each other’s voices.

Favorite for one-on-one: Lovepop cards are the notes I have both enjoyed sending the most and gotten the warmest responses for. In a world that feels mostly 2D right now because of excessive screen time, it’s revitalizing to inject some 3D into it.

Lovepop cards range from the lovely to the nerdy.

Affinity groups

Lockdowns across the globe have re-shaped and consolidated our social networks. People have focused on connecting with those they have the most in common with over people that are geographically near. This includes revived interest in hobbies and affinity groups. In Ireland, over 250,000 people joined Facebook hobby groups following lock-down orders, with 30,000 people joining Irish Gardening alone.

When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive.

Dr Marlee Bower, loneliness researcher, University of Sydney

While incumbent social media has done well, new platforms for online social interaction have proliferated. Clubhouse has enjoyed huge engagement. I’ve been invited to many Sims-esque social spaces, from Gather to Kumospace.

Favorite for affinity groups: Toucan wins for small (less than 15 people) social e-events. It’s essentially a virtual cocktail room where you can move between different social circles. Among the ‘organic’ platforms that permit free movement, it has been the easiest to interact with. However, the organic movement of participants starts to feel chaotic if the event gets too big.

Toucan lets you mix and mingle across different audio circles in the same event.

The workplace

Remote work has changed much of how we communicate with coworkers. For many, social distance has also created emotional distance. In a study by Sharehold, mental health was the top-reported factor that impacted employees after New York’s March 2020 stay-at-home orders (due to COVID-19). Another international survey showed 40% of employers felt concern for how remote work might impact workers’ mental health.

Many employers have tried to address our yearning for informal chats and ‘micro-interactions’ with new tools (Slack, Zoom) and new norms. My company started including personal checkins at the beginning of Monday stand-ups. And working sessions quickly transitioned from ‘business-first’ to ‘catch-up first’.

Favorite for the workplace: My company instituted quarterly ‘cafes’ with trivia pulled from our personal Readmes and Slack. It gamifies getting to know each other and is full of laughs.

Community in the long run

Loneliness experts hypothesize that people will recover from the lock-down-induced loneliness spike and return to their previous baseline over the long-term. So while we’ve explored new ways to engage in community virtually, nothing can supplant the human need to be with one another in person.

We are creatures of habit. . . I think we will revert back to our social groups [in the long run].

Michelle Lim, loneliness expert

Out with the old: How to make resolutions you’ll keep

We’ve all heard that the journey is more important than the destination. And the most important part of the journey is the next step. But how does this apply to New Year’s resolutions? Below is a simple guide to nixing the lofty end-goals and re-centering around continuous improvement.

Your brain on resolutions

Run a marathon. Learn beginner guitar. A classic resolution names exactly the outcome you want. It gives you a mountain to climb, literally or metaphorically. While it’s nice to have a vision to work towards, these kinds of goals can often have negative psychological effects.

First, lofty goals can dampen your self-esteem. When you set a goal, you place yourself in an immediate state of failure, by definition. And since most resolutions relate to self-improvement, this may provoke feelings of inadequacy. Second, we are particularly susceptible to “false hope syndrome” when making resolutions. A variant of the planning fallacy, we can assume that achieving a goal will be easier or faster to achieve than is realistic. When reality sets in, we give up or experience de-motivation.

False hope syndrome is characterized by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behavior.”

Mark Griffiths, Psychology Professor, Nottingham Trent University

Third, a narrowly-defined goal may lead to de-motivation once we achieve the goal. We can mentally disconnect the goal from its underlying aspiration or principle. That’s why most dieters quickly regain all their lost weight, and then some. People who decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle, by contrast, often sustain success.

But how do you hold yourself accountable for self-improvement without a resolution? By changing your mindset to focus on the journey. That means prioritizing continuous improvement over specific milestones.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Tim Harford, Author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

From resolutions to themes

For the last few years I have swapped out resolutions for annual themes. C.G.P. Grey describes themes as something you want more of in your life, a principle that you will use to make decisions. For me, last year was the “Year of Intentionality.” I wanted to do fewer things better. I wanted to avoid weaker interests that might crowd more important areas of my life. This theme gave me the grace to “Marie Kondo” my life. I said “thank you and goodbye” to the things that I like doing but didn’t have space for. And pandemic not withstanding, this was my most successful New Year’s resolution yet.

C.G.P. Grey explains how to make an annual theme that supports your growth.

