4 Interesting Reads - Feb '20

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I received positive feedback and encouragement for my previous 4 Interesting Reads post. Here is the next one, in the same vein. Feedback is always welcome, please reach out.

Making Uncommon Knowledge Common by Kevin Kwok


Rich Barton has founded three companies valued at over a billion dollars: Expedia, Glassdoor, and Zillow. In the linked article, Kwok explains Barton’s central strategy: take public knowledge that is hard to obtain for historical or structural reasons, make it easily accessible, and as a result, own customer demand. When looking for flights or hotels, you start with Expedia. When you’re looking to sell your house, your journey begins at Zillow with its Zestimate. This is data that has been converted to content that people want. All this “content” substantially lowers customer acquisition costs (CAC), the bane of a startup’s unit economics. The takeaway for product people: cheaply create high quality, personalized content, and use it to drive down CAC, and provide value.

The Limits Of High Speed Rail by Ivan Rivera


I am fascinated and genuinely interested in the engineering problems faced in building things that are world record holders - the fastest car or train, the tallest building, the largest dam. For this reason, I could not put down Adrian Newey’s autobiography How To Build A Car, about his journey in the world of Formula 1 racing, and the nonstop engineering ingenuity to build some of the world’s fastest cars. In a similar vein, Rivera’s article goes into detail about the engineering required to break the world record for the fastest train — SNCF’s TGV V150 (named because 150m/s == 540km/h, the target speed) clocked 574.8 km/h on April 30, 2007. He goes into a lot of fascinating detail around wheel-rail contact points, why diesel-powered trains can’t really go beyond 240 km/h, the role of aerodynamics, and the evolution of the pantograph-catenary contact (for electrical power transmission). I firmly believe that we advance the state of all human inventions and knowledge when we push the limits of what we can achieve, and for this reason, studying record-breaking inventions is worthwhile.

The New Business Of AI by Martin Casado and Matt Bornstein


The stellar people at Andreesen-Horowitz write incredibly insightful commentaries on entire industries: find the thing you’re interested in (SaaS? Marketplaces? Crypto?) and follow the relevant a16z partners. Casado and Bornstein’s post on the fundamentals of AI startups is packed with insights and hard to compress further. They posit that AI startups have lower gross margins (50-60%) compared to traditional SaaS businesses (60-80%) because of two reasons. 1) High cloud costs due to training, retraining, and inference over large data sets. 2) Human-in-the-loop costs, both for high-quality data (cleaning, labeling) and for checking the AI’s results. AI startups have a harder time scaling because edge cases are much harder to deal with - there is a very long tail of edge cases due to the sheer volume of high dimensional space. Finally, they have weaker defensive moats because a lot of model development is being done in academia, or is open-sourced, and data scale effects are weaker than people think. I believe we are still in AI frontier land: new discoveries, new tools, new rules. Hence, understanding the business of AI is as vital as grokking the technology, and makes this article worth the time.

Group Chat: Group Stress by Team Basecamp


One of the most significant challenges of today’s Slack based tech work environment is that there is no time to think. I don’t believe Slack is the root cause; it is somewhere in between an enabler and an accelerant. But, there are too many channels to follow, lots of FOMO about stuff that does not matter, shallow thinking, and fast responses, no preservation of context, and forced ephemerality. The linked article (obviously biased, Basecamp is a competing product), lists out all these problems in greater detail. The central point, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is that “chat attacks attention, and severely hinders deep work.” If you’re in a Slack based environment and have figured out a way to do deep work without constant interruption, kindly write a post about it and help out the world (and let me know!)

Bonus: The Man In The Arena by Theodore Roosevelt

Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book Leadership is a fantastic read about how 4 of America’s great leaders (Johnson is controversial) suffered and dealt with significant personal hardship, and how it shaped their presidency and their leadership. Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite leader because of his bias toward action, his values and morality centered around always doing the right thing, his boldness, and his courage. I come back to this quote often, whenever I’m feeling low about my work, or overly criticized, or when an idea that I thought was going to change the world turns out to be a dud, or when I am scared of taking a leap. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic