Invisible asymptotes

Eugene Wei, who used to run Product at Hulu and Flipboard, had a fantastic post out on Invisible Asymptotes. An invisible asymptote is the ceiling of the growth curve if we proceeded down the certain path.

For example, Amazon’s invisible asymptote (and that of most e-commerce businesses) in the early days was shipping. People hated shipping fees and bought considerably more once they were on Amazon Prime. While such insights are obvious in retrospect, these asymptotes aren’t easy to identify. And, to that end, he offers two thought provoking insights.

The first is that customers are excellent at telling us what they don’t want or don’t like. Product managers spend a lot of time optimizing their funnels and learning more about who reaches the bottom. This is great in the early days as survival depends on strong product market fit with one group. However, as a company grows, we identify our invisibly asymptotes by understanding who falls out at the top of the funnel. That’s how we expand our offering.

The second is about around how he finds successful people to be much more conscious of their own personal asymptotes at a much earlier age than others. Somebody he knew determined in grade school that that she’d never be a world-class tennis player or pianist. Another knew a year into a job that he wouldn’t be the best programmer at his company and so he switched over into management; he rose to become CEO.

His final two paragraphs brings both these takeaways together beautifully –

By discovering their own limitations early, they are also quicker to discover vectors on which they’re personally unbounded. Product development will always be a multi-dimensional problem, often frustratingly so, but the value of reducing that dimensionality often costs so little that it should be more widely employed.

This isn’t to say a person needs to aspire to be the best at everything they do. I’m at peace with the fact that I’ll likely always be a middling cook, that I won’t win the Tour de France, and that I’m destined to be behind a camera and not in front of it. When it comes to business, however, and surviving in the ruthless Hobbesian jungle, where much more is winner-take-all than it once was, the idea that you can be whatever you want to be, or build whatever you want to build, is a sure path to a short, unhappy existence.