From planner to navigator

It’s an unpredictable world out there. Having detailed life plans that you regularly scrap or revise can feel like a waste. Of course an initial plan can provide a valuable starting place. Plans can help you test assumptions and approaches. And the goal you are mapping towards can give you an inspiring vision and a sense of urgency. But the scale of the plan directly relates to the probability of success. A plan to get from your couch to the front door is more likely to succeed than a plan to get from your couch to Times Square, which depends on whether your E train became an F or your Q became a 2 train.

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

If resolutions are truly meant to help improve your life, themes are much better suited to the job. They provide clear decision-making principles that enable you to plan your next step, no matter what life throws at you. And because the locus of control is with you, in a year’s time, you will look back and see visible growth.

The shape of COVID-19: NYC’s testing data to date

On the eve of Phase 2 reopening in NYC, New Yorkers have a lot to look back on and a lot to look forward to. Since the start of the pandemic, between 8 and 11% of confirmed and suspected NYC cases ended in death. At the same time, the total number of confirmed new cases was only 81 on June 19th and has been declining across the city. So as we ready ourselves for reopening, we need to take a look at the trends to answer that burning question: is a haircut worth the risk just yet?

COVID-19 data. Source: nyc.gov

One month ago: A tail of three cities

One month ago, when Mayor Cuomo extended NY “PAUSE” and postponed Phase 1 reopening to May 28th, New York got a signal that we were still in the danger zone. But why? Our R0, the rate of contagion spread, was consistently below 1 (the critical threshold). A look at the data shows that quality of our data and, thus, our ability to accurately estimate the true R0, varied widely by neighborhood.

Comparing just three different parts of the city — Chelsea/NoMad, Flatbush, and East New York — points to very different testing trends. These neighborhoods could be fairly described as high, medium, and low income, respectively. While Chelsea and NoMad (zip code 10001) saw the total number of tests per day rising from April 1 to May 20, Flatbush and East New York (zip codes 11203 and 11239) actually saw their daily testing rate *fall* during the same period. Although the number of positive cases dropped steadily over time in all three areas, the rate of change (indicated by the line graphs) for testing and positive test cases trend downward together in Flatbush and East New York. This suggests under-reporting of cases. The Chelsea and Nomad rates of change, by contrast, show an acceleration of testing and declining growth in positive diagnoses. With bigger sample sizes and more data points, we can confidently say Chelsea and Nomad had falling R0s.

Since Phase 1: More universal testing and better results

Today, looking back on the two weeks since Phase 1 began, there are sustained signs of improvement. Across our three sample zip codes, we saw total case levels flatten while total testing continued to increase, giving us confidence that our R0 was truly falling across the different locales.

Chelsea/Nomad, Flatbush, and East New York all saw significant growth in testing during Phase 1. As total tests grew, the total positive case curve continued to flatten. Source: James Wallace’s analysis of of gov.nyc health data

The data indicate that targeted interventions in areas like East New York meaningfully boosted the rate of testing. Whereas testing rates hovered around 30 per day for all of April and May, for one day in June, shortly after Phase 1 reopening, testing jumped to about 150.

These signs bode well. So should we be encouraged? On balance, yes. Even in our biggest recent gatherings, the Black Lives Matter protests, protesters have had each other’s backs, wearing face masks and gloves and offering hand sanitizer. There may be pockets of regression as Gen Zers flock back to bars sans masks, but with new cleaning and hygiene norms everywhere, I remain cautiously optimistic that our city will heal.

Today: Still worth taking a different “PAUSE”

Despite the positive recent trends, the aftershock will be felt for a long time. Nearly as many New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 as live in the 10001 zip code. But very few of these deaths were in Chelsea and Nomad. Flatbush experienced hundreds of deaths, and East New York experienced seven times the number of deaths per 100,000 that Chelsea and Nomad did.

Source: nyc.gov

It is worth pausing to think through what exactly needs to change in order for the darkness of a pandemic case map to not reflect the darkness of neighborhood residents’ skin.

Source: nyc.gov

Top five post-COVID-19 predictions

How will COVID-19 leave society changed?

