If the eye is unobstructed, the result is sight

I wrote about the insidious effects of being raised to seek approval this week. There is an extension of this attachment to validation, which is that we lose our ability to love.

What the media calls love, what the entertainment industry calls love, what society calls love, is attachment. You give me what I need, so I will give you what you need. If you take away your love from me, you lessen me. Oh how I hate you now! 

But was that love to begin with? Anger, fear, jealousy, ... these are so present in our "special" relationships. And thus we create expectations of the other person on which we let our happiness depend. Instead of, you know, loving them. 

H/t once again to Anthony de Mello. 

Challenging cultural orthodoxy: brands as ideological innovation

The tech industry frequently thinks of innovation as a “better mousetrap” game. Where’s the significant innovation or invention? It’s all features and benefits.

With DNVBs, we find that that innovation is often both softer and deeper – it’s ideological. This works when the cultural orthdoxy in the market is tired, frequently caught in some sort of dead end. Sophisticated, minimalist, utilitarian, aspirational… all of these can be endpoints from which it is hard to recover unless the brand takes a “stance.”

Coca Cola pioneered fighting for social change. Nike made everyone an athlete. Starbucks democratized the artisanal-cosmopolitan aesthetic. Jack Daniels rediscovered frontier masculinity.*

Of course this is only one way to think about cultural innovation, but it seems to me a particularly fruitful one. With the decline of trad sources of identity and cultural meaning – religion, arts, the nation, other institutions, etc. – brands have over the last fifty (?) years emerged as the primary form of cultural expression. With DNVBs, they may become crucibles of identity and social movements that serve to rewrite culture globally.

* These are all examples from Douglas Holt’s book Cultural Strategy, which so far is excellent. Yes, I’m once again learning in public.

Copenhagen-Berlin and return

Following the collapse of airberlin, my bread and butter route of Berlin to Copenhagen and back has become a slight nightmare. 4:45am alarm for 7:20am flight out, only return at 9:20pm, touches down 10:30pm, home by 11:15pm. 

It’s crazy that two European capital cities are so poorly connected. When I look at the construction projects that have been completed in China in just the last five years, the failure of Berlin to successfully build an airport and give out existing slots is laughable. 

What’s lacking is the political will in Germany overall and Berlin in particular to tackle the infrastructure projects that make the city and country a long-term viable place to do business.

Don’t even get me started on the lack of fiber infrastructure that is a direct result of government interference at Deutsche Telekom. German internet connections are some of the worst in Europe and among the worst in the developed world.  

Alright, I’m done. 

The most dangerous drug in the world

The most dangerous drug in the world is approval. I didn’t come up with that. Anthony de Mello SJ did. But I wholeheartedly approve! Ha!

If someone approves of you, it feels good. If they deny you approval, it makes you feel bad and crave more approval. And thus we recognize the mechanism on which society operates. 

I have a friend who has a small girl. When she’s in a group of people, she dances and does tricks until people clap. For a long time this bugged me and I didn’t know why. Until I realized: we’ve turned her into a little monkey! She dances to the tune of our social conformism.

I have a friend who works at a large luxury house in Milan. She makes products that people buy so they can show to others that they’re worthy of approval. This bag makes me great! I told my friend: the only good you do in the world is to make rich people slightly less rich. This was mean-spirited and also plagiarized from Terry Pratchett. She did not approve of my disapproval. She felt bad and I still (still! this is years ago) feel bad. What little monkeys we are.

Approval is the ultimate attachment on which you let your happiness depend. It traps you. It blinds you. It keeps you asleep. What a world we could live in if we could free ourselves from these prison walls.

It reminds of another story de Mello tells: 

[An] Irish prisoner... digs a tunnel under [a] prison wall and manage[s] to escape. He comes out right in the middle of a school playground where little children are playing. Of course, when he emerges from the tunnel he can't restrain himself anymore and begins to jump up and down, crying, "I'm free, I'm free, I'm free! A little girl there looks at him scornfully and says, "That's nothing. I'm four."

Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now! 

TL;DR: Too long... make it shorter

"Make it shorter" is one of my favorite pieces of advice. 

Even if we weren't living in the attention economy, there are mostly only benefits from making "it" shorter. It being the memo, the meeting, the film, the book, the deck. I've rarely had someone tell me something was too brief. Just that they wanted more of it.

Shorter doesn't mean less content. It means more precision. More sophistication. And hence more power.


Email subscription and GDPR: sad to see you go

Some of you have requested that you receive my blog posts as email. Thank you for that. 

Unfortunately the GDPR going into effect today means that I won't be able to continue having that functionality. I don't want to risk managing your personal data (aka email addresses) on a blog that blurs the line between personal and commercial. 

The GDPR is well-intentioned but will end up like the cookie directive. It benefits large companies and consumers just click "OK." 

Ultimately the solution to data ownership and privacy needs to be technical. I'd like true control of my personal data, allowing corporations and governments to access it only as needed (similar to OAuth), but making sure it isn't distributed in a thousand different places and being able to revoke permissions as I see fit. 

Unfortunately legislatures, including the European one, aren't sophisticated enough to mandate such changes. And so all we do is enrich lawyers. 

At least we all get a full Reset on email newsletters. For a few months. #cynical 

Beyond "authenticity" and towards transcendence: what is your true inner self and what if you ran your company (and your life) that way?

What is your true inner self? Of the many viewpoints you’ve adopted, the thoughts you now have that aren’t originally yours, the mental models and patterns that were given to you by birth, by teachers or through circumstance, what below all that is really You? 

It’s easier to say what the true Self likely isn’t. It’s not the fear that makes us lethargic. Not the anger that makes us lash out. It isn’t the ego that makes us greedy. Those are layers we’ve built up to deal with a world we have been taught is a place of scarcity and violence. Of winners and losers. Of right and wrong. 

What are the masks you wear? What are roles that we just act out? What if you strip away the protective layers, the self-destructive patterns, the conditioning and reflexive reactions?

When you peel away at that onion of Self, what is there in the end? It begins, perhaps, with taking responsibility for ourselves in a world that just seems to compete on victimhood. Taking responsibility not just for our situation, but also for our perceptions. If psychedelics have taught me anything, it is that perception is a choice, and so we are responsible for how we view the world. Remember that next time you read an article that is trying to scare you, whether it is to entertain you or to rally you to a cause.

Taking responsibility for even our unconscious reactions (id), learning to practice circumspection and tolerance, breeds cooperation. This is the logical approach to surviving in a social species. You can’t do it alone. It is still egoic ambition, but rationally channeled.

As you gain self-mastery and the needs of the ego change - isn’t it insidious? - we develop compassion. Emotionally such empathy allows us to operate from a place of genuine concern or care. In service to others, rather than ourselves, or so it would have us believe. The motivation is too often that we want to be liked, accepted, perceived as better, in a position of power over others.  

As you approach authenticity in individuals, the perspectives of "responsibility-for" and "in-service-to" are reconciled by discovering a wider purpose to dedicate yourself and your organization to. This purpose suffuses the world with meaning. It creates opportunity everywhere. It inspires others. It is perhaps egoic in its need to achieve, but in its creativity is is an extension of the true “authentic” Self. 

So what lies at this very core, once we have shed all the layers of id and ego? There was a time we used to call this the soul, atman, spirit, anima… Liberated from a conditioned self, the mystic-sage is in essence Being, life that has consciousness. 

Authenticity is when this true essence of ourselves shines through the layers. The leaders we follow, the causes we support, the purpose we find it meaningful to dedicate our lives to - these all touch our true authentic selves, our “soul.” All wisdom traditions encourage the transcendence of the outer layers of “self” to live from the inner core of “Self.”

Authenticity, viewed in this way, isn’t a canvas of tastes, styles, or fashions. Authenticity isn’t “personality”, but how true people are to their real inner selves. It also isn’t relativistic - it is a firm absolute: there is, really, only one one true inner Self. It can find different expressions, can create in different ways. But the core is the same for everyone and, most importantly, it is a shared core.

The consequences of operating from this realization, both personally and as an organization, are radical. I hope to meet more startups and founders who do. 

