Sited

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And, still on the Northstar front: we have a new website up that explains a bit more about what we’re up to.

[Relatedly: if you’re an awesome CrossFit coach, or know one, point them to our hiring page. It’s an excellent gig, and we’re staffing up fast.]

In the Mood

We’re gearing up for some Northstar build-outs, designing spaces that live up to the coaching, community and the broader member experience we’ve been developing. To that end, some mood boards we’ve pulled together:

Reception:

RECEPTION

Locker Rooms:

LOCKER ROOMS

Workout Space:

GYM SPACE

In short, we’re shooting for ’boutique hotel’ in the entrances and bathrooms, while keeping the WOD spaces to a gritty, industrial, authentically CrossFit feel. Looking forward to seeing them done!

Baby Steps

Johnny5-5

When we think about the future, we tend to imagine new technologies showing up in our lives fully formed. For example, you might expect that the next car you buy, and maybe even the car after that, will just be regular cars. But then, one car further into the future, you get a car that drives itself. A self-driving car! Out of nowhere! Skynet!

In reality, though, groundbreaking technologies usually arrive in the real world piecemeal, through slow, iterative feature introduction. Consider that self-driving car: your current car is likely already AI-enabled. You call that AI “cruise control,” and it keeps the car going at a steady speed without you having to put your foot on the gas or breaks. More recently, a number of car companies have introduced adaptive cruise control – cruise control that monitors whether the car in front of you is slowing down or speeding up, and adjusts accordingly. And for years, a number of car manufacturers have provided the option of parallel parking assistance – line up in front of a curbside space, and the car automatically backs you in.

Going forward, your car is likely to get slightly smarter still. It might, say, combine those two ideas, for cruise control that follows minor curves in the road, so you can drive a mostly-straightaway hands off. And then, perhaps, cruise control that connects to your GPS, so it can make the correct exit off the highway.

And so it goes. Baby-stepping forward, and arriving at the same self-driving car in about the same time frame as we might have originally predicted. But in an iterative way that doesn’t seem like magic, just the next obvious thing.

So when people complain that technology doesn’t solve big problems anymore, is more 140 characters than jetpacks, I think they’re only part right. Sure, we have more people doing laundry apps and dog walking SAS platforms than perhaps we should. But we also have way more authentic and impactful innovation happening in the things we use day to day in our lives – it’s just coming in slowly and steadily enough that we don’t notice it at all.

Which, depending on your perspective on technology, is either a bit like not noticing how much your children grow because you see them every day, or not realizing that you’re the frog in a pot of cool water on a hot burner, slowly and imperceptibly boiling to death.

Lindy Hop

exponential-growth

Recently, I’ve been obsessing about the Lindy Effect, an observation about the lifespan of stuff like technology and ideas.

In it’s original form, the Effect observes that every additional day of life achieved implies an even longer life expectancy yet.

Or, in plain English: on average, you’re halfway there. So there’s likely another half of the life of an idea or technology still to come.

Applied to startup companies, that means that, on average, you’re about halfway through your growth cycle, about half as big as you’re going to get.

Therefore, if you tell me your company is going to double in size in the future, I should probably believe you. But if you project 10x or 20x growth, I should be dubious.

The problem is, to double in size, you usually only have to do the kinds of things you’re already doing, just a bit more efficiently, or maybe with a little more economy of scale. But to hop up an order of magnitude, you need to do completely different things, in ways completely different from how you’re doing them now.

Psychologically, that’s challenging, the startup version of the Innovator’s Dilemma. You’re running the company the way that you’re running it because it works, because it’s what’s gotten you to where you are. But, to keep growing, to keep from stagnating indefinitely, you have to leave that safety behind, start trying out new things, think in bigger new ways, and risk failure all over again.

Which is hard. And stressful. But also necessary. It’s the only way you can build a company that doesn’t just double once, but somehow pulls off the exponential trick of doubling again and again and again.

Schooled

Back in my early twenties, during the go-go days of the first Internet bubble, I used to get invited to speak at business schools. Each time, I’d tell the class of students: you’re older than me, smarter, wiser, more experienced. You don’t need to listen to what I have to say. And each time, I’d watch them dutifully write in their notebooks: ‘don’t listen to what he says.’

Ever since, I’ve been deeply dubious of b-schools. Start with the case method of teaching, for example. By definition, the companies students study became cases by doing new, interesting, innovative things. In other words, they became cases precisely by doing things you couldn’t learn from prior case studies.