New York’s new normal

Each day as I step outside, keeping at a social distance, I am reminded of how not normal New York City life is right now. Empty sidewalks, save for the homeless and a few runners. Wary looks behind masked faces. Empty roads and fresh air. Supply shortages and long grocery store lines, for those who brave them. A sudden interest in the movie Contagion. This is the new normal. And when this passes, I wonder, what will the new new normal look like? I offer five predictions about how society, government, and individuals will change — or not change, as the case may be:

  1. Niche media will become more mainstream than mass media
  2. Everyone will emerge with a new survival skill
  3. Asthma cases will drop, as the air quality improves with less pollution
  4. Both parties will take the crisis as evidence that their principles are the right ones
  5. Social activism will see a significant jump

I predict these changes, because they are already underway. Here’s what I’ve observed in the last few weeks of quarantine:

1. Niche media will become more mainstream than mass media

John Krasinski and Steve Carell, Some Good News, Episode 1

In the early days of corona virus news, national “reporting” was a loose term — you could read article upon article and learn almost nothing. As the severity of the situation became clear, hand-wavy vagaries just weren’t enough to keep us informed about how to stay safe. My peers and neighbors quickly started relying on a narrower set of localized and trusted sources for the intel we needed on the pandemic. The Daily by the New York Times became the most pervasive, providing a combo of expert advice and front-line reporting. As New York became the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and no national support emerged, Gothamist emerged as one of the best sources of informative and actionable coverage. They gave locals a source of food security by reporting on Baldor, a restaurant supplier turned direct-to-consumer, with higher quality and better prices than anything on Instacart. The TLDR from national news outlets, by contrast, was just ‘food is getting harder to buy… countries should do something about that.

The same-y-ness, shallowness, and sensationalism of mainstream news has spurred other niche counter-movements in media. Some Good News with John Krasinski has brought the local global, featuring positive COVID-19 stories of hope, solidarity, and recovery from around the country and the world. He’s married curated, hand-made content contributions with global icon pop-ins, notably Steve Carell and Lin Manuel Miranda. At 16 million views for Episode 1, SGN’s popularity has blown every prime time show out of the water. In effect, channels like SGN are making YouTube more mainstream than ABC or CBS.

2. Everyone will emerge with a new survival skill

First quarantine-inspired, homemade bread

All the twenty-somethings of New York have discovered their kitchens, perhaps for the first time, as take-out has become more of a luxury than a norm. “I’m confident we can survive the apocalypse now,” my husband smiled, with a sigh of relief, when our 50-pound flour order arrived from a Queens wholesaler. He made his first-ever homemade bread. I have picked up running and stair climbing in lieu of a gym, and could easily make it to any bridge of the island if needed. All we need now is to take some streaming karate lessons, and we will be ready to kick some zombie butt if a worse kind of outbreak happens.

3. Asthma cases will drop, as the air quality improves with less pollution

U.S. cities with the best and worst air quality, Realtor.com

Few cars on the road and planes in the air doesn’t just mean we can wander the streets and tarmacs unfettered. It means we can breath deep and feel refreshing, mountaintop-quality air, even in the middle of New York City. This can only be positive for children as they develop. As an urban-dweller who developed chronic rhinitis at a young age, I can’t remember what normal breathing feels like. While some argue impaired smelling is a benefit in New York City, I still hope young New Yorkers today continue to reap the benefits of our reprieve from pollution. In a dream world, we would mandate the sunset of combustion engine vehicles and allow only electric vehicles within city limits. I won’t hold my breath for New York to be the vanguard of new clean air policies, but maybe California can pave the way.

4. Both parties will take the crisis as evidence that their principles are the right ones

Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, WGBH

In response to the coronavirus crisis, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken refuge in their respective ideologies. Conservative groups have mobilized to demand that the U.S. re-open the economy, while liberals have reminded us that people *are* the economy. The GOP’s economy-before-people stance has led to a temporary demand for big government, but no significant shift in their social safety net policy stances. Democrats, by contrast, consider this crisis as evidence that our safety net policies are already far too weak. While the 2020 election campaigns are essentially on hold for now, I expect to see renewed campaign efforts in the fall that will amount to a battle of ideologies for what we want post-COVID-19 America to look like.

5. Social activism will see a significant jump

Change.org highlights COVID-19-related petition victories

This crisis has led to a number of spotlights on companies and institutions reaping concentrated benefits while trying to pass on the pandemic’s costs to the larger populations they serve. WeWork is still charging tenants in cities with shelter-in-place orders. Amazon fired a protesting employee who called out unsafe working conditions following a streak of in-warehouse COVID-19 cases. When the stakes are life and dealth, right and wrong become fairly black-and-white. It also gives people more to fight for. We’re seeing more masses of people taking action. Millions have signed petitions through Change.org, and many more are organizing and making their voices heard. I expect this momentum to continue as the aftershocks of the crisis continue to reverberate.

