Jim Sinegal, the co-founder and former CEO of Costco, once threatened to kill his successor if he raised the price of the hot dog combo.
Most modern leadership advice encourages leaders to listen when their employees bring up problems and to definitely not threaten to kill them.
But to become a legend, sometimes you have to ignore conventional wisdom.
Case in point: when Costco’s new CEO suggested raising the price of their famous $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, all it took was a demand and a casual death threat from Costco’s co-founder and former CEO to kickstart innovation.
Here’s the hilarious, true story as told by Costco’s CEO Craig Jelinek:
“I came to (Jim Sinegal) once and I said, ‘Jim, we can’t sell this hot dog for a buck fifty. We are losing our rear ends.’
And he said, ‘If you raise the [price of the] effing hot dog, I will kill you. Figure it out.’
That may disturb some people, but Sinegal’s demand coupled with a he’s-probably-just-joking-right threat motivated Costco’s leadership to figure it out.
“What we figured out we could do is build our own hot dog-manufacturing plant (in Los Angeles) and make our own Kirkland Signature hot dogs. Now we are doing so much hot dog business that we’ve opened up another plant in Chicago.
“By having the discipline to say, ‘You are not going to be able to raise your price. You have to figure it out,’ we took it over and started manufacturing our hot dogs. We keep it at $1.50 and make enough money to get a fair return.”
So, listen. I’m not saying you should routinely hurl out close-minded demands coupled with death threats, but I am saying you shouldn’t be so enlightened as to rule it out on face value.
The idea is not completely new. In 2004, a blogger traded a red paperclip all the way up to a house and he did it in less than a year, making just 14 trades in total.
I’m convinced that because the internet has matured so much since then, the scale and scope of trades you can make today have gotten much bigger. It should be easier than ever to find people willing to exchange value.
I’m doing this because I think we vastly underestimate the power of the internet.
If opportunities flow from the networks that we are a part of, then using the internet in clever ways gives you access to a network of over 4 billion other human beings who you can exchange value with.
Last Sunday, I offered to trade this grain of rice, valued at about $.000029, with the tiny corner of the internet that reads this newsletter.
You all did not disappoint.
Within 24 hours, I locked in a trade for something worth $20.
That’s a 689,655x return.
And while those types of returns make the average hedge fund manager look a chimp hurling feces by comparison, the best part was that the trade was a win-win for both parties.
I traded the rice for an information product, which didn’t cost the creator anything to replicate.
He gets a piece of history (or a delicious, tiny meal) and I get a badass product that I know other people will want.
Over a campfire this weekend, my fiance told me the story of Robert Smalls. If you’ve never heard his story, prepare to have your mind blown…
Robert Smalls was born a slave in South Carolina in 1839. When he died 75 years later, he owned the home where he was born. At one point, he even allowed his former master’s wife to move back in as his tenant.
Here’s an insanely short summary of the life of a larger-than-life American.
Robert Smalls outsmarts the Confederate Navy
When Robert Smalls was in his early 20’s, the Civil War had just broken out. He was assigned to work on a confederate ship, the USS Planter.
The Planter was stationed in Charleston, just a few miles south from a blockade of Union ships.
To slaves like Robert Smalls, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote, the Union blockade wasn’t a threat but rather “a tantalizing promise of freedom.”
If Smalls could get to the Union ships, he knew he stood a chance at gaining his freedom.
One day in May 1862, Smalls decided that he would steal the Planter from the Confederate navy and head north to freedom or die trying.
An insanely dangerous gamble
Late one night, he shared his plan with some of the other slaves on board while the white crew slept ashore. Within just a few hours, they decided to make their escape.
Smalls put on the white captain’s straw hat, ordered the crew to hoist Confederate and South Carolina flags, and left port — a black captain with an all-black crew, steering a Confederate naval ship towards freedom.
Smalls played the part of a white naval captain brilliantly and tricked a series of Confederate checkpoints on their way North.
Smalls blows the ship’s whistle while passing Confederate Forts Johnson and, at 4:15 a.m., Fort Sumter, “as cooly as if General Ripley was on board.” Smalls not only knows all the right Navy signals to flash; he even folds his arms like Capt. Rylea, so that in the shadows of dawn, he passes convincingly for white.
The Union navy nearly kills Small and his crew
By sunrise, Smalls and his crew had nearly reached the Union blockade. Freedom was mere yards away when it struck him:
Oh, s***.I just sailed a Confederate ship directly into enemy territory. These Union ships are going to blow us to bits.
His wife, who he had snuck on board, came up with a brilliant plan…
She frantically scrubbed some sheets with soap until they took on a white-ish color and then hoisted the improvised surrender flags within seconds of the Union opening fire and possibly killing everybody on board.
