To Be And To Last #5

This week we explore secret business models that sell your data, the joy of difficult work, the 1998 foresight of Jeff Bezos.

The Secret VCs Don’t Want You To Know

Remember how the Matrix used humans as a power source? Math professor Luis von Ahn is worth $700M from two products with unique monetization strategies:

  • reCAPTCHA stops DDOS attacks, and uses the “are you human?” input to digitalize millions of scanned pages

  • Duolingo teaches language skills, and uses the language practice to translate text into different languages

Is this a brilliant alignment of social and business needs? Or does the model present a conflict of interests: give the optimal number of questions for language learning, or add a couple more to increase translation capacity?

For an even more manipulative model, just take a peek at the popular Robinhood stock trading app. They offer free stock trades, but then turn around and sell the data of what you’re buying to high-speed algorithmic traders to front-run your purchases. Some speculate that this business model is what’s led to Hertz stock increasing 500% last week despite the fact that they’re in bankruptcy proceedings.

Who Shot JFK?*

Robert Caro books are as multi-purpose as they come. Excellent as reading material, but also heavy enough to provide self-defense or even a full winter’s worth of kindling. If you enjoy history, do yourself a favor and pick up The Power Broker, which covers how one unelected official controlled NYC for something like 40 years and in the process built most of the bridges, roads and other infrastructure used to this day.

This week I thoroughly enjoyed Caro’s shorter autobiographical book Working, in which he shares his pathological dedication understanding what really happened, never able to accept the easy path. One example: For his book about President Johnson’s childhood, Caro actually moved to the Texas Hill Country for three years to really listen to the people Johnson grew up around.

Wish you enjoyed your career as much as Caro? Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You changed my life when I read it nearly a decade ago, and I still reviewing nearly every year. The core principle: build skills, build unique combinations of skills, and trade those in for autonomy and relatedness.

*Unfortunately Caro has not yet written a biography of JFK, or else I’m sure he’d have somehow managed to find the answer to this impossible question.

Even The “Inevitable” Takes 20 Years

We've reached an interesting inflection point, where I'd say 70% of the risk now to Amazon.com is execution risk. So it's inside the company. It's our ability to stumble. We've basically gotten past the point where 70-80% of the risk was external, where we needed a huge amount of luck to get to where we are now. Now, all we need is a clear consistent vision and the ability to execute on it very very well at high speed.

- Jeff Bezos in 1998

Hindsight is revisionist, so it’s always incredible to get a first-hand look at what Bezos was thinking about in 1998. Catch the full talk on C-SPAN for a fantastic look at how Bezos was thinking in the early days of Amazon. (h/t @JonErlichman; revenue data here)


To Be And To Last: Thinker Nate Desmond’s weekly roundup of long reads, contrarian thoughts, and hidden jewels that aren’t getting enough attention.

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