Monday, November 28, 2011

The Easy Way Out

It's not easy these days to find people who can talk in a way that I feel truly interesting, but the ski trip I had this weekend did lead me to such people.

X: "I feel America is on the way to decline, we're here to witness it... This will be like what happened to the British Empire in the last century. This century is going to be the China century."
Me: "I don't think so, China's legal system is a mess. We (as in the Chinese people) still has some very big obstacles in front of us."

It's funny when you have one US native and one Chinese native both thinking their respective countries are a mess.

But I neglected to tell him the details.

The Easy Way Out

A few months ago, I was sitting in Cheesecake Factory in Palo Alto, talking to an entrepreneur from Stanford. It's interesting how the same topic often happens with Americans.

Me: "The mindset of the typical mainland Chinese is very different from the people here (Silicon Valley), and it will be for a long time, I think. It's hard to see what really matters when you see corruption all around you. You'd simply lose your purpose and direction."
Y: "I know what you're talking about. I lived in Mexico. People think they can get ahead by playing little power games here and there. Nothing real gets done in an environment like that."
Me: "Yup, taking the easy way out, instead of innovating.. that's what I meant."

The conversation ended in a pretty sobering conclusion - if the future belongs to one of the existing countries of the world, it'll be neither the China nor America that we see today. Either they change a great deal, or another country will take up the position.

I hope it's a China 2.0... But, good way to spot sinking ships there.

Salesmen and Bean Counters

On the return from the ski trip, I read this.

“The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” - this one is actually from Steve Jobs. But can be found in the article.

It (the article, not SJ) continues, "... It’s not just the salesmen. It’s also the accountants and the money men who search the firm high and low to find new and ingenious ways to cut costs ... The activities of these people further dispirit the creators ... crimp the firm’s ability to add value to its customers. But because the accountants appear to be adding to the firm’s short-term profitability, as a class they are also celebrated and well-rewarded, even as their activities systematically kill the firm’s future."

"In this mode, the firm is basically playing defense. Because it’s easier to milk the cash cow than to add new value, the firm not only stops playing offense: it even forgets how to play offense. The firm starts to die."

With all due respect, I respect salesmen and accountants when they actually pay attention to the details - not the numbers after the decimal point, but how things went from point A to point B and how it can go to point C or D. Warren Buffet greatly values accounting skills when properly used to assess a company's underlying value, for example.

But then, I think we all know what happens to companies who simply focus on their financial reports, or their "VC relations" for startups - rather than their customers. So while I don't believe everything the article says, it has something to keep in mind.

Ethics

This is my favorite.. I love playing this with some people and see how they react. Made plenty of people hate me. But if your brain is hardwired like that, you're not gonna be my (or any hardcore entrepreneur's, or hacker's) friend anyway.

Z: "I have this assignment which is about what kinds of medicines would be the most useful to a third world country, but are not yet available to them."
Me (after reading a bit into the report): "I don't see the logic in your conclusions."
...
Me (after a lot of discussion): "Ok, we're not going anywhere with all these different concerns about the kinds of sickness in a third world country, the affordability of the medicines to the people, the people's life expectancy, age structure, etc. How about this... If the new medicines are actually used, people (or their government) would need to buy them. We can then use market demand, and thus, money, as a proxy measure. So, what kind of medicines do you think could be the most profitable if made available to the poor country?"
Z: "All that you think about, is money. (To some other guy) I'm trying to save lives here, do you think it's correct to think about money?"

It's useless to explain anything to Z after this point - if you don't want to accept an opinion, labeling the source as "evil" is the easiest way out. To a computer scientist, it would be totally intuitive - to sort a list (most useful medicines to a poor country), you need to have a single metric. You can get people to hate you for telling them this. You can also get people to love you for totally revolting concepts with other trigger words. Looking for cracks in people's minds - salesmanship. Find a friend to practice near you.