From an eyewitness account that day:
Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, ‘I see something that looks like a white flag’…
When [the crew of the Planter] discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping… [one of the] men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’
From slave to naval officer to U.S. congressman
Not long after the surrender of the ship, the Union Navy paid Smalls and his crew half of its appraised value — around $40,000 in today’s dollars.
The naval officers who got to know Smalls described him as “superior to any who have come into our lines — intelligent as many of them have been.”
The Navy appointed him captain of the Planter, where he fought the Confederacy for years. Smalls even helped convince Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to let black Americans fight for the Union.
Following the war, Smalls bought his old master’s home in South Carolina. He launched a series of business ventures, including a small railroad company and a local newspaper.
He then turned his energy towards politics, eventually becoming a state senator and a U.S. Congressman.
This quote from an 1895 speech Smalls gave summarizes the central theme in his life’s work:
My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.
I’m embarrassed I didn’t know about Robert Smalls until today.
He is as pure an American hero as any other towering figure from U.S. history.
I can’t help but wonder, earnestly, where is his statue?
In 2017, I spent a few days traveling through Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with Richard Dawkins.
If you don’t know Dawkins, he’s a famous writer, atheist, and evolutionary biologist.
He’s written more New York Times Bestsellers than most writers have written books.
He’ll be remembered as one of history’s most influential thinkers.
So you can imagine my surprise when one afternoon he passed around a manuscript of his next book and asked a few of us on the trip for feedback.
What on Earth could I tell Richard Dawkins about how his next book could be better?
The book was a beginner’s guide to atheism written for kids and young adults who were having doubts about the Bible and religion in general.
It was meant to be a sort of guide to help them articulate their doubts.
And after I read the first couple chapters, I realized something…
Yeah, these chapters are absolute fire, but what’s the point if the kid never brings it up to their parents? If they’re going to build confidence in their new beliefs, they need to ask adults questions and then see how bad their answers are.
The rest of the group chimed in with suggestions, but it was mostly just one form of praise or another.
Dawkins politely nodded along…
“You should add questions at the end of each chapter that a kid can ask their parents at the dinner table,” I told Dawkins.
He lit up.
“That’s a wonderful idea. Yes, I love that,” he said. He asked his girlfriend to write down the suggestion.
It was the only one he wrote down.
“Damn,” I thought to myself. “I guess I can pretty much always add value if I just try.”
Neither opportunity is “easy,” but the upside for each is huge.
Also, these opportunities didn’t exist for the entirety of human history — until now. Lucky us.
1. One-person media companies
A one-person media company is a profitable media company built around the ideas of a single person with at most one or two full-time employees — and often none at all.
This only became possible relatively recently.
Why Today Is Special
It’s now pretty much free to distribute media thanks to the internet
Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers (i.e. always-on and always-online media devices) are affordable and most people have one on them at all times
Because the internet and internet-connected devices have been widely adopted, it’s now possible to reach nearly any niche on Earth (lots of new audiences!)
Production software and hardware have become wildly affordable and accessible
The internet has created an opportunity to build a media company powered by the ideas of a single person, a payroll smaller than a convenience store, and revenues large enough that the company could trade on the NASDAQ.
It’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of competition. It can take a long time. But this is a post about possibilities, not probabilities.
Let’s have some fun and look at the upside potential of one-person media companies.
The podcast that could trade on the NASDAQ
In 2007, a relatively unknown Tim Ferriss published The 4-Hour Workweek.
The book sold well and, year after year, Ferriss continued to blog and publish books and amassed “a monthly audience in the millions or tens of millions.” (source)
In 2014, he was burned out from writing books and decided to launch a podcast as an experiment.
He was able to acquire an early enthusiastic following thanks to the audience he had spent years building, but it didn’t take long before the podcast reached far beyond his existing blog and book fans.
Today, The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes.
What you might not know is that The Tim Ferriss Show generates enough revenue from advertising that, were it to make a few structural and governance changes, it would be eligible to trade on the NASDAQ as a stand-alone company.
In the last three years alone, his podcast has generated nearly $17 million in revenue.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of The Tim Ferriss Show’s estimated revenue over the past few years:
Absolutely buck wild.
And it still costs next to nothing to produce the show…
It costs tens of thousands of dollars to get him to show up to your next event — a fee that he’s been able to increase in lockstep with his audience growth.
If there’s a formula here, it goes something like:
Use the internet to build an audience and momentum around your ideas
Roll that momentum into a book deal
Use your book to make money and build your credibility
Use your credibility to increase your speaking fees and help grow your audience even more
The one big drawback of the book/speaking and advertising models are that they typically need a big audience before they start working well.
There’s a third business model, though, that doesn’t require an army of enthusiastic fans and is filled with success stories…
3. Paid content and online courses
The internet is filled with people you’ve never heard of who are making a living, and in many cases a killing, sharing their expertise on a narrow, deep topic.
