“There’s something about trust, about being able to trust that something or someone will just be there, that we have lost in this whirlwind of creation and destruction and absorption of companies. It’s like we’re living through a sort of corporate Big Bang. With so much matter flying around with so much energy, that it’s hard to know what we can know. And what we can’t.”
Change is part of existence, of course. But how do we build and maintain organizations that are persistent- that we and our customers and employees can trust to be there for us in years to come?
Transcript and Notes:
Recorded 12 July 2023.
Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning in.
So I had the opportunity to hear the new CDC director, address a group of people this morning by live stream and what I was struck by, in addition to all of the hope and the possibility and the fear and the questions in the room- one of the things that I was struck by was that in a 45 minute presentation, she spent 15 minutes explaining who she was, and where she came from. And 15 minutes talking about the importance of trust.
She glossed over a whole lot of stuff. There were questions they didn't get to in the 15 minute q&a that followed. But she was so focused on the question of trust, and understandably. The CDC has broken trust with the American people, and really with the world in the last several years. And as the new leader, part of her job is to see if she can earn it back. And it will need to be earned. That broken trust had massive serious consequences and continues to have massive, serious consequences.
I was also thinking about trust this morning, and last night in discussing the recent shifts over at Evernote. If you don't use Evernote, you've probably not even heard about it. But Evernote recently laid off essentially all of their American staff claiming that they are going to be moving their operations to Italy where their parent company is headquartered. Also claiming that they're going to continue to operate Evernote as they have been.
Now there are several problems with this claim. The first problem with this claim is that Evernote has been getting more expensive and less robust in terms of what people need over the last several years. Secondly, we're all suspicious of buyouts. Now why are we suspicious of buyouts? Because the industry has shown us that a buyout means the eventual death of something that we found useful. Especially- especially oddly- if there's a community built around that something.
A couple of years ago, there was great consternation among people who use Discord. Because there was a rumor probably true that Microsoft was considering purchasing Discord. And we all knew that the things we loved most about Discord would somehow be messed up by some larger corporate initiative, if Discord were sold. So there was a sigh of relief when Discord decided not to sell.
Even though most of us are somehow connected to the tech industry, and really would not blame a founder for an exit. Running a company is difficult work. Being able to just take a bunch of cash and walk away from it and give it over to an institution that already has tons of resources to weather the ups and downs of small company ownership- that would be great. If you could trust who was taking it over to take it over well, to treat the user base well. To continue, not just the material legacy, but also the intention.
The intentional legacy of the company, what did we originally set out to do? Now some companies originally set out to make money, that's what they did. They looked around, they were like, Hey, this is a viable thing. It could make some money, they got some VC funding, they built it out. And then they sold it. And that was really all that mattered to them.
But a lot of people who are founders, most of us who found something, whether we're solo business owners, or whether it grows into a full, robust, large company- most of us who are founders started with some additional ideals. Simon Sinek's "why"?
Why are we doing this thing other than to do the thing? Other than even to prove that it can be done, which is sometimes a kind of almost spite-oriented motivator. But it works for people and it brings great things into the world. So I'm not complaining about it.
But there's so many of us who don't just want that. We want something else. We want a social movement, we want institutional change. We want to change an industry not not just for money, not just to prove it can be more profitable or more efficient or whatever, but to make something better. To make something easier.
I know someone who's working at a healthcare startup. That healthcare startup wants to make something better. Wants to make billing better, it wants to make referrals better. That's a system that could really stand to be better. I talked to someone else a couple of years ago, who was working with a doctor, as a client, and that doctor was starting a business. Why? Because he was incensed about the state of the medical industry in the United States. He wanted to make it better.
And it's not just medicine. Almost every entrepreneur that I know is trying to make something better is trying to help people with something is trying to turn their ability to understand and shift and build into something that makes other people's lives better. Into something that helps other founders have better lives and do something that helps employees have better lives. Into something that helps to build an object or a system that makes everything work better. That reduces stress and increases pleasure. That streamlines things that are clunky and awkward.
I absolutely wish someone would take on the Medicaid and Medicare systems. I also know what kind of magnitude that is, and why nobody has the capacity to do it. But imagine, imagine if all of those ridiculous forms could be streamlined. Imagine if they could be easy to fill out. Imagine if people could easily get assistance if they couldn't fill them out themselves. And again, I'm back on medicine. But it's not just medicine. It's everything.
