In 2019, a group of researchers used AI to generate random, bullshit titles for a series of paintings and, you guessed it, people found the artwork with B.S. titles more profound than those with mundane, human-written titles or no titles at all.
The researchers extrapolated this finding to point to a broader truth:
In any instance where humans are making decisions about the quality of output of others there is room for subjective impressions to influence outcomes…
Maximizing one’s skills and competence in a domain is typically a long and arduous process. However, being able to produce satisfying bullshit…may allow an individual to obtain success in a way that requires much less time and effort.
This all reminded me of a hangover powder my friends swear by that has “cellular hydration technology” featured on the label. Huh?
While all of this is moderately depressing, of course, I found this to be a refreshing reminder to question if craft is the only thing that matters in a career. Sometimes, a healthy combination of craft and bullshitting might pull us further along in this irrational, inefficient world we find ourselves in.
Anyways, you can read the full, hilariously-titled paper here.
Last week, I chatted with my buddy and marketing genius Rob Hardy. We riffed on an age-old dilemma:
How do you build an audience online without making an ass of yourself?
The Internet is filled with successful scammers who manufacture an entirely fictional image of who they are. It’s also filled with people who put their full, unfiltered selves out there but never seem to gain much traction (think: somebody who tweets every asinine thought).
It begs the question:
Is there a way to build a presence online without morphing into something disingenuous?
Indeed. Rob shared a concept he’s been workshopping: the “branded persona.”
It’s pretty simple: instead of trying to be fully “authentic” online (which itself can be fraught as it’s extremely hard to know who you really are), you instead play up certain aspects of your personality. Don’t be something you’re not, per se, but deliberately lean into certain traits that are already there.
This has a few benefits:
It charts a path for personal growth. If you enjoy reading and want to do more of it, creating an online persona centered around reading can help push you towards actually becoming a bigger reader.
It attracts the people you want to attract. By deciding what sides of yourself to lean into, it broadcasts a clearer signal of what you’re all about. Your people will have an easier time finding you.
Also, if I’m kind of being a dick for a second, a lot of the “personal monopoly” advice being doled out on Twitter is self-indulgent.
The best way to take advantage of your passions in space travel, medieval military history, and pottery might not be combining them in equal measure — or at all! Instead, you might want to pick one where there’s already a market and become great at writing about it.
As Jay Acunzo put it, “make stuff people want instead of making people want stuff.”
Rob put it simply, “don’t conflate finding a niche with positioning.”
A niche is a market where there’s already demand. Positioning is the act of defining what makes you different amongst the other players serving that niche.
Your unique set of interests may help you position yourself, but they won’t save you if you’re not clear on what your niche is and how you serve it (ex. “I teach aspiring engineers about rockets”).
I’ve seen this firsthand building both Techloaf and Compound, both of which have grown far faster than this newsletter (which more accurately represents my various interests).
So if you want to build a presence around your work without becoming disingenuous, try building a persona that:
Is a little aspirational and plays up who you want to become.
Serves a clear niche where there is demand.
What do ya think, dear readers?
P.s. go follow Rob and subscribe to his newsletter. He’s currently doing some of the most compelling thinking and writing on this topic today.
My answer typically starts with a deer-in-the-headlights stare as I pause to get a read on the person who asked. Have they ever started a company?
In these moments, I envy accountants, lifeguards, cashiers, lawyers, musicians, or anybody else who has a job we all kind-of-sort-of understand. Unfortunately for me and the person curious about my vocation, I am none of those things.
For a while, I felt insecure about this. Shouldn’t I have a clear answer for one of society’s most persistent questions?
But now I realize that “what do you do?” is a hard question to answer for certain lines of work — entrepreneurship being one of them.
Being an entrepreneur is just different than most jobs. You have to create opportunities, which is itself a loosely-defined skill, and then invent a job for yourself that you think will best serve the opportunity.