Predictions unfurled

For better or for worse, this crisis will have a long tail, not just through the presence of the virus, but also in how our society is changed by the crisis. The five trends above are already under way, and will build as we adapt and reshape our social systems in the wake of COVID-19.

Scaling company culture with AI: an interview with George Swisher, CEO of LiiRN

Can AI help foster cohesive community in an organization? LiiRN thinks so.

Source: Simplilearn

Creating a healthy work environment that scales is something of a holy grail for all growing companies. As internal networks become more dispersed and organizational structures grow more complex, it becomes easier for communication disconnects to occur. How can companies continue to cultivate a shared vision and culture, and give employees a chance to define and improve both? LiiRN CEO George Swisher thinks the answer is AI-driven.

Swisher founded LiiRN, a people-centric, AI-powered transformation software, in 2018. The AI platform has a two-fold purpose: to help leaders make decisions based on employee feedback, and then allow employees to participate in enacting those decisions. The LiiRN platform collects customized survey data on leadership performance and company priorities. The AI synthesizes upward feedback, converts it into leadership performance ratings, and identifies quantitative and qualitative trends and findings to inform decision-making. The platform also invites self-nominated change-agents to shape and drive forward company-wide initiatives.

In an interview with Swisher, he shared how AI can drive rather than reduce personal connection, and help business leaders to listen to and lean on their people.

What problem are you solving with LiiRN?

LiiRN aims to help companies drive change through people versus processes. Many leaders working to design strategy end up working with small populations of people, doing surveys or doing stakeholder interviews. But trying to drive a huge change with the input of a small group of people is a disservice to both the firm and the company. People are fearful of change when they don’t understand it. So a few years ago I thought, what if I had the ability as an individual consultant to work with all hundred thousand employees in real time? The impact would be tremendous.

And so the idea was to launch a software that could do that, that could physically touch people as if it was someone you knew and who understood the big program that was going on out there and help the employee relate. When you drive change from the bottom up instead of from the top down, you avoid the education and awareness gaps that come with large scale change.

Companies can use our technology as kind of a middleware between the leadership and staff, to find the gaps between what leadership thinks and what the people on the ground are actually seeing and thinking. Our voting feature makes people feel like they’re part of the decision-making process. If you can do that for a company, say, that’s 100,000 employees, you’re able to help 100,000 employees feel like they’re contributing to a decision that the leadership is making. You get people who are more empowered, and I think that’s a big emotional feature of how you activate people. It automates some of the change management processes and helps leadership make decisions and investments that their company believes in. With ongoing feedback collection, you can create a dynamic feedback loop, to continually shape the change journey.

What are some of the most common pain points the leaders you work with encounter?

New leadership teams are sometimes nervous to listen to data and to draw conclusions if it can be interpreted in multiple different ways. It’s one of the reasons that we have moved to partnering with consulting firms with expertise in software-based data analysis. We use the data to quantify how many people activate and why. Typically, we see north of 30% of the total population raising their hand to be on a work stream in a specific change management area.

If you have lower adoption, we use the data we collect to understand why. We track when people opt out or say “I don’t understand what you’re asking and talking about.” This feedback surfaces whether the real issue is understanding and awareness, versus the willingness of people to participate. Alternatively, the data can also show if people think the initiative is misguided or has implementation risk. Leaders gain transparency through the software’s data analysis.

It sounds like you’ve found ways for AI to create more human interactions. What are the limitations to leaning on AI? In what ways can AI tools be anti-social, and how do you mitigate those risks?

If you’re going to trust the output of our system, you have to know it’s based on the right input. Potential biases to data come in so many different forms. Ideally, if we look at, for example, who is in the sample population that you’re getting information from, we’d account for any skewing as we analyze it. We have limited control, of which population, the stakeholder at the enterprises chooses to invite into our software. So if they choose to only involve the US population and use that information to influence the way they make decisions for their Asia-based population, for example, that clearly creates a lot of challenges, given the cultural differences. We work to screen out and limit bias with some of our onboarding screens and some of the setup and training that we do. We promote as much as we possibly can an approach of widening the sample size, to make sure that you’re involving as large a population as possible that is as diverse as possible. But there’s definitely limitations to it. It’s hard to solve it when you’re collecting what others choose to input.

Also, if there is a high concentration of a certain demographic in a company, we can’t control for who they’ve hired. So if they’re only getting information from a specific group of people that’s the majority of their population, it clearly sways the input that we’re getting and the resulting outcomes. So for us, I think we’re trying to maintain a middle ground where we highlight who companies are asking for input from and how it impacts the output. 