Or consider the problem of the professors, academics removed from the front lines of real business. If you’re an eminent historian, there’s no better way than academe to pursue recognition or greatness in your field. Whereas, in business, the really interesting folks are out starting Apple or running GM, while the professors are just writing about it. There’s no more prime example of ‘those who can’t do, teach.’

That’s why I was so taken by this Boston Globe story about Harvard Business School professor Brian Edelman and his interactions with local Woburn restaurant Sichuan Garden.

The issue began when Edelman looked at the menu on the Sichuan Garden’s website, and placed a takeout order. He ate the food, and found it delicious. And then he noticed that he’d been charged $4 more ($57.35 vs $53.35) than he expected. So he emailed the restaurant to let them know, and to ask about the discrepancy.

Ran Duan, son of the mom-and-pop founders (and apparently “America’s Most Imaginative Bartender” according to last month’s GQ, for the Baldwin Bar inside the restaurant) wrote back a gracious email, explaining that the menu on the site was outdated, apologizing for the confusion, and promising to update the site.

The professors response? Calling the old menu a ‘serious violation’ under Massachusetts state law, and, citing consumer protection statute MGL 93a, demanding triple damages: $12.

Things go downhill from there, with Duan’s sane, friendly and remarkably patient emails intertwined with Edelman’s ever more douchey / crazy-town ones, leading to Edelman’s eventually “referring the matter to applicable authorities.”

Nice work, Professor Edelman! Keeping the world safe from small businesses trying hard to politely serve their local communities, and wasting the time of already overstretched enforcement agencies! It’s a double win!

Still, it’s also an excellent reminder of why I never went to business school. As an early colleague said to me some 15 years back, it’s much better to own an MBA than to be one.

Now, Again

“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing left to pursue.”
– Hagakure

Black Friday

Over their first two years, Jess’ company Dobbin  has built an unusually loyal customer base.  

In a lot of ways, the company is a response to ‘fast fashion’ brands like Zara and H&M, which get trend right, but don’t pay much attention to their quality of fabric, construction or fit.  Sure, it’s easy to copy an idea from a Prada dress; but unless you use the same fabric, the same factories, and the same extensive fit process, you end up with something that looks great on the rack, but not nearly so great when it’s actually worn.

Hence Dobbin, which, not surprisingly, uses the same fabrics and mills, the same factories here in NYC, and the same long and laborious fit process as the high-end brands you’ll find in Bergdorf Goodman.  Then, by cutting out the many layers of middlemen and mark-ups in the fashion world, they sell directly online at 1/4 or 1/3 the price.

They have free shipping both ways, so you can try it out without risk. And as their return customer rate is extremely high, it seems people really love what they buy. They’re running a 35% off Black Friday sale right now, so go buy something! 

Comedy before Competence

I was discussing the previously-cited Netflix Culture Deck with a few new colleagues, one of whom pointed out that the word ‘failure’ is conspicuously absent from the presentation.

That highlights a key difference between big companies and startups. In a large, publicly traded company, there’s a lot to lose. While not all new initiatives can be successes, it’s at least as important that few are damaging failures. Whereas, in a small company, chasing the upside of continually swinging for the fences is the only way to grow substantially. Focusing primarily on not screwing up keeps a startup from ever getting off the ground.

In that light, it’s interesting to consider Facebook, which attributed a lot of its early success to the internal motto, “move fast and break things.” A few months ago, it shifted the motto, to “move fast with stable infra.” By now, Facebook has more to lose than to gain by excess speed, but it never would have reached its current dominant position had it played conservatively from the start.

I’d have been curious to read the deck Reed Hastings might have crafted in Netflix’s earliest days; by all accounts, they were a hard-charging, risk-taking culture. Because, in particular, I’d have been curious to see how they balanced accountability and encouragement. On the one hand, Netflix fosters a competitive culture, where people are held to high performance standards; on the other, for employees to take necessary risks, they have to feel safe getting things wrong.

In building Northstar, we’re trying to strike a similar balance. But, in my experience, the more serious early stage danger tends to be too much conservatism, not too little accountability. Which is why I’m posting a ‘Comedy before Competence’ sign on my office wall; I don’t mind if we get things wrong, so long as we try them out aggressively, and can laugh about it along the way.