They’ll likely never make as much as a Tim Ferriss, but I mean who cares? There are some stunning success stories of no-name people striking gold within a niche.
Adam Wathan is one. He’s built a one-person media company around his programming tutorials, online classes, and e-books.
Check out his sales over the past 4 years (the 2nd tweet below):
He did not hire legions of full-time employees to help him hit $4 million in sales. He just kept pushing out educational videos and PDFs that he produced and distributed himself.
And, by the way, he’s no Steven Spielberg. Many of his videos are him just recording a screencast for 30 minutes as he debugs some obscure programming issue.
Another well-paid expert is Ben Thompson, whose paid newsletter Stratechery brings in over $2,500,000 each year from tech investors and entrepreneurs who pay for a subscription. (source)
The headcount for his multi-million-dollar-per-year business?
Himself and a personal assistant.
Here’s the rough playbook:
The internet gives you an unprecedented opportunity to turn your knowledge into information products that you can sell to nearly any company or person on Earth who needs it.
4. The swiss army knife approach
In reality, many one-person media companies use a combination of business models.
Despite shunning advertising, James Clear embeds affiliate links for any books he recommends. He also sells an online course about habits.
But therein lies the beauty of the one-person media company…
There are tons of creative ways to turn your ideas into money. You can use whichever ones make the most sense for your particular goal or situation.
2. Pour gasoline on your career
Maybe you don’t want to quit your job to start podcasting, blogging, or recording videos for 40 hours each week.
Thankfully, there’s a much more practical reason why some of us might want to start sharing our ideas online (and you can do it in your spare time):
Sharing your ideas online is one of the fastest ways to gain visibility as an expert or leader in your industry.
I’m not talking about crappy “thought leadership” content…
I’m talking about sharing good ideas that will earn you the respect of your peers and will make other people want to work with you.
Your public writing (or podcast or YouTube videos) are like a calling card for like-minded people to find you.
There are mountains of success stories here…
Holly Whitaker leveraged her blog to close a $10M round of funding for her sobriety school, Tempest.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used Twitter to help go from bartender to the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Fred Wilson routinely points to his blog as paving the way for his success as New York City’s leading venture capitalist.
Nick Caldwell, an executive at Looker (recently bought for $2.6 billion), recently tweeted that not writing publicly sooner in his career was a mistake:
And while it typically takes a while to start gaining visibility online, I’ve seen plenty of exceptions… including a few up close.
When my friend Dan Li started writing a newsletter about venture capital in the pacific northwest last year, it only took a few months before other VCs and entrepreneurs began obsessively reading his work.
From the CEOs of local companies:
To other local entrepreneurs and investors:
He now has over 1,000 high-profile people in his industry waiting to hear from him each week.
You’ve already done the hard work to learn some important stuff. Why not invest some extra time to share it?
Your knowledge becomes exponentially more valuable when other people know you have it. Take it from this 19-year-old who just landed a dream internship after the CEO of Zoom saw one of his tweets:
Oh, and there’s one other thing: by forcing yourself to commit your ideas to paper, you’ll inevitably learn much quicker than your peers who don’t.
It’s a beautiful one-two punch: you become more knowledgeable and you become known as somebody with that knowledge to the people you want to connect with most.
Forget a big audience. You can pour gasoline on your career by building a small, targeted following made up of people who can help catapult you ahead.
Less lucrative (but still valid) reasons to share your ideas online
There are two less lucrative, but still-very-valid reasons to share your ideas online.
Both are worth a quick honorable mention.
3. Sharing your ideas online makes you accountabletocreate
I launched Stew’s Letter primarily as a way to keep myself accountable to write more in general.
I needed a creative outlet and this blog has been a wonderful way of keeping myself accountable to produce something every week.
There is something about having an audience at the other end of this that keeps me more productive than other creative outlets where I’m only accountable to myself.
Publicly commit to share your ideas, start building a small audience, and you’ll produce more than you could have ever imagined.
4. Sharing your ideas online helps you stay in touch with interesting people
Another big benefit of sharing your ideas online is that you get to keep in touch with interesting people at scale.
Every weekend, I sit down, huff and puff and write blog posts about god knows what, and then send my thoughts directly to people that I like and want to stay in touch with.
Some of them inevitably hit reply.
These aren’t people I plan to work with immediately, they’re just interesting people who I would normally run the risk of falling out of touch with.
Maybe there are more efficient ways of keeping in touch with people, but I haven’t found one better than sending out an email to all of them at once every single week.
So… now what?
If you like sharing your ideas, you picked an unbelievable time to be alive.
If you’re willing to put them online, you’ll have access to enormous opportunities.
From building a profitable, low-overhead media company to getting ahead in your career by attracting the people who can help you most… the upside is just silly.
The costs are mostly just your time.
So… open up Twitter, Medium, WordPress, iMovie, TikTok, or whatever, and get to work.