We’re focused on making our data inputs more comprehensive by integrating with more internal systems in our upcoming work. HR systems can provide added layers of data, like performance management data and learning data; systems like NetSuite provide more business performance data. The more that we can integrate, the more our machines can learn, and the more we can build better cases for the viability of the decision we’re recommending.

Change management in the context of technology often raises the specter of worker displacement. How can technology-based change management tools like yours help us prepare for an unknown future of work?

What I learned personally moving from a tech-enabled service businesses working with big enterprises to being a full software company is that technology isn’t replacing us. There is a fear of tech advancing too fast. But I think the bigger question is how do we reskill and retrain ourselves? And how will we hold the enterprises of the world responsible for managing change? Even if there are people who will be losing jobs, which is never a good thing, we have the opportunity to say, “Well how do we rethink what workers are doing and what new skills they need to adapt? And how can we help them do that?” Yes, we’ve introduced self checkout into the grocery store. But if we’re going to replace those people, what are the skills they have that we can still benefit from? They may be really great at customer service and customer success — can you retrain them to help people shopping inside the store, to create a personalized experience? Flipping the way that you look at it can help people understand the opportunity. Then we all advance. But a lot of companies don’t think that way when they’re developing or implementing automation technology.

It’s a large number within consumer retail and manufacturing — upwards of 70% of some of the largest companies and employers in the world — whose jobs will be automated away in the next 10 years. The magnitude of that is scary. Unless you retrain people to think about it as an opportunity and change the way that they’re actively pursuing alternatives, we’re going to have problems. Being a coder isn’t the answer for everyone.

Tesla is the new Starbucks

Making the common uncommon

There are few companies that manage to define a market, and even fewer that manage to re-define a market. Consider two companies that have turned necessities into luxury products with powerful brand equity: Starbucks and Tesla.

Starbucks developed a masstige product in a previously commoditized category. Morning commuters went from 50 cents Styrofoam cups to $5 shmancy coffees as part of their daily routines. Tesla is carving out a similar growth path by redefining the electric vehicle (EV) market and the automotive industry more broadly. Tesla introduced luxury to a product category previously seen as an R&D experiment. Over the last decade, EVs have gone from virtually non-existent to widespread, with roughly 1.2 million on the road in the U.S. — and a big chunk of those are Teslas. The two companies are on a similar trajectory, and for similar reasons.

The parallel paths of Starbucks and Tesla

Starbucks and Tesla are on track to achieving similar market share in the U.S. Tesla announced in their Q4 earnings call that they expect to sell over 500,000 vehicle in 2020. This 50% bump in year-on-year global fleet growth will position Tesla to gain market share of the U.S. EV market comparable to Starbucks’ share of the U.S. coffee market.

Source: Statista, EEI, MBA in the City analysis

How are these two companies landing in such similar places? It has to do with the two key strategies they share:

  1. Delivering superior user experience
  2. Establishing strong economic moats

With these two cornerstones, both companies are not only leading their categories, but also positioning themselves for long-term success. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the facts and figures that are proving out their strategies.

1. Superior user experience

Starbucks and Tesla have each created superior user experiences that are entwined with their brand identities — in large part because those experiences departed from what was seen as possible in their markets.

Starbucks has defined the category of quality coffee by created a seamless, pleasant customer journey. From app orders to friendly baristas calling your name, the familiarity of a Starbucks PSL has a tug that brings in customers in Hawaiian Septembers. (I speak from experience). Starbucks’ category-defining success has been proven out by their dominance in the premium coffee market. As artisanal “hipster coffee” shops have sprouted up, consumers can find a multi-sensory coffee experience within walking distance in any U.S. urban center. Now I can get oat milk flat whites with a dusting of cinnamon just about anywhere in the Big Apple. Yet even as boutique cafes have emerged across NYC, many people still go to Starbucks, because they are reliable. As an early mover in premium coffee, Starbucks effectively defined what people expect and want.

Similarly, Tesla has shaped what people want in an EV. The Model S was the first to prove that electric vehicles could offer speed and range, creating brand cache and infrastructure that other companies, like GM and Ford, are unlikely to catch up to. Tesla is also positioned to grow brand loyalty because they perform as well as leading sports cars and are easier to maintain, creating an overall better user experience. EVs have fewer moving parts, so less things can break. For example, an Audi A5 costs almost 7x as much to maintain as a Tesla Model 3.

