Personal IPOs and stock market tickers

Eugene Wei had a post on his excellent blog yesterday where he drew parallels between individuals building brands on social media and a company going public.


One way to understand the impact of these public social networks on humanity is to think of this as the era in which humans took their personal thoughts and lives public at scale. Billions of humans IPO’d, whether we were ready for it or not, explaining why the concept of a personal “brand” became such a pervasive metaphor.

In another era, most of us lived in social circles of limited scope. Family, school, coworkers, neighbors. We were, for the most part, private entities. Social media companies quickly hit on the ideal configuration for rapid network growth: take the interaction between any two people and make it public. Conversation and information-sharing became a democratic form of performance art.

One reason social networks quickly converged on this as the optimal strategy and configuration is that the majority of people on any social network merely lurk. By making the conversations of the more extroverted, productive nodes public, you sustain the interest of that silent majority of observers with what is effectively crowd-sourced (read: free) content. The concept of 1/9/90 is that a stable equilibrium can be achieved in a large network if the shouting class, the minority which entertains the much larger but silent majority, is given enough quantifiable doses of affirmation (likes) to keep the content spigot flowing. As these large public social networks grew, even many who were previously modest began taking the stage on social media to karaoke to the crowd. Live fast, die young, and leave a viral post.

Just as there are many advantages to being a public company, becoming a public figure carries all sorts of upside. Once your ideas and your self are traded publicly, anyone can invest and drive the value of those goods higher. If you’ve ever written a viral blog post or tweetstorm and gained thousands of followers, if you’ve had a YouTube video picked up by traditional media and found yourselves interviewed on the local news, you’ve felt that rush of being a soaring stock. Social networks not only provide public liquidity for anything you care to share on them, but they also continued to tweak their algorithms to accelerate the virality quotient of their feeds. In a previous generation, Warhol quipped the duration of sudden fame was 15 minutes, but social media has made that the time it takes to become famous.

The problem is that, like many private companies who find the scrutiny of public markets overly stringent, many of us were ill-equipped for “going public” with what were once private conversations and thought. It’s not just those who made enormous public gaffes and got “canceled.” Most people by now have experienced the random attack from a troll, the distributed judgment of the public at large, and have realized the cost of living our lives in public. Most celebrities learn this lesson very early on, most companies put their public-facing executives through PR training, but most humans never grew up under the watchful gaze of hundreds of millions of eyes of Sauron.


It is a powerful analogy and it made me wonder about Instagram’s recent decision to remove “like” counts. If an Instagram profile is the equivalent of a stock ticker, a “like” may have been the equivalent of the stock price.

And, as there’s only so much good that can come from constantly monitoring short term fluctuations on your stock price, removing “like” counts may turn out to be a master stroke.

Marketing dog food and happiness

What does marketing dog food have to do with building products, success and happiness? Everything, it turns out.

When Paul Iams launched Iams 999 – a high quality, high protein variety of dog food – he didn’t have a distribution system. So, he needed customers who were willing to go through a lot of trouble to get this shipped over.

It turns out there was just this right group – owners of show dogs. These folks loved what was great about Iams (better health + shiny coats) and didn’t mind, or even liked, what was bad about it (hard to get => competitive advantage).

We are all not different from Paul Iams. When we seek partners, customers, and managers, we strike gold when we find folks who love what’s good about us and don’t mind what’s bad about us.

As these relationships start with appreciation of our strengths, these managers, partners, users, and team members give us the most useful feedback, push us to become better, and also give us air cover and support when we inevitably screw up. We all need that appreciation, push, and support to ship our best work.

And, making the effort to find our segment makes all the difference in the world.

Magic and math

A simple way to understand how investors think about our business/product – they come for the magic and stay for the math.

The inspiring story is the magic that many of us associate with charismatic leaders. In times when everything is going up and to the right, there’s a lot of appetite for magic.

Eventually, however, no amount of magic can save a business or product from the math. So, our ability to deliver and capture value in a way that results in consistent y/y growth rates is the kind of math that creates its own magic in the long run.

From time to time, it is natural to wonder how much more successful our businesses/products might be with more magic and showmanship.

But, that’s short term thinking. The magic is the personality and the math is the character. And, while personality opens doors, character keeps those doors open.

So, if we had to invest in just one thing, let that one thing be making the math work.

This applies just as well to those who invest in our careers/lives.

PS: Unlike investors, our users/customers are just as likely to stay for the magic as they are for the math.

Discomfort and the obstacle

On most days in my attempts to do a half decent job as a Product Manager, I see two themes show up regularly in my reflections – i) Something new either got messed up or got real close to getting messed up and ii) I did something that upset somebody.

And, a realization that has accompanied these reflections over time is that there is no solve for this. (This was disappointing.. until it was liberating.)

Here’s why  – if we’re both stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone and attempting to drive change, it is impossible to avoid making mistakes. The only questions worth focusing on then are – are we aware of them? And, are we following up with creative, constructive, and corrective responses?

As long as we’re doing that, that uncomfortable feeling in the stomach is the price we pay for our own learning, long term growth, and, hopefully, progress.

Of course, this isn’t limited to product management – it applies just as well to many jobs, to parenting, and to life.

The discomfort is a leading indicator of the obstacle. And, the obstacle is the way.

Time to do it twice

A friend recently shared a quote – “How come we don’t have the time to do it right but always have the time to do it twice?”

It has my vote to be framed and put on the wall of any room where folks get together to plan their product roadmaps.

In these rooms, we often find ourselves in positions where we need to make trade-offs that benefit the short term over the long term.

But, these decisions almost always result in rework in the medium term. And, when it arrives, rework doesn’t allow for any other option.

So, for the next time we find ourselves in such a discussion, here’s to remembering that they’re better off being the exception rather than the rule.

The Walkman decision

There’s a great story about a decision Sony made when they shipped the legendary Walkman.

Against the advice of market research, Sony’s co-founder had asked the engineering team to build a portable music player that would ease the boredom on long flights. The engineers then came back with what could only be termed a product manager’s dream – for nearly the same amount of effort and cost, they were able to add an additional feature – a record button – to this cassette player.

But, to their dismay, Chairman Akio Morita asked them to remove the record button.

By reducing the device to serve a single use case, he eliminated any potential user confusion. In the same way McDonalds removed cutlery from restaurants to make it clear how they wanted customers to eat their burgers, Sony released the Walkman with a lower range of functionality to give them the highest chance to change customer behavior.

And change behavior they did.

(H/T: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland)

The story of Sandwich

John Montagu was a consummate card player who didn’t like meal interruptions while playing his favorite game of cribbage. So, it is said that he asked for veal stuffed between two pieces of bread to make it easy for him to eat while playing.

As John Montagu was also the Earl of Sandwich, others started asking for the “same as Sandwich.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

For when we find ourselves stuck in discussions about building for the “average” user, it is worth reminding ourselves that the sandwich, like many innovations, happened on the edges thanks to a passionate early adopter with a weird request.

(H/T: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland – a fantastic read)