Some of those innovations that we benefit from right now are things like electronic payments instead of having to get a paper check and carry it somewhere and have it cashed. That's really useful. And somebody looked at the credit card system and said, This is ridiculous. Why can't we do bank transfers? And that's where Zelle came from.
The innovation is there. Because people want to make the world a better place. Because we want to solve a problem that's absolutely infuriating over and over again. We want it to be better. And when a company sells to another company, that other company has a different set of motives and a different set of values. And often companies with a lot of funding are being driven by people who are mostly interested in making money. And less interested in those larger, higher loftier goals. And it shows.
And so of course we don't trust when Tom's of Maine gets sold out to- I think they're owned by Colgate. I'm not sure. It's not the same. Burt's Bees went the same route. They used to be reliable kind of downhome crunchy brands and they're not. My favorite salsa when I lived on the east coast was Green Mountain Gringo. They're not- I think they still exist, but I think they're owned by a big company now.
And recently, they made a ridiculous little change, which is that instead of selling their salsa in a regular mason jar, they sell their salsa in a jar that looks in is stamped like a mason jar, but has the wrong kind of threading around the collar. Which means you can't use a regular mason jar lid. You can't reuse those jars except with the original lids and salsa contaminates the lid permanently. So even though the jars look like they should be useful, they're not. It's a terrible decision especially in a world that's overrun with unrecyclable materials.
There's so much of that. Just terrible decisions, little things big things. And it breaks trust. Another example recently, the New York Times decided to close its sports desk. Now I am about the least sportsy person I know. I didn't even think I liked any sports until somebody reminded me that things like swimming in the ocean and walking in the woods are considered sports which Okay, fine. That's fun. But, but I'm not a person who follows teams or cares about who scored I'm just not.
However, as a society, we rely on the New York Times to be a paper of record. All the important things are supposed to be in there. As a matter of keeping records. Social media is too ephemeral to rely on like that. But the New York Times should have every major incident going back as far as its publication.
So for them to stop reporting on a major news sector is really weird. Like somebody said that they bought a sports publication. And so that's probably where their sports reporting is gonna go. But it's not the same. If anybody's around in 300 years, I hope they can go back to the archives of the New York Times and find out what was going on this year. But there's going to be this abrupt break, where suddenly there's no more sports information.
I don't know why you would need sports information. But it's not up to me to decide it's not up to us to decide why somebody in the future might want that. It should be in there. For completeness. For the completeness of the paper itself. And these are the kinds of terrible business decisions that get made by people who are more focused on money than whatever the mission of the paper is.
When I was in early college, my first year of college, I think- we had a break that lasted from Thanksgiving to New Year's, which was great for getting jobs because you could work retail the whole Christmas season. So I went home and I took a nap. And the day after Thanksgiving, I got up for Black Friday, put on work ready clothes, and went down to the mall. And I got hired at the Metropolitan Museum of Art satellite shop.
It was a gift shop that was in the mall that was operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And one of the things I loved about that particular retail job and one of the things that drove me to leave retail entirely when I didn't work there the next year- is that the primary mission of the store was not to sell things.
There were sales goals posted on the back of the employee room door. And they definitely seemed to have people who were regular sellers there who sold, you know, aim to sell particular goal amounts of stuff. But the mission of the store was to spread the word about the museum. To get people interested in the museum. To get people to go to the museum.
The entire point of having a gift shop was so that people would get exposed to a little bit of what was inside the museum. And maybe go see it. I loved that. That was a mission I could get behind. Yeah, go see what beautiful art is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go learn things, go immerse yourself.
We used to sell the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" earrings, one white and one black. And part of the rule was that as we presented the jewelry to the customer, we needed to explain the history of the piece. People who work there year round had it all memorized. In holiday season, we were allowed to read off the little cards.
But every piece came with a little card that explained its history, its connection to the museum, which piece from the museum and had been derived from etc. People often wanted two white ones or two black ones, and we would sell them that. That was available. But we presented it initially as the mismatched pair and explained the piece explained the art it came from. I loved that.
I'm a little scared to go back and see if the museum is still like that. Or even if the store is still there. malls are dying, I would not be surprised to find that they've shuttered their mall store and have reverted to either an independent storefront or simply selling out of the museum, its online space, and its catalog. But it was a brilliant way to get people interested because it was an easy thing.
People were on their way from Macy's to JC Penney. And on the way there was a little display of art that was reproductions of pieces that were in the museum. And so they could just wander in and wander through and look at them and ask questions and we had answers. And then sometimes they would buy something or sometimes they would come back at Christmas to buy something.