Compelling user experiences for both companies have resulted in significant earned media. Tesla’s sports models have earned the EV spotlight, with the most media notoriety of any car company, despite having zero marketing spend. Starbucks, in a similar vein, has steadily decreased marketing spend over the last decade. They don’t need the marketing, because both brands have become synonymous with their categories.

But what is to stop either company from losing market share to “me too” competitors, I hear you ask? The answer is economic moats.

2. Strong economic moats

An economic moat refers to a business’ ability to maintain competitive advantages that protect its long-term profits and market share from competitors. The critical mass and vertical integration of both Starbucks and Tesla have created operating efficiencies and economies of scale — both significant economic moats.

Starbucks boasts vertical integration from bean to cup. They work directly with nearly 300,000 coffee growers around the world to ensure quality and flavor standards, as well as sustainability. Full vertical integration makes their supply chain less susceptible to disruptions. Its automated supply chain monitoring also enables responsiveness to operational changes — ensuring that their 31,000+ stores globally are never short on supply. With this scale and integration, Starbucks has even left Dunkin’ in the dust.

Tesla is also vertically integrated. They recently doubled down on a piece of the supply chain that will drive (pun intended) the most critical competitive edge an EV can have: battery life. Tesla’s bleeding edge in-house battery technology will soon halve the number of charging station trips needed. These swift advances are likely a result of their Maxwell Technologies and HiBar Systems acquisitions in 2019. In its latest battery patent, Tesla noted that some battery formulas “doubled the number of cycles (or recharges) the battery could take while keeping the same 95 percent capacity retention.”

Tesla customers are willing to pay for this quality guarantee. While other electric vehicle manufacturers worry about losing tax credits, Tesla unit sale remain largely unaffected. Tesla hit their max tax credit qualification of 200,000 vehicle sales in 2018 — but this did not dampen 2019 sales. Tesla remains as dominant in its category as Starbucks is.

What can we learn from Tesla and Starbucks?

  • Customer experience and quality are huge differentiators in consumer categories with historically low performance.
  • Raising the customer experience and quality bar for a common product (like transportation or caffeine) can create foundational brand equity and drive market dominance that is hard to displace.
  • Providing exceptional experience will drive your NPS, and you will have a highly defensible market position.
  • Economic moats cement the victories of customer loyalty and turn them into sustainable businesses.

New Yorkers are crazy, at least according to social psychologists

Emergency!

Last Sunday, at Delancey and Norfolk in the Lower East Side, an SUV ran over a pedestrian, trapping her underneath the vehicle. A dozen men ran over, gathered around one side, lifted the two ton vehicle, and dragged the victim out. Psychologists would predict that in most instances bystanders would remain just that. Yet the opposite happened here. Why were New Yorkers’ behaviors so counter to predictions?

The Psychology of emergencies

Most emergencies that affect only a single person in a large crowd are subject to bystander effect and aversiveness. Bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological claim that individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are present. In fact, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that anyone will help. Think of the accident where you wondered if anyone had called 911. Aversiveness is how unpleasant a stimulus is. Psychologists predict that the worse the accident, the more distracting it will be. Think of all the rubbernecking that occurs near traffic accidents. Yet neither bystander effect nor aversiveness occurred in the scenario above. And this may be because of some particular countervailing psychological forces at play.

Why New Yorkers help

A cynic might say that all the good Samaritans in the video where fit young men who were excited that their diligent workout regimen had finally paid off – they had a moment to shine! But I think there was something deeper going on.

I think there is a group cohesiveness that comes with being a New Yorker. We have a silent agreement collectively that we want our city to be full people with hustle and who love the place we live in. If something breaks our flow, we step in to correct it. I’ve been a part of these moments. I watched someone’s moving boxes spill across a crosswalk in a busy downtown intersection. Feeling alarmed for the girl and mildly horrified that these belongings would block rush hour traffic, I rushed to move some to the sidewalk, and everyone around me did the same. The road was cleared before the light turned green, and we all went on our way. Daniel Odescalchi shared similar stories in “The accessibility of NYC hearts: The view from my wheelchair“.

It also isn’t surprising to me that everyone immediately disbursed from the SUV scene, without waiting around for an emergency responder. I suspect that New Yorkers experience less intense emotional arousal in emergencies. We see so much craziness on the streets and subways, that we are more accustomed to disengaging and moving on to what, for most people, is out of the ordinary.

Keep it a secret between you and me, New Yorkers are actually nice. And resilient. We as New Yorkers have a shared sense of what is right that we can all fluidly work towards for our people and our city.

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.

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