On top of that, your opportunity and how far you are along in seizing it are constantly evolving — which means your job is too.
Below, I’ll briefly explain why I find “what do you do?” so hard to answer and how I’ve made peace with the fact that maybe I don’t need to. I’ll also propose an alternative question I’d happily answer.
My work changes. Frequently.
From the outside, the things I’ve done since leaving college seem unrelated. I launched a cannabis startup, a satire newsletter, an AI-powered voiceover service, and a paid writing community, amongst other things.
My roles at each company have been different. At one, I ran engineering. At another, I ran growth and marketing. At another, I spent most of my time doing customer development.
I carried over plenty of skills from one to the other, but I’ve rarely shied away from a project if it required ditching much of what I’m already good at to learn something new.
I chase ideas, then acquire skills.
Each company I helped launch started off as an idea I became obsessed with. In some cases, the idea felt mostly my own. In most cases, it was a vision shared with a few other people. In every case, the idea hijacked my waking mind. I just had to see it come to life.
If I can’t shake an idea for a few months, I commit to doing just about anything to bring it to life, which typically includes learning tons of new skills.
Ideas have guided most of my career decisions, culminating in a “strategy” where I look for opportunities that I’m willing to develop skills for, rather than looking for opportunities to maximize the time I spend applying the skills I already have.
I prefer situations where I can do both, but I’m willing to learn lots of new things if an idea is compelling enough.
I see my career as a series of chapters. These are just projects that I take on. Worst case scenario? This was a really fun chapter in my life. I got to meet amazing people and hone certain skills. I’m always thinking, “these skills are things that I’m bringing to the future, always.”
I’m being a little pedantic, of course. If somebody asks what I do, I could say something like “I started a company that [does X thing],” but that would say little about my actual day-to-day work and how much it seems to change every 6 months.
“What do you do?” kind-of, sort-of implies that the range of skills you apply today will be the ones you apply for a long time to come.
And while we inevitably bring many of our skills with us into future projects, the actual things that those projects will demand of us can’t yet be known.
So here’s an alternative question I’d prefer to answer:
“What are you doing right now?”
What am I doing right now?
That’s easy. I’m working on an idea I’m obsessed with right now. I’m learning some new skills that will help bring it to life. Once I do, I’ll move onto something else.
Last week, a trade for a set of presidential signatures fell through. The owner ghosted me and the road to Rice Mountain seemed uncertain.
But little did I know that Diana Hawk was working behind the scenes to line up a bigger trade.
Diana’s friend Salim Najjar runs a beverage company called Sound. He’s spent the past five years perfecting a line of tea-infused sparkling water drinks.
His company has been growing like mad, especially around the LA area, which is what prompted him to recently set up a new apartment there. And his new apartment happened to be missing, you guessed it… a coffee table.
Upon learning this, Diana told Salim about Rice Mountain and Ryan Thomas‘ custom coffee table offer. Salim jumped on it and emailed me this:
[I’d] like to offer 1 pallet of my companies beverage products, Sound. It’s a line of unsweetened, certified organic/non-GMO sparkling teas & waters 😊
A single pallet hold 60 24pks (1,440 units) of our sparkling tea (glass bottle) line and 104 24pks (2,496 unites) of our sparkling water (BPA-NI cans) line 😄 I’d be open and willing to mix and match the pallet with the different flavors if desired!
I was intrigued, but I had no idea how to value 2,500 cans of a high-end sparkling drink. Salim did the math for me:
Our sparkling tea line is sold at an SRP of $2.49 (pallet value of $3,585.60) and our sparkling water line is sold at an SRP of $1.99 (pallet value of $4,967.04).
Mamma mia. Yes. That’s a step in the right direction, even if we’re both using the most generous valuation (the end retail value). I called Salim — we worked out some details and locked in the trade.
Feast your eyes:
This is a bit of a gamble, of course.