And of course there were the snowflake series ones, special snowflake ornament every year and so some people bought those and some people had other kinds of traditions in their families that had been going on for years because they could because the Metropolitan Museum of Art is just kind of always there. Like the New York Times is just kind of always there.
Like we would like the software that we use to just kind of be on was there until it's out of date completely and needs to be revamped or replaced. Like a lot of people love to hate Microsoft Word, myself included. But it would feel really weird to be in a world where they weren't setting the pace for every other word processor out there.
Adobe is expensive and difficult to learn. But it would feel really weird to live in a world where Adobe wasn't out there helping to set the pace and absorbing every other perfectly good art software.
We rely on certain institutions to be pillars in our communities. And in our lives. Libraries are another one. It never occurred to me that we could worry about completely defunding libraries, until certain political persuasions started trying to defund our libraries. I always assumed the library board was for people who wanted to make gentle, thoughtful decisions about the reading habits of their communities. Not that it was a highly politicized position where you would deliberately try to keep people from learning about things. That's not how libraries work. That's not what they're for.
Even Rockefeller and Carnegie didn't envision that for libraries. And they were wealthy men who got into a battle about who could build the most libraries, like what a great battle. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg could cage match Elon Musk, and build housing, can you imagine? Who can build the most beautiful ornate, robust public housing? Show off your wealth, by helping some people have what they need.
There's something about trust, about being able to trust that something or someone will just be there, that we have lost in this whirlwind of creation and destruction and absorption of companies. It's like we're living through a sort of corporate Big Bang. With so much matter flying around with so much energy, that it's hard to know what we can know. And what we can't.
I can think of only a handful of businesses that have been around long enough at small scale, that I just kind of assume that they will be there until the people who run them retire or possibly longer. I watched an interview with the founder of Duolingo a few days ago.
Turns out he's also the guy who invented captcha, and reCAPTCHA, which I didn't know. And it turns out that his mission was really about education. That him learning English, as a young boy, opened so many doors. And he and his co founder had both had that experience. And so they wanted, they wanted to make that possible for more people. And Duolingo was born.
Now, he already had other startup experience under his belt. So it was easier for him to get funding, of course. But what impressed me is he said, we work very hard to be a good place to work. And so we have very low employee churn, people don't quit very often. Most of our original team, he said, is still with us. Most of their original team is still with them. They've been operating since 2012. Do you know how rare that is? But they all believe in the mission. They all believe in that bigger "why"? That's what's important.
They didn't even try to monetize for the first several years at all at all at all. All they wanted was to make language learning free, to develop a user base, to get the kinks out of their software. And then after they were robustly in use everywhere, they said, let's figure out how to keep it free for most people who use it, and how to charge enough money for things that people want, that we can add those features. And support our company and make our company self sustaining. And they did it.
And so now Duolingo is this company that really, really, really feels trustworthy. It feels like they're just they're. They're part of the landscape. You could reasonably say my child is two when my child is five, we're going to start my child learning language, learning another language and we're going to do that supported by Duolingo. You could reasonably say my high schooler is being homeschooled. And the language learning plan for the next four years is Duolingo. And expect that Duolingo will be there for four years.
Will anyone die if it's not? No. But it's stable like that. They went public in 2021. I hope that doesn't change who they are.
I know of another company that was bought out. And the decisions are now being made by funding. And they are not able to respect their user base. And as a result, the morale of the staff is shot. Why? Because they prided themselves on being trustworthy. They prided themselves on producing a good product with great support, and now they're not allowed to do it. Now the systems aren't designed for it. Now. The focus is on how much money can we wring out of the system, and everyone can feel it falling apart.
So when we think about how we are and who we are, in this increasingly unstable feeling world as intensives it can be very tempting to jump from thing to thing to thing to thing to thing to thing to thing until something works brilliantly like a shot in the dark. There's not- that's not wrong.
But if you, like me, feel a tug to a little more consistency, feel a tug to a little more persistence, feel a tug, to just be there. Just keep doing the same thing, not change it up. And you're like, that's weird. Is that okay? Yes, yes, it's okay.
There are certain institutions that would cause enormous chaos if they failed. AWS, Amazon Web Services, which undergirds so much other cloud based software. Google. Microsoft. It would create a lot of chaos if they went down. Because the software they produce or the services that they offer, are so much a part of so much of our daily lives. Duolingo is not in that central category, but it is persistent.
Maybe it's time for a few more of us to be persistent.
Thanks for tuning in. I'll talk with you soon.