May 2018

Be Here Now

I saw this photo on Reddit today. Part of my practice for the past few weeks has been to be more in the moment. Less in the story. More like her.

Tech will move into the background as the backlash against its ubiquity grows. I hope voice and AI will help. And I hope that we relearn to: be still (Ps 46:10). 

Sent from an iPhone on night shift at 9:48pm while my 2yo daughter is asleep on my tummy (Ps 8:2) 

The DNVB Cambrian Explosion: an unprecedented opportunity to build category-defining consumer companies for the 21st century

Over the last decade, technology has become ubiquitous in our lives. Internet connectivity has grown to over 90% in the US and Europe. There are now over 4 billion people connected to the internet globally; 3 billion use social media, 90% of them from their mobile device. As a species we are well on the way to being always on, always connected.

As a consequence, the consumer economy has been changing dramatically. Retail is being radically reorganized, from the paradigm of the 20th century, the automobile, to the paradigm of the 21st, the smartphone. Footfall at malls and big box stores in developed countries is down. Ecommerce continues to grow at a brisk 20% globally, now well above its ceiling penetration projections. Amazon is emerging as a possible monopolist, likely to take up to 10% of all retail sales. Selection, convenience, and price looks set to dominate all commodity categories.

And yet… consumer preferences seem to be fragmenting. Big is less and less better. Emerging tastes skew small, local, authentic, purpose-driven. Consumers used to trust big brands. Scale conferred huge advantages in pricing power, margins, access to supply chain, and ubiquity on the shelves of retailers. No longer. An increasingly economically, commercially, and environmentally literate and conscious younger consumer increasingly distrusts big brands. The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated feelings of being cheated and precipitated a flight towards authenticity and perceived value for money. In conjunction with the hyper-growth of natural, organic, and wellness (see LOHAS), consumers are flocking towards brands that either confer meaning or are fully utilitarian.

At the same time, the rise of ecommerce means shelf space is no longer a moat. Educated by Amazon et al., consumers are comfortable buying online and companies can sell directly over the internet. What’s more, over the last 20 years an ecommerce infrastructure has been built  that is able to perfectly serve even the smallest of players. Third party logistics providers (3PL) operate massive warehouses that offer full pick-and-pack services and integration with last mile delivery companies that can service consumers almost anywhere in the world.

The flip side of the logistics revolution is that supply chains have become increasingly accessible. Shenzhen as the belly button of our global materialist culture is open for business to the entire world. Increasing competition and decreasing prices are forcing original design manufacturers (ODMs, as opposed to OEMs), to accept smaller batch orders, albeit for prepayment. China has quietly morphed from a merely inexpensive to an extremely sophisticated, high-quality manufacturing hub. In response, European manufacturers focused on luxury, fast fashion, and core product innovation (for example, tech athleisure) are also accepting smaller clients. The decreased cost of doing business globally, along with well established container and air shipment routes, are making product sourcing accessible to any well-financed or well-networked startup.

The upshot? It used to take millions of dollars and several years to launch a brand. Now it takes weeks and $25,000. The result is a Cambrian explosion of new brands in nearly all consumer categories.

Our thesis is that there exists, certainly in the next five years and perhaps well into the next decade, an unprecedented opportunity to build new category-defining digitally-native, vertically-integrated brand (DNVB) companies that dominate specific verticals or niches within verticals.

If that's what you're building, come and talk to us. max@sunstone.eu will find me.

After Authenticity by Toby Shorin: if you want to understand new brands, it's the most important essay you'll read this week

I am quite serious: go read it. And reflect on the rise and (proposed) fall of authenticity as a central driving force of culture. Because most of the authenticity we come across is as faux as the top-down mass media broadcasts that came before it. Worse: it pretended to be something different. 

What Shorin proposes, and what rings true to me, is that network effects of meaning are emerging. Under authenticity, scale decreases value. But for a connected consumer, this is clearly not true - we revel in the memes, the hashtags, the shared experiences. 

"We live in a time where brands are expected to not just reflect our values but act on them. Trust in business can no longer be based on visual signals of authenticity, only on proof of work."

Amen. You can follow Toby Shorin on Twitter here.