The drinks are unlikely to have asymmetric value. They’ll eventually expire. And the two groups of people I imagine wanting an item like this — people hosting live events or managing offices — are still largely furloughed.
But, by God, we now have enough delicious sparkling beverages to refresh a small village. We will find that village and we will trade with them.
At the high end, this trade represents a 2.8xreturn on the last item and a 171.28 million times return on the grain of rice.
A few months after Airbnb found product-market fit, they got some terrible news.
The Samwer brothers (think: the Winklevoss twins, but competent) planned to launch a clone of Airbnb — and they had already raised $90 million and hired hundreds of people to do it.
At the time, Airbnb had just 40 full-time employees all working out of the same tiny office.
Naturally, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky freaked out.
He asked a bunch of different entrepreneurs what he should do. Most of them said the same thing: over the long-term, the better product will win. Paul Graham reminded Chesky, “they’re mercenaries. You all are missionaries.”
Airbnb took the advice. In Chesky’s words:
“My biggest punishment, my biggest revenge on you is, I’m gonna make you run this company long term. You had the baby, now you gotta raise the child. And you’re stuck with it for 18 years.
I knew he wanted to sell the company.. I’m like, “No, no. You’re running this company.” And I knew he maybe could move faster than me for a year, but he wasn’t gonna keep doing it.
And so that was our strategy. We built the company for the long term.”
The rest is history:
P.S. Chesky shares the story here (1:02:00 marker)
Before AOC became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, she was a local organizer who knocked on doors for the Sanders campaign.
Before Steve Jobs founded one of the world’s most iconic companies, he was an intern at Atari.
And just two years before his first TV show, Jon Stewart was waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant.
In certain lines of work, experience is overrated. Great things get accomplished by people without much pedigree or experience.
One reason this happens is because markets, technology, and culture are constantly in flux — which means our knowledge is often grounded in a world that has already changed. The chemists of today become the alchemists of tomorrow.
When that’s the case, it’s more important that we develop tools for discovery instead.
Open-mindedness, curiosity, and passion — when it comes to doing great things, those will often be better predictors of success than experience.
“I remember very well not being famous. It wasn’t that great.”
– Jerry Seinfeld
Earlier this year, I decided to start building an audience online. I was inspired after learning two things about Tim Ferriss:
His podcast generates enough revenue that it could trade on the NASDAQ as a standalone company.
His personal email list is larger than the record-shattering crowd that turned out to Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
That got me so fired up that I wrote an in-depth piece on everything I learned about him and a laundry list of other people who have figured out how to win on the internet.
Up until the beginning of this year, I had been sending this newsletter out pretty much exclusively to friends and family and I barely ever posted on Twitter. This was my online footprint in January 2020:
226 Stew’s Letter subscribers
550 Twitter followers
53k impressions on Twitter
So I started to promote this newsletter a bit, tweet more often, and generally figure out how the internet works.
These are my stats today (October 2020):
1,464 Stew’s Letter subscribers
4,648 Twitter followers
3.21 million impressions on Twitter
I haven’t invested nearly as much time in this as I’d like, but it’s a start.
Most of the growth has been relatively steady and a function of doing the work consistently, but I’ve had a few tweets go viral like this one that flew past a million impressions and brought in ~1k new followers.
I also helped launch the Compound newsletter and Twitter account this year. In a few weeks, they’ve both gone from zero to:
1,072 Compound Digest subscribers
1,305 Twitter followers
And while both of these audiences are tiny, relatively speaking, they’ve already been an invaluable resource for building the business behind Compound.
Twitter (and Stew’s Letter early on) has been our most effective channel for discovering amazing writers who join Compound as paid members.
We’ve gone from $0 to tens of thousands of dollars in ARR in a few months, and we reject the vast majority of people who apply to join — if we said yes to all of the demand from our audience we’d likely be at 5-10x our current revenue (but our member experience would implode so we won’t do it).
I have no idea if this is interesting to people, but I’ll keep posting updates